Melkite Greek Catholic Church


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).
THERE ARE MANY DESCRIPTIVE TITLES ascribed to Christ in Scripture and in the Tradition of the ancient Churches. He is portrayed as the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Great High Priest, the Bread of life and so much more. Perhaps the most frequently heard of these depictions is the one which ends most of our liturgical services: “He is gracious and the Lover of mankind.”

Possibly the most important characteristic in Christ’s love for mankind is portrayed in St Mark’s description of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). He assures the sick man, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 5). The reaction of the scribes was unspoken but clear: “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v.7)

Feeding the hungry or helping the downtrodden are acts of love which anyone can perform, believer or unbeliever. God, however, has the monopoly on forgiving sins! That Christ proclaims the forgiveness of sins seems to equate Him with God, which the Jewish leaders saw as blasphemy.

Not only does Christ proclaim the forgiveness of sin: He does so by His word alone! In Jewish practice, one had to submit to some sort of ritual in order to convey the need to be cleansed of sin. Before the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed in ad 70, the Jews had a complex system of sacrifices expressing repentance and atonement for anything which they saw as rendering them unfit to stand in worship before the Lord. Depending on their status or ability, people would offer unblemished animals or birds to be killed and burned upon the altar, at least in part, their blood sprinkled before the holy place as a plea for mercy. On the annual Day of Atonement, a bull and a goat would be sacrificed by the High Priest for his sins and the offences of the entire nation.

John the Forerunner also practiced a rite to express repentance. As he described it, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance” (Matthew 3:11). Christ stands in stark contrast to the priests and prophets of Israel: by His word alone He forgives sin. Nothing is needed other than faith in Him!

With His Own Blood

The forgiveness which Christ accorded to the paralytic, to the sinful woman who wept at His feet (see Luke 7:36-50) and to others during His earthly ministry is made available to the whole world by His death and resurrection. Throughout the New Testament we see the imagery of the temple sacrifices used to explain Christ as the One who forgives. St John the Forerunner proclaims Him to his own followers as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). St Paul calls Christ’s death “propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:25). “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son,” Paul teaches (Romans 5:10). God, Paul tells us, “…made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The most developed expression of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There, after a lengthy description of the temple and its priesthood, we read, “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 attained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). He is both the High Priest and the sacrifice who, once for all, restores mankind as fitting priests of God on earth.

Forgiveness in the Body of Christ

When the disciples marveled at the healings and miracles wrought by Christ during His earthly ministry, He promised them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in 
Me the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my Father” (John 14:12). Among other things, Christ has empowered the Church as His Body to continue proclaiming the remission of sins in His name. This ministry is executed in a number of expressions by which we can experience God’s forgiveness in our life. To the degree that we enter into them, we will find our lives centering on God to a greater degree. In our Tradition the following are emphasized:

Daily Prayer for Repentance, particularly the Jesus Prayer – The morning and evening prayers prescribed by the Church includes prayers of repentance. The most basic of these is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” God surely hears these prayers when offered from a contrite heart.

Regular Self-Reflection – Periodic, even daily, self-examination helps us to see the direction of our lives. Our entire existence should be lived in the light of the Holy Spirit. Honest self-examination helps us see the degree in which our lives are conformed to Christ’s.

A Relationship with a Confessor/Spiritual Father – Each person is in a different place in his or her journey. We may on occasion find thoughts in the Scriptures or Fathers that touch our hearts, but finding someone who knows you and knows the ways of Holy Tradition is like taking a giant step in the Christian life. The fullest dimension of spiritual guidance involves sharing our thoughts and yearnings, not just our sins, with this spiritual guide.

The Eucharist and the Remission of Sins – Several times during the Divine Liturgy we are reminded that the Eucharist is given to us “for the remission of sins.” To receive this gift we must approach “discerning the body,” as St Paul says: sensing the depths of this mystery and our unworthiness to take part in it. And so before receiving we say the prayer “I believe, Lord and profess,” specifically asking for the pardon of our offences, the deliberate and the indeliberate, whether committed knowingly or inadvertently – so that we may receive the remission of sins and eternal life in this mystery.

Observing the Church’s Fasts – The Fasts are another liturgical expression of repentance. Rearranging our lives in obedience to the Church’s weekly and seasonal Fasts is a most practical way of affirming our commitment to life in Christ, a daily reminder that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

Confession: The Mystery of Repentance – This is the sacramental expression of repentance. This mystery appeared in Christian history when people first realized that they had reneged on their baptismal commitment in a serious way. Confession was this considered a “second baptism,” a starting over in the Christian life. Over the centuries, it became more widely used and is considered appropriate today whenever a person feels the need of it, particularly: When serious sin has been committed; When a habitual sin has overwhelmed the Christian; When a Christian has stopped growing spiritually and needs a reorientation of priorities.

Forgive Others to be Forgiven

Perhaps the most difficult part of seeking forgiveness is the one mandated by the Lord: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him,that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). God’s forgiveness is for all; but it is only possible to those who forgive others in turn.
AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY during the Great Fast we read from the Holy Gospel according to Mark – except for today. Why is John 1:43-51 read on this Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy?

The brief answer is that both the Gospel reading and the triumph of Orthodoxy, which we commemorate today, are about seeing God. In the Gospel story we hear how Philip invites Nathaniel to see Jesus (physically); when they meet, Nathaniel sees (spiritually) that Jesus is the Messiah. In the Church, we (physically) see icons; then see (spiritually) that they reflect the reality of Christ’s incarnation.

Nathaniel Sees God

The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel is a brief and almost cryptic tale which many have tried to explain. Nathaniel and his friend Philip were both disciples of St John the Forerunner. They had responded to John’s announcement that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loosen” (John 1:27). The Lord Jesus had gone to the Jordan where John was baptizing, and it is there that John identifies Jesus as the Awaited One. “Again the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’” (vv. 35, 36). Philip may have been one of those who heard John’s testimony, so that when Jesus invited Philip to follow Him, he responded positively. In turn, Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel with the news, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45). Nathaniel replies laconically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46)

Modern commentators generally see this remark of Nathaniel as a somewhat snide dismissal of Jesus because He was a Nazarene. The Fathers approached this passage differently, saying that Nathaniel meant the exact opposite: that, if Jesus was the Awaited One, then He could not have come from Nazareth. St John Chrysostom, for example, suggested that Nathaniel “thought within himself that Philip was probably mistaken about the place” and that Jesus was not from Nazareth” (Homily 20 on John).

In any case, Philip responds with the same words that Jesus earlier said to Andrew, “Come and see.” When Nathaniel finally meets Jesus, the Lord utters another cryptic remark, “’Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit! Nathaniel said to Him, ‘How do you know me?’Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (vv. 47, 48) ’

What was Nathaniel doing under the fig tree? Again, many suggestions have been offered; none of them are attested in the Scripture, so we cannot know for sure. One possibility upheld by many in our Tradition is that Nathaniel was praying at that time: O God of our fathers, send us the One whom You have promised. Send us the Messiah, the Savior. Faith in the promise of a Savior is what marks out a true Israelite. The Lord, they say, saw him at prayer and He saw Nathaniel’s heat. Nathaniel’s response marks him as one of the first disciples of Christ, whom He called before His ministry in Galilee.

You are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” (v. 49) Nathaniel sees that Jesus is the Messiah and acclaims Him with the traditional titles of a royal Messiah: “son of God” and “king of Israel.”

At the end of His public ministry, Jesus’ followers would affirm their faith in His heavenly origin: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech! Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God” (John 16: 29, 30). But it would only be after His resurrection, when the risen Christ was manifested to the disciples, that the full force of Jesus’ words to Nathaniel would be realized: “Most assuredly I say to you: hereafter you shall see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51) Nathaniel, like the rest of the apostles, would grow to see Jesus – not as the earthly conqueror whom devout Jews were awaiting, but as a King not of this world and, ultimately, the eternal Word of God incarnate.

Icons Reveal Christ as God’s Image

In the eighth and ninth centuries ad, some Byzantine emperors and churchmen waged a struggle against the use of icons. This conflict was ultimately ended in 843 with the restoration of icons, called in the Church the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” Today’s observance celebrates this act.

Iconoclasm formally began in the 720s, when certain bishops began questioning the excessive way in which some people were revering icons. In 730 Emperor Leo III took up their cause and issued a decree forbidding the veneration of religious images, “the evil art of painters,” as a later iconoclast council called it. While iconoclasts saw images as a departure from the practice of the early Church, those who supported the veneration of icons did so precisely on the basis of Tradition: the Church had done so for years and was not in error.

It was St John of Damascus (676-749) who gave the Church the insight that the use of icons was the logical consequence of the incarnation of Christ. As he wrote in his Treatise on the Divine Images, “In former times, God who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh, conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake.” St John’s teaching became normative in the Byzantine Church which, since the Triumph of Orthodoxy, has in the minds of many become identified as “the Church of Icons.”

“But I Can’t Fast”

“If there are some gathered here who are hindered by sickness and cannot remain without food, I advise them to reverse their ailment and not to deprive themselves from the Fast, but to care for it even more.

“For there exist – there really exist ways which are even more important than abstinence from food which can open the gates which lead to God with boldness. He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words. Then our physical illness is not a hindrance to our spirit. Let him become reconciled with his enemies. Let him distance from his soul every resentment. If he wants to accomplish these things, then he has done the true fast, which is what the Lord asks of us more than anything else.

“It is for this reason that He asks us to abstain from food, in order to place the flesh in subjection to the fulfillment of His commandments, by curbing its impetuousness … If we eat with moderation, we should never be ashamed, because the Creator gave us such a body which cannot be supported in any other way except by receiving food. Let us only stop excessive food; that in itself contributes a great deal to the health and well-being of the body.”
Abridged from St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Fasting
Original letter (PDF, 5 pages, 106KB)
Arabic translation (PDF, 6 pages, 284KB)

Great Lent and Holy Week

Renewal of our Baptismal Commitment

Let us enter the season of the radiant Fast with joy,
Giving ourselves to the spiritual combat. Let us purify our spirit
and cleanse our flesh.
As we fast from food,
let us abstain from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit, may we persevere with love
so as to be worthy to see
the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with spiritual gladness
to behold His holy Resurrection.
(Forgiveness Vespers)

In the early Church baptisms took place in connection with the glorious feast of Christ’s Resurrection. The one to be baptized, the catechumen, was plunged into the baptismal pool, symbolic tomb of Christ, only to be raised with Christ from the tomb which now symbolized a womb to new life. Catechumens studied the Christian faith for one to three years, and the last forty days before their baptisms were given more intense instruction on how to live the life of Christ through prayer, fasting and good works, – the basis for a Christian life. So this season was not dismal or sad and gloomy but rather joyful – living Christ was filled with joy.

Over the hundreds of years, the Church extended this 40-day period even to us, the already existing Christians, recognizing that we do not always live our Christ-life as best as we can. We slip: we forget to pray and converse with God as we should. We overindulge much in food and spend more time with gossip and back-biting. We ignore our brothers and sisters in need and forget to care for each other as we should. Our likeness to God gets tarnished and many times we fail to see it – we need a renewal, so the Church proposes to us a more active life in Great Lent to pray more, to fast more, and to perform more good works for 40 days with the hope we are able to renew good habits in our lives in imitation of Jesus Christ, our Lord, model and Savior.

Great Lent opens with Forgiveness Vespers at which we chant: “Let us observe a Fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forebear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then our fasting is true and pleasing to God.”

We welcome Great Lent not as a time for self-inflicted agony or self-improving therapy. We greet this season as a holy time consecrated to the correction, purification and enlightenment of ourselves through the fulfillment of the commandments of the crucified God.

We push out the evil within us and allow the fruits of the Holy Spirit to take deeper root in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22). The forty days are saving days for complete and total dedication to things of God. The forty days are our “tithe” or one tenth of the year to focus more on our godliness. We return to God in the abundance He gives us!

We begin Great Lent with Forgiveness Vespers, properly on Sunday evening or in some parishes on Monday – the first day of Lent. We ask each other for forgiveness as we embark on this intense spiritual journey. God desires our repentance, not our remorse. We express sorrow for our sins but do so in the joy of God’s mercy. We make ready for the Resurrection, both Christ’s and our own. We renew our baptismal promises.

The Church offers us the tools for renewing ourselves and our attempts to be more in conformity with the teachings of Christ. The basic tools are Prayer, Fasting, and Good works – these are essential elements to living a full Christian life. By focusing on them more intensely we begin to renew ourselves to live better lives.

Prayer – Prayer is necessary in Christian life. Jesus Christ himself prayed and taught us how to pray. To be a follower of Christ we must pray – our conversation with God. We lift our minds and hearts to God to have communion with him in order to accomplish his will.

We have personal prayer at home using some formal words or just being informal in dialogue with God. We are urged to pray regularly, secretly, briefly and without many words, trusting that God hears us. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites... so they may be seen by others... rather go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (MT 6:5-6).

A simple prayer for this purpose is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This can be repeated many times. We invoke the name of God to have communion with him.

Another prayer prayed especially at every liturgical Lenten service is the Prayer of St. Ephrem. Each short paragraph is accompanied with a great prostration. This prayer can be said upon waking, with our family meals, and before sleeping – or any other times during the day:

  • O Lord and Master of my life, grant that I may not be afflicted with a spirit of sloth, inquisitiveness, ambition and vain talking.
  • Instead, bestow upon me, Your servant, a spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.
  • Yes, O Lord and King, grant me the grace to see my own sins and not to judge my brethren., for You are blessed forever and ever. Amen.

During Great Lent the Church offers us public services: Presanctified Liturgy, Great Compline and the Akathist Hymn. We do not go to church to say our private prayers, but we bring ourselves, our cares, desires, troubles, questions and joy and unite them with others to the prayer of the Church, to the prayer of Christ, the Mother of God, the saints, and our brothers and sisters in our particular community. Check your parish bulletins for these enriching community events.

Fasting – Fasting is essential to our Christian life. Christ fasted and taught us to fast. The goal of fasting is to purify our lives, a physical and spiritual liberation from sin. We strengthen ourselves to love God and people. What money we save from fasting on specific foods is shared with others who have a need. We have our Eparchial Shepherd’s Care Program: Each person, old and young, banks the savings in a Lenten mite box and presents it on Pascha to the Church so that the Shepherd, the Bishop, distributes it to the poor and needy. Fasting helps our body and the bodies of others.

Our fasting regulations developed in monasteries and are somewhat mitigated today but it is up to each person individually to adjust the fast to their life and circumstances. Check your parish bulletin for the traditional fast and the mitigated guidelines and make it a better part of your life – the rules are ideals to which we strive.

Jesus reminds us in Mathew’s Gospel: “When you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting... But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (MT 6:16-18).

St. John Chrysostom also gives us important words on fasting: “Real fasting is not merely abstinence from meats, but from sins as well. Let the hands fast by being pure from plundering and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing to run to unlawful spectacles... Let the mouth fast from disgraceful speech, for what does it profit us if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters.”

Our Lenten Vespers sums this up perfectly: “Let us observe a Fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forebear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then our fasting is true and pleasing to God.” (1st Monday of Lent).

Good Works – Almsgiving – The third arm of Great Lent is a stronger refocus on doing good works. Almsgiving is a daily event, not just done in Lent. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus not only speaks about prayer and fasting, he adds his words or commands of almsgiving as well. “So when you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do... rather do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (MT 6:2-4).

Jesus’ call for us to do good works even confirms God’s law in the old covenant: “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor... Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor Him.” (Proverbs 14:21, 31).

Scripture teaches us that to share our possessions to support the needs of others is the most concrete expression of faith and love. Faith is not alive in one who does not help the needy. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”. (James 2:14-17).

The Fathers of the Church also insist on almsgiving. St. John Chrysostom says: “Feed the needy now or be ready forever to feed the fires of hell!” St. Basil the Great also insists on sharing with others: “The grain in your barn belongs to the hungry. The coat in your closet belongs to the naked. The shoes rotting in your basement belong to the barefoot. The silver (money) hidden in boxes belongs to the needy. You sin against all those whom you are able to help, but fail to do so.”

Our liturgical texts also focus on good works: “In this season of repentance, let us stretch out our hands in works of mercy. Then the ascetic struggles of the Fast will bring us eternal life, for nothing saves the soul so much as generosity to those in need; and almsgiving combined with fasting will deliver us from death. Let us do all this with gladness, for there is no better way, and it will bring salvation to our souls.” (Matins Aposticha, 2nd Thursday of Lent).

Just prior to the Great Fast we recall on Meatfare Sunday the great parable in Matthew’s Gospel of the Last Judgement: Jesus reminds those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, cloth the naked, visited and cared for the sick, and visited those in prison, “just as you did it to one of the least of those of my brethren, you did it to me...and those that ignored the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do to me.” (MT 25:31-46). Jesus identifies himself as every person in need. Our brothers and sisters are our life – we cannot ignore them or pass by their needs.

Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. On weekdays of the Great Lent, we fast from the full Eucharistic Divine Liturgy. However, it is not fasting from receiving Communion, just from the full joyful Divine Liturgy. The Church does not deprive us from receiving Holy Communion by celebrating a modified Vesper-Liturgy in which we receive the body and blood of Christ consecrated on the previous Sunday.

Generally, in our Melkite Church it is celebrated on Wednesday evening but it can be any weekday evening according to parish schedules. It is truly a beautiful service with the pre- sanctified gifts brought to the Holy Altar in deep silence.

Akathist Hymn – This beautiful Kontakion written by St. Romanos, the author of many long hymns is connected with the Great Feast of Annunciation on March 25, which generally occurs during Great Lent, or Holy Week. In our Melkite Church, on Friday evenings we chant the Odes to the Mother of God and a section of the Akathist Hymn. On the 5th Friday we chant it entirely at night prayer (Compline). Although not directly connected to Lenten services, this expressive theological hymn honors the Mother of God who bore Jesus Christ in her womb. She gave birth to our Savior whose saving actions we will celebrate in Holy Week leading to his glorious Resurrection.

Special commemorations take place on the Saturdays and Sundays of this fasting season and a very long Canon on Repentance written by St. Andrew of Crete is sometimes chanted in some parishes. Check with your parish priest, and if not chanted in the church request this Canon which you can chant or read in your homes.

Great Lent ends with the resurrection of Lazarus on the day before Palm Sunday. However, although the 40 days are complete, we embark on a more intense and expressive week – the Holy and Great Week of the Passion of Christ. During Holy Week our fasting should be a bit more intense. Although we are still somewhat in partial lockdown with COVID-19, most services will be live streamed by our parishes. It is a beautiful week walking with Christ in his passion, proclaiming Him our King on Palm Sunday and Bridegroom of the Church. We are anointed with the oil of the sick since we are all spiritually infirm. We witness his humility by washing his apostles’ feet as a reminder that all of us are called to serve each other. We celebrate his institution of the Eucharist which is our life-giving food. We read the Passion Gospels and enact his crucifixion, meditating on his long-suffering and death on the cross, accomplished for our salvation. We remove the dead Christ from the Cross, prepare the burial and sing the joyful glorifications at His decorated tomb. We process with his burial shroud (epitaphios) around the church and even in some places outside of the church, and upon reentering the church we bow underneath his body as a sign of dying with him and asking to be raised with him too!

On Holy Saturday we bless the new light – the sign that Christ lives and we proclaim his resurrection to the world outside before our Paschal Divine Liturgy. And as we proclaim his resurrection, we too stand upright and proclaim our own renewal of our Christian life which we received at the time of our baptisms. At our baptisms we were asked if we renounce all evil, if we accept Christ and if we will live the Christ life. If we were babies at that time our godparents answered for us. But now as adults we recommit ourselves to living Christ and to being another Christ in our world.

I pray this Holy Season be filled with joy for all of you and I pray that when you shout the first Christ is risen, you can add “and me too,” I’m a renewed follower of Jesus Christ.

A Short Pastoral Letter on Great Lent and Holy Week - 2021
Bishop Nicholas Samra
Eparchial Bishop of Newton

O LORD and Master of my life, grant that I may not be afflicted with a spirit of sloth, inquisitiveness, ambition and vain talking. Instead, bestow upon me, Your servant, a spirit of purity, humility, patience and love. Yes, O Lord and King, grant me the grace to see my own sins and not to judge my brethren. For you are blessed forever and ever. Amen. From the Office of Educational Services: Great Lent at Home (PDF, 556KB, 28 pages)
EACH YEAR, AS WE PREPARE to embark upon the Great Fast, we hear the Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) read at the Divine Liturgy. Some commentators have said that the story might better be called the Parable of the Forgiving Father as he is the most important character in the story. Actually the parable speaks about the character of God, (the father) and the human condition (both his sons). It thus sets the stage for our Lenten journey of repentance.

The Prodigal Son and Our Human Condition

We are not told the exact age of the young man when he decides to set off on his own, but countless commentators have depicted him as an adolescent. His behavior certainly bears this out. He has the selfish impatience of youth: he wants his inheritance now, even though his father is still alive. He is more interested in what the man’s money can buy than in the man himself.

In that, the young man repeats the choice made by our first parents who preferred the appetizing but forbidden fruit to continued fellowship with the One who provided it. He also images the choices we all make when we focus our attention on the fruits of creation rather than on the Creator who offers us a relationship with Himself. In any such choice we become the petulant adolescent whose first stabs at maturity always seem to require resentment of the parent if not outright rebellion.

On his own the Prodigal’s newfound independence seems to lead him into slavery rather quickly. He begins living what various translations call a “wild,” “reckless,” “loose” “riotous” “foolish,” “notorious,” “dissolute,” “wasteful,” or “prodigal” way of life. We are left to imagine what that might have involved; we certainly know what the result was. He spent everything he had and ended up with nothing. He wanted to be independent but did not understand that being independent does not free a person from being responsible.

No well-balanced person in our world wants to be dependent on another. We often forget, however, that our desire for human self-determination cannot lead us away from God without disastrous results. We inevitably end up spiritually bankrupt and living on the pig’s fodder of a Godless world.

Unlike many people, however, the Prodigal does something about his condition: he returns to his father. He repents. Still thinking of himself and his own needs, he plans to plead for the lowest place in his father’s household. The young man does not know with whom he is dealing.

The Forgiving Father and the Mercy of God

The father does not wait for his son to apologize or beg for forgiveness. He welcomes him home with open arms and calls for a celebration. He is the image of our heavenly Father who knows when one of His children seeks forgiveness and grants it at once, without demanding any form of penance or satisfaction.

Note that the father does not go in search of his son when the lad is enjoying the wasteful life he has chosen or when he is miserable, but not yet resolved to return home. His mercy would bear fruit only when the son had come to truly desire it and so the father waits for his son to make the first move. But when the son does return, the father does not make him work for forgiveness; he gives it freely.

In this the father is unlike many of us who would want the ungrateful son to squirm before accepting him back home. We might feel justified in “teaching him a lesson,” but this is apparently not God’s way. When repentance truly touches the heart, the “lesson” has already been learned.

The Father’s extraordinary mercy is no excuse for taking advantage of Him: seeking the blessing of His house while not repenting in action as well as in words. As St Isaac the Syrian taught, “But the fact that repentance furnishes hope should not be taken by us as a means to rob ourselves of the feeling of fear, so that one might more freely and fearlessly commit sin” (Isaac the Syrian, First Collection: Homily Ten).

Proclaiming the Mercy of God

Our liturgy continually emphasizes the mercy of God. The beloved Polyeleos psalm sung so frequently in our churches at the most solemn occasions has as its refrain, “For His mercy endures forever, alleluia” The Typica psalms each proclaim the depths of God’s mercy to His People: “He forgives all your iniquity, he heals all your diseases, he redeems your life from the pit, he crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (Psalms 102:3, 4).

The second psalm is even more specific: “He brings about justice for the oppressed; he gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalms 146:7-9).

Is it unreasonable to think that we, who continually sing of God’s mercy in our services, should not be encouraging one another to return to the Father by attending the Church’s Lenten services, by approaching the Mystery of Confession and by embracing the ideas in “The Great Fast in the Home,” available on our eparchy’s web site,

As the Lord said in the parables which precede the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance… Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7, 10).

St. Cyril of Alexandria on the Parable

“What then is the object of the parable? Let us examine the occasion which led to it; for so we shall learn the truth. The blessed Luke therefore had himself said a little before of Christ the Savior of us all, ‘And all the publicans and sinners drew near unto Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ As therefore the Pharisees and Scribes made this outcry at His gentleness and love to man, and wickedly and impiously blamed Him for receiving and teaching men whose lives were impure, Christ very necessarily set before them the present parable, to show them clearly this very thing: that …when any are called to repentance, even if they be men highly blamable, he must rejoice, and not give way to an unloving vexation on their account….

“For sometimes people are indignant at this, and even say, 'This man, who has been guilty of such and such actions… has been inscribed among the sons of God, and honored with the glory of the saints!’' Such complaints come from an empty narrowness of mind, not conforming to the purpose of the universal Father. For He greatly rejoices when He sees those who were lost obtaining salvation, and raises them up again to that which they were in the beginning, giving them the garment of freedom...

“It is our duty, therefore, to conform ourselves to that which God wills: for He heals those who are sick… He seeks those who were lost; He raises as from the dead those who had suffered spiritual death. Let us also rejoice and, together with the holy angels, praise Him who is good, and the Lover of mankind.”
     Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, 107
THIS WEEKEND OUR CHURCH opens the pages of the Triodion, the book containing the texts for all the services leading up to Pascha. This Lenten journey may be viewed on two levels, chronologically and spiritually. Both are important as we look ahead to our celebration of Pascha.

Chronologically, the period of the Triodion consists in three distinct sections: the pre-Lenten period, the Great Fast itself, and the Great and Holy Week. The first, the pre-Lenten period, progressively leads us to the coming Great Fast. It begins with two Sundays which introduce us to thoughts of repentance. Next we have a weekend of observances reminding us of our mortality: the Saturday of the Dead and the Sunday of the final Judgment. Finally, in Meat-fare Week, we are eased into the Fast by beginning to abstain from meat. The last pre-Lenten observance takes place on Cheese-Fare Sunday with the ceremony of forgiveness, in which we ritually ask the entire community to forgive us our offences so that we may begin the Great Fast with pure hearts.

The Publican and the Pharisee

On this first Sunday of the Triodion’s pre-Lenten period, we are presented with the Lord’s parable of the Publican or tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. As we begin our Lenten journey, we are reminded how the prayer of the Pharisee did not reach God while the Publican’s prayer was heard. The Pharisee’s devotions were “correct,” but, the Lord teaches, it is not enough to say the right words when the heart is not correct as well.

The basic attitude of the heart for which the Pharisee is faulted is pride: “I fast twice a week,” he boasts; “I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:12)… and that makes me better than that tax collector. The Pharisee is right in one sense: it is good to fast and to give tithes, but his good deeds are made void through his pride.

Reflecting on this parable in its hymnody, our Church describes the Pharisee’s prayer as “ungrateful.” He says, “I thank you, God,” but thankfulness to God is not revealed in his underlying attitude. His inner spirit is not focused on God’s gifts, but on his own perceived accomplishments. He does the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

A consequence of the Pharisee’s self-centered parody of religion is the judgmental way he regards his fellow man: “I am not like other men” (v.11): my devotions make me superior, more worthy in the sight of God. Christ takes the opposite view: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.14)..

Keeping a Proper Perspective

The Scriptures often return to the place of formal religious practices in our spiritual life. Some people – we might call them iconoclasts – reject such practices outright as hypocrisy. The Lord is not one of them. He affirms the value of devotional practices, when kept in a suitable way. He condemns the Pharisees for their attitudes, not their actions. He tells His followers, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, … all their works they do to be seen by men” (Matthew 23:2, 5).

Our fasting should not be a matter of public display. “Moreover, when you fast,” the Lord says, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16, 17).

In Matthew 23, Christ specifies the place of devotional practices in a mature spiritual life. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23). Devotional practices are commendable, but not as a replacement for mutual love.

During the coming Fast we may become so concerned with its devotional aspects, such as attending special services or avoiding meat and dairy products, that we become irritable with others and make void our striving to keep the Fast. The mature approach is that outlined by Christ in the verse above: observe the devotional practices, but do not ignore or abuse others in the process. As the Greek saying puts it, it is better to eat the fish than to eat the fisherman!

Isn’t Fasting Obsolete?

In the first century ad, some Christians coming from a Jewish background were concerned with keeping the ritual precepts of the Old Testament in addition to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. In the traditional Jewish view, it was keeping the precepts of the Law which makes a person righteous before God. St Paul repeatedly insisted that this was no longer the case. It is putting our faith in Christ, not the devotions we observe, which justifies us. The Law of Moses, the Apostle taught, was “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

For us, observing the precepts of the Fast are meant to lead us to Christ, not substitute for a relationship with Him. We cannot earn ourselves a place in heaven by fasting, or by any other practice we might undertake. We can fast and pray, however, to express our gratitude for the gifts of God who has united us to Himself in Christ. We fast, not to improve our standing with God, but to respond with gratitude to what He has done for us.

The Canon from the Triodion

Every good deed can be made void through foolish pride, while every sin can be cleansed by humility. Let us then embrace humility in faith and completely turn away from the path of pride.                                    From Ode 1 God the Word humbled Himself and took the form of a servant, showing that humility is the best means to exaltation. All those who follow the Lord’s example, humbling themselves, will be exalted on high.

To lead us to exaltation with God, the Savior and Master revealed in His deeds the humility which can lift us up on high. With His own hands, He washed the feet of His Apostles.                                    From Ode 4

Let us hasten to follow the example of the Pharisee in his virtues and to imitate the Publican in his humility. Let us flee what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions.                                    From Ode 5

O faithful, let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! Let us never claim, ‘We are pure,’ as he did. Let us rightly follow the Publican in his humility and gain the mercy of our God.                                    From Ode 8

Like the Publican, let us pray to the Lord, entreating His mercy and flee from the Pharisee’s ungrateful prayer and the proud words with which he judged his neighbor, that we may gain God’s forgiveness and light.                                    From Ode 9

THE LORD JESUS SAID to the rich young ruler, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). This young man declined, but others through the centuries have left all and followed Him. In times of persecution they followed Him to the cross (or the sword, the wild beasts, or the flames) as martyrs. But what if there is no persecution – how can one follow Christ?

A number of early Christians sought to follow Him into the wilderness. Ascetics, both men and women, left their homes and withdrew from society to follow the One who had said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). The first to do so, like St Takla, the first woman martyr, left their homes to dwell outside their town or village in relative seclusion. Two others, whom the Church remembers this week, went further than that.

The first, St Paul of Thebes (January 15), is revered as the first hermit in Egypt. During the persecution of Decius, Paul fled to the Theban desert where he lived in a cave for almost 100 years before his death in 342.

We know more about the second, St Anthony the Great (January 17), the “father of monks” whose life was written by his contemporary, St Athanasius the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria. This work was soon translated into numerous languages and spread the fame of St Anthony and of the ascetic life throughout the Churches of East and West.

“Sell all that you have…”

Anthony (c. 251-356) was the son of landowners from the village of Coma on the Nile, south of Alexandria. When he was 18 years old, his parents died, leaving his unmarried sister in his care. A few months later he had what we might call a “Conversion Experience” while attending the Liturgy in the village church. He heard the Gospel passage quoted at the start of this article and, as St Athanasius tells it, “As though God had put him in mind of the  Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, Anthony went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers— they were three hundred acres, productive and very fair— that they should be no more an obstruction to himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister's sake.”

Soon after he felt called to a more ascetic way of life. Placing his sister in the care of “known and faithful virgins,” Anthony began living in solitude outside his village, visiting any nearby ascetics and studying their way of life. When he was about 35, he settled among the tombs at the edge of the Western Desert, giving himself over to prayer and fasting. A friend bringing him bread one day found him collapsed outside the tomb and brought him back to the village. St Athanasius says that Anthony had a divine visitation in which he was told, “since you have endured, and have not been overcome, I will always help you, and will make your name known everywhere.' Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly.” 

20 Years at Deir al-Meimun

As soon as Anthony recovered he headed further into the desert, settling in the ruins of an abandoned fort in the mountains on the other side of the Nile. Friends would come to bring him food but he would not leave the fort, speaking to them through a slit in the wall. St Athanasius says that these friends often heard him beset by demons and that they “used often to come expecting to find him dead, and would hear him singing, ‘Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, let them that hate Him flee before His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; as wax melts before the face of fire, so let the sinners perish from the face of God;’ and again, ‘All nations compassed me about, and in the name of the Lord I requited them.’”

Anthony’s reputation spread over the years and people increasingly came to see him, hoping to imitate his way of life. After twenty years “Anthony came forth, as from a shrine, initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God. Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he looked as he had years before. He was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons. He was just the same as they had known him before his retirement.”

Anthony now encouraged others to settle nearby and adopt his way of life. The numbers so increased that, as Athanasius says, “cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonized by monks.” 

Forays to Alexandria

Although other monks leaved nearby, Anthony still lived in seclusion for most of the time, coming together with them for occasional worship and instruction. He first left this place of solitude in 311, during the persecution of Maximinus when Christians were being rounded up and taken to Alexandria. He presented himself publicly in the city but no one dared touch him. He spent some time ministering to the suffering Christians there. When the persecution ceased, he then returned to his cell.

Anthony now resolved to return to solitude. He settled further into the mountains and allowed other monks to bring him food once a month. He would descend to the other monks from time to time to instruct and encourge them in their monastic life.

Anthony returned to Alexandria to refute the rumor that he sided with the Arians. He publicly denounced the Arian teaching, calling it the forerunner of the antichrist. During his stay there he healed many and freed others from demons.

As the years progressed more and more people came to live the monastic life in Anthony’s shadow. His fame even reached Emperor Constantine and his sons who wrote to him seeking guidance. Anthony lived to be 105. His body was placed in an unmarked grave, as he directed.

Asceticism and Us

What does the witness of St Anthony – and of the ascetic life in general – say to people in the world? We are all called to follow Christ, if not to a martyr’s death or to a foreign mission, but where is He leading us? St Paul gives us this answer: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:1, 2).

Asceticism is essentially a refocusing of our hearts away from “things on the earth” to enable us to develop our relationship to Christ where He is now. While people in the world have important family and career responsibilities, we also have a great deal of free time which we devote to recreation or entertainment of one sort or another. In our society we are increasingly addicted to non-stop music, TV or Internet, with their increasingly godless atmosphere. What time do we have left for prayer, Scripture reading or service? What spirit do we have left for relishing fellowship with God? Asceticism for us might well involve turning from such pursuits at least in part to set our minds “on things above, where Christ is.

Holy Father Anthony, pray to God for us!
WHAT DO WE CELEBRATE on January 6? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Just look at the icon: it’s Jesus’ baptism!

Actually, neither the icon nor the feast celebrates the fact that the Lord Jesus was baptized. Rather, we remember what happened at His baptism and what it represents for us as we live our life in Christ. We do not call this the Feast of Christ’s Baptism, focusing on the historical setting. Rather we call it the Feast of the Holy Theophany, or “manifestation of God,”

Manifestation of the Trinity

The troparion of the feast sets the tone for our reflection: “At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed; for the Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You His beloved Son and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!”

The story of this theophany is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John’s Gospel, as we shall see, the Baptist alludes to it as he describes the character and mission of Jesus.

The Father’s Voice: Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of a voice from heaven heard at Jesus’ baptism calling Him “My beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). None of the Evangelists say outright that this was the voice of God, but since their picture of Jesus as the Son of God is clear in the Gospels, we can draw no other conclusion.

In icons of the Theophany this voice is depicted symbolically by the ray of light which originates in a geometric shape – often a semicircle – and rests over the head of Jesus.

The Dove: All the Evangelists, including John, describe the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. In John’s Gospel the Baptist offers his own testimony: “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit;’ and I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:33, 34).

In icons the dove is enclosed in an aureole, symbol of divine glory, in the midst of the ray representing the Father’s voice.

St John of Damascus compared the dove which appeared at the end of the flood to the dove at Jesus’ baptism. “As, at that time the world was cleansed of sin through the waters of the flood, then the dove brought an olive branch to Noah’s Ark announcing the end of the flood, and peace came to the Earth, so, in like manner the Holy Spirit descends as a dove to announce forgiveness of sins and God’s mercy on the world. Then [it was] an olive branch, now it is our Lord’s mercy.”

The graphic presence of the Father (by His voice), the Son (in the flesh) and the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) is the first such manifestation of the Holy Trinity in the New Testament. The second such revelation is at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ as His ministry is drawing to a close.

The Lord Jesus: God and Man

Christ is clearly Lord in icons of this feast. Several signs of His divinity and preeminence are found in the way He is shown. In Western depictions of His baptism Jesus is often shown with His head bowed and hands folded in prayer. That is never the case in our icons. He is shown standing erect, often with His hand raised in blessing.

In some older icons Christ is depicted naked. We are back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve, created in communion with God, are naked and unashamed. The original creation is restored and renewed with the coming of Christ.

Once You clothed the shameful nakedness of our forefather Adam; now You are stripped naked of Your own will!  You covered the roof of heaven with waters; now You wrap Yourself in the streams of Jordan, only merciful Christ.

In later icons Christ is depicted with a drape around His waist, which represents the winding sheet in which He was wrapped for burial. The river is often depicted in the shape of a cave, suggesting the tomb in which He was laid.

In some icons the water envelops His sacred body which is visible in it. We are thus reminded of the death and resurrection of Christ into which our baptism immerses us.

In other icons Jesus is not submerged into the water at all. He is depicted astride the river as He blesses it. The River Jordan did not cleanse Christ; it is Christ’s presence in its midst which sanctifies the waters.

Other Signs of God’s Presence

The icon of the Theophany, as well as many of its hymns, includes other elements which point to the divine activity present in Christ at His baptism. Among them are:

John the Forerunner: The presence of John the Baptist is an essential part of the story of Jesus’ baptism. In icons, however, the depiction of John is more about Christ than it is about him. In some icons John is showed bowing to the Lord, bent in awe before the One he had come to announce. In other icons John is depicted as gazing up toward heaven, as if beholding the manifestation of the Father and the Spirit. In either case, although he was the focus of all other baptisms which he performed, John was not the center of this one.

The Axe: In some icons we see a tree stump with an axe embedded in it near where John is standing. This recalls John’s prophetic words to the Pharisees, “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). The axe ready to cut signifies that the Messiah is at hand.

The Seascape: In some icons Christ is shown standing on one or two rocks, sometimes arranged in the form of a cross. Here we are reminded of the resurrection icon in which the Lord is depicted astride the gates of Death. In that icon the personification of Death often lies bound beneath His feet. In the Theophany icon it is often snakes or a sea creature under His feet. In both cases what is depicted is Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. “You crushed the heads of the dragons in the water” (Psalms 73:14).

“When You bowed Your head to the Forerunner, You crushed the heads of the dragons; and when You stood in the midst of the stream, You let Your light shine upon all creatures, that they might glorify You, Our Savior, who enlighten our souls!”

The Sea: At the bottom of the icon we often find two small figures with astonished looks on their faces, often astride dolphins. They personify these psalm verses, alluding to the Exodus but often heard during the feast of the Theophany: “The sea saw and fled; Jordan turned back… What ails you, O sea, that you fled? O Jordan, that you turned back? O mountains, that you skipped like rams? O little hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob” (Psalms 114:3, 5-7).

Today the prophecy of the Psalms swiftly approaches its fulfillment:  “The sea looked and fled: Jordan was driven back” before the face of the Lord, before the face of the God of Jacob!  He came to receive baptism from His servant, so that our souls washed clean from the defilement of idolatry, might be enlightened through Him!

CHRISTMAS EVEN AND NEW YEAR'S EVE are holiday milestones in American society. In our tradition January 5, Theophany Eve, is also a special day of preparation and anticipation leading into one of the most important festivals of the Church year.

Like Christmas Eve, Theophany Eve is a paramony, a day of continual prayer and fasting, leading up to the celebration of the feast. Part of what makes this a day of continual prayer is the celebration of the Royal Hours which replaces the ordinary First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours served every day in Byzantine practice. The Divine Liturgy is not served until the end of the fasting day, when it is joined to vespers to begin the feast.

The Royal Hours are served on the Paramony of Christmas, the Paramony of the Theophany and on Great and Holy Friday which we might call the “Paramony of Pascha.” In addition, some Greek Churches serve the Royal Hours on the Eve of Pentecost, but without fasting.

Our cycle of daily services has its origin in the experience of the Jews during the Babylonian exile. Since the prescribed round of morning and evening sacrifices could only be conducted in the Jerusalem temple, the exiled Jews developed a cycle of prayers, hymns and Scripture readings to be said throughout the day instead. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile, these prayers were incorporated into the usage of the temple. Jews today observe three daily services (morning, afternoon and evening) corresponding to the times of the three daily temple sacrifices.

The first Christians continued the custom of praying at these specific times. The Acts of the Apostles records St Peter going apart to pray at the sixth hour (Acts 10:9) and at the ninth hour (Acts 3:1). With the development of monasticism these daily prayers took on the character of formal services. Other services were added in imitation of the Psalmist’s witness, “Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous judgments” (Psalms 119:164).

The hours came to commemorate important events which the Scriptures say took place at those times. Thus our Third Hour recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (see Acts 2). The Byzantine Sixth and Ninth Hours evoke the memory of Christ’s crucifixion and death: “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice … and yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:45, 50).

What Makes These Hours “Royal”?

While for most of the year the Hours are “cell services” – without choral responses or accompanying ritual, meant to be served by monastics in their cells (or by anyone at work or at home), the Royal Hours are served solemnly in church with hymns, Scripture readings and ceremony. They are generally served without interruption and conclude with the Typika. The name “Royal Hours” comes from the practice of the Great Church in Constantinople. The emperor and his court would attend the Hours on these days, emphasizing their importance in the life of the Church.

Scripture in the Royal Hours

As a rule, the Scriptures read at the Hours are all taken from the Psalms. In the Royal Hours, however, selections from both the Old and New Testaments are read, in addition to the Psalter. The New Testament selections recount the ministry of John and the baptism of Christ as well as the meaning of baptism in the Church. The Old Testament readings, all taken from the Book of Isaiah the Prophet, provide us with an illustration of how Old Testament prophecies are ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

The Prophet Isaiah lived in the eighth century BC and, like other prophets, called on his hearers to repent and to conform their lives to God’s way. The following passage, read at the Third Royal Hour, illustrates Isaiah’s message: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Isaiah warned that, if people did not repent, the nation would suffer at the hands of its enemies (at that time, the Assyrians). If they did repent, however, they would be restored and given new life. We see this in the selection read at the Sixth Royal Hour, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His Name; make known His deeds among the nations, proclaim that His Name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for He has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:3-6).

The second half of the book, added some 200 years later, reflects the same themes. At this point in Israel’s history their great enemy was Babylon rather than Assyria. The Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem and destroy the temple, dragging the most prominent Jews into exile.

Streams in the Desert

The promise for their restoration dominates the second half of Isaiah. Jerusalem, no longer desolate, will be rebuilt and will water its thirsty people. At the First Royal Hour we read, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the lily. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon… Behold, your God will come…. He will come and save you. … For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isaiah 35:1-7).

The power of Babylon ended just as that of Assyria had centuries before, but the ultimate fulfillment of these prophecies would only come with Christ. We see in Him the Source of eternal life, the One who truly turns the arid wilderness of thirsty hearts into springs of water. This theme would be taken up in the Gospel of John, where we read the words of the Lord Jesus “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.  But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those who believe in Him would receive” (John 7:37-38).

The frequent mention of water in these passages, then, does not just allude to the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan but to the Lord Himself. He is the One who can refresh with the living water of the Holy Spirit all who come to Him. He is the One who is revealed at the Jordan by the Father’s voice and the Spirit’s hidden presence and who begins to announce the good news of our salvation to the world.

"When he saw the Lord of glory draw near to him, the Forerunner cried out: “Behold the One who redeems the world from corruption! Behold the One who delivers us from affliction! Behold the One who, in His mercy, has come forth upon earth from a pure Virgin, granting remission of sins! Instead of servants, He makes us children of God. Instead of darkness, He gives light to mankind through the waters of His divine baptism. Come, let us glorify Him together with the Father and the Holy Spirit."
Idiomelon at the Ninth Royal Hour

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