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Most long-term residents know that the local custom is to attend a Nativity Vigil at a temple or cathedral on Christmas Eve, for many hours (usually starting around 10 am and continuing on until just before dawn).  Families often attend the colourful and joyous Alilo Parade held in Rustaveli Avenue afterwards.

As is common in many Orthodox jurisdictions in the West, a Nativity Matins will be held on Christmas morning in Tbilisi, in English, on January 7. Held at the Blue Monastery, near the end of Perovskaya Street, the Hours will be read from 9 am and the Divine Liturgy celebrated immediately afterwards.

All are welcome, regardless of whether one is an Orthodox Christian or not. Shobas gilocavt!!

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

The Angels sing!

The Archangels blend their voices in harmony!

The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise!

The Seraphim exalt His glory!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today is 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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As we approach Christmas Eve in Georgia, it is interesting to ponder not only Georgia’s rich musical tradition surrounding the Nativity (Shoba in Georgian), but that of our neighbours as well.

Georgia’s religious music was initially influenced by the Byzantine music of the Eastern Roman Empire, sung in Greek, which merged with indigenous polyphonic traditions. As the Georgian Church became officially recognised as an exarchy of the Church of Antioch, Greek and Levantine influence continued until the Church became autocephalous in the 5th century. In the Middle Ages, the Georgian Church had a substantial presence in other countries, including Cyprus, Greece (at the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos), Jerusalem, and what is now Azerbaijan and Turkey. The academies at Gelati, Khakuli and other eminent monasteries hosted theologians, artists and musicians from around the region, enriching their traditions and being exposed to other musical traditions in turn.

As is common in Orthodox churches, bishops were granted leave to accommodate local languages in liturgy and hymnology, and to “Christianise” indigenous pagan traditions that were not considered antithetical to the Church’s principals. The Russian colonial period added further variety to Georgian church music, with some Georgian hymns noticeably in the “oratorio” format that was favoured in 19th century Russia, rather than in chant format.

A scholarly exposition of similarities and differences between Eastern Orthodox chant of different countries is provided here by the Library of Eastern Orthodox Resources.

Neighbouring countries likewise have experienced synthesis of their musical traditions. In the Levant, Byzantine chant has been influenced by indigenous Phoenician traditions and, after the Arab conquest, Arabic has progressively become the liturgical language in that region. Here is a stunning Levantine hymn, chanted by Canadian Reader Nader Hajjar. The translation provided gives a wonderful insight into the poetic strength of Orthodox Christian hymnology.

“Christ is Born” /Christos Gennatai is a hymn sung throughout the Greek-speaking world. An English language version is furnished here

The Kontakion of the Nativity is beautifully chanted by the Choir of Vaalam Monastery, of Karelia in the Russian Federation, in Church Slavonic.

 

The very talented Divna Ljubojevic of Serbia sings the Kontakion of the Nativity to a Serbian tune.

 

Finally, a few Georgian Christmas carols; these are often sung in the “Alilo” parades in Georgian cities on Christmas Day.  “Alilo” is Georgian for “Alleluia”. Footage of last year’s “Alilo” parade is provided here

For those interested in learning the lyrics of Alilo hymns, Georgian Song Lyrics provides the lyrics to various regional versions.

Footage of Alilo carols sung in the temple on Christmas Eve

and more Nativity footage from a small church, with the choir singing the Alilo

This Alilo carol is sung by the Paris-based Georgian Harmony Choir directed by Nana Peradze

and another “Alilo”carol, called “December 25”, written by Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia

From Georgia’s mountainous Racha region, another Alilo

May I wish you and your families all a very Happy and Holy Christmas; Shobas Gilocav!

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