April 4, 2013

What Are "Offerings" and "Vows"? (On Tamata)

By Fr. Athanasios Giousmas

Believers often place images of eyes or other body parts on icons of the Theotokos or the Saints, wanting in this way to express to them their gratitude, or in other cases to "coax" or "compel" them to obey their request.

"Votive Offerings" (τάματα or tamata; tama) are an ancient custom of believers throughout the world and throughout time even until today. Christians perform this action in the same way a person would offer a gift to someone who did for them some significant work. It is an ancient custom. It was a custom for the ancient Greeks to offer tributes to their gods, which either had low value, such as an animal, or valuable objects, such as gold or ivory. From those times they would lay their offering, which could be an effigy of the sufferers body part, and lay them before the sacred statue, which is something we also find today.

In the Battle of Marathon, Athenians made a "promise" or "vowed" (τάξει or taxei) to the goddess Artemis that they would sacrifice as many goats as enemies they slaughtered. Because they killed so many of the enemy they were unable to fulfill their obligation, so they changed their vow to 500 animals every year. The phenomenon of sacrificing a tribute to a god is found also in Roman times. Votive offerings, both material and spiritual, are mentioned also in the Old Testament. When Jacob fled Mesopotamia, he vowed to God to establish a sacred place of prayer. Hannah also promised to dedicate her child, if she could obtain one, to the service of God.

All that is usually vowed (τάζουν or tazoun) by the faithful and dedicated to something sacred in a church is called a "dedication" (αναθήματα or anathemata). The word comes from the verb ανατίθημι, which means to entrust or dedicate an offering (αναθέτω). Usually votive offerings are offers or counteroffers. That is, a believer supplicates a Saint to fulfill a wish, promising in return to offer them an object. Vows can be something simple, such as giving the child the name of a Saint, or to fast for a certain period of time, or to wear all black for the first fifteen days of August in honor of the Dormition of the Theotokos, etc.

Unfortunately, vows in their deepest sense are seen by the uncatechized faithful as an agreement or transaction between them and a holy person.

Christianity, as a "religion" par excellence of the spirit and of freedom does not insist on dedications, particularly material ones. That which is accepted are spiritual dedications or votive offerings. What do I mean by this? We must realize as believers that we cannot achieve redemption or salvation by placing a dedication or votive offering to a Saint when we do not live according to the principles of Christianity. In this case the votive offering would be literally useless. They have also contributed to the enrichment of some cunning sinner or have served to help the Church financially during struggles, such as in 1821 or in 1940 when votive offerings by the faithful were used to the service of the Greek nation.

The best dedication for our Orthodoxy is our own dedication to Christ, that is, to live to the best of our ability and strength, as Christ has called us, and not be rebellious, intimidated or enslaved by our weaknesses. This is the greatest "offering" that we could offer to our God, our Panagia, and our Saints, if we want to gain our spiritual redemption and salvation.

Source: Εφημερίδα Εμπρός, 6 Σεπτεμβρίου 2006. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

By Metropolitan Germanos Paraskevopoulos of Ileias

It is very common in the lives of Christians to make vows, that is, to make an offering to God or the Theotokos or to some Saint, as an expression of reverence or thanksgiving. A vow is a pious and beneficial religious event that can be found among the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. In the Bible we find mention of many offerings (Gen. 28:20-22; Deut. 23:22-24; Judges 11:30-40; Ecclesiastes 5:4; Acts 18:18 and 21:18-24), and this practice was maintained in Christianity.

Yet in this issue also there are many misconceptions by Christians and fallacies prevail, which remove us from the true meaning of the votive offering, and instead of being beneficial they bring harm to whoever uses them. I will mention a few of these.

1. Some think that God or the Saints will do something for us only if we vow something to them. So in difficult circumstances you will hear someone say to someone who is suffering or in danger: "Make a vow, make a vow, to the Panagia or Saint..." This is wrong. The Saints don't need our material goods, nor do they seek our vows for them to hear our prayers. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matt. 7:7-8). It is enough to have fervent faith, a clean heart, and a Christian life to request something for our spiritual interest.

2. Others think that their votive offerings will make the Saints their helpers, even in committing evil. It was written in the newspapers that the famous bandit Vernardos, before embarking on robbing a bank, traveled to Aegina and made a vow to St. Nektarios to ensure his success! Another robber in 1977 hid his stolen money in a chapel dedicated to St. John and vowed to the Saint that he would help renovate his chapel if he prevented the robbers arrest. Another supplicated St. Nicholas to help him win a card game on New Years and in return would offer him "pure gold". Another Christian woman vowed to St. Nicholas with a tall candle, if he helped in return to prevent the safe return of a certain sailor and cause his demise, who had dishonored her daughter and she didn't want them to marry. These votive offerings are contrary to our Christian faith.

3. Many votive offerings are also made in the following way: "My Saint Paraskevi, make me well and I will offer you a golden oil lamp." Or "My God, help me in my exams and I will bring you a ...." Such votive offerings are ways to make a bargain with God, as if He can be bargained with. We basically say to Him "Give me and I will give You in return". In this way we abase God and our humanity. At the same time it reveals our lack of faith.

4. Many votive offerings also bring to people difficulties and psychological trauma, because they are made without consideration and a lack of spirituality. In this way a Christian will vow to help ten villages towards a sacred purpose if she begins a fundraiser. When her vow is in process, however, the police stop her, because fundraisers are illegal without a license. Another vows a large amount of money, which she then struggles to acquire. A young man vows to enter a monastery, but before leaving he falls in love with a woman and desires to marry her. Another vows to the patron of Zakynthos that her child would be born healthy and in return she would name him Dionysios. When the time comes however, there are arguments in the house because the father-in-law insists the child be named after him, which is John.

For these reasons our votive offerings and dedications and vows require much care. Our offerings must be primarily spiritual. Offerings that will help us in the purification of our souls and in the sanctification of our lives. Because "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must do so in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). St. John Chrysostom says characteristically: "For the Church is not a gold foundry nor a workshop for silver, but an assembly of angels. Wherefore it is souls which we require, since in fact God accepts these golden vessels for the souls' sake.... God has no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls" (Homily 50 on Matthew).

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos