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  • The Life of Saint George
    by Mario Baghos “Wondrous is God in his saints” exclaims the holy psalmist David (Ps 68:36, LXX), and together with him we intone this sacred verse, especially when we consider the life of the holy and glorious Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer, whom the mystical body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ—the Orthodox Church—commemorates on the 23rd of April. Born around 280 AD, Saint George was a native of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. The son of well-to-do parents, his father reposed in the Lord when he was just ten years old. His mother was from Lydda in Palestine, and, after the death of her husband, travelled with the young George to her homeland because she had properties there. God blessed George with wealth, comeliness, and bravery. At the age of eighteen, he enrolled himself in the legions of the Roman Empire and became a standard-bearer. This was a noted position, as the holder of the standard, which bore the emblem of the military unit, was meant to be very courageous: he was the rallying point for the troops in his unit, and was particularly exposed to attacks from opposing forces. George quickly advanced through the military ranks, enjoying the office of tribune and then commander. After he learnt of the repose of his mother in the Lord, he became the sole inheritor of her properties and even more dedicated to the army. St George’s military prowess—his external bravery and skill against physical foes—can be seen as divinely inspired preparation for his internal bravery and his war against spiritual enemies. For while George belonged to a civilisation that was known for its exultation of heroes, warriors, and generals—and which prized material conquests and the worldly glory that they resulted in—the Christian faith to which he belonged was gradually changing the aspirations of people, especially young men and women. Instead of external battles and wars, Christians were to undertake spiritual warfare, as succinctly expressed by St Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians, 6:10-17: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Here, St Paul interpreted military attire and weapons allegorically. No longer was armour to be used to defend against attacks from our neighbours of flesh and blood (to whom the Lord exhorts us to ‘turn the other cheek,’ cf. Matthew 5:39), but against the spiritual forces of evil, the demons and the devil. “The belt of truth, “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit”: all these are the ‘military gear’ of Christians, protecting them from temptations in their journey towards salvation in Christ. St George was able to transfer the significance of physical armour and weapons to the spiritual warfare that he was called by providence to undertake, especially when he testified to the Gospel through sufferings in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ. And just as he was a standard-bearer when he began his military career, so too would he become a rallying point for Christians who suffered and were killed under the pagan emperor Diocletian, who instigated the Great Persecution against the Church in AD 303. The burning of churches, sacred scriptures, and the martyrdoms that ensued were particularly frequent in the Eastern territories of the empire, under which St George’s homeland fell. At the time that the Great Persecution began, St George was serving the military at York in Britain—the same place where the future Christian ruler, St Constantine the Great, would be declared emperor by his father’s troops just a few years later, in AD 306. In these Western territories of the empire, they were not so disposed to persecuting Christians. This could have been because Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus, governed these parts: his tolerance of the Church is well known. The governors of the Eastern territories, on the other hand, were overwhelmed by the edict to persecute, since Christians were found there in great numbers, and the martyrs many. They therefore implored Diocletian to put it to an end. Wishing to address this matter in council, Diocletian convened a meeting of the Roman elite where he resided, in Nicomedia in Bythinia. Here he was to press hard for the continuation of the persecution. Around the same time, George departed for Palestine, sold off his property and gave the profits, as well as the money he already possessed, to the poor. He manumitted his slaves, except for his friend Pasikrates, who chose to remain in his service. Stripped of all worldly attachments and arrayed in the “armour of God” (Eph 6:11), George was prepared for the spiritual contest. Hearing about Diocletian’s council, he went to Nicomedia and faced the emperor, castigating him—in the presence of the Roman elite—for his idolatry and ruthlessness and exhorting him to embrace the faith in God the Trinity. Diocletian, who had regarded George highly, offered him a chance to show his fealty to the empire by sacrificing to its gods. When, like so many holy martyrs before him, St George refused to sacrifice because of his commitment to Christ, he was subjected to various tortures, the providential purpose of which was twofold: first, to manifest the saint’s loving self-sacrifice in imitation of Christ who died in behalf of sinners—even those who put him on the cross—and second; to show forth God’s glory, since the saint’s sufferings were healed by the Lord and were accompanied by miraculous signs. These signs included: suffering a spear wound just like the wound that Christ suffered when he was speared with a lance on the cross (John 19:34); being freed from a wheel covered in knives and miraculously healed of the wounds incurred thereupon; surviving immersion in a lime-pit for three days; being healed of wounds caused to his feet from red-hot iron shoes; incurring beatings and floggings so that his face shone like the sun, which is testified to in his icon (and the icons of all the saints) and indicates the presence of God’s grace; surviving the ingestion of poison; resurrecting a dead man just as Christ raised Lazarus (Jn 11:38-44), the young girl (Mt 9:18-22, Mark 5:35-43, Luke 8:40-56) or the widow’s son at Nain (Lk 7:11-17); and by prayer exposing the demons in the temple of Apollo and shattering the idols there present. The saint was finally decapitated, and it became clear that, throughout his martyrdom, he demonstrated with his patient endurance and reliance on Christ the wonders of God in his saints (Ps 68:36). He converted many to Christianity who were formerly pagans, including Diocletian’s wife, the empress Alexandra, and his life remains a compelling witness to the truth of Christianity even to this day. St George was martyred in the Lord on 23rd April, AD 303. Fittingly, he is called ‘trophy-bearer’ because he has received the ultimate prize from the spiritual contest that he undertook, which is to be in the presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ forever and ever. Pasikrates took his holy body to his mother’s birthplace in Lydda, Palestine, according to the saint’s wishes. Here it worked miracles, and continues to do so; for the saint is a great intercessor to the Lord in our behalf. Since he dwells in the Lord, he continues to perform miracles by the power of Christ through his relics and icons that depict him authentically, as he was in life. Famous throughout the world, and the special patron of many cities and countries, St George has been encountered by many saints throughout the generations, and the Church continues to experience the benefits of his prayers, since, even now, he entreats our Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation. Icon of Saint George from the Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, Mount Athos
  • Saint George and the Dragon
    by Mario Baghos Generally speaking, traditional cultures and civilisations have a threefold representation of reality comprised of heaven, earth, and the underworld. In the holy Orthodox Church we also have such a representation, with the qualification that these three levels of reality should also be interpreted mystically, in a way that is relevant for our present experience. Seen in this manner, heaven, earth, and the underworld constitute existential states or modes of being: to be ‘heavenly’ is to partake of God’s grace which is above us yet also within all things; to be ‘earthly’ is to be passionately attached to the things of this world (nevertheless, one can be on earth and still live a ‘heavenly’ life, the way the saints do); and the ‘underworld,’ Hades or hell, is how God is experienced by those who have not turned to him in this life—his love is experienced as an unendurable fire. This view of reality is especially relevant when considering the dragon, which appears in many cultures and civilisations—and most emphatically, in the hymnographical and artistic representations of the Church—as an agent of chaos or evil. This reptilian creature, usually depicted with wings, or sometimes merely as a serpent, is facing downwards, towards the earth. Unlike human beings whose calling to godliness is manifested in their upward posture, the serpent crawls on its belly and eats dust from the ground (Genesis 3:14), thus symbolising ‘earthliness’: a passionate attachment to worldly desires which—on account of the selfishness which such attachments exacerbate—lead to wrong choices, and thus to evil which is an outcome of our misuse of our freedom. The dragon, or serpent, strives to create the conditions for a life not lived in accordance with heaven (remember the Lord’s prayer, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” Matthew 6:10). This is why in Genesis the devil—who is actually an archangel which fell through its misuse of freedom of choice—is depicted as a serpent (Gen 3:1-5, 13-15): it leads Adam and Eve away from the heavenly life in Eden by exhorting them to disobey the commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve’s free choice to embrace this temptation led to their exile from Eden, their fall from the heavenly life, which introduced sin and death into the world. But, for Christians, the fall was undone when the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, freely chose obedience to the will of God the Father for the plan of salvation, thereby succeeding where the old Adam had failed. Our Lord Jesus Christ is therefore the New Adam, who, through his self-sacrificial love, defeats the state of death inaugurated by the old Adam by rising from the dead. He defeats the devil also, by plundering Hades while reposed in the tomb; and with his resurrection from death he opens up the gates of paradise—and re-establishes the heavenly life—for all those who participate in his body, the Church, in the here and now and in the age to come. Since the devil has already been defeated, then why is it that we depict saints, like the archangel Michael or George the Trophy-Bearer, as defeating the devil in the form of a dragon, in icons in the Orthodox Church? In relation to the archangel Michael, it is because this great general of the angelic hosts was tasked with throwing the dragon and his demons out of heaven when they pridefully turned against God. In relation to St George, an answer can only be found if we dwell more on the work of Christ himself. While we have seen that the devil/dragon has indeed been defeated by Christ, this, it must be acknowledged, has occurred mystically within the Lord who is the alpha (Α) and omega (Ω), the beginning and the end, the first and the last, of all things (Rev 1:8,17, 22:13). Hence, because the Son of God who rose from the dead two-thousand years ago is also the creator of the universe (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit) and the One who will return at the second coming to judge the living and the dead, then all that he accomplished in his ministry—including the defeat of sin, death, the devil and the inauguration of his kingdom on earth in the Church—has occurred objectively within him. That is why, in order to benefit from what the Lord has lovingly accomplished for us, we need to be baptised into his body, the Church, and we must partake of his body and blood in the Eucharist, which is a participation in his very life which has defeated death forevermore. Subjectively, therefore, we still sin, are tempted, and die, until we are—if we strive in the Church and God wills it by his grace, initiative, and purpose—totally conformed by grace to his presence in the age to come. The important qualification, however, is that the saints actually participate in his kingdom in the here and now, and, while still liable to temptation, sin, and death, nevertheless are transferred to his eternal kingdom when they pass from this life to the next, where they pray to God in our behalf. In summary, Christ has objectively defeated the dragon forever in his person, and this defeat needs to happen subjectively in our lives, as we journey—by God’s grace—to his kingdom. The Lord even allows us to be tempted by the devil and his demons so that we might realise our sinfulness and be led through these temptations back to Christ. This is what we observe in the lives of the saints, and this is what we can discern in St George’s encounter with the dragon. The slaying of the dragon is often described as taking place before the saint’s encounter with the emperor Diocletian that led to his martyrdom; it can even be said to have been a preparation for his Christ-pleasing death. The story is set in various places, in Asia Minor, in Lebanon, or in Libya, and describes a pagan king, a persecutor of the Christians, whose territory is menaced by a man-eating dragon. This dragon makes a nest near the local lake, from where the inhabitants of that land get their water. The king, under the advise of his pagan priests, decides that in order to placate the dragon’s hunger, all families should sacrifice one child each to the beast by drawing lots. When the lot fell on the king to sacrifice his only daughter, he lamented his decision greatly, for she was beautiful and he loved her very much. Nevertheless, in accordance with his prior judgement, he took her outside the city gates and offered her up as a sacrifice. Providentially, it happened that St George, who was returning from a campaign, passed by that region and encountered the young maiden in distress. She told him all that was about to happen to her, and the saint compassionately decided to defend her against the beast. When it emerged to devour its prey, the holy George prayed to the Trinitarian God before lancing the dragon and taking it captive. The saint instructed the girl to drag the creature into the town by her belt. Exposing the dragon’s powerlessness in the face of God the Trinity, with whose help St George defeated it, the inhabitants of the city followed the example of the king and his daughter and received baptism; right after the saint dispatched the beast for good. This story is full of important symbolism that relates directly to the life of St George and his martyrdom. The dragon is here an image of the devil, for we have seen that it is described as a dragon in the book of Revelation, and perhaps manifests itself as such, for we know from the lives of the saints that it can take various forms. The city could be any city of the ancient world, for during St George’s lifetime the Roman Empire that governed most of the European continent and the Near East had not yet become Christian. The idol worship inherent to paganism, practiced by the king and the inhabitants of the city, is shown to be self-defeating; to worship idols is ultimately to be enslaved by the devil, the dragon, which terrorises the pagans and eats their offspring—it is antithetical to life. The young maiden is a victim of this idol worship, which exacerbates the passions—the ‘earthly’ way of life described above—and leads to our being attacked by the enemy, the dragon. When St George comes to her aid, he is able to defeat the dragon but only because he humbly invokes God the Trinity. (Indeed, the fact that God comes to his aid shows that he is already close to God.) The maiden, empowered by the example of George and the grace of the Trinitarian God, demonstrates her victory over idolatry and the passions when she drags the dragon by her belt. The victory over the earthly way of living engendered by paganism is then transferred to the whole city and to its king when they embrace Christ and receive baptism, which means to receive—and to strive to undertake—a heavenly way of life. Thus, the story of St George killing the dragon is relevant to his time and place and to Christians everywhere. We need to partake in the life of God the Trinity in the Church so that the dragon, which has once and for all been defeated by Christ, might be defeated in our own lives. That the dragon was defeated by St George (with God’s help) in his life is organically connected to his death as a martyr, for this story is often recounted before the depiction of the ordeals he had to endure for the sake of Christ and in imitation of him. The saint was able to endure them because of his victory over the enemy, which, from the account of his martyrdom, we know he had power over by the grace of God (for instance, when through prayer he exposes the evil spirits in the temple of Apollo, and their idols come crashing to the ground). In fact, many icons depicting George as a dragon-slayer show him being blessed by Christ and as receiving a crown of martyrdom from the hands of an angel sent by the Lord; meaning that this important story should be interpreted through the lens of Christ’s ultimate victory over the dragon, which he also accomplishes in the saints in whom he comes to dwell.
  • Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
    by Mario Baghos The Orthodox Church applies many epithets to the Mother of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Ἡ Δεσποίνης ἡμῶν, or “Our Lady,” Θεοτόκος, or “God-bearer,” Αειπάρθενε, “Ever-Virgin,” and Παναγία (Panagia), or “All-Holy One,” are just some of the most common, with the latter especially used by the Greek faithful. The Akathist Hymn, written in the seventh century by Saint Romanos the Melodist to celebrate the Virgin’s protection of Constantinople, includes ‘Salutations’ (Χαιρετισμοί) directed to her by the archangel Gabriel. These are full of the most beautiful and paradoxical metaphors that describe her as the one who has “become a King’s throne” and the one “Who bears Him who bears all”[1]—both references to our Lord Jesus Christ—as well as, “Key to the gates of Paradise,” and “Dawn of the mystical day,”[2] which are once again references to our Lord that was born of her. Each Salutation ends with the words, Χαῖρε Νύμφη Ἀνύμφευτε—“Hail, Unwedded Bride!”[3] The earliest textual references to the Mother of God’s importance come of course from Saint Luke, whose narrative account of the nativity and infancy of Christ focuses on the perspective of Mary, the young maiden whom the archangel acclaims as one “highly favored” with the Lord (Luke 1:28) before saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42-43). Saint Mary’s humble acceptance of the Lord’s will for her to give birth to his Son is attested by her humility and obedience, making her a paradigm for all Christians who rightly embrace the holy Virgin’s words in the Magnificat: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). While St Mary humbly and freely chose to be obedient to God, her role in the divine economy—in God’s activity in history—was prophesied in the Old Testament book of Isaiah 7:14, which states: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and will call him Immanuel,” to which Saint Matthew, in his use of this quote from Isaiah in chapter 1, verse 23 of his Gospel, adds: “which is translated, ‘God with us.’” In the Old Testament book of Micah 5:2-3, we can discern another prophecy relating to the Virgin giving birth in Bethlehem: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a Son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. The Gospels of Matthew (chs 1-2) and Luke (chs 1-2) address the Mother of God in relation to the nativity, her giving birth to the Lord: the former records the flight of the holy family to Egypt (Mt 2:13-25) and the latter records her anguish after not being able to find the twelve-year old Jesus in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast (2:41-50). In Saint John’s Gospel (2:3-10), we read about her presence at the wedding at Cana, and at her Son and our Lord’s crucifixion (Jn 19:25-27); and in Acts 1:13-14 we read about her presence with the apostles right after the Lord’s ascension. While not featuring any more in the canonical scriptures,[4] the Virgin appears in the apocryphal ones, and usually we interpret the fact that some of the apocrypha has made its way into the Orthodox Church as comprising only those elements that were consistent with its Tradition. Since the Orthodox Church places just as much emphasis on Tradition as it does on scripture—indeed, it sees the scriptures as having their rightful place within Tradition, which is a faithful, integral passing on of representations from the past within a sacred framework[5]—then it can be argued that the details of the Virgin’s life were retained in the Church’s traditional memory and later recorded in the apocrypha. In any case, the apocryphal text in question is the Protoevangelion of James, which fleshes out the early life of the Virgin, such that it outlines her ancestry—that she was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anna—and her nativity, entrance into the temple, and the Nativity of Christ in a cave instead of a manger.[6] All of these themes appear, not just in the apocrypha, but in the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. So integral are they to it that of the twelve principal feasts in the liturgical calendar, four are dedicated to the Mother of God. These are: the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos on the 8th of September; the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos on the 21st of November; the Feast of the Annunciation of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on the 25th of March; and the Feast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on the 15th of August. The latter feast—which is observed with incredible piety and preceded by a fifteen day fast—has textual antecedents in the apocrypha of the early fifth century, including the Transitus Mariae, which describes the Virgin as having been resurrected by Christ after her death[7] (insofar as the Church’s Tradition is concerned, this is precisely what happened to her). In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Maurice’s decision to inaugurate the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the Great Church of Constantinople (Hagia Sophia) would resonate throughout Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium and would lead to the adoption of this feast by Rome under Pope Sergius I in the seventh century,[8] and thence throughout the Christian West. A possible objection could be made—and has been made—by detractors at this point: that so much devotion to the Virgin could obscure the emphasis that should be placed on her Son and our God who—together with the Father and the Holy Spirit—is the only source of divine grace and of our salvation. But this objection can easily be answered by closer inspection at the manner in which the Church celebrates the Virgin, for she is always acclaimed in the Feast-days dedicated to her precisely because of her connection to Christ who has truly elevated her to the rank of the greatest intercessor between him and us. This is very clear from the Feast of the Annunciation, where—by the presence of the Holy Spirit and the overshadowing of God the Father—God the Son and Logos descends into her womb to fashion human flesh for himself, and in the Feast of her Dormition. In the icon for the latter, Christ comes to take Panagia’s soul to heaven before he resurrects her on the third day after her death, an inversion of the ‘Madonna with child’ motif.[9] But what about the Feasts of her Nativity and her Entrance into the Temple? Are they at all connected to Christ? The apolytikia or dismissal hymns for these feasts make clear their connection to God’s divine economy in our Lord Jesus. In regards to her Nativity: Your birth, Theotokos, has proclaimed joy to all the world, for from you has dawned the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God; he lifted the curse and gave us the blessing; he destroyed death and bestowed on us eternal life.[10] And, in relation to her Entrance into the Temple: Today is the prelude of God’s good pleasure, and the heralding of humanity’s salvation. In the temple of God the Virgin is clearly revealed, and she announces Christ in advance to all. To her let us cry out with mighty voice: Hail, O fulfilment of the Creator’s plan for us![11] It is clear that in both of these Feasts, the Mother of God is not worshipped, but venerated because of her closeness to her Son; a closeness that abides forever. Saints in the Orthodox Church are venerated, and their icons too, not because of any inherent powers that they might have. They are venerated because, having struggled ascetically in love of Christ and their neighbour, the former has granted—according his will, purpose, and grace—to dwell in them and conform them to his likeness, even in this life. While we are all called to participate in Christ in such a way, for him to spiritually come and dwell in us if and when he chooses to, how much more does this pertain to the Mother of God within whom Christ dwelt both physically and spiritually; to the one who gave birth to him, raised him, watched him die and encountered him as her resurrected Lord and Saviour? In other words, for the Church, Christ, his Father and the Spirit—i.e. the Trinitarian God—is the only source of salvation. Ten of its twelve major Feasts are explicitly dedicated to Christ, the pinnacle of which is Easter Sunday. Yet in order to demonstrate that God has really dwelt among us in the Virgin—to demonstrate that she is the archetype of the Christian life and that she constantly intercedes in our behalf to her Son whose ‘ear she has’—the Church has bracketed the ten Feasts of the Lord by two Feasts dedicated to the Panagia, which, since she is the Mother of God, are in fact dedicated to Christ also: the Feast of her Nativity on the 8th of September, just eight days after the beginning of the ecclesiastical New Year on September 1st, and on the 15th of August, her Dormition. As we read in the apolytikion of her Dormition: When you gave birth you kept your virginity, when you fell asleep you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. You passed into life, you who are the mother of life, who through your intercessions, redeem our souls from death.[12] This intercessory role of the Panagia is further demonstrated by the fact that in Orthodox churches she is often depicted on the left-hand side of the iconostasis or icon screen cradling her child, with Christ Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), or Master of All, on the right-hand side. She is also often depicted in the apses of traditional domed churches that usually include Christ Pantokrator within the dome representing the firmament which he, in its centre—and thus at the centre of the whole church-structure which is a microcosm—has mastery over. The appearance of the Mother of God in the apse immediately below the dome therefore represents her intercessions in our behalf. Here she is called “Wider than the Heavens” (Πλατυτέρα τῶν Οὐρανῶν / Platytera ton Ouranon), insofar as she contained in her womb the uncontainable One who is the creator of, and therefore circumscribes or contains, heaven and earth. Moreover, in various services taking place within the ecclesial space, the Mother of God is entreated as first among the saintly intercessors to the Lord. So much so has she been honoured by the Lord and his mystical body, the Church, that in Matins, the Divine Liturgy and other services, we chant the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν (Axion Estin) or ‘Truly it is right’: Truly it is right to call you blessed, Theotokos, ever-blessed and all-pure and the Mother of our God. More honourable than the Cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, who undefiled gave birth to God the Word, true Theotokos, we magnify you.[13] The special veneration to the Mother of God is manifested especially in the veneration of icons depicting her: through bowing to them, kissing them, and crossing oneself in front of them, as well as lighting candles and burning incense before them. The incarnation of the Son of God as Christ Jesus, which he wrought through the Virgin, is perhaps best attested to in the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church: for the icons, made of material pigments, wood and other elements, are a testimony to the fact that the Son of God, in assuming human nature which is a microcosm, in fact sanctified all matter—cosmically—through his incarnation. We can therefore utilise matter in order to depict him; and we create and venerate icons insofar as they authentically depict—and, by God’s grace—participate in the persons they depict, whether in Christ or his saints. Moreover, since the icons represent Christ, who is God, and the saints who are imbued with God’s grace, then the Lord himself is venerated in each and every icon we kiss and pay homage too; much like the sacred relics of the saints that are imbued with God’s grace. The fact that the Lord and his saints (the latter by his grace) are at work through the icons is made clear by the countless testimonies of miraculous icons that have been venerated in the Church’s history. Many such icons are of the Theotokos. In Mount Athos, the peninsula in northeastern Greece which has been home to monasteries and the monastic life for over a thousand years, and is considered the Virgin’s ‘garden,’ there are many miracle-working icons of the Theotokos such as the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right,’ the Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα (the All-Holy of the Gate), and the Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα (the All-Holy of the Three Ηands). From left to right: the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right,’ the Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα, or the All-Holy of the Gate, and the Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα, the All-Holy of the Three Hands These three icons are distinguished by the miracles associated with them. The Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right’ is a title given both to this icon and to a hymn written by Saint Cosmas the Hymnographer in the 700s, which initially began with the words, “More honourable than the Cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim.” In the 900s in a cell near the katholikon, or main church, of Karyes on Mount Athos, a monk was conducting a vigil to this icon when suddenly another monk appeared and prefaced St Cosmas’ hymn with the words “Truly it is right to call you blessed Theotokos, ever-blessed and all pure, and the Mother of our God.” The icon began to radiate light, and the anonymous monk who appeared was revealed to be the Archangel Gabriel, who left this hymn, forever connected to this icon, as a reminder of the Panagia’s importance in the Church. The icon can today be venerated in the katholikon at Karyes, and its Feast-day is 11th of June. The Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα, or ‘All-Holy of the Gate,’ is attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist and has a distinctive feature: a gash appears on the face of the Virgin, inflicted by an iconoclastic soldier in Byzantium when the civilisation was plagued by the ‘breaking of the icons.’ After striking the icon, the face of the Panagia began to bleed as though it were made of flesh and blood. The icon miraculously made its way to Mount Athos and can be venerated at the Iviron monastery, where it is renowned for the many miracles it performs. In the 1600s a copy of the Iviron icon was made and sent to Russia, where it was placed in the Iverskaya chapel in Moscow and was also renowned for its miracles; but after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 the chapel was destroyed, and the icon remains lost. The Feast-day of the original icon is the 12th of February. The Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα or ‘All-Holy of the Three Ηands’ is located at the Serbian monastery of Chilandari on Athos. It is connected with Saint John of Damascus, defender of the icons during the iconoclasm enacted by the Byzantine emperors (his writings in fact helped turned the tide, so that iconoclasm was abolished by the empress Saint Irene, and later empress-Saint Theodora). Accused as being an enemy of the Caliph, St John’s hand was severed, after which he placed it in front of this icon of the Panagia before falling asleep. When he awoke, his hand was fully restored through the intercession of the Virgin, and for a votive offering he placed a silver hand on the icon which makes the Virgin look like she has three hands, hence the name, ἡ Τριχερούσα. The Feast-day of the icon is the 28th of June. Turning to other Orthodox lands, like Russia, the Mother of God is revered as protectress of various cities precisely through her miracle-working icons, including the city of Vladimir, which housed a special Byzantine icon—the Vladimirskaya Icon of the Mother of God—in the city’s cathedral of the Annunciation that can now be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In the 1100s this icon was sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Grand Duke of Kiev. Later it was taken to Vladimir, and finally Moscow, where, in 1395, it protected the city from Tamerlane’s invading army. In the late 1400s it was also accredited with protecting the Muscovites from the invading Tatars. The icon’s Feast-day is the 6th of July. The Vladimirskaya Icon of the Mother of God In St Petersburg, the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky worshipped at a church dedicated to this Vladimirskaya icon. Elsewhere in St Petersburg one can find a copy of the famous Kazanskaya icon, or the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, which was allegedly procured from Constantinople before the city fell and has been venerated as protectress of various Russian cities, including Kazan. The original icon is in the Epiphany cathedral at Yelokhovo, in Moscow, but there is a copy at another eponymous church, the Kazan cathedral, again in Moscow. The icon’s Feast-days are 21st of July and 4th of November (Julian calendar). The Mother of God of Kazan The Mother of God has of course been venerated as protectress of many cities throughout the world. Constantinople regarded the Virgin as its “Mighty Defender and Commander”—Τῇ ὑπερμάχῷ στρατηγῷ—based on the troparion or hymn that appears in the Akathist mentioned above,[14] and Athens in Greece was distinguished by its conversion of the Parthenon—originally dedicated to the goddess Athena—to Παναγία ἡ Ἀθηνιώτισσα, the All-Holy One of Athens. Historically, there are also relics attributed to the Theotokos. Churches in the suburbs of Blachernae and Chalkoprateia, as well as the Hodegon Monastery were some of the earliest dedicated to her in Constantinople in the fifth century. All of these purportedly contained sacred relics associated with the Virgin: the Blachernae had her robe or funeral garb,[15] the Chalkoprateia, her girdle,[16] and the Hodegon the miraculous icon known as the Hodegitria (Παναγία ἡ Ὁδηγήτρια), or “She who leads the way.” By the end of the fifth century the emperor Leo I had built the shrine of the “Virgin of the Spring, later called the Zoodochos Pege [Ἡ Ζωοδόχος Πηγή]” or the Life-Giving Spring, above a spring on the outskirts of Constantinople—which has been a site renowned for the many miracles the Virgin has wrought there. Later churches such as that of the Theotokos Pammakaristos (Θεοτόκος ἡ Παμμακάριστος) or the All-Blessed God-bearer, the church of the Theotokos Kyriotissa (Θεοτόκος ἡ Κυριώτισσα) or Our Lady the God-bearer, and the church of St Mary of the Mongols (also known as Theotokos Panagiotissa or All-Holy God-bearer), point to the extent of her veneration in the Orthodox Church; a veneration which—as one can discern from the way she is referred to in these churches—was always associated with her Son and our God. Finally, the role and place given to the Theotokos in Orthodox worship is confirmed by the fact that she has been encountered throughout the generations by saints and faithful within the Church. Stories abound: on Athos and elsewhere in Greece, in Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, America—she has been seen throughout the world by those whom God has accounted worthy to see her. But let me end by giving two, prominent examples, from different points in history, one from the early Church and one from early modernity, to drive home this point. In the fourth century St Gregory of Nyssa wrote a hagiographical text On the Life and Wonders of Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory the Wonderworker. The Wonderworker was instructed both in the philosophical curriculum of late antiquity and Christianity, before moving to Pontus to become bishop of Neocaesarea. There he witnessed to the faith in Christ and performed many miracles before reposing in the Lord around AD 270. In the Nyssen’s life of the Wonderworker, he records that, after being made bishop of Neocaesarea, he yearned to penetrate deeper into the mystery of the Christian faith so that he might better instruct his flock. As he turned over these thoughts in his mind one night, St John the Theologian appeared, accompanied by the holy Theotokos. St Gregory immediately cast down his eyes, not being able to look at these figures who were illuminated by a radiating light. But he heard their conversation: the Mother of God asked St John to reveal to St Gregory the mystery of the faith, which he did so in the form of a creed.[17] Next, we move to late eighteenth century Russia, to the town of Sarov in the region of Nizhny Novgorod. It was in this town that a young man named Prokhor became tonsured as the monk Seraphim in 1786, which led him on the path of extreme asceticism in his love for and pursuit of Christ. Falling ill with dropsy, Saint Seraphim was visited by the Mother of God, accompanied by Sts John and Peter; and as the young monk lay suffering in bed, she pointed to him and said, “He is of our race.”[18] She then healed him of his malady. These words she repeated to him a second time, many years later, after the saint was beaten mercilessly by bandits and left for dead. Once again accompanied by Sts John and Peter, she appeared at St Seraphim’s bedside, and referring to the doctors, exclaimed: “What of their efforts? He is of our race.”[19] He was to see her many more times—and he also saw her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ[20]—before reposing in the Lord in the 1833. From these examples, we discern the Mother of God’s continuing activity in the Church in the service of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; an activity confirmed by this very truth: that she often visits the saints who are made worthy of her assistance. May the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary always intercede to her Son and our God for our salvation. [1] The Akathist Hymn, ed. et al. George Karahalios (Northridge, CA: Narthex Press, 2008), 23. [2] Ibid., 38, 39. [3] Ibid., 23 (my translation). [4] Apart from perhaps the allegorical representation of the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation chapter twelve. [5] Tradition is also dynamic, engaging with aspects of various cultures in order to communicate the Gospel to them. [6] The Protoevangelium of James 1–8, trans. Oscar Cullman, in New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson (Louisville, KE: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 426–29. [7] Wolfgang A. Beinert, ‘The Relatives of Jesus,’ in New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1 (cit. above), 485. [8] Miri Rubin, The Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 97. [9] The ‘Madonna with child’ motif is a conventional term that can be used for icons (or any image) depicting the Mother of God holding the Christ-child. [10] The Divine Liturgy of our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom, trans. Committee on the Translation of Liturgical Texts (Sydney: St Andrew’s Orthodox Press, 2005), 127. [11] Ibid. [12] Ibid., 135. [13] Ibid., 79. [14] The Akathist Hymn, 21. [15] The robe of the Virgin had been brought to Constantinople by two patricians from Palestine, and in 472 Emperor Leo I ordered it to be placed in a special reliquary and moved to the church of Blachernae. Holger A. Klein, ‘Sacred Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople,’ BYZAS 5 (2006): 77–99, esp. 87. [16] Cecily Hennessey, ‘The Chapel of St Jacob at the Church of the Theotokos Chalkoprateia in Constantinople,’ in Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2, ed. Roger Matthews, John Curtis et al. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012), 351–66, esp. 352. [17] Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, On the Life and Wonders of Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory the Wonderworker 4, in St. Gregory Thaumaturgus: Life and Works, trans. Michael Slusser (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 53-54. [18] Irina Gorainov, The Message of Saint Seraphim [of Sarov]: “The Aim of Christian Life is Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (Oxford: Fairacres Publication, 1973), 3. [19] Ibid., 5. [20] Ibid., 3.
  • The Life of Saint Antony, Father of Monasticism
    by Mario Baghos Monasticism has been a hallmark of Orthodox Christianity since early times. The desire among some people to partake intensely in God’s kingdom in the here and now often involved their departure from ‘the world.’ Leaving behind family, friends, jobs, cities, and other attachments, they would go into deserts, forests, and other places in nature that lacked human habitation. Here, they devoted themselves to prayer and asceticism, including fasting, manual labour, reading, and other work. The goal of these ascetical practices—accompanied by ceaseless prayer—was to control the passions, those selfish attachments that cause us to sin. Intense spiritual warfare and temptation would accompany their strivings, but the end result—according to God’s will and purpose—would be communion with God. Monastic practices predate Christianity, but in Christianity they find their final form. This is because our Lord Jesus Christ blessed monasticism. He did this not only through his own celibate life, but by accepting to be baptised by the desert-dweller, his cousin, St John the Forerunner. There are various forms that monastic life can take. Historically, these have included: monks or nuns attached to a church or an ascetic household; itinerant ascetics; hermits in isolated cells; anchorites living with a few disciples; and coenobites, monks and nuns living in a centrally organised monastery, under an abbot or abbess. While many of these monastic practices flourished within the Church, they were given permanent structure by the reforms of holy bishops like Basil the Great, who organised coenobitic communities under their respective abbots within the ecclesial framework. Of the monks that flourished in the early Church, perhaps none is so distinguished as Saint Antony the Great. He has been called the ‘Father of Monasticism,’ not because he invented this sacred practice, but because his ascetic strivings, his virtuous life, and his nearness to God became a standard for all other monks and nuns to follow. Born in AD 251 in Egypt, Antony’s parents were well born and possessed much property. Together with his younger sister, Antony was raised a Christian, and practiced the virtue of obedience to his parents while reading the scriptures often. His parents died when he was young, so that at around eighteen or twenty years of age he had to take care of his sister by himself. Six months after the death of his parents, he was contemplating how the apostles left everything to follow our Saviour Jesus Christ, and how in the book of Acts they sold their possessions and distributed the profit to those among them in need (Acts 4:32-37). When on one occasion he entered the church and heard the Lord say in the Gospel, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and come and follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21), and, on another occasion, “Do not be concerned about tomorrow” (Mt 6:34), he sold everything he had and entrusted his sister to the care of ascetic women. Antony then travelled the surrounding villages to learn the life of asceticism from experienced spiritual Fathers. In this we can see his humility and another hallmark of Orthodox Christianity, that of spiritual discipleship, whether it be to one’s bishop, priest, or spiritual elder. For it is only by entrusting ourselves to the will of God and his presence in the lives of those who have walked the ascetic path before us—and who are therefore near to God—that we can grow spiritually. As Antony grew spiritually, the devil, who is the enemy of Christians and all people—especially when they practiced goodness—attacked Antony with various temptations, ranging from a longing for his family and possessions, to lustful fantasies. With prayer and fasting, Antony, with God’s help, was able to reject these temptations. After the initial wave of attacks, Antony redoubled his ascetic efforts, even going as far as to live in a tomb near his village. Among the graves, he contemplated the fleeting nature of life on earth, and how we must keep our focus on our ultimate dwelling place, which is the kingdom of heaven. The enemy could not stand Antony’s growing closeness to God, and, having failed to defeat him by tempting him with thoughts, he attacked him physically. Having been beaten mercilessly by demons on two consecutive occasions, Antony recited psalms and prayed, constantly evoking the name of the Lord until Christ himself—who did not forget Antony’s struggle—intervened. Saint Athanasius the Great, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, describes the Lord’s intervention as follows: Looking up, Antony saw the roof [of the tomb] appear to open and a beam of light descended upon him. Suddenly the demons vanished and the pain in his body immediately ceased … Antony perceived the Lord’s help, and when he took a deep breath and realized that he had been relieved of his suffering, he entreated the vision that had appeared to him: ‘Where are you? Why did you not appear at the beginning so you could stop my sufferings?’ And a voice came to him: ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be a helper to you always and I will make you famous everywhere.’[1] This appearance of the Lord to Antony took place when he was about thirty-five years old. From the saint’s struggle we learn that the Lord permits temptations to occur in order to strengthen us spiritually, this means, to help us overcome our pride and to remember that we need to call upon him in order to be saved. After this experience, Antony left the tomb and went to Mount Pispir, where he found a deserted barracks that he made into his home. Here, he was attacked by the demons, but was not defeated by them, for he received constant visions from the Lord who was always with him. After spending almost twenty years in the barracks, entirely on his own, the crowds—out of a sincere desire for spiritual consolation—demanded to see him. Having reached a high level of dispassion and participation in God, St Antony emerged from the barracks to compassionately heal those who were suffering from diseases; to give solace to people through the comfort of his spiritual words; to reconcile enemies into friends; and to encourage people to place nothing above our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that we might have eternal life. As a result of the saint’s example and instruction, many monasteries were set up throughout Egypt. Antony became the encourager of the monks, teaching them how to persevere in monasticism and how to recognise all the tricks and temptations of the evil one. During the persecution of the Christians that occurred under the pagan Roman Emperor Maximinus Daia between 308-313, Antony ministered to the confessors and the martyrs in the mines and prisons. When the persecution ceased, he returned to his cell and continued his asceticism, but the crowds continued to come to him. Concerned about either falling into pride or that some would praise him undeservedly, at the age of sixty-two he departed for the ‘inner mountain’ in the Upper Thebaid. While remaining mostly in isolation, from then until his repose in the Lord he often travelled between the outer and inner deserts, casting out demons, healing the sick, and instructing the faithful, all by the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ. His travels included a significant visit to the city of Alexandria, where, in support of St Athanasius and other holy Fathers, he gave his approval to the doctrine of the council of Nicaea, that our Lord Jesus Christ is “one essence (homoousios)” with God the Father, in other words, fully God. Even the first Christian emperor, St Constantine the Great, together with his sons, wrote letters to him and sought his council—so much had his fame spread throughout the Church and the world at the time. In this way St Antony lived a God pleasing life. Learning from God, at the age of one hundred and five, that he was about to die, Antony informed the monks, who embraced him with sadness. But Antony was like one returning home from a long voyage, and he joyfully encouraged the monks to continue in their asceticism and their pursuit of God’s kingdom. He informed them to distribute his clothing: his sheepskin coat and tunic to St Athanasius, and his other sheepskin coat to St Serapion, bishop of Thmuis. The monks were to keep his hairshirt, and all these items were imbued with God’s grace that dwelt in the saint. After falling asleep in the Lord in AD 356, St Antony the Great was buried secretly, according to his wishes. The Father of Monasticism remains a guiding light for all who strive to undertake asceticism within the holy Orthodox Church, and continues to intercede to the Lord for our salvation. [1] St Athanasius the Great, The Life of Antony: The Coptic Life and The Greek Life, trans. Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1994), 83, 85.
  • Hesychasm, the Jesus Prayer, and the Komboskoini
    by Mario Baghos Hesychasm is a translation of the Greek word ἡσυχασμός, which in turn derives from ἡσυχία, meaning ‘quiet’ or ‘stillness.’ The practice of stillness is associated with cultivating existential or inner peace. It is characterised by the repetition of the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—as well as respiratory exercises and bodily postures, such as the regulation of breathing while stooping towards one’s navel while seated on a short stool. These practices are supposed to ‘ready’ one for the grace of God that is bestowed upon believers by the latter’s initiative, that is, when and if he chooses. In other words, through this cultivation of stillness and invocation of the Lord Jesus, God, according to his will and purpose, may reveal himself, truly and palpably, to the hesychast. This revelation might take the form of an experience of the divine or Taboric light; a real experience of God in the here and now, just as saints Peter, James and John experienced on Mount Tabor when Christ revealed his glory to them (what we call the Transfiguration described in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). Hesychasm has always been part of the Orthodox Church’s spiritual experience, particularly its monastic tradition, and is famously associated with St Gregory Palamas, who had to defend hesychasm against misinterpretations in the fourteenth century. Its practice is addressed at length in the Philokalia (Φιλοκαλία) —which means ‘love of beauty,’ and refers to the love of beauty of the spiritual life—and is a compilation of mostly monastic texts reflecting the Church’s mystical tradition. In the modern translation into English of the Greek Philokalia, the editors importantly stress that … hesychasm is not something that has developed independently of or alongside the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. It is part and parcel of it. It too is an ecclesial tradition. To attempt to practise it, therefore, apart from active participation in this sacramental and liturgical life is to cut it off from its living roots. It is also to abuse the intention of its exponents and teachers and so act with a presumption that may well have consequences of a disastrous kind …[1] Hesychasm should therefore not be undertaken apart from the Church’s life; and should ideally be practised—especially in its more rigid forms or postures mentioned above—under guidance from one’s spiritual Father. Nevertheless, certain aspects of hesychasm, such as focusing on one’s breathing (such as breathing slowly into one’s diaphragm) in order to quiet the thoughts through which temptations come, and the repetition of the Jesus Prayer while standing in front of an icon at set times in the day, is important for all Orthodox Christians, male or female, married or unmarried. This is not the same as meditation, which can be self-centred. Hesychasm instead harnesses the body’s mental and physical rhythms (breathing and control of thoughts) for prayer and is directed towards another person. And this person is God, the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we truly speak to through the Jesus Prayer. Hesychasm is thus humble: while we actively try to focus our mental and physical energies on our Lord Jesus Christ, we must acknowledge our sinfulness and unworthiness in his presence, as indicated by the fact that in the Jesus Prayer we ask the Lord to “have mercy on me, a sinner.” When we pray, we are often beset by distracting or pernicious thoughts, sometimes because of the mind’s preoccupied or distracted state, sometimes on account of memory, and at other times because of attacks from evil spirits. These thoughts should not disturb us. Instead they should bolster our resolve to continue praying. To assist with focus while saying the Jesus Prayer, Orthodox Christians often use a prayer rope, called a komboskoini (κομποσκοίνι). This rope is usually in the form of a loop, made out of wool, and has at its base a cross. Some prayer ropes have thirty-three knots, representing the years Christ lived on earth. The prayer rope can be used by beginners until, after much experience and by the grace of God, the prayer becomes interiorised in the mind and is said mentally or, in the case of the saints, by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Believers can say the Jesus Prayer out loud while performing menial tasks, or in front of an icon without a komboskoini: techniques vary in relation to one’s spiritual state and according to the advice one receives from his or her spiritual Father. Finally, it is important to underscore the fact that if we choose to practice the Jesus Prayer, we must not do so with the expectation that God will grant us his grace or visions or anything of that sort, as though the prayer works through cause and effect. This is prideful thinking and could have serious consequences. We must say the Jesus Prayer out of true repentance and desire to participate in Christ out of love for him. In this way, we might be—if God wills it—accounted worthy to experience what the saints have experienced; but this should not be our goal, since it is not up to us, but entirely up to the discretion of our almighty Lord. Saint Gregory Palamas, defender and practitioner of hesychasm [1] G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (eds and trans.), ‘Introduction,’ in The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, vol. 1 (New York: Faber and Faber, 1983), 15.
  • On Envy
    by Mario Baghos Ancient persons, even before the coming of Christ, knew of the forces at work, both human and supernatural, that disrupted interpersonal and institutional relations. Cultures throughout the world still believe in the ‘evil eye’ (βασκανία), which consists in misfortune befalling a person when someone gives them an aggressive or envious stare. The extent to which such a force is considered anchored in the supernatural is ambiguous. In other words, it is unclear whether the evil eye is viewed as a spiritual force, or whether it ‘proceeds’ from the eyes of the one casting it. Perhaps the ‘evil eye’ is a way of explaining just how important it is to positively regulate our perception of things? The Lord Himself affirms, “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your vision is clear, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). Elsewhere, He exhorts us to let our light “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). Here, the positive effect of ‘seeing clearly’ can be related to doing good works for the glory of God. Conversely, the Lord warns: “But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mt 6:23). In any case, the ‘evil eye’ was so widespread in the collective folklore of the Balkans and beyond that the Orthodox Church was compelled to compose a prayer against it. (The superstitious accompaniments in the use of this prayer by laypersons could be either ‘magical’ accretions or ‘leftovers’ from pagan practices.) What is interesting is that instead of rejecting wholesale this pre-Christian spiritual phenomenon, the Church, in its pastoral wisdom, met the people halfway by acknowledging that one can be affected by negative thoughts and perceptions—whether from people or evil spirits—and that the only One who can defend us from them is the Lord Christ; the same One who exhorts us and helps us to change our way of viewing the world, people included. Related to this, in ancient times there was another force that facilitated disunity or chaos and had to be warded off at all costs. This was, in Greek, phthonos (φθόνος)—which was sometimes used interchangeably with βασκανία—what we would translate as ‘envy.’ The Romans personified ‘envy,’ or in Latin, Invidia, as a malevolent entity that was pertinently described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses: She never smiles, save at the sight of another’s troubles; she never sleeps, disturbed with wakeful cares; unwelcome to her is the sight of men’s success, and with the sight she pines away; she gnaws and is gnawed, herself her own punishment. (Metamorphoses 2) The role of envy as causing and even embodying unhappiness and suffering (the extent of which are typified in a sort of self-cannibalisation) is a powerful metaphor for the destructive effect of this passion on a person’s wellbeing. Because of the power of this metaphor, it crops up again and again in Greco-Roman historiography. Cassius Dio (Roman History 44) and Sallust (The War with Catiline 5) used it in a similar way to how the ‘evil eye’ has been described above; a tendency towards envy, causing strife. Later, the earliest Christian historians, who modeled their writings on Greco-Roman historiography (but of course infused it with Christian content), appropriated the concept of envy in relation to demonic and human activity that disrupted the unity of the Church. Thus, in his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea referred to two kinds of envy. One kind, described aptly in relation to the historical circumstances that prevailed in the Church just before the Great Persecution in AD 303, occurs when there is peace within the Church, where: “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth: we began by envying and abusing each other” (HE 8.1). This reminds us that the external peace and comfort that the Church experiences at various times and places could come with a terrible cost if one drops his or her guard. As St Antony the Great stated to St Poemen, “This is the great work of a man [or woman]: always to take the blame for his [or her] own sins before God and to expect temptation to his [or her] last breath” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). In the case described by Eusebius, the lack of circumspection among Christians in a time of ostensible ‘freedom’ made them haughty, so that they turned against one another. This, Eusebius argued, is why the Great Persecution was permitted to take place: it was a sort of divine pedagogy to bring the people of God back to spiritual health. Another kind of envy that Eusebius referred to is in relation to demonic activity. In his Proof of the Gospel, Eusebius described envy as conditioning the demons’ behaviour insofar as it was because of their envy of humankind’s salvation that they fell and turned against God and the saints (PG 4.9). In his Ecclesiastical History, the bishop of Caesarea gives many examples of these attacks against saints and martyrs, in some cases explicitly naming them as motivated by the demon envy (such as in the death of St Apollonius the martyr in EH 5.21). So far, we have seen that the two kinds of envy referred to in the classical sources, whether in relation to the ‘evil eye’ or as an entity that disrupted unity, are likewise reflected in the writings of the first Christian historian in relation to human beings and demons. The fact that Eusebius deployed envy in his History as a source of division in the same way historians such as Dio and Sallust did points to two things: that envy is seen in all cultures as malignant, with the Church being able to identify this passion as either the result of human behaviour or demonic activity, the latter possibly influencing the former (though not in every case); and that, by using the literary device of envy as a force of division in his History, Eusebius was engaging with readers in the Greco-Roman context who would have been familiar with the writings of classical historians who used the same motif. This form of cultural appropriation that—in interpreting a term/motif from the ancient world from a Christian point of view—sheds light on the forces at work against the Church, was repeated by subsequent Christian historians. Socrates the Constantinopolitan, whose Ecclesiastical History comprises a continuation of Eusebius’ to his own day, includes a letter from St Pope Julius of Rome on the trials of St Athanasius the Great, concerning which he declared that “our Lord Jesus Christ” protected Athanasius from envy/phthonos in order to restore him to the see of Alexandria after his second exile (EH 2.23). It is not clear if Julius, in referring to envy in the singular, is denoting the envy of the Arians who contrived against Athanasius or the demon envy. Elsewhere, however, Socrates referred to the demon as “insidiously at work in the midst of a prosperous condition of affairs” (EH 1.22). Socrates then ponders “for what reason the goodness of God permits this to be done”—i.e. for envy to attack the Church—whether He wishes to perfect the Church thereby or to “break down the self importance” which often accompanies faith. Either way, the test of such conditions is meant to strip away the pride that can creep up on Christians. Moreover, the humble endurance in the wake of attacks from envy is a testimony of the faithful adherents of the Gospel. This much can be discerned in the life of St John Chrysostom, who, according to an unnamed disciple (whom posterity knows as Ps.-Martyrius and who composed the saint’s Funerary Speech) was attacked by two kinds of envy, both human (FS 13) and supernatural (FS 39), the latter being the source of the former, until the saint’s life came to an end in martyrdom on account of their attacks. Although I have given a brief outline of the use of envy as a literary device by way of consulting the early Christian historians, in fact this motif is prevalent in Christian spiritual literature. For example, in a sermon Concerning Envy, the fourth century Cappadocian father St Basil the Great related φθόνος and βασκανία in a way that denotes the effect of ‘envy’ (phthonos) on a person, namely by making them ‘evil-eyed.’ Moreover, the saint alluded to Ovid’s description of the self-cannibalising personification of envy, the Latin Invidia, by stating that “the envious [person] consumes himself, pining away through grief,” before asserting that the demons find kinship with, and attach themselves to, envious souls (CE). Having given a brief account of how envy, or phthonos/indivia, was appropriated by the earliest Christian writers to describe a reality affecting the Church and us all, what lessons can we infer? In the examples given above, the Christian authors cited were concerned with envy as it affected, not the outside world, but the Church. This is because of the concern of these writers for the Church whenever it lapsed into disunity. Did not our Lord Jesus Christ pray that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21)? Disunity within the Church, caused by envy, is an unfortunate reality: but we must also acknowledge—however difficult it is for us to do so—that it is an affront to the unity between Christ and God the Father and the witness to the Gospel. This is why the demon envy attacks the members of the Church, which is the body of Christ, more violently than anyone (or anywhere) else. And according to the testimonies that we have seen, envy attacks precisely when the Church seems to be flourishing. In such times, no one is immune: both the enactors of envy and its targets become victims of the “father of envy” (FS 39), and the only way it can be overcome is by showing humility, dispassion, and love to all parties involved. My goal in exploring the cultural appropriation of ‘envy’ in the writings of the early Christians has been twofold. To remind us that this phenomenon is real, and that it continues to afflict us in the Church. The Lord exhorts us to participate in His life through communal fellowship and love for our neighbour, even our enemy. Loving unity in Christ is the polar opposite of the disunity, chaos and pain caused by envy, which makes us, according to St Basil: “sharers in the works of our Adversary … so [that we may] be found condemned together with him” (CE). It is precisely by engendering envy that the enemy foils both our participation in Christ and the witness to the Gospel. But the Lord exhorts us to be agents of light, to have clear vision (Mt 6:22) and to “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). In order to get there, we need to cast off the false presumption that we are ever spiritually safe, expecting, to paraphrase St Antony, temptation to our last breath. We need to cultivate a constant vigilance, better still, to “put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Rom 13:12). This armour is described by St Paul in Romans as a change in behaviour, which implies a change in thought. It is also associated with ‘clothing ourselves with Christ’ (Rom 13:14). To get there, let us together—as one Orthodox Christian family—turn our minds and hearts in prayer towards God the Son, our Master and Saviour. Let us imitate Him in loving one another, to the mockery of envy, and for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Orthodoxy and Truth
    by Mario Baghos The Orthodox Church is the holy body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), of the heavenly kingdom. It is not just a mirror reflection of that kingdom. The kingdom of God is not so distant from the Church on earth—the Church triumphant not so foreign to the Church militant—that they are only tentatively related. The Orthodox Church is the body of Christ precisely because there is a correspondence between what occurs in the heavenly places and what takes places in the liturgy and other sacred services in our local parishes; in our local congregations that mystically make up Christ’s sacred body. The Orthodox Church therefore participates in the Truth concerning who God is. And that Truth is a Person, the second person of the Holy Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ, who said concerning Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In our increasingly relativistic society, some might feel uncomfortable with these words, and might ask themselves: ‘Does the Orthodox Church have a monopoly on Truth?’ or ‘can Truth not be found outside of the Church?’ Since Truth is a person, the Son of God and Godman Jesus Christ, and since that person transcends time and space together with God the Father and Holy Spirit, then Truth cannot be circumscribed or limited by anything or anyone. It is this Truth who created the universe and all human beings in His Image and Likeness (Genesis 1:26), who as Logos of God before His incarnation planted seeds of Himself in the rational faculty[1]—and in the hearts[2]—of all human persons, to lead them to Him. (Some Greek philosophers and many of the Hebrew prophets, even reached Him by His grace.)[3] It is for this reason that many saints of the Church insisted on apophaticism in terms of what we can say about God, for He totally transcends our understanding, and when the saints experience Him even their best analogies fall short of describing what they have seen or heard.[4] Yet despite the apophaticism rendered duly to this mysterious and transcendent God, the same God is nevertheless paradoxically immanent. He transcends all things and yet is within all things. More than that: His Son was sent to us, or rather came down to us, to become one of us as our Lord Jesus Christ, and to establish the Orthodox Church as His mystical body on earth for our salvation. And while we do not preclude that God can and does inspire people even outside of the Church’s sacred precincts (for the whole cosmos is His, and all persons are made in His Image), nevertheless within the Church we have this inspiration and participation in Him—which intensifies according to the degree of one’s assimilation to Christ by God’s grace—as a guarantee. In the Orthodox Church, the Son reveals to us who God is—and while the Trinitarian God ultimately transcends the ‘words’ we use to describe the three divine persons who are united in essence as one God—nevertheless, Christ referred to Himself as ‘Son,’ and to His ‘Father’ and to the ‘Spirit,’ revealing these terms as applicable to God in a sacred and permanent manner, which is why we begin all of our prayers in this name. When the Godman, our Lord Jesus Christ, defeated death in our behalf when He rose from the dead, He initiated mortal beings into the life of this Trinitarian God, by grace and not by nature; and He did this precisely in His sacred body, the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church therefore intimately participates in the Truth, and can therefore be said to be True, since its members belong to the One who is Truth Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ. Admittedly, the perception of this Truth grows according to one’s closeness to Christ in the Church, e.g. I do not experience this Truth in the same way what the saints experience it, but that does not mean that it is not there. And we are all called, by God’s grace, to experience it, to experience Christ the way that the saints do. Thus, while Truth is a transcendent person (or rather, three divine persons united in essence, the one God) who created the universe and human beings, the Orthodox Church is the special repository of this Truth, where Truth has been revealed and actualised in the members of the Church, who participate in Truth—in Christ—when, for example, we are baptised and chrismated—when we ‘put on Christ’ (Galatians 3:27) and are sealed with the Holy Spirit— and when we partake of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Through these and other sacraments (or mysteries)—marriage, ordination, unction—and the prayers directed to Christ and asceticism and good works undertaken in imitation of Him, we are led by Him to the kingdom, both in the Church on earth, and in heaven, where the kingdom exists for ever and ever. The proof of all of these things can be discerned in those persons whose struggle against the temptations, passions and sins—whose love for others is perfected more and more by the grace of God in the Church—and who become, by God’s grace, saints in this life. These persons are offered glimpses of that future kingdom in the here and now, communicating with saints who have long reposed, with God’s holy mother, the Godbearer and Ever-Virgin Mary, and even with the Lord Himself. By God’s grace, these saints are made existentially compatible with Christ: this is why they see Him and others who dwell in that kingdom; a kingdom that can only be entered by those who have become Christlike, gods with small ‘g’ or christs with a small ‘c.’ The Orthodox Church both is that kingdom and facilitates participation in that kingdom, and we know this because of the saints whom we venerate. And we are all called to become like them by God’s grace, no matter how much we fall short of this sacred calling. This calling is in fact a divine imperative—a mandate (Psalm 81(82):6, Matthew 5:48)—but it is constantly frustrated both by our own shortcomings and by the activity of the devil, conquered by Christ with His resurrection yet permitted to tempt us so that we—ever stubborn in our own self-will—might realise our selfishness and pride and repent; thereby returning to Christ’s love in humility, love and selflessness (in other words, in imitation of Him). These temptations can afflict us at any time, but they can be especially virulent when we are at prayer, even at church. For example: how often have we heard our brothers and sisters complain in church about the chanting—either its length or language—or about the elderly who, ostensibly, at one moment cross themselves and the next gossip about others. Sadly, people do not realise that such criticisms are hypocritical, because, even if some church-goers do in fact judge others (and many of us are guilty of this, to our shame), when we judge the ‘judgers’ we are guilty of exactly the same thing; and we do this in the house of the One who alone is judge, our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 12:19). Just as problematic for us is that such thoughts—such temptations—disrupt us from prayer, which is what we should be doing when we are in church, and they are incredibly deceptive, creating a false impression out of what really takes place during the divine services. For despite our human frailties, weaknesses, and sins (and concerning the latter, only our own sins should concern us), the Church remains the body of Christ on earth. Its hierarchs and priests are God’s appointed ministers through apostolic succession. Its chanters are singing hymns, written by saints, that we are all called to participate in together, as one family. The beautiful icons that adorn the walls have more than just an aesthetic purpose (although this is also important): they authentically depict and mystically participate in the persons depicted in them, so that veneration given to these icons is by God’s grace transferred to the saint or to Christ Himself. One can go on: the sweet-smelling incense represents our prayers rising to heaven; the respective feast days regarding persons and events of sacred history are dramatised so that our loving God, who transcends all times and spaces, might transport us to these events by His grace, thereby making us participants in the stories of the saints which are modelled—in reality and not figuratively—on the story of Christ Himself. Finally, the sacred gestures and movements of the liturgy are also a sacred narrative, culminating in the mystical supper of our Lord Jesus Christ with His disciples when he established the New Covenant with us in the Church, a participation in His sacred body and blood, for our salvation. One can go on. But I conclude with the reflection and exhortation that since our Lord Jesus Christ is the Truth, and the Church is His sacred body, then the Orthodox Church discloses to each and every one of its faithful this Truth throughout the generations. This is a message that we the faithful all need to be reminded of from time to time; and it is a message that should be urgently communicated to the Church’s children who may have wandered from the path, and to this world which, until the day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:2), is constantly in travail. Icon of Christ Pantokrator (“The Ruler of All”), St Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai [1] St Justin Martyr, The First Apology 44 in The First and Second Apologies, trans. Leslie William Barnard (New York: Paulist Press, 1997) 53-54. [2] Epistle to Diognetus 7 in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Bart D. Ehrman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005) 144-45. [3] We know that this is the case in relation to the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Daniel since they are venerated as saints in the Orthodox Church. For Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Heraclitus as inspired by the God the Logos we rely on the disposition of saints like Justin Martyr, see The First Apology 46 (Barnard 55). [4] Apophaticism as a way of theologising facilitates a frame of mind that does not impose rational concepts or images upon the inexhaustible mystery of God, which is ultimately beyond human comprehension. But this should not be understood at the expense of kataphaticism, the converse of apophaticism, which consists of positive terms, concepts, and images that have indeed been revealed to us by God and express certain truths about Him.
  • Sacred Music in Late Byzantium
    by Andrew Mellas Fourteenth-century Byzantium saw the convergence of Eastern Christianity’s mystical tradition of contemplative monasticism—Palamite Hesychasm—and the summit of melismatic liturgical music—St John Koukouzeles. How did the sacred ritual of the Late Byzantine all-night vigil unveil the emotive universe of Christianity during what Sir Steven Runciman called the last Byzantine renaissance? The historical context of kalophonic chant and Hesychasm during the fourteenth century was that of an empire on the brink of collapse and destruction. History had betrayed the Byzantines. The Fourth Crusade severely weakened Constantinople, ushered in a period of decline, and ended its reign as a political and economic superpower. With the body of the empire so humbled and the Byzantine ideal of a kingdom embodying heaven on earth shattered, feelings of disillusionment prevailed and the quest for a lost unity began. Melismatic chant represented the final frontier of the Byzantine liturgical world and its mystagogy. Far from espousing a disembodied form of prayer and song, St Gregory Palamas and St John Koukouzeles presented Hesychasm and kalophonic chant as a participation of body and soul in divine life, cultivated through asceticism and liturgical life. Hesychasm invited a mystical devotion to serenity—a journey of purification, illumination and deification—that entailed more than just an ever-expanding interiority. Rather than being a radical departure from Christian tradition, Palamas’ portrayal of Hesychasm was a perpetuation and renewal of Christian mysticism. It was a personal articulation of a living tradition that was scattered across the spiral of history and included the mystical experience of the first-created humans, the divine participation of a life of holiness and the eschaton. The hesychasts’ ultimate concern was imageless prayer and wordless contemplation of the uncreated light, but their spiritual vision entailed a transformation of the whole human person. Palamas argued that a hesychast “seeks to circumscribe the incorporeal in his body” and cited the luminous face of Stephen the first martyr as an example: Such are the realities or mysterious energies brought about in the bodies of those who during their entire life have devoutly embraced holy hesychasm.[1] The “transformation of our human nature” bestowed “a divine power on the eyes of the apostles” that enabled them and all who embrace Hesychasm to behold the uncreated light.[2] Palamas portrayed the hesychast experience and the paradisal bliss of Adam and Eve as identical. Of course, it was Palamas’ insistence on the deification of the body and his belief in a vision of the uncreated light that provoked Barlaam of Calabria. Barlaam denounced the hesychasts’ claim they could “see the divine essence with the eyes of their body” and sparked the hesychast controversy. Gregory Palamas had visited Mount Athos around 1316 and learnt from a hesychast monk at Vatopedi before moving to the Great Lavra. It was there that he probably came across a monk known as John Koukouzeles who famously instigated a Byzantine renaissance in liturgical music. However, this was not a new form of art that radically departed from the Christian tradition of the first millennium. It renewed the tradition of Christian art by looking upon it not with the gaze of nostalgia but through the prism of the eschaton. Koukouzeles’ reform of the agrypnia is apparent in the musical anthologies known as akolouthiai. These anthologies became the catalyst for a new repertory of music: kalophonic chant, which renewed the psalmody and hymnody of the past. The musical artistry of kalophonic chant was marked by its florid style, dramatic vocal leaps, melismatic creativity, and even wordless vocalisation known as a kratema or teretism. Of course, the old syllabic repertories were not done away with; they were juxtaposed with new compositions in the ritual of the agrypnia. The Late Byzantine agrypnia was a combination of Stoudite hymnography, the ceremony of Constantinople’s cathedral rite and kalophonic chant. It typically began on Saturday evening with vespers and culminated in the liturgy on Sunday morning. Psalm 2 Certain akoulouthiai transmit a repertory of kalophonic verses for Psalm 2. The most extensive repertories are compositions by Koukouzeles. Not only does Koukouzeles rework the Psalm text through the repetition of syllables from a word in the text (for example, “παρέστησαν” becomes “παρέ…παρέστησαν”), often he interposes fragments from other lines of a verse (or even from other verses altogether) between words in a given line of the Psalm. Most astonishingly, he entirely reconstructs a verse of the Psalm by using these techniques and adding wordless melisma. For example, in the fourteenth-century manuscript Athens 2622 (folios 26r–27v) the verse “ἴνα τί ἐφρύαξαν ἔθνη” becomes as follows: ἵ | teretism | να τί | ἴνα τί ἐφρύαξαν | ἐφρύαξαν ἔθνη ἴνα τί λαοὶ κενὰ ἐμελέτησαν | ἐμελέτησαν κενὰ ἴνα τί ἴνα τί παρέστησαν ἴνα τί | teretism | ἐφρύαξαν Ἀλλη | teretism | ἀλληλούια | ἀλλη | ἀλλη | ἀλλη | ἀλληλούια. The manuscript images are reproduced in the next few pages. I thank Dr Arsinoi Ioannidou who kindly shared images of this section of the manuscript with me. As a text, the second Psalm had prophetic, Christic and eschatological significance. Although it was written for the coronation of the Davidic king, it foreshadowed the manifestation of Christ as the Messiah and foretold the Last Judgment. In Byzantium it also had a political dimension as the anointed one could be identified as the Emperor—God’s viceroy on earth. However, Koukouzeles’ composition refashioned the text and allowed all these meanings to converge and diverge. Even the melody of the second Psalm, which was traditionally set in the plagal fourth mode of Byzantine music, shifted from the plagal fourth mode, to the fourth mode and the plagal first mode. Koukouzeles dramatically disrupted the balance between words and melody in this composition. The melodic beauty and wordless vocalisations did more than enrich the hymn; they added a mystical dimension to hymnody in an attempt to imitate the wordless chant of the angels. Indeed, this link between earthly hymns and heavenly song was apparent in early Christianity: “Wherefore theology has transmitted to those on earth the hymns sung by the first rank of angels whose gloriously transcendent enlightenment is thereby made manifest.”[3] After all, sacred songs were not only pedagogical but anagogical. And, despite appearing as strange-sounding bedfellows to modern sensibility, there was a curious interplay between the musicality of the agrypnia and the quietude of Hesychasm. The imageless prayer and wordless contemplation of the hesychasts found an ally in melismatic song, which elevated hymns beyond the verbosity of the kanon and its nine odes. The intense musicality and linguistic economy of kalophonic chant disassembled logic and provoked introspection through an emotive performance of the drama of human salvation. As a sacred play and a complex cultural construct, the Byzantine liturgy enacted the biblical narrative of divine economy, tracing the eternity it foreshadowed through the ephemeral and material. The all-night vigil amplified this sacred drama and invited the faithful to experience it not as spectators but as protagonists. Language, music and movement were inextricable, and interiority was not merely an allegorical construct; hymnography and holy ritual evoked godly passions. The all-night vigil transformed passions and placed them within an eschatological context through the participation of the entire human person in the liturgical event. Sacred ritual, with all its symbolic activity—entrances, processions, gestures, interactions—blurred the boundaries of earthly existence and the heavenly. The historical present collapsed into the biblical events of creation, exile from Eden and the coming of the true light, which shines in the darkness and cannot be comprehended by darkness, placing the faithful at the centre of a cosmic drama and engendering a desire for a paradise lost. Within a historical climate of decline and amidst a shattered empire, this nostalgia for a lost unity became all the more pronounced. And the synthesis between Hesychasm and melisma became the space and sonic environment where that lost unity could be experienced. Psalm 103 Psalm 103 is the hymn of cosmic praise that inaugurates every liturgical day and enacts the biblical narrative of Genesis: “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”[4] Vespers takes us to that first evening when God opened the first-humans’ eyes to see the beauty and the glory of the temple in which they would dwell. The performance of Psalm 103 on Mount Athos in the fourteenth century can be reimagined from the settings of Koukouzeles transmitted in various manuscripts. Koukouzeles’ compositions of the final verses of this psalm, what we know today as anoixantaria, were creative for his time, exhibiting significantly expanded vocal ranges, ornate melisma and elaborate doxa tropes, which acted as a kind of refrain for the faithful. His settings were a watershed in Byzantine chant, overshadowing the traditional settings of the past, and paving the way for various new compositions in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They also disrupted the balance between word and melody. In Koukouzeles’ settings, music embodied the act of creation to a greater degree than the words of Psalm 103. One could compare this composition to C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew where the “melismatic jubilus” of the Christ-like Aslan gives birth to Narnia.[5] The gullies, the hills and the trees become the material manifestation of immaterial song. The transfiguration of music brings forth the created world. In the tale of Narnia, as the Lion moves over the face of the land and sings, the stars his voice fashioned respond with their own song. Similarly, the refrains for the final verses of Psalm 103 invited the faithful to be part of the act of creation and to feel the love of Christ who created the world in an act of freedom. Koukouzeles intensified this emotion by changing and expanding the somewhat traditional refrains for the final verses of Psalm 103—“Glory to you, O God”—by means of tropes. He added new settings to the repertory, played with text of the simple refrain through the repetition of its elements and introduced a bolder melodic range, changing the refrain to such a degree that it even overpowered the Psalm text both in length and import. It sought to remind the faithful that the church in which they stood represented the entire created world and beyond. In the act of thanksgiving and glorification, the new song that was interwoven with the ancient hymn of cosmic praise, the believer was invited to become themselves, to dwell once again in the bliss of Eden through the liturgical world that sacred ritual evoked and become once again a priest of creation. [1] Triads II.2.12. [2] Triads III.1.15. [3] St Dionysios the Areopagite, Celestial Hierarchy 7.4 in Corpus Dionysiacum II: Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita. De Coelesti Hierarchia, De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, De Mystica Theologia, Epistulae, ed. Günter Heil and Adolf Martin Ritter (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 31. The English translation is my own. [4] Genesis 1:5. [5] Conomos, “C. S. Lewis and Church Music,” in Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: Studies in Honour of Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, ed. Andreas Andreopoulos and Graham Speake (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016), 231. Of course, it was Augustine who famously wrote about jubilation: “Sing in jubilation. For this is to sing well to God, to sing in jubilation. What is it to sing in jubilation? To be unable to express in words what is sung in the heart [...] For God is ineffable whom you cannot speak. And if you cannot speak him, yet ought not to be silent, what remains but that you jubilate; so that the heart rejoices without words and the great expanse of joy has not the limits of syllables?” In Psalmum 32.
  • The Liturgical Journey to Pascha
    by Andrew Mellas The hymns we sing during Great Lent, the hymns of the Triodion, invite us to reflect, ponder and pray. These hymns are sacred because they are sung not for our enjoyment, but for our salvation. The story of salvation is familiar. We know how it begins, we know its twists and turns, we know its heroes and its wrongdoers, and we know how it ends. However, in experiencing the liturgical songs that tell us this story, we do not just listen, we enter this sacred narrative, and we become part of the story of salvation. The hymns of Great Lent, collected in the liturgical book known as the Triodion, invite the Orthodox faithful to embark on a sacred journey to Pascha. In singing these sacred songs, we experience the entire story of salvation. We stand beside Adam and Eve in Paradise, and we cry with them as we are exiled from the Garden of Eden. We travel to faraway lands and feel nostalgia as we weep for our homeland. We feel the hope of the Annunciation of the Theotokos and the love of God who became human. We suffer with Christ as he willingly embraces his passion. We are crucified with him, we descend into Hades with him and we arise with him on the day of the Resurrection—a day which has no evening. Before Great Lent begins, the hymns of the Triodion prepare us for the journey ahead. We are taught how to pray, how to fast, how to cry, how to act. The first of these Sundays, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, is devoted to the Gospel story of a tax collector and a self-righteous man. We know how the Pharisee boasted about his good deeds and prayed with himself, while the Publican could not even raise his eyes up to heaven and prayed for God’s mercy. However, the hymns for this day take us deeper into this story, asking not to pray with the prideful voice of the Pharisee but to emulate the humility of the Publican: Almighty Lord, I know how powerful tears are. They brought Ezekias up from the gates of death. They delivered the sinful woman from the sins of many years. They justified the Tax Collector above the Pharisee. And so I pray, “Numbering me with them with them, have mercy on me.” For whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, but whoever experiences the power of tears, compunction and repentance, will find the grace of God in abundance. The Gospel passage for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the story of the younger son who demands his father give him his inheritance. The son journeys to a faraway country, squanders his inheritance and becomes poor and hungry. But when he comes to himself, he arises and returns to his father who shows compassion on him, ordering that he be clothed in the best robe and be given sandals and a ring. The hymns in the Triodion amplify and interpret this parable, portraying sin as exile from one’s homeland, orphanhood and enslavement to depraved passion: Of what great blessings, wretch that I am, have I deprived myself! From what a kingship in my misery have I fallen! I have wasted the wealth that I received, I have transgressed the commandment. Alas, O unhappy soul! You are now condemned to eternal fire. Therefore, before the end cry out to Christ our God, “God, receive me as the Prodigal Son and have mercy on me.” However, the journey home that begins with the prodigal son’s tears is the salvation that every person created in the image of God desires. The prodigal son is an icon of repentance. The faithful are invited to make the voice of the Prodigal Son their own voice. As they sing the words of the hymn, the repentance and restoration of the Prodigal becomes their own journey of salvation. The theme of the Sunday of the Last Judgment is taken from the gospel passage assigned for that day: Matthew 25:31–46. The faithful remember the Second Coming of Christ, who sits on a throne and places the righteous on his right hand and the wicked on his left hand: When thrones are set up and books are opened, and God sits in judgment, O what fear there will be then! When the angels stand with fear in your presence and the river of fire is flowing, what shall we humans, guilty of many sins, do then? When we hear him calling the blessed of his Father into the Kingdom, but sending sinners away to punishment, who will withstand that fearful condemnation? But, O Saviour, only Lover of humankind, King of the ages, before the end comes turn me back through repentance and have mercy on me. They are told how they did or did not feed Christ when he was hungry, clothe him when he was naked and visited him when he was sick. And when they cannot fathom how this was possible, they realise that inasmuch as they did or did not do these things to the least of their brothers and sisters, it was as if they did or did not do it to Christ. How amazing is this mystery? How can we learn to see Christ in our very neighbour? And how can we remember the Second Coming as having taken place in the Sunday of Last Judgment when it is yet to transpire? By remembering the Second Coming as an event that was already taking place liturgically in the hearts of the faithful, the hymns of this Sunday invite the Orthodox to experience the Last Judgment and to feel compunction. The origin of Cheesefare Sunday is ancient. It is more commonly known as the Sunday of the Exile from Paradise because in the hymns of the Triodion, we remember the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden. The tears that Adam and Eve weep before the closed gates of Eden are connected with the forty-day fast of Christ in the desert. They mark the beginning of Great Lent by portraying it as exile from paradise. The faithful cry out to God: “Do not turn your face away from your child, for I am afflicted.” But the hymns also evoke the hope of redemption as the faithful sing: “Your grace has shined forth O Lord.” The Typikon of the Great Church assigns Matthew 6:14–21 for Cheesefare Sunday to alleviate the sombre mood with the forgiveness that is afforded to the faithful by God if they too forgive their neighbour. On the evening of Cheesefare Sunday during the vespers of compunction, sometimes called the vespers of forgiveness, a set of hymns beginning with Θεοτόκε Παρθένε, O Virgin Theotokos, is chanted in the plagal first mode. They ask the Mother of God, the Baptist of Christ and all the saints to pray for our salvation. During Great Lent, the Salutations to the Virgin Mary and the Saturday of the Akathist Hymn are special occasions that comfort us with the joy of Archangel Gabriel’s message—“Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”—and the mystery of the Incarnation. One of the hymns chanted during these occasions is especially beloved by Orthodox Christians everywhere: To you my champion and commander, I, your City saved from disasters dedicate, O Mother of God, hymns of victory and thanksgiving; but as you have unassailable might from every kind of danger now deliver me, that I may cry to you: Rejoice, Bride without bridegroom! The Birth-giver of God, the Virgin Mary, becomes the dwelling place of the Creator of the universe. However, the hymn also recalls Mary’s role as protectress of Constantinople, as the champion of Byzantium. After the first instalment of the Salutations to the Mother of God, the faithful arrive at the first Sunday of Great Lent. Although from 843 A.D. this Sunday was known as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” and celebrated the victory over Iconoclasm, this was an addition to the more ancient commemoration of the prophets Moses, Aaron, David and Samuel. The salient theme that emerges is of a journey towards the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Similarly, while in Late Byzantium the Second Sunday of Lent became known as the Sunday that commemorated the fourteenth-century defender of Hesychasm, Gregory Palamas, according to the Typikon of the Great Church it originally celebrated the feast of the second-century martyr known as Polycarp of Smyrna who was an exemplar of the ascetic struggle. The hymns for this day also revisit the theme of the prodigal son and his repentance. The third Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the veneration of the precious Cross. Indeed, over a millennium ago in Byzantium, the faithful could physically venerate the Cross on which Christ was crucified in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. This liturgical event foreshadowed the passion of Christ in Holy Week: O Christ our God, of your own will you accepted Crucifixion, for the common restoration of humankind. Taking the reed pen of the Cross, out of love for humankind, in the red ink of royalty with bloody fingers you signed our absolution. Do not forsake us, who are in danger once again of being parted from you. Take pity on your people in distress, for you alone are longsuffering. Rise up and fight against our enemies, as you are all-powerful. The fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to St John Climacus who wrote the famous treatise known as the Ladder of Divine Ascent. The hymns for this day invite the faithful to a life of holiness: Come, let us work in the mystical vineyard, producing fruits of repentance within it, not labouring for things that are eaten or drunk, but in prayer and fasting attaining the virtues. Through such works the Lord of the labour, being pleased, grants the denarius, by which He redeems souls from the debt of sin, the one who alone is abundantly merciful. The fifth and final Sunday of Lent commemorated Mary of Egypt, a fifth-century saint who exemplified repentance in the Byzantine tradition. Before she left Jerusalem to dedicate herself to asceticism in the desert beyond the Jordan, Mary was a notorious harlot. However, when Mary is prevented from entering a church in Jerusalem during “the holy feast of the Exaltation of the Cross” by an invisible force, she describes the feeling of compunction that pierces her heart: Only then did I realize the cause which prevented me from laying eyes on the life-giving cross, for a salvific word touched the eyes of my heart, showing me that it was the filth of my deeds that was barring the entrance to me. Then I began to cry, lamenting and beating my breast, raising sighs from the depths of my heart. While this Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent, what soon follows is the beginning of Christ’s Passion: Palm Sunday and Holy Week. However, we will explore this chapter in the journey to Pascha at another time. The Ladder of Divine Ascent Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai (12th century)

Reflections on the Saints and Various Aspects of Orthodoxy by Friends of the Monastery

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