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Manglisi is an attractive hill town in the Trialeti Range of Kvemo Kartli in southern Georgia. It is around 1200 metres above sea level and is around 6 degrees cooler than the Mtkvari Valley that nearby Tbilisi and Rustavi lie in.

While the district is now very ethnically diverse, with a substantial Muslim Azeri minority as well as Caucasian and Pontic Greeks, it is regarded as the heartland of the Georgian Church, where some of the earliest monasteries and churches in the country were built. After Georgia’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th Century, Manglisi was one of the earliest centres of Christian learning and evangelisation in the region, developed contemporaneously with similar centres in Mtskheta and Erusheti in Tao-Klarjeti region.

Manglisi Cathedral dates to the 6th Century and was even a site of pilgrimage for nearby Armenians from further south, until the Schism between the Church and the Armenian Church disrupted relations. A photogallery of this small, beautiful and well-maintained cathedral can be seen here.

My interest in this saint was piqued because, like many others, he had spent a great deal of his life evangelising outside Georgia, in the North Caucasus and the Caspian Sea regions of Daghestan and Astrakhan, traditionally considered staunch Islamic strongholds.

It is interesting to note that despite Muslim attempts to convert the people of Daghestan to Islam from the 7th Century, a Christian Avar kingdom of Sarir survived and thrived in the region from the 5th Century to the 12th Century. Sarir managed to survive Islamic encroachment for many centuries by allying itself with the Jewish Khazar Khaganate of the North Caucasus. Christianity persisted in the region amongst the people until the 15th century, when pressure from Muslim overlords compelled whole clans to convert to Islam. Evangelising the Muslims of the North Caucasus and Astrakhan was a perilous endeavour, as converts were often executed for apostasy and priests likewise faced persecution and martyrdom.

Saint John (Saakadze) of Manglisi was born in 1668 and spiritually nurtured in the Davit-Gareji Wilderness. Outstanding in virtue, John was quickly ordained a hieromonk, and soon after consecrated bishop of Manglisi. In 1724 St. John left Davit-Gareji for Derbend, Dagestan, where he constructed a wooden church and began to preach Christianity among the local people. He labored there with eleven other pious believers. St. John’s humble life and the miracles he performed attracted the attention of the Muslim Dagestanis, and even the government took notice of his tireless evangelical activity.

At that time the Georgian King Vakhtang VI (1703–1724) and Tsar Peter the Great of Russia were corresponding regularly about the evangelization of the Caspian seacoast. Both kings recognized the importance of St. John’s activity in regard to this matter, and they generously contributed to his efforts. With their help, St. John built one church in honor of the Nativity of the Theotokos and another in honor of Great-martyr Catherine.

In 1737 John left his disciples in Dagestan and journeyed to Astrakhan, near the place where the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. There he constructed a church in honor of St. John the Evangelist, which was converted into a monastery in 1746. Archimandrite Herman, one of St. John’s disciples, was elevated as abbot of this monastery.

While in Astrakhan, St. John discovered that many ethnic Georgians were passing through the city of Kizliar in Ossetia, but they did not have a church in which to celebrate the divine services. So he traveled to Kizliar and, with help from his kinsmen, built a church and opened a preparatory school for clergy nearby.

On March 28, 1751, St. John reposed in Kizliar at the age of eighty. He was buried in the church that he himself had constructed.

Later, by order of King Teimuraz II (1744–1761), the myrrh-streaming relics of St. John were translated to Tbilisi and buried in Sioni Cathedral, in front of the Manglisi Icon of the Mother of God.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaraiah Machitadze, Saint Herman’s Press.

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Today is a dual commemoration. If you visit a temple today, you will see flowers decorating both the various icons of the Virgin Mary and icons of the Cross. The Annunciation is a fixed feast, and the Veneration of the Cross is a movable feast that always falls on the third Sunday of Great Lent.

March 25th in the Julian calendar (April 7 in the modern Gregorian calendar) is a fixed feast celebrating the Annunciation to the Ghvtismshobeli. It falls nine months before Shobas (Christmas), indicating that while the Incarnation of Christ was miraculous, the remainder of the pregnancy was in line with normal human conditions.

According to Church tradition, the Virgin Mary had spent much of her youth serving as a Temple attendant; her parents Saints Joachim and Anna were so grateful to God at having been granted a child so late in their lives that they dedicated her to serving God in this manner. Soon after returning home from the Temple, she was visited by the Angel Gabriel. The Annunciation and resulting conversation between teenage girl and mighty angel is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1:

28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.

32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

The Kontakion for today is one of many robust and seemingly martial hymns to the Virgin Mary. Given the humility and instantaneous obedience to God that Mary demonstrates upon receiving this momentous news, it may seem slightly incongruous, but it marks a turning point in the life of Mary from an innocent girl with few committments, to the human being with the fate of all humanity in her hands, a figure of strength and authority.

“O Victorious Leader of Triumphant Hosts!

We, your servants, delivered from evil, sing our grateful thanks to you, O Theotokos!

As you possess invincible might, set us free from every calamity

So that we may sing: Rejoice, O unwedded Bride!”

 

The third Sunday in Great Lent is always commemorated as the Sunday of the Holy Cross. The veneration of a wooden object, an instrument of torture, is seen as odd by outsiders and spurned by most Protestant sects, but this is an ancient tradition. After three weeks of fasting, it is tempting to believe we are making spiritual progress through our own efforts alone. This Sunday starkly reminds us that spiritual progress is only made possible through the voluntary submission to torture and death by the Son of God, and it is through Christ that we may move closer to God. Father Alexis Trader of Mount Athos explains this issue much better than I can here .

The hymns associated with the Sunday of the Holy Cross are likewise joyous and robust in character.

” Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden;

It has mysteriously been quenched by the wood of the Cross!

The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished;

For You, O my Savior, have come and cried to those in hell:“Enter again into paradise.””

 

 

 

 

 

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