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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 we celebrate the Birth of the Virgin Mary, the Ghvtismshobeli. The event is of great importance to Orthodox Christians in general, but because the Virgin Mary is the Patron of the Georgian Nation, it has become a national holiday.

The Most Holy Virgin Mary was born at a time, when people had reached such limits of decay of moral values, that it seemed altogether impossible to restore them. The best minds of this era were aware and often said openly, that God must needs come down into the world, so as to restore faith and not tolerate the ruination of the race of mankind.

The Son of God chose for the salvation of mankind to take on human nature, and the All-Pure Virgin Mary, – alone worthy to contain in Herself and to incarnate the Source of purity and holiness, – He chose as His Mother.

The Birth of Our Most Holy Lady Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary is celebrated by the Church as a day of universal joy. Within the context of the Old and the New Testaments, on this radiant day was born the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, – having been forechosen through the ages by Divine Providence to bring about the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God, and She is revealed as the Mother of the Saviour of the World, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Most Holy Virgin Mary was born in the small city of Galilee, Nazareth. Her parents were Righteous Joachim from the tribe of the King and Prophet David, and Anna from the tribe of the First-Priest Aaron. The couple was without child, since Saint Anna was barren. Having reached old age, Joakim and Anna did not lose hope on the mercy of God. They had strong faith that for God everything is possible, and that He would be able to solve the barrenness of Anna – even in her old age, as He had once solved the barrenness of Sarah, spouse of the Patriarch Abraham. Saints Joakim and Anna made a vow to dedicate the child which the Lord might bestow on them, into the service of God in the Temple.

Childlessness was considered among the Hebrew nation as a Divine punishment for sin, and therefore the righteous Saints Joakim and Anna had to endure abuse from their own countrymen. On one of the feastdays at the Temple in Jerusalem the elderly Joakim brought his sacrifice in offering to God, but the High Priest would not accept it, – considering him to be unworthy since he was childless. Saint Joakim in deep grief went into the wilderness and there he prayed with tears to the Lord for the granting of a child. Saint Anna, having learned about what had happened at the Jerusalem Temple, wept bitterly; never once did she complain against the Lord, but rather she prayed, asking God’s mercy on her family.

The Lord fulfilled her petitions when the pious spouses had attained to extreme old age and prepared themselves by virtuous life for a sublime calling – to be the parents of the MostHoly Virgin Mary, the future Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Archangel Gabriel brought Joakim and Anna the joyous message: their prayers were heard by God, and of them would be born a Most Blessed Daughter Mary, through Whom would come the Salvation of all the World. The Most Holy Virgin Mary of Herself in purity and virtue surpassed not only all mankind but also the Angels; – She was manifest as the Living Temple of God, such that the Church sings in its festal verses of song: “the Heavenly Gate, bringing Christ into the world for the salvation of our souls” (2nd Stikhera on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6).

The Birth of the Mother of God marks the change of the times, wherein the great and comforting promises of God begin to be fulfilled about the salvation of the human race from slavery to the devil. This event has brought nigh to earth the grace of the Kingdom of God, – a Kingdom of Truth, piety, virtue and life immortal. Our Mother First-Born of All Creation is revealed to all of us by grace as a merciful Intercessor and Mother, to Whom we steadfastly recourse with filial devotion.

Orthodox Liturgical Calendar of The St. John of Kronstadt Press

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In the previous post on this theme, we examined the proposition that the Orthodox Church is hostile to women and their status as people of equal merit to men. I advanced the argument that God had turned the established gender politics of the time on its head by choosing to be incarnated in the womb of a woman, and consenting to be raised under the authority of a woman, as the Son of God.The early Church in turn recognised the elevated nature and status of the Virgin Mary as a clear sign of God’s plan for all of humanity, for both genders and all races.

The early Church transformed the code of conduct for the faithful to allow men and women equal access to all aspects of worship within the temple, with the exception of ordination to Priesthood, and dramatically reformed expectations regarding treatment of women in divorce cases, treatment of female indentured servants and slaves, and participation of women in Church administration and missionary activity. These reforms were revolutionary by the standards of the day and no doubt engendered antipathy from traditional Jews and the Hellenised communities of the Roman Empire, who saw such social radicalism as dangerous to the established order.

My next question is, if the Orthodox Church is supposedly hostile to the advancement of women’s status, why is it that Christ chose women as his first Evangelists, and why does the Church acknowledge the contributions of the Eight Myrrh-Bearing women, as “Apostles to the Apostles”, with such vigour and enthusiasm?

We need to return to the root of the matter, the life of Jesus Christ. As Mary Truesdell writes in “The Diaconate Now”;

Our Lord Jesus Christ…afforded woman a higher place than she ever had before.

 In the Orient, woman was a mere possession of man, a chattel.  In Greece, her life was one of seclusion and obscurity.  In Rome, more honor was paid woman, but they were under the absolute domination of their fathers and later their husbands.  Although the position of women was higher among the Hebrews, and there were several rare women who had the gift of prophecy, yet a Jewish man still blesses God who has not made him “a Gentile, a slave,…or a woman.”  Women could only enter into the outer parts of the Temple; they were excused from keeping a great deal of the Law; their vows could be voided by husband or father, and their word was not taken at law.  They were respected and honored in home life, but looked upon as inferior.  When in the fullness of time God sent His Son, Christ humbled himself to be born of a woman, whom all generations shall call Blessed.

Throughout his ministry, our Lord showed an especial tenderness toward women and children.  He condemned the prevailing idea of divorce, and proposed a high and sacred concept of marriage.  His compassion for the widow is reflected in parable and miracle.  Though weary, He stopped when mothers brought their children to him for blessing.  Women came to him for healing and in penitence.  Women sat at His feet to hear his words.  His disciples often wondered at the respect he had for women, both bad and good.  He was different from other rabbis.  When He went about preaching and proclaiming the glad tidings of the kingdom, not a few women ministered to Him of their substance.  At the foot of the Cross, faithful women stood until the end, when all but one of his chosen twelve had forsaken Him and fled; and they followed those who carried Jesus’ body to its burial, and went home to prepare spices and ointments for its anointing.

That this loving service was agreeable to the mind of Christ, we may learn from His choosing the same faithful women to become the first witnesses of His glorious resurrection.”

We are familiar with the story of the Eight Myrrh-Bearing women, who approached Christ’s tomb on the first Paschal morning, traumatised and heartbroken. Their spiritual leader had been tortured to death in front of them, their dreams of a peaceful new world order dashed, and they had not had time before the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday night to properly wash and embalm His body for the correct Jewish burial rites, cause for distress for devout Jewish ladies. Carrying myrrh and other supplies to his tomb for the preparation for burial, they were confronted with the sight of an empty tomb, and an angel proclaiming,

” Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him as He said to you.” (Mark 15:43–16:8).

For this reason, the Eight Myrrh-Bearers are known as “Apostles to the Apostles”, as they were the first people to be informed of, and to recognise, Christ’s Resurrection, and to spread the word of his Resurrection to the world. God choosing women to be the bearers of such dramatic news is not without significance; just as Christ’s Conception was announced only to women initially, so was his Resurrection. The importance of women in bearing witness to Christ’s mission, His divinity and His ultimate triumph over Death was acknowledged and affirmed by God on the first Pascha, and reiterated and celebrated for almost two millennia by His Church.

From Orthodox Wiki; ” There are eight women who are generally identified as the myrrh-bearers. Each of the four Gospels gives a different aspect of the roles of these eight women at the cross and at the tomb on Easter morning, perhaps since the eight women arrived in different groups and at different times. The eight are:

Of the eight, the first five are the more prominent and outspoken. The last three are included according to tradition. Five of these women were also very wealthy; the women of means were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Mary and Martha of Bethany.

A confusing aspect in Gospel references to these women is that two of the Marys had a son named James. Mary, the wife of Alphaeus, was the mother of James, one of the Twelve Apostles; the Virgin Mary was the step-mother of James, the Lord’s step-brother (Matthew 13:55, Galatians 1:19).

In Eastern tradition, James, the Lord’s step-brother was Bishop of Jerusalem from 30-62 AD and never left the vicinity of Jerusalem. He is the James who rendered the decision of the council of Jerusalem in 48 AD (Acts 15:13-19). Eastern Tradition links James, the son of Alphaeus, with evangelism abroad, especially in Egypt where he was martyred.

One helpful tip that can clear up the confusion between these two Marys is the passage that refers to the Virgin Mary as the mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 13:55). This Joseph is also called Barsabas, Justus, and Judas (Acts 1:23 and 15:22). Therefore, in Matthew 27:56, the women looking on from afar at the cross were Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary (that is, Mary the mother of James and Joseph), and Salome (the wife of Zebedee and the Virgin Mary’s step-daughter).

Matthew refers to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” who is probably the Virgin Mary also from the context (Matthew 27:61 and 28:1). Such Church Fathers as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory Palamas support this interpretation. Similarly, St. Gregory of Nyssa identifies “Mary, the mother of James” (Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10) as the Virgin Mary also.

These eight women had been together a lot during Jesus’ three-year public ministry. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others (Luke 8:3) are described as providing for Jesus out of their possessions. These same women had faithfully followed him from Galilee and had come up with him to Jerusalem (Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40-41, and Luke 23:55).”

The Gospel of Saint John , Chapter 20 presents perhaps one of the most dramatic records of what must have been by turns the most stressful and most joyous episodes of Mary Magdalene’s life;

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

It is worth noting that some of the remaining eleven Apostles were sceptical of the claims of Christ’s Resurrection emanating from these women; as traditional rural Jews they were probably inclined to discount what they considered to be the hysterical ravings of overstressed women. Christ’s appearance in their midst soon after must have caused them to re-appraise their prejudices.

If the Church were truly misogynist as some Western humanists complain, surely the Church would have suppressed these stories that document  women to be worthy of being the first Apostles of Christ’s Resurrection, and therefore spiritually and intellectually equivalent to males. It has not engaged in such suppression; the Gospels that glorify women’s efforts in the development of Christ’s Church on Earth are recounted freely and enthusiastically in homilies by Orthodox priests every week. Our parish priests teach us that all human beings are equal in spiritual essence; no matter how much people of other genders, races or religions may confuse or aggravate us at times, we are all created in the Image and Likeness of God. We all carry the same divine spark and equally yearn for union with God.

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In the Orthodox Church, John the Baptist is usually known as the Prophet John (Ivane) the Forerunner, because his ministry prepared the way for Christ’s mission. His martyrdom at the hands of the Tetrarch of Galilee Herod Antipas is celebrated today; the day is maintained as a strict fast.

The Icon of Ivane the Forerunner is commonly seen in churches here, with him represented wearing a garment of coarse animal fibre (traditionally, camel hair), and his face represented in very similar style to that of Christ (as they were cousins). Known as “The Angel of the Desert”, his icons sometimes show him with wings. As a lifelong Nazarite, he is shown with long hair and a full beard. From Orthodox Wiki: A Nazarite or Nazirite (Nazir in Hebrew) was a Jew who took an ascetic vow as described in Numbers 6:1-21. The term Nazarite comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning “consecrated” or “separated.” The Nazarite is “holy unto the Lord” (Numbers 6:8) and must keep himself from becoming ritually unclean. The regulations which apply to him actually agree with those for the High Priest and for the priests during worship, as described in Leviticus and in Ezekiel. This vow required the man to observe the following:

  • Abstain from wine, vinegar (which was made from wine), grapes, raisins, and all intoxicants;
  • Refrain from cutting one’s hair and beard;
  • To avoid corpses, even those of a family member.

The vow was usually for a fixed period of time—30, 90 or even 100 days. At that time, the man would make a sacrifice that included a lamb, a ewe, a ram, and a basket of bread and cakes. There are cases where a parent would make this vow for her or his child, which the child would observe for his entire life. The angel (Luke 1:15) that announces the birth of John the Baptist foretells that “he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” The implication is that John would take a lifelong Nazarite vow (see also Luke 7:33).

The Evangelists Matthew (Mt. 14: 1-12) and Mark (Mk. 6: 14-29) provide accounts about the Martyr’s end of John the Baptist in the year 32 after the Birth of Christ.


Following the Baptism of the Lord, Saint John the Baptist was locked up in prison by Herod Antipas, holding one-fourth the rule of the Holy Land as governor of Galilee. (After the death of king Herod the Great, the Romans divided the territory of Palestine into four parts, and into each part put a governor. Herod Antipas received from the emperor Augustus the rule of Galilee).

The prophet of God John openly denounced Herod for having left his lawful wife – the daughter of the Arabian king Aretas, and then instead co-habiting with Herodias, – the wife of his brother Philip (Lk. 3: 19-20).

On his birthday, Herod made a feast for dignitaries, the elders and a thousand chief citizens. The daughter of Herod, Salome, danced before the guests and charmed Herod. In gratitude to the girl he swore to give her anything, whatsoever she would ask, anything up to half his kingdom. The vile girl on the advice of her wicked mother Herodias asked, that she be given at once the head of John the Baptist on a plate.

Herod became apprehensive, for he feared the wrath of God for the murder of a prophet, whom earlier he had heeded. He feared also the people, who loved the holy ForeRunner. But because of the guests and his careless oath, he gave orders to cut off the head of Saint John and to give it to Salome.

By tradition, the mouth of the dead head of the preacher of repentance once more opened and proclaimed: “Herod, thou ought not to have the wife of Philip thy brother”. Salome took the plate with the head of Saint John and gave it to her mother. The frenzied Herodias repeatedly stabbed the tongue of the prophet with a needle and buried his holy head in a unclean place. But the pious Joanna, wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, buried the head of John the Baptist in an earthen vessel on the Mount of Olives, where Herod was possessor of a parcel of land (the Uncovering of the Venerable Head is celebrated 24 February). The holy body of John the Baptist was taken that night by his disciples and buried at Sebasteia, there where the wicked deed had been done.

After the murder of Saint John the Baptist, Herod continued to govern for a certain while. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, later sent to him the bound Jesus Christ, over Whom he made mockery (Lk. 23: 7-12).

The judgement of God came upon Herod, Herodias and Salome, even during their earthly life. Salome, crossing the River Sikoris in winter, fell through the ice. The ice gave way for her such that her body was in the water, but her head trapped beneathe the ice. It was similar to how she once had danced with her feet upon the ground, but now flailing helplessly in the icy water. Thus she was trapped until that time when the sharp ice cut through her neck. The corpse was not found, but they brought the head to Herod and Herodias, as once they had brought them the head of Saint John the Baptist. The Arab king Aretas in revenge for the disrespect shown his daughter made war against Herod. Having suffered defeat, Herod suffered the wrath of the Roman emperor Caius Caligula (37-41) and was exiled with Herodias first to Gaul, and then to Spain. And there they were from view.

In memory of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, the feastday established by the Church is also a strict day of fast, – as an expression of the grief of Christians at the violent death of the saint. “

From “The Lives of the Saints”

It is worth noting that Joanna, the woman who disinterred John the Forerunner’s head and buried it reverently, re-appears later in the Gospels as one of the women who discovered Christ’s empty tomb on the morning of Pascha.From Orthodox Wiki:

Joanna the Myrrh-Bearer, the wife of Chouza, the steward-administrator of King Herod Antipas, is listed in Luke 8:3 as one of the women who followed Christ from Galilee and supported the disciples, along with Susanna, Mary Magdalene, and others. In Luke 23:55-24:11, we have the story of how these same women went to the tomb to finish the job of embalming Jesus’ body, which was hastily begun by Joseph and Nicodemus. They were perplexed when they found the tomb empty except for the grave clothes. The angel appeared unto them and proclaimed the Resurrection. They believed and became the first evangelists of the risen Christ. The Church celebrates her feast day on June 27, as well as on the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers.

It is also interesting that, despite the story of John’s martyrdom being so well-known in Georgia, Salome is still such a popular Christian name here.

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