Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WE ARE AT THE END of the Fast of the Apostles and many who have observed this Fast will be happy that it is over. We prefer feasts to fasts and look forward to any fast-free days observed during the year. There are some, however, who make every day a fast day. They regularly adjust their diet and their activities, as the rest of us may do during a Fast. They are often the ones who will one day be recognized as saints.

Some saints, in the West or in the various Eastern Churches, have suffered for their faith, some to the extent of sacrificing their lives (the martyrs).Other saints are those who have brought the Gospel to pagan tribes or nations (Equals-to-the-Apostles) or have invigorated the life of their local Churches. At the end of a Fast, however, it may be most appropriate to recall some saints and saintly people who lived their whole lives in prayer and fasting (the ascetics) or in almsgiving (the merciful) to a noteworthy degree.

Holy Ascetics

When we think of a life of prayer and fasting, we tend to think of the monastic life. Not all ascetics live in monasteries, however (Mary of Egypt was not a nun), and not all monastics are ascetics. These ascetics from several Eastern Churches are those whose ascetical lives were confirmed by the miracles attributed to them.

St Kyrillos VI (1902-1971) was a middle class Egyptian Copt: an office worker who left his job and family at the age of 25 to enter the Baramous Monastery in the Nitrian desert. He was tonsured a monk in 1928 and ordained a priest in 1931 as “Father Mina.” He began serving all-night vigils and the Divine Liturgy daily from 2 to 8 am, a practice not common in the Coptic Church at the time. Three years later he began living as a solitary, first in a cave and later in the ruins of an abandoned windmill. He lived on bread, herbs and spices and the water he brought back with him on his weekly visit to the monastery.

It was during this time that his first miraculous healing was recorded. These healings so multiplied that some people considered him a sorcerer. “Within months,” the ascetic’s biographer writes, “Father Mina’s reputation… blazed throughout Old Cairo. A myriad of healings, prophecies, visions and unusual divine happenings surround the period.” Another adds, “No other period in the recorded history of the Coptic Church witnesses so many reports of unfamiliar and extraordinary events.”

From 1941 to 1959 Father Mina lived as an urban monastic, becoming a confessor to many. In 1947 he established a church in Old Cairo in honor of his patron; the next year he built a hostel for university students at the church. For the next twelve years he formed countless disciples at the church, inspiring many university students to monasticism and church service. Finally in 1959, he was elected patriarch. As Pope Kyrillos VI, he spearheaded the total renewal of the Coptic Church.

St Charbel Makhlouf (1828-1898) was the orphaned son of a Lebanese mountain family who, as a child, would spend the day in prayer while caring for the family’s small flock. Two of his mother’s brothers were monks and the youth wanted to follow them, but his mother objected. Finally, in 1851, the young man was able to sample the monastic life at the Maronite Monastery of Our Lady in Mayfouk. He ultimately took monastic vows at St Maron’s Monastery in Annaya, where he remained. Ordained a priest in 1859, Father Charbel remained at the monastery until 1875. For the next 23 years, he lived as a solitary at the monastery’s hermitage. He suffered a stroke while serving the Liturgy and died on December 24, 1898.

St Maron’s Monastery in Annaya has received hundreds of thousands of letters from people all over the world who want to share the news of miracles, cures and wonders performed by St Charbel. One of the hardest to explain away concerns Kevin Boustany, a Canadian who suffered from an eye and cornea infection and eventually lost sight in his eye. Kevin wanted to research his condition on the Internet. When he turned the computer on, a photo of St Charbel appeared on the computer screen with the following sentence next to the photo, “I will heal you and give you back your sight”. Kevin was shocked and immediately visited his doctor who examined his eye and testified that Kevin was indeed healed.

Kevin travelled to Lebanon to visit the tomb of St Charbel at the monastery of St Maron in Annaya and to thank God and St Charbel for his healing.

Kevin’s healing is not the only example of unexplained photos of St Charbel. On May 8, 1950, the hermit’s birthday, four Maronite missionaries came on pilgrimage to his tomb. Father George Webby, a Maronite priest from Scranton, PA took a photo of the four monks and the guard on duty. When the picture was developed, there was a mysterious monk with a white beard shown standing next to the missionaries. Experts ruled out trick photography. The oldest monks, who had known Father Charbel, recognized the monk in the picture as the saint himself, just as he had looked during the last years of his life. All subsequent portraits of the Saint were based upon this photo. St Xenia of St Petersburg (c. 1719-1803) An ascetic who was not a monastic, Xenia was the wife of a Russian military officer assigned to the capital, Col. Andrei Petrov. One evening at a party, Andrei suddenly fell over dead (perhaps an aneurism had burst). After his funeral, Xenia, 26 years old at the time, left the capital for eight years, some say, to live in a hermitage.

When Xenia returned to the capital, she gave away her possessions, including her house. She kept only her husband’s uniform, which she wore, and adopted his name. For 45 years, Xenia would wander the poorest sections of the city, consoling the poor and the homeless. At night she would go out to the fields to pray.

Known for her gift of sight, Xenia came to be recognized as able to foretell the future. People welcomed her into their homes in the hope that her presence would bring them a blessing. Any donations people would give her she passed on to the homeless. After her death, Xenia was often manifested to people and they began venerating her as a saint. An elaborate chapel was built over her grave.

One such manifestation occurred in California to a young biker who was looking for spiritual peace. He visited an evangelical church and was attracted by what he heard. Told that he should conquer the passions, he found that giving up biking was too hard for him, so he left the group. He was later involved in a serious road accident in which he lost his legs. An invalid, he took up again with some old friends, who were crashing in a run-down tenement. Once in an alcohol and drug fueled stupor, he found himself lying in a dumpster – his “friends” had thrown him in for a laugh. Depressed and at the brink of despair, he saw an old bag lady approach him. Glaring at him, she commanded him, “You know where to go, so go there!” He immediately thought of the church and set out to find it.

When he reached the church, he saw that it had been transformed by domes and crosses. The church was part of a group that had been received into the Orthodox Church. He saw an iconostasis at the front of the church and on it an image of his bag lady – St Xenia had brought him back to God.
 
IN THE CHRISTIAN EAST, the fasting seasons are always periods in which the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are observed in a heightened way. The particular rules for augmenting the services and for fasting vary from one Local Church to another (eg Greek, Middle Eastern, Slavic, etc.) but the principle behind observing them is the same: the “ordinary business” of those who have put on Christ is prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

After Christ was baptized, we read in the Gospels, He “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1), apart from others, where He would encounter both His Father and the devil. The Gospel story of His experience in the wilderness gives us some indications of the life which those, who have been baptized, should expect as normal. First of all, it involves solitude: separation from the ordinary world in order to refocus the mind away from everyday concerns to God, who is in our midst.

The second aspect of Christ’s experience described in Mt 4 is food fasting: “…when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Clearly what is described is a total fast (not eating), in contrast to the fast which most in the Church practice: fasting from certain foods (abstinence).

The Gospels testify that, during Christ’s public ministry His disciples did not fast. When questioned about this by some disciples of John, the Lord responded, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).

This prophecy was fulfilled when the first monastics made solitude and fasting the central aspects of their Christian asceticism. In his life of St Anthony the Great, St Athanasius says that the ascetic moved from his village to the local cemetery where he dwelt in one of the tombs. “He ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only” (Life, 7).

As monasticism spread, Anthony’s practices were lessened for the many believers who sought to live in solitude or in the monastic communities which grew up throughout the Church. The Church mitigated the strictness of their fasting even further when it proposed their lifestyle as the model for all Christians during fasting seasons. Thus we adopt the everyday practice of monastics (no meat or dairy) on Wednesdays, Friday and during fast periods only.

People who have visited monasteries in this country might be surprised that ascetics like St Anthony might still be found. Thus Fr Alexander Schmemann, writing in his journal, described his visit to monastics in Egypt in 1978: “Today I had an extraordinary day. A visit in the desert to three monasteries with an uninterrupted tradition from Antony the Great, Makarios, etc. … And the most amazing, of course, is how very much alive it all is: Real monks! In my whole life I have seen only imitations, only playing at monastic life, false, stylized; and mostly unrestrained, idle talk about monasticism and spirituality. And here are they, in a real desert. A real heroic feat. So many young monks. No advertisements, no brochures about spirituality. Nobody knows anything about them, and they do not mind it. I am simply stunned. I have a thousand questions, and I will have to start sorting it out…” (cited in Fanous, A Silent Patriarch, 2019, Yonkers, NY).

Solitude and Fasting Today

The first practice which our Church recommends to us in a fasting season is that we imitate Christ by social distancing (to use the modern term) – going “to the desert,” apart from our usual social and recreational activities. In earlier times, it was common that theaters and other recreational centers would close during a fasting season. A corresponding practice today might be to turn off one’s devices for the duration of a fast. That would at least expose us to the emptiness we feel without them.

It may mean, that the Christian, like Christ, go apart in a physical way to a special place, for only a few moments, for a day or more. We may go out of doors, to a church or to our personal icon corner. Serious prayer begins, as we say in the Liturgy when we “lay aside all earthly cares that we may welcome the King of all” into our hearts.

What would we do without the diversion our device offers us? The first activity to which we would be called is increased prayer. In our childhood, most of us were taught prayers to say. We learned to say the Lord’s Prayer, for example, before we even understood the meaning of words such as temptation or even evil. In time, we learned the meaning of those words, but our prayer life often did not deepen as our knowledge grew. It is as if we became deaf and mute in regards to God and our prayer to Him. We know the words of the prayers, but do we know how to pray them from our heart to God?

Apart from liturgical services, Eastern Christian prayer includes formal prayers for many occasions, the most common being Morning Prayers, Prayers at Meals, and Prayers before Retiring. If a Christian is usually too busy to observe these prayer times, the fasting season may give you the opportunity to practice them. Other formal prayers in the Eastern Christian’s repertoire may include canons and akathists, such as those to the Mother of God. Another common practice is to pray for the dead. Use the fasting season as an occasion for going to your local cemetery, or the place where your family members are buried, and remember them in prayer.

Besides formal prayers, our Church recommends the Jesus Prayer as a way to keep our minds “in the desert” wherever we are. Repeat this prayer – so easily memorized – throughout the day to keep your mind and heart in the presence of God. Using a prayer rope as a counter, you can commit yourself to a certain number of prayers every day.

Make time to spend with the Scriptures. We read in the Gospel that, when Christ was tempted to break His fast, He responded, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Strive to read one New Testament book during each fasting season to deepen your acquaintance with the Word of God.

What about Almsgiving?

When St John the Forerunner noticed some Pharisees coming to him, he told them, “… bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8): or, as American folk preachers often say, don’t just talk the talk: walk the walk.” Without the fruits of caring for those in need, our prayers and acts of worship run the risk of being the “talk” without the “walk.” The alms we may give to those in need are a way of making our repentance lasting. When the fast is over, we will go back to the foods and diversions we have put aside during the season. But what we give as alms is gone and stays gone – God has accepted it through the hands of the person in need.
 
“AFTER THE LONG FEAST OF PENTECOST, fasting is especially necessary to purify our thoughts and render us worthy to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit ... Therefore, the salutary custom was established of fasting after the joyful days during which we celebrated the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit” (from a sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great, +461).

On the eighth day after Pentecost, Byzantine Churches traditionally begin the Fast of the Apostles. This fasting season lasts until June 28, the eve of the feast of the principal apostles, Peter and Paul. The Coptic Church begins its fast on Pentecost Monday, Syriac Churches have abridged it to last for thirteen days or less. With this Fast, we return to the ordinary business of Christian life: prayer and fasting.

Prayer of supplication – beseeching God for a special favor – was associated with fasting as far back as time of King David. Fasting intensifies and confirms the sincerity of the prayer. Without fasting, prayer can be simply an expression of idle interest: chatting rather than intensely imploring the Lord. When the Apostles failed to cure an epileptic boy, the Lord Jesus made a point of telling them, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).

Early Witnesses to This Fast

The first documented mentions of this Fast are from the fourth century. In a letter to his friend and supporter, Emperor Constantius, St Athanasius describes the practice of the Alexandrian Church: “During the week following Pentecost, the people who observed the Fast went out to the cemetery to pray.” The Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land in the early 380s, Egeria, described the practice in Jerusalem: “on the day following the feast of Pentecost, a period of fasting began”.

In that era, the Western Churches observed this Fast as well. St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) writes about the practice in his diocese: “The Lord so ordained it that, as we have participated in His sufferings during the Forty Days, so we should also rejoice in His Resurrection during the season of Pentecost. We do not fast during the season of Pentecost since our Lord Himself was present amongst us during those days … Christ’s presence was like nourishing food for the Christians. So too, during Pentecost, we feed on the Lord who is present among us. On the days following His ascension into heaven, however, we again fast” (Sermon 61).

The fifth-century Pope of Rome, Leo I, spoke of this Fast as a chance to make up for any excesses in celebrating the feasts: “Today's festival, dearly-beloved, hallowed by the descent of the Holy Spirit, is followed, as you know, by a solemn Fast. … ordained as a wholesome and needful practice, so that, if perhaps through neglect or disorder even amid the joys of the festival any undue license has broken out, it may be corrected by the remedy of strict abstinence, which must be the more scrupulously carried out in order that what was divinely bestowed on the Church on this day may abide in us” (Sermon 78, On the Whitsuntide Fast).

None of these early documents connect this Fast to the apostles Peter and Paul. This Fast was practiced long before the Apostles’ feast came to be widely celebrated. In the earliest practice this Fast was connected instead to the celebration of Pentecost. Rather, this Fast was first seen as a resumption of fasting following the Paschal season. During the fifty days of Pascha we have celebrated Christ’s resurrection, then His ascension and finally the sending forth of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. We have feasted while celebrating the presence of the risen Christ, but now it is time to return to the more everyday practice of Christians: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The struggle to be what we have become, to “put on Christ,” demands a lifelong effort. We observe times to celebrate the mysteries of Christ among us – the Lord’s Day and the Great Feasts on which we do not fast. But these are respites from the more ordinary Christian practice of fasting. As the Lord said when asked by the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees why His disciples were not fasting, “As long as they have the bride-groom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (Mark 2:19-20).

Fasting and the Apostles

In later centuries the Fast was extended so that it would end on the eve of the apostles’ feast and came to be explained in light of their memorial. In the Middle Ages, St. Symeon of Thessalonica (+1429) explains: “The Fast of the Apostles is justly established in their honor, for through them we have received numerous benefits and for us they are exemplars and teachers of the Fast … For one week after the descent of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution composed by Clement, we celebrate, and then during the following week, we fast in honor of the Apostles.” At that time, it seems, the Fast lasted only one week.

The apostles were said to have fasted before they set out on their missionary journeys. The fourth-century Canons of the Apostles, a Syrian work, says that the Apostles “…continued to speak in the new tongues of the nations, in which they preached, and He [the Lord] told them what must be done by the congregations with regards to prayer, worship, and the laws, and they thanked God for this knowledge they received. They fasted for forty days, thanking God through it, and then Peter washed the feet of the disciples… then they departed to all the nations to call people to the faith.”

The canonical New Testament recalls one incident when early Christians fasted before going forth in ministry. It describes a certain gathering in the Church at Antioch: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit… they proclaimed the word of God” (Acts 13:2-5). Fasting was an expected part of seeking the Lord’s will.

Barnabas and Saul evangelized in Asia Minor, then retraced their steps to Antioch. As Acts describes it, “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).

Spiritual writers throughout the ages have seen fasting as a critical weapon in spiritual warfare. St Isaac the Syrian teaches, “…fasting is a weapon established by God, … the human race knew no victory before fasting, and the devil was never defeated by our nature as it is; but this weapon has indeed deprived the devil of strength from the outset…as soon as the devil sees someone possessed of this weapon [fasting], fear straightway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Savior in the wilderness; his strength is at once destroyed and the sight of the weapon given us by our supreme Leader burns him up. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal. He who remains therein, keeps his mind steadfast and ready to meet and repel all the passions.”
 
WHAT DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT LOOK LIKE? We know from the Scriptures that the Father cannot be seen, but has manifested Himself to us in His Son. “No one has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). And we know that the Son, incarnate, became visible in His humanity. He looks like one of us. This is why we are able to have icons of Him. As St John of Damascus wrote in On the Divine Images, “It is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircum-scribed, invisible God. … But it is obvious that, when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible in the flesh, then you may draw His likeness” (1:7, 8). But what about the Holy Spirit? Has He become visible to flesh? Can we see the face of the Holy Spirit?

In a sense, we can. The “face of the Holy Spirit” is the face of the saints. The very existence of the saints testifies to the presence of holiness in the Church, for no one can become a saint except by the Holy Spirit. The “face” of the Holy Spirit is not in the monuments which have been erected by Christians over the centuries, impressive as they are. Rather it is in those who have lived the way they did because the Spirit of God dwelt within them.

The priest of the French village of Ars, St Jean Vianney, knew the Holy Spirit firsthand, we might say. He wrote, “If the damned were asked, ‘Why are you in hell?’ they would answer, ‘For having resisted the Holy Spirit.’ And if the saints were asked, ‘Why are you in Heaven?’ they would answer, ‘For having listened to the Holy Spirit.’ When good thoughts come into our minds, it is the Holy Spirit who is visiting us. The Holy Spirit is a power. The Holy Spirit supported St Simeon on his column. He sustained the martyrs. Without the Holy Spirit, the martyrs would have fallen like the leaves from the trees” (Catechesis on the Holy Spirit).

This intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and the saints is proclaimed in the Byzantine Churches, which celebrate the Feast of All Saints in connection with the Feast of Pentecost. On Pentecost we say that the Holy Spirit has come upon the Church. On the next Sunday, we demonstrate the truth of this claim by pointing to the saints.

The Spirit is certainly present in any saint, but it is in the totality of all saints that we find the “face” of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are many and varied; no one person can encompass them all. The Church describes the particular gifts of the saints by designating categories for us to understand and revere them. There are prophets and apostles, martyrs, hierarchs, ascetics, unmercenaries, fools for Christ, and more. There are saints whose names we know, and those we do not. There are saints whose lives are documented, and others whose name is their only memorial. All together they reveal to us the “face” of the Holy Spirit. It is noteworthy that what the West calls the “communion of saints” is referred to in the East as “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

In fully appointed Byzantine churches we find ourselves surrounded by icons of the saints. Frescoes of the saints cover the walls, panel icons in shrines or on icon stands are displayed for veneration. These are not distractions from the altar or pulpit but a wordless demonstration that we are one body with the saints in Christ by the operation of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply the assembly of those physically present; it is the gathering of all who are in Christ.

The Gospel on the Saints

The Gospel passage read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of All Saints is not a continuous episode. Rather it is an assemblage of three teachings concerning what it means to aspire to holiness. The first step is that we are called to bear witness to Christ in the world. “Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). Our faith is not meant to be practiced privately, for our personal consolation alone. Rather we are to be witnesses to Him before others.

In today’s world, “bearing witness” often means “pointing the finger at” some atrocity or injustice. We are called to “point the finger at” Christ, much as John the Baptist did: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The simplest way to “point the finger” at the person of Christ is to wear a cross or display an icon in public. Often Evangelical Protestants (who do not display icons) will erect a plaque in their home or on their door with this verse: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”(Joshua 24:15).

A few years ago, the British government prohibited Christians from wearing a cross in the workplace. A Foreign Office statement defending the policy said, In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross was a generally recognized form of practicing the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.” In response, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, commented, “The irony is that when governments and courts dictate to Christians that the cross is a matter of insignificance, it becomes an even more important symbol and expression of our faith.” The policy was successfully challenged by two women who had been disciplined for wearing a cross at work.

Witnessing to Christ – even in the Church – may make one unpopular and oppressed. “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). The witness to Christ is thus called, to not only wear a cross, but to bear the cross as Christ did.

The saint is one who has heard the Gospel call to put God first in their lives. We may be proud that we go to church, pray or fast. So did the Pharisee in Christ’s parable (see Luke 15:11-32). The saint, however, is a person who is ready to put everything else aside to focus on God and His love for us. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).

The spiritual son of St Simeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, says that there are three kinds of people in the world: “the carnal man, who wants to live for his own pleasure, even if it harms others; the natural man, who wants to please both himself and others, and the spiritual man, who wants to please only God, even if it harms himself” (cited in Tito Colliander’s Way of the Ascetics, 5). The ascetic in a monastic setting or in the world strives to be that spiritual man: to love nothing or no one more than God.

The final section in this Gospel pastiche is Christ’s promise that those who have left home and family for His sake will receive a hundred times more in this life, and eternal life in the age to come (see Matthew 19:29). This promise is often interpreted to mean that those who go off to serve Christ will prosper materially. It may be the opposite: that those who place Christ first in their lives will find that He is worth a hundred times more than what the world has to offer and that they will find contentment in what they do have – a place in the kingdom of God.
 
FROM TODAY TO PASCHA NEXT YEAR, practically every church service and formal prayer in our tradition will begin with the invocation, “O Heavenly King.” The presence of the Holy Spirit, whom the first Christians received on Pentecost, is called upon whenever we pray – whenever we do anything as Church – because the Spirit is the “soul” of the Body of Christ. The Spirit is the “living water” promised by Christ to refresh and enliven believers as we live our lives in service to the Lord.

In the Gospel of St John, we see Christ saying, as His passion was about to begin, “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Paraclete to be with you always: the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, since it neither sees Him nor recognizes Him...” (John 14:16, 17). In this promise the Spirit is called by another image. The Greek word paraklitos meant a helper or an advocate, specifically someone who could guide you through the maze of the Roman legal system. This word is sometimes translated as comforter or consoler, a specific type of helper leading the believer along the path of this life. This image appears in the prayer mentioned above: O heavenly King, Paraclete, Spirit of truth...”

The Spirit is portrayed as ‘another Paraclete,” implying that there was a first one whom we know. That Paraclete is the Lord Jesus, who was the guide and advocate of His followers on earth and is our advocate before the throne of the heavenly Father. Because Christ was incarnate (made man), His earthly presence was limited. As a man, He lived in a certain place, in a specific time, and His earthly life came to an end. The Holy Spirit, however, is not incarnate. His presence is spiritual and so is not bound by those earthly limitations. He is, as the prayer we have been quoting says, “present in all places and filling all things.”

From the beginning, God’s plan was to dwell with His creation forever. This goal was frustrated, but not defeated, by the Fall. The incarnation of His Son was God’s response to His creation’s broken state. The Son of God becomes man so that humanity can be divinized. As St Athanasius the Great is to have said, “God became man so that we might receive the Holy Spirit.” Now, with the coming of this Spirit-Paraclete, that plan has been fulfilled, insofar as is possible in this life.

Our experience of the Holy Spirit is not the end of the story, however. The Spirit, says St Paul, “...is the pledge of our inheritance, the first payment against the full redemption of a people God has made His own, to praise His glory” (Ephesians 1:14).The Holy Spirit, as we experience Him now, is merely a down-payment of the experience of God that we are meant to have in the future.

How Does the Spirit Enliven Us?

When the first believers received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there were some dramatic results: where before they were afraid, they now preached Christ boldly. They spoke in tongues, they healed the sick, they gave their lives rather than deny Christ. But the Spirit also worked in individual believers – and still works –in less spectacular but equally remarkable ways. The Scriptures indicate several ways in which the Spirit of God activates our Christian life by His presence:

Our Ability to Believe – “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Our Ability to Pray – “The Spirit too helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groaning that cannot be expressed in speech” (Romans 8:26).

Our Confidence in God’s Love – “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God... The Spirit Himself gives witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:14-16).

The Growth of Our Inner Selves – “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness and chastity” (Galatians 5:23).

Our Ability to Serve in the Church – “There are different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord; there are different works but the same God who accomplishes all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one, the Spirit gives wisdom in discourse, to another, the power to express knowledge. Through the Spirit one receives extraordinary faith; by the same Spirit, another is given the gift of healing; and still another, miraculous powers. Prophecy is given to one; to another, power to distinguish one spirit from another. One receives the gift of tongues, another, that of interpreting the tongues. But it is one and the same Spirit who produces all these gifts, distributing them to each as He wills” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

When we were chrismated at our baptism, we were anointed with the anointing of Christ, becoming sharers in His royal priesthood. As Jesus is the Christ (the Anointed One), because He is penetrated by the Spirit of God, we too become other christs – other anointed ones – when we are chrismated. We believe that we received the gift of the Holy Spirit then, as the Fathers teach. St Cyril of Jerusalem, for example, insists, “See that you do not mistake the chrism for mere ointment. For, just as the Eucharistic Bread is not ordinary bread after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, so also this holy chrism is now longer simple ointment after the invocation, but the gift of Christ, bringing about the presence of the Holy Spirit by a divine operation” (Mystagogic Catechesis, 3,3).

Nevertheless, as the years go by, we must still ask ourselves if and to what degree this relationship with the Holy Spirit has become a conscious focus in our life, for it is possible to have received this gift of the Holy Spirit and never to have truly realized the greatness of that gift, or to have lived in His light. Thus St Simeon the New Theologian maintains that the greatest misfortune which can befall us as Christians is not to know consciously that God is truly living within us. Many believers, he asserts, “say they have the Spirit of God, without experiencing Him, and believe that they possess the Spirit within them from Holy Baptism and will argue that they have this treasure, knowing that in reality they are utterly devoid of the Spirit.” In fact, he says, they do not know what it means to have this gift. Simeon compares the believer who has been filled with the Spirit to a woman pregnant with a child. Both must surely be aware of what has taken place within them.

Like many of the Fathers, St Simeon recognizes that the gift of the Spirit is given when we are christened, but also that we must develop a conscious awareness of the Spirit’s presence in our own life.

Those who truly radiate the life of the Spirit are those who are deeply aware of His inner presence. It is for each of us to pray regularly that our hearts be open to the presence of the Spirit, that we be receptive to His guidance, and that we be moved to act in accordance with His leading.

O Master, who at the third hour bestowed Your Holy Spirit upon Your disciples: take Him not away from us but renew Him in us, we pray.
-Troparion at the Third Hour
 
IN MONASTIC OR RELIGIOUS CIRCLES it is common for spiritual leaders to leave their followers a “spiritual testament,” an outline of the teachings and instructions which they want uppermost in their disciples’ minds. Christ’s prayer in John 17 is a kind of spiritual testament. In it the Lord expresses His holy will for Himself, for His apostles, for the Church, and for all mankind on the eve of His crucifixion.

The Time of His Glorification – The prayer begins with Christ praying for Himself: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You” (v. 1) What the Scriptures call Christ’s “hour” refers to the time of His redeeming sacrifice. Christ prays that He would be glorified by the completeness of this self-emptying. He totally enters into our experience of suffering and death in order to be one with us in all things except sin. His glory would not be the earthly idea of glory – power and might – but the glory of absolute and unconditional love.

Jesus as the Eternal Word Made Flesh – The prayer continues: “Glorify me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world began” (v. 5). The heavenly glory, known to the angels, was to be manifested to us on earth through the cross.

This reference brings us back to the proclamation of who Jesus is, which is found in the very first verse of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word...” The Gospel proclaims Jesus as the pre- eternal Word of God who is glorified with the Father before all ages. Jesus is not simply a prophet or inspired teacher – He is the One whom the Gospel says “...was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:2, 3)

This portrait of the eternal Word as one with the Father shows us a God who is in an eternal relationship and who is, therefore, love by His very nature (see 1 John 4:8). God’s relationship is, first of all, with the true and eternally appropriate object of His love: His divine Word, who is glorified with Him from all eternity. Based on the words of this prayer, the Church would go on to speak of Christ as “equal in glory with the Father.” Combining this with Christ’s teaching on the Holy Spirit, later believers would express this relationship as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Our Recreation is in Christ – Between verses 1 and 5 we find a third concept recorded in the Gospel: “... You have given Him authority over all flesh that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him” (v. 2). The Word of God, through whom all things were made, is now incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth as the agent of a new creation. Mankind is given a new life, which is, in fact a second chance at the life intended for him from the beginning, as described in the book of Genesis.

This life is then described: “And this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (v. 3). Eternal life – authentic life – is communion: that knowledge that flows from a relationship with God. It was a relationship of communion which Genesis describes as God “walking with Adam” in the Garden. That fellowship, once lost, is restored through Christ.

Some scholars believe that this verse is the Evangelist’s commentary on Christ’s prayer, an aside in the text, since it refers to the Lord in the third person. There were no quotation marks, punctuation or even paragraphs in first-century Greek manuscripts, so it is possible that this is so.

This verse does make an excellent commentary, a kind of liturgical refrain, not only to this prayer but to our entire life in Christ. All of the Church’s life – our liturgies, icons, practices – draws its power from the relationship which we have with God. When we are in a living communion with Him, all that we do as Christians shows forth that life. Our interior eyes gain the power to see what is present in the Scriptures, the Eucharist or the saints. They become means for us to deepen the life which comes from our relationship with God in Christ. If we are not living in that relationship, then these practices are simply outward forms which will increasingly bore us.

Prayer that His Disciples Be One – The prayer continues: “I have manifested your name to the men whom you have given me out of the world ... and they have believed that You sent me” (vv. 6, 8). The Apostles had been called forth by Christ to leave their families and their livelihoods to follow Him. They were about to see Him arrested, humiliated and killed. They in their turn would face similar ends. Yet He prays, not that they remain steadfast, but that they remain one. “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given me, that they may be one as we are” (v. 11). The unity of the Apostles in Christ would be more significant than the physical lives of any one of them, because from that communion would come the ongoing life of the entire Church.

Prayer for the Church and the World – A few verses later, we find a similar prayer for the whole Church and the world as well: “I do not pray for those alone, but also for those who will believe through their word that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You – that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (vv. 20, 21).

This mutual interaction of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity is extended to humanity in the Church. The bond we have with God is no longer simply that of creature to Creator; but is the filial relationship of the Son to the Father “as You, Father, are in Me and I in You.” The Church, then, is not simply a human association of Jesus’ followers, but an organic union of those who are “one in us.

Finally, the world’s conversion to Christ is tied to the communion of the Church with God. This passage is often explained to mean that, when Christians are united to one another, the rest of the world will believe. It is perhaps more accurate to say that, when the Church is “one in us” – finding the source of its unity in the life of the Trinity rather than in authority, political power or other external factors – people will be drawn to it.

The Icon of Our Communion with God

The icon which most perfectly expresses this vision for the communion of the Church as being “one in us” is the adaptation by St Andrei Rublev of the traditional image, “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The patriarch himself and other details from the Genesis story are deleted and all we see are the three guests whom he entertained, seated around a table. In Genesis 18:2 these visitors are described as “three men,” but Rublev depicts them as angels. In fact, Gen 18:13 and verses following refer to Abraham’s company as “the LORD,” causing the Fathers to see this visitation as an early indication of the Trinity. Their eternal relationship is expressed by the fluid motion of their gestures.

The fourth place at the table, included in these gestures, is set for us. Through baptism we have been brought into the eternal relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The single vessel on the table suggests the means of our ongoing communion with God: the Eucharist.
 
WHO IS THE BLIND MAN? This question is not about the name of the man the Lord Jesus heals of blindness in John 9 (in Christian lore he is given the name Celidonius). He is not named in the Gospel account because his name is irrelevant to the meaning of the passage.

Rather the question is: Of all the people described in this Gospel passage, which one is the blind man?

Several groups are mentioned in the passage: the disciples, the neighbors of the blind man, his parents and the Pharisees. The passage reveals something about each of them.

The Disciples

Christ’s followers are depicted asking a theological question on seeing the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (v. 2) The assumption behind their question was commonly shared by people in the ancient world: if you experienced good fortune, you were pleasing to God but if you experienced evil, it was a result of your sinfulness.

This was considered true for individuals and for the entire people as well. When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in the first century AD, Jewish thinkers attributed it to the sins of the nation. The people of Israel had offended God and were punished by God withdrawing His protection from them. When Christian Jerusalem fell to the Persians in the year 614 and then to the Arabs in 638, its leaders said the same thing:

Jerusalem had fallen because its Church had sinned.

While this connection might be directly or indirectly true in some cases, it is not so here. Neither the man or his parents had sinned. The man’s condition was according to the providence of God: “that the works of God should be revealed in him” (v. 3).

Today most people are likely to say that our good or bad fortune is not caused by direct divine intervention, but because of purely natural causes. However, it is still important to say that our choices for good or evil can and do have consequences. Societies have fallen because they embraced an immoral culture (based on violence, slavery or perversion). Abortion is sinful; it also lowers birthrates and condemns societies to extinction. Divorce has consequences for the couple’s children and grandchildren. Our sinful choices have effects beyond us.

While the disciples’ reaction is not recorded, we find Christians today connecting their earthly fortune to God’s blessing or punishment in an automatic way. The modern Protestant movement called “the prosperity gospel,” promoted by preachers such as Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, teaches that God wants all His people to be physically healthy and financially successful. If a person is sick or not prosperous, they claim, it is because they are not “right with God.”

While the inquiring disciples in John 9 were not “blind,” we may wonder about those today who embrace either of these extremes: by living as if their choices affect only themselves or by following the prosperity gospel.

The Neighbors

Those who knew the blind man were amazed that he could now see. Some could not conceive the possibility and asked, “‘Is not this he who sat and begged?’ Some said, ‘This is he’ Others said, ‘He is like him’” (v. 9). Church Fathers, such as St Irenaeus, St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom explained their confusion in this way: If the man’s sight had been restored, they could accept it. This man, however was blind from birth, He had no eyes at all. Jesus filled his eye sockets with clay, “adding [eyes] where before they were not” (St John Chrysostom) and gave them sight.

The Gospel says that Christ “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay” (v.6). The Fathers directly connect this making of clay with the creation story in Genesis. St John Chrysostom noted, “When He said ‘that the glory of God might be manifested’, He spoke of Himself... To have said, I am He who took the dust of the earth and made man, would have seemed a hard thing to His hearers, but this no longer stood in their way when shown by actual working. By taking earth and mixing it with spittle, He showed forth His hidden glory, for no small glory was it that He should be deemed the Architect of creation” (St John Chrysostom, Homily 56 on John).

St Irenaeus said that this action “manifested the hand of God to those who could understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust” adding: “That which the Artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him” (Against Heresies, V, 15, 2).

The Parents

The man’s parents affirmed his identity: “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind” (v. 20) but they evaded expressing their opinion on the miracle: “...but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age: ask him. He will speak for himself” (v. 21). John explains their reticence in this way: to affirm the miracle would be to avow that Jesus was the Messiah. “His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age: ask him.’”(vv. 22, 23).

It may have to be explained to us, but Jews would assume that only the Messiah empowered by God could engage in a creative act. It would be easier to claim ignorance than to affirm that God was at work in Jesus and risk the consequences. This might be wisdom in the world, but it would be blindness in the spiritual realm.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees are the “heavies” in this portion of John. In the previous chapter, John 8, Jesus condemns them for not seeing God at work in Him, calling them sons of the devil (see John 8:44). In chapter 10, the leaders of the Jews again confront Jesus’ demanding to know whether He was the Messiah. Jesus replies, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But you do not believe, because you are not of my sheep” (John 10:25, 26).

Jesus’ healing of the man born blind concludes with another encounter with the Pharisees (John 9:39-41). He reproaches them indirectly, saying “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.” But the Pharisees challenge Him further. "Then some of the Pharisees who were with him heard these words, and said to Him, ’Are we blind also?’Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains.

The blind man had no sight though no fault of his own. The Pharisees claimed to see, without realizing that their pretension made them worse than blind.

Self-righteousness in religion can render us as blind as they. Relying on the Gospel as preached in the Church can free us from the blindness that results from being one’s own guide.
 
SOME CHRISTIANS TODAY seem to believe that Jesus never judged anyone. They feel that He welcomed everyone, without calling them to turn from their sin. This “live and let live” attitude hardly describes the Jesus we see depicted in the Gospels. Rather, these Scriptures show that the Lord reacted differently to different people in different circumstances, teaching us something about Himself and holding a mirror up to our actions as well.

Jesus’ Public Preaching

The Gospel of Mark, describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in this way: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14, 15). The call to repentance was at the very heart of His teaching: of that there should be no doubt. How Jesus approached individuals who were living in sinful situations is another matter.

The Lord addressed very strong words to those who were the religious leaders of Israel – the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the Law – whom He judged to be failing in their mission to pastor God’s people. He publicly called them, “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 13:4); “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16, 24); “fools and blind” (Matthew 23:17, 19); “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27); and “serpents – brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33). He told them that they had hard hearts! In Matthew 23 He repeatedly threatened them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites! ... How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:13ff.). This is hardly the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” beloved of so many. Yet, His hearers did not reproach Him for being politically incorrect; rather, “people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28, 29).

Jesus’ Approach to Individuals

The Lord’s approach was very different when He was trying to lead people to recognize their own sinfulness and repent, He was not aggressive or condemnatory, but He was not timid either. When He was dining on the Sabbath with a leading Pharisee, a man with dropsy (edema) was bought before Him. The Gospel says that Jesus asked the (unasked) question of the onlookers by asking them a question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Luke 14:7) His questions forced people to examine their own beliefs or attitudes, opening a way for them to see their own errors and repent. He met them where they were, but He did not encourage them to remain there.

The Lord used parables in the same way. When He noticed that people were jockeying for the best places at the table, the Lord told a series of parables on being the guest or a host at a wedding. His hearers got the point that He was making without any of them being singled out for their behavior.

Two Gospel incidents frequently heard in our churches show Jesus dealing with people who were public sinners, yet ready to hear His call to repentance. Before the Great Fast, we hear the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, who admitted getting money by fraud (Luke 19:8). The Lord did not raise the issue of Zacchaeus’ financial manipulations even indirectly. He simple told Zacchaeus that, “today I must stay at your house” (v.5). Jesus allowed Zacchaeus to see Him close up; that alone was sufficient to bring him to repentance.

Something similar happened in the case of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s Well. Like Zacchaeus, her way of life was already well known and she was probably not welcome among the local women. This explains why she had come to draw water at the height of the midday heat. Yet Jesus did not bring up the matter of her multiple marriages; He innocently asks her to call her husband. When she tells Him, “I have no husband” (John 4:17), then He responds, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you have spoken truly” (vv. 17, 18). Jesus led her to raise the irregularity of her marital situation herself so that He could reveal His mysterious knowledge of her past and lead her to repentance.

Both Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman (Photini, in some accounts) responded to Jesus’ presence by revealing their embarrassing secrets. They could not deceive Jesus into thinking them upright. They could not pretend an untruth in the face of the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

John’s Gospel tells the story of another hapless woman: one caught in adultery (John 8:1-8). The scribes and Pharisees claimed that, according to the Law, she was to be stoned. They were right. The Law prescribed, “If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die – the man that lay with the woman and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 20:22).

In response, Jesus did not criticize the woman, her accusers, or the Law. To the accusers He simply said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (v.8). He trusted that no one would dare to claim to be sinless, and He was right. They began drifting away, leaving Jesus and the woman together.

Daily during the Great Fast we say the Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, asking for the same spiritual insight these accusers were brought to remember. We pray, “Grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brethren.” We must know sin when we see it, but not in a way that is judgmental of others.

The Lord did not criticize the woman caught in the act, but neither did He say, “I do not condemn you either. It’s all good.” She had sinned – she knew it and so did He. His response was, “Go and sin no more” (v. 11).

Fraternal Correction in the Church

The Lord expected His disciples, the leaders of His new community, to deal with sin in its midst. He told them, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sin against you seven times a day, and seven times in a day returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3, 4). Confronting sin in the community was as much part of their job as was extending forgiveness to the repentant.

Sometimes church leaders turn a blind eye to the unchristian behavior of members of their flock so as to keep them in the congregation. The Apostles were more concerned with helping their people avoid sin, even to the point of discussing it publicly. These are some of their directives found in the Epistles:

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:1-5).

Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:20).

My brethren, if any one among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19, 20).

On some have compassion, making a distinction, but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 1:22, 23).
 
THE SCRIPTURES READ on the remaining Sundays in the Paschal season present us with some of life’s most debilitating hardships: blindness, isolation and, today, paralysis. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles read today, we hear about the healing of a man named Aeneas in Lydda (Lod), some 23 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Aeneas, we are told, “had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed” (Acts 9:33).

In the Gospel reading which follows, we hear about another man “who had an infirmity thirty-eight years” (John 5:5) and who was healed by the Lord Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha) outside Jerusalem, where the infirm gathered, hoping for healing. This pool was used to clean the animals destined for sacrifice before they would be brought into the temple.

It is not clear why the sick gathered there. There was no explicit mention of miracles at this pool in Jewish sources of the day, such as Josephus or Philo. The pool itself, buried in the destruction of Jerusalem, was concealed until archeologists discovered it in the nineteenth century. This had led some to think that the passage was not historical at all. Rather, they suggested, it was meant to teach that the “angel in the water” foreshadowed the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in baptism, which heals us of sin (see Tertullian, On Baptism, chapter 5).

Others have noted that there were healing springs and pools in the ancient pagan world as well. Cures at those pools followed specific patterns like the one John records here: the first one entering the pool after the water was “stirred” would be healed. John affirms that Christ’s word alone, without any ritual or procedure, was enough to heal. Like the paralytic, who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them and turn to Christ instead.

What Does It Mean to be Paralyzed?

In the Early Church, commentators did not often speculate on the pool, or even on the nature of the man’s illness. It was more common to compare the physical infirmity of the paralyzed man to the spiritual paralysis which afflicts Christians, either occasionally or in a regular way. It was often noted how, in the lives of each one of us, there will be spiritual paralysis: moments of weakness or failure, which can last for many years, as with the paralytic at the sheep pool.

In “spiritual paralysis,” the energies of our soul, of our mind, of our heart, of our will, of our body itself are fettered – fettered by the fact that we have no courage and no power within us to move and to act to the full of our longings. We stand, year after year, on the very edge: on the bank of the pool that could give us life, without being able to enter it.

Christian Life as Synergy

In one of the last New Testament books to reach its final form, the Second Epistle of St Peter, we see the Christian spiritual life addressed. Spiritual life, we read, comes “...through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by whom have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that though these you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:, 3,4). The way to theosis – being partakers of the divine nature – comes because of Christ. God becomes incarnate so that we might become divinized.

We, however, need to embrace this gift, lest it wither away and we become blind or paralyzed. We do this, the epistle continues, by practicing virtue, self-control, godliness, perseverance, brotherly kindness and love. “For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins" (2 Peter 1:8, 9). Fruitful Christian life, then, requires that we do our part to make our own the gift of divine life we have received.

We can become shortsighted or even blind to the gift of our baptism, remaining barren and unfruitful – in other words, paralyzed – without being committed to growing in virtue, knowledge, self-control and the rest. We may see this happen in the life of some Christians who do not consider their baptism seriously: who rarely look to the Gospel, receive the Eucharist, or even attend the Liturgy. They are blind to the gift of Christ and, therefore, paralyzed in the spiritual life. We see it in ourselves, when we cannot focus on the words we read or even the prayers we are saying, distracted by the concerns of daily life.

Paralysis and the Passions

As more philosophically minded Greeks accepted Christ, they identified the signs of spiritual paralysis in terms of the classical passions; gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, pride and vainglory. Someone who is focused on personal comforts (through food and drink, sex or material possessions) will find it difficult, if not impossible, to center on the spiritual life. If they attend church at all, they find their mind wandering back to the object of their passion.

A story is told about St Basil, the revered Fool for Christ, who confronted Tsar Ivan the Terrible one day, because he was not at the Liturgy. Ivan protested that he was indeed in church for the service. Basil replied that the emperor’s body was in church, but his mind was on the Vorobiev hills (where he was having a palace built). When Basil died in 1557, the Tsar acted as one of his pallbearers.

It would be even harder for people ruled by their pride or vanity to look beyond themselves to God or others. Their piety dries up “like baked clay” (Psalms 21:16), withered like a plant with too much sun and no water. This is why combating the passions has been seen as fundamental to a committed Christian life, since the dawn of monasticism in the third century.

In his Homily 37 on the Gospel of John, St John Chrysostom discusses the spiritual medicines necessary to combat the passions and other distractions from the Christian life. “The divine Oracles [the Scriptures] are a treasury of all manner of medicines, so that whether it be needful to quench pride, to lull desire to sleep, to tread underfoot the love of money, to despise pain, to inspire confidence, to gain patience, from them one may find abundant resource.” The Scriptures held the medicine; the illnesses were the passions.

The Church as Healer

While the Scriptures portray the incarnate Christ as Healer of the man at Bethesda, it depicts the Body of Christ, the Church, as the source of Aeneas’ recovery. The Church is meant to be a therapeutic community in which Christ continues His healing work in our midst.

“Yesterday you were flung on a bed, exhausted and paralyzed, and you had no one to put you into the pool when the water should be troubled. Today you have Him, who is in one person God and Man. You were raised up from your bed, and even carried your bed, publicly acknowledging the benefit. Do not again be thrown on your bed by sinning, in the evil of a body paralyzed by its pleasures. As you now are, so walk, mindful of the command, ‘See you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (John 5:14). If you prove yourself bad after the blessing you have received. You have heard the loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (St Gregory the Theologian, Oration on Holy Baptism, XI, 33)
 
SERVICE IN THE CHURCH TODAY can mean many things. The clergy are said to serve the Divine Liturgy and other services. They are not improvising or directing or even celebrating; their role as servers suggests that their personality take a back seat to what they serve, much as good waiters are unobtrusive when they serve at table.

Church members serve in a variety of ways in the worship, teaching and fellowship activities of the community. In many places they are honored today as the Church remembers those who volunteered to serve at the Lord’s burial: Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrhbearers. Today we also remember the Church’s first ordained servants, the Deacons.

Both Myrrhbearers and Deacons had one thing in common: they served Christ the Unwanted. The Myrrhbearers served the despised and rejected Jesus, condemned by the Jewish leaders and abandoned in death by even His closest followers, These volunteers stepped forward to provide a burial for Him, when the alternative was to leave His body for animals to scavenge. The Deacons were set apart by the Apostles to serve Christ unwanted in the weakest segment of society: those who had no family to care for them in their old age.

Joseph and the Myrrhbearers

In Mark 15:44-16:8, which is read at this Sunday’s Liturgy, we see Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council, arrange for Jesus’ burial. St John Chrysostom observes, “This was Joseph, who had been concealing his discipleship. Now, after the death of Christ, he became very bold. For neither was he an obscure person nor unnoticed. He was one of the Council, and highly distinguished and, as we see, courageous. For he exposed himself to death, taking upon himself the enmity of all by his affection for Jesus. He begged for the body and did not desist until he obtained it. Not only that, but by laying it in his own new tomb, he actively demonstrated his love and courage” (Homily 88 on Matthew).

In John 19:39 we are told that the seeker Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, helped Joseph in this task. Their service is memorialized in the troparion sung on this day, itself drawn from the Gospel of St Mark: The noble Joseph took down from the tree Your spotless body. He wrapped it in fine linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb…

Mark notes that Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses (whom John identifies as the wife of Clopas – Cleophas in the King James Bible – and a relative of the Theotokos) saw where Jesus had been buried and returned with others on Sunday morning with more spices. Mark 15:40 tells of a Salome, one of those who had witnessed the death of the Lord, who accompanied them. These women were among those whom Luke says provided for Jesus’ needs during His ministry from their possessions. Others among them, according to Luke, were “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Suzanna, and many others” (8:3). Matthew 27:56 mentions “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (i.e. James and John). Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, are included among them as well. As St John Chrysostom remarked, “They lamented over what had happened, beating their breasts. Meanwhile, the religious leaders were glorying in those very things for which the others were grieving, neither moved by pity nor checked by fear” (Homily 88.2 on Matthew).

The Jews did not embalm the dead like the Egyptians. Rather they anointed a corpse and surrounded it with large quantities of spices to counteract the odor of decay. Jn 19:39 says that Nicodemus brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes for that purpose. When the women returned to the tomb at first light on Sunday morning, according to Mark and Luke, they brought more spices. The odor should have increased to such a degree that further masking would be needed if people were to visit the tomb. But the Lord did not need their spices; not subject to corruption, He had conquered Death and destroyed its hold over us.

The Myrrhbearers knew that the service they offered was fruitless in a sense – Jesus was dead and they could not change that. They could simply perform a last act of love and remain by the tomb in witness to their love for Him. Their faithfulness to serve Christ even in death was rewarded; they were blessed to see the empty tomb and to bear witness to the Apostles that Christ was risen.

The Burial of Christ

The role of Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrhbearers is particularly remembered in our worship at the Holy Friday service of the Burial of Christ. The hymns we sing before the image of the dead Christ make frequent mention of them:

Nicodemus and Joseph

are now joined by heaven’s hosts.

Within a narrow tomb

they place the precious body

of the One whom nothing

at all can contain.


The most noble Joseph,

With Nicodemus buried

You with myrrh in a new and strange way,

O Christ; and they cried aloud:

“Be afraid, O earth, and tremble with fear!”


Ointment bearing women

drew near to You, O Lord,

to offer myrrh in their love.


Ointment bearing women

came to anoint with myrrh

Christ, the true Myrrh of our God.


Ointment bearing women

came to Your tomb, O Lord,

to anoint You with their myrrh.



It is the custom in many places that members of the church council represent Joseph and Nicodemus by carrying the image of the dead Christ before its burial in anticipation of the Resurrection. Similarly, young women depict the myrrhbearers by walking in the procession and sprinkling scented water as they go.

The Parish Myrrhbearers

The holy Myrrhbearers are the patrons of many sisterhoods in Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches. As the women in the Scriptures ministered to the material needs of Christ and His disciples, parish myrrhbearers serve their community by coordinating Sunday morning coffee hours and other parish meals. Some Myrrhbearers organize mercy meals for the departed or receptions for churchings and baptisms.

Elsewhere the parish Myrrhbearers may maintain the parish prayer list or ministry of intercession’ remembering the needs for which parishioners have asked their prayers.

In some Churches local Myrrhbearers undertake charitable programs at home and abroad. Orphan adoption programs and support for seminarians are supported by Myrrhbearers in several dioceses.

In some parishes the Myrrhbearers are the young women who exercise a ministry of hospitality at the church’s regular Sunday services by serving as greeters, and by distributing bulletins and other handouts.

In some parishes Myrrhbearers ring the church bells, tend the candle stands or bring the offerings forward for the priest to receive. They come into special prominence on Holy Friday when they keep watch before the holy shroud and scatter flowers before it in procession.

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