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Yesterday, the fasting period associated with Mariamoba, or the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, began. As is normal for Orthodox people during fasting periods, we slow down the pace of our social engagements and focus upon prayer, contemplation, and simplification of our lifestyle. Weddings are not conducted during this two-week period. Part of the simplification of lifestyle involves a modified diet, with alcohol and rich foods eliminated for a period of time.

Lobio; Haricot Bean Stew with herbs

Fasting traditions vary between jurisdictions, and a priest’s advice may modify the prescriptions depending upon what the priest considers appropriate for the individual concerned. As a general rule, from August 13 until Mariamoba on August 28, we abstain from meat, eggs, dairy products, fish and alcohol. An exemption is given on the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 19, when fish and alcohol may be consumed in moderation. Given that the Transfiguration coincides with the beginning of Georgia’s grape harvest for wine production, this is a very poignant and reasonable concession, given the very strong cultural affinity with wine that Georgians have.

For an excellent resource on Georgia’s wide variety of vegetarian cuisine, I would suggest you visit http://www.georgianrecipes.net ; which has excellent instructions on how to prepare these tasty dishes. While often served in people’s homes, it is a pity that restaurants only serve a handful of these dishes routinely in Georgia.

Wine consumption on Saturdays and Sundays is also permitted in moderation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A blessed Transfiguration Feast to you all.

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The Transfiguration Feast is an important one for Orthodox Christians. In Greece and Romania, it coincides with the beginning of the grape harvest, and grapes would be brought to the church for blessing. In Georgia, Transfiguration psychologically is seen as the beginning of autumn by many people, but the grape vintage (rtveli) usually takes place later; late September in the East and late October in Imereti (and November in the Black Sea region). Interestingly, this year most of Georgia had a winter longer and colder than normal, a wet spring, vine budburst two weeks later than normal, and now the vintage is starting a month earlier than normal years for some vineyards, particularly in central Georgia. Don’t be surprised if you see some bunches of grapes in church today.

Jesus had gone with his disciples Peter, James, and John to Mount Tabor. Christ’s appearance was changed while they watched into a glorious radiant figure. There appeared Elijah and Moses, speaking with Jesus. The disciples were amazed and terribly afraid.

This event shows forth the divinity of Christ, so that the disciples would understand after his Ascension that He was truly the radiant splendor of the Father, and that his Passion was voluntary (Mark 9:2-9). It also shows the possibility of our own theosis.

This event was the subject of some debates between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria. Barlaam believed that the light shining from Jesus was created light, while Gregory maintained the disciples were given grace to perceive the uncreated light of God. This supported Gregory’s larger argument that although we cannot know God in His essence, we can know Him in his energies, as He reveals Himself.

(From Orthodoxwiki.org)

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Today is the Feast Day of Saint Ilia the Prophet (known in Greek as Elias and in Hebrew or English as Elijah).

He is venerated because he was in many ways an image (“icon” in Greek) of John the Baptist, and in some ways even an image of Christ; he denounced the powerful for apostasy and corruption, enlightened the Gentiles while the Jews lived in heresy, miraculously created inexhaustible supplies of food from meagre sources, and raised the dead from the tomb.

Ilia lived in the Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BC, when the Jewish State had been divided into two rival kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south.

From Wikipedia: “Elijah”

During Elijah’s life, the Kingdom of Israel had extensive cultural and trade links with heathen peoples to the north, including the Phoenicians (ancestors to today’s people of Lebanon, Syria and Malta). At a time when Israel was economically and militarily rather weak, the Phoenician states were incredibly wealthy as a result of their seafaring skills and their extensive trading network throughout the entire Mediterranean region (the city-state of Carthage in Tunisia, that later rivaled Rome, was founded by Phoenician traders.)

From Wikipedia “Phoenicia”

In the face of such economic and diplomatic power, the court of Israel cultivated close links with the Phoenician elite, and the king of Israel, Ahab, married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, who was an avid missionary for the idolatrous Phoenician religion of Baal. Priests of the religion of Baal were introduced to court, established a temple in the palace, and set up temples to Baal in Jewish communities throughout Israel to convert Jews to their faith.

Of obscure origin, Saint Ilia presented himself at court to deliver a message from God to King Ahab; there would be years of catastrophic drought so severe that not even dewdrops would form, because Ahab and his idolatrous queen stood at the end of a line of kings of Israel who are said to have “done evil in the sight of the Lord”. Because Baal was the Phoenician god of thunder, rainfall and dew, this was not only an admonition of the Court, but a direct challenge to the false god and all those who served him.

God warned Ilia to flee for his life to east of the Jordan River, and from there to the drought-stricken Phoenician States where he was to seek refuge with an idol-worshipping widow of no means. While evading capture in her house, she was frightened that her meagre supplies of flour and oil would be exhausted; Ilia commanded her to continue cooking for them and the food supplies would replenish themselves until the drought broke. Miraculously, her tiny supplies sustained her household for an extended period, considered by some to be a premonition of Christ’s Feeding of the Five Thousand.

While Ilia lived at her house, the widow’s only son died, leaving her heartbroken and destitute as she had no other means of support. Ilia prayed to God that her son would be restored to her, and miraculously the young man returned to life. This is the first documented case of resurrection in the Bible. The woman cried out in joy ” …the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”, acknowledging both the existence of the one true God, and the veracity of Ilia’s pronouncements and teachings.

It is fascinating that a Gentile was chosen to be the first to recognise Ilia’s authority and powers, at a time when he was held in contempt among his own people. This can be seen as a premonition of the many Gentiles who accepted God upon witnessing Christ’s miracles, at a time when mainstream Jewish society, royalty and the priesthood held Christ in contempt.

God commanded Ilia to return to Israel to announce the end of the drought, as a demonstration of God’s power rather than as  reward for repetance; Ahab and Jezebel had been martyring many Jewish priests and prophets in Ilia’s absence. Confronting Ahab on Mount Carmel, a furious argument over who was responsible for Israel’s miseries and whose god was true ensued. Ilia finally challenged the idolatrous priests to a contest; whose god could light a sacrificial pyre without any human assistance would be acknowledged as the one true God. The priests of Baal failed in this challenge, and Ilia’s invocation of God’s name and power caused his pyre to spontaneously catch fire, while a massive thunderstorm raged and deluges of rain fell.

Ilia condemned the heathen priests to death, enraging Queen Jezabel, and he was forced to flee to Beersheba in Judah. Cared for by angels in the wilderness, he walked to Mount Horeb.  

This was the location where Moses had received the Ten Commandments seven centuries earlier. Similar to Moses, Ilia was addressed by God in a cave, and Ilia vented his frustrations at the sinfulness and apostasy of the Jews. God revealed himself to Ilia through fire, wind and earthquake on the mountain, followed by “the still small voice of calm”, and commanded Ilia to prophecy the death of King Ahab and anoint his successor.

Ilia confronted King Ahab and prophesies that his entire kingdom will reject his authority; that Jezebel will be eaten by dogs within Jezreel; and that his family will be consumed by dogs as well (if they die in a city) or by birds (if they die in the country). Ahab repented of his sins and was spared by God but the prophecies  regarding his family came to pass.

Knowing that his work was done, Elijah proceeded to the River Jordan with his disciple Elisha  and parted the waters of the Jordan. They crossed the river, and then a fiery chariot took Elijah up into the heavens, with his mantle falling to the ground and Elisha taking possession of it while taking on Elijah’s role as prophet and spiritual father of the Kingdom of Israel. The English phrase “taking up the mantle” emanates from this biblical passage.

William Blake, the writer of the English hymn “Jerusalem” , in 1804 incorporated the vision of a Chariot of Fire as the manifestation of God’s divine energy; the hymn serves now as a de facto English national anthem and it was sung recently en masse at the opening of the London Olympics.

Saint Ilia has another great attribute of significance to Christians. In the Book of Malachi it is prophesied that “Behold, I will send you Ilia the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” This is widely interpreted as representing Saint John the Baptist’s mission prior to Christ’s passion and resurrection. Indeed, the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, was visited by an angel before John’s birth foretelling that John  would turn the hearts of many towards God “in the spirit and power of Ilia”. Like Ilia, John was stern and powerful in his denunciations of corrupted nobility. He had the same connection with the wilderness, the same habits of asceticism in the desert, the same abrupt and commanding manner when addressing royalty, even the same clothing, a hairy coat and a leather belt.

He also is reported as being seen at the Transfiguration, the event in Christ’s life on Mount Tabor when his face began to shine and he was seen in conversation with Ilia and Moses.

The Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, His Holiness Ilia II, of course was named after the Saint, and so I humbly wish to extend warm greetings and deep respect on his Name Day, and wish him many more happy returns of the day.

Saint Ilia the Prophet’s hymns are presented below:

Troparion (Tone 4)

An angel in the flesh and the cornerstone of the prophets,
the second forerunner of the coming of Christ,
Glorious Ilia sent grace from on high to Elisha,
to dispel diseases and to cleanse lepers.
Therefore, he pours forth healings on those who honor him.

Kontakion (Tone 2)

Prophet Ilia of great renown,
seer of the mighty mighty works of God,
by your command you held back the rain!
Pray for us to the only Lover of mankind!

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