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As many readers will have observed from the media, loud and violent clashes in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, broke out on Friday between supporters of a local LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transexual) advocacy group, Identoba, and large crowds of anti-homosexuality protestors, including many Orthodox Christians and some clergymen. Twenty-eight people were hospitalised including many police officers caught in the middle of the melee.

As a prelude to this incident, Identoba’s announcement that it was to hold a rally to commemorate the so-called “International Day Against Homophobia” was greeted with concern by the Patriarch of the Georgian Church, His Holiness Ilia II. The requested cancellation, on the basis that such a rally was confrontational and a direct challenge to Georgian culture and religion, was disregarded by the city government.

Following the clashes, the Patriarch called for all parties to leave the streets, return to their homes and pray for each other, deploring the violence.

Some Tbilisi residents were shocked by the clashes, and particularly distressed at seeing Christians and clergymen engaged in physical confrontations with unarmed protesters. However, given that identical clashes on a smaller scale had taken place last year, it is not entirely surprising.

For a western observer, even for some who have lived here for decades, the intensity of the loathing for homosexuality amongst most Georgians is hard to understand. Social research by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers’ Annual “Caucasus Barometer” survey is widely regarded as being amongst the most comprehensive in the region. In 2011, results indicated that 91 % of Tbilisi residents, and 87% of residents in the rest of the country, considered homosexuality to be completely unacceptable under all circumstances.  Results are quite similar from ethnic group to ethnic group, with non-Georgian ethnic groups less tolerant of homosexuality than Georgians. Interestingly, there seems to be no significant difference between devout and irreligious people in Georgia in their attitude to this issue.  It is possible this negative view of homosexuality pre-dates the entry of the Abrahamic religions into this region.

Yet, the involvement of Orthodox parish groups and clergymen in this riot has laid the blame entirely at the feet of the Church, which is unfortunate and possibly not accurate; to what extent people beating up gay activists are regular communicants at a parish, instead of irreligious opportunists taking advantage of a volatile situation, is as yet unknown as trials have yet to begin.

The position of the Orthodox Church worldwide on homosexuality is well known and a matter of public record. The Church teaches that the appropriate context for a sexual relationship is within a family, made up of a man and woman committed to each other for life through marriage. Sexual activities outside that context are seen as destructive to the individuals involved and damaging to the fabric of society. Certainly many heterosexual Orthodox Christians fall short of this “Gold Standard”, being fallen creatures, but the Church is not a Country Club for perfect people, it is a hospital for sick souls.

Practitioners of homosexual acts are not considered by the Church as a “sexual minority” as secular leftists are wont to label them; they are considered to be individuals exercising their free will to engage in conduct deemed sinful by the Church. As procreation is impossible as an outcome of a homosexual union, it is seen by the Church as being outside the natural order of the human condition and to be discouraged. Christian people attracted to others of the same gender who successfully resist temptation may take their place in normal Church activities, and those who reject their former homosexual lifestyle and engage in penance may be readmitted to the Church as laymen (but, according to Canon Law, not as clergy).

Unlike being born of a certain race or gender, upon which the individual has no control, the individual is viewed by the Church as having free will and hence control over whether they act upon sexual temptations placed in their path, or resist them. As a result the Church sees no parallel between the legitimate past civil rights struggles for women’s suffrage or voting rights for citizens of all ethnicities, and current campaigns to enshrine homosexuality as a legitimate and mainstream lifestyle. For individuals unremittingly engaging in sinful conduct to collectivise and demand group rights with group membership based upon conduct is generally not accepted by Orthodox Christians in Georgia. Analagously, people inclined towards adultery or theft collectivising and demanding state and public recognition of their “needs” to engage in that conduct, and conducting parades to demonstrate their pride in their propensity, would be greeted with ridicule in any Orthodox society. The very robust pushback against Tbilisi’s Gay Pride march has unfortunately taken that response too far, with violence an unacceptable outcome.

Most Georgians are opposed to homosexuality, but the long-standing decriminalisation of homosexuality amongst consenting adults is moderately well accepted; even quite devout Georgian Christians don’t particularly wish for the intrusive arm of the secular state to intrude upon their bedroom or anyone else’s.

While most Georgians are in favour of the country’s entry into the European Union, it is interesting to note that Georgian Europhiles are even more opposed to homosexuality than Euroskeptics. It is also interesting to note no significant difference in attitudes based on the level of education received. So the secular leftist narrative that Georgians opposed to homosexuality are religious zealots, poorly educated, pro-Kremlin and anti-European is not justified by the data.

Many Georgian Christians, including Europhiles, are concerned at how the so-called Human Rights apparatus in Europe is used to bludgeon middle-of-the-road Christians and secular conservatives into silence when they seek to query the “rights” of a tiny minority of people to redefine the building block of society that has served European civilisation well for over two millenia. The natural politeness, tolerance and passivity of most Christians in the West in the face of the Progressive hijacking of the Human Rights agenda has resulted in a state within the state being formed by the secular left to control the speech and actions of the masses through intimidation, lawfare and propaganda. As conservative humourist Mark Steyn reviews :

Modern “liberalism” is strikingly illiberal; the high priests of “tolerance” are increasingly intolerant of even the mildest dissent; and those who profess to “celebrate diversity” coerce ever more ruthlessly a narrow homogeneity. Thus, the Obama administration’s insistence that Catholic institutions must be compelled to provide free contraception, sterilization and abortifacients. This has less to do with any utilitarian benefit a condomless janitor at a Catholic school might derive from Obamacare, and more to do with the liberal muscle of Big Tolerance enforcing one-size-fits-all diversity.

The bigger the Big Government, the smaller everything else: In Sweden, expressing a moral objection to homosexuality is illegal, even on religious grounds, even in church, and a pastor minded to cite the more robust verses of Leviticus would risk four years in jail. In Canada, the courts rule that Catholic schools must allow gay students to take their same-sex dates to the prom. The secular state’s Bureau of Compliance is merciless to apostates to a degree even your fire-breathing imams might marvel at.”

The shameful gassing and beating of Roman Catholic protestors in Paris this year, protesting against gay marriage legalisation by the Socialist French government, will surely only bolster the legitimacy of belligerent anti-EU groups here in Georgia and weaken Georgian people’s aspirations for EU admission.

As Orthodox Christians, it is important that we treat people with dignity regardless of what sinful conduct they may engage in, as all of us are sinners. We may vigourously oppose the lifestyle that some people choose, but courtesy, civility and acknowledgement of an opponent’s good attributes are important Christian values to aspire to, even if they are difficult to achieve.

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With only a few hours to go until the Vigil, this rendition of ‘Christ is Risen from the Dead” is a splendid example of this hymn by a well known men’s choir, Mdzlevari.

The lyrics, to refresh your memory, are:

Krist’e aghsdga mk’vdretit
Sik’vdilita sik’vdilisa
Damtrugunveli da saplavebis shinata
Tskhovrebis minbich’ebeli

In English, the translation is:

Christ is risen, and by dying conquers death.
We need no longer fear the grave. He is the giver of life.

A blessed and joyous Pasqa to all of you, and your families.

 

 

 

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On this Holy Friday and Saturday, one will see the Epitaphios installed in a bier representing the tomb. Different versions on this important icon are presented here, The Lamentations by the Tomb.

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

The Epitaphios (Gr. Επιτάφιος) is a large icon, usually embroidered, that depicts the burial of Christ. The name, epitaphios, literally means “winding-sheet”, and is used in services of Holy (Good) Friday and Holy Saturday to re-present the burial and funeral of Christ. An expanded version of this post, with a gallery of various epitaphios images, will be added here later. In the meantime, I add one of the most well-known icons (actually a fresco) of the epitaphios thrênos; i.e. the Lamentations by the Tomb. I also include some of the hymns from Holy Saturday, which understandably contain much hope mixed with the sorrow of Christ’s passion and death.

By being covered with the dust of the earth,
You renew the nature of mortals, O Creator;
The tomb and the winding-sheet reveal your deepest mystery, O Word;
The noble counsellor renders present the counsel of your eternal Father,
Who renews…

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Should at any time we feel ourselves to be alone, or for the secular world to be so overwhelming and powerful as to render spiritual life redundant, we can reflect on the difficulties of our predecessors and be inspired by their cheerfulness and joy in the face of tremendous privations.

As mentioned before, the mid 1920’s was a period of ferocious attacks upon the Church by the Bolsheviks, both clergy and laity. Many of the faithful were executed or imprisoned in the Gulag for extended periods on nonsensical charges. The Solovetsky Island concentration camp (Solovki for short), formerly a remote monastery on an island in the White Sea region of Russia’s far north, was reserved for particularly “recalcitrant” prisoners, in particular priests from throughout the Soviet Union, including the newly annexed Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Conditions were brutal and fatalities commonplace.

This letter from Bishop Maxim of Serpukhov, a Russian priest, is a moving testament to the resilience and cheerfulness of interned clergy during tremendous oppression. The Paschal context of his letter is poignant for us this week.

At Solovki we had several secret Catacomb “churches,” but our “favorites” were two: the “Cathedral Church” of the Holy Trinity, and the church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. The first was a small clearing in the midst of a dense forest in the direction of the “Savvaty” Assignment Area. The dome of this church was the sky, The wails were the birch forest. The church of St. Nicholas was located in the deep forest towards the “Muksolm” Assignment Area, It was a thicket naturally formed by seven large spruces. Most frequently the secret services were conducted only in the summer, on great feasts and, with special solemnity, on the Day of Pentecost. But sometimes, depending on circumstances, doubly secret services were celebrated also in other places. Thus, for example, on Great Thursday of 1929, the service of the reading of the Twelve Gospels was celebrated in our physicians’ cell in the 10th Company, Vladika Victor and Fr. Nicholas came to us as if for disinfection. Then, catacomb style, they served the church service with the door bolted. On Great Friday an order was read in all Companies informing that for the next three days no one would be allowed to leave the Companies after 8 p.m. save in exceptional circumstances and by special written permit of the Camp Commandant.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, when we physicians had just returned to our cells after a 12-hour workday, Fr. Nicholas came to us and told us that a Plashchanitsa (burial shroud with the image of Christ) the size of one’s palm had been painted by the artist R. The service-the rite of burial–was to be held and would begin in an hour. “Where?” Vladika Maxim asked. “In the great box for drying fish which is closest to the forest, next to Camp N. The password: three knocks and then two. It’s better to come one at a time.”

In half an hour Vladika Maxim and I left our Company and started out for the indicated “address.” Twice patrols asked for our permits. We, as physicians, had them. But what about the others?–Vladika Victor, Vladika Ilarion, Vladika Nektary, and Fr. Nicholas? Vladika Victor worked as-a bookkeeper in the rope factory. Vladika Nektary was a fisherman; and the others weaved nets. Here was the edge of the forest. Here was the box, about nine yards long, without windows, the door scarcely noticeable. Light twilight, the sky covered with dark clouds. We knock three times and then twice. Fr. Nicholas opens. Vladika Victor and Vladika Ilarion are already here… In a few minutes Vladika Nektary also comes. The interior of the box has been converted into a church. On the floor, on the wails, spruce branches. Several candles flickering. Small paper icons. The small Plashanitsa is buried in green branches. Ten people have come to pray. Later another four or five come, of whom two are monks. The service begins, in a whisper. It seemed that we had no bodies, but were only souls. Nothing distracted or interfered with prayer… I don’t remember how we went “home,” i.e., to our Companies. The Lord covered us!

The bright service of Pascha was assigned to our physicians’ cell. Towards midnight under various urgent pretexts arranged by the section, without any kind of written permit, all who intended to come gathered, about fifteen people in all. After the Matins and Liturgy, we sat down and broke the fast. On the table were Paschal cake and cheese, colored eggs, cold dishes, wine (liquid yeast with cranberry extract and sugar). About three o’clock we parted.

Control rounds of our Company were made by the Camp Commandant before and after the services, at 11 p.m. and  4 a.m. Finding us four physicians headed by Vladika Maxim, on his last round, the Commandant said: “What doctors, you’re not sleeping?” And immediately he added: “Such a night…and one doesn’t want to sleep!” And he left.

“Lord Jesus Christ! We thank Thee for the miracle of Thy mercy and power,” pronounced Vladika Maxim movingly, expressing our common feelings.

The white night of Solovki was nearing its end. The delicate, rose-colored Paschal morning of Solovki, the sun playing for joy, greeted the monastery-concentration camp, converting it into the invisible city of Kitezh and filling our free Souls with a quiet, unearthly joy. 

 

 

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