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On January 7, the Orthodox Church [new claendar] celebrates the Synaxis of John the Baptist and the translation of his right hand from Antioch to Constantinople. According to the Church’ tradition, John the Forerunner of our Lord, was buried in the city of Sebaste, Samaria. Saint Luke the Evangelist wanting to move St John’s whole body to Antioch, was able to obtain and translate only his right hand.
Historians Theodoret and Rufinus mention that the tomb of St. John the Baptist was desecrated in 362, during the Emperor Julian the Apostate reign, and a part of St. John relics burned. What remained intact from Saint’ body was taken to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, and on May 27, 395 was placed in the church that bears saint John’ name.
The chronicle of John Skylitzes (a Byzantine historian of the eleventh century) states that the right hand of St. John the Baptist was moved from Antioch to Constantinople in 956 by Emperor Constantine the VII or Porphyrogenites (913-959) to be placed in one of the chapels of the Grand Palais, that is in the church of the Most Holy Theotokos of Peribleptos.
At the end of the twelve century, the Russian archbishop Anthony of Novgorod who went on a pilgrimage to Constantinople, mentions in his writings among other treasures of this church, the right hand of St. John the Baptist.
According to Du Cange in 1263, Othon of Ciconia attested the presence of a small piece from St. John’ right hand, in Citeaux Abbey, France. In 1261, Othon aceepted the refuge of the Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin the II and in exchange for a gift, the emperor gave Othon this piece of relic of St John.
In a testimony of the Spanish ambassador Clavijo dated 1404, it is mentioned that the holy hand was still in the church of the Theotokos – Peribleptos in Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople (in 1453), the hand of St. John the Baptist along with other Church’ treasures were seized by the Turks and kept in the imperial treasury.
In some Turkish fiscal archives from 1484 kept in Topkapi, it is noted that Sultan Bayezid the II (1481-1512) sent the hand of St. John to Hospitallers from Rhodes, (who occupied this island during the first quarter of the fourteenth century), in order to earn their favor. Later, the Hospitallers took the relics to the island of Malta, where they established their qurter.
In 1799, St. John’ hand was translated from Malta to Gatchina (Russia) when the Russian Emperor Paul the I (1796-1801) became the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, but also due to threats of war from Napoleon. This event is also mentioned in the Russian sinaxaryum, from October 12. From 1799, the relics stayed in the possetion of the Russian tsars, but in 1917, they were taken out of the country by Maria Feodorovna, fearing the anger of the Bolsheviks. Since 1917, the right hand of John the Baptist was preserved in Germany, then in Yugoslavia and presently is found in the Monastery Church of Cetinje from Montenegro.
In June 2006, during a two weeks period, the right hand of St. John the Baptist returned in procesion to Russia. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims venerated the holy relics in the cathedral dedicated to our Savior from Moscow. After Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, the holy relics were brought for veneration to Yekaterinburg, Rostov, Minsk, Saint-Petersburg and Kiev(Ukraine). On July 16, the holy relics of St. John returned to Montenegro.
However, it seems that part of the right hand of St. John offered by Sultan Baizid the II to the Order of Hospitallers, returned to the Ottoman Turks in the late sixteenth century. This piece is currently preserved in Topkapi [Palace] museum, in Istanbul.
It is surprising to find Christian sacred relics in the possession of a sultan… Pehaps because in the Qur’an, St. John the Baptist is called Yahya, the profet that precedes Isa (Jesus).
The holy relics, as they are preserved today, are placed in a medieval metal ouches [case], modeled in the shape of an arm with realistic artistical accents. This ouches is undoubtedly the work of a Venetian workshop, as the case is inscripted with two silver marks: one representing the Venetian lion and the 2nd mark is a Maltese Cross – sixteenth century style, the era when the Order of Hospitallers became the Knights of Malta.
The finger gesture is a sign of blessing – commonly found in the Byzantine art, but also a gesture by which Saint John points at Christ as “the Lamb of God”. The ouche bares three inscriptions: one around the wrist noting: “the hand of John the Baptist”, a second on the index finger, referring to the sermon of St. John depicting Christ as the Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God”, and a third inscription located on the elbow which mentions the name of a certain monk: “A prayer of God’s servant Daniel.”
Small pieces from the right hand of St. John are also found in the Monastery of Dionysiou from Mount Athos,
and the Coptic Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great from Sketis, Egypt.
The pool of Bethesda, where Christ healed the paralytic lying in his bed for 38 years, is located north of the old Hebrew Temple and opposite to the pool of Siloam in the holy city of Jerusalem. The Gospel reminding us of the miracle our Lord performed with the paralytic near the water of Bethesda, is also read during the services of the blessing of the water.
Bethesda is Hebrew name composed of two words, “beth” meaning “house”, and “hesda” or “kindness, charity” or the “House of the merciful waters.” The name of this place was probably attributed to the waters gathered here in pools, known for their healing effects for bodily infirmities.
In Latin, this place was called “the Fountain of the sheep” as was near the place where the sheep sacrificed in the Jewish Temple, were washed.
Its newest name does not appear in the Old Testament, this place been called the “Upper Pool” which is believed to be the northern basin from Bethesda. In the times before to the reign of king Herod, the waters of Bethesda met the needs of the temple.
Near the pool of Bethesda, there was a public bath where the miracle mentioned in today’s Gospel took place, and a treatment center. Over one part of the pool of Bethesda, a Byzantine basilica was built and the Crusaders will later erect a small chapel and a large basilica dedicated to St Anna.
The ruins of the two pools of Bethesda, located northwest of Jerusalem can be seen today, on the right side after passing through the gate of St. Stephen (known as “the Lion Gate” due to its two ancient figures -two lions- attached to it).
The Pool of Bethesda in the Holy Scripture!
In the Old Testament the pool of “Bethesda” is known as the “Upper Poole”, possibly referring to the north part of the public bath.
King Achaz, preparing for war, checked the location near the water basin, in view of a possible siege. “Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Achaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field.” (Isaiah 7, 3).
“And the king of Assyria sent Tartan from Lachish and Rabshakeh of Rabsaris with great hosts of army into Jerusalem and arriving, they stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool which is located near the road that goes the Launderer’s Field.” (IV Kings 18, 17).
“After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the Sabbath. “ (John 5:1-9)
The Pool of Bethesda throughout history!
During the time of the First Temple of Jerusalem, the water tanks form Bethesda provided the necessary water for the Temple. The first fountain was built as a dent in the stone, which collected the rainwater and from this pool, the water was directed to the temple through an open channel.
In the third century BC, in the time of the Second Temple, the Bethesda fountain was rebuilt to provide more water for the needs of the temple. At this time, the site was divided into two pools and separated by a dam built from stones.
Beginning with years 150-70 BC, the place was expanded and turned into a treatment center.
Following the excavations from 1956, the archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of some buildings considered to be the ancient treatment center.
During the Romanian occupation, the Pool of Bethesda has lost its former importance. Thus, when Herod the Great built a new system of aqueducts, the pool of Bethesda remained deserted.
Before the fifth century, the place has been used as a public bath, because the waters remained here, although very few, were renowned for their healing power.
The miracles of our Saviour took place at Bethesda, in the Roman times. St. John the Evangelist in his Gospel reminds us that the pool of Bethesda had five porches. These porches were later (1956) uncovered by the archaeologists.
In the year 44 BC, Herod Agrippa built near Bethesda a new wall, which stopped the water supply for the pool. Few years later, the Romans built near it a pagan temple, dedicated to the god Asclepius, a Greek hero – the god of medicine and healing, and to the Egyptian god Serappis.
In the Byzantine times, the Pool of Bethesda became a center of Christian pilgrimage. During the years 422-458, when Juvenal was elected the patriarch of Jerusalem, a great Byzantine church was erected over the pool of Bethesda. This stony structure was supported by seven arches, built over the central pier of the pool.
This Byzantine cathedral was dedicated to Our Lady from Probatha, or of “bathing”, as it appears in the famous mosaic map dating from the sixth century, and preserved until today in the Church in Madaba. The Basilica was destroyed in 1010.
During the Crusader’ period, after conquering the Holy City in 1099, it was desired that the great basilicas may be rebuilt, but this work required great effort and expense. Thus, a humble new chapel it will be added only. This was the time when the place became a monastery.
By the year 1140, a new and magnificent basilica will be built, and was dedicated to St. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos.
The fountain at Bethesda was excavated by archeologists in 1956.
Biblical Palestine is not only a land of Christian pilgrimages but also of great religious processions. The processions are mainly related to our Savior’s life on earth and to the great feasts of the church throughout the year.
The Orthodox processions are more numerous, rooted in the Gospel and the Holy Tradition. In this sense, they are not simple rituals or religious demonstrations but an important part of the intimate life of Orthodoxy in the Holy Land.
The road to Calvary – Via Dolorosa or Via Cruxes – constantly reminds man of the measure of God’s love for him. This love is seen, more than ever, on Great (Passion) Friday, when many faithful walk the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem in the footsteps of our Savior.
Via Dolorosa – follows the crowded streets of Jerusalem, from the Monastery “Ecce Homo”, ending at the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Resurrection. According to the Christian tradition, this is the path that Jesus followed from the Roman courtroom proceedings to His crucifixion and His burial.
Via Dolorosa remains in the memory of thousands of faithful pilgrims of the holy places over the two millennia of Christianity. Its tradition is rooted deep in history. Once the Christian Emperor Constantine the Great (mid-fourth century) provided Christianity freedom of worship, nothing could stop the love and desire of Christians to walk in the footsteps of the God-Man, Jesus Christ – who gave His life for the world.
In the Byzantine times, the pilgrims followed almost an identical way, but without making the 14 stops that have remained in the Church tradition. Over the centuries, the way from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has changed several times (with small differences).
By the early eighth century, the road to Calvary trajectory was changed: From the Garden of Gethsemane, the pilgrims were headed to Mount Zion, surrounding the Temple Mount, then to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
For most of the pilgrims the exact path that Christ followed is of little importance, given the inner meaning that this is the place where the salvation of human race began, despite the crowds and the shops all around it seeking to distract the pilgrims.
The first procession starts on Palm Sunday morning around 08.00 from Bethany to Jerusalem. Hundreds of Orthodox clergy from many countries, and thousands of pilgrims caring palms in their hands, are walking about 6 km from the village of Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus) to the holy city of Jerusalem. The procession is lead by a bishop riding on an ass, just as Jesus did on His glorious entry into Jerusalem.
The convoy of the faithful enters Jerusalem through the gate called St. Stephen’s gate of traditionally the sheep gate, following the way of the cross to Golgotha, and stops in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Then the Divine Liturgy is officiated in the Great Church of the Resurrection.
The second procession takes place in the evening of Holy Thursday. The procession begins at Praetorium, where our Saviour was judged and sentenced to death by Pilate. Over the cave where our Saviour was chained and stoned a small Orthodox Chapel was built. The Cave and the Chapel are called “Praetorium.” It is the place where on Thursday afternoon, thousands of pilgrims, many priests and bishops gathered to start the services for our Lord’ Holy Passion. The first five Gospels are read here.
Starting with the sixth Gospel, the convoy of clergy and pilgrims, with lighted candles in their hands, proceed to Calvary. On the way, the priests make 14 stops, according to the tradition. At each stop, the bishop clothed in black, reads the rest of the Gospels. The last two Gospels are read before Calvary and in front of the Holy Sepulcher, where the procession ends.
Further, other clergy led by a metropolitan, begin the service of the 12 Gospels Matins in the Church of the Resurrection, near Holy Sepulcher. Thus the Holy Passion service is repeated once again in the church ending after midnight.
The third procession takes place in Jerusalem, on Great and Holy Friday. On Friday morning the crowd of pilgrims lead by about 12 bishops and clergy gathered at the Church of the Praetorium, for the liturgy of the “Royal Hours.”
After this service ends, the people, the priests and the bishops start to walk in great procession from the Praetorium to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Many bishops clothed in (dark) robes of mourning lead the procession, as they carry a large wooden cross, which retains some of the original wood from the Holy Cross of our Lord, while the other clerics hold the Holy Gospel, icons and censers.
The faithful hold lit candles in their hands. The procession stops in many places where, according to the tradition, our Lord fell under the heaviness of the cross. People kneel and the bishops read the Holy Passion Gospels. After the procession enters the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the cross is placed over the rock of Golgotha, the place where our Lord was crucified. Here the Gospels of our Lord’s crucifixion are read.
Part of the clergy stand guarding the Holy Cross, until all the people have venerate it. The procession of our Savior’s crucifixion ends with a moving sermon, delivered by a metropolitan. It’s a service of great spiritual challenge, bringing tears to many eyes, a taste of the great and saving passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The 14 stops of Via Dolorosa
The Garden of Gethsemane, where our Lord has spent Holy Thursday or His last night in freedom is covered by eight olive trees, almost forgotten by time, as a witness to the blood shed by Christ in prayer. The Church of Agony or the Church of All Nations, where our Savior is depicted torn by pain, was erected over the Garden of Gethsemane. From this place one can see St. Stephen’s Gate or the Lions Gate, through which Christ entered Jerusalem, in His way to Golgotha.
Via Dolorosa – starts at the ruins of the ancient Roman fortress Antonia, at the Gate of Archdeacon Stefan located in the Muslim Quarter and continues for about one kilometer to Calvary or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the road that Jesus Christ walked caring the heavy cross on His back to open our way to salvation.
Following the tradition of the Church in Jerusalem, Via Dolorosa is divided into 14 stops, each marking a special event. The first 9 stops occur at different points of the city, while the last five stops take place inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. All 14 stops are marked by a sign with inscriptions written in English, Hebrew and Arabic,
1. The judgment place of Pontius Pilate where Christ was judged and sentenced to death
Over the ruins of ancient city Antonia, where Christ was scourged, a church was erected called “The Flogging Chapel.” In this place once named Gavatta – “paved with stones”, Pilate used to hear and judge the matters of the people of Israel. This place was situated at a distance of approximately 300 meters west of the Lions Gate.
The place retains a number of original stones of the courtroom or Lithostratos. The “squares and triangles” engraved on he floor were made by the Roman soldiers. It reminds us how the Roman soldiers cast lots for Christ’s clothes.
2. The Praetorium – placing the heavy cross on our Lord shoulders, Who start His way to Calvary
In the Praetorium, the Jews condemned the Son of God to death crying out “Crucify him, Crucify him.” Within walking distance of this place there is a Catholic Church called “Ecce Homo!” – “Behold the Man”, which brings to mind the words by which Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd. Over the cave where our Lord was thrown with His feet and hands chained, a small Orthodox Chapel was built.
From the Praetorium, Via Dolorosa continues trough the Valley of Tyropeon crossing the ancient city of Jerusalem. The arch called “Ecce Homo”, reminds us how our Saviour was crowned with thorns and pushed to the Cross. The Arch is the remaining of a gate built by Emperor Hadrian, its current name being given in the sixteenth century.
3. The first fall of Christ under the heavy cross.
The third stop is at the crossing streets emerging from the Lions and the Damascus Gates. The tradition records that in this place Christ fell under the heaviness of the wooden cross for the first time. The polish chapel raised in this place marks this painful moment. From here, walking towards the left on Damascus Street, one can get to the middle of Holy City, where Christ met His Mother.
4. The meeting of Christ with His grieving Mother.
The Christian tradition says that the Virgin Mary – theTheotokos met her Son, bowed under Cross. In this holy place a small Armenian chapel was built. The mosaic depicting this scene is the work of polish artist Zieliensky.
The church raised here still preserves the original mosaic floor dating from the fifth century.
5. Simon of Cyrene takes up the cross of our Lord
The fifth station, the place where Simon of Cyrene was forced to help Christ in caring His cross, is marked by a Franciscan chapel. Then the road to Calvary curbs to the right, reminding us how Veronica’s veil become of the first iconographic depiction of our Savior.
6. The meeting of our Lord with Veronica – wiping His face with her veil.
From the Franciscan chapel one can walk down the narrow street, paved with large stones that seem forgotten by time, to arrive at the Church of St. Veronica. This church retains many of the original features of an ancient church – the Monastery of St. Cosmos. Restored by Barluzzi, in 1953, the church preserves a series of arcs from the church built by the Crusaders. A crypt under the church is dedicated to the holy image of Christ.
The face printed on Veronica’ veil is considered to be the first icon of Christ, not made with hands, but by the love of a virgin.
Veronica’s name is thought to come from the Latin words “vera + icon”, which means “true icon”. From this church, the road continues on though the bazaar, where the seventh, eighth and ninth stops are marked.
7. The second fall of our Savior under the cross.
The seventh stop is the place where our Lord falls for the second time, weakened by the heaviness of the cross. The Franciscan chapel raised here reminds us how Christ suffered as a man even for those who did not understand His infinite love for humanity. In the ancient times, the city of Jerusalem ended here.
8. The Lord greets the women wailing for Him
At the eighth stop of Golgotha, Christ comforted His Mother, the myrrh-bearing women and all faithful women weeping for him. The place is marked by the Church of St. Charalambos barring an inscription on outside walls in Greek, NIKA.
Strengthening the women, Christ tells them not to weep for him but for themselves and their children, meaning for the sins of the world: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children. “A Latin cross, inscribed in the wall of the Greek monastery remind us of this moment.
9. The third fall of our Saviour
Within the walking distance from the eighth stop, the ninth stop reminds us of the third falling of Christ under the weight of the Cross. In the tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church, it is said that the three falls of Jesus represent the three days He spent in the tomb.
The following stops are in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, from its courtyard to the tomb.
10. Golgotha – the place where our Lord is stripped of his garments
Reaching Calvary, located in the ancient times outside the city but today in the heart of Jerusalem, the heart of the pilgrim is overtaken by profound feelings. The huge white tile rock where the cross of Christ was placed so He may be crucified on it is now found in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Here Jesus was stripped of his clothes and nailed to the Cross.
Many tears are shed approaching the door that hides behind it the holiest place on Earth. It’s the place where salvation began, the place where death was defeated, where love conquered all.
11. The nailing of our Saviour to the Cross
Stepping into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, everything is touching, the stones wiped by the tears and prayers of many faithful; the mosaics of rare beauty, the candles with scarce light. The Stone of the Anointing lays just in front of us, but the pilgrim will go first to the upper room to worship at the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross in the presence of His mother. A huge mosaic depicting this painful scene of the Love crucified.
12. The Crucifixion -His death on the Cross
Near the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross, it’s the Stone of Mountain Calvary, where the cross was placed, and Christ lifted up in the view of all. A Greek Orthodox altar was built above the rock of Calvary or Golgotha. Every pilgrim can reach and touch by hand the place where the cross was erected.
13. Our Lord Descent from the Cross – the Stone of Anointing
After Christ death, and after crushing the legs and the two thieves, the three bodies were taken down from the cross. Christ’s body was placed on a stone to be anointed and covered in a shroud, according to Jewish custom, before being placed in the tomb. The rectangular stone of the Anointing, washed by countless tears and prayers, is always fragrant and covered in myrrh; the many lamps that hang over this stone are a symbol of watchfulness, that we may remember to always keep the lamp of our hearts on, awaiting the Bridegroom.
14. Christ burial and Resurrection
After worshiping the Stone of Anointing, the pilgrim walks to the Holy Sepulcher – where a small chapel was raised over the place where our Savior’s body was laid. This is the holiest place of Christianity, sheltering both the Tomb and the miracle of the Resurrection. The Holy Sepulcher is divided into two rooms: the first – the chamber of the angel that proclaimed to the mirth barring women the Resurrection of Christ and, the second room that carried once the life-giving body of Christ.
St. John Climacus lived in the late sixth century and the first half of the seventh century; he is remembered by Christians everywhere especially during the Great Fast, for the purity of his life dedicated entirely to Christ. St. John Climacus was born around or before the year 579 and lived until 649. At age of 16 he entered the Sinai Monastery under the supervision of abbot Martyrium. After the death of his abbot, St. John Climacus withdrew into the desert to a cave located at the foot of Mount Sinai, living in meditation, prayer and study for nearly 40 years. In 639 he was named abbot of the monastery of Sinai, but not long after he retired in his old cave where he struggled until falling asleep.
The tradition mentions a cave located in the Valley of Tholas (Wadi Et-Tlah) approximately 8 km from Saint Catherine’s Monastery of Mt. Sinai, as the place where St. John led his ascetic struggle.
The first written document where this cave is mentioned, also remembers it as a place of pilgrimage. In the twentieth century, a monastic settlement was raised near this cave, belonging to the Monastery of Saint Catherine.
Named after the Monastery of Sinai, St. John was also called the Climacus or scholar because of his vast culture, but mostly he was called ‘the Ladder’, due to his work, ‘the Ladder of Divine Ascent’.
“The Ladder of Divine Ascent” or the ladder towards Heaven is the most important work of Blessed John, which became an ascetical model for both monks and laymen. In this book St. John describes the spiritual ascent towards heaven as going through 30 steps, a clear reference to the 30 years of the life of Christ, before beginning His public ministry. ‘The Ladder’ begins with an introduction on monasticism, focusing on renouncing the world and on self-denial. The following 23 chapters of this book deal with sins and virtues in a successive order. St John affirms that these steps are not to be regarded as steps that can be left behind, but as spiritual states that need to be maintained and deepened, and to the extent of this understanding, one can advance further.
St. John Climacus is commemorated every year on March 30th, and on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent.
“One can climb – at once – to the 30th step by practicing humility and love. Because, love and humility surpass any virtue”.
(Metropolitan Anthonie Plamadeala)
Found mostly in older churches and monasteries, “The Ladder to Heaven” is the iconographic image of St. John Climacus book called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. The book and the icon are also known as “Leastvita,” in Slavonic “the ladder”.
St. John Climacus lived between 579-649 in the monastic community of St. Catherine of Mount Sinai; for many struggles he took on in this monastery, he is also called “St. John of Sinai”.
St. John entered the Sinai community at the age of 16, after having been instructed in many sciences of the time. For about nineteen years, the saint had as holy confessor, the Blessed Martyrios of Sinai. After the passing away of his elder, St. John withdraws into the desert, in the cell called Thola(s), few kilometers from the monastery of Sinai. In this solitary place, Saint John will continue his ascetic struggle for forty years.
At the request of the monastic community of Mt. Sinai, St. John became the abbot and spiritual instructor of the convent. Later, at the request of Blessed John form Raitt, saint John will write “The Latter of Divine Ascent”, a book divided into thirty chapters or steps necessary for salvation. This work was translated into many languages and became an important part of the Philokalia.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent in iconography
According to the writings of Dionysius of Furnas, recorded in his book “The Erminia of Byzantine painting”, the icon often called “The ladder of/to Heaven” is closely related to the work of St. John of the Ladder. It should be noted that the ladder of salvation does not pertain only to the monastics, but also to the Christians in the world, whether married or not (see commentaries of St. Theophan the Recluse on The Ladder, Instructions for the layman).
A monastic community is depicted at the bottom of the icon, on both the right and the left sides. Monks of different ages are represented standing at the gate of the monastery and looking towards the ladder. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, shows thirty steps by the number of chapters (stages) written in St. John Climacus’ book. In some iconographic representations, the Ladder has 33 steps according to the number of years Christ lived on earth.
The Ladder is placed in an inclined position with its lower-end supported on the ground and its upper-end touching the Heaven. Monks are represented on the entire length of the ladder, climbing towards Heaven. These monks are an imagine of the spiritual life: some are just reflecting, others set foot on the first step, some are climbing slowly, others rise more quickly, some other fall off the ladder (from all levels), while others reach its end where Christ awaits them.
The top of the ladder depicts many angelic figures, each helping one monk on his way to salvation; while some monks are just guided by the angels, others are taken by the hands. At the bottom of the ladder, we can see more or less creepy figures, which represent the devils, each striving to pull down a soul. Some monks look unhindered towards Christ, while others barely keep one foot on every single step. Few angels are working to remove the demons with long spears.
At the last portion of the ladder, our Savior is portrayed in a bright medallion/ light. The monk on the last rung of the ladder is depicted as being old and wise, clothed in humility and looking towards Christ. In return, our Savior catches him by the hand, while crowing his head with the crown of victory.
At the bottom of the icon, a terrifying dragon with its mouth wide open imagines hell. Between the sharp teeth of the dragon is a fallen monk, while others are about to fall.
In some iconographic representations, St. John Climacus himself is painted directing the monks towards salvation, while holding a paper roll in his hands that reads: “My brother struggle with all thy power so you may be pardoned from your many wretched sins. With many hard labors and good deeds on those steps rise up, awaking your mind with exhausting vigils.”
“Thy nativity, O Christ our God,
has shown to the world the light of wisdom;
for by it, those who worshipped the stars
were taught by a star to adore Thee
the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee.”
The Church of the Nativity and the oldest Church of the Holy Land is situated approximately 8 km from Jerusalem to the east of Bethlehem. Its surrounding covering some 12,000 square meters, include an Orthodox Monastery, a Catholic and an Armenian quarter.
Its foundation begins in the second century, when St. Justin the Martyr identified for the first time the grotto or the cave of the Nativity as been the sacred birthplace of Jesus Christ. The original church was erected quite early – in the year 326 – by Saint Helena the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great .
In 531, the Emperor Justinian the Great gave it a new shape which has been preserved until today. Some of the historical facts about the church are quite interesting. For example, during the invasion of the Persians (in 614), the place was left untouched by the invaders, which were impressed to see the Nativity scene with the Magi from the east dressed in Persian’ costumes.
The entrance into the church is through a carved door, very low into the ground and suggestively called ‘the door of humility”. The tradition testifies that the height of the door was intentionally carved this way by Christians, to prevent non-believers to enter and as a defense to the Muslim’ attacks.
The basilica of the Nativity is divided into four separate longitudinal areas divided by four rows of columns that were built in the Corinthian style. Each row includes 11 columns depicting the apostles of Christ’s with their names written in Greek and Latin. Recent archaeological excavations had revealed part of the old Byzantine mosaics that were covering the original ground-floor of the church.
The Shrine of the Nativity has three altars: a central altar and two others on the side apses. From here, one can descend into a small cave – the Nativity Cave – located just below the central altar.
A silver star fixed in marble represents the place of the manger and is surrounded by fifteen candles that burn continuously. A Latin inscription testifies that: “”Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” („Here the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ”).
The basilica of the Nativity is administered by different Christian denominations. The Cave of the Nativity is under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church.
“From heavenly skies, I hear a song divine,
Thy three Magi, with gifts they come,
From far above, a star that shines
Enlightens the Magi.
That mighty gifts they may bring forth
In white rucksacks, while signing
To One new baby born.
The humble baby lays in peace
And joyful in a manger,
While Holy Virgin sways.
And seeing this,
We all rejoice.
Thy heavenly sky and the whole earth
Are sanctified by Him
Christ our King,
Came to redeem
All those who may believe.
We worship Thee,
Christ long-awaited Savior,
Eternally being glorified;
From far above, a song divine….”
A Blessed Nativity to all my readers!
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THE GREAT MARTYR OF ALEXANDRIA St. Catherine is one of the early Church most beloved Saints, honored and esteemed for over 1,600 years. She lived in Alexandria during the time of the Emperor Maxentius at the beginning of the fourth century. She was not only a lady of stunning beauty and considerable wealth, but had also been blest to be the recipient of a first-rate education, the best education that money could buy in that age. She was thoroughly tutored in all of the philosophy, history, science, and poetry of the ancients: Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Galen, and so forthand she excelled at logic, rhetoric, and languages. All who knew her were astonished at her brilliance.
As one would expect, many of the rich and famous sought her hand in marriage, for in addition to all that we have just mentioned, she was an heiress to a throne. However, Catherine was not particularly interested in all of these proposals of marriage. She let it be known that the man she would marry would have to be young, and would have to be her equal in wealth, wisdom, beauty, and compassion. Any petitioner for her hand less than her equal in all these things rendered him automatically unworthy. So it was that all potential suitors were decisively stopped in their tracks. Even the son of the emperor himself, though certainly wealthy and apparently compassionate, lacked wisdom and beauty.
Since this meant that her daughter would likely not in the circumstances find a spouse at all, St. Catherine mother sought the counsel of a wise and saintly ascetic, who lived on the outskirts of Alexandria. The holy man listened to the story of the girl life and of her resolve not to marry an inferior, which actually denoted her determination not to marry at all. Since this man was a Christian, he decided to tell the young lady of Christ Jesus and His teachings. I can direct you to a magnificent man, a man who is lordly and majestic in his bearing, who is wise and wealthy beyond your greatest dreams, who is compassionate beyond compare, and whose beauty causes the very sun itself to fade. Catherine was, needless to say, astonished, believing that the hermit was speaking of some extraordinary but still wholly earthly man. When she asked whose son this wondrous person might be, he replied that this man had no earthly father. He was, said the ascetic, born of a holy Virgin, who is the very Queen of Heaven and Earth and who is honored and served by the angels.
Catherine asked how she might see and meet the young man of whom the hermit spoke, to which the old man replied that he was prepared to instruct her so that she might someday look upon the eternal and excellent man. Young Catherine was not sure why it was so, but she nevertheless was moved by the warm expression on the old man face to place her trust in him. Giving her an icon of the Holy Virgin Mother holding the Child Christ, the hermit told her to pray before it and ask the Holy Virgin to grant her the privilege of seeing Him whom she was seeking.Catherine returned home and that night prayed, as she had been instructed. Soon, she fell deeply asleep and dreamt of the Holy Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, as they appeared in the icon she had been given. In her dream, the Child kept his gaze on His mother, but away from young Catherine.
The Holy Virgin spoke to Him, saying, Look, my Son, at Your beautiful and pious servant, Catherine.
The Child answered, No, she is not beautiful but ugly and unbelieving, and I will not look at her.
The Holy Mother implored Him again, saying, But she is among the wisest, wealthiest, and most beautiful of people in the world.
No, he responded, she is silly and ignorant and I will not let her see me.
However, he added, if she will return to the man who gave her the icon and follow his instructions rigorously, then she will someday see me and be consoled.
Upon arising from sleep, Catherine immediately went with her entourage to see the hermit again, and upon reaching his cave, bowed deeply before him. She told him of the dream and begged him to instruct her fully in the Christian faith.
She, being very gifted, soon absorbed all of the ascetic teaching about God glory, of His creation of the world, of the mission of Christ God here on Earth, of the wonders of Heaven, and of the terrors of hell. Soon, she consented to be baptized.
The night after her baptism, she dreamt again of the Mother and Child, but this time Christ said, Before she was poor, and now she is rich; before she was ignorant, and now she is truly wise; before she was proud, and now she is humble. She is now worthy and I accept her as my bride.
Christ then placed a ring on her hand, saying, Today, I take thee as my bride, for all eternity.
It happens that at this time the Emperor demanded that the people of Alexandria show their loyalty to the state through their devotion to the old gods, and so they were instructed to offer animal sacrifices to the idols; Catherine refused. Instead she publicly proclaimed her devotion to the one God who had given Himself over to be crucified for the sake of humanity. I am the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ, she insisted.
She, a prominent person, was arrested for outraging the pagan gods, and detained. Thereafter, she was examined by various scholars and philosophers, who attempted to win her away from the Christian Faith she had adopted. Instead, she convinced them.The Emperor was furious and ordered that they be burned, but God intervened and none were harmed. Maxentius then used promises of great fortune alternating with threats of terrible calamity to try himself to win Catherine away from her newfound religion. It was to no avail. She was then flogged and tortured. She was, among other things, attached to a huge wheel edged with sharp blades, but it fell apart before it could do harm. Finally, his patience exhausted, the Emperor ordered her executed by beheading. Before her repose, she spoke these words, Do not grieve, but rather bejoyous, for I go now to meet my Savior, my Creator, and my Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. In His Heavenly Kingdom I shall reign with him for ever more. Do not cry therefore for me, but for yourselves who will soon suffer greatly. She then was executed. Immediately, her body was taken by angels to Mount Sinai, where later it was discovered by pious monks who built a monastery at the site. That monastery, named for St. Catherine, still stands and there, to this day, the relics of the Great Martyr are still honored.
“The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Indeed that has proven true, time and again, for 2,000 years. Early Christians noted that the more the pagan state tried to obliterate them by mowing them down, the more of them that sprang up afterwards, until Christianity came to be the religion of the whole of the civilized world. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once commented that faith does not make Martyrs, Martyrs make faith, and what he meant by this is that Martyrs, by their blood, energize and vivify a faith that may otherwise be a mere intellectual exercise, and demonstrate by their towering and incomparable example its true worth. We sometimes think that Martyrs and Saints were phenomena that abounded in the early centuries of the Faith, but that they are scarce today. That is not so. It is true that the first three centuries of Christianity produced tremendous numbers of Martyrs, but it is correctly noted by scholars & historians that there have been more Christian Martyrs in our own twentieth century than in any other era of history, and just as the martyrdoms of the early era presaged a flowering of Christianity after the opening of the fourth century, so the tens of millions of Martyrs of our time are harbingers of world-shaking events yet to come, events that will proceed from the outpouring of God Grace that accompanies so great a shedding of Christian blood, events that will surely confound those who foolishly believe that Christianity is now a spent force. Martyrs are examples, they are witnesses to truth; the very word martyr means witness in the Greek. They glorify God, and God in turn glorifies them. They stand as brightly-shining beacons that do not dim as the years pass, but that illuminate ever more radiantly with the passage of time. In addition, their supreme act of sacrificing all that is beloved in this world–comfort, beauty, prestige, popularity, material goods, and earthly life itself–places the things of this world in their true context vis-a-vis the eternal things of heaven.
May all of us learn from the splendid model offered us in the life of the Great Martyr St Catherine of Alexandria, that our pride and love of the treasures of this earth must give way to humility before God, and to love of the treasures of the spirit.
(article by Fr. James Thornton)
The Monastery of St. Katherine from Sinai
Located at the bottom of Mount Sinai, where Moses once received the Tables of the Law, the Monastery of Saint Catherine is almost a millennium and a half old and one of the most famous pilgrimage centers of Orthodoxy, a citadel of spirituality,a patristic and a Research Center.
The monastery dating back 1400 years in the desert of Sinai, has retained the original features from the time of the reign of Emperor Justinian (257-565 AD). From Muhammad, the founder of Islam, to Muslims and Turkish sultans, passing through the era of Napoleon, all took the monastery under their protection. In its long history, the Monastery of Saint Catherine has never been conquered, damage or destroyed. Across all ages, it kept intact the image of the sacred place of the Bible and placed a light on the events of the Old Testament and the continuity of praising God through our Lord Jesus Christ. and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Monastery of Saint Catherine had crossed history as an oasis of Christianity and it is an independent, autocephalous monastry. It is practically the smallest Orthodox patriarchate in the world, its leader being also its Abbot.
The tradition tells us that, in the year 337, holy Empress Helena (the finder of the Cross of our Lord Jesus) built a shrine around the site, following the tradition that this was the place of the burning bush and the unconsumed fire, where God first spoke to Moses. The chapel has attracted thousands of pilgrims and eremites which seeked safety in the wilderness of Sinai, during the Christians persecution.
However, continuous attacks of neighboring nomadic tribes have made the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, to transform the sanctuary in a monastery-fortress.
Holy Great Martyr Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us!
This fresco depicting “the life of the genuine monk” is especially found in older Orthodox monasteries. Although this fresco depicts “the steadfast monk – the Christ’ follower,” we should also affirm that it represents “the one true Christian” who regardless of his social status, is a follower of Christ through his actions.
The genuine monastic is he who dies for the world to take on a permanent battle with his passions and his thoughts until his last breath. Ordinary Christian, married or not, has the same duty, to die to the world and start the same battle towards passions until the end.
Since the path to Christ’ Kingdom is narrow and rough, it is clear that the Christian whether be a monk or a layman, faces similar difficulties. St. John Chrysostom referring to the great labor toward salvation of both monastics and laymen alike, said: “The only difference between a layman and a monk is that the first is married and the other is not.”
The fresco representing the true monastic is usually depicted in the entrance of the church near other icons such as “the Ladder of Divine ascent” and “the Dreadful Judgment.”
In the center of the icon, the monk is showed as been crucified, dressed in his black cassock, barefooted, with his feet nailed to the bottom of the cross; his face is peaceful and his eyes and his mouth closed. To his right it is written: “Place a watch oh Lord upon my mouth.”
In his hands, he holds two burning torches, and an inscription near this says: “Thus, let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds.” On his chest, he lays a parchment baring the words: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
On his womb, another writing will say: “Oh man, do not be deceived by gluttony.” Bellow his womb, another inscription writes: “Kill the members of thy earthly man!” Then, bellow his knees: “Prepare your feet for the Gospel of peace.”
At the top of the cross, a paper chiseled in stone depicts the following: “As for me, I will boast only in the cross of my Lord.
Both arms of the cross bare a seal at the end. The seal on the right bares the word: “And ye shall be hated by all for my name’ sake, but he who endures to the end shall be saved.” The seal at the left says: “Anyone of you, who does not renounce all that he has, cannot be my disciple.” And the seal at the bottom of the cross, placed under his feet, writes: “Narrow is the gate and rough is the path that leads to salvation and few are those that find it.”
A dark cave with a dragon coiled inside is represented at the right side of the cross, near which it is written: “the consuming/eternal hades.” Above the mouth of the dragon, a naked young man with his eyes tied by a knot, holds a bow with its arrow pointing at the monk asking: “Commit fornication!” A name is written over the young man as: “the lover of fornication.” Many snakes are depicted above the cave, which suggest: “our thoughts.” A demon is portrayed near this scene with a rope pulling away the cross and saying: “You cannot bare it!” And on the right side of the cross, another small cross is placed with a flag upon which is written: “I can do all through Christ, Who has clothed me with power.”
A tower and a gate are seen at the left side of the cross. A man clothed in gold and fur, riding a white horse passes through this gate holding a glass of wine in his right hand and a spear in his left hand. Above his spear it is written: “Take pleasure in the riches of this world, the vain world!”
A hole is drawn behind this rider and death coming out, wearing a big coat over its shoulders and a clock upon its head, upon which it is writing: “Death and the grave.”
Two angels are depicted near the monk arms on both sides, each holding a paper in his hands; the angel from the right bares: “God sent me to your strength ” and the angel from the left: “Do good and do not be afraid.”
At the top of the cross lies the open sky, where Christ stands with the open Gospel upon His chest that reads: “If any man wants to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. ” In His right hand He holds a crown, and in His left a wreath of flowers. Immediately below our Savior, two angels are looking at the monk holding a long parchment where it is written: “Fight the good fight so you may receive the crown of righteousness.”