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Gori, a small town in eastern Georgia that became the epicentre for the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, is celebrating Okonoba, the day of the icon believed to be Gori’s patron.

This holiday is a big deal for the Gori population as they believed the ancient icon miraculously returned home after it went missing when an armed conflict broke out in Georgia’s breakaway Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) region in the 90s.

Okoni Triptych, a unique and precious 11th century icon was lost in the 90s but miraculously reappeared at Christie’s, the world’s largest art business and a fine arts auction house in 2001. The initial price of the icon was $2 million USD and it was presented at Christie’s in Geneva, Switzerland by a Russian citizen.

After lengthy negotiations between the Georgian and Swiss governments, Christie’s Auction House and the Georgian Orthodox Church, the icon was finally handed to the Georgian side.

Okoni Triptych, 11th century icon, is currently kept at Georgia’s National Museum in Tbilisi. 

Scientists believed the three-panelled silver-bound ivory icon featuring Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist was made in the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century and brought to Georgia as the dowry of Queen Helen, the wife of Georgian King Bagrat IV and the niece of Byzantine Emperor Romanoz Agririos.

The icon was kept in Gori district in a church built upon the order of King Tamar of Georgia until 1924 when it was brought to the Tskhinvali Museum. The icon was stolen and smuggled out of Georgia after the armed conflict broke out in the Tskhinvali region.

Currently, Okoni Triptych is kept among other National Treasury of Georgia at Georgia’s National Museum in Tbilisi while a duplicate was created especially for Gori. Gori locals honour the icon every year on the Sunday following Easter.

via Agenda.ge – Georgia honours unique Georgian icon returned home after being lost during war.

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Today is the second Sunday of the pre-Lenten period, with Meatfare Sunday (the last day of meat consumption before Pascha) falling next Sunday. Following from last week’s theme of repentance and forgiveness, the theme of today is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 15:11-32),

“11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

The simplest interpretation of this is for Christians to imagine themselves as foreigners in a distant land, far from their Father’s house and full of regret for their reckless and disobedient conduct. Through the Lenten period, we are to engage in metanoia (repentance or “change of mind”) and to follow the long and winding road back to God where we belong. The parable assures us that our repentant return home will be greeted with joy by the Father, not justified by our worthy acts but through God’s forgiveness and love. One can think of “the Father’s House” as being salvation and reunification with God. The prodigal chose to walk away from salvation by his own free will and to live foolishly and sinfully, and by his own free will he resolved to repent, to return home and to live humbly under the authority of his Father’s will. Concurrently, the elder brother, by removing himself from the household out of resentment at the favourable treatment the prodigal son received, at least temporarily has removed himself from salvation and God’s presence.

The iconography associated with this parable is very well discussed here

In the Georgian context, it is worthwhile considering how we, as individuals or as a Church, fit into the framework of this parable. Over three-quarters of the Georgian population now declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians. It is worth noting that, to avoid persecution and to improve career prospects, many of today’s Georgian Christians were Communist Party members or Komsomol members in the Soviet era, and openly repudiated organised religion in general or Christ in particular, not unlike Saint Peter repudiating Christ in Jerusalem on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon sincere demonstration of contrition and metanoia, the Church has joyfully received its former enemies into its midst as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is in the glorious tradition of the Early Church Fathers who joyfully baptised the same Roman troops and civil administrators who had previously persecuted them.

Having been accepted “back home” into God’s house, it is imperative for Christians in Georgia to remember the grace that has been bestowed upon them when considering how to deal with the other peoples of the region. The histories of the Georgian and Armenian peoples have been intertwined for millennia, sometimes competitive, sometimes co-operative, but despite the schism over the Council of Chalcedon, it is important for these two peoples to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with some outstanding disagreements, rather than as intractable antagonists. Thousands of Coptic Christians have settled in Georgia, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, but the welcome they have received from Georgian Orthodox parishes when seeking to pray in the temple has often been less than effusive. Some wonderful opportunities to embrace new arrivals or long-standing ethnic minorities as brothers and sisters in Christ, to baptise or chrismate them, and to gently integrate them into Georgian society, have sadly been lost, with some people behaving like the prodigal son’s older brother, filled with anger and resentment when schismatics seek to return home.

At various times in history, many of the people of the North Caucasus, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey had accepted baptism and were vigourous members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Georgian missionaries played no small part in this, using their God-given abilities as orators, teachers and healers to bring the word of God to these regions, and many gave their lives to enlighten these neighbouring peoples, whom they viewed as being equally worthy of salvation as their own people. It is a mark of contempt for these great Georgian evangelists that some people today, claiming to speak for the Church, seek to denigrate or insult neighbouring people of different religions or races simply because they are not Kartvelian.  

Many Muslims from neighbouring countries had Christian ancestors who were forced into apostasy under threat of torture or execution.  I have discussed before the Christian civilisation of the Caucasian Albanians of Azerbaijan, the Christian communities established by Georgian missionaries in Ossetia and Daghestan, and the hundreds of thousands of Christians who inhabited every major town and city in the Persian Empire in the past. Many Muslims from the region are curious about Christianity and are very open to discussing our religion, and not a few are willing to apostasise themselves from Islam and accept Christian baptism when dealt with kindly. When confronted with a person considering “returning home” to the Church, even from a nationality or faith that some consider to be an intractable enemy of the Georgian Church, it is important to consider that we all have been welcomed home by our Father through His grace rather than our own virtue. To reject our neighbours’ sincere approaches places us, rather unfavourably, in the role of the elder brother of the prodigal son. Unlike the elder brother, many of us in the past were in open opposition to God’s Church in Georgia; while the elder brother could with some justification say “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”, there are precious few of us here can truthfully say the same.

For those still in two minds on this issue, one can direct them to the will of the Holy Spirit as expressed in Saint Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

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Should at any time we feel ourselves to be alone, or for the secular world to be so overwhelming and powerful as to render spiritual life redundant, we can reflect on the difficulties of our predecessors and be inspired by their cheerfulness and joy in the face of tremendous privations.

As mentioned before, the mid 1920’s was a period of ferocious attacks upon the Church by the Bolsheviks, both clergy and laity. Many of the faithful were executed or imprisoned in the Gulag for extended periods on nonsensical charges. The Solovetsky Island concentration camp (Solovki for short), formerly a remote monastery on an island in the White Sea region of Russia’s far north, was reserved for particularly “recalcitrant” prisoners, in particular priests from throughout the Soviet Union, including the newly annexed Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Conditions were brutal and fatalities commonplace.

This letter from Bishop Maxim of Serpukhov, a Russian priest, is a moving testament to the resilience and cheerfulness of interned clergy during tremendous oppression. The Paschal context of his letter is poignant for us this week.

At Solovki we had several secret Catacomb “churches,” but our “favorites” were two: the “Cathedral Church” of the Holy Trinity, and the church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. The first was a small clearing in the midst of a dense forest in the direction of the “Savvaty” Assignment Area. The dome of this church was the sky, The wails were the birch forest. The church of St. Nicholas was located in the deep forest towards the “Muksolm” Assignment Area, It was a thicket naturally formed by seven large spruces. Most frequently the secret services were conducted only in the summer, on great feasts and, with special solemnity, on the Day of Pentecost. But sometimes, depending on circumstances, doubly secret services were celebrated also in other places. Thus, for example, on Great Thursday of 1929, the service of the reading of the Twelve Gospels was celebrated in our physicians’ cell in the 10th Company, Vladika Victor and Fr. Nicholas came to us as if for disinfection. Then, catacomb style, they served the church service with the door bolted. On Great Friday an order was read in all Companies informing that for the next three days no one would be allowed to leave the Companies after 8 p.m. save in exceptional circumstances and by special written permit of the Camp Commandant.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, when we physicians had just returned to our cells after a 12-hour workday, Fr. Nicholas came to us and told us that a Plashchanitsa (burial shroud with the image of Christ) the size of one’s palm had been painted by the artist R. The service-the rite of burial–was to be held and would begin in an hour. “Where?” Vladika Maxim asked. “In the great box for drying fish which is closest to the forest, next to Camp N. The password: three knocks and then two. It’s better to come one at a time.”

In half an hour Vladika Maxim and I left our Company and started out for the indicated “address.” Twice patrols asked for our permits. We, as physicians, had them. But what about the others?–Vladika Victor, Vladika Ilarion, Vladika Nektary, and Fr. Nicholas? Vladika Victor worked as-a bookkeeper in the rope factory. Vladika Nektary was a fisherman; and the others weaved nets. Here was the edge of the forest. Here was the box, about nine yards long, without windows, the door scarcely noticeable. Light twilight, the sky covered with dark clouds. We knock three times and then twice. Fr. Nicholas opens. Vladika Victor and Vladika Ilarion are already here… In a few minutes Vladika Nektary also comes. The interior of the box has been converted into a church. On the floor, on the wails, spruce branches. Several candles flickering. Small paper icons. The small Plashanitsa is buried in green branches. Ten people have come to pray. Later another four or five come, of whom two are monks. The service begins, in a whisper. It seemed that we had no bodies, but were only souls. Nothing distracted or interfered with prayer… I don’t remember how we went “home,” i.e., to our Companies. The Lord covered us!

The bright service of Pascha was assigned to our physicians’ cell. Towards midnight under various urgent pretexts arranged by the section, without any kind of written permit, all who intended to come gathered, about fifteen people in all. After the Matins and Liturgy, we sat down and broke the fast. On the table were Paschal cake and cheese, colored eggs, cold dishes, wine (liquid yeast with cranberry extract and sugar). About three o’clock we parted.

Control rounds of our Company were made by the Camp Commandant before and after the services, at 11 p.m. and  4 a.m. Finding us four physicians headed by Vladika Maxim, on his last round, the Commandant said: “What doctors, you’re not sleeping?” And immediately he added: “Such a night…and one doesn’t want to sleep!” And he left.

“Lord Jesus Christ! We thank Thee for the miracle of Thy mercy and power,” pronounced Vladika Maxim movingly, expressing our common feelings.

The white night of Solovki was nearing its end. The delicate, rose-colored Paschal morning of Solovki, the sun playing for joy, greeted the monastery-concentration camp, converting it into the invisible city of Kitezh and filling our free Souls with a quiet, unearthly joy. 

 

 

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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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Anyone visiting an Orthodox temple tonight will notice the Icon of the Nativity displayed prominently. The symbolism of this icon is very well explained here

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

Modern Icon of the Nativity

The most wise Lord comes to be born,
Receiving hospitality from His own creatures.
Let us also receive Him,
That this divine Child in the cave may make us His guests
In the paradise of delights!

The Birth of Christ has always been celebrated and hymned by Christians in some way or other, as it is central to the Faith. The Word of God in past times may have appeared as an angel of the Lord, or the divine fire of the burning bush, but now, from this time onwards, He has become one of us; and not just as a fully-grown man descended from Heaven, but in humility God is born of a woman, and comes to us as a tiny, speechless, infant. This is what is shown in the Nativity Icon, and around this central historical event other stories surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ are depicted.

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“A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” explains in detail the symbolism of the key attributes of icons of Saint Nicholas.

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

“If anything happens to God, we have always got St Nicholas”
-Russian proverb

Throughout the Christian churches, it is difficult to think of a Saint as well-loved as St Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, honoured on Dec 6th and every Thursday of the week. A fourth-century Bishop of Myra famous for defending Orthodoxy against heresy during the First Ecumenical Council, there are also numerous miracles associated with his life. However it is the miracles wrought after his repose, even up to the present day, that lead St Nicholas to be honoured as a “Wonder-worker” and for many a cherished heavenly pastor of an earthly flock.

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Today is the Feast of the Synaxis (Assembly) of the Angels for Orthodox Christians. Appearing in the Old Testament initially, angels are referred to extensively in the New Testament. All Orthodox Christians believe they have a personal guardian angel, known as a spiritual guide, to guide them through life. Angels feature in Georgian iconography a great deal, and are referred to frequently throughout the Divine Liturgy.

The feast was established at the beginning of the 4th Century at the local Laodician Council, which occurred several years before the First Ecumenical Council. The Laodician Council by its 35th Canon condemned and renounced as heretical the worship of angels as creators and rulers of the world and it affirmed their proper Orthodox veneration. A feastday was established in November – the ninth month from March (with which month the year began in ancient times) – in accordance with the 9 Ranks of Angels. The eighth day of the month was decreed for the intended Synaxis of all the Heavenly Powers – in conjunction with the Day of the Dread Last-Judgement of God, which the holy fathers called the “Eighth Day”, – since after this age in which the seven days [of Creation] have elapsed will come the “Eighth Day”, – and then “shalt come the Son of Man in His Glory and all the holy Angels together with Him” (Mt. 25: 31).

The Angelic Ranks are divided into three Hierarchies: – highest, middle, and lowest. In the Highest Hierarchy are included the three Ranks: the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones. Closest of all to the MostHoly Trinity stand the six-winged Seraphim  (Flaming, and Fiery) (Is. 6: 12). They blaze with love for God and impel others to it.


 After the Seraphim there stand before the Lord the many-eyed Cherubim (Gen. 3: 24). Their name means: outpouring of wisdom, enlightenment, since through them, – radiating with the light of Divine-knowledge and understanding of the mysteries of God, there is sent down wisdom and enlightenment for true Divine-knowledge.

After the Cherubim – stand God-bearing through grace given them for their service, the Thrones  (Col. 1: 16), mysteriously and incomprehensibly upholding God. They serve the uprightness of God’s justice.

The Middle Angelic Hierarchy consists of three Ranks: Dominions, Powers, and Authorities.

Dominions (Col. 1: 16) hold dominion over the successive ranks of Angels. They instruct the earthly authorities, established from God, to wise governance. The Dominions influence rule by miracles, they quell sinful impulses, subordinate the flesh to the spirit, and provide mastery over the will to conquer temptation.

Powers  (1 Pet. 3: 22) fulfill the will of God. They work the miracles and send down the grace of wonderworking and perspicacity to saints pleasing to God. The Powers give assist to people in bearing obediences, encourage them in patience, and give them spiritual strength and fortitude.

Authorities  (1 Pet. 3: 22, Col. 1: 16) have authority to quell the power of the devil. They repel from people demonic temptations, uphold ascetics and guard them, helping people in the struggle with evil ponderings.

In the Lowest Hierarchy are included the three Ranks: Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

Principalities (Col. 1: 16) have command over the lower angels, instructing them in the fulfilling of Divine commands. To them are entrusted to direct the universe, and protect lands, nations and peoples. Principalities instruct people to render honour to everyone, as becomes their station. They teach those in authority to fulfill their necessary obligations, not for personal glory and gain, but out of respect for God and benefit for neighbour.

Archangels (1 Thess. 4: 16) announce about the great and most holy, they reveal the mysteries of the faith, prophecy and understanding of the will of God, they intensify deep faith in people, enlightening their minds with the light of the Holy Gospel.

Angels (1 Pet. 3: 22)are closest to all to people. They proclaim the intent of God, guiding people to virtuous and holy life. They protect believers restraining them from falling, and they raise up the fallen; never do they abandon us and always they are prepared to help us, if we so desire.

All the Ranks of the Heavenly Powers have in common the name Angels – by virtue of their service. The Lord reveals His will to the highest of the Angels, and they in turn inform the others.

Over all the Nine Ranks, the Lord put the Holy Leader (“Archistrategos”) Michael  (his name in translation from the Hebrew means – “who is like unto God”) – a faithful servitor of God, wherein he hurled down from Heaven the arrogantly proud day‑star Lucifer together with the other fallen spirits. To the remaining Angelic powers he cried out: “Let us attend! Let us stand aright before our Creator and not ponder that which is displeasing unto God!” According to Church tradition, in the church service to the Archistrategos Michael concerning him, he participated in many other Old Testament events. During the time of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt he went before them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Through him the power of the Lord was made manifest, annihilating the Egyptians and Pharaoh who were in pursuit of the Israelites. The Archangel Michael defended Israel in all its misfortunes.

He appeared to Jesus Son of Navin (Joshua) and revealed the will of the Lord at the taking of Jericho (Nav. / Josh. 5: 13-16). The power of the great Archistrategos of God was manifest in the annihilation of the 185 thousand soldiers of the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib (4 [2] Kings 19: 35); also in the smiting of the impious leader Antiochos Illiodoros; and in the protecting from fire of the Three Holy Youths – Ananias, Azarias and Misail, thrown into the fiery furnace for their refusal to worship an idol (Dan. 3: 22‑25).

 Through the will of God, the Archistrategos Michael transported the Prophet Avvakum (Habbakuk) from Judea to Babylon, so as to give food to Daniel, locked up in a lions’ den (Kondak of Akathist, 8).

The Archangel Michael prevented the devil from displaying the body of the holy Prophet Moses to the Jews for idolisation (Jude 1: 9).

From Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are likewise known the Archangels: Gabriel – strength (power) of God, herald and servitor of Divine almightiness (Dan. 8: 16, Lk. 1: 26); Raphael – the healing of God, the curer of human infirmities (Tobit 3: 16, 12: 15); Uriel – the fire or light of God, enlightener (3 Ezdras 5: 20); Selaphiel – the prayer of God, impelling to prayer (3 Ezdras 5: 16); Jehudiel – the glorifying of God, encouraging exertion for the glory of the Lord and interceding about the reward of efforts; Barachiel – distributor of the blessing of God for good deeds, entreating the mercy of God for people; Jeremiel – the raising up to God (3 Ezdras 4:36).

On icons the Archangels are depicted in accord with the trait of their service:

Michael – tramples the devil underfoot, and in his left hand holds a green date-tree branch, and in his right hand – a spear with a white banner (or sometimes a fiery sword), on which is outlined a scarlet cross.
Gabriel – with a branch from paradise, presented by him to the MostHoly Virgin, or with a shining lantern in his right hand and with a mirror made of jasper – in his left.
Raphael – holds a vessel with healing medications in his left hand, and with his right hand leads Tobias, carrying the fish [for healing – Tobit 5-8].
Uriel – in raised right hand hold a bare sword at the level of his chest, and in his lowered left hand – “a fiery flame”.
Selaphiel – in a prayerful posture, gazing downwards, hands folded to the chest.
Jehudiel – in his right hand holds a golden crown, in his left – a whip of three red (or black) branches.
Barachiel – on his garb are a multitude of rose blossoms.
Jeremiel – holds in his hand balance-scales.

“Orthodox Liturgical Calendar of The St. John of Kronstadt Press”

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Saint Luke is one of the most significant saints in the Church; his Feast is held today. As a Greek medical doctor from Antioch, schooled in Greek medicine, art and philosophy, his background was quite different from the many Jewish peasants and fisherman whom Christ called to serve. Saint Luke was a witness to Christ’s Resurrection on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13) , and became a constant companion to Saint Paul the Evangelist in his extensive travels. It is hard to imagine a more “odd couple” to work together as evangelists for so many years, one formerly a Pharisee, the other an affluent Greek physician, but obviously their talents were complementary and they were very effective at spreading the faith amongst both Jews and Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire.

He is attributed as being the first iconographer, painting under the direction of the Virgin Mary.

He is most widely known as the author of the Gospel of Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Icons of the saint usually show him as a well-dressed professional gentleman in Greek garb, carrying a copy of the Holy Gospel.

11th Century Georgian Miniature of Saint Luke

The Holy Disciple and Evangelist Luke, was a native of Syrian Antioch, a Disciple from amongst the Seventy, a companion of the holy Apostle Paul (Phil. 1: 24, 2 Tim. 4: 10-11), and a physician enlightened in the Greek medical arts. Hearing about Christ, Luke arrived in Palestine and here he fervently accepted the preaching of salvation from the Lord Himself. Included amidst the number of the Seventy Disciples, Saint Luke was sent by the Lord with the others for the first preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven while yet during the earthly life of the Saviour (Lk. 10: 1-3). After the Resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to Saints Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus.

The Disciple Luke took part in the second missionary journey of the Apostle Paul, and from that time they were inseparable. At a point when all his co-workers had left the Apostle Paul, the Disciple Luke stayed on with him to tackle all the toiling of pious deeds (2 Tim. 4: 10-11). After the martyr’s death of the First-Ranked Apostles Peter and Paul, Saint Luke left Rome to preach in Achaeia, Libya, Egypt and the Thebaid. In the city of Thebes he finished his life in martyrdom.

Tradition ascribes to him the writing of the first icons of the Mother of God. “Let the grace of He born of Me and My mercy be with these icons”, – said the All-Pure Virgin in beholding the icons. Saint Luke painted likewise icons of the First-Ranked Apostles Peter and Paul. His Gospel was written by Saint Luke in the years 62-63 at Rome, under the guidance of the Apostle Paul. Saint Luke in the preliminary verses (1: 3) spells out exactly the aim of his work: he recorded in greater detail the chronological course of events in the framework of everything known by Christians about Jesus Christ and His teachings, and by doing so he provided a firmer historical basis of Christian hope (1: 4). He carefully investigated the facts, and made generous use of the oral tradition of the Church and of what the All-Pure Virgin Mary Herself had told him (2: 19, 51).

In the theological content of the Gospel of Luke there stands out first of all the teaching about the universal salvation effected by the Lord Jesus Christ, and about the universal significance of the preaching of the Gospel [Lat. “evangelum” with Grk. root “eu-angelos” both mean “good-news”].

The holy disciple likewise wrote in the years 62-63 at Rome, the Book of the Acts of the Holy Apostles. The Acts, which is a continuation of the Four Gospels, speaks about the works and effects of the holy Apostles after the Ascension of the Saviour. At the centre of the narrative – is the Council of the holy Apostles at Jerusalem (year 51 A.D.), a Church event of great critical significance, with a dogmatic basis for the distancing of Christianity from Judaism and its independent dispersion into the world (Acts 15: 6-29). The theological objective of the Book of Acts is that of the Dispensation-Economy of the Holy Spirit, actualised in the Church founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, from the time of the Ascension and Pentecost to the Second Coming of Christ.

From “Calender, Saint John of Kronstadt Press”

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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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From John Sanidopoulos’ excellent “Mystagogy” blog

In many icons of the Dormition of the Theotokos, one can see a strange scene near the bottom: an angel invisibly cuts off the two hands of a certain man.
 
What is the story behind this scene?
 
Bewailing their separation from the Mother of God, the Apostles prepared to bury Her all-pure body. A solemn procession went from Zion through Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane. 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.
 
The Jewish priest Jephonias (or 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, some say the Archangel Michael, invisibly cut off his hands, which had touched the bier. Seeing such a wonder, Jephonias 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.

 

 

According to Elisheva Revel-Neher, in her study of “The Image of the Jew in Byzantine Art”, the earliest known artistic depictions of the scene are from Cappadocia around the ninth and tenth centuries, with subsequent examples from much later periods.
 
The Theotokos is all-pure and ever-virgin, and her conception of the Son of God was foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the Ark of the Covenant. The procession of the body of the Theotokos by the Apostles is thus also seen as a foreshadow of a particular event in the Old Testament, when the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines, and eventually brought to Jerusalem.
 
In 1 Samuel 5:1-5 we read:
 
After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.
 
Here the pagan god Dagon is depicted as not being able to stand in the presence of the Ark, to the point that it fell and its head and hands broke off. Numerous other disasters were said to have befallen the Philistines for stealing the Ark, until they finally gave it back to the Jews out of fear.

 

 

Years later King David desired to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, and a great procession followed the Ark. In 2 Samuel 6:3, 4, 6 and 7 we read:
 
They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it… When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
 
This incident is said to have struck fear in the heart of King David, and it made him realize how great and significant the Ark of the Covenant truly was.
 
This iconographic scene in the icon of the Dormition, therefore, is an illustration to serve as a warning to believers and unbelievers who question and despise the mysteries of God, and do not hold the proper reverence for these sacred mysteries.
A miracle recorded by St. John Moschos in The Spiritual Meadow (Leimonarion) further details the moral described above. It concerns a certain actor named Gaianas who blasphemed the Holy Mother of God in the theatre. He writes:
Heliopolis is a city of Lebanese Phoenecia. There was an actor there named Gaianas who used to perform at the theatre an act in which he blasphemed against the holy Mother of God. The Mother of God appeared to him, saying: “What evil have I done to you that you revile me before so many people and blaspheme against me?” He rose up and, far from mending his ways, proceeded to blaspheme against her even more than before. Three times she appeared to him with the same reproach and admonition. As he did not mend his ways in the slightest degree, but rather blasphemed the more, she appeared to him once when he was sleeping at mid-day and said nothing at all. All she did was to sever his two hands and feet with her finger. When he woke up he found that his hands and feet were so afflicted that he just lay there like a tree-trunk. In these circumstances the wretched man confessed to everybody (making himself a public example) that he had received the reward for his blasphemy. And this he did for love of his fellow men.
From “Mystagogy

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