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MOSCOW, January 16 - The Russian people’s long-lasting belief in miracles is unshakable, which is confirmed by yet another example - a continuing pilgrimage of citizens to the Gifts of the Magi - a Christian relic that has left Greece for the first time. Against the backdrop of public excitement usually caused by demonstration of foreign relics, skeptical comments can be heard as well, like usual. These comments are confined to the statement that such excitement has little to do with true faith. Besides, some experts doubt the Church’s official version of the relic’s history.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Biblical Magi, or Wise Men, were led by the Star of Bethlehem to the place where the baby Jesus was born. They brought Christ gold, frankincense and myrrh and worshipped him.
The box brought to Russia has part of the original Gifts: three gold plates with a thin filigree ornament with beads from a mix of frankincense and myrrh attached to it on a silver thread. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have said the Gifts of the Magi, which were kept in the Agiou Pavlou (St. Paul’s) monastery on Mount Athos in Greece since the 15th century, are one of the few relics connected with the earthly life of Jesus Christ that have been preserved to the present day.
The legend has it that shortly before her Dormition, or Assumption, the Mother of God passed the relics to two pious women. Later on, the Gifts were brought to Byzantium, and, after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, they were taken to Mount Athos in Greece by Serb Princess Mary.
On January 7-13, when the Gifts of the Magi were displayed in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, over 400,000 pilgrims who stood for many hours in a long line to see the relic worshipped it. The Gifts were then moved to St. Petersburg, where it will be displayed until January 17. After that, the relic will be sent to the Belarusian capital Minsk and then to the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
The situation in Moscow was similar to that in November 2011, when the Belt of the Mother of God, also called the Cincture of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos, was for the first time brought from the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece to Moscow.
The Russian capital’s center was blocked for traffic, and there were kilometers-long lines along the Moskva River embankment , thousands of police officers and Interior Ministry troops, Emergencies Ministry field kitchens and ambulances. People were standing in lines for 8-10 hours. Was it only a religious flush just to touch something bright? It turned out that many people had far more prosaic motivation.
“I just want to be happy as a woman. I have already achieved results in my career,” the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily cited Oxana, a 30-year-old pilgrim from the city of Ivanovo, as saying.
“Our entire family needs health, we’ve been down with a virus. We would also like to improve our living conditions: a two-room apartment is too cramped to live in with my grandsons,” says pensioner Galina Sergeyevna who is standing in the line to worship the Gifts of the Magi in St. Petersburg.
An elderly woman from the town of Tula holding a walking stick is telling her neighbors in the line with tears in her eyes that she had recently learned she had cancer. “The only hope is for the Gifts - the Mother of God herself kept them,” she says.
One of the monks in the Agiou Pavlou monastery, Nicodemus, says: “People who pray before the relic are often cured of infertility, demonic possession, cancer and other serious illnesses. The Gifts often have an unearthly fragrance, which becomes much stronger when the relic is moved out of the sacristy to the center of the church for believers to worship them.” He said there are no doubts that the relic is authentic.
Far from everyone believes in the relic’s authenticity. “Kilometers-long lines to see the miracle are not an extraordinary case, but already a tendency,” the Novye Izvestiya daily writes, recalling that the Belt of the Mother of God also gathered many pilgrims, just as the icon of Our Lady of St. Theodore recently brought to be displayed at an exhibition in downtown Moscow’s Manege exhibition hall.
“We may argue for a long time whether the gold pendants with beads of frankincense and myrrh attached are a recently made fake or are really connected with the early ages of Christianity (at least, the 4th century, when, according to legend, they were transferred from Jerusalem to Constantinople). But a halo of secret multiplied by the tradition of passionate worship chops off any arguments scientists may have,” the newspaper writes. The article’s author believes that “we are steadily and quickly going back to the Middle Ages.”
In his blog on the Echo of Moscow radio station’s website, a UNESCO expert, historian Dmitry Abramov, doubts the Russian Orthodox Church’s official version of the Gifts’ history. “First, no church chronicler reports on any gifts the Theotokos gave the Jerusalem Church,” he writes. “Then, there could be no talk of transferring the Gifts of the Magi in the year 400 by Byzantine Emperor Arcadius (395-408) to Constantinople purportedly 'to sanctify the new capital of the Empire’ because the capital of the Byzantine Empire, New Rome, was sanctified… on May 11, 330!”
The expert quotes a number of ancient sources to state that the gold the Wise Men brought to the baby Jesus was not in the form of plates but gold vessels. Images of such gold vessels in the hands of the Magi were widely known in medieval Europe.
“It should be specially stressed that unlike the Belt of the Mother of God, Byzantium never had any liturgical veneration of gold vessels in which the Wise Men brought Christ their gifts, that is, they were simply never taken out of the St. Sophia church sacristy for worshipping,” Abramov says.
“Experts in the history of Christianity, Orthodox scholars, explain that these Gifts were first mentioned in an inventory of Athos relics not earlier than the 17th-18th centuries,” Orthodox religion expert Valery Otstavnykh stresses. “Athos residents thought these were the Gifts of the Magi. But no specialist in Biblical archeology or Orthodox Church history knows what these were exactly.”
Yegor Kholmogorov, “a professional Russian nationalist and amateur historian,” as he calls himself, writes in the Vzglyad web publication that the bringing of the Gifts of the Magi to Russia “caused a display of demonic possession among the intelligentsia.” “Inciting hysteria about ‘medieval fakes’ is meant for the readers of Soviet atheist literature,” he is convinced.
“For a second time in the recent years, Moscow, since the 17th century, became a place of live and emotional religious worship, a space where the miracle of Faith is worked, rather than a depressing place where sad people visit depressing museums of a sad ‘spirituality of old centuries.
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