Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
PERHAPS THE EASIEST GOSPEL PARABLE to understand is the parable of the sower, found in each of the synoptic Gospels. The fact that the Lord Jesus Himself explains the parable certainly explains why this is so; still, it is up to us, the Church, to apply this parable to later developments in the history of faith, including those of our own day.

What is “the Word about the Kingdom”?

As the Lord explained the parable, the seed is variously described as “the word about the kingdom” (Matthew 4:18), “the word” (Mark 13:14) and “the word of God” (Luke 8:11). At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, we are told that the message which He initially preached was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He began forming His disciples by explaining what it would take to enter this kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5-7).

To speak of the kingdom of heaven was not unusual in a Jewish context; what was unexpected was that Jesus identified the coming of the kingdom with His own presence (see Luke 4:21). Because of His coming, He proclaimed, the age of God’s kingdom had drawn near.

After Christ’s death and resurrection, the Scriptures tell us, the Holy Spirit came upon the assembly of Christ’s disciples. Immediately, Peter began explaining to the bystanders what had happened. His address shows us how “the word about the kingdom” was explained in light of the paschal event: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). To repentance is now joined baptism in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit: the personal entry of believers into the mystery of Pascha and Pentecost.

The word about the kingdom was increasingly identified as “Jesus.” As Peter told the Roman centurion, Cornelius, “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).

As the Gospel spread among the Gentiles, chiefly through the ministry of St Paul, we find “the word about the kingdom” expanded to include the mystery of the incarnation. Encouraging the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility, St Paul writes: “ 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 bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians :2:5-7). The word about the kingdom now was expressed as “God became man.” Later Fathers, reflecting further on the Scriptures, would expand this word even further: “God became man that man might become God.”

As the early Church grew over the first few centuries, the rite of baptism came to include an explicit profession of faith. To the above mentioned teachings were added a number of Scriptural doctrines, such as Christ’s Ascension and the resurrection of the dead. Some of these local creeds were employed in the composition of a Creed for all the Churches at the first two ecumenical councils. “The word about the kingdom” had developed into the Nicene Creed.

The Ground Which Receives the Seed

After the Lord Jesus described the seed, He turned His attention to the soil in which the seed was sown. In the development of faith God’s initiative must be accepted by the “soil,” the human heart in which the gift of faith is planted. The soil cannot be forced to bear fruit; neither can the human heart be obliged to accept the Gospel message. Both must cooperate if the heart is to bear the fruit of faith. Later generations would describe this cooperation with the Greek word synergy.

Some seed, the Lord says, falls by the roadside and is trampled underfoot by passersby. It never has the chance to take root because the ground is packed hard by the foot traffic on the road, As St Cyril of Alexandria observed, “All whose minds are hard and unyielding and, so to speak, pressed together, do not receive the divine seed…. They do not accept the words that would produce in them the fear of God” (Homily 41 on Luke).

There are people who come to church, perhaps for some special occasion such as a baptism or memorial, who are not intent on listening to the message of the prayers, the readings or the sermon. They are simply sounds which have no meaning to them. The seed has been sown, but it bounces off the hardness of their hearts which are closed to any sentiment of faith.

The Lord indicates that, when seed falls among the rocks, it springs up for a while and then dies because it is shallow, having no root. Commenting on this passage, St Cyril of Alexandria noted that “There are men whose faith has not been proved. They depend simply on words and do not apply their minds to examining the mystery. Their piety is sapless and without root. When they enter the churches they feel pleasure, often in seeing the multitude assembled. … When they go out of the churches, at once they forget the sacred doctrines and go about in their customary course, not having stored up within themselves anything for their future benefit. If the affairs of Christians go on peacefully and no trial disturbs them, even then they scarcely maintain the faith and that, so to speak, in a confused and tottering state. When persecution troubles them and the enemies of the truth attack the churches of the Savior, their heart does not love the battle and their mind throws away the shield and flees” (Homily 41 on Luke).

In the parable the Lord teaches that some hearts are like fields full of brambles, thorns and weeds. Several Fathers have pointed out that these hearts have been beset by the passions (greed, gluttony, lust and the like). Even if the word of God touches them, the passions which they have entertained for some time are stronger and they choke any movement towards repentance which the believer might have entertained. Their attempts at repentance are weak and shallow. Their intentions are good but not strong enough to overpower the pull of the passions on their hearts.

Why Parables at All?

Christ makes a distinction between those whose curiosity might be roused by a parable and his committed followers who might be expected to understand His teachings. It takes a commitment of faith to make a hearer able to understand the mysteries of the kingdom. People who have already come to see Jesus as Lord and Messiah are already well disposed to incorporate His teachings in their lives. Hearers who have yet to do so are not ready to grasp the heart of His teachings.

In the age when the Church developed the catechumenate for instructing new believers, a similar process was employed. People’s attention was captured during the time of “pre-catechesis.” Once the hearer displayed a measure of faith, they were instructed in the history of God’s saving works. Not until the new believer had professed the Church’s faith and had been baptized, was the doctrine of the holy mysteries presented. We see traces of this process in our liturgical cycle surrounding Pascha. During the Great Fast our Scripture readings focus on the ethical teaching of the Wisdom books and on the basis of salvation history recorded in the Torah. Only after baptism at Pascha does the new Christian hear about the holy mysteries, the heart of Christian experience.
 
IN SEPTEMBER, 2013 the Free Syrian Army backed up by [al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat] al-Nusra forces, attacked the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula, some forty miles from Damascus. Christian properties including churches were looted and destroyed. Twelve nuns from the Orthodox Monastery of St Tekla were taken captive and held for ransom. One church which sustained heavy damage was the Greek Catholic Church of Ss Sergius and Bacchus, which may have existed since the early fourth century, before the liberation of Christians by Emperor Constantine in 313. Among the hierarchs mentioned at the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325) was Eutichios, “the bishop of St. Sergius in Maaloula.”

Who Were These Saints?

The story of Sergius and Bacchus (Sarkis and Bakkos, in the local tongue) is found in a Greek work, The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus. This work, dating from the middle of the fifth century, tells the story of two Roman army officers during the reign of Emperor Galerius (305-311) who were martyred for their Christian faith.

According to this Passion, Sergius and Bacchus, close companions, were secret Christians in an age when the Roman army was most inhospitable to Christians in its ranks. When they refused to accompany a Roman official into a pagan temple where a sacrifice to Jupiter was to be offered, their hidden faith was discovered. Ordered to partake of the sacrifice themselves, they refused to do so and were subjected to humiliation and torture. Bacchus was beaten to death and Sergius was force-marched to Resafa, near the Euphrates, where he was executed.

Sergius and Bacchus were among the earliest Christians celebrated as martyrs in the Church. A martyrium (shrine) was erected in Resafa at the site of St Sergius’ death. This shrine was enlarged in the next century and became a popular pilgrimage destination, which it remained until the thirteenth century. The ruins of Resafa, near Raqqa, are an archeological site today.

The Maaloula church mentioned above was noteworthy for having the oldest altar in the world still in use (until the rebels destroyed it in 2013). It was built in the style of the pagan altars used in the area for animal sacrifices, suggesting that a distinctive Christian style had not yet been devised.

Other churches from this period in honor of these saints which remain in use to this day are the Abu Serga Church in Old Cairo, one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt, and the Assyrian Church of Mar Sarkis near Urmia, in Iran, which has been dated by some to the third century ad.

The fifth and sixth centuries saw the spread of devotion to these saints. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I (482-565) changed the name of Resafa to Sergiopolis, in honor of St Sergius, making it an archdiocese, and he had churches built at Constantinople (a mosque since the sixteenth century) and at Acre in Palestine. It is thought that the saints’ church in Constantinople was a preliminary study for the Great Church of Aghia Sophia, built a few years later.

These saints are celebrated in all the Eastern Churches (Armenian, Assyrian, Byzantine, Coptic, etc.) as well as in the Latin Church. Their feast day on the Byzantine, Roman and Syriac calendars is October 7.

Challenging The Passion

Several historians prior to our own day challenged the historicity of the story of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus, dismissing it as fiction. Some did so simply because The Passion reports healings and other miraculous occurrences as part of the tale. Others have criticized the Scriptures in the same way, because they do not accept the possibility of miracles.

Historians have challenged the claim that the martyrs were attached to the soldiers of Emperor Galerius, who would have been campaigning in the Danube at the time specified in The Passion. They suggest that Galerius’ successor, Maximinus II (308-313), an implacable foe of Christians, was responsible for the region at that time.

Some critics found certain anachronisms in the document, pointing to a later era. The Passion, for example, tells how the emperor had Sergius and Bacchus stripped of their armor and dressed in women’s clothing as a public humiliation. Scholars have noted that the only recorded example of such a punishment took place over a century later, when the emperor Julian the Apostate punished army deserters in this way, the only emperor known to have done so. The archaeological evidence of the early churches noted above affirms that, while The Passion may have incorporated later material, the saints it describes were already being venerated in the Church by the time of its composition.

The “Hijacking” of These Saints

Father Edward Pehanich, a Carpatho-Russian Orthodox priest in Pennsylvania, writes of his experience while searching on line for an icon of the saints to put in his parish bulletin. “I was shocked to discover that some elements in our society have proclaimed [Sergius and Bacchus] Patron Saints of Same Sex Marriage and that icons of these holy martyrs have been distributed at Gay Pride events…

“The popularity of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in the gay community stems from a controversial and discredited book by Yale professor John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. In his study Boswell claims he discovered evidence that homo-sexual marriages took place in Eastern Orthodoxy, especially in the late Byzantine period (9th through 15th centuries) and that Sts. Sergius and Bacchus were united in such a marriage. He maintains that a rite known in Greek as adelphopoiesis was actually a same sex marriage that was blessed by the Church. The use of this rite of adelphopoiesis, is documented in ancient Byzantine manuscripts. The texts of the prayers are clear that the ceremony is asking God to bless the uniting of two men as spiritual brothers – pneumatikous adelphous – not carnal, sexual brothers. Orthodox theologian Father Patrick Viscuso notes that the rite is a union that is closer to that of adoption and that adelphopoiesis should be translated as ‘adopting a brother’ or ‘brother adoption’.

“While some in our society cannot imagine an intimate relationship between two men without a sexual aspect, television and movies have popularized the concept of a ‘bromance’. This type of relationship is a close, intimate relationship between two heterosexual men that is clearly non-sexual. Sts. Sergius and Bacchus are 4th century models of men who were intimate friends and also devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and were willing to die for their faith in him.”

Almighty Lord, You made man after Your image and likeness, granting him everlasting life. You made the renowned standard-bearer Peter and Andrew, with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, as well as Philip and Bartholomew to be brothers to one another – not so much by bonds of nature as through the imprint of faith and the Holy Spirit. Likewise You joined Your holy martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, Cosmas and Damian, Cyrus and John to one another by the brotherhood of charity. Grant that these Your servants love one another all the days of their lives without discord or failing. Let nothing disturb their brotherhood, by the power of Your all-holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Theotokos and of all the saints. For Yours is the kingdom…
 
DOES CHRIST ASK THE IMPOSSIBLE of His disciples? At times it seems so, as when He tells us to “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35). This doctrine goes against the ordinary inclinations of people of every society, social class or station in life. As a result it has been routinely ignored by Christians of every age when they are faced with the choice of actually putting it into practice.

As a result, many non-believers have seen Christians as hypocrites – teaching this principle in theory but ignoring it in practice. In all honesty, many of us might see ourselves in this criticism leveled by the eighteenth-century political philosopher of the American Revolution Thomas Paine: “Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies, are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing; for the doctrine is hypocritical, and it is natural that hypocrisy should act the reverse of what it preaches.” (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason).

In the Old Testament

The Scriptures are full of imprecations against the enemies of Israel. The Torah and the early histories of Israel encourage believing Jews to consider the pagans living in their midst as God’s enemies and, therefore, their own. If they encourage readers to treat their enemies with compassion, it is for a motive other than kindness. The author of Proverbs warns his readers, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Proverbs 24:17, 18). In other words, don’t rejoice over your enemy’s misfortune or God will restore their good fortune to spite you!

In Proverbs we find another word of advice on dealing with one’s enemies which was apparently well regarded among first-century Jews: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21, 22). The author encourages the doing of good from a base motive – Treat your enemy kindly. You will make him feel guilty and God will bless you in the bargain! This is very far from the New Testament teaching and shows us how far from conventional wisdom, even among God’s People, Christ’s doctrine is.

Imitating God

Christ regularly encouraged His disciples to imitate God’s way rather than man’s. God’s way is, of course, the way of mercy and compassion. God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities, For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (Psalms 103:10, 11). While the Jews were long encouraged to trust in God’s mercy, it was Christ who taught us to imitate that compassion in the way we treat others.

The Lord Jesus urged His disciples to strive for perfection in their spiritual lives and He pointed to love for one’s enemies as exemplifying that perfection. Anything less, He identified with the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees. In St Matthew’s Gospel the following injunction concludes and sums up the Sermon on the Mount: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful… You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:32-36, 43-48). If the aim of the Christian life is to imitate the Lover of mankind, the chief sign of that way of life is the way we treat our enemies. We can and should act in the image of God.

Perhaps the most striking example of love for ones enemies in the Gospels is the prayer for His killers which Christ offered while hanging on the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). Arrested for preaching in Christ’s name some years later, the first martyr, St Stephen, used his last breath to imitate Christ’s love for His enemies, praying: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60) as he was being stoned by his killers: God, and those who follow His way, do not let themselves be conditioned by the wickedness of others. Even when forgotten or rejected, they continue to be faithful to loving others.

Forgiving through the Holy Spirit

Imitating God in this way isn’t easy. Some say it isn’t even in our power, but is an attitude that can only be the fruit of grace, given by the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Silouan the Athonite writes, "The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it."

The ability to love one’s enemies is also closely bound to humility. Almost all the difficulties we encounter in loving our enemies are linked with pride: it is from pride that flows the affliction that follows upon insults, hated, bad temper, spite, the desire for revenge, contempt for one’s neighbor, refusing to forgive him and to be reconciled with him. Pride excludes the love of enemies and love for one’s enemies excludes pride.

When we think of asceticism, we may consider prayer vigils, fasting, or making numerous prostrations. The most challenging ascetical feat, however, is to practice love for one’s enemies.
 
IN THE BYZANTINES CHURCHES all four Gospels are read at the Divine Liturgy in the course of the year. St John’s Gospel is read from Pascha to Pentecost. On the day after Pentecost we begin reading the Gospel of St Matthew. Selections from this Gospel are read every day for the next eleven weeks. From the twelfth week after Pentecost, this Gospel is read on Saturdays and Sundays while St Mark’s Gospel is read on the other days of the week.

We interrupt the reading of these Gospels on the Monday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, when we begin to read the Gospel of St Luke. This interruption is called the “Lukan Jump” in Byzantine terminology. St Luke’s Gospel (along with other passages from Mark) is read until the beginning of the Triodion.

In our liturgical books, both the epistles and the Gospels from Pentecost to the feast of the Exaltation are described as “after Pentecost.” With the Lukan Jump, the designations change. The epistles continue to be numbered “after Pentecost” while the Gospels are titled “of St Luke.”

In popular use, Slavic Churches tend to call the entire period up to the beginning of the Triodion as “after Pentecost.” In contrast, Greek Churches number these days after the Gospel being read (e.g. Fourth Sunday of St Matthew or Luke). The Melkite Church popularly follows the practice used in the Syriac Churches of the Middle East, numbering the days or weeks “after the Holy Cross.”

The Gospel of St Luke

Longest of the four Gospels, Luke is thought to have been written in a Greek Christian environment, possibly in Antioch or Asia Minor. Traditionally Luke has been identified with the friend and traveling companion of St Paul (see 2 Timothy 4:11). He is thought to have been born in Antioch and trained as a physician (see Colossians 4:14). He is thought to have become a disciple of Christ during the Lord’s public ministry and to have been numbered among the seventy disciples mentioned in Luke 10. He is traditionally identified as the companion of Cleopas, who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24).

It is believed that Luke’s Gospel – and its companion work, the Acts of the Apostles – was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70. It is also thought that his intended audience consisted of Greek-speaking believers, based on his use of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, and patterns familiar to readers of contemporary Greek literature. A fragment from the late second century ad is the oldest manuscript evidence of this Gospel.

The Gospel, of course, tells the story of Christ while Acts tells us about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the apostolic Church. Numerous commentators have pointed out that Luke’s work should be considered a trilogy. The first “volume” in this trilogy would be chapters one and two of the Gospel, what some have called an “infancy narrative.” This section begins by telling of the conception of St John the Forerunner, then narrates the Annunciation to the Theotokos, the nativity of John, followed by the nativity of Christ. The stories of Christ’s circumcision, His encounter with Simeon in the temple and His experience in the temple as a twelve-year old complete this section.

Chapters one and two of Luke are not simply a prelude to the story of the adult Jesus. These chapters are, as it were, a Gospel of its own. In them Luke presents us with the figure of John as the Forerunner, whose conception and birth begin the long-awaited Messianic age. In Byzantine Churches the conception of the Forerunner is celebrated on September 23, introducing both the figure of John and the Cycle of Luke. In previous centuries many Byzantine Churches began the liturgical year with the celebration of this event.

The angel Gabriel, who tells John’s father of what is to come, announces that “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah... to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13-17). Here we see John described as “filled with the Holy Spirit,” as “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” and as making ready “a people prepared for the Lord.” John’s essential characteristics, told in narratives throughout the four Gospels, are expressed here in a few words.

The Gospels’ portraits of Jesus are drawn to show us how His disciples came to see Him as Messiah and Lord over their time with Him, both before and after His death and resurrection. A climactic moment in Matthew, for example, comes when Jesus asks His closest followers, “‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven’’ (Matthew 16:13-17).

Not only are the disciples depicted as coming to learn over time who Jesus was; others, too, arrive at a similar conclusion. Thus the story of the Samaritan woman reaches its climax when her neighbors proclaim, “we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). They come to this realization when they see the Lord at work in their midst. Luke, on the other hand shows us Jesus as proclaimed “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32) “the Son of God” (Lk 1:35) in each incident of his infancy narrative. Zachariah, in the canticle he sings at his son’s birth, prophecies, “you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” (Luke 1:76). Calling Jesus “the Lord” ascribes to Him the divine name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is the same name ascribed to Him by the angel announcing His birth to the shepherds (see Luke 2:11).

The entire first book of Luke’s trilogy climaxes with two proclamations in the Jerusalem temple. When the Infant encounters the righteous Simeon, the prophet proclaims Christ as savior of the world: “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). Finally, when the young Jesus is found “in my Father’s house,” among the temple elders, we see Him taking His place at the head of God’s people, as the ascended Christ will be depicted in the midst of the heavenly host at His ascension. Thus Luke twice tells the story of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God: first, through stories of His infancy and childhood and secondly, in the narrative of His public ministry, death and resurrection.

Elizabeth was freed from barrenness, while the Virgin remained still a virgin, when at Gabriel’s voice each of them conceived in the womb; but the Forerunner John leapt in the womb when he recognized beforehand his God and Master incarnate in a virgin womb for our salvation.
 
THE SCRIPTURES ENCOURAGE us to boast in the cross, glorifying the saving work of Christ who gave up His life on it. During this feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church also reminds us of Christ’s warning to those who may be ashamed of Him and of what He has done. The Lord’s words are uncompromising: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

Why would someone – presumably a believer – be ashamed of Christ, the Lover of Mankind and the Savior of our souls? Over the centuries there have been several reasons why some Christians have been reluctant to confess their faith in Christ.

A Common Criminal

The Jewish people at the time of Christ who were waiting for the Messiah pictured him as a victorious warrior who would triumph over the enemies of Israel and restore their nation’s independence. The Messiah, it was believed, would be a figure like David who would restore David’s kingdom. Many felt that the Messiah would gather the scattered Jews from the four corners of the earth, restore the full observance of the Torah, and bring peace to the whole world.

Jesus did not overthrow the Roman Empire or reestablish David’s kingdom. If anything, He was a seemingly defeated wandering preacher who had been put to death in the most humiliating manner and had no effect on the fortunes of Israel. The Messiah was expected to triumph; Jesus had apparently failed.

Presenting Jesus as the Messiah who defeated, not Rome, but sin and Death, would have invited scorn from many of the apostles’ hearers. They became even more scornful when St Paul, the chief spokesman for Christ was himself captured and imprisoned. As Paul wrote from prison to his disciple Timothy, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or about me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” St Paul insisted, “this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day” (2 Timothy 1:8:11).

Afraid of Persecution

Fear for one’s life has caused many believers to abandon Christ, beginning with His most intimate followers. All the disciples abandoned Him when He was arrested. Peter, who followed at a distance, explicitly denied knowing Him, when accused of being one of His followers. Beginning with the arrest of the Protomartyr St Stephen and the killing of the Apostle James in Jerusalem up to our own day, Christians have often been forced to choose between being faithful to Christ and saving their own lives. At the start of the second century, St Ignatius of Antioch expressed the feelings of many who believed that denying Christ was simply not an option for them: “No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire” (To the Romans, 4).

A recent – and ongoing – example of the persecution of Christians has taken place in the Middle East at the hands of radical Islamic groups such as ISIS. Nonetheless, many Christians there are publicly proclaiming their allegiance to Christ despite the danger. An Australian observer on the scene, Steven Kryger, writes of his reaction: “In the heartland of violent anti-Christian extremism, I was confronted with how openly and unashamedly Christians are displaying their allegiance to Jesus. Crosses are everywhere. They dangle from rear view mirrors. They hang on bracelets around wrists. They stand tall, fixed to the top of houses. I encountered the most striking example on my second day. Less than 14km from the merciless armies of ISIS, I drove past a house that was painted inside and out with a mural of Jesus! That’s right – just minutes from people who wouldn't think twice about burning them alive, Christians were proudly choosing to communicate “I am with Him.”

I felt ashamed. I realized that while as a Christian in Australia I am at greater risk of being killed by a falling coconut than I am by an extremist, I am nowhere near this willing to be aligned with Jesus on a daily basis. In fact, outside of my time at church or with other Christians during the week, my words and actions (or lack of both) often don't declare ‘I'm proud to be with Him.’”

Ashamed of What Others May Say

In our society, overt persecution of Christians is still rare, although some think that is changing. Still, we often find ourselves reluctant to publicly express our faith, even in non-verbal ways. In some neighborhoods it is common to see religious images displayed on one’s door or lawn. In other neighborhoods, Christians might be reluctant to identify themselves as Christian in that way.

In some areas Greek-owned diners can often be identified by the icon hanging over the manager’s counter. Would I feel comfortable about placing an icon on my desk or in my place of business or do I fear people labeling me as a “holy roller”? Some Christians, who regular say a blessing before meals at home would not think of doing so when eating in a restaurant, even with other Christians. Others would be uncomfortable reading from a Bible or prayer book in a public place. Are these not examples of being ashamed of Christ?

It is not unusual for a Christian to find himself in the company of people who regularly use the Lord’s name in vain, despite the Commandment which identifies this as wrong. Some Christians would politely ask that such a person refrain from doing so. Others would be reluctant to say anything. Who wants to be thought of as a goody two shoes”? In Mark’s Gospel quoted above, the Lord warns against being ashamed of His words in an adulterous and sinful generation. Some Christians, who are convinced that certain issues of public policy violate the Gospel, are nevertheless unwilling to express their convictions to others.

None of the practices described here are commanded by Christ in the Gospels. Does that mean that reluctance to publicly express our faith should be ignored. As Steven Kryger, quoted above, suggests: “Our brothers and sisters in Iraq don’t have to display the cross in their cars, from their balconies, or on their wrists. They don’t have to paint the ‘Nazarene’ sign on their front doors. And in fact, given the risks of doing so, we would be quick to forgive them for keeping a low profile.

“But they choose to do these things.

“For them, being unashamed is so much more than standing firm on the day that ISIS arrive and demand to know if they follow Jesus. They choose to adopt these daily, public demonstrations of faith because they love Jesus and they are not ashamed or afraid to make this known.”
 
BOASTING IS NOT SOMETHING we expect to find promoted in religious writing. We see it s very definitely something of this world, of egos and the very worldly habit of stroking them. Yet in both Old and New Testaments, believers are encouraged to specific kinds of boasting.

Several centuries before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength, or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know Me” (Jeremiah 9:23, 24). Knowing God was the greatest pride of the Israelite people, something of which they boasted before the other nations. They knew the only true God, who had revealed Himself to them.

Centuries later, the Israelites’ boast of intimacy with God had been transformed by many into pride in keeping the Law. Christ’s parable of the publican and the Pharisee demonstrates that boasting about one’s love for God can easily become a reason to glorify oneself. In that story the Pharisee seems to be thanking God: “God, I thank You…” he begins, but quickly moves to boasting of his religious observance: he is not “like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get“ (Luke 18:11, 12). Although the Pharisee seems to be talking to God, he is actually talking to himself, congratulating himself on his spirit of piety.

It is difficult to avoid the Pharisee’s boasting, when we start cataloging our acts of devotion. When we decide to go to church twice a week, for example, we may find ourselves feeling superior to those who only go once a week or less. When we commit ourselves to a Prayer Rule, we may begin to look down on those who have not done so. When we count the number of times we say the Jesus Prayer or make prostrations, we may take pride in how our proficiency at these practices has grown. There was a time, not too long ago, when such spiritual arithmetic was encouraged, particularly in the West. That is generally not the case today; nevertheless the temptation to engage in self-praise is there.

Like Jeremiah, St Paul seems to say “Let not the pious boast of their piety, but boast instead about the saving power of the cross.” It is, after all, not our acts of religious devotion that bring us life, but the gift of Christ’s life, offered for us on the cross.

St Paul was especially disturbed by those among the early Christians who were insisting on one particular Jewish practice, as if accepting the saving death of Christ was not enough. Some believers were insisting that converts needed to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses to be numbered among the Christians. Paul strenuously denied this, insisting that these Old Testament practices had lost their obligatory character because Christ’s self-offering was sufficient to unite us to God.

Boasting in the Cross

Still, boasting is not the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the cross of Christ. Some people are no doubt saddened by the thought of it, grieving at the sight of Christ suffering His passion. Some will be thankful that the Son of God offered Himself for us. But what does it mean to “boast” in the cross?

When we think of people boasting of their accomplishments, their children, or their vacations, we know that, first of all, these aspects of their lives are frequently in their thoughts and in their conversation. It may seem that they talk of nothing else. A person first boasts in his heart, then publicly for all to hear. No one can doubt how proud the boaster is of his life’s joys.

How often are our thoughts focused on the cross? Our almost incessant making of the sign of the cross suggests that the cross is often on our Church’s mind. There are other indicators as well. Every Wednesday and Friday, in the hymns appointed for the daily services, our Church “boasts” liturgically about the cross in words such as these: “The precious cross of the Savior is our unshakable wall, for all of us who put our hope in it will be saved” (Tone One Vespers).

The Church encourages us to fast on most Wednesdays and Fridays precisely because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday and crucified on a Friday. Participating in these fasts is another opportunity to “boast” in the cross, acknowledging that Christ’s death on the cross witnesses to an unparalleled display of divine love.

The Divine Liturgy is our opportunity to be mystically present at the cross. While the deacon lifts up the holy gifts crosswise, the priest prays, “Remembering … everything that was done for our sake: the cross, the tomb… we offer You Your own…” By joining Christ in this offering we are exalting the saving power of His cross.

If these traditions are central to our personal spirituality, we would find it natural to boast about the cross in other ways as well. Publicly boasting about the cross can take many forms. The easiest is to publicly display the cross on our person or in our homes. Many people do this, however, without thinking about the meaning of the cross they are exhibiting. The cross witnesses that the death of the Son of God was a victory, not a defeat. By the cross Christ triumphed over death

Unlike certain Evangelicals, Eastern Christians are reluctant to speak publicly about the faith or even invite acquaintances to their church. One notable exception seems to be at the annual Food Festival, when church tours are often organized for Festival visitors. Those parishes which have made the church tours the highpoint of the Festival report that these opportunities for “boasting” have often been a source of new parishioners. The arrangement of our church is not haphazard; rather it has developed over the centuries as a graphic proclamation of Christ – crucified, buried, risen and living in His Body, the Church. Participating in developing a church tour (and appropriate follow-ups) is a way for any of us to boast publicly in the Christ whom we revere in our hearts.

Our Liturgy Boasts of the Cross

Tone 1

The cross was planted upon the place of the skull and from the everlasting spring that flowed from the side of the Savior, it brought forth immortality for us. By Your cross, O Christ, angels and men have formed a single assembly and a single flock. Heaven and earth exult with joy – O Lord, glory to You!

Tone 2

Just as the enemy made Adam captive by the fruit of the tree, so You made the enemy captive by the tree of the cross and Your suffering. For this purpose You came as the second Adam to seek out the lost and bring life to the dead. O Lord, glory to You!

Tone 3

The cross was planted in the earth, yet it touched the heavens; not because it reached the full stature of a tree, but because on it You fulfilled all things. O Lord, glory to You! Great is the power of Your cross, O Lord, for though it was set in one place, it acts throughout the world. It made apostles of fishermen and martyrs of the Gentiles. We beg them to intercede for our souls.
 
THROUGHOUT THE NEW TESTAMENT we read that light is somehow an apt description of God. Thus in St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians we read: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Elsewhere we read even more explicit statements such as this, from the First Epistle of John: “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We also hear Christ telling us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Reflecting on these statements prompts us to ask: Are these teachings merely employing metaphors or symbolic images, or is light of the essence of God, both in Himself and in our world?

It is hard to imagine the apostles believing that light merely represents or symbolizes God. John, along with Peter and James, had witnessed Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor when Christ’s “…face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). St Paul was on his way to Damascus, when “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3) and he was blinded at the appearance of the risen Christ. These were concrete manifestations of light, not simply poetic images.

The Church, reflecting on these Scriptures over the first millennium, struggled to understand how the immaterial God could “be” light. Fathers like St Gregory of Nyssa and St Gregory the Theologian affirmed that God is incomprehensible to us because He is so beyond our nature. God is an impenetrable darkness to us as “He whom the soul seeks transcends all knowledge, separated from every part by His incomprehensibility as by a darkness.”

These Fathers, occupied with more pressing doctrinal issues such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, did not resolve the dilemma: how could God be both darkness and light. It was only in the fourteenth century that St Gregory Palamas, the archbishop of Thessalonika, came to interpret the Fathers’ teachings by making a distinction which would resolve this quandary.

God as Essence and Energy

St Gregory Palamas developed a patristic distinction between the essence of God, absolutely inaccessible to man, and His uncreated energies, which proceed from God and manifest His own Being, and by which He is present to us. In this way he affirmed that God is both knowable and unknowable, both light and darkness. We cannot know God as He is in Himself. As we read in the Gospel, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). We can know God in His energies (to know what God does, and who He is in relation to His creation and to man), because God has revealed Himself to humanity.

Gregory adapted the classical image of the sun, its heat, and its light to describe how the unknowable God can be perceived by His creation. St Gregory considered the sun as signifying God’s essence: God’s deepest self. God, he taught, was completely unknowable in His essence. In this he was in agreement with St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in his commentary on Boethius’ tract On the Holy Trinity that “His essence is beyond all that can be known down here.”

And yet we are told in the Church that God touches us and in accessible to us. We say that the Spirit of God dwells in us and that Christ is in our midst. We have knowledge of and even communion with the unknowable God. According to Gregory, it is God’s energies – the light of God, His grace and His love – which touch us, not His essence. These energies are of God: they radiate from His essence as rays from the sun, but are not the essence itself.

The Uncreated Light

St Gregory asserted that what Peter, James and John witnessed at the Transfiguration of Christ was, in fact, the uncreated light of God, the divine energies which have been manifested to many saints who have come close to Him through repentance and unceasing prayer. According to Gregory, they saw “the essential majesty of God… the ultra-luminous brightness of the archetypal beauty, the formless kind of Divine comeliness… they saw the inconceivable and ineffable Light… they saw the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which they subsequently received, and it abided in them” (Third Homily in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts). This was not a sensory vision or an exercise of reason, but a deifying illumination by God, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this St Gregory echoed St Maximos the Confessor who says that the Apostles saw the uncreated Light “by a transformation of the activity of their senses, produced in them by the Spirit.” The vision of the uncreated energy of God is theosis, our transformation by the indwelling presence of God.

In the Face of Christ

There are several recorded instances of people seeing the uncreated light of God, but most Christians have not had this experience. We are rather like the apostle Philip who asked the Lord Jesus, “‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered, ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8, 9).

Philip had not witnessed Christ’s transfiguration, so when the Lord reminds him that he has seen the Father, Jesus is not speaking of the uncreated light. Rather, Jesus is referring to the spiritual witness of His teaching and His miracles. God’s presence is uniquely reflected in the words and works of the incarnate Lord for those who are given to see Him. Even when the light of His face is veiled by His humanity, it is possible to see God’s energies manifested in Christ. As He goes on to tell Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? ... The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work” (John 14:9, 10).

One way in which we see the Father through Jesus’ teachings is through the parables and images He puts forth for us to consider. Many of them are incomprehensible to us on the basis of our experience alone. The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son displays an unconditional love beyond our ability to love. The steward who pays a full day’s wage for one hour’s work, the Samaritan who pays for a stranger’s care out of his own pocket, and the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one which was lost present us with standards of love which shed a new and divine light on the Father. “The light of Christ,” as we say in the Presanctified Liturgy, “enlightens all” who allow His teachings to transform them.

In the Life of the Age to Come

St Gregory Palamas described the vision of the uncreated light, the experience of theosis, as a kind of betrothal, anticipating in this life the Light of the future Second Coming of Christ. It is the Light of the future age, which will be visible with the eyes of the heart and which will transform the hearts of those who behold it. The sight of the light of Christ in its fullness cannot but transform the beholder. At that point our divinization will be complete. As we read in the First Epistle of St John, “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
 
PEOPLE USUALLY THING of the Holy Mysteries according to the ways they have experienced them in churches which they have attended. Western Christians, for example, who are used to seeing a few drops of water poured on a baby’s head in baptism, may be astounded to see a baby fully immersed at an Eastern Christian baptism.

The Scriptures contain a number of references to the rites which we call Holy Mysteries, but sometimes these references are not as obvious to us as they were to the first-century readers for whom they were written.

Christian Initiation

St Paul wrote two epistles to the first Christians in Corinth which have become part of the New Testament. The Corinthian believers were divided among themselves over rival teachers and practices. Before addressing any of these issues, he reminded the Corinthians of their baptism! The relationship we have with God in Christ should be our basis for dealing with any practical matters. What may surprise us is that he makes no mention of water at all, or even of baptism in the name of the Trinity. Rather he emphasized the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the time of the apostles, Christian initiation already included a rite for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles records that, ever before the conversion of St Paul to Christ, baptism was not considered complete until the Spirit had been given. We read in Acts 8 how Philip, a deacon, preached the Gospel in Samaria and baptized many people there. The passage continues: “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).

The Samaritans’ baptism was not a complete Christian initiation until they received the Holy Spirit. The rite which the apostles employed was prayer, with the laying-on of hands.

St Paul, on the other hand, describes the bestowal of the Spirit in terms of anointing and sealing: “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22). The anointing was a visible mark, attesting that the new believer belonged to Christ. This bestowal of the Spirit is what we call the Mystery of Chrismation.

The second image in this brief description is the mention of the Holy Spirit as a kind of “Deposit” or down-payment, guaranteeing the divinizing presence of the Spirit in us. This presence would be fulfilled in the life of the world to come, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

The Wedding Banquet

Even more sacramental allusions are found in the image of the wedding banquet of the king’s son. This portrayal of a future when God is all in all is at the heart of Christ’s parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). A similar parable is found in Luke 14:15-24. In Luke Christ tells this parable in response to this praise of the kingdom to come by one of His hearers, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15).

In Matthew, this feast is described as celebrating the union of the king’s son with his bride, which represents the.Messiah becoming one with his people. It is the long-awaited union of the Lord and His beloved. St John Chrysostom explains the wedding imagery in this parable and connects it with similar expressions in other Scriptures.: “You may ask, ‘Why is it called a marriage?’ – That you may learn God’s tender care, His yearning toward us, the cheerfulness of it. There is no sorrow there: all things are filled with spiritual joy. This is why John also calls Him a bridegroom and Paul says, ‘I have espoused you to one husband’ and ‘This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”

Those who are invited, however, do not see the eternal significance of this event. They are busy with the things of this age – their view of reality was limited to their business interests. Their short-sightedness cost them everything and others were invited in their place. In Luke, even family life is considered a poor excuse for ignoring the invitation to the king’s banquet.

The setting of this parable in Matthew gives us a key to its meaning. The Lord has just entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He teaches using three parables against the Jewish leaders: the parables of the two sons, the vineyard tenants and the wedding banquet. Each of them features an ungrateful and unresponsive reply to the master’s call.

The parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) concludes with this admonition: “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (v. 32). This reference to John the Forerunner points to the coming of the Messiah as the event which people were called to acknowledge and to which they refused to respond. Official religious leaders will be replaced by prostitutes and the Jewish people by Gentiles in the Messianic age which has already begun.

Matthew adds a final scene describing the king welcoming his new guests to the banquet. One of the guests has come without a wedding garment. The parable ends with this man too losing his place at the table. Here Matthew has made the parable apply to us and the sacramental life to which we have been admitted. Having accepted Christ, we are invited to the table, provided that we have preserved the baptismal garment with which we were clothed. If it has been sullied, it may be laundered by repentance. But if we have not repented, we too shall lose our place at the table.
 
IN BYZANTINE CHURCHES the first Great Feast in the liturgical calendar is the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8). The feast of her Holy Dormition (August 15), coming at the end of the Church year, brings this cycle to a close. Like a musical masterwork, our annual remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ begins with an “overture” (the birth of His Mother) and concludes with a “coda” (her entry into the new life which is promised to us).

What Is a “Dormition”?

Our English word echoes the French and Latin words for “sleep.” The corresponding Greek word, koimisis, appears in English as “cemetery,” or “sleeping place.” By calling death a “repose” or a “falling asleep” we are affirming our faith that death is not an ultimate reality. Mary’s is not the only Dormition observed in our Church. The first saints to be commemorated were the martyrs, witnesses to Christ at the risk of their life; their death was considered as a “crowning” to their testimony. Some saints not martyred were remembered on the day of their peaceful death, their dormition. Thus we remember the Dormition of St Anne, mother of the Theotokos (July 25) and of St. John the Theologian, the only apostle not martyred (September 26). The Coptic Church also remembers the Dormition of St Joseph (August 2).

The Tradition of the Virgin’s Repose

Several writings describing the death of the Virgin have come down to us; the earliest still in existence dates from the fifth century. But, according to biblical scholar Lino Cignelli, “All of them are traceable back to a single primitive document, a Judaeo-Christian prototype, clearly written within the mother church of Jerusalem some time during the second century, and, in all probability, composed for liturgical use right at the Tomb of Our Lady.”

The early Tradition generally places Mary’s death in Jerusalem, a few years after the death and resurrection of Christ. According to one early version, “…the apostles carried the couch, and laid down her precious and holy body in Gethsemane in a new tomb. And, behold, a perfume of sweet savor came forth out of the holy sepulcher of our Lady the Mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise.”

Other of these writings speak of all the apostles being summoned and/or transported miraculously to attend the Holy Virgin at her passing. When Mary reposes, they see Christ taking her soul to heaven. When they bury her body as the Lord had instructed, the apostles once more see Christ. In one version Peter appeals to Him: “It had seemed to us Your servants to be right that, just as You, having vanquished death, now reign in glory, You should raise up the body of Your mother and take her with You in joy into heaven.” Christ restores her soul to her body and glorifies both with Him. In all these accounts Mary enters eternal life in the fullness of her spiritual and bodily existence. Employing elements of these accounts, the Churches of the East and then the West began to celebrate the feast of Mary’s passing, which became widespread before the end of the first millennium ad.

The eighth century Father, St John of Damascus, has left us several sermons on the meaning of Mary’s Dormition as well as a canon which we still sing at Orthros on this feast. “What, then, shall we call this mystery of yours? Death? Your blessed soul is naturally parted from your blissful and undefiled body. The body is delivered to the grave, yet it does not remain in death, nor is it the prey of corruption. The body of her, whose virginity remained unspotted in child-birth, was preserved in its incorruption, and was taken to a better, more divine place, where there is no death, only eternal life” (First Homily on the Dormition).

The Resurrection of the Body

The Dormition of the Theotokos points to an aspect of eternal life only briefly sketched out in the Scriptures. There we read that the risen Christ is “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). To call Him “first-fruits” presumed that there is more to the crop, as St Paul elaborates: “Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v. 23). Mary’s participation in eternal life is unique – she is not awaiting the return of her Son; she now fully shares in the eternal life in body as well as spirit by a special gift of grace. Some may see this belief as unscriptural, contradicting the very words of St Paul.

Rather they confirm by a historic moment what would otherwise simply be an allegation. Mary’s dormition demonstrates that St Paul’s teaching is not mere words. Human beings can share physically in the Resurrection and Mary is there to prove it. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Mary’s dormition “…is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.” (¶966).

What Mary Left Behind

One tradition repeated in several early texts concerns the sash or girdle of the Theotokos. Thomas was supposedly the last Apostle to arrive and missed venerating her body. According to the seventh-century Passing of the Blessed Virgin Mary attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, Thomas saw the most holy body of the blessed Mary going up into heaven, and prayed her to give him a blessing. She heard his prayer, and threw him the sash which she had about her. Parts of this girdle are venerated to this day, chiefly at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and at the Syriac Orthodox “Church of the Girdle” in Homs, Syria.

During the eighteenth century when the Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch was being established some iconographers were moved to “Catholicize” the icon of the Dormition. They showed the Theotokos giving St Thomas a rosary instead of her sash, contributing to the notion that the Latin rosary was of Apostolic and Eastern origin.

Mary and Ephesus?

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

Today some claim that the Theotokos died in Ephesus where St John the Theologian lived for many years, because the Lord Jesus had entrusted His mother to him as He was dying on the cross. In the nineteenth century a house claimed to be that of the Virgin was unearthed near Ephesus, based on a supposed vision of Anne Catherine Emerich. This shrine became popular in the West; however there was never any early tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.
 
TOWARDS THE END of Jesus’ public ministry He began preparing His disciples for His approaching death and resurrection. In Mt 16 this scene concludes with the following prophecy: “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (v. 28). This is immediately followed by a fulfillment of this prophecy: the holy transfiguration of Christ. As St Gregory Palamas says in his homily on this feast, “It is the light of His own forthcoming transfiguration which He terms the Glory of His Father and of His Kingdom.”

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

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

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

“What He Really Was”

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

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

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

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

What We Are Meant to Become

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

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

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

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

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

Looking to the Last Day

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

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

O Giver of life, You bent down to the pit without falling into it and raised me up who had fallen. You bore my foul-smelling corruption untouched, and made me sweet-smelling with the myrrh of Your divine nature.

Canon of the Octoechos, Tone 5

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