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Today we commemorate the Holy Apostle Matthew. Of the Twelve Apostles, Matthew’s story prior to him following Christ is certainly the most colourful.

Saint Matthew was a tax-collector for the Roman authorities in Israel, and therefore viewed as a wicked collaborator by most Jews of the time. Tax collection was typically allocated by a “tax-farming” approach; a tax farming jurisdiction would attract many bids from potential collectors, guaranteeing a certain revenue to the State, and the winning bidder could keep any revenue over and above the guaranteed remittance to the Treasury. The concept of transparent tax rates and policies was not well developed, and tax collectors would often intimidate vast sums of money out of businesses and households in their jurisdictions with teams of thugs on an arbitrary basis. Viewed not only as collaborators but as standover merchants, Jewish law at the time forbade Jews to socially associate with tax collectors, and some accounts record that to even mention the occupation was forbidden. That Christ would calmly approach such a pariah and command him to, “Come, follow me!” astounded the Jewish authorities, but as Matthew himself wrote in Aramaic later, Christ has “come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mt. 9: 13). If Christ could reshape the life of such a fallen scoundrel as Matthew to such good purpose, this gives all of us cause for great hope.

“Matthew was originally called Levi. He was the son of Alphaeus and was by profession a publican, or tax-collector, at Capernaum. On one occasion Jesus, coming up from the side of the lake, passed the custom-house where Matthew was seated and said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew arose and followed Christ, becoming his disciple (Matthew 9:9). He changed his name to reflect his new calling. “Matthew” means “Gift of the Lord.”

The same day on which Jesus called him he made a “great feast” (Luke 5:29), a farewell feast, to which he invited Jesus and his disciples and probably also many of his old associates. The last notice of him in the New Testament is in Acts1:13.

After the resurrection of our Lord, Matthew went and preached amongst the Jews. His Gospel was probably first written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek. Eventually Matthew went to Ethiopia to spread the gospel. There he was martyred by Fulvian, the ruler of the region, by being set on fire. After Matthew willingly gave up his soul to the Lord, his body was put in a coffin and cast into the sea. It washed up at the site of the church he had built. Fulvian, Matthew’s persecutor, immediately repented of his deed, renounced his position of worldly power, and was made a presbyter by the Bishop Platon (or Plato). Once Platon died, the apostle appeared to the priest (who had taken the name Matthew as well) and told him to assume the bishop’s throne.”

From Orthodoxwiki.org

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As I have remarked many times before in these pages, the history of the Church in Georgia is rich with stories and anecdotes of foreigners from countries hostile to Georgia, who have heard Christ’s call to serve, have submitted to baptism and often ordination, and have paid the heavy price of martyrdom at the hands of their own people. The story of Saint Abo Tbilieli is a good example of this.

Georgia, particularly eastern Georgia, has a very longstanding relationship with Iran. Many Georgians were carried off into slavery in Iran over the past two millennia, and Georgia served as a battleground between the Roman and Persian worlds for many centuries. The Georgian language has a huge number of loan-words from Persian, and Persian names are commonly adopted by Georgian people. Many historical figures in Georgia, such as King Mirian and King Vakhtang Gorgasali, were of Persian descent. The history of the interaction between Georgian and Persian peoples has sometimes been co-operative and sometime hostile; Persia’s colonial occupations of Georgia were characterised by intermittent periods of toleration and persecution of the Christian faith.

This history of the conversion of the Persian military commander Omar to Christianity in 7th century Georgia, his ordination and consecration as a Bishop, and his ultimate martyrdom at the hands of the Persian Zoroastrians, is well known by Georgian Christians, and a reminder that the Church in Georgia transcends race or national origin. It ialso provides inspiration for those who may seek to reach out to the 16,000 Iranians currently living in Georgia; the country has a long history of baptising and integrating Persians, and there are few families in eastern Georgia without a Christianised Persian ancestor.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Herman of Alaska Press.

 The holy hieromartyr Neophytus of Urbnisi descended from a line of Persian fire-worshippers.

In the 7th century, by order of the Saracen emir Mumni (Mu’min), the military leader Ahmad attacked Georgia with an enormous army. After overrunning the central part of Shida (Inner) Kartli, Ahmad dispatched two of his commanders, Omar and Burul, to the capital city of Mtskheta. At the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, across from the village of Tsikhedidi in the rocky Sarkineti region, the invaders discovered a group of caves and plotted to occupy them. They tried to cross the Mtkvari but were unable. 

Having suffered a setback, the enemies asked their captives what was located in those caves. They were told that this was the Shio-Mgvime Monastery, where dwelt God’s chosen, who had deprived themselves of every earthly blessing.

Surprised at this reply, the commanders decided to pass this information on to Ahmad. Then, as though it were commonplace, Ahmad sent Omar to the monastery to ask the monks to pray for him and remember him at the grave of their abbot, Saint Shio. “Pray for me, O slaves of God, and accept these gifts of aloe and incense. Offer these as a sacrifice to your abbot,” he told them.

Approaching the monastery caves, Omar sent a messenger to inform the monks that he was coming to them in peace and bearing gifts. Drawing near to the monastery gates, the commander saw an army of incorporeal hosts descending from the heavens and among them an elder, radiant with a great light. 

The meek and modest behavior of the monks left a great impression on Omar. He soon understood that the strange armies he had seen on the steps of the monastery were angels of God and that the elder was Saint Shio of Mgvime, abbot of the monastery. He related his vision to the monks and vowed to return to them, receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism, be tonsured a monk, and remain there to join in their holy labors.

Soon Omar abandoned all his possessions, his military rank, and his wealth and was baptized in the Christian Faith at the Shio-Mgvime Monastery as he had promised. Two of his slaves were baptized with him as well. Omar received the new name Neophytus (Newly Planted / From the Greek word neophytos, which in I Tim. 3:6 refers to a new convert.), and his slaves became Christodoulus (Christ’s Slave) and Christopher (Christ-bearer).

According to God’s will, Saint Neophytus was consecrated bishop of Urbnisi, and all were amazed at his wisdom and steadfastness. He was a true father to his flock: “He strengthened the weak, healed the sick, raised the fallen, cleansed the possessed, directed the lost and sought out those who were perishing, protecting them, and forbidding them to wander off again.”

But the enemy could not tolerate the native Persian’s apostolic activity, and he convinced the fire-worshippers to kill the Christian shepherd. So the unbelievers devised an ambush and attacked Neophytus’ isolated cell, then tied him up and began to mock, curse, and revile him. They knew that Saint Neophytus longed to become like the holy protomartyr Stephen, and they plotted to stone him to death.

When his time to depart this world had arrived, Saint Neophytus turned to his persecutors with a tender voice, saying, “Sweet is death to me, O unbelievers! Sweet it is to me. I desire to sunder the link between my mortal and immortal nature.… With my own blood I will confirm the Holy Church, which is founded upon the Precious Blood of the Son and Word of God, Whom I preach. May that which was foreordained for me by the Providence of God be fulfilled, for He has called me to His light from the depths of ungodliness!”

The furious pagans stoned the saint to death. With his last breath Holy Hieromartyr Neophytus cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ receive my soul!”

 

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Today commemorates a significant Georgian saint, Saint Joseph the Wonderworker, who was a famous 18th century monastic elder in Georgia’s high Caucasus region of Khevi, above which towers the peak of Georgia’s highest mountain, Mount Kazbegi.

Saint Joseph was famed for his perilous ascents to Kazbegi’s Jerusalem Cave, reputed to be the world’s highest consecrated ground. An expedition in 2000 to restore the cave’s consecrated status and perform the Divine Liturgy by Georgian mountaineers and Bishop Nicoloz of Bodbe makes for interesting viewing.  The video, with English soundtrack, can be purchased here.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” Saint Herman of Alaska Press

Little is known about the life of Saint Joseph of Khevi. The Church is certain only that he was a native of Khevi (in northern Georgia) and served as a priest in that village. In addition to being great warriors, the people of Khevi have throughout history been remarkably steadfast in the Christian Faith. The churches and monasteries in Khevi are extraordinary in both beauty and inaccessibility. They were deliberately built in mountainous places, as if reaching them should demand the greatest of zeal.

The most important ornament and symbol of Khevi is the ice that perpetually caps the peak of Mount Kazbegi. On the slope of this mountain stands Holy Trinity Monastery, where at one time Saint Nino’s cross was preserved (it is presently kept in Tbilisi, in the northern section of the iconostasis at Sioni Cathedral).

Located above Holy Trinity Monastery, on the ice-covered, vertical cliff of Mount Kazbegi, is a cave hermitage at 13,450 feet, known as the Bethlehem Cave. It is possible to reach this hermitage only by climbing chains let down from its height. According to the chronicle Life of Kartli, this cave has throughout history been used to store sacred objects and treasures of the Church.

The historian David Batonishvili records that Saint Joseph was especially known for his love of holy objects, for keeping the strictest of fasts, and for his outstanding virtues. He climbed to the Bethlehem Hermitage and returned with a piece of the tent of the patriarch Abraham, (Georgian tradition relates that both the tent of the Patriarch Abraham and the manger of Christ were kept in the Bethlehem Cave for many centuries.) which he presented to King Erekle. Having attained the heights of clairvoyance and miracle-working, Saint Joseph reposed peacefully in the year 1763.

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As we have mentioned before, there is evidence that the Apostle Matthias was martyred in Colchis  (the ancient name for Georgia’s Black Sea regions) and buried in Gonio, near Batumi. Today is his feast day.

The elevation of Matthias from the Seventy to the Twelve Apostles is interesting, as it is one of the first written accounts of Apostolic Succession,. Saint Luke’s account of events in the Acts of the Apostles is;

“In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus— he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.” (With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms, ” ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ” ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” Acts 1:15-26

The Nicene Creed, developed in 325 at the First Ecumenical Council, describes the Church as being “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. Given that the Twelve Apostles all reposed almost two millennia ago, for outsiders this description may seem odd. Orthodox Christians believe in Apostolic Succession; tracing a direct line of apostolic ordination, Orthodox doctrine, and full communion of Orthodox jurisdictions from the Twelve Apostles to the current Episcopacy of the Orthodox Church. All three elements are integral to apostolic succession. It is through apostolic succession that the Church is the direct spiritual successor to the original body of believers in Christ as the Son of God, composed of the Apostles. This succession manifests itself through the unbroken succession of its bishops back to the Apostles.

Ordination of a bishop requires the presence of three other bishops. It is not mandatory that the candidate already be ordained as a priest or deacon, but in most jurisdictions that is the norm.

Elections of Patriarchs vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it is generally performed by secret ballot. The repose of a Patriarch generally triggers the appointment of a caretaker Patriarch who organises elections as soon as possible. Each Patriarchate has its own statutes governing such elections, which may take into account dioceses abroad as well as consultation with the laity. National governments are often tempted to interfere with this process, which is generally quite vigorously resisted.

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Today is the Feast of Transfiguration; while it falls during the Dormition fast, dietary restrictions are relaxed today.

Prior to the conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the 4th century, various folk religions and Greek-influenced pagan cults were present in the country. As Georgia has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition (over 8000 years), viticulture plays a very large role in the lives of lowland Georgians, and the management practices of the vineyard were often linked with religious festivals. Archaelogical ruins in Georgia indicate that Dionysian/Bacchan cults were widespread before Georgia’s conversion, and that rites to this god involving wine and grapes were common.

Orthodox Christian practice, past and present, has been to examine local pagan customs and, provided such customs are not wicked, to adapt and Christianise them.  For example, Orthodox priests in China commonly hold a liturgy in memory of the deceased for Chinese converts on the two Grave-Sweeping Festivals, which are ancient ancestor-worship festivals. The Church Fathers in the early days of the Church in the Roman Empire likewise evaluated local folk customs and pre-existing Jewish rites, and conflated them with Church festivals. The presentation of grapes at Transfiguration is one of these customs.

Presenting fruit and grapes at the temple is an ancient Jewish custom (Gen 4:2-4; Ex 13:12-13; Num 15:19-21; Deut 8:10-14).  It was Christianised by the Apostles  (1 Cor 16:1-2). Presentation of grapes at the temple is mentioned in the Third Rule of the Apostolic Canon, which is the earliest collection of written ecclesiastic laws (canons) in our possession, dating to the second century.

In the first centuries of the Church, the faithful presented to the temple the fruit and produce of each seaon’s new harvest: bread, wine, oil, incense, wax, honey and fruit . Bread, wine, oil and wax were taken to the altar, while the other offerings were used to feed the clergy and the poor who were under the Church’s care.

In Georgia, the date of the grape harvest or Rtveli is determined by the ripeness of the grapes rather than a fixed date, but traditionally it was forbidden to consume grapes during the Dormition fast before Transfiguration and so Rtveli always occurs no earlier than Transfiguration. In practical terms, Rtveli is usually no earlier than the last week of August, and in the mountainous areas of western Georgia it can be as late as November.

There is a theological significance to the blessing of grapes at Transfiguration. Just as we celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration today, we celebrate this with objects that undergo both physical and spiritual transformation. Grapes are physically transformed, from flower to fruit, from fruit to must, and from must to wine. Grapes are also spiritually transformed, from ordinary wine into the Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy.

It should also be recalled that the Church is frequently described as a vine, with the faithful being the fruit that it bears.

In addition, King Demetre 1st of Georgia in the 12th century wrote a hymn of praise to the Ghvtismshobeli, the Virgin Mary, describing her as a beautiful vineyard. As Georgia is the land allocated to the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, the hymn functions almost as an unofficial national anthem and is very popular.  The melody by the 19th century composer Paliashvili is favoured today. The lyrics of the hymn “Shen Khar Venakhi/Thou Art a Vineyard” are:

Georgian text:
შენ ხარ ვენახი, ახლად აყვავებული,
ნორჩი კეთილი, ედემს შინა ნერგული,
(ალვა სუნელი, სამოთხეს ამოსული,)
(ღმერთმან შეგამკო ვერვინა გჯობს ქებული,)
და თავით თვისით მზე ხარ და გაბრწყინვებული.
Latin transliteration:
shen khar venakhi, akhlad aqvavebuli.
norchi k’etili, edems shina nerguli.
(alva suneli, samotkhes amosuli.)
(ghmertman shegamk’o vervina gjobs kebuli.)
da tavit tvisit mze khar da gabrts’qinvebuli.
English translation:
You are a vineyard newly blossomed.
Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,
(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)
(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)
You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.

A blessed Transfiguration Feast to you all.

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The second half of August in Georgia is devoted to the Virgin Mary, or the Ghvtismshobeli as she is known in Georgia.  For two weeks, starting today, a fast is practiced and Orthodox Christians focus their prayers upon the Virgin Mary, as a prelude to the celebration of her death (“Dormition” or falling asleep) and reunion with her Son, Jesus Christ. As the Liturgical Calender starts on September 1, the Feast of the Dormition is the last major feast of the Church year.

During this season, the Transfiguration of Christ is also celebrated.

As Georgia is the country allocated to the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, Georgians are quite dedicated to this season. Although Georgia is a conservative country with somewhat demarcated roles for men and women, the deep passions that this season arouses reflect or perhaps inspire the high status of women in this very traditional society.

The Scriptures have no accounts of the Virgin Mary’s death, but Church Tradition is rich with accounts of this event that are recounted in the hymns and iconography of the event. There are substantial traditional accounts of her life between the Ascension and her death.

“After the Ascension of the Lord, the Mother of God remained in the care of the Apostle John the Theologian, and during his journeys She lived at the home of his parents, near the Mount of Olives. She was a source of consolation and edification both for the Apostles and for all the believers. Conversing with them, She told them about miraculous events: the Annunciation, the seedless and undefiled Conception of Christ born of Her, about His early childhood, and about His earthly life. Like the Apostles, She helped plant and strengthen the Christian Church by Her presence, Her discourse and Her prayers.

The reverence of the Apostles for the Most Holy Virgin was extraordinary. After the receiving of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles remained at Jerusalem for about ten years attending to the salvation of the Jews, and wanting moreover to see the Mother of God and hear Her holy discourse. Many of the newly-enlightened in the Faith even came from faraway lands to Jerusalem, to see and to hear the All-Pure Mother of God.

During the persecution initiated by King Herod against the young Church of Christ (Acts 12:1-3), the Most Holy Virgin and the Apostle John the Theologian withdrew to Ephesus in the year 43. The preaching of the Gospel there had fallen by lot to the Apostle John the Theologian. The Mother of God was on Cyprus with St Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead, where he was bishop. She was also on Holy Mount Athos. St Stephen of the Holy Mountain says that the Mother of God prophetically spoke of it: “Let this place be my lot, given to me by my Son and my God. I will be the Patroness of this place and intercede with God for it.”

The respect of ancient Christians for the Mother of God was so great that they preserved what they could about Her life, what they could take note of concerning Her sayings and deeds, and they even passed down to us a description of Her outward appearance.

According to Tradition, based on the words of the Hieromartyrs Dionysius the Areopagite (October 3), Ignatius the God-Bearer (December 20), St Ambrose of Milan (December 7) had occasion to write in his work “On Virgins” concerning the Mother of God: “She was a Virgin not only in body, but also in soul, humble of heart, circumspect in word, wise in mind, not overly given to speaking, a lover of reading and of work, and prudent in speech. Her rule of life was to offend no one, to intend good for everyone, to respect the aged, not envy others, avoid bragging, be healthy of mind, and to love virtue.”

When did She ever hurl the least insult in the face of Her parents? When was She at discord with Her kin? When did She ever puff up with pride before a modest person, or laugh at the weak, or shun the destitute? With Her there was nothing of glaring eyes, nothing of unseemly words, nor of improper conduct. She was modest in the movement of Her body, Her step was quiet, and Her voice straightforward; so that Her face was an expression of soul. She was the personification of purity.

All Her days She was concerned with fasting: She slept only when necessary, and even then, when Her body was at rest, She was still alert in spirit, repeating in Her dreams what She had read, or the implementation of proposed intentions, or those planned yet anew. She was out of Her house only for church, and then only in the company of relatives. Otherwise, She seldom appeared outside Her house in the company of others, and She was Her own best overseer. Others could protect Her only in body, but She Herself guarded Her character.

At the time of Her blessed Falling Asleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of God had already spread throughout the land and had aroused many of the envious and the spiteful against Her. They wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.

Day and night She spent her time in prayer. The Most Holy Theotokos went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up fervent prayer. More than once, enemies of the Savior sought to hinder Her from visiting her holy place, and they asked the High Priest for a guard to watch over the Grave of the Lord. The Holy Virgin continued to pray right in front of them, yet unseen by anyone.

In one such visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her and announced Her approaching departure from this life to eternal life. In pledge of this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. With these heavenly tidings the Mother of God returned to Bethlehem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael). She summoned Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose.

The Most Holy Virgin prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Mother of God lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Virgin offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen.” The Mother of God took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.

The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says St John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. St John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin’s repose was at hand.

Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.

During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, St Hierotheus, St Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. To each She wished eternal bliss, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.

Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Dormition of the Mother of God was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who it saw took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary.

Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate of His Handmaiden” (Luke 1:46-48) and, rising from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him, and the Lord bid Her enter into Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in a happy sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.

Then began a joyous angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women! For lo, the Queen, God’s Maiden comes, lift up the gates, and with the Ever-Existing One, take up the Mother of Light; for through Her salvation has come to all the human race. It is impossible to gaze upon Her, and it is impossible to render Her due honor” (Stikherion on “Lord, I Have Cried”). The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy. The face of the Mother of God was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and from Her body there came a sweet fragrance.

Miraculous was the life of the All-Pure Virgin, and wondrous was Her Repose, as Holy Church sings: “In Thee, O Queen, the God of all hath given thee as thy portion the things that are above nature. Just as in the Birth-Giving He did preserve Thine virginity, so also in the grave He did preserve Thy body from decay” (Canon 1, Ode 6, Troparion 1).

Kissing the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the Most Holy Theotokos, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love touched the holy bed.

Bewailing their separation from the Mother of God, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the Twelve Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the Ever-Virgin Mary. St John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise. The other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred songs. This solemn procession went from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.

With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother of God and all those accompanying Her a resplendent circular cloud, like a crown. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance accompanied the procession to the very place of burial.

Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honor accorded the Mother of Jesus, complained of this to the High Priest and scribes. Burning with envy and vengefulness toward everything that reminded them of Christ, they sent out their own servants to disrupt the procession and to set the body of the Mother of God afire.

An angry crowd and soldiers set off against the Christians, but the circular cloud accompanying the procession descended and surrounded them like a wall. The pursuers heard the footsteps and the singing, but could not see any of those accompanying the procession. Indeed, many of them were struck blind.

The Jewish priest Athonios, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, but an angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Athonios repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of God. He received healing and joined the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of God, and he became a zealous follower of Christ.

When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone.

For three days they did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas was not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that l he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother of God and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to Heaven.

On the evening of the same day, when the Apostles had gathered at a house to strengthen themselves with food, the Mother of God appeared to them and said: “Rejoice! I am with you all the days of your lives.” This so gladdened the Apostles and everyone with them, that they took a portion of the bread, set aside at the meal in memory of the Savior (“the Lord’s Portion”), and they exclaimed : “Most Holy Theotokos, save us”. (This marks the beginning of the rite of offering up the “Panagia” (“All-Holy”), a portion of bread in honor of the Mother of God, which is done at monasteries to the present day).

The sash of the Mother of God, and Her holy garb, preserved with reverence and distributed over the face of the earth in pieces, have worked miracles both in the past and at present. Her numerous icons everywhere pour forth signs and healings, and Her holy body, taken up to Heaven, bears witness to our own future life there. Her body was not left to the vicissitudes of the transitory world, but was incomparably exalted by its glorious ascent to Heaven.”

OCA

A neat summary of the accepted Tradition is documented for us. At the time of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, Byzantine Empress Pulcheria requested the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Patriarch Juvenal, to transfer a garment of the Virgin Mary to Constantinople.  Explaining that no bodily relics of the Virgin Mary existed,  he referred to a much earlier document, the Euthymian History.

There is nothing in the holy, inspired Scripture about the death of Mary, the holy Theotokos; but we know from an ancient and truest tradition that at the time of her glorious falling asleep, all the holy Apostles, who were traveling the world preaching salvation to the nations, were in an instant lifted up and brought to Jerusalem. As they stood before her, they saw an angelic apparition, and a divine chanting was heard from the higher Powers. And so, in a state of divine and heavenly glory she placed her soul into God’s hands in an ineffable way.

Her body, which had received God, was carried with angelic and apostolic hymns, was prepared and laid to rest in a coffin in Gethsemane. It was there and for three days that the angelic choruses and hymns continued unceasingly. After three days, however, the angelic hymnody ceased. The Apostles were there, and since one of them –Thomas– who had been absent from the burial, came after the third day and asked to reverence that body which had received God, they opened the coffin. They could not find anywhere her much-praised body, and since all they could find were her burial swaddling-clothes and the ineffable fragrance that came out of them and filled their bowels, they closed the coffin again. Amazed by the miracle of this mystery, they could only think this: that the One who willed to be incarnated and become human from her in his person, and to be born in the flesh he who is God the Word and Lord of Glory, and who preserved her virginity incorruptible after the birth, he was also the One that was well-pleased to honor her immaculate and spotless body, after her departure from this world, [by endowing it] with incorruptibility and with a transposition (metathesis) [to heaven] before the common, and universal resurrection.”

The iconography of the Dormition is fascinating and bears some explanation. A scholarly and detailed account of the symbolism of this icon can be found here

The Apostles are clearly assembled to witness her passing, some of them wearing their bishop’s sashes, and angels are present, as mentioned in the earlier account. The image of Christ bearing the soul of His mother, wrapped in swaddling clothes like an infant, is a fascinating reversal of the usual image of Christ as an infant embraced by His mother.

The Icon of the Feast of the Falling-asleep of the Theotokos depicts her body resting breathless in a bed while her soul, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a new-born baby, is upheld in the arms of the Risen and glorified Christ who stands behind the bed. This icon is the reversal of the usual icon of the Theotokos which depicts the Virgin holding Christ in her arms. Christ holding the Virgin’s soul in his arms indicates her entry into the Kingdom of Heaven which the Incarnate Christ opened up for us through his saving life and work. It indicates in the most concrete way St. Athanasius’ well known dictum: “God became human that we (humans) may be made divine.” Christ the Savior taking the soul of his Mother to Heaven marks the first resurrection, which Christians experience when they die, thanks to our Lord’s redemptive work. The full resurrection of our humanity, i.e. the resurrection of the body, will take place at the second coming of Christ which will be accompanied by the general resurrection and the last judgment of all human beings.”

Source: Father George Dion Dragas, Saint John the Baptist Hellenic Orthodox Church, http://www.saintjohnthebaptist.org

Church Tradition provides us with a great deal of information about the Virgin Mary’s later life and even her physical appearance;  according to Tradition, that from the compiler of Church history Nicephorus Callistus (fourteenth century), the Ghvtismshobeli “was of average stature, or as others suggest, slightly more than average; Her hair golden in appearance; Her eyes bright with pupils like shiny olives; Her eyebrows strong in character and moderately dark, Her nose pronounced and Her mouth vibrant bespeaking sweet speech; Her face was neither round nor angular, but somewhat oblong; the palm of Her hands and fingers were longish…

In conversation with others She preserved decorum, neither becoming silly nor agitated, and indeed especially never angry; without artifice, and direct, She was not overly concerned about Herself, and far from pampering Herself, She was distinctly full of humility. Regarding the clothing which She wore, She was satisfied to have natural colors, which even now is evidenced by Her holy head-covering. Suffice it to say, a special grace attended all Her actions.” (Nicephoros Callistus borrowed his description from St Epiphanius of Cyprus (May 12), from the “Letter to Theophilus Concerning Icons.”

A blessed fasting season to you all.

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It has long been a source of annoyance to some people, local and foreign, that the Georgian government provides funding to the Georgian Church. For those coming from countries with a complete separation between Church and State, such as France or the United States, it is a very unfamiliar situation. For people coming from countries with an official State Church, such as the United Kingdom or Denmark, it is a more familiar situation.

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The relationship between Church and State in Georgia is an interesting one. The Republic of Georgia is a secular state without a State Church. Unlike other states, there are no seats in parliament allocated to bishops or other religious leaders (as is the case in the United Kingdom and China). However, the Church has a very large role in people’s lives and State leaders not infrequently canvass the opinion of the Patriarch and bishops when determining policy directions.

In 2002, a Concordat (agreement) was signed between the Georgian State and the Georgian Orthodox Church (more formally known as The Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church (Georgian:საქართველოს სამოციქულო ავტოკეფალური მართლმადიდებელი ეკლესია,sak’art’velos samots’ik’ulo avt’okep’aluri mart’lmadidebeli eklesia).  The terms of this agreement were:

(1) The agreement confirmed that all churches and monasteries on Georgian territory are owned by the Georgian Church, with the exception of those in private hands.

(2) The agreement recognises the special role of the Georgian Church in Georgian history and devolves authority over all religious matters to the Georgian Church.

(3) The agreement grants the Patriarch immunity from prosecution and exempts clergy from the Georgian Church from compulsory military service.

(4) The agreement grants the Georgian Church an exclusive role in operating the military chaplaincy.

(5) The agreement grants the Georgian Church a substantial advisory role in government, particularly in the educational sphere.

(6) The agreement recognises the validity of marriages performed in the Church (while still requiring government registration for legal issues).

(7) As a partial owner of assets confiscated by Soviet authorities during the Soviet rule of Georgia (1921-1991), the State agrees to compensate, at least in part, the Georgian Church for its financial and asset losses incurred during that period. 

The seventh point is an interesting one.

The Concordat was agreed in 2002 between His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II and President Eduard Shevardnadze. The President was from a Gurian Bolshevik family with revolutionary credentials, and in addition to having been Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, he had also been the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party (the de facto Head of State of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (GSSR)). The Party which he had headed had in the past engaged in atrocities and persecution of Georgian Christians, but a mere 11 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the immediate aftermath of a brutal civil war, Shevardnadze was not willing to admit substantial responsibility for past misdeeds of his former Party or government.

From the 1990’s to the current day, most of the political and business elite in Georgia were children or close relatives of Communist Party officials, or had developed a power base in the Komsomol (  All-Union Leninist Young Communist League  ). During the Soviet era, identifying publicly as an Orthodox Christian had serious consequences; one could not join the Party or Komsomol, admission to universities was almost impossible, and promotion within State bodies was seriously hampered. Hence, when Georgia became independent, very few of the political elite or intelligentsia came from openly practicing Christian families, and many had engaged in discrimination or persecution of Christians during their official duties prior to 1991. Faced with a resurgent Church, the elite needed to make some compromises with the Church, lest their own conduct and the conduct of their families in the past be brought to light. Church and State negotiated the best deal they could realistically get at the time. With the chaos of the 1990’s in such recent memory, the Church also was wary of going after Communists for compensation and justice too vigourously lest the delicate political balance established be upset.

The Bolshevik takeover of Georgia in 1921 was followed by serious persecution of the Church, as mentioned in my posts before, here, and here. Many thousands of clergy were murdered or exiled to labour camps where they died of disease, cold or malnutrition. Tens of thousands of ordinary Orthodox Christian laity likewise were murdered for their faith, or died in prison camps. Hundreds of thousands had their lives and careers ruined by persecution and discrimination by Communist authorities. To date, not one cent of compensation has been paid to the Church for the wrongful deaths of its martyred clergy. Likewise, the families of martyred laity have yet to receive any compensation. As a successor regime to the GSSR, the Government of the Republic of Georgia bears responsibility for achieving justice for those wronged by its predecessor, but to date nobody has had the courage to do so. Given that many of the elite have family members complicit in past atrocities and persecution, this is not surprising.

It is therefore perplexing to Georgian Orthodox Christians when local secularists and foreigners complain about State funding of the Church. A local article disclosing financial transfers from the State Treasury to the Church can be found here . I cannot vouch for the veracity or otherwise of those figures but they appear to be based on valid government records; a total of GEL200 million since independence is suggested. Given that the new Parliament House in Kutaisi alone has cost over GEL325 million since work started in 2012, the Church’s subventions are a rather minor part of State expenditures in comparison.

In 1921, the Georgian Church was the largest single landowner in the country; that land was confiscated and most of it has not been returned. No formal mechanism of restitution for these assets has been settled upon. Seventy years worth of lost revenue from those assets has also not been considered.

Hundreds of temples and monasteries were razed to the ground by the Bolksheviks;  State funding for the building of new temples and renovation of old structures is hence an appropriate measure of compensation under the terms of the Concordat. Anyone walking around a temple on Sunday morning in any town or village in Georgia can attest to the overcrowding that is routine, with many hundreds of people often standing in the rain or snow outside for services at Feasts. Hence, State support for such construction activities is a compensation payment rather than a subsidy per se.

Some State funds provided to the Church are dedicated to the Church’s charitable activities, such as its hospitals, orphanages, educational facilities and charitable funds, such as the Lazarus Fund. As the most trusted institution in the country, government officials obviously consider subvention of Church charity work to be a worthwhile use of public funds.

Some Georgian political parties have lobbied for the Concordat to be superseded by the Georgian Church becoming an official State Church and therefore an arm of the State.  To date the Patriarch has rejected this concept, saying that he would prefer the existing arrangement to be implemented more fully. No doubt the Church hierarchs are aware that countries with State Churches tend to suffer decreasing levels of religiosity amongst the laity. Likewise,  they are aware of the Georgian Church’s forcible incorporation into the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia in the early 19th century, where as an arm of the official State Church they were ruled by Russian civil servants instead of bishops. The experience was not a happy one and clergy are aware that the Church needs a certain level of autonomy from the State to fulfil its mission faithfully. The freedom for clergy to occasionally criticise State policy where appropriate can only be preserved if the Church is not an arm of the State.

Personally, I believe that a one-off property settlement between Church and State would be preferable to ongoing year-by-year subvention, as this would allow the Church to be financially independent of the State and to faithfully fulfil its mission without fear of of State officials cutting off funds when displeased. Other Georgian Orthodox Christians will have opinions very different to mine of course.

 

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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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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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