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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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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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As powerful now as when this eloquent Byzantine bishop first uttered this homily in the 4th Century, this distils the Christmas spirit into its purest essence. A Blessed Christmas to you all, გილოცავთ შობა!!

 

I behold a new and wondrous mystery! My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing!

The Archangels blend their voices in harmony!

The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise!

The Seraphim exalt His glory!

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things move in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassibility, remaining unchanged…

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Yet He has not forsaken His angels, nor left them deprived of His care, nor because of His Incarnation has he departed from the Godhead.

And behold kings have come, that they might adore the heavenly King of glory;

soldiers, that they might serve the Leader of the Hosts of Heaven;

women, that they might adore Him Who was born of a woman so that He might change the pains of child-birth into joy;

virgins, to the Son of the Virgin, beholding with joy, that He Who is the Giver of milk, Who has decreed that the fountains of the breast pour forth in ready streams, receives from a Virgin Mother the food of infancy;

infants, that they may adore Him Who became a little child, so that out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings, He might perfect praise;

children, to the Child Who raised up martyrs through the rage of Herod;

men, to Him Who became man, that He might heal the miseries of His servants;

shepherds, to the Good Shepherd Who has laid down His life for His sheep;

priests, to Him Who has become a High Priest according to the order of Melchisedech;

servants, to Him Who took upon Himself the form of a servant that He might bless our servitude with the reward of freedom;

fisherman, to Him Who from amongst fishermen chose catchers of men;

publicans, to Him Who from amongst them named a chosen Evangelist;

sinful women, to Him Who exposed His feet to the tears of the repentant; and that I may embrace them all together, all sinners have come, that they may look upon the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.

Since therefore all rejoice, I too desire to rejoice. I too wish to share the choral dance, to celebrate the festival. But I take my part, not plucking the harp, not shaking the Thyrsian staff, not with the music of the pipes, nor holding a torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ. For this is all my hope, this my life, this my salvation, this my pipe, my harp. And bearing it I come, and having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels, sing: Glory to God in the Highest; and with the shepherds, and on earth peace to men of good will.

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Today is the Feast of Transfiguration; while it falls during the Dormition fast, dietary restrictions are relaxed today.

Prior to the conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the 4th century, various folk religions and Greek-influenced pagan cults were present in the country. As Georgia has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition (over 8000 years), viticulture plays a very large role in the lives of lowland Georgians, and the management practices of the vineyard were often linked with religious festivals. Archaelogical ruins in Georgia indicate that Dionysian/Bacchan cults were widespread before Georgia’s conversion, and that rites to this god involving wine and grapes were common.

Orthodox Christian practice, past and present, has been to examine local pagan customs and, provided such customs are not wicked, to adapt and Christianise them.  For example, Orthodox priests in China commonly hold a liturgy in memory of the deceased for Chinese converts on the two Grave-Sweeping Festivals, which are ancient ancestor-worship festivals. The Church Fathers in the early days of the Church in the Roman Empire likewise evaluated local folk customs and pre-existing Jewish rites, and conflated them with Church festivals. The presentation of grapes at Transfiguration is one of these customs.

Presenting fruit and grapes at the temple is an ancient Jewish custom (Gen 4:2-4; Ex 13:12-13; Num 15:19-21; Deut 8:10-14).  It was Christianised by the Apostles  (1 Cor 16:1-2). Presentation of grapes at the temple is mentioned in the Third Rule of the Apostolic Canon, which is the earliest collection of written ecclesiastic laws (canons) in our possession, dating to the second century.

In the first centuries of the Church, the faithful presented to the temple the fruit and produce of each seaon’s new harvest: bread, wine, oil, incense, wax, honey and fruit . Bread, wine, oil and wax were taken to the altar, while the other offerings were used to feed the clergy and the poor who were under the Church’s care.

In Georgia, the date of the grape harvest or Rtveli is determined by the ripeness of the grapes rather than a fixed date, but traditionally it was forbidden to consume grapes during the Dormition fast before Transfiguration and so Rtveli always occurs no earlier than Transfiguration. In practical terms, Rtveli is usually no earlier than the last week of August, and in the mountainous areas of western Georgia it can be as late as November.

There is a theological significance to the blessing of grapes at Transfiguration. Just as we celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration today, we celebrate this with objects that undergo both physical and spiritual transformation. Grapes are physically transformed, from flower to fruit, from fruit to must, and from must to wine. Grapes are also spiritually transformed, from ordinary wine into the Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy.

It should also be recalled that the Church is frequently described as a vine, with the faithful being the fruit that it bears.

In addition, King Demetre 1st of Georgia in the 12th century wrote a hymn of praise to the Ghvtismshobeli, the Virgin Mary, describing her as a beautiful vineyard. As Georgia is the land allocated to the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, the hymn functions almost as an unofficial national anthem and is very popular.  The melody by the 19th century composer Paliashvili is favoured today. The lyrics of the hymn “Shen Khar Venakhi/Thou Art a Vineyard” are:

Georgian text:
შენ ხარ ვენახი, ახლად აყვავებული,
ნორჩი კეთილი, ედემს შინა ნერგული,
(ალვა სუნელი, სამოთხეს ამოსული,)
(ღმერთმან შეგამკო ვერვინა გჯობს ქებული,)
და თავით თვისით მზე ხარ და გაბრწყინვებული.
Latin transliteration:
shen khar venakhi, akhlad aqvavebuli.
norchi k’etili, edems shina nerguli.
(alva suneli, samotkhes amosuli.)
(ghmertman shegamk’o vervina gjobs kebuli.)
da tavit tvisit mze khar da gabrts’qinvebuli.
English translation:
You are a vineyard newly blossomed.
Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,
(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)
(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)
You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.

A blessed Transfiguration Feast to you all.

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The second half of August in Georgia is devoted to the Virgin Mary, or the Ghvtismshobeli as she is known in Georgia.  For two weeks, starting today, a fast is practiced and Orthodox Christians focus their prayers upon the Virgin Mary, as a prelude to the celebration of her death (“Dormition” or falling asleep) and reunion with her Son, Jesus Christ. As the Liturgical Calender starts on September 1, the Feast of the Dormition is the last major feast of the Church year.

During this season, the Transfiguration of Christ is also celebrated.

As Georgia is the country allocated to the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, Georgians are quite dedicated to this season. Although Georgia is a conservative country with somewhat demarcated roles for men and women, the deep passions that this season arouses reflect or perhaps inspire the high status of women in this very traditional society.

The Scriptures have no accounts of the Virgin Mary’s death, but Church Tradition is rich with accounts of this event that are recounted in the hymns and iconography of the event. There are substantial traditional accounts of her life between the Ascension and her death.

“After the Ascension of the Lord, the Mother of God remained in the care of the Apostle John the Theologian, and during his journeys She lived at the home of his parents, near the Mount of Olives. She was a source of consolation and edification both for the Apostles and for all the believers. Conversing with them, She told them about miraculous events: the Annunciation, the seedless and undefiled Conception of Christ born of Her, about His early childhood, and about His earthly life. Like the Apostles, She helped plant and strengthen the Christian Church by Her presence, Her discourse and Her prayers.

The reverence of the Apostles for the Most Holy Virgin was extraordinary. After the receiving of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles remained at Jerusalem for about ten years attending to the salvation of the Jews, and wanting moreover to see the Mother of God and hear Her holy discourse. Many of the newly-enlightened in the Faith even came from faraway lands to Jerusalem, to see and to hear the All-Pure Mother of God.

During the persecution initiated by King Herod against the young Church of Christ (Acts 12:1-3), the Most Holy Virgin and the Apostle John the Theologian withdrew to Ephesus in the year 43. The preaching of the Gospel there had fallen by lot to the Apostle John the Theologian. The Mother of God was on Cyprus with St Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead, where he was bishop. She was also on Holy Mount Athos. St Stephen of the Holy Mountain says that the Mother of God prophetically spoke of it: “Let this place be my lot, given to me by my Son and my God. I will be the Patroness of this place and intercede with God for it.”

The respect of ancient Christians for the Mother of God was so great that they preserved what they could about Her life, what they could take note of concerning Her sayings and deeds, and they even passed down to us a description of Her outward appearance.

According to Tradition, based on the words of the Hieromartyrs Dionysius the Areopagite (October 3), Ignatius the God-Bearer (December 20), St Ambrose of Milan (December 7) had occasion to write in his work “On Virgins” concerning the Mother of God: “She was a Virgin not only in body, but also in soul, humble of heart, circumspect in word, wise in mind, not overly given to speaking, a lover of reading and of work, and prudent in speech. Her rule of life was to offend no one, to intend good for everyone, to respect the aged, not envy others, avoid bragging, be healthy of mind, and to love virtue.”

When did She ever hurl the least insult in the face of Her parents? When was She at discord with Her kin? When did She ever puff up with pride before a modest person, or laugh at the weak, or shun the destitute? With Her there was nothing of glaring eyes, nothing of unseemly words, nor of improper conduct. She was modest in the movement of Her body, Her step was quiet, and Her voice straightforward; so that Her face was an expression of soul. She was the personification of purity.

All Her days She was concerned with fasting: She slept only when necessary, and even then, when Her body was at rest, She was still alert in spirit, repeating in Her dreams what She had read, or the implementation of proposed intentions, or those planned yet anew. She was out of Her house only for church, and then only in the company of relatives. Otherwise, She seldom appeared outside Her house in the company of others, and She was Her own best overseer. Others could protect Her only in body, but She Herself guarded Her character.

At the time of Her blessed Falling Asleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as the Mother of God had already spread throughout the land and had aroused many of the envious and the spiteful against Her. They wanted to make attempts on Her life; but God preserved Her from enemies.

Day and night She spent her time in prayer. The Most Holy Theotokos went often to the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and here She offered up fervent prayer. More than once, enemies of the Savior sought to hinder Her from visiting her holy place, and they asked the High Priest for a guard to watch over the Grave of the Lord. The Holy Virgin continued to pray right in front of them, yet unseen by anyone.

In one such visit to Golgotha, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Her and announced Her approaching departure from this life to eternal life. In pledge of this, the Archangel gave Her a palm branch. With these heavenly tidings the Mother of God returned to Bethlehem with the three girls attending Her (Sepphora, Abigail, and Jael). She summoned Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and other disciples of the Lord, and told them of Her impending Repose.

The Most Holy Virgin prayed also that the Lord would have the Apostle John come to Her. The Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him in that very place where the Mother of God lay. After the prayer, the Most Holy Virgin offered incense, and John heard a voice from Heaven, closing Her prayer with the word “Amen.” The Mother of God took it that the voice meant the speedy arrival of the Apostles and the Disciples and the holy Bodiless Powers.

The faithful, whose number by then was impossible to count, gathered together, says St John of Damascus, like clouds and eagles, to listen to the Mother of God. Seeing one another, the Disciples rejoiced, but in their confusion they asked each other why the Lord had gathered them together in one place. St John the Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, said that the time of the Virgin’s repose was at hand.

Going in to the Mother of God, they beheld Her lying upon the bed, and filled with spiritual joy. The Disciples greeted Her, and then they told her how they had been carried miraculously from their places of preaching. The Most Holy Virgin Mary glorified God, because He had heard Her prayer and fulfilled Her heart’s desire, and She began speaking about Her imminent end.

During this conversation the Apostle Paul also appeared in a miraculous manner together with his disciples Dionysius the Areopagite, St Hierotheus, St Timothy and others of the Seventy Apostles. The Holy Spirit had gathered them all together so that they might be granted the blessing of the All-Pure Virgin Mary, and more fittingly to see to the burial of the Mother of the Lord. She called each of them to Herself by name, She blessed them and extolled them for their faith and the hardships they endured in preaching the Gospel of Christ. To each She wished eternal bliss, and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of the whole world.

Then came the third hour (9 A.M.), when the Dormition of the Mother of God was to occur. A number of candles were burning. The holy Disciples surrounded her beautifully adorned bed, offering praise to God. She prayed in anticipation of Her demise and of the arrival of Her longed-for Son and Lord. Suddenly, the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth, before which the blazing candles paled in comparison. All who it saw took fright. Descending from Heaven was Christ, the King of Glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels and Archangels and other Heavenly Powers, together with the souls of the Forefathers and the Prophets, who had prophesied in ages past concerning the Most Holy Virgin Mary.

Seeing Her Son, the Mother of God exclaimed: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Savior, for He hath regarded the low estate of His Handmaiden” (Luke 1:46-48) and, rising from Her bed to meet the Lord, She bowed down to Him, and the Lord bid Her enter into Life Eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in a happy sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave Her soul into the hands of Her Son and God.

Then began a joyous angelic song. Accompanying the pure soul of the God-betrothed and with reverent awe for the Queen of Heaven, the angels exclaimed: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women! For lo, the Queen, God’s Maiden comes, lift up the gates, and with the Ever-Existing One, take up the Mother of Light; for through Her salvation has come to all the human race. It is impossible to gaze upon Her, and it is impossible to render Her due honor” (Stikherion on “Lord, I Have Cried”). The Heavenly gates were raised, and meeting the soul of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Cherubim and the Seraphim glorified Her with joy. The face of the Mother of God was radiant with the glory of Divine virginity, and from Her body there came a sweet fragrance.

Miraculous was the life of the All-Pure Virgin, and wondrous was Her Repose, as Holy Church sings: “In Thee, O Queen, the God of all hath given thee as thy portion the things that are above nature. Just as in the Birth-Giving He did preserve Thine virginity, so also in the grave He did preserve Thy body from decay” (Canon 1, Ode 6, Troparion 1).

Kissing the all-pure body with reverence and in awe, the Disciples in turn were blessed by it and filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through the great glorification of the Most Holy Theotokos, the almighty power of God healed the sick, who with faith and love touched the holy bed.

Bewailing their separation from the Mother of God, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the Twelve Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders, and upon it lay the body of the Ever-Virgin Mary. St John the Theologian went at the head with the resplendent palm-branch from Paradise. The other saints and a multitude of the faithful accompanied the funeral bier with candles and censers, singing sacred songs. This solemn procession went from Sion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.

With the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over the all-pure body of the Mother of God and all those accompanying Her a resplendent circular cloud, like a crown. There was heard the singing of the Heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, which echoed that of the worldly voices. This circle of Heavenly singers and radiance accompanied the procession to the very place of burial.

Unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem, taken aback by the extraordinarily grand funeral procession and vexed at the honor accorded the Mother of Jesus, complained of this to the High Priest and scribes. Burning with envy and vengefulness toward everything that reminded them of Christ, they sent out their own servants to disrupt the procession and to set the body of the Mother of God afire.

An angry crowd and soldiers set off against the Christians, but the circular cloud accompanying the procession descended and surrounded them like a wall. The pursuers heard the footsteps and the singing, but could not see any of those accompanying the procession. Indeed, many of them were struck blind.

The Jewish priest Athonios, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, wanted to topple the funeral bier on which lay the body of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, but an angel of God invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Athonios repented and with faith confessed the majesty of the Mother of God. He received healing and joined the crowd accompanying the body of the Mother of God, and he became a zealous follower of Christ.

When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amidst the weeping and the wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body. Only towards evening were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone.

For three days they did not depart from the place of burial, praying and chanting Psalms. Through the wise providence of God, the Apostle Thomas was not to be present at the burial of the Mother of God. Arriving late on the third day at Gethsemane, he lay down at the tomb and with bitter tears asked that l he might be permitted to look once more upon the Mother of God and bid her farewell. The Apostles out of heartfelt pity for him decided to open the grave and permit him the comfort of venerating the holy relics of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Having opened the grave, they found in it only the grave wrappings and were thus convinced of the bodily ascent of the Most Holy Virgin Mary to Heaven.

On the evening of the same day, when the Apostles had gathered at a house to strengthen themselves with food, the Mother of God appeared to them and said: “Rejoice! I am with you all the days of your lives.” This so gladdened the Apostles and everyone with them, that they took a portion of the bread, set aside at the meal in memory of the Savior (“the Lord’s Portion”), and they exclaimed : “Most Holy Theotokos, save us”. (This marks the beginning of the rite of offering up the “Panagia” (“All-Holy”), a portion of bread in honor of the Mother of God, which is done at monasteries to the present day).

The sash of the Mother of God, and Her holy garb, preserved with reverence and distributed over the face of the earth in pieces, have worked miracles both in the past and at present. Her numerous icons everywhere pour forth signs and healings, and Her holy body, taken up to Heaven, bears witness to our own future life there. Her body was not left to the vicissitudes of the transitory world, but was incomparably exalted by its glorious ascent to Heaven.”

OCA

A neat summary of the accepted Tradition is documented for us. At the time of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, Byzantine Empress Pulcheria requested the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Patriarch Juvenal, to transfer a garment of the Virgin Mary to Constantinople.  Explaining that no bodily relics of the Virgin Mary existed,  he referred to a much earlier document, the Euthymian History.

There is nothing in the holy, inspired Scripture about the death of Mary, the holy Theotokos; but we know from an ancient and truest tradition that at the time of her glorious falling asleep, all the holy Apostles, who were traveling the world preaching salvation to the nations, were in an instant lifted up and brought to Jerusalem. As they stood before her, they saw an angelic apparition, and a divine chanting was heard from the higher Powers. And so, in a state of divine and heavenly glory she placed her soul into God’s hands in an ineffable way.

Her body, which had received God, was carried with angelic and apostolic hymns, was prepared and laid to rest in a coffin in Gethsemane. It was there and for three days that the angelic choruses and hymns continued unceasingly. After three days, however, the angelic hymnody ceased. The Apostles were there, and since one of them –Thomas– who had been absent from the burial, came after the third day and asked to reverence that body which had received God, they opened the coffin. They could not find anywhere her much-praised body, and since all they could find were her burial swaddling-clothes and the ineffable fragrance that came out of them and filled their bowels, they closed the coffin again. Amazed by the miracle of this mystery, they could only think this: that the One who willed to be incarnated and become human from her in his person, and to be born in the flesh he who is God the Word and Lord of Glory, and who preserved her virginity incorruptible after the birth, he was also the One that was well-pleased to honor her immaculate and spotless body, after her departure from this world, [by endowing it] with incorruptibility and with a transposition (metathesis) [to heaven] before the common, and universal resurrection.”

The iconography of the Dormition is fascinating and bears some explanation. A scholarly and detailed account of the symbolism of this icon can be found here

The Apostles are clearly assembled to witness her passing, some of them wearing their bishop’s sashes, and angels are present, as mentioned in the earlier account. The image of Christ bearing the soul of His mother, wrapped in swaddling clothes like an infant, is a fascinating reversal of the usual image of Christ as an infant embraced by His mother.

The Icon of the Feast of the Falling-asleep of the Theotokos depicts her body resting breathless in a bed while her soul, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a new-born baby, is upheld in the arms of the Risen and glorified Christ who stands behind the bed. This icon is the reversal of the usual icon of the Theotokos which depicts the Virgin holding Christ in her arms. Christ holding the Virgin’s soul in his arms indicates her entry into the Kingdom of Heaven which the Incarnate Christ opened up for us through his saving life and work. It indicates in the most concrete way St. Athanasius’ well known dictum: “God became human that we (humans) may be made divine.” Christ the Savior taking the soul of his Mother to Heaven marks the first resurrection, which Christians experience when they die, thanks to our Lord’s redemptive work. The full resurrection of our humanity, i.e. the resurrection of the body, will take place at the second coming of Christ which will be accompanied by the general resurrection and the last judgment of all human beings.”

Source: Father George Dion Dragas, Saint John the Baptist Hellenic Orthodox Church, http://www.saintjohnthebaptist.org

Church Tradition provides us with a great deal of information about the Virgin Mary’s later life and even her physical appearance;  according to Tradition, that from the compiler of Church history Nicephorus Callistus (fourteenth century), the Ghvtismshobeli “was of average stature, or as others suggest, slightly more than average; Her hair golden in appearance; Her eyes bright with pupils like shiny olives; Her eyebrows strong in character and moderately dark, Her nose pronounced and Her mouth vibrant bespeaking sweet speech; Her face was neither round nor angular, but somewhat oblong; the palm of Her hands and fingers were longish…

In conversation with others She preserved decorum, neither becoming silly nor agitated, and indeed especially never angry; without artifice, and direct, She was not overly concerned about Herself, and far from pampering Herself, She was distinctly full of humility. Regarding the clothing which She wore, She was satisfied to have natural colors, which even now is evidenced by Her holy head-covering. Suffice it to say, a special grace attended all Her actions.” (Nicephoros Callistus borrowed his description from St Epiphanius of Cyprus (May 12), from the “Letter to Theophilus Concerning Icons.”

A blessed fasting season to you all.

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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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Today is the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, when the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple. This is one of the dozen Great Feasts of the Church; the elder Simeon’s recognition of Christ’s divinity marks a key revelation in the life of Jesus. From Vincent Martini’s excellent blog.

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