Tag Archives: St. Nicholas

November 21st: the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin; the Virgin in the Crossroad in C-town; and, November 8th: feast of the Archangels, Слава/Slava of the Ђоковићи/Đokovići

22 Nov

Today, November 21st is one of my favorite Orthodox holidays, the Presentation (Εἴσόδια/Воведение) of the Virgin to the Temple. God gives Joachim and Anna, who have not been able to have a child, the blessing of conceiving Mary. Riding on the old Jewish story of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, also not being able to conceive, until the angels visit Abraham and announce that Sarah, already 80 years old, will conceive the male child who then becomes Isaac (in a wonderful moment of irreverent Jewish humor, Sarah hears all this from the kitchen and laughs out loud), Anna herself names the Jewish matriarch in her prayers to God, asking him to perform the same miracle for her.

(Sadistically, God then later orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham obeys, but God then puts a ram in Isaac’s place at the last moment; don’t ask me to explain this one-more story of the monotheist God’s perversity and cruel power plays — listen to Benjamin Britten’s beautiful setting of the story below. *1)

When she’s three years old, Joachim and Anna take the toddler Mary to live in the Temple in Jerusalem, in order to thank God for the miracle of her birth or to keep her pure, since she’s such a holy baby, or until she starts to menstruate and thus turns of marrying age — it’s not very clear which it is (and let’s, again, ignore Semitic monotheism’s misogynist obsession with female purity.)

But they somewhat sadly leave her at the Temple, and as they walk away they turn and look, and the child Mary is not only not crying for the parents who have abandoned her here with all these long-bearded old men, but she’s dancing happily — “with her feet” — delighted to be living in the Lord’s house, and all the years she spends there an angel descends daily and feeds her “like a dove.”

The Church of the Savior in Chora in C-town has a set of Mary’s life cycle mosaics in the exonarthex;

The Presentation of Mary to the Temple (above)

And the angel that descends to feed her (above)

Click and enjoy these here because if you go to the Church of the Chora in Istanbul today, these and many other beautiful mosaics and frescoes will be covered by the drapes of the hysterics and puritans of monotheism.”

And a couple of Western images of the holiday (below), though it has largely fallen into obscurity today in the Catholic Church:

Giotto’s fresco of the event in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (above)

And Titian’s spectacular fresco (above) — along with details (below) — in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice

The story of the Presentation of the Virgin is not found in any of the canonical gospels but only in the apocryphal Gospel of St. James, also known as the Infancy Gospel. This is probably why it’s been forgotten in the Catholic West; the Catholic Church, in its lame post-Vatican II attempts at modernization, deleted important saints from the Church calendar, like George and Catherine and Nicholas, because we have no scientific evidence of their miracles (hellloooo…do we have “scientific evidence” of the Incarnation or the Resurrection or any “scientific” proof of the doctrine of the Transubstantiation/Communion? Don’t get me started and let’s not go there…), they certainly were not going to give any credence to an apocryphal tall tale, even though, as the above masterpieces of Giotto and Titian testify, it was still an important enough Catholic holiday during the Renaissance.

Below is the Greek text in screen shots; sorry couldn’t find a cut-and-paste form of the passage with full Greek accent system and I always try to when I post something; you’ll have to click:

and English:

“When the child turned three, Joachim said, “Let’s call the pure women of the Hebrews. Let them take up lamps and light them so that the child will not turn back and her heart will never be led away from the temple of the Lord.” And they did these things until they went up to the temple of the Lord. And the priest welcomed her.  Kissing her, he blessed her and said, “The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations; through you the Lord will reveal deliverance to the children of Israel in the last days.” And he set her down on the third step of the altar and the Lord God poured grace upon her. She danced triumphantly with her feet and every house in Israel loved her.”

And her parents went down, marveling at and praising and glorifying the Lord God because the child had not turned back to look at them. While Mary was in the temple of the Lord, she was fed like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel.” (emphases mine)

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Furthermore…today is also the feast of one of my favorite churches in the whole world, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of Stavrodromi or the Church of the Panagia in Pera in the Pera/Beyoğlu section of C-town. This church is hidden in an alley off the current İstiklâl Caddesi, the Jadde of this blog.

The church is a little hard to find, since it’s one of Istanbul’s pre-Tanzimat churches, meaning it was built before the 19th century reforms (1789) that lifted traditional restrictions on the building of non-Muslim places of worship; before the reforms churches had to have low, barn-like roofs because domes were not allowed, had to have high walls surrounding their premises, so that they were not conspicuous from the street, were prohibitted from having bell-towers (all church bell towers in Istanbul date from after the 1850s), and generally could not be higher or be more visible than any neighboring mosques (Wait…you mean, Islam isn’t the most tolerant religion in the world?).

View of Panagia Pera from above, hidden by surrounding buildings; western facade; and eastern facade with conspicuously later bell-tower. (below)

So, while the exterior was traditionally Ottoman in its plainness and modesty, the interior testifies to the fact that this Pera parish became Istanbul’s most extravagantly wealthy community beginning in the early 19th c. (pics below, from Iason AthanasiadisΤί χαμπέρια από την Πόλη;)

Even more compelling about Pera’s Panagia is that it survived unscathed the Anti-Greek Pogrom of September 1955. Of course, the old ladies will tell you that that was a miracle…why almost all of the rest of Istanbul’s 90 plus churches were completely ransacked or totally destroyed is a question you’re tempted to ask. Did its enforced inconspicuousness save it? I dunno. Yes, it’s a little hard to find, but it’s only about 50 yards off Pera’s main drag and the rioters of this Menderes-government-organized orgy of destruction knew every single Greek business on the street and in the neighborhood and every single other Greek church throughout Istanbul… It’s hard to believe that they didn’t know of Pera’s second largest Greek church, after the Holy Trinity in Taksim, which was thoroughly gutted. Let’s just call it a nice surprise.

Hagia Triada (below), now restored:

The neighboring Zappeion, (above) once Istanbul’s most prestigious lycée for girls: “Surrounding buildings of the Aya Triada are still left black from the arson attack in 1955. The priests of the Church refuse to clean the surface so that the memory of the Istanbul riots will be remembered.”

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More… Today, on the Julian (Old) Calendar still used by Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Macedonians, but not Romanians — I think — is November 8th the Feast of the Archangels, Michael and Gabriel. Always a thirteen-day difference, so you know.

It’s the Slava of the Đokovići. A Слава/Slava is…(from an old post):

“…Serbs are the only Orthodox Christians to not observe personal namedays.

Serbian-Slava-Festivityὁ σῖτος, ὁ οἶνος καὶ τὸ ἔλεον τοῦ δούλου σουthe wheat, wine and oil of Thy servant


Instead they observe the saint’s day on which their clan’s ancestors first converted to Christianity in a beautiful celebration called a slava, (the “glory”) and hereworth reading — which is essentially an offering and feast of remembrance, a ritual of ancestor-worship that proves that Serbs probably have more of one foot still in the pagan past than any other Slavic people

Slava 1

Many of their funerary customs are similar to ours — like the artos or artoklasia above and koljivo below — meaning they developed together spontaneously or they represent the influence of known Slavic sub-strata in the language, genes and culture of modern Greeks — and now that I said that I’ll have to go into a witness protection program.

Koljivo_from_wheat

Koljivo or Koliva just like Greeks make.  Commemorating the dead with the seeds of life.

So my man, Novak Đoković tweeted a message on the occasion of his family’s Slava today:

Novak Djokovic@DjokerNole

Срећна Слава свима који данас славе Св. Архангела Михајла. Нека нас наш заштитник чува и води кроз живот у светлости,љубави и миру.”

Happy Glory to all who today celebrate St. Archangel Michael. May our protector keep us and guide us through life in light, love and peace.

Cool… Wish I were there. Thanks for your attention this far. Later!

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*1 Benjamin Britten’s beautiful setting of the Abraham and Isaac story:

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¡Santiago y cierra, España!

19 Nov

Byzantine Ambassador, in another informative piece, talks to us about the Spanish cult of Santiago.

Outside Rome the West lacked the relics of important apostles. This was rectified in Venice by the theft of St Mark the Evangelist from Muslim Alexandria in AD 828. Not to be outdone by the Adriatic pirates, however, the Spanish promptly discovered St James the Greater’s tomb at the Galician fishing town of Padron at some point between 818-42.

The interior and exterior (below) of the cathedral of Santiago in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain.

Just to add… Bari rectified a lack of relics by stealing the remains of St. Nicholas of Bari from the city where he had served as bishop, Myra in Asia Minor/Anatolia.

The Cathedral of St. Nicholas of Bari below; I love the combo-contrast between the austere Romanesque of Norman churches in southern Italy and later Baroque additions, like the ceiling here.

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Today’s my nameday

6 Dec

Saint_Nicholas_1550Russian icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker (click)

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas (on the Gregorian calendar — December 19th on the Julian Calendar, depending on what kind of Orthodox you are ethnically), the saint generally known in the East (and beautiful Bari, one of my favorite Italian cities) as the “Miracle-worker.”  But for me the coolest thing about St. Nick, and that’s the cause of his nauseating transformation into Santa Claus in the West, is that his miracles are deeply human and mundane and material, and actually just more good deeds than miracles: his most metaphysical, I guess, was his power to calm threatening seas; probably more to the point he prevents the execution of an accused criminal, following Christ’s example in opposing capital punishment or — my favorite — he quietly leaves three bags of gold, εν τω μέσω της νυχτώς, in the bedroom of three poor sisters who needed dowries to get married.  He didn’t preach or rail against the dowry system, like the moralist who thinks his ideological crusade is more important then the real needs of real people, who gets a hard-on from his preaching while others are truly suffering: for example, the schmucks who leave a hard-working waiter a card that says: “We don’t believe in tips; they’re exploitative, join our group at www…etc…” or like the assholes you hear in New York on the subway when a panhandler comes by and certain types go off on their “oh-I’ve-heard-that-story-before-get-a-job-you-probably-make-more-money-than-me” tirades, without thinking that if a man is reduced to begging, for whatever reason, he’s already been through hell enough and deserves your compassion.  A priest at my old parish in Whitestone, I remember years ago on this day, said in his sermon: “St. Nicholas is not one of our great theologian-intellectual saints, like the Cappadocians [though he apparently slapped someone at the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea for saying something dumb about the Trinity…I think], or one of our warrior, defender-of-the-faith saints, like Demetrios or Mercourios or the Archangels.  More, he was a saint who always made sure that everyone under his pastorship had food to eat and a roof to sleep under.”  He was particularly venerated in the sea-faring islands of Greece, for obvious reasons (“Hagie Nikola, I implore you” sings the island girl with her sailor-man away, “carpet the seas with flowers…”) and is the patron saint of Russia.  In communist times the name still had some lingering Imperial/Romanov stigma attached to it and when I was there in the eighties, it seemed anachronistically charming to many Russians.  Now it seems there are significantly more young “Kolyas” and “Nikolays” everywhere.

Despite an almost erotic devotion to and obsession I’ve developed for St. Demetrios over the years — hard to resist a young Roman aristocrat in uniform with a pretty deep, homoerotic friendship as part of his martyrdom backstory — Nicholas is still my patron saint.  And he’s more than just important to me as saint himself, but because I love the Orthodox nameday tradition, which again varies from country to country.  Serbs have always observed a single clan nameday, the Slava, celebrating the saint on whose feast-day the family’s first ancestor supposedly converted to Christianity, a very ritualized and beautiful celebration and one of the many traditions that Serbs adhere to that makes them the Slavs that, more than any others, still have one foot in their pagan past; telling, also, to how important he is in the Orthodox world: the single largest group of Serbian clans celebrate St. Nicholas as their Slava patron.  Communism forced Russians to take their birthdays more seriously, and discouraged the celebration of the obviously religious nameday, but nineteenth-century Russian literature is full of nameday celebrations (Chekhov’s “Nameday Party,” and Tatyana’s nameday dance in Pushkin’s Onegin*), and as a semi-conscience remembrance of what the new Western-style celebration of birthdays replaced, the birthday-boy is to this day still called the “imeninets,” the “name-bearer.”

What I most love is that, among Greeks, your nameday is a day critical to your honor and reputation: it’s when you take friends out and treat them; it’s when people in small towns especially, but even some in Athens still, sit home in a house full of food and sweets and wait for everybody who has the right to — meaning every one they know essentially — and most likely will, drop by and wait for the the privilege of feeding them; most young Athenians today wait for an official invitation but massive group drop-ins are still common enough among the old-fashioned.  In smaller, provincial towns, when there was a death in the family, you used to have to put an ad in the paper saying: “Due to mourning, we won’t be accepting callers this St. Nicholas Day.”  In villages everybody just knew.  It’s a day when you make an artoklasia,  a “bread-breaking” offering and share sweetened and blessed loaves with your whole parish.  It’s a day when it’s your obligation to give and serve and prove your noblesse and not, as Western birthdays have become, a day when you sit around waiting for others to do for you or give you gifts.  Western, American, birthdays are only slightly less gross to me than the totally American ugliness of wedding and baby showers: “I’m getting married and/or I’m pregnant; so I’m having a party where you have to bring me things.”  And don’t even start me on bridal registries, where you tell people, not just that they have to bring you something, but what they have to bring you.

So: χρόνια μου πολλά…  And Многая Лета to other Nicholases everywhere.  Keep the tradition alive.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Tatyana was not a popular name in Russia until Pushkin’s Onegin became the Bible and literary gold standard of modern Russian, and Russians took the deeply loved heroine into their hearts.  Only then did it become a widespread name and eventually, through her epic act of heroically soul-baring letter-writing probably, her nameday, January 12th or 25th — depending again on calendar — become the patron saint day of young students and scholars.

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