Melkite Greek Catholic Church
THE GREAT FEASTS OF THE CHURCH are each celebrations of an aspect of the mystery of Christ: Of these feasts Pascha is considered “the Feast of Feasts,” the center of our Church life, the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. While Pascha is celebrated with feasting, the Great and Holy Week which leads up to Pascha observes the last events of Christ’s earthly life along with His death and burial by fasting.

Each Sunday celebrates the resurrection with the Eucharistic banquet, while each Wednesday and Friday remembers Christ’s betrayal and death – again, with fasting.

Next in importance to Pascha are “the Twelve Great Feasts” which celebrate events of Christ’s life, of His Mother, of His ascension and the coming of the Spirit. Several of these are preceded by days or seasons of fasting. The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is the only one observed by simultaneous feasting and fasting!

Our Reasons for Feasting

The immediate historical events celebrated on this feast are, first of all, the unearthing of the Cross in the fourth century during the expedition led by St Helena to adorn the Holy Land with fitting shrines to Christ. The second event remembered is the recovery of the cross in the seventh century by Byzantine forces fourteen years after it had been captured by Persian invaders.

Two traditions common among Eastern Christians celebrate the discovery of the cross. It is said that St. Helena’s workmen were led to the site of the cross by the fragrant aroma of basil growing there. It is customary to adorn the cross and, in some places, the entire church with sprigs of basil. Some basil would be given to people when they venerate the Cross to take home and adorn their icons. In some parts of Greece basil would be ground and added to the dough used to make prosphora.

A second festive act observed throughout the Middle East in both Byzantine and Oriental Churches is the lighting of bonfires, usually after the vespers or vigil of the feast. When the cross was unearthed by St. Helena’s expedition, the news of this discovery was spread from Jerusalem to Constantinople by a series of bonfires set on the mountains along the coast through Asia Minor. Today’s bonfires are a popular re-enactment of that event.

The recovery of the Cross is remembered by another festive act – the one which gives this feast its name. When the victorious Byzantine army returned the Cross to Jerusalem, Patriarch Zachariah “exalted” the Cross, lifting it high for the veneration of the people who continually cried out Kyrie eleison as they gazed on the Cross. In our ceremony of the exaltation, the Cross is raised high in each direction – north, south, east and west – to bless the entire world as the people repeatedly chant Kyrie eleison.

Our most basic reason for feasting on this day, however, is what took place on the Cross. As St. John Chrysostom described it, “The Cross has taken away sin. It was an expiation for the world, a reconciliation of the ancient enmity. It opened the gates of heaven, changed those who hated into friends; it took our human nature, led it up to heaven, and seated it at the right hand of God’s throne. And it brought to us ten thousand other blessings” (Homily 3 against the Judaizers).

The first sticheron sung at vespers on this feast echoes this festive sentiment: “By its elevation, the Cross is like an appeal to the whole creation to adore the blessed Passion of Christ our God who was suspended on it, for Christ destroyed by this Cross the one who had destroyed us. In His great goodness, He brought us back to life after we had been dead, and He beatified us and made us worthy of Heaven, for He is merciful. Wherefore, we exalt His name with great rejoicing and glorify His infinite condescension.”

Our Reason for Fasting

We also observe the feast of the Cross by fasting – not in anticipation of the feast but on the feast itself. Church directives say that September 14 is a strict fast day, on whatever day of the week it falls. So we may be called upon to fast on Saturday or even on Sunday. The fast is mitigated on weekends (wine and oil are permitted) but not completely abolished. Since Sunday is always a Eucharistic day, today’s fast means that we do not eat until we receive Holy Communion. After that, we do not eat meat, fish or dairy products.

The Church’s reason for fasting on this day is not to lament the death of Christ, which as we have seen is a source of blessings. Rather we fast because of our sins, committed despite the fact that we know what Christ has done for us on the cross and still prefer to follow our own egos rather than following His way. We do well to be distressed when we look on the Cross – not for the Lord’s sake (He is risen!) – but because our salvation, brought about on the Cross, means so little to us.

The mention of fasting usually prompts two reactions. Some overly meticulous people tend to overemphasize fasting rules in a legalistic way. Others, imbued with a pietistic ideas about devotion, see fasting and any discipline involving the body, such as prostrations, kissing icons, etc. as unspiritual.

St Paul would not agree. He definitely saw that the body becomes an important component in worship when we use it in a sacrificial way. “I beseech you therefore, brethren,” he wrote, “by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). When we refrain from food and drink, from sleep, from sexual activity or from any normal physical activity we make our longing an offering to God. In this way we push the physical beyond itself into the spiritual realm. Surrendering our physical desires becomes a logike latreia, a reasoned or conscious act of worship of the One who has given us all things.

Sharing in the Mystery of the Cross

“The Lord accomplished our salvation by His death on the Cross: on the Cross He tore up the handwriting of our sins; through the Cross He reconciled us with our God and Father; and through the Cross He brought down upon us grace-filled gifts and all heavenly blessings. But this is the Lord’s Cross itself. Each of us becomes a partaker of its salvific power in no other way than through our personal cross.

“When the personal cross of each of us is united with Christ’s Cross, the power and effect of the latter is transferred to us and becomes, as it were, a conduit through which ‘every good gift and every perfect grace’ (James 1:17) is poured forth upon us from the Cross of Christ.

“From this it is evident that the personal cross of each of us is as essential to the work of salvation as the Cross of Christ.”
St Theophan the Recluse
SEPTEMBER 1 MARKS THE BEGINNING of the Byzantine Church Year. An important part of this annual cycle of feasts and fasts is the sequence of the Twelve Great Feasts which, together with the “Feast of Feasts,” Pascha, commemorates the major events in the life of Christ.

The first of the feasts in this annual cycle is observed on September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos. Our “life of Christ,” then begins with the birth of His Mother, just as it concludes with the commemoration of her Dormition. “This day is for us the beginning of all holy days” (St Andrew of Crete) because the birth of Mary is the overture to the coming of Christ. The Church Year thereby affirms that one cannot glorify Christ apart from His Mother nor can we honor the Theotokos apart from her Son.

This connection is made clear in the troparion of the feast, which moves quickly from honoring Mary to proclaiming Christ: “Your Nativity, O Mother of God, heralded joy to the whole universe, for from you rose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God. Taking away the curse, He imparted the blessings, and by abolishing Death, He gave us everlasting life.”

The Source of Our Celebrations

The Gospels do not record anything about the Holy Virgin prior to the Annunciation. The account of her birth on which our feast is based is found in the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century collection of “infancy narratives,” stories describing the births of Jesus and Mary. The first part - which early manuscripts call The Story of the Birth of Saint Mary, Mother of God –describes her nativity and her dedication to the temple, an event which we also celebrate in our Church Year (November 21).

Written in Greek, the Protoevangelium was translated into a number of languages and was known throughout the early Christian world. In the early third century, the Alexandrian scholar Origen referred to it as a dubious and recent composition, despite its claim to have been written by James, the brother of the Lord. Today it is thought that the Protoevangelium contains a mixture of apostolic traditions coming down from the first Christians along with narrative embellishments to “fill in the blanks” in the stories of the Lord and His Mother.

This desire to shed light on the hidden lives of Christ and His Mother is especially evident in another work popular in the first millennium, known as The Book of the Nativity of Mary and the Childhood of the Savior or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew. It combines the story of Mary from the Protoevangelium and apocryphal stories of Jesus from the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The Story of Mary’s Birth

The tradition preserved in the Protoevangelium is that Mary was the daughter of Joachim and Ann, born to them late in life. The literary embellishment in this work tells tell how Joachim, although a generous donor to the temple, was mocked for being childless. Recalling how Abraham had been given a child in his old age, Joachim retired to the wilderness to pray for a similar blessing. In response angels appeared to Joachim and Ann promising that their prayers have been heard and that Ann would conceive. Our feast of the Maternity of St Ann (December 9) recalls her conception of the Virgin Mary.

Then, “When her time was fulfilled, in the ninth month, Ann gave birth. And she said to the midwife: ‘What have I brought forth?’ And she said: ‘A girl’. Then Ann said: ‘My soul has been magnified this day.’ … when the days were fulfilled, Ann was purified, and gave her breast to the child, and called her name Mary” (Protoevangelium 5).

The Place of Mary’s Birth

The Protoevangelium does not identify the place where Mary was born. Different local traditions claim at least two possible locations: the village of Sepphoris, a few miles from Nazareth, and the neighborhood of the “shepherd’s pool” in the old city of Jerusalem. Byzantine basilicas were constructed in both places in the fifth century with the Jerusalem basilica designated as “the place where Mary was born.”

Mary’s birth is celebrated by most of the historic Churches on September 8 (Copts and Ethiopians observe it on May 9). The first mention of this feast is at the beginning of the sixth century when a new church, dedicated to St Ann, replaced the basilica at the Shepherds’ Pool. The present Church of St Ann, constructed by Crusaders in the twelfth century, occupies this site today. A shrine in the church’s crypt commemorates the conception and birth of Mary.

Our Celebration of This Feast

The principal theme of our feast is that “Today grace begins to bear fruit, showing forth to the world the Mother of God, through whom earth is united to Heaven for the salvation of our souls” (vespers).

Other than the names of Mary’s parents, almost none of the narrative details from the Protoevangelium find their way into the hymns of this feast. Rather the focus of our prayer is that now the mystery of our salvation in Christ is beginning to unfold. “Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin, the Gate of God, comes forth… Today ends our nature’s barrenness” (Orthros). Mary will become the one through whom the ancient prophecies will be fulfilled when Christ is incarnate in her. As St Andrew of Crete (650-740) expressed it: “Today’s solemnity is a line of demarcation, separating the truth from its prefigurative symbol, and ushering in the new in place of the old… This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth. Today an inspired Temple is provided for the Creator of all, and creation prepares itself to become the divine dwelling place of its Creator.”

Andrew’s contemporary, St John of Damascus (676-749) says, “The day of the Nativity of the Theotokos is the feast of joy for the whole world, because through the Theotokos the entire human race was renewed and the grief of the first mother Eve was changed into joy.”

Hymns of Mary’s Nativity

Today, God who dominates the Spiritual Thrones of Heaven, welcomes on earth the holy throne which He had prepared for Himself. In His love for mankind, He who established the heavens in wisdom had fashioned a living heaven. From a barren stem He has brought forth for us His Mother as a branch full of life. O God of miracles, and hope of those who have no hope, Lord, glory to You!

Today glad tidings go forth to the whole world. Today sweet fragrance is wafted forth by the proclamation of salvation. Today is the end of the barrenness of our nature, for the barren one becomes a mother, the mother of the one who by nature will not cease to be a virgin, even after giving birth to the One who by nature is Creator and God. He it is who took from her His flesh by which He wrought salvation for the lost: He, the Christ, the Lover of Mankind and Savior of our souls! (Stichera at Vespers)
IN THE MODERN AGE, the world has come to accept one civil calendar which originated in Western Europe centuries ago. Before that, there were many calendars in use in the West, not to mention those employed in Asia and Africa. Many of us are aware that some groups still maintain an attachment to their historic calendars. The Chinese and Vietnamese, for example stage their own New Year’s celebrations according to their ancient calendars, usually in late winter. The Islamic New Year may begin anywhere from mid-October to mid-December. And the Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha-shanah, regularly begins in September.

In ancient Rome, the year was said to begin on the date on which new consuls took office. From the second century bc, that date was January 1. After the time of St Constantine the Great, there were attempts to center the year on the major Christian festivals such as Christmas or Pascha. In Alexandria, March 25, which was computed to be the date of the Annunciation, was chosen as the start of the year. This became the common New Year’s Day in Western Europe for centuries.

Starting in the last half of the fifth century (probably ad 462), the Byzantine Empire designated September 1 as the first day of the New Year. The Byzantine liturgical year was arranged according to that calendar and September 1 remains the first day of our liturgical year. The cycle of the Church’s Great Feasts begins in September with the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8) and concludes in August with the feast of her Dormition (August 15).

Most countries in Western Europe returned to starting the New Year on January 1 when the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in the sixteenth century. Although our contemporary civil calendar begins on January 1, many of our public institutions effectively begin their year in September also. Congress and the courts, the school year, the theater and concert seasons, fundraisers, and other civic events which have been on hold through the summer start up again only after Labor Day. Perhaps the Jews and the Byzantines got it right after all.

The Indiction

The first day of our Church year is called the Indiction. Originally referring to the start of a tax assessment cycle in the Roman Empire, this word has come to mean the beginning of a cycle in a more general way and may be found in legal or formal documents to this day. Thus in 2011 Pope Benedict XVI issued a formal letter “For the Indiction [i.e. Beginning] of the Year of Faith.” And so, calling September 1 an Indiction simply means that it is the start of a new cycle of the feasts, fasts and other observances of our Church.

On this day Byzantine churches read the Gospel of the beginning of Christ’s public ministry as recorded in Luke 4:16-22: “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.”

The Lord is described as participating in the Sabbath service at the synagogue in Nazareth “as His custom was.” The synagogue service chiefly consisted in psalms and prayers its highpoint was the bringing forth of the Torah scroll from the Ark to the bema, in the midst of the assembly. Several portions of the Torah would be read, as prescribed for the day.

After the Torah passages, there would be readings from the writings of the prophets. As the Gospel records, Jesus “… was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’  Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:18-20).

After reading the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 the Lord tells His listeners, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Messiah is at hand: God’s plan is on the move.

The Acceptable Year of the Lord

In the time of Isaiah and other prophets, the “acceptable year of the Lord” referred to the “Jubilee Year” which was observed by devout Jews every fifty years. The Jubilee was marked by the emancipation of slaves and living off the land to express the believer’s reliance on the providence of God.

Interpreting the acceptable year of the Lord in messianic terms, St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “The ‘acceptable year’ is that in which Christ was crucified on our behalf, because we were then made acceptable to God the Father as the fruit borne by Him [Christ]” (Homily 12 on Luke). It is this “acceptable year” which our Church celebrates in its cycle of the Great Feasts.

The “Year of the World”

A lesser-known aspect of the Byzantine calendar is that September 1, ad 2019 is the first day of am 7528! From ad 691 to 1728 the Byzantine Churches followed a system dating years from the creation of the world according to the calculations in the Book of Genesis (am, Anno Mundi, the Year of the World”). In 1700, during his westernization of Russia, Tsar Peter the Great replaced the Byzantine Era in his realm with the Western Christian Era. A few years later the Patriarchate of Constantinople and all the Churches in the Ottoman Empire followed suit. Formal documents of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Mount Athos and some other Eastern Church bodies may still indicate the Byzantine Era date along with that according to the Christian Era.

The Jewish calendar is also calculated from the biblical account of creation but there is a c. 2000 year difference between the two reckonings. The Byzantine Era was computed using the Septuagint text of the Old Testament, compiled in the 3rd to 2nd century bc. The Jewish dating is calculated according to the Masoretic version, used by Jews since the first century ad.

From the Canon for the Indiction

Let us all chant a hymn of victory to Christ, by whom all things were fashioned and in Whom the incomprehensible is perfected, as the hypostatic Word begotten of God the Father, for He has been glorified. Let us all chant a hymn of victory to Christ, who through the Father's good pleasure appeared from the Virgin and proclaimed to us the acceptable year of the Lord for deliverance, for He has been glorified.
The Bestower of the law, arriving in Nazareth, taught on the Sabbath day, laying down for the Jews the law of His ineffable coming, by which He saves our race, in that He is merciful. (Ode One)
O Good One, establish that which Your right hand has lovingly planted on the earth, pre-serving Your Church as a fertile vineyard, O Almighty One.
O Master, God of all, lead through this year which is beginning those who adorn them-selves with divinely beautiful spiritual works, and who hymn You with faith.
O compassionate Christ, grant me a tranquil year and fill me with Your divine words which You revealed when You spoke to the Jews on the Sabbath. (Ode Three)
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING to accept in Christianity? Is it the doctrine of the Trinity? The idea that God became man? Or that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ? While these teachings may meet with obstacles in our minds, the hardest thing for us to accept in practice is the absolute need to forgive others.

In our broken humanity we are much more at home with seeking vengeance. We are often more comfortable with the pre-Christian vision of a vengeful God: “And the Lord said to him, ‘Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold’” (Genesis 4:15).

The Torah enshrined the concept of vengeance in its laws concerning violence: “But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). While modern law is not as demanding, it still endorses the idea of vengeance, clothed in modern dress as “Justice” and “Closure” (which often comes down to a question of money). Perhaps the best comment on this principle is by the Lebanese author Kahlil Gibran, “An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.”

Forgiveness: the Heart of the Gospel

Contemporary Catholic writer Scott Hurd describes the Gospel ideal of forgiveness as “…both the central idea of Christianity, and an assault on the conventional human understanding of justice.” It is an “assault” because it challenges the very nature of the world’s way of handling things. It is the heart of our faith because it is the basic attitude of God toward us and the model of how we can act as the images of God.

“Yours it is to show mercy…” we say to God in many prayers, because He is by nature the forgiving Father, the One who runs to welcome home His prodigal children after they stray. God incarnate in Jesus Christ expresses this forgiveness in His humanity when He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). And so it is in imitation of God that His disciple, the Protomartyr St Stephen, prayed for those who delivered him to death: “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).

That forgiveness is required, not an option, in the Christian life we see from the Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ would come back to this theme again and again, doubtlessly more often than the Gospels record:
- “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:37-38).
- “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).

Forgiveness is particularly necessary when we presume to pray: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).

Forgiveness is indispensable when we look to make an oblation: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

The kiss of peace at the Eucharist of all the historic Churches is a rite based on this requirement of the Lord.

The Parable of the Unjust Debtor

In story form, this passage – unique to Matthew – repeats the Lord’s fundamental teaching that forgiving others is a prerequisite for being forgiven by God.

The call for the godly-minded to forgive others was already common in late Judaism, but in a limited way. Thus the second century rabbinic scholar Issi ben Judah wrote, “If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive.” Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina, writing in the second half of the third century ad counsels, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times.”

By this standard, Peter was being downright generous when he suggested forgiving seven times as the new standard. Christ replies by turning around Lamech’s rule of vengeance (“If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” – Genesis 4:24). Now, Christ says, consider forgiving others seventy times seven, a number meaning “without limit.”

St John Chrysostom saw a particularly damning indictment of the tendency to hold grudges or seek vengeance in this parable. Pointing to the fate of the unforgiving servant, Christ says, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18:35). Chrysostom offers this interpretation: “Note that He did not say ‘your Father’ but ‘my Father’ for it is not proper for God to be called the Father of one who is so wicked and malicious” (Homily on Matthew 61, 4).

These harsh words go unheard by many in the Church who hold grudges, often for many years. People often feel that broken relationships have nothing to do with our faith. In reality our unwillingness to forgive says that we think God is a sucker for being so compassionate: we know better. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, the rift is with more than our relative or neighbor. “For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

A Russian Tale

St. Titus the Presbyter was a twelfth- century priest in the monastery of the Kiev Caves who fell into a hateful relationship with a deacon named Evagrius. So spiteful was their relationship that whenever one of them used the censer in church, the other would turn and leave. They were blinded by hatred to such an extent, that they dared to take Holy Communion without asking for forgiveness and reconciliation. One day, Titus became so ill that everyone thought he was going to die. Titus begged that Evagrius be brought to his bedside so that they might reconcile. Evagrius was finally taken there by force but said that he would not forgive his brother, neither in this world nor in the next.

Suddenly Evagrius died and Titus got up from his bed healed. Titus revealed that he saw demons flying about his bed until he resolved to forgive Evagrius. The demons then fled and attacked Evagrius while the angels of God surrounded Titus.

You be careful as well, brother, and do not let the demon of anger corrupt you. One, who listens to him at least once, will be enslaved by him.
IN BYZANTINE CHURCHERS the first Great Feast in the liturgical calendar is the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8). The feast of her Holy Dormition (August 15), coming at the end of the Church year, brings this cycle to a close. Like a musical masterwork, our annual remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ begins with an “overture” (the birth of His Mother) and concludes with a “coda” (her entry into the new life which is promised to us).

What Is a “Dormition”?

Our English word echoes the French and Latin words for “sleep.” The corresponding Greek word, koimisis, appears in English as “cemetery,” or “sleeping place.” By calling death a “repose” or a “falling asleep” we are affirming our faith that death is not an ultimate reality.

Mary’s is not the only Dormition observed in our Church. The first saints to be commemorated were the martyrs, witnesses to Christ at the risk of their life; their death was considered as a “crowning” to their testimony. Some saints not martyred were remembered on the day of their peaceful death, their dormition. Thus we remember the Dormition of St Anne, mother of the Theotokos (Jul. 25) and of St. John the Theologian, the only apostle not martyred (Sept. 26). The Coptic Church also remembers the Dormition of St Joseph (Aug. 2).

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

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

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

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

The Resurrection of the Body

The Dormition of the Theotokos points to an aspect of eternal life only briefly sketched out in the Scriptures. There we read that the risen Christ is “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). To call Him “first-fruits” presumed that there is more to the crop, as St Paul elaborates: “Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v. 23).

Mary’s participation in eternal life is unique – she is not awaiting the return of her Son; she now fully shares in the eternal life in body as well as spirit by a special gift of grace. Some may see this belief as unscriptural, contradicting the very words of St Paul. Rather they confirm by a historic moment what would otherwise simply be an allegation. Mary’s dormition demonstrates that St Paul’s teaching is not mere words. Human beings can share physically in the Resurrection and Mary is there to prove it.

In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Mary’s dormition “…is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrec-tion and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians. (It is significant that this ¶ concludes by paraphrasing our troparion of the Dormition in witness to the meaning of this feast.) In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death” (¶966).

What Mary Left Behind

One tradition repeated in several early texts concerns the sash or girdle of the Theotokos. Thomas was supposedly the last Apostle to arrive and missed venerating her body. According to the seventh-century Passing of the Blessed Virgin Mary attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, Thomas saw the most holy body of the blessed Mary going up into heaven, and prayed her to give him a blessing. She heard his prayer, and threw him the sash which she had about her. Parts of this girdle are venerated at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and at the Syriac Orthodox “Church of the Girdle” in Homs, Syria. During the eighteenth century some iconographers were moved to “Catholicize” the icon of the Dormition. They showed the Theotokos giving St Thomas a rosary instead of her sash, contributing to the popular notion that the rosary was of Apostolic and Eastern origin

Mary and Ephesus?

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

Today some claim that the Theotokos died in Ephesus, where St John the Theologian lived for many years. In the nineteenth century a house claimed to be that of the Virgin was unearthed near Ephesus, based on a supposed vision of Anne Catherine Emerich. This shrine became popular in the West; however there was never any early tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.
EVERY YEAR on the Great Feast of the Transfiguration, pilgrims climb Mount Tabor to worship at one of the churches there commemorating this event. Yet none of the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration mentions where the incident took place. The Gospels simply say that the Lord Jesus took His disciples Peter, James and John “up on a high mountain by themselves” (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2).

Mt Tabor, five miles south of Nazareth and eleven miles west of the Sea of Galilee, is traditionally identified as the site of the Transfiguration. Origen of Alexandria, who lived in Palestine for the last twenty-five years of his life, was the first to write about Mt Tabor in this context, in the middle of the third century. Origen claimed that identifying Mt Tabor as the site of Christ’s Transfiguration was an “apostolic tradition” held in the local Church.

Other Fathers from that period who echoed Origen’s view were St Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386), St Epiphanius of Salamis (c.310-403), and St Jerome (c.347-420).

The fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c.265-340) thought that Mt Hermon on the Syrian border was another possibility because the Lord is described in Mt 16 as being in Caeserea Philippi which is at the base of Mt Hermon.

The weight of tradition has favored Mt Tabor, however, as the place where Jesus was transfigured, and it is there that commemorative shrines have existed since the fourth century. By the sixth century there were three basilicas on the site, recalling the three tabernacles which St Pater wanted to erect there (see Matthew 17:4).

Meeting God on the Mountaintop

There are several elements in the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration which resonate with memories of the Old Testament. The first is that mountains natural reflect the glory of God: “The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all its fullness, You have founded them. The north and the south, You have created them; Tabor and Hermon rejoice in Your name” (Psalms 89: 11, 12). It is noteworthy that the two mountains mentioned in this verse are the ones cited as possible sites of the Transfiguration.

Experiencing God on the mountaintop also reminds us that God is inaccessible to us, who are mired in the affairs of everyday life below. To commune with God we must “climb the mountain,” that is, rise above these worldly cares to attain union with Him. This “spiritual ascent” is a frequent theme in ascetical writings.

The Transfiguration connects us with other mountaintop experiences in the Scripture. When God first reveals Himself to Moses it is on Horeb, “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1): “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:1. 2).

In Exodus 24 we read how Moses received the Ten Commandments by going up Mount Sinai to meet the God of Israel. “Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:16-18).

Many archaeologists believe that Horeb and Sinai are peaks in the same mountain range in the desert peninsula separating Egypt from Israel. Both Scriptural events are commemorated at the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai.

God-seers Moses and Elias

In addition to Christ and the Apostles, two others are described in the Gospels as being present at the Transfiguration. Why were Moses and Elias (Elijah) witnesses to this event?

Both these figures are described in the Old Testament as having seen God. In the passage cited above, Moses encountered God in “the midst of the cloud” on the mountain where he received the Ten Commandments. The cloud, representing the presence of God, reappears at the Transfiguration, surrounding Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.  After the destruction of the Golden Calf, Moses encountered God again in the Tabernacle, the Israelite’s portable temple. “And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses… So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:9, 11).

A similar revelation of God to the Prophet Elijah on Mt Horeb is recorded in 1 Kings 19. The Prophet, fleeing the idolatrous queen Jezebel, takes refuge in a cave on Mt. Horeb “And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the Word of the Lord came to him… And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13).

On Mount Tabor Moses and Elias, who had experienced the invisible God on Sinai and Horeb, now witness to the incarnate God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Light of Glory

Another aspect of the Transfiguration story is the light which envelops the Lord Jesus: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). The Jewish believers in Jesus for whom this Gospel was written could not but recall the “great vision” of the Prophet Daniel of a man “clothed in linen” whose face had “the appearance of lightning” (Daniel 10:6). Daniel’s vision was of an angel come to defeat the Persians. The Lord Jesus was come to do battle with sin and death.

St Gregory Palamas explained that the light on Tabor was a manifestation of God’s uncreated divine energy comprehensible by the apostles. He described it as an extraordinary gift of God in this life and likened it to a curtain falling from the eyes of the beholder. At the end of the age, however, as Christ promised, the saints would reflect this light s well: “… the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

In the Christian East the radiant light of the Transfiguration was often a sign of the saints’ intimate communion with God in this life. The Desert Fathers Pambo, Sisoe, Silouan, and Arsenius were all described as physically reflecting the light of God. People who witnesses St Sergius of Radonezh at the altar saw a wonderful light surround him at the anaphora and enter the chalice. Ss Seraphim of Sarov, Theophan the Recluse and John of Kronstadt were all described by their contemporaries as shining like the sun, reflecting the divine light.

The event of Christ’s transfiguration, then, points to the divinity which is His by nature and which can be ours by grace when we maintain communion with Him.
OUR CHURCH YEAR may be said to alternate between feasts and fasts. There are two fast days in most weeks – Wednesdays and Fridays – as well as four fasting seasons (before the Nativity, Pascha, Ss. Peter and Paul and the Dormition of the Theotokos). Those who observe all these fasts are keeping approximately one-third of the year as days of fasting.

As we know, the Great Fast and the Great Week before Pascha are the most diligently observed fasts in the Church. After that, the most thoroughly kept fast is that before the Dormition, which in our Tradition lasts from August 1 through August 14. While there are no special services during the fast of Ss. Peter and Paul and only a few during the Nativity Fast, there are many liturgical observances during the Dormition Fast.

The first day is marked by the Procession of the Holy Cross. In the Byzantine era the Cross was carried solemnly through the streets of the city each day. We also serve the Lesser Blessing of Water on this day, to solemnize the start of this fast.

Like the Great Fast, the Dormition Fast has special services to set this time apart. In many Slavic Churches the daily offices (vespers, matins, etc.) are prayed in the Lenten format. In Greek Churches an intercession service, the Paraclisis to the Mother of God, is held nightly. In many churches there are actually two Paraclisis services (the Greater and the Lesser) held on alternate days.

This Fast also includes the Great Feast of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ which is kept from August 6 to 13. This period is so rich in opportunities for prayer and worship that it has traditionally been called our “Summer Pascha.” The Transfiguration celebrates Christ as the radiant Light of the Father’s glory while in the Dormition we see Christ, who trampled down Death by His death, take His Mother into the light of His resurrection. In many churches a service resembling the Matins of Holy Saturday is held in which the shroud of the Theotokos is carried in procession to recall her burial.

Asceticism in Our Church

At first not all these fasts were connected to a feast day, as they are today. Pope St Leo the Great in c. 450 explained these fasts as seasonal ascetical exercises: “The Church fasts are situated in the year in such a way that a special abstinence is prescribed for each season. Thus, for spring there is the spring fast – the Forty Days; for summer there is the summer fast… ; for autumn there is the autumn fast, in the seventh month; for winter there is the winter fast.” The Christian is called to practice at least part of the time the ascetical struggle which monastics observe every day.

Christians say the Lord’s Prayer often – perhaps several times each day. We repeat “Thy will be done” so regularly that its meaning may be blunted for us. We offer lip service to the idea of doing God’s will while spending most of our time satisfying our own will. In Christian asceticism we practice setting aside our own will so that we may be ever more open to God’s will, so often expressed in the needs of others.

The Fathers teach that, since the Fall, each person’s will has tended to serve its own ego exclusively. And so, being open to the will of another does not come easily. We have to develop new habits – habits of putting our needs and desires aside to serve God and others. It takes much practice before we can say, as Christ did to the Father “not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Our modern world makes self-denial even harder for us to practice. Even working class Americans have more luxury that the royals and aristocrats of previous ages. We expect central heating and air conditioning, a refrigerator and a dishwasher, not to mention the rapid travel and instant communication which other generations never imagined. We have the possibility of doing whatever we want – and a culture of consumerism which pushes us to indulge ourselves at every turn.

As a result we find our spiritual life smothered. We become the person in Christ’s parable “who hears the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). The regular observance of Christian asceticism, as in the fasting seasons, offers us a remedy against the rampant egoism of our age.

During the fasts the committed Christian makes a concerted effort to reverse that direction by using the means which the Lord indicated in the Sermon on the Mount. We strive to put God first through increased prayer. We seek to serve our neighbor through more intense almsgiving (the “alms” being the sharing of our time as well as our resources). Trying to distance ourselves from self-indulgence through fasting reminds us how little the rest of our life is open to God and to others.

The “How” of Fasting

Many people approach fasting in term of abstinence from meat and dairy products. We eat only “the food of paradise,” the fruit of the earth that our first parents enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Some take this in a strictly chemical sense avoiding these foods while indulging themselves in meat and dairy substitutes. They fast from the substance of these foods but not the pleasure which the taste of them brings.

Some cultures, such as the Mediterranean, are so rich in fasting foods that it is possible to indulge oneself in delightful dishes without eating meat or dairy products. Here we must note that the Eastern Christian tradition of fasting tells us to avoid, not only meat and dairy, but eating any kind of food to excess.

Many Fathers say that there are three ways of eating. The first way, appropriate to non-fasting days, is to eat adequately. We should rise from the table not feeling hungry but not feeling overstuffed either. On fasting days, however, we should eat temperately, eating simply to sustain life and remaining a little hungry after eating. As St Gregory of Sinai said, the third kind of eating – eating more than one needs – “is the door to gluttony through which lust comes in.” How much food is “enough” will vary from person to person, but the Fathers’ principle is general enough to apply to us all.

Great Paraclitic Canon to the Theotokos By Emperor Theodore Ducas Lascaris

From the First Ode
Most holy Theotokos, save us. My humble soul is troubled by the rising storms of afflictions and woes; and clouds of misfortunes overcome me, bringing darkness to my heart, O Bride of God. But since you are the Mother of the Divine and Eternal Light, shine your gladsome light and illumine me.

Most holy Theotokos, save us. From countless trials and afflictions, from grievous foes and misfortunes of life have I been delivered by your mighty strength, O spotless and pure Maid. I extol and I magnify your immea-surable sympathy, and the loving care that you have for me.

Glory… Having my hope now in your mighty help, O Maid, I flee for refuge to you. Unto your shelter have I run wholeheartedly, O Lady, and I bow my knee and I mourn and cry, weeping. Do not disdain me, the wretched one, for you are the refuge of Christian folk.

Now… I shall not cease from making known most manifestly your great deeds, Maid of God; for if you were not present to intercede on my behalf and importune your Son and God, who would free and deliver me from such storms and turbulence, and surmount the perils that trouble me?
THE NINTH CHAPTER of St Matthew’s Gospel records several miracles in succession: the healing of a paralytic, of the ruler’s daughter, of a woman with a flow of blood, two blind men and a mute man. Only in the case of the two blind men do we find that the Lord Jesus “…sternly warned them, saying, ‘See that no one knows it’” (Matthew 9:30). Why did the Lord want these two to keep quiet while not demanding that the paralytic and the others do the same?

The key seems to be in the way the blind men approached Jesus. Unlike the others healed in this chapter, the blind men called out to Him, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” (v. 27) They accorded Him the messianic title “Son of David.” But was Jesus ready to be acclaimed as Messiah at this stage of His life?

What Kind of Messiah?

Many Jewish people at the time of Christ were looking for the Messiah, God’s “Anointed One”. Most looked for a royal warrior – another David – who would drive out the Romans from the Holy Land and restore the power of Israel in the region. This political Messiah would usher in a period of prosperity and power for the people of Israel.

Others in that period thought that the Messiah would restore the old priestly line and the temple rites used before the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. He would be a priestly Messiah, renewing the temple and restoring the original spirit of its liturgy.

The Lord Jesus had a very different view of His role. He was not to be an earthly king; He never urged political dissention or encouraged revolt against Roman rule. As He was to tell Pilate, “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).

Neither did the Lord Jesus attempt to restore the usages of Solomon’s temple. He would fulfill the entire Old Covenant in Himself, becoming the new temple, the house of God on earth. It was with this in mind that the Lord told the Jews on driving away the money-changers, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said” (John 2:19-22).

The “Messianic Secret”

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, biblical commentators began using the term “Messianic secret” to describe Jesus’ reluctance to be described as Messiah. Had Jesus allowed Himself to be proclaimed “Messiah” while not fulfilling His hearers’ this-worldly expectations, He would have made it impossible for anyone to come to believe in Him. He would have given them the right word, but the wrong idea. He might also have come to the attention of the religious and political authorities before He had developed followers nurtured to any degree with His vision of God’s Kingdom.

Rather we see Jesus beginning a long process of choosing disciples and allowing them to discover for themselves that He was God’s Anointed. Jesus never claimed the title of Messiah for Himself and only hinted at it among those most committed to the Kingdom of God. Thus we are told: “…when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me’” (Matthew 11:2-6). Jesus leaves John and his followers to draw their own conclusions.

Some people perceived that Jesus was more than just a teacher. When two of John’s disciples went after Jesus, He turned and asked “What do you seek?” The tongue-tied Andrew could only say, “Where are you staying?” But after spending the day with Jesus, Andrew would tell his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41).

The Gospels record the disciples’ slow process of learning what the Lord Jesus’ mission actually was. At times they seemed no more attuned to Jesus’ teaching than were the crowds. When Jesus taught the importance of inner purity rather than the ritual purity of “clean” and “unclean” foods, the disciples found it hard to accept. “Are you thus without understanding also?” Jesus replied (Mark 7:18).

While the Gospels show how gradually the disciples grew to appreciate Jesus as the Messiah, they also note that others had no hesitation in proclaiming His true identity. The demons, as bodiless powers, understood from the start just who Jesus was. The spirit which Jesus expelled in Capernaum affirmed, “I know who You are – the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The Gerasene demoniacs protested, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, Son of God?” (Matthew 8:29). Jesus silenced them all and “…did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ” (Luke 4:41).

Neither Power Nor Glory

The disciples found it hard to think of God’s kingdom except in terms of power. When the Lord began preparing His disciples to see that the Messiah must suffer, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Matthew 16:22-23). Later in Jesus’ ministry – despite several previous warnings that the Messiah must suffer – the Lord reiterated His teaching (Luke 9:44-48): “‘Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men.'" But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.

Despite all this, when Samaritans refuse to allow Jesus entry into their village, the disciples’ reaction still shows their lack of understanding. They had yet to comprehend the ways of God’s kingdom. “And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them’” (Luke 9:54-56).

Even the experience of the Resurrection was not sufficient to turn the disciples from their pursuit of power. When they were all gathered in Jerusalem with the risen Christ, the Book of Acts relates, “… they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’” (Acts 1:6-8). It would only be by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that the first Church came to understand the real mission of the Messiah
THE SCRIPTURES ARE FILLED with writings of the prophets, particularly the fifteen books named after the most celebrated Hebrew prophets. Nevertheless, the one most revered as “the pillar of the prophets and their leader” (aposticha) seems to have written nothing, except a letter to King Jehoram of Israel, which was delivered sometime after the prophet had left this world (see 2 Chron 21:10-12).

Elijah (Elias) the Thisbite lived in the ninth century bc, in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Five hundred years had passed since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Several generations had come and gone since David and Solomon ruled in God’s name. Their kingdom had been divided in two and thereby weakened by rivalries among its leaders. The Israelites had grown lax in their conviction that there was but one God. Proximity to and intermarriage with neighboring Canaanites had made them more accepting of these other gods, such as Baal, favorite of the king’s wife, Jezebel. The dramatic story of Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal is recorded in 1 Kings 17-19.

Elijah – whose name means “Yahweh is my God” – personifies the most important characteristic of the Hebrew prophets. He is described repeatedly as consumed by zeal for the Lord, devoted to observing and restoring the worship of the one true God in a spiritually feeble age. The commitment of the Israelites to their God would wax and wane over succeeding generations and other prophets would rise up to do as Elijah had done in his day to exalt the name of the one true God.

Elijah the Wonderworker

The Scriptures recount several marvels in the life of Elijah for which he is especially revered. The most dramatic involves the drought brought about by the prophet who warned the king, “There will be no dew or rain except at my bidding” (1 Kings 17:1). The three-year long drought was ended at Elijah’s prayer, after the prophets of Baal had failed to do so, bringing about the conversion of the people to the Lord. “When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: ‘The Lord alone is God! The Lord alone is God!’” (1 Kings 18:39).

A series of wonders took place in Zarephath, a village near Sidon. There Elijah multiplied flour and oil for a poor widow so that “she and her household had food for a long time” (1 Kings 17:15). Elijah also restored the widow’s son to life after a fatal illness had claimed him by prostrating himself three times over the child and praying, “O Lord, let this child’s life return to his body” (1 Kings 17:21). St Ephrem the Syrian would see this triple prostration as an image of Christ’s triple descent (to becoming man, to death, and to Hades) in order to bring life to the human race.

Elijah the Ascetic

Monastics in the Christian East have long revered Elijah as a kind of proto-monk, a desertdweller for the Lord. During the drought God sent Elijah east of the Jordan to Wadi Cherith, a secluded ravine out of Ahab’s reach where “ravens brought him bread and meat morning and evening, and he drank from the river” (1 Kgs 17:6). Modern commentators have noted that the original Hebrew text has no vowels and that the same consonants in the word ravens can also be read as Arabs. Perhaps Bedouin tribesmen brought food to Elijah in his wilderness retreat as their descendants would assist hermits in later centuries.

Monastics also identified with Elijah’s forty-day fast on his journey to Mount Horeb (see 1 Kings 19:8). At the conclusion of this fast the Lord revealed His presence to Elijah in “a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). This they saw as an icon of the monastic life. The monk distances himself from the world through fasting and other ascetic practices to pursue communion with God (theosis).

Elijah and Mount Carmel

Several events in the life of the prophet Elijah are connected with Mount Carmel, a promontory on the Mediterranean near the city of Haifa. Christians, Druze, Jews and Muslims all revere this place for its connection with Elijah. Early in the spread of monasticism ascetics settled in the area, often living in caves on the outcropping.

When Western monks came to the Holy Land during the Crusades, they found Eastern hermits settled on Carmel and stayed among them. The Western monks adopted the Easterners’ way of life in the spirit of Elijah. When they returned to Europe, however, these “Carmelites” were obliged to adopt a communal way of life. While living as a hermit was considered the summit of monastic life in the East, it was seen as eccentric in the West.

Elijah’s Return

The last Old Testament prophetic book, Malachi, ends with these words of the Lord: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:23-24). Believing Jews saw Elijah’s return as a herald of the Messiah’s coming. To this day many Jews pray every Sabbath: “Elijah the prophet, Elijah the Thisbite – let him come quickly in our day with the Messiah, the son of David.”

Christians, of course, believe that the Messiah has come – it is Jesus. Jesus Himself identified John the Baptist as Elijah come again: “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). But Christians also believe that Elijah is “the herald of the Second Coming of Christ” (aposticha): the coming in power at the end of the age.

In 2 Kings 2:11 we read “And it came to pass while they [Elijah and Elisha] were walking, speaking together as they walked, behold, a chariot of fire came between the two of them and Elijah was swept up in a whirlwind…” The current Hebrew text, on which most modern translations are based, says that Elijah was swept up “into heaven.” The oldest existing text, however, the Greek Septuagint, says that he was swept up “as if into heaven.” This accords with the statement in the Gospel of John, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13).

Jewish commentaries describe heaven as the dwelling place of the angels. Christians, however, see heaven as the state of intimate communion with God: something made possible only after Christ. Thus the Church Fathers echoed the Septuagint reading of 2 Kings 2:11. St Athanasius would write, “Elijah did not ascend into heaven… Heaven was reserved for the Creator, the Author of mankind. Thus, with Enoch and Elijah, God gladdened the people with a promising hope by spreading before them an ‘airborne highway’ as though for horse-drawn vehicles” (Homily 2 on the Ascension).

As St. Gregory mused concerning Enoch and Elijah, “…even he [Elijah] did not go beyond the boundaries of the earth, but who knows what kind of transportation each of these ascensions was, which lifted them off the face of the earth, yet did not remove them from earth altogether” (Homily 1 on the Ascension).
ON THREE SUNDAYS EACH YEAR Byzantine Churches commemorate the fathers of the seven great councils of the first millennium. The first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) is remembered on the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension and the seventh (Nicaea II) on the Sunday nearest to October 11. The first six councils are recalled together on the Sunday following July 13, the feast of the fourth council (Chalcedon).

Many Christian churches in America were founded by a pastor who had a Bible, a microphone and a conviction that God wanted him to preach. So he gathered a few followers (often his own relatives), rented space and scheduled services. Americans see nothing unusual in this – after all freedom of speech and individual initiative are hallmarks of the American way of doing things. Why not in the Church?

The historic Churches (those of the first centuries) saw things differently. Many of these Churches had, in fact, been founded by one of the Apostles or their co-workers. They emphasized that the Church is the Body of Christ, an organic unity of Head and members. Like St Paul, these Churches saw unity as a chief mark of the Church and that an important part of their mission was “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

Still, the first centuries saw a number of teachers with competing doctrines arise in the Church. When they were not accepted by the leaders of a local Church, these teachers or their followers often formed their own rival groups. In some places these groups became more popular than the historic Church. Arians, for example, were prominent in Constantinople through much of the fourth century and in much of the West through the fifth.

The Importance of Councils

The council – whether local, regional or ecumenical – reflects a basic understanding of Church in the Christian East. The Church is the “communion in the Holy Spirit,” a community infused with the life-giving presence of the Spirit of God. Councils reflect this image of the Church as a community. The council is a true image of the Church when it is imbued with and dependent on the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Councils function on every level of Church life in the East. In the local Church, the eparchy, the primary council is the presbyterate which shares in the sacramental ministry of the bishop. Community councils involving deacons and the laity administer the temporal concerns of the eparchy and its parishes. Wider synods govern the life of patriarchates or metropolias. With the establishment of Christianity as the dominant faith in the Roman Empire, the ecumenical council was created.

The Problem of Chalcedon

Like other councils, the Council of Chalcedon dealt with both theological and political issues. The main theological issue was how to express the mystery of Christ’s incarnation in the face of the Monophysitism taught by Eutyches, an influential priest in Constantinople and a disciple of St Cyril of Alexandria. At its second session the Council adopted the concept “two natures in one Person,” employed by Pope St. Leo the Great in a letter to Flavian, the archbishop of Constantinople. When the letter was read to the bishops, they replied, “This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! Thus the Orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!” Leo’s expression has been used in the Greek and Latin Churches ever since. Unfortunately, this term was the opposite of that used by St Cyril of Alexandria a generation earlier, describing the “one nature of the incarnate Word.”

The theological problem was made even more complex by the political, however. The first Council at Nicaea has decreed that the foremost local Churches in the Empire would be Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. At Chalcedon the 500+ bishops present recalled that “the fathers [at an earlier council in Constantinople] rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of New Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honored by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equaling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her.” Thus Constantinople (New Rome) was accorded the second place in the hierarchy previously held by Alexandria.

The Pope of Rome, St Leo the Great, at first objected to this realignment as contrary to the canons of Nicaea I but he later relented and it became law in the empire. The Churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and – because it was the site of the Lord’s death and resurrection – Jerusalem would be the foremost local Churches in the empire. This group of five sees would be known as the pentarchy and their ranking is recognized in the Byzantine Churches to this day.

Thus not only was Roman theological terminology deemed more precise than Alexandrian, the Byzantine see was given precedence over that of Alexandria. The Alexandrian bishops at first delayed and finally refused to accept the decrees of this council and the Egyptian Church was divided into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian parts. Those who accepted Chalcedon were called “Melkites” or Royalists; those who did not called themselves “Copts,” i.e. true Egyptians.

The Copts would later be joined by the Armenians and many Syriac-speaking members of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Along with their daughter Churches in Ethiopia and India, the non-Chalcedonians are today known as the “Oriental Orthodox Churches.”

A New Chapter

These divisions were hardened in the thousand years of Islamic rule in the Middle East. Each Christian group – Melkite, Nestorian and non-Chalcedonian – was designated a separate millet (nation), with its own laws, insuring that the Christians remained disunited.

It was only with the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I that these Churches embarked on a new way of interacting. In 1988 the Coptic Orthodox and the Catholic Churches issued an Agreed Statement on the Incarnation. It said in part, “We believe that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos, is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.”

This was followed in 1990 by an Agreed Statement between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. “The [Chalcedonian] Orthodox agree that the Oriental Orthodox will continue to maintain their traditional cyrillian terminology of ‘one nature of the incarnate Logos,’ since they acknowledge the double consubstan-tiality of the Logos which Eutyches denied. The Orthodox also use this terminology. The Oriental Orthodox agree that the Orthodox are justified in their use of the two-natures formula, since they acknowledge that the distinction is ‘in thought alone’.”

Finally, over 1500 years after Chalcedon, the Latin, Greek and Oriental Churches have come to recognize their common faith in the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ, despite the differing terminology they use to express it.

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