Many people – especially those who suffer from SAD, an abbreviated form for both Solar Affective Disorder as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder, feel more than happy when February begins to near its end and March is around the corner, with its longer days and longer hours of light. Spring is definitely the favourite season for many. The countryside – or what is left of it in our islands – is at its best and a walk in the nearest green area would be characterised by the beautiful aromas that flow from flora and fauna alike.
Even to the ancient Greeks and Romans, springtime almost had that divine touch. Persephone was the Greek goddess of spring and youth; the Romans had Flora as its equivalent. Springtime, with its touch of freshness and renewal, never ceases to catch the imagination. The Romans had celebrated three festivals in Spring: Cerealia, Parilia and Floralia.
Ovid hints at its archaic, brutal nature of the Cerealia (held for seven days from mid to late April) when he describes a night-time ritual; blazing torches were tied to the tails of live foxes, who were released into the Circus Maximus.
Then came the festival of the Parilia, celebrated on April 21, intended to purify both sheep and shepherd. It was in honour of Pales, a deity of uncertain gender who was a patron of shepherds and sheep. Lastly, the Floralia celebrated the goddess Flora, on April 27 during the Republican era, or April 28 on the Julian calendar. Its celebration in Rome began when the temple to Flora was dedicated to invoke the goddess’s protection of blossoms, essential to the life cycle of food-producing plants.
It is quite strange and almost paradoxical that in our Maltese language, the adjective aħdar meaning ‘green’ is used to denigrate a person in the lowest possible way rather than gloryfing an aspect of fertility. I say this considering the fact that in the Semitic societies that surround the Mediterranean basin, the Arabic word akhdir referring to the green colour, is such a positive term.
Lately, as I was reading Fr Edmund Teuma’s book Rivelazzjoni u Profetiżmu fl-Islam (2015), in the chapter about biblical figures, I came across the following lines which I have translated: ‘The green colour reminds us of greenery and in agriculture and in the name George, which in Greek means thiller of the land or farmer. Therefore, there are those who concluded that this mysterious figure is St George, megalomartyr. However nothing is certain’ (page 71). The writer is tackling one of the mysterious figures in Islam which appears in the Holy Quran and to whom Allah refers to as ‘one of our servants’ . Further down in the text, the author refers to the Arabic term al-Hidr which also refers to ‘that knowledge which is always greening, fresh and fertile and which is always in contact with life as lived in reality and not as found in books’ (my translation).
Spring was not only an obsession with the ancient classical peoples but also with the Arabs and their religious world
The above shows that spring was not only an obsession with the ancient classical peoples but also with the Arabs and their religious world. A variant of al-Hidr would render the term as Al-Khader; this is the name of a Palestinian town in the Bethlehem Governorate in the south-central West Bank, located only five kilometres west of Bethlehem. Situated near Beit Jala, the town boasts of a 13th century church and monastery of St George.
A quick search in Wikipedia would reveal that “The town of Al-Khader is named after Saint George who in Arab culture is known as ‘al-Khadr’”. Some basic research would also reveal that ‘some scholars maintain that the character of Khiḍr is much older than Islam itself and that his roots lie in Utnapishtim of ancient Mesopotamia, or in the Canannanite god Kothar-wa-Khasis, or even the Zoroastrian water goddess Anahita’. The fact that he has also been identified with the prophet Elijah renders the figure of Al-Khader an ecumenical one considering that he is present in the three monotheistic religions.
Keeping all these facts in mind, one may be tempted to search deeper in order to understand how and why the liturgical commemoration of St George happens to be the one and only festivity of a Christian martyr that almost always coincides with the Easter octave.
It is to this ‘co-incidence’, or rather divine intervention itself, that Latin Church Doctor and cardinal St Peter Damian refers to when in the second reading for the litugrical festivity April 23, he states: “Our joy in today’s feast is heightened by our joy in the glory of Easter, just as the splendor of a precious jewel enhances the beauty of its gold setting”. (Roman Office of Readings for the Feast of St George, martyr on April 23.)
Springtime, greenery, longer and warmer days, Easter Sunday, St George’s Day; these terms seem to refer to one and the same reality and what connects them together is Christ’s rising from the dead.
May his resurrection instil in us a sense of renewal that makes our lives with all their difficulties and challanges not merely bearable but an experience of the light that abides only in the figure of Him who rose never to die again.
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