Tuesday 8 August 2017

The Month of August

IN August we celebrate the last two Great Feasts of the Church Year: the Lord's Transfiguration (6th/19) and the Dormition of the All-holy Virgin Theotokos (15th/28th). The placing of the first of these in August is evidence of a calendar change. Originally the festival was kept forty days before the Lord's Crucifixion, because as the Gospel narrative tells us the Lord's Transfiguration on Mount Thabor was a preparation for "His decease which He should accomplish in Jerusalem." The hymns of the feast, inspired by the Holy Spirit, emphasize that the Apostles were permitted to see the glory of the Lord, so that when they should see Him crucified they would know that His Passion was voluntary, and that they would thus be strengthened for the coming trauma. Later, because the festival always fell in the penitential days of Great Lent, it was shifted to its present date, forty days before the festival of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. Thus the link with the Cross is unbroken, although the actual date of the festival has been changed.

In the fourth century, the Empress St Helen founded a church on Mount Tabor for the feast. When in the Middle Ages, the Crusaders entered Palestine they found a number of churches and monasteries on the holy mountain, and they commandeered them for Roman Catholic worship. After the Crusaders retreated from the Holy Land, the churches were either destroyed or fell into ruin. It was not until 1849, that the possibility of erecting a church there presented itself. In that year, the Patriarch Cyril II of Jerusalem began to petition the Ottoman authorities for permission to build there. Even so, it was only in 1860 that permission was granted and a new church was built on the foundations of the ancient Byzantine one. To this day, each year on the festival, a radiant cloud is seen to come and stand over the monastery there.

The Russians count three festivals of the Saviour in August. The first of these is the Procession of the Wood of the Cross on the first of the month, the second is the Transfiguration and the third is the translation of the Holy Mandilion, the icon not made by hands, from Edessa to Constantinople (16th/29th). Of these only the Transfiguration ranks as one of the Twelve Great Feasts.

The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the Twelve and the last in the Church Year. Three days before her death, the Mother of God was again visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who foretold her demise. She prayed that the Lord's closest disciples, the Apostles, might be with her at the end, and her prayer was granted miraculously. The Apostles, who, in their teaching ministry, were scattered over the face of the earth, were wonderously brought to Jerusalem to be with her. On the icons of the festival, they are shown being borne on clouds. The Virgin ended her earthly course in Sion, and her body was take to Gethsemane to be buried. There her family had a family tomb, and there her parents, Sts Joachim and Anna, and the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed had been buried. The body was borne to burial accompanied by the Apostles and other eminent Church leaders such as St Dionysius the Areopagite and Saint Hierotheus, and by the company of the Christians in Jerusalem, as well as by a multitude of Angels. A priest of the Jews, Athonius, seeing the funeral procession, and being filled with wrath against her whom he thought to be the mother of a deceiver, rushed forward and attempted to overturn her bier. As he grasped it, an Angel appeared and severed his hands at the wrists. Immediately, he understood his sin and repented, the Apostles prayed that he should be healed, and he was. Later, he was baptized and joined the Christian community. Just as he had been chosen to confirm the Resurrection of his Saviour, St Thomas was allotted a special ministry at this festival. Alone among the Apostles he had not been present at the Virgin's death.

He arrived on the third day, and the others opened the cave tomb for him to venerate the body that had borne God. The tomb was found to be empty. The Most Holy Mother of God had been taken body and soul into the Heavenly Mansions.

The tradition of the Elevation of the Panagia (now usually confined to monasteries) refers back to this festival. Before the Dormition, the early Christians had established a custom of setting aside a portion of bread, which at their meal, they would lift up, intoning, "Great is the name of the Holy Trinity. O Lord Jesus Christ, help us." This was done in honour of the Risen Saviour. When on the third day after her Dormition, the Apostles were about to do this and elevated the bread, the Mother of God appeared in heavenly glory, assuring them and us that she would be always with us through her mediations and intercessions. The Apostles therefore raised the bread, chanting "Most Holy Mother of God, help us!" This little rite has been somewhat elaborated, but is still done on festivals of the Mother of God. The bread which is elevated is called the Panagia. It is usually cut in the form of a three-sided pyramid. The word Panagia means All-holy, and it is one of the titles accorded the Mother of God.

Another very important feast in August is that of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (29th August/11th September). It is usually celebrated with a Vigil Service, and because Herod and those with him were feasting on that day, and through surfeiting and drunkenness were lead into sin, Orthodox Christians always observe a fast on this day on whichever day of the week it might fall.

Among the Saints we have in August are:- Our Holy Father Myron of Crete (8th/21st) was a farm labourer, who made it his practice to give of the produce of his fields to the poor. Such was his unpossessiveness that once he caught some thieves stealing grain from his threshing floor, and rather than stopping them or rebuking them, he helped them fill their sacks and load them up to take them away. Later, when they learned who he had been, they were brought to repentance by the example he had given them, and thereafter lived righteous lives. For his virtuous life and his kind-heartedness, Myron was chosen by the townsmen to be their priest and was later consecrated Bishop. He cared assiduously for his flock, nurturing them in piety. At the time of persecution he encouraged the martyrs, and he was granted the gift of working miracles. He lived to be an hundred years old, and entered into rest in the year 350.

The New Martyr Christos of Ioannina (15th/28th): In August 1823, the Turkish militia in the region of Ioannina started a particularly violent suppression of the Christians there. The hieromonk Christos comforted and encouraged the suffering Christians, and for this he was arrested, beaten and, for refusing to give up his Christian confession, was condemned to death. The Orthodox Christians were celebrating the festival of the Dormition, and the Turks chose this time to execute the Saint. Furthermore, they deliberately chose to mock the Saviour's Passion in the way they devised to kill him. Father Christos was crowned with thorns, stripped and spat upon, and nailed to a cross, which was set up by the plane trees at Kalou Tzesme. As he expired on the cross, he prayed for his tormentors, but they sat around and taunted him. One of the Turks eventually pierced his side with a sabre and he gave up his soul. Even in death they did not cease tormenting him; they coated his body in tar and set it alight so that it was consumed in the flames.

The Venerable Martyrs Liberatus, Boniface and the five others with them (17th/30th) lived in the fifth century and were members of a monastic community. Liberatus was the abbot, Boniface the deacon; two others Servius and Rusticus were subdeacons, and the remaining three, Rogatus, Septimus and Maximus unordained monks. They were slain not by pagans but by people who claimed to be Christians. They lived in North Africa at the time when Huneric the King of the Vandals ruled there. Huneric was a fervent Arian, and instigated a persecution of the Orthodox Christians. Thus these seven monks were arrested and taken to Carthage. There they were required to embrace the heretical faith of the Arians, but they steadfastly refused. They were confined to prison, but certain Orthodox Christians bribed the guards to let them visit them so that they could encourage them in their ordeal. This came to the ears of Huneric, who ordered that they be put in an old boat and set out to sea, and then the boat fired. However, try as they might the persecutors were unable to fire the ship, and so the martyrs were returned to land and were done to death by having the brains brutally dashed out with clubs. They received the crowns of martyrdom in the year 483 and an authentic and contemporary record of their contest exists.

The Venerable Edbert of York (20th August/2nd September) succeeded his kinsman Ceolwulf as King of Northumbria. His brother, Egbert, was the first Archbishop of York to receive the pallium since the time of St Paulinus. Edbert ruled his kingdom wisely and justly for twenty years, and then abdicated in favour of his son, Oswulf. Such was the respect in which he was held that his allies and his noblemen tried to persuade him not to abdicate, however Edbert was resolved upon taking up the monastic life. He retired to York, where he placed himself under obedience to his brother the Archbishop, and spent the last ten years of his life as a monk. His brother predeceased him by two years, and his sacred relics were laid next to those of the Archbishop when he himself died in 768 A.D.

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