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Tonight my older boy, Mark, scratched his elbow while on the playground. It was a long scratch — probably 2 inches long — but not very deep. A scratch was preferable to a broken arm, which is what one of his older sisters did when she was 4.

At any rate, when we got home, I plunked him down on the bathroom counter and started soaking a washcloth in warm water to clean out the wound. Mark was already beginning to tense up and get ready to cry (because things hurt when you’re 4 and that’s what you do), so partly to distract him, I told him the story of St. George.

The Truth Behind the Legend: St George -- the Soldier Who Became a Saint

Today is St. George’s day. St. George was a Roman soldier of Greek extraction who served in the 3rd century. Perhaps the best-known story associated with him is how he killed a dragon. Once there was a dragon that was troubling a certain town. The townspeople gave it two sheep every day, so it would not destroy their town and kill them all. This worked fine, until they ran out of sheep. The townspeople resorted to human sacrifice. They drew lots and whoever was chosen had to go, unless someone else took their place. One day the king’s daughter was chosen by lot. Nobody volunteered to go, so she bravely went to her certain doom. St. George happened to be riding by, and when he saw the situation, he attacked the dragon, spearing it and pinning it to the ground, but not killing it. Then he used the princess’ girdle, or in some versions of the story, a ribbon from her hair, tied the dragon with it as with a leash, and the princess walked the dragon back to town. St. George said he would kill the dragon under the following conditions: that the people remember to care for the poor, that they all receive baptism, and that they faithfully attend worship. The people of course gladly agreed on the spot, and St. George finished the dragon off. Thus the town and the princess were safe, the dragon was dead, and God was glorified.

Can you see why I told my boys this story?

St. George was a real person, but the facts are nearly impossible to sift from the palaver, to put it politely. Even the facts of his martyrdom are freighted down with folderol. The Catholic Encyclopedia, at newadvent.org, notes that the many and varied accounts of St. George’s martyrdom are

full beyond belief of extravagances and of quite incredible marvels. Three times is George put to death—chopped into small pieces, buried deep in the earth and consumed by fire—but each time he is resuscitated by the power of God. Besides this we have dead men brought to life to be baptized, wholesale conversions, including that of “the Empress Alexandra”, armies and idols destroyed instantaneously, beams of timber suddenly bursting into leaf, and finally milk flowing instead of blood from the martyr’s severed head.

As we say in Minnesota: uff da. You know it’s bad if the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to it as “full beyond belief of extravagences.” That’s a whole lot of nonsense, if you ask me. Some might shake their heads and tut that all the baloney detracts from the real core of the story, and from the One who should be the hero; and they’d be right. All the same, these stories are part of our heritage as Christians. Previous generations have enjoyed telling and retelling these and similar stories, and what’s the harm in a bit of fun? The handsome but penniless young man who grows up to be an insurance salesman with a mortgage on a house in a subdivision identical to all the others, 2 highly average children, a spare tire, and acid reflux is not going to light anyone’s fire. Nor will it be the plot of Disney’s next blockbuster. It won’t hold little boys spellbound, either — but St. George did.

I didn’t only tell my boys about the dragon. I also told them how he gave his life for Christ. I made sure to emphasize that that part of the story was real. That’s something they need to hear, even more than stories about dragons and princesses — they need to hear what true bravery, true love, true sacrifice look like. I think of St. Stephen, praying for the enraged Jews who were flinging stones at him — and then looking up to heaven and seeing Jesus waiting to welcome him. “Then he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). I think of St. Peter being sprung from prison by an angel in Acts 12, not a scratch on him — only to be crucified head down later on. The Lord Jesus’ prophecy about him came true: “When you are old, someone will dress you and take you by the hands, and lead you where you do not want to go.” I think of St. Polycarp, kneeling down in the arena as the crowds jeer at him. I think of Ignatius of Antioch, being taken on a long journey to Rome, and writing letters to the believers along the way — you can still read those letters for yourself today. I think of the hundreds and thousands, maybe millions, of Christians who died in the arenas of the Roman empire, and in Communist prisons, jungles, and all sorts of other places. Nobody makes a hue and cry over their mistreatment or their deaths. There is no outrage in the media, and you search the headlines in vain for even a mention. The news cycle rolls on without the death of Christ’s followers even meriting a notice. But there is One who sees and knows, and He promises to repay a hundredfold – and more! – what we give up for the sake of His name. That’s the real benefit to St. George, and to all other Christians martyrs. They encourage us, they give glory to God, and they frighten the enemies of the gospel, who hope they can buy us off or silence us with intimidation, coercion, blandishments, or violence. Get behind us, Satan! You’ve lost, and Christ, the Risen One, has won! Be bold, be brave in the face of that ancient serpent, the devil. That’s one dragon that will never harm God’s people again — not truly. He who stands firm to the end shall be saved! God grant it! (Amen.)