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December 31, 2010

Priest-Monk Nestor the New Martyr of Zharky (+ 1993)

In 1960, Nestor Savchuk was born in the province of Crimea in southern Russia. He was never close to his family but was always distant from them. As he grew into a young man, he began to channel all his energy into wrestling, boxing, and the martial arts. He possessed a keen awareness and stood out above his peers.

In his early twenties, Nestor travelled to Odessa to work as an apprentice painting religious murals. In Odessa he became friends with the older artists, who began to inspire him with stories of righteous men and women who glorified God through their courageous labors in the monasteries of Russia over the last 1,000 years. It was the early 1980's, Russia was Communist, and the ancient Orthodox Christian faith had been all but forgotten by the Russian people. Suddenly a spark was kindled in Nestor;s heart. He began to burn with a desire to flee the vanity of the world and tap into his ancient Christian roots.

Making the resolve to give his life wholly to God, Nestor left Odessa for the ancient 13th-century Pochaev Monastery. Here Nestor began laboring in dedication of heart as a monk. As providence would have it, Nestor discovered that he had two long-lost great-uncles who served at the monastery. One was a married priest who lived with his family in the town, and the other was a greatly revered old monk who had been known for his righteous life.

At that time, the monasteries in communist Russia were regulated by the government. All the monks were required to be registered with the state which was atheist. Nestor, being against atheism never registered. in the mid-1980's the government began to persecute the monastery - some monks were taken to prison-camps, while others simply "disappeared". Because he was not registered with the state, Nestor knew he would be put in prison or killed if he were found by the government officials. And so Nestor continued on struggling in the war-like conditions, living in hiding as an "illegal" monk. Nestor, having a strong and brave soul was soon ordained a priest-monk at an extremely young age.

Eventually the conditions at Pochaev Monastery became so severe that most of the monks had either left, been taken away to prison-camps, or killed. Not knowing what to do, Nestor turned to his spiritual father, the elder John Kristiankin, who told him to go to the isolated village of Zharky. Following his advice as divine guidance, Nestor headed out across the great expanse of Russia's countryside.

After a long journey Nestor arrived in the little village of Zharky. Because it was surrounded by vast wilderness and the roads were flooded in winter, Zharky was accessible only during the summer months. Few believers remained in the village. Upon arriving at this desolate village in the Russian wilderness, Nestor went straight to the church where he would be serving. It was old and run-down, but had many ancient icons. Nestor's original inspiration had come from religious images and later he died for these ancient images (icons) of Christ and the saints. Ever since he became a monk his heart burned for Christ and the other world they represented. Nestor looked at icons and images of Christ in a unique way. He didn't see wood and paint, but rather his heart was transformed and he felt the eternal Kingdom of God within himself. To understand the image (icon) of Christ is to understand the incarnation of God.

At one time, two righteous fools-for-Christ's sake had been martyred at this church. Before they were murdered they prophesied saying that, "The priest who shall serve here until the end will be saved." Not aware of the prophecy but sensing a mystical air about the old church, Nestor immediately said he loved the place with all his heart and wanted to stay there the rest of his life.

As is the lot of those who pursue righteousness, suffering awaited Nestor. The police warned him of an icon-stealing ring run by the Russian Mafia - gangsters from Odessa who would steal icons from rural churches and sell them on the black market for big money. Nearly all the churches in the area had been burglarized.

Other difficulties came from local hooligans who hassled him because he was a priest. One day, Nestor tucked in his long hair and beard as was his custom, so as to keep a low profile, and headed out for the bus stop with some important documents. At the bus stop, three drunken youths approached him and began to harass him. "Show me your cross," they taunted him, and began grabbing under his jacket to get at his cross. So as not to allow them to defile his cross, Nestor was forced to deflect their hands. Not knowing that Nestor was skilled in martial arts, the youths tried to attack him. But he dodged their punches, making the fight look more like a dance. Suddenly, remembering that his documents were unguarded, Nestor hesitated; at that moment he was hit by a blow in the eye. Soon the police arrived, but Nestor told them to let the youths go. He hadn't forgotten that he too had once been a rebellious youth. A month later the youth who had punched Nestor in the eye came to his house to say he was sorry. After talking with him for a while the young Andrew decided to join forces with him, moved into his house, and began to follow his strict way of life.

With his youthful zeal he had brought life to the desolate village of Zharky. Nestor also travelled to several other churches in the surrounding region, helping all in need, Christian or non-Christian. To the Russian people, the young Nestor was a reminder of their ancient Christian roots.

In addition to his selfless work for others, Nestor maintained an austere life of prayer. After traveling to visit his spiritual children in other villages, Nestor would walk home at night. He didn't like to travel in cars; these late-night walks were the only time he had to himself. Even through the winter snow, he would walk as far as twelve-miles to get home. This was his time to be alone with God; he would immerse himself in prayer, losing track of time. Nestor would return home to complete his rigorous prayer rule, which consisted of hours of singing ancient chant, and kneeling in prayer with tears.

In time, Nestor travelled to the war zone of Abkhazia, Georgia (a small country bordering souther Russia, formerly part of the Soviet Union) in order to help the suffering people there and to spread the light and truth of Christ. He began to thrive in the warlike conditions, and the ultimate sacrifice a Christian can give was born in him - the desire to be martyred for faith in Christ. Knowing that death was imminent in the hostile land of Abkhazia, Nestor felt drawn to stay. His spiritual father back in Russia, however, guided him back to the village of Zharky by saying to him, "Would a mother abandon her own children to raise another's children?" Nestor realized that he had to return to his own spiritual children.

Upon returning to Russia, Nestor met with more hardship and even persecution. The church was robbed several times, caught fire once, and Nestor even suffered a backlash of envy and strife from his own people. He once told a friend that it was the ones he gave the most to, who troubled him the most.

In 1993 three monks were murdered at the famous Optina Monastery in central Russia. In the 19th century, Optina was the spiritual capital of Orthodox Russia, renowned for its lineage of Eldership which had come down from Saint Paisius Velichkovsky. Crowds of people, including the authors Dostoeyevsky, Tolstoy, and others had flocked to Optina Monastery for spiritual guidance from the great Elders. The three monks were stabbed to death on Easter night, during the celebration of Christ's Resurrection. A blood-stained dagger was found on the monastery grounds with the numbers 666 inscribed on the blade. Later, a man confessed to the murders and admitted the killings were a ritual of a satanic cult and that he had deliberately killed the three best monks in the monastery.

Nestor often spoke of the Optina martyrs with great reverence, and it became evident that he longed to follow them. He longed for a martyr's crown himself. Once a friend tried to counsel him that it was better to be longsuffering and endure the tedious trials of life. To this Nestor replied, "You know, my friend, I have such a fiery desire to receive a martyr's crown because I lead a loose life as a youth and lived only for myself. How can I repay God for what He has given me?" The friend pleaded with him, "It's too daring to desire martyrdom; you must suffer for a long time." Nestor again replied, "Yes, I understand that, but maybe if I will pray for martyrdom - perhaps I will be able to pray it out."

Truly Nestor was now ablaze with that fire of faith that burns for the other world. He saw death not as an end of life but as a beginning. His faith was deep - to the extent that he had begun to pray for suffering and even death not as an escape from this world, but in order to be mystically crucified with Christ.

Again the church was robbed. This time Nestor had had enough - his poor church was being extorted.He had to do something. Quickly, he spotted a tire track in the snow leading to a dirt road in the woods, and began to follow it. In the distance was a parked car. To conceal the fact that he was a monk, Nestor took off his monk's cap, pulled up his robe, and approached the car staggering and yelling as if he were a drunk. Inside the car sat a gangster who immediately jumped out of the car and attacked him. Once again Nestor's experience in the martial arts came to his aid, as he was able to deflect the gangster's punches and so buy enough time to get the license plate number of the vehicle. The police eventually caught the gangsters and returned the icons to the church. Word came to Nestor that if he pressed charges, the Mafia would hunt him down. His closest friends pleaded with him not to do it. Nestor met with the gangster who had attacked him, and asked him why he had done it. The gangster replied: "Money". And Nestor asked him if he regretted stealing from the church. But he answered without a drop of remorse, "I have no regret whatsoever". Nestor knew he had to make a stand. If he let the Mafia intimidate him his poor church would suffer. To one who tried to talk him out of it, Nestor explained, "If these were my personal enemies, I could forgive them; but these me are enemies of the simple believers and God. They have no remorse for the evil they have done. I cannot let them go."

Then began several attempts on Nestor's life which he narrowly escaped. The robberies of icons had been widespread - every church in the region had been burglarized at least once. Nestor began to guard the church at night. The Mafia was not just after the icons anymore - they wanted Nestor's life.

On one occasion Nestor heard a knock at the door. When he opened the door he was held at gunpoint. Not backing down, Nestor fearlessly looked straight into the eyes of the hoods, turned around, walked into his house, and locked the door. The hoods came after him, breaking in the window.Grabbing a flare gun, Nestor fired some shots to scare them off. But, knowing he was a monk and priest and so would not shoot them, they barged through the window. Nestor then ran into his room and locked the door, and as he was climbing out of the window he cut his arm and began to bleed.Quickly he bandaged his arm and then escaped. As he fled, blood dripped on the ground - the very ground on which he would shed his life's blood.

Knowing that each day could be his last, Nestor began to double his missionary work. A close friend of his recalls, "To each he would give his all; they would flock to him. At times it was difficult. Sometimes he would lock himself in his room for two or three days to fast and pray. In this way he received strength to go on. In the last year I knew him, he became so deep...a simple depth that came from trust in God. He was not afraid of anything. He was an unusual man who gave himself to the will of God. He was fearless."

Nestor had broken through the wall that separated God and man, and God had become a living force in him. A close friend remembers one of his last conversations with Priest-Monk Nestor: "We talked about the enemies of the church. He said to me, 'Why should we be afraid?' I said, 'But those wicked thieves are everywhere!' He spoke calmly, 'To all is God's will. To suffer for Christ - this is a great joy.' He talked about spiritual war going on in the world today... He was already prepared for death."

On December 31, 1993, Priest-Monk Nestor was found dead outside the window of his house, with his throat slit and with multiple stab wounds. The people believe that it was not a simple case of revenge, but was a strategic move in a spiritual war that is taking place today throughout the world. As the forces of darkness increase, the light becomes more visible. The life and death of Preist-Monk Nestor do not represent defeat, but the triumph of God's righteousness. It is the height of the human experience - martyrdom for the truth. Hieromonk Nestor passed from this life at the age of thirty-three - the same age at which Jesus Christ was crucified.

Source: Marler, J. and Wermuth, A., Youth of the Apocalypse, 1194, St Herman of Alaska Press, Platina, CA.

The rector of the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos in the village of Zharki, Yurievets district, Hieromonk Nestor (secular name, Nikolai Ivanovich Savchuk) was atrociously murdered on the night of December 30-31, 1993, in a cell of the rector's home. Hieromonk Nestor was found lying face down in a pool of blood, spread below the cross of Jesus Christ and showing no signs of life. His body was totally exsanguinated. After the murder, a large sum of money was found missing from the priest's briefcase, donated to him that day by businessmen for construction and repair work on the church. The district court of Yurievets sentenced the murder convict to four years of imprisonment. The court decided that the murderer was not entirely competent.

Source: Murders and Assaults on Priests in Russia in 1990-2010: A Reference

See also: Иеромонах Нестор (Савчук) (1960-1993гг)

Preface to the Four Gospels by Saint Theophylact

Those divine men who lived before the law were not taught by writings and books, but they had a pure mind and so were enlightened by the radiance of the Holy Spirit. Thus they knew the will of God, and He Himself conversed with them mouth to mouth. Such were Noah, Abraham, Job, and Moses. But when men grew weak and became unworthy to be enlightened and instructed by the Holy Spirit, God Who loves mankind gave the Scriptures, so that at least by these means they might be made mindful of the will of God.

Christ also conversed in person with the apostles, and He sent the grace of the Spirit to be their teacher. But later, heresies would arise and our morals would be corrupted. Therefore it was His good pleasure that the Gospels be written down in order to teach us the truth, so that we would not be drawn away by the falsehood of these heresies, and our morals altogether corrupted. He gave us four Gospels, perhaps because we learn from them the four universal virtues: courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control. We learn courage when the Lord says, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Mt 10:28); we learn prudence when He exhorts, "Be ye wise therefore as serpents" (Mt 10:16); we learn righteousness when He teaches, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Mt 7:12); and we learn self-control when He declares, "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mt 5:28).

For another reason are there four Gospels: they are pillars of the world. As the world is divided into four parts — east, west, north, and south — it was right that there also be four pillars. And for yet another reason are the Gospels four in number: they contain four elements — teachings, commandments, warnings, and promises. To those who believe the teachings and observe the commandments, God promises the good things that are to come. But those who do not believe the teachings and do not keep the commandments, He threatens with the punishments that are to come.

It is called “Gospel” because it announces to us things that are good: namely, remission of sins, being counted as righteous, ascent into the heavens, and adoption as sons by God. It also announces that we can receive these things easily. For we ourselves have not labored to obtain these good things, nor have we received them as a result of our own accomplishments. We have been deemed worthy of such good things by God’s grace and love for man.

Preface to the Gospel of Matthew

There are four Evangelists; two of them, Matthew and John, were of the company of the twelve, and two, Mark and Luke, were of the seventy. Mark was a follower and disciple of Peter; and Luke, of Paul. Matthew, then, first wrote the Gospel, in the Hebrew language for the Jews who believed, eight years after Christ’s Ascension. Some say that John translated it from the Hebrew language into Greek. Mark wrote his Gospel ten years after the Ascension, instructed by Peter. Luke wrote his Gospel fifteen years after the Ascension, and John the most wise Theologian, thirty two years after the Ascension.

It is said that after the death of the first three Evangelists, the three Gospels were brought to John while he yet lived that he might see them and judge if they had been composed according to the truth. When John read them he fully accepted the grace of the truth in them. and whatever the other Evangelists had omitted, he completed in his Gospel, and whatever they had touched on briefly, he elaborated. This was the beginning of theology. Since the other Evangelists had not mentioned the existence of God the Word from before the ages, John himself spoke the word of God—theology—concerning this, so that no one would think that God the Word was a mere man without divinity. For Matthew speaks only of the existence of Christ in the flesh, as he was writing for the Jews for whom it sufficed to learn that Christ was begotten from Abraham and David. A believing Jew is content to know that Christ is from David.

You might ask, “Was not one Evangelist enough?” Listen, then: one was enough, but four were allowed to write so that the truth might be revealed more clearly. When you see these four Evangelists, not sitting down together in one place, but each one by himself at a different time and place writing about the same things as if with one voice, do you not marvel at the truth of the Gospel and conclude that they spoke by the Holy Spirit? Do not tell me that they are not in agreement in all points. Consider where exactly they do not agree. Does one Evangelist say that Christ was born, and another, that He was not? Or one, that He rose, and another, that He did not? Indeed not! In what is essential, they speak with one voice. Therefore, if they do not diverge in the essential points, why do you marvel if they appear to vary in minor details? It is precisely because their accounts do not agree in every detail that we can see that they present the truth. If they had agreed on every point, it would cause one to suspect that they sat down and deliberated together in writing the Gospels. Instead, what one Evangelist has omitted, another has recorded, and for this reason that they seem to be at variance on certain points.

Preface to the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel According to St. Mark was written ten years after the Ascension of Christ. This Mark was a disciple of Peter, whom Peter calls his son, that is, his spiritual son. He was also called John (Acts 12:12), and the nephew of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), and the companion of Paul (Philemon 24). But eventually he accompanied Peter the most, and was with him in Rome. The believers in Rome begged Mark not only to preach orally, but also to give them a written account of Christ’s life. He agreed, and composed it immediately. God revealed to Peter that Mark had written this Gospel, and when he saw it, Peter confirmed its truth, and sent Mark as bishop to Egypt. There Mark preached and established the Church in Alexandria, enlightening all those in that sunny land to the south. The character of this Gospel, therefore, is unclouded and clear, containing nothing that is hidden.

Mark’s Gospel agrees with Matthew’s in every respect, except that Matthew goes into greater detail. And while Matthew begins with the Nativity of the Lord according to the flesh, Mark begins with the prophet and forerunner John. Therefore, though it may appear incomprehensible, some have given this understanding of the four Evangelists: God, Who sits upon the four-faced Cherubim, as Scripture says (see Ezekiel 1:10, 10:14; also Rev. 4:7) gave us the Gospel which likewise appears in four forms, but is held together by one Spirit. Just as one of the Cherubim had the face of a lion, and another the face of a man, and another the face of an eagle, and another the face of a bullock, so it is with the preaching of the Gospel.

The Gospel of John has the face of a lion, for the lion is royal and princely; and John began his Gospel with the royal and lordly dignity of the divine Word, saying, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God". But the Gospel of Matthew is in the likeness of a man, for it begins with the Nativity according to the flesh and the incarnation of the Word. The Gospel of Mark is likened to an eagle, for it begins with the prophet and forerunner John. And the prophetic gift, by which one can foresee and keenly perceive things that are a great way off, is like an eagle. For it is said that the eagle is the most keen sighted of all the animals, and can even gaze at the sun without shutting its eyes. The Gospel of Luke is like the bullock, because it begins with the priestly service of Zacharias, in the course of which he made sacrifice for the sins of the people, sacrificing a bullock.

Preface to the Gospel of Luke

The divine Luke, an Antiochian and a physician, had a great knowledge of natural philosophy; but he was also much practiced in Hebrew learning. He lived in Jerusalem at the time when our Lord was teaching, so that some say that he himself became one of the seventy apostles, and together with Cleopas, met the Lord after He rose from the dead. After the Lord ascended, and Paul believed, Luke became a close companion and follower of Paul. He wrote his Gospel with great accuracy, as his preface makes clear. He wrote the Gospel fifteen years after the Lord’s Ascension. He writes it to a certain Theophilus, a senator and perhaps a magistrate as well, calling him "most excellent". Magistrates and governors are addressed in this fashion, as when Paul said to the governor Festus, "O most excellent Festus".1 Everyone who loves God and exercises dominion over his passions is a "Theophilus" and "most excellent", and it is he who is truly worthy to hear the Gospel.

Preface to the Gospel of John

The strength of the Holy Spirit "is made perfect in weakness" (II Cor. 12:9): so it is written and so we believe. It is made perfect in weakness of the body, and especially in feebleness of understanding (logos) and of speech. This has been proven time and again, but nowhere so clearly as in the life of John, the great theologian and brother of Christ by grace. John was a fisherman and the son of a fisherman, not just ignorant of higher Greek and Judaic learning, but completely illiterate, as the divine Luke says in the book of Acts (4:3). His native town, Bethsaida, was lowly and obscure: a “place of fishing,” not of learning. Behold how a man like this—unlettered, unknown, and insignificant—acquired such spiritual power that he thundered forth doctrines taught by none of the other Evangelists. Their Gospels dealt with the life of Christ in the flesh and made no clear declaration of His existence before the ages. From this arose the danger that certain contemptible men, with minds fixed on the physical world and unable to comprehend anything exalted, would imagine that Christ first came into existence when He was born of Mary, and that He was not begotten of the Father before all ages. Paul of Samosata fell to exactly that temptation. Realizing this, the great John clearly set forth the spiritual begetting of Christ, without neglecting to record that "the Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14). Some maintain that the Orthodox—the rightly believing Christians—asked John to write about Christ’s eternal generation in order to refute certain heretics who had already begun to teach that the Saviour was merely a man. It is also said that when the saint read the books of the other Evangelists, he marveled at the accuracy of their narratives on every point, and judged them to be sound and unbiased towards any of the apostles. But what the other Evangelists had not stated clearly, or had omitted, John clarified, developed, or added to his own Gospel, which he wrote thirty-two years after the Ascension of Christ, while living in exile on the island of Patmos. The Lord loved John more than any of the disciples, because of his simplicity, meekness and goodness, and especially because he was a virgin and pure of heart. It was on account of his purity in particular that John was entrusted with the gift of theology. "Blessed are the pure in heart," the Lord says, "for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8); and, indeed, John delighted in mysteries which most men do not perceive.

John was related to Jesus, in the following manner. Joseph, the Betrothed of the most pure Theotokos, had seven children by his previous wife—four sons, and three daughters whose names were Martha, Esther, and Salome. John was the son of Salome; therefore, Jesus was John’s uncle. Because Salome was the daughter of Joseph—the “father of the Lord”—she was considered to be the Lord’s sister; and her son, John, the Lord’s nephew. Salome means “peaceful“; John means “the grace of her.” May every soul understand that Christ’s peace, which is offered to all men, calms the passions of the soul, and gives birth to divine grace within us. But a soul in turmoil, always battling with others and with itself, cannot be counted worthy of divine grace. Consider another marvelous thing about John. Only he is said to have three mothers: first, Salome, his natural mother; second, thunder, for he is a "son of thunder" (Mk 3:17), on account of his powerful proclamation of the Gospel ; and third, Mary, the Theotokos, concerning whom the Lord said to John, "Behold thy mother" (Jn 19:27).

1 Acts 26:25. The single Greek word kratiste, translated in Acts 26:25 by the KJV as O most noble, is the same word used in Luke 1:3 to address Theophilus, but rendered in this case by the KJV as O most excellent. It is the superlative form of an adjective derived from the noun kratos, meaning might or dominion. In the next line Blessed Theophylact makes a play on the meaning of this word, and on the meaning of the name Theophilus, he who loves God.


The Pierced Soul of the Theotokos (St. Nikolai Velimirovich)

By St. Nikolai Velimirovich

"Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also" (Luke 2:35).

Who on this earth could even closely compare with the Lord in patient endurance of suffering except His Most-holy Mother?

The elder Symeon, adorned with snowy hair like a white swan, prophetically foresaw her future sufferings and likened those sufferings to a sword piercing her soul. One sword had pierced her soul when the righteous Joseph doubted her at the time of her pregnancy; the second, when she had to flee to Egypt before Herod's sword; and the third, fourth and many, many others when she saw the hatred and intrigues of the Jewish elders against her Son day in and day out during the whole time of His preaching and miracle-working among men.

But the sharpest sword pierced her soul when she stood beneath the Cross of her Son and Lord. This sword was foreseen and prophesied to her by the holy, aged Symeon. Majestic and moving was her silence, beneath which she covered all her pains and all the wounds of her heart as with a veil.

In the twilight, all these countless pains that had accumulated in her most pure heart shone as an inextinguishable flame of faith and hope in God and dedication to God. This handmaid of the Lord, unsurpassable in nobility! She saw herself clearly in God's plan for the salvation of mankind; she read about herself in the prophets; she spoke with the angels - God's messengers. Therefore, all that came upon her, joy or pain, she knew came from God. She was not jubilant in her joy nor did she murmur in her pain, but rather she remained silent and laid it all up in her heart.

O Most-holy Virgin Theotokos, help us that we may be, like thee, submissive to the will of God. To thy Son and Lord, through thee, be glory and praise forever. Amen.

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

Athena Andreadis
December 30, 2010
The Huffington Post

Two decades ago, Ann Landers did a column about how various cultures celebrate Christmas. Halfway down her list was this gem: "If you are Greek Orthodox, your sect celebrates Christmas on January 7." Several people wrote back that 1) the Orthodox church is not a sect -- it is the original church from which the Catholic one split after the Schism of 1054 and 2) only the so-called Old Believers track Christmas by the Julian calendar.

I was reminded of this when I was leaving work a week ago, and a colleague asked, "Should I wish you Merry Christmas? I heard you Greeks don't celebrate it like we do." As those who read my posts know, I'm an atheist who misses many of my culture's old customs, particularly those that thrum with pagan echoes. So I'm going to put my tour guide's hat briefly on, and tell you what we Hellenes do around the time of the winter solstice.

The holiday lasts two weeks, from December 25 to January 6. At the three punctuation points (Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany) children make the rounds of the neighborhood houses, singing songs called kálanda. These remain unchanged from the Byzantine era; they're different for each of the three days and the kids sing them to the accompaniment of hand-held metal triangles -- and more rarely, small bodhrán drums. During these two weeks, people thought that mischievous spirits (kallikántzaroi) prowled the dark. These obvious descendants of fauns and satyrs take a solstice break from trying to cut down the world tree that holds up the earth. During the interruption the tree heals, leading to infinite annual repetitions.

People decorate their homes and start the feast preparations on Christmas Eve -- and the original focus of the activities was not a pine or fir tree (a recent import from Northern Europe) but a small ship. After all, we were seafarers even before Iáson sailed Arghó to the Sea of Azov in search of the Golden Fleece. The main dishes vary regionally, but ham is not on the list. Piglet, kid and lamb on the spit are, as is hen stuffed with chestnuts and raisins -- turkey is too bland for Hellenic palates. The ubiquitous sweets are finger-sized melomakárona (honey macaroons) and kourabiédhes (butter almond cookies).

On December 31, families gather for the countdown, nibbling finger food -- and at midnight, the ship horns can be heard from harbors and seashores, ushering in the new year. Presents are put under the ship or tree when it is decorated but they get opened on January 1, either right after midnight strikes or in the morning. The gifts are not brought by Santa Claus (Nicholas) who in the Hellenic hagiology is the patron saint of sailors. Our giftbearer is Saint Basil, based on a real person: Vasílios the Great Hierarch, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in the 4th century. From a wealthy and influential family, he took time between arguments about dogma to succor the poor and needy, spending his entire inheritance on charity.

On the night of December 31, a candle is left burning next to a goblet of wine and a small plate that holds a golden coin (flourí). On New Year's Day the coin, presumably touched by Saint Vasílios, is baked into a rich bread pudding (vasilópita), which is later cut into named sections. Whoever gets the coin will have an exceptionally good year. On the same day, the youngest child of the family is the first to walk through the front door for good luck -- often bearing a just-budding wild onion bulb, or cracking open a pomegranate... old, old symbols of wealth and fertility from the time when the virgins giving birth were called Isis, Astarte, Pótnia.

Epiphany, which rounds out the holiday, is also called The Lights. On that day the priests go to each house, blessing it with a sprig of basil dipped in water. Afterward, the priests from every coastal city, town or village throw a cross into the sea. Young men dive to retrieve it, and whoever brings it back is blessed. Just so did priests and priestesses of other religions also appease the oldest goddess of all -- Tiamat, Thálassa -- by offering her rings and other treasure instead of crosses. The custom was retained by the Doges of Venice, the city state that owed its existence to the sea.

A few years ago Mr. Snacho and I found ourselves in Tarpon Springs, Florida, at the turn of the year. The city was founded by sponge divers from the island of Kálymnos. They still throw the cross into the sea. Young men still compete for the honor of retrieving it. And I, an exile by choice who's often homesick for the place I left almost forty years ago, wept at the sight.

Majority of Russians Celebrate Christmas Despite Communist Past

Twenty years after the fall of the communist regime in Russia, which enforced atheism and marginalized Christmas, 83 percent of Russians say they celebrate the holiday, according to a poll carried out by the IFAK institute and commissioned by Deutsche Welle.

A majority of 64 percent say they celebrate Christmas alongside other important occasions. Nineteen percent regard Christmas as the most significant holiday of the year.

Under Soviet rule, the communist regime suppressed religion and marginalized Christmas, instead focusing on the New Year as the main holiday of the year. After the fall of communism, Christian celebrations and the Christian Orthodox religion came back into favor, as many Russians turned to the Church and religion in the wake of political turmoil in the 1990s.

Many Russians are religious

The Deutsche Welle poll found that just under a third of Russians - 29 percent - consider themselves religious, with most of those saying they go to church on holidays like Christmas. Three percent say they are deeply religious.

Merely 11 percent of those polled consider themselves atheist and six percent say they are not religious but observe Christian traditions like christenings and church weddings.

According to the poll, many young people are religious, with just 16 percent of Russians under the age of 29 saying they do not believe in God.

The IFAK institute surveyed 1,000 Russians in December 2010. The margin of error is no more than 3 percent.

Authors: Ingo Mannteufel, Sergey Govoruha (ng)
Editor: Nancy Isenson


Life of Saint Melania the Younger of Rome (St. Dimitri of Rostov)

St. Melanie the Younger (Feast Day - December 31)

                                                              By St. Dimitri of Rostov

Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and if the root be holy, so are the branches. Not surprisingly, then, the excellent fruit of sanctity and admirable sprouting of piety, the venerable Melania, was the child of devout Christian parents. She was granddaughter to Saint Melania the Elder, who visited many holy fathers on Mount Nitria in Egypt. The elder Melania provided for the saints out of her own resources, and for thirty-seven years also supplied the needs of pilgrims in Jerusalem, equaling Abraham in generosity. Oh, to how many strangers from east and west, north and south, did she offer hospitality! She was the benefactress of churches and monasteries, fed a vast number of monks and nuns, and saw to it that those in prison lacked nothing. Numerous men and women of Rome owed their salvation to her, for it was she who put them on the path to the eternal kingdom by her edifying counsel. Great indeed was the life, great were the God-pleasing deeds of the senior Melania, whose husband and son (Melania the Younger’s father) were foremost senators in old Rome.

Reaching maturity, the younger Melania fervently desired to keep her virginity and repeatedly begged her parents not to force her to marry, but she was their only child, and they wished to have descendants to inherit their vast wealth. Therefore, when the maiden was fourteen years old, she was wed to a youth of seventeen named Apinianus, who was of consular rank. Having agreed to marriage, Melania still yearned to live chastely, even if circumstances had forced her to surrender her virginity. She employed every argument she knew to encourage her husband to curb his desires, frequently exhorting him with tears in her eyes: "How happy we would be if we lived together in continence, laboring for God in our youth without enjoying conjugal pleasures! From the beginning I wished for this. If you are not strong enough to control a young man’s fiery lusts, find another wife, but leave me in peace to live as I wish. As ransom for my freedom I offer you everything I own: menservants and maidservants, gold and silver, and riches astounding the imagination. Take it all, but set me free."

At first Apinianus would not agree to restrain his yearnings, and replied affectionately, "For now this cannot be. When we have an heir, I will permit you to do as you wish. I realize that it is unseemly for a man to lag behind his wife in a good and godly undertaking. Be patient, and when the Lord grants fruit to our marriage, we shall, in perfect oneness of mind, enter upon a life such as you desire."

Melania reconciled herself to this suggestion, and God gave the couple a daughter. The blessed one dedicated the child’s virginity to God at birth, as though she were paying her debt for having entered (albeit unwillingly) into wedlock. In this way she made certain her daughter would not undergo the distress that was her own lot.

Meanwhile, Melania prepared for her new life, fasting and mortifying her flesh more, and stifling every craving of the body. She stopped wearing beautiful clothes and jewelry, and avoided visiting baths. Whenever compelled by her husband or parents to go, she would not disrobe, but would wash only her face, giving money to the servant-maids so that they would remain silent. She repeatedly reminded her husband of their agreement, saying, "We have an heir. Why have you not done as you said?’ So much did she long for God and a chaste life that she conceived the notion of taking refuge in a foreign land, abandoning father, mother, husband, daughter, and wealth. She would have left immediately, had not certain holy men cited to her the words of the Apostle: Unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband, and, How knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? This gave her hope of assisting Apinianus to save his soul, and she abandoned the notion of flight. Nevertheless, it was only with the greatest suffering that she continued bearing the yoke of wedlock. She wore a hair shirt, removing it whenever her husband was in the house. Her aunt, however, discovered that she was vexing her body thus, and mocked and reproached the saint, who tearfully begged her to tell no one the secret.

It came to pass that Melania conceived again, and on the eve of the feast of the holy martyr Lawrence went into labor. That night she did not sleep at all, but chanted psalms and made prostrations in spite of her discomfort. Morning found her still at prayer, and she continued making supplications on bended knee until pain overwhelmed her. With great difficulty she gave birth to a son, who was baptized and quickly departed this world for the heavenly homeland. After her delivery, the blessed Melania became very ill and almost died. Standing by her bed and witnessing her agony, Apinianus felt sick from worry and grief. He ran to church, fell down before God, and shedding copious tears, begged that his beloved wife be spared. Seizing the opportunity to persuade him to keep his commitment, Melania sent this message to him while he was still in church: "If you want me to remain alive, swear before God to live out your days chastely, and never touch me again."

Apinianus loved his wife deeply and was more concerned for her survival than for his own satisfaction and pleasure, so he vowed in the temple before God to live with her in chastity. The messenger returned to Melania with word of her husband’s promise, and she quickly began to recover. Her spirit rejoiced and her pain subsided: spiritual gladness overcame bodily infirmity. Glorifying God, the saint looked forward to a life of abstinence.

Soon after Melania rose from her sick-bed, the virgin shoot, her beloved daughter consecrated to God from birth, departed to heaven. Her death and Melania’s continuous exhortations increased Apinianus’ determination to restrain his fleshly appetites. "Do you see how God encourages us to exercise self-control?" Melania would ask. "If He wanted us to share a bed, He would not have taken away our children." Thus, the holy couple, after experiencing carnal gratification, was joined in a loftier union: fasting, prayer, labors, and the mortification of the flesh. Each incited the other to greater struggles, and finally they decided to entrust their wealth to Christ through the hands of the poor, to renounce the world, and to embrace the monastic life. Melania’s parents, however, were violently opposed to this.

One night, Apinianus and Melania were discussing how to escape the multiform snares of the world. Suddenly, divine grace overshadowed them, and a wondrous fragrance, impossible to describe or even imagine, descended from heaven. So greatly were they consoled, that they forgot their sorrows. Thenceforth, they longed unceasingly for celestial blessings, dying to the world and everything in it. They hoped to embrace monasticism, but there seemed to be no possibility of this unless they secretly left the country. In the event, this proved unnecessary, because God opened the way for them: Melania’s father soon died, leaving them free to do as they wished. Nonetheless, they could not leave the world at once, since they possessed great wealth, which they had promised to Christ. They remained in the city while distributing a large part of their fortune among the needy, after which they retired to their country estates nearby. There they resumed their labors with fervor, carefully avoiding any lapse of continence. Apinianus was twenty-four years old and Melania twenty at the time of their remarkable and God-pleasing withdrawal from society. Oh, what a wondrous marvel! Once, the children were preserved unharmed in the Babylonian furnace; now this holy couple, remaining together, supernaturally prevails over the scorching flames of carnal attraction. Blessed Melania, the Lord’s wise handmaiden, kept a careful watch over both herself and her husband, for she was his teacher and guide, always taking the initiative as she led him on the way of the Lord.

While matters were thus flourishing and the poor were enjoying their good fortune, the following trial befell the Lord’s favorites. Severus, Apinianus’ brother, became envious of the couple’s ardor for God; moreover, he hoped to enrich himself at their expense. He began by appropriating some of their possessions. Encountering no resistance, he prepared to seize all their estates. Apinianus and Melania, being strangers to guile, put their hope in God. Only one thought distressed them: that the needy would be robbed and valuables they had promised to Christ would fall into the predator’s hands. As it happened, God defended His servants, delivering them from the oppressor. The devout Empress Serena, hearing of Melania’s virtue, summoned her and received her with honor. Amazed by the saint’s worthless clothing and profound humility, she embraced Melania and exclaimed, "How blessed you are for having chosen such a life!" promising also to punish Severus.

Melania did not wish to return evil for evil, and entreated Serena not to harm her brother-in-law. She asked only that Severus not be permitted to do further evil. "It is better to suffer than to give offense," said the blessed one. "The divine Scriptures command us to turn the other cheek. Accept my thanks, lady, for your gracious protection, but do not pay back Severus for his injustice. We ask only to be left in peace so that we may continue to feed Christ’s servants, orphans, widows, and paupers, with what is Christ’s." Besides this, Melania and Apinianus (who had accompanied his wife) begged the Empress to give them leave to sell the towns and villages they owned near Rome, in Sicily, Spain, Gaul, and Britain. It was necessary for them to obtain authorization for this, because Melania’s inheritance had made her and her husband the wealthiest private citizens in the Western Empire. They received full warrant to do as they wished. Melania tried to give Serena an expensive present, but the Empress would not accept it, counting it robbery to take something promised to Christ. Finally, the estimable couple left the palace.

Some notion of the wealth God entrusted to the saints may be gained from the fact that no one in Rome could find the means to purchase their house there. It was only after the city fell to barbarians and the house had been damaged by fire that it was sold, at a reduced price. The proceeds were used to feed the poor. It would be no exaggeration to say that Melania and her husband surpassed Job in obedience to God. Job thanked the Lord for involuntary loss, but our saints gladly forsook enormous riches on their own and embraced poverty.

Once, the devil attempted to prevent the sale of a certain village belonging to the Lord’s favorites, and failing in that, tried to stir up avarice in their hearts, for they received an enormous quantity of gold for the property. In vain did the beguiler labor, for Melania was ever on the watch for him. Counting the money as less valuable that dirt, she quickly distributed it to the destitute, thereby crushing the serpent’s head. The blessed one related, "I had a fine home with a beautiful view near a village I owned. Together, house and hamlet constituted the best of my properties. On one side lay the sea, on which ships could be seen sailing and fishermen casting and drawing nets; on the other there were virgin forests full of game, green fields, gardens, and vineyards. Fresh water was provided by a splendid pool and delightful springs, to which came birds of every kind, singing wonderful songs. The adversary put it into my head not to sell that lovely domain, but to keep it as my residence. By the grace of God, I understood that the foe was leading me astray, and without further hesitation I sold the manor, giving the price to my Christ."

A river of money from the sale of Melania’s properties flowed to the ends of the earth. The beneficiaries were monasteries, convents, hostels, hospitals, widows, orphans, and prisoners in Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and elsewhere. The saints also provided ransoms for numerous captives. In short, the whole of the West and East shared the bounty. It is said that Melania and Apinianus purchased a number of deserted islands and built monasteries on them, richly endowing these communities. Churches everywhere were adorned with gold and silver and received splendid priestly vestments as gifts.

Having sold most of their lands in Italy, the holy couple, with Melania’s mother, took ship for Sicily, to view and sell their holdings there and to visit their spiritual father, the blessed Paulinus, on the way. Not long after their departure, barbarians devastated Italy, plundering and burning throughout the peninsula. It then became obvious what wisdom the saints had shown in selling their properties, with God’s help, before the invasion. What they would have lost utterly, they exchanged for a hundredfold reward in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, by leaving Italy they escaped danger, saving themselves like Lot fleeing Sodom. After staying for some time with Saint Paulinus, they arrived in Sicily and attended to affairs there, then continued on to Carthage and Libya.

While Melania and Apinianus were at sea, a fierce storm arose, lasting many days. The ship was crowded with oarsmen and servants, and the water supply failed. Saint Melania understood that it was not God’s will that they go directly to their intended destination. She ordered the sail spread to catch the wind and trusted the Lord to guide the vessel wherever He wished. The ship made its way to an island on which barbarians had landed just a few days before. The enemies had seized a large number of men, women, and children and were demanding an enormous ransom from the islanders still at liberty. They planned to put the captives to the sword if they were not paid. The people wept bitterly: the free because they did not have the means to redeem their relatives, the prisoners because death awaited them. Hearing that a ship from Rome had arrived, the Bishop hurried to beg assistance in raising the ransom. Saint Melania and her husband were moved by the plight of the people and gave more than anyone expected was possible, enough to obtain the release of every captive. The sea was calm and the wind fair when the saints resumed their voyage. Before long they were entering Carthage’s harbor. No sooner had they disembarked than they began showering alms upon churches, monasteries, the poor, and the ill. For some time the saints lived in the town called Thagaste, not far from Carthage. An eloquent, learned presbyter named Alypius lived there, who greatly edified everyone who heard him teach. Melania and Apinianus became very fond of this man, adorned his church with rich offerings, and endowed it with several villages. They also founded a monastery nearby for eighty monks and a convent for 130 nuns, providing both with adequate incomes.

Saint Melania gradually became accustomed to strict fasting and an abstinent way of life. At first she ate every other day, then every third day, then only on Saturdays and Sundays. She occupied herself with copying manuscripts, being a skilled calligrapher. The money she received for the books she transcribed she gave to the poor, for whom she also sewed clothes. She was extremely devoted to the reading of the divine Scriptures. Whenever she wearied of writing or sewing, she read, and when she tired of reading, would ask another to read to her. Three times a year she read the entire Old Testament and the New, memorizing the most important passages so that she could quote them readily. She limited herself to two hours of sleep daily. Her bed was a rough mat on the floor. "We should always keep watch, for we do not know at what hour the thief (that is, death) will come," she would say. Not only did she teach her serving-maids to live a vigilant life; she also succeeded in persuading many youths to remain virgins, and converted numerous unbelievers to God.

Saint Melania spent seven years in Cathage and the surrounding region, then decided to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem. With her mother and her former husband (now her spiritual brother and fellow ascetic), she sailed first to Alexandria. There she visited and enjoyed spiritual conversation with Saint Cyril, archbishop of the city, and a clairvoyant elder named Theodore. Afterwards, she took ship to Palestine. Arriving in Jerusalem, she made the rounds of the Holy Places sanctified by the footsteps of our Lord and the most pure Mother of God, venerating them with ineffable joy and a contrite heart. While in Jerusalem, blessed Melania prayed every night from sunset to sunrise, locked in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Oh, what fervent prayers she offered to Christ on bended knee, weeping, embracing the Tomb, and kissing it lovingly!

While Melania and Apinianus were in Jerusalem, a trusted friend sold the last remnants of their Italian properties. He sent the proceeds to them in Palestine. Shortly thereafter, they decided to visit the desert fathers of Egypt and give them alms. They left behind in the Holy City Melania’s aged mother, with instructions to build them a house on the Mount of Olives. Once in Egypt they made the rounds of anchorites’ cells, discussing matters profitable to the soul with the fathers, to whom they showed great generosity. Many of the ascetics, however, refused to accept anything, because they fled from gold as from a serpent’s bite. Coming to the hermitage of one Hephaistion, they begged him to take a little gold, but he declared that he would have none of it. The blessed Melania peered into his hut, where she saw nothing but a rush mat, a water-pot, a few dry biscuits, and a little basket of salt; so she hid several gold coins in the salt before leaving. Her ruse did not deceive the elder. Snatching the money, he ran after Melania and Apinianus, shouting, "Wait! Wait!" When he caught up with them, he opened the hand clutching the coins and demanded to know, "What am I to do with these? I have no use for them. Keep what is yours."

"Give them to someone else," they replied.

The elder marveled, "Are you blind? This is a desert. Who needs money here, and for what?" Neither Melania nor Apinianus wished to take the gold, but he forced them to accept it and rushed back to his cell. The travelers continued on to Alexandria, thence to Nitria, everywhere visiting the habitations of holy men. Like bees they flew from flower to flower, collecting sweet nectar. Before long they were back in Jerusalem, greatly profited by the discourses of numerous desert-dwellers. They found their house on Olivet completed, and moved into it at once.

Melania secluded herself in a little cell and for fourteen years admitted no one, excepting only her mother and her spiritual brother Apinianius, whom she permitted to see her once a week. Then her mother, full of good works, fell asleep in the Lord. After giving her a fitting burial, Melania returned to her narrow cell for another year. Following her brief appearance to commit her mother to the earth, the saint’s fame spread everywhere. Many people began to visit her, seeking counsel. Concern for the salvation of others forced her to abandon solitude and found a convent of more than ninety virgins. Sinful women also flocked to her, and she showed them the path to salvation and taught them how to live in a God-pleasing manner. She refused the office of superior, preferring to serve everyone like a slave, while at the same time providing as a mother for the needs of all. The blessed one constantly instructed the sisters in moral excellence: firstly in chastity; secondly in love (without which it is impossible to attain perfection in any virtue); afterwards in humility, obedience, patience, and gentleness. She frequently recounted to the nuns the following story, intending to instill in them long-suffering and meekness.

"Once, a young man went to an elder and asked to become his disciple. Wishing to teach the youth what is required of a monk, the old man instructed him to kick one of the posts framing the entranceway and to beat it with a stick. The youth did as commanded; whereupon, the elder inquired, ’While you were beating the post, did it take offense or protest? Did it flee or fight back?’ ’No,’ answered the young man. The elder said, ’Strike it harder, and at the same time revile, reproach, and slander it in the harshest way.’ When the youth returned, the old man asked, ’Did the post become angry? Did it contradict or rebuke you, or complain?’ ’No, Father,’ the youth said. ’How can a post lose its temper or say anything at all? It is not alive.’ ’If you are able to imitate the post, never becoming annoyed or gainsaying when you are struck, ordered about, or reproved, but remaining untroubled by every sorrow, then stay and be my disciple,’ said the old man. ’Otherwise, do not darken my doorway with your shadow.’"

Saint Melania built a beautiful church in the convent. Enshrined there were relics of the prophet Zacharias, Saint Stephen the proto martyr, and the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia. After it was completed, her spiritual brother and former husband, the blessed Apinianus, departed unto the Lord, ending his God-pleasing life in the monastic habit. Melania gave him an honorable burial, then began preparing for her own death, which she expected would soon follow. Providence, however, deigned to prolong her life for the salvation of others. The saint expended her last funds on the construction of a monastery and became truly poor, having long before attained poverty of spirit. At that time she received a letter from her uncle Volusianus, who had traveled from Rome to Constantinople, asking that she come to see him in the eastern capital. Initially, she did not want to go, since he was a pagan, but holy men advised her not to disdain the request; so she changed her mind, hoping to turn him to God.

Melania’s fame preceded her on the way to Byzantium. In every city and village she was greeted joyfully and shown the utmost esteem, for God glorifies them that glorify Him. Bishops and priests, abbots and abbesses, nobles and commoners came out to meet her, welcoming her as though she were sent from heaven. When the time came for the saint to depart the towns in which she stopped, clergy and laity invariably escorted her a long way before taking final leave of her. Thus, as a result of the journey, the light of Melania’s virtue and self-denial shone even further than before, reaching, like the sun’s rays, the very ends of the earth. When she arrived in Constantinople, the blessed one was received with great respect by the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, the Empress Eudocia, and the Most Holy Patriarch Proclus. Volusianus had meanwhile fallen ill. Seeing her clothed in monastic garb, her flesh wasted, the beauty of her countenance erased by fasting and austerities, the saint’s uncle cried out in astonishment, "How you have changed, Melania!" Her presence, demeanor, divinely inspired discourses, and edifying admonitions had a profound effect on Volusianus, as did the exhortations of Saint Proclus. Soon, he renounced Hellenic impiety and agreed to be baptized. Several days after first receiving the divine Mysteries, Volusianus surrendered his spirit into God’s hands and was buried by Melania.

While staying in Constantinople, the Lord’s favorite converted many from pestilent Nestorianism to Orthodoxy, and warned the faithful not to be deceived by false doctrines. Her God-given wisdom invariably prevailed over the sophistical argumentation of the heretics. The venerable one, who was full of the grace of the Holy Spirit, studied the Scriptures daily and knew them extremely well. From morning till night she was surrounded by people asking questions about the Orthodox faith. So profound were her replies that the entire city was amazed. She remained in Constantinople for some time, then returned to Jerusalem where she began preparing for her departure to heaven.

Saint Melania possessed the gift of healing and cured numerous infirmities. Let us recount a few of her miracles, so that the reader may understand what manner of grace abode in her.

The Empress Eudocia went to Jerusalem to venerate the holy places and to visit Melania, her spiritual mother. While travelling, the Empress dislocated her foot. She was in great discomfort, but as soon as Saint Melania touched the foot, the pain vanished.

A young woman was tormented by a demon, which sealed her lips, altogether preventing her from speaking or eating. Between thirst, hunger, and the torments of possession, she was at death’s door. The godly Melania anointed her with holy oil and prayed for her, after which the demon was expelled and the woman could open her mouth and receive nourishment.

Another woman was pregnant, but could not deliver her child, which had died in the womb. Overwhelming pain rendered her incapable of uttering a sound. Were it not for Saint Melania’s intercession, she would certainly have perished. No sooner was the venerable one’s belt placed on her chest, than the dead child came forth. The woman felt immediate relief and could speak again.

Foreseeing her departure to God, the blessed Melania decided to visit the holy places in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee one last time. She attended the All-night Vigil at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, after which she said to one of the sisters, a cousin of hers who never departed her side, that she would not celebrate the feast of Christ’s birth again on earth. Hearing this, the woman wept bitterly. On the eve of Saint Stephen’s, Melania attended Vigil at the convent church where the protomartyr’s relics were enshrined. While reading his Passion to the sisters, Melania commented that they would never again hear the account together. The nuns understood that she was predicting her imminent departure, and lamented bitterly. The saint consoled them with divinely inspired counsel and used the occasion to deliver a discourse on the virtues. Then she returned to the church and prayed, "O Lord God, from the beginning I devoted myself to Thee and loved Thee more than wedlock or wealth, glory or pleasure. From infancy I entrusted my soul and body to Thee, and from fear of Thee my flesh hath cleaved to my bones. Thy right hand hath directed me, and Thy statutes have ever been my guide. Do Thou hearken unto my voice, and may my tears loose the floods of Thy mercy. Wash away the stains of my voluntary and involuntary sins; permit me to attain unto Thee without hindrance; do not allow the wicked spirits of the air to detain me. O Immortal One, Thou knowest the infirmity of our mortal nature; Thou knowest, O lover of mankind, that no man is without fault; Thou knowest that we all transgress every day, giving our enemies reason for claiming us as their own. But do Thou, Master, overlook mine offenses and cleanse me, that I may appear spotless before Thy judgement seat."

Having completed this prayer, Saint Melania began to weaken. She desisted from ascetic labors, but continued attending church and teaching the sisters. The Bishop of Eleutheropolis arrived with his clergy to visit, and imparted the divine and most pure Mysteries to her. Then, having consoled her cousin and the other sisters, Melania gave them a final kiss and uttered her last words: "May the Lord’s will be done." So saying, the venerable one surrendered her soul into God’s hands. She fell asleep in the Lord on the thirty-first of December, lying on her bed with her eyes closed and her hands crossed upon her breast in a dignified manner. All the monks and nuns living near Jerusalem assembled for her funeral. After chanting psalms the whole night long over her body, they buried her reverently. Her holy soul took up its abode in the courts of the Lord Whom she loved and for Whom she labored fervently throughout her life. There she boasts in glory with all the saints, praying for us sinners to the one God in Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to Whom be praise forever. Amen.

Abbreviated from Metaphrastes, whose narrative is supplemented by the account in The Lausiac History, Ch. 109.


Apolytikion in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone
In thee the image was preserved with exactness, O Mother; for taking up thy cross, thou didst follow Christ, and by thy deeds thou didst teach us to overlook the flesh, for it passeth away, but to attend to the soul since it is immortal. Wherefore, O righteous Melania, thy spirit rejoiceth with the Angels.

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
In your fervent desire for the angelic life, you renounced the comforts of this earth. In watchfulness you practiced sobriety and deep humility. Therefore, most wise Melania, you became a pure vessel filled by the Holy Spirit, who adorned you with gifts, attracting all to your divine fervor, leading them to the Master and Savior of our souls.

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
You tread to the end of the path of virtue and were betrothed to God the Word. You rejoiced in the contest, O Anysia; and you, O Melania, shone with the light of dispassion, together, radiant with virtue in the world. And now we ask you to implore Christ the Lord that he may be gracious to us!

Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
Being illumined in thy soul with the bright rays of Him that hone forth unto us from a Virgin, with virtues wast thou brilliant, O all-lauded one; for having dispersed on earth thy corruptible riches, thou didst store up for thyself greater riches in Heaven; and in ascetic labours thou didst shine; hence, O Melania, with longing we honour thee.

Kontakion in the Third Tone
Like a lamp with two flames you illumine Christ’s Church with mystical radiance. In your martyr’s contest you brought forth fruits a hundred-fold, O Anysia; and you, O Melania, were resplendent in asceticism. You were found worthy of the incorruptible life of the blessed!

Saint Theophylact of Ochrid

St. Theophylact of Ochrid (Feast Day - December 31)

Blessed Theophylact (θεοφύλακτος, meaning "Guarded by God") was a true son of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. He was a product of the highly developed cultural and religious civilization emanating from the “queen of cities,” Constantinople. Born on the Greek island of Euboia some time between 1050 and 1060, Theophylact went to Constantinople to study under the finest teachers of literature and rhetoric of his time. After his ordination, he served as deacon, assisting the Patriarch at Hagia Sophia, and soon gained renown as a preacher of the Gospel and master of rhetoric. The Emperor Alexios I Comnenos made him the tutor of his future son-in-law, the heir presumptive.

About the year 1090 Theophylact was sent to the Macedonian city of Ochrid to be enthroned as Archbishop of the Bulgarian Church. Ochrid was the capital city of the Bulgarian kingdom that had been conquered by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II in 1018. In this demanding position in a conquered territory on the outskirts of the Empire, Blessed Theophylact conscientiously and energetically carried out his archpastoral duties over the course of the next twenty years or so.

Although a Byzantine by upbringing and outlook, he was a true father and archpastor of the Bulgarian Church, defending its interests and protecting its independence and prerogatives. He was instrumental in the spread of Byzantine culture that took place among the Balkan Slavs in the following centuries. As a language scholar, he also aided the development of a native Bulgarian Orthodox Church and literature, especially by the use of Old Church Slavonic in Scriptural and liturgical texts.

Countering the propaganda of the heretical Paulicians and Bogomils who were active in the region, he acted vigorously to protect his flock by ordaining dedicated and educated priests to teach Orthodoxy in the native Bulgarian language. He also showed his care for the Slavic people under his spiritual care by vigorously protesting the intolerable and extortionist demands of tax collectors sent from Constantinople.

He endured many slanderous accusations that were made against him both within the Diocese and in Constantinople, but he won the respect and love of the faithful who saw his tireless labors on their behalf. It is during this period of his life as Archbishop of Bulgaria that he wrote his Explanation of the New Testament, and of the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. He did so at the request of the princess Maria—the mother of the imperial boy he had earlier tutored, and who had now become the abbess of a convent. His Letters also date to this time, as well as two other writings for which he is well known: The Life of St. Clement of Ochrid and a treatise entitled: The Errors of the Latins in Ecclesiastical Matters.

The latter two works highlight two developments of enormous consequence for the history of the Church. The first is the spread of Orthodoxy Christianity into the Slavic lands; for St.Clement of Ochrid was a disciple of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and he brought to fruition in Bulgaria the labors begun by his mentors in carrying the Orthodox faith to the Slavs in their own languages. The second is the tragic schism which occurred between the eastern and western halves of the Church. Blessed Theophylact wrote his treatise, The Errors of the Latins, only some fifty years after the exchange of anathemas between Rome and Constantinople in 1054. While firmly defending the Orthodox doctrinal position rejecting the Filioque, Blessed Theophylact writes with a tone of moderation rare for his time, urging from both sides a spirit of conciliation concerning matters of local custom.

The exact year of Blessed Theophylact’s repose is not known, but the latest date that can be ascertained from his letters is 1108. The Serbian Orthodox Church, whose jurisdiction in later years came to include Ochrid and Macedonia, and other Orthodox Churches, commemorates Blessed Theophylact as a saint, on December 31.


December 30, 2010

Metropolitan Jeremiah of Gortynia Takes On A Greek Secularist

The video above features Metropolitan Jeremiah of Gortynia along with several local clergy at the swearing in ceremony on 19 December 2010 for the local mayor following his recent election into office. All officials in Greece are sworn in by bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church if invited to do so.

After a few words of blessing and advice for the new mayor, a secularist official, probably a communist, stands up and objects that clergy be allowed to bless the City Hall and swear in officials.

At this point the Metropolitan becomes enraged by the audicity of the man, saying things like:

"So are you saying we shouldn't have a Holy Water blessing service? You want to make our nation atheistic? Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Shame on you! Let me tell you, this is the land from where Gregory the 5th came from!... Get lost!... I believe in Christ and Country, this is why I tell him 'shame'!"

The Metropolitan then says that he is protesting the comment made and orders the clergy with him to leave if the law says so. The people then began shouting "No! No! Let him leave, not you!". The mayor intervenes and encourages him to stay. The Metropolitan then says that he will leave and like Gregory V will hang as well. He also says that when he was just ten days old his father was killed at 25-years-old in Albania by atheists like him.

Metropolitan Jeremiah then gives his last words: "Know that here you have a crazy bishop, a successor of Gregory V!"

In a later interview featured below, the Metropolitan said: "At that time I defended the rights of the Church, not myself personally. The gentleman spoke against the Church." In the first video below he is criticized by his interviewers for his hard stance, to which the bishop responded that he was invited by the mayor and he stood his ground. He then hangs up. In the second video the Metropolitan explains his offence at the remark made as not being personal, but he felt the Church was being betrayed and he had every right to respond. Criticized again for getting angry, the Metropolitan responds that Scripture says we should get angry when it comes to the Faith, "Be angry and sin not". He also says that it was clergy in their cassocks who got angry in the past with injustice, and this allowed the Greeks to rally against the Turks and atheists of the past. He then asks why the gentleman who questioned everything is not criticized for his rudeness, while he is being criticized for his rudeness. He thinks the gentleman should have been respectful of the fact that he was invited to the event, and if he had an objection to a clerical presence he should not have been there.

Bishop Teodosije Makes Appeal For the Decani Monastery Relief Fund

Prizren, December 28, 2010

Dear brothers and sisters

Dear friends of the Dečani Monastery Relief Fund

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all (2 Cor 13:14)!

In this holy time of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ I am addressing you as the newly inaugurated Bishop of Raška-Prizren and Kosovo-Metohija. By the grace of our Lord and the decision of the Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church I was elected as the Diocesan Bishop to the throne of this holy Diocese on November 18 this year. I humbly accepted this duty, deeply aware of the heavy burden I have been entrusted by our Holy Church. With the new duty of archpastoral care for the Orthodox Christians of Kosovo and Metohija my responsibility for my faithful is now much greater than before when I was the Auxiliary Bishop and the abbot of Dečani Monastery.

One of my first intentions is to develop the work of the Dečani Monastery Relief Fund which has been working since 1998 thanks to the diligent efforts and wise leadership of our dear in Christ Very Reverend Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes. In the last thirteen years this Fund has helped many poor people, refugees, children and all others who were in need. I strongly believe that this generous and humane work should be continued particularly now when we are facing the pressing need to help many returnees with their children in these cold winter days. As all the Christians are celebrating the Nativity holidays we must not forget those who like our Infant Lord Jesus Christ in his fist days live far from minimum of comfort and warmth of their homes.

Our six soup kitchens work every day to provide food for 2000 beneficiaries throughout Kosovo. However, providing food supplies is not an easy task and without assistance of the God loving donors they would not be able to continue their work. At the same time our returnees and poor families lack firewood and adequate clothing for low temperatures that go below 5°F in winter. At the same time the Christmas period is the time when we have to particularly think of our youngest and the Diocese is planning to provide as many Christmas gifts as possible. Although we cannot change conditions in which the children are growing up, facing everyday danger and uncertain future, our love and care can help them carry on this burden easier and better feel the love of Christ which we are called to share. We have also a number of talented teenagers who would like to attend the University but their families are too poor to support them. One of our priorities is to support with scholarships these young people who can help their community and the Church with their talents which God has granted to them. The families with five and more children are particularly vulnerable. Almost every day we are receiving their request for financial assistance, particularly for providing health care as quite a number of children due to their life in poverty suffer from chronicle diseases and need urgent care and therapy.

The situation in Kosovo has hardly improved because only one third of our pre-war Serbian Orthodox population still remains in the Province. The most of others live still as refugees out of Kosovo. Although we remain in hope that at least some of them might return to their homes the overall situation is far from good. Although the security has somewhat improved and we don’t have frequent attacks on Orthodox Christians, our people are still discriminated on ethnic and religious basis among the majority Muslim Albanian population of Kosovo. Most of 120.000 Kosovo Serbs in Kosovo (pop. 2 million) live in enclaves without job opportunities and the major Kosovo cities are almost without Serb population. Peć – 20 Serbs, Prizren – 18 Serbs, Pristina (the provincial capital) – 48 Serbs, or Djakovica – 4 Serbian old women are just reminders that Kosovo despite all international efforts is far from multiethnic and multireligious society.

Our monasteries are also in particularly precarious situation. Since the end of the war and arrival of the international peacekeepers 130 of our churches and monasteries have been torched or destroyed completely. We have relied very much in the last years on the protection of the NATO led troops. But in Kosovo number of troops is being reduced and our monks and nuns feel more and more insecure. In one convent we have begun with construction of the protective wall because there is a danger of burglary. We all remain deeply concerned about the future of our holy sites which are the pride of the Orthodox Church worldwide. In the last two years the donations to our monastic communities have decreased considerably due to the economic crisis. With very few visitors for many of them it is not easy to provide all necessities for their daily life.

Despite all these difficulties, we live with the hope in our Lord who has protected us in this holy land of monasteries for centuries and strongly believe that with our faith in Christ we can overcome all troubles that await us. However I am taking this opportunity to wish you blessed Nativity of the Lord and the New Year 2011 with an appeal to you to support Orthodox Christians in Kosovo through the Dečani Monastery Relief Fund. All our activities on the humanitarian field will be documented on our Web-site together with other diocesan news.

In hope that you will answer to this appeal we remain deeply grateful and indebted to you for all the support, love and prayers in the previous years.

With the blessing of the Lord


Please send your donations to this address:

Decani Monastery Relief Fund
C/O Very Rev. Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes
2618 West Bannock Street
Boise, Idaho 83702

Artemije Officially Proclaims Resistance Against Serbian Church

The former bishop of Raska-Prizren, Artemije, has officially proclaimed resistance against the official Serbian Orthodox Church in the form of two letters he recently sent seeking to justify his actions and decisions.

The first epistle was sent to all the bishops of the Orthodox Church throughout the world. Claiming that he is being persecuted by the Serbian Church officials uncanonically, he compares himself to St. John Chrysostom who while exiled from his throne in Constantinople was still considered the legitimate bishop by his flock as well as other bishops. Likewise he also appeals to all Orthodox bishops to consider himself as the legitimate bishop of Raska-Prizren instead of Bishop Teodosije of Raska-Prizren who has recently replaced him.

The second epistle of Artemije is addressed to the Standing Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade. In this epistle he blames the chaos of Kosovo and Metohija on the Holy Synod which he followed with obedience for many years, often against his own ideas. He blames them for eradicating monasticism from the region and working with Albanians to gain their praise. He further accuses the Patriarch himself of seeking to make Uniates of the Serbs for his ecumenical activities. He asks the Synod for his throne back, saying that the people want him as their bishop and not Teodosije. He says he does not accept the decisions of the Synod because they are uncanonical. As for the schism which is ensuing in the Serbian Church over this matter, he blames it on the Holy Synod and he dates it to 11 February 2010.

From these two epistles we see that Artemije is calling on the Holy Synod to repent and receive him back, while the Holy Synod also seeks the same from him. Both accuse one another of uncanonical actions and decisions which are creating a schism. As both persist, the situation gets worse.

Read both epistles in Greek at this link: Επιστολές του "εξόριστου" Επισκόπου Ράσκας Αρτεμίου

Saint Anysia the Virgin-Martyr of Thessaloniki

St. Anysia of Thessaloniki (Feast Day - December 30)

                                                               By St. Nikolai Velimirovich

Anysia was born in Thessalonica of eminent and wealthy parents and was brought up in the Christian Faith. She was orphaned at an early age and gave herself completely to godly thoughts and prayer in her own home.

Fervent in her love for Christ, she often said: "Oh, how false is the life of youth, for you either scandalize or are scandalized. Better is old age; but sorrow overcomes me because of the length of time that separates me from heaven."

She sold all her possessions, distributed the proceeds to the poor, and lived from the labors of her own hands. She kept a strict fast, slept very little, and constantly shed tears at prayer. When sleep overcame her she would say to herself: "It is dangerous to sleep while my enemy keeps vigil."

At that time, the wicked Emperor Maximian issued a decree that anyone could kill Christians when and where he encountered them, without trial or sentence. This holy virgin once went out into the streets to attend church. That day was a pagan feast of the sun. A soldier saw her beautiful countenance, and he approached her with an impure desire, asking for her name. She made the sign of the Cross and said to him: "I am Christ's handmaid, and I am going to church." When the impudent soldier came closer and began to speak to her insanely, she shoved him away and spat in his face. The soldier struck her with his sword below the ribs and ran her through.

This holy virgin suffered in the year 298. She was honorably buried by Christians and was crowned with the wreath of glory by God in the Heavenly Kingdom. A church was built over her grave.*

* The relics of St. Anysia are contained on the left-hand side in the Church of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki.

HYMN OF PRAISE: The Holy Martyr Anysia

Holy Anysia prays to God,
Continually kneeling and shedding tears:
"O Jesus, God and Lord,
The Source of eternal life,
The Treasury of incorruptible goods:
Help me, O God, help me,
To remain a virgin until death,
As a virgin to enter into rest,
And to become worthy of Thy Kingdom.
Grant me, O Savior, Thy grace,
To be able to suffer for Thee,
To sacrifice myself for Thee.
I desire to be a sacrifice to my God -
Oh, help me to gain what I desire!"
God heard the virgin Anysia,
And gave her His grace
To be able to suffer for Him.
Holy Anysia, now in Paradise,
Shines as a star among the stars,
Shines as an angel among the angels,
Praying for us to the Immortal Christ.

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Your lamb Anysia calls out to You, O Jesus, in a loud voice: "I love You, my Bridegroom, and in seeking You I endure suffering. In baptism I was crucified so that I might reign in You, and I died so that I might live with You. Accept me as a pure sacrifice, for I have offered myself in love." Through her prayers save our souls, since You are merciful.

Kontakion in the Third Tone
As a doubly-shining lamp of truly mystical brightness do ye shine upon the Church like a high-towering beacon: thou with beams of martyr's glory, O Anysia; thou with rays of great ascetic deeds, O Melania. Now together ye are honoured by Christ your Bridegroom for your travails in His Name.