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Those living in Georgia with access to TV will have noted the recent media fascination with Georgia’s Assyrian minority living in Qanda village, close to Mtskheta town. This has been driven to an extent by the charisma and vocal talents of the priest of that community, Father Seraphim, who has made numerous media appearances and has multiple videos on Youtube of his choir in Qanda’s church, who sing in Aramaic and Georgian.

mama-serafime

As previously reported, the ancestors of Qanda’s population came to Georgia as refugees in the 19th century. While they were Christians, they were not of our Eastern Orthodox communion. Over time, they accepted baptism into the Georgian Church and were accepted as an Orthodox parish with the dispensation to conduct their affairs in their native language.

This ethnic minority are held in high regard in Georgia, even more so since Qanda’s rise to prominence in the media. Georgian Christians are very aware that Georgian monasticism was developed by Assyrian monks and that many regions of Georgia still practising animism or Zoroastrianism after Iberia’s adoption of Christianity were converted by the Assyrian Fathers. Also, to witness a community accepting the local religion and integrating smoothly into the greater Georgian community has been very satisfying to observe for many. To my knowledge, other Orthodox Christian minorities in Georgia, including Slavs, Ossetians and Greeks, were already Orthodox when they migrated here, other than those Caucasus Greeks and Black Sea Greeks who settled here more than 2000 years ago.

The psalm performed in Aramaic, with the tune arranged by Father Seraphim,  is Psalm 16:

16 Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.

O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;

But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.

Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips.

The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.

I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.

10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

 

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Father Joseph’s English language mission in Tbilisi is making steady progress, with a Facebook page that can be seen here

St Luke the Evangelist

For those who are not Facebook users, Father Joseph recently advised;

“Fr. David, the priest at St. Andrew’s is making their hall available to our English speakers group on Thursdays at 8pm if we would like to use it for continuing Orthodox education. At this point I would like to gauge from all of you in Tbilisi if there would be an interest in such gatherings? My initial thought is to offer classes on a once-a-month basis and if there is interest in increasing to twice-a-month, we can do so. Please email me at protopresbyterjoseph@gmail.com if you are interested. There will be a short meeting after the November 22 Liturgy to discuss this further. If you have ideas for class discussion topics, please send those along with your email. Thanks to Fr. David and his wonderful support and to His Holiness, Pat. Ilia for his continued prayers for our efforts.”

A very worthy initiative and I am sure anyone wishing to attend will find themselves very welcome.

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We have referred to Saint John Chrysostom many times in this blog. His homilies are as fresh today as when he first uttered them in Constantinople in the late 4th century, and his keen understanding of human nature remains relevant. Saint John Chrysostom has a special place in the hearts of Georgian Christians, as he was deposed by the Roman Empress and exiled to Colchis, where he died in the town of Pitsunda in Abkhazeti. His relics were a site of pilgrimage for many years until relocated to Constantinople.

At the end of the Paschal Matins service on Saturday night, his homily is read out throughout the world to the congregation by the priest, in Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Georgian, Romanian or whatever vernacular language the bishop may feel appropriate. The homily has a victorious tone which reflects the Orthodox concept of Christ, as a victorious Warrior-King who has battled the Devil and won, broken down the gates of Hell and liberated the souls of the dead to be reunited with their Father. There is no “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” concept of Jesus in the Orthodox Church; he is Almighty God, existing before all ages, Lord of the Universe and Conqueror of Death, and the homily reflects this concept very ably.

The homily is particularly poignant for recent converts, as Saint John Chrysostom declares that even those who have joined the Church at the very last hour, late in life or after a dissolute existence, may share in the the redemption granted by Christ’s Resurrection, on equal terms with those who have been faithful Christians since the cradle.

The Greek word “Hades” in Christian usage, represents Hell; the state in which the souls of those who have rejected Christ await their Final Judgement in sorrow, far from God. Until Christ’s entry into the Underworld and his conquest of Death, the souls of all people, good and bad, lived in this state of sorrow. His defeat of the Devil liberated the souls of the righteous to exist in joyful close proximity with God, awaiting the final Resurrection of the Dead.

Note again that Christ’s Resurrection is described in the present tense rather than past tense; the congregation are not commemorating a distant past event but living through a current miracle.

THE PASCHAL HOMILY
If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a wise servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by Death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted his flesh!
And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”
It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God!
It took earth and encountered heaven!
It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
“O Death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?”
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.

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Lent was in origin the time of final preparation for candidates for baptism at the Easter Vigil, and this is reflected in the readings at the Liturgy on all the Sundays of Lent. But that basic theme came to be subordinated to later themes, which dominated the hymnography of each Sunday. The dominant theme of this Sunday since 843 has been that of the victory of the icons. In that year the iconoclastic controversy, which had raged on and off since 726, was finally laid to rest, and icons and their veneration were restored on the first Sunday in Lent. Ever since, that Sunday been commemorated as the “triumph of Orthodoxy.”

Orthodox teaching about icons was defined at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787, which brought to an end the first phase of the attempt to suppress icons. That teaching was finally re-established in 843, and it is embodied in the texts sung on this Sunday.

The name of this Sunday reflects the great significance which icons possess for the Orthodox Church. They are not optional devotional extras, but an integral part of Orthodox faith and devotion. They are held to be a necessary consequence of Christian faith in the incarnation of the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. So the interior of Orthodox churches is often covered with icons painted on walls and domed roofs, and there is always an icon screen, or iconostasis, separating the sanctuary from the nave, often with several rows of icons. No Orthodox home is complete without an icon corner, where the family prays.

Icons are venerated by burning lamps and candles in front of them, by the use of incense and by kissing. But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God. The former is not only relative, it is in fact paid to the person represented by the icon. This distinction safeguards the veneration of icons from any charge of idolatry.

Although the theme of the victory of the icons is a secondary one on this Sunday, by its emphasis on the incarnation it points us to the basic Christian truth that the one whose death and resurrection we celebrate at Easter was none other than the Word of God who became human in Jesus Christ.

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Taken from the book of Father Seraphim Rose, an American priest. In a few short paragraphs, he summarises the challenges that western converts to Orthodox Christianity face, and how to remedy them. Most converts can identify with at least a few of these attributes, in a way it is a relief to know that one does not suffer from these weaknesses in isolation.   
 
“Fr. Seraphim Rose of Platina, himself a convert to Orthodoxy, was once asked to compose a “Manual for Orthodox Converts”. In his notes for such a manual, he jotted down the following “convert pitfalls”, or what he called “obstacles in the Orthodox mission today”:

A. Trusting oneself, samost.

Remedy: sober distrust of oneself, taking counsel of others wiser, guidance from Holy Fathers.

B. Academic approach – overly intellectual, involved, uncommitted, abstract, unreal. Bound up with A. also.

C. Not keeping the secret of the Kingdom, gossip, publicity. Overemphasis on outward side of mission, success. Danger of creating empty shell, form of mission without substance.

Remedy: concentrate on spiritual life, keep out of limelight, stay uninvolved from passionate disputes.

D. “Spiritual Experiences”.

Symptoms: feverish excitement, always something “tremendous” happening – the blood is boiling. Inflated vocabulary, indicates puffed up instead of humble. Sources in Protestantism, and in one’s own opinions “picked up” in the air.

Remedy: sober distrust of oneself, constant grounding of Holy Fathers and Lives of Saints, counsel.

E. Discouragement, giving up – “Quenched” syndrome.

Cause: overemphasis on outward side, public opinion, etc.

Remedy: emphasis on inward, spiritual struggle, lack of concern for outward success, mindfulness of whom we are followers of (Christ crucified but triumphant).

F. A double axe: broadness on one hand, narrowness on the other.

In another place Fr. Seraphim wrote of the spirit of criticism that often enters converts today:

“My priest (or parish) does everything right – other priests (or parishes) don’t.” “My priest does everything wrong: others are better.” “My monastery is not according to the Holy Fathers or canons, but that monastery over there is perfect, everything according to the Holy Fathers.”

Such attitudes are spiritually extremely dangerous. The person holding them is invariably in grave spiritual danger himself, and by uttering his mistaken, self-centered words he spreads the poison of rationalist criticism to others in the Church.
From Not of This World: The Life and Teachings of Fr. Seraphim Rose, pp. 78182.

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Georgia is the oldest surviving Eastern Orthodox Christian country on earth. It is also one of the most frequently invaded countries in the world, and the Church has intermittently suffered persecution at the hands of Arabs, Zoroastrian and Muslim Persians, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Turkmen, Ottoman Turks, Russian imperialists and Bolsheviks. Despite these difficulties, the Georgian Orthodox Church is now the most highly respected institution in the country, and many people young and old are being baptised into the Church.




The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the liberalisation of Georgia after the Rose Revolution in 2003, have created opportunities for many foreigners to safely live and work in Georgia. Some come to love the country so much that they decide to make it their permanent home, and indeed many marry Georgians. However for those of us who have not come from Orthodox Christian countries, or Orthodox families, the Georgian Orthodox Church may initially appear enigmatic. Even with competent Georgian language skills, the liturgy can be difficult to fathom without guidance. The plethora of rituals, fasts and feasts, the chanting and the visually overwhelming interior decoration of the churches are like nothing we have experienced before.  To make any more than a superficial connection with the Liturgy and a parish community initially seems a tremendous feat for an outsider.

Thankfully, there is almost two millennia of precedent for foreigners developing a deep understanding of Orthodox Christianity in Georgia, acquiring a respect for the faith, and in many cases accepting baptism and converting to Orthodoxy. Individuals from every occupying regime in the past 1600 years have discovered Orthodox Christianity, converted and in many cases been martyred for their faith.


The Georgian Church is a stronghold of Kartvelian civilisation and national identity, but not exclusively so; the Georgian Church has influenced the development of Christianity throughout the Caucasus and the Middle East, and in turn has been influenced by Orthodox Christians from abroad. 

There are functioning Georgian monastic orders at Mount Athos in Greece as well as in the Holy Land. Local parishes have many worshippers of Greek, Slavic, German, Turkic, Arab, Abkhaz, Ossetian, Chechen and Avar ancestry who worship in the Georgian language. Many Georgian families can trace their ancestry to Roman, Greek and Ethiopian military officials who were posted here during the Byzantine occupation of Georgia, or to Black Sea Greek colonists present here for over 2500 years. The two most honoured saints in Georgia, Saint George and Saint Nino, were both Greeks. The Thirteen Syrian Fathers of Georgia, missionaries dispatched from Mesopotamia to Georgia in the 6th century are now widely venerated in Georgia; they were possibly either Assyrians or Georgians from the diaspora. So despite the perception of the Georgian Orthodox Church being mono-ethnic and insular, it is far from the case; there is a long history of spiritual exchange with foreigners and integration of new converts. The Church is open to anybody, of any religion or race, to learn about this ancient faith.


The purpose of this website is to provide English-speaking foreign citizens in Georgia with resources to gain a better understanding of Orthodox Christianity, in particular its Georgian “flavour”, to learn about its festivals and rituals, and to assist people to make contact with English-speaking clergy should they seek to make more detailed theological enquiries. If you are contemplating marriage to an Orthodox person, or feel drawn to the Church, or are just curious about what our beliefs and practices are, we hope these resources may help you.


We are currently working on a printed bilingual version of The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (English on one page, Georgian on the opposite page) and will post a pdf version here when it is finished. We will have hymnbooks and psalters translated in the future also. We are grateful for the kind assistance of the Tbilisi Theological Academy and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge in this endeavour.


For this humble lay initiative, we have selected Saint Abo of Tbilisi as our Patron. Born as a Muslim in Baghdad, Saint Abo (Abu in Arabic) converted to Christianity in the 8th century in Tbilisi and was martyred for proselytising to Tbilisi’s Muslim population in 786, during the Arab colonisation of Georgia. He is an inspiring example, both as a devout and steadfast Christian, and as a courageous foreigner who was warmly accepted, and eventually venerated, by the Georgian people whom he chose to live amongst.  Bless our modest efforts and intercede for us, Saint Abo.


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