30 September 2011

My Home: Harbin, Heilongjiang in the Heat

Thousands of tourists flock to Harbin in January, drawn by the fantastical statues on show in the town's international ice and snow festival. In September though, winter is still a couple of months away and there's no sign of the white fluffy stuff that has made the capital of Heilongjiang province in northeastern China famous. Well, except that is, for an ice sculpture of a dolphin on a table in busy Central Street.

It's 20 degrees Celsius today and hot looking girls along with the rapidly melting dolphin are probably wishing they could cool off in the venue they're promoting - the Ice House, located in the basement of a nearby building, apparently a precursor to the winter's "city of ice".

Elsewhere in town, local government is aggressively promoting Harbin as a summer resort, highlighting its diverse wetlands as well as its culture.

"Harbin has a rich historical heritage," says Wang Yi, the city's lady vice-mayor who is in charge of tourism development. "It is a city where the east meets west and it offers a blend of oriental and Western cultures."

Indeed, Harbin is like no other Chinese city with architecture that clearly shows Russian and European influences and has you thinking for a while that you're in eastern Europe. Central Street, the 1.4-kilometre stretch in the city's business district, is lined with buildings of Baroque and Byzantine styles.

The cobblestone pedestrian street is part of the original town built by the Russians at the turn of the 20th century when they first came to the then sleepy fishing village along the Songhua river to construct the Chinese Eastern Railway. Today, the buildings house restaurants, brand-name stores and souvenir shops that sell all things Russian like matryoshka dolls and vodka.

The Russian Orthodox Church Saint Sophia Cathedral escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution and was used as a warehouse for a state-run department store. The church was restored in 1996 after the Chinese government designated it as a national cultural heritage site and is now a museum showcasing the multicultural architectural development of the city.

Saint Nicholas Cathedral wasn't quite so lucky: it was destroyed by the Red Guards in 1966. A rich businessman, Wang Fu Xiang, decided to build a replica of the church in Volga Manor, a resort about an hour and a half away from the city.

Volga Manor offers a Russian experience from the traditional welcome that greets guests on arrival to the 30 buildings scattered all over the compound, including a replica of the Pavlov Castle.

One of the biggest programmes in Harbin is the ongoing restoration of the Chinese Baroque Block. The project, which covers 10 zones, features the unique Baroque facade that hides the two to three storey-structures inside and a backyard resembling Beijing courtyard houses. The redevelopment is costing 1.3 billion yuan (S$262 million) and the buildings are being earmarked for arts, tourism and movie studios.

Harbin also has something to offer for nature lovers like the Binjiang Wetland, which opened in June. It covers an area of 104 square kilometres and has hundreds of rare species of birds and fish such as grey cranes and white cranes.

The guides are former farmers who used to grow rice and wheat on the land. According to the government, it will take at least three years to fully develop the wetland into a full-fledged ecological and leisure development zone.

Sun Island Park on the north shore of the Songhua river, is also worth a visit. It offers many attractions like the Squirrel Island, Deer Park, Swan Lake and Flower Park.

There is also a Russian village that offers visitors an idea on how Russians lived in Harbin. The highlights include life-sized Matryoshka dolls painted to look like leaders Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Stalin and Lenin.

Across the river, an opera house is being built that promises to be much grander than the one in Sydney. The river is frozen during the winter months and it is here where Harbin's world-renowned ice and snow festival is held. In September, however, it's just water and sand.

At the entrance to the park is a giant structure of the sun, surrounded by nine smaller suns. According to Chinese myth, during the Chou dynasty (1027-221 BC), 10 suns would take turns appearing in the sky. Each day, they would travel with their mother, the goddess Xi He, to the lake where she would wash her children and put them to dry on the branches of an enormous mulberry tree.

From the tree, one sun would move off into the sky for a journey of one day, to reach the mount Yen-Tzu in the Far West. Then, one day, the suns decided to appear together. But the combined heat of the 10 suns made life on the Earth unbearable. Emperor Yao asked Di Jun, the father of the 10 suns, to persuade his children to appear one at a time. The suns refused not listen. Di Jun sent the archer Yi armed with a magic bow and 10 arrows to frighten the disobedient suns. Yi was able to shoot nine suns but the emperor had sent one of his couriers to steal an arrow from the archer. So one sun remains today.

"This is how the sun looks like in Chinese myth," says our guide, pointing to the giant sculpture that has three legs and a bird on top of its head.

Proof, as if it were needed, that Harbin is not all about snow. A hot sun shines there too.

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24 September 2011

Korea: Leaders of South Korea’s 7 Religions visit the North

The leaders of South Korea’s seven major religions arrived yesterday in the northern part of the peninsula: it is an unprecedented journey that seeks to bring the two sides of the border to the path of peace and reconciliation. But some Catholic sources, while praising the action, explain: "The communist regime in Pyongyang has no intention of being open to religion. It only needs humanitarian aid, and knows it can get it through religious communities. "

The delegation consists of 24 people who reached North Korea via China, since there are no direct links between the two parts of the peninsula. The trip was organized at the invitation of North Korean Council of Religions, a puppet in the hands of Pyongyang that provides "sham" functions for the few Western and Chinese tourists who arrive in the country. In any case, this is a unique opportunity: the delegation will remain in the country until Saturday, September 24.

Leaving the international airport of Incheon, Gwangju Archbishop Mgr. Hyginus Kim Hee-jong read a joint statement given by all religions: "We will deliver South Korean religious groups’ aspirations for peace to the North. As the religious people from the two Koreas gather to reaffirm our resolve to achieve peace, we hope that the minds of the two Koreas will become united in our pursuit of reunification, and that this will contribute to opening a new history of reconciliation, cooperation and exchange". The group also thanked the Seoul government for having granted permission to leave. After the military provocations of Pyongyang, in fact, the government has prevented almost any relationship between the two countries.

Along with Mgr. Kim are the Rev. Kim Yeong-joo, Secretary of the Korean National Council of Churches, the Venerable Jaseung, president of the Korean Jogye Order of Buddhism, Ven. Kim Ju-won, who leads Won Buddhism; Dr. Choi Geun-dok, president of the Confucian Sung Kyun Kwan Association, Woon Yim-kil, head of the Chondogyo and Han Yang-won, who heads the Korean traditional religions.

Although born of good intentions, a Catholic source tells AsiaNews: "Pyongyang has no desire to be open to the idea of religion in a straightforward manner, because the regime would fall after a few months if it did. Religion, first of all, teaches freedom and does not fit well with the dictatorships. For this reason, even if it is right to see and experience the situations as much as possible, I think it is a lure to get as much humanitarian aid as possible from the religious people of the South ".

In the North, there is virtually no freedom of worship. The only cult allowed is the worship of the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il and his father, the "eternal president" Kim Il-sung. Society is organized into hierarchical levels, and those who profess a religion are relegated to the bottom. However, it was not always so: before the independence of the North, obtained thanks to Chinese weapons supplied by Mao, Pyongyang was called "the Jerusalem of Asia".

There was a very strong presence of Christians in the country, Catholics and Protestants, who contributed greatly to the social development of Korea in the early 1900s. The presence of Buddhists was also strong, of course, both that of the traditionalists and Jogye Order, even the Orthodox Church had a good number of followers, as well as shamanism and traditional worship.

President Kim’s crackdown on the religious and faithful of all kinds devastated everything. It is impossible today to quantify the number of people who have maintained some form of faith. According to the Vatican, there would still be about 800 Catholics present: AsiaNews sources claim that their numbers arrive "at most" at two hundred, all very old.

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13 September 2011

Saint Euphrosynos the Cook

It is said that there are two things most Greek cooks do not go anywhere without: a knife and an icon of St. Euphrosynos.

For Orthodox Christians, St. Euphrosynos the Cook is the patron saint of cooks and chefs. This being the case, it is traditional for Orthodox Christians to have in their kitchens an icon of St. Euphrosynos.

Those unaware of St. Euphrosynos typically follow the western practice of hanging a Leonardo DaVinci inspired "Last Supper" icon.

For Orthodox, however, the depiction of the "Last Supper" is more appropriately called the "Mystical Supper", since it was primarily a liturgical event which is often reserved for depiction in the Holy Altar area of a church.

It is worth noting, since St. Euphrosynos was an Orthodox monastic on Mount Athos, that tall white chef hats (toque blanche), according to many, have their origins in the black tall hats (kalimavkion) of Greek Orthodox monastics. It is said that in the middle ages, Greek monks who prepared food in the monasteries wore tall white hats so that they could be distinguished from the normal monks who wore tall black hats.

Hagiography by Saint Dimitri of Rostov
Our holy monastic father Euphrosynos was born of simple parents although he surpassed even those of noble lineage in good works. For there are many who are devoid of good works, despite their noble birth, and so are cast down into Hades while the simple in their humility are lifted up to paradise by God as was the godly Euphrosynos. Because of his virtuous life he was translated to paradise, as we will see, and was shown to be an inhabitant there. Euphrosynos lived in a monastery where he served the brethren, laboring in the kitchen and serving them with great humility and submissiveness as though they were not men but God Himself.

He labored in obedience day and night, but he never left off praying and fasting. His patience was inexpressible. He bore much abuse and disparagement and suffered frequent vexations. Scorched by the material fire of the cookstove, he was warmed by the spiritual fire of the love of God, and his heart burned with longing for the Lord. While passing his days preparing food for the brethren, he at the same time prepared a table for himself in the kingdom of God by his virtuous life, where he would eat his fill with those of whom it is said, Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God. He served the Lord secretly so that he might be rewarded by Him openly, even as it came to pass.

The Lord’s reward to His servant was made manifest in the following manner. A certain priest who lived in the same monastery prayed fervently to the Lord that He reveal to him the things which are prepared for them that love Him. One night he had a vision. It seemed to him that he was standing in a garden, and as he considered the unutterable beauty of this garden, he saw Euphrosynos, the monastery’s cook, walking by.

The priest approached him and asked, "Brother Euphrosynos, what is this place? Can this be paradise?"

"It is paradise, Father," answered Euphrosynos.

Again the priest inquired, "How is that you are here?"

Euphrosynos the cook replied, "This is the dwelling place of God’s elect, and by God’s great goodness I have made my abode here as well."

The priest asked, "Do you have authority over all these beautiful things?"

Euphrosynos replied, "As far as I am able, I distribute to others the things you see here."

The priest inquired, "Can you give me some portion of these things?"

"By the grace of my God, take what you desire," Euphrosynos said.

The priest then pointed to some apples and asked for them. Euphrosynos took three apples, placed them in a kerchief, and gave them to the priest, saying, "Take what you have requested and delight therein."

At that moment, the semantron was struck for Matins, and the priest awoke and came to himself. He thought that he had been dreaming, but when he stretched out his hand to pick up his handkerchief, he found in it the three apples that he had received from Euphrosynos in the vision. They gave off an ineffable fragrance. Amazed, he arose from his couch, placed the apples on the bed, and went to church where he found Euphrosynos standing together with the brethren at the morning service.

Approaching Euphrosynos, the priest implored him to reveal where he had been that night. Euphrosynos replied, "Forgive me, Father; I have been in that place where we saw one another."

The priest said, "You must reveal God’s greatness, so that the truth is not concealed!"

But the wise Euphrosynos humbly answered, "You, Father, implored the Lord to reveal to you the reward given to His chosen. The Lord was pleased to make this known to your godliness through me, wretched and unworthy as I am, and thus, we found ourselves together in paradise."

The priest inquired, "What did you give me, Father, in paradise when I spoke with you?"

"I gave you the three fragrant apples which you have placed on your bed in your cell," answered Euphrosynos.

"But forgive me, Father, for I am a worm and not a man."

When Matins had finished, the priest summoned the brethren and showed them the three apples from paradise, and he told them exactly what had occurred. All smelled the ineffable fragrance emitted by those apples and discerned their spiritual sweetness, and they marvelled at what they were told by the priest. They hurried to the kitchen to reverence the servant of God, but they could not find him.

When Euphrosynos left the church, he hid from the glory of men, and no one knew where he had gone. It is pointless to inquire into his whereabouts, for if he had access to paradise, where could he not have hidden himself? The brethren divided the apples among themselves and distributed pieces of them as a blessing to many, especially to those who were in need of healing. Whoever ate of these apples was healed of his infirmities, and thus, all received great benefit from the holy and venerable Euphrosynos. The account of the vision was written down not only on scrolls but also in the hearts of those who were told of it, and all who heard thereof strove to increase their labors and please God. By the prayers of the venerable Euphrosynos, may the Lord deem us also worthy to dwell in paradise. Amen.

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
You lived in great humility, in labors of asceticism and in purity of soul, O righteous Euphrosynos. By a mystical vision you demonstrated the Heavenly joy which you had found. Therefore make us worthy to be partakers of your intercessions.

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04 September 2011

Who’s afraid of the Most Holy Virgin Mary?

The veneration of the Virgin Mary has long been point of contention among Christians. Although it may be difficult to delineate a uniform position among the plethora of Protestant denominations, it is generally recognized that most of the Reformed Churches have no particular place of honor for the Virgin Mary in their theology or worship. Most believe that her role was fulfilled at giving physical birth to the human Jesus Christ and from there on she is nothing but a regular woman that went on with her life, having other children and never to be heard of again. On the other hand the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox, although may differ in some theological aspects, hold the Virgin Mary in great respect and elevate her to a prominent role in one’s journey to salvation.

A recent article from a Catholic blog however speaks to a relative softening of the rigid position Protestant believers hold towards the Virgin Mary. Some of them are beginning to adjust their views. ”We’ve ignored Mary, and now we’re recovering her place in salvation history”, says for instance Rev. Prehn, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church. This new approach gives great hope that our Protestant brothers and sisters are beginning to be more open towards the richness of the Holy Tradition of the One Church. There is however a long way to go since most of Protestants continue to equal the veneration of the Virgin with idolatry and consider her as a potential brake in our relationship with God.

Looking at Bible accounts, that we all could agree on, we can appreciate that Mary has joined in the greatest miracles that ever happened: the conception of a baby without a father, water turning into wine, paralytics walking, blind men seeing, devils being cast away, people raising from the tombs. She was a witness of her Son’s crucifixion and a sword pierced her heart at His death, as Symeon prophesized (Luke 2:35). She was filled with the immense joy of His Resurrection and she again was there to receive a final blessing as He ascended into heavens.

If we try to weigh all these history shaping events that she was part of, I find very difficult to imagine the Virgin Mary afterwards as a regular housewife that contents herself with cleaning duties, taking care of her husband and raising other offspring. The salvation of the world accomplished by her Son Jesus Christ could not have just passed by without deeply affecting her. Everyone else that was touched by Christ in any way had a profound change of heart, what the Greeks call “metanoia”, and served no purpose in their changed lives other than spreading the good news of the Gospel.

The Apostles received the Great Commission from Christ and after Pentecost they went on and baptized the nations in the name of the Holy Trinity, ending their lives in martyrdom. Even Saul, a Pharisee that never met Christ, changed into Paul the Apostle of Grace and tirelessly preached the Gospel to the Gentiles. These teachings were handed down to the next generations and their effects were so profound that during the Christian persecutions many renounced their family lives and confessed Christ with their own blood under the sword of the executioners.

Acknowledging this “great cloud of witnesses” why would then someone deny that something similar happened to Mary? Why would we be thinking that for the only woman that was found worthy to carry The Christ in her womb, everything went backwards; instead of walking up into glory she descended into obscurity.

If the Apostles received the Great Commission from Christ, she also received her commission from the Archangel Gabriel and, accepting it with her humble words: “be unto me according to your word”, she became the New Eve of salvation. As the fiery tongues of the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles she also experienced her own personal Pentecost when the Holy Spirit “overshadowed her” and Jesus Christ was conceived in her womb. (Luke 1:35). Her purpose did not end in the manger of Bethlehem nor on the hill of Golgotha. At the foot of the Cross, she received a great and new commission. When Jesus Christ showed her to his beloved apostle John and said: “Woman, behold thy son!” (John 19:26), she became the mother of every man that lives on earth.

Her care, that initially surrounded the Holy Infant in His growing years, spreads today over all mankind. She continuously intercedes to God for our salvation, covering the entire world with her holy protection (Agia Skepi), as St. Andrew the Fool for Christ saw in his vision in the church of Blachernae.

The Ever Virgin Mary is indeed the Theotokos, the Birthgiver of God, the Mother of our Lord. The fact that she is called the Birthgiver of God does not make her a Goddess, it is but a way of recognizing that the One born of her is God and Man together, united without confusion. Jesus is God therefore she is Theotokos.

So is the veneration of Mary idolatry? We do not worship her or her icons, worship is only due to God, but we continuously venerate and remember her role in our salvation and ask her to give us a helping and comforting hand on the treacherous ladder that leads up to heavens.

Is she a brake in our salvation? Not more than a loving mother is a brake in the upbringing of her sons. There are no intercessions more powerful that the prayers of a mother to her Son, so the intercessions of the Theotokos are our greatest help on the way to salvation in Christ. In her, we can approach Christ without fear, knowing that she has a mother’s heart for all of us and is quick to hear our need and take it to her Son. At the feast of Dormition that we will celebrate soon, her motherly role becomes eternal.

Orthodox, Catholics or Protestants we should not be afraid of the Theotokos, she is not a dividing wall between us, nor a stumbling stone on our salvation, she is nothing but a loving mother that cares, not just for some, but for all her children, good or bad, she loves us all the same.

Blessed also are we who have you for patronage. For day and night, you intercede on our behalf, and the scepters of the empire are strengthened by your prayers.


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