Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
OUR NATURE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED in Christ… our nature is being transformed in Christ… our nature will be transformed in Christ.

At first glance this may seem like a grammar exercise about verbs. In fact it is a summary of theology: exploring the magnitude of the mystery which is Christ in us.

Christ’s Coming Has Transformed Us

The focus of our Christmas celebration is most often based on the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke. They speak of the trip to Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, the magi and the star. But from the earliest days of the Church believers have seen the birth of Christ containing, as it were, the whole life and death of Christ as a seed. His acceptance of our human nature necessarily includes His acceptance of the cross and death, and His renewal of mankind by His resurrection In the same way our decision to have children must include the decision to accept the Terrible Twos, the Traumatic Teens, and all that follows.

For many religious people, when something holy comes into contact with something profane the holy thing becomes defiled. This principle is found in Judaism and Islam and accounts for the ritual washings and similar practices in these religions. The message of the Gospel, however, is that when the Holy One, the Son of God, comes into contact with something profane it is the profane thing which is changed. It is sanctified by contact with the holy. God is not defiled by His fallen creation; His creation is transformed when He enters into it in Christ. As described by St Gregory of Nyssa, “The Word in taking flesh was mingled with humanity, and took our nature within Himself, so that the human should be deified by this mingling with God: the stuff of our nature was entirely sanctified by Christ, the first-fruits of creation” (Against Appolonarius, 2).

By taking on our humanity the Word of God assumes all that we are, except sin, so that we can become by grace what He is by nature, children of the Father. Our nature is transfigured in Him. It is divinized or deified. As St Gregory the Theologian boldly expressed it, “He took our flesh and our flesh became God, since it is united with God and forms a single entity with Him” (Third Theological Oration).

Our society, and contemporary culture in general, is committed to the value and freedom of the individual. We recognize that each person has worth in himself or herself and this is good. But a stress on individualism inevitably leads to the separation of peoples from one another. At worst, people are alienated from society, from God, from one another. At the least, we find it hard to see the communal dimension to the incarnation: that the entire human race is irrevocably changed because the Son of God has come into it.

Christ’s Presence Transforms Us

“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). These final words of Christ to His disciples before His ascension affirm His continuing presence with us. His physical presence was limited in time; His spiritual presence will last as long as time itself will last. The focus on Christ’s spiritual presence is His Body, the Church. It is the mystery or sacrament of the risen Christ, which – like all sacraments – reveals His presence behind a veil. The Church is the world being transformed in Christ; at the same time it is Christ transforming the world. The faithful, insofar as they are living a life of repentance, seeking to model their lives on Christ’s, are the world being transformed. The faithful, insofar as they celebrate Christ’s presence in the Scriptures, in baptism, the Eucharist and the other mysteries – including the mystery of love for others – are Christ transforming the world. The saints are those who witness by their lives that we can be transformed and transform others in Him.

Christ’s presence in the Scriptures was at first practically limited to its public reading in the assembly. People would listen carefully so as to memorize what they heard. Only the wealthy could afford hand-copied Scriptures for their personal use. In addition Books of Scripture, particularly the Gospels, would be richly adorned, carried in procession and offered for veneration, reminding believers that Christ was truly in them. Since the invention of printing the Scriptures have become increasingly available; as a result we may not be as quick to recognize the divine presence in a paperback Bible as in the Gospel on the holy table. What enables us to experience the presence of Christ when we read the Scriptures – or, for that matter, when we assist at the Liturgy or other mysteries? St Isaac the Syrian offers the following advice: “Never approach the words of the mysteries that are in the Scriptures without praying and asking for God’s help. Say, ‘Lord, grant me to feel the power that is in them.’ Reckon prayer to be the key that opens the true meaning of the Scriptures” (Ascetical Treatises, 73).

Even more hidden to us is the presence of Christ in others. This presence calls silently for us to acknowledge Him, a call that we often are too deaf to hear. Some, like Mother Teresa and others like her, can hear that call and they become the light and salt of the Gospel sayings. The presence of these saints with their acute hearing of Christ’s voice is one of the signs that Christ is transforming the world even now.

Christ’s Return Will Transform Us

“Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). St Paul expresses here his hope in the final transformation of “all who have loved His appearing.” Like St. Paul we await our ultimate transformation at Christ’s return. As the Church celebrates Christ’s appearing in the flesh (the Nativity) and His appearing in power at the Jordan (the Theophany), we are reminded that Christ’s first coming would find its ultimate fulfillment only in His second coming.

“In His first coming He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. In His second coming He is clothed with light as with a garment. In His first coming He bore the cross, despising its shame; He will come a second time in glory accompanied by the hosts of angels. It is not enough for us, then, to be content with His first coming; we must wait in hope of His second coming. What we said at His first coming, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,’ we shall repeat at His last coming...” (From the Catecheses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem)

St Athanasios on the Incarnation



“What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it we might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? We could not have done it, for we are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.

“... Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorrupt-ion in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (On the Incarnation 34, 35).
 
RESEARCHING FAMILY HISTORY has become a favorite pastime for many Americans seeking to discover their roots. One reason for this resurgent interest is that, for many, family history was ignored for so long. Many Americans see themselves as forward-looking rather than fixated on their past. The growing interest in genealogical research shows that at least some Americans want to know where they came from.

In more traditional societies one’s family tree may be a source of pride or amusement, but it is always an object of interest. Little wonder, then, that the first Christians displayed an interest in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ. They had encountered Him healing the sick and touching their hearts. They knew Him as the One who forgave sins, raised the dead and rose Himself. They looked to His ancestry to discover more who He really was.

“Son of David, Son of Abraham”

St. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-16); it is the passage we read each year on the Sunday before Christmas. The first words of the passage – biblios geneseos Iisous Christos – translated literally as “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” – would remind the reader of the entire sweep of Jewish history by harkening back to Genesis, the first Book of the Torah. They would realize that Christ was both the beginning and the climax of God’s dealing with the human race, starting in the Garden.

Matthew’s genealogy portrays Christ as descended from David through the house of Joseph, His adoptive father. Since the time of King David (tenth century bc) Jewish rulers had based their authority on their connection to David. The awaited Messiah was portrayed in Jewish tradition as the “son of David” for a similar reason: to show that he, like David, was anointed by God to be Israel’s deliverer.

In this passage Jesus’ ancestry is traced back another millennium to the patriarch Abraham with whom God had made His first covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. For the first Christians, portraying Jesus as the son of Abraham meant that He was the personification of the nation, heir to the promises made by God to Abraham and to his seed, “who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).

Commentators have pointed out other aspects of this passage which reflect the early Church’s faith in Christ. In this listing of fathers and sons we find two women – and foreign women at that. Jesus is not only son or Abraham and David. He is son of all mankind: Jew and Gentile, male and female, truly one of us in the flesh.

Finally, we note that besides being an exercise in genealogy, this passage is also built on numerology: the significance of numbers in the narrative it recounts. The ancestry of Christ is divided into three groups of fourteen, the numerological equivalent of “David.” Several less than worthy individuals are removed from the Old Testament lists to come up with this number, leaving us with a catalog of the righteous ancestors of Christ.

This grouping also alludes to the 28-day lunar cycle. Like the star of Bethlehem, the moon is introduced to show the cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth. These interpretations suggest that Matthew’s genealogy is an example of what Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, called “interpreted history”: based on events that actually happened, but as they were “interpreted and understood in the context of the Word of God.”

“Son of Adam”

St Luke’s Gospel also contains a genealogy: one with a different placement and a different emphasis. While Matthew connects Jesus’ lineage with the story of His birth, Luke places it in the context of His hearers’ idea of Him. “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed), the son of Joseph, the son of…” (Luke 3:23). And while Matthew emphasizes the connections between Jesus, David and Abraham, Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke, of Gentile origin, traces Christ back to the beginnings of the human race, stressing His connection with all mankind. Jesus is not only a son of Israel but of the entire human race.

Many commentators have noted other discrepancies between these genealogies which would be contradictory if these passages were not “interpreted history.” Thus St. Ambrose sees Matthew showing Christ’s royal family heritage and Luke stressing his priestly connection. “We should not consider one account truer than the other,” he writes, “but that the one agrees with the others in equal faith and truth. According to the flesh, Jesus was truly of a royal and priestly family, King from kings, Priest from priests” (Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Luke, 87-88).

Fr John Custer summarizes another theological message in Luke. “Adam has no other ‘father’ but God and no ‘mother’ but the virgin earth from which he was taken. Adam became a ‘living being when God breathed into him’ (Genesis 2:7). All this resembles the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary in the conception of Jesus, whose only true father is God” (The Holy Gospel, a Byzantine Perspective, p. 408).

“In the Beginning Was the Word”

While not offering a genealogy in the same sense, St John’s Gospel begins with another Genesis-like statement on the Lord’s origins. Using the same opening words as the Book of Genesis (definitely not an oversight), John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through Him, and without him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1). The Son of God became incarnate in time (John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”) but even before that, before time, He was with the Father as His eternal Son. Thus the Gospels present us with a panoramic vision of the eternal Word become one of us: Son of Abraham and David, son of Seth and Adam, King and Priest, the only-begotten Son of the Father, of whose fullness we have all received.

Canon of the Fore-feast, Ode 3



The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary without seed. Let us lift up our voices to the Lord and say: “You have lifted us up from our fallen state. Holy are You, O Christ our God!”

~The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. We sing to Him! And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary for He willed to lift up the human race which fell through the deadly advice of the serpent.

~He who is enthroned in the highest Heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit saw the humiliation of the human race. The Son of the Father, without beginning, enters into time. Behold, He allows Himself to be born in the flesh as man!

~The All-Holy One who surpasses the angels and all creation in holiness now gives birth in the flesh to the Messenger of the Father, the Angel of His Great Counsel, in order to lift up those who ceaselessly sing, “Holy are You, O Christ our God!
 
THE LITURGICAL PREPARATION for the feast of Christ’s Nativity begins today with the Sunday of the Forefathers, which commemorates all those whose lives set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. Next week we observe the Sunday of the Ancestors of Christ, when we hear St Matthew’s genealogy of those who were Christ’s physical ancestors.

The Sunday of the Forefathers intensifies the countdown to the feast of Christ’s Nativity. During the Nativity Fast we celebrate the memorials of several Old Testament prophets – Obadiah (Nov. 19), Nahum (Dec. 1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zepheniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16), and Daniel (Dec. 17). Today we reflect on how the entire Old Testament period has been a preparation for Christ and how we are called to be ready for His ultimate triumph.

Prophecies of the Messiah

It is appropriate today to reflect on what the Scriptures tells us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older that 1000 BC are approximate. The liturgical preparation for the feast of Christ’s Nativity begins today with the Sunday of the Forefathers, which commemorates all those whose lives set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. Next week we observe the Sunday of the Ancestors of Christ, when we hear St Matthew’s genealogy of those who were Christ’s physical ancestors. The Sunday of the Forefathers intensifies the countdown to the feast of Christ’s Nativity. During the Nativity Fast we celebrate the memorials of several Old Testament prophets – Obadiah (Nov. 19), Nahum (Dec. 1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zepheniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16), and Daniel (Dec. 17). Today we reflect on how the entire Old Testament period has been a preparation for Christ and how we are called to be ready for His ultimate triumph. Prophecies of the Messiah It is appropriate today to reflect on what the Scriptures tells us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older that 1000 BC are approximate.

Before Time – The Word was with God before anything material came to be (John 1:1-4). It is through this eternal Word that our material creation comes into being.

The Pre-History of the Israelitesbefore 4000 BC – The creation of our universe, the human race falls away from communion with God, life on earth as we know it begins (Genesis 1-3). Genesis actually contains two creation stories. The first (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is a version of an older Babylonian myth re-edited to teach that creation is by the will of the only true God, not the result of warring gods and demons. It is cast in the form of a single week to promote the character of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Its narrative (creation begins with a burst of light followed by the creation of the planets, etc.) harmonizes with the modern Big Bang theory and subsequent discoveries.

Genesis, continues with the story of the creation and the fall of Adam and Eve. This tragic story concludes with these words addressed to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Many Fathers saw this as the first heralding of the Messiah’s victory over sin and death (the “proto-gospel”). Satan’s seeming defeat of Christ on the cross is but a striking of His heel while Christ’s striking at his head is His ultimate defeat of Satan. It would take countless generations – from the beginning of humanity, through the years of both Old and New Testaments and the subsequent history of this age – for this event to be fulfilled.

Before 3000 BC – Sin prevails and increases, illustrated by Cain and Abel and Lamech, Noah and the Great Flood, (Genesis 4-9). According to Jewish tradition, God makes a new covenant with Noah after the flood. Man is committed to observe the seven Noahide Laws prohibiting idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, and the eating of meat with its blood (i.e. while the animal is still alive). They are also enjoined to establish courts of law.

The Prophets Read in the Church

At the time of the Hebrew kingdoms (the six or seven hundred years before Christ) prophets were periodically calling the people to trust in God despite the troubles of their nation. Despite conflicts with the Philistines or the Assyrians, and even in the midst of defeat and exile by the Babylonians and occupation by the Romans, the prophets encouraged the people to trust in God who would provide a deliverer.

After the death and resurrection of Christ the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit came to see these prophecies fulfilled in a decisive way by Jesus Christ, who delivers all mankind – not just the Jewish people – from its ultimate enemies, sin and death, not just foreign oppressors. Around the Old Testament prophecies of a deliverer the apostles built their preaching of the true Messiah (Anointed One) of God, Christ Jesus the Savior. What we call the Old Testament was the Bible for the early Church as well as for Judaism and its prophecies shaped the presentation of the incarnation in the New Testament. As the following quotations show, the apostles considered these prophecies as clearly pointing to the coming of Christ:

His Conception (Isaiah 7:14, cited in Matthew 1:23) - “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”

The Place of His Birth (Micah 5:2, cited in Matthew 2:6) - “Bethlehem…out of you shall come a ruler…”

The Flight into Egypt (Hosea 11:1, cited in Matthew 2:15) - “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The Slaughter of the Infants (Jeremiah 31:15, cited in Matthew 2:18) - “A voice was heard in Ramah…”

His home in Nazareth (possibly Judges 13:5, cited in Matthew 2:23) - “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Other prophecies were frequently cited as pointing to Jesus as the Messiah:

• Numbers 24:17 - “a star shall come forth out of Jacob…”

• Isaiah 11:1 - “There shall come forth a shoot from the root of Jesse…”

• Isaiah 60:5-6 “…they shall bring gold and frankincense”

While there are no verbatim quotations of prophecies in Luke’s infancy narratives, there are allusions to Old Testament scriptures throughout. In Luke 1:17, for example, John the Baptist is described by the angel as going “before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” This alludes to Malachi 4:5-6: “Behold I am sending to you Elijah the Thesbite before the great and notable day of the Lord comes.”

These allusions, and others throughout the Gospels, reflect the early Church’s belief that the entire Old Testament leads us to see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Our Preparation Continues

From December 20 to 24 we observe a five-day “holy week” during which Christ’s birth seems ever closer. As we sing during those days, “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth.”

This fore-feast of the Nativity culminates on December 24, the Paramony of the feast. Usually translated as vigil or eve, paramony actually refers to the uninterrupted nature of the Church’s prayer on this day. During the day the lengthier Great Hours or Royal Hours are chanted, followed by the Typika and a more elaborate than usual Great Vespers, to which is attached the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil.

A special service of Great Compline with a Litia for the feast ends the day. Sometimes this leads directly into the Orthros and Divine Liturgy of December 25. In some countries of Eastern Europe it culminates with a Holy Supper prior to the Liturgy. The same cycle of uninterrupted prayer is also prescribed for the Feast of the Theophany on January 5.

Let us offer up a hymn to the fathers who shone forth before the Law and under the Law, and who, by their upright will, were pleasing to the Lord and Master Who shone forth from the Virgin, for they now delight in the unfading light.

Canon of the Forefathers, Ode 1
 
THE CHURCHES OF EAST AND WEST generally commemorate the saints on the day of their death, their “heavenly birthday,” as some describe it. In addition the Church remembers three conceptions: those of Christ (the Annunciation, March 25), of His Mother (December 9), and of St John the Forerunner (September 23). We celebrate these days as festivals recognizing that each was sanctified even before their birth in view of the tremendous role they played in salvation history: Christ by virtue of His divine nature and Mary and John by the grace of God given them.

In the Byzantine calendar, as in that of the West, Christ’s conception is celebrated exactly nine months before the festival of His birth. With the Theotokos and the Forerunner the nine months are not exact. Mary’s conception is remembered on December 9 and her nativity on September 8. St John’s conception is remembered on September 23 and his birth of June 24. This is a way of saying that the three conceptions were not identical: Christ’s was unique.

The Story of Mary’s Conception

The conceptions of Christ and the Forerunner are recorded in chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke. The story of Mary’s conception is not found in the canonical Scriptures but in the mid-second century Protoevangelium (or Pre-Gospel) of St James. This text tells that, for many years, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, were childless and the couple suffered much reproach as a result. When they were in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice to God, the High Priest, Issachar, upbraided Joachim: “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” Both spouses gave themselves to fervent prayer, and the Archangel Gabriel announced to each of them separately that they would be the parents of a daughter who would bring blessings to the whole human race. The icon of the feast shows Saints Joachim and Anne embracing, after each had run to share the news of their daughter-to-be. The icon also very prominently displays a bed to indicate that this conception took place by the usual physical means, unlike the conception of Christ.

The first record of this feast being celebrated is from fifth-century Palestine. It spread to southern Italy during the eighth century and from there to England, France, Germany, and eventually Rome. In the East this feast has always been called “the Conception (or Maternity) of St. Anne,” stressing Anne’s conceiving of the Theotokos, just as the conception of Christ is revered as “the Annunciation to the Theotokos.” In the West the feast came to be called “the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and later “the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

The Unique Holiness of Mary

All the Churches of East and West have always believed that the Virgin Mary was, from her conception, filled with every grace of the Holy Spirit in view of her calling as the Mother of Christ our God. This belief is even professed in Islam. Muslim lore records a hadith or tradition, which states that the only children born without the “touch of Satan” were Mary and Jesus, for God imposed “a veil” between them and Satan.

In the Middle Ages increasing devotion to the Mother of God in the West saw the rise of opinions on the holiness of Mary. Some came to believe that she was even conceived without human intercourse, as Christ was. Finally, in the 17th century, Pope Benedict XIV formally condemned this opinion. While it was generally believed that the Theotokos was filled with divine grace from her conception, there was no general understanding on how this happened. The Eastern Church calls Mary achrantos (spotless or immaculate), but has never defined exactly what this meant.

Following St. Augustine’s thought on original sin, the Western Church gradually came to accept the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” The Orthodox Churches rejected the dogmatic nature of this teaching pronounced by the pope as an act of piety on his own authority. Many also objected to it because it defines Mary’s holiness in terms of a certain understanding of original sin. What does “all stain of original sin” mean? Was the Mother of God exempted from the consequences of the ancestral sin (death, corruption, the effects of sin)? Some Western Catholics still believe that Mary did not (in fact, could not) die, but this has never been taught by their Church.

The “stain of original sin” was described by the sixteenth-century Council of Trent as “the privation of righteousness that each child contracts at its conception.” There is no such understanding in Eastern theology, and so to say that Mary was free of it has little meaning in the East. Perhaps this is why many Eastern Catholics, when they hear of “the Immaculate Conception” assume that it refers to the conception of Christ.

East and West agree that the Theotokos was fully human like the rest of us: what Fr Thomas Hopko calls “mere human,” unlike her Son who is a “real human” but not a mere human because He is the Word of God incarnate. In his book The Winter Pascha Hopko writes, “We are all born mortal and tending toward sin. But we are not born guilty of any personal sin, certainly not one allegedly committed ‘in Adam.’ Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents.”

The Byzantine Churches celebrate the fact of Mary’s conception on December 9, but commemorate her holiness on another feast: that of her Entrance into the Temple (November 21) In the kondakion for that feast we sing “The most pure Temple of our holy Savior, and the most precious and bright bridal chamber, the Virgin, sacred treasury of the glory of God, openly appears today in the Temple of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit. Wherefore, the angels of God are singing: This is the heavenly Tabernacle!” She did not become holy in the temple – she brought the grace of God with her. When and how did she acquire it? Human reasoning does not help us there. Nevertheless, we ceaselessly proclaim her as our “all-holy, immaculate, most highly blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever- virgin Mary.”

Veneration of the Theotokos

The historic Churches, Eastern and Western, reverence the Theotokos as blessed and ever-virgin and ask her to intercede with God for us. Most Protestants do not, in the view that there is no warrant in the Bible for such activity. Reverence for the Virgin Mary arose in the early Church in view of its growing belief that her Son, the Lord Jesus, is truly God and Man. By the second century thinkers like St Justin the Philosopher were describing Mary as the “new Eve,” in much the same way that St Paul spoke of Christ as the new Adam: “Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary conceived faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her” (Dialogue with Trypho, 100). As Eve took part in Adam’s sin, Mary was seen as somehow taking part in Christ’s reversal of Adam’s fall.
 
A WORLD-WIDE SYMBOL OF GIFT-GIVING and love, St. Nicholas (270-343) is more revered by the Church as a Wonderworker, both in life and in death. The earliest written source on the life of St. Nicholas we have comes from the early to mid-ninth century, almost 500 years after his death.

There was at least one earlier source which no longer exists. An otherwise unknown author, Archimandrite Michael, writing to someone named Leo, mentions an earlier work that has not come down to us, “Until now the spiritual program of this illustrious pastor was unknown to many people, as you yourself suppose, although some had knowledge of his grace from the lone Acts dedicated to him.”

The absence of earlier sources should not surprise us. Detailed biographies were not common in Asia Minor before the ninth century. We do find St. Nicholas mentioned in earlier writings as well as in prayers and iconography. Churches were dedicated to him, even in Constantinople, so we know that he was widely known and revered in the Greek Church. One telling point is that, while the name Nicholas was not common in the area before the fourth century, its use spread quickly after St. Nicholas’ lifetime.

Towards the middle of the ninth century, St. Methodios, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote a Life of the saint, perhaps drawing on older sources. Then we have the early tenth-century Greek text of St. Symeon the Translator, who used all the available sources known to him to compile his Life. Finally we have the first Latin Life of St. Nicholas by John the Deacon, adapted from the text of St. Methodios.

The Life of St Nicholas

Nicholas was born to wealthy Christian parents in Patara, on the southwest coast of the Roman province of Lycia in Asia Minor. He was orphaned in an epidemic while he was still young and raised by his uncle, another Nicholas, the bishop of Patara. Of a religious disposition, Nicholas was tonsured as a reader by his uncle while quite young and eventually was ordained a priest. Obeying Christ’s words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his own inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.

As a prominent Christian, Nicholas was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius, which ended in 311. In response to his deliverance, Nicholas traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. While there he reportedly lived with a group of monks in what is today Beit Jala. However Nicholas was not called to the monastic life and returned to Patara. On the return voyage the ship was threatened by a powerful storm. The terrified sailors were amazed to see the storm suddenly subside at Nicholas’ prayers. This gave rise to the custom of praying to St Nicholas as protector of seamen.

In 317 Nicholas was chosen as archbishop of Myra the provincial capital of Lycia. He was neither a great ascetic nor a martyr. His reputation rests on his pastoral concern for the people under his care, particularly the poor and the defenseless. The tenth-century life of St. Nicholas by Symeon the Translator tells of secret gift-giving to save an impoverished man’s daughters from penury. St. Nicholas secretly left money to provide a dowry for each of the daughters in turn. These stories and more became known in the West and Nicholas became a favorite saint throughout Europe.

Nicholas and Arius

In 325 Nicholas reportedly attended the First Ecumenical Council called by the emperor to combat the Arian schism prevailing in parts of the empire. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, taught that the Son was not equal to the Father but created by Him. The Holy Spirit, thought to be created by the Son, was subordinate to both. Arius’ teaching was spread throughout the Empire as an “earlier” form of Christianity than that of the official Churches. The Council, called by the emperor to restore peace and unity to the Churches, produced the first part of the Creed we use today. St Athanasius the Great, who was present at the council, wrote that 318 bishops participated. Only two finally refused to accept the Creed and it eventually became the standard of faith in all the Churches of its day.

Only a few fragments of the official acts of the council have survived. The lists of participants which have come down to us vary in the number of bishops named. Nicholas is named in a few of them and the story of his participation has become enshrined in the Church’s liturgy and iconography. Always a firm opponent of Arianism, Nicholas reputedly opposed Arius personally at the council. As John the Deacon described it, “Animated like the Prophet Elias with zeal for God, he put the heretic Arius to shame at the synod not only by word but also by deed, smiting him on the cheek.”

Nicholas, the account continues, was deposed as a result. His omophorion and Gospel Book, signs of his office, were confiscated and he was imprisoned. During the night the Lord Jesus and the Theotokos appeared to Nicholas in prison, restoring the items taken from him. When the emperor was notified of what had happened, he pardoned Nicholas and reinstated him.

Since the eye-witnesses at the council, St Athanasius and Eusebius of Caesarea do not mention any such incident in their writings, modern authors tend to discount it. Nevertheless, icons of St. Nicholas often depict his vision of Christ and the Theotokos returning his omophorion and Gospel.

St Nicholas became an increasingly influential public figure later in his episcopate. He successfully intervened to save three convicted looters who had been condemned to death, falsely accused of murder. When a famine struck the region in 333 Nicholas intercepted a ship laden with wheat bound for Constantinople. He persuaded the seamen to leave a substantial portion for the people of Myra. When the ship arrived at the imperial capital it was found that it still had its entire original cargo. Nothing was missing. Another often-repeated story tells how the emperor had levied a heavy tax on the people of Myra. St Nicholas went to Constantinople and pleaded successfully with the emperor to have the taxes reduced. Nicholas dispatched the decree to Myra immediately by sea so that, when the emperor had second thoughts about the tax cut, St Nicholas could tell him that it had already been enforced.

The “Manna” of St. Nicholas

Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, 343 and was buried in his cathedral. His tomb became a famous pilgrimage site, blessed with many miracles. The tomb exuded a sweet-smelling liquid called the Manna of St. Nicholas. As a result his relics were not disturbed and parceled out to other churches. After the Seljuk Turks conquered the area, Italian merchants in Venice and Bari sought to “rescue” the saint from the Turks. In 1087 seamen broke into the tomb and spirited away the saint’s body to Bari. It was enshrined by the pope in a great basilica built there in Nicholas’ honor. The Manna continued to exude from the tomb in Bari as it had in Myra. Every year to this day a vial of this fluid is extracted from the tomb, mixed with blessed water and given to the faithful.
 
PEOPLE WHO FOLLOW the world news reports in the media have become familiar with the Arabic word jihad describing certain radical movements in Islam. What the news reports don’t mention is that jihad, or struggle, is also a fundamental dynamic in Christian spirituality. It is more commonly referred to in Christian writings in the Greek equivalent, ascesis (asceticism), which also means struggle.

In the famous passage from Ephesians read at today’s Liturgy, St Paul describes this struggle in physical imagery, while insisting that our opponents are spiritual, not physical. In v. 12 he says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.” In some English translations the Greek word pali (wrestle) is translated as contend or struggle to avoid the suggestion of physical wrestling. The struggle is spiritual because our opponents are ‘the rulers of the darkness of this age.”

In the first century ad, when this epistle was written, the Roman world was characterized by belief in many gods and goddesses, the worship of the emperor and the promotion of social practices such as abortion and infanticide. Early Christians identified such practices as “works of the flesh” and distanced themselves from them, affirming their higher allegiance to the kingdom of God.

The letter from an unnamed disciple to Diognetus, written in the early second century, summed up this conflict of allegiances: “Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

“They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word--what the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.”

>What Is the Darkness of Our Age?

Every age has its own version of the culture of darkness: works of the flesh which “everybody” sees as acceptable and which takes us far from the way of Christ. Over the past century, people in our “modern age” have glorified genocide, human trafficking, racism and slavery as acceptable and in some cases even as divinely sanctioned. Simply because the state or the dominant population sees something as a good, does not make it alright before God.

Christians today, as in the first centuries, are called to live in the world, yet not to be of the world: not to embrace the values of the age when they conflict with the Gospel of Christ. Some of the values of this age today resemble those of first-century Rome while others have changed. We can identify the following:

Belief in many gods – While few in our society honor the gods of paganism, many accept no god or moral authority above the individual. Each individual is free to be their own god, as it were. This belief in the autonomy of each individual has freed many people from being dominated by more powerful forces. It has also deceived people into believing that they have a “right” to anything they fancy. They can determine their own gender at will, transform the nature of marriage or determine the length of their own life. Abortion has become a woman’s “reproductive right,” with no reference to the “rights” of the child she is carrying. Belief in our autonomy makes gods of us all.

Belief in politics – We do not worship an emperor as did the Romans, but we may be said to worship politics. A value is often embraced, not because it is right, but because it is politically correct. If enough activists on social media espouse a value, politicians will endorse it. If a value, though righteous, is unpopular, few will risk the damage to their reputations if they endorse it. Pollsters and political analysts are now the “priests” conducting our modern version of emperor worship.

Patriotism – St Paul urged his readers to pray for the emperor and in our liturgical services we continue to intercede for all those in the service of our country. We do not, however, automatically endorse all the actions of our government or armed forces. We know that our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God. We are, in a real sense, only “sojourners” here. We are to “obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by [our] lives” (Letter to Diognetus). A true Christian presence in society elevates it, rather than simply follow its lead. The Christian presence in any country is not meant to surrender its soul to the spirit of the age, but to be the soul of the world itself.

Can you fill in the blanks on the cover drawing? If you’ve read Eph 6:10-17, you probably can.  

Christ Himself Is Our Armor



While St Paul assigns specific meanings to each element of God’s armor, we should not see these elements as disconnected or impersonal. Commenting on the passage, St Jerome stresses their interconnectedness in this way.

“From what we read of the Lord our Savior throughout the Scriptures, it is manifestly clear that the whole armor of Christ is the Savior Himself. It is He whom we are asked to put on. It is one and the same thing to say, Put on the whole armor of God and “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our belt is truth and our breastplate is righteousness – but the Savior is also called truth and righteousness. So no one can doubt that He Himself is that very belt and breastplate.

On this principle He is also to be understood as the preparation of the gospel of peace. He Himself is the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. He is the sword of the Spirit, because He is the Word of God living and efficacious, the utterance of which is stronger than any helmet and sharp on both sides.”

Commentary on Ephesians 3.6.1
 
IT IS PROBABLY SAFE TO SAY that most people would prefer to read a story than an academic treatise. Both forms might be conveying the same point, but a narrative is likely to be more compelling – and more memorable – than a dissertation. The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, the Great Feast we celebrate today, rests on such a narrative.

The story is found in The Protoevangelion of James, a second-century telling of the birth and infancy of the Theotokos. We know that in the first and second centuries ad a number of books were written about Christ and His Mother. Some were accepted by all the local Churches as presenting a true portrait of the Messiah. Others were rejected because the Christ they portrayed was not the One who had been preached by the apostles. In some He was a Gnostic philosopher, in other a magician. We call these “apocryphal gospels” and do not see them as the voice of the Holy Spirit to us. Still other books, The Protoevangelion of James among them, were revered by the Christians of their day but not considered canonical Scriptures because their content was not at the heart of the apostolic proclamation or the early Creeds. Their subject matter treated things like Jesus’ physical appearance or the early periods of Christ’s life not covered in the Gospels. They may be true but not central to our faith.

The Source of This Feast

The prayers and icon of this Feast focus on two elements of the Protoevangelion story. In the first, Mary at the age of three is presented to God in the temple at Jerusalem accompanied, as the text reads, “by the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled.” There “the priest received her, kissed her and blessed her.” After describing the scene, the Protoevangelion continues: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord like a dove that is being nurtured: and she received food from the hand of an angel” (8:1). The image of the Virgin receiving food from an angel, often represented in our icon of the Feast, points to the spiritual environment in which Mary was raised and which would prepare the holy Virgin for her future role as Theotokos.

The second vignette is shown in the upper right hand corner of this icon. There Mary sits in the innermost sanctuary of the temple, the Holy of Holies, ministered to by an angel. According to Jewish Law, no one entered the Holy of Holies: “only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (Hebrews 9:8). It is unthinkable that a child would be not only allowed there but actually live there as the Protoevangelion avows.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are given a reason why no one was allowed into the Holy of Holies: “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning” (Hebrews 9:9). By placing Mary in the Holy of Holies, the Protoevangelion is saying that the way into the Holy Place – the presence of God – now is disclosed. It is Christ, who would be incarnate in the womb of this same Mary the Theotokos. For this reason the story and its celebration have been embraced by the Tradition as affirmations of the Gospel.

Mary’s coming into the temple is portrayed as an “Entrance” on this feast in the Christian East rather than as a “Presentation” as in the West. This term puts us in mind of things like the “Great Entrance” at our Divine Liturgy or the Entrance Procession in the Western rites. Her coming is not the blessing of an insignificant child given in a “side chapel,” as it were, but a festive “prelude” or “overture” inaugurating the main event, the New Testament itself. Our celebration of this feast focuses on Mary as the temple of the incarnate God, the one for whom the Jerusalem temple was only a prefiguration.

After their entry with Christ into Jerusalem, His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to the temple and the buildings in its compound. Jesus replied, “‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’” (Matthew 24:2). This feast celebrates the fulfillment of His prophecy. God’s people will no longer reach heaven via Jerusalem; rather the heavens have been opened to us and God’s temple, the Theotokos, is become for us the way to heaven through her childbearing.

“Hail, Full of Grace”

Perhaps the most popular hymn of this feast is the kontakion, O katharotatos naos, which summarizes in a few lines the theology we have been presenting. It reads: “The most pure Temple of the Savior, the most precious and bright bridal chamber – the Virgin, sacred treasury of the glory of God – enters today into the Temple of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit. Wherefore, the angels of God are singing: “This is the heavenly Tabernacle!”

In this hymn two teachings are affirmed. Mary is proclaimed by the angels as “the heavenly tabernacle.” The tabernacle, we know, was the portable holy place which the Hebrews brought with them in the desert until they reached the Promised Land. It was rendered into a more permanent form as the temple. She, not any building, is the holy place where God dwelled.

Secondly we are told that Mary entered the temple “bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit.” People went to the temple to encounter God, to receive His blessings. Mary, instead, brings God’s grace with her. She is proclaimed as “full of grace,” even as a child, by the angels themselves. This feast is thus for the Eastern Churches what the Immaculate Conception is to the West: a celebration of the holiness of Mary, sanctified from her earliest days by the Most Holy Spirit who dwelt in her.

As we have said it was unthinkable that a child, or anyone for that matter, should enter the Holy of Holies. But it is Mary’s rightful place as the woman full of grace, the Platytera between earth and heaven, the foremost worshipper of the Lord whom she would contain within her. Mary at Work

Icons of the annunciation often show the Holy Virgin weaving when the angel appeared to her. This vignette, too, is drawn from the Protoevangelion, which describes Mary as weaving a curtain for the Jerusalem temple with several other girls. The temple veil was like a giant patchwork quilt with each girl assigned by lots to weave a portion, each using different colors. The Virgin was given the most precious colors, scarlet and true purple. Our iconography designates these colors to represent divinity. Christ wears a scarlet or purple tunic with a blue cloak over it. This symbolizes that His divinity (scarlet) put on His humanity (blue) in the incarnation.

In icons of the Theotokos the colors are reversed. Her humanity (a blue tunic) took on divinity (a scarlet cloak) when she conceived the Lord.

From the Menaion



The holy and immaculate one is led by the Holy Spirit into the Holy of holies. She is fed by a holy angel, for she is herself the most holy temple of our holy God, who has sanctified all things by her entry and has deified the fallen nature of mortal men.

With songs let us hymn the glorious arrival of the Theotokos; for today, as the prophets foretold, she is borne into the temple as a gift of great price though she is herself the temple of God.
 
THE AMERICAN SHOPPING SEASON is at hand. Some people will spend it jostling for bargains; others will pass the time lamenting the commercialization of Christmas. The Eastern Churches, on the other hand, encourage their faithful to prepare for this feast by fasting. Each of these Churches has a pre-Nativity Fast, but each Church observes it to a different degree. Like the feast of Christ’s Nativity itself, this fast originated in the West. In ad 380 the Council of Saragossa in Spain mandated daily church attendance beginning on December 17. Pope St Leo the Great (400-461) described four Fasts, one in each season, “so that over the course of the year we might recognize that we are constantly in need of purification.” He indicated that the “winter fast” was to begin when the “ingathering of the crops was complete.” In France it was specified in the next century that this Fast begin on November 11, the feast of St Martin; the Fast was called “St Martin’s Lent.”

The Eastern Churches are first documented as observing this Fast between the sixth and the eighth centuries. Originally this Fast lasted one week, as in the Armenian Church today. In the eleventh century Pope Christodoulos of Alexandria lengthened it to forty days for the Coptic Church. The Byzantine Church followed suit in the next century. The Syrian Churches (Chaldeans, Indians, etc.) keep it for three to four weeks in December, climaxing the Season of Annunciation.

Why Do We Fast?

St Simeon of Thessalonika, writing in the fifteenth century, explained the purpose of this Fast in terms of its length. “The Nativity Forty-day Fast represents the fast undertaken by Moses, who—having fasted for forty days and forty nights—received the Commandments of God, written on stone tablets. And we, fasting for forty days, will reflect upon and receive from the Virgin the living Word—not written upon stone, but born, incarnate—and we will commune of His Divine Body.” As Moses received the Law after his forty-day fast, we will receive the living Word incarnate at the end of this Fast.

One thread running through this Fast is the remembrance of the time before the Incarnation. Mankind was in one sense disconnected from God, having lost the intimacy with Him which we were meant to have because we were created in His image. Fasting is our way to express our sorrow at man’s loss of fellowship with God.

The process of recovering this intimacy with God climaxed with the Incarnation, but was prepared for centuries by the Old Testament prophets. During the Nativity Fast we commemorate the prophets Nahum (12/1), Habakkuk (12/2), Zepheniah (12/3), Daniel and the Three Young Men in the Furnace (12/17). On the second Sunday before the feast we remember all those in sacred history who came before Christ and prepared the way for Him – His ancestors and ours.

When and How Do We Fast?

Each patriarchate and other local Byzantine Church has a slightly different way of keeping this Fast. According to one tradition a person should fast from meat and dairy for the forty days, but only need fast from fish after December 17. Another tradition holds that fish may be eaten throughout the Fast, but only on Saturdays and Sundays.

In Greece and the Middle East it is customary to mitigate the fast on Tuesdays and Thursdays until December 12 (Greece) or December 19. In the Melkite Church the fast has been shortened to begin on December 10 but to continue uninterrupted after then.

The number of feast days at the beginning of the forty days may account for these practices. Besides the Great Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (November 21 to 25), we observe feasts in honor of these popular saints: the Apostles Matthew (11/16) and Andrew (11/30), Sts Catherine of Alexandria (11/25), Barbara, and John of Damascus (12/4), Saba the Sanctified (12/5) Nicholas the Wonder-worker (12/6), the Maternity of St Anne (12/9), and St Spyridon the Wonderworker (12/12). In addition, of course, we in the U.S. also have the national holiday of Thanksgiving during this time. That doesn’t leave much time for fasting!

There are no penitential services appointed for this Fast like those we know during the Great Fast. Greeks, who do not generally do so otherwise, have the custom of serving the Divine Liturgy daily during these forty days. This practice echoes the idea that the Nativity Fast is a joyous fast, celebrating the immanent coming of Christ. Other Churches may serve the Akathist or the Paraclisis to the Theotokos during these days.

Character of the Nativity Fast

Many contemporary Eastern writers have encouraged the observance of the Nativity Fast in contrast to the popular Western “pre-celebration” of Christmas, which focuses on decorating, spending, and partying. They emphasize preparation for the feast in quietness and a simplified way of life. Instead of a harried pursuit of gifts and cards for people who will likely “re-gift” them for the next Christmas party, the Fast enables believers to focus on the mystery of the Incarnation, the “reason for the season.”

Many see this Fast as essential for us at this time of the year, to shift our focus from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about our appearance, our cuisine and our home decor in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X, emphasized the Nativity as the “feast of almsgiving” in which we celebrate and perpetuate Christ’s love for mankind. “The Nativity of Christ is primarily the feast of divine dispensation – the feast of charity and of almsgiving...  Through acts of mercy, extended to one another and to everyone, no matter what race we belong to, we implore the tender mercies of the divine Child, whose springs of mercies and bounties we will never be able to surpass.  As the pious Augustine says, “the lamp of our love toward our neighbors causes the divine compassion to abide in this creation.”

Pre-Nativity Hymns from the Menaion



Isaiah, dance for joy: receive the word of God. Prophesy to the Virgin Mary that the bush burning with fire will not be consumed by the radiance of our God. Let Bethlehem be prepared! Let the gates of Eden be opened! Let the Magi come forth to see wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger of beasts the salvation which the star has pointed out from above the cave, the life-giving Lord, who saves mankind! (Vespers, Nov 30)

Bethlehem, receive Mary, the City of God: in you will be born the Light that never sets. Let the angels stand in wonder in Heaven, and let mankind glorify the Lord on earth! O Magi from Persia, prepare your illustrious gifts! Shepherds, who pass the night in the fields, sing a hymn to the thrice-holy God. Let everything that has breath celebrate the Creator of All. (Matins, Nov 30)
 
THERE SEEM TO BE MORE QUESTIONS than answers in the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We are told that, when the beggar died, he was carried to Abraham’s bosom. We are not told why. We are also told that, when the rich man died, he was “in torment in Hades” (Luke 16:23). Again, we are not told why.

The implication seems to be that the rich man was punished for ignoring the beggar at his gate while he “fared sumptuously every day” (v. 19), but the parable does not say so in so many words. The consistent teaching of Christ as told in the Gospels, however, is that His followers must look beyond attaining material prosperity as the purpose of life. Christ’s followers must be focused on the kingdom of God.

Treasures in Heaven

In this parable, as elsewhere, the Lord Jesus invites us to see that we are given material wealth in this life, not for its own sake, but to be used as an investment for eternity. He teaches that material prosperity in itself does nothing for us in the long run unless we use it in a godly way. In the Sermon on the Mount we hear the Lord say, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19, 20). Here earthly treasures are not portrayed as wrong in themselves; rather it is the use to which we put them which judges us in God’s sight.

As Jesus told the rich young man who came to Him, giving to the poor turns earthly goods into heavenly treasure (see Mark 10:21). That which gives us momentary contentment here on earth can be transformed into a source of eternal satisfaction by giving it away.

At a dinner in a Pharisee’s house, the Lord gave the following instruction: “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you; but you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). The reward of those who practice this kind of generosity will be in the age to come.

Later in his Gospel, St Luke would present us with the story of a man who learned how to use his riches: Zacchaeus the tax collector. When Zacchaeus vows to give half of his wealth to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he may have defrauded, the Lord’s response is “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9); Zacchaeus has valued godliness above material possessions. As a result he attained the kingdom of God.

How to use a person’s possessions in a godly way was a favorite theme of many Church Fathers. Commenting on the Beatitudes, St Ambrose of Milan would note that Jesus “does not condemn those who have riches, but those who do not know how to use them” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 5, 69). Preaching in the cathedral at Antioch, St John Chrysostom urged his hearers to be generous to the beggars at the church door, not rushing past them as if they were “pillars, not human bodies… lifeless statues, not breathing human beings” (Sermons on Genesis 5,3).

During St John Chrysostom’s years as a priest in Antioch, the Church there maintained numerous ministries to the needy (widows, virgins, the sick, the disabled, the imprisoned and travelers) as well as providing food and clothing daily to anyone in need of them. Still, the saint insisted that church members could not hide behind these organized ministries to excuse their personal lack of compassion for those in need. “Can [someone else’s hospitality] benefit you?” he chided. “If another man prays, does it follow that you are not bound to pray?” In other words, you cannot expect to be rewarded by referring the needy to someone else! People often excuse themselves from helping the needy by pointing to their own needs. They forget the widow whom the Lord observed at the temple treasury: “Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much.  Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them,  ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood’” (Mark 12:41-44). Jesus would not have approved of her action if it were not truly an investment in eternity.

It’s in the Scriptures

In the parable, the rich man and Abraham engage in a dialogue, which is actually the climax of the tale. The rich man pleas, “I beg you therefore, father, that you would send [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ 

“Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’  And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead’ ” (Luke 16:27-31).

The rich man wants a spectacular intervention to convince his brothers to follow the way of compassion. But Abraham refuses: “the way of compassion is no secret; it is on practically every page of the Law and the Prophets” – what we call the Old Testament. The rich man knows that his brothers routinely ignore the testimony of the Scriptures, but that is precisely the testimony which God has provided for them.

We have more than Moses and the prophets – we have the testimony of Christ in the Gospels and of the saints in the life of the Church. The parable suggests that, if these are not enough to persuade us to follow the way of compassion, then we too will share the fate of the rich man.

On Lazarus and the Rich Man

“The rich man, in purple splendor, is not accused of being greedy or of carrying off the property of another, or of committing adultery or, in fact, of any wrongdoing. The only evil of which he is guilty is pride

“Most wretched of men, you see a member of your own body lying there outside of your gate, and have you no compassion? If the laws of God mean nothing to you, at least take pity on your own situation and be in fear, for perhaps you might become like him. Give what you waste to your own member, I am not telling you to throw away your wealth. What you throw out – the crumbs from your table – offer as alms.

“Lazarus was lying at the gate in order to draw attention to the cruelty paid to his body and to prevent the rich man from saying, ‘I did not notice him. He was in a corner. I could not see him. No one announced him to me.’ He lay at the gate. You saw him every time you went out and every time you came in. When your crowds of servants and clients were attending you, he lay there full of ulcers.”

St Jerome of Stridon
 
IN HIS PREACHING OF CHRIST to the Gentiles St Paul was challenging the heart of Jewish practice in his day: the necessity of observing the Law. What was required, he taught, was faith in Christ.

In writing to the Galatians, St Paul mentioned an objection which he probably heard from critics: “if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin?” (Galatians 2:17) In other words, if a Christian sins, is that the fault of his faith or even of Christ in whom he believes?

St Paul would go on to say that it is a sinner’s heart, rather than his faith which is at fault. He believes in Christ, but does not act consistently with his belief. As one popular expression has it, “He talks the talk, but does not walk the walk.”

The Dark Side of the Church

There are many believers who sincerely wish to follow Christ, but are not able to control their passions in line with their faith. There are others who dismiss the Church’s traditional teachings as outdated, if these teachings contradict their own preferred way of life. Still others simply ignore Christ’s way of life because they have the power to do so. They have been called the dark side of the Church.

Sergei Fudel was a young Russian layman of twenty when he was first arrested for his religious activities in the Soviet Union. He spent the next twenty-five years in prisons, labor camps and internal exile. He witnessed many acts of infidelity on the part of clergy and other Christians, whom he called “the dark double of the Church.” Many people have been hurt in such circumstances. Some have even left the Church as a result.

In response, Fudel echoed the teaching of Moscow priest Valentine Sventitsky: “a sin within the Church is not a sin of the Church, but against the Church.” Evil has always existed within the very enclosure of the Church, Fudel stressed, noting the example of Judas. “We must see this with our eyes open, always remembering that ‘He who dipped his hand with Me in the dish will betray Me.’” (Matthew 26:23)

“The Church,” Fudel insisted, “is only Christ in His humanity, it is His Body… Breaking away from the Church because of the moral derelictions we see in it is religiously foolish and reflects our inability to think things through. Anything wrong, distorted and impure that we see within the gates of the Church is not the Church.”

God Makes Up for Our Failures

It is the Church’s traditional belief that the whole Church – those in heaven as well as those on earth – are present at its worship. Our liturgical texts are written with this faith in mind. Thus we sing at the Presanctified Liturgy, “Now the Powers of Heaven minister invisibly with us. For, behold, the King of Glory enters.”

From time to time people have been made deeply aware that the whole Church is with us when we worship. The Russian priest-confessor Arseny Streltzoff, held captive in a Soviet prison camp, was singled out for special punishment for trying to stop the beating of another prisoner, a non-believer named Alexei. Both Fr Arseny and Alexei were put in an outdoor steel cell in below freezing weather. They were not expected to survive. Fr Arseny saw this isolation as a chance to pray freely and without restraint. His companion told how the priest’s clothes were transformed as he prayed into brilliant white priestly vestments. “There was no more cell; now they were in a church… Alexei saw with surprise that there were two men assisting Fr Arseny. Both were dressed in the same bright vestments and both shone with an undefinable white light.” Alexei saw the universal Church in his punishment cell. Needless to say, he became a believer.

Fudel tells the following remarkable story that illustrates how God works to preserve holiness in His Church despite our failings. If what we see is the “dark double” at work, the angels and saints supply what is lacking.

“A five-year-old boy was baptized in a parish church. A week later he and his grandmother were walking when they met the priest in the street. ‘Say hello to Father,’ said Granny, ‘he baptized you.’ ‘No,’ answered the boy, ‘he did not baptize me, an angel baptized me and Father was lying on a bench, with his hands tied down.’”

A similar confirmation is attributed to a most unlikely source, the nineteenth-century German romantic poet Clemens Brentano. A frequent visitor to the nun and visionary, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), Brentano recorded his recollections of their conversations. In one such recollection, she reportedly spoke of a vision:

“I beheld pictures referring to the defects in divine worship and how they are supernaturally repaired…  God receives the honor due Him from a higher order. Among other things I saw that when priests have distractions during the sacred ceremonies, Mass, for instance, they are in reality wherever their thoughts are — and during the interval a saint takes their place at the altar… Sometimes I see a priest leaving the sacristy vested for Mass; but he goes not to the altar. He leaves the church and goes to a tavern, a garden, a hunt, a maiden, a book, to some rendezvous, and I see him now here, now there, according to the bent of his thoughts, as if he were really and personally in those places. It is a most pitiful and shameful sight!  “But it is singularly affecting to behold at this time a holy priest going through the ceremonies of the altar in his stead. I often see the priest returning for a moment during the sacrifice and then suddenly running off again to some forbidden place. Such interruptions frequently last a long time.”

What Should We Do?

Among the Twelve Apostles there was a representative of the dark side – Judas. He was in a distinct minority. At other times representatives of the “dark double” have been in the majority. Think of the years that Arianism and Iconoclasm were supported by many bishops. The existence of the dark double does not render the wider Church unfruitful. It is particularly helpful to keep this wider vision of the Church in mind when we seem to see only the dark double of the Church in our midst.

Believers who are troubled by the presence of the dark double in the Church should keep in mind:

A) The Apostolic Tradition of holiness is always present in the Church. When the words or actions of individual churchmen contradict the Tradition, keep your eyes on the Tradition.

B) Remember that any of us may be distracted in prayer and “wander” to other places, good or bad when we try to pray. Ask the Lord’s help in deepening your ability to focus on the words of your prayer.

Recalling Christ’s parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), Sergei Fudel reminds us, “Either you or I, or he or she, may be weeds at this moment, and in an hour any one of us may become wheat. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons said: ‘Every man is himself the reason why he sometimes becomes wheat and sometimes straw’ (Against Heresies, Book 4, ch 4).”

Passages from Sergei Fudel’s writings, which appeared in various Samizdat journals during the Soviet era, were published in English as Light in the Darkness by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY in 1989.

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