Unfading Bloom

 

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Flowers sheltered like cenobitic monks in a crevice at the summit of Mt. Athos.

“How can I plead empty-handed?”

St. Paisos would always cut a few wild flowers outside his hut and take them to the Theotokos icon, whenever he wanted to pray to Her.

Indeed, he urged everybody to always make an offering to Panagia, even a little one, anything within our power

 

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At the hut of St. Paisios

 

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Censers of Flesh and Bones

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I behold a strange, most glorious mystery: heaven- the cave, the cherubic throne-the Virgin, the manger-the place where Christ lay. The uncontained God whom we magnify in song”.

In a manger of love our Jesus was born, and in a cave he chose to visit our humanity.

By his descending, the Lord experienced all our weaknesses except for the sin. He did not chose the scepters or the sofas of the rich in order to preach the salvation, but the womb of a Virgin. He put us on so that we could put Him on. He dwelt in a cave so we may become citizens of Heavens. Jesus came looking for the humanity that was wounded with Adam and strayed with Eve. His incarnation reminds us of dispensation. It is the stamp of the divine love that looks for censed souls, like Mary’s, that spread  Creator’s scent worldwide. This is the case of Virgin Mary, the censor that spread the light of God for the mankind.

Let us put ourselves, just once, and see how this girl fulfilled the will of God, and how She became an example for us in all our troubles, even 2000 years after the coming of our Lord.

Mary was not one of those earthly “mighties”. But She was a mighty in Her prayer. She was not of a high class, but a girl of a humble love Who obeyed God’s order. She did not complain thinking about Her reputation, and She was not ashamed of getting pregnant of the Holy Spirit. Mary, the Galilaean, did not complain of the distress that happened in those days, which  looks like the distress that takes place nowadays. On the Contrary, She was armored with God. She was not ashamed of Her Son’s Cross, but She accompanied Him to the Golgotha, and She cried, just like us, over the tyranny of the falsehood.

Mary is one of many, who see the nails of falsehood being beaten in truth’s body just like those nails which were beaten in Jesus’s hands. But Mary did not deny Her God the way how some of us do today seeing how darkness overwhelming the light. She did not ask: where is God? Cannot He watch the sorrow of my heart? But, She said: God is the strength of my heart. Surely, Mary is a human, just like us. And surely, we may cry just like Her. But the strength and the uniqueness of this Virgin is the fact that She did not let the sorrow to overcome the hope. She was not afraid of putting her hope in God. And we are called upon to behave the same way in these difficult days in which we pass as humans, community, country and the whole East.

We are called upon nowadays to be united, and to follow the example of Virgin Mary and all the disciples. Their unity was mixed with an undoubted hope in God Who had victory over death. They buried fear because of their unity and love. And we are called upon, as much as possible, to bury our afflictions by keeping the unity of souls and hearts regardless of the geographical distances. Antioch is those hearts that are tied to Jesus. Before these bounds egoism, races, cracks and disputed melt out in order to make Jesus shine on the front.

We, as the Christians of the East, are called upon to contemplate in Jesus Who did not incarnate in days better than ours. Because of His love we put on His name first in Antioch, and with the power of His Cross our ancestors lived on this land. We are on it and we come from it. We were born from its womb and we will be buried in it. We are staying here, and we will carry our cross following the example of our Lord. And to those who abduct our people and bishops we say: We are a part of this East. In it we live together with our brothers from all religions. We won’t spare an effort to remain in this land defending our history and existence.

We pray today for the peace in Syria, and for stability in Lebanon. We pray for the suffering East, for the bleeding Palestine. We pray for the homeless, for the displaced, for the lost, for the abducted and for the martyr. We pray to Virgin Mary to send peace to the souls, because it is the seed of peace on earth. We pray to protect all Her abducted children, amongst them the two bishops of Aleppo Youhanna Ibraheem and Boulos Yazigi. We pray to Her to be with our people everywhere bestowing humanity the mercy of the Child of peace and the father of mercies.

Oh Jesus, Who descended to us as a Child. Come and fill us with the abundance of your mercy, keep our children and parents. Come and stay in the cave of our souls and trim our thoughts with Your holy light. Oh Jesus, whose presence filled us with peace, bless our life. Calm with the power of Your silence every disorder, fear and turbulence. Teach us to chant together: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.

 
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Appropriately, the most soul moving Christmas messages this year have been issued from the parts of our planet where Christians are most prosecuted!

 

 

A Kairos Life in a Chronos World

Christ’s Nativity in Eastern Byzantine Iconography and  Western Sacred Paintings

Living a Kairos Life in a Chronos World: The Three Main Differences 

The traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity is one that many of us have venerated since our early childhood in the Orthodox Church. Yet for many of us, born and raised in the Western world, this icon may at times seem strange and different from the depiction of the Nativity as seen in the secular press, books, television, websites and other forms of media communication. Hopefully this short article will contribute to a greater appreciation of the Orthodox teaching of the meaning and significance of the feast of the Nativity as witnessed by the icon of the holy day.

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The first major difference between the Orthodox icon and the Western art depiction of the Nativity is that the main event, the birth in the flesh of Our Lord, is not depicted in the setting of a stable but in a cave immersed in a mountain. The “cave of Bethlehem”, is mentioned as early as the second century in the writings of St. Justin and by the fourth century, the site had become the place of a beautiful basilica in Bethlehem which was and is still today an important pilgrimage site for Christians. The cave itself in the icon is always depicted in dark colours or in black to indicate that the world that had plunged into the darkness of sin, through man’s fall, would soon be illuminated by the Nativity of Christ – “the light of the world” .

Adoration of the Shepherds by Charles Lebrun, 1689

The new-born infant Christ is found always in the centre of the icon and cave, and as such is the true enlightener of mankind, through Whom a new era begins in the history of mankind. This same cave, also foreshadows the cave of “life giving tomb” that is found in the icon of the Resurrection. Christ thus begins and ends His earthly mission in a cave.

The cave in the icon of the Nativity is situated in a mountain, symbolic of the wilderness, which gives a place of refuge to the Son of Justice and Truth in fulfilment of the Old Testament pre-figuration. The Prophet Habakkuk states in a prayer: “God comes from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Covered are the heavens with His glory, and with His praise the earth is filled” (Hab. 3:3).

Christ, the fulfilment of this and other prophesies found in the Old Testament, is represented with His Virgin Mother – the Theotokos on a mountain, which emphasises their mutual unity. True manhood and the human nature in Christ is received from His Mother, the Ever-Virgin, and thus she figures prominently in the central scene of the icon.

The Mother of God is depicted always in a reclining position on a childbed with a tranquil and peaceful expression on Her face, and showing an absence of the usual suffering of child bearing. She is usually turned away from Christ, looking at the outside world, contemplating whether mankind will accept or reject the great mystery in which she plays such an important role. She as such has completed her unique role in God’s mysterious plan as the Birth-giver of God.

The Eve of the Old Testament was the mother of all living beings; in the New Eve, the Theotokos, we now have the Mother of all those that are redeemed. Thus she is the best example of the thanksgiving offering that mankind could make to the Creator, and serves us as an example of perfect obedience to the will of the Father.

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Christ is depicted in a manger or fodder bin, wrapped up in swaddling clothes. The manger symbolizes the altar upon which the supreme gift is brought to mankind, the infant Christ who is to redeem mankind. The swaddling clothes in which He is wrapped points to the winding sheet of another cave, the sepulchre, as depicted in the icon of the Descent of Christ from the Cross and His subsequent burial in the tomb.

The Gospels do not mention any attendants at the birth of Christ; however, the icon of the Nativity shows an ox and an ass either on the right or left side of Christ. These domestic animals are symbolic of faithfulness and devotion, as well as innocence in their relation to the Master. These animals are not important for their physical bulk, but their importance lies in the acceptance of their new Master. Thus it is not only the human world that accepts Christ but also the animal world that participates in the feast of re-creation.

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The second major difference between the Orthodox icon of the Nativity and Western art is the role and place of Joseph in the events. Western art always places Joseph in the centre of the event, close to Mary, a scene that as such depicts the “holy family”. The Orthodox icon of the Nativity does indeed include the figure of Joseph (lower right or left hand corner); however, he is far removed from the centre of the main event and finds himself in fact off the mountain or at the bottom of it. Joseph is depicted as an elderly man, sitting in a contemplative or meditating position, turned away from the main event of the icon. In our Orthodox tradition, Joseph is considered the guardian of Christ and His Mother, thus he is pictured as an aged man compared to the youthfulness of the Mother of God. In his pensive stature, Joseph seems confronted or plagued by doubts about the puzzling mystery of God’s incarnation from a Virgin. The pose of Joseph indicates that the true fatherhood of Christ is through the Virgin and the paternity of the Holy Spirit. This thus corresponds to the Nicene Creed’s verse: “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man”.

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Often Orthodox icons show Joseph confronted by an elderly shepherd or satan like figure, always depicted in dark colours. This figure is the tempter, tempting Joseph into not accepting the miraculous birth of the Saviour from the Virgin (as recorded in the Protoevangelium). This same objection has been raised throughout the history of the Church during the last two thousand years, in different forms and ways, by those who do not accept this miracle. These arguments, which ultimately did not cause Joseph to stumble, have constantly returned to trouble the Church, and are the basis of many heresies regarding Who Christ was and is. In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God. Thus Joseph is not the “father” of Christ while his struggle with the meaning of the virgin birth is symbolic of the struggle of all of mankind in accepting the “miracle of miracles”.

Between the two bottom scenes, the icon depicts a tree that runs up and points to Jesus Christ. This is the tree of the prophecy of Jesse, who was the father of King David in the Old Testament. This clearly marks the noble ancestry of Jesus who was born of “the tree of Jesse”.

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The third difference between the Orthodox icon of the Nativity and Western art is that the icon depicts as a composite image six difference scenes of the Nativity narrative surrounding the Infant Christ-child and His Mother. Western art usually depicts these scenes separately or in smaller groupings of two or three. Here are the six scenes:

  • At the top of the icon, on both sides of the mountain, are found two groupings of angels who often are looking downwards, sometimes to the side or upwards. They serve a two-fold role. First, they are the messengers of the spiritual world bringing glad tidings to mankind and secondly, they are the true adorers of Christ’s birth, the “marvel of marvels”. The angelic hosts as such unite heaven and earth and together glorify the “new born King”. The angel of the Lord, found on the top extreme right-hand side of the icon, is depicted looking down upon an amazed shepherd, announcing to him the good news of great joy.
  • A single shepherd or sometimes several are found on the right-hand middle side of the icon. These are the first of the Israelite people – the Jewish people, to accept and worship the Lord. These shepherds are simple, unsophisticated and ordinary citizens who hear the divine message in the course of their labours and fully accept the Virgin birth. In fact the shepherds are akin to the simple fishermen that Christ will call in the Gospels “to follow Him”.
  • On the opposite side, the left-hand side of the icon are found three figures of the Magi or wise men. They are depicted following the star, shining above the cave, and bringing their royal gifts to a Babe in a poor cave. The wise men represent the humanity that has not been exposed to the Old Testament – often referred to as the Gentiles. Yet they have a mission to find the “King of Kings” and have travelled far for this event. Their search reaches an end, “following the star of Bethlehem”, and they accept of the Son of Righteousness without hesitation. The three wise men are usually depicted in three different age brackets. The one of the extreme left is very young, the middle one is middle-aged and the one on the right is an elderly person. Thus all ages of humanity are called to accept Christ. The wise men were the first fruits of the Gentile world to venerate and worship Christ. In so doing they show that the ultimate sense of human knowledge is in the contemplation and worship of a Living God, “born unto us as a young Child”.
  • Below, on the left-hand side, is the scene of Joseph and the tempter (already discussed earlier).
  • On the lower right-hand side is depicted an important bathing scene. The origin of this scene is not Scriptural or apocryphal. The first mention of the bathing of Christ was made in the travelogue of a late seventh century pilgrim to Palestine, a certain bishop Arnulf. He relates that close to the Nativity cave in Bethlehem, he was shown a stone water basin which was believed to be the one in which the Divine Child had been washed after birth. Early art depictions of the bathing scene are found from as early as the fifth century. This bathing scene illustrates that Christ was truly a human being and had the fullness of human nature while at the same time he also had a divine nature and was the second person of the Trinity. Every young child has to be bathed, washed and cleaned, upon entrance into this world and Jesus was no different. This scene also serves as an argument against those heretics that did not want to acknowledge Christ’s full humanity and placed only emphasis on his divinity (At the IV Ecumenical Council this heresy, know as Monophysitism, was defeated). Thus the two bottom scenes complement each other, showing both the theological teaching of Christ’s full divinity (the pondering of Joseph of the miracle birth-incarnation of God, the second person of the Trinity – Jesus Christ) and His full humanity (the important bathing scene). Christ as such is truly GODMAN – in Ukrainian Bohocholovik, a term coined at the IV Ecumenical Council in 451.
  • The scene at the top center of the icon depicts the three divine rays of the triune God. In so showing this, the icon depicts that the Trinity – Father, the pre-eternal Son and Holy Spirit are at the heart of the event. The Incarnation is not only about the birth of the Son, but also involves the other two members of the Trinity because all three are of one and the same essence (the Greek word for this is “Homoousios”). In another way the rays are referred to also as the divine star of Bethlehem that shone and provided the direction for all the players of the Incarnation event. The divine light thus provides a canopy for the infant birth of the Saviour and lightens the universe for the proper understanding of the truth – that God became man so that man can become potentially God-like.

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The icon of the Nativity thereby harmonizes six separate scenes of the festal narrative. Their depiction produces a balanced and well organized theology of the Nativity feast. This icon, except for the bottom part, is truly a pictorial illustration of the KONTAKION (liturgical hymn) of the feast written by St. Romanos the Melodist which proclaims:

“Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above

all being and the earth offers a cave to Him whom

no man can approach. Angels with shepherds give

glory and Magi journey with a star. For unto us

is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

In conclusion, the icon of the Nativity, with its richness and theological content, relates the various scenes of the Incarnation narrative, overcoming both time and space limitations. Just as in the Orthodox liturgy we overcome linear time and space, so also the Nativity icon, as an integral part of the festal cycle, overcomes these limitations. In turn, the various scenes in the icon form an integrated and holistic unity to be contemplated and venerated in the ever present.

Jesus Christ as the Lord of Creation, entered the life of His creation and the life of human history as a newborn babe. He submits himself to the physical conditions and laws that govern the human race yet in his humbleness he continues to be the Saviour and the second person of the Trinity. (1)

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The very fact that in a single icon different scenes of the Nativity narrative coexist, although their historic, real time differs, such as Christ in the manger and at the same time in the stone water basin, or the Magi following the star, shining above the cave, and simultaneously offering their royal gifts to a Babe in a poor cave highlights the fact that time and space limitations are transcended when the Saviour and Lord of Creation enters the life of His creation and the life of human history, kairos in other words supplants chronos. (2)  And this is the real, mystical meaning of the kontakion “Today the Virgin gives birth to Him …” because the faithful may indeed literally participate in the Mystery of Incarnation in the liturgical “Now” and that very moment, in Church, Christ may be born in their hearts. (3)

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(*) Kairos Vs. Chronos: … When Jesus came, it was a fulfillment of promises past, a cosmic collision of the sacred and secular. It was an intersection of the holy will of God and the stubborn ways of man. It was a perfect moment.  John the Baptist said in Mark 1:15 that “time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” This godly kairos pierced its way into creation at just the right time, slicing through chronos with a cry of a baby in a manger. The cross was another kairos moment. Romans 5:6 says, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” Kairos moments then—and now—allow us to get a glimpse of the “other side.” We peek around the corner at eternity. We actually glimpse how God works. (3)

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(1)  http://www.uocc.ca/en-ca/about/education/nativity-icon.asp The Orthodox Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord And Saviour Jesus Christ, Dr. Roman Yereniuk, Associate Professor, St. Andrew’s College in Winnipeg.

(2) From “Living a Kairos Life in a Chronos World” http://www.thehighcalling.org/articles/essay/living-kairos-life-chronos-world

(3) Sophia Drekou’s insights and selection of icons and paintings at http://sophia-siglitiki.blogspot.gr/2013/12/blog-post_1453.html proved very stimulating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between Son and Mother

A virtual, photographic pilgrimage to shrines in Greece and Cyprus dedicated to the Feast of the Mother of God Presentation or Entry, Entrance, Eisodos in the Temple (November 21)

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Iconography of the Entrance of the Theotokos at Hilandari Monastery–MOUNT ATHOS

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The Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa in AmorgosENTRY96entry7

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Panagia Malteza of Santorini

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Panagia Odigitria of Kimolos

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The 11th Century Church of Panagia Kapnikarea in Athens

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The Monastery of Panagia of Machairas in Cyprus

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No one stands between Son and Mother

Give us salvation


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“Today, the most pure temple of the Savior, the precious bridal chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasure of God, enters the house of the Lord, bringing the grace of the Divine Spirit. The Angels of God praise her. She is the heavenly tabernacle.”

 

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Numb, Joyless, Desolate

 

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Mother of God,

Here I stand now praying

Before this ikon of your radiant brightness,

Not praying to be saved from a battlefield;

Not giving thanks nor seeking forgiveness for the sins of my soul,

Nor for all the souls.

Numb, joyless and desolate on earth;

But for her alone, whom I wholly give you.

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Hymn on the morning of our Lady’s Nativity

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqsMBX9Kxm4