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As we have noted before, each of the Sundays of Great Lent has a specific meaning and significance.

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The second of Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong‘s concise guides to Lent provides an excellent insight into the Lenten experience; while music varies a little from place to place, the structure of the services is identical.

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

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

 

 

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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 is what is known as a “soul day” in the Church, when people pray for the souls of their deceased relatives. Concurrently, it is a the commemoration of the martyrdom of nine children of Georgia’s Tao-Klarjeti region, now lying within Turkey’s borders, at the headwaters of the Mtkvari/Kura river. At the time of this incident, Christianity had already been the State religion in Iberia (Eastern Georgia) for over 200 years, but indigenous paganism and Iranian Zoroastrianism still persisted in the country in many areas. Colchis was incorporated into the Roman province of Lazika during the reign of Justinian in the 6th century, involving much of Georgia’s coastal regions, but the inland regions of Georgia’s west remained under the control of the Chosroid dynasty that ruled Iberia at the time, which alternated between vassalage of Constantinople and Persia in order to maintain autonomy. 

Kola (Gole in Turkish) is in Ardahan province of today’s Turkey and was seized from the Georgian Atabegs of Samtskhe by the Ottomans in 1561. It was conquered by the Russians in 1878 and remained within the Russian Empire until 1919, following which it was under Armenian occupation for a year until being handed over to Turkey by the Bolshiviks. Kola is around 100 kilometres southwest of Akhalkalaki in Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region.

Gole Village may be seen just to the south of Ardahan town, marked in red on the map

Many centuries ago, the village of Kola was located at the source of the Mtkvari River. There Christians and pagans dwelt together as neighbors. Christian and pagan children would play together, but when the Christian children heard church bells ringing, they recognized the call to prayer and dropped their games. Nine pagan children—Guram, Adarnerse, Baqar, Vache, Bardzim, Dachi, Juansher, Ramaz, and Parsman—would follow the Christian children to church.

But the Christians always stopped them near the gates of the church and reprimanded them, saying, “You are children of pagans. You cannot enter God’s holy house.” They would return sorry and dejected.

One day the nine pagan children tried to enter the church forcibly, but they were cast out and scolded. “If you want to enter the church, you must believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” they were told. “You must receive Holy Communion and join the community of Christian believers.”

With great joy the youths promised the Christians that they would receive Holy Baptism. When the Christians of Kola related to their priest the good news of the pagan boys’ desire, he recalled the words of the Gospel: He that loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me: and he that loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he that takes not his cross, and follows after Me, is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:37–38).

He was not afraid of the anger that would follow from the pagan community, but rather took the boys on a cold winter night and baptized them in the icy river. A miracle occurred while the Holy Sacrament was being celebrated: the water became warm and angelic hosts appeared to the youths. Greatly encouraged in their faith, the children decided to remain in the Christian community rather than return to their parents.

When their parents learned that they had been baptized in the Christian Faith, they dragged their children away from the church, abusing and beating them into submission all the way home. The heroic children endured the abuses and, though they went hungry and thirsty for seven days, repeated again and again, “We are Christians and will not eat or drink anything that was prepared for idols!”

Neither gentle flattery, nor costly clothing, nor promises of good things to come could tempt the God-fearing youths. Rather they asserted, “We are Christians and want nothing from you but to leave us alone and allow us to join the Christian community!”

The enraged parents went and reported to the prince everything that had happened. But the prince was of no help—he simply told them, “They are your children, do with them as you wish.” The obstinate pagans asked the prince permission to stone the children. So a large pit was dug where the youths had been baptized, and the children were thrown inside.

“We are Christians, and we will die for Him into Whom we have been baptized!” proclaimed the holy martyrs, the Nine Children of Kola, before offering up their souls to God.

Their godless parents took up stones, and then others joined in, until the entire pit had been filled. They beat the priest to death, robbed him, and divided the spoils among themselves.

The martyric contest of the Nine Righteous Children of Kola occurred in the 6th century, in the historical region of Tao in southern Georgia.”

from “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, Saint Hermans Press, 2006.

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Last Sunday was Forgiveness Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Great Lent. In order to avoid hypocrisy or lingering resentment at a time when we should be focussed upon prayer, Christians are advised to make their peace with those whom they are in dispute, and any tensions between lay people and their spiritual fathers are to be resolved before Great Lent begins.

Despite the many difficulties experienced in Georgia currently with a weakening economy and regional tensions, we are fortunate that we can go about our daily lives peacefully and unmolested for the most part. Regrettably this is not the case in many parts of our immediate neighbourhood. Conflict in Eastern Ukraine between people of the same faith and in some cases from the same towns and neighbourhoods is a great tragedy that may take decades to heal.

Only a few hundred kilometres away, Islamic State terrorists in recent days have kidnapped several hundred Assyrian Christians in Syria; such actions in the past have generally ended with martyrdom of the captives. Assyrians are a people native to Syria, Iraq, Iran and south-eastern Turkey, whose presence in the region predates the Arab conquest by millennia. Assyrians typically belong to various churches in communion with Rome, or to Oriental Orthodox communities (in communion with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), or to the Church of the East (a Nestorian church). The so-called Syrian Fathers of the Georgian Church were most likely Orthodox monastics from this nationality.

The genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christians in 1915, resulting in the mass deaths of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians throughout the empire, resulted in many survivors fleeing to the Russian Empire as refugees. Many of Georgia’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian people can trace their ancestries to such refugees; this short documentary explains the perambulation of one persecuted Assyrian community from Turkey to Iran to Georgia during the First World War.

Greek villages in Kvemo Kartli’s Tsalka district and the Assyrian village of Dzveli Kanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti region are populated with the descendants of such refugees, and Armenian communities in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Shida Kartli and Tbilisi have many ancestors who fled from Turkey in 1915.

With the 100th anniversary of a genocide of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian citizens approaching in late April, tensions are running high between the Turkish government, which claims that no genocide happened or that it was hugely exaggerated, and descendants of the victims, Greek, Armenian and Assyrian, seeking acknowledgement and contrition. No likely agreement is in sight and bitter feelings on both sides are likely to persist for some time; forgiveness is difficult to give if the counterparty expresses no contrition. That being said, sometimes such gestures of contrition are offered at times and places when least expected. This very well written story by an Armenian-American journalist combines interviews with a Kurdish mayor of a small town in southeastern Turkey, trying to make amends for the murders of Armenians that his community’s ancestors committed, and the author’s family history associated with the same small town.

Most of us would have recently seen excerpts of chilling footage of the murder of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya by Islamic State terrorists. Anger, resentment, hatred and a desire for revenge would be natural emotions for the families of the victims to endure. While no doubt the families would be enduring tremendous grief at losing their loved ones, the brother of two of the victims, speaking on talkback radio in Egypt, amazes all who listen to him by blessing those who killed his brothers and praying for their salvation.

While we may be frustrated with day-to-day conflicts and harbour ill-feeling for those we feel treat us with contempt or disrespect, we could all afford to put our concerns into perspective and consider the example of forgiveness and compassion set by the mother of the two Coptic martyrs of Libya. The courage and steadfastness shown by the martyrs should also be an inspiration to us.

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

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

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

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

Sustained Fasting Is Important

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

Fasting without Prayer is Dangerous

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

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

The Spirit of Fasting Comes First

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

Preparing For The Fast

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

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

Make A Plan

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

Some Things to Consider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As we enter the last week before Great Lent, we are encouraged to occupy ourselves with assisting those around us suffering from misfortune or illness.

The Georgian Wounded Warrior Program emulates the very successful Wounded Warrior Project in the USA. It is run by the US Office of Defense Cooperation’s Bilateral Affairs Office, based at the US Embassy in Tbilisi. Its personnel include civilian rehabilitation experts and serving US Army personnel.

In Georgia, the project has been providing prostheses to Georgian veterans who have lost limbs in the 2008 war against Russia, as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres of operations. As is well-known, Georgia has been the largest non-NATO military contingent in Afghanistan for some time, and a substantial number of mortalities and serious injuries have been sustained by Georgian troops on active duty there. A modern Rehabilitation Centre is to be commissioned by August 2016 in Tbilisi with funding and technical support from the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project.

An identified deficiency in the Georgian Military, and in Georgia in general, is a shortage of trained counsellors or therapists to deal with psychological illnesses, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The military chaplains embedded in Georgian battalions,  provided by the Georgian Church, have previously received some basic training in counselling; given that Georgian soldiers are reluctant to admit vulnerability to their comrades, or to strangers, a chaplain is often the first port of call for a distressed soldier having difficulty coping. The established Orthodox Christian model of intimacy and confidentiality between the priest and his spiritual son provides a good base upon which counselling, guidance, or even referral for additional treatment, can develop.

Last week, representatives of the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project met with relevant clergy from the Georgian Church to discuss co-operation, with great willingness on the Georgian side for Georgian chaplains to receive training from US Special Forces chaplains in identifying and supporting Georgian soldiers with psychological problems. This is a very pleasing development indeed, and we will keep readers posted on new developments.

For those interested in the interface between Orthodox Christianity and mental health, I can strongly recommend Father Alexis Trader’s website and his bookAncient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

Another function of the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project is to find employment for demobilised soldiers who have suffered from physical or psychological injuries. Given the high rate of unemployment amongst the able-bodied in Georgia, this is a challenge. That being said,they have many attributes that are desirable in the private sector. Veterans are typically highly disciplined and reliable, amenable to training in complex tasks including IT and communications, work effectively in teams, and often have leadership experience gained under very trying conditions. Employers in Georgia wishing to employ wounded veterans in their enterprises, or provide other support for rehabilitation activities, may contact me in the comments section below to be referred to the relevant personnel at the Georgian Wounded Warrior Project.

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