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!

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