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Last Sunday marked the last day of meat consumption for Orthodox Christians until Pascha, the “Meatfare Sunday”, also known as the Sunday of the Final Judgement. So, we have a week with modest alcohol intake and no meat until Cheesefare Sunday this weekend, after which we drop dairy products and alcohol from our diet.

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Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong has produced a series of presentations on Lenten themes that are concise and authoritative; his first is presented here, discussing the first day of Lent, Clean Monday, and the fasting regime that follows under the direction of a spiritual father.

 

 

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This week, most observant Orthodox Christians will abstain from eating meat or fish, and this Sunday (“Cheesefare Sunday”) the Lenten Fast begins in earnest as dairy products and alcohol are excluded from the diet, which we have discussed before here, here, here and here.

Father Joseph Fester, whose mission to Tbilisi’s Anglophone population is based at the Blue Monastery in Tbilisi, has written a very concise and authoritative guide to the Lenten Fast. It is provided below.

HOW WE CAN PROFIT FROM THE GREAT FAST by Protopresbyter Joseph Fester

One of the great beauties and strengths of the Orthodox Christian Faith is our invitation to take full spiritual advantage of her Lenten Seasons. The Great Fast in preparation for the Feast of Feasts, the Pascha of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ is the model for all fasting periods in the Church’s liturgical cycles.

Sustained Fasting Is Important

The length of the Great Fast is important for a believer. It invites us to reshape our daily lives, to live differently, act in a higher and better way and offer the time of the Fast up to God as a sacrifice of praise. It challenges us to live our daily lives at work, with family and friends with a first-offering of good to others. It can move us to hold our tongue, practice patience and being non-judgemental to those we know and those we don’t. It presents to us the opportunity to become more of the person that God created us to be.

Fasting without Prayer is Dangerous

As important as fasting is, it cannot reap spiritual benefit unless we couple it with an increase prayer. Prayer is not easy, in fact it can be very difficult. The Evil One hates when we pray and will do whatever he can to distract us from being in communication with God for he knows that when we devote time in our day toward God, he is given less room to work in our lives and actions. The Church recognizes this in the very shape of her Lenten liturgical structure.  The first week of the Great Fast is full of services, the centre being the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The first three days of Lent are called to be intense days of prayer and fasting which anticipates our reception of the Presanctified Gifts on Wednesday of the first week of Lent. Then we quickly again hear the Great Canon of St. Andrew on the Thursday of the first week and again we are invited to partake of the Presanctified Gifts on the Friday of the first week.

These corporate chances to gather as Church to worship the Lord must be coupled with increased personal prayer by believers.  Whatever our private prayer life is during the rest of the year, we are called to increase it during the Great Fast. This invitation is the fuel that keeps us close to God. Our rule of prayer must be realistic. It should not be so rigid that we will give up, yet it should be more than we do already. If do we little now, then add to it. If we do more, build upon that foundation. The goal should be to carve out more time to be in the presence of God in prayer.  If we stumble, get back up and begin again. If we fall, don’t stay down but climb to our feet and stand before the Lord.

The Spirit of Fasting Comes First

Often we can be tempted to take the easy path when fasting. We may say we will “give up meat” for the Fast or meat and dairy. Certainly that is a profitable spiritual exercise. It is time-tested and the monastic experience of such strict fasting is well documented. The monastic life, especially in community, lends itself to mutual support for this order of fasting but it is sometimes not possible for those who “live in the world,” most of us. Thus our fasting must take this into consideration. This does not mean that we should simply reject the monastic fasting model but we should also look to the spirit of that model. The spirit reveals that we can do with less physically so that we can make more room for the spiritual. As elevated as the parish model is when it comes to the liturgical life, the monastic model is even more intense. This is so because it compliments the rigours of the monastic fast – prayer and fasting going hand in hand, one sustaining the other. This also can be and should be done by non-monastics. Whatever our increased prayer and fasting rule is during the Great Fast, it is called to be a done with a spirit of grace and joy. Increased prayer and fasting is NOT a burden but rather a liberation for the believer. Such efforts can show us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, which is Spirit-filled and Life-Giving.

Preparing For The Fast

Orthodox do nothing without preparation; even the Great Fast does not start all at once. In the preparatory Sundays before the Great Fast we are given essential spiritual themes to begin our reorientation back to God. The desire of Zaccheaus to see Christ, the humility of the Publican, the repentance of the Prodigal Son, and the unconditional love of the Father upon his return. We are commanded by God to care for the least of the brethren on the Sunday of the Last Judgement and then finally, on the very eve of the Great Fast, we are commanded again to forgive.  In many parts of the Orthodox Church the service of Forgiveness Vespers is served on the night before the Great Fast and then the clergy and faithful embrace one another, one-by-one and ask each other for forgiveness so that nothing stands between us as we journey to the Pascha of our Lord. 

In the same way, the Church offers us a fast-free week during the week of Publican and Pharisee, then She, step by step, reduces our physical attachment to the world with a week of normal fasting on Wednesday and Friday, then relieves us of attachment to the physical by inviting us to abstain from meat on Meatfare Sunday and then on the last Sunday before the Fast to abstain from dairy products on Cheesefare Sunday. This gradual preparation affords us to get ready and prepare for the sustained spiritual effort of the Great Fast.

Make A Plan

Each, according to their ability should make a Lenten Plan. We should decide after much prayer what we will try and accomplish during the Great Fast. This must include both how we will fast and how we will pray. Whatever our personal plan, it should be achievable.  No athlete just starts running a marathon, rather she starts out with a plan to reach the goal. Too often, in our spiritual enthusiasm we set a goal that will be easily defeated by our first stumble and then the Evil One will step in and distract us from continuing. Make a plan that you can keep. You can always increase your fasting and prayer routine as you gain spiritual strength, but try not to set an unrealistic plan from the start that you wont’ be able to keep.

Some Things to Consider

These suggestions are not perfect for everyone but may contain some ideas that one can apply to their Lenten Plan.

1. Make a maximum effort during first week of the Fast. Getting off to a good start is important. Fast as much as you can. Pray as much as you can. Don’t give up if you fall. Start over again.

2. During the Week of the Cross, again try and ramp up your prayer and fasting like you did during the first week of Lent. The Cross is given to us at the mid-point of the Fast to encourage us to press forward to the Empty Tomb of our Lord.

3. Then, during Holy Week, take all the spiritual growth you have gained and apply it to these most holy days. 

Consider the Great Fast as a spiritual athlete. Mark out this time as a special time in your spiritual training. See how, with God’s grace, you can be a better Orthodox Christian going forward, building upon the gains you have made during Lent and then living them forward.

There are so many other things that I have not touched on that are equally important, but I am sure you know what they are, going to Confession early and often during the Great Fast; receiving the Holy Eucharist as often as possible during the Great Fast; and reordering our daily routine so that you can be given strength by these two pillars of Orthodox Life. 

Above all, be joyful during the Fast. Seek the freedom that comes from being less attached to this world and more a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  We are His children and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. A family with Him as Our Father, who loves us and desires more than anything that we will live with Him Forever.

May our efforts bring us closer to God and each other and by our Love may the Kingdom of God be revealed to others seeking the Hope that is in us.

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Today is Saint Philip’s Day, one of the Twelve Apostles. His feast day marks the end of the regular post-Pentecostal period, and is followed by the Nativity Fast (also known as the Saint Philip’s Fast), which lasts for forty days until the morning of Shobas (Christmas) on January 7.

The purpose of fasting has been discussed here before. As previously mentioned, the Nativity Fast is less rigourous than the Fast of Great Lent. Meat, poultry, dairy prodcts and eggs are excluded from the diet for the entire fast. Wine and oil are permitted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and fish, wine and oil are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. The simplification of diet and winding back of social engagements creates a sense of anticipation of the great celebration to come, and helps to reduce stress.

For those in Tbilisi struggling to find tasty vegetarian ingredients for the next 40 days, I can strongly recommend the Turkish supermarket “Tursa” in Didube Plaza, Tsereteli Street in Didube District. They have an excellent choice of grains, beans and other pulses, and middle eastern spices.

“The Holy Apostle Philip, was a native of the city of Bethsaida (or Bethesda, in Galilee). He had a profound depth of knowledge of the Holy Scripture, and rightly discerning the meaning of the Old Testament prophecies, he awaited the coming of the Messiah. Through the summoning of the Saviour (Jn. 1: 43), Philip followed Him. The Apostle Philip is spoken about several times in the Holy Gospel: he brought to Christ the Apostle Nathanael (i.e. Bartholomew, Comm. 22 April, 11 and 30 June, 25 August; Vide Jn. 1: 46); the Lord asks him how much money would be needful to buy bread for five thousand men (Jn. 6: 5-7); he brought certain of the Hellenised Jews wanting to see Jesus (Jn. 12: 21-22); and finally, at the time of the Last Supper he asked Christ about God the Father (Jn. 14: 8).

After the Ascension of the Lord, the Apostle Philip preached the Word of God in Galilee, accompanying his preaching with miracles. Thus, he restored to life a dead infant, in the arms of its mother. From Galilee he set off to Greece, and preached amongst the Jews that had settled there. Certain of them reported in Jerusalem about the preaching of the apostle, in response to which there arrived in Hellas (Greece) from Jerusalem, scribes with the Jewish high-priest at their head, for a persecution against the Apostle Philip. The Apostle Philip exposed the lie of the high-priest, who said that the disciples of Christ had stolen away and hidden the body of Christ, telling instead how the Pharisees had bribed the soldiers on watch, to deliberately spread this rumour. When the Jewish high-priest and his companions began to insult the Lord and lunged at the Apostle Philip, they suddenly were struck blind. By prayer the apostle restored everyone to sight, and in beholding this miracle, many believed in Christ. The Apostle Philip established a bishop for them, by the name of Narcissos (listed within the rank of the Seventy Disciples,  – Comm. 4 January).

From Hellas the Apostle Philip set out to Parthia, and then to the city of Azota, where he healed an eye affliction of the daughter of a local resident named Nikoclides, who had received him into his home, and then baptised with all his whole family.
      

From Azota the Apostle Philip set out to Syrian Hieropolis where, stirred up by the Pharisees, the Jews burned the house of Heros, who had taken in the Apostle Philip, and they wanted to kill the apostle. But in witnessing miracles wrought by the apostle –the healing of the hand of the city official Aristarchos, withered in attempting to strike the apostle, and also a dead lad restored to life – they repented and many accepted holy Baptism. Having made Heros bishop at Hieropolis, the Apostle Philip went on to Syria, Asia Minor, Lydia, Emessa, and everywhere preaching the Gospel and undergoing sufferings. Both he and his sister Mariamna accompanying him were pelted with stones, locked up in prison, and thrown out of villages.

Then the Apostle Philip arrived in Phrygia, in the city of Phrygian Hieropolis, where there were many pagan temples, among which was a pagan temple devoted to snake-worship, having within it an enormous serpent. The Apostle Philip by the power of prayer killed the serpent and healed many bitten by the snakes. Among those healed was the wife of the city governor Amphypatos. Having learned that his wife had accepted Christianity, the governor Amphypatos gave orders to arrest Saint Philip, his sister, and the Apostle Bartholomew travelling with them. At the urging of the pagan priests of the temple of the serpent, Amphypatos gave orders to crucify the holy Apostles Philip and Bartholomew. At this time there began an earthquake, and it knocked down to the ground all those present at the judgement-place. Hanging upon the cross at the pagan temple of the serpent, the Apostle Philip prayed for the salvation of those that had crucified him, to save them from the ravages of the earthquake. Seeing this happen, the people believed in Christ and began to demand that the apostles be taken down from the crosses. The Apostle Bartholomew, in being taken down from the cross was still alive, and he baptised all those believing and established a bishop for them.

But the Apostle Philip, through whose prayers everyone remained alive, except for Amphypatos and the pagan priests, – died on the cross.

Mariamna his sister buried his body, and together with the Apostle Bartholomew she set out preaching to Armenia, where the Apostle Bartholomew was crucified (Comm. 11 June); Mariamna herself then preached until her own death at Likaoneia (Comm. 17 February).”

Father S. Janos, Saint Hermann’s Press 1991

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Yesterday, the fasting period associated with Mariamoba, or the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, began. As is normal for Orthodox people during fasting periods, we slow down the pace of our social engagements and focus upon prayer, contemplation, and simplification of our lifestyle. Weddings are not conducted during this two-week period. Part of the simplification of lifestyle involves a modified diet, with alcohol and rich foods eliminated for a period of time.

Lobio; Haricot Bean Stew with herbs

Fasting traditions vary between jurisdictions, and a priest’s advice may modify the prescriptions depending upon what the priest considers appropriate for the individual concerned. As a general rule, from August 13 until Mariamoba on August 28, we abstain from meat, eggs, dairy products, fish and alcohol. An exemption is given on the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 19, when fish and alcohol may be consumed in moderation. Given that the Transfiguration coincides with the beginning of Georgia’s grape harvest for wine production, this is a very poignant and reasonable concession, given the very strong cultural affinity with wine that Georgians have.

For an excellent resource on Georgia’s wide variety of vegetarian cuisine, I would suggest you visit http://www.georgianrecipes.net ; which has excellent instructions on how to prepare these tasty dishes. While often served in people’s homes, it is a pity that restaurants only serve a handful of these dishes routinely in Georgia.

Wine consumption on Saturdays and Sundays is also permitted in moderation.

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Today marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast, which runs for forty days until the great Feast of the Nativity of the Lord (Chistmas) on January 7. It is also known by the Slavs as Saint Philip’s Fast, as it commences on Saint Philip’s Day, today.

The Nativity Fast is not as rigourous as the Lenten Fast; there are days of the week when wine and oil may be consumed, and some days when fish may be eaten. The purpose of the Fast is to facilitate prayer, to simplify our lives while preparing for Christ’s arrival, and to create a strong sense of anticipation for the joyous celebration to come.

The Apostle Philip was one of the Twelve Apostles. He was martyred in present-day Turkey, and his tomb was discovered in Heirapolis in Denizli province in 2011.

According to  the Prologue of Ohrid, by Saint Nikolai Velimirovic;

“Philip was born in Bethsaida beside the Sea of Galilee, as were Peter and Andrew. Instructed in Holy Scripture from his youth, Philip immediately responded to the call of the Lord Jesus and followed Him (John 1:43). After the descent of the Holy Spirit, Philip zealously preached the Gospel throughout many regions in Asia and Greece.

In Greece, the Jews wanted to kill him, but the Lord saved him by His mighty miracles. Thus, a Jewish high priest that rushed at Philip to beat him was suddenly blinded and turned completely black. Then there was a great earthquake, and the earth opened up and swallowed Philip’s wicked persecutor. Many other miracles were manifested, especially the healing of the sick, by which many pagans believed in Christ.

In the Phrygian town of Hierapolis, St. Philip found himself in common evangelical work with his sister Mariamna, St. John the Theologian, and the Apostle Bartholomew. In this town there was a dangerous snake that the pagans diligently fed and worshiped as a god. God’s apostle killed the snake through prayer as though with a spear, but he also incurred the wrath of the unenlightened people. The wicked pagans seized Philip and crucified him upside-down on a tree, and then crucified Bartholomew as well. At that, the earth opened up and swallowed the judge and many other pagans with him. In great fear, the people rushed to rescue the crucified apostles, but only Bartholomew was still alive; Philip had already breathed his last. Bartholomew ordained Stachys as bishop for those whom he and Philip had baptized. Stachys had been blind for forty years, and Bartholomew and Philip had healed and baptized him. The relics of St. Philip were later translated to Rome. This wonderful apostle suffered in the year 86 in the time of Emperor Dometian.”

 

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Today, Meatfare Sunday, is the last day upon which Orthodox Christians eat meat before the start of the Fasting Season of Great Lent. Traditionally, it is also the day upon which we focus on the Second Coming of Christ, and the Final Judgement of the Living and the Dead.

The noted theologian Saint John Maximovitch  of Shanghai was very interested in Eschatology (the study of the End Times) and delivered this homily on Meatfare Sunday. Given that the Book of Revelations is rarely read out during the Liturgy, it is through such homilies that Christians become aware of what events lie ahead before Christ’s Second Coming.

“The day of the Last Judgement! That day no one knows — only God the Father knows — but its signs are given in the Gospel and in the Apocalypse of the holy Apostle John the Theologian. Revelation speaks of the events at the end of the world and of the Last Judgement primarily in images and in a veiled manner.

However, the Holy Fathers have explained these images, and there is an authentic Church tradition that speaks clearly concerning the signs of the approach of the end, and concerning the Last Judgement. Before the end of life on earth there will be agitation, wars, civil war, hunger, earthquakes… Men will suffer from fear, will die from expectation of calamity. There will be no life, no joy of life but a tormented state of falling away from life. Nevertheless there will be a falling away not only from life, but from faith also, and “when the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” (St. Luke 18:8).

Men will become proud, ungrateful, rejecting Divine law. Together with the falling away from life will be a weakening of moral life. There will be an exhaustion of good and an increase of evil.

Of these times, the holy Apostle John the Theologian speaks in his God-inspired work, the Apocalypse. He says that he “was in the Spirit” when he wrote it; this means that the Holy Spirit Himself was in him, when under the form of various images, the fate of the Church and the world was opened to him, and so this is a Divine Revelation.

The Apocalypse represents the fate of the Church in the image of a woman who hides herself in the wilderness: she does not show herself in public life, as today in Russia. In public life, forces that prepare the possibility for the appearance of Antichrist will play the leading role.

Antichrist will be a man, and not the devil incarnate. “Anti” means “old,” and it also signifies “in place of” or “against.” Antichrist is a man who desires to be in place of Christ, to occupy His place and possess what Christ should possess. He desires to possess the attraction of Christ and authority over the whole world. Moreover, Antichrist will receive that authority before his destruction and the destruction of the world.

What is known of this man — Antichrist? His precise ancestry is unknown: his father is completely unknown, and his mother a foul pretended virgin. He will be a Jew of the tribe of Dan. He will be very intelligent and endowed with skill in handling people. He will be fascinating and kind. The philosopher Vladimir Soloviev worked a long time at presenting the advent and person of Antichrist. He carefully made use of all material on this question, not only Patristic, but also Muslim, and he worked out a brilliant picture.

Before the advent of Antichrist, there was a preparation in the world, the possibility of his appearance. “The mystery of iniquity doth already work” (II Thes. 2:7). The forces preparing for his appearance fight above all against the lawful Imperial authority.

The holy Apostle Paul says that Antichrist cannot be manifested until “what withholdest is taken away” (II Thes. 2:6-7). St. John Chrysostom explains that the “withholding one” is the lawful pious authority: such an authority fights with evil. For this reason the “mystery,” already at work in the world, fights with this authority; it desires a lawless authority. When the “mystery” decisively achieves that authority, nothing will hinder the appearance of Antichrist any longer.

Fascinating, intelligent, kind, he will be merciful — he will act with mercy and goodness; but not for the sake of mercy and goodness, but for the strengthening of his own authority. When he will have strengthened it to the point where the whole world acknowledges him, then he will reveal his face.

For his capital, he will choose Jerusalem, because it was here that the Savior revealed His Divine teaching and His person. It was here that the entire world was called to the blessedness of goodness and salvation. The world did not acknowledge Christ and crucified Him in Jerusalem; whereas, the whole world will acknowledge the Antichrist’s authority and Jerusalem will become the capital of the world.

Having attained the pinnacle of authority, Antichrist will demand the acknowledgement that he has attained what no earthly power had ever attained or could attain and then demand the worship of himself as a higher being, as a god.

V. Soloviev describes the character of his activity well, as “Supreme Ruler.” He will do what is pleasing to all — on the condition of being recognized as Supreme Authority. He will allow the Church to exist, permit her Divine services, promise to build magnificent churches…, on the condition that all recognize him as “Supreme Being” and worship him. Antichrist will have a personal hatred for Christ; he will see Him as a rival and look upon Him as a personal enemy. He will live by this hatred and rejoice in men’s apostasy from Christ.

Under Antichrist, there will be an immense falling away from the faith. Many bishops will change in faith and in justification will point to the brilliant situation of the Church. The search for compromise will be the characteristic disposition of men. Straight-forwardness of confession will disappear. Men will cleverly justify their fall, and gracious evil will support such a general disposition. There will be the habit of apostasy from truth and the sweetness of compromise and sin in men.

Antichrist will allow men everything, as long as they “fall down and worship him” and the whole world will submit to him. Then there will appear the two righteous men, who will fearlessly preach the faith and accuse Antichrist.

According to Church tradition, they are the two Prophets of the Old Testament, Elijah and Enoch, who did not taste of death, but will taste it now for three days, and in three days they must rise. Their death will call forth the great rejoicing of Antichrist and his servants. Their resurrection will plunge them into great confusion and terror. Then, the end of the world will come.

The Apostle Peter said that the first world was made out of water — an image of the primordial chaos, and perished by water — in the Flood. Now the world is reserved unto fire. The earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up (II Peter 3:5-7, 10). All the elements will ignite. This present world will perish in a single instant. In an instant all will be changed.

Moreover, the Sign of the Son of God, the Sign of the Cross, will appear. The whole world, having willingly submitted to Antichrist, will weep. Everything is finished forever: Antichrist killed, the end of his kingdom of warfare with Christ, the end, and one is held accountable; one must answer to the true God.

“The end of the world” signifies not the annihilation of the world, but its transformation. Everything will be transformed suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye. The dead will rise in new bodies: their own, but renewed, just as the Savior rose in His own body and traces of wounds from the nails and spear were on it, yet it possessed new faculties, and in this sense it was a new body. It is not clear whether this new body will be the same as Adam was made, or whether it will be an entirely new body.

Afterward, the Lord will appear in glory on the clouds. Trumpets will sound, loud, with power! They will sound in the soul and conscience! All will become clear to the human conscience.

The Prophet Daniel, speaking of the Last Judgement, relates how the Ancient of Days, the Judge sits on His throne, and before Him is a fiery stream (Daniel 7:9-10). Fire is a purifying element; it burns sin. Woe to a man if sin has become a part of his nature: then the fire will burn the man, himself.

This fire will be kindled within man: seeing the Cross, some will rejoice, but others will fall into confusion, terror and despair. Thus, men will be divided instantly. The very state of a man’s soul casts him to one side or the other, to right or to left.

The more consciously and persistently man strives toward God in his life, the greater will be his joy when he hears: “Come unto Me, ye blessed.”

Conversely: the same words will call the fire of horror and torture to those who did not desire Him, who fled and fought or blasphemed Him during their lifetime!

The Last Judgement knows of no witnesses or written protocols! Everything is inscribed in the souls of men and these records, these “books,” are opened at the Judgement. Everything becomes clear to all and to oneself.

Moreover, some will go to joy, while others — to horror.

When “the books are opened,” it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a lecher: when the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul, and if the soul has not repented and has not freed itself of the sin, it will come to the Last Judgement with the same desire for sin. It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition; it will hate everyone and everything. “There will be gnashing of teeth” of powerless malice and the unquenchable fire of hatred.

A “fiery gehenna” — such is the inner fire.

“There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

Such is the state of hell.”

Saint John of Shanghai

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Tomorrow is Meatfare Sunday, marking the last day when Orthodox Christians will eat meat or fish in the fasting season of Great Lent.  In light of tomorrow’s feast focussing upon the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgement, today is reserved as a “Soul Day” for us to commemorate any faithful Christian person known to us who has passed away. For those of us who have converted to Orthodox Christianity from other faiths, today is a poignant and thought provoking day; many of our beloved late relatives were not baptised and we pray for God’s mercy and compassion upon them.
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On the same day, the most Divine Fathers appointed a commemoration of all those who, from ages past, have piously fallen asleep, in the hope of resurrection unto life eternal.Verses

Forgive the dead their transgressions, O Word,
And do not show Thy good compassion to be dead.


Synaxarion

Since it often happens that certain people suffer death prematurely, in a foreign land, at sea, on trackless mountains, on precipices, in chasms, in famines, wars, conflagrations, and cold weather, and all manner of other deaths; and perhaps, being poor and without resources, they have not been vouchsafed the customary psalter readings and memorial services, moved by love for mankind, the Divine Fathers ordained that the Orthodox Catholic Church make commemoration of all people, a tradition which they inherited from the Holy Apostles, in order that those who, due to some particular circumstance, did not receive the customary obsequies individually, might be included in the present general commemoration, indicating that whatever is done on their behalf confers great benefit on them.

For the remainder of Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos’ essay on the  “Mystagogy” blog, click here.

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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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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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“Exhort the people, priests,” it says; “speak into the ears of Jerusalem.” The nature of that word “exhort” is enough to intensify the desires of the earnest, but also to stir to readiness those who are idle and careless.

That’s how commanders operate. They marshal the army into place, and give a speech before the battle is engaged. The exhortation has so much power that it often produces a disdain for death in many. Similarly, coaches and athlete trainers use exhortation. Before the games in the stadiums the athletes are brought forward, and they are given speeches that are full of how they have to exert themselves so they can win the crown. So by persuasion, many can be joined together in ambition for victory, even to the disregard of their own bodies.

And so it is now with me. The soldiers of Christ have been ordered to war against invisible enemies, and the athletes of godliness are preparing themselves for crowns of righteousness through self-control. So the word of exhortation is indispensable.

So, what am I saying, brethren? I’m saying it makes sense that those who practice battle tactics, and those who work out in wrestling school, take in more food for their bodies the more strenuous the exertions are that they participate in. But, to those for whom “the struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers of this darkness, against spiritual forces of wickedness,” to these, it is absolutely necessary to be disciplined for struggle through self-control and fasting.

While oil bulks up the athlete, fasting is the strength-training of the godly. So whatever robs the flesh, of that you will make the soul shine with spiritual health. Power to overcome invisible enemies doesn’t come by bodily exertion, but by endurance of the soul. By patience trials are overcome.

2. Fasting is, therefore, useful all the time to those who take it up. (The abuse of demons can’t challenge the one who fasts, and the angels who guard our lives love working more when they stay beside those who have made the soul clean through fasting.)

But now how much more, when all around the world the proclamation is being announced. There isn’t any island, land, city, nation, or remotest border where they haven’t heard of the proclamation. Even armies and travelers, all alike hear the announcement, and they are receiving it joyfully.

So no one should leave himself off the list! People of every race, of all ages, and all different ranks are counted among those who fast. The angels are writing down the names of those who fast in each church. [31.188] See to it that you don’t forfeit the angelic register through a little pleasurable food, and make yourself liable as a deserter, since you have been enlisted as a soldier by the scriptures.

The danger of the inexperienced soldier is that he will put down his shield when the battle is engaged. That’s something that must be thoroughly warned against. Don’t appear to be putting down the great weapon of fasting.

Are you rich? Don’t insult the fast by refusing to eat at her table, as if she were unworthy of you. Don’t send her away from your house, when you have been happily living in pleasure, and never denying yourself in accord with the divine principle of fasting. If you do, your judgment will come many times over in times of want, or bodily sickness, or some other gloomy circumstances. The poor should not pretend to ignore fasting, because in the past she lived together with you, and you had things in common.

Now women, fasting is as natural for your household as breathing. Children are nourished by fasting, just like thriving plants are sprinkled with water. From old times people have taken on the practice of it for themselves, and for the old it has made work light. Habitually practiced labors become less painful for those who have been trained.

To those who are traveling, fasting is a favorable traveling partner. While luxury forces them to bear burdens by carrying their enjoyments around, fasting prepares them to be light and unencumbered.

When a foreign war has been proclaimed and soldiers have been conscripted, they aren’t furnished with luxuries. We have been sent out to war against invisible enemies. But after these victories we anticipate going to our home country up above. So isn’t it appropriate that we be fed like an army, content with the conscription?

3. “Endure suffering as a good soldier,” and contend lawfully, in order that you may be crowned. You know that “everyone who struggles is temperate in all things.”

But someone will undermine me perfectly by saying something that shouldn’t be overlooked: that to those who are soldiers of the world, their provisions increase in proportion to their efforts. But on the contrary, to those who are heavily-armed spiritually, the less they have of food, the greater honor they have.

Our helmet contrasts with the perishable kind; theirs is made of bronze, but ours consists of the hope of salvation. Their shield is made of wood and leather, but we hold out the shield of faith.[31.189] We wear the breastplate of righteousness, but they have coats of chain-mail around them. We defend ourselves with the sword of the Spirit, but they carry iron.

So it’s clear that foods don’t produce the same kind of strength for both armies. The teachings of godliness strengthen us, even while they are enslaved by the fullness of their stomachs.

Now time has brought these much longed-for days around to us again. So let’s welcome them into our homes like old nursemaids, who have been placed in the church for helping us to godliness.

Therefore, when you are going to fast don’t be gloomy-faced like the Jews. Rather, like gospel believers, adorn yourselves with rejoicing in the soul from spiritual enjoyment, not mourning your empty stomach.

You know that “The flesh desires what is opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit is opposed to the flesh.” Therefore since “these things are adversaries to one another,” let’s rob the flesh of its comforts, and let’s increase the soul’s strength. Fasting will help us work through suffering until the victory feast is thrown for us, when we may be crowned with wreaths wrought by self-control.

4. Now you should already be preparing yourselves to be worthy of the honorable fast. Don’t be getting drunk today and ruin tomorrow’s self-control.

This kind of rationalizing is evil, a wicked notion: “Since five days of fasting have been proclaimed for us, let’s drown ourselves in drunkenness today.”

No man who is about to celebrate lawfully marrying a wife goes and cohabits with concubines and prostitutes beforehand. The lawful wife won’t put up with those corrupted companions. So don’t expect fasting to put up with it, if you begin with drunkenness—that public prostitute, that mother of shamelessness, that lover of laughter, that madman-maker, that friend of everything shameful.

Fasting and prayer will certainly not enter into the soul defiled by drunkenness. The Lord admits the one who is fasting inside the walls of holy places, but he doesn’t approve of extravagance, he regards that as profane and unholy.

If you come tomorrow smelling of wine, and of this rotten stuff, how will I regard your extravagence as fasting? Consider this: I don’t regard what’s going on lately as being pure, because you aren’t purified by wine. How will I categorize you? With the drunks, or with those who fast?

When drunkenness has passed it drags its victim around. The presence of want corroborates the need for fasting.

It could be argued that drinking takes you into slavery, because it doesn’t pay you fairly. The evidence exhibited that you were working as a slave is the odor of the wine that remains behind in the bottle.

Then the first of the fast days becomes unfavorable to you, on account of the remains of the drinking that have been stored up in you. [31.192] But if the beginning is unfavorable, then the whole time is also plainly rejected. “Drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If you come to the fast drinking, what do you think is the point? If drunkenness closes the kingdom of God from you, what’s the use of you fasting?

Don’t you see, that even those who are experienced in the breaking of racehorses expect a struggle, since they haven’t been won over beforehand? But with malice toward yourself you gulp down your fill. You rush to gluttony like so many animals.

A full belly not only makes running a race difficult, it even makes sleep tough. When you are weighed down completely and can’t find a way to rest, you are forced instead to continually turn from side to side.

5. Fasting guards infants, chastens the young, dignifies the old—for gray hair is more venerable when it’s adorned with fasting.

It is an attractive ornament to women, a preventative for aging, a castle for couples, a nurse of virginity. There are people like this in each house who diligently pursue it.

But how is our public life in this society? The entire city has come together, and the entire region adopts good conduct, puts to sleep the shouting, gets rid of quarrels, and silences insults. What teacher can control the clamor of children when they have assembled like fasting, as it shows how it makes a throbbing city orderly?

What kind of revelry begins with fasting? What sort of sensual performance comes from fasting? Seductive laughter, songs of harlots, and passionate dances are suddenly withdrawn from the city, having been banished by the austere judge that is fasting.

If only everyone who needs a counselor would take her in, there would be nothing preventing a deep peace from abiding in each house. Nations wouldn’t be attacking each other, and armies wouldn’t be engaging in battle. Neither would weapons be forged, if fasting ruled. There would be no point in holding court, prisons would be unpopulated, and evildoers wouldn’t have a place to hide. If slanderers were found in the cities, they would be thrown into the sea.

If all were disciples of fasting, to echo the words of Job, there wouldn’t be heard any “voice of the taskmaster.” If fasting ruled our life, it wouldn’t be full of groaning and sorrow.

It’s clear that fasting would not only teach self-control in relation to all kinds of foods, but also how to entirely escape and get rid of covetousness, greed, and all kinds of evil. Having been set free, nothing [31.193] would hinder deep peace and calmness of soul from accompanying our lives.

6. But now those who have dismissed fasting and pursued after indulgence to make life happy, have instead found that swarms of evils have been introduced, and their own bodies are perishing anyway.

Pay attention with me to the difference in how the faces will appear to you this evening and tomorrow. Observing them today, they are somewhat reddish, wet with a little sweat, their eyes are watery and drooping, and a kind of mistiness seems to have taken over the clarity of their inward senses. But tomorrow they will have become quiet and solemn, the skin natural-looking, filled with meditation. The inner senses will be keen, since they have not had occasion to be darkened by physical exertions.

Fasting is the likeness of the angels, the tent-companion of the righteous, the moderation of life. It made the divine Mosaic Law. Samuel is the fruit of fasting. Hannah was fasting when she prayed to God: “O sovereign Lord, God of hosts, if you will look upon your servant, and give me a male child, I will give him to you as a dedicated gift. Wine and liquor he will surely not drink, until the day he dies.”

Fasting brought about the great Samson, and brought him up until the time when he appeared publicly before men. Enemies were falling by the thousands, and many of their cities were being torn up, and lions were yielding to the strength of his hands. But when he came under the power of drinking and took up with harlots, he was easy prey for his enemies. He was bereaved of his eyes, and he was set out as a plaything for the children of foreigners.

After Elijah fasted he closed up the heavens three years and six months. After he saw how much wantonness had been born from the people’s fullness, he thought it necessary to bring an involuntary fast upon them by means of famine. Through that he stood, while their excessive sins were already poured out, and fasting created such a burning, and cutting down of their evil leaders in pieces.

7. Receive her, poor common laborers, as your living companion and table partner. Slaves, you who hold the household together, receive her as a rest from your toils. You rich, receive her because she is curing you from the damage of excess. When she has worked her change in you, your daily life will be more pleasant, lived by the way of wisdom. You who are sick, receive her as the mother of health. You who are in good health, receive her as your prescribed good medicine.

Ask the doctors and they’ll report it to you, that it’s the most dangerous of all to be at the peak of health. So even the most experienced should deprive themselves of overindulgence, so as not to start secretly weeping for the power of the burden of fleshiness. For when they have purged the excess [31.196] by firm purpose and through austerity, they prepare some open space for education, and a second beginning for promoting the power of growth. So it will have all kinds of bodily benefits for every activity, and it will go along well in houses and fields, by night and by day, in cities and wilderness.

So now, at such a time as this, let’s receive her graciously and joyously into our homes for our own good. Let’s obey the word of the Lord and not be like the gloomy-faced hypocrites, but rather just letting the simple brightness of the soul show clearly.

And I suppose it’s not really necessary for me to preach about the challenge of fasting, about how today should not be given over to the evils of drunkenness. Most of you receive fasting into your homes again as a habit, showing respect to yourself and one another. But I fear that the wine-lovers will try to rescue drunkenness, like an inheritance from their fathers.

It’s as foolish to buy wine before five days of fasting, as it would be for those who are setting off on a long journey abroad. Who is so stupid that before even beginning to drink, he irrationally thinks about the things of drunkenness? Don’t you know that a stomach won’t safely care for what is entrusted to it? The stomach is a very unfaithful partner. It leaves the treasury unguarded. However many things you put away there, hoping to preserve them, it of course doesn’t take care of them.

See to it that tomorrow, when you have come away from being drunk, the Lord doesn’t have to say, “I haven’t chosen this kind of fast.” Why do you dilute pure things? What communion has fasting with drinking? What fellowship does self-control have with drunkenness? “What concord has the temple of God with idols?”

Those whom the Spirit of God indwells are God’s temple. But those who let drunkenness bring the refuse of intemperance into their lives are a temple of idols. Today is the gateway of the fast days. But surely the one who has profaned the front doors is not worthy to enter into the holy places.

No household slave who wants to win the favor of his master becomes friends with the champion of his enemy. Drunkenness is an enemy of God, but fasting is the beginning of repentance. So if you want to come near to God through confession, flee drunkenness, so that the loss will not be made more difficult for you.

So let’s not be selfish as we begin the abstinence from foods that is the noble fast. Let’s fast in an acceptable manner, one that’s pleasing to God. A true fast is one that is set against evil, it’s self-control of the tongue. It’s the checking of anger, separation from things like lusts, evil-speaking, lies, and false oaths. Self-denial from these things is a true fast, so fasting from these negative things is good. But on the positive side, let’s delight in the Lord, being in pursuit of the words of the Spirit. And let’s delight in taking up the laws of salvation, and in all the doctrines that restore our souls.

Therefore let’s guard the fast from these things in secret. The prophet also rejects these things, saying, “The Lord will not let the soul of the righteous go hungry,” and, “I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants looking for bread.” Now this isn’t speaking about literal bread, such as what the children of our patriarch Jacob went down into Egypt for. Rather, it’s talking about spiritual food, the kind that goes inside us and perfects a person.

May the fasting threatened against the Jews not also come upon us: “For behold, days are coming, says the Lord, and I will bring upon this land a famine, not a famine of bread, neither thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the word of the Lord.” The righteous judge brought this upon them because their minds were suffering from hunger and in a state of atrophy without true teaching, and their bodies were growing fat and weighed down with flesh. So you should entertain the Holy Spirit joyfully every day without exception, both in the mornings and evenings.

No one should be left behind willingly from the spiritual feasting. Let’s all share from this wineless bowl together. Wisdom has set it before us equally, and a special place for it has been set aside. “She has mixed her own bowl, and has slaughtered her own sacrifices.” This refers to the food of the mature, “Who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Once we have thoroughly taken our fill, may we also be found worthy of the exhilaration that comes in the bridal chamber of Christ Jesus our Lord! To him be the glory and the power forever! Amen.

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