“Clad in his bright coat of mail, mounted on his war-steed, and spearing the dragon with his lance,—George, the intrepid champion of our Risen Jesus, comes gladdening us today with his Feast.” Thus, the great Dom Prosper Guéranger opens his commentary on this feast of our saint, known in the east as ‘The Great Martyr’, patron of many places and institutions, not least the homeland of not a few of us gathered here for this solemn celebration in his honour. In the Roman liturgy we find relatively little concerning this martyr-saint; the greater part of his cult is found in the east. Yet there are two aspects to the life of Saint George upon which we might helpfully meditate this morning.
There is a modern tendency to believe that the single greatest obstacle to the Church’s mission is her teaching. How much simpler would it be, we might ask, if the Church conformed her beliefs on (say) sexual morality, to that of contemporary culture? Would it not be easier to bring people to the Church, we might be tempted to think, if she was more approving of things that are now accepted, even encouraged, in the twenty-first century west? Hasn’t the Church freed herself from all the rules and regulations of the past? Why should we be bound by doctrines and dogmas that are no longer ‘relevant’? We may have heard such views from the media and those in the public square, even from fellow Catholics; we may have thought to hold such views ourselves. Either way, it is necessary to recognize why such a position is, at best, faulty, and to remedy it with an authentic Christian view, one that leads us closer to Christ.
First, we must acknowledge that the Church is, as Saint Paul puts it, to ‘proclaim Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1: 23). As we heard last Sunday, the Lord told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mt. 16: 24). This means that the Church is mandated by the Lord to proclaim something which, in the Lord’s own words, is ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor: 23). The message of the cross has always stood in stark contrast to the way of the world; that message is the reason that Christ himself was rejected. That cross is imprinted in our lives through baptism, and so we must expect to be misunderstood, even reviled, for proclaiming it as the way to happiness, the way to salvation.
Before I was enlightened by the friendship and devotion of the Jesuits I have spent time with here in the US (and the election of a Jesuit pope!) I would console myself with a recollection of the great martyrs of that venerable missionary order. The Copley crypt chapel at Georgetown depicts, in worthy modern glass, the various implements of their death, as a reminder of the society’s illustrious beginnings and those who shed their blood for the faith bearing the motto Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam. Amongst these is Saint Paul Miki S.J., and his companions, who met their death on 5 January 1597 in Nagasaki, Japan, and whose feast we celebrate today.
The feast of the ninth century bishop of Sebaste in Armenia, Saint Blaise, is notable for the ancient custom of the blessing of throats. Two consecrated candles are held at the throat as a prayer is recited by the Priest, At the intercession of the Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every evil.
Why do we keep such a tradition on this day? It is an happy accident that this day follows Candlemas, but the principle reason is that, whilst imprisoned during the persecution of the emperor Diocletian, Saint Blaise became known for his ability to heal the sick who came to him. One of his patients, a young boy with a fish bone lodged in his throat, was among those he rescued, and so began today’s devotion.
The faithful who came to Saint Blaise were drawn to him because, as the Breviary tells us, they were ‘attracted by his sanctity’. This is the essential message of today’s feast and the praiseworthy devotion attached to it. Put simply, by his holiness of life Saint Blaise drew others to Christ. Through personal piety and devotion, others saw beyond his intellectual ability, physical strength, and even the high dignity of his episcopal office, saw Christ, and so were drawn to Christ. As we celebrate his feast, may the intercession of Saint Blaise truly free us from every sickness of the throat. May he also help free us from all that hinders others from seeing Christ through us, that we may, like this holy bishop, bring others to know the joy of a life lived in the communion of the Church, and the salvation which is thereby offered.