Theophany 2017

In 1885, the monastery sponsored the construction of a church and school for the Greek community at Raithou, on the coast of the Red Sea. The church was constructed opposite the traditional site of the fourth century monastery where forty monks were martyred in the year 373.

The icons and the iconostasion were brought from Russia. Father Arsenios has done much to adorn the church in recent years.

Many faithful gather for the celebration of Theophany, the Baptism of Christ. Following the Divine Liturgy, we read the Prayers for the Great Blessing of the Waters at a domed shrine in the middle of the courtyard.

From there, we go to the shores of the Red Sea just across the street, where we read the Gospel for the feast, and throw the cross into the water three times. It is retrieved by young men of the parish.

The passage of the Children of Israel through the Red Sea is a type of baptism (I Corinthians 10:2). It seems significant to return to the Red Sea on the feast of the Baptism of Christ.

A Throne of the Cherubim

Μυστήριον ξένον, ὁρῶ καὶ παράδοξον· οὐρανὸν τὸ Σπήλαιον· θρόνον Χερουβικὸν, τὴν Παρθένον· τὴν φάτνην χωρίον· ἐν ᾧ ἀνεκλίθη ὁ ἀχώρητος, Χριστὸς ὁ Θεός· ὃν ἀνυμνοῦντες μεγαλύνομεν.

A strange and wondrous mystery do I behold: the Cave is a heaven, the Virgin a throne of the Cherubim, the manger a place wherein is contained the Uncontainable, Christ God, whom do we magnify in hymns.

(Heirmos of the Ninth Ode of the Canon for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, by Saint John Damascene)

A Sinai ripidion depicts the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in the centre, surrounded by four medallions depicting the six winged Seraphim (Isaiah 6:2), and another four depicting the four Living Creatures that accompany the throne of God (Ezekiel 1:26). It seems especially appropriate at the Nativity of Christ, when we praise the Virgin Mary as a throne of the Cherubim.

The Feast of the Nativity of Christ 2016

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)

And Matthew again saith, that the Wise men coming from the east said, We have seen His Star in the East, and are come to worship Him (Matthew 2:2): and that being brought safe by a Star into the House of Jacob to Emmanuel, did by the gifts which they offered shew, Who He was, Who received their adoration: by the Myrrh first, because it was He, who should die and be buried for the perishable race of man: Gold again, because He is a King, of Whose Kingdom there is no end (Luke 1:33): and Frankincense because He is God, Who was both made known in Judea (Psalm 76:1), and displayed unto those who sought Him not (Isaiah 65:1).

Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.9.2, translated by John Keble and published in Oxford in 1872

Proskomede in the Chapel of the Life-giving Spring

Using one of our own prosphora for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Chapel of the All-holy Theotokos of the Life-giving Spring, τῆς Ὑπεραγίας Θεοτόκου τῆς Ζωοδόχου Πηγῆς.

The Shadow of Saint Stephen’s Cross

At mid-morning, the cross over the Chapel of Saint Stephen casts a shadow on the opposite wall.

The Chapel of Saint Stephen in the Snow

The Chapel of Saint Stephen with a light dusting of snow.

I took these photographs in 1998 with a Nikon Coolpix 900, which had a 1.3 megapixel CCD.

Trapeza Storeroom

The trapeza (refectory) storeroom overlooking the porch behind the Burning Bush

Feast of Saint Catherine 2016

Many pilgrims were present this year for the feast of Saint Catherine. Bishop Joachim came from Jerusalem, and Bishop Nicholas from Alexandria, together with other clergy. Chanters came from Greece and Egypt, and were joined by members of the community.

The vigil began at eight o’clock in the evening, and went on through the night, concluding at five o’clock in the morning.

All the lamps were lit, and the shrine containing the relics of Saint Catherine was adorned with beautiful embroidered covers.

Father Bartholomeos from Jerusalem before the holy table during vespers.

The blessing of the loaves at vespers. They were flavoured with mastika, machlepi, cardamon, and anise. Each pilgrim was presented with a loaf at the end of the service.

Father Nephon begins proskomede.

The right choir.

The left choir.

The shrine of Saint Catherine is visible through the central gate of the iconostasion.

The silver lamp before the icon of the All-holy Theotokos.

Bishop Joachim (on the right) represented the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Bishop Nicholas represented the Patriarch of Alexandria. Archbishop Damianos was present, but remained at the choir during the Liturgy.

Bishop Joachim blessing the faithful with the three- and two-branched candlesticks.

The Divine Liturgy concluded at five o’clock in the morning. It was still dark when we had the procession around the church with the relics of Saint Catherine.

Getting Ready

The menologion icons have been temporarily removed from each column, the capitals have been cleaned, and the brass and silver are being polished in preparation for the feast of Saint Catherine.

Tristram’s Grackle

A number of Tristram’s grackles live in the area. They have black plumage with orange patches on the outer wing. They fly over the monastery, filling the air with their cries.

Tristram’s grackles (Onychognathus tristramii) are named after Henry Baker Tristram, an English clergyman and ornithologist, who travelled throughout the Sahara, Palestine, and Lebanon. In 1873, he became a canon of Durham Cathedral. In 1885, he published The Survey of Western Palestine: The Fauna and Flora of Palestine, in which he wrote,

Tristram’s Grakle. The discovery of this bird in the desolate ravines opening on the Dead Sea is one of especial interest, as it belongs to a group exclusively Ethiopian. This Grakle, known to the visitors to Mar Saba as the Orange-winged Blackbird, appears to be confined to the immediate neighbourhood of the Dead Sea, where it resides throughout the year in small bands, feeding at dawn and sunset. It has no varied notes, but a rich musical roll of two or three notes of amazing power and sweetness, which makes the cliffs ring again with its music. The Grakles are the wildest and shyest of the denizens of these desolate gorges, yet the monks of Mar Saba have succeeded in bringing them into a state of semi-domestication, while enjoying unrestrained liberty. I have never seen this bird elsewhere than round the Dead Sea. In the ravines of the Arnon and Callirrhoë it is more numerous than elsewhere.