Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Adam Hamway

 
The Gospels depict St John the Baptist as the “forerunner” or herald announcing the imminent coming of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, we read, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7, 8).

The coming of the Messiah was the focus of John’s message about the kingdom of God. “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 3:1). This “kingdom” is none other than Jesus in whom the will of His Father governed His every action. Thus He is the kingdom personified.

The Story of John’s Struggle

We read the story of John’s final fight “for the sake of truth” in Mark’s Gospel. “For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:17, 18).

John languished in prison because Herod had a superstitious fear of the prophet. He revered John as a holy man but could not bring himself to follow the Baptist’s teachings.

Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He also swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom’” (Mark 6:21-23).

What followed has been frequently retold in literature, music, painting and sculpture. Prompted by her mother, Salome asks for the head of John: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (v. 25). Because of the oath he had sworn in the presence of his guests, Herod agreed and had John beheaded, making possible the prophet’s ministry in Hades.

John’s work as herald of our salvation was not limited to announcing the beginning of Christ’s ministry in Galilee. Our troparion for today’s commemoration mentions that John baptized the Lord Jesus. Then, it continues, “You have fought for the sake of truth and proclaimed to those in Hades that God who appeared in the flesh has taken away the sins of the world and bestowed His great mercy upon us.” John’s ministry continued after death as he announced to the dead in Hades that Christ’s coming was close at hand.

Did John Witness in Hades?

As the Gospels affirm, Jesus was still alive when John was executed. But the New Testament does not teach that John witnessed to Christ in Hades. How and when did this concept enter our tradition?

Origen of Alexandria, foremost commentator on the Scriptures in the third century, explained that John the Baptist had died before Christ, “so that he might descend to the lower regions and announce His coming. For everywhere the witness and forerunner of Jesus is John, being born before and dying shortly before the Son of God, so that not only to those of his generation but likewise to those who lived before Christ should liberation from the death be preached, and that he might everywhere prepare a people trained to receive the Lord” (Origen, Homily on Luke 4).

Those in Hades would “receive the Lord” upon His death as we read in the New Testament: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey…” (1 Pt 3:18, 19). A number of the apostolic Fathers such as Saints Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Clement of Alexandria all taught that Christ had descended into Hades. We find the same teaching in the Syriac Fathers Jacob of Sarouj, Aphrahat the Persian and Ephrem the Syrian as well as the Greek Fathers Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus.

Our most common icon of the resurrection depicts Christ emerging from Hades leading out by the hand Adam and Eve (and, by implication, the human race). In many icons John the Forerunner is beside Him, at the head of those who had died before Christ and were now brought to eternal life by Him.

Our Observance of John’s Death

Because John, whom the Lord Himself had called the greatest man born of woman, was killed as a result of Herod’s birthday revels, the Byzantine Churches observe today as a strict fast: no parties, no luxury foods, no drink. We see where these things can lead.

A number of popular local customs have arisen to mark this day among various Eastern Christians. In various places people may:

Avoid eating anything on round plates, since Salome asked for John’s head “on a platter” (Mark 6:25). Use

bowls instead.

Avoid eating any round fruits or vegetables (they resemble a head).

Avoid eating anything that requires use of knives or anything that cuts.

Avoid eating or drinking anything red (they remind us of blood).

A contemporary way to observe this commemoration might be to fast and pray for those who have died senselessly at the hands of others through terrorism, armed conflicts or senseless violence. Think of them as John’s “companions in suffering.

John’s Witness in Our Liturgy

Come, you people, let us praise the prophet and martyr, the baptizer of the Savior; for, as an angel in the flesh, he denounced Herod, condemning him for committing most iniquitous fornication. And thanks to iniquitous dancing, his precious head is cut off, that he might announce in Hades the glad tidings of the resurrection from the dead. He prays earnestly to the Lord, that our souls be saved.

Let us celebrate the memory of the severed head of the forerunner, which poured forth blood upon the platter then, but now pours forth healings upon the ends of the earth.
The Gospels depict St John the Baptist as the “forerunner” or herald announcing the imminent coming of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, we read, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7, 8).

The coming of the Messiah was the focus of John’s message about the kingdom of God. “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 3:1). This “kingdom” is none other than Jesus in whom the will of His Father governed His every action. Thus He is the kingdom personified.

The Story of John’s Struggle

We read the story of John’s final fight “for the sake of truth” in Mark’s Gospel. “For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:17, 18).

John languished in prison because Herod had a superstitious fear of the prophet. He revered John as a holy man but could not bring himself to follow the Baptist’s teachings.

Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He also swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom’” (Mark 6:21-23).

What followed has been frequently retold in literature, music, painting and sculpture. Prompted by her mother, Salome asks for the head of John: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (v. 25). Because of the oath he had sworn in the presence of his guests, Herod agreed and had John beheaded, making possible the prophet’s ministry in Hades.

John’s work as herald of our salvation was not limited to announcing the beginning of Christ’s ministry in Galilee. Our troparion for today’s commemoration mentions that John baptized the Lord Jesus. Then, it continues, “You have fought for the sake of truth and proclaimed to those in Hades that God who appeared in the flesh has taken away the sins of the world and bestowed His great mercy upon us.” John’s ministry continued after death as he announced to the dead in Hades that Christ’s coming was close at hand.

Did John Witness in Hades?

As the Gospels affirm, Jesus was still alive when John was executed. But the New Testament does not teach that John witnessed to Christ in Hades. How and when did this concept enter our tradition?

Origen of Alexandria, foremost commentator on the Scriptures in the third century, explained that John the Baptist had died before Christ, “so that he might descend to the lower regions and announce His coming. For everywhere the witness and forerunner of Jesus is John, being born before and dying shortly before the Son of God, so that not only to those of his generation but likewise to those who lived before Christ should liberation from the death be preached, and that he might everywhere prepare a people trained to receive the Lord” (Origen, Homily on Luke 4).

Those in Hades would “receive the Lord” upon His death as we read in the New Testament: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey…” (1 Pt 3:18, 19). A number of the apostolic Fathers such as Saints Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Clement of Alexandria all taught that Christ had descended into Hades. We find the same teaching in the Syriac Fathers Jacob of Sarouj, Aphrahat the Persian and Ephrem the Syrian as well as the Greek Fathers Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus.

Our most common icon of the resurrection depicts Christ emerging from Hades leading out by the hand Adam and Eve (and, by implication, the human race). In many icons John the Forerunner is beside Him, at the head of those who had died before Christ and were now brought to eternal life by Him.

Our Observance of John’s Death

Because John, whom the Lord Himself had called the greatest man born of woman, was killed as a result of Herod’s birthday revels, the Byzantine Churches observe today as a strict fast: no parties, no luxury foods, no drink. We see where these things can lead.

A number of popular local customs have arisen to mark this day among various Eastern Christians. In various places people may:
Avoid eating anything on round plates, since Salome asked for John’s head “on a platter” (Mark 6:25). Use bowls instead.
Avoid eating any round fruits or vegetables (they resemble a head).
Avoid eating anything that requires use of knives or anything that cuts.
Avoid eating or drinking anything red (they remind us of blood).

A contemporary way to observe this commemoration might be to fast and pray for those who have died senselessly at the hands of others through terrorism, armed conflicts or senseless violence. Think of them as John’s “companions in suffering.

John’s Witness in Our Liturgy

Come, you people, let us praise the prophet and martyr, the baptizer of the Savior; for, as an angel in the flesh, he denounced Herod, condemning him for committing most iniquitous fornication. And thanks to iniquitous dancing, his precious head is cut off, that he might announce in Hades the glad tidings of the resurrection from the dead. He prays earnestly to the Lord, that our souls be saved.

Let us celebrate the memory of the severed head of the forerunner, which poured forth blood upon the platter then, but now pours forth healings upon the ends of the earth.

Liti Stichera

The beheading of the Forerunner was an act of divine providence: the occasion for him to announce the coming of the Savior to the souls in Hades. Let then Herodias lament and weep, for she has asked for murder, preferring the present life and its pleasures to eternal life and God’s law.
~Liti Stichera

The beheading of the Forerunner was an act of divine providence: the occasion for him to announce the coming of the Savior to the souls in Hades. Let then Herodias lament and weep, for she has asked for murder, preferring the present life and its pleasures to eternal life and God’s law.
~Kondakion

 
8/8/2021
An increasing number of Byzantine churches are observing the Feast of the Dormition by conducting the Burial Service of the Theotokos. This observance comes to us from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the traditional site of her death and burial.

On the morning of August 14 a procession sets out from the Patriarchate, bearing the icon of the Dormition. They leave the Old City and cross the Kedron Valley, arriving at Gethsemane and the tomb of the Theotokos. There the people, passing beneath the icon, enter the church where the burial shroud of the Theotokos has been displayed for veneration. On the closing of the feast, August 23, another procession returns the icon and the shroud to the Patriarchate.

The Tomb of the Holy Virgin

We do not know when the site of the Virgin’s tomb in Gethsemane, at the foot of Mount Olivet, became a place of Christian devotion. Some say that the first church there had been built by St Helena in the fourth century. There was clearly a church there in the fifth century. It is well documented that the first Patriarch of Jerusalem, St Juvenal, had taken the veil of the Theotokos from this shrine and sent it to the Empress Pulcheria who had asked him for the Virgin’s “relics” after the Council of Chalcedon (451). The patriarch replied, “Three days after her repose, the body of the Holy Virgin was raised up to heaven and the Tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane bears only her Veil.” The patriarch then sent this relic to Constantinople where it was enshrined in the church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, a district of Constantinople.

A church was built at the site of the virgin’s tomb in 582 by the Byzantine Emperor Maurice. Thus church was destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614 but rebuilt soon afterward. During the Crusades it was destroyed again, leaving only the crypt – the actual place of the tomb – and the steps descending to it. Today the crypt-church is served jointly by the Greek Patriarchate and the Armenian Patriarchate. The church also contains chapels used by the Coptic and Syriac Orthodox.

The Burial Service

The first record of a burial service performed outside Jerusalem dates from the fifteenth century. In Russia rectors of churches dedicated to the Mother of God were encouraged to erect a tomb or bier on the solea in which the icon of the feast could be enshrined. Matins could then be served before this tomb.

It was also in the fifteenth century that the lamentations on the burial of Christ were composed in Jerusalem. They are sung today in the Orthros of Holy Saturday, one of the more popular moments in the rites of the Holy Week in the Greek and Middle Eastern Churches. Due to the interaction of Greeks and Italians in this period we often see a burial of Christ service, including the Greek melodies of the Lamentations, used by Italian and Spanish Roman Catholics as well.

Around one hundred years later, in 1541, the Greek Metropolitan Dionysios of Old Patras in western Greece composed the service for the burial of the Theotokos, in imitation of the service for the burial of Christ. It is this service which has spread throughout the Byzantine world today.

At first the principal image used in this service was the icon of the Dormition, as in Jerusalem. As the burial of the Theotokos came to be celebrated as imitation of the Burial of Christ, use of the shroud of the Theotokos became popular.

Passing through Death to Life

Some people feel that this imitation of the burial of Christ detracts from people’s understanding of Pascha as the climactic event of world history, the death and resurrection of the Savior. The Holy Virgin, after all, did not rise from the dead as Christ did; she lived and died in a purely human, if immaculate way.

Since there is no mention of the Virgin’s death in the New Testament, some Christians have come to believe that Mary did not die at all but was translated to glory without being subject to death. There is no evidence nor is there a tradition that this was believed in the Christian East. The Theotokos died by the necessity of her human nature, which is indivisibly bound up with the corruption of this world. Like us she was mortal. Unlike us, her natural mortality did not lead her to sin (spiritual death).

The Church believes that Mary died as all humans die, but that it was granted that she enter now in her body the glorification awaiting all the saints in the life of the age to come. The Theotokos thus becomes a sign confirming that Christ’s death and resurrection truly accomplished for all mankind, not just for Himself, the destruction of Hades and the defeat of Death. Her Repose demonstrates the reality of the transformation of death from a fearful enemy into a joyous passage to life.

Besides pointing back to the death and resurrection of Christ, the Repose of the Theotokos points ahead to what is to come: that all who are in Christ will share in the life of the angels in the resurrected body. As Father Alexander Schmemann put it, “Mary is not the great exception;” rather she is the great example given to us as a witness of what is meant for us all. As we say in the Creed, we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The Feast of the Dormition gives us a glimpse of what that might be.

Lamentations at the Tomb of the Theotokos (Third Stasis)

Ev’ry generation
to your tomb comes bringing
its dirge of praises, O Virgin.

All of creation
to the tomb comes bringing
a farewell hymn to our Lady.

Christ’s holy Disciples
tend to the body
of Mary, Mother of my God.

Orders of Angels
and Archangels
invisibly hymn her presence.

Pious Women
with the Apostles
now cry out their lamentations.

She who was at Cana
at the marriage
has been called with the Apostles.

The Master descends now
to Gethsemane
with countless hosts of heaven.

Let us go out quickly
To meet the Lord Jesus
Who comes once more among us.

Let us be attentive
God is now speaking
with His most pure Mother:

"Behold now your Son
comes to bring you
into His home in the heavens.

Come indeed, My Mother,
come into divine joy
and enter into the kingdom."

"What will I bring You,
O my Son, the God-Man"
the Maiden cried to the Master.

"What will I bring You,
O my God in heaven
except my soul and body.

The Father I glorify
to the Son I sing a hymn
the Holy Spirit I worship."
 
8/1/2021

Towards the end of Jesus’ public ministry He began preparing His disciples for His approaching death and resurrection of Lyons, and Clement of Alexandria all taught that Christ had descended into Hades. We find the . In Matthew 16 this scene concludes with the following prophecy: “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (v. 28). This is immediately followed by a fulfillment of this prophecy: the holy transfiguration of Christ. As St Gregory Palamas says in his homily on this feast, “It is the light of His own forthcoming transfiguration which He terms the Glory of His Father and of His Kingdom.”

At Christ’s transfiguration “some standing here” – Peter, James and John – witnessed the Lord in the glory of His kingdom, if only for a moment. He was not changed – they were. They were able to see what is always there but which they could not imagine before: that God dwelt in man.

St Gregory Palamas describes it this way: “Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by a transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He Himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than He had appeared to them formerly. For He is ‘the true light’ (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and He shone forth like the sun.”

As St Ephrem the Syrian expressed it, “They saw two suns; one in the sky, as usual, and one unusually; one visible in the firmament and lighting the world, and one, His face, visible to them alone” (Sermon on the Transfiguration, 8). In one sense we can say that Christ was not transfigured; it was the apostles’ ability to see Him which was transfigured.

“What He Really Was”

For a moment Christ was revealed to the disciples as what He really was: God incarnate in our human flesh. “We believe that at the transfiguration He manifested not some other sort of light, but only that which was concealed beneath His fleshly exterior. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such, it was Uncreated and Divine” (St Gregory Palamas, Homily on the Transfiguration).

This Light was manifested to the disciples in the radiance of His face and garments: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). As Mark describes it, “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). The immaterial divine nature of the Son of God in manifested in the physical sign of a shining face and garments because this was all that the disciples could absorb. As we sing in the troparion of this feast, Christ was “showing Your disciples as much of Your glory as they could behold.”

Over succeeding centuries the Church deepened its understanding of the incarnation, but not without disagreement. It took several hundred years and several Ecumenical Councils for the Church to articulate its faith in Christ as the incarnate Word of God. By the fourth century the Church was calling Christ “Light from Light, true God from true God… of one essence with the Father” but it took several more centuries and councils to grasp the implications of that statement.

As iconography developed it settled on one particular form to represent the divine nature of the light perceived by the disciples. The mandorla is a design made up of overlapping geometrical shapes which surrounds the image of Christ in icons of the transfiguration. The basic mandorla – an Italian word meaning almond – contains three round or oval concentric circles, in shades of blue or gold, representing the Trinity. The innermost circle is of the deepest shade representing the unseen Father. Other geometrical shapes represent the energy of the divine light shining upon the disciples. The mandorla is generally used in icons representing the glorified Christ at His transfiguration and resurrection and when receiving His Mother at her dormition.

What We Are Meant to Become

In the mystery of Christ’s transfiguration the Church has caught a glimpse of what those who are in Christ are meant to be: persons who in their humanity can have God dwelling in them, reflecting that presence as light. The Lord Himself tells us that at His second coming “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 1:43). The custom of depicting saints and angels with haloes derives from this prophetic statement of Christ.

Becoming “righteous” is our task in this life, in preparation for the glory to come. In both the Old and New Testaments we are frequently instructed how we may become righteous. In the New Testament, however, these instructions are phrased in terms of God dwelling in us. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) is the One whose presence within us guarantees our righteousness before God. This is the “mystery hidden from eternity” (Colossians 1:26), which the Greek Fathers called theosis, the process of our transformation by the presence of God within us.

This process of theosis begins with our baptism. As we sing so often in our services, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). God dwells within us but requires that we “put on Christ” by the way we live. “We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Our cooperation with God dwelling in us to transform us is called synergy by the Fathers: the life-long task of consciously becoming God-like in our thoughts, words and actions in order to radiate the presence of God within us by baptism.

Despite all our best efforts, none of us – not even the saints – can so unwaveringly combat our passions that we realize our potential on our own. And so Christ has given us an outward sign of His love in the mystery of the Eucharist to which we can return again and again. By sharing in this holy mystery we can reinforce our awareness of His saving presence in us and derive the strength we need for our daily ascent to God.

Through the holy mysteries and our striving to live like Christ we can attain a likeness to God and union with Him so far as possible. We who are not holy by nature can become holy, and become partakers of glory.

Looking to the Last Day

In the Second Epistle of St Peter we read his eye-witness account of the transfiguration (2 Pt 1:16-18). This is what follows: “And so we have this sure prophetic word, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (v.19). The transfiguration is thus a prophetic anticipation of Christ’s glorious second coming when the “morning star” (Christ) will fill us with His light.

The transfiguration, then, symbolizes the life to come and thus the goal of every Christian pursuit. As St Gregory the Theologian expressed it in his Third Oration On the Son, the holy transfiguration of Christ initiates us “into the mystery of the future”.

O Giver of life, You bent down to the pit without falling into it and raised me up who had fallen. You bore my foul-smelling corruption untouched, and made me sweet-smelling with the myrrh of Your divine nature.
Canon of the Octoechos, Tone 5
 
The story of the Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman contains one of the most misunderstood and misused sayings of Christ in the Gospels. The woman raises the question: which is the proper place to worship God, in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim?

Jesus responded, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father... The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23).

In order to avoid discussing her irregular marital status the woman had dredged up a controversy in which Jews and Samaritans had been engaged for over a thousand years. Since the time of Moses, the focus of Jewish worship was the Tabernacle, a moveable shrine which contained the Ark, the Tablets of the Law and other relic of the Exodus. These relics were eventually placed in the Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem in 957 BC. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC; the Ark and its contents were lost.

On their return from exile in Babylon the Jews set about rebuilding their civilization, including the temple. The second temple, completed in 516 BC, stood as the focus of worship in Jerusalem for centuries. King Herod restored and enlarged it in at the beginning of the first century AD and it is this temple which Jesus knew. This second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during the Jewish revolt and has never been rebuilt.

The Samaritans insisted that worship should be conducted on Mount Gerizim. According to the Torah Moses had prophesied, “Now it shall be, when the Lord your God has brought you into the land which you go to possess, that you shall put the blessing on Mount Gerizim…” (Deuteronomy 11:29). To this day Samaritans see this as the reason why this mountain was the proper place to worship God.

Worship vs. Prayer

While the Jews had only one temple in the Holy Land, they had many synagogues. Any town might have a synagogue for prayer or study of the Torah, led by a rabbi (teacher), but the sacrifices prescribed in the Torah could only be offered in the Temple at Jerusalem by the priests (the kohanim). In some cases grain, meal, wine, or incense might be offered; in other instances bulls, sheep, goats, deer or doves would have to be slaughtered and offered. Sacrifices were generally consumed by fire, at least in part. Portions of some sacrifices were consumed by the priests.

The most solemn sacrifice of the year was that offered on Yom Kippur. Two goats were offered; the high priest slew one and drove the other out of the city, “taking away the sins” of the people. Christ’s response to the Samaritan woman concerned the authorized worship of God’s people, not personal prayer. Moderns, invoking the Lord’s saying concerning “spirit and truth,” think it refers to prayer. They see it as a rebuke of ritual or of formal prayers, versus spontaneous outpourings of the heart. Often this devolves into a focus on how God affects “my life,” what “I get out of the service,” etc. With this mindset, churches design services to be “appealing,” to “meet people’s needs,” and so on. This is no way relates to what the Lord was saying to the Samaritan woman.

The End of Temple Worship

The Lord was saying that the days of temple sacrifices were drawing to a close. He knew that His own sacrifice was at hand. Christ, the One who truly “takes away the sin of the world” would replace the sacrifices of the temple with the sacrifice of Himself - the ultimate offering for the people. Through His Church Christ’s worship of God on the cross would be accessible to all mankind, not be confined to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim or any other particular geographic location.

The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s offering of Himself to the Father in terms of the temple ritual. After describing the temple and its rites, the apostle continues: “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption ... For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often… Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:11-12; 24-27).

Our Worship in Spirit and Truth

Comparing the temple sacrifices, the sacrifice of Christ and the Divine Liturgy we see both contrast and continuity. Christ offers Himself on the cross for the sin of the world as the priests offered their sacrifices in the temple for sin. But Christ’s offering is the ultimate sacrifice, made once for all and need not be repeated.

Our worship is rather the sacrifice of praise, recalling His sacrifice without further shedding of blood and making its effects present to us as He commanded when “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19). This connection is especially evident in the Syriac Churches where the Divine Liturgy is called the Holy Qurbono, the same term used to refer to the Temple sacrifices (in Hebrew, korban). Qurban is also the term used for the prosphora among Melkites.

There are a number of elements in the Liturgy which reveal it as worship in Spirit and Truth. It begins, for example, with the priest invoking the Holy Spirit as Christ spoke of Him: the “Spirit of Truth”: “O heavenly King, Consoler, Spirit of Truth…” Confessing Him as beyond any human restriction (“everywhere present and filling all things”) the priest calls on Him to dwell within us and purify us for the work of worship which we are undertaking.

More importantly, the Liturgy actually is worship in the Spirit. It is here that we truly receive the Holy Spirit in response to the invocation of the priest. The Spirit reaches out to touch us, transforming our oblations – what the Liturgy calls our “spiritual” or “reasonable” sacrifices” – into the body and blood of Christ. In the Holy Mysteries we receive that touch and are healed. Thus we encounter the Spirit, not as a concept or as an emotional “experience,” but as a living sacramental presence striving to make us holy.

The Liturgy is also worship in Truth: in the One who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). God-centered and God-focused, our worship both flows from and expresses the heart of Christian faith: that God and man have been reconciled in Jesus Christ.

Christ our God, who receive as a sacrifice of praise and acceptable worship this reasonable sacrifice without shedding of blood from those who call upon you with their whole heart, Lamb and Son of God, who take away the sin of the world, the unblemished calf, who did not bear the yoke of sin and was willingly sacrificed for us; who are broken, yet not divided, eaten, yet never consumed, but who hallow those who eat; who in memory of Your voluntary passion and life-giving Rising on the third day have declared us to be partakers of Your ineffable, heavenly and dread Mysteries, Your holy Body and precious Blood.
Ambon Prayer, Liturgy of St Basil
 
When the evangelists collected their reminiscences and put them in writing, they arranged them in ways that proclaimed their faith in Him. Their belief in Him affected the way they told His story. During the first decades after Christ’s resurrection the apostles reflected on their time with Christ and how to proclaim Him to all nations. Christians have been studying the Gospels since before they were written.

The Fathers of the early Church also studied the Scriptures, some writing extensive commentaries. All these authors wrote as believers, seeking to illumine their faith with knowledge. In seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe a different approach developed. Scholars, many of them influenced by rationalist philosophy, rejected one or another aspect of the Gospel, particularly those which conflicted with this philosophy. There was no room for miracles or even the resurrection in the thought of many of these authors. It was not until the late twentieth century that this trend in biblical scholarship came to be replaced by more Scripture-friendly approaches.

Was There a Pool of Bethesda?

One of the approaches in the era of rationalist biblical scholarship was to deny the factual nature of anything in Scripture not corroborated by other contemporary evidence. If a person, place or event did not figure in other writings, it was deemed non-historical. The Gospel passage of Christ healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15) was cast into doubt because there was no evidence that this pool “having five porches” (John 5:1) ever existed. Some scholars concluded that the passage, if not the whole of John’s Gospel, was written by someone who had no knowledge of Jerusalem.

All this changed in the nineteenth century when German archeologist Conrad Schick discovered the remains of just such a pool. In the 1960s further excavations unearthed an adjacent Roman temple beneath the ruins of a Crusader era church and an even older Byzantine sanctuary.

Scholars now believe that the pool and the adjoining temple were established by the Roman garrison in honor of Asclepius, their god of medicine and health. During the Roman occupation of Jerusalem they built an arena, baths, a theater and other structures around the city. A pagan shrine, like these other signs of the Roman presence, would have been outside the city walls of Jerusalem and thus less offensive to the Jewish population. Today ruins of the Roman complex are within the walls, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Asclepius was one of the more popular gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Over 400 such shrines were reportedly functioning throughout the empire. Everyone, after all, wants good health and well-being, which were Asclepius’ “specialty.”

Was the Paralytic a Jew?

If the pool at Bethesda was a Roman shrine to a pagan god, was the paralytic a pagan rather than a Jew? The Gospel passage does not suggest it. By noting that “a great number of sick people” were there, the Gospel suggests that they were Jews. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud mentions that people were actually cured after visiting “the shrine of an idol.” The sick probably wouldn’t care who healed them if there was a chance that they could be cured.

Since the paralytic, once cured, was reproached by Jews for carrying his bed on a Sabbath it is safe to assume that the man was himself a Jew. The passage ends with the following: “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.’ The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well” (John 5:14). If the man was not a Jew; this exchange would not have taken place.

Some commentators have suggested that, if the pool was attached to a pagan shrine, Jesus would not have gone there. Others have countered that He who ate with publicans and sinners would not hesitate to go among His people wherever they were.

What About the Angel?

There remains controversy regarding the following description of the pool: “In [the porches] lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was cured of whatever disease he had” (John 5:3, 4).

The reason for the controversy is this; a number of the oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel simply do not have the end of verse 3 (“waiting for the moving of the water”) or verse 4. The earliest surviving manuscripts containing this verse are “Western” (from North Africa and Italy). The first Greek mention of John 5:4 is in a homily of St John Chrysostom. By the ninth century, however, almost all the Greek texts of the Gospel contain it. This has led most biblical scholars to consider these verses a “gloss” or commentary in the margin added by a scribe which eventually was copied directly into the text.

On the other hand, without these verses Verse 7 begs for an explanation. It says, “The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’” Who stirs up the water? – the only explanation put forth is the one in the contested verse (the angel). Perhaps this event was so well-known that the evangelist neglected to explain it and the explanation was added later. At this time we do not know with any certainty.

There is one other indication that verses 3 and 4 are a gloss. We read there that it was an angel (some versions even say “an angel of the Lord”) who stirred the water. Early Christians, however, saw any power in pagan religions as satanic. This “angel,” then, would have been a fallen angel. Thus the St Justin the Philosopher, writing in the early second century, noted that “the Devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 69). One hundred years later, Tertullian contrasted the angelic presence in the waters of baptism with the “unholy angel of the evil one [who] often does business with that same element [i.e. water], with a view to man’s perdition” (De Baptismo, 5).

Meaning of the Passage

Taking the above points into consideration we can see a deep meaning in this passage. The evangelist is contrasting the capricious, lottery-like application of the demon’s healing power at Asclepius’ pool with the loving, personal encounter which the paralytic had with Christ, the true Physician of souls and bodies. The regenerative power of Christ is open to all who seek union with Him. The Lord’s question to the paralytic at the pool, “Do you want to be made well?” is echoed by the priest’s question to the catechumen at the font, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” In each case, the desire is sufficient to evoke Christ’s healing power.

My soul has suffered cruelly for many years, O God of all goodness: do for me what You once did for the paralytic, that I may be able to walk in the ways where You invite those who love Your name.
From the Canon, Ode 3
 
Most regular worshippers in Byzantine churches have heard the terms “Octoechos” or “eight tones.” Some think that these terms refer principally to the troparia of the resurrection sung at Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. In fact, the term Octoechos refers to much more.

The Octoechos first of all refers to a system of eight musical tones in which liturgical music has been composed and arranged since the Middle Ages. Eight-tone systems are the basis of church music in several historic traditions. The Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Latin and Slavic Churches all use an eight-tone system, although the music of each of these Churches is vastly different from any of the others.

In Byzantine practice the Octoechos also refers to the eight-week cycle of texts and music for the daily services throughout the year. Each week in succession a different tone is used, beginning in the week of Thomas, the second week of the Paschal season. Every Saturday evening Vespers begins a new tone which is used for all the services of the following week. These texts are contained in a liturgical book called the Great Octoechos or Paraklitiki, which offers a rich source for reflection.

The idea of an eight-week cycle seems to have originated with the Jerusalem patriarchate in the fifth century. Noted hymnographers at the nearby Mar Saba Monastery such as St Cosmas of Maiuma and St John of Damascus composed hymns in this pattern. The system began to spread and was formally accepted at the Council of Trullo in 692. As the system became popular in Constantinople renowned figures such as St Theodore the Studite contributed to the Octoechos. Their works form a good part of the Octoechos today.

The Saturday evening and Sunday morning services in each tone celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, leading to the often quoted idea that “every Sunday is a little Pascha.”

Proclaiming the Resurrection

The changeable parts of our Sunday services in the Octoechos are concerned with Christ’s resurrection. During the forty days of Pascha these Resurrectional hymns are not sung only on Sundays, but every day. On the five Sundays of the season they are combined with the hymns of Pascha itself and the specific commemorations of the day.

The texts in each of the eight tones are different but they all speak of the paschal mystery. The examples cited here are all taken from the first and second tones, but the ideas which they express are representative of the other tones as well.

Some of these texts recall the events described in the Gospels: the sealed tomb, the stone rolled away, the angels’ message to the women and the news they brought to the apostles. Thus we hear the following at Vespers on Saturday evening: “The myrrh-bearing women came with haste to Your tomb, with their myrrh and their lament. Not finding Your most pure body, they learned from the angel of the new and glorious wonder. They told the apostles that the Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy.”

At Orthros on Sunday this is sung: “The soldiers keeping watch over your tomb fell down as dead, O Savior, at the lightning brightness of the angel who appeared and proclaimed the resurrection to the women.”

We also hear this hymn in which the composer adds a striking image: “The women, coming early to Your tomb trembled at the sight of the angel. The tomb shone with life and this wonder struck them. And so going back to the disciples they proclaimed the Resurrection.”

Meaning of the Resurrection

Other texts speak of the meaning of the resurrection for us. Thirteen Resurrectional hymns at Saturday Vespers in addition to the familiar troparion and over fifty others prescribed for Sunday Orthros give ample scope for composers to add theology and poetry to their proclamation of this mystery.

The greatest effect of Christ’s death and resurrection is that Death’s power to separate us from God is now destroyed. Death now need not affect more than the body – our spirits can pass with Christ through bodily death to eternal life. The hymns of the Octoechos constantly sing of the annihilation of Death: “granting life, He has slain Death... He has resurrected Adam, as the Lover of mankind...” (Tone 1 Vespers).

“You have transformed the shadow of death into life eternal,” we sing at Orthros (Tone 1), “breaking the chains of man’s mortality... granting to the human race life eternal and great mercy...” “You raised up human nature, which was held captive and You enthroned it with Your Father in heaven...” (Tone 2).

The New Testament introduces the concept that Christ descended into the depths “... and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Pt 3:19, 20). The Octoechos echoes this teaching in many hymns: “...in Your power you descended into Hades and snatching, as from a mighty monster, the souls of those who awaited Your coming, You placed them in Paradise.”

“Sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jas 1:15) and so the Octoechos often connects the resurrection to the defeat of sin. ‘Emmanuel has nailed our sins to the cross and... has delivered us from our transgressions... (Tone 1 Vespers).

Images of the Resurrection

Since this bestowal of eternal life is beyond our senses, the Church often uses images to describe it in a manner our senses can grasp. The destruction of Death’s power is often depicted graphically. “O Christ, you put to shame him who held them in thrall and showed him naked and destitute by your Divine Rising” (Tone 1).

“O Christ the gates of Death opened before You in fear and the gatekeepers of Hades were filled with dread at the sight of You. You smashed the gates of brass and crushed the posts of iron. Then You burst our chains asunder and led us out from the darkness, away from the shadow of death” (Tone 2).

The Octoechos often employs Scriptural allusions to glorify the resurrection, invoking images of:

The Creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3) – “The one who planted a soul within me by His divine breath, submitted Himself to slaughter and surrendered His soul to death. He loosed the everlasting bonds, and has raised the dead with Himself, glorifying them in incorruption.” “You have abolished the curse of the tree by Your cross ... and cancelled the decree that was written against us”. “Paradise is again offered for us to enjoy...”

Cain and Abel (Gen 4) – “The earth of old was cursed, dyed with the blood of Abel from his murdering brother’s hand. Now it is blessed, sprinkled with the divine stream of Your blood.”

Jonah and the Sea Monster – “You have brought us up from Hades, Lord, by worsting the all-devouring monster of the deep, O All-powerful, and destroying his power by Your might...”

The Temple Priesthood – “He is our forerunner into the holy place” (see Hebrews 9:24)

Marriage – “You rose from the tomb as from a bridal chamber” i.e. showing that the heavenly marriage had been truly “consummated” and that God and mankind were one again.
 
FROM ITS BEGINNING on Lazarus Saturday until the cracking of the last red egg of Pascha, our Great Week and Bright Week services immerse us in a wealth of images, both verbal and visual, of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. In the midst of this sensory overload, there are some evocative symbols whose voices may not be heard. Yet they bring us to the heart of the Paschal Mystery.

The Newly-Illumined On Pascha our regular Saturday evening Vespers is combined with the first Divine Liturgy of the Feast. Since the Matins and Divine Liturgy during the night are so popular in our parishes, it became common to serve the Vesper-Liturgy earlier in the day. As a result many people never see this extraordinary service.

The Vesper-Liturgy includes fifteen Old Testament readings instead of the usual three. Since the catechumens are taken out at this point in the service to be baptized, these additional Scripture passages would be read until the baptisms were completed. Then the newly-baptized would be brought into the congregation during the singing of “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.” Their first full participation in the Liturgy would be on this blessed night of their baptism.

Laurel Is for Victory

The Epistle reading at this Liturgy is not followed by the usual Alleluia. Instead Psalm 81/82 is chanted with verse 8 as its refrain: “Arise, O God and judge the earth, and You shall inherit all the nations.”

In the liturgical symbolism of our Church, Holy Saturday recalls the time Christ’s body lay in the tomb while His spirit was among the dead in what the Greeks called Hades. In singing this Psalm, the Church is calling on Christ to rise from the dead and destroy the power of death, freeing people of every race and nation from its control. As we sing in one of the hymns at this service: “Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: ‘My power is destroyed! I received a mortal as if He were merely one of the dead, but I was powerless to hold Him; and, along with Him I shall lose those over whom I ruled, I held the dead from all ages; but behold, He is raising them all!’”

In the Greek tradition the priest strews bay laurel leaves and flower petals throughout the church during this Psalm. In the ancient world laurel was a symbol of victory or achievement. Wreaths of laurel were awarded to the victors in athletic games; that practice continues at the Grand Prix races to this day. In our liturgy the laurel leaves represent Christ’s victory over death, the fruit of His death and resurrection.

It is a custom in Cyprus that, while the chanters are singing and the priest is strewing the leaves, people stamp their feet, bang on the pews with sticks, even clang pots and pans as a sign of the “harrowing of hell.” The noise graphically portrays the shaking of the foundations of the earth which preceded the Resurrection (see Matthew 28:2) as Christ smashes the locks and gates of Hades and destroys death.

In the silence that speaks volumes when the psalm is finished, we see the church floor covered with the “shattered gates and broken chains of Hades.” Then the Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed: “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said” (Matthew 28:6).

“Have You Any Food?”

At the end of the Paschal Liturgy, the priest blesses a special commemorative bread called the Artos. Unlike the bread offered for the Divine Liturgy, this festive bread is baked with herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, mahleb, fennel, grains of paradise and anise. Depending on local custom, lemon zest, almond extract, honey, olive oil, eggs, or rose water and even red wine may be added to the dough as well. The loaf may be stamped with a cross or an icon of the Resurrection. In many places an actual icon is placed on top of the loaf for the people to venerate at the end of the service.

The Artos is carried in procession and venerated at every service during Bright Week. It is consumed only after this week of Paschal celebration is concluded. How can we explain the unique role this bread plays in our liturgy?

When Christ rose from the dead, the first reaction of those who saw Him was disbelief. As St Luke describes it, “…they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37). The risen Lord’s response was “Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:37). Even that was not enough to convince them all. Luke continues: “But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb and He took it and ate in their presence” (Luke 24:41-43).

The disciples believed in the reality of the Resurrection when they saw Christ eating. In St John’s Gospel, we see that the disciples were out fishing when “Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?” (John 21:5) Similarly, when the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples traveling to Emmaus, He ate with them and “He was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35).

The Artos, then, represents the true, physical nature of the risen Christ, demonstrated when He ate and drank with His disciples, although He had no need of food. Eating what was offered to Him showed that He had not abandoned His humanity when He rose from the dead. As St Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Epistle to the Smyrneans, 3:3, “After the Resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although spiritually united with the Father.” His body that rose from among the dead is the same one that suffered and died. Now this body shares in the life of glory.”

Stichera of Holy Saturday Vesper-Liturgy

Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: “Better that I had never received the One whom Mary bore, for when He came to me, He undid my power. He trampled the brazen gates, and, being God, He raised up the souls which once I held.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

Today, Hades sighs and cries aloud: “My power has been swallowed up! The shepherd has been crucified and has raised Adam up. I am deprived of those over whom I used to rule. I have vomited up all those whom I devoured in my strength. He who was crucified has emptied the graves. Death’s power has lost its strength.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

The great Moses mystically prefigured this present day when he said: “God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath! This is the day of rest on which the only–begotten Son of God kept the Sabbath in the flesh by resting in death from all His works according to the plan of salvation. Returning again to what He was through the Resurrection, He granted us eternal life. He alone is good and the Lover of mankind.
 
FROM ARMENIA TO EVERY CORNER of the Middle East Palm Sunday is celebrated as a feast for children. Describing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, St Matthew’s Gospel highlights the participation of children in the event. “When the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did and the children crying out in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant and said to Him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, Yes – have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise?’” (Matthew 21:15-16).

Children are singled out for mention in the first historical witness we have to this feast as well. Towards the end of the fourth century, the Spanish nun Egeria, on pilgrimage to the newly-adorned places of Palestine, described what she saw on that Palm Sunday: “As the eleventh hour draws near... all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders’ all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led... From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there though the entire city... everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.” The scene Egeria witnessed has been repeated ever since.

While today the procession is held at the end of Orthros or the Divine Liturgy, Egeria describes it as taking place “at the eleventh hour” (our five PM). This practice echoed the Gospel witness that “Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at everything, He went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). There they spent the night.

Children and the Church Today

Palm Sunday services attract large numbers of families who may never attend the Liturgy otherwise. Many clergy blame negligent parents; others feel that the Church has not tried hard enough to reach these parents.

Still others say that the Church spends too much effort educating children while ignoring adults. After all, they reason, the Lord blessed children but directed His teaching at adults.

Russian Orthodox Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov offers another insight. He suggests that, instead of debating about whether we should teach children, we should reexamine what we do with them. Are we emphasizing secondary matters when we should be introducing them to Christ? He writes: “Children at the age of eight or nine go to church and sing on the kliros, amazing and delighting everyone around them. But by the age of fourteen to sixteen, many – if not the majority – stop going to church.

“Children have not become acquainted with God. No, they are of course acquainted with the lives of saints, and with sacred history as arranged for children. But they are not acquainted with God Himself. No encounter has taken place. The result is that parents, Sunday Schools and – sad as it is – priests have built the house of childhood faith “upon the sand” (Matthew 7:26), and not upon the rock of Christ.

“How can it happen that children do not notice God, despite all the most sincere efforts of adults to instill faith in them? How can it turn out that children still do not find within themselves the strength to discern Christ the Savior in their childhood lives and in the Gospel?

“When responding to this question, we raise yet another adult problem, one that is reflected in our children as in a mirror. This is when parents and priests teach one thing, but live in another way. This is a most frightful blow to the tender strength of childhood faith, an unbearable drama for their sensitive minds.”

“If children only come to church on Palm Sunday, is it because their elders – parents, relatives, adults around them –have not reflected to them their own encounter with the Lord themselves.”

Our Holy Week and Jerusalem

In 326-28 the Empress Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Palestine at the behest of her son to mark the places where Christ lived and died by constructing shrines and churches. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, she was chiefly responsible for two great churches, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (still in existence), and a church on the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s ascension. She also took part in the excavations at the site of the Lord’s death and burial outside Jerusalem, where the Church of the Resurrection stands today. It soon became the practice for great celebrations to take place at these sites, particularly when the events which took place there were being observed. It was at thee shrines that historical commemorations of the events of the Lord’s passion were first conducted.

In time, local Churches throughout the Mediterranean world began to imitate the appealing Jerusalem practices, developing the historical observances of Holy Week as we know them today.

The Power of the Redemption

The first observances of Pascha in both East and West, however, were not attempts to recreate the events of the Lord’s Passion. Rather they were focused on the effects of the Lord’s death and resurrection in the lives of the faithful. Thus the highpoint of the Resurrection celebration was the bestowal of union with Christ and the forgiveness of sins through the baptism of catechumens, which took place before the Paschal Liturgy, and the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday: those whose serious sins had excluded them from the community.

In the same spirit, Byzantine Churches today offer the Mystery of Holy Unction on the Wednesday before Pascha. People are anointed for the healing of their spiritual infirmities, uniting them with Christ, in the power of His death and resurrection.

On Celebrating This Feast

“In His humility, Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and He is glad that He became so humble for our sake: glad that He came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to Himself. And even though we are told that He has now ascended above the highest heaven – the proof, surely of His power and godhead –His love for mankind will never rest until He has raised our earthbound nature to glory, and made it one with His own in heaven.

“So let us spread before His feet – not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither – but ourselves, clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that are spread before Him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms, but with the real rewards of His victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel!
St Andrew of Crete
 
AS THE GREAT FAST DRAWS TO A CLOSE we are presented with the story of St Mary of Egypt. Her Life, by St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, is read on the Thursday of Repentance, along with the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. On the fifth and last Sunday in the Great Fast, Mary herself is commemorated. The story of her early dissolute life, her remarkable conversion, and the asceticism which characterized the rest of her days made her the classic model of repentance in both East and West.

The second figure in St Sophronios’ Life stands in complete contrast to his principal subject. St Zossima (April 4) is described as a devout monk in an unnamed Palestinian monastery. While Mary lived a free-wheeling and undisciplined life before her conversion, Zossima had been raised in the monastery since his infancy. This practice was not uncommon before the modern age.

We are told in the Life that Zossima "…had been through the whole course of the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his tutors concerning spiritual labors. He had even added much himself in his efforts to subject his flesh to the will of the spirit.” Thus, while Mary was indulging her every carnal desire, satisfying her “insatiable desires and irrepressible passions” (as she described it), Zossima was learning to subject his passions to the spirit.

The Life insists that “he had not failed in his aim. He was so renowned for his spiritual life that many came to him from neighboring monasteries and some even from afar.” Zossima, we are told, “never ceased studying the Divine Scriptures… his sole aim being to sing of God and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures.”

Zossima’s Dilemma

When Zossima, by then a heiromonk, had spent some fifty years in the monastery, he came to think that he had attained a certain level in the ascetic life beyond his fellows. He knew that he had not exhausted the spiritual life, but did not know where to go from here. “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there any man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”

Was Zossima displaying pride? He was not self-satisfied with his achievements nor was he condescending to others less advanced that himself. He more resembled the young man whom Christ told to keep the commandments and who replied, “I have kept all these things since my youth. What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20) Zossima wanted to deepen his spiritual life but was frustrated that he could not find a spiritual mentor who could help him progress.

By way of response, an angel appeared to him and counseled him that there are always unknown struggles in the spiritual life greater than the challenges he had already faced. “That you may know how many other ways led to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan. There he would eventually encounter, not a monk or even another man, but a woman whose witness renewed his spiritual life as well as the lives of countless believers ever since. Zossima remained in his monastery and lived to be over 100. It would be his obedience to tell Mary’s story to the world.

Zossima was not told to imitate Mary’s radical asceticism but to recognize “how many other ways led to salvation.” In this his story resembles that attributed to St Anthony the Great who lived in solitude in Egypt. “It was revealed to Father Anthony in the desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Trisagion with the angels.”

Ways Leading to Salvation Today

As the Great Fast draws to a close, we may feel that we have lived its call to prayer and almsgiving to the full. Yet there are in our midst others who, like St Mary of Egypt, call us by their example to examine the possibilities of stretching our spiritual muscles further than we imagine possible.

Los Angeles attorney Tony Tolbert recalls how there was always room in his family home for someone down on their luck. This memory prompted him to move back into his parents’ house and offer the use of his own fully furnished home for one year so a homeless family could regroup and move on with their lives. “You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Oprah,” Tolbert said. “We can do it wherever we are, with whatever we have, and for me, I have a home that I can make available.”

When Palm Beach physician Richard Lewis died, friends and colleagues gathered at a local mortuary to pay their respects. They were astonished when the doors opened to admit a group of physically and mentally disabled people who came in to join them. Unknown to anyone – including his own twin brother – Dr Lewis had been supporting several group homes in the area caring for the disabled.

Swedish tourists Annis Lindkvist and her sister Emma were visiting Edinburgh, Scotland when a chance meeting changed their lives. Jimmy Fraser, unemployed and homeless after his marriage failed, was begging in the street when the women asked him for directions. They struck up an acquaintance and, ultimately, a friendship. The women obtained a passport for Fraser and paid for his flights so that he could join their family for Christmas. The women took him sightseeing and to a hockey match as well as to Midnight Mass “People promise you things all the time on the street,” Fraser reflected, “but they never materialize… Being homeless is cold, lonely and depressing, and you get a lot of abuse from people. This was an incredible act of kindness!” The women are arranging a similar visit for Easter.

The extraordinary acts of these secular “Marys” bring to life the following words by the nineteenth century Russian saint, John of Kronstadt: “And God reveals his hidden saints so that some may emulate them and others have no excuse for not doing so. Provided they live a worthy life, both those who choose to live in the midst of noise and hubbub and those who dwell in monasteries, mountains and caves can achieve salvation. Solely because of their faith in Him, God bestows great blessings on them. Hence those who, because of their laziness, have failed to attain salvation will have no excuse to offer on the Day of Judgment.

“If you love your neighbor, then all of heaven will love you. If you are united in spirit with your fellow creatures, then you will be united with God and all the company of heaven; if you are merciful to your neighbor, then God and all the angels and saints will be merciful to you. If you pray for others, then all of heaven will intercede for you. The Lord our God is holy; be holy yourself also.”

From the Triodion

The One who dwelled in Egypt as a little Child, the One whom the universe cannot contain, the Lord who knows all has revealed you as a star, shining forth from Egypt. In you we have a model of repentance. Implore Christ, O Mary, that in this time of the Fast we may praise you in faith and love.
 
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN THE GREAT FAST is highlighted in the Byzantine Churches by the veneration of the holy cross. We adorn it with flowers, carry it in procession and prostrate ourselves before it. The Fast is preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ; halfway through the Fast the cross is venerated to encourage us to persevere in our efforts for this season.

Honoring a cross in any way would seem ridiculous to a first-century citizen of the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a humiliating disgrace and an extraordinarily painful method of execution reserved for slaves and other non-citizens, people who did not matter in Roman eyes. Yet St Paul found the cross of Christ a source of pride. “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

The cross had become the sole source of his boasting, knowledge of Christ his sole treasure. “Indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

The Ultimate Sign

For the apostles the cross represented the depth of the mystery of Christ. His passion showed the extent of His love for His people. “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). It represents the totality of His incarnation. He became man in every way, accepting suffering, abandonment, and a painful death to be one with His creatures who endure such things every day. We can never portray our Savior as a “distant God” – He has shared the totality of humanity with us while remaining one with the Father.

The profundity of His descent in order to share our humanity is expressed in the term kenosis. St Paul uses it in what has become a well-beloved synopsis of the Christian’s faith in the incarnation and its meaning for us. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
(Philippians 2:5-11).

In this passage St Paul describes the condescension of the Word of God to us. The only-begotten Son and Word of God “made Himself of no reputation” by taking our nature, and then by accepting the degrading death of a convict, the cross.

This self-abasement or kenosis, however, resulted in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ in glory, proclaimed as Lord by “every tongue.

St Paul saw the power of the cross uniting all peoples, even the Jews and Gentiles, separated by the barrier imposed by the Law. By His death Christ “…abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,  and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Philippians 2:15, 16).

Not only all peoples but all creation was affected by the cross. “… it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19, 20). Through the cross Christ overcomes all the divisions and separations in creation, bringing everything to the fullness and unity which was designed at the original creation and then lost.

The Sign Rejected

Not everyone had the insight of St Paul concerning the power of the cross “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For Jews demand a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24). 

The idea of God emptying Himself and being crucified appeals to no human logic. The Jews expected the Messiah to be manifested with signs of divine power: “glorious things which have never been,” according to one ancient text in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the signs Jews looked for were the ingathering of all Jews into the land of Israel and an era of world peace in which there would be no hatred, oppression, suffering or disease. They generally saw the picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:3-7 as referring to the people of Israel, not to the Messiah.

The philosophically-minded Greeks “seek after wisdom.” There were a host of rival philosophical schools among first-century Greeks: Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Sophists, Stoics and a host of others, all based on reason and logic. Thus when St Paul spoke about the resurrection in Athens (see Acts 17:16-34) some mocked him, others brushed him off. The Lord was not a philosopher; curiously many Gnostics sought to make Him one, which is why many of their writings (apocryphal gospels) were rejected by the early Church.

Imitating the Cross

  As a rule, Jews today reject the notion that the Lord Jesus is the promised Messiah. Muslims teach that He only appeared to die on the cross and that God “took Him.” There are members of both groups who have a thinly disguised contempt for our display of the cross. When the president of Israel visited Pope Francis in 2015 his ultra-Orthodox assistant refused to shake the pope’s hand (he was a man) or greet him with a bow (he was wearing a cross). The pope responded by covering the cross and bowing to her.

Some other ultra-Orthodox Jews were triumphant, while some traditionalist Roman Catholics were ashamed of the pope. Others saw his action as an imitation of the kenosis of Christ who humbled himself. He venerated the cross, not by displaying it, but by living it.

Describing the kenosis of Christ, St Paul urged us, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). He would, no doubt, be pleased to see us reverence the cross today; he would be even more pleased to see us imitate the kenosis which brought Christ to that cross.

A Program for the Rest of the Fast

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12: 1,2).

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