Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WHEN WE THINK OF THE PEOPLE who appear in the Gospels we think first of all of Christ and His Mother, then perhaps of John the Forerunner and the apostles. But there is another figure who is more prominent both in the Gospels and in the life of the Church than even some of the apostles – St Mary Magdalene whom the Eastern Churches call the “equal-to-the- apostles.”

Mary Magdalene in the Gospels

The Scriptures have little to say about Mary; this has not prevented speculations and often erroneous conclusions to be made from the early centuries up to our own day. The Gospels tell us that:

a) According to her name she was from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. Because she was known by her hometown rather than by the name of her husband, father or son, it is assumed she was unmarried.

b) She was one of the Lord’s traveling companions. “He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance” (Luke 8:1-3).

From this passage some have deduced that Mary was well-to-do. The Gospel text does not necessarily imply that Mary was one of those who provided for Jesus from their own resources. That phrase may only refer to the unnamed “others.”

The Gospels do not describe Mary’s healing and many have speculated about it. Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604), for example, equated these demons with the spiritual assaults within us: “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the passions?” He thus put his seal on the opinion that Mary was a great sinner, even a prostitute.

This idea came from a mistaken reading of the passage from Luke quoted above. The passage before it tells of an unnamed “woman in the city who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37) who washed Jesus feet with her tears. Commentators connected these two passages, believing they were about the same woman, which the Gospel itself does not imply.

c) Mary was one of the women who stayed near Jesus at the cross when His chosen disciples all ran away: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

d) Most importantly, as all four Gospels relate, she was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to alert the apostles to the news of the resurrection: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him’” (John 20:1, 2).

As Luke tells it, Mary Magdalene was there with Joanna and Mary (the mother of James) when “…behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’” And they remembered His words. Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest… And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:4-11).

Reflecting on the Resurrection Gospels, Gregory the Great thought it fitting that “because in Paradise a woman offered death to a man, at the tomb a woman announced life to men” (49th Homily on the Gospels). Doing the same, the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus, called Mary Magdalene the “apostle to the apostles.” This title became common in the West during the centuries that followed.

Mary and the Red Eggs

As was common in the second and third centuries, there were Christian attempts to tell the stories of what happened to the New Testament figures after the events described in the Scriptures. In several of these stories Mary Magdalene is said to have traveled to Rome and shared her witness to Christ with the first believers there.

While in Rome she is said to have attended a dinner at which Emperor Tiberius (ad 14-37) was present. When she spoke about Christ’s resurrection, according to one version of this story, Tiberius laughed, saying that a man rising from the dead was no more possible than these eggs turning red before our eyes. The eggs did, in fact, turn red and Eastern Christians have been blessing red eggs on Pascha ever since.

Modestos, patriarch of Jerusalem (630-634) wrote, in his On the Myrrhbearers, that Mary Magdalene returned to Jerusalem, where she lived with Theotokos until her dormition. After the death of the Theotokos, Mary Magdalene went to Ephesus where she spent the rest of her life. Her tomb outside the city was described by Gregory of Tours (538-594) in his De Miraculis. Gregory had not seen the tomb himself, but was recounting the testimony of an unnamed “Syrian traveler.” Her holy relics were transferred in the ninth century to Constantinople, and placed in the monastery Church of Saint Lazarus. In the era of the Crusader campaigns they were taken to Italy and placed at Rome under the altar of the Lateran Cathedral. Her incorrupt hand is preserved in the Simonopetra Monastery on Mt Athos.

According to a later Western tradition Mary Magdalene had gone to the south of France where she was said to have spent her last years alone in the wilderness, fasting and engaging in acts of penitential self-discipline to atone for the “sins” of her early life. Her relics are supposedly kept in Provage, near Marseilles. This tradition is clearly based on the erroneous identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7, described above.

Mis-directions in the Story of Mary

Besides Mary Magdalene and the Theotokos the Gospels also mention other Marys: Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha), and Mary the mother of James. This led to a confusion in the West between Mary Magdalen (identified as the sinner of Luke 7) and these other Marys. This identification, which had never been accepted in the East, was finally rejected in the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar.

In the first centuries after Christ several groups developed their own “gospels” weaving the story of Jesus with their own teachings. Several of these, from gnostic sources, were discovered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In several of them Mary Magdalen is depicted as Jesus’ favorite companion, making the apostles jealous. These works gave rise to modern pseudo-historical attempts to say that Mary was Jesus’ wife or mistress.
 
WHAT LANGUAGE WAS SPOKEN by the first Christians? On one level, we can say it was Aramaic or Hebrew with a sprinkling of Greek. On another level – the level of spiritual thought – we must say that the first Christians spoke the language of the Torah, what Christians today call the Old Testament.

The first Christians’ cultural and spiritual frame of reference was the Jewish Scriptures, the same tradition revered by all Jews of their day. The difference between them was that the first Christians believed that the promises of the Torah and the Prophets were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The Scriptures Are Fulfilled

From the first, Jesus affirmed that He was realizing what had been foretold. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.” After reading Isaiah 61:1, 2 He announced, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 18, 19, 21). When His fellow-townsmen rejected Him, He moved on to Capernaum.

In Matthew’s Gospel the story of Jesus’ ministry begins with another prophecy: “…and leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:12-17).

The New Testament Quotes the Old

There are a number of times in the Gospels when specific Old Testament texts are quoted in the belief that they are fulfilled in Christ. Some of these claims are interwoven into the stories of Christ’s teaching and miracles. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord announces: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17, 18).

In Luke’s Gospel the Lord speaks more directly: to say that He fulfills the Law means that the era of the Law was at an end. “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:16, 17).

Several times in the course of his preaching the Lord Jesus tried to show His disciples that He was the realization of these prophecies. He explained His use of parables in terms of an Old Testament prophecy: “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull’ … that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 13:13-15, 35).

In a similar way the Lord confronted the Pharisees citing the Prophet Isaiah: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? … Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:3, 7-9).

The Passion Prophesied and Fulfilled

As Jesus’ time with His disciples was drawing to a close, He tried to prepare them to see His coming Passion as fulfilling the words of the prophets. “Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’ But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:31-34).

Later, of course, the Twelve would see that Christ’s death and resurrection fulfilled the prophets’ teaching and would proclaim it as such. They taught, for example, that His triumphal entry as king into Jerusalem was such a fulfillment: “All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey – a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Matthew 21:4, 5).

Prophecies Made Clear by the Risen Lord

It was only after Christ’s resurrection that the disciples came to understand how the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies were pointing to the Lord Jesus. When the risen Christ appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus He explained these prophecies to them. As the Gospel recounts it, “He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

After Jesus vanished from their sight, their response was swift as they began to absorb the meaning of this experience: “And they said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32). From then on, the early Christians would open the Scriptures by showing how the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms could only be understood as revealing Jesus of Nazareth and His saving work.

From St Cyril of Alexandria

“The Israelites used to say that the Messianic prophecies were fulfilled, either in the persons of some of their more glorious kings or at least in the holy prophets. They did not correctly understand what was written about Him, so they missed the true direction and traveled down another path... For their good [Jesus] draws them away from such a supposition… “He brings forth Moses and the prophets, interpreting their hidden meaning and making plain to the worthy what was obscure to the unworthy. In this way He settles in them the ancient and hereditary faith taught them by the sacred books which they posessed. For nothing which comes from God is without its use. All have their appointed place and service.” (St Cyril of Alexandria, On Luke, 12, 24)
 
IN EASTERN ICONS, such as the traditional representation of the Gergasene demoniacs, demons are often portrayed as little winged black men. In the medieval art of the West the horned, bat-winged and fork-tailed red giant was the most popular representation of the devil. What is the origin of these images and what do they actually represent?

Any representation of a demon in iconography, whether Western or Eastern, is an attempt to interpret Scriptural teaching. The imagery itself is not found in Scripture but strives to graphically depict a Biblical doctrine. Physical depictions of non-physical realities, however, are always doomed to fail. This is why in our Tradition depicting the Father or the Holy Spirit in human form is considered inappropriate since they were not incarnate. Icons of Christ, on the other hand, are considered so important because they point to the truth of His incarnation: that he actually became human to join His nature to ours. One artistic convention frequently employed in images of demons is the use of wings. This device “interprets” the Scriptural image of Satan as a fallen angel. As the Lord Himself said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Since “everyone knows” that angels have wings, artists assumed that fallen angels have wings too.

Does Size Matter?

The size of demons in icons or other images is a commentary on the power of Satan as understood by the artist and, ultimately by his Church. Medieval artists in the West often depicted Satan as larger than other figures in their paintings. They were interpreting Christ’s description of Satan as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and St Paul’s characterization of him as “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). A being of such power was in their eyes larger than life.

But Christ had said that, as a result of His passion, “the ruler of this world will be cast out (John 12:31). Thus in the Eastern icon of Pascha Satan is not depicted as a superman but as a colorless corpse bound in chains, defeated by the sacrifice of Christ. This image illustrates the teaching on Christ’s victory on the cross, “that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” (Hebrews 2:14). This is also why our Great Saturday liturgy puts these words in Satan’s mouth: “My power has been swallowed up! … Death’s power has lost its strength.”

In Eastern icons Satan and demons are regularly depicted as insignificant pests: tiny black creatures futilely attacking man. This illustrates the term for Satan used in all the Gospels, Beelzebub (see Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22 and Luke 11:18). This is a satiric parody of the Canaanite title for their god meaning “Lord of the princes.” The Jewish parody used in the Gospels, “Lord of the flies,” points to the trivial nature of Satan before Christ’s power – little more than a gnat.

Demons in the Scriptures

The Old Testament presents Satan or the devil as “the Accuser” (in Hebrew, ha satan; Greek, ho diabolos) who accuses or slanders people and thus incites them to sin. He is depicted as a tempter, a persuader who convinces people to choose other than godly ways to live. When his influence spreads among the influential figures in society, an entire culture can be perverted. But Satan cannot force anyone to comply with his ways; we can always reject his temptations.

Old Testament-era Jews also came to speak of other diabolical figures in addition to Satan. The devil had his minions, angels who fell with him and who sought to drag people down with them. As the New Testament Book of Revelation describes it: “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:9).

By the first and second centuries bc belief in demons active in Israel had become common in popular Judaism. Deliverance from demons was an important part of the ministry of Christ in the Gospels and of the apostles in Acts. It is assumed today that many of the people in the Gospel accounts believed to have a demon were actually afflicted with some form of psychosis. This does not explain the absence of demonic possession in Jewish writings before Christ. Could it be that the coming of the Messiah prompted a last ditch effort of Satan and his angels to assert power?

Jesus became quickly known as a healer and exorcist, confronting physical maladies and the assault of demons: “Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them” (Matthew 4:24).

Jesus sent His disciples out to preach the kingdom of God and gave them authority over demons: “He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease” (Matthew 10:1). They continued to exercise this power even after Pentecost (see Acts 8:7; 16:16ff.).

The Church has continued to exercise this power over unclean spirits. The second- century apologist St Justin the Philosopher told a Jewish acquaintance named Trypho that “now we, who believe in our Lord Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, when we exorcise all demons and evil spirits, have them subjected to us” (Dialogue with Trypho, 76.6). By the third century it was common that people entering the Church through baptism first be freed from the power of any unclean spirits. In our Byzantine ritual today four prayers of exorcism are part of the reception of a catechumen, calling on Satan to “Depart, and admit the vanity of your power which could not even control the swine.” When blessing water, oil or sacred vessels or when consecrating churches, the bishop or priest first prays that the influence of unclean spirits be averted from this place or object.

Our sacramental books also include prayers to deliver people from unclean spirits. In many places use of these prayers is on the increase as a result of people becoming involved with occult practices, thus opening themselves to influence by unclean spirits. A Coptic priest, Fr Sama’an Ibrahim, conducts prayers of deliverance weekly in his church carved into the rock of Moqattam Mountain, home of Cairo’s garbage collectors. Most of those who fill the 2000-seat church seeking deliverance are Muslims, says Father Ibrahim. “Christians rarely get possessed, because they are baptized young.”

First Exorcism of St. Basil the Great

O God of gods and Lord of lords, Creator of the fiery spirits and Artificer of the invisible powers, of all things heavenly and earthly: You whom no man has seen nor is able to see; You whom all creation fears and before whom it trembles; You who cast into the darkness of the abyss of Tartaros the angels who fell away with him who once was commander of the angelic host, who disobeyed You and haughtily refused to serve You: now expel by Your awesome name the evil one and his legions loose upon the earth, Lucifer and those with him who fell from above. Set him to flight and command him and his demons to depart completely. Let no harm come to them who are sealed in Your image and let those who are sealed receive power “to tread on serpents and scorpions and all the power of the enemy.” For You do we praise and magnify, and with every breath do we glorify Your all-holy name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
 
THE YEAR 1938 SAW AN ESCALATION of warlike activities in Nazi Germany. In March Hitler invaded Austria and began to move against Czechoslovakia. Attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses increased and thousands of German Jews were arrested.

The response of one Russian-American, Irving Berlin, was to compose the song “God Bless America” which would become like a second National Anthem during World War II and the years that followed. From the first, however, there was opposition to the song by some. They felt that it seemed to be a statement that everything in American life was positive, despite obvious examples of racial, ethnic and religious prejudices that were rife in many places. They interpreted “God Bless America” to mean “God reward America.”

Praying for the Nation

Christians have always prayed for their country, even when its leadership was persecuting them. The Lord Jesus was displayed on the cross as an anti-Roman revolutionary (the “King of the Jews”), yet He never advocated revolt as many Jewish zealots did. His approach was rather, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). The apostolic writings, composed when Roman officials began repressing Christians, still insisted, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). St Paul here offered his most elaborated statement on supporting the civil authority by prayer “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:1-7).

The main points in this passage would be repeated frequently in the apostolic writings and by the early Christian defenders of Christianity. The ultimate source of civil power is God and therefore it is God who has placed rulers in authority.

The power of earthly rulers is legitimate, if limited to the temporal order. As St Justin the Philosopher (100-165) explained, “Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment… as Christ intimated when He said, ‘To whom God has given more, of him shall more be required’” (Justin, First Apology).

From the start, the Church rejected the Empire’s idolatry and emperor-worship. It condemned many of its cultural values as well and as a result it suffered greatly at the hands of the Empire’s leaders, but in principle it respected the God-given place of the Empire and its Emperor.

In St Paul’s view civil authorities have a place in God’s purposes: to insure “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Timothy 2:2). When the state is at peace then believers are free to live godly lives, raising up their praises to God without hindrance. This passage is the inspiration for our prayer for civil authorities to this day. In the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom the priest prays, “…for our civil authorities, for the government and the armed forces. O Lord, grant them peaceful rule that we too in their tranquility may lead a calm and quiet life in all virtue and honor.”

In the Liturgy of St Basil our prayer is similar, but with an added note. “Remember, Lord, this country and all those in public service whom You have allowed to govern on earth. Grant them profound and lasting peace. Speak to their hearts good things concerning Your Church and all Your people that through the faithful conduct of their duties we may live peaceful and serene lives in all piety and holiness. Sustain the good in their goodness; make the wicked good through Your goodness.” We recognize that, while rulers may be legitimate, they may not always be godly.

The “Christian State”

In ad 313 the Edict of Milan decreed religious toleration in the Roman Empire. This was followed in a few years by the proclamation of Christianity as the state religion in the Empire. The state came to be seen as a servant of God. At the height of this development the Emperor was seen as a kind of secular deacon, wearing a sticharion and orarion as part of his imperial regalia and receiving Communion at the holy table.

There were also Christians who felt that God did not desire a “Christian state.” The North African philosopher Lactantius viewed history this way in his synopsis of Christian thought, the Divine Institutes: “God might have bestowed upon His people both riches and kingdoms, as He had given previously to the Jews, whose successors and posterity we are. However, He would have Christians live under the power and government of others, lest they should become corrupted by the happiness and prosperity, slide into luxury and eventually despise the commandments of God. For this is what our ancestors did” (V, 23). When Constantine became Emperor he appointed Lactantius as tutor to his son Crispus. We do not know whether the philosopher’s attitude to a Christian state changed after that.

In any case, while civic tranquility may free believers to pursue union with God, times of persecution or civil strife often bring out the strengths of some, adorning the Church with holy martyrs, confessors and passion-bearers. Each era and condition of life may become the arena for following Christ.

The Battle-Hymn of the Empire

One of our most frequently-heard prayers, the troparion of the holy cross, was originally a battle-hymn for the Christian Empire. The literal translation of the original Greek text is: “O Lord save Your people and bless Your inheritance. Grant victory to our emperor over the barbarians and preserve Your dwelling-place by the power of Your cross.” It is with this meaning that the hymn features into Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, where the troparion of the cross represents the Russian army successfully battling Napoleon and his troops. With the fall of the Eastern Christian Empires (Byzantium, Russia) the hymn has been adapted in various ways to remove the references to the emperor and the barbarians. One popular version says “grant victory to our country over its enemies.”
In some churches, however, the following is sung: “grant victory to Your people over their enemy (i.e. the devil).” This version stresses that the Christian people as a whole, rather than any earthly realm, is the dwelling-place of God and that our real enemy is not the nation next door but our spiritual foes, the powers of evil.
 
IN MATTHEW'S GOSPEL three important moments take place on a mountain: what we call the “Sermon on the Mount”(Matthew 5-7), the Holy Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9), and the eschatological discourse in which the Lord speaks to the signs of His coming (Matthew 24:3 and following). Each of them evokes the memory of an Old Testament event in order to proclaim the person and message of Christ.

In both the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration we see Christ depicted in terms recalling Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai. There are several points of comparison and/or contrast which have been identified since the first Christian centuries: Location – Both events take place “on a mountain;” however there are no mountains in Galilee on the scale of Mount Sinai. The place traditionally identified as the site of the Sermon on the Mount is a hillside on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum. It overlooks a plain which can accommodate thousands. A Byzantine church was erected there in the fourth century. In the 1930s Italian dictator Mussolini sponsored the building of the Church of the Beatitudes on this site to commemorate the Sermon on the Mount.

The place of the Transfiguration is not identified in the Gospels. Jesus took Peter, James and John, we are told, and “led them up on a high mountain” (Mattthew 17:1). In the third century Origen identified the site of the Transfiguration as Mount Tabor, west of the Sea of Galilee, a monadnock, or rocky hill which rises dramatically from the plain which surrounds it. It was a pilgrimage site by the fourth century with several churches at its peak. Today there are two: one Greek Orthodox, the other Roman Catholic, each with a monastery attached. Identifying these Galilee sites as “mountains” emphasizes the connections with the experience of Moses.

The Cloud and Glory – In the days of Moses, “the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days” (Exodus 24:16). When the Father spoke at Jesus’ Transfiguration, the “high mountain” was overshadowed by “a bright cloud” (Matthew 17:5). On Sinai “when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off” (Exodus 20:18). On Tabor the disciples “were fearful as they entered the cloud” (Luke 9:34), sign of their greater intimacy with the divine presence. On Sinai Moses asked to see the Lord’s glory, but the Lord replied: “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). At the Transfiguration, on the other hand, Jesus’ face “shone like the sun and His clothes became white as the light” (Matthew 17). What was concealed in the experience of Moses becomes manifested to the disciples on Mount Tabor. As John’s Gospel has it, “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The Giving of the Law – On Sinai Moses receives the Law from God, which he then transmits to the people. The heart of the Law is, of course, the Ten Commandments but there is much more besides: ritual precepts, commercial laws, jurisprudence, reparations, money-lending, etc. Chapters 21 through 23 of the Book of Exodus are devoted to these laws.

On the mount near Capernaum the Lord Jesus also delivers a Law, the heart of which is expressed in the nine Beatitudes. While most of the Commandments are expressed negatively (“Thou shalt not…”), the Beatitudes are expressed positively as the path to perfection (“Blessed are the…”).

As the Ten Commandments were but a part of the Law given to Moses on Sinai, there is more to the Law of Christ than the Beatitudes. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ continues with an expansion of the Ten Commandments (Matthew 5:28-47). Not only external actions (e.g. murder, adultery) but interior passions (e.g. anger, lust) deviate from the Law. Love must replace the desire for vengeance and that love must extend to all, even our enemies. The result is that “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), which has been described as the summary of the Beatitudes.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Sermon on the Mount concerns the way Christ proclaims His Law. On Sinai God gives His Laws to Moses with instructions to set them before the people of Israel. In the Sermon on the Mount it is Christ Himself who teaches in His own name, placing Himself as the equal of Him who gave the Law to Moses: “You have heard that it was said to those of old... But I say to you…” (Matthew 5: 21, 27, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44).

The Lord Jesus does not negate the Ten Commandments; rather, He gives them greater depth. As He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). He completes or fulfills the Law by addressing our inner motivations as well as our actions. If our aim as believers is to know God, then we must know Him from within, by assuming His attitudes and adopting His ways for living. As He is perfect, so ought we to be.

Is This for Everyone?

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is addressed to “the multitudes.” Yet in the medieval West a common opinion was that the Beatitudes were “intended for those who strive for perfection; they are based on poverty, chastity and obedience and are therefore primarily for those who join the religious life.” Ordinary Christians were counseled that salvation was assured for them if they devoutly observe the precepts of the Church. This opinion was rigorously denounced by Luther and others during the Protestant Reformation as undoing the Sermon on the Mount, but it is still frequently found even in contemporary Roman Catholic writings.

The East, on the other hand, has always seen the spirit of the Beatitudes as basic to the Christian life for both monastics and lay people. The ways in which monastics and laypeople will embrace humility, poverty of spirit, compassion, or the pursuit of righteousness will differ, but their essential importance is the same for both. The Beatitudes point out the path to the King-dom of God, the goal for all Christians.

At two significant moments in our liturgical life the central place held by the Beatitudes in our spirituality is reflected. In many churches, particularly in the Slavic tradition, the Beatitudes are sung at the Divine Liturgy during the Little Entrance. As the Gospel Book is carried to the center of the church, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount is sung as the summary of the entire Gospel message of Christ.

The second liturgical moment pointing to the universal importance of the Beatitudes in our spirituality takes place at the burial service. The Beatitudes climax the funeral hymns at the funerals of non-monastics (laypersons and priests). They are sung with hymns such as the following inserted between the verses: “May Christ grant rest to you in the city of the living. May He open to you the gates of paradise and make you a citizen of His kingdom. May He remit your sins, for He loves you greatly.” Communion with Christ, is the ultimate goal of our life as Christians, whether monastics, clergy or laity. Living the Beatitudes is the universal means to that goal.

The third mountain in Matthew is the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem (Matthew 24). The Lord Jesus speaks there of the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the age and His return. This recalls Zechariah’s prophecy that “The Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4) and all things shall be renewed.
 
WHEN CHRIST SENT THE HOLY SPIRIT upon the Apostles and their followers on the first Pentecost, He gave them the divine help to fulfill the command He had given them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19). As we read in the Gospels, they did just that: “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20).

With the end of our Pentecost feast, our attention moves to the Apostles and to their work of spreading the message of Christ’s resurrection. Observing the Fast of the Apostles gives us the chance to recall the hardships they endured in fulfilling their mission and to unite by prayer and fasting with those continuing their apostolic mission today.

The first seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us of their activities in Jerusalem. Beginning in chapter eight we see them and their companions taking the Gospel to Samaria, to the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza, to Lydda and Joppa (chapter 9), to Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital (chapter 10) and “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (Acts 11:19). When Saul set out on his pursuit of Christians, there were already believers in Damascus (Acts 9). After his conversion, Saul – now Paul – would bring the Gospel through Asia Minor and into Europe. The Acts of the Apostles ends with St Paul being brought to Rome for trial before Caesar. He and St Peter would die there as martyrs in the fulfillment of Christ’s command.

Apart from James, the brother of John, whose death is mentioned in Acts 12:2, none of the other Apostles chosen by Christ is mentioned in Acts. Some of the Twelve never seem to have left the Holy Land, remaining together as a kind of apostolic college; others are said to have gone far in spreading the Gospel. The many lives of these Apostles written over the centuries sought to fill in the details.

Perhaps the most travelled of the Twelve apart from Peter was St Thomas, who was said to have gone eastward through the Persian Empire to India’s Malabar Coast, according to the Acts of Thomas (c. 200-225 ad). The Syriac Churches of that region, known as St Thomas Christians, claim descent from this Apostle’s converts among the Jewish merchants who had settled there.

The Apostolic Tradition

While the Apostles lived, they were clearly the ultimate authority among the followers of Christ. They had not only seen the Lord, they were the first chosen by Him as His ambassadors to the world. But when there was no one left who had actually witnessed the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, to whom or to what did the early Christians look for surety in their faith?

Second-generation Christians were counseled to remember what the eye-witnesses (the Apostles) had passed on to them. Thus Timothy, the disciple of St Paul, was advised by his mentor, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). But where would the next generation of Christians find the teachings of the Apostles? First and second century believers looked to three sources for these teachings: the Apostolic Writings, the Apostolic Churches, and the Apostolic Succession of Church leaders who maintained the faith of the Apostles.

The Apostolic Writings – Over the next few years the core of this Apostolic Tradition would be written down and circulated among the different local Churches. Some books would be recognized as reflecting that tradition by individual Churches or regional synods. They would form what we call the New Testament. Other books would not be included in the canon (the comprehensive list of the accepted books). Some were rejected because the Jesus they portrayed was not the Jesus of the Apostolic Tradition. Today they are called apocryphal gospels and acts. It was only at the end of the third century that the final list of New Testament books would be accepted by all the local Churches then in existence.

Other early writings were respected by the Churches and were considered canonical in some Churches, but not in all. One of the oldest is an epistle from “The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth” (1:1), traditionally called “First Clement,” after St Clement I, who was Bishop of Rome from ad 88 to 99, when this work as written. I Clement was not listed in the final canon.

Other early works which were considered Scripture for a time are the first century Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Protoevangelium of James, dated to the early second-century.

The Apostolic Churches – In the mid-first century, Christians looked for leadership to the Church of Jerusalem, which later believers would call “the Mother of all the Churches.” In Acts 15:1-29 we read how St Paul’s controversial mission to the Gentiles was discussed by the Apostles and elders of that Church. When the Romans devastated Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in ad 70, the city’s Christians were scattered. The Churches in regional centers which boasted connections to the Apostles, such as Alexandria in Egypt, the “See of St Mark,” and Antioch in Syria, “where the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:26), became prominent. By the end of the first century the Church of Rome, where both Peter and Paul had ended their days, had come to be considered “the Church which presides in love” as St Ignatius of Antioch called it in his Epistle to the Romans.

The Apostolic Succession – First century Christians also noted how the Apostles, “… preaching through countries and cities, appointed the first-fruits [of their labors] to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe, having first proved them by the Spirit… and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (1 Clement 42, 44). Thus the body of bishops came to be known as the “successors of the Apostles,” and the guarantors of apostolic faith in the Churches throughout the world.

From the Apostolic Tradition

THERE are two ways, one of life and one of death, but the difference between the two ways is great. This is the way of life: First, you shall love God who made you; secondly, yοu shall love your neighbor as yourself; and whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another. Now, this is the meaning of the words, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you”…

Now the second commandment of the Teaching is: You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not corrupt boys, you shall not fornicate, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic or use spells, you shall not kill a child by abortion, or destroy that which has been begotten. You shall not desire whatever belongs to your neighbor, you shall not swear falsely or bear false witness. You shall not speak evil (of anyone), or bear malice towards them… You shall hate no one, but some you shall reprove, and for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.”
The Didache, 1, 2
 
WHEN WE HEAR THE WORDS confess or confession we naturally think it refers to the confession of sins in the Mystery of Repentance. In this Mystery, to confess one’s sins means to publicly admit them in the presence of a priest. The term confession has a similar meaning outside this Mystery. It means to acknowledge something publicly, to declare or profess outright what we have in our heart. It does not refer only to sins or faults, but to any aspect of our inner life we choose to reveal publicly.

It is in this sense that we make a public confession at the Divine Liturgy when we say: “I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest.” We profess or confess in a public way our inner conviction that Christ is our incarnate Savior. We may believe something without stating it publicly, but when we confess something before others there can be no doubt where we stand.

It is in this sense that the Lord Jesus uses the word in the Gospel passage heard today at the Liturgy: “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10: 32, 33). He promises to acknowledge as His followers those who publicly confess their faith in Him before the world and to reject those who claim to follow Him but keep their faith a secret, perhaps under pressure.

The Lord’s promise in the Gospel is part of a passage in which He warns that His disciples will be hounded to their deaths, even by their friends and relatives. He applies to their time a warning of the Prophet Micah during the exile of the Jews in Babylon “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (v.36).

Confessing Under Fire

The first disciple in whom this prophecy was fulfilled was the protomartyr, St Stephen, who was slain after professing his faith before the Jewish leadership (see Acts, chapters 6 and 7). There, and in many places since then, to confess one’s faith in Christ before hostile civil or religious authorities was like confessing to a crime, often at the instigation of relatives, or acquaintances. The result was generally death.

It sometimes happened that people condemned for their faith suffered, but did not die of their wounds. The fourth-century Church historian Eusebius described some who survived a persecution in Lyons in ad 177 in this way: “They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ … that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply … And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors’” (Ecclesiastical History 5, 1).

The term Confessors, then came to be used for those who suffered for their faith but did not die as a result. Thus we speak of saints like Maximos the Confessor, who was tortured during the sixth-century contro-versies over the nature of Christ. He was exiled for his faith, but was not directly martyred. These confessors joined the martyrs as being the first to be venerated as saints by the Church in the place where they suffered.

Many local figures – ascetics and hierarchs as well as sufferers – would later be recognized as saints by their Churches and assigned feast days on their calendars. Some of them would be added to the calendars of other Churches as well. On the Sunday of All Saints we honor them as well as all those glorified by God whether recognized by any Church on earth or not.

The Saints and Life after Death

Throughout our country we find memorials to those who have come before us – plaques, statues, even parks and buildings dedicated to their memory. These memorials recall their lives and achievements; in other words, they point to the past. The icons of the saints which we honor in our churches and homes do the same and more. They do not simply point to the past – they affirm that the saints are alive in Christ today and with us as we live and worship every day of our lives. By lighting candles or offering flowers and incense before their icons we affirm our faith that the saints are truly with us, witnessing to the reality of eternal life in which they share through Christ’s resurrection.

Many Protestants object to the veneration of the saints in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Sometimes they have good reason, as when people pay more attention to a favorite saint than to the Lord Himself. They seem to revere the saints as “little gods” like those of pagan religions, without any reference to Christ, the Source of our holiness. As we say in the Liturgy, “One is holy, one is Lord – Jesus Christ…”

Other objections are not so good, denying some basic aspects of the historic Churches’ faith. Some people, for example, believe that the dead are asleep (unconscious) until the general resurrection on the last day and that they cannot hear us asking for their prayers. The Scriptures are generally silent about what happens after death, but Catholics and Orthodox espouse St Paul’s faith that the faithful who die are with the Lord. He did not fear dying because it would bring him to Christ, as he wrote to the Corinthians, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He told the Philippians that he wanted to remain with them, but he also wanted to be with the Lord: “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1: 23, 24). St Paul clearly believed that after death he would be with his Lord.

Others believe we should not ask the saints to pray for us – we should pray to Christ alone. At the same time these Christians often ask people – their pastors, prayer group members, TV evangelists – to pray for them. The Scripture describes the worship of heaven as including the prayer of the saints: “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (Revelation 8:3, 4).

Praying for the Saints

The saints now share in the glory of God. This does not mean that they are perfected or complete. This is why the Church not only prays to the saints, it also prays for them. In every Divine Liturgy, after the holy gifts have been sanctified, the priest prays; “Again, we offer You this spiritual worship for those resting in the faith, the forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous soul who has run the course in the faith, especially for our all-holy, spotless, most highly-blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary...” The sanctifying energy of God is ever at work and no one, not even the saints, have had their fill of the love of God. They all are growing in that love, and so the Liturgy can be offered for them as well as with them in the one communion of saints before the throne of God.
 
IN AGRICULTURAL SOCIETIES the end of the harvest means that the workers could relax, celebrate and give thanks. In Judaism this is marked by the Feast of Sukkoth (tents or tabernacles), which celebrates God as the One who provided for the Israelites in the wilderness and who continues to provide for His people to this day. While the Temple stood, Sukkoth was one of the “pilgrimage feasts,” occasions when Jews were expected to visit Jerusalem and make their offerings at the temple.

One of the ceremonies performed daily in the temple during this feast celebrated how God provided water in the desert for the Israelites fleeing Egypt. A golden decanter of spring water would be brought in a joyful procession from the Pool of Siloam to the temple and poured by a priest into a precious vessel which drained over the altar.

This ceremony was accompanied by prayers for a fertile year ahead. People also prayed for the coming of the Messiah for, as Isaiah prophesied, on that day “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). What a shock it must have been to the fervent Jews taking part in this ceremony to see Jesus call attention to Himself: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying,‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink…’” (John 12:37). As God had provided water in the wilderness, so Jesus would quench the thirst of those seeking salvation. As we sing on the Feast of Mid-Pentecost, “As a river of divine glory, the Lord gives streams of goodness to all and calls out: ‘All who thirst, come to Me and drink deeply, because I am the Fountain of compassion and the Ocean of mercy’” (Sticheron at Vespers). 2Rivers of Living Water Jesus’ next words would have been even more startling: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (v. 38). Water was never abundant in the Middle East; nevertheless, both Jews and Christians emphasized that for religious purposes fresh, running (“living”) water was the most fitting image, as standing water was not life-giving. Thus the first-century book of Church order, the Didache, instructs: “After the foregoing instructions, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. If you have no living water, then baptize in other water, and if you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Didache 7:1).

In our era people used to Biblical citations assume that the Lord Jesus is quoting some Scripture verse in v. 38 cited above. But, as St John Chrysostom and other Fathers pointed out, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” is not a verse from any Biblical book. Rather the Lord is referring to a whole range of Scriptures which make numerous references to the Messiah as the source of the life-giving Spirit.

During the exodus from Egypt Moses brought forth water from a rock at God’s command, an event remembered and celebrated in both the Torah and the Psalms. St Paul would say that this was the Word of God, even before His incarnation, who was caring for his people: “For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

The prophets Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel and Zechariah all looked forward to the Messianic age when rivers of living water would spring forth from the temple or from the Holy City to water all creation. Isaiah in particular connected this flowing of water with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring” (Isaiah 44:2, 3). “You shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

The water that quenches the thirst of the people is the Holy Spirit whom the Lord Jesus, the source of the Holy Spirit, sends into the world. This is what Christ says to the people in the temple, just as He told the Samaritan woman whom He met by the well at Sychar: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:13, 14).

Are You Thirsty?

There is one final element in Christ’s teaching here on which we must reflect. Water quenches the thirst of those who are thirsty; those who are not thirsty will not appreciate it. Similarly the Living Water which is the Holy Spirit is for those who are thirsty (see John 7:37) and are tired from trying to quench their thirst with brackish water (see John 4:13-15). When the Holy Spirit came upon the first followers of the risen Christ at Pentecost, they were refreshed because they were thirsty: they had been waiting for the Messiah and had found Him in Jesus. Those who were not thirsty were untouched by the Spirit or, rather, the Spirit convicted them for their lack of faith in the present work of God.

Taking the Spirit for Granted

There is always a temptation for us to celebrate Pascha and Pentecost with all the richness our Tradition has to offer and then to go back to our daily routines, assuming that we are living the life of the Spirit to the full. Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov described it this way: “We have become mere spectators or hearers removed from the context, the life and the presences evoked by the liturgical texts. In one of his studies on the Liturgy, Fr. Zacharias mentions the song that ends the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, ‘We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit,’ and he asks: ‘Have we really seen anything? Did we really receive the Holy Spirit? Or have we fallen into the habit of acting like the characters in Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes by pretending to see what we do not see?’” (Women and the Salvation of the World, p. 15)

To help us stir up our awareness of the Spirit who dwells in us, the Church takes us from the festal season to a time of fasting, the Fast of the Apostles. All the Fasts are meant to shift our focus from the distractions of everyday life to the relationship we have with God. Shifting our attention from feasting to fasting, the Church is asking us the same question which St Paul asked the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) Through the practices of the Fast (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) – which are the basic practices of the Christian life – we strive to recover our awareness that we have indeed received the heavenly Spirit. As we grow in our Christian life, the promise Christ made to the Samaritan woman will become personally true for us: that the Holy Spirit whom we have received will become in us “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4: 14).

He stood in the center of the temple, the infinite God – God in essence, yet become incarnate for our sakes, taking upon Himself the limits of the flesh – and offered to everyone the living water of His word, saying: Come, and purify your hearts and quench the heat of your passions. Let no one be deprived of drink. The water that I give is the grace of God by which you partake of the better and eternal life. Whoever drinks of it will share with Me, the Creator, the kingdom and the glory of God.
 
THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, which our Church reads publicly from Pascha to Pentecost, climaxes with the trial of St Paul and his journey to Rome where he would ultimately be beheaded. The story of his conflict with the Jewish leadership, his arrest and the various hearings which followed is told in Acts, chapters 20 to 28.

After what has come to be known as his third missionary journey, St Paul resolved to return to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feast of Pentecost. Paul traveled south and landed at the port of Caesarea, the Roman military center in the region. There “a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11, 12). Despite this and other warnings Paul was determined to return to Jerusalem.

St Paul’s reputation was well known among the Jews of Jerusalem. His doctrine that Gentiles who became Christians did not need to be circumcised was particularly offensive in their circles. To devalue circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws was “to forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21) and undermine the very basis of Judaism.

Knowing the animosity of the Jewish leaders, who considered Paul an apostate, St James and the elders of the Christian community in Jerusalem devised a plan to keep Paul safe. They urged him to “…do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the Law” (Acts 21:23, 24).

St Paul complied, but “Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the Law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple” (Acts 21:27-29). St Paul was seized and had to be rescued by the commander of the local garrison.

What followed was a series of hearings which would determine St Paul’s fate, fulfilling Agabus’ prophecy concerning him. As Christ had been tried before the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders), King Herod (the Jewish ruler) and Pontius Pilate (the Roman Procurator), Paul’s trial followed a similar route. He first was tried by the high priests and their council, the Sanhedrin, as recorded in Acts 22. Paul began his defense before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem by tracing his personal religious history: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:3-5).

Paul was then taken to the current Roman governor, Antonius Felix by the Jewish authorities to validate their judgment against Him. Once it was clear that Paul was a Roman citizen, however, he was taken from the Sanhedrin by the Romans. He was not subject to their jurisdiction.

Citizenship in the Roman Empire

While full Roman citizenship was restricted to those born in Rome and its environs, people from associated states were granted a form of Roman citizenship, without some of the rights which full citizens enjoyed. Judaea, however was a conquered province with none of those rights. Although a Jew, St Paul had been born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, in Asia Minor, and the citizens of Tarsus were eligible for Roman citizenship.

When St Paul revealed that he was a Roman citizen, the Sanhedrin knew that they could not touch him. It was illegal to whip or torture Roman citizens who could only be put to death for treason, and never by crucifixion, a punishment for slaves and subject peoples. As a result, some Jewish activists, with the blessing of the chief priests and elders, planned to kidnap Paul and kill him. When the Roman military commander in Jerusalem learned of the plot, “he called for two centurions, saying, ‘Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor’” (Acts 23:23, 24). Acts continues describing St Paul’s time in custody under Felix and his journey to Rome to be tried before Caesar. During the journey the ship carrying St Paul is shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. After three months on that island, St Paul continues his journey to Rome, meeting with Christians along the way, showing how the Church had spread into Europe even before the death of the last apostles. Acts ends with Paul in Rome, telling us that “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30, 31).

A New Identity in the Making

In addressing Felix St Paul used the original term to describe the Christian faith among its Jewish adherents. This term, “the Way” suggests that the earliest Jewish-Christians did not consider that they had abandoned Judaism. Rather, their Way was simply a recognition that the prophecies in the Torah, the Psalms, and the other Scriptures had been fulfilled. They saw themselves as observing a “completed Judaism,” to use a modern term, not a different religion.

Contemporary authors often point out that “the Way” suggests a way of life, not a new set of beliefs. The followers of “the Way” had the same Scriptures as other Jews, worshipped in the temple and celebrated God’s promise of a Messiah. The difference between them was that the followers of Jesus believed that He was the Messiah. The uniqueness of their Way was that Greeks as well as Jews were welcome in their company if they accepted Jesus as Lord. As we read in Acts 11, it was among the “Greeks,” the Gentiles in Antioch, that the term “Christian” was first used. Many commentators hold that Christian was originally a term of derision. It contrasted these followers of Jesus with the Caesarians, who patriotically worshipped the Roman emperor. It was certainly used in that way by King Agrippa, who told St Paul sarcastically, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian!” (Acts 26:28)

The third ancient term for believers in Acts is found in chapter 24. Paul is brought before the Roman procurator and is accused by the Jewish spokesman Catullus of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Paul and his company were called Nazarenes because they followed Jesus of Nazareth. While “Christian” became the common name for Christ’s followers in the Greco-Roman world, the Aramaic/Semitic world generally preferred the term Nazarene (Nasrani). Thus the members of the Syriac Churches of India are called Mar Thoma Nasrani, because they trace their identity to the mission of St Thomas the Apostle who brought the Gospel to their nation
 
IN EVERY AGE there are people who have made dramatic turn-arounds in their life, going from one religion – or no religion – to another. These conversions often lead to a person making a significant contribution to the religious life of their age. One convert who has touched every successive age is St Paul the Apostle.

The story of St Paul’s conversion is described three times in the New Testament – twice in the Acts of the Apostles and once in St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. The story is basically the same, although there are a few variations we can note. The basic story, told largely in his own words, is as follows:

Paul’s Background – When he was attacked by Jews in Jerusalem and accused of defiling the temple Paul began his defense by speaking of his upbringing: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ Law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). He described his religiousity in his Epistle to the Philippians. He tells how he was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the Law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the Church; concerning the righteousness which is of the Law, blameless” ( Philippians 3:5, 6). At this time Paul was still known as Saul of Tarsus. The name Paul was given to him upon his conversion. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel (+ad 52) was an important member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. He is described in the New Testament as “a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law held in respect by all the people” (Acts 5:34) and a voice of moderation in their council. When the Sanhedrin was considering how to kill Peter and the other apostles, Gamaliel calmed them, saying “…if this plan or this work [preaching Christ] is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God” (Acts 5:38, 39).

We do not know why Saul did not adopt Gamaliel’s wait-and-see approach to the followers of Jesus, but he describes his own attitude to them like this: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren…” (Acts 22:4, 5).

We may have a clue to Saul’s thinking in what he wrote to believers in Galatia, St Paul described his religious convictions this way: “And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). He had been, after all, a participant in the stoning of the protomartyr, St Stephen. The Commission to Damascus – There was a large Jewish community – some say it numbered 10,000 – in Damascus in the first century ad. This community, which traced its origin to the time of King David, some 1000 years earlier, was so prominent that it was ruled by its own ethnarch in Roman times. Some 130 miles from Jerusalem, Damascus was one of the first destinations to which Jewish believers in Jesus brought their message. Their impact on the Jews of Damascus was so great that news of it reached Jerusalem. Saul “went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1).

What happened on Saul’s journey to Syria is well known. Years later Paul described it for his accusers in Jerusalem with these words: “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’

“And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus” (Acts 22:6-21).

Many English-speaking commentators have pointed out an apparent contradiction between the two stories of this event in Acts. In chapter 9 we are told that “the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one” (Acts 9:7). Paul, however, says that “those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me” (Acts 22:9).

The word in chapter 22 translated as hear may also be translated as understand. In other Scriptural passages it is rendered in just that way. So this verse may mean that Saul’s companions heard a sound but did not understand it as speech. It may also mean that they heard speaking but may not have understood the words. Saul’s Baptism – Saul was led into the city by the hand, “And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). Then, we are told, the following took place: “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.’

“Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’


And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.” Paul Preaches Christ – As a result of Saul’s experience on the road, “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” (Acts 9:19-25).

In 1885 the Melkite Patriarch Gregory II purchased a dilapidated mosque in the old city wall of Damascus. A former church, it had been long revered as the site of St Paul’s escape. It is now a church again.

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