Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Excerpts from Photios Kontoglou on Christmas

The Nativity of Christ (source)
Excerpt from Photios Kontoglou on Christmas, from his book "Aivali, my Fatherland"
The spiritual joy and heavenly exaltation which the Christian senses at Christmas cannot be sensed with any other approach, such as he who celebrates it as only a moving occurrence, which is associated with other common joys of the world, with winter, with snow, with a warm cup of tea.

Only the Orthodox Christian celebrates Christmas spiritually, and from his soul he passes the season with sanctified feelings, and we are warmed with a paradoxical warmth which comes from another world, the warmth of the Holy Spirit, according to the Hymn of Ascent which says: "By the Holy Spirit, every soul is given life, and cleansed and exalted and made shining by the Three-fold Monad, in a hidden manner."

Soul and body celebrate together, exalting with divine joy which cannot be sensed by one who is separated far away from Christ. While in the heart of the Christian, these holy days are full of the fragrance of hymnody, full of a most-sweet spiritual radiance, which covers all creation, the mountains, the sea, every rock, every tree, ever stone, every creation. Everything is sanctified, everyone celebrates, everyone chants, everyone rejoices, all creation is "as an olive tree filled with fruit in the house of God". No one can sense such joy in his heart except only he who...loves God and who lives these days of his life together with God, because no one else other than God can give such joy, such peace, according to the word which the Lord said at the Mystical Supper: "My peace I give to you, I do not give you peace like the world gives."

The joy of Christ and peace is transformational by the joy and from the peace of this world. Because of this, the man who rejoices when he goes to church in order to...drink from that immortal spring of joy and peace, says together with the Prophet David: "Send forth, O Lord, Your light and Your truth, they will lead me and take me to Your holy mountain, and to Your dwelling places, and I will go towards the altar of God, to God Who makes glad my youth."

Let us also therefore celebrate, my brethren, the Nativity of Christ "in spirit and truth, in psalms and hymns and spiritual odes", and then everything else will be "added unto us", we will be seen with joy in our home, in our family, in nature, in our social interactions, in pure conversations, because everything will be sweetened by the love of Christ, and will be warmed by the warmth of Him Who is the giver of life.

My brethren, the Nativity of Christ is a great lesson for us on humility. Where was he born? In a manger, more properly in a crib, that we might more deeply sense the unspeakable condescension of God, because the ancient words are made to our eyes to appear rich, and poor things. His mother, the Most-holy Theotokos, far from her house, a stranger in a strange land, went and gave birth in a pen. The ox and the ass warmed Him with their breath. Shepherds were His friends. Together with the newborn lambs was numbered the Lamb of God, Who came to this world to save man from the curse of Adam. What man could be born with a greater humility?

St. Isaac the Syrian writes, in his Word on Humility, the following remarkable words: "I want to open my mouth, my brethren, and speak about the most exalted notion of humility, and I am full of fear, like that man who knows how he will speak of God. Because humility is the cloak of the godhead. Because the Word of God Who became man, became clothed in her, and came in contact with her, taking on a body like ours. And whoever is clothed in her truly becomes like Him, Who descended from the heights, and Who covered with His virtue His grandeur and His glory with humility. And He became like this that creation might not be consumed by beholding Him. Because creation could not gaze upon Him, if He were not to take a part of it and spoke through it. He covered His greatness with flesh, and with this came to dwell with us, with the body which He took from the Virgin and Theotokos Maria. Therefore, as we see how He is of our race and how He speaks like a man, let us not be afraid of His throne. Because of this, whoever puts on the robe that the Creator wore (in other words, humility), He clothes himself in Christ".

The manger is the humble heart, and only within her can Christ come to be born.

Our Church radiantly shines within the darkness of winter, celebrating the Nativity of the Lord. From within her is heard a hymn that surpasses this world, like that which was chanted by the angels the night when the Lord was born, "a sound of pure celebration".
Children singing Christmas carols (source)
Note: And the following is is a beautiful short story that paints the picture of a cold cave in the wintertime in Asia Minor, nonetheless warmed and permeated with love for Christ and the humble celebration of the Incarnation by simple shepherds, sailors and monks.
A short Christmas story from Aivali, Asia Minor, by Photios Kontoglou, a rendering by Costas and Helen Dedegikas
Christmas Eve, Christmas and snow come together. But this year the weather was extraordinary. Snow did not fall. The atmosphere was angry, blowing a harsh northern wind with freezing rain accompanied by lightning. Within a week the weather became mild and the sea was so calm that you could travel; but by Christmas Eve the weather turned. From the morning the sky was black like lead and wet snow started to fall. In a place named Skrofas by the side of the mountain, which overlooked the sea there was a corral with sheep. This spot was wild and barren with lots of beautiful evergreen bushes and red berries. The corral was enclosed by a primitive dry stonewall.

The shepherds were sitting in a cave set further up the side of the mountain. The cave was large and separated in three or four partitions with a height of three men. The animals were resting under low harnesses so that one had to bend low to enter the cave. Piles of manure were scattered here and there giving off a strong sulphuric odor. However, the earthen floor was swept clean because the shepherds were good-spirited and they had the children sweep the cave often with brooms made of bushes.

The master shepherd was Yianni Barbakos, a half wild man who was born amongst the flocks of goats and sheep. He was dark and hairy with a beard as black as a crow and as curly as a rams fleece. He was wearing breeches to the knee, a leather belt around his waste, a wide sash and heavy boots on his feet. His head was wrapped in a wide bandana like a turban, with lots of fringes - an ancient man! He had two “paragious” (young men who were a combination of apprentices and adopted sons) with him, Alexi and Odysseas, who were no more than 20 years of age. He also had three other boys who cleaned and tended the animals.

These six souls were living in that wild place all alone –hidden from God, seldom seeing another person. The cave was covered in soot and the rock above it was blackened from the smoke that emanated from the mouth of the cave. Their beds were made from animal skins. The walls of the cave were lined with poles that shelved their food, knives and guns. It almost seemed like it was a den of thieves.

Guarding the cave were their dogs, as wild as wolves. The seashore was a cigarette’s distance (the time is takes to smoke a cigarette) from the cave. The sea was calm and day and night you couldn’t hear anything other than the crashing of the waves. Sometimes depending on the weather a ship would pass by, but other than that you wouldn’t see a thing. From the corral you could barely see the mountains of Mytilini between the trees.

On Christmas Eve, as we stated before, the weather had turned for the worse and wet snow was falling. The shepherds started a large fire and gathered around chatting. The boys butchered two lambs and were skinning them for the meal. Alexis had fetched unsalted cheese from storage and some yogurt as well. Odysseas had pulled out an old Church book and because he could read a little as well as the fact that he had limited knowledge of hymns, he read from the Christmas Eve vespers.

At about the time for vespers they heard a rifle shot in the woods. They assumed it was some hunters. All the dogs started barking loudly and leaped out of the corral. Earlier one of the boys, while bringing firewood on his donkey, had heard gunshots in the morning coming from the water towards Hagia Paraskevi.

Within a short time, two men with rifles appeared above the cave shouting at the shepherds to round up their dogs that were surrounding them. Skouris, one of the guard dogs, turned his attention from the hunters to one of their hounds and attacked it. One hunter shot at the dog, hurting it with buckshot forcing it along with the other dogs to retreat. Barbakos, the master shepherd, then appeared with the other shepherds and tied down Skouris and chased away the other dogs.

“Good Afternoon” shouted Panagis Kardamitsas wrapped up in his cartridges and carrying a bag of game (birds he hunted).

The other hunter with him was his son Dimitrios.

“Welcome. Welcome.” Exclaimed Barbakos and his party.

They then led the hunters into the cave.

“My God, what is this place? A Palace! A palace with princes.” Exclaimed Panagis, pointing at the cheeses that had been prepared for dinner.

They asked the hunters to sit down and prepared coffee. The hunters, in turn, offered the shepherds brandy.

“My brother”, exclaimed Panagis, “who would think that we would celebrate Christmas in the cave where Christ was born! Just yesterday we passed Hagia Paraskevi to hunt a little. We figuredwe could sleep at the monastery, but due to the bad weather we couldn’t get there with old man Manolis’ boat. So here we are at your palace. What a dog you have! What a beast! Look what he did to my hound”!

Then he turned to the corner of the cave where his dog was lying, still shivering from fear.

“Come here Flox! Flox! Flox!”

Flox however was still afraid and receded further back.

After a little too much drink, Panagis started to sing in a mellow tone. Later Odysseas started to sing the hymn “Christ is born, rejoice”. At that point they started to hear the dogs begin to howl again. They sent the young boys to see what was happening. Outside it was unbearably cold with frozen rain.

The dogs stopped barking as the boys had reentered the cave with more company. They were three men who looked like sailors accompanied by a couple of monks. They were drenched and shivered with the cold. The shepherds welcomed the men and asked them to sit.

As soon the first guest, the captain, approached the light of the fire, Barbakos recognized him and joyfully greeted him. It was Captain Konstantis Biliktsis who was making his way to Constantinople. He had visited the cave in Scrofa before and they had become good friends. The other two were part of the ship’s crew.

One of the monks, a handsome man with a black beard, was Father Sylvestros Koukoutsos. The monk was very thin with little hair on his beard like Saint John the Kalivitsi. His name was Arsenio Sgouri.

Captain Konstantis had come from Constatinople and brought along Father Sylvestros, who was visiting the city. He was from Mount Athos and he had wished to return home to celebrate Christmas.
Father Arsenios, a Thessalian, was traveling with Father Sylvestros from the Monastery of Pantokratorous to Mount Athos.

They were traveling just fine until they had reached the Cape of Baba when the weather took a turn for the worse. The sky went black and the seas became violent making the journey back to their homeland to celebrate Christmas impossible.

So the captain decided to set anchor where it was safe and he then remembered Barbakos’s cave. Thus he, his crew and passengers made their way to the cave.

As they approached they sawPanagis with Dimitro (his son) and joyful commotion ensued.

“Look” said Panagis, “we were just singing the hymn of Jesus’ birth and right when we were talking about the Three Kings bearing gifts, you three wise men arrived with gifts because I see wine, caviar, breads and sweets (baklavades).

“Myrrh, gold and Frankincense”

‘Ha, Ha, Ha”, Panagis was laughing hard, drunk and slurring his words, he was rubbing his stomach as he liked to eat well.

At that time Father Arsenio Sgouris came alive, smiling and rubbing his hands he said “Thank Jesus Christ who saved us from the violent waves!” as he did the sign of the cross.

Father Silvestos then asked everyone to stand up and pray:
“Christ is born”.

Then they sat to eat. Such a table so blessed and lively had never existed in any palace. They sang and chatted. Their table even had bird’s milk, well done lamb, cheese, foods from Constantinople and other wild game, even wine.

Outside snow was blowing, and the trees and sea were moaning in the wind. In the cave, between the whistling and moaning wind you could hear the bells of the animals ringing in the distance. The cave was emanating a red glow from the flames of the fire and echoing with the singing and happy chattering.

Panagis dozed off from time to time and when awaken by his own snoring he again took part in the

Truly the scene of the nativity scene was complete. The cave, the shepherds, the wise men with presents and even Jesus himself with his two students, who blessed the food and wine.
The Nativity of Christ (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Metropolitan Avgoustinos Kantiotes: Are we ready for Christmas?

The Nativity of Christ (source)
Metropolitan Avgoustinos Kantiotes: Are we ready for Christmas?
Beloved in Christ, I would like to ask you a question; I ask it of myself and I ask it of you. Are we prepared to celebrate the great feast of Christmas?
There are two kinds of preparation; material and spiritual. Our material preparation is more or less finished. Housewives have cleaned their houses, husbands have finished – or have almost finished – their shopping, and children await their presents. Everyone has written their Christmas cards, signing them with the customary, ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’. This is worldly preparation; I am not interested in this. What I am interested in is spiritual preparation, the kind of preparation which makes us ready to celebrate the great event of the Incarnation of the Divine Word as is proper. Only a small number have properly prepared themselves. Of a thousand Christians, I doubt if even one celebrates Christmas truly. Does my estimate seem exaggerated? Let us see.
How is Christmas celebrated today? A portion of Christians will celebrate it ‘typically’, let us say. Hearing the bells on Christmas Eve, they will go and take part in the service out of habit. This is certainly better than being absent altogether; it is something at least.
Others will imitate foreign customs and practices, forgetting the ecclesiastical celebration altogether; in other words, they will pass Christmas Eve without the scent of Christ. For Orthodox Christians, Christmas is meaningless if it is celebrated without church services, without prayer, without confession, without Holy Communion, without forgiveness, without almsgiving. Indeed, the devil has sown a new seed in our homeland, and it is sprouting up everywhere like mushrooms grow in manure. On Christmas Eve people put on these reveillon – a foreign custom and a foreign word – they put on parties in luxurious hotels and other such places, far from the Church, far from hymns, far from the Divine Liturgy, where people gather and amuse themselves with worldly music, with food, with drink and whatever follows from these things. Such a practice is a thorn in the field of our homeland. If it continues to spread, the spirit of secularization will overtake the Christian feast altogether.
Some, then, celebrate Christmas ‘typically’, others put on these reveillon and trade in the Church feast for something altogether worldly. And still others, what do they do? They leave. They are not satisfied here. Greece is not enough for them. They have money to spare so they take trips and go on tours. On Christmas Eve when the bells are ringing, these people will be far from their homes in different places, and not only in our country. They aren’t satisfied here, so they hop on an airplane and go celebrate Christmas in Rome, in London, in Paris, in different places.
These, beloved, and anyone else who has openly denied the faith, have cast Christmas out of their hearts. For a large number of people, then, Christmas is nothing but another chance to dull their boredom; the actual content of the feast holds no appeal for them. Yes! That day you will have it all! You will have your great salons, your ornate rugs, your curtains, your fancy cutlery, your drinks, your meals, your music, your trips. You will have everything! You will be missing one thing, however. Your will be missing the most valuable thing; the thing which gives the feast meaning! Lacking this thing, what kind of Christmas can you expect to have? Your Christmas will be a Christmas without Christ!
But why? How did this happen? How did things get to this point? This is the age which the Prophet Isaiah foresaw. There will come a day, he said, when men will be drunk without wine. This day has arrived. Contemporary man is, “…drunk, but not with wine.” (Isaiah 29:9) For one to be drunk with wine during these days in undoubtedly a sin, for, drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:10) There is, however, a worse kind of drunkenness: woe to those who are drunk without wine, says Isaiah.
What, then, is contemporary man drunk on? One is drunk on the love of glory. Another is drunk on the love of money; another is drunk on women and indecent sights; another is drunk on card playing, on games of chance; another on an obsession with sports teams; another on plays and films; another on enjoyments and luxuries. I have particularly noticed that a good many are drunk on politics, something which has become a passion only for us in Greece alone. I say this as one who keeps himself out of party politics. Were you to open my heart you would find nothing but my homeland and my Christ. Here in Greece there is a pathological attachment to politics. Even on Christmas Eve, the feast will be overshadowed by discussions of politics. Nowhere else can one find such a phenomenon.
I have also noticed of late that many have become drunk on that strong wine described in the Apocalypse; that wine which the noetic Babylon will give the rulers and the people to drink. This wine, the commentators say, is the pagan spirit, the moral depravity of the world. This wine is so strong that if you were to drink just a few drops, it will cause you to lose your faith, you will forget everything. The strongest wine, then, is not money, or women, or shameful lusts, or other sensual pleasures; it is the cosmopolitan spirit of modern life, it is the emancipation from devotion, knowledge infused with pride, the science of the atheist, the atheistic rebellion, the denial of God and the divinization of man. It is this wine which has made many in our age drunk.
Men are drunk, then, on various wines offered to him by the ruler of this age in his golden cup. Do you know what these men are like? I will show you by means of an example.
I try, with God’s help, to be a teacher. So I travel to a village where I find someone and try to teach him something about Christ, about the faith, about the mysteries. He listens, but the others tell me, “Don’t waste your time, he’s drunk! Don’t bother sitting with him and taking to him!” This is how the world is today…it is drunk without wine! Is it worth speaking to such men?
But I appeal to you, my brothers. I am not speaking to drunks, to those made dizzy by the idols. It is my hope that I speak to the faithful who know but one kind of drunkenness, that holy drunkenness described by the Psalmist who exhorts us to, “…taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 33:8) I hope that you have you ears open for, “Blessed is he that speaketh in the ears of them that will hear.” (Sirach 25:9)
by Metropolitan Avgoustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina,
Translated by fr. John Palmer (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen! 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Metropolitan Neophytos of Morphou: The Raising of Children According to Contemporary Saints

This is a wonderful talk from a great Metropolitan of Cyprus, and spiritual child of St. Iakovos Tsalikis of Evia. Here, he uses the words and example of many contemporary Orthodox Saints from Greece and Cyprus to give good advice about the blessed marital relationship, pre-conception counseling, pregnancy, delivery, nursing, and the raising of children. This video has English subtitles. Please note that this does not negate or replace the personal pastoral care and advice of your parish priest / spiritual father who knows you and your family situation in a much more detailed and personal way. But may some of the words from these great Saints, including St. Porphyrios, St. Paisios, St. Iakovos and Elder Sophrony, inspire and encourage in this great task. 
“Let everything take second place to our care of our children, our bringing them up to the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have great wealth and glory than riches can provide."
-St. John Chrysostom
Sts. Paisios the Athonite and Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Elder Symeon Kragiopoulos: God sees into the heart of every man

The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Luke 14:16-24) (source)
Elder Symeon Kragiopoulos: God sees into the heart of every man
(On the Sunday of the Forefathers, The Parable of the Great Supper)
Man goes about his business, minds his family and does not take heed of what God says. All the people who refuse to respond to God’s invitation are not ignorant of God. They are, on the whole, honest people, but their heart is stuck on the things of this world; it’s not given to God. That is why man, right away, responds negatively to God’s invitation. And he does not wonder why the negative attitude, why the negative intention. Being christian, we tend to rest on our laurels but deep down in our heart the old man lives together with his rights, in his own “establishment”, in his own kingdom; under no circumstances does the old man surrender to God. And we let the old man be, and we nourish him.
God becomes man and dies of love to us, and still, we despise this love. There is nothing worse than that. This world exists for the salvation of those who wish to be saved. And God lets the world be, until his “house may be filled”[1].
And God “forces” some people to enter his house. But how can it happen that God “forces” people? That is not difficult to understand. Don’t we often see it happen with people who had no idea of who God is, who had no plan or intention to find God or believe in God, let alone, reach communion with God? Regardless of these, God who sees into the heart of every man and knows what every man intends to do, finds a way to reach man. So, God meets up with the most indifferent person or even the most negatively disposed one at some crossroads: He allows for something to happen to him and as this person finds himself in a difficult situation, as he is shaken up, he realises that this is God calling for him. As a result, man is “made” to follow the path of repentance, is “forced” to humble himself and respond to God’s call. And he is saved.
May God find a way for all of us to be saved. And let this happen whichever way God wants, as long as we are all saved.
[1] Luke 14: 23
Transcribed talks by Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos
From: Holy Hesychasterion “The Nativity of Theotokos” Publications.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

"You work strange and awesome wonders throughout the earth..."

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker (source)
You work strange and awesome wonders throughout the earth, and upon the sea far off, speedily delivering those in dangers, becoming the physician of the ailing, and the nourisher of the poor, and bearing the name of victory of the people, as you were shown to be the victory of the faithful against enemies.
-from the Matins Canon to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!