A Serbian victory Down Under

The big news in Serbian sports of course is the victory of Serbian Novak Djokovic at yesterday’s Australian Open. Below is a picture from the crowd. Notice bottom right corner His Grace Bishop Irinej of Australia.

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From great man to great myth

I’m certainly late with this post but this morning I received my January issue of Pravoslavlje, the official newspaper of the Serbian Patriarchate, and I found this article which had been translated from English to Serbian and originally appeared in the New York Times (here):

St. Nick in the Big City

ST. NICHOLAS was a super-saint with an immense cult for most of the Christian past. There may be more icons surviving for Nicholas alone than for all the other saints of Christendom put together. So what happened to him? Where’s the fourth-century Anatolian bishop who presided over gift-giving to poor children? And how did we get the new icon of mass consumerism in his place?

Well, it’s a New York story.

In all innocence, the morphing began with the Dutch Christians of New Amsterdam, who remembered St. Nicholas from the old country and called him Sinte Klaas. They had kept alive an old memory — that a kindly old cleric brought little gifts to the poor in the weeks leading up to the Feast of the Nativity. While the gifts were important, they were never meant to overshadow the message of Jesus’s humble birth.

But today’s chubby Santa is not about giving to the poor. He has had his saintly garb stripped away. The filling out of the figure, the loss of the vestments, and his transformation into a beery fellow smoking a pipe combined to form a caricature of Dutch peasant culture. Eventually this Magic Santa (a suitable patron saint if there ever was one for the burgeoning capitalist machinery of the city) was of course popularized by the Manhattanite Clement Clarke Moore published in “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” in The Troy (New York) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823.

The newly created deity Santa soon attracted a school of iconographers: notable among them were Thomas Nast, whose 1863 image of a red-suited giant in Harper’s Weekly set the tone, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew up the archetypal image we know today on behalf of the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. This Santa was regularly accompanied by the flying reindeer: godlike in his majesty and presiding over the winter darkness like Odin the sky god returned.

The new Santa also acquired a host of Nordic elves to replace the small dark-skinned boy called Black Peter, who in Christian tradition so loved St. Nicholas that he traveled with him everywhere. But, some might say, wasn’t it better to lose this racially stereotyped relic? Actually, no, considering the real St. Nicholas first came into contact with Peter when he raided the slave market in his hometown and railed against the trade. The story tells us that when the slavers refused to take him seriously, he used the church’s funds to redeem Peter and gave the boy a job in the church.

And what of the throwing of the bags of gold down the chimney, where they landed in the stockings and little shoes that had been hung up to dry by the fireplace? Charming though it sounds, it reflected the deplorable custom, still prevalent in late Roman society when the Byzantine church was struggling to establish the supremacy of its values, of selling surplus daughters into bondage. This was a euphemism for sexual slavery — a trade that still blights our world.

As the tale goes, Nicholas had heard that a father in the town planned to sell his three daughters because his debts had been called in by pitiless creditors. As he did for Black Peter, Nicholas raided his church funds to secure the redemption of the girls. He dropped the gold down the chimney to save face for the impoverished father.

This tale was the origin of a whole subsequent series of efforts among the Christians who celebrated Nicholas to make some effort to redeem the lot of the poor — especially children, who always were, and still are, the world’s front-line victims. Such was the origin of Christmas almsgiving: gifts for the poor, not just gifts for our friends.

I like St. Nicholas. You can keep chubby Santa.

John Anthony McGuckin is a professor of religious history at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia.

Gain your neighbor and you’ll gain God

Taken from Leah’s blog Christ is in our midst! (here):

More than fifteen hundred years ago St. Anthony the Great declared that “a time is coming when people will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘you are mad, you are not like us.”

It may well be that the time that St. Anthony foresaw is now upon us, or at least is rapidly approaching.  And because of what we have learned, we know what we have to do about it.  The same St. Anthony, with all holy people, has told us.  I urge you, and, if I could, I would command you, to read St. Anthony’s thirty-eight sayings in the Saying of the Desert Fathers.  Everything we need to know in order to live is there for us in its simplest and clearest form.

Abba Anthony first tells us that when we are plagued by whirling thoughts (logismoi) and worn down by an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and futility (acedia), which we will be in this sinful world, we must simply and diligently work and pray, by pure devotion and sheer obedience.  We must pay attention to ourselves and mind our own business.  We must do our work, and let God — and other people — do theirs.

He also tells us that whoever we are, we should always have God before our eyes; and whatever we do, we should always do according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; and wherever we are, we should not easily leave that place.

He further tells us (with his friend Abba Pambo) not to trust in our own righteousness, not to worry about the past, and to guard our mouths and our stomachs.  He tells us to take responsibility for our own behavior, and to expect to be ferociously tempted to our very last breath.  He tells us that there is no salvation for us without trial and temptation, and that without being tested, no person can be healed, illumined and perfected.  He tells us that each one of us has our own unique life, that no two people are the same, and that each of us has to be the person that God made us to be:  where we are, when we are, with whom we are, from whom we are, and such as we are, according to God’s inscrutable providence.

St. Anthony also tells us, as do all the saints, that our life and our death begin and end with our fellow human beings.  He insists that if we have gained our neighbor, we have gained our God, but if we have scandalized our neighbor, we have sinned against Christ.  He says that all of our ascetical disciplines, including our scholarly studies, are means to an end; they are not ends in themselves.  The end is discernment and dispassion and the knowledge of God through keeping His commandments, the first and greatest of which is love.  And he teaches that our only hope to escape the countless snares of this broken world that seek to enslave us is found in one thing alone:  Christ-like humility.

~reflection by Fr. Thomas Hopko

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

I’m a few days late with this post as this past Tuesday was the Twelfth day of Christmas for us on the Old Calendar. I found this post on Fr. Peter-Michael Preble’s blog (here). I didn’t know that in some cultures there was a connection between All Hallows Eve and the Twelvth Night. The picture above, by the way, is our Slava Kolach (Slava Cake) for Thursday’s feast of St. John the Baptist.  In Serbian tradition a similar bread is made on Christmas day, though not as ornate,  in which a coin is placed and the one who finds it has good luck that year:
Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas.
It is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking”. However, there is currently some confusion as to which night is Twelfth Night: some count the night of Epiphany itself (sixth of January) to be Twelfth Night. One source of this confusion is the Medieval custom of starting each new day at sunset, so that Twelfth Night precedes Twelfth Day.
A recent tradition in some English-speaking countries holds that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a belief originally attached to the festival of Candlemas (2 February).

In medieval and Tudor England[citation needed], the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve — now more commonly known as Halloween. The Lord of Misrule symbolizes the world turning upside down. On this day the King and all those who were high would become the peasants and vice versa. At the beginning of the Twelfth Night festival, a cake that contained a bean was eaten. The person who found the bean would rule the feast. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. This Lord of Misrule tradition date back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Food and drink are the center of the celebrations in modern times, and all of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night, but throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK. Around the world, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake are baked on Twelfth Night, and eaten the following day for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrations. In English and French custom, the Twelfth-cake was baked to contain a bean and a pea, so that those who received the slices containing them should be designated king and queen of the night’s festivities.
In colonial America, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and when taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, any edible portions would be consumed with the other foods of the feast. The same held true in the 19th-20th centuries with fruits adorning Christmas trees. Fresh fruits were hard to come by, and were therefore considered fine and proper gifts and decorations for the tree, wreaths, and home. Again, the tree would be taken down on Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be consumed.

In the eastern Alps, a tradition called Perchtenlaufen exists. Two to three hundred masked young men rush about the streets with whips and bells driving out evil spirits. In Nuremberg until 1616, children frightened spirits away by running through the streets and knocking loudly at doors. In some countries, and in the Catholic religion worldwide, the Twelfth Night and Epiphany marks the start of the Carnival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras Day. Modern American Carnival traditions shine most brightly in New Orleans, where friends gather for weekly King Cake parties. Whoever gets the slice with the “king”, usually in the form of a miniature baby doll (symbolic of the Christ Child, “Christ the King”), hosts next week’s party.

“Pop Icon” Returns Orthodox Icon

These past few days have been busy ones, all of which culminated in yesterday’s feast of St. John the Baptist, our family Krsna Slava. We prepared food and more food and the house and the kids and our ourselves for a day of celebrating, welcoming guests…which means today we’re recovering. I caught a glimpse of this interesting news piece (actually a link was emailed to me) about Boy George yesterday which for obvious reasons I didn’t find the time to post earlier. Not something you come across everyday. (Source: here)

Boy George returns Christ icon to Cyprus church

Musician Boy George has agreed to return to the Church of Cyprus an icon of Christ that came into his possession 11 years after the Turkish invasion.

The former Culture Club singer bought the piece from a London art dealer in 1985 without knowing its origin.

Boy George – real name George O’Dowd – said he was “happy the icon is going back to its original rightful home”.

“I have always been a friend of Cyprus and have looked after the icon for 26 years,” he added.

“I look forward to seeing the icon on display in Cyprus for the moment and finally to the Church of St Charalambos from where it was illegally stolen.”

The goodwill gesture came about after the church in New Chorio-Kythrea village gave evidence proving it was its rightful owner.

Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis expressed “joy and gratitude” as the singer handed over the icon at the St Anagyre church in north London.

The gesture, he said, had “contributed to the efforts of the Church of Cyprus for the repatriation of its stolen spiritual treasures”.

Thousands of religious artefacts went missing from northern Cyprus following Turkey’s invasion of the island and its subsequent partition.