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Given that we are still within the “Twelve Days of Christmas”, I thought it would be nice to sample some more of Georgia’s regional vocal traditions for the Nativity Season.

Northwestern Georgia’s Svaneti region is a rugged alpine environment, with the distinction of incorporating the highest permanent settlement in Europe. The people are likewise rugged, making their livings from herding sheep and cattle, timbercutting, beekeeping and furniture making in remote mountain villages. Svaneti has the distinction of having safeguarded Georgia’s religious heritage during the Mongol invasions, by hiding and protecting icons and other treasures of the Church from the heathen invaders.

Svani chant has a mournful tone and is an important part of Georgia’s liturgical and musical tradition. A Svaneti Alilo is presented hereThe neighbouring subtropical coastal region of Samegrelo (Mingrelia in Russian) also has its own strong Christmas musical traditions. A Megruli Alilo can be viewed belowFor those interested in the sights of the 2011 Alilo Parade in Tbilisi, here is some footage.

 

 

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Anyone visiting an Orthodox temple tonight will notice the Icon of the Nativity displayed prominently. The symbolism of this icon is very well explained here

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

Modern Icon of the Nativity

The most wise Lord comes to be born,
Receiving hospitality from His own creatures.
Let us also receive Him,
That this divine Child in the cave may make us His guests
In the paradise of delights!

The Birth of Christ has always been celebrated and hymned by Christians in some way or other, as it is central to the Faith. The Word of God in past times may have appeared as an angel of the Lord, or the divine fire of the burning bush, but now, from this time onwards, He has become one of us; and not just as a fully-grown man descended from Heaven, but in humility God is born of a woman, and comes to us as a tiny, speechless, infant. This is what is shown in the Nativity Icon, and around this central historical event other stories surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ are depicted.

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Saint Luke is one of the most significant saints in the Church; his Feast is held today. As a Greek medical doctor from Antioch, schooled in Greek medicine, art and philosophy, his background was quite different from the many Jewish peasants and fisherman whom Christ called to serve. Saint Luke was a witness to Christ’s Resurrection on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13) , and became a constant companion to Saint Paul the Evangelist in his extensive travels. It is hard to imagine a more “odd couple” to work together as evangelists for so many years, one formerly a Pharisee, the other an affluent Greek physician, but obviously their talents were complementary and they were very effective at spreading the faith amongst both Jews and Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire.

He is attributed as being the first iconographer, painting under the direction of the Virgin Mary.

He is most widely known as the author of the Gospel of Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Icons of the saint usually show him as a well-dressed professional gentleman in Greek garb, carrying a copy of the Holy Gospel.

11th Century Georgian Miniature of Saint Luke

The Holy Disciple and Evangelist Luke, was a native of Syrian Antioch, a Disciple from amongst the Seventy, a companion of the holy Apostle Paul (Phil. 1: 24, 2 Tim. 4: 10-11), and a physician enlightened in the Greek medical arts. Hearing about Christ, Luke arrived in Palestine and here he fervently accepted the preaching of salvation from the Lord Himself. Included amidst the number of the Seventy Disciples, Saint Luke was sent by the Lord with the others for the first preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven while yet during the earthly life of the Saviour (Lk. 10: 1-3). After the Resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to Saints Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus.

The Disciple Luke took part in the second missionary journey of the Apostle Paul, and from that time they were inseparable. At a point when all his co-workers had left the Apostle Paul, the Disciple Luke stayed on with him to tackle all the toiling of pious deeds (2 Tim. 4: 10-11). After the martyr’s death of the First-Ranked Apostles Peter and Paul, Saint Luke left Rome to preach in Achaeia, Libya, Egypt and the Thebaid. In the city of Thebes he finished his life in martyrdom.

Tradition ascribes to him the writing of the first icons of the Mother of God. “Let the grace of He born of Me and My mercy be with these icons”, – said the All-Pure Virgin in beholding the icons. Saint Luke painted likewise icons of the First-Ranked Apostles Peter and Paul. His Gospel was written by Saint Luke in the years 62-63 at Rome, under the guidance of the Apostle Paul. Saint Luke in the preliminary verses (1: 3) spells out exactly the aim of his work: he recorded in greater detail the chronological course of events in the framework of everything known by Christians about Jesus Christ and His teachings, and by doing so he provided a firmer historical basis of Christian hope (1: 4). He carefully investigated the facts, and made generous use of the oral tradition of the Church and of what the All-Pure Virgin Mary Herself had told him (2: 19, 51).

In the theological content of the Gospel of Luke there stands out first of all the teaching about the universal salvation effected by the Lord Jesus Christ, and about the universal significance of the preaching of the Gospel [Lat. “evangelum” with Grk. root “eu-angelos” both mean “good-news”].

The holy disciple likewise wrote in the years 62-63 at Rome, the Book of the Acts of the Holy Apostles. The Acts, which is a continuation of the Four Gospels, speaks about the works and effects of the holy Apostles after the Ascension of the Saviour. At the centre of the narrative – is the Council of the holy Apostles at Jerusalem (year 51 A.D.), a Church event of great critical significance, with a dogmatic basis for the distancing of Christianity from Judaism and its independent dispersion into the world (Acts 15: 6-29). The theological objective of the Book of Acts is that of the Dispensation-Economy of the Holy Spirit, actualised in the Church founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, from the time of the Ascension and Pentecost to the Second Coming of Christ.

From “Calender, Saint John of Kronstadt Press”

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The death of the Virgin Mary is commemorated in Orthodox countries with great reverence, solemnity and joy. In Georgian, it is known as Mariamoba.

It has been likened to “a second Pascha” by Orthodox theologians for many reasons. Firstly, it involves the physical death of a great and revered figure in the Church.  Secondly, according to Church tradition, her body was borne away from this earth rather than being buried, creating amazement amongst Christ’s disciples mirroring that which they experienced when discovering Christ’s tomb to be empty. Thirdly, on the third day after her death, she appeared to Christ’s disciples and commanded them to rejoice, as she had joined her Son in heaven, as they would also do. So the elements of physical death, disappearance of the physical body, and revelation to the faithful three days after death associated with Pascha are recapitulated.

As with the Lenten period preceding Pascha, the faithful are required to fast prior to the feast, which usually involves abstaining from meat and liquor. The Mariamoba fast lasts for two weeks and starts tomorrow.

As with the feast of Pascha, the Mariamoba overnight vigil is followed by morning celebrations. This often involves the slaughter of a sheep and consumption of a great deal of meat and wine with family. As Georgia is the country allocated to the Virgin Mary by God, Georgians take this celebration very seriously. The traditional Georgian identification of the Virgin Mary with a vineyard, producing a ripe vintage of the Son of God for the salvation of mankind, makes the consumption of wine at the feast a deeply meaningful exercise. While some will feast at home, many will make pilgrimages to hilltop monasteries in the hills and picnic outdoors.

Mariamoba is also the name-day for Georgian women bearing names derived from the name of the Virgin Mary. So your friends named Mariam, Mari, or Mariko will have a double celebration  on August 28.

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Today marks the 891st anniversary of the “Miraculous Victory” (dzlevai sakvirveli) of Georgian forces under King David the Builder (Davit Aghmashenebeli) against the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Didgori.

In the 11the century, the Seljuk Turks of Central Asia had migrated westwards, established their own Sultanate in 1055 and commencing invasions of much of Georgia in 1064. In 1071, the Seljuk victory over the Eastern Roman Empire at Manzikert marked the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire, with much of eastern Anatolia overrun by Turks with the exception of Greek and Georgian enclaves on the Black Sea coast, known to Greeks as Trebizond and Georgians as Lazeti.

From 1080 to 1089, the Seljuks conquered most of Georgia, forced local rulers to accept seasonal migration of Seljuk herds and flocks each year from Anatolia and Central Asia, and demanded heavy tribute. Replacing his father in a bloodless coup, the 16 year-old King David commenced small scale raids throughout Georgia to force the Seljuks to withdraw, and he engaged in such guerrilla warfare from 1080-1102, by which time the Seljuks had been expelled from most of Eastern and Central Georgia. Between 1110-1118, he added much of today’s Armernia, Azerbaijan, Turkey’s Pontus region and Russia’s Black Sea Coast to Georgia’s territory.

In 1118, King David took a very significant gamble. He had a Royal Guard of 5000 troops but no additional standing army, depending on feudal lords for additional conscripts. Many of these lords had been in the pay of the Seljuks in the past and treachery was a common problem, so relying on their exclusive loyalty was risky. Instead, King David invited 200,000 Kipchak Turks from the southern steppes of Russia to settle in Georgia in exchange for military service. Garrisoned throughout the country, many of these Turkic animists converted to Orthodox Christianity and it is assumed that many intermarried with local people.  This provided the Georgian State with a large, well- trained standing army that was independent of feudal loyalties.

At this time, Tbilisi was still under Arab occupation. The development of a large Christian power that interrupted communication between Turk territories in Anatolia, Turk and Persian territories on the Caspian and Arab forces in the south threatened their Muslim neighbours. A consortium of forces from throughout the Middle East, led by the Seljuk Turks, was assembled after jihad was called, with the express purpose of extinguishing the Georgian State and Church, and the enslavement of the Georgian people.

An army of over 250,000 men was mustered by the Turks and marched towards Mtshketa from the west, and camped on the pastures of Didgori, about 40 km west of Tbilisi. King David was able to assemble a force of 56,000 men including 500 Alans (Ossetians) and many thousands of Kipchaks and Georgians. A cunning ruse resulted in the assassination of most of the Muslim High Command, leaving the huge enemy forces confused and poorly led.

King David addressed his troops prior to the battle thus: ““Soldiers of Christ! If we fight with abandon, defending the faith of our Lord, we shall not only overcome the countless servants of Satan, but the Devil himself. I will only advise you one thing that will add to our honor and our profit: raising our hands to Heaven we will all swear to our Lord that in the name of love to Him, we will rather die on the battlefield than run….”

Despite being outumbered more than five to one, the Georgian forces routed the Muslim forces and killed more than 90% of the troops facing them. The victory is still seen as a God-given miracle and celebrated by the church annually as a deliverance from persecution. It is also a secular nationalistic celebration.

It is particularly interesting that King David, having driven Muslim troops and government structures out of his country thoroughly, then proceeded to treat the Muslim inhabitants of Georgia in a very magnanimous and humane fashion. These Muslims would presumably have been of Arab, Turk and Persian origin, as well as local converts. Muslims were permitted to build and operate mosques, and engage in all areas of normal civil society. In addition, some Muslim sects that were harshly persecuted in the Arab world were tolerated in Georgia, such as the Sufis. This would have been considered completely unthinkable in Western Europe or the Eastern Roman Empire. King David hence had a solid grasp of the concept that, while one must defend one’s own religion, one must appreciate that God confers the gift of freedom of choice on us all, and respect must be given to those that choose a different path. He created a sound model that is now emulated by modern Georgian society, in developing a robust state with Orthodox sensibilities, that respects and cherishes its Muslim and Jewish compatriots. King David the Builder is considered a saint in Georgia. While he did remove substantial power from the Georgian Church, he is still seen in a very positive manner as a defender of the Georgian Church from Islamic persecution.

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The commemoration of  the Holy Prophet Ezekiel follows the day after that of the Prophet Ilia. His prophecies in Babylonian exile foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Third Temple, interpreted by Christians as the presence of Christ himself rather than construction of a building. He also foretold the role of the Virgin Mary in God’s Incarnation as Man, and the Resurrection of the Dead through Christ.

The Holy Prophet Ezekiel lived in the 6th Century before the Birth of Christ. He was born in the city of Sarir, and descended from the Levite tribe; he was a priest and the son of the priest Buzi. In the second invasion against Jerusalem by the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnessar, at age 25 Ezekiel was led off to Babylon together with the king Jechoniah II and many other Jews.

In captivity the Prophet Ezekiel lived by the River Chobar. There, in his 30th year of life, in a vision there was revealed to him the future of the Hebrew nation and of all mankind. The prophet beheld a shining cloud, in the midst of which was a flame, and in it ‑- a mysterious likeness of a chariot moving by the spirit and four-winged beasts, each having four faces: of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Under their faces was situated a wheel, bestrewn with eyes. Over the chariot towered as it were a crystalline firmament, and over the firmament – the likeness of a throne as though of glittering sapphire. And upon this throne a radiant “likeness of Man”, and about Him a rainbow (Ez. 1: 4-28).

According to the explanation of the fathers of the Church, the most-bright “likeness of Man” radiant upon the sapphire throne, was a prefigurament of the Incarnation of the Son of God from the MostHoly Virgin Mary, manifest as the Throne of God. The four creatures prefigured the four evangelists, the wheel with a multitude of eyes – the sharing of light with all the nations of the earth. During this vision the holy prophet out of fear fell down upon the ground, but the voice of God commanded him to get up and then explained, that the Lord was sending him to preach to the nation of Israel.

From this time began the prophetic service of Ezekiel. The Prophet Ezekiel announces to the nation of Israel, situated in Baylonian Captivity, about its coming tribulations for straying in the faith and forsaking the True God. The prophet proclaimed also a better time for his captive fellow-countrymen, and he predicted their return from Babylon and the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple.

Particularly important are two significant elements in the vision of the prophet – the one about the vision of the temple of the Lord, full of glory, – the second about the bones upon the field, to which the Spirit of God gave new life. The vision about the temple was a mysterious prefigurament of the freeing of the race of man from the working of the enemy and the building up of the Church of Christ through the redemptive deed of the Son of God, incarnated of the MostHoly Virgin Mary, – called by the prophet “the shut gates”, through which would be entered the One only Lord God (Ez. 44: 2).

The vision about the dry bones upon the field – prefigured the universal resurrection of the dead and the new eternal life of the redeemed by the death on the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ (Ez. 37: 1-14).

The holy Prophet Ezekiel had from the Lord a gift of wonderworking. He, like the Prophet Moses, by prayer to God divided the waters of the river Chobar, and the Hebrews crossed to the opposite shore, escaping the pursuing Chaldeans. During a time of famine the prophet besought of God an increase of food for the hungry.

For his denunciation of the idol-worship of a certain Hebrew prince, Saint Ezekiel was given over to execution: bound to wild horses, he was torn to pieces. Pious Hebrews gathered up the torn body of the prophet and buried it upon Maur Field, in the tomb of Sim and Arthaxad, fore-fathers of Abraham, not far from Baghdad. The prophecy of Ezekiel was written down in a book, mentioning him by name, and is included in the Bible.

© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.

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Today the Church celebrates the entry of Saint Nino into the Kingdom of Iberia in the year 323. Despite the efforts of the Apostles Andrew, Simon the Zealot and Matthias, and no doubt other Christian evangelists after them, Iberia and Colchis remained steadfastly heathen in the early 4th century.

Saint Nino came from a well-respected family; her father Zabulon was a Roman Army officer who retired, moved to Jerusalam and was tonsured a monk. His wife Sosana was ordained by her brother Patriarch Juvenal in Jerusalem as a diaconess (a rank of the Orthodox Christian clergy that has since fallen out of use), and Nino went to live with a devout old lady, Sara, who told her of how Christ’s robe had been taken to Iberia and was hidden there.

Nino prayed to the Virgin Mary for inspiration on how to travel to Georgia to venerate the robe of Christ. The Theotokos appeared to her in a vision and commanded her “Go to the country that was assigned to me by lot and preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will send down His grace upon you and I will be your protector”.

Afraid, Nino replied “How can I, a fragile woman, perform such a momentous task, and how can I believe this vision is real?” In reply, the Virgin Mary gave her  cross made of grapevines and commanded “Receive this cross as a shield against visible and invisible enemies!”. The cross is still held at Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.

When Nino awoke, she was clasping a cross fashioned of grapevines. She lashed them together with her hair and resolved to engage in her mission to the Georgians. It is significant that her cross was to made of grapevines, as the vine in Georgia is treated with greater reverence than any other living thing.

Her mission was endorsed by her uncle, Patriarch Juvenal, and she endured many difficulties and dangers on her travels from Jerusalem to southern Georgia. Over fifty of her followers were martyred in Armenia by the Armenian King Tiridates, and she managed to escape by hiding in rose bushes.

After travelling through the Lesser Caucasus mountains of Javakheti, she entered Iberia in the vicinity of Lake Paravani.

Lake Paravani, Samtske-Javakheti region

Arriving in the middle of a blizzard, she met Mtskhetan shepherds who provided her with directions to Urbnisi, from where she travelled to the Iberian capital city, Mtskheta, to commence her mission to the Georgians.

It is common to hear foreign social commentators describing Georgian Christian society not only as patriarchal, but as misogynist (literally, demonstrating hatred of women or girls). I believe this view to be erroneous.

Certainly, traditional Georgian culture ascribes different roles to men and women, just as western societies did until after the Second World War, and recognition of the professional talents of Georgian women is still a work-in-progress. That being said, it should be recognised that Christianity ascribes great importance to the dignity and uniqueness of the individual, male or female, rather than just applying a label to a person and treating them generically. It is a common assumption made by foreign gender-equity consultants in Georgia, of whom there are a plethora (indeed, more than agriculture or public health experts) that Georgian women are downtrodden, defenceless and in need a a government programme to “save” them, whereas the reality is that the main breadwinner, spiritual guide and financial controller of most Georgian families is the wife. Certainly there is room for improvement in recognition of women’s capabilities and rights in our society, but it would be fair to say that today’s successful women in Georgia are standing on the shoulders of giants.

If you ask any Georgian Christian to name the ten people of greatest importance to Georgia in history, the Virgin Mary, Saint Nino and Queen Tamar will be mentioned with great regularity. The Theotokos is the most frequently venerated and invoked Saint in Georgian Christianity, and Saint Nino would follow a close second; despite the fact that neither were Georgian, they are seen as the protectors and champions of the Georgian people, and most Georgian males have a strong devotion to them. A truly “misogynist” society would have airbrushed such characters out of history and replaced them with “heroic” male figures.

We shall talk more about the importance of women in the dissemination of the Christian faith in Georgia, and the Church’s recognition of their achievements, in a future post.

 

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