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The World Congress of Families is a US-based non-denominational NGO, with the mission:

 to help secure the foundations of society by uniting and empowering leaders worldwide to respect, protect, and defend:

  • the natural family founded on marriage between a man and a woman;
  • parental rights and the welfare of children, including their need for both a mother and a father;
  • the dignity and sanctity of all human life from conception; and
  • freedom of speech, religion, and conscience in an atmosphere of respect for all.

The tenth World Congress of Families meeting will be held in Tbilisi this May, with the attendance of and keynote address by His Holiness Patriarch Ilia.

The organisers recently were interviewed on Ancient Faith Radio; it can be listened to here.

A list of the speakers is provided here ; it includes Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants in equal measure from around the world. The programme can be found here.

Georgia faces rather different family-related challenges to Europe and the USA. Legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Georgia would be political suicide for any political party proposing it in such a conservative society, and this is unlikely to be an issue for a very long time. We do however face terrible demographic problems, with an ageing population and a fertility rate below replacement, neither of which are conducive to a prosperous economy and a dignified and comfortable life for our citizens. Emigration due to a weak domestic economy is part of the problem, but abortion also is a major problem for Georgia’s population dynamics. Abortions prompted by difficult family economic conditions are very common, and the loathsome practice of sex-selective abortions if the foetus is female is rife. The rather low status of women in traditional Georgian society needs to be aggressively challenged if this vile practice is to be eliminated, and the Church must play its part in popularising a “Daughters are Great!” campaign. When Georgian parents universally understand that their daughters can be professionally successful, bring honour upon the family and support them in old age, substantial progress in abolishing this practice can be made.

For our friends from abroad, Georgia is a very safe and peaceful country with warm and hospitable people, and recent clashes in Nagorno-Karabagh between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to the distant south have no impact here. If you are considering attending the Congress, I would encourage you to make the trip and enjoy your stay in Georgia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Great Martyr Shushanik is commemorated on this day. Her story is an interesting one, as she was an Armenian princess and was martyred by her apostate Georgian husband for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism, the national religion of the Sassanid Persian Empire at the time (5th century). The deep attachment that Georgians display to the two great Matryresses, Saints Shushanik and Queen Ketevan, are a further indication of the high status of women in Georgian Christianity. Her remains were originally buried in Armenia, in Tsortag, but the Tsortag church later came under the control of an Armenian Apostolic bishop ( a non-Chalcedonian sect not in communion with Eastern Orthodox churches), and the Catholicos-Archbishop of Georgia Samuel IV (582-591) transferred the holy relics of Saint Shushanik to the city of Tbilisi, where in the year 586 they were put into a chapel of the Metekhi church, on the south side of the altar. This structure was destroyed during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and the relics have been lost.

The Persian Empire had encroached upon Georgian territory since the 3rd century and a certain amount of Zoroastrian proselytising in Iberia is recorded. Indigenous pagan cults and the Iranian religion were well established in most parts of the country.

The first King of Iberia to accept Christianity, King Mirian of the Chosroid dynasty, was reputed to be of Persian ancestry; some accounts record him to be the son of Persia’s Sassanid Shah, other accounts suggest him to be the son of a Parthian chieftain. Iberia under King Mirian was staunchly pro-Persian and Iberian troops fought alongside Persian soldiers in their battles against the Roman Empire. The Peace Treaty of Nisibis between Rome and Persia recognised Iberia as being under Roman influence but with Mirian still ruling as king. Mirian rapidly took advantage of the change in circumstances, developing strong commercial and military linkages with the Roman Empire, and ultimately accepting Christianity as his court’s religion in 337, and declaring Christianity as the state religion in 339.

For twenty years after King Mirian’s death, a power struggle ensued between Rome and Iran for the control of Iberia, until the 387 Treaty of Acilisene acknowledged Persian control of Iberia. Zoroastrianism was propagated much more vigourously following this, and some tensions developed between Christian royalty and citizens on one hand, and Zoroastrian overlords on the other. For the most part the Chosroid kings of Iberia remained loyal to Persia until King Vakhtang Gorgasali’s rebellion began in 482.

During the reign of King Vakhtang, an Armenian princess of Rana named Vardandukht was married to an Iberian nobleman, Varxenes, who held the title of Pitiaksh (governor) in the country’s administration. Vardandukht preferred to be called by her pet-name Shushanik (Susannah). The story of her confrontation with her apostate husband and her ultimate martyrdom form the basis of Georgia’s oldest literary work, “The Passion of Saint Shushanik” , in Georgian წამებაჲ წმიდისა შუშანიკისი დედოფლისაჲ, C’amebay C’midisa Shushanikisi Dedop’lisay, which is of great interest to Georgian linguists and historians both devout and secular. The implications of her life and work are ably described by Georgian theology student Besiki Sisauri:

The life of Shushanik is the oldest surviving work of Georgian literature. It was composed between the years A.D. 476 and 483 by Jacob of Tsurtaveli, father-confessor to the princess, and is remarkable for its directness of language. The background of the saint’s life is well known from other historical sources. Shushanik’s father, Vardan Manukonian, was the hero of the Armenian nation A rising of the year 45, directed against the authority of the Zoroastrian king of Iran, Yezdegird. Shushanik’s husband, the Georgian prince Varsken, occupied a strategic position as Pitiakhsh (from Iranian Bitakhsh, a viceroy) of the frontier region between Armenia and Georgia. As we see from the life of Shushanik, King Peroz of Iran sent Varsken to fight against the Huns who threatened to invade Persia from the north via Derbent and the shores of the Caspian Sea. Varsken was also supposed to exercise control over the king of Eastern Georgia (Iberia), whose capital at Mtskheta was within easy reach of Varsken’s castle in Tsurtav.

Shushanik’s death was brought about by political as much as by religious considerations. Her refusal to abjure Christianity infuriated her husband, who had embraced Mazdeism to ingratiate himself with the Persian court. Shushanik’s obduracy placed Varsken in a difficult position vis-a’-vis his suzerain, ultimately provoking him to murder her in particularly atrocious circumstances. He did not long profit by his crime, for the Armenian chronicler Lazarus of Pharp tells us that in the year 484, the redoubtable Christian king of Georgia, Wakhtang Gorgaslan (Gorgasali), rose in revolt against the Iranians and took prisoner their renegade ally Varsken, who was put to a painful and ignominious death. In addition to these political sidelights, the life of Shushanik is also of interest to the social historian for the insight it gives into such questions as the relations between the sexes in early Christian society and the climatic and sanitary conditions of ancient Caucasia.”

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zacharaiah Machitadze, St Hermans Press.

It was in the eighth year of the reign of the king of Persia that Varsken the Pitiakhsh, son of Arshusha, traveled to the royal court. Formerly lie too was a Christian, born of Christian father and mother. And his wife was the daughter of Vardan, generalissimo of the Armenians, bearing the name of Varden, or Rose, after her father, and the pet-name of Shushanik, or Susanna; and she lived in the fear of God from her childhood days. Because of the unrighteousness of her husband, she prayed perpetually in her heart and besought all to pray God to convert him from his deluded ways, so that he might become wise in Christ.

But who could describe tile wickedness of that abandoned and thrice wretched Varsken? For when he appeared before the king of the Persians, it was not to receive honour by rendering service to the monarch, but to deliver himself up hotly and soul by denying the True God. So he bowed down to the fire, utterly cutting himself off from Christ. And this miserable man sought to win favour in the eyes of the king of the Persians by asking him for a wife, adding, “The lawful wife and children I already have, these I will likewise convert to your faith, just like myself.” (In making this pledge, how-ever, he had reckoned without Shushanik.) Then the king rejoiced, and gave him his own daughter to be his bride.

Soon after the Pitiakhsh took leave of the king. And as lie was approaching the borders of Georgia, the land of Hereti it occurred to him to have the noblemen and his sons and retainers informed that they were to meet him, so that in their company he might enter the country like a snake. He therefore dispatched one of his servants on a post-horse. When the servant had arrived at the township which is called Tsurtav, he came in and appeared before Shushanik our queen, and enquired after her well-being. But the blessed Shushanik said with prophetic insight, “If he is alive in soul, you are both alive, both he and thou. If you are both dead in your spirit, that enquiry of thine needs to be addressed to thyself.” But the man dared not answer her. St. Shushanik, however, insisted and questioned him urgently, until the man told her the truth, saying, “Varsken has renounced the True God.”

When the blessed Shushanik heard this, she fell upon the ground and beat her head on the floor and said with bitter tears, “Pitiable indeed has become the unfortunate Varsken! He has forsaken the True God, and embraced the religion of fire and united himself to the godless.” And she arose and left her palace and went into the church, filled with the fear of the Lord. With her she took her three sons and one daughter and brought them before the altar and prayed. And when the evening service was over, she found a small cottage near the church, and went into it, filled with grief, and leant against the wall in a corner and wept bitterly.

Now the bishop attached to the Pitiakhsh’s household, whose name was Aphots, was not at hand, having gone to the house of a certain holy man to consult him about some question. And I too, the confessor of Queen Shushanik, was with the bishop. Suddenly a deacon came to us from home and told us all that had occurred: the arrival of the Pitiakhsh and the conduct of the queen. We were filled with sorrow and wept abundantly, being weighed down by the consciousness of our sins.
But I got up early and went to the village where the blessed Shushanik was And when I saw her afflicted with sorrow, I also wept with her.

While we were conversing, a certain Persian arrived and came in before the blessed Shushanik, and said in lachrymose tones, “How so? A peaceful household has become miserable, and joy has turned to grief!” But he had actually come on a secret errand from Varsken, and said this as a ruse to ensnare the blessed one. But the saint recognized his cunning intention, and became all the more firm in her resolve.

Three days after, Varsken the Pitiakhsh came. And the Persian spoke to him privately and said, “I gather that your wife has left you. I would advise you, however, not to speak harsh words to her. After all, women are always liable to be unreasonable.”

The next day, the Pitiakhsh summoned us priests as soon as be had got up, and we went to him. He received us agreeably and said to us, “Be at your ease and do not shrink away from me.” In reply we said to him, “You have brought damnation on yourself and on us also!” Then he began to speak, and said, “How could my wife allow herself to do such a thing to me? Now go and tell her that she has degraded my person and sprinkled ashes upon my bed and forsaken her rightful place and gone elsewhere.”

To this St. Shushanik replied, “It is not I who either exalted your person or degraded it. Your father raised up sepulchers for the martyrs and built churches, and you have ruined the deeds of your father and destroyed his good works. Your father invited saints into his house, but you invite devils. He confessed and believed in the God of heaven and earth, but you have renounced the True God and bowed clown before the fire. Just as you have despised your Creator, so I pour contempt upon you. Even if you inflict many tortures on me, I will have no part in your doings.”
We reported all this to the Pitiakhsh, as a result of which he became angry and bellowed with rage. Then the Pitiakhsh commissioned Jojik his brother and Jojik’s wife, his sister-in-law, and the bishop attached to his household, and told them to speak to her in the following terms: “Get up and come to your rightful place, and give up these notions of yours! If not, I shall drag you back by force.”

So they came and entered in before the queen and spoke many reassuring words to her. Then St. Shushanik said to them, “O wise men! Do not think I was nothing but a wife to him. I had imagined that I could convert him to my faith, so that he would acknowledge the True God. And do you now try to force me to act thus? Let this never happen to me! You, Jojik, are no longer my brother-in-law, nor am I your sister-in-law, nor is your wife my sister, since you are on his side and take part in his doings.”

And as they were pressing and urging her excessively, the saintly and blessed Shushanik arose to go. Taking her copy of the Gospels with her, she said with tears, “O Lord God, Thou knowest that I am resolved in heart to meet my death.” When she had spoken these words she went with them and carried her Gospel with her, as well as the holy books of the Martyrs.
When she came into the palace she took up her residence not in her apartments, but in a small chamber. And St. Shushanik raised her hands to heaven and said, “O Lord God! Not one merciful man, neither priest nor layman, has been found among this people, but they have all handed me over to die at the hands of Varsken, that enemy of God.”

Two days later that wolf came into the palace and said to his retainers, “Today, I and Jojik and his wife are dining together. Do not allow anyone to come in to us.” And when it was evening they called Jojik’s wife and decided to bring the holy Shushanik to dine with them too. When they had wearied her with their insistence, they obliged her to accompany them to the palace, but she bad no appetite for anything. Jojik’s wife, however, offered her wine in a glass ,and tried to make her drink a little of it. St. Shushanik said to her angrily, “Whenever has it been the custom for men and women to dine together?” And stretching out her arm, she flung the glass in her face, and the wine was spilt.

Then Varsken began to utter foul-mouthed insults and kicked her with his foot. Picking up a poker, he crashed it on her head and split it open and injured one of her eyes. And he struck her face unmercifully with his fist and dragged her to and fro by hair, bellowing like a wild beast and roaring like a madman.

Jojik his brother rose to protect her, and came to grips with him and struck him. After her veil had been torn from her head, Jojik dragged her from Varsken’s hands, like a lamb from the claws of a wolf. St. Shushanik lay like a corpse upon the ground, while Vansken abused her kinsfolk and called her the defiler of his home. And he commanded her to be bound and chains to be attached to her feet.

When he had calmed down a little from his outburst of rage, the Persian came to him and urgently begged him to free St. Shushanik from her chains. After insistent pleading, he ordered tier to be unchained and taken to a cell and carefully guarded. She was to have one servant, and nobody else would be allowed to visit her, neither man nor woman.

When it was dawn, he asked her servant, “How are her wounds?” He said to him, “They are past healing.” Then he himself went in and looked at her, and was greatly astonished at the size of her swelling. And he directed the servant not to let anyone come and see her. He himself went out hunting.

But I got up and went and said to the guard, “Just let me in by myself to have a look at her wounds.” But he said to me, “What if he finds out and kills me?” I said to him, “Miserable man, did she not bring you up and educate you? If he kills you for her sake, what have you to regret?” Then he let me in secretly.

When I went in, I saw her face all slashed and swollen, and I raised my voice and wept. But St. Shushanik said to me, “Do not weep for me, since this night has been for me the beginning of joy.” And I said to St. Shushanik, “Let me wash the blood from your face and the dust which has fallen into your eyes, and apply ointment and medicine, so that please God you may be cured.” But St. Shushanik said to me, “Do not say that, Father, for this blood is for the cleansing of my sins.” But I gently forced her to take some food, which had been sent by Bishop Samuel and John, who secretly watched over her and saw to her welfare. St. Shushanik said to me, “Father, I cannot taste anything, because my jaws and several of my teeth are broken.” Then I brought a little wine and bread, and dipped it in, and she tasted a little. And I made haste to go out. Then St. Shushanik said to me, “Father, shall I send him back this jewellery of his? Even if he does not require it, I shall have no more use for it in this life.” But I said, “Do not hurry, let it remain in your keeping.

While we were discussing this, a boy came in and said, “Is Jacob here?” And I said, “What do you want?” He said, “The Patiakhsh is calling for you.” And I was surprised and wondered why he called for me now, so hurried to go. He said to me, “Do you know, Priest, that I am leaving to fight against the Huns? I have no intention of leaving my jewellery with her, now that she is not my wife. Someone else will have to be found to wear it. Go and bring whatever there is of it.”

So I went and told this to St. Shushanik. She was very glad and thanked God and handed everything over to me, and I delivered it all to the Pitiakhsh. He received it from me, inspected it and found everything complete, and again said, “At some later time, someone will be found to adorn herself with it.”

And when Lent was come, the blessed Shushanik came and found a small cell near the church, and took up her abode in it.

On Monday in Easter week, the Pitiakhsh returned from fighting against the Huns. The Devil animated his heart, and he arose and went to the church and said to Bishop Aphots, “Give me my wife! Why are you keeping her away from me?” And he began to curse and utter violent maledictions against God. But a priest said to him, “Lord, why are you behaving like this and uttering such evil words and cursing the bishop and speaking with anger against the saintly Shushanik?” But he struck the priest in the back wit his staff, so that he dared not say anything more.

So St. Shushanik was dragged out by force through the mud and over the thorns from the church to the palace, just as if they were dragging a corps along. And lie ordered her to be tied up and beaten, and reviled her saying “Now you see that your Church is no help to you, nor those Christian supporters of yours, nor that God of theirs! “ Three hundred blows they struck her with a stick, without any moan or complaint passing her lips. After this St. Shushanik said to the impious a Varsken, “Unhappy man, you have had no pity on yourself, and cut yourself off from God, so how can you have pity on me?”

When he saw the blood flowing abundant from her tender flesh, he ordered a chain to be fastened round her neck, and commanded a chamberlain to take St. Shushanik to the castle and imprison her in a dark dungeon to die.

A certain deacon belonging to the bishop’s staff stood near St. Shushanik when she was being taken from the palace, and tried to encourage her to stand fast, when the Pitiakhsh cast his eye on him. He only managed to say, “Sta . . ,” and then was silent and hastily took to his heels and ran away.

Then they took lieu out. St. Shushanik was led barefoot, with her hair disordered, like some woman of the common folk. Nor did anyone dare to cover her heads because the Pitiakhsh followed on horseback behind her, cursing her with much foul language. With the saint was a great mob of women and wen, countless in number, following behind her, and they raised their voices and wept, and tore their cheeks and shed tears of pity for St. Shushanik. But St. Shushanik looked upon the crowd and said to them, “Weep not, my brothers, my sisters and my children, but remember me in your prayers now that I am taking leave of you from this world. For you will not see me leave the castle alive.”

When the Pitiakhsh saw the mob and tire lamentation of men and women, old and young, he charged at them on his horse and forced them all to run away. When they reached the castle bridge, the Pitiakhsh said to St. Shushanik, “This is all the walking you will ever do, for you will not come out alive, until the time comes for four bearers to carry you out.” When they had entered the castles they found a small dark hut to the north of it, and there they locked up the saint. They left her with the chain still fastened round her neck, and this the impious Varsken stamped with his seal. Then he left the castle.

On the third Sunday, he summoned a gaoler and asked him, “Is that miserable woman still alive?” He replied, “Lord! She appears nearer to death than to life. She is likely to die from hunger alone, since she will eat nothing.” To which he answered, “Never mind, leave her alone, let her die.”
Then the Pitiakhsh went off to Chor. Jojik his brother was not present when these things were done to St. Shushanik. When Jojik arrived, he hastened after the Pitiakhsh, caught up with him on the borders of Hereti, and implored him to have her released from her fetters. After he had greatly importuned Varsken, he ordered her to be unchained. When Jojik returned, he removed the chain from her neck.

But St. Shushanik was not released from her shackles until her death. For she remained six years in the castle, and blossomed forth with her religious observances, ever fasting, keeping vigil and watching, in unwearying adoration and assiduous reading of holy books. The entire castle was made radiant and beautiful by the lyre of her spirit.

From now on, her works became renowned through-out all Georgia. Men and women used to come for the fulfillment of their vows. Whatever they had need of was bestowed on them through the holy prayer of the blessed Shushanik, namely a child to the childless, healing to the sick, and to the blind, restoration of sight.

They told St. Shushanik, “Your children have been converted to Mazdeism.” Then with many tears she began to worship God and beat her head upon the ground and groaned, saying, “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord God of mines for they were hot mine, but gifts from Thee I As Thou wilts Thy will lie done, O Lord. Save me from the schemes of the Evil One.”

Then the Pitiakhsh sent messengers and said, “Either to my wilt and return to the palace, or if you will not come home, I will send you under guard to Chor or to the Persian court.
St. Shushanik, however, answered, “Wretched and stupid man If you send me to Chor or to the Persian court, who knows if some good may not come to me and this evil be averted?”
The Pitiakhsh pondered over these words which she had uttered, “Who knows if some good may riot come to me ?” which lie took to mean, “Perhaps one of the princes then” might take her to wife.” From then onwards, lie sent no one to her.

Later, however, the Pitiakhsh deputed her own foster-brother to bring her back to the palace. When tie said to her, “Listen to me and come back to the palace, and do not leave your home desolate,” then St. Shushanik replied, “Tell that godless man this You have killed me, and volt declared that I should never come out of this castle on my feet alive I And now, if you can raise the dead, first raise your mother who is buried at Urdi. For if you cannot raise her up, neither can you bring me out of here, unless you drag me by force.”

When she had passed six years in this prison, excessive weariness from her feats of courage and devotion brought sickness upon her. Furthermore that place was incredibly infested with fleas and lice. In the summer time the heat of the sun burns like fire, the winds are torrid and the waters infected. The inhabitants of this region are themselves afflicted with various diseases, being swollen with dropsy, yellow with jaundice, pock-marked, withered up, mangy, pimply, bloated of face and brief of life, and nobody attains old age in that district.

When the seventh year had begun, the holy and thrice blessed Shushanik was afflicted with an ulcer of the flesh. As a result of her tireless acts of piety, her feet became swollen, and pustules broke out on various parts of her body. The ulcers were very large and infested with worms. One of these she held out in her hand and showed it to me, and gave thanks to God, saying, “Father, do not let the sight of this upset you. There (i.e. in Hell) the worm is greater, and never dies.” When I saw this worm, I was afflicted with inexpressible distress, and wept greatly. But she retorted sharply, “Father, why are you sorrowful? Rather than being eaten by those immortal worms, it is better to be consumed here in this life by mortal ones!”

When Jojik heard that the blessed queen St. Shushanik was near to death, he went out and brought with him his wife and children and his servants and retainers, and came to the castle to see the saintly Shushanik the martyr. Then she blessed Jojik and his wife and children and his servants and retainers and all the members of his household, and bade them walk in the ways of God. And she took leave of them and sent them away in peace.

After Jojik there came Archbishop Samuel and his friend Bishop John, who had encouraged her and taken part in her good works. Likewise there came the grandees and noble ladies, the gentry and common folk of the land of Georgia. Their eyes were filled with tears as they said farewell to her, and they offered lip praise to God for her glorious works, and then They left the castle and departed.

Then came the day when she was to be called away. And she summoned the bishop attached to her household, Aphots, and thanked him for his kindness which equalled that of a father and a foster-parent. She called for me, sinner and wretch that I am, and committed to us the relics of her bones, commanding us to bury them in that place from which she was first dragged forth. And she said, “Though I am but a worker of the eleventh hour in the vineyard, if I have any merit, you shall all be blessed for ever and ever.”

Then she gave thinks to God, saying, “Blessed is our Lord God, for on Him I will lay myself down and sleep in peace. And she entrusted her soul to the Lord, who receives all mankind in His mercy.

The beginning of the torments of St. Shushanik was in the month of January, on the eighth day, being a Wednesday. Her second beating took place on Monday in Easter week. And her death was in the month of October, on the seventeenth day, being the festival of the blessed saints and martyrs Cosmas and Damian, and it was a Thursday. This anniversary we set apart for the commemoration of St. Shushanik, and for the praising of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, to whom belong glory for ever and ever, Amen.

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Saint Barbara is a well-loved saint in Georgia, and many churches are named after her; there are four in Tbilisi alone. Most female saints venerated in Georgia were Georgian, or engaged in their mission in Georgia, but Saint Barbara of Heliopolis is an exception to the rule. Today is her feast day, Barbaroba (ბარბარობა).

Born in the Greek city of Heliopolis in Syria (now Baalbek in Lebanon), she was the daughter of a wealthy pagan widower. Her story is tragic as her chief persecutor and ultimately her executioner was her own father; before he became aware of his daughter’s Christian faith, he had been a devoted and caring parent.

The full story of Saint Barbara can be referenced here in OrthodoxWiki.

Her day of commemoration in the Levant, Eid ul-Burbara,  is a major event amongst Arab Christians and a special sweet pudding called Kameh or Sneyniyeh made from boiled wheat, pomegranate, anise, raisins and sugar is prepared to feed to children. A small pancake dish, stuffed with nuts or cheese called Atayef is also prepared for this purpose. Children dress up in disguise and call from house to house in their neighbourhoods singing songs and receiving festive food, a little similar to the western Trick-or-Treat custom. The custom of dressing up in disguise emanates from the story that Saint Barbara disguised herself when attempting to flee her father’s persecution. Another legend states that while running frantically from her father, Saint Barbara ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to magically cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by planting wheat seeds, beans or other grains in cotton wool on Saint Barbara’s feast day. The seeds germinate and grow in dense tufts to about 10-15 cm height by Christmas, when they are used to decorate the church.

The Feast of Saint Barbara is known in Georgia as Barbaroba. As the Georgian Church was under the authority of the Patriarchate of Antioch for many years, customs and feasts celebrated in the Levant have naturally found their way here and been adapted to local conditions. Continuing the association between Saint Barbara and grains and beans, every family will bake lobiani, the ubiquitous bread dish stuffed with savoury bean paste. As families are abstaining from eating meat due to the Nativity Fast (or Saint Phillip’s fast), lobiani is an acceptable dish for this Feast. The process of making lobiani can be witnessed here. As in the Levant, pomegranate and raisins are common foods for this feast.

There are many folk customs associated with Saint Barbara’s Day in Georgia; today is associated with matters of fate, and how one interacts with others on this day is said to determine the course of the following year. It is known as “The Day of Destiny”. So Georgians will be especially cheerful and patient today, in the hope of bestowing a peaceful and harmonious year ahead upon themselves and others. A great deal of importance is attached to the identity of the first person to cross the threshold of one’s house on Saint Barbara’s Day; if that person is a kind and devout person, it will bring good luck upon the whole household for the year.

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Today we celebrate the Birth of the Virgin Mary, the Ghvtismshobeli. The event is of great importance to Orthodox Christians in general, but because the Virgin Mary is the Patron of the Georgian Nation, it has become a national holiday.

The Most Holy Virgin Mary was born at a time, when people had reached such limits of decay of moral values, that it seemed altogether impossible to restore them. The best minds of this era were aware and often said openly, that God must needs come down into the world, so as to restore faith and not tolerate the ruination of the race of mankind.

The Son of God chose for the salvation of mankind to take on human nature, and the All-Pure Virgin Mary, – alone worthy to contain in Herself and to incarnate the Source of purity and holiness, – He chose as His Mother.

The Birth of Our Most Holy Lady Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary is celebrated by the Church as a day of universal joy. Within the context of the Old and the New Testaments, on this radiant day was born the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, – having been forechosen through the ages by Divine Providence to bring about the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God, and She is revealed as the Mother of the Saviour of the World, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Most Holy Virgin Mary was born in the small city of Galilee, Nazareth. Her parents were Righteous Joachim from the tribe of the King and Prophet David, and Anna from the tribe of the First-Priest Aaron. The couple was without child, since Saint Anna was barren. Having reached old age, Joakim and Anna did not lose hope on the mercy of God. They had strong faith that for God everything is possible, and that He would be able to solve the barrenness of Anna – even in her old age, as He had once solved the barrenness of Sarah, spouse of the Patriarch Abraham. Saints Joakim and Anna made a vow to dedicate the child which the Lord might bestow on them, into the service of God in the Temple.

Childlessness was considered among the Hebrew nation as a Divine punishment for sin, and therefore the righteous Saints Joakim and Anna had to endure abuse from their own countrymen. On one of the feastdays at the Temple in Jerusalem the elderly Joakim brought his sacrifice in offering to God, but the High Priest would not accept it, – considering him to be unworthy since he was childless. Saint Joakim in deep grief went into the wilderness and there he prayed with tears to the Lord for the granting of a child. Saint Anna, having learned about what had happened at the Jerusalem Temple, wept bitterly; never once did she complain against the Lord, but rather she prayed, asking God’s mercy on her family.

The Lord fulfilled her petitions when the pious spouses had attained to extreme old age and prepared themselves by virtuous life for a sublime calling – to be the parents of the MostHoly Virgin Mary, the future Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Archangel Gabriel brought Joakim and Anna the joyous message: their prayers were heard by God, and of them would be born a Most Blessed Daughter Mary, through Whom would come the Salvation of all the World. The Most Holy Virgin Mary of Herself in purity and virtue surpassed not only all mankind but also the Angels; – She was manifest as the Living Temple of God, such that the Church sings in its festal verses of song: “the Heavenly Gate, bringing Christ into the world for the salvation of our souls” (2nd Stikhera on “Lord, I have cried”, Tone 6).

The Birth of the Mother of God marks the change of the times, wherein the great and comforting promises of God begin to be fulfilled about the salvation of the human race from slavery to the devil. This event has brought nigh to earth the grace of the Kingdom of God, – a Kingdom of Truth, piety, virtue and life immortal. Our Mother First-Born of All Creation is revealed to all of us by grace as a merciful Intercessor and Mother, to Whom we steadfastly recourse with filial devotion.

Orthodox Liturgical Calendar of The St. John of Kronstadt Press

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In the previous post on this theme, we examined the proposition that the Orthodox Church is hostile to women and their status as people of equal merit to men. I advanced the argument that God had turned the established gender politics of the time on its head by choosing to be incarnated in the womb of a woman, and consenting to be raised under the authority of a woman, as the Son of God.The early Church in turn recognised the elevated nature and status of the Virgin Mary as a clear sign of God’s plan for all of humanity, for both genders and all races.

The early Church transformed the code of conduct for the faithful to allow men and women equal access to all aspects of worship within the temple, with the exception of ordination to Priesthood, and dramatically reformed expectations regarding treatment of women in divorce cases, treatment of female indentured servants and slaves, and participation of women in Church administration and missionary activity. These reforms were revolutionary by the standards of the day and no doubt engendered antipathy from traditional Jews and the Hellenised communities of the Roman Empire, who saw such social radicalism as dangerous to the established order.

My next question is, if the Orthodox Church is supposedly hostile to the advancement of women’s status, why is it that Christ chose women as his first Evangelists, and why does the Church acknowledge the contributions of the Eight Myrrh-Bearing women, as “Apostles to the Apostles”, with such vigour and enthusiasm?

We need to return to the root of the matter, the life of Jesus Christ. As Mary Truesdell writes in “The Diaconate Now”;

Our Lord Jesus Christ…afforded woman a higher place than she ever had before.

 In the Orient, woman was a mere possession of man, a chattel.  In Greece, her life was one of seclusion and obscurity.  In Rome, more honor was paid woman, but they were under the absolute domination of their fathers and later their husbands.  Although the position of women was higher among the Hebrews, and there were several rare women who had the gift of prophecy, yet a Jewish man still blesses God who has not made him “a Gentile, a slave,…or a woman.”  Women could only enter into the outer parts of the Temple; they were excused from keeping a great deal of the Law; their vows could be voided by husband or father, and their word was not taken at law.  They were respected and honored in home life, but looked upon as inferior.  When in the fullness of time God sent His Son, Christ humbled himself to be born of a woman, whom all generations shall call Blessed.

Throughout his ministry, our Lord showed an especial tenderness toward women and children.  He condemned the prevailing idea of divorce, and proposed a high and sacred concept of marriage.  His compassion for the widow is reflected in parable and miracle.  Though weary, He stopped when mothers brought their children to him for blessing.  Women came to him for healing and in penitence.  Women sat at His feet to hear his words.  His disciples often wondered at the respect he had for women, both bad and good.  He was different from other rabbis.  When He went about preaching and proclaiming the glad tidings of the kingdom, not a few women ministered to Him of their substance.  At the foot of the Cross, faithful women stood until the end, when all but one of his chosen twelve had forsaken Him and fled; and they followed those who carried Jesus’ body to its burial, and went home to prepare spices and ointments for its anointing.

That this loving service was agreeable to the mind of Christ, we may learn from His choosing the same faithful women to become the first witnesses of His glorious resurrection.”

We are familiar with the story of the Eight Myrrh-Bearing women, who approached Christ’s tomb on the first Paschal morning, traumatised and heartbroken. Their spiritual leader had been tortured to death in front of them, their dreams of a peaceful new world order dashed, and they had not had time before the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday night to properly wash and embalm His body for the correct Jewish burial rites, cause for distress for devout Jewish ladies. Carrying myrrh and other supplies to his tomb for the preparation for burial, they were confronted with the sight of an empty tomb, and an angel proclaiming,

” Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him as He said to you.” (Mark 15:43–16:8).

For this reason, the Eight Myrrh-Bearers are known as “Apostles to the Apostles”, as they were the first people to be informed of, and to recognise, Christ’s Resurrection, and to spread the word of his Resurrection to the world. God choosing women to be the bearers of such dramatic news is not without significance; just as Christ’s Conception was announced only to women initially, so was his Resurrection. The importance of women in bearing witness to Christ’s mission, His divinity and His ultimate triumph over Death was acknowledged and affirmed by God on the first Pascha, and reiterated and celebrated for almost two millennia by His Church.

From Orthodox Wiki; ” There are eight women who are generally identified as the myrrh-bearers. Each of the four Gospels gives a different aspect of the roles of these eight women at the cross and at the tomb on Easter morning, perhaps since the eight women arrived in different groups and at different times. The eight are:

Of the eight, the first five are the more prominent and outspoken. The last three are included according to tradition. Five of these women were also very wealthy; the women of means were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and Mary and Martha of Bethany.

A confusing aspect in Gospel references to these women is that two of the Marys had a son named James. Mary, the wife of Alphaeus, was the mother of James, one of the Twelve Apostles; the Virgin Mary was the step-mother of James, the Lord’s step-brother (Matthew 13:55, Galatians 1:19).

In Eastern tradition, James, the Lord’s step-brother was Bishop of Jerusalem from 30-62 AD and never left the vicinity of Jerusalem. He is the James who rendered the decision of the council of Jerusalem in 48 AD (Acts 15:13-19). Eastern Tradition links James, the son of Alphaeus, with evangelism abroad, especially in Egypt where he was martyred.

One helpful tip that can clear up the confusion between these two Marys is the passage that refers to the Virgin Mary as the mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 13:55). This Joseph is also called Barsabas, Justus, and Judas (Acts 1:23 and 15:22). Therefore, in Matthew 27:56, the women looking on from afar at the cross were Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary (that is, Mary the mother of James and Joseph), and Salome (the wife of Zebedee and the Virgin Mary’s step-daughter).

Matthew refers to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” who is probably the Virgin Mary also from the context (Matthew 27:61 and 28:1). Such Church Fathers as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory Palamas support this interpretation. Similarly, St. Gregory of Nyssa identifies “Mary, the mother of James” (Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10) as the Virgin Mary also.

These eight women had been together a lot during Jesus’ three-year public ministry. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others (Luke 8:3) are described as providing for Jesus out of their possessions. These same women had faithfully followed him from Galilee and had come up with him to Jerusalem (Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40-41, and Luke 23:55).”

The Gospel of Saint John , Chapter 20 presents perhaps one of the most dramatic records of what must have been by turns the most stressful and most joyous episodes of Mary Magdalene’s life;

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

It is worth noting that some of the remaining eleven Apostles were sceptical of the claims of Christ’s Resurrection emanating from these women; as traditional rural Jews they were probably inclined to discount what they considered to be the hysterical ravings of overstressed women. Christ’s appearance in their midst soon after must have caused them to re-appraise their prejudices.

If the Church were truly misogynist as some Western humanists complain, surely the Church would have suppressed these stories that document  women to be worthy of being the first Apostles of Christ’s Resurrection, and therefore spiritually and intellectually equivalent to males. It has not engaged in such suppression; the Gospels that glorify women’s efforts in the development of Christ’s Church on Earth are recounted freely and enthusiastically in homilies by Orthodox priests every week. Our parish priests teach us that all human beings are equal in spiritual essence; no matter how much people of other genders, races or religions may confuse or aggravate us at times, we are all created in the Image and Likeness of God. We all carry the same divine spark and equally yearn for union with God.

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Newcomers to Georgia sometimes form the opinion that the Georgian Church discriminates against women or that it perpetuates archaic societal roles for women. In some cases, outsiders even allege that the Church is implacably hostile to women and their status as people of equal merit to men. Some Georgian Christians see this as merely an ill-informed position, others see these allegations as slanderous and betraying a hostility to Christian principles.

Given that in Western secular society, such phenomena as no-fault divorce, pre-marital sex and access to abortion are seen as essential “rights” that women must enjoy to be considered as equal citizens, it is unsurprising that differences in opinion will arise over what acceptable manifestations of women’s status are between the Georgian Church and Western secular society.  It should also be remembered that the Church does not operate in a cultural vacuum; it is natural that aspects of the underlying pre-Christian civilisation will endure amongst both laity and clergy, and some of these cultural beliefs can be difficult to reconcile with Christian teachings and secular humanism at times.

In the interests of promoting better understanding, I am presenting a short series of articles on Orthodox Christianity and the Status of Women. Please bear in mind these are not official Encyclicals of the Patriarchate, and they are not written by a theologian but an ordinary lay person. The first concerns the Orthodox concept of the status of the Virgin Mary and its relevance to the modern status of women within the Church. Subsequent articles will examine the Gender of the First Evangelists, the Gender of Clergy including Deaconesses, and the Orthodox Approach to Sexuality and Family Life.

In the Greek language, the Virgin Mary is often referred to as “Panagia” (“All-Holy”); this title is conferred on no other saint or human being in history. In Georgian, her title is “Ghvtismshobeli” (ღვთისმშობელი) meaning “God-Bearer”, referring to her bearing and giving birth to God the Son. . The Church recognises the Virgin Mary as the most important human being in history, so close to God that she was chosen by Him to conceive, bear and give birth to God’s only begotten Son.

According to Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, a noted theologian,

No one is born free of the ancestral sin. The fall of Adam and Eve and its consequences were inherited by the whole human race. Of course even the Panagia could not be freed from the ancestral sin. The words of the Apostle Paul are clear: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom.3,23). In this apostolic passage we see that sin is understood as a deprivation of the glory of God and also that no one is exempt from sin. So the Panagia too was born with the ancestral sin. But when was she released from it? The answer to this question must be free of any scholastic conceptions.

First of all we must say again that the ancestral sin meant deprivation of the glory of God, alienation from God, the loss of communion with God. It also had physical consequences, however, because decay and death entered the bodies of Adam and Eve. In the Orthodox Church the inheritance of ancestral sin does not mean inheritance of the guilt of the ancestral sin, but rather of the consequences of sin, which are decay and death. Just as when the root of a plant becomes diseased, so do the branches and leaves, with Adam’s fall it was the same. The whole human race became ill. The decay and death which man inherits is the favourable climate for the nurture of passions. In this way man’s nous is darkened.

Therefore Christ’s assuming this mortal and passible body without sin, by His incarnation, helped to correct the consequences of Adam’s sin. Deification existed in the Old Testament as well, as did illumination of the nous, but death had not been abolished, and therefore the Prophets who saw God also went to Hades. Through Christ’s incarnation and Resurrection, human nature has been deified, and thus the possibility of being deified has been granted to every man. Since by holy Baptism we become members of the deified and risen body of Christ, we say that man is released from the ancestral sin by holy Baptism.

Applying these things to the case of the Panagia, we can understand her relationship to the ancestral sin and her liberation from it. The Panagia was born with the ancestral sin, she had all the consequences of decay and death in her body. When she entered the holy of holies she had attained deification. But this deification was not enough to rid her of those consequences which meant corruption and death, just because the divine nature had not been united with the human nature in the person of the Word. Thus it was at the moment when by the power of the Holy Spirit the divine nature was united with the human nature in the womb of the Panagia that the Panagia first tasted her release from the so-called ancestral sin and its consequences. Furthermore, at that moment there took place what Adam and Eve had failed to do in their free personal struggle. At the moment of the Annunciation the Panagia reached a higher state that that in which Adam and Eve were before the fall. She was granted to taste the final goal of creation, as we shall see in the other analyses.

Therefore for the Panagia no Pentecost, no Baptism was needed. What the Apostles experienced on the day of Pentecost, when they became members of the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and what happens to all of us in the sacrament of Baptism, happened to the Panagia on the day of the Annunciation. It was then that she was released from the ancestral sin, not that she had any guilt, but she was deified in soul and body by reason of her union with Christ.

This is the background for interpreting the words of St. John of Damaskos that on the day of the Annunciation the Panagia received the Holy Spirit, which purified her and gave her the power at the same time both to receive the divinity of the Word and to give birth. That is to say, the Panagia received from the Holy Spirit both purifying grace and the power to receive and give birth to the Word of God as man.”

The Virgin Mary’s liberation from humanity’s mortal state at the time of the Annunciation is supported by the events of her Dormition;  as she “fell asleep”, her body miraculously disappeared rather than decaying and being entombed as our mortal bodies do.

That a young woman from an obscure province on the outskirts of the Roman Empire should be the vessel for God’s Incarnation on Earth (or in the Georgian poetic usage, “the vineyard, newly blossomed, young, beautiful, growing in Eden”) is remarkable. God of course, if he wished, had the power to create an all-powerful immortal Avatar of Himself on Earth, just as he created the angels, but to fulfill the prophecies instead He chose to be incarnated as a human being through a childbirth both mundane and miraculous; to be born of a virgin in a cattle shed, visited by unwashed shepherds and wealthy Magi, whisked away on the back of a donkey to Egypt to escape the massacres of Herod the Great, and raised with step-brothers in the humble home of a carpenter and his wife.

Jewish society at this time was tremendously patriarchal in nature; women could not own property, were often abandoned by their husbands without support, and if caught in adultery were stoned to death, often while their male lover escaped sanction. Rabbinical essays concerning the nature of women in light of the story of Adam and Eve often painted women as being deceitful, easily swayed by flattery, disobedient and wicked by nature; justifying their harsh and unfair treatment according to Jewish Law. The Hellenic-inspired Graeco-Roman civilisations of the Mediterranean at the time were no more liberal; women were routinely enslaved and sexually abused on a whim, murdered in family feuds or killed for sport in the Circuses. The more egalitarian Egyptian civilisation that saw many Empresses and significant female leaders was later displaced by patriarchal Hellenic civilisation under the Ptolemies.The entire region was a dark and unjust place for a woman.

That God would choose to reveal Himself to a woman before all others at the Annunciation, beget His Son within a woman’s body by the Holy Spirit, purge the debased legacy of death and corruption emanating from the Fall of man from a woman before any other human being, and have His Son’s character shaped by a woman, His mother, sends a clear and revolutionary message to the world, that the degraded status of women is dead and buried, and a new order in human affairs exists. Women henceforth were considered by the Church not only fit to be instructed as disciples (from the Latin for student) in contravention of the Jewish and Hellenic norms of the day, but also to take on the burden of leadership within religious communities and to be Apostles for the message of Christ to the world.

The Church hence teaches that men and women are of equal worth and merit, created in the Image and Likeness of their Maker, and possessed of individual spiritual and physical gifts of great worth. This contrasts greatly with the other two Abrahamic religions. The Church does not however make explicit that those gifts are identically allocated to both genders; a man cannot conceive and give birth for example. A Spiritual Father in a parish does not deal with parishioners in batches according to gender, race or family background; they are all individuals that must be ministered to in a manner befitting their individual needs.

Georgian Orthodox Christians today pay great respect to the Virgin Mary; every temple, home, office and car will contain an icon of her. Within the Divine Liturgy, marriage service, baptism and funeral services are repeated references to the Virgin Mary, usually praising her name by referring to “our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Ghvtismshobeli and ever virgin Mary”, at which point the congregation will cross themselves and face her icon. According to Church Tradition, Georgia was allocated to the Virgin Mary by casting lots, for her to travel here and evangelise the people (at the last minute, the Apostle Andrew the First-Called was allocated this task) and she is still considered the national Patron and Protector. Such reverence is she held in that her parents, Joachim and Anna, are frequently represented in icons and venerated.

Icon of Joachim and Anna, Svetiskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Pre-Christian Georgian civilisation was known to be patriarchal, and social attitudes towards the status of women in Georgia are still more old-fashioned than many post-Soviet countries (even amongst pagans, atheists and Communists in Georgia). It is especially poignant that a country with deeply entrenched views on the status of women has been gifted with such an important patron as the Ghvtismshobeli and such a rich history of female saints and matryrs; a greater proportion of such heroines than most other countries of the Slavic lands, Middle East and Mediterreanean. One way to look at things would be that, because Georgia was in such need of female saints to inspire the country’s women and infuse the country’s men with respect and reverence, that God provided an abundance of them.

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Dealing with Spiritual Depression and Anxiety

 

 

The weather shifts from cloudy to clear and then back to rain; thus it is with human nature. One must always expect clouds to hide the sun sometimes. Even the saints have had their dark hours, days and weeks. They say then that “God has left them” in order that they may know truly how utterly wretched they are of themselves, without His support. These times of darkness, when all seems meaningless, ridiculous and vain, when one is beset by doubt and temptations, are inevitable. But even these times can be harvested for good.

 

The dark days can best be conquered by following the example of St. Mary of Egypt. For forty-eight years she dwelt in the desert beyond Jordan, and when temptations befell her and memories of her former sinful life in Alexandria beckoned her to leave her voluntary sojourn in the desert, she lay on the ground, cried to God for help and did not get up until her heart was humbled. The first years were hard; she sometimes had to lie this way for many days; but after seventeen years came the time of rest.

 

On such days stay quiet. Do not be persuaded to go out into social life or entertainment. Do not pity yourself, seek comfort in nothing but your cry to the Lord: “Haste thee, O God, to deliver me! Makes haste to help me, O Lord (Psalm 70:1)! I am so fast in prison that I cannot get forth (Psalm 88:8),” and other such appeals. You cannot expect real help from any other source. For the sake of chance relief do not throw away all your winnings. Pull the covers over your head; now your patience and steadfastness are being tried. If you endure the trial, thank God who gave you the strength. If you do not, rise up promptly, pray for mercy and think: I got what I deserved! For the fall itself was your punishment. You had relied too much on yourself, and now you see what it led to. You have had an experience; do not forget to give thanks.

 

from “Way of the Ascetics,” by Tito Colliander, San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982, pp. 84-85

 

Dealing with Spiritual Depression and Anxiety : OMHKSEA.

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