Melkite Greek Catholic Church
ON MOST FEASTS of our Church year we display an icon which depicts the event commemorated and explains its theological meaning. This is not the case on the Feast of Mid-Pentecost which is observed this week. To be sure, the icon shows Christ preaching in the Temple but that does not give us a hint of the depths of meaning contained in this feast.

This feast is observed on the 25th day of our 50 day Paschal season: the actual mid-point of this observance. It serves to turn our minds towards the climax of these fifty days, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As the highpoint of the Lord’s presence in our midst was His death and resurrection, its climax was the event which brought us to share in His resurrection life: the coming of the Spirit upon mankind in the Church. In the words attributed to St Athanasius, “God became man so that we might receive the Holy Spirit.”

The Source of Living Water

In Jn 7:14-30, read at the Liturgy on this feast, we hear how Jesus taught in the temple “about the middle of the feast” of Tabernacles (v. 14) and confronted the Jewish leaders who challenged Him. This event may have prompted the choice of this day to celebrate His teachings. The heart of His teaching on this occasion, however, would only come as the feast was concluding: “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. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified”(John 7:37-39).

In this passage Christ proclaims – and on this feast we celebrate – several connected aspects of the divine plan for our salvation:
- “Rivers of living water” are meant to flow from the hearts of those who believe in Christ.
- This would happen when believers receive the Spirit.
- This would only take place when Jesus was “glorified.”

In the theology of St John’s Gospel the idea of “exaltation” or “glorification” is used to describe Christ’s death and resurrection. This is drawn from Christ’s words at Bethany predicting His passion: “The hour is come, that the Son of Man should be glorified” (John 12:23). What would appear to be His humiliation would actually be His glorification. This truth is proclaimed in our icons of the crucifixion where the charge against Christ dictated by Pilate (“King of the Jews”) is replaced by the proclamation “The King of Glory.”

The image of “living [that is, running] water” used to describe the power of the Holy Spirit and the Lord as its source is drawn from the prophecy of Jeremiah: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You shall be put to shame…because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 17:13). This image was still powerful in the minds of early Christians who thus preferred that baptism be given in running (“living”) water.

Christ is proclaimed as the Source of this living water in the troparion of the feast: “At the middle point of this festive season give my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of true worship, for You called out to all men, ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.’ O Christ God, Fountain of life, glory to You!”

Christ as the Source of living water is a central theme in the Gospel of John which we read on three Sundays in the Paschal season. Christ heals the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda (see John 5:1-15). He heals the blind man at the pool of Siloam (see John 9:1-38). He tells the Samaritan woman, “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). All these passages, as well as the reading on Mid-Pentecost, would have been particularly meaningful to those newly baptized in living water at Pascha.

Conduits of the Spirit

Christ’s words, “He who believes in Me… out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38) point to another important element in His teaching. Believers are not meant to receive the Holy Spirit as if they were closed vessels. Rather they are meant to be channels by which the grace of the Spirit touches others. Thus when St Seraphim of Sarov showed Nicholas Motovilov what happens when a person acquires the Holy Spirit, he insisted, “This is not given to you alone but through you it is for the whole world!” If a believer has truly received the Holy Spirit, others are affected. As St Seraphim phrased it, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”

Icon of the Feast

The icon of this feast shown here depicts the Gospel scene of the adult Christ teaching in the temple during the Jewish festival. Often, however, the icon venerated on Mid-Pentecost depicts the twelve year old Jesus “in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46), indicating that at all times and in every way Christ is the Source of wisdom, the Illuminator of our souls.

Development of This Feast

We have no documented witness to the origins of this feast, but it was widely known by the fifth century. The Bishop of Ravenna, Peter Chrysologus (c. 380-c. 450), called it a divine festival from the tradition of the apostolic fathers. It existed in the time of St. John Chrysostom and its observance can be documented in sixth century Antioch and seventh century Jerusalem. Hymns for this feast were written by Ss Elias, Patriarch of Jerusalem from 494 to 513, Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople (449-458), Andrew of Crete (seventh century) John of Damascus (eighth century) and Theophan the Confessor (ninth century).

Today this feast is only observed in Byzantine Churches, but this was not always so. Peter Chrysologus, quoted above, was a Western bishop and the feast was observed in the Ambrosian rite and other Western usages.

In some Churches the Lesser Blessing of Waters is conducted on this feast, preferably at a river or stream (“living water”) and the fields and gardens are then blessed as well.

St. Theophan the Recluse on This Feast

“On Mid-Pentecost we hear the call of the Lord: ‘Whosoever is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink’ (John 7:37). If this is so, then let us all run to Him. Whatever you thirst for – so long as it is not contrary to the spirit of the Lord – you will find relief in Him. If you thirst for knowledge, run to the Lord, for He is the one and only Light, enlightening every man. If you thirst for cleansing from sin and quenching of the flames of your conscience, run to the Lord, for He tore asunder the handwriting of our sins upon the Cross. If you thirst for peace in your heart, run to the Lord, for He is the treasury of all good, whose abundance will teach you to forget all deprivations and despise all earthly good, so as to be filled with Him alone. If you need strength, He is almighty. If you need glory, His glory surpasses the world. If you desire freedom, He gives true freedom. He will resolve all of our doubts, loose the bonds of our passions, dispel all our troubles and difficulties, will enable us to overcome all obstacles, temptations and intrigues of the enemy, and will make smooth the path of our spiritual life. Let us all run to the Lord!”
“THE NOBLE JOSEPH down from the tree Your spotless body, wrapped it in pure linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb.” This troparion, which summarizes the Gospel account of the Lord’s burial, is sung as the holy shroud (epitaphios) is placed in the tomb on Great Friday evening. It is sung again on the Third Sunday of Pascha, but with this addition: “But on the third day, You arose, O Lord, and bestowed great mercy upon the world!”

The noble or righteous Joseph of Arimathea, along with Nicodemus, is commemorated on this Sunday together with the myrrh-bearing women who ministered to Christ at the tomb. As we read in the Gospels, Joseph was “a rich man” (Matthew 25:57) and “a prominent member of the council” (Mark 15:43). This “council” may refer to one of the regional courts in Israel or to the Great Sanhedrin, the chief religious court of the Jews which met in Jerusalem. In any case, Joseph and Nicodemus, whom John describes as “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) and one of those in the high priest’s circle (see John 7:50-52), had sufficient influence to approach Pontius Pilate and ask to bury Jesus’ body.

Jesus is often described as being poor – He Himself alluded to this when He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:19-21; Luke 9:58). He had put aside His carpenter’s craft to preach the kingdom of God and depended on others to provide His needs. He attracted other tradesmen, like Andrew and Peter, James and John who did the same. His followers included the poor as well as some prominent individuals. The Evangelist Matthew was a tax collector, a civil servant in the Roman administration, as was Zacchaeus who had grown rich in that pursuit (see Luke 19:1-10). Others, like the rich young man whom He invited to follow Him (Matthew 19:16-22), were attracted to Jesus but could not break with their wealth or position to follow Him.

Jesus’ Secret Disciples

While Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels before Christ’s death, Nicodemus is featured twice in John’s Gospel, giving us an insight into the struggle which a member of the Jewish establishment would have experienced when drawn to Jesus. Nicodemus first approached Jesus at night when he would not be noticed. This encounter is described in John’s Gospel: “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’

“Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

"Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’”
(John 3:1-10).

Nicodemus appears in the Gospel a second time when the chief priests and Pharisees, alarmed at the people’s reaction to Jesus, were considering how to deal with Him (see John 7:45-52). Nicodemus offers a timid resistance to their resentment. “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” (John 7:51). In response, the Pharisees ridiculed him: “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (John 7:52).

Their rebuke may have served to increase Nicodemus’ attachment to Jesus. He next appears as a public follower of Jesus at His death, assisting Joseph of Arimathea in burying His body. “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as is the custom of the Jews to bury” (John 19:39-40).

While the Jews regularly buried their dead enshrouded in spices, there is something more indicated here. Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume study Jesus of Nazareth, writes: “The quantity of balm is extra-ordinary and exceeds all normal proportions: this is a royal burial. If Jesus was manifested to us as high priest by the casting of lots for his robe [Christ’s chiton, like the High Priest’s, was seamless], so now he is revealed to us as king by the manner of His burial.”

After Christ’s Burial

There is no further mention of either Joseph or Nicodemus in the Gospels or other contemporary sources. Many later writings, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, became popular in the first millennium ad, but today their historical accuracy is questioned.

One of the most popular is a homily on the Burial of the Divine Body of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ attributed to St Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (c.310–403). It is often read in monasteries on Great Saturday and an excerpt is frequently sung as people venerate the holy shroud.

“When evening had come – for the sun of Righteousness had then set into Hades – a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple for fear of the Jews, came with Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night. Two secret disciples came to conceal Jesus in a tomb, thus teaching by this concealment the mystery of God concealed in Hades in the flesh. Each of them surpassed the other in their affection for Christ. Nicodemus proved his magnanimity by the myrrh and aloes while Joseph proved worthy of praise by his daring and boldness before Pilate.

“Now when Joseph went in he acted very shrewdly in order to achieve his desired goal. He did not employ high sounding and pompous words but a humble plea: ‘O Judge, I have come with a trifling request. Give me a dead man for burial: Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the poor, Jesus the homeless, Jesus the crucified, the naked … Give me this Stranger, for what profit does this body bring you? Give me this Stranger whose country we know not, whose Father we know not, whose place of birth and ways we know not …’

“Tell me, O Joseph, do you really bury toward the East a dead man who is the Dayspring of the East? Do you close the eyes of Him who opened the eyes of the blind? … Do you empty out myrrh upon the celestial Myrrh who emptied Himself and sanctified the world? … Do you wash with water God’s body which cleanses all and bestows purification? …

“Fearlessly Joseph and Nicodemus bury Him before whom the cherubim stand with reverent fear. Looking upon You dead, stripped and exposed, in his grief and tender compassion he lamented, saying: ‘How shall I bury You, my God? How shall I wrap You in a winding sheet? How shall I touch Your most pure body with my hands? … I magnify Your sufferings. I sing the praises of Your burial and resurrection, crying: O Lord, glory to You!’”
THE SUNDAY AFTER PASCHA is informally called Thomas Sunday because of the Gospel read on this day, Jn 20:19-31. Many people assume this means that Thomas Sunday is the feast of St Thomas. In fact, St Thomas is remembered in the Byzantine calendar on October 6. What we remember today is rather St Thomas’ confession of faith upon seeing the risen Christ, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).

The meaning of this event is spelled out for us by the Lord in the following verse: “Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (v.29). And if we did not see the implications of that statement for ourselves, the Gospel concludes this passage by saying, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (vv. 30, 31).

Thomas’ Confession

In our culture the exclamation “My Lord and my God!” sounds like a rather banal exclamation of surprise. Sadly, we are used to hearing casually “Oh, God!” or even the Holy Name, “Jesus Christ!” taken in vain. Yet, in first-century Judea – and among many Orthodox Jews today – saying the name of God even in prayer would be considered presumptuous. Since the third century BC Jews have refrained from using the name of God even when reading the Torah. Only the high priest was permitted to read the name of God as written in the Torah, and only on Yom Kippur. Many Jews today simply say HaShem (the Name) when reading such passages or referring to God.

Claiming to be the Son of God was blasphemy in the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of elders in Jerusalem. The Gospel indicates that Jesus was condemned to death precisely for making this claim. “And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said... Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?’ They answered and said, ‘He is deserving of death’” (Matthew 26:63-65).

Claiming to see Christ in glory caused the death of the first martyr, St Stephen, as well. Brought before the Sanhedrin he spoke of God’s mercy toward Israel, and the elders listed. But then he said, “‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:56-58).

Clearly Thomas’ exclamation is presented in the Gospel as an act of faith in Jesus as Lord.

The Apostles’ Teaching

From the beginning, the Apostles taught that Jesus, risen from the dead, was Messiah and Lord. Believers were taught to make this their act of Christian faith: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). They ascribed to Christ the title Lord (Kyrios in Greek) which was used in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, as the equivalent of God’s un-pronounceable name. To call Jesus Lord meant that you were calling Him God: precisely the confession of Thomas.

In the Roman world of the Apostles’ day, Lord was the title of the Emperor: the one who governed the lives of all his subjects. To call Jesus Lord was perceived by many as treason and caused the persecution of many, especially since the Christians often insisted that Jesus alone was Lord. The Roman world had many gods and goddesses; they could easily find room for one more. To claim, as we continue to do in our Liturgy, that only “one is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ” was another matter.

For a believer to claim that Jesus was Lord also meant that he or she was committed to Jesus’ way of life. The usual way of doing things in society was now subject to a new criterion for believers: the Gospel of Christ. This was perceived as unpatriotic by many Romans, to use a contemporary term. Christians didn’t give undivided allegiance to Rome – they had another Lord and another way of life.

Today in many societies Christians are perceived as second-class citizens because they do not follow the dominant culture. This was always true in Islam but is increasingly so in the secular west as well. In Great Britain, for example, Labour Party leader Andy Burnham has pledged to compel all faith schools to teach about gay “rights,” saying he has “no support” for religious schools who argue that it may conflict with their teachings. The consequence for Christians today is that we may be more frequently forced to choose between following the secular values of the state and its culture or the godly values of the Gospel. Choose your Lord. Jesus’ contemporaries in the wider society did not write about Him. They gradually began writing about His followers and thereby showed us what the first Christians believed about Him. From ad 111-113 Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians, whose gatherings he described in part like this: “They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as to a god…” (Epistles book 10, letter 96). As a pagan, Pliny was used to the many gods and goddesses venerated in Roman religion as so he described the Christians as reverencing Christ as “a god.” The Christians would never have said it quite like that, but Pliny is nonetheless witnessing that Christians considered Christ as divine.

A similar witness from the pagan world is Lucian of Samosata (c. ad 115-c. 200), a popular satirist in the Greek world of Asia Minor, who frequently lampooned the gods and public figures of his world as well as those who revere them. In his Passing of Peregrinus, 11 he notes that “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. …it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, deny the gods of Greece and worship the crucified sage and live after his laws.”

While Lucian does not call Jesus “a god,” he testifies that Christians worship Him instead of the gods of Greece. For them, He is clearly divine. While Jesus never said, “I am God.” All the things He did and said convinced the Apostles that He is God.

It would take the next two centuries for the Church, in response to numerous heresies, to define clearly how the Son of God was equal to the Father, and was, at the same time, both God and Man. At the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325), the description of Christ which we find in the Creed became the universal way of professing the truth of the Lord Jesus: “the Only-begotten Son of God, Light from Light, true God from true God – begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

While Thomas the Apostle may not have been able to articulate the Nicene definition of Christ, the Holy Spirit speaking through him gave us the words to express the Church’s perennial faith in Christ: “You are my Lord and my God”
NO ONE SAW JESUS RISE from the dead. The Scriptures simply say that the tomb was found to be empty early on that Sunday morning. Later the risen Christ appeared to His disciples, as we read in the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles. This is why the Byzantine rules governing icons prohibit showing Christ rising from the dead. Instead they set forth two scenes for Paschal icons: the women at the empty tomb and the “harrowing of hell,” Christ’s descent into death.

In the description of St Peter’s first address to the people on Pentecost, we read that he applied the prophetic Psalm 16:8-11 to Christ, saying that the psalmist “,,,spoke concerning the Resurrection of Christ that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31).

Christ’s time among the dead was described with some detail in the first universal epistle of St Peter. We are told that Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah….” (1 Peter 3:19–20) and that “the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged as men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6).

This concept of Christ enlightening those in the darkness of death was thought to be so central to our faith that it was included in early creeds, We still profess, when we say the (2nd century) Apostles’ Creed, that Christ “…descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead.” The English version translated as “hell” the Greek word katotata (the lowest region), the place of the dead.

Early Images in Our Liturgy

“The Descent of Christ to the Depths” is a third-century text incorporated in later writings, such as the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and the Acts of Pilate. This text – much abridged here – contains a dramatic scene involving Satan, Hades (the realm of death), and those held captive there.

“Behold, Satan, the prince and chief of death, said to Hades, ‘Prepare to receive Jesus, who boasts that He is the Son of God, and yet is a man afraid of death…’

“As they were speaking, suddenly there came a voice like thunder, crying ‘Remove your gates, you princes. Be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.’ …Then Hades said to his wicked ministers, ‘Shut firm the gates of brass and put on them bars of iron…’

When all the saints heard it, they answered, rebuking Hades, “Open the gates that the King of Glory may come in.”…

“Stretching forth His hand, the Lord said, ‘Come to Me, all you holy ones who bear My image and likeness…”

“And the Lord, stretched forth His hand and made the sign of the cross over Adam and over all His saints. He took the right hand of Adam and went up out of hell, with all the saints following Him… and brought them all into the glory and beauty of paradise” (From The Descent of Christ to the Depths 4, 5, 8, 9).

This text is the earliest source we have for our icon of Pascha. It does not attempt to describe Christ’s physical resurrection but the spiritual reality of what His Death and Resurrection accomplished. The Lord Jesus, in radiant garments, is shown standing on the brazen gates of Hades (also called the "Doors of Death"), which are broken and have fallen in the form of a cross, illustrating the belief that by His death on the cross, Christ has trampled down death At the bottom of the icon, we see Hades as a chasm of darkness, often with various pieces of broken locks and chains strewn about.

Our paschal icon contains a second image from The Descent of Christ to the Depths. Christ is shown pulling Adam and Eve up out of Hades, surrounded by other righteous figures from the Old Testament, “the saints” mentioned in The Descent. In many versions of this icon Christ is not shown holding them by the hands, but by their wrists, to stress that mankind could not attach himself to God because of his ancestral sin; rather it is Christ’s work alone which effects our recreation.

The Dialogue with Satan

This image of the brass gates in The Descent was taken in turn from Psalm 23, depicting a conqueror’s entry into the city. In The Descent this psalm is used to describe Christ, the true King of Glory, breaking down the gates of Hades and leading mankind from the prison of death to paradise.

We celebrate this confrontation with sin and death in our Paschal services. At the vespers of Pascha on Great Saturday, we sing of the liberation of the dead: “Today Hades tearfully sighs: ‘My power has crumbled, for the Shepherd crucified has raised Adam; and those whom I had possessed, I lost. Those whom I had swallowed by my might, I have given up completely: for the Crucified has emptied the graves, and the power of death has vanished!’ O Lord, glory to Your Cross and to Your holy Resurrection!”

In the Middle Eastern Patriarchates, Psalm 23 is recited as the Paschal procession stands in darkness before the doors of the church. The priest outside and a “Satan,” (reader) inside recreate this dialogue:

Priest: (With cross in hand pounds on the church door, saying) Lift up your gates, you princes; and be lifted up, you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.

Reader: Who is this King of Glory?

Priest: The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your gates, you princes; and be lifted up, you everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.

Reader; Who is this King of Glory?

Priest: The Lord of hosts, He is the King of Glory.

The doors burst open and the congregation enters the brilliantly lit church, becoming themselves an icon of redeemed humanity.

Christ in Hades (St Epiphanius of Cyprus)

“Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. It trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the Son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory. At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone, ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake has become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants, I now by my own autho-rity command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. Sleeper, awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hades. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.”
IN THE YEAR AD75, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described the recent Jewish revolt against Roman rule and how the imperial army, led by Vespasian and his son Titus, had crushed the rebels. Vespasian was proclaimed emperor and an elaborate victory celebration was held. The treasures of Jerusalem were carried through Rome in a triumphant display of imperial power. Josephus describes it this way: “Vespasian and Titus came forth crowned with laurel, and clothed in purple … At this all the soldiers shouted for joy…”

A great triumphal march followed with Roman senators and uniformed troops. Treasures taken from the defeated Jews were paraded through the city. “…they made the greatest display carrying what had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem: the golden table, the golden lampstand … and the last of all the spoils, the Torah of the Jews” (The Jewish Wars, VII, 5).

What a contrast to the scene remembered by the Church today: the Lord Jesus, “humble and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:9). He was acclaimed, not by a conquering army, but by a ragtag crowd of children, pulling branches from the trees. Their shout was not “Hail, Caesar!” but “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Christ as King

The Gospels consistently proclaim that the coming of Kingdom of God was at hand. The presence of the Kingdom was the main focus of the Lord Jesus’ teaching, as it had been the message of John the Baptist. The Apostles depicted Christ as One in whom the Kingdom was present and that He Himself was “the Son of David,” its King. What kind of kingdom He ruled was regularly misunderstood, however. People assumed that the Messiah-King would re-establish an Israel free of Roman oversight. When the magi asked Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod assumed that his position on the throne was threatened. He responded by killing the boys of Bethlehem whom we call the Holy Innocents.

When Jesus fed the multitudes with a few barley loaves and two small fish, people thought that this was a sign that, with Jesus, God was restoring Israel’s independence. “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15).

When the Jewish authorities accused Jesus before Pilate, it was that He had made Himself a king. Because of this, Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11). Much of what followed – the soldiers’ mockery, the purple robe, the crown and scepter, and the charge nailed over His head on the cross – point to the Romans’ belief that Jesus was claiming to rule the land of Israel.

The Lord had told Pilate explicitly that this was not so. “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). There is one further note in the Gospels pointing to the Apostles’ faith that the Lord Jesus truly is king. Jesus is buried, not as a homeless convicted rebel, but in a manner worthy of a king, surrounded with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) provided by Nicodemus. That people saw Jesus as a (supposed) Messiah-King is clear; that they misunderstood the nature of His kingship is undisputed.

A Kingdom “Not of This World”

When Pilate asked Jesus “are you a King?” the Lord answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (Matthew 18:37). It is in the Gospel records of Jesus’ teaching – particularly the Parables – that we see what His kingdom was, and what it was not.

This teaching is summarized in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). This text is so familiar to us that we may not see it as describing the lifestyle of God’s Kingdom:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

It is safe to say that the Lord is not describing the ruling elite of any worldly state.

Elsewhere we see that His Kingdom is based on:

Putting God First – “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33);

Child-like Simplicity - “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, 4); “Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:13, 14);

Imitating the Way He Empties Himself –“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8);

Servant-Leadership – “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:24-30). “So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jonn 13:12-14).

This is the Kingdom we celebrate today.
THE SIXTH WEEK OF THE GREAT FAST has a two-fold designation in our liturgical books. First of all, it marks the end of this fasting season. We also fast during the Great and Holy Week of the Lord’s Passion, but that observance is not part of the Great Fast. The Great Fast has prepared us to celebrate the paschal mystery of Christ’s saving passion, death and resurrection by inviting us to refocus our lives on God in repentance. During the Holy Week, our fasting has a different character: it is a way of observing the sorrowful events of this week: the plotting against Christ, His betrayal, passion, death and burial.

Between the two fast periods we observe the double feast of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. This last week of the Great Fast is simultaneously a week of preparation for these feasts. In our liturgical books this week, then, is called the Week of Palms, looking forward to that celebration.

The hymns prescribed to be sung this week in Vespers, Orthros (Matins) and the Presanctified Liturgy reflect both of these themes. On one hand the services include chants focused on the end of the Great Fast such as the final sticheron sung this coming Friday: “Count us worthy of beholding the week of Your Passion, O Lover of Mankind, for we have completed the forty days of the Fast for the profit of our souls. Let us glorify Your mighty deeds, Your ineffable dispensation for our sake, singing with one mind: ‘O Lord, glory to You!’”

Other chants reflect the coming feast, recalling Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At Orthros on Monday, for example, we sing: “O faithful, let us prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday, joyfully observing the forefeast from this present day onwards, so that we may be counted worthy to see the life-giving Passion.”

The Death of Lazarus

Even more of this week’s hymnody recalls the raising of Lazarus, whom the Gospel describes as having died four days before Christ raised him.

About one-and-a-half miles east of Jerusalem lay the village of Bethany (today’s al-‘Azariya), the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. St. John’s Gospel tells us in detail how Jesus was informed that Lazarus was sick. “This sickness is not unto death,” He answered, “but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany Lazarus was already dead for four days.

The dramatic story of the raising of Lazarus from the grave is celebrated in Byzantine Churches on the first day of the Great Week of Christ’s passion, Lazarus Saturday. A day of Resurrection, we observe it as a Sunday with the appropriate Resurrectional prayers and chants. The resuscitation of Lazarus was the Lord’s greatest miracle so far, but would be but a prelude to His own resurrection which we celebrate on Pascha.

The Gospel says that Jesus retuned to Bethany and, while they were at table, Mary anointed Him with costly ointment. When Judas questioned this act of extravagance, Jesus reproved him, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). The next day, the Gospel tells us, Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!”

The Church rearranges these events in its Great Week observance. It celebrates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem the day after Lazarus Saturday, stressing the connection of Christ’s exuberant reception in Jerusalem with the raising of Lazarus. It defers the memorial of the anointing to the Wednesday of Great Week, the day that we are anointed in preparation for sharing in Christ’s passion.

In the Gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem are connected. We read that Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb at some time before His final trip to Jerusalem (see John 12:1). Yet the same Gospel points out that: “…the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign” (John 12:17-18).

Jesus’ return to Bethany sparks the triumphal reception which Jesus received to the excitement over the raising of Lazarus. Our liturgical hymns take up this connection: “The Lord comes, seated upon the colt of a donkey, as it is written. O peoples, make ready to receive Him in awe as the King of all, and to welcome Him with palms as Victor over Death and Hades; for He has raised Lazarus!”

Each day of this week brings us closer to the commemoration of Lazarus’ rising. Thus on Monday we pray: “The door of the forecourt is opened that leads to the raising of Lazarus: for Christ has come to awaken the dead man, as though from sleep, and to overthrow Death by Life.”

At Orthros on Tuesday we sing a similar hymn: “Be glad, Bethany! For Christ shall come to you, performing in you a great and awesome miracle. Binding death with fetters, as God He will raise up Lazarus, who was dead, and who now magnifies the Creator.” On Wednesday, four days before we celebrate Lazarus’ rising, we remember his death: “Lazarus, the friend of Christ, has died today: he is carried out for burial, and Martha’s companions lament in sorrow for her brother. But Christ comes to him in joy, to show the nations that He is Himself the Life of all.”

This hymn sung on Thursday adds another note for our consideration: “For two days Lazarus has been in the tomb and sees those dead from all generations. He beholds strange and awesome things and a countless multitude held within the powers of Death. Looking at his tomb, his relatives weep bitterly; but Christ is on His way to give life to His friend and to consummate His plan for all mankind. Blessed are You, O Savior: have mercy on us!”

The plan of God is not simply to revive Lazarus, but to deliver the human race – that “countless multitude” – from the power of Death.

Resuscitation, not Resurrection

Lazarus’ rising is an icon of both Christ’s resurrection at Pascha and ours at the Last Day. Lazarus, however, was not raised to eternal life at this time. Rather he was brought back to the life of this world. According to St. Epiphanios of Cyprus (367-403), he lived for another thirty years or so. The Gospel asserts that Lazarus was a wanted man; “The chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (John 12:10-11). He is said to have fled the wrath of Christ’s enemies for Cyprus where he helped Paul and Barnabas establish a church. Eventually he became Bishop of Kition (today’s Larnaka) and died as a martyr in ad 63.

“As we complete these forty days of profit to our souls, let us exclaim: ‘Rejoice, O Bethany, birthplace of Lazarus.’ And you, his sisters, Mary and Martha, rejoice as well! For tomorrow, Christ will come and give life to your dead brother by a word. Bitter and insatiable Death will hear His voice; and trembling with fear and groaning bitterly, it will release Lazarus still wrapped in his shroud. The Hebrews, astonished at this miracle, come to meet Him, carrying branches and palms. And the children will rejoice to see the One on whom their fathers look with hate. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!
THE NEW TESTAMENT DEPICTS the mystery of Christ in terms of the rituals of sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. It describes Christ’s sacrifice based on the manner in which animals were sacrificed there. First, the animal was killed, usually by the donor, in the outer court of the temple. Similarly, Jesus was crucified outside the holy city of Jerusalem.

The same pattern is found in our Divine Liturgy, illustrating the connection between the temple, the Cross, and our worship. Thus, the Eucharistic bread, which we call the Lamb, is prepared at the Prothesis, originally in another chapel, but at least at a distance from the Holy Table.

In the temple, the slain animal was taken by the Levites to the priests, who placed it on the altar and offered it to God. In contrast, Christ – being both victim and priest – offered Himself to the Father eternally in the heavenly sanctuary. In our Liturgy, the Lamb and the cup are brought to the holy table and offered “in all and for the sake of all.”

Finally, the sacrificial meat was divided: part was portioned out for God (by immolation), and part for the priests. The greater part was returned to the donor to be shared with the poor or in a festive meal. In our Liturgy the sanctified Lamb and the cup are shared first by the priests and then by the people in the mystical supper of the Eucharist.

On Yom Kippur, there was another step. The blood of the animal was taken into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest and sprinkled there. Finally, the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies and bless the people. Christ was placed in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus, but emerged from the tomb at His resurrection, sharing with those in the tombs the blessing of eternal life.

The Presence behind the Veil

Describing Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the temple ritual, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ entering “the Presence behind the veil” (Hebrews 6:19). This depicts heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, where the Holy of Holies – which no one could enter except the High Priest on Yom Kippur – was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain or veil. We see an allusion to this image at the Great Entrance of our Liturgy, when the priest brings the offered bread and wine behind the iconostasis.

To enter “the Presence behind the veil” alludes to Christ’s return to the Father, where He eternally offers His sacrifice for us and it is eternally accepted by the Father. Because His sacrifice is offered and accepted beyond human time, it is possible for us to partake of it continually in the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy, then, is not a “new” sacrifice but the one sacrifice of Christ, eternally offered and accepted.

In this passage, Christ is called “the forerunner” (v. 20), meaning the One who goes before, to prepare a place for us. Christ has entered the presence of the Father offering the sacrifice of His blood for us who follow behind Him. The same reality is depicted elsewhere in agricultural terms when Christ is called “the first-fruits of those who sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The Promise of Christ’s Return

At His ascension Christ’s disciples are told by an angel, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Ever since, the members of the Church have been waiting for the return of Christ: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).

This promise of a second appearance, or second coming, energized the preaching of the apostles, who placed the heart of our faith. As the Nicene Creed professes, we believe that Christ “… shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.” And this faith gives us hope.

Our Hope for Eternal Life

Another dimension is added to this teaching in the First Epistle of St Peter, where God is praised in these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3, 4).

Putting these images together, we can say that our hope for eternal life in the company of the saints is not wishful thinking, but is solidly based on the reality of Christ’s sacrificial death and its acceptance by the Father. It is confirmed by Christ’s resurrection and becomes ours through our sharing in the Divine Liturgy. As forerunner and first fruits, Christ stands at the head of an endless procession, leading those united to Him beyond the veil into the eternal Holy of Holies.

This Is Our Hope

In popular speech hope is equated with wishing or feeling that something might be true, or might happen. There is nothing wishful about Christian hope, however. It is based on the witness of the apostles to Christ’s death and resurrection and their understanding that we are meant to share in the eternal life He had purchased for us by His blood. In St Paul’s words, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Christian hope, then, is a firm confidence in the witness of the apostles affirmed by the Church ever since.

The Fear of Eternity

Strange as it may seem, many people are afraid of endless life. Apeirophobia – the fear of eternity – afflicts more people than we can imagine. The thought of an impersonal existence that goes on forever amounts to torture. It appears to some to resemble life in prison without parole.

As we know from studying Christ’s sacrifice and the Divine Liturgy, there is no earthy time with God, no succession of tomorrows, only an eternal now. In Christ’s words, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The Christian faith depicts eternity as an endless now, knowing the truly existing One, the inexhaustible cup of life. The life we now share is but a shadow of life in and with God; if earthly time went on forever it would be something to fear. But our hope is not that earthly time would stretch out endlessly, but that an eternal now in the presence of Christ would truly transform us in ways we can but imagine. “… it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Temple, Cross and Altar

Of old, celebrating the dedication of the Temple, the wise Solomon offered to God sacrifices and holocausts of brute animals. Now that the God of grace and truth has come upon earth, He has completely fulfilled these sacrifices. Offering Himself as a sacrifice for our salvation, the Lover of Mankind has sanctified His Church, making it unshakable forever. He alone is Lord, and is glorified in the assembly of His saints.
ST LUKE'S GOSPEL is the basis of the Great Feast of the Annunciation which our Church celebrates on March 25. In its first chapter this Scripture describes the appearance of the angel Gabriel – one of the few angels actually named in Scripture – to the Virgin Mary. For this story to be factual, its ultimate source could only be the Holy Virgin herself as there were no other eye-witnesses.

According to a tradition documented in the first centuries, “Luke, was born in Antioch, by profession, was a physician. He had become a disciple of the apostle Paul and later followed Paul until his [Paul's] martyrdom” (from a second-century prologue to the Gospel). He was thought to be either a Hellenized Jew or a converted pagan writing in Greek for a Greek-speaking community. This explains the Greek expression used by the angel in the Annunciation narrative, a phrase which has become part of the prayer life of Christians all over the world: “Hail, full of grace.”

The Angel’s Greeting

In the Gospel the angel greets Mary with the Greek word chaire rather than with the Hebrew/Aramaic salutation, shalom. While each of these expressions has a different literal meaning, both are idiomatic forms of greeting, expressing good will between people. Some translations use the literal meaning, Rejoice, while others use the idiomatic meaning, Hail.

The angel describes Mary in Luke 1:28 as kecharitomeni, another word which has proven difficult to translate. When St Jerome rendered the Bible into Latin he translated this term literally as gratia plena, full of grace. This would create a problem centuries later when Western theology began using gratia as a technical term to mean the holiness bestowed by God. They interpreted Gabriel’s greeting as an indication that Mary was immaculately conceived.

During the Reformation many Protestants rejected both this doctrine and St Jerome’s translation, pointing to the angel Gabriel’s own explanation of the term in v. 30: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor [charis] with God.” Modern Catholic translations of Luke generally favor this interpretation as well, rendering kecharitomeni as “highly favored one.”

The Angel’s Greeting in Prayer

One effect of the Council of Ephesus (431), which affirmed the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, was an increase of devotion to her. St Theodotos of Ancyra, a Father of that council, left us a praise of Mary based on Gabriel’s greeting:

Hail, our desirable gladness;
Hail, O rejoicing of the churches;
Hail, O name that breathes out sweetness;
Hail, face that radiates divinity and grace;
Hail, most venerable memory;
Hail, O spiritual and saving fleece;
Hail, O Mother of unsetting splendor, filled with light;
Hail, unstained Mother of holiness;
Hail, most limpid font of the life-giving wave;
Hail, new Mother, workshop of the birth.
Hail, ineffable mother of a mystery beyond understanding;
Hail, new book of a new Scripture, of which, as Isaiah tells,
angels and men are faithful witnesses;
Hail, alabaster jar of sanctifying ointment;
Hail, best trader of the coin of virginity;
Hail, creature embracing your Creator;
Hail, little container containing the Uncontainable
(Homily 4:3).

Later poets would use the same literary device in composing Akathists to the Theotokos and, later, to numerous saints. It is also found in the Greek and Syriac hymns of Severus of Antioch (c. 459-538), Andrew of Crete (650-740), and John of Damascus (c. 675-749).

Appropriately enough, the same device is used in our services on the feast of the Annunciation. Several stichera at vespers are extended forms of the Mary-Gabriel dialogue in the Gospel, such as these:

“Gabriel stood before you, O Maiden, revealing the pre-eternal counsel, greeting you and exclaiming: ‘Rejoice, O earth unsown! Rejoice, O bush unburnt! Rejoice, O depth hard to fathom! Rejoice, O bridge leading to the heavens and lofty ladder, which Jacob beheld! Rejoice, O divine jar of Manna! Rejoice, annulment of the curse! Rejoice, restoration of Adam: the Lord is with you!’”

“You appear to me as a man,” the incorrupt Maiden said to the supreme commander; “yet how is it that you announce words which are beyond man? For you have said that God is with me, and that He will dwell in my womb. Tell me, how shall I become so spacious a dwelling and a place of sanctity which surpasses the cherubim? Deceive me no more with falsehood, for I have not known lust, I have not partaken of marriage, how then shall I give birth to a Child?”

The Angelic Salutation

The most popular prayer to the Theotokos based on Luke is undoubtedly the “Hail, Mary” which exists in different versions in the Greek, Latin and Syriac traditions. In each of these versions Gabriel’s greeting (Lk 1:28) I is joined to Elizabeth’s greeting when she was visited by Mary after the Annunciation (Luke 1:42).

In the Byzantine tradition the text is this: “Hail, O Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have given birth to the Savior of our souls.” This troparion is sung at vespers every day during the Great Fast and at other times during the year. It is also used by many people as part of their daily rule of prayer.

The oldest version in the West is that of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) who used the following text as the offertory chant on the Fourth Sunday in Advent: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The second part of the prayer developed after the twelfth century and was fixed by Pope Pius V in 1568.

The only other tradition which uses this prayer is that of the Syriac Church which has a slightly different version in its book of the hours: “Hail Virgin Mary, full of grace, Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the Fruit of your womb, Our Lord. O Saint Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at all times, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” It is often added to the concluding prayers of the daily office, particularly in India.

The Importance of the Annunciation

The meaning of this feast is well expressed in the hymns of vespers and orthros, such as this one sung at the aposticha of vespers.

Today is the joy of the annunciation, the triumph of virginity! Those below are united to those above! Adam is restored, and Eve is freed from her primal grief. The tabernacle of our nature, mingled with divinity, has become the temple of God! O the mystery! Incomprehensible is the image of His abasement, and ineffable the richness of His goodness! An angel serves the miracle, and the Virgin's womb receives the Son. The Holy Spirit is sent down from on high, and the Father is well pleased. The covenant is enacted by common consent. Saved thereby, let us cry out together with Gabriel to the Virgin: Rejoice, O joyous one, from whom Christ God, our salvation, is come, assuming our nature and elevating it in Himself! Entreat Him, that our souls be saved.
IN MANY PARISHES, the Great Fast means an increase in activity: added services, Lenten Dinners, missions and other programs. It is ironic that we celebrate today a saint identified with the spirituality of stillness. St Gregory Palamas’ main contribution to the life of the Church is his articulate and definitive presentation of Hesychasm, what he called “Sacred Quietude,” the monastic ideal of withdrawal and silence in order to focus on union with God.

Who Is St Gregory Palamas?

This future saint was born in Constantinople in 1296 into a family of some standing at the imperial court. Despite the emperor’s attempt to groom him for imperial service, Gregory went to Mount Athos and became a monk. After spending ten years on the Holy Mountain, Gregory and the other monks of his skete withdrew to Thessaloniki, because of the threat of Turkish invasion. He continued in his monastic calling there and in Berea before returning to Athos in the 1330s.

It was upon his return to Mount Athos that Gregory first encountered Barlaam of Calabria, an Italo-Greek monk and humanist who was head of the Monastery of Our Savior in Constantinople. Barlaam was involved in several diplomatic missions for the emperor as well as in discussions with the legates of Pope John XXII aimed at the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. Barlaam had written 21 treatises critical of Latin theology, particularly the Filioque and the doctrine of papal primacy which came to the attention of Gregory Palamas. While Barlaam had upheld the traditional Byzantine thinking on these issues, Palamas criticized him for teaching that the Filioque was wrong because it is impossible to determine from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds, since God is ultimately unknowable. Thus began a rivalry that would affect the Church in both East and West until our own day.

What Is Hesychasm?

The Filioque controversy was simply the preliminary. The “Main Event” concerned the practice of Hesychasm, a style of contemplative prayer observed in many Greek monasteries of the day. Inspired by the Lord’s words, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6), Eastern monastics had long seen the heart as the “inner chamber” to which we must go for prayer. Communion with God becomes possible when the mind, with its memories, concerns and plans for the future, is subjected to the heart that loves God above all. The Jesus Prayer had become the means for silencing the mind and thus entering this inner chamber of the heart. To this the Hesychasts added certain psycho-physical techniques such as rhythmic breathing and a particular way of sitting. Barlaam objected to these methods, calling the Hesychast monks he met “navel gazers.”

The heads of the Athonite monasteries asked Gregory Palamas to respond to Barlaam’s critique, which he did in a series of treatises. The controversy soon centered on the theological basis of Hesychasm, the possibility of experiencing the Uncreated Light of God as the apostles did at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ. Hesychasts believed that through ever deepening prayer the monk could experience this Light which they believed to be a divine energy. Barlaam, an intellectual trained in Aristotelian scholasticism, attacked this teaching as heretical and the entire Hesychast method as anti-intellectual, holding that philosophy was the true means of attaining the knowledge of God.

The controversy so affected the Byzantine Church that several local councils were held in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351 to discuss the issues raised by Barlaam and Gregory. They ultimately affirmed the teachings of St Gregory Palamas, namely that:

1. The light which shone at Tabor, during the Transfiguration of the Savior, is declared to be neither a creature nor the essence of God, but His energy: the uncreated and natural grace springing eternally from the divine essence itself;

2. There are in God two inseparable things: His essence and the natural and substantial energies flowing from His essence in line with the relationship of cause and effect. We cannot enter into His essence but we can participate in His energies. Both the one and the other are uncreated and eternal;

3. This real distinction between essence and energies or operations does not destroy the simplicity of God…;

4.The word θεότης (godly) does not apply solely to the divine essence, but is said also of its operation…;

5.The light of Tabor is the ineffable and eternal glory of the Son of God, the kingdom of heaven promised to the saints, the splendor in which He shall appear on the last day to judge all mankind.

After the Councils

The patriarchs of Constantinople spent the rest of the fourteenth century sharing this teaching with the other patriarchs and local Churches, securing their assent. Gregory Palamas became archbishop of Thessalonika where he died in 1359. He was glorified as a saint in 1368 by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople, who composed the service for his feast. Barlaam left Constantinople in 1341 after the council which condemned his teaching. He was received by the Pope of Rome at Avignon and was consecrated bishop of Gerace, a Greek diocese in Calabria. He died in 1348.

Hesychasm and the West

Palamas’ teaching was long considered suspect, if not heretical, in the West, which had embraced Aristotelian scholasticism as adapted by St Thomas Aquinas as its official theology. It was only in the twentieth century that St Gregory’s teaching was seen positively by Western Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. In the 1930s Danielou wrote how excited he was to read of Palamas’ “vision of humanity transfigured by the divine energies”.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II commented positively about the underlying doctrine behind Hesychasm: the possibility of theosis. He wrote, “In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquility of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus. There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method, that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of ‘theosis’ (‘divinization’).

“Precisely in this regard Eastern spirituality has amassed a very rich experience which was vigorously presented in the famous collection of texts significantly entitled Philokalia (‘love of beauty’) and gathered by Nicodemus the Hagiorite at the end of the 18th century. …

“How many things we have in common! It is time for Catholics and Orthodox to make an extra effort to understand each other better and to recognize with the renewed wonder of brotherhood what the Spirit is accomplishing in their respective traditions towards a new Christian springtime” (John Paul II, Eastern Theology Has Enriched the Whole Church).
WE HAVE COMPLETED THE FIRST WEEK of the Great Fast. Hopefully, we have met the goals which have set for ourselves: the degree of fasting and almsgiving appropriate to our station in life, or the participation in the services which our schedule of responsibilities allows. Whether we did or did not do so, we should realize that taking part in such practices is not the ultimate purpose of the fasting season. The final goal of the Great Fast – and of our entire life as Christians – is our ultimate transfiguration in Christ.

St Paul – who had seen the transfigured glory of the risen Christ appear to him on the road to Damascus – insisted that we will share in this transformation and that this change is already taking place: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). He daringly asserts that we are being transformed to be the mirror image of the risen Christ. Our human nature, he proclaims, is being renewed after the model who is Christ. This is what our later tradition calls theosis (deification), being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): given a share through Christ in the very life of God.

How Can This Be?

We may try to imitate Christ, to pattern our actions on the way of life which Christ has proposed to us; but the change described in the Scripture demands more than our striving to make it so. It demands an ontological change, something that affects us at the heart of our being and turns the water of our human nature in the wine of God. This transformation is what St Paul calls “the mystery decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

The first transformation in this mystery is the incarnation of the Word of God Himself. He assumes our human nature without putting aside His divinity. His glory was concealed – except for the moment of His transfiguration on Mt. Tabor – but He did not cease being the eternal Son of God. His incarnation was complete: “in all things He had to be made like His brethren” (Hebrews 2:17) so that He would transform our entire human nature. St Gregory the Theologian expressed it concisely, “That which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is thereby saved.” In other words, if there is an aspect of our being which the Son did not assume in the incarnation, then that aspect of our humanity would be beyond the reach of Christ’s redeeming work.

The second transformation is ours: we are incorporated into Christ. When we are baptized into Christ we experience an ontological change, we have “put on Christ.” We have been taken into His family, and His divine Father by nature is now ours, as we are “adopted as sons by Jesus Christ in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). Body and soul, we have become the dwelling place of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colosians 1:27) and “the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

This ontological change working in our baptism is not abolished when we take off our baptismal garment. Our deification is reaffirmed whenever we partake of the Eucharist. Christ’s body mystically becomes one with ours, confirming our incorporation into Him. Our entire life becomes a matter of “becoming what you are.” We are called to become consciously and actively what we are mystically through our baptism: to strive for a loving awareness – and even perhaps vision – of the indwelling glory of Christ in the Spirit. In words attributed to St Gregory of Sinai, “Become what you already are, find Him who is already yours, listen to Him who never ceases speaking to you, own Him who already owns you.”

What Will It Be Like?

For most of us, our deification, begun sacramentally, blossoms in our spirits when we live with a conscious awareness of God’s life in us. Rarely is it manifested in our bodies before the life of the age to come. At the end of this age, however, our bodies will share in our transformation, according to the Scriptures.

With all the drama of apocalyptic literature, 1 Corinthians describes the destiny of our bodies: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

St Paul describes this change as the corruptible putting on incorruption. The physical decay of death, is destined to be reversed, as it were, and the body given a share in the eternal life of grace. The biblical authors themselves could not describe concretely how this will happen. St Paul resorted to imagery: “But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’ Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38).

In one of the last books of the New Testament to be written, even imagery is abandoned. In 1 Jn the apostolic author professes his faith despite his ignorance of details: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2, 3). Somehow, the vision of God will penetrate our bodily nature.

The Icon and Our Transfiguration

The Church’s faith in the transformation of our mortal bodies by the vision of God is at the heart of our concept of the icon. The bodies of Christ and of the saints are shown as physical, but transfigured. They are of this world, but other-worldly. They may be shown in an earthly setting – a city or a countryside – but even nature is depicted as not of this world. Individual saints are shown on a golden background, representing heavenly glory.

With the rediscovery of classical art in the Renaissance, Western painters moved away from the tradition of iconography, depicting Christ and the saints as naturalistically as possible. In the Eastern Churches, the rules of iconography remain, giving us an image of the transfigured body of the age to come.

By a happy coincidence, it was on the First Sunday of the Great Fast, in the year 843 that iconoclasm was decisively defeated and icons formally restored in Constantinople. As we celebrate this Triumph of Orthodoxy, we cannot fail to see the transfigured bodies in our icons as a reminder that the glory of Christ and the Spirit sacramentally within the believer will one day become physically visible, in the very limbs of the transformed body.

The mystery of our salvation was once announced by the divinely-inspired prophets. They foretold this illumination for us who have arrived at the last days. By it, we receive knowledge of God, the one God and Lord, glorified in Three Persons; and we serve Him alone. Having one faith and one baptism, we have put on Christ. Wherefore, we confess our salvation in word and in deed, and we restore our likeness to God.

Sticheron at Vespers

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