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Queen Tamar of Georgia is a very dominant figure in Georgian history and culture. Her 29 year rule saw the country maintain a unified state with a strong economy, a well-organised bureaucracy, a careful balance between state and Church power, harmonious relations between different ethnic groups in the Kingdom, and a flourishing of the arts.

tamar-mefe

In particular, the magnificent Vardzia monastic complex, carved into the hillsides near Akhaltsikhe in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region, is one of her enduring physical legacies on the Georgian landscape.

Her kingdom extended from the Black Sea in the west to the Caspian Sea in the East, and from the Greater Caucasus range in the north to the Armenian plateau in the south.

From Wikipedia

The Mongol invasions two decades after her death devastated Georgia, with a large proportion of the population killed, cities razed and churches destroyed, and the kingdom never recovered its previous territories even after the Mongols were evicted by King George V (“the Brilliant”).

Tamar (and its derivatives Tamara, Tamuna, Tamila, Tata, Tato, Tamta and many others) is one of the most common names in Georgia, and so many women enjoy their Name Day today. Queen Tamar, in recognition of her piety, her defence of the Christian religion, and her patronage of the Church at home and abroad was recognised amongst the Saints by the Church.

 In 1166 a daughter, Tamar, was born to King George III (1155–1184) and Queen Burdukhan of Georgia. The king proclaimed that he would share the throne with his daughter from the day she turned twelve years of age.

The royal court unanimously vowed its allegiance and service to Tamar, and father and daughter ruled the country together for five years. After King George’s death in 1184, the nobility recognized the young Tamar as the sole ruler of all Georgia. Queen Tamar was enthroned as ruler of all Georgia at the age of eighteen. She is called “King” in the Georgian language because her father had no male heir and so she ruled as a monarch and not as a consort.

At the beginning of her reign, Tamar convened a Church council and addressed the clergy with wisdom and humility: “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil,” she advised. “Begin with me–if I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation…. You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”

The Church and the royal court chose a suitor for Tamar: Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal (in Georgia Yuri was known as “George the Russian”). The handsome George Rusi was a valiant soldier, and under his command the Georgians returned victorious from many battles. His marriage to Tamar, however, exposed many of the coarser sides of his character. He was often drunk and inclined toward immoral deeds. In the end, Tamar’s court sent him away from Georgia to Constantinople, armed with a generous recompense. Many Middle Eastern rulers were drawn to Queen Tamar’s beauty and desired to marry her, but she rejected them all. Finally at the insistence of her court, she agreed to wed a second time to ensure the preservation of the dynasty. This time, however, she asked her aunt and nurse Rusudan (the sister of King George III) to find her a suitor. The man she chose, Davit-Soslan Bagrationi, was the son of the Ossetian ruler and a descendant of King George I (1014-1027).

In 1195 a joint Muslim military campaign against Georgia was planned under the leadership of Atabeg (a military commander) Abu Bakr of Persian Azerbaijan. At Queen Tamar’s command, a call to arms was issued. The faithful were instructed by Metropolitan Anton of Chqondidi to celebrate All-night Vigils and Liturgies and to generously distribute alms so that the poor could rest from their labors in order to pray. In ten days the army was prepared, and Queen Tamar addressed the Georgian soldiers for the last time before the battle began. “My brothers! Do not allow your hearts to tremble before the multitude of enemies, for God is with us…. Trust God alone, turn your hearts to Him in righteousness, and place your every hope in the Cross of Christ and in the Most Holy Theotokos!” she exhorted them.

Having taken off her shoes, Queen Tamar climbed the hill to the Metekhi Church of the Theotokos (in Tbilisi) and knelt before the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. She prayed without ceasing until the good news arrived: the battle near Shamkori had ended in the unquestionable victory of the Orthodox Georgian army.

After this initial victory the Georgian army launched into a series of triumphs over the Turks, and neighboring countries began to regard Georgia as the protector of the entire Transcaucasus. By the beginning the 13th century, Georgia was commanding a political authority recognized by both the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Georgia’s military successes alarmed the Islamic world. Sultan Rukn al-Din was certain that a united Muslim force could definitively decide the issue of power in the region, and he marched on Georgia around the year 1203, commanding an enormous army.

Having encamped near Basiani, Rukn al-Din sent a messenger to Queen Tamar with an audacious demand: to surrender without a fight. In reward for her obedience, the sultan promised to marry her on the condition that she embrace Islam; if Tamar were to cleave to Christianity, he would number her among the other unfortunate concubines in his harem. When the messenger relayed the sultan’s demand, a certain nobleman, Zakaria Mkhargrdzelidze, was so outraged that he slapped him on the face, knocking him unconscious.

At Queen Tamar’s command, the court generously bestowed gifts upon the ambassador and sent him away with a Georgian envoy and a letter of reply. “Your proposal takes into consideration your wealth and the vastness of your armies, but fails to account for divine judgment,” Tamar wrote, “while I place my trust not in any army or worldly thing but in the right hand of the Almighty God and the infinite aid of the Cross, which you curse. The will of God–and not your own–shall be fulfilled, and the judgment of God–and not your judgment–shall reign!”

The Georgian soldiers were summoned without delay. Queen Tamar prayed for victory before the Vardzia Icon of the Theotokos, then, barefoot, led her army to the gates of the city.

Hoping in the Lord and the fervent prayers of Queen Tamar, the Georgian army marched toward Basiani. The enemy was routed. The victory at Basiani was an enormous event not only for Georgia, but for the entire Christian world.

The military victories increased Queen Tamar’s faith. In the daytime she shone in all her royal finery and wisely administered the affairs of the government; during the night, on bended knees, she beseeched the Lord tearfully to strengthen the Georgian Church. She busied herself with needlework and distributed her embroidery to the poor.

Once, exhausted from her prayers and needlework, Tamar dozed off and saw a vision. Entering a luxuriously furnished home, she saw a gold throne studded with jewels, and she turned to approach it, but was suddenly stopped by an old man crowned with a halo. “Who is more worthy than I to receive such a glorious throne?” Queen Tamar asked him.

He answered her, saying, “This throne is intended for your maidservant, who sewed vestments for twelve priests with her own hands. You are already the possessor of great treasure in this world.” And he pointed her in a different direction.

Having awakened, Holy Queen Tamar immediately took to her work and with her own hands sewed vestments for twelve priests.

History has preserved another poignant episode from Queen Tamar’s life: Once she was preparing to attend a festal Liturgy in Gelati, and she fastened precious rubies to the belt around her waist. Soon after she was told that a beggar outside the monastery tower was asking for alms, and she ordered her entourage to wait. Having finished dressing, she went out to the tower but found no one there. Terribly distressed, she reproached herself for having denied the poor and thus denying Christ Himself. Immediately she removed her belt, the cause of her temptation, and presented it as an offering to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.

During Queen Tamar’s reign a veritable monastic city was carved in the rocks of Vardzia, and the God-fearing Georgian ruler would labour there during the Great Fast. The churches of Pitareti, Kvabtakhevi, Betania, and many others were also built at that time. Holy Queen Tamar generously endowed the churches and monasteries not only on Georgian territory but also outside her borders: in Palestine, Cyprus, Mt. Sinai, the Black Mountains, Greece, Mt. Athos, Petritsoni (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Thrace, Romania, Isauria and Constantinople. The divinely guided Queen Tamar abolished the death penalty and all forms of bodily torture.

A regular, secret observance of a strict ascetic regime–fasting, a stone bed, and litanies chanted in bare feet–finally took its toll on Queen Tamar’s health. For a long time she refrained from speaking to anyone about her condition, but when the pain became unbearable she finally sought help. The best physicians of the time were unable to diagnose her illness, and all of Georgia was seized with fear of disaster. Everyone from the small to the great prayed fervently for Georgia’s ruler and defender. The people were prepared to offer not only their own lives, but even the lives of their children, for the sake of their beloved ruler.

God sent Tamar a sign when He was ready to receive her into His Kingdom. Then the pious ruler bade farewell to her court and turned in prayer to an icon of Christ and the Life-giving Cross: “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to Thee I surrender my soul, O Lord!”

The burial place of Queen Tamar has remained a mystery to this day. Some sources claim that her tomb is in Gelati, in a branch of burial vaults belonging to the Bagrationi dynasty, while others argue that her holy relics are preserved in a vault at the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem.
     

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Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, previously discussed here, when the Ghvtismshobeli was addressed by the angel Gabriel and told of her destiny as the Mother of God.

This is one of my favourite hymns for this feast, although it is not Georgian. Called “The Pre-Eternal Council” or “Sovet Prevechny”, it was written by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov.

Gabriel stood before thee, O Maiden,
Revealing the pre-eternal counsel,
Saluting thee and exclaiming:
“Rejoice, O earth unsown!
Rejoice, O bush unburnt!
Rejoice, O depth hard to fathom!
Rejoice, O bridge leading to the heavens
and lofty ladder, which Jacob beheld!
Rejoice, O divine jar of Manna!
Rejoice, annulment of the curse!
Rejoice, restoration of Adam:
the Lord is with thee!

Sovet prevechnyi otkryvaya Tebe Otrokovice,

Gavriil predsta,

Tebe lobzaya i veshaya:

“Raduisya, zemle nenaseyannaya:

Raduisya, kupino neopalimaya:

Raduisya, glubino neudobozrimaya:

Raduisya, moste k Nebesem privodyai,

i lestvice vysokaya, yuzhe Iakov vide:

Raduisya, Bozhestvennaya stamno manny:

Raduisya, razreshenie klyatvy:

Raduisya, Adamovo vozzvanie,

s Toboyu Gospod’ “

Pavel Chesnokov’s  biography by Robert Cummings states;

Pavel Chesnokov was arguably the foremost Russian composer of sacred choral works during his time. He wrote around 500 choral works, about 400 of them sacred. Chesnokov was a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church and was inspired to write most of his works for worship in that faith. His best-known composition, one of the few works he is remembered for today, is Salvation is Created, a Communion hymn based on a Ukrainian chant melody. During the Soviet era, Chesnokov was better known as a choral conductor than composer. Indeed, he was praised, even by the Soviets, for his skills in choral conducting, though they remained hostile to his sacred music throughout his lifetime…….. 

…..Pavel Chesnokov was born into a musical family on October 12, 1877. His education was extensive: his first advanced studies were at the Moscow School of Church Music (he graduated in 1895); he next worked privately with composer Sergey Tanayev and later studied at the Moscow Conservatory (graduating in 1917), where his list of teachers included Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. In the end, Chesnokov would go down as one of the most highly trained musicians in Russia, having spent years studying solfège, composition, piano, and violin.

But Chesnokov was not just a student during these years: he taught choral conducting in Moscow, served as choirmaster or conductor at several prominent schools and choirs (most notably the Russian Choral Society Choir), and most importantly, composed a spate of sacred choral works, including his most popular, Salvation is Created (1912). After the Bolshevik Revolution, Chesnokov was forced to abandon composition of sacred music, owing to sanction against such activity by the anti-religious Soviets. He thus embarked on composition in the secular choral realm.

From 1920, Chesnokov headed a choral conducting program at the Moscow Conservatory. He also remained busy, regularly conducting the choirs of the Bolshoi Theater and Moscow Academy. In addition, Chesnokov became the choirmaster at Christ the Savior Cathedral. In 1933, however, on orders from Stalin, the cathedral was demolished to make way for construction of a skyscraper that would never be built. Chesnokov became so distraught over the cathedral’s destruction that he stopped composing altogether. He continued teaching and conducting various choirs in Moscow until his death there on March 14, 1944.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow was reconstructed in the 1990’s. The history of the demolition is heartbreaking, if not a little ridicuous;

“Under the state atheism espoused by the USSR, many “church institution[s] at [the] local, diocesan or national level were systematically destroyed” in the 1921-1928 antireligious campaign. As a result, after the Revolution and, more specifically, the death of Vladimir Lenin, the prominent site of the cathedral was chosen by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as the site for a monument to socialism known as the Palace of the Soviets. This monument was to rise in modernistic, buttressed tiers to support a gigantic statue of Lenin perched on top of a dome with his arm raised in the air.

The economic development in Russia during the 1930s required more funds than the government had at the time. On 24 February 1930, the economic department of the OGPU sent a letter to the Chairman of the Central Executive Committee asking to remove the golden domes of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The letter noted that the dome of the church contained over 20 tons of gold of “excellent quality”, and that the cathedral represented an “unnecessary luxury for the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of the gold would make a great contribution to the industrialization of the country.” The People’s Commissariat of Finance did not object to this proposal.[5]

On 5 December 1931, by order of Stalin’s minister Kaganovich, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was dynamited and reduced to rubble. It took more than a year to clear the debris from the site. Some of the marble from the walls and marble benches from the cathedral were used in nearby Moscow Metro stations. The original marble high reliefs were preserved and are now on display at the Donskoy Monastery. For a long time, these were the only reminders of the largest Orthodox church ever built.

The construction of the Palace of Soviets was interrupted owing to a lack of funds, problems with flooding from the nearby Moskva River, and the outbreak of war. The flooded foundation hole remained on the site until, under Nikita Khrushchev, it was transformed into the world’s largest open air swimming pool, named Moskva Pool.”

From Wikipedia

For those with Georgian language competence, this short documentary from the Georgian Patriarchate’s Ertsulovneba TV Station examines the Annunciation and contains many traditional Georgian hymns for this feast.

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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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The Great Martyr Shushanik is commemorated on this day. Her story is an interesting one, as she was an Armenian princess and was martyred by her apostate Georgian husband for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism, the national religion of the Sassanid Persian Empire at the time (5th century). The deep attachment that Georgians display to the two great Matryresses, Saints Shushanik and Queen Ketevan, are a further indication of the high status of women in Georgian Christianity. Her remains were originally buried in Armenia, in Tsortag, but the Tsortag church later came under the control of an Armenian Apostolic bishop ( a non-Chalcedonian sect not in communion with Eastern Orthodox churches), and the Catholicos-Archbishop of Georgia Samuel IV (582-591) transferred the holy relics of Saint Shushanik to the city of Tbilisi, where in the year 586 they were put into a chapel of the Metekhi church, on the south side of the altar. This structure was destroyed during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and the relics have been lost.

The Persian Empire had encroached upon Georgian territory since the 3rd century and a certain amount of Zoroastrian proselytising in Iberia is recorded. Indigenous pagan cults and the Iranian religion were well established in most parts of the country.

The first King of Iberia to accept Christianity, King Mirian of the Chosroid dynasty, was reputed to be of Persian ancestry; some accounts record him to be the son of Persia’s Sassanid Shah, other accounts suggest him to be the son of a Parthian chieftain. Iberia under King Mirian was staunchly pro-Persian and Iberian troops fought alongside Persian soldiers in their battles against the Roman Empire. The Peace Treaty of Nisibis between Rome and Persia recognised Iberia as being under Roman influence but with Mirian still ruling as king. Mirian rapidly took advantage of the change in circumstances, developing strong commercial and military linkages with the Roman Empire, and ultimately accepting Christianity as his court’s religion in 337, and declaring Christianity as the state religion in 339.

For twenty years after King Mirian’s death, a power struggle ensued between Rome and Iran for the control of Iberia, until the 387 Treaty of Acilisene acknowledged Persian control of Iberia. Zoroastrianism was propagated much more vigourously following this, and some tensions developed between Christian royalty and citizens on one hand, and Zoroastrian overlords on the other. For the most part the Chosroid kings of Iberia remained loyal to Persia until King Vakhtang Gorgasali’s rebellion began in 482.

During the reign of King Vakhtang, an Armenian princess of Rana named Vardandukht was married to an Iberian nobleman, Varxenes, who held the title of Pitiaksh (governor) in the country’s administration. Vardandukht preferred to be called by her pet-name Shushanik (Susannah). The story of her confrontation with her apostate husband and her ultimate martyrdom form the basis of Georgia’s oldest literary work, “The Passion of Saint Shushanik” , in Georgian წამებაჲ წმიდისა შუშანიკისი დედოფლისაჲ, C’amebay C’midisa Shushanikisi Dedop’lisay, which is of great interest to Georgian linguists and historians both devout and secular. The implications of her life and work are ably described by Georgian theology student Besiki Sisauri:

The life of Shushanik is the oldest surviving work of Georgian literature. It was composed between the years A.D. 476 and 483 by Jacob of Tsurtaveli, father-confessor to the princess, and is remarkable for its directness of language. The background of the saint’s life is well known from other historical sources. Shushanik’s father, Vardan Manukonian, was the hero of the Armenian nation A rising of the year 45, directed against the authority of the Zoroastrian king of Iran, Yezdegird. Shushanik’s husband, the Georgian prince Varsken, occupied a strategic position as Pitiakhsh (from Iranian Bitakhsh, a viceroy) of the frontier region between Armenia and Georgia. As we see from the life of Shushanik, King Peroz of Iran sent Varsken to fight against the Huns who threatened to invade Persia from the north via Derbent and the shores of the Caspian Sea. Varsken was also supposed to exercise control over the king of Eastern Georgia (Iberia), whose capital at Mtskheta was within easy reach of Varsken’s castle in Tsurtav.

Shushanik’s death was brought about by political as much as by religious considerations. Her refusal to abjure Christianity infuriated her husband, who had embraced Mazdeism to ingratiate himself with the Persian court. Shushanik’s obduracy placed Varsken in a difficult position vis-a’-vis his suzerain, ultimately provoking him to murder her in particularly atrocious circumstances. He did not long profit by his crime, for the Armenian chronicler Lazarus of Pharp tells us that in the year 484, the redoubtable Christian king of Georgia, Wakhtang Gorgaslan (Gorgasali), rose in revolt against the Iranians and took prisoner their renegade ally Varsken, who was put to a painful and ignominious death. In addition to these political sidelights, the life of Shushanik is also of interest to the social historian for the insight it gives into such questions as the relations between the sexes in early Christian society and the climatic and sanitary conditions of ancient Caucasia.”

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, St Hermans Press.

It was in the eighth year of the reign of the king of Persia that Varsken the Pitiakhsh, son of Arshusha, traveled to the royal court. Formerly lie too was a Christian, born of Christian father and mother. And his wife was the daughter of Vardan, generalissimo of the Armenians, bearing the name of Varden, or Rose, after her father, and the pet-name of Shushanik, or Susanna; and she lived in the fear of God from her childhood days. Because of the unrighteousness of her husband, she prayed perpetually in her heart and besought all to pray God to convert him from his deluded ways, so that he might become wise in Christ.

But who could describe tile wickedness of that abandoned and thrice wretched Varsken? For when he appeared before the king of the Persians, it was not to receive honour by rendering service to the monarch, but to deliver himself up hotly and soul by denying the True God. So he bowed down to the fire, utterly cutting himself off from Christ. And this miserable man sought to win favour in the eyes of the king of the Persians by asking him for a wife, adding, “The lawful wife and children I already have, these I will likewise convert to your faith, just like myself.” (In making this pledge, how-ever, he had reckoned without Shushanik.) Then the king rejoiced, and gave him his own daughter to be his bride.

Soon after the Pitiakhsh took leave of the king. And as lie was approaching the borders of Georgia, the land of Hereti it occurred to him to have the noblemen and his sons and retainers informed that they were to meet him, so that in their company he might enter the country like a snake. He therefore dispatched one of his servants on a post-horse. When the servant had arrived at the township which is called Tsurtav, he came in and appeared before Shushanik our queen, and enquired after her well-being. But the blessed Shushanik said with prophetic insight, “If he is alive in soul, you are both alive, both he and thou. If you are both dead in your spirit, that enquiry of thine needs to be addressed to thyself.” But the man dared not answer her. St. Shushanik, however, insisted and questioned him urgently, until the man told her the truth, saying, “Varsken has renounced the True God.”

When the blessed Shushanik heard this, she fell upon the ground and beat her head on the floor and said with bitter tears, “Pitiable indeed has become the unfortunate Varsken! He has forsaken the True God, and embraced the religion of fire and united himself to the godless.” And she arose and left her palace and went into the church, filled with the fear of the Lord. With her she took her three sons and one daughter and brought them before the altar and prayed. And when the evening service was over, she found a small cottage near the church, and went into it, filled with grief, and leant against the wall in a corner and wept bitterly.

Now the bishop attached to the Pitiakhsh’s household, whose name was Aphots, was not at hand, having gone to the house of a certain holy man to consult him about some question. And I too, the confessor of Queen Shushanik, was with the bishop. Suddenly a deacon came to us from home and told us all that had occurred: the arrival of the Pitiakhsh and the conduct of the queen. We were filled with sorrow and wept abundantly, being weighed down by the consciousness of our sins.
But I got up early and went to the village where the blessed Shushanik was And when I saw her afflicted with sorrow, I also wept with her.

While we were conversing, a certain Persian arrived and came in before the blessed Shushanik, and said in lachrymose tones, “How so? A peaceful household has become miserable, and joy has turned to grief!” But he had actually come on a secret errand from Varsken, and said this as a ruse to ensnare the blessed one. But the saint recognized his cunning intention, and became all the more firm in her resolve.

Three days after, Varsken the Pitiakhsh came. And the Persian spoke to him privately and said, “I gather that your wife has left you. I would advise you, however, not to speak harsh words to her. After all, women are always liable to be unreasonable.”

The next day, the Pitiakhsh summoned us priests as soon as be had got up, and we went to him. He received us agreeably and said to us, “Be at your ease and do not shrink away from me.” In reply we said to him, “You have brought damnation on yourself and on us also!” Then he began to speak, and said, “How could my wife allow herself to do such a thing to me? Now go and tell her that she has degraded my person and sprinkled ashes upon my bed and forsaken her rightful place and gone elsewhere.”

To this St. Shushanik replied, “It is not I who either exalted your person or degraded it. Your father raised up sepulchers for the martyrs and built churches, and you have ruined the deeds of your father and destroyed his good works. Your father invited saints into his house, but you invite devils. He confessed and believed in the God of heaven and earth, but you have renounced the True God and bowed clown before the fire. Just as you have despised your Creator, so I pour contempt upon you. Even if you inflict many tortures on me, I will have no part in your doings.”
We reported all this to the Pitiakhsh, as a result of which he became angry and bellowed with rage. Then the Pitiakhsh commissioned Jojik his brother and Jojik’s wife, his sister-in-law, and the bishop attached to his household, and told them to speak to her in the following terms: “Get up and come to your rightful place, and give up these notions of yours! If not, I shall drag you back by force.”

So they came and entered in before the queen and spoke many reassuring words to her. Then St. Shushanik said to them, “O wise men! Do not think I was nothing but a wife to him. I had imagined that I could convert him to my faith, so that he would acknowledge the True God. And do you now try to force me to act thus? Let this never happen to me! You, Jojik, are no longer my brother-in-law, nor am I your sister-in-law, nor is your wife my sister, since you are on his side and take part in his doings.”

And as they were pressing and urging her excessively, the saintly and blessed Shushanik arose to go. Taking her copy of the Gospels with her, she said with tears, “O Lord God, Thou knowest that I am resolved in heart to meet my death.” When she had spoken these words she went with them and carried her Gospel with her, as well as the holy books of the Martyrs.
When she came into the palace she took up her residence not in her apartments, but in a small chamber. And St. Shushanik raised her hands to heaven and said, “O Lord God! Not one merciful man, neither priest nor layman, has been found among this people, but they have all handed me over to die at the hands of Varsken, that enemy of God.”

Two days later that wolf came into the palace and said to his retainers, “Today, I and Jojik and his wife are dining together. Do not allow anyone to come in to us.” And when it was evening they called Jojik’s wife and decided to bring the holy Shushanik to dine with them too. When they had wearied her with their insistence, they obliged her to accompany them to the palace, but she bad no appetite for anything. Jojik’s wife, however, offered her wine in a glass ,and tried to make her drink a little of it. St. Shushanik said to her angrily, “Whenever has it been the custom for men and women to dine together?” And stretching out her arm, she flung the glass in her face, and the wine was spilt.

Then Varsken began to utter foul-mouthed insults and kicked her with his foot. Picking up a poker, he crashed it on her head and split it open and injured one of her eyes. And he struck her face unmercifully with his fist and dragged her to and fro by hair, bellowing like a wild beast and roaring like a madman.

Jojik his brother rose to protect her, and came to grips with him and struck him. After her veil had been torn from her head, Jojik dragged her from Varsken’s hands, like a lamb from the claws of a wolf. St. Shushanik lay like a corpse upon the ground, while Vansken abused her kinsfolk and called her the defiler of his home. And he commanded her to be bound and chains to be attached to her feet.

When he had calmed down a little from his outburst of rage, the Persian came to him and urgently begged him to free St. Shushanik from her chains. After insistent pleading, he ordered tier to be unchained and taken to a cell and carefully guarded. She was to have one servant, and nobody else would be allowed to visit her, neither man nor woman.

When it was dawn, he asked her servant, “How are her wounds?” He said to him, “They are past healing.” Then he himself went in and looked at her, and was greatly astonished at the size of her swelling. And he directed the servant not to let anyone come and see her. He himself went out hunting.

But I got up and went and said to the guard, “Just let me in by myself to have a look at her wounds.” But he said to me, “What if he finds out and kills me?” I said to him, “Miserable man, did she not bring you up and educate you? If he kills you for her sake, what have you to regret?” Then he let me in secretly.

When I went in, I saw her face all slashed and swollen, and I raised my voice and wept. But St. Shushanik said to me, “Do not weep for me, since this night has been for me the beginning of joy.” And I said to St. Shushanik, “Let me wash the blood from your face and the dust which has fallen into your eyes, and apply ointment and medicine, so that please God you may be cured.” But St. Shushanik said to me, “Do not say that, Father, for this blood is for the cleansing of my sins.” But I gently forced her to take some food, which had been sent by Bishop Samuel and John, who secretly watched over her and saw to her welfare. St. Shushanik said to me, “Father, I cannot taste anything, because my jaws and several of my teeth are broken.” Then I brought a little wine and bread, and dipped it in, and she tasted a little. And I made haste to go out. Then St. Shushanik said to me, “Father, shall I send him back this jewellery of his? Even if he does not require it, I shall have no more use for it in this life.” But I said, “Do not hurry, let it remain in your keeping.

While we were discussing this, a boy came in and said, “Is Jacob here?” And I said, “What do you want?” He said, “The Patiakhsh is calling for you.” And I was surprised and wondered why he called for me now, so hurried to go. He said to me, “Do you know, Priest, that I am leaving to fight against the Huns? I have no intention of leaving my jewellery with her, now that she is not my wife. Someone else will have to be found to wear it. Go and bring whatever there is of it.”

So I went and told this to St. Shushanik. She was very glad and thanked God and handed everything over to me, and I delivered it all to the Pitiakhsh. He received it from me, inspected it and found everything complete, and again said, “At some later time, someone will be found to adorn herself with it.”

And when Lent was come, the blessed Shushanik came and found a small cell near the church, and took up her abode in it.

On Monday in Easter week, the Pitiakhsh returned from fighting against the Huns. The Devil animated his heart, and he arose and went to the church and said to Bishop Aphots, “Give me my wife! Why are you keeping her away from me?” And he began to curse and utter violent maledictions against God. But a priest said to him, “Lord, why are you behaving like this and uttering such evil words and cursing the bishop and speaking with anger against the saintly Shushanik?” But he struck the priest in the back wit his staff, so that he dared not say anything more.

So St. Shushanik was dragged out by force through the mud and over the thorns from the church to the palace, just as if they were dragging a corps along. And lie ordered her to be tied up and beaten, and reviled her saying “Now you see that your Church is no help to you, nor those Christian supporters of yours, nor that God of theirs! “ Three hundred blows they struck her with a stick, without any moan or complaint passing her lips. After this St. Shushanik said to the impious a Varsken, “Unhappy man, you have had no pity on yourself, and cut yourself off from God, so how can you have pity on me?”

When he saw the blood flowing abundant from her tender flesh, he ordered a chain to be fastened round her neck, and commanded a chamberlain to take St. Shushanik to the castle and imprison her in a dark dungeon to die.

A certain deacon belonging to the bishop’s staff stood near St. Shushanik when she was being taken from the palace, and tried to encourage her to stand fast, when the Pitiakhsh cast his eye on him. He only managed to say, “Sta . . ,” and then was silent and hastily took to his heels and ran away.

Then they took lieu out. St. Shushanik was led barefoot, with her hair disordered, like some woman of the common folk. Nor did anyone dare to cover her heads because the Pitiakhsh followed on horseback behind her, cursing her with much foul language. With the saint was a great mob of women and wen, countless in number, following behind her, and they raised their voices and wept, and tore their cheeks and shed tears of pity for St. Shushanik. But St. Shushanik looked upon the crowd and said to them, “Weep not, my brothers, my sisters and my children, but remember me in your prayers now that I am taking leave of you from this world. For you will not see me leave the castle alive.”

When the Pitiakhsh saw the mob and tire lamentation of men and women, old and young, he charged at them on his horse and forced them all to run away. When they reached the castle bridge, the Pitiakhsh said to St. Shushanik, “This is all the walking you will ever do, for you will not come out alive, until the time comes for four bearers to carry you out.” When they had entered the castles they found a small dark hut to the north of it, and there they locked up the saint. They left her with the chain still fastened round her neck, and this the impious Varsken stamped with his seal. Then he left the castle.

On the third Sunday, he summoned a gaoler and asked him, “Is that miserable woman still alive?” He replied, “Lord! She appears nearer to death than to life. She is likely to die from hunger alone, since she will eat nothing.” To which he answered, “Never mind, leave her alone, let her die.”
Then the Pitiakhsh went off to Chor. Jojik his brother was not present when these things were done to St. Shushanik. When Jojik arrived, he hastened after the Pitiakhsh, caught up with him on the borders of Hereti, and implored him to have her released from her fetters. After he had greatly importuned Varsken, he ordered her to be unchained. When Jojik returned, he removed the chain from her neck.

But St. Shushanik was not released from her shackles until her death. For she remained six years in the castle, and blossomed forth with her religious observances, ever fasting, keeping vigil and watching, in unwearying adoration and assiduous reading of holy books. The entire castle was made radiant and beautiful by the lyre of her spirit.

From now on, her works became renowned through-out all Georgia. Men and women used to come for the fulfillment of their vows. Whatever they had need of was bestowed on them through the holy prayer of the blessed Shushanik, namely a child to the childless, healing to the sick, and to the blind, restoration of sight.

They told St. Shushanik, “Your children have been converted to Mazdeism.” Then with many tears she began to worship God and beat her head upon the ground and groaned, saying, “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord God of mines for they were hot mine, but gifts from Thee I As Thou wilts Thy will lie done, O Lord. Save me from the schemes of the Evil One.”

Then the Pitiakhsh sent messengers and said, “Either to my wilt and return to the palace, or if you will not come home, I will send you under guard to Chor or to the Persian court.
St. Shushanik, however, answered, “Wretched and stupid man If you send me to Chor or to the Persian court, who knows if some good may not come to me and this evil be averted?”
The Pitiakhsh pondered over these words which she had uttered, “Who knows if some good may riot come to me ?” which lie took to mean, “Perhaps one of the princes then” might take her to wife.” From then onwards, lie sent no one to her.

Later, however, the Pitiakhsh deputed her own foster-brother to bring her back to the palace. When tie said to her, “Listen to me and come back to the palace, and do not leave your home desolate,” then St. Shushanik replied, “Tell that godless man this You have killed me, and volt declared that I should never come out of this castle on my feet alive I And now, if you can raise the dead, first raise your mother who is buried at Urdi. For if you cannot raise her up, neither can you bring me out of here, unless you drag me by force.”

When she had passed six years in this prison, excessive weariness from her feats of courage and devotion brought sickness upon her. Furthermore that place was incredibly infested with fleas and lice. In the summer time the heat of the sun burns like fire, the winds are torrid and the waters infected. The inhabitants of this region are themselves afflicted with various diseases, being swollen with dropsy, yellow with jaundice, pock-marked, withered up, mangy, pimply, bloated of face and brief of life, and nobody attains old age in that district.

When the seventh year had begun, the holy and thrice blessed Shushanik was afflicted with an ulcer of the flesh. As a result of her tireless acts of piety, her feet became swollen, and pustules broke out on various parts of her body. The ulcers were very large and infested with worms. One of these she held out in her hand and showed it to me, and gave thanks to God, saying, “Father, do not let the sight of this upset you. There (i.e. in Hell) the worm is greater, and never dies.” When I saw this worm, I was afflicted with inexpressible distress, and wept greatly. But she retorted sharply, “Father, why are you sorrowful? Rather than being eaten by those immortal worms, it is better to be consumed here in this life by mortal ones!”

When Jojik heard that the blessed queen St. Shushanik was near to death, he went out and brought with him his wife and children and his servants and retainers, and came to the castle to see the saintly Shushanik the martyr. Then she blessed Jojik and his wife and children and his servants and retainers and all the members of his household, and bade them walk in the ways of God. And she took leave of them and sent them away in peace.

After Jojik there came Archbishop Samuel and his friend Bishop John, who had encouraged her and taken part in her good works. Likewise there came the grandees and noble ladies, the gentry and common folk of the land of Georgia. Their eyes were filled with tears as they said farewell to her, and they offered lip praise to God for her glorious works, and then They left the castle and departed.

Then came the day when she was to be called away. And she summoned the bishop attached to her household, Aphots, and thanked him for his kindness which equalled that of a father and a foster-parent. She called for me, sinner and wretch that I am, and committed to us the relics of her bones, commanding us to bury them in that place from which she was first dragged forth. And she said, “Though I am but a worker of the eleventh hour in the vineyard, if I have any merit, you shall all be blessed for ever and ever.”

Then she gave thinks to God, saying, “Blessed is our Lord God, for on Him I will lay myself down and sleep in peace. And she entrusted her soul to the Lord, who receives all mankind in His mercy.

The beginning of the torments of St. Shushanik was in the month of January, on the eighth day, being a Wednesday. Her second beating took place on Monday in Easter week. And her death was in the month of October, on the seventeenth day, being the festival of the blessed saints and martyrs Cosmas and Damian, and it was a Thursday. This anniversary we set apart for the commemoration of St. Shushanik, and for the praising of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, to whom belong glory for ever and ever, Amen.

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Today is a dual commemoration. If you visit a temple today, you will see flowers decorating both the various icons of the Virgin Mary and icons of the Cross. The Annunciation is a fixed feast, and the Veneration of the Cross is a movable feast that always falls on the third Sunday of Great Lent.

March 25th in the Julian calendar (April 7 in the modern Gregorian calendar) is a fixed feast celebrating the Annunciation to the Ghvtismshobeli. It falls nine months before Shobas (Christmas), indicating that while the Incarnation of Christ was miraculous, the remainder of the pregnancy was in line with normal human conditions.

According to Church tradition, the Virgin Mary had spent much of her youth serving as a Temple attendant; her parents Saints Joachim and Anna were so grateful to God at having been granted a child so late in their lives that they dedicated her to serving God in this manner. Soon after returning home from the Temple, she was visited by the Angel Gabriel. The Annunciation and resulting conversation between teenage girl and mighty angel is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1:

28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.

32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

The Kontakion for today is one of many robust and seemingly martial hymns to the Virgin Mary. Given the humility and instantaneous obedience to God that Mary demonstrates upon receiving this momentous news, it may seem slightly incongruous, but it marks a turning point in the life of Mary from an innocent girl with few committments, to the human being with the fate of all humanity in her hands, a figure of strength and authority.

“O Victorious Leader of Triumphant Hosts!

We, your servants, delivered from evil, sing our grateful thanks to you, O Theotokos!

As you possess invincible might, set us free from every calamity

So that we may sing: Rejoice, O unwedded Bride!”

 

The third Sunday in Great Lent is always commemorated as the Sunday of the Holy Cross. The veneration of a wooden object, an instrument of torture, is seen as odd by outsiders and spurned by most Protestant sects, but this is an ancient tradition. After three weeks of fasting, it is tempting to believe we are making spiritual progress through our own efforts alone. This Sunday starkly reminds us that spiritual progress is only made possible through the voluntary submission to torture and death by the Son of God, and it is through Christ that we may move closer to God. Father Alexis Trader of Mount Athos explains this issue much better than I can here .

The hymns associated with the Sunday of the Holy Cross are likewise joyous and robust in character.

” Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden;

It has mysteriously been quenched by the wood of the Cross!

The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished;

For You, O my Savior, have come and cried to those in hell:“Enter again into paradise.””

 

 

 

 

 

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In addition to the cycle of Lenten services we are experiencing, commemorations of Georgian saints continues. Saint Demetre the Devoted, known to the world as Demetre II of Georgia, was a Bagratid king ruling with the approval of Georgia’s Mongol overlords at the time. He distinguished himself in the military service of the Mongol Khan, serving in Aqaba Khan’s campaigns against the Mameluke rulers of Egypt, and he was commended for his role in the Second Battle of Homs, where Georgian and Armenian troops prevailed over well-armed Mameluke troops. Ironically, the Mamelukes were in many cases Muslims of Georgian and Circassian origin, so Georgian fought Georgian on Syrian soil.

Saint Demetre was a controversial character at the time as he engaged in bigamy, maintaining up to three wives at one time (although of course only canonically married to one). Despite his personal failings, his self-sacrifice at the end of his life endeared him to the Georgian people and he was later canonised as a saint.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints”

Saint Demetre the King, also called “the Devoted,” was a great-grandson of Holy Queen Tamar. God sent St. Demetre many tribulations during his childhood, thus encouraging him in the Faith from an early age. Demetre was still an infant when the Mongols killed his mother, the pious Queen Gvantsa. His father, King Davit V (1258–1269), died when Demetre was just ten years old.

When he reached the age of twelve, the royal court sent him to the Mongol ordu (the military camp and headquarters of the Mongols. This particular camp of the Ilkhanid Mongols lay in Mughan of Azerbaijan.), to the ruler Abaqa Khan (1265–1282) (ruler of the Ilkhanid Mongols (descendents of Qubilay Khan’s brother Hulegu).

As the Georgians were under Mongol dominion, they asked Abaqa Khan to proclaim Demetre king, and their request was honored.

Filled with virtue, King Demetre ruled the nation in wisdom and kindness. At night he would go out in search of the poor, the infirm, and the orphaned to distribute his wealth to them. The king took advantage of comparatively peaceful periods to build and restore churches and monasteries and to strengthen fortifications.

Many of King Demetre’s lofty goals, however, were never realized, because the khan was constantly calling the Georgian soldiers to arms. A vast number of Georgia’s finest soldiers fought and perished in the khan’s battles. Soon Georgia was exhausted from battle and the sacrifice of her sons’ blood in the wars of foreign nations.

Internal strife began to tear at the Georgian people, and in desperation they began to pillage the lands and villages that belonged to their own Church.

During this difficult time, Demetre yielded to a temptation. Although already joined in a marriage of political convenience, he abducted Natela, the daughter of southern Georgia’s ruler, Beka Jakeli. She bore Demetre a son, whom they named Giorgi. He would later be honored with the title Giorgi V “the Brilliant” (1314–1346).

After the death of Abaqa Khan, his brother, Ahmad Tegüder (1282–1284), was proclaimed khan. In the second year of his reign, Ahmad’s brother, Qongurdam, plotted to overthrow him but failed. A short time later, Abaqa Khan’s son, Arghun (1284–1291), rose up against his uncle and seized the throne. Finally, Bugha Chingsang, the khan’s prime minister, organized a plot against Arghun. On January 17, 1289, Bugha Chingsang was executed along with his fellow conspirators.

Demetre, who had been on friendly terms with the khan, was now summoned to the khan’s ordu as a suspected member of the plot.

King Demetre immediately surmised the reason for this summons: “The khan is very angry and has called me to him,” he told his court. “I am certain he intends to do me evil, but my kingdom will lie defenseless before him if I do not go. How many Christians will die or become his slaves? How many churches will be laid to waste? Truly my life cannot be so valuable that I could live and bear this sin while many Christian souls are left to perish. It is my wish to go to the khan. God’s will be done: if I am killed, I will be certain that my country is saved!”

The royal court tried with all its might to convince Demetre that it was foolish to go, meet certain death, and leave the country without a ruler. Catholicos Abraam alone supported King Demetre’s decision and advised him, “If you sacrifice your own life for your nation, we, the bishops of this land, will bear your sins, and will pray to God that you be numbered among the holy martyrs. For the Lord Himself said, Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). And if it is good for a man to lay down his life for just one neighbor, how profitable is it for a man to die for the sake of many?”

“Demetrius II’s Farewell to His People” by Henryk Hrynievski

Upon hearing these words, the king rejoiced exceedingly and began to prepare for his journey to the Mongol ordu. He took with him Catholicos Abraam, a certain priest Mose, his son Davit, and several members of his court. At the ordu the Mongols could find no fault in the young Georgian king, but they imprisoned him nevertheless. Then a group of Georgian faithful forced their way into the prison to see him and offered to help him escape. The king was deeply moved by their compassion, but nevertheless he told them, “I knew from the beginning the death I would suffer, and I offered my life for this nation. If I escape now, the nation will be destroyed. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).”

The khan ordered his execution. Fully prepared to meet death, King Demetre prayed fervently, received the Holy Gifts, and gave up his soul to the Lord. Those present witnessed a divine miracle: the sun grew dark and an ominous gloom enshrouded the whole city.

The holy relics of the Royal Martyr Demetre were guarded until the catholicos and the priest Mose secretly retrieved the body and, with the help of a group of Tbilisi fishermen, returned the king to his homeland. He was buried in Mtskheta, in the burial vault of his forefathers at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.”

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

 

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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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