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Today marks the collective commemoration of all the saints of Georgia, both those who are named and still revered, and those whose historical record had been lost due to Georgia’s many wars and foreign occupations. Even in the 10th century, bishops were lamenting that many histories of eminent Georgian saints were being lost or forgotten. There are around 250 Georgian saints whose names are known to us, as well as the unnamed Hundred Thousand Martyrs of Tbilisi and the Nine Thousand Martyrs of Marabda. On this day, we commemorate not only those saints who were martyred in God’s name, but also those many thousands of ascetics who laboured in obscurity for the Church.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze

Having examined the history of Georgia and the hagiographical treasures attesting to the faith of the Georgian nation, we become convinced that Heavenly Georgia— the legion of Georgian saints, extolling the Lord in the Heavenly Kingdom with a single voice—is infinitely glorious. It is unknown how many cleansed themselves of their earthly sins in merciless warfare with the enemy of Christ, or how many purified their souls in unheated cells through prayer, fasting, and ascetic labors.

To God alone are known the names of those ascetics, forgotten by history, who by their humble labors tirelessly forged the future of the Georgian Church and people.

St. George of the Holy Mountain wrote: “From the time we recognized the one true God, we have never renounced Him, nor have our people ever yielded to heresy.”

A decree of the Church Council of Ruisi-Urbnisi states: “We will not depart from thee, the Catholic Church which bore us in holiness, nor will we betray thee, our pride—Orthodoxy—to which we have always been faithful, for we have been granted the honor to know thee, the witness of the Truth Itself!” This relationship to Orthodoxy is the cornerstone of the life of every Georgian believer.

It is impossible to count the names of all those Christians who have been raised up from the earthly Church in Georgia to the heavens, let alone to describe all the godly deeds they have performed. For this reason December 11 has been set aside for the commemoration not only of the saints whose Lives are known to us but also of the nearly three hundred more whose names, but not stories, have been preserved as well…….

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It was with great joy that the Church of Georgia on December 20 2012 confirmed Archimandrite Gabriel (Urgebadze) amongst the Saints of Christ’s Church.

Monk-Gabriel_Love_Icon

Any new arrival in Georgia will be surprised to see photographs of an elderly monk of small stature in offices, taxis and homes. “Mama Gabrieli” was well-loved during his difficult life in the Soviet era and revered after his death, with many miracles attributed to him.

Saint Gabriel was a deeply eccentric character and to the Soviet authorities he was considered to be insane. He was renowned during his life as a “Fool-for-Christ“; in Greek the term is “Salos”. This is a humble person of great holiness who is considered highly unconventional by secular society. Saint Gabriel was famed for his powers of prophecy during his life, as well as a fearless approach to denouncing Communism publicly; had he been considered “sane” by the authorities, he probably would have been executed. He was famous for tearing down a giant banner of Lenin during a May Day parade and trampling upon it while denouncing the Marxists, for which he was beaten badly. He was renowned for his compassion and deep insight into human nature.

Saint Gabriel spent much of his later life living at the Monastery of Saint Nino, a nunnery attached to the Samtavro Church of the Transfiguration in Mtskheta. It is just uphill from the Svetiskhoveli Cathedral. He died in 1995 and is buried there; there are many pilgrims who visit his grave every day. A detailed website providing information about his life can be viewed here.

Video footage of his Canonisation is provided here

 

 

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Today marks the commemoration of the Glorious Conception of the Virgin Mary, to the pious Saint Anna and Saint Joachim.

As the Gospels tell us, Saints Joachim and Anna were devout and upright people but had been afflicted with infertility. In ancient Israel, childlessness was seen as a curse and even a sign of punishment by God for sin. Saints Joachim and Anna were mocked and ostracised for their barrenness, even being turned away from the Temple in Jerusalem by the High Priest and their offerings being refused. Despite their grief and humiliation, the middle-aged couple continued to pray for a child and to live honourably and devoutly. Saint Anna was amazed when an angel appeared to her and announced “You will conceive and give birth to the Most Blessed Daughter, before whom all with knees to the ground will bless and who will be the salvation of the world; her name will be Mary”.

The Church of Rome in 1854 developed a new dogma regarding the Conception of the Virgin Mary, that stipulated that not only was Christ born of a virgin, but so also was the Mother of God born of a virgin, Saint Anna. The Orthodox Church has never accepted this dogma, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1 concisely refutes this here ; thanks to John Sanidopoulos for the link.

Icons of the Glorious Conception very frankly refute the idea of an Immaculate Conception; they show Saints Joachim and Anna embracing in front of a bed, conveying the idea that the Virgin Mary was conceived of a normal sexual union, albeit with the assistance of a miracle given their advanced age. More detail on the symbolism of these icons is given here.

As the Virgin Mary is the patron and protector of Georgia, this feast is a significant one for the Georgian Church.

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“A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” explains in detail the symbolism of the key attributes of icons of Saint Nicholas.

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

“If anything happens to God, we have always got St Nicholas”
-Russian proverb

Throughout the Christian churches, it is difficult to think of a Saint as well-loved as St Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, honoured on Dec 6th and every Thursday of the week. A fourth-century Bishop of Myra famous for defending Orthodoxy against heresy during the First Ecumenical Council, there are also numerous miracles associated with his life. However it is the miracles wrought after his repose, even up to the present day, that lead St Nicholas to be honoured as a “Wonder-worker” and for many a cherished heavenly pastor of an earthly flock.

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Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the 4th century bishop from Asia Minor who in the west is known as Santa Claus. As his feast day is quite close to the Nativity Feast, in the west the two events have become conflated in popular imagination. In the East, they are still celebrated as separate events.

Saint Nicholas was famed as a generous person, who often provided badly needed funds to the needy anonymously by dropping it through the window of the intended recipient while they slept. In one case, to save a distressed family from selling their daughters into prostitution, he dropped a purse of gold coins through their window anonymously.  He distributed his entire inheritance to the poor of his diocese. From this, the legend of the generous Saint Nicholas distributing gifts to children in their sleep arose. The Russian legendary figure, Grandfather Frost, Tovlis Babua in Georgian, replaced Saint Nicholas as the winter gift-giver during the Russian Imperial Era. Grandfather Frost now visits children at at New Year instead of on Saint Nicholas’ Day. The food associated with the feast of Saint Nicholas in Georgia, such as gozinaki, the sweet made with walnuts and honey, are now associated with New Year’s Day.

Saint Nicholas was the Patron Saint of the Russian Empire, and so his icons are ubiquitous in every Russian church and most Russian Christian homes. As the Georgian Church was forcibly incorporated into the Church of Russia during the Russian Colonial period, a certain Russian influence in Georgian iconography of Saint Nicholas may be noted. Icons of Saint Nicholas here are frequently rendered in a style closer to the Russian style (itself heavily influenced by Western European artistic norms) rather than the more Byzantine-influenced Georgian style.

Saint Nicholas was a distinguished theologian, and he participated actively in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, where the Arian Heresy was refuted by the Church and the Nicene Creed established as the concise exposition of the Christian Faith. He was a zealous activist against pre-existing pagan practices in his diocese and destroyed many pagan temples, converting their followers to Christianity. He was famed for his miracles during his life, and after his death, hence his moniker the Wonder-Worker.

From the Prologue of Ohrid by Saint Nikolai Velimirovch

This glorious saint, celebrated even today throughout the entire world, was the only son of his eminent and wealthy parents, Theophanes and Nona, citizens of the city of Patara in Lycia. Since he was the only son bestowed on them by God, the parents returned the gift to God by dedicating their son to Him.

St. Nicholas learned of the spiritual life from his uncle Nicholas, Bishop of Patara, and was tonsured a monk in the Monastery of New Zion founded by his uncle. Following the death of his parents, Nicholas distributed all his inherited goods to the poor, not keeping anything for himself. As a priest in Patara, he was known for his charity, even though he carefully concealed his charitable works, fulfilling the words of the Lord: Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth (Matthew 6:3).

When he gave himself over to solitude and silence, thinking to live that way until his death, a voice from on high came to him: “Nicholas, for your ascetic labor, work among the people, if thou desirest to be crowned by Me.” Immediately after that, by God’s wondrous providence, he was chosen archbishop of the city of Myra in Lycia.

Merciful, wise and fearless, Nicholas was a true shepherd to his flock. During the persecution of Christians under Diocletian and Maximian, he was cast into prison, but even there he instructed the people in the Law of God. He was present at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea [325] and, out of great zeal for the truth, struck the heretic Arius with his hand. For this act he was removed from the Council and from his archiepiscopal duties, until the Lord Christ Himself and the Most-holy Theotokos appeared to several of the chief hierarchs and revealed their approval of Nicholas.

A defender of God’s truth, this wonderful saint was ever bold as a defender of justice among the people. On two occasions, he saved three men from an undeserved sentence of death. Merciful, truthful, and a lover of justice, he walked among the people as an angel of God. Even during his lifetime, the people considered him a saint and invoked his aid in difficulties and in distress. He appeared both in dreams and in person to those who called upon him, and he helped them easily and speedily, whether close at hand or far away. A light shone from his face as it did from the face of Moses, and he, by his presence alone, brought comfort, peace and good will among men. In old age he became ill for a short time and entered into the rest of the Lord, after a life full of labor and very fruitful toil, to rejoice eternally in the Kingdom of Heaven, continuing to help the faithful on earth by his miracles and to glorify his God. He entered into rest on December 6, 343.

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Saint Barbara is a well-loved saint in Georgia, and many churches are named after her; there are four in Tbilisi alone. Most female saints venerated in Georgia were Georgian, or engaged in their mission in Georgia, but Saint Barbara of Heliopolis is an exception to the rule. Today is her feast day, Barbaroba (ბარბარობა).

Born in the Greek city of Heliopolis in Syria (now Baalbek in Lebanon), she was the daughter of a wealthy pagan widower. Her story is tragic as her chief persecutor and ultimately her executioner was her own father; before he became aware of his daughter’s Christian faith, he had been a devoted and caring parent.

The full story of Saint Barbara can be referenced here in OrthodoxWiki.

Her day of commemoration in the Levant, Eid ul-Burbara,  is a major event amongst Arab Christians and a special sweet pudding called Kameh or Sneyniyeh made from boiled wheat, pomegranate, anise, raisins and sugar is prepared to feed to children. A small pancake dish, stuffed with nuts or cheese called Atayef is also prepared for this purpose. Children dress up in disguise and call from house to house in their neighbourhoods singing songs and receiving festive food, a little similar to the western Trick-or-Treat custom. The custom of dressing up in disguise emanates from the story that Saint Barbara disguised herself when attempting to flee her father’s persecution. Another legend states that while running frantically from her father, Saint Barbara ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to magically cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by planting wheat seeds, beans or other grains in cotton wool on Saint Barbara’s feast day. The seeds germinate and grow in dense tufts to about 10-15 cm height by Christmas, when they are used to decorate the church.

The Feast of Saint Barbara is known in Georgia as Barbaroba. As the Georgian Church was under the authority of the Patriarchate of Antioch for many years, customs and feasts celebrated in the Levant have naturally found their way here and been adapted to local conditions. Continuing the association between Saint Barbara and grains and beans, every family will bake lobiani, the ubiquitous bread dish stuffed with savoury bean paste. As families are abstaining from eating meat due to the Nativity Fast (or Saint Phillip’s fast), lobiani is an acceptable dish for this Feast. The process of making lobiani can be witnessed here. As in the Levant, pomegranate and raisins are common foods for this feast.

There are many folk customs associated with Saint Barbara’s Day in Georgia; today is associated with matters of fate, and how one interacts with others on this day is said to determine the course of the following year. It is known as “The Day of Destiny”. So Georgians will be especially cheerful and patient today, in the hope of bestowing a peaceful and harmonious year ahead upon themselves and others. A great deal of importance is attached to the identity of the first person to cross the threshold of one’s house on Saint Barbara’s Day; if that person is a kind and devout person, it will bring good luck upon the whole household for the year.

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It may seem odd for a post to be written about English fantasy literature in the context of Christian life in Georgia. Many of us may be considering buying books as gifts for children in our family, or considering whether to take children to the film rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit“, “An Unexpected Journey”.

The two lions of 20th century English fantasy literature, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, were both devout Christians, and a steadfast Christian sensibility permeates their works. There is no moral ambiguity about the worlds they created; conflict between good and evil is a central theme, and their books do not shy away from the trials and sacrifices that good people must make for a cause. Lewis in particular is considered the Anglican author whose personal views and values are closest to the Orthodox sensibility.

As a child, I was lucky enough to own a copy of Tolkien’s “Father Christmas Letters“, which were beautifully illustrated letters he wrote to his young children from “Father Christmas” recounting his adventures in the North Pole over the past year. It was fascinating tracking the transition from very simple, whimsical tales of workshop elves, clumsy North Polar Bears and reindeer told to his children as infants, to the sophisticated dark tales of bitter and bloody warfare between Father Christmas’ elven warrior compatriots and the dark goblin forces of the underworld that he recounted to his children as they neared their teens. He obviously had no desire to shield his children from the harsh realities of conflict in this life when he thought they were mature enough to handle it. Hopefully Saint Nicholas did not object to his Anglicised persona being appropriated as a legendary hero in this manner.

Georgia has its own venerable fantasy literary tradition; “The Man in the Panther’s Skin” (ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vepkhist’q’aosani) is the best known. Written by Queen Tamar’s court poet Shota Rustaveli in the 12th Century, it lauds the traditional chivalric values of honour, loyalty, courage, fortitude and chaste love, and involves a lengthy quest by its protagonists; much the same as the heroes of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ fantasies. While the poem is aimed at adults, most young Georgians are very familiar with its verses. Indeed many Georgian men are named Tariel, after its Indian protagonist, and many women are named Tinatin after the Arab princess who features prominently in the poem. I wonder if in the 29th Century we can expect boys to be baptised as Bilbo or Frodo in the English speaking world?

King Rostevan and Avtandil go hunting

The following scholarly but concise article by Gene Edward Veith examines the issue of fantasy fiction, video games, movies and other media, and to what extent different genres of media may be helpful or harmful to the moral instruction of youth. Thanks to John Sanidopoulos for the reference. I hope you find it interesting, and I hope those of you who indulge in the 3-D Hobbit extravaganza in the next few weeks enjoy it. Christmas is a season of multiple layers of youthful anticipation and recounting of time-honoured stories, both sacred and secular. For those not familiar with the works of Tolkien and Lewis, it may excite your curiosity.

Fantasy Media by Gene Edward Veith

and for those unsure of what to expect from director Peter Jackson, a short furry hobbity character himself, here is the trailer.

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