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As we approach Christmas Eve in Georgia, it is interesting to ponder not only Georgia’s rich musical tradition surrounding the Nativity (Shoba in Georgian), but that of our neighbours as well.

Georgia’s religious music was initially influenced by the Byzantine music of the Eastern Roman Empire, sung in Greek, which merged with indigenous polyphonic traditions. As the Georgian Church became officially recognised as an exarchy of the Church of Antioch, Greek and Levantine influence continued until the Church became autocephalous in the 5th century. In the Middle Ages, the Georgian Church had a substantial presence in other countries, including Cyprus, Greece (at the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos), Jerusalem, and what is now Azerbaijan and Turkey. The academies at Gelati, Khakuli and other eminent monasteries hosted theologians, artists and musicians from around the region, enriching their traditions and being exposed to other musical traditions in turn.

As is common in Orthodox churches, bishops were granted leave to accommodate local languages in liturgy and hymnology, and to “Christianise” indigenous pagan traditions that were not considered antithetical to the Church’s principals. The Russian colonial period added further variety to Georgian church music, with some Georgian hymns noticeably in the “oratorio” format that was favoured in 19th century Russia, rather than in chant format.

A scholarly exposition of similarities and differences between Eastern Orthodox chant of different countries is provided here by the Library of Eastern Orthodox Resources.

Neighbouring countries likewise have experienced synthesis of their musical traditions. In the Levant, Byzantine chant has been influenced by indigenous Phoenician traditions and, after the Arab conquest, Arabic has progressively become the liturgical language in that region. Here is a stunning Levantine hymn, chanted by Canadian Reader Nader Hajjar. The translation provided gives a wonderful insight into the poetic strength of Orthodox Christian hymnology.

“Christ is Born” /Christos Gennatai is a hymn sung throughout the Greek-speaking world. An English language version is furnished here

The Kontakion of the Nativity is beautifully chanted by the Choir of Vaalam Monastery, of Karelia in the Russian Federation, in Church Slavonic.

 

The very talented Divna Ljubojevic of Serbia sings the Kontakion of the Nativity to a Serbian tune.

 

Finally, a few Georgian Christmas carols; these are often sung in the “Alilo” parades in Georgian cities on Christmas Day.  “Alilo” is Georgian for “Alleluia”. Footage of last year’s “Alilo” parade is provided here

For those interested in learning the lyrics of Alilo hymns, Georgian Song Lyrics provides the lyrics to various regional versions.

Footage of Alilo carols sung in the temple on Christmas Eve

and more Nativity footage from a small church, with the choir singing the Alilo

This Alilo carol is sung by the Paris-based Georgian Harmony Choir directed by Nana Peradze

and another “Alilo”carol, called “December 25”, written by Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia

From Georgia’s mountainous Racha region, another Alilo

May I wish you and your families all a very Happy and Holy Christmas; Shobas Gilocav!

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A Happy New Year to all!  Today, January 1 according to the Gregorian Calender, marks an interesting discrepancy between the Churches of following the Gregorian Calender and those following the Julian. For the Churches of Greece, Constantinople, Romania and the Levant, today is a dual feast, that of the Circumcision of Our Lord , and the Commemoration of one of the most important Fathers of the Church, Saint Basil the Great. So parishes in these jurisdictions often have a New Year’s Day liturgy celebrating these events and share Vasilopita (“Saint Basil’s Pie”) as a treat afterwards.

In Georgia, January 1 according to the Julian calender is still a fortnight away. An Oekonomia (dispensation) is granted by the Patriarch for a relaxation of the Nativity fasting for some modest festivities on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, two eminent saints are commemorated, Saints Giorgi and Sava of Khakhuli, from what is now Turkey’s Erzurum region.

The history of the Georgian territories of Tao and Klarjeti has been intriguing me lately. These coastal and mountainous regions in northeastern Turkey were once the heartland of Georgian liturgical and artistic brilliance, to the extent that acolytes from as far as Kartli and Kakheti would travel there for instruction.

David III Kuropalates, Prince of Tao, was a relative of the Bagrationi dynasty of Kartli. Inheriting the small territory of Southern Tao in 966, he developed a well-organised military force and fostered the Church in his domain, Following his assistance of Byzantine Emperor Basil in the Battle of Pankalia, he was granted the imperial title “Kuropalates” and granted extensive tracts of land in Eastern Anatolia, inhabited by Armenians, Greeks and Georgians. This consolidated territory from the Black Sea to Central Eastern Anatolia made him one of the powerful rulers in the Caucasus.

David III continued the work of his predecessor Holy King Ashot the Great as a patron and protector of the Church, and established the Khakhuli Monastery, which was one of Georgia’s greatest centres of learning in the Middle Ages. The monastery now regrettably functions as a mosque.

King David’s nephew and stepson Bagrat III Kuropalates eventually became the first Monarch of a United Georgia, incorporating all the regions of today’s Georgia as well as Tao-Klarjeti, Shavsheti, Meskheti, and Javakheti into what was to be known as Sakartvelo – “all-Georgia”. Hence, when the Patriarch is known as “Patriarch-Catholicos of All-Georgia”, it affirms his authority over the Church in all those regions, even when national sovereignty over those regions has been lost.

Well known for his construction of the Bagrat Cathedral in Kutaisi, King Bagrat III continued his patronage of the great monasteries of Tao-Klarjeti including Khakhuli Monastery.

He requested that Saint Giorgi of Khakhuli become his Spiritual Father, and became the patron of Saint Giorgi’s prodigious liturgical works, including essays and encyclicals that remain influential in Orthodox theology today. Saint Giorgi’s younger brother Saint Sava was remembered as a devout and upright person who laboured diligently  as a monk at Khakhuli Monastery.

King Bagrat III at one time seconded Saint Giorgi as spiritual advisor to his son-in-law Peris Jojikisdze, a minor nobleman of Trialeti. Unfortunately this noblemen fell foul of court intrigues in Constantinople and was executed by the Emperor, and his family and entire retinue were detained in Constantinople for twelve years. Saint Giorgi eventually returned to Khakhuli with his nephew, who went on to become Saint George of Mount Athos.

Georgia’s “Golden Age” under Bagrat III is attributed in no small part to the spiritual guidance the Court received, and the flourishing of ecclesiastical literature, music and artwork during his reign was remarkable.

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Today marks the collective commemoration of all the saints of Georgia, both those who are named and still revered, and those whose historical record had been lost due to Georgia’s many wars and foreign occupations. Even in the 10th century, bishops were lamenting that many histories of eminent Georgian saints were being lost or forgotten. There are around 250 Georgian saints whose names are known to us, as well as the unnamed Hundred Thousand Martyrs of Tbilisi and the Nine Thousand Martyrs of Marabda. On this day, we commemorate not only those saints who were martyred in God’s name, but also those many thousands of ascetics who laboured in obscurity for the Church.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze

Having examined the history of Georgia and the hagiographical treasures attesting to the faith of the Georgian nation, we become convinced that Heavenly Georgia— the legion of Georgian saints, extolling the Lord in the Heavenly Kingdom with a single voice—is infinitely glorious. It is unknown how many cleansed themselves of their earthly sins in merciless warfare with the enemy of Christ, or how many purified their souls in unheated cells through prayer, fasting, and ascetic labors.

To God alone are known the names of those ascetics, forgotten by history, who by their humble labors tirelessly forged the future of the Georgian Church and people.

St. George of the Holy Mountain wrote: “From the time we recognized the one true God, we have never renounced Him, nor have our people ever yielded to heresy.”

A decree of the Church Council of Ruisi-Urbnisi states: “We will not depart from thee, the Catholic Church which bore us in holiness, nor will we betray thee, our pride—Orthodoxy—to which we have always been faithful, for we have been granted the honor to know thee, the witness of the Truth Itself!” This relationship to Orthodoxy is the cornerstone of the life of every Georgian believer.

It is impossible to count the names of all those Christians who have been raised up from the earthly Church in Georgia to the heavens, let alone to describe all the godly deeds they have performed. For this reason December 11 has been set aside for the commemoration not only of the saints whose Lives are known to us but also of the nearly three hundred more whose names, but not stories, have been preserved as well…….

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Today marks the commemoration of the Glorious Conception of the Virgin Mary, to the pious Saint Anna and Saint Joachim.

As the Gospels tell us, Saints Joachim and Anna were devout and upright people but had been afflicted with infertility. In ancient Israel, childlessness was seen as a curse and even a sign of punishment by God for sin. Saints Joachim and Anna were mocked and ostracised for their barrenness, even being turned away from the Temple in Jerusalem by the High Priest and their offerings being refused. Despite their grief and humiliation, the middle-aged couple continued to pray for a child and to live honourably and devoutly. Saint Anna was amazed when an angel appeared to her and announced “You will conceive and give birth to the Most Blessed Daughter, before whom all with knees to the ground will bless and who will be the salvation of the world; her name will be Mary”.

The Church of Rome in 1854 developed a new dogma regarding the Conception of the Virgin Mary, that stipulated that not only was Christ born of a virgin, but so also was the Mother of God born of a virgin, Saint Anna. The Orthodox Church has never accepted this dogma, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1 concisely refutes this here ; thanks to John Sanidopoulos for the link.

Icons of the Glorious Conception very frankly refute the idea of an Immaculate Conception; they show Saints Joachim and Anna embracing in front of a bed, conveying the idea that the Virgin Mary was conceived of a normal sexual union, albeit with the assistance of a miracle given their advanced age. More detail on the symbolism of these icons is given here.

As the Virgin Mary is the patron and protector of Georgia, this feast is a significant one for the Georgian Church.

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For westerners living in Georgia, it is perplexing as to why Georgian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, in common with the Churches of Russia and Serbia. Even more perplexing is that the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Constantinople, Romania, Bulgaria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria celebrate it on December 25.

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Throughout the Orthodox World, the old Julian calender was maintained for Ecclesiastical events until quite recently. The civil authorities in the Slavic Lands (the Russian Empire, Serbia and Bulgaria) maintained the Julian Calendar until the early 20th century; Church authorities continued using the Julian Calendar regardless. Various Patriarchates decided to adopt the Gregorian Calendar during the 20th century but Russia, Serbia and Georgia refused to change. They continue celebrating Christmas on December 25 according to the Julian Calendar, but that falls on January 7 according to the Gregorian calendar used by the civil authorities. The result is that the latter three Patriarchates celebrate Christmas two weeks later than their western and southern co-religionists.

This article by Roman Catholic writer William Tighe examines why the date December 25 in the Julian Calendar was appropriated by the early Church for the date of the Nativity in the first place.

“Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

Continue reading the article here

 

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Today the Church celebrates the Entry of the Virgin Mary into the Temple at Jerusalem, otherwise known as the Presentation. Church Tradition maintains she lived from the age of three as a temple virgin until the time of her betrothal to Saint Joseph. It certainly explains her piety and her capability in instructing her Son in the spiritual life; you may recall that when Jesus entered the temple as a boy, the priests were amazed at the depth and clarity of his theological understanding.

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While there is no mention of this is the four canonical gospels, it was maintained as Church Tradition from the earliest days of the Church. According to the Church

The Entry into the Temple of the MostHoly Mother of God happened, according to the preserved accounts of Holy Tradition, in the following manner. The parents of the Virgin Mary, Righteous Joakim and Anna, in praying for a solution to their childlessness, gave a vow that if a child were born to them, they would dedicate it to the service of God.

When the MostHoly Virgin reached three years of age, the holy parents decided to fulfill their vow. Having gathered together their kinsfolk and acquaintances, and having dressed the All-Pure Mary in Her finest clothes, and with the singing of sacred songs and with lighted candles in their hands they carried Her to the Jerusalem Temple. There the high-priest with a throng of priests met the maiden of God. In the Temple, the stairway led up fifteen high steps. The Child Mary, so it seemed, could not Herself make it up this stairway. But just as they placed Her on the first step, strengthened by the power of God, She quickly made it up over the remaining steps and ascended to the highest. Then the high-priest, through an inspiration from above, led the MostHoly Virgin into the Holy of Holies, and herein of all people it was only the high-priest that entered one time a year with a purifying sacrifice of blood. Therefore all those present in the Temple were astonished at this most unusual occurrence.

Righteous Joachim and Anna, having entrusted their Child to the will of the Heavenly Father, returned home. The MostBlessed Mary remained in the domicile for girls, situated near the Temple. Round about the Temple, through the testimony of Holy Scripture (Exodus 38; 1 Kings 1: 28; Lk. 2: 37), and also the historian Josephus Flavius, there were many living quarters, in which dwelt those dedicated to the service of God.


 The earthly life of the MostHoly Mother of God from the time of Her infancy to the time of Her ascent to Heaven is shrouded in deep mystery. Her life at the Jerusalem Temple was also a secret. “If anyone were to ask me, – said Blessed Jerome, – how the MostHoly Virgin spent the time of Her youth, – I would answer: that is known to God Himself and the Archangel Gabriel, Her constant guardian”.

But in the Church tradition there were preserved accounts, that during the time of the stay of the All-Pure Virgin at the Jerusalem Temple, She grew up in a community of pious virgins, read diligently the Holy Scripture, occupied Herself with handcrafts, prayed constantly and grew in love for God. In remembrance of the Entry of the MostHoly Mother of God into the Jerusalem Temple, Holy Church from ancient times established a solemn feastday. The decretals for the making of the feast in the first centuries of Christianity are found in the traditions of Palestinian Christians, where mention is made that the holy Empress Helen built a church in honour of the Entry into the Temple of the MostHoly Mother of God.

In the IV Century there is mention of this feast by Sainted Gregory of Nyssa. In the VIII Century Saints Germanos and Tarasios, Constantinople Patriarchs, delivered sermons on the feastday of the Entry.

The feast of the Entry into the Temple of the MostHoly Mother of God – foretells the blessing of God for the human race, the preaching of salvation, the promise of the coming of Christ.”

Calendar, Saint Herman’s Press

 

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A concise and accurate summary of the Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in the Middle Ages.

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