Title from original article in SF Sunday Call

The Madonna of Alaska

A Tale of the Greek-Russian Church in Many Lands



By the Very Rev. Sebastian Dabovich
of the Trinity Cathedral

Bells in the early morn, in the frosty air, resounding far over the tablelands of Herzegovina. The roads are thick with groups of brightly dressed peasantry. "Christos se rodi!" (Christ is born) is the universal greeting.

Bang! Bang! Flutters by on horseback the Herzegovinian, his silvermounted long pistols still smoking from beneath his decorated wide girdle. The Servian hearty "voistinu se rodi!" (indeed he is born) is the response in every quarter. Be it the spirited Montenegrin or the sedate Bosnian, to either, who worship in the Orthodox Catholic church, the collects and carols of this blessed season are alike appealing and the effect is unifying, harmonious.

"O Christ our God, upon the world thy birth hath shined the light of knowledge; for at it they that served the stars were taught by a star to worship thee, the sun of righteousness, and to know thee, the dayspring from on high. Glory to thee, O Lord."

This Troparion chanted in tone the forth is the same note of celebration for the faithful in Egypt or in Syria.

General Lewis Wallace might have enriched with more history, and might have more abundantly adorned with the oriental gorgeous and subtile imagination the good chapter on the Magi in the Ben-Hur. Jerusalem was the place of meeting and Bethlehem was the destination of the wise men from the Far East, who studied the stars and the heavens. They hailed from Persia, Arabia, and Ethiopia. They were the three Princes--Melchior, old and gray, with long hair and long beard, who brought gold unto the Lord King; the second was Gaspar, young, with beardless glowing face-he offered incense to God incarnate; the third was Baltazar, dark and hairy--he gave myrrh to the child Jesus, as to mortal--the Son of Man.

On a clear Christmas night in the Holy Land, if you look you can see in the heavens, the Polar star, which by a direct line may bring you to the Arctic Circle. But it is very unhospitable there in December, and so we shall make our stop near by in Moscow with 1,060,000 inhabitants to warm the great city.

On this holy day the numerous churches are continuously filled with dense crowds "of the flock." According to Bishop Grafton, who recently visited Russia, three-fourths of the great congregation are men. (See B. G.'s letter published in the "Living Church" of Milwaukee during the first part of November.) Moscow, with her historical Kremlin; Moscow, with all her works of valor, defeat and victory; Moscow, with her saints, is to-day the heart of orthodoxy.

Here, in modern times, lived the great man Philaret. He was the great Bishop of a great city. He flourished between 25 and 69 of the XIX century. This old man, but young philosopher, thus taught one Christmas day:

The Evangelist Matthew repeatedly observes that all the circumstances and events which signalized the birth upon earth of our Incarnate God and Savior Jesus Christ were not merely a concurrence of circumstances and events, but were an exact fulfillment of prophetical predictions. An observation this, important not only to the Jews--who would not view even that which might be examined by the natural eye, otherwise than through the vision glass of the prophets--but also to every one who wishes to discover the workings of Providence in the entangled paths of men, and to discern the hand of God in the events of the world. Is it not evidently a work of God, when something foretold several years ago is exactly fulfilled? And, above all, when that is fulfilled, which, according to ordinary ideas and calculations, seemed impossible of fulfillment?

As though she stood before his eyes, does Isaiah point to the most blessed Virgin Mary, behold, a virgin; at a time, when not only this virgin herself, but even her parents and her forefathers, had not as yet come into the world; behold, says he, a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son. What sayest thou, O Prophet? Can a virgin conceive? Can she, who giveth birth, still be a virgin? If this be possible, then how can it be accomplished in the nation to whom thou foretellest this event? If even it be fulfilled, then how can this be the sign, the evident and trustworthy sign, which thou foretellest? The Lord himself shall give you a sign (Isaiah vii., 14). If thou dost indeed see this daughter of David, to whom thou pointest, saying, behold, a virgin; if thou seest her in the far distant from the birthplace of David, and despised Nazareth, an orphan, poor, and with no marks of her royal descent, espoused to a carpenter, then tell us, how shall the Lord give that sign, that she should appear a virgin of the line of David, giving birth to her child in the house and in the city of David, namely, as another prophet appointed, in Bethlehem?

"See, then, how faithfully the Lord himself answers for the truth of the prophecy: The Holy Ghost came upon Mary, and the power of the Highest overshadowed her (St. Luke 1., 35); and she conceived being still a virgin; and having become the mother of the son, nevertheless remained a virgin. In order that those who were unacquainted with the mystery of this conception should not be able to malign her who had conceived, she was betrothed to her husband before that conception; and that to every healthy mind this sign of the Lord might be clear, that a virgin had conceived without a husband, the conception followed the espousals, even before they came together (St. Matt. 1:24), even before Joseph took unto him his wife (St. Matt. 1:19) into his house. To Joseph himself an angel was sent to reveal this mystery, and to show him this sign, so that he should not remain in doubt; while to others, who could neither see nor hear angels, a no less trustworthy witness of the sign and herald of the mystery was given in the person of Joseph himself, who was known to all as a just man (St. Matt. 1:19), and therefore was unable to deceive people, and still less able to slander God and the Holy Spirit.

* * *

A comfortable coach on a fast train will now take us a distance of many hundred miles in a very few days, and, if we choose, we may get out either at Nishe or Uskub from where, if we brave the attempt to trudge the highways, we may soon be among the villages of Macedonia. Christmas in Macedonia was never a holiday of toys, nor a feast, only for the young, and surely this year is not a bright exception. The unfortunate people of this sad country, represented mainly in its serious men, now perhaps more faithfully than ever before, chant the angelic doxology: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men," in their churches plundered by the Albanians, with undoubting faith in the might of the little child of Bethlehem, Jesus in the manger without a home.

This Slavonic people commence their Christmas with the sunset of the 24th of December, according to the Julian calendar, when they go to church for vespers. After the service they go to their homes, which they neatly fix up in holiday order, decorated with greens; then they light a pure beeswax candle before a sacred picture of the nativity of our Lord, or before the image of the patron saint of the family, as the case may be. This is usually superintended by the mother and the female portion of the household, while the boys or young men bring in fresh straw, which they lay abundantly upon the floor, after which they light the fire in an open hearth with the fire taken from the blessed candle. Now food is brought and supper is served in a plate which each one holds in his lap, sitting in the straw upon the floor. No flesh meat or fish is eaten, but usually a porridge; a small cake flour fried in olive oil with currants is customary; dried figs and different kind of nuts are also in abundant supply.

During the repast the father of the family, or the old man of the community, goes out and soon comes back with a log, or with the trunk of a young tree, which he lays over the fire. All the men present do likewise in turn. This is the "Badniak," or yule log. When it is not a branch with greens, it is decorated. The "Domachin," or host, pours a little wine over the Badniak, besprinkles it with a little grain, then, wishing all present a merry Christmas, they partake of the wine. While they quietly sit upon the straw one of their number takes up the guisli (one of the most primitive musical instruments known to mankind) and without book or writing relates in a melancholy tone long and complete histories of his people, but on this occasion more chants are devoted to the holy child, who was this night laid in the manger. In the meantime another keeps turning over the fire a lamb or a pig which is meat for the morrow. Black coffee is served. The vigil is closing. Just at the break of dawn the bells sound the hour for matins and the people go to church. Most of the women, who previously have been to holy communion, return after matins to prepare the repast, while the men in a body remain for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. After the feast the young enjoy their open air games, especially the ring dance, which is made up of momke and devojke--lads and maids. The old smoke and chat.

Here is the border line of Bulgaria. Shall we step across to say merry Christmas to the more than 14,000 innocents? These children are in danger of being slaughtered as lambs when the spring comes. The Mussulman army even now is nigh at hand. Should the Slavic prove to have a backbone and a human will--many hundred thousands Mohammedan fanatics will come over from Asia willingly. It is difficult to believe that the population of Bulgaria are ignorants as might be suggested by their poverty. One of our best commentaries on the New Testament belongs to St. Theofilaktus of Bulgaria.

A trip to Byzantium is worth the while. Would you have me show you Constantinople? Ah, I am sorry, but a single view is beyond my ability to portray its grandeur. Here is the pulpit of the sublime Chrysostom. Christmas Matins. The slender figure of the Saint ascends. The choir chants the last ode of the canon in all the beauty of the Greek classic tongue: "A mystery strange and wondrous I beheld. The cave is heaven, the virgin is the throne of cherubim, the manger is the place where the incomprehensible is laid, Christ our God, whom, singing, we magnify."

Ah, that the heavenly music would resound once more in the Cathedral of St. Sophia. I believe the Greeks no longer trust to the friendship of the Turks. We need not recall the struggle of their kingdom with the Ottoman empire last year. We find ourselves again about Stamboul. It may be in a different form of existence and in a different mode of crushing and annihilating: still they suffer. We have not far to go to recall how Gregory, the Patriarch, was hung at his door on Easter day. Many other eminent men were put to death in Adrianople, Cyprus, the Ionian Islands, in Anatolia and Mount Athos in the same year of 1821.

Although the unwelcome stranger is in their home, yet I feel at home with the fathers, who on Christmas day, as so many trumpets of the Divine Spirit, poured forth such volumes of profound lore, with such divine reasoning clothed in the rhetoric of the golden age, and who only commenced the eulogy--that shall pass beyond the expression of human speech--when mankind, let us hope, will be something more than human; the homily and praise on the occasion of the nativity of Jesus Christ, which will ever go on, world without end, to enrich the inquiries of reason concerning the little babe. Among such commencers were the holy fathers--Cyril of Jerusalem, Eustathius of Antioch and Athanasius of Alexandria.

I must be pardoned if I have forgotten the reader. The appetite should be considered if one takes the newspaper to the breakfast table. Be it plum pudding or turkey, each and both will be digested better with a little "side" of readable matter. I presume I am permitted to leave the fathers of ages and to say something of the children of today, yes the children of the living world. Is this not the season of children?

There is a pretty custom in the several provinces of Little Russia, in which children take the chief part at Christmas time. On the eve, when the night has set in, the lads of the community, previously clubbed together for the occasion, go about from house to house with a brightly decorated star, in the center of which is anilluminated picture of the nativity. The star revolving around the scene of the place of Christ's birth, the delighted children sing their bright carols to the pleasure of every one in the place. As a matter of course the children are stowed with all the goodies that the country can afford.

Strange as it may appear this same custom prevails among the creoles of Kodiak and Sitka in Alaska. The prominent music with them in their nocturnal procession on this occasion is the Church Kontakion in tone the third: "To-day the virgin beareth him who is above all essence, and earth offereth the inaccessible a cave. Angels with shepherds glorify, and the Magi journey with the star. For our sake he hath been born a little child--he God before the worlds."

On Christmas day we worship the child and son, but what of the virgin, the handmaid Mary? Mother--she, too, is glorified, she is crowned the Queen of Saints. A number of tourists in this country have seen the old wooden cathedral in the old town of Sitka, Alaska. In a chapel thereof they have seen the beautiful copy of Our Lady of Kazan. The original of this Madonna is treasured in the beautiful Kazanski Sobor in St. Petersburg on the Nevski Prospect, midway between Nikolaevski railway station and the Annichkin Palace. The miraculous Madonna was found several hundred years ago by a little girl in the outskirts of the city of Kazan. The gems and hand-beaten robes of gold with which it is ornamented (the faces and hands being left open) are of inestimable value. The copy in Sitka cannot be compared in wealth of material worth, but the painting is far superior. The humble monk or nun who accomplished this work may never be known. The Madonna of Sitka is a pearl of Russian ecclesiastical art, which cannot but strike every lover of pure and holy art. The countenance of the Virgin and of the Holy Child are "sweeter than the radiance of stars" and the mildest light. It was a true artist's brush that produced this heavenly face of ineffable mildness. The charm and novelty of the ecclesiastical type lies in its entire harmony with the reverential purity of true religious inspiration.

The Virgin and Child of Cignani, the Holy Family of Morando, the touching portrayals of Jesus' divine childhood by Doici, the unspeakably ingenuous treatment if the same sacred subject by the immortal Murillo, the severe simplicity of Perugino, the various versions of the same theme under the bold brush of that great genius, Raphael Sanzo, from the Madonna Della Sedia to that of San Sisto--all these are immense and matchless creations, the pride and glory of the painter's craft; and even after having admired and enjoyed those priceless gems, one will still be able to look on this modest product of Russian ecclesiastical art with a serene and prayerful feeling, subdued by the loftiness of the orthodox type, the concentrated force which lies in its very gentleness. The traveler in the distant lands of waterfalls and cataracts will feel compelled to say, as he stands in the Kazan chapel of the cathedral at Sitka: Although the Sistine Madonna stands supreme in the world of painting, still the orthodox Madonna of Sitka has a divine beauty of her own.

San Francisco, Nov. 30, 1903.

The San Francisco Sunday Call--Christmas Number, December 20, 1903, p. 2:1.


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