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Today is the second Sunday of the pre-Lenten period, with Meatfare Sunday (the last day of meat consumption before Pascha) falling next Sunday. Following from last week’s theme of repentance and forgiveness, the theme of today is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 15:11-32),

“11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

The simplest interpretation of this is for Christians to imagine themselves as foreigners in a distant land, far from their Father’s house and full of regret for their reckless and disobedient conduct. Through the Lenten period, we are to engage in metanoia (repentance or “change of mind”) and to follow the long and winding road back to God where we belong. The parable assures us that our repentant return home will be greeted with joy by the Father, not justified by our worthy acts but through God’s forgiveness and love. One can think of “the Father’s House” as being salvation and reunification with God. The prodigal chose to walk away from salvation by his own free will and to live foolishly and sinfully, and by his own free will he resolved to repent, to return home and to live humbly under the authority of his Father’s will. Concurrently, the elder brother, by removing himself from the household out of resentment at the favourable treatment the prodigal son received, at least temporarily has removed himself from salvation and God’s presence.

The iconography associated with this parable is very well discussed here

In the Georgian context, it is worthwhile considering how we, as individuals or as a Church, fit into the framework of this parable. Over three-quarters of the Georgian population now declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians. It is worth noting that, to avoid persecution and to improve career prospects, many of today’s Georgian Christians were Communist Party members or Komsomol members in the Soviet era, and openly repudiated organised religion in general or Christ in particular, not unlike Saint Peter repudiating Christ in Jerusalem on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon sincere demonstration of contrition and metanoia, the Church has joyfully received its former enemies into its midst as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is in the glorious tradition of the Early Church Fathers who joyfully baptised the same Roman troops and civil administrators who had previously persecuted them.

Having been accepted “back home” into God’s house, it is imperative for Christians in Georgia to remember the grace that has been bestowed upon them when considering how to deal with the other peoples of the region. The histories of the Georgian and Armenian peoples have been intertwined for millennia, sometimes competitive, sometimes co-operative, but despite the schism over the Council of Chalcedon, it is important for these two peoples to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with some outstanding disagreements, rather than as intractable antagonists. Thousands of Coptic Christians have settled in Georgia, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, but the welcome they have received from Georgian Orthodox parishes when seeking to pray in the temple has often been less than effusive. Some wonderful opportunities to embrace new arrivals or long-standing ethnic minorities as brothers and sisters in Christ, to baptise or chrismate them, and to gently integrate them into Georgian society, have sadly been lost, with some people behaving like the prodigal son’s older brother, filled with anger and resentment when schismatics seek to return home.

At various times in history, many of the people of the North Caucasus, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey had accepted baptism and were vigourous members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Georgian missionaries played no small part in this, using their God-given abilities as orators, teachers and healers to bring the word of God to these regions, and many gave their lives to enlighten these neighbouring peoples, whom they viewed as being equally worthy of salvation as their own people. It is a mark of contempt for these great Georgian evangelists that some people today, claiming to speak for the Church, seek to denigrate or insult neighbouring people of different religions or races simply because they are not Kartvelian.  

Many Muslims from neighbouring countries had Christian ancestors who were forced into apostasy under threat of torture or execution.  I have discussed before the Christian civilisation of the Caucasian Albanians of Azerbaijan, the Christian communities established by Georgian missionaries in Ossetia and Daghestan, and the hundreds of thousands of Christians who inhabited every major town and city in the Persian Empire in the past. Many Muslims from the region are curious about Christianity and are very open to discussing our religion, and not a few are willing to apostasise themselves from Islam and accept Christian baptism when dealt with kindly. When confronted with a person considering “returning home” to the Church, even from a nationality or faith that some consider to be an intractable enemy of the Georgian Church, it is important to consider that we all have been welcomed home by our Father through His grace rather than our own virtue. To reject our neighbours’ sincere approaches places us, rather unfavourably, in the role of the elder brother of the prodigal son. Unlike the elder brother, many of us in the past were in open opposition to God’s Church in Georgia; while the elder brother could with some justification say “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”, there are precious few of us here can truthfully say the same.

For those still in two minds on this issue, one can direct them to the will of the Holy Spirit as expressed in Saint Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

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Georgia’s neighbouring country to the south and east, Azerbaijan, is known to most people as a Turkish-speaking region of Iran wrested from Persian control by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. It is not commonly known that for many centuries an indigenous Christian nation existed in Azerbaijan until it was eventually overwhelmed by Persians from the east and Armenians from the west. This country was known as Caucasian Albania (to distinguish it from the Albania in the Balkans).

Caucasian Albanian tribes spoke a number of East Caucasian languages and are believed to be related to the Lezgins of the North Caucasus. The only remaining tribe who identify as having this ancestry are the Udi; the ancient Caucasian Albanian capital cities of Qabala and Barda were located within the Udi domain, which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Georgian Iberia. The village of Zinobiani, near Kakheti’s Kvareli town, was settled with Udi refugees from Azerbaijan in 1922 and these families still live there. The Caucasian Albanian tribes of Hers were incorporated into the Georgian state in the 5th century and assimilated by the Kakhetians; the resulting Hereti region makes up most of current-day eastern Kakheti including the Shiraki region.

The Apostle Bartholomew is reputed to have evangelised the Caucasian Albanians. He is believed to have proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania, and to have converted members of the royal family to Christianity in Baku. He was martyred on the orders of the pagan King Astyages by crucifixion, and his relics later transported to Mesapotamia.

The Church was definitively established by the 1st century missionary Saint Elisaeus, who proselytised throughout Caucasian Albania and Persia, and he established the first Christian temple in the Caucasus, in Kis. In 313 the Caucasian Albanian King Urnayr declared Orthodox Christianity to be the State Religion of Caucasian Albania, predating King Mirian of Iberia’s declaration of Iberia as Christian nation in 337.

King Urnayr was baptised by Catholicos Gregory I of Armenia, and hence the Church of Caucasian Albania has had a close relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church over the years. While at times it has declared its autocephaly, at other times it was considered subordinate to the Armenian Catholicosate.

Many churches were built throughout Caucasian Albania, but unfortunately time and the attention of Muslim marauders over the past 1300 years have destroyed most of them.  The Church of Kis, built in a Georgian style in the 13th century, is the best preserved, having been renovated in 2003.

Given that much of Caucasian Albania was under the control of Georgia during the reign of Queen Tamar, it is not surprising that Georgian architectural influences are seen here. The original church of this village was built by Saint Elisaeus in the 1st century.

The Caucasian Albanian Church was caught up in the controversy of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which it rejected, and so over the years it has been more closely affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church than with the Eastern Orthodox communion. The Russian imperial government encouraged this affiliation and discouraged autocephalous movements. In recent years, the remaining Udi Christians of Azerbaijan have repudiated their affiliation with the Church of Armenia and have registered with the Azerbaijan government as the Caucasian Albanian-Udi Christian Community. Reportedly, several Udi men are training in Russian seminaries as priests, so it is quite possible that the Caucasian Albanian Church will return to the Eastern Orthodox communion, as it was prior  to 451, and during Georgia’s “Golden Age” when Georgia controlled the region.

On August 5th, the Community celebrated the 1700th anniversary of their Church as an established state church, and explained to the media the history of their people, and the ongoing renovation efforts for their temples in the village of Nij.

For a scholarly review of the Church in Caucasian Albania by an Azeri Academic, read here.

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