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Those living in Georgia with access to TV will have noted the recent media fascination with Georgia’s Assyrian minority living in Qanda village, close to Mtskheta town. This has been driven to an extent by the charisma and vocal talents of the priest of that community, Father Seraphim, who has made numerous media appearances and has multiple videos on Youtube of his choir in Qanda’s church, who sing in Aramaic and Georgian.

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As previously reported, the ancestors of Qanda’s population came to Georgia as refugees in the 19th century. While they were Christians, they were not of our Eastern Orthodox communion. Over time, they accepted baptism into the Georgian Church and were accepted as an Orthodox parish with the dispensation to conduct their affairs in their native language.

This ethnic minority are held in high regard in Georgia, even more so since Qanda’s rise to prominence in the media. Georgian Christians are very aware that Georgian monasticism was developed by Assyrian monks and that many regions of Georgia still practising animism or Zoroastrianism after Iberia’s adoption of Christianity were converted by the Assyrian Fathers. Also, to witness a community accepting the local religion and integrating smoothly into the greater Georgian community has been very satisfying to observe for many. To my knowledge, other Orthodox Christian minorities in Georgia, including Slavs, Ossetians and Greeks, were already Orthodox when they migrated here, other than those Caucasus Greeks and Black Sea Greeks who settled here more than 2000 years ago.

The psalm performed in Aramaic, with the tune arranged by Father Seraphim,  is Psalm 16:

16 Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.

O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;

But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.

Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips.

The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.

I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.

10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

 

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A common belief is that “Georgia” , the western name for our country, is named after Saint George. There is significant conjecture amongst historians on this point however, One school of thought is that the ancient Greeks referred to Colchis and Iberia as “The Land of Farmers”, having witnessed relatively well organised agricultural activity here when they engaged in trade and establishment of their colonies on the Black Sea coast, and developed the name Georgia from the Greek word georgos (γεωργός) .  Other writers suggest the word is of Persian origin, which is possible given that much of Georgia has been under Persian influence culturally and linguistically for 2500 years.

Regardless of the origin of the name, there is no dispute that Saint George has a special place in the hearts of Georgian people. Having originated in Cappadocia in Anatolia, it is believed that he was the cousin of Saint Nino, the Enlightener of the Georgians, and we are already familiar with the great reverence in which she is held. Tradition holds that Saint Nino taught the people of Iberia about the many martyrs of the persecutions of Diocletian, including her cousin Saint George.

This account expands upon our previous post on Saint George, which focussed upon his tortures on the wheel prior to his martyrdom.

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The Holy GreatMartyr George the Victory-Bearer, was a native of Cappadocia (a district in Asia Minor), and he grew up in a deeply believing Christian family. His father had accepted a martyr’s death for Christ, when George was yet a child. His mother, owning lands in Palestine, resettled there with her son and raised him in strict piety.

Having grown up, Saint George entered into the service of the Roman army. He was handsome, brave and valiant in battle, and he came to the notice of the emperor Diocletian (284-305) and was accepted into the imperial guards with the rank-title of “comites” – one of the higher military officer ranks.

The pagan emperor, while having done much for the restoration of Roman might, and who was quite clearly concerned, as to what sort of danger the triumphing of the Crucified Saviour might present for pagan civilisation, in especially the final years of his reign intensified his persecution against the Christians. Upon the advice of the Senate at Nicomedia, Diocletian afforded all his governors full freedom in their court proceedings over Christians and in this he promised them all possible help. 

Saint George, having learned about the decision of the emperor, distributed to the poor all his wealth, set free his servants, and then appeared in the Senate. The brave soldier of Christ spoke out openly against the emperor’s designs, he confessed himself a Christian and appealed to all to acknowledge the true faith in Christ: “I am a servant of Christ, my God, and trusting on Him, I have come amidst ye at mine own will, to witness concerning the Truth”. “What is Truth?” – one of the dignitaries said, in repeating the question of Pontius Pilate. “Truth is Christ Himself, persecuted by ye”, – answered the saint.

Stunned by the bold speech of the valiant warrior, the emperor – who loved and had promoted George, attempted to persuade him not to throw away his youth and glory and honours, but rather in the Roman custom to offer sacrifice to the gods. To this followed the resolute reply of the confessor: “Nothing in this inconstant life can weaken my resolve to serve God”. Then by order of the enraged emperor the armed-guards began to jostle Saint George out of the assembly hall with their spears, and they then led him off to prison. But the deadly steel became soft and it bent, just as the spears would touch the body of the saint, and it caused him no hurt. In prison they put the feet of the martyr in stocks and placed an heavy stone on his chest.

The next day at the interrogation, powerless but firm of spirit, Saint George again answered the emperor: “Thou wilt become exhausted sooner, tormenting me, than I being tormented of thee”. Then Diocletian gave orders to subject Saint George to some very intense tortures. They tied the GreatMartyr to a wheel, beneathe which were set up boards inset with sharp pieces of iron. With the turning of the wheel the sharp edges tore at the bared body of the saint. At first the sufferer loudly cried out to the Lord, but soon he quieted, not letting out even a single groan. Diocletian decided that the tortured one was already dead, and he gave orders to remove the battered body from the wheel, and set off then to a pagan temple to offer a thank-offering. But at this very moment it got dark all over, thunder boomed, and a voice was heard: “Fear not, George, for I am with thee”. Then a wondrous light shone, and at the wheel appeared an Angel of the Lord in the form of a radiant youth. And just as he lay his hand upon the martyr, saying to him: “Rejoice!” ‑- Saint George stood up healed. And when the soldiers led him off to the pagan temple, where the emperor was, the emperor could not believe his own eyes and he thought, that in front of him was some other man or even a ghost. In confusion and in terror the pagans looked Saint George over carefully, and they became convinced, that actually a miracle had occurred. Many thereupon came to believe in the Life-Creating God of the Christians. Two illustrious officials, Saints Anatolios and Protoleon, – secretly Christians, therewith openly confessed Christ. And right away, without a trial, by order of the emperor they were beheaded with the sword. Present also in the pagan temple was the Empress Alexandra, the wife of Diocletian, and she too knew the truth. She was on the point of glorifying Christ, but one of the servants of the emperor took her and led her off to the palace.

The emperor became all the more furious. But not having lost all hope of swaying Saint George, he gave him over to new quite fiercesome torments. Having thrown him down a deep pit, they covered it over with lime. Three days later they dug him out, but found him cheerful and unharmed. They shod the saint in iron sandals with red-hot nails, and with blows they drove him back to the prison. In the morning, when they led him back to the interrogation, cheerful and with healthy feet, he said to the emperor, that the sandals had fit him. Then they beat him with ox-thongs so much, that his body and blood became mingled with the ground, but the brave sufferer, strengthened by the power of God, remained unyielding.

Having decided, that magic was helping the saint, the emperor summoned the sorcerer Athanasias, so that he should try to deprive the saint of his miraculous powers, or else poison him. The sorcerer gave Saint George two goblets with drugged ingredients, the one of which should have quieted him, and the other – to kill him. But the drugs also did not work – and the saint as before continued to denounce the pagan superstitions and glorify the True God.

To the question of the emperor, what sort of power it was that helped the saint, Saint George answered: “Think not, that the torments do me no harm thanks to human powers, – I am saved only by calling upon Christ and His Power. Whoso believeth on Him hath no regard for tortures and is able to do the deeds, that Christ did” (Jn. 14: 12). Diocletian asked, what sort of deeds were they that Christ did. – “To give sight to the blind, to cleanse the leprous, to grant walking to the lame, and to the deaf – hearing, to cast out devils, and to raise up the dead”.

Knowing, that never whether by sorcery, nor by any of the gods known to him, never had they been able to resurrect the dead, and wanting to test the trust of the saint the emperor commanded him to raise up a dead person right in front of his eyes. To this the saint replied: “Thou wouldst tempt me, but for the salvation of the people which shalt see the deed of Christ, my God wilt work this sign”. And when they led Saint George down to the graveyard, he cried out: “O Lord! Show to those here present, that Thou art the One-Only God throughout all the world, let them know Thee as the Almighty Lord”. And the earth did quake, a grave opened up, the dead one came alive and emerged from it. Having seen with their own eyes the Almighty Power of Christ, the people wept and glorified the True God. The sorcerer Athanasias, falling down at the feet of Saint George, confessed Christ as the All-Powerful God and besought forgiveness of his sins, committed in ignorance. The obdurate emperor in his impiety thought otherwise: in a rage he commanded to be beheaded both the new-believer Athanasias and likewise the man resuscitated from the dead, and he had Saint George again locked up in prison. The people, weighed down with their infirmities, began in various ways to penetrate the prison and they there received healings and help from the saint. There resorted to him also a certain farmer named Glycerios, whose ox had collapsed. The saint with a smile consoled him and assured him, that God would restore his ox to life. Seeing at home the ox alive, the farmer began to glorify the God of the Christians throughout all the city. By order of the emperor, Saint Glycerios was arrested and beheaded.

The exploits and the miracles of the GreatMartyr George had increased the number of the Christians, and therefore Diocletian decided to make a final attempt to compel the saint to offer sacrifice to the idols. They began to set up a court at the pagan temple of Apollo. On the final night the holy martyr prayed fervently, and when he dozed off, he beheld the Lord Himself, Who raised him up with His hand, and hugged him in giving him a kiss of greeting. The Saviour placed on the head of the GreatMartyr a crown and said: “Fear not, but rather make bold and be vouchsafed My Kingdom”.

In the morning at the court the emperor offered Saint George a new test – he proposed to him to become his co-emperor. The holy martyr with a feigned willingness answered, that from the very beginning the emperor had seemed inclined not to torture him but rather shew mete mercy, and with this he expressed the wish to go forthwith into the pagan temple of Apollo. Diocletian decided, that the martyr was accepting his offer, and he followed after him into the pagan temple with his accompanying retinue and the people. Everyone waited, whether Saint George would offer sacrifice to the gods. He however, in going up to the idol, made the sign of the Cross and turned towards it, as though it were alive: “Thou wishest to receive from me sacrifice befitting God?” The demon inhabiting the idol cried out: “I am not God and none of those like me are God. The One-Only God is He Whom thou preachest. We are of those servant-angels of His, which became apostate, and in the grips of jealousy we do tempt people”. “How dare ye to be here, when hither have come I, the servant of the True God?” – asked the saint. Then was heard a crash and wailing, and the idols fell down and were shattered.

There began a general confusion. In a frenzy pagan-priests and many of the throng pounced upon the holy martyr, they tied him up and began to beat him and demand his immediate execution.

Into the noise and the shouts rushed the holy empress Alexandra. Pushing her way through the crowd, she cried out: “Thou God of George, help me, in as Thou Alone art All-Powerful”. At the feet of the GreatMartyr the holy empress glorified Christ, Who had humiliated the idols and those worshipping them.

Diocletian in a rage immediately pronounced the death sentence against the GreatMartyr George and the holy Empress Alexandra, who without being accompanied, followed Saint George to execution. Along the way she collapsed and slumped senseless against a wall. Everyone thought, that the empress was dead. Saint George offered up thanks to God and he prayed, that he should end his path worthily. At the place of execution the saint in heated prayer besought the Lord, that He would forgive the torturers that knew not what they did, and that He would lead them to the knowledge of Truth. Calmly and bravely, the holy GreatMartyr George bent his neck beneathe the sword. This occurred on 23 April 303.

In confusion the executioners and the judges catch glimpse of their Conqueror. In a bloody agony and mindless thrashing about ended the era of paganism. It lasted for all of ten years more – up until the time of the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Constantine, who was one of the successors to Diocletian upon the Roman throne, and who gave orders to imprint the Cross on his military-banners, as a testament also sealed by the blood of the GreatMartyr George and that of the blood of thousands of unknown martyrs: “By this sign thou wilt conquer”.

Of the many miracles, worked by the holy GreatMartyr George, the most famous are depicted in iconography. In the native-region of the saint, at the city of Beirut, were many idol-worshippers. Outside the city, near Mount Lebanon, was situated a large lake, in which lived an enormous dragon-like serpent. Coming out of the lake, it devoured people, and there was nothing the people could do, since from one of its nostrils it infected the very air.

On the advice of the demons inhabiting the idols, the ruler there adopted this decision: each day the people would draw lots to give over as food their own children, and when the turn reached him, he promised to hand over his only daughter. That time indeed did come, and the ruler, having dressed her in her finest attire, sent her off to the lake. The girl wailed bitterly, awaiting the moment of death. Unexpectedly for her, the GreatMartyr George rode up on his horse and with spear in hand. The girl implored him not to leave her, lest she perish. But the saint, having caught sight of the serpent, signed himself with the Sign of the Cross and with the words “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, he rushed off after it. The GreatMartyr George pierced the throat of the serpent with his spear and trampled it with his horse. Then he bid the girl bind the serpent with her sash, and like a dog, lead it into the city. The people fled in terror, but the saint halted them with the words: “Be not afraid, but rather trust on the Lord Jesus Christ and believe in Him, since it be He Who hath sent me to you, to save you”. Then the saint killed the serpent with a sword, and the people burned it outside the city. Twenty-five thousand men, not counting women and children, were then baptised, and there was later built a church in the name of the MostHoly Mother of God and the GreatMartyr George.

Saint George went on to become a talented military officer and to amaze the world by his military exploits. He died, when he was not even 30 years old. Hastening to unite with the Heavenly army, he entered into the history of the Church as the Victory-Bearer.

from Orthodox Liurgical Calendar, Saint John of Kronstadt Press

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The Feast in Honour of the Chiton (Tunic) of the Lord and the Life-Giving Pillar is the temple feast of the Mtskheta patriarchal cathedral in honour of the Twelve Holy Apostles, named the Svetitskhoveli ((სვეტიცხოვლის, which in translation means “Life-Giving Pillar”). According to the tradition of the Georgian Church, the Chiton (Greek word, in Latin “Tunic”) of the Lord – the seamless garment of the Saviour (Jn. 19: 23) – came to the ancient capital city of Georgia, Mtskheta, in the following manner.


Elioz of Mtskheta acquiring the Robe of the Lord

Eleazar (or Elioz), rabbi of the Mtskheta community of Jews, had resettled to Georgia from Jerusalem already by the year 70 A.D. Having received news from the Jerusalem high-priest Annas about the impending execution of Christ, he hastened to Jerusalem in the company of Longinus Carsnitus [or “carsnifex”, the Latin meaning “executioner”]. They became eye-witnesses to the Passion of the Lord and the casting of lots for His garment (Jn. 19: 23-24; Ps. 21 [22]: 18).

At the moment when the All-Pure Body of the Lord was nailed to the Cross, the mother of Elioz, situated in Mtskheta, sensed the blows of the hammer in her heart and shuddered out of great fright. Having related to her daughter Sidonia about the crucifixion sufferings of the Saviour, guiltlessly given over unto death, the mother of Elioz then died. Elioz then acquired the Chiton from the soldier who by lots had won it, and he took it with him to Mtskheta.

Sidonia, meeting her brother Elioz in tears, told him about the death of their mother and her words just before her death. Elioz confirmed the words of their mother and he showed his sister the Chiton (Tunic) of the Lord. Taking hold the Chiton, Righteous Sidonia kissed it all over, pressed it to her bosom and herewith fell down lifeless. No one, not even the emperor Aderk (2 B.C.-55 A.D.) was able to open the grasp of Sidonia nor take from her the Chiton. Righteous Sidonia (Comm. 1 October) was secretly consigned to earth by her brother Elioz in the imperial garden at Mtskheta.


The miracle of the Life-giving Pillar

The holy Saint Nino, Equal-to-the-Apostle, stold about this to the Kartalin Hebrew highpriest Aviathar – a descendent of rabbi Elioz. He came to believe in Christ, having listened to the explanation by Saint Nino of the ancient prophecies concerning the Messiah, and how these prophecies were fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Georgian king Mirian (265-342) was also converted by holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Saint Nino, and he decided to build a Christian church on the spot whereupon the Chiton of the Lord was situated. A massive cedar tree had grown on the grave of Sidonia, which they sawed, and wanted to use its truck as a foundation pillar for supporting the main cupola of the church, but they were not able to raise it upright. Saint Nino prayed all night for Divine help. and visions were manifest to her, in which were revealed the historical courses of destiny of Georgia.

At dawn an Angel of the Lord approached the pillar and raised it in the air. The pillar, shining with a wondrous light, was elevated and then lowered in the air, until it was set over its base. From the stump of the cedar issued a fragrant myrh. Thus the Angel of the Lord indicated the place, where the Chiton (Tunic) of the Lord was concealed in the ground. This event, witnessed to by many of the inhabitants of Mtskheta, is depicted on the icon, “Glorification of the Georgian Church”. Afterwards at the place of the wooden church was erected the majestic stone cathedral of Svetitskhoveli. The Life-Giving Pillar, from which occurred many healings, has at present a stone four-cornered covering and is crowned by a light-loft, not touching the arch of the cathedral. The Pillar is positioned in the Sveti-Tskhoveli cathedral with a model alongside of the Church of the Sepulchre of the Lord at Jerusalem.

From “Lives of the Saints”, Saint John of Kronstadt Press

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Today the Church celebrates the entry of Saint Nino into the Kingdom of Iberia in the year 323. Despite the efforts of the Apostles Andrew, Simon the Zealot and Matthias, and no doubt other Christian evangelists after them, Iberia and Colchis remained steadfastly heathen in the early 4th century.

Saint Nino came from a well-respected family; her father Zabulon was a Roman Army officer who retired, moved to Jerusalam and was tonsured a monk. His wife Sosana was ordained by her brother Patriarch Juvenal in Jerusalem as a diaconess (a rank of the Orthodox Christian clergy that has since fallen out of use), and Nino went to live with a devout old lady, Sara, who told her of how Christ’s robe had been taken to Iberia and was hidden there.

Nino prayed to the Virgin Mary for inspiration on how to travel to Georgia to venerate the robe of Christ. The Theotokos appeared to her in a vision and commanded her “Go to the country that was assigned to me by lot and preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will send down His grace upon you and I will be your protector”.

Afraid, Nino replied “How can I, a fragile woman, perform such a momentous task, and how can I believe this vision is real?” In reply, the Virgin Mary gave her  cross made of grapevines and commanded “Receive this cross as a shield against visible and invisible enemies!”. The cross is still held at Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.

When Nino awoke, she was clasping a cross fashioned of grapevines. She lashed them together with her hair and resolved to engage in her mission to the Georgians. It is significant that her cross was to made of grapevines, as the vine in Georgia is treated with greater reverence than any other living thing.

Her mission was endorsed by her uncle, Patriarch Juvenal, and she endured many difficulties and dangers on her travels from Jerusalem to southern Georgia. Over fifty of her followers were martyred in Armenia by the Armenian King Tiridates, and she managed to escape by hiding in rose bushes.

After travelling through the Lesser Caucasus mountains of Javakheti, she entered Iberia in the vicinity of Lake Paravani.

Lake Paravani, Samtske-Javakheti region

Arriving in the middle of a blizzard, she met Mtskhetan shepherds who provided her with directions to Urbnisi, from where she travelled to the Iberian capital city, Mtskheta, to commence her mission to the Georgians.

It is common to hear foreign social commentators describing Georgian Christian society not only as patriarchal, but as misogynist (literally, demonstrating hatred of women or girls). I believe this view to be erroneous.

Certainly, traditional Georgian culture ascribes different roles to men and women, just as western societies did until after the Second World War, and recognition of the professional talents of Georgian women is still a work-in-progress. That being said, it should be recognised that Christianity ascribes great importance to the dignity and uniqueness of the individual, male or female, rather than just applying a label to a person and treating them generically. It is a common assumption made by foreign gender-equity consultants in Georgia, of whom there are a plethora (indeed, more than agriculture or public health experts) that Georgian women are downtrodden, defenceless and in need a a government programme to “save” them, whereas the reality is that the main breadwinner, spiritual guide and financial controller of most Georgian families is the wife. Certainly there is room for improvement in recognition of women’s capabilities and rights in our society, but it would be fair to say that today’s successful women in Georgia are standing on the shoulders of giants.

If you ask any Georgian Christian to name the ten people of greatest importance to Georgia in history, the Virgin Mary, Saint Nino and Queen Tamar will be mentioned with great regularity. The Theotokos is the most frequently venerated and invoked Saint in Georgian Christianity, and Saint Nino would follow a close second; despite the fact that neither were Georgian, they are seen as the protectors and champions of the Georgian people, and most Georgian males have a strong devotion to them. A truly “misogynist” society would have airbrushed such characters out of history and replaced them with “heroic” male figures.

We shall talk more about the importance of women in the dissemination of the Christian faith in Georgia, and the Church’s recognition of their achievements, in a future post.

 

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