Dear Readers: A long time supporter of the Mystagogy Resource Center has informed me that they would like to donate $3000 to help me continue the work of this ministry, but they will only do it as a matching donation, which means that this generous donation will only be made after you help me raise a total of $3000. If you can help make this happen, it will be greatly appreciated and it would be greatly helpful to me, as I have not done a fundraiser this year. If you enjoy the work done here and want to see more of it, please make whatever contribution you can through the DONATE link below. Thank you!
(Total So Far - Day 11: $2740)

December 31, 2012

The Top 25 Most Popular Mystagogy Posts of 2012

Below is a list of The Top 25 Most Popular Mystagogy Posts of 2012. These were posts from 2012 only, and do not reflect posts of previous years. Personally I find it to be an interesting list filled with surprises, and it shows what drove most people to my website and reflects their interests. In fact, the number one search item on Google that drove people here was "Noah's Ark", hence the extremely popular number one. This post is so popular, that it is my number two all-time most popular post. The first three received more than double the page views of all the rest. Thank you all for visiting over the past year and for your support, and I hope to provide even better more compelling material for the coming new year. A blessed and joyous New Year to all!

The Top 25 Movies of 2012

This year I had the chance to see a lot of movies, so my list is based on my own personal preferences and criteria. I decided to make a Top 25 list this year instead of the routine Top 10 mainly because there were so many good movies this year that were in sort of the same range of how good they were. Plus, since I usually make comments on each movie, this prevents me from having to do so.

After I made my list I decided to look online and compare my list with those of the "experts". There were some similarities, but mainly differences. What I noticed is that most movie critics forgot to include the movies of the first six months of the year. This is why I make my Top 10 list every summer at the six-month mark, so as not to forget. For this reason, in other lists one will rarely find The Avengers or The Grey or even Bernie and Moonrise Kingdom. Of course, usually the best movies are released towards the end of the year, and it seems like most get caught up in this, but I don't forget. Also, pretty much every list I read had the movie Zero Dark Thirty in their Top 10. This has to date only been released in five theaters, set for wider release on January 11th, so I have not seen it. There are many others I have not seen, especially foreign films, so this list may be revised in the future, but for now it stands as is. Below is my list, with a one sentence comment only for my top ten as for why I chose them.

(List updated on January 15th)

1. Django Unchained - Too many movies have been taking themselves a bit too seriously lately, so this was refreshing and it had the elements of a great movie missing in all the rest.

2. Argo - A well-acted and intense thriller/caper based on a true story.

3. The Avengers - It lived up to the hype and fantasy.

4. The Grey - A tale of survival, it made you feel the intense emotions, especially fear, angst and claustrophobia.

5. Bernie - The best comedy turned tragedy of the year, that makes you wonder what emotions you should have after seeing it. (Technically this is a 2011 movie and it was released in 2012.)

6. Moonrise Kingdom - Nostalgic, fun, and attractively eccentric, with great performances.

7. The Sessions - The best all around performances of the year, lighthearted and enjoyable, also based on a true story.

8. Life of Pi - An enthralling and moving adventure, with many allegorical undertones.

9. Lincoln - A well acted and dignified historical drama that immerses the audience into an interesting historical period.

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild - An emotional, charming and powerful journey.

11. Flight

12. Silver Linings Playbook

13. Skyfall

14. The Dark Knight Rises

15. Looper

16. The Impossible

17. Lawless

18. Wreck It Ralph

19. Frankenweenie

20. The Cabin in the Woods

21. Take This Waltz

22. Sinister

23. Anna Karenina

24. Zero Dark Thirty

25. The Hobbit; The Hunger Games (tied, but also because some would not include Bernie as a 2012 film)

Honorable Mentions: Hitchcock, Les Miserables, Ted, The Master, 21 Jump Street, Paranorman, Killing Them Softly, Promised Land

How Many of the Holy Innocents Were Massacred?

By Athanasios Moustakis

It is in the nature of man to solve queries.

Within this context must be placed the debate about the number of young children who were massacred in Bethlehem by Herod after the birth of Christ.

Examining the patristic tradition we find several references to the event, without any reference to the number of innocent victims.

The number 14,000 seems to have been established at some later time, but was never fully incorporated, nor is it in the synaxaria.

For example, the Great Horologion of the Apostoliki Diakonia edition places this number between parenthesis.

Contemporary biblical research has resulted in a much smaller number based on the calculation of the number of children possible to have grown up in Bethlehem and its surroundings. Maybe around 30 to 40.

In the Holy Land they show pilgrims the graves of the infants, which come nowhere close to the number of 14,000.

How many infants were there then?

Obviously we do not know.

The danger in this debate is to focus on the (small or large) number and lose the essence of the problem which is to be identified in the fact that Herod, grounded in an irrational and selfish fear of losing his throne, sacrificed the innocent.

If there were fewer children in Bethlehem, would the crime be less? Would the mother's grief be less?

The Fathers focus on the event itself and not on the (technical) "details". The pain caused by the malice interested them rather than how many kids died "sifted like wheat", as the kontakion of the feast says.

The incident of the massacre of the infants is not recorded in other sources of the time, except by Matthew the Evangelist, but it perfectly matches with other sources regarding the character of Herod, who did not hesitate to kill several of his wives - among them even the only one he seems to have loved, Mariamne - but also several of his children so as not to take his throne.

This crime, like all the others committed by Herod, is unimaginable to the average person: maintaining the throne against a vague threat, this weighs more for Herod than the lives of one, two, three, four... children, even if they are his own.

What the blurred and distorted mind of the king failed to grasp is that his crime was based on the sacrifice of innocent babies, who are honored as saints, martyrs of the Church who watered It and are watering It with their blood.

The meaning, therefore, is not in the number, but that even one child was slain, a victim of human selfishness. We should not forget that the Church places great value on one person, on the hundredth sheep, on one person who repents. Do you think we know how many saints there are? How many martyrs? How many neomartyrs? It is enough for us to know that when they were asked to choose Christ or not, they chose Christ.

Many years!

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos

Christianity No Longer a Religion, says Turkish Minister

December 31, 2012

Christianity has ceased to be a religion but has become a culture of its own, Turkish Environment and Urbanism Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar said at a recent conference hosted by the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) Women's Group.

"The biggest three countries in the world are not Muslim countries. China, India – only the U.S. believes in a single God. Spirituality and religious feelings are weakening," Bayraktar said.

"There are 2.5 billion Christians in the world," Bayraktar said. "Christianity is no longer a religion. It's a culture now. But that is not what a religion is like. A religion teaches; it is a form of life that gives one peace and happiness. That is what they want to turn [Islam] into as well."

December 30, 2012

Balaam and the Three Magi

By Photis Kontoglou

During the holy Nativity of Christ the heavens and the earth united. The heavens gave a Star and the Angels who glorified God with chants, and the earth gave the Panagia, and Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi. It is a mystery how these Magi found themselves in such a deserted place, from distant Chaldea.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matt. 2:1,2)

This is what the Gospel of Matthew says. And when Herod heard that Christ was born, the king of the Jews, he thought it was an earthly king, and he feared that perhaps He would take his kingdom. He gathered all the priests and scribes, and asked them where Christ was born. And they told him:

In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Matt. 2:5,6)

And Matthew goes on to write:

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matt. 2:7-12)

Who then were these Magi, and from where did they come, how did they understand what kind of star this was, and how did they know that Christ was born, since not even the king of the Jews knew? This strange history begins many long years before, around one thousand three hundred years before the Nativity of Christ. Such stories that last a thousand years before they meet their end only happen in the East.

In that ancient time, there lived in Pethor of Mesopotamia one named Balaam, son of Beor, a famous magician. The Hebrews, having left Egypt with Moses as their leader, had reached the Promised Land, after many tribulations, and battled against the many tribes that blocked their path. One of these tribes were the Moabites, who lived east of the Dead Sea; a warring people who they said were held by their neighbors the Ommin. They had at that time as their king Balak. Balak, seeing that the Israelites defeated the Amorites and Og, the king of Bashan, feared that he would not get along with the Hebrews, and sent some authorities to Balaam, to tell him how the Israelites reached his border and how their army was so large. They also begged him to go and curse them that they may be defeated, since Balak believed that whoever Balaam blessed would be victorious and whoever he cursed would be defeated.

The messengers reached the village of Balaam at night and told him why their king sent them. Balaam told them to spend the night in the village, and the next day he would tell them what God said to him. In the morning, when they awoke, Balaam told them that God commanded him to not go and curse the Israelites, because they are blessed. The Moabites left and returned to their land and told the king what Balaam told them. Balak then sent them again to the magician, to plead with him to go, promising him great honors and much wealth. However, Balaam replied that he would not go, even if the king gave him a palace full of gold, because he could not disobey the word of God. Yet God appeared to Balaam at night, and told him to go to Balak, and say only whatever He tells him.

In the morning, therefore, he saddled his donkey, and went with the Moabites and his two servants. But, as they walked, the donkey turned off from the road, and Balaam beat him with a stick he held. They arrived at a place on the road with vines, in between two dry walls, and there the donkey pressed near the wall and crushed the foot of Balaam, and he beat again him with his stick. But the donkey did not budge from the place, but even lay down, and the elder beat him angrily. Then the donkey opened its mouth, and spoke in a human voice, saying to Balaam: "What have I done that you beat me?" And Balaam said: “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” And the donkey said: "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you? Therefore, it is not my fault that I do not go forward." Then the Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw an Angel with a sword in his hand, which prevented the donkey from moving forward. Balaam bowed down and venerated him. And the Angel told him: "God sent me to oppose you. Now go with the others, for I will tell you what to say."

Therefore, reaching the land of Moab, Balak received him with honor,and they went together up to the mountain Bamoth Baal. And Balaam said: "Whatever the Lord tells me, that I will do." And seeing from afar the army of the Hebrews, he heard the voice of the Lord say to him: "Blessed are my people Israel. From their seed shall come a man who will rule many nations. Whoever blesses them, will be blessed, and whoever curses them, will be cursed." Thus Balaam blessed the Israelites. Balak became angry, though Balaam had told him that he could not but do the will of God. As one can see, Balaam was the second, after Jacob, who prophesied that Christ would be born of the Jews, according to the word of the Lord, that out of this nation would be born a Ruler who will rule the nations. His prophecy resembles the prophecy of the patriarch Jacob regarding Christ, who likened Christ with a lion, saying: "He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion - who shall rouse him up?" [Genesis 49:9] The prophecy of Balaam says: "Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like an old lion — who dares to rouse him?" [Numbers 24:9]

Such, therefore, is Balaam the seer, the forefather of the Magi who left Chaldea to worship Christ in the cave where He was born. Balaam had told his disciples that the great King would be born of the tribe of the Jews, and he told them to look to the heavens to find a new star, and if they find it, to run and follow it, and it would lead them to the place where Christ would be born [Number 24:17]. This word was kept by his disciples and remained with them one thousand three hundred years, until they saw that wondrous Star. This was not a false prophecy of the elder Balaam, but true, and when they saw the strange star, they leaped for joy, and ran to worship the Lord, who did not get bored waiting one thousand three hundred years, night by night. Oh! What patience faith has! Among the fragrant flowers of hymns, which adorn the Church on the Nativity of Christ, is this beautiful troparion, which is inspired by the history of Balaam:

O Master, by dawning as a star out of Jacob you filled with joy the watchers of the stars, wise interpreters of the words of Balaam the Seer of old, who were brought to you as first fruits of the nations; you received them openly as they offered you their acceptable gifts.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos

A further note by the translator:

The true source for the Star is in the Old Testament, in Numbers 24:17, where the Seer Balaam, who came from a town on the banks of the Euphrates, utters his great prophecy, "I will point to him, but not now; I bless him, but he does not come near. A Star shall dawn from Jacob, a Man shall arise out of Israel." This is what we read in the Greek Septuagint, which is the Orthodox text. The Hebrew has, "a sceptre shall arise out of Israel". St Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho 106, cites the verse, though instead of ‘man’ he has the word ‘ruler’, which is the word used in Matthew 2:6 in the citation of Micheas. Origen links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam, adding that the prophecy of Balaam had no doubt been preserved in the east. Eusebius does the same. St Gregory of Nyssa also links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam. The real Star of Bethlehem is Christ himself, as St Amphilochios explains in a Christmas sermon. Saint Romanos takes this up in his Kontakion for the Nativity, Ikos 5 (the Magi are speaking):

For Balaam laid before us precisely
The meaning of the words he spoke in prophecy,
When he said that a star would dawn,
A star that quenches all prophecies and auguries;
A star which resolves the parables of the wise,
And their sayings and their riddles,
A star far more brilliant
Than the star which has appeared,
For he is the Maker of all the stars,
Of whom it was written of old,
From Jacob there dawns
A little Child, God before the ages.

A Christmas Tradition on the Island of Tinos

Tinian people preserve their local manners and customs as sacred. Besides, many of those stem from ancient religious traditions. These customs survive mostly in the villages, although the Main Town also has its own traditions. In addition, the locals often combine their deep religious faith with their love for dancing and singing, regularly organizing local festivities and fairs.

A custom that proves the deep religious faith of Tinians is the lighting of Vigil Lights. It is an unwritten law, binding the locals to light all the country chapels this way every Saturday afternoon and on the eve of the celebration of a saint's memory. Every chapel has a permanent or temporary owner, responsible for keeping the custom. Non-fulfillment of this obligation is considered a moral offence not tolerated by the locals.

This custom sometimes takes the form of a solemn religious promise. Thus, many Tinians often as a token of gratitude, supplication or thanks to a Saint, vow to go to the chapel dedicated to the Saint's name. The pilgrims arrive at the chapel early in the morning. If the oil lamps are already lit, they add some oil to keep them burning and they leave the oil bottle they brought with them next to the candelabrum so it can be used later.

In every case, the ritual includes candle lighting and incense burning. These three ritual elements are the only material sacrifice that has survived since the early Christian years. Its nature is symbolic. Its value is not measured by the materials offered, but by the pilgrim's devoutness. In general, oil lamp lighting represents the light in their souls. The flame symbolizes the light of the Holy Spirit and the resplendence of all the Saints who are deep in the locals' hearts.

An old Christian custom, of monastic origin, is held during the Christmas season in Tripotamos. Every year, one family, whose leader receives the title of 'Kavos', takes on the responsibility of taking care of the village church, which is dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. Among their responsibilities is to keep the oil lamp (vigil light) hanging over the Icon of the Nativity lit all year round. In addition, they keep the church clean, they pay the costs for the Christmas Divine Liturgy, the provision of candles, while they are also responsible for the making of a huge candle for the New Year's Day Service.

On Christmas day, at noon, the Kavos invites the priest and the men - the head of families of the village - for lunch. Each one of the guests has to bring his own fork, spoon, bread and wine, all wrapped in a napkin. The Kavos has to make provisions for a lavish meal, with soup, veal stew, and braised meat with tomato sauce, stuffed vine leaves and several other local specialties. Wine is served in goblets, special mugs of hemispherical shape made of brass that are used only on this occasion.

After the meal, the priest and some of the table-companions carry the Icon of the Nativity from the church to their host's house chanting Christmas hymns. The Icon is placed on the table, the priest hands out the holy bread, while everyone lights candles, similar to those used in the morning service. This is the moment when the priest appoints the next 'Kavos'. After eating the traditional sweets, the Icon is taken back to church while the crowd chants Christmas hymns.

On the next day (26th of December) all the men of the village gather again in the house of the former Kavos, to finish up the leftovers from the previous day. Typically, the responsibilities of the former Kavos end with the Christmas meal. However, the oil lamp has to remain lit till the last day of the year. After Divine Liturgy on the 31st of December, there is a procession of the Icon around the houses of the village according to the custom of 'podariko' (= first visitor at a house on New Year's Day is considered to bring good luck).

Today the list for the title of Kavos runs till 2025, which means that this custom is very popular with the locals. In earlier days though, the Kavos would be a last-minute choice, since most of the families were not well-off.

Source: Photo is from the 2012 Kavos ceremony. More photos can be seen here.

The Sunday After the Nativity of Christ

By Sergei V. Bulgakov

On the present Sunday after the Nativity of Christ the Holy Church commemorates St. Joseph the Betrothed and the protector of the virginity of the Most Holy Theotokos, and together with him is also commemorated his flight with the All-holy Virgin and newborn Child Jesus into Egypt (Mt. 2:13). The Holy King and Prophet David is commemorated on the present day as the ancestor of ancestors of the Lord Jesus in the flesh, and St. James, the brother of the Lord, because according to tradition he took part in travel with the holy family to Egypt.

The Holy righteous elder Joseph came from the royal line of David (Mt. 1:6; Lk. 1:27). The holy Evangelist calls him "righteous" (Mt. 1:18), and this name, according to the remarks St. John Chrysostom, demonstrates that the betrothed of the Most Holy Virgin "had all virtues". He lived in Nazareth and earned his living by working with his hands, being a woodworker, i.e. carpenter. As the man was strictly god-fearing, quite honorable, quiet, meek, humble, modest, sincere, peace loving, attentive to the voice of his conscience and to the announcements from above, Joseph was quite worthy of the great honor of living as the nearest spectator of the fulfillment of the "great mystery of godliness" (1 Tim. 3:16). He was already an eighty year old man and, according to the witness of St. Epiphanius, already "lived many years as a widower", when he was taken by his selection of the Providence of God to be the protector of the virginity of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. In the opinion of some, St. Joseph died soon after his visit to Jerusalem with the twelve-year-old Jesus Christ (Luke 2:41-52), as he is not mentioned in the Gospels after that. 

The Holy King David came from simple stock, and was the youngest son of Jesse, from the root of Judah, and was engaged in shepherding sheep, but he was distinguished by a rare mind, great courage, unshakable patience, great meekness, with a touching tenderness of heart, strict godliness, had a deep faith in God and truly loved Him, living with the constant feeling of the co-presence of the unseen God and complete dependence on His leadership, and he was "a man after the heart of God" (Acts 13:22), and that is why he was selected by God to the kingdom in Israel. He reigned a thousand years before the Nativity of the Savior and was the second king of the Israelites. Before his reign, when he was still a young man, he, when the strong nation of the Philistines warred against the Israelites, left, with his firm trust in the help of God, for a one on one struggle with Goliath and with a single hit with a stone struck down the Philistine giant. Glorified for this by his compatriots, the young David with unshakable patience, meekness, and magnanimity had endured various attacks and the evil intentions of Saul. Having become the king of the Israelites, David conducted various wars with the neighboring peoples, conquered them, and in his reign had extended the limits of the kingdom to a rather significant degree. He made Jerusalem the capitol of the state. He transferred the ark of the covenant there and resolutely was going to construct a permanent magnificent temple to the Lord to house the ark; but rather the will of God was declared to him, that he would not construct the temple, but that it would be his son (Solomon), that David only prepared all that was necessary for the building of the temple and entrusted to his son his intention and desire to carry out its fulfillment. He did many things for the glory of God and for the piety of the people. He led the divine services in the tabernacle in distinct order: he determined the number and order of the servers, he started a choir with many members of singers and he himself inspired by the Spirit of God composed many "psalms", or hymns for use in the Divine Services. For his piety and righteousness he earned such love and mercy from God that God confirmed to him all the promises given to Abraham. He promised him the sureness of his throne, the blessing and multiplication of his posterity and announced to him that from his posterity will be born the Deliverer of the world (Psalm 71:17; 88:29,36; Mt. 1:1, 20:31, 21:9; Lk. 1:32,33). Although, the deeply edifying life of King David was also darkened, due to the frailty of human nature, it was a heavy downfall (2 Kings 11), but also in this downfall he taught us the greatest example of repentant contrition and firm faith in God (see Psalm 50), which gave him the opportunity and power to throw off from himself the burden of sinfulness and raise himself up for a new spiritual life. The living and indestructible faith in God was the distinctive trait of King David. This faith gave him the opportunity to forcefully deflect all of Saul's animosity against him, to sustain the shock of various kinds of misfortunes of his multitested life, to deeply repent the union with sin, to humbly turn himself over to the watchful hand of God, to patiently endure all the punishments for this sin, to rise up higher after his downfall, rather than to where he was, and exhibit in himself a high example of penance, meekness, patience, hope and piety. And "the Lord took away David's sins, and exalted his horn forever, and He gave him a royal covenant, and a throne of glory in Israel" (Sir. 47:11). Being the greatest king of the Israelites, a fearless leader, a skilful governor, a high guide and a holy man, St. David was at the same time an inimitable poet and inspired prophet. He was the originator of psalm singing, and his psalms, in which he with inspiration poured out feelings of faith and hope in God, gratitude and doxology, joy and grief, exaltation and repentant contrition, with the power and tenderness of expressions, with the highest and burning religious feeling, nothing like it exists in the books of the Old Testament. The Book of Psalms of Holy King David serves as an inexhaustible treasury of the best examples of prayers, supplications, petitions, thanksgiving to God, the healing consolations for suffering souls, for those living in poverty, for those consumed with passions, and for the down-trodden. As a God-inspired prophet (Acts 2:30), the Holy King David in his psalms proclaimed many clear and strong prophecies about Jesus Christ (see Psalms 2:2; 40:10; 21:1, 8, 9, 15, 17, 18, 22; 62:22; 87:15, 10).

One of the Seventy, in the opinion of the majority of the holy fathers of the Church, especially the Eastern, St. James was the son of St. Joseph the Betrothed, and needs to be distinguished from James, son of Zebedee (Apr. 30) and James, son of Alpheus (Oct. 9). As his father Joseph is called the father of Jesus Christ, and thus he is called "the brother of the Lord in the flesh" (Gal. 1:19), and in this sense even the All-Holy Virgin Mary may be called his mother (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). According to tradition, he accompanied the All-Holy Theotokos when she with the Baby Jesus and Joseph fled to Egypt from the wrath of Herod. After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he was worthy of the special appearance of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:7).

If the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ falls between December 26 and December 31, its services are served on these days. If it falls on January 1 then it is served on December 26.

Apolytikion in the Second Tone
O Joseph, proclaim to David, Ancestor of God, the wonders. You have seen the Virgin with child, you have glorified with the shepherds, and you have worshiped with the Magi, and an angel appeared to you: Pray to Christ God to save our souls.

Kontakion in the Third Tone
Today David is filled with divine gladness, Joseph and James offer praise. For they rejoice in the crown of relationship with Christ, and they hymn the One who is unspeakably born on earth and cry out: O Merciful One, save those who honor Thee.


The Spirit of the Gift

It is not the weight
Of jewel or plate,
Or the fondle of silk or fur;
'Tis the spirit in which
The gift is rich
As the gifts of the Wise Ones were;
And we are not told
Whose gift was gold
And whose was the gift of myrrh.

- Edmund Vance Cooke (1909)

December 29, 2012

Greek Archbishop Offers Land To Those Who Wish To Cultivate It

By John Sanidopoulos

In his Christmas message addressed to the faithful, Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece invited all to strive for a revival of the spirit of early Christian society as a community of love.

At the same time he promised land and support to those who wished to engage in agricultural work. This could be thousands of acres given to the people. Specifically he said:

"[The Church] has supported and will support spiritually and practically the efforts of the people for a fresh start and will assist where we can to strengthen our people. It is time to remove the barriers, so this little property left in the Church is allowed to be utilized for the benefit of our people. And anyone who desires to work the Greek land, contributing to the food sufficiency in the country and the development of modern products and exportable crops and pasture, let them know that, no matter how little land still belongs to the Church, it will be at their disposal. Christ is born!"

Already there have been contacts with the Ministry of Rural Development for this to occur.

The entire message in Greek is below:

Αδελφοί μου καί τέκνα εν Κυρίω αγαπητά,

«Χριστός γεννάται, – χαρά στόν κόσμο» τραγουδά τέτοιες μέρες, εδώ καί αιώνες ο λαός μας, ακόμα καί σέ περιόδους θλιβερές καί δύσκολες στό διάβα τής Ιστορίας.

«Χριστός γεννάται», καί λάμπει πάλι τό φώς πού προσανατολίζει τά βήματά μας γιά νά συναντήσουμε τήν ελπίδα καί νά αποκτήσουν οι προσδοκίες μας υπόσταση, νόημα καί σκοπό.

«Χριστός γεννάται» σημαίνει πώς άμεσα καί ψηλαφητά γνωρίζουμε ότι ο Θεός γίνεται άνθρωπος καί βαδίζει τόν δρόμο τής ταπεινώσεως καί τής θυσίας, γιά νά βρεί ο άνθρωπος τήν αφετηρία μίας νέας ζωής. Γιά νά βρεί ο καθένας τόν τρόπο, τό δικαίωμα καί τή δυνατότητα νά αλλάξει τόν εαυτό του καί τόν κόσμο γύρω του. Ο δρόμος πού ανοίγει μπροστά μας ο Χριστός είναι οδός σωτηρίας, ελπίδας καί θετικής προσδοκίας. Καί, συνάμα, πρόσκληση ενεργοποιήσεως τών συνειδήσεων γιά νά γίνουν η ζωή μας, ο κόσμος καί τό αύριο καλύτερα καί φωτεινότερα.

Η πατρίδα μας βιώνει κρίσιμες καί οδυνηρές στιγμές αγωνίας καί αβεβαιότητας γιά τόν επιούσιο τού λαού της καί γιά τό αύριο. Οι ώρες πού ζούμε είναι ώρες δοκιμασίας τής πίστης, τών χριστιανικών μας αξιών καί αισθημάτων, αλλά καί τής μέχρι τώρα βιοτής μας.

Καλούμαστε όλοι, ο καθένας μέ τίς γνώσεις, τίς ικανότητες καί τά χαρίσματά του, νά συμβάλουμε στή σωτηρία τού τόπου μας καί νά σταθούμε στό πλευρό τού δοκιμαζόμενου συνανθρώπου μας στή γειτονιά, στόν τόπο εργασίας του ή στόν δρόμο.

Καί πρώτιστα καλούμαστε νά στηρίξουμε εκείνον πού δέν έχει εργασία καί στέγη. Εκείνον πού χρειάζεται ζεστασιά καί φαγητό. Σήμερα, όσο ποτέ στό πρόσφατο παρελθόν, είναι επείγουσα ανάγκη νά συνεχίσουμε νά δείχνουμε γενναιοφροσύνη, αλληλεγγύη καί εθελοντική προσφορά. Ήδη, μέ τίς φιλότιμες προσπάθειες όλων μας, η αλληλεγγύη καί η αλληλοϋποστήριξη παίρνουν σάρκα καί οστά μέ εντυπωσιακά αποτελέσματα, αναβιώνοντας τό πρωτοχριστιανικό βίωμα τής κοινωνίας τής αγάπης. Είναι καιρός νά ξαναανακαλύψουμε τήν Εκκλησία ως κοινωνία προσώπων πού ζούν μέ τήν αγάπη ως τρόπο ζωής.

«Χριστός γεννάται» ανάμεσά μας. Σέ έναν κόσμο πού μοιάζει νά καταρρέει καί αναζητά ένα φώς, όπως τού αστέρα τής Βηθλεέμ, γιά νά τού δείξει πώς νά κάμει νέα αρχή καί πρός τά πού νά πορευτεί. Ο λαός μας γνωρίζει νά επιβιώνει σέ δύσκολους καιρούς καί έχει τήν ικανότητα νά αξιοποιεί τίς δυνατότητές του καί τόν πλούτο πού κρύβουν η ευλογημένη μας γή καί θάλασσα. Γνωρίζει νά συνθέτει καί νά γονιμοποιεί αποτελεσματικά τόν κόπο τών εργαζομένων, τή σοφία τών λογίων καί τή γνώση τών ανωτάτων εκπαιδευτικών ιδρυμάτων καί ερευνητικών κέντρων μέ τρόπο εναρμόνιο καί καρποφόρο. Αρκεί νά υποστηριχτεί στόν αγώνα του καί νά έχει όραμα καί ελπίδα.

Καί αυτό τό γνωρίζει καλά η Εκκλησία μας. Γι αυτό στήριξε καί θά στηρίζει πνευματικά καί έμπρακτα τήν προσπάθεια τού λαού μας γιά μιά νέα αρχή καί θά σταθεί αρωγός όπου μπορεί νά ενισχύσει τόν λαό μας. Είναι καιρός νά αρθούν τά εμπόδια, ώστε αυτή η λίγη περιουσία πού απέμεινε στήν Εκκλησία νά τής επιτραπεί νά τήν αξιοποιήσει πρός όφελος τού λαού μας. Καί όποιος επιθυμεί νά εργαστεί στήν ελληνική γή, συμβάλλοντας στή διατροφική επάρκεια τής χώρας καί στήν ανάπτυξη σύγχρονων εξαγώγιμων προϊόντων καλλιέργειας καί βοσκής, άς γνωρίζει ότι, όση λίγη γή ανήκει ακόμα στήν Εκκλησία, θά είναι στή διάθεσή του.

«Χριστός γεννάται» καί τό νόημα τών Χριστουγέννων μάς δίνει τό δικαίωμα νά παρακαλέσουμε τό Ελληνικό κράτος νά σκύψει πάνω από τούς συνανθρώπους μας καί σέ αυτές τίς δύσκολες ώρες πού διέρχεται ο τόπος νά αφήσουμε πίσω πολιτικές επιλογές πού στηρίζουν τούς λίγους σέ βάρος τών πολλών.

Μάς δίνει, επίσης, τό δικαίωμα νά καλέσουμε όσους διαθέτουν πλούτο νά τόν θέσουν στήν υπηρεσία τών συνανθρώπων μας. Χρειάζεται επειγόντως νά δείξουμε όλοι αλληλεγγύη, ανθρωπιά, αγάπη καί ευαισθησία καί είναι ζωτικής σημασίας νά στηριχθούν μέ κάθε τρόπο η περίθαλψη, η μόρφωση καί η επιβίωση τών Ελλήνων.

Τό λοιπόν, «δεύτε ίδωμεν πιστοί, πού εγεννήθη ο Χριστός» καί άς γίνουν τά φετινά Χριστούγεννα αφετηρία μίας νέας αρχής καί μίας πορείας ανοδικής γιά τόν τόπο μας καί γιά τόν καθένα προσωπικά. Άς μήν ξεχνάμε ότι «μέθ’ ημών ο Θεός» καί παλαιότερα καί τώρα καί πάντοτε.

Καλά και ευλογημένα Χριστούγεννα.

The Hungry and Homeless Seek Refuge on Mount Athos

More and more people are seeking refuge in the monasteries of Mount Athos because of the crisis in Greece. This was revealed in a recent interview by Αχελώο TV with Monk Nikodemos from the Monastery of Saint Paul.

"Countless are the people who roam from one monastery to another on Mount Athos to secure food and shelter to survive... People feel the need for survival, hunger is torture and it is a daily phenomenon in our days... We do everything we can to alleviate their suffering."

Greek Church Resources Strained By Crisis

Stelios Bouras
December 26, 2012

In the basement of St. Varvaras church, Rev. Theodoros Georgiou issued instructions on a recent morning to volunteers preparing hundreds of packages of food for local families, as two phones on his desk buzzed with more calls about supplies for Greece's growing ranks of the needy.

"We do not solve the problems here," Father Theodoros said. "We put out fires."

As unemployment has mounted in recession-hit Greece, so have poverty and hunger in Father Theodoros's once firmly middle-class parish in the Greek capital. His congregation's philanthropic resources have been stretched to the limit, he says, as it contributes to churchwide efforts to feed 10,000 people a day across Athens—which in turn is part of what Greek Orthodox Church officials say is the biggest mobilization to help the disadvantaged here since the aftermath of World War II.

Critics complain that the church isn't doing enough, however. In a country where the state is nearly bankrupt and its political forces are splintered, the church remains a powerful and unifying institution—one that these people say must reassess its contribution not only to the nation's spiritual needs, but also to its worldly salvation.

"Greek people expect their church to go out of its way to help Greek society endure and recover," said Aristides Hatzis, an associate professor of law, economic and legal theory at the University of Athens. "This is a national emergency."

Many critics have focused on the church's extensive holdings of real-estate, as well as in blue-chip companies and government bonds, saying the church can help the country financially.

"The church's contribution is limited to the operation of soup kitchens and the distribution of food it has received from donations. This is all just a drop in the ocean," said Grigoris Psarianos, a lawmaker with the small Democratic Left party, part of Greece's coalition government.

The church says it is doing the best it can, not only feeding thousands of the hungry, but also helping to deliver health care services and medicines. "What we can do is try to make sure people have the basic necessities, so that we have a decent human society," said Rev. Vasilios Havatzas, head of the Athens archdiocese's general charity fund. "The church just couldn't sit and watch as the crisis erupted."

Critics, including Mr. Psarianos, want the church to pay more taxes and to assume responsibility for paying its clergy, something that is now done by the government.

Back in 1952, as Greece was struggling to recover from World War II and its own brutal civil war, church and state struck a deal: The church would hand a portion of its real-estate to the state and in exchange, the government would pay clerics' salaries.

The church's annual payroll has swelled to about €200 million ($262 million) for its 9,000 staff, church officials say. As Athens needs to slash costs to pare its mountainous debt, demands are mounting for the church to pay its own way. Religious leaders say they are open to that, if they can boost church revenue.

One obvious source of increased funds: Better management of the church's sprawling property empire. The exact value of the church's holdings isn't known. But it is the country's second-largest land owner after the government, which has an estimated €300 billion property portfolio.

Church leaders have asked the country's privatization agency for advice on how to boost income from real estate, but it could take several years to implement its suggestions.

More income from church property holdings should also mean more tax revenue for the Greek government. Under a law passed in 2010, Greece raised the amount of taxes the church must pay on its earnings from commercial properties.

For example, the church owns prime beach-front land near Athens that, if developed, would create jobs and raise tax revenue. Critics say the church is holding out for more favorable development terms and improved market conditions. The church says its investment plans are tied up in red tape but declined to offer additional details.

There are limits to how far mainstream politicians are willing to push the church, a guardian of national identity, language and religion for centuries in a country where some 95% of people say they are Orthodox. Religious icons adorn public schools, courts and even tax offices.

Many politicians have traditionally sought to highlight their ties to church leaders, who often weigh in on sensitive national economic and political issues, and are loath to challenge them, fearing a backlash from their churchgoing constituents.

But that may be changing, as the church's reputation has been dented by scandals involving financial sins. Among the best known was a land-swap with the Greek government engineered by a thousand-year-old monastery that cost taxpayers tens of millions of euros and contributed to the downfall of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis in 2009.

The head monk of the monastery, one of the country's richest and most powerful, was accused of deceiving government officials in 2005 into exchanging cheap farmland—including lakes—for prime Athens real estate. He has denied a public prosecutor's charges that he incited officials to commit fraud, perjury and money laundering. The matter has yet to be heard.

Lawmakers have investigated several former government ministers over the deal but the probe was dropped after it fell outside a statute of limitations that applies to those who have held government office.

More recently, press reports of bishops having stashed millions of euros in bank accounts at home and abroad have been multiplying. The church and police are investigating.

The church says it is determined to pay the taxes required under the law. It says it paid €12.6 million in taxes in 2011, and that its books are audited just like other taxpayers'.

Church officials also say they are struggling to do more with less. The costs of delivering food, clothing and health care to the needy are rising as church revenue falls.

Not only are recession-hit worshipers putting less in the collection box on Sundays, the church's 1.5% holding in the country's largest lender, National Bank of Greece, ETE.AT -6.25% hasn't paid any dividends since 2008—depriving the church of some €5 million a year that used to help fund church activities. Rental income from its property portfolio has dropped to below €2 million annually from about €4 million in 2007, the church says.

On the front lines, the clergy is also hurting from the crisis, alongside the faithful.

In a parish near Father Theodoros's in Athens, Rev. Nikolaos Koutroumanis, who is 45 and supports his wife and 14-year-old daughter, has seen his salary fall by 30% in the last two years amid cuts to public-sector salaries. He says he hasn't gone shopping for clothes, nor has his wife, in the last two years.

"I have trust in God and that he will prevent the worst," said the bearded priest, dressed in a long black robe. "What I fear is that at the same time, I won't be able to pay my bills and taxes."

Macrobius and the Slaughter of the Innocents

By Tobias George Smollett

Macrobius about the year 400, bears testimony to Herod's slaughter of the infants at Bethlehem. This writer informs us, that "when Augustus had heard, that among the children within two years of age, which Herod king of the Jews commanded to be slain in Syria, his own son had been killed, he said: 'It is better to be Herod's hog than his son.'" (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.f.11)

On this noted passage Dr. Lardner made the following judicious observation in the first edition of the Credibility of the Gospel History: "I lay little or no stress upon this passage; partly, because it comes too late; partly because there is reason to suppose that Macrobius has been mistaken about the occasion of the jest. No early Christian writers have said anything of Herod's having a young child of his own killed in the slaughter at Bethlehem. If Augustus did pass this jest upon Herod, it might be occasioned by the death of Antipater, or rather of Alexander and Aristobulus."

In the second edition the doctor adds:

"It ought to be allowed, that Augustus did pass this jest on Herod upon some occasion, or other: and that Macrobius has given us the words of the jest. This passage also shews, that Herod's slaughter of the infants in Judea was a thing well known in the time of Macrobius, and was not contested by heathen people.

If we could be assured, that Macrobius transcribed this whole passage, not only the jest itself, but the occasion of it likewise, from some more ancient author; it would be a proof, that this event was known in that author's time also. And we should have a great deal of reason to suppose that author to have been a heathen, because it is likely, that Macrobius, a bigoted heathen himself, did not much deal in Christian writers.

But it is possible that Macrobius found only the jest in his author, and added the occasion, having collected it from the common discourse of the Christians in his time, who frequently spoke of this cruel action of Herod. There is some reason to suspect this, because it is very likely that Augustus's reflexion upon Herod was occasioned by the death of one of those sons, whom Josephus has mentioned: and that it has no relation at all to the slaughter of the infants at Bethlehem. This suspicion may be farther strengthened by the great agreement of Macrobius with St. Matthew, in the words which he useth concerning the children. Macrobius being ignorant of Herod's story, and having heard of the slaughter of the infants; when he met with this jest in some author, concluded, that there had been some young child of Herod put to death with them.

I am content therefore to leave it a doubtful point, whether Macrobius transcribed this whole passage, or the jest only, from some more ancient author.*

Upon the whole then, there lies no objection against this relation of St. Matthew. There is nothing improbable in the thing itself, considering the jealous, cruel temper of Herod. The silence of Josephus, or of the ancient Greek and Roman historians, can be no difficulty with any reasonable person. This fact is confirmed by the express testimonies of very early Christian writers, and by Macrobius, a heathen author about the end of the fourth century: from whom it appears, that this event was not then contested, and that it was even better known than the fate of those sons of Herod, whom Josephus says he put to death at the man's estate."

In the work now before us he farther observes:

"That this jest of Augustus stands in a chapter of Macrobius, which contains a collection of Augustus's witty sayings, or jests upon others, and the repartees, or smart sayings of others upon him, which, as it seems, to his no small honour, he bore very' patiently. As they are all independent on each other, no elucidations can be brought in from the connection: for there is none.

Pontanus, in his notes upon this place of Macrobius, says, 'Scaliger wondered, that Augustus would make this reflection upon Herod, since Augustus himself had confirmed the sentence of death upon the three sons of Herod.'

I do not find this place in Scaliger. But whoever wondered at it, it was without reason, in my opinion. For though Augustus complied with the requests, or proposals of Herod, and gave him leave to do with those sons as he pleased; the emperor might still think it a strange thing, that any prince should put so many of his own sons to death; and he might well say, alluding to the Jewish custom of forbearing to eat swine's flesh, 'It was better to be Herod's hog, than his son.' Very probably, that was the occasion of the jest of Augustus. And therefore as Whitby says, 'It must be confessed, that Macrobius is mistaken in the circumstances of this story.'"

We may add, that jests of this kind are popular stories that deserve no credit.

* Sixtus Senensis tells us that this sarcasm is mentioned by Dion Cassius in his Life of Augustus. That part of Dion's history is now supposed to be lost: but, unless we imagine that Sixtus founded "his asertion on the report of some, preceding writer, it must have been extant, when he published his Bibliotheca, in the year 1565.

Source: From "Lardner's Testimonies to the Truth of Christianity", The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, Volume 23, 1767.

Financial Times Reports on Mental Health and Suicide in Greece

Greek Orthodox priest holds a Memorial Service for a man who committed suicide at Syntagma Square on April 4, 2012.

The Financial Times reported on the state of mental health in Greece on December 27th, and spoke of the rising rate of suicides in Greece, which rose by 37 percent from 2009 to 2011, as well as the large number of Greeks going to psychologists to be treated for anxiety, depression, abuses, somatisation, and antisocial behavior.

Regarding the position of the Greek Orthodox Church, it says the following:

"Public health experts caution that reporting is often imprecise in Greece because of the shame attached to suicide. For example, the Greek Orthodox Church has been known to withhold funeral rites from victims."

One would think the report would at least state the position of the Church of Greece on suicide accurately, mention how the Church is dealing with these mental health issues, and at least quote the recent statement of the Holy Synod from April 5th, which can be read here:

The Financial Times report can be read here:

BBC Reports Athens to Get First Mosque

There are many problems with this BBC report that are not explored adequately:

1. The Ottoman era mosques in Greece were in fact Orthodox churches prior to them being forcefully taken by Muslims and converted into mosques.

2. It does not address the atrocities of Muslims upon Greece over a period of more than four centuries.

3. It does not address the difficulty and impossibility of Greek Orthodox churches being established and maintained in places like Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Northern Cyprus.

4. A large number of the Muslims in Greece are illegal immigrants, and a mosque raises fears that more illegal immigrants will seek entrance into Greece. This is a problem faced by Athens to a much larger extant than other EU capitals.

5. The above concerns are for the most part viewed and shot down by the report as "Islamophobic".

The BBC report can be read here:

Saint Markellos, Abbot of the Monastery of the Unsleeping Ones (+ 485)

St. Markellos of the Akoimeton Monastery (Feast Day - December 29)


Bound by sleeplessness throughout the years of his life,
Markellos has a short sleep in the grave.

Saint Markellos (Marcellus), abbot of the Monastery called "the Unsleeping Ones" ("Akoimeton"), was a native of the city of Apamea in Syria. His parents were wealthy, but died when he was young. He received his education first at Antioch, and then at Ephesus. All his possessions left him by his parents he distributed to the poor, thereby sundering his ties to the world.

Under the guidance of an experienced elder at Ephesus, Markellos entered upon the path of asceticism. He later went on to Byzantium to Saint Alexander, abbot of the Monastery named "the Unsleeping Ones." The Monastery received its name because in it psalmody was done constantly, both day and night, by alternating groups of monks. As the biographer of both these Saints writes: "Later, a venerable monastery was established near the mouth of Pontus - that is, the place where the Black Sea tracts into the Bosphorus - and he introduced a rule that, though new, was superior to any found elsewhere; that is, that henceforth they should never be any cessation in the hymnody offered to God, but that through an unbroken succession of those that served in turn, there should be achieved this continuous and unceasing glorification of our Master." The practice of never-ceasing service to God spread throughout the Empire, in both the West and the East. The monks were divided into three companies according to the language they spoke: Greek, Latin, or Syriac; each company took its turn celebrating the services in its particular language, and thus every hour of the day was given over to God's glory. The monastery not only grew but gave birth to others, such as the famed Studion Monastery in Constantinople which was founded by monks from Alexander's Monastery. Saint Alexander accepted Markellos and tonsured him into the monastic schema. Zealous in the works of watchfulness, fasting and prayer, the Saint received great spiritual talents and the gift of clairvoyance. Markellos foresaw the day of Abba Alexander's death and his own election as abbot. However, since he was still young, he did not want to rule others. So he slipped out of the Monastery to visit other provinces and other monasteries, where he received edification from the monks who lived there.

After the death of Saint Alexander, when Abba John had already been chosen as abbot, Markellos returned to the great joy of the brethren. Abba John made Markellos his own closest assistant. After John's death, Markellos was chosen abbot of the Monastery in spite of his own wishes, and in this position he remained for sixty years.

News of his saintly life spread far. People came to Markellos from afar, both the illustrious and the common, rich and the poor. Many times they saw angels encircling the Saint, attending and guarding him. With the help of God, the Monastery of the Unsleeping Ones flourished. So many monks came to place themselves under the direction of Saint Markellos that it became necessary to enlarge the Monastery and the church.

Saint Markellos received donations from believers for expansion, and built a beautiful large church, a hospital, and a hostel for the homeless. By his prayers the monk treated the sick, cast out devils and worked miracles. For example, one of the monks was sent to Ankara and fell ill. Being near death, he called out mentally to his elder. At that very hour Saint Markellos heard his disciple in the Monastery, and he began to pray for him. He who was sick recovered at once.

When a ship with his monks came into danger on the Black Sea, the Saint calmed the tempest by his prayers. Another time, when they told him that a fire was raging at Constantinople, he prayed tearfully for the city, and the fire subsided as if extinguished by the tears of the monk.

John, the servant of a certain Arian nobleman named Ardaburios, was unjustly accused of something, and he hid out at the Monastery to escape his master's wrath. Ardaburios twice demanded that Markellos hand John over to him, but he refused. Ardaburios then sent out a detachment of soldiers, who surrounded the Monastery, threatening to slay anyone who interfered with their mission. The brethren went to the elder, asking him to surrender John and save the Monastery. Markellos signed himself with the sign of the Cross, then boldly went out alone through the Monastery gate towards the soldiers. Lightning flashed in the sky, thunder rumbled, and the Cross appeared shining brighter than the sun. The soldiers threw down their weapons and took to flight. Ardaburios, learning from the soldiers what had happened, was frightened, and because of Saint Markellos he pardoned the servant.

Saint Markellos took part in the Synod of Chalcedon, defending Orthodoxy against the Monophysite heresy both at the Synod and in the years that followed. His generosity and contempt for worldly wealth were known to all: anyone who came to the Monastery in need received alms, but God always replenished the funds so that more could be given. When Markellos inherited his family's fortune upon his brother's death, he kept none of it either for himself or even for his Monastery, but distributed it to poorer communities and to the needy.

Venerable Markellos peacefully departed to the Lord in the year 485. His faithful disciple Lucian grieved terribly over him, but on the fifth day after the death Saint Markellos appeared to him and comforted him, foretelling his own impending end.

Apolytikion in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone
The image of God, was faithfully preserved in you, O Father. For you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By Your actions you taught us to look beyond the flesh for it passes, rather to be concerned about the soul which is immortal. Wherefore, O Holy Markellos, your soul rejoices with the angels.

Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
Though clad in a mortal body, O Markellos most wise, thou strovest to emulate the Angels' choirs in divine perpetual hymnody. And as an unsleeping shepherd of thy monastics, thou wast an example of true prayer and devoutness; O Father, intercede with the Lord, that He would save our souls.

December 28, 2012

Amazing Orthodox Church Snow Sculptures!

The annual Vasaloppet China Ski Festival at Jingyuetan Park in Changchun, China takes place on January 2nd. It covers an area of 40,000 square meters with a total capacity of 70,000 cubic meters of snow. Through the hands of professionals, the snow is transformed into some of the most famous buildings in Europe. Among them is the amazing Russian-styled Orthodox Church at this years festival, which was still being worked on as of December 24th.

One of the most spectacular winter destinations in the world is Harbin, China (where the largest Orthodox Church in the Far East is located, named Saint Sophia Orthodox Church) on Sun Island for the Sun Island Snow and Ice Sculptures. It is one of the coldest destinations in China. The festival usually goes from mid-December till mid-January and attracts thousands of tourists. Below are photos of a church sculpture and the Church of Saint Sophia in Harbin.

December 27, 2012

Why Jesus Came Into the World

Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God. How, then, was He manifested to the world? A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else [in the heavens]. Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death.

- St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Ephesians)

We have, then, now stated in part, as far as it was possible, and as ourselves had been able to understand, the reason of His bodily appearing; that it was in the power of none other to turn the corruptible to incorruption, except the Savior Himself, that had at the beginning also made all things out of nought and that none other could create anew the likeness of God's image for men, save the Image of the Father; and that none other could render the mortal immortal, save our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Very Life; and that none other could teach men of the Father, and destroy the worship of idols, save the Word, that orders all things and is alone the true Only-begotten Son of the Father.

- St. Athanasius of Alexandria (On the Incarnation of the Word)

The reasons why Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world are these: 1. The love of God for the human race: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). 2. The restoration in fallen humanity of the image and likeness of God, as the holy Church celebrates it: "Man who, being made in the image of God, had become corrupt through sin, and was full of vileness, and had fallen away from the better life Divine, doth the wise Creator restore anew" (First Canon of Matins for the Nativity of Christ). 3. The salvation of men’s souls: "For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). And so we, in conformance with the purposes of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, should spend our life in accordance with this Divine teaching, so that through it we may obtain the salvation of our souls.

- St. Seraphim of Sarov (The Reasons Why Jesus Christ Came into the World)

Prayer to the Lord Who was Born

By St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite

Jesus, Son of the Father without mother according to divinity, 
I glorify You the eternal Who is above every entreaty and word.

Jesus, Son of a Mother without father according to humanity, 
I glorify You Who became man for us.

Jesus, Emmanuel unchanged, for You are the Angel-bearer of the great message of salvation, 
I thank You for Your great love for man.

Jesus, spotless Lamb of God, 
I ever confess You, for I am the lost sheep.

Jesus, most-compassionate Comforter, 
make the grace of your Spirit to work within me.

Jesus, new Adam, 
take from me the old man, and establish in me the new.

Jesus, You Who descended to earth, 
make me worthy to have my habitation in the heavens.

Jesus, You Who took on human nature, 
make me a partaker in the grace of theosis.

Jesus, my breath, come to visit me.

Finding Pity in Sinners and Praying for Enemies

 By St. Silouan the Athonite

Christ prayed for those that crucified Him: "Father, count not this sin against them; they know not what they do." Archdeacon Stephen prayed for those who stoned him so that the Lord would not judge this sin against them. And so we, if we wish to retain grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not find pity on a sinner who will suffer in flames, then you do not carry the grace of the Holy Spirit, but rather an evil spirit; and while you yet live, you must free yourself from his clutches through repentance.

An Athonite Icon of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen the Protomartyr and Archdeacon

Vatopaidi Monastery, Mt. Athos (Mobile Icon)

Inscription on bottom reads:

"Remember Lord, Remember Master, Remember Holy One, Remember Protomartyr Stephen, on the Day of Judgement even me, the sinful Hieromonk Seraphim. The year 1805, October 17."

The Hieromonk Seraphim depicts himself kneeling in the icon, next to the scene of St. Stephen being stoned.

December 26, 2012

The Institution of the Synaxis of the Theotokos

By John Sanidopoulos

After a great feast, the Orthodox Church traditionally honors the memory of those persons who played a chief role in the events commemorated by the feast. The Most Holy Mother of God occupies first place after Christ, in the events con­nected with the Nativity of our Lord. For this reason, in the first centuries, the faithful assembled on the day following the Nativity to express their gratitude to the Ever-Virgin Mary for having given us the Savior and to honor her as the Mother of God. From this gathering of the faithful, the feast itself received the name Synaxis, which the Greek word for "gathering".

It is difficult to determine in which century the feast of the Synaxis of the Theotokos became a univer­sal practice of the Church. Some of the Fathers of the fourth century, such as Ambrose, Augustine, Epiphanius of Cyprus and John Chrysostom, on the occasion of the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, praise in their sermons the Most Holy Mother of God. In two places in his writings, Athanasius the Great refers to the necessity of keeping a "memory" or "commemoration" of Mary (Letter to Epictetus 4 and Letter to Maximus the Philosopher 3). For these reasons Jaroslav Pelikan,(1) in line with the much earlier works of of Martin Jugie(2) and Hilda Graef(3) - who both underscored the pre-Ephesine existence of a Marian "feast" on either the Sunday before or after Christmas in the East - has suggested "that evidence and his language seem to make it plausible that such a commemoration of Mary was being kept already during his time and that his argument was based upon it." Perhaps at one time, the feast of the Synaxis and the commemoration of St. Stephen the Protomartyr were also celebrated on the same day, for it was not until the seventh century that the commemoration of St. Stephen was transferred to the third day following the feast of the Nativity.

In the year 430 St. Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople, delivered a sermon in the Great Church of Constantinople, where he makes reference to "the Virgin's festival" being celebrated that day. Current scholarship argues that this festival of the Virgin and the date of the delivery of this sermon was the day after Christmas, on December 26th, one year before the Third Ecumenical Synod in Ephesus.

There is an allusion made to the celebration of the Synaxis of the Theotokos on the day after the Nativity of our Lord in the 79th canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod, which met at Constantinople in 681. During that time, in cer­tain localities, a custom was introduced where on the second day after Christmas the faithful exchanged baked goods as though in honor of the travail that the Theotokos underwent in giving birth to Jesus Christ. The Synod condemned and forbade this practice. "The divine birth by the Virgin," says the Synod, "which was without seed, we pro­fess to have been painless, and this we preach to all the faithful. Hence, we wish to correct those who through ig­norance are doing something improper. For there are some who, the day after the feast of the Nativity of Christ our God, prepare baked goods and exchange them among themselves and present them as gifts to one another in honor of the labor during the childbirth of the All-Pure Virgin Mary. We decree that the faithful not do anything similar. This does not bring honor to the Virgin when they designate and represent her marvelous childbirth as an ordinary birth such as the kind we know; because in fact, she gave birth to the uncontainable Word in a manner that is beyond all understanding and expression. If, therefore, from this moment on anyone should do this, let the cleric be deprived of his dignity, and the lay person be excommunicated."

Even in Eastern Ukraine a similar custom prevailed. In the villages, on the day of the Synaxis, the women brought to church "pyhrohy" (potato dumplings), thinking that in this manner they would honor the Theotokos, as was generally the custom when someone gave birth to a child. The Kievan Metropolitan Michael Rahoza prohibited such a practice in 1590. S. V. Bulgakov, in his Handbook for Church Servers (1900), further writes: "To the south of Rus on this day village women, though it was forbidden by the Metropolitan of Kiev Michael in 1590, carried pies into church, thinking to honor the Theotokos by it, as this in general is accepted practice in relation to women giving birth."

The Nativity of Our Lord and The Dignity of the Divine Motherhood

The Incarnation of our Lord bestowed upon the Theotokos the dignity of dignities — that of being the Mother of God. By giving birth to Jesus Christ, she became the real Mother of God without ceasing to be a Virgin. This dignity is the source of all privileges and graces bestowed upon her.

St. Ephraim the Syrian, the great eulogist and venerator of the Theotokos, in his Nativity hymns, very beautifully sings the praises of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Virginity, and Divine Motherhood of Mary: "No one knows," he says, "what to call your Mother O Lord! She is called a Virgin, though she has a child; she is called a Bride, though she knew no man! If one cannot comprehend Your mother, how then can they understand You!" (Hymn, XI, 1) "Your Mother, She is a wonder! The Lord, entering her becomes a servant. The Almighty through a word enters her, and becomes mute. The Ruler of thunder entered and His voice became silent. The Supreme Shepherd enters and in her becomes a lamb which saw the light of day amid crying." (Hymn XI, 6)

St. John Chrysostom in a sermon on "The Holy Virgin and Mother of God, Mary," meditating on her being chosen the Mother of God, said: "Nothing can be found among men like the Mother of God, Mary. Consider, O man, all creatures and see — is there anything equal or greater than the holy God-bearer Mary? Go around the earth, plumb the sea, scour thoroughly the air, examine in spirit heaven, consider all the visible and invisible forces and tell me — is there a wonder similar among all the creatures?... She alone miraculously conceived in her womb Him Whom all creatures praise in fear and trembling. Blessed are women, for they no longer labor under the curse. She gave birth to a child through whom she surpasses all the angels in glory... Therefore, let us say to her: 'Blessed are you among women! You alone removed the grief of Eve; you alone wiped away her tears; you alone brought redemption to mankind; to you alone was the most precious Pearl entrusted; you alone were conceived without concupiscence and gave birth without travail, you alone gave birth to Emmanuel according to His pleasure.'"

Our Church on the day of the Synaxis of the Theotokos calls upon the faithful to praise the Mother of God: "Come, let us extol the Mother of the Savior," we sing at the Stichera of the Praises in Matins, "who, even after giv­ing birth, remained a Virgin. Rejoice, O living garden of the King and God, in which Christ dwelt, and accomplished our salvation. With Gabriel let us offer praise and with the shepherds let us give glory, saying: 'O Mother of God, pray to Him who became incarnate of you for our salvation.'"

The feast of the Synaxis does not have much of its own service. Its service is the service of the Nativity of our Lord. The Menology of Emperor Basil mentions on this day the flight of the Most Holy Theotokos with the Child Jesus into Egypt. The Gospel of this day also speaks of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

The Orthodox Church does not commemorate St. Joseph in the Synaxis, but honors him on the Sunday after Christmas together with the holy ancestors, King David and the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord.

1. Mary, 61.
2. "La premeiere fete mariale en Orient et en Occident, l' Avent primitif." Echoes d' Orient 26, 130 (1923) 129-52.
3. Mary, 133.