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(Soure) Valeriu Gafencu was born on the 24th of January* 1921, in the Northern part of Romania, near the Russian border of that time. His parents were both active Orthodox Christians. His father was to be deported to Siberia by the Russians in 1940 for his pro-Romanian activity. When he was in high-school, Valeriu joined an Orthodox youth organization called the Cross Brotherhoods, and, when this became illegal during the second World War, he was arrested and condemned to 25 years of hard labour. He was only 20 and, at his trial, his fellow students and teachers would come and defend him, pointing out his innocence and wonderful human qualities. At first he was sent to a prison called Aiud.

The first years were a time to reflect upon his Christian legacy. He would soon become engaged in a life of prayer, while avidly reading the Fathers of the Church. During the war, although Romania had a dictatorial regime, prison life was not so strict and some fundamental human rights were still considered: the prisoners could go to the prison’s church, confess to a priest and receive the Holy Communion and also meet with each other and read books of their own choice. So Valeriu read a lot: the Holy Bible, the first 4 volumes of the Philokalia (which were then just being translated into Romanian by another holy figure of the church, Father Dumitru Staniloaie, who would also encounter the communist prisons some years later) and other Church Fathers.

Valeriu spent time in Aiud prison, Pitesti prison, and finally died at Tirgu Ocna prison. Much could be said about this holy person, but for the time being we will let his poetry be an example of the great spiritual depth he acquired through suffering.

I offer three excerpts of the saint’s own writings regarding his experiences and expression of Christmas during his years as a prisoner. These are taken from the book The Saint of the Prisons:

Christmas 1945 (A letter from Valeriu)

It is night. I have just finished reading the Akathist to the Lord. Christmas was more beautiful than a fairy tale. Spiritually, I feel better prepared than I have in other situations. Through the weight of the suffering I endureed for the resurrection of my soul, I felt the resposibility that bore down on me for the salvation of my soul, and those of my family, relavtives, friends, enemies, all people.

And the more I climbed up the ladder of ideals, the more I saw my own smallness, my sinfulness, while I saw the ideal ever more lofty, perfect: Christ! And behold, little by little, all ideals of my adolence came tumbling down. My struggle with sin removed the veil that covered my eyes and what remained before me, vivid and serene, was the icon of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Thus we succeeded in establishing peace with all our neighbours, through being trod underfoot, through recognizing our sins, through love. And I felt so much peace on Friday, when I stood before the priest! Many of us received Communion. What a great day, what a beautiful day! I experienced it fully, with all the blessings sent by the Lord!

First Christmas Poem:

O roaming star from the East,

With white rays of gold,

Glides toward the bright blue

Of the heavens vividly blooming.

And the star announces the Child Messiah

Born of the Virgin Mary.

A gentle lamb looks at Him and wants to kiss

The child bathed in light.

A mother with her child at breast,

Pure in love, looks with wonder

At the fulfillment of the Annunciation.

A Holy Child is born in the starry night

Of the Holy Virgin and the Holy Spirit;

The true Word of Father

Comes down today on earth

A beacon forever lit!

Second Christmas Poem:

In the heart of the servant

The Lord makes His manger

On the night of Christmas…

Lilies rain down from heaven

Upon His new manger

And dew drops down from heaven.

May the holy, suffering martyr Valeriu bestow upon us his blessing!

Below are two chapters of a sixteen-chapter novelette I wrote about the great Czech king and martyr Weneceslaus (St. Vaclav as he is also called in the Orthodox Church). His title was actually Duke of Bohemia but he was named “King” posthumously as an honour. The novelette (which, God willing, will be published with Lumination Press someday) is based on true events and real people in his life. (Podevin, for example, was believed to be the name of the saint’s faithful page). The famous Christmas carol Good King Weneceslaus tells of a miracle the saint worked on the “feast of Stephen” which we in the Orthodox Church celebrate on December 27. St. Vaclav’s feast day is September 28, and his holy grandmother St. Ludmilla’s feast day is September 16. Enjoy!

Chapter One:

He who gives to the poor will lack nothing” (Proverbs 28:27)

The night was dark, the sky rich with the light of many stars. The white snow lay sparkling as it reflected the glow of the half moon. Every now and again a gusty wind swept the snow up into a spiral, dancing.

“Even the earth rejoices in Your birth, O Lord!” the Duke of Bohemia whispered as he gazed out from a large window of Prague castle. 

“Sire, could I offer you a cup of hot wine?” the page asked, interrupting Duke Václav’s thoughts, having entered the room without notice.

“No, thank you, my good page,” the Duke responded, leaning forward and straining to see a moving figure, hindered by the high snow.

“Podevin, that old man there, gathering wood, do you know him?”

            “Why yes, Sire. That’s Old Hermit Jiří. He lives not far from here,” the young page responded, now standing by his master’s side at the window.

“Where exactly does he live?”

“Oh I would say a mile or so hence, just at the foot of Blaník mountain, quite close to St. Agnes’s spring, in fact.”

“Well then, why don’t we go pay him a visit, and wish him a happy Christmas?”

“But Sire, it’s awfully cold out tonight. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have one of your men in arms go in your stead?”

“No, no, my boy, after all, the Lord King our God became incarnate Himself, He didn’t send someone else in His stead, so neither shall I,” the Duke said, patting the page’s back.

“Say, go fetch some wine and bread. It’s best if we bear some gifts with us for the old hermit,” the Duke told the page.

“Oh, and grab a bundle of kindling as well, would you?” he added.

“May it be blessed, Sire,” Podevin said, bowing to his master and exiting the room.

Václav, finding himself alone, walked over to the illumined corner of his bedchamber and stood before a wooden board in front of which burned a small, red glass oil lamp. On the board was painted an image of the Incarnate Lord, gently held in the arms of His mother.

He who holds all creation in His hand, today is born of a virgin. He whose essence none can touch, today is bound in swaddling clothes as a child. He who in the beginning established the heavens, today is laid in a manger.

“I worship Your birth, O Christ, my King!” the Duke finally said aloud. Crossing himself, he bent low, resting his knees on the ground as he lowered his head.

Hearing footsteps echoing through the corridor he quickly stood up, not wanting anyone to see his moment of reverence.

“Here we are Sire, ready for our visit,” the page said, gesturing toward the basket he held, clearly weighed down by generosity.

“Well done, my boy. Let us be off then.”

They walked down the long passageway together, stopping before exiting the large castle in order to dress appropriately for the cold night.

“We should be plenty warm, don’t you think Podevin?” Duke Václav asked cheerfully.

“I should hope so, Sire,” Podevin responded, betraying a look of doubt.

“Well then, may an angel of peace accompany us, directing our way before the Lord,” the Duke proclaimed, and taking the glass lantern from off the wall he set out.

“Amen, so be it,” the young page contributed, a response he had grown accustomed to sharing.

Chapter Two:

“He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do” (John 14:12)

 Bundled up, bearing light and gifts, the two set off into the night. Vácslav walking confidently ahead while the page, about ten years the Duke’s junior, trudged along behind him as quickly as he could.

The walk to St. Agnes’s spring was nothing short of a stroll in fine weather. Why, the page had often gone there with his father as a child. But the snow made the walk much longer, and the cold much less pleasant.

As time passed the page, only a teenager, fell further and further behind. For each step he took in the snow, it seemed he slipped two feet back.

“Come now, Podevin, give over the basket. You shouldn’t have been carrying it to begin with!”

“No, Sire, please, it’s disgraceful and inappropriate for you to carry it,” the page protested.

“Now, now, don’t think that way. Why, how is it that you expect me, a ruler, to treat the ruled as less important than myself? And especially on this the very day we celebrate the divine condescension of the King of all!

“He who is worshiped by angels, saw fit to be born in a cave alongside dumb beasts. No, I don’t think myself worthier than any other. I’m just His lowly servant, ruling on earth, but desiring only to be ruled by Him,” the Duke finished, taking the basket from his page.

“I’m sorry, Sire, it’s only that the wind blows hard against us and I find the snow too high to walk through at such a brisk pace.”

“Of course, I understand. Why don’t you step in my imprints instead, I think you’ll find it easier to continue that way,” Václav suggested.

To Podevin’s surprise, not only was walking made easier by stepping in the Duke’s footprints, but indescribable warmth emitted from each one.

How can this be? the page thought. How can the snow, imprinted by the Duke’s stride, give off warmth?

But knowing his master well he abstained from asking such burning questions. He knew from experience it always made the Duke uncomfortable when someone pointed out the benefits and comforts that came of his words, his ways, his very gaze.

“Where to?” Václav asked, gesturing toward the wall of forest they had come upon. “Can you remember where the old father’s hut is from here?”

“Yes, Master, it’s there, through the trees and to our right. We’re not at all far now.”

They continued trekking along through the snow, now significantly more high – though noticeably contributing to the Duke’s joy.

“How I love this blessed white!” he exclaimed.

“There, Sire, draw your light over here. I believe that is Old Hermit Jiří’s hut.”

“So it must be,” the Duke said.

And drawing closer the two were both surprised to see the door to the hut open before they were even a stone’s throw away from it.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the old man called out, opening wide the door of his small hut. His thick grey beard and scruffy hair were illuminated by the light coming from behind him.

“Greetings, my good man,” the Duke said in his deep and cheerful voice. “Christ is born!” he called out, still in the thick of the forest.

“Glorify Him!” the old man responded, smiling and bowing low to greet the ruler of his homeland.

“You were expecting us?” the page asked, surprised by the way the hermit conducted himself, as if he had invited them and was anticipating their arrival for some time now.

            “All who arrive are invited, and not even one passes by who is not,”  the old hermit answered, his eyes sparkling the reflection of light from Václav’s lantern.

“Come in, come in! May my humble abode be as comforting to you as your majestic castle,” the hermit said, guiding them further into the one room that appeared to make up the entire hut.

***You can read Chapters 3 and 4 here.***

Father John and I hope and pray you all have a very Blessed Feast of the Holy Nativity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We thank you all for your continued prayers and encouragement and glorify God for His great goodness in connecting us with so many of you.

Please keep our ministry and our wonderful parishioners in your prayers!

Fr. John translated the below homily by Bishop Augoustinos Kantiotes last year. It is so good I just had to share it again this year.

Beloved in Christ, I would like to ask you a question; I ask it of myself and I ask it of you. Are we prepared to celebrate the great feast of Christmas?

There are two kinds of preparation; material and spiritual. Our material preparation is more or less finished. Housewives have cleaned their houses, husbands have finished – or have almost finished – their shopping, and children await their presents. Everyone has written their Christmas cards, signing them with the customary, ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’. This is worldly preparation; I am not interested in this. What I am interested in is spiritual preparation, the kind of preparation which makes us ready to celebrate the great event of the Incarnation of the Divine Word as is proper. Only a small number have properly prepared themselves. Of one thousand Christians, I doubt if even one celebrates Christmas truly. Does my estimate seem exaggerated? Let us see.

How is Christmas celebrated today? A portion of Christians will celebrate it ‘typically’, let us say. Hearing the bells on Christmas Eve, they will go and take part in the service out of habit. This is certainly better than being absent altogether; it is something at least.

Others will imitate foreign customs and practices, forgetting the ecclesiastical celebration altogether; in other words, they will pass Christmas Eve without the scent of Christ. For Orthodox Christians, Christmas is meaningless if it is celebrated without church services, without prayer, without confession, without Holy Communion, without forgiveness, without almsgiving. Indeed, the devil has sown a new seed in our homeland, and it is sprouting up everywhere like mushrooms grow in manure. On Christmas Eve people put on these reveillon – a foreign custom and a foreign word – they put on parties in luxurious hotels and other such places, far from the Church, far from hymns, far from the Divine Liturgy, where people gather and amuse themselves with worldly music, with food, with drink and whatever follows from these things. Such a practice is a thorn in the field of our homeland. If it continues to spread, the spirit of secularization will overtake the Christian feast altogether.

Some, then, celebrate Christmas ‘typically’, others put on these reveillon and trade in the Church feast for something altogether worldly. And still others, what do they do? They leave. They are not satisfied here. Greece is not enough for them. They have money to spare so they take trips and go on tours. On Christmas Eve when the bells are ringing, these people will be far from their homes in different places, and not only in our country. They aren’t satisfied here, so they hop on an airplane and go celebrate Christmas in Rome, in London, in Paris, in different places.

These, beloved, and anyone else who has openly denied the faith, have cast Christmas out of their hearts. For a large number of people, then, Christmas is nothing but another chance to dull their boredom; the actual content of the feast holds no appeal for them. Yes! That day you will have it all! You will have your great salons, your ornate rugs, your curtains, your fancy cutlery, your drinks, your meals, your music, your trips. You will have everything! You will be missing one thing, however. Your will be missing the most valuable thing; the thing which gives the feast meaning! Lacking this thing, what kind of Christmas can you expect to have? Your Christmas will be a Christmas without Christ!

But why? How did this happen? How did things get to this point? This is the age which the Prophet Isaiah foresaw. There will come a day, he said, when men will be drunk without wine. This day has arrived. Contemporary man is, “…drunk, but not with wine.” (Isaiah 29:9) For one to be drunk with wine during these days in undoubtedly a sin, for, drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:10) There is, however, a worse kind of drunkenness: woe to those who are drunk without wine, says Isaiah.

What, then, is contemporary man drunk on? One is drunk on the love of glory. Another is drunk on the love of money; another is drunk on women and indecent sights; another is drunk on card playing, on games of chance; another on an obsession with sports teams; another on plays and films; another on enjoyments and luxuries. I have particularly noticed that a good many are drunk on politics, something which has become a passion only for us in Greece alone. I say this as one who keeps himself out of party politics. Were you to open my heart you would find nothing but my homeland and my Christ. Here in Greece there is a pathological attachment to politics. Even on Christmas Eve, the feast will be overshadowed by discussions of politics. Nowhere else can one find such a phenomenon.

I have also noticed of late that many have become drunk on that strong wine described in the Apocalypse; that wine which the noetic Babylon will give the rulers and the people to drink. This wine, the commentators say, is the pagan spirit, the moral depravity of the world. This wine is so strong that if you were to drink just a few drops, it will cause you to lose your faith, you will forget everything. The strongest wine, then, is not money, or women, or shameful lusts, or other sensual pleasures; it is the cosmopolitan spirit of modern life, it is the emancipation from devotion, knowledge infused with pride, the science of the atheist, the atheistic rebellion, the denial of God and the divinization of man. It is this wine which has made many in our age drunk.

Men are drunk, then, on various wines offered to him by the ruler of this age in his golden cup. Do you know what these men are like? I will show you by means of an example.

I try, with God’s help, to be a teacher. So I travel to a village where I find someone and try to teach him something about Christ, about the faith, about the mysteries. He listens, but the others tell me, “Don’t waste your time, he’s drunk! Don’t bother sitting with him and taking to him!” This is how the world is today…it is drunk without wine! Is it worth speaking to such men?

But I appeal to you, my brothers. I am not speaking to drunks, to those made dizzy by the idols. It is my hope that I speak to the faithful who know but one kind of drunkenness, that holy drunkenness described by the Psalmist who exhorts us to, “…taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 33:8) I hope that you have you ears open for, “Blessed is he that speaketh in the ears of them that will hear.” (Sirach 25:9)

[1]               From the book Εμπνευσμένα Κηρύγματα Ορθοδόξου Ομολογίας και Αγιοπατερικής Πνοής (Orthodoxos Kypseli: Thessaloniki, 2011), 27-31. Translated by Rev Dr John Palmer.

Gerontissa Fevronia of the Holy Dormition Monastery in Panorama, Greece reposed in 2008 at a young age. However, in her time here among us she acquired the wisdom of a great elderess. Below is a translation from this holy mother speaking about the three holy youths whose memory we celebrate today, Decemeber 17.

God was able to interfere so that the three youths would not enter the furnace, and would not that have been a miracle? But there! He let them fall into the forty-some foot furnace. This makes an impression on me. Not that God didn’t act in time to keep them from falling in, but we fall so that we become of God. To face our struggle, to convince God that we are His even while in the furnace, even while in the lion’s den. See, it doesn’t say, “in the fountain of flames they were not burnt”. It could have, but it doesn’t say, “in the fountain of flames they were not burnt,” but rather, “[they] rejoiced in the fountain of flames as though in the waters of rest”.

The great miracle is that [even in the midst of] trials we offer a fountain of rejoicing, of joy, of elation. It is not a great miracle to be thrown to the lions and for them not to eat you. It is, of course, a miracle, but a great miracle is for the lions to become like sheep!

Therefore, for you to be of God is wonderful, even if it is a martyrdom!

-The Ever-Memorable Gerontissa Fevronia Panoramatos

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st. anna

(Source) St Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, was the youngest daughter of the priest Nathan from Bethlehem, descended from the tribe of Levi. She married St Joachim (September 9), who was a native of Galilee.

For a long time St Anna was childless, but after twenty years, through the fervent prayer of both spouses, an angel of the Lord announced to them that they would be the parents of a daughter, Who would bring blessings to the whole human race.

The Orthodox Church does not accept the teaching that the Mother of God was exempted from the consequences of ancestral sin (death, corruption, sin, etc.) at the moment of her conception by virtue of the future merits of Her Son. Only Christ was born perfectly holy and sinless, as St Ambrose of Milan teaches in Chapter Two of his Commentary on Luke.The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in Her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although She committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, She would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from Her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibilty of our salvation is in doubt.

The Conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anna took place at Jerusalem. The many icons depicting the Conception by St Anna show the Most Holy Theotokos trampling the serpent underfoot.

“In the icon Sts Joachim and Anna are usually depicted with hands folded in prayer; their eyes are also directed upward and they contemplate the Mother of God, Who stands in the air with outstretched hands; under Her feet is an orb encircled by a serpent (symbolizing the devil), which strives to conquer all the universe by its power.”

There are also icons in which St Anna holds the Most Holy Virgin on her left arm as an infant. On St Anna’s face is a look of reverence. A large ancient icon, painted on canvas, is located in the village of Minkovetsa in the Dubensk district of Volhynia diocese. From ancient times this Feast was especially venerated by pregnant women in Russia.

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