Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
PERHAPS IT WAS AN ATHLETIC ENTHUSIAST who deleted from our liturgical books the verse which introduces today’s passage from the First Epistle to Timothy. It reads as follows: “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8) This is the “faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance” to which St Paul refers in verse 9, the first one we hear today.

St Paul is here setting the priorities which a presbyter, such as Timothy, should embrace. Put your efforts into spiritual athletics rather than physical, as spiritual effort will build you up in the next life as well as in this one.

Timothy, a “Young Elder”?

The Acts of the Apostles and some of the epistles of St Paul tell us a bit about Timothy. He was born in Asia Minor to a Greek father and a Jewish mother who had accepted Christ. Timothy was raised as a Christian by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois and, as St Paul reminds him, “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15).

As a young man, Timothy became a helper to St Paul in his travels and eventually joined him in his missionary journeys. St Paul ultimately left him in Ephesus as the leader of his Christian community there. The epistles which St Paul wrote to Timothy were sent to him in Ephesus.

St Paul mentions Timothy’s ordination twice in this correspondence in seemingly contradictory ways. In Second Timothy St Paul writes, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying-on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6,7).

In the previous epistle, however, Paul had written, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Timothy 4:1). In both texts St Paul speaks of the lying-on of hands, the most ancient term for what we call ordination. Was St Timothy ordained twice?

We know that, in the first century Church, a variety of terms was used to describe ecclesiastical orders. In some places, the presbyters were the council assisting the bishop (overseer); in other places the terms bishop and presbyter (and others) were used interchangeably. There is no documentation to shed light on what the practice was in Ephesus at the time St Paul wrote this epistle. It is possible, therefore, that St Paul had ordained Timothy as a presbyter, and that the presbyterate in Ephesus had ordained him as their bishop. It is also possible that there was one laying-on of hands by Paul, assisted by the presbyterate.

When Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Church offices and the terms used to describe them became more standardized. This is why St John Chrysostom (+397) could observe, “He speaks not here of Presbyters, but of Bishops. For Presbyters cannot be supposed to have ordained a Bishop” (Homily on 1 Tim).

Timothy had been a co-worker of St Paul for some fifteen years before this epistle was written. Why, then, does St Paul tell Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12)? He may have been referring to Timothy’s place as head of the Christian community: Timothy was young as a bishop rather than a young person.

St Paul’s Advice

Thus in v. 12, Timothy is told to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” The way you speak and how you live your life away from the church are always under scrutiny and surely impact the way your message is heard.

St Paul identifies three areas of life which should characterize Timothy’s relationship with his people: love, faithfulness and purity. Throughout most of Church history, a bishop was considered “wedded” to his flock and was not expected to move from one eparchy to another. In many places, the same was true for priests in parish churches. The virtues, on which St Paul focuses here, are essential for any such long-term bonds. They are the qualities required in any marriage, and point to the family-like quality of a worshipping community.

In the next verse, St Paul identifies some activities particularly connected with the pastoral ministry expected of Timothy: “Till I come, give attention, to reading, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). How were these activities performed in the first-century Church?

Today we consider Reading to be a private activity for individuals. This has not always been so. Before the mass production of texts became possible in the fifteenth century, public reading of important documents and religious texts was the only way most people had access to them. The reading of the Scriptures in the Liturgy is perhaps the last survival of what was much more common practice.

The reading St Paul is discussing here, then, is the public reading of Scripture. In current Byzantine practice, the entire New Testament (except for the Book of Revelation) is read publicly at the daily Divine Liturgy each year. During the Great Fast, the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Genesis and Proverbs are read at the daily offices.

The term Exhortation in our English translation of the Scripture is a rendering of the Greek word paraklesei. We find the same word in the term for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete (the Consoler or Comforter), and in the Service of Paraklisis (Consolation), with which we may be familiar. Here it refers to the bishop’s duty to support believers in their struggles to live the Christian life, including those who have fallen.

The third-century Syrian text, the Teaching of the Apostles, holds up Christ’s way of exhorting His hearers as the model for the bishop to follow: “For as a wise and compassionate physician He was healing all, and especially those who were gone astray in their sins; for “those who are whole have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). You, O bishop, have become the physician of the Church as well; do not, therefore, withhold the cure whereby you may heal those who are sick with sins, but by all means cure and heal, and restore them sound to the Church” (2:20).

The third activity St Paul mentions here is Teaching (in Greek, didaskaleia), meaning specifically instruction in the true doctrine of the Gospel in an age of competing teachers and sects. In 2 Timothy 4:15, St Paul describes this activity as “rightly handling the word of truth,” a phrase which has been incorporated into our Divine Liturgy.

One early witness to the importance of Bible Teaching is the early third-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, describing the Roman practice of the day.”The faithful, as soon as they have wakened and gotten up, before they undertake any tasks, shall wash their hands and then pray to God, and then hasten to their work. If there is any instruction in the word of God that day, everyone ought to attend willingly, recollecting that he will hear God speaking through the teacher…any godly man ought to count it a great loss if he does not attend the place of instruction, especially if he can read.”
 
CHAPTER THREE OF ST PAUL'S EPISTLE to the Colossians begins with this enigmatic statement: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The questions it raises are obvious: when did we die, and how is our life hidden with Christ?

Baptism as Death and Resurrection

Many Christians, particularly in the Eastern Churches, can answer the first question. We died with Christ in baptism. The passage from the Epistle to the Romans read at every baptism in Byzantine churches includes the following teaching: “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore 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 6:3, 4).

Baptism is our personal union with the death and resurrection of Christ through which the ultimate power of Death was destroyed. At our baptism, this burial is graphically represented when we are “buried” (immersed) in the baptismal water. Our resurrection is represented when we are raised up out of the water. What cannot be depicted, of course, is the effect of our baptism: our life in Christ, hidden in God.

The life of the risen Christ is indescribable, but images help us to appreciate what it might mean. In his Catechetical Sermon on the Resurrection, St John Chrysostom gives us a glimpse into some aspects of this hidden life. "All of you, enjoy this feast of faith. Receive all the riches of His loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free… O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are overthrown. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one of the dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen sleep.”

St John Chrysostom mentions three aspects of resurrection life we have received:

1. Forgiveness of sins – “Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.” When we are baptized, our sins are forgiven. Future sins can be forgiven in the Church, to which Christ entrusted this gift.

2. Freedom from death – “Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.” The heart of Death is the rupture of communion with God. Death of the body cannot break that unity for those who are living their baptism.

3. All that is His is ours – “Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.” Our “wealth” as heirs of the kingdom includes the general gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, understanding, know-ledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, fear of the Lord) and the particular gifts which enable ministry. Living in the kingdom of God includes enjoying a relationship with the Theotokos, all the heavenly hosts, and all the saints, as well as all believers, living or dead (the communion of saints).

These blessings are hidden from the world, but “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (v. 4).

Consequences of This Hidden Life

St Paul insists that receiving the gift of life in Christ has consequences. “Set your mind on things above, not on those on the earth… Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man…” (vv. 2, 5-10).

Elsewhere St Paul had explained why Christians must put away things of the earth. “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:7,8). Things of the earth, like our mortal bodies, die and decay no matter how much we pamper them. Lust, envy, wrath, filthy language and the rest of St Paul’s list in Colossians are simply ways we pamper our decaying flesh. By cherishing the “wealth of the kingdom” mentioned above – sowing “to the Spirit” – we enjoy in this world a measure of the life to come.

Putting Off the Old Man

From time to time Christians have misinterpreted St Paul’s teaching on putting off the old man. People like the Amish, for example, thought to express their detachment from the world by adopting a particular form of dress or hair style, or by living apart from others in closed communities because they are Christians. As early as the second century, however, most believers have known the distinction between living in the world but not of the world. An unknown “disciple of the apostles” wrote the following description of the Christians for a certain Diognetus, somewhere in the Roman Empire.

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by county, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own counties, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native county, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives."

“They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… To sum up all in one word – what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world… God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it is unlawful for them to forsake.”

While monastics would later separate themselves from the world, they would do so because they had a particular vocation, not simply because they were Christians.
 
WE FREQUENTLY HEAR ABOUT the Fathers of the Church, those hierarchs and teachers who have made a lasting impression on the Church’s understanding of the Gospel. These texts offer us ample material on which to reflect despite, or perhaps because of, their antiquity.

On our greatest feasts we often proclaim the Fathers’ most lyrical discourses and poetic verses in the context of the Liturgy. The most noteworthy examples are the Catechetical Homily by St John Chrysostom, which is read on Pascha, and the poetic canons by St John of Damascus and St Cosmas of Maiouma, sung on Pascha and the Feast of the Nativity.

An important patristic text read on the feast of the Theophany is the prayer at the Great Blessing of Water by St Sophronios, who served briefly as Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) but whose theological vision has inspired Eastern Christians ever since. The following is an excerpt from that prayer.

St Sopronios of Jerusalem on the Theophany

“Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon the waters.

Today the unwaning sun has dawned, and the world is lit up with the light of the Lord.

[…]  Today the clouds refresh humanity with a rain of righteousness from above.

Today the uncreated One is by His own will touched by the creature.

Today the prophet and forerunner approaches the Master, but pauses in awe, seeing God’s condescension towards us.

Today the waters of the Jordan are turned into healing by the presence of the Lord.

Today all creation is watered by mystical waters. Today men’s sins are washed away in the waters of the Jordan.

Today Paradise is thrown open to mankind, and the sun of righteousness shines upon us.

Today the water that the people under Moses found bitter, is turned into sweetness at the presence of the Lord.

Today we are free of the ancient grief, and like a new Israel have been redeemed.

Today we are delivered from the darkness and are bathed in the light of the knowledge of God.

Today the world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God.

Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch.

Today error is abolished and the coming of the Lord opens the way to salvation.

Today the heavenly joins the earthly in celebration, and that which is below holds discourse with that which is above.

Today the holy and vibrant assembly of the Orthodox rejoices.

Today the Master hastens towards baptism in order to raise mankind to the heights.

Today He who bends to none, bows before His own servant, so as to free us from bondage.

Today heaven has been deeded to us, for of the Lord’s kingdom there shall be no end.

Today the earth and the sky have divided the world’s joy, and the world is filled with gladness.

The waters saw You, O God, the waters saw You and were afraid. The Jordan reversed its flow when it saw the fire of divinity descending bodily and entering it.

The Jordan turned back, seeing the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove and hovering about You.

The Jordan turned back seeing the invisible become visible, the Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of servant.

The Jordan turned back and the mountains leapt, seeing God in the flesh, and the clouds gave voice, marveling at the One present, light of light, true God of true God, who submerged in the Jordan the death of disobedience and the sting of error and the bond of Hades, giving to the world a baptism of salvation.”

St Proclus of Constantinople on the Theophany

A friend and disciple of St John Chrysostom, Proclus would succeed him as Archbishop of Constantinople in 434. His Discourse 7, On the Theophany, is read in both Eastern and Western Churches on this feast.

“Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy. He bore the world’s sins and crushed the world’s enemy. He sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of men. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.

For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Savior, and the whole world is filled with joy.

Today’s feast of the Theophany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.

On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast of the Theophany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.

At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness.

In today’s feast, we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father.

At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at the Theophany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.

Come, then, and see new and astounding miracles: the Sun of righteousness washing in the Jordan, fire immersed in water, God sanctified by the ministry of man.

Today every creature shouts in resounding song:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Blessed is he who comes in every age, for this is not his first coming.

And who is he? Tell us more clearly, I beg you, blessed David:

‘The Lord is God and has shone upon us.’

David is not alone in prophesying this; the apostle Paul adds his own witness, saying: ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all men, and instructing us.’ Not for some men, but for all. To Jews and Greeks alike God bestows salvation through baptism, offering baptism as a common grace for all.

Come, consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of Baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who baptized.

In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odor of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove reveals the Lord of mercy."
 
WHAT'S WITH THE ARMENIANS? Every other Church – whether on the Julian or Gregorian Calendar – celebrates Christ’s Nativity on December 25 and His Theophany on January 6. The Armenian Church celebrates both feasts together on the same day, January 6. So what’s with them?

The Ancient Practice

The oldest practice documented in Christian history is that of a single celebration of Christ’s birth, the adoration of the Magi, all the events of Christ’s childhood recorded in the Scriptures, as well as His baptism by John in the Jordan and His first miracle, at the wedding feast of Cana. St Cyril of Alexandria writes about it at the beginning of the third century.

In the next century, St Gregory the Theologian, writing in the year 380, refers to this practice, still observed in his Church in Asia Minor: “Now if the Feast of the Theophany, and so also of the Nativity, for it is called both, since two names are ascribed to one reality…The name is Theophany, since He has appeared, and Nativity, since He has been born” (Oration 38, On the Theophany or the Nativity of Christ, 3).

Scholars today believe that a single feast of the Manifestation of God was observed in the West as well, but on December 25. In both cases, the date was determined by the date believed to be the date of the crucifixion. In the ancient world it was commonly believed that the date of a truly great person’s death coincided with the date of his conception or birth. Some rabbis still teach that a righteous person is entrusted with a mission on the day of his conception or birth. In one who completes his mission in the most perfect way possible, this perfection is expressed in the fact that his mission ends on the same day that it was begun.

In the East it was believed that April 6 was the date of Christ’s conception and crucifixion; consequently January 6 marked the celebration of His birth. In the West, the corresponding dates were March 25 and December 25.

After the first Ecumenical Council in ad 325, Christians in East and West became more aware of the practices of one another’s Churches. The East adopted the Roman date of December 25, dedicating it to the events of Christ’s birth. According to St John Chrysostom, this happened at Antioch in approximately 378. Preaching there in 388 on the Feast of the Nativity, he states that its observance was not yet quite ten years old. It quickly spread to the other Churches in the East. The East then devoted January 6 to the commemoration of the Lord’s baptism.

The Synaxarion read at orthros on the Feast of the Nativity notes that the day is devoted to all the events of Christ’s birth: “On the twenty-fifth of this month we commemorate the nativity according to the flesh of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ… On this day we commemorate the veneration of the Magi… On this day we commemorate the shepherds who beheld the Lord.” To this day, we read Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and the visitation of the shepherds at the evening Vesper-Liturgy and the story of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel at the morning Liturgy.

In the West, the division was slightly different, with January 6 dedicated to the visit of the Magi, as well as the baptism of Christ, as the following antiphon for vespers on the Roman feast of the Epiphany shows: “We keep this day holy in honor of three miracles: this day a star led the Wise Men to the manger; this day water was turned into wine at the marriage feast; this day Christ chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan for our salvation, alleluia.”

At first, the Armenian Church adopted this arrangement. In the sixth century, when the division between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches became fixed, the Armenians reverted to their older practice.

Manifestation to Israel

The original single feast of the Nativity-Theophany celebrated the first revelations of His divinity, His incarnation and the beginning of His ministry as Lord and Savior of mankind. It put forth a number of themes which we now find spread out throughout the festal season.

On the feast of the Nativity (and of Christ’s circumcision on January 1) we celebrate God becoming man in a particular place and time. Jesus is born in the heart of God’s chosen people, Israel, and He is adored by them in Mary and Joseph and the shepherds who came to the cave. These feasts celebrate the particular revelation of God to the nation of Israel in terms of its sacred history, as we proclaim in this verse from vespers: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and celebrate, all you lovers of Zion; for the temporal bonds with which Adam was condemned have been loosed; Paradise has been opened for us and the serpent has been annihilated, having beheld now that the one deceived by her of old has become a mother to the Creator. O, the depth, riches, wisdom and knowledge of God: that the instrument of death which brought death to all flesh, has become the first-fruit of salvation to all the world because of the Theotokos. The all-perfect God has been born from her as a babe; and by His birth He has sealed her virginity; by His swaddling-clothes He has loosed the chains of our sins; and by His babyhood He has healed the pains and sorrows of Eve. Let all creation, therefore, exchange glad tidings and rejoice; for Christ has come to recall it and to save our souls.”

Manifestation to the Gentiles

Our vision of Christ’s coming work is widened as the Magi, pagan astrologers, arrive “from the East” to worship Him. The gifts they bring represent kingship (gold), priesthood (frankincense) and a self-emptying death (myrrh). In them Christ’s kingship over all nations is revealed. He is to be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

“You have shone forth from the Virgin, O Christ, super-sensual Sun of righteousness. And a star pointed to You O uncontainable One contained in a cave, and the Magi were led to worship You. Wherefore, with them we magnify You. O Giver of life, glory to You!”

Manifestation to All Creation

On the feast of the Theophany, another aspect of Christ’s incarnation is celebrated. His coming transforms, not only humanity, but all creation. In His baptism, He sanctifies the waters, a primordial element of creation according to Genesis, representing the ultimate transfiguration of all things in the Kingdom of God. As we hear at the great blessing of water on the feast of the Theophany, “Today land and sea divide between them the joy of the world, and the world is filled with rejoicing. The waters behold You, O Lord; the waters behold You and they fear. The Jordan turns back its course, and the mountains shout with glee as they behold God in the flesh.”

“Of old the prince of this world was named king of all that was in the waters; but by Your baptism he is choked and destroyed, like Legion in the lake. With Your mighty arm, O Savior, You have granted freedom to Your creation, which he had enslaved” (Canon at Compline on the Fore-feast of the Theophany).
 
IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY EUROPE devotion to Jesus, Mary and Joseph as “the holy family” became popular. It originated in New France (French territories now in Canada and the U.S.), then spread to Western Europe. It was promoted to give the newly-emerging middle class a model for “Christian family life.”

The Scriptures make a point of teaching that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not a family in the ordinary sense. Matthew, for example makes a point of the way the angel directs Joseph to “take the young child and his mother into Egypt” (Matthew 2:13).  Commentators have noted that he does not say “take your wife and your son.”

In the Christian East a more Scriptural perspective has been maintained: Jesus is the Son of God incarnate and Mary is the Theotokos, she who gave birth to God by the operation of the Holy Spirit. The “family of God” consists of God and His adopted children. As St Paul writes to the Galatians, “you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

This Biblical “Holy Family,” then, is not about middle-class family values but about deification, the partaking of all the faithful in the life of God. Because we are united to Christ, we are sharers in His divine nature, what we might call His spiritual DNA.

What About St Joseph?

In the Byzantine Churches St Joseph is commemorated among those closely related to Christ on the Sunday after Christmas along with King David, the ancestor of Christ. The third figure remembered today is James, whom St Paul calls “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19).

In the Gospels, Joseph only appears as a character in the narratives of Christ’s conception and infancy. This has led commentators to assume that Joseph had died before Jesus began His public life. Would His neighbors say of Him: “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary...” (Mark 6:3), if Joseph were still alive?

Otherwise, Joseph is only mentioned in terms of his relationship to Christ. In John’s Gospel, Philip expresses the common perception when he tells Nathaniel, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).

Elsewhere the evangelists are careful to say outright – or at least to infer – that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, after listing all His ancestors who begat those who came after them, he is careful to say that Joseph did not beget Jesus. Rather he was described as “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16).

Luke begins his genealogy of Jesus by saying that He “…began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph…” (Luke 3:23). Jesus’ contemporaries thought Him to be Joseph’s son (“And they said, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?” – Luke 4:22), but the evangelists – and the Church - knew better.

James, the Lord’s Brother

Two of the Twelve, Jesus’ closest followers, were called James. The James whom we remember today was not one of them. He is the James described in the Gospel of Mark as one of Jesus’ brothers (see Mark 6:3). How James is related to the Lord has been a subject of much discussion and controversy among Christians of all ages. Some early sects held that James was Jesus’ actual blood brother, the son of Joseph and Mary. St Jerome, insisting that Mary was ever a virgin, taught that James was Jesus’ cousin, saying that “brother” here meant “relative.” The more common teaching in the East –recorded in the second-century Proto-evangelium of James – is that James is the older half-brother of Jesus, Joseph’s son by an earlier marriage. Thus icons often portray a teen-aged James helping Joseph on the flight into Egypt.

The Gospels record that at first Jesus family’ was skeptical when He began His public ministry. They were not among His disciples (see Matthew 12:46-50). There is no reason to think than James’ reaction to Jesus was any different from that of His other relatives. St Paul gives us the first indications that things were to change drastically. He reports that the risen Christ appeared to James (see 1 Corinthians 15:7), making him, like the Twelve and the women, an eye-witness to the resurrection. Presumably James and the rest of his family now accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Acts 1:14 places them among Jesus’ disciples in the upper room after His Ascension. James and Jesus’ other relatives were counted quickly as among the foremost members of the Church (see 1 Corinthians 9:5).

As the oldest of his brothers, James was presumably the head of the family and a logical choice to be the leader of the Jerusalem Church. Peter and the rest of the Twelve were “apostles” – sent forth throughout the world – while James remained at the center of the local community. He figures importantly in the Acts of the Apostles as the head of the local Church, the foremost representative of the native Judaean believers. For these reason he has come to be revered as “the first bishop” of Jerusalem.

According to a late second-century memoir cited by the fourth-century historian Eusebius, St James was martyred by a mob in Jerusalem for proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah: “One of them, a fuller, took the club which he used to beat out the clothes and brought it down on the head of the Righteous one. Such was his martyrdom.”

The Liturgy of St James

Once or twice a year in some Byzantine Churches, the Liturgy of St James is served. A form of the ancient Liturgy of Jerusalem with later additions, it was the rite used in the Church of Antioch throughout much of the first millennium. It eventually was replaced by the rite of Constantinople.

In the Liturgy of St James there are more priestly prayers, more litanies and more Scripture readings (from the Old Testament as well as the New). At the little entrance the Gospel Book is brought out to the bema – the platform outside of the sanctuary from which the Scriptures were read. The clergy do not return to the holy place until after the dismissal of the catechumens.

There are fewer hymns in this Liturgy than in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: there are no antiphons or troparia, for example. The kiss of peace is exchanged by everyone, followed by the “Prayer of the Veil” as the gifts are uncovered. The Anaphora follows, culminating in the Epiklesis, which is chanted aloud, and followed by lengthy commemorations of the departed and the whole Church. The faithful receive the Eucharist by intinction: the priest dips a particle of the Holy Bread into the chalice and places it on the recipient’s tongue.

The Syriac form of this Liturgy is still the ordinary rite used in the Syriac Catholic and Orthodox Churches of Antioch and in the Malankara Catholic and Orthodox Churches of India.
 
RESEARCHING FAMILY HISTORY has become a favorite pastime for many Americans seeking to discover their roots. One reason for this resurgent interest is that, for many, family history was ignored for so long. Many Americans see themselves as forward-looking rather than as fixated on their past. The growing interest in genealogical research shows that at least some Americans want to know where they came from.

In more traditional societies, one’s family tree may be a source of pride or amusement, but it is always an object of interest. Little wonder, then, that the first Christians displayed an interest in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ. They had encountered Him healing the sick and touching their hearts. They knew Him as the One who forgave sins, raised the dead and rose Himself. They looked to His ancestry to discover more about who He really was.

“Son of David, Son of Abraham”

St Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-16); it is the passage we read each year on the Sunday before Christmas. The first words of the passage – biblios geneseos Iisous Christos, translated literally as “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” – would remind the reader of the entire sweep of Jewish history by hearkening back to Genesis, the first Book of the Torah. They would realize that Christ was being presented as both the beginning and the climax of God’s dealing with the human race, starting in the Garden.

Matthew’s genealogy presents Christ as descended from David through the house of Joseph, His adoptive father. Since the time of King David (tenth century bc), Jewish rulers had based their authority on their connection to David. The awaited Messiah was presented in Jewish tradition as “the son of David” for a similar reason: to show that he, like David, was anointed by God to be Israel’s deliverer.

In this passage, Jesus’ ancestry is traced back another millennium to the patriarch Abraham, with whom God had made His first covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. For the first Christians, portraying Jesus as the son of Abraham meant that He was the personification of the nation, heir to the promises made by God to Abraham and to his seed, “who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).

Commentators have pointed out other aspects of this passage which reflect the early Church’s faith in Christ. In this listing of fathers and sons, we find two women – and foreign women at that! This indicates that Jesus is not only son of Abraham and David. He is son of all mankind – Jew and Gentile, male and female – truly one of us in the flesh.

Finally, we note that, besides being an exercise in genealogy, this passage is also built on numerology: the significance of numbers in the narrative it recounts. The ancestry of Christ is divided into three groups of fourteen, the numerological equivalent of “David.” Several less-than-worthy individuals are removed from the Old Testament lists to come up with this number, leaving us with a catalog of the righteous ancestors of Christ. This grouping also alludes to the 28-day lunar cycle. Like the star of Bethlehem, the moon is introduced to show the cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth.

These interpretations suggest that Matthew’s genealogy is an example of what Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, called “interpreted history”: based on events that actually happened, but presented “as they were interpreted and understood in the context of the Word of God.”

“Son of Adam”

St Luke’s Gospel also contains a genealogy: one with a different placement and a different emphasis. While Matthew connects Jesus’ lineage with the story of His birth, Luke places it in the context of His hearers’ idea of Him. “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of…” (Luke 3:23). And while Matthew emphasizes the connections between Jesus, David and Abraham, Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke, of Gentile origin, traces Christ back to the beginnings of the human race, stressing His connection with all mankind. Jesus is not only a son of Israel, but of the entire human race.

Many commentators have noted other discrepancies between these genealogies which would be contradictory, if these passages were not ‘interpreted history.” Thus St Ambrose sees Matthew showing Christ’s royal family heritage and Luke stressing His priestly connection. “We should not consider one account truer,” he writes, “but that the one agrees with the other in equal faith and truth. According to the flesh, Jesus was truly of a royal and priestly family, King from kings, Priest from priests” (Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Luke, 87-88).

Fr John Custer summarizes another theological message in this passage. “Adam has no other ‘father’ but God and no ‘mother’ but the virgin earth from which he was taken. Adam became a ‘living being’ when God breathed into him (Genesiss 2:7). All this resembles the Holy Spirit over-shadowing the Virgin Mary in the conception of Jesus, whose only true father is God” (The Holy Gospel, a Byzantine Perspective, p.408).

“In the Beginning Was the Word”

While not offering a genealogy in the same sense, St John’s Gospel begins with another Genesis-like statement on the Lord’s origins. Using the same opening words as the Book of Genesis, (definitely not an oversight), John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1). The Son of God became incarnate in time (John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”); but even before that, before time, He was with the Father as His eternal Son.

Canon of the Fore-feast, Ode 3

The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary without seed. Let us lift up our voices to the Lord and say: “You have lifted us up from our fallen state. Holy are You, O Christ our God!”

The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. We sing to Him! And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary, for He willed to lift up the human race which fell through the deadly advice of the serpent.

He who is enthroned in the highest heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit saw the humiliation of the human race. The Son of the Father, without beginning, enters into time. Behold, He allows Himself to be born in the flesh as man.

The All-Holy One, who surpasses the angels and all creation in holiness, now gives birth in the flesh to the Messenger of the Father, the Angel of His Great Counsel, in order to lift up those who ceaselessly sing, “Holy are You, O Christ our God!”
 
THE SUNDAY OF THE FOREFATHERS intensifies our countdown to the feast of Christ’s Nativity. During the Nativity Fast, we celebrate the memorials of several Old Testament prophets – Obadiah (Nov. 19), Nahum (Dec. 1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zepheniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16) and Daniel (Dec. 17). Today we reflect on how the entire Old Testament period has been a preparation for Christ and how it reveals Him as the long-awaited Messiah.

It is appropriate, as we prepare for Christmas, to reflect on what the Scriptures tell us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older than 1000 bc are approximate.

Before Time

The Word was with God before anything material came to be (John 1:1-4). It is through this eternal Word that our material creation came into being.

The Pre-History of the Israelites

Before 4000 bc – The creation of our universe ● the human race falls away from communion with God ● life on earth as we know it begins. Genesis actually contains two creation stories. The first (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) is a version of an older Babylonian myth, re-edited to teach that creation is by the will of the only true God, not the result of warring gods and demons. It is cast in the form of a single week to promote the character of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Its narrative (creation begins with a burst of light, followed by the creation of the planets, etc.) harmonizes with the modern Big Bang theory and subsequent discoveries

Before 3000 bc – Godlessness prevails and increases, illustrated by Cain and Abel, Lamech, Noah and the Great Flood (Genesis 4-9). According to Jewish tradition, God makes a new covenant with Noah after the flood. Man is committed to observe the seven Noahide Laws prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy, and the eating of meat with its blood (i.e. while the animal is still alive). They are also enjoined to establish courts of law.

Before 2100 bc – The rise of Middle Eastern peoples ● the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10, 11). Jewish tradition sees the tower as an act of arrogance aimed at world domination by a particular people which God rejects.

Before 1991 bc – Abraham and his sons, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 12-36): God calls the Mesopotamian Abram, renames him and promises that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars and that they will inherit the land of Canaan. He establishes circumcision as the sign of that covenant.

Israel in Egypt

1900-1806 bc – Joseph and his brothers, the descendants of Abraham in Egypt (Genesis 37-50): Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph becomes the most powerful person in Pharaoh’s court when he favorably interprets the sovereign’s dream, averting a famine in Egypt. He is then able to rescue his father and brothers and thus insure the Israelites’ survival.

1800-1446 bc – The Israelites prosper, then are enslaved (Exodus 1, 2).

1450-1400 bc – The call of Moses ● the exodus from Egypt ● beginnings of Judaism: the Ten Commandments, the establishment of the priesthood, and erection of the tabernacle (Exodus 2-40, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). This is the formative experience of Israel, celebrated each year at the Passover: their liberation from slavery in Egypt and passage through the Red Sea to freedom in the Land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants.

The Promised Land

1400-1375 bc – Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer parts of the “Promised Land” 
(Joshua).

1375-1050 bc – Israelite tribes settle in the Promised Land. Governed by tribal elders, or Judges, they extend their control of the area at the expense of the Philistines (Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel 1-7).

The United Kingdom

1050-931 bc – The Israelites form a united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon. This is the Golden Age of the Israelite nation. Saul was chosen by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the first king. In 1007, during a losing battle with the Philistines, Saul fell on his sword to avoid capture.

Through the prophet Samuel, God chooses the righteous (although flawed) David to succeed Saul. God makes a covenant with him that his throne would be established forever. David would be the ancestor of the Messiah, promised to come from the house of David. The third king, Solomon, was renowned for his wisdom and power. He is considered author of the earliest Biblical Wisdom Literature. Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, but ultimately turned to the idolatry of his foreign wives (1 Sam 8-31; 1 Kings 1-11; Chronicles).

Breakup of the United Kingdom

931-860 bc – The kingdom is divided in two: north and south (Israel and Judah). Unity and monotheism give way to squabbling and pagan influences (1 Kings 12-17; 2 Chronicles).

860-722 bc – Prophets Elijah, Elisha, Joel, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah insist on a return to monotheism and justice among the people (1 Kings 17-22; 2 Kings 1-17; Joel; Amos; Hosea and Isaiah).

722 bc – Northern Kingdom (Israel) defeated. The victorious Assyrians settle foreigners in the land. The intermingling of Israelites and pagans gives rise to the Samaritans (2 Kings 17-24).

700-590 bc – Prophets Naoum, Zepheniah, Jeremiah, Habbakuk, and Ezekiel warn the Southern Kingdom (Judah) that they too have forsaken God and face destruction.

The Babylonian Captivity

588-586 bc – The Babylonians attack Jerusalem, conquer it and deport the Jewish elite to Babylon. Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy a return.

537 bc – The Persians defeat the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return to their country and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1-6). Many Jews remain in Babylon and prosper there (Esther).

535-430 bc – Judah is restored, rediscovered temple scrolls become the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jewish life is revived (Ezra, Nehemiah) under nominal Persian rule.

Greek and Roman Rule

333 bc – Alexander the Great defeats the 
Persians and extends Greek rule throughout the Middle East. Jews establish an important colony in Alexandria, Egypt.

250 bc –Jews in Alexandria translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Other books written in Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew are included (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and parts of Daniel) in what is called the Septuagint (lxx).

175-164 bc –Jews in the Holy Land are suppressed by the Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, who defiles the temple and tries to abolish the Jewish religion. The Jews, led by the Maccabees, revolt and recover Jewish independence, which lasts until 63 bc. The books of Maccabees, written later in Hebrew and Greek, are added to the Septuagint.

63 bc – The Romans seize control of Syria. The Jewish kingdom becomes the Roman province of Palestine. The events of the New Testament take place under their rule.
 
EACH MYSTERY OF THE GOSPEL may be said to have three dimensions: the past, the present and the future. To see the “past” of the Incarnation, we look to the Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in the New Covenant. For its “present,” we look to the fruits of the incarnation in our experience today. Its “future” shows the completion of this mystery in the life of the world to come.

As we approach the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, our Church “celebrates the past,” by commemorating the forefathers, the spiritual and physical ancestors of Christ, the holy prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. To some of them, the Scripture specifically attributes particular prophetic texts which point to Christ. Others, simply by their place in the Genealogy of Christ, point to the reality of His human nature and His connection to the people of Israel: “Son of David, son of Abraham.”

Finally, our celebration of the Nativity, built around the imagery of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, takes us back to the time of His coming in the flesh, the event to which the Old Testament pointed. As we sing on the Sunday before Christmas, “O Mary, unwedded Mother, in your virginal womb you bore Christ, whom the prophets had once foretold in contemplation. By His Nativity He now makes the Fathers exult with joy!” (canon, ode 6).

Celebrating the Present: Theosis

While the secular celebration of Christmas, with its crèches and carols, is often content to focus only on the past, the tradition of our Church is more interested in the present: the meaning of Christ’s coming for our life today. Our Byzantine hymns continually connect Gospel events from the past to the present by affirming that “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave…” – “Now the prophecy is about to be fulfilled…” and “Christ is born…” Christ’s nativity – and all the mysteries of the Church year – are not are not a matter of looking back in time; we celebrate them because they are affecting us now.

The purpose of Christ’s coming in the flesh – His incarnation – is to change our life. The early Fathers expressed that purpose in this way: “Christ became human so that man might become divine.” As we sing at every Divine Liturgy, the “only-begotten Son and Word of God” took flesh, became incarnate, assumed our human nature. He took up our nature, becoming like us in all things, except sin, in order to give us a share in His divine nature. The fruit of His incarnation is our deification.

Theosis, the Greek term for deification, means that, because God has become one of us, we can become like Him. He is the only truly Holy One, yet we can become holy by sharing in His life. Because of the incarnation, the impossible has become possible: we can become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Our celebration of Christ’s Nativity proclaims Theosis as the very purpose of the incarnation. During the week leading up to Christmas, we sing this troparion which portrays the Incarnation as fulfilling the original purpose of creation: “Bethlehem, make ready, for Eden has been opened for all… Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.” This reflects the Genesis story of creation, in which “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’… so God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26, 27). In the teaching of the Church Fathers, this “image” of God in us means the spiritual side of our nature, which distinguishes us from the lower orders of creation. They explained the “likeness” to mean the ability to act in a holy, godlike manner. With the fall, the Fathers teach, we lost that likeness. We retained the image of God in us, but it was scarred, unable to function as God intended.

With the Incarnation, this likeness was restored to mankind in the person of the Lord Jesus. He was a “new Adam,” the man that God intended. Christ communicated a share in this restored likeness to others after His death and resurrection. By being united to Him in baptism, we could become by God’s grace “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). We no longer relate to God simple as creature to Creator, but as sharers in His own life.

Christ’s incarnation, then, is an invitation to believers to be what we have become, to live in accordance with this share we have in the divine nature. We can live in a close fellowship with God: the intimacy described in Genesis as “walking with God” in the Garden. When we struggle to conform to the image of Christ as depicted in the Gospels, our potential to reflect the likeness to God gradually becomes evident. This is the path to sainthood, made possible by the incarnation.

Celebrating the Future: Transfiguration

The word “incarnation” literally means “becoming flesh.” The Son of God took on the fullness of our human nature, including the body, and transformed it. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven in the body. The result of the Incarnation is that there is a human body in heaven, seated at the Father’s right! The incarnation is unto the ages.

In several of his epistles, St Paul sets forth the Gospel teaching that the risen Christ is “the firstborn among many brethren” {Romans 8:29), “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). As He is, so we are meant to be.

But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’” (1 Corinthians 15:35). After all, the dissolution of the dead body as it returns to the earth is visible to all. St Paul explains at length what the resurrection entails: “When you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body… So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body … And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15:37-49). This “image of the heavenly Man” was revealed to us in the transfiguration of Christ: the human body imbued with the presence of the divine life.

When we celebrate the Incarnation, then, we are celebrating the future of the body which the Son of God assumed – and that is our future as well. As Christ’s body is glorified now, so our bodies – our “spiritual bodies,” to use St Paul’s phrase – are meant to be glorified in the age to come. Because of the incarnation, our life in Christ lived in our earthly bodies is destined to be climaxed by an eternal life lived in bodies raised in glory and power – in the image of the heavenly Man.

Hymns on the Sunday before Christmas

“He has shared my poverty, becoming man so that I might become God-like and share in His riches” (sticheron at vespers).

“A strange mystery, wondrous, which causes amazement: the Lord of glory has come down upon earth! He has appeared in a cave, bearing our nature, in order to raise up Adam and to free from her pains the ancient mother of all the living” (canon, ode 9).
 
IN MANY CULTURES it is traditional to greet the winter season with festivities. The harvest is gathered and people could now spend time celebrating. In Christian cultures the festival often took on a religious flavor. Thanksgiving Day is one example of such an occasion.

Over the centuries Eastern Christians have turned certain saint’s days into occasions for winter festivities. In the Middle East children keep St Barbara’s day (December 4) as an occasion for dressing up in costumes, parading, and collecting gifts. A popular carol tells the story of the saint and a special sweet (called Barbara) is served. Christians in the Slavic regions of Eastern Europe keep St Nicholas’ day (December 6) in similar ways and Greeks celebrate St Basil’s day (January 1) with the traditional vasilopita (St Basil’s bread) in which a coin is baked to surprise the lucky finder.

The Great Martyr St Barbara

St Barbara is first mentioned in a seventh-century Roman Martyrology, some 350 years after her death. The sources of what has been passed down about her were collected by St Simeon Metaphrastes (“the Translator”) in his tenth-century lives of the saints, the Menologion.

Middle Eastern sources record that Barbara was from Heliopolis (Baalbek in present-day Lebanon). Some sources describe her as a native of Heliopolis in Egypt or even of Nicomedia (in Turkey today). All the stories of this martyr say that she was the daughter of a rich pagan named Dioscoros who, after his wife’s death, kept Barbara locked in a tower to keep her from the eyes of strangers.

After a certain time Dioscoros relented and allowed his daughter a measure of freedom. She became acquainted with the Gospel through some young Christian women who befriended her and through a priest fleeing persecution in Alexandria, who ultimately baptized her.

Dioscoros had commissioned the construction of a bath house on his estate. In his absence Barbara had altered the plans to include a third window, to represent the Trinity. When Dioscoros learned the reason for her actions he flew at her in a rage. She escaped and fled from him, using a number of disguises. She was eventually captured and severely beaten.

In the sixth century, relics of St Barbara were brought to Constantinople. Six hundred years later a portion of them was brought to Kiev by Barbara, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor, when she married Michael, the Grand Prince of Kiev. Around the same time, the Coptic church of St Cyrus in Old Cairo was rebuilt as the Church of St Barbara to house relics of this saint. She is venerated in all the Churches of East and West. Because of the lack of contemporary witnesses to her struggle, the Roman Church removed her name from their universal calendar. She is still venerated in local Western Churches, particularly in Europe.

In the Middle East, her feast is observed by the preparation of sweets, including the “Barbara.” This is the traditional boiled wheat dish made for memorials of a saint or of the deceased. In this case it is sweetened with pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and sugar. It is frequently brought to homes by children singing a traditional carol about this saint. They are often costumed to recall the disguises which St Barbara used to elude her father.

St Nicholas the Wonderworker

The earliest written source on the life of St Nicholas that we have comes from the early to mid-ninth century, almost 500 years after his death. There was at least one earlier written life which no longer exists. Earlier testimony to this saint is found in icons, prayers and the existence of churches dedicated to him. St Nicholas is also mentioned in some earlier writings.

According to the ninth and tenth century lives we have, Nicholas was born to wealthy Christian parents in Patara, on the southwest coast of the Roman province of Lycia in Asia Minor. He was orphaned in an epidemic while he was still young and raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara.

Of a religious disposition, Nicholas was tonsured as a reader by his uncle while quite young and eventually was ordained a priest. Obeying Christ’s words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his own inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.

As a prominent Christian, Nicholas was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius, but freed when the persecutions ended in 311. In response to his deliverance, Nicholas traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. While there, he reportedly lived with a group of monks in what is today Beit Jala. However Nicholas was not called to the monastic life and returned to Patara.

On the return voyage, the ship was threatened by a powerful storm. The terrified sailors were amazed to see the storm suddenly subside at Nicholas’ prayers. This gave rise to the custom of praying to St Nicholas as protector of seamen.

In 317 Nicholas was chosen as archbishop of Myra, the provincial capital of Lycia. He was neither a great ascetic nor a martyr. His reputation rests on his pastoral concern for the people under his care, particularly the poor and the defenseless.

The tenth-century life of St Nicholas by Simeon Metaphrastes (“the Translator”) tells of secret gift-giving to save an impoverished man’s daughters from penury. St Nicholas secretly left money to provide a dowry for each of the daughters in turn. These stories and more became known in the West, and Nicholas became a favorite saint and gift-giver throughout Europe.

In 325 Nicholas reportedly attended the First Ecumenical Council called by the emperor to combat the Arian schism prevailing in parts of the empire. Always a firm opponent of Arianism, Nicholas reputedly opposed Arius personally at the council. As John the Deacon described it, “Animated like the Prophet Elias with zeal for God, he put the heretic Arius to shame at the synod not only by word but also by deed, smiting him on the cheek.” Nicholas, the account continues, was deposed as a result. His omophorion and Gospel book, signs of his office, were confiscated and he was imprisoned.

During the night the Lord Jesus and the Theotokos appeared to Nicholas in prison, restoring the items taken from him. Icons of St Nicholas often depict this vision of Christ and the Theotokos returning his omophorion and Gospel.

Nicholas became an increasingly influential public figure later in his episcopate. He died in Myra on December 6, 343 and was buried in his cathedral. After the Seljuk Turks conquered the area, Italian merchants in Venice and Bari sought to “rescue” the saint from the Turks. In 1087, seamen broke into Nicholas’ tomb and spirited away the saint’s body to Bari where it was enshrined in a great basilica built in his honor. Today pilgrims still visit Bari to pray at Nicholas’ tomb.
 
WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE? This question is posed by a young Jewish leader whom Jesus meets on His way to Jerusalem. At first glance it seems a reasonable inquiry, one that many people would still ask today. “Tell me what prayer to say, what shrine to visit, what project I can take on which will guarantee that I’ll get to heaven.”

Church Fathers, however, saw this as a trick question, seeking to trap Jesus into setting some new requirement not in the Law. The Lord does not give him another thing to do, adding to the list of precepts which devotees of the Torah felt set forth God’s will for them. Rather Jesus says that to be perfect you must “sell all you have” and commit yourself completely to Him. Perfection does not come from performing this or that isolated action, however good it may be. Perfection comes from entrusting one’s whole life to Christ.

Asceticism: Death to the World

In the Pastoral Epistles we see some consequences of this life in Christ as it was perceived in the apostolic Church. The “elect of God” (Colossians 3:12) have died to the world, been buried in Baptism and are now alive in Christ. Their way of life is to be Christ’s, embodying the compassion and forgiveness of Christ Himself. They are to bear with one another (after all, others are putting up with them). They are to build up one another’s faith “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16), thankful for the grace filling their hearts. This is certainly in stark contrast to the way of the world, where self-love, resentments, grudges, and slanderously tearing others down is the norm for many.

St. Paul’s image of being crucified to the world would find repeated expression in the writings of Christian ascetics in both East and West. Those who seek to love God are continually urged to “put to death” anything which would deflect that love to something else. Anything to which we may be attached and in which we might take pride – our possessions, accomplishments, even our memories, our reputations and convictions – can deflect our focus from the One we seek to love. By gradually putting these things aside, the ascetic strives to sharpen his or her ability to concentrate on God. As we become less and less drawn to the things of this world we become more and more single-minded in our attachment to God. We die to the world and, in the words of the popular Greek monastic adage, “If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”

Asceticism for All Believers

Single-minded attachment to God is a virtue most associate with monasticism rather than with life in the world. In fact, as the Church grew, ascetic life came to be associated increasingly with life in some kind of recognized style different from ordinary living. Some ascetics, like the “sons and daughters of the covenant” in the Syriac Church, lived in the world but somewhat apart from others, devoting themselves to prayer and good works.

By the third century ascetics like St Antony and the Desert Fathers lived as hermits in the wilderness, completely apart from others. Monasticism brought like-minded people together to live in a community, where they could commend themselves and one another and their whole life to Christ God while being apart from the world at large.

But the Gospel is not addressed simply to monks and nuns; it is meant for all believers. How does a Christian in the world “sell all” and follow Christ? Is there a way for a believer to live in the world but not be of the world, as Christ enjoins? It is not wearing some distinctive dress that says “I am different.” It is rather living by a different set of principles, given by Christ.

The popular book, Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, affirms that our “wealth” is nothing less than our self-centeredness. “Take a look at yourself and see how bound you are by your desire to humor yourself and only yourself. Your freedom is curbed by the restraining bonds of self-love, and thus you wander, a captive corpse, from morning till eve. ‘Now I will drink,’ ‘now I will get up,’ ‘now I will read the paper.’ Thus you are led from moment to moment in your halter of preoccupation with self, and kindled instantly to displeasure, impatience or anger if an obstacle intervenes” (p. 5).

Colliander stresses that asceticism is the only path to victory over our self-centeredness. He gives some practical suggestions for living an ascetic life in the world. Like St Paul, Colliander begins with meekness and humility. He contrasts true humility with the desire to be perceived as humble: “We notice the person who is forever bowing and fussily servile, and perhaps say, ‘How humble he is!’ But the truly humble person escapes notice: the world does not know him (1 John 3:1); for the world he is mostly a ‘zero’” (p. 26).

Ascetics strive to lessen their attachment to materials things through fasting and almsgiving and to lessen their psychological self-reliance through humble obedience. They seek to fill the void created by these “interior deaths” through prayer.

Colliander teaches that following the Church’s tradition for fasting is the most basic school for obedience. We fast when the Church says to, we do not fast when the Church says not to. We fast not to be “righteous,” but to be obedient.

Ordinary life provides countless other occasions for us to develop a humble spirit through obedience. Colliander notes, “Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour” (p.44).

To “sell all one has,” then, ultimately means to give up one’s own will to follow Christ. Along with a certain simplicity of life and chastity appropriate to one’s marital state, we attain what St Tikhon of Zadonsk called “interior monasticism.” We put aside the values and pursuits of the world to follow Christ along the way of perfection in whatever state of life we find ourselves.

Gain Strength through Continual Prayer

When we begin to see that everything around us is nothing other that a gift from God, we start to develop an attitude of joyful gratitude. We come to value material things less for themselves than as the work of God in our lives. To the extent that we practice a form of unceasing prayer such as the Jesus Prayer, we turn our mind more regularly to God. At first we concentrate on Him during the set times which we set apart for the prayer, Little by little the prayers becomes second nature to us we find ourselves focusing on Him in the midst of our other activities as well.

Leaving Attachments Behind

“Abraham set forth without wondering curiously ‘What does this land look like, that Thou wilt show me? What is awaiting me there?’ He simply set out and departed as the Lord had spoken unto him (Genesis12:4). Do likewise. Abraham took all his possessions with him, and in that respect you ought to do as he did. Take everything you have, your whole being with you on your wandering; leave nothing behind that could bind your affection to the land where many gods are worshipped, the land you have left.” Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics 18

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