Melkite Greek Catholic Church
The story of the Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman contains one of the most misunderstood and misused sayings of Christ in the Gospels. The woman raises the question: which is the proper place to worship God, in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim?

Jesus responded, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father... The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23).

In order to avoid discussing her irregular marital status the woman had dredged up a controversy in which Jews and Samaritans had been engaged for over a thousand years. Since the time of Moses, the focus of Jewish worship was the Tabernacle, a moveable shrine which contained the Ark, the Tablets of the Law and other relic of the Exodus. These relics were eventually placed in the Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem in 957 BC. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC; the Ark and its contents were lost.

On their return from exile in Babylon the Jews set about rebuilding their civilization, including the temple. The second temple, completed in 516 BC, stood as the focus of worship in Jerusalem for centuries. King Herod restored and enlarged it in at the beginning of the first century AD and it is this temple which Jesus knew. This second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during the Jewish revolt and has never been rebuilt.

The Samaritans insisted that worship should be conducted on Mount Gerizim. According to the Torah Moses had prophesied, “Now it shall be, when the Lord your God has brought you into the land which you go to possess, that you shall put the blessing on Mount Gerizim…” (Deuteronomy 11:29). To this day Samaritans see this as the reason why this mountain was the proper place to worship God.

Worship vs. Prayer

While the Jews had only one temple in the Holy Land, they had many synagogues. Any town might have a synagogue for prayer or study of the Torah, led by a rabbi (teacher), but the sacrifices prescribed in the Torah could only be offered in the Temple at Jerusalem by the priests (the kohanim). In some cases grain, meal, wine, or incense might be offered; in other instances bulls, sheep, goats, deer or doves would have to be slaughtered and offered. Sacrifices were generally consumed by fire, at least in part. Portions of some sacrifices were consumed by the priests.

The most solemn sacrifice of the year was that offered on Yom Kippur. Two goats were offered; the high priest slew one and drove the other out of the city, “taking away the sins” of the people. Christ’s response to the Samaritan woman concerned the authorized worship of God’s people, not personal prayer. Moderns, invoking the Lord’s saying concerning “spirit and truth,” think it refers to prayer. They see it as a rebuke of ritual or of formal prayers, versus spontaneous outpourings of the heart. Often this devolves into a focus on how God affects “my life,” what “I get out of the service,” etc. With this mindset, churches design services to be “appealing,” to “meet people’s needs,” and so on. This is no way relates to what the Lord was saying to the Samaritan woman.

The End of Temple Worship

The Lord was saying that the days of temple sacrifices were drawing to a close. He knew that His own sacrifice was at hand. Christ, the One who truly “takes away the sin of the world” would replace the sacrifices of the temple with the sacrifice of Himself - the ultimate offering for the people. Through His Church Christ’s worship of God on the cross would be accessible to all mankind, not be confined to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim or any other particular geographic location.

The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s offering of Himself to the Father in terms of the temple ritual. After describing the temple and its rites, the apostle continues: “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption ... For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often… Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:11-12; 24-27).

Our Worship in Spirit and Truth

Comparing the temple sacrifices, the sacrifice of Christ and the Divine Liturgy we see both contrast and continuity. Christ offers Himself on the cross for the sin of the world as the priests offered their sacrifices in the temple for sin. But Christ’s offering is the ultimate sacrifice, made once for all and need not be repeated.

Our worship is rather the sacrifice of praise, recalling His sacrifice without further shedding of blood and making its effects present to us as He commanded when “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19). This connection is especially evident in the Syriac Churches where the Divine Liturgy is called the Holy Qurbono, the same term used to refer to the Temple sacrifices (in Hebrew, korban). Qurban is also the term used for the prosphora among Melkites.

There are a number of elements in the Liturgy which reveal it as worship in Spirit and Truth. It begins, for example, with the priest invoking the Holy Spirit as Christ spoke of Him: the “Spirit of Truth”: “O heavenly King, Consoler, Spirit of Truth…” Confessing Him as beyond any human restriction (“everywhere present and filling all things”) the priest calls on Him to dwell within us and purify us for the work of worship which we are undertaking.

More importantly, the Liturgy actually is worship in the Spirit. It is here that we truly receive the Holy Spirit in response to the invocation of the priest. The Spirit reaches out to touch us, transforming our oblations – what the Liturgy calls our “spiritual” or “reasonable” sacrifices” – into the body and blood of Christ. In the Holy Mysteries we receive that touch and are healed. Thus we encounter the Spirit, not as a concept or as an emotional “experience,” but as a living sacramental presence striving to make us holy.

The Liturgy is also worship in Truth: in the One who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). God-centered and God-focused, our worship both flows from and expresses the heart of Christian faith: that God and man have been reconciled in Jesus Christ.

Christ our God, who receive as a sacrifice of praise and acceptable worship this reasonable sacrifice without shedding of blood from those who call upon you with their whole heart, Lamb and Son of God, who take away the sin of the world, the unblemished calf, who did not bear the yoke of sin and was willingly sacrificed for us; who are broken, yet not divided, eaten, yet never consumed, but who hallow those who eat; who in memory of Your voluntary passion and life-giving Rising on the third day have declared us to be partakers of Your ineffable, heavenly and dread Mysteries, Your holy Body and precious Blood.
Ambon Prayer, Liturgy of St Basil
When the evangelists collected their reminiscences and put them in writing, they arranged them in ways that proclaimed their faith in Him. Their belief in Him affected the way they told His story. During the first decades after Christ’s resurrection the apostles reflected on their time with Christ and how to proclaim Him to all nations. Christians have been studying the Gospels since before they were written.

The Fathers of the early Church also studied the Scriptures, some writing extensive commentaries. All these authors wrote as believers, seeking to illumine their faith with knowledge. In seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe a different approach developed. Scholars, many of them influenced by rationalist philosophy, rejected one or another aspect of the Gospel, particularly those which conflicted with this philosophy. There was no room for miracles or even the resurrection in the thought of many of these authors. It was not until the late twentieth century that this trend in biblical scholarship came to be replaced by more Scripture-friendly approaches.

Was There a Pool of Bethesda?

One of the approaches in the era of rationalist biblical scholarship was to deny the factual nature of anything in Scripture not corroborated by other contemporary evidence. If a person, place or event did not figure in other writings, it was deemed non-historical. The Gospel passage of Christ healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15) was cast into doubt because there was no evidence that this pool “having five porches” (John 5:1) ever existed. Some scholars concluded that the passage, if not the whole of John’s Gospel, was written by someone who had no knowledge of Jerusalem.

All this changed in the nineteenth century when German archeologist Conrad Schick discovered the remains of just such a pool. In the 1960s further excavations unearthed an adjacent Roman temple beneath the ruins of a Crusader era church and an even older Byzantine sanctuary.

Scholars now believe that the pool and the adjoining temple were established by the Roman garrison in honor of Asclepius, their god of medicine and health. During the Roman occupation of Jerusalem they built an arena, baths, a theater and other structures around the city. A pagan shrine, like these other signs of the Roman presence, would have been outside the city walls of Jerusalem and thus less offensive to the Jewish population. Today ruins of the Roman complex are within the walls, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Asclepius was one of the more popular gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Over 400 such shrines were reportedly functioning throughout the empire. Everyone, after all, wants good health and well-being, which were Asclepius’ “specialty.”

Was the Paralytic a Jew?

If the pool at Bethesda was a Roman shrine to a pagan god, was the paralytic a pagan rather than a Jew? The Gospel passage does not suggest it. By noting that “a great number of sick people” were there, the Gospel suggests that they were Jews. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud mentions that people were actually cured after visiting “the shrine of an idol.” The sick probably wouldn’t care who healed them if there was a chance that they could be cured.

Since the paralytic, once cured, was reproached by Jews for carrying his bed on a Sabbath it is safe to assume that the man was himself a Jew. The passage ends with the following: “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.’ The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well” (John 5:14). If the man was not a Jew; this exchange would not have taken place.

Some commentators have suggested that, if the pool was attached to a pagan shrine, Jesus would not have gone there. Others have countered that He who ate with publicans and sinners would not hesitate to go among His people wherever they were.

What About the Angel?

There remains controversy regarding the following description of the pool: “In [the porches] lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was cured of whatever disease he had” (John 5:3, 4).

The reason for the controversy is this; a number of the oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel simply do not have the end of verse 3 (“waiting for the moving of the water”) or verse 4. The earliest surviving manuscripts containing this verse are “Western” (from North Africa and Italy). The first Greek mention of John 5:4 is in a homily of St John Chrysostom. By the ninth century, however, almost all the Greek texts of the Gospel contain it. This has led most biblical scholars to consider these verses a “gloss” or commentary in the margin added by a scribe which eventually was copied directly into the text.

On the other hand, without these verses Verse 7 begs for an explanation. It says, “The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’” Who stirs up the water? – the only explanation put forth is the one in the contested verse (the angel). Perhaps this event was so well-known that the evangelist neglected to explain it and the explanation was added later. At this time we do not know with any certainty.

There is one other indication that verses 3 and 4 are a gloss. We read there that it was an angel (some versions even say “an angel of the Lord”) who stirred the water. Early Christians, however, saw any power in pagan religions as satanic. This “angel,” then, would have been a fallen angel. Thus the St Justin the Philosopher, writing in the early second century, noted that “the Devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 69). One hundred years later, Tertullian contrasted the angelic presence in the waters of baptism with the “unholy angel of the evil one [who] often does business with that same element [i.e. water], with a view to man’s perdition” (De Baptismo, 5).

Meaning of the Passage

Taking the above points into consideration we can see a deep meaning in this passage. The evangelist is contrasting the capricious, lottery-like application of the demon’s healing power at Asclepius’ pool with the loving, personal encounter which the paralytic had with Christ, the true Physician of souls and bodies. The regenerative power of Christ is open to all who seek union with Him. The Lord’s question to the paralytic at the pool, “Do you want to be made well?” is echoed by the priest’s question to the catechumen at the font, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” In each case, the desire is sufficient to evoke Christ’s healing power.

My soul has suffered cruelly for many years, O God of all goodness: do for me what You once did for the paralytic, that I may be able to walk in the ways where You invite those who love Your name.
From the Canon, Ode 3
Most regular worshippers in Byzantine churches have heard the terms “Octoechos” or “eight tones.” Some think that these terms refer principally to the troparia of the resurrection sung at Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. In fact, the term Octoechos refers to much more.

The Octoechos first of all refers to a system of eight musical tones in which liturgical music has been composed and arranged since the Middle Ages. Eight-tone systems are the basis of church music in several historic traditions. The Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Latin and Slavic Churches all use an eight-tone system, although the music of each of these Churches is vastly different from any of the others.

In Byzantine practice the Octoechos also refers to the eight-week cycle of texts and music for the daily services throughout the year. Each week in succession a different tone is used, beginning in the week of Thomas, the second week of the Paschal season. Every Saturday evening Vespers begins a new tone which is used for all the services of the following week. These texts are contained in a liturgical book called the Great Octoechos or Paraklitiki, which offers a rich source for reflection.

The idea of an eight-week cycle seems to have originated with the Jerusalem patriarchate in the fifth century. Noted hymnographers at the nearby Mar Saba Monastery such as St Cosmas of Maiuma and St John of Damascus composed hymns in this pattern. The system began to spread and was formally accepted at the Council of Trullo in 692. As the system became popular in Constantinople renowned figures such as St Theodore the Studite contributed to the Octoechos. Their works form a good part of the Octoechos today.

The Saturday evening and Sunday morning services in each tone celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, leading to the often quoted idea that “every Sunday is a little Pascha.”

Proclaiming the Resurrection

The changeable parts of our Sunday services in the Octoechos are concerned with Christ’s resurrection. During the forty days of Pascha these Resurrectional hymns are not sung only on Sundays, but every day. On the five Sundays of the season they are combined with the hymns of Pascha itself and the specific commemorations of the day.

The texts in each of the eight tones are different but they all speak of the paschal mystery. The examples cited here are all taken from the first and second tones, but the ideas which they express are representative of the other tones as well.

Some of these texts recall the events described in the Gospels: the sealed tomb, the stone rolled away, the angels’ message to the women and the news they brought to the apostles. Thus we hear the following at Vespers on Saturday evening: “The myrrh-bearing women came with haste to Your tomb, with their myrrh and their lament. Not finding Your most pure body, they learned from the angel of the new and glorious wonder. They told the apostles that the Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy.”

At Orthros on Sunday this is sung: “The soldiers keeping watch over your tomb fell down as dead, O Savior, at the lightning brightness of the angel who appeared and proclaimed the resurrection to the women.”

We also hear this hymn in which the composer adds a striking image: “The women, coming early to Your tomb trembled at the sight of the angel. The tomb shone with life and this wonder struck them. And so going back to the disciples they proclaimed the Resurrection.”

Meaning of the Resurrection

Other texts speak of the meaning of the resurrection for us. Thirteen Resurrectional hymns at Saturday Vespers in addition to the familiar troparion and over fifty others prescribed for Sunday Orthros give ample scope for composers to add theology and poetry to their proclamation of this mystery.

The greatest effect of Christ’s death and resurrection is that Death’s power to separate us from God is now destroyed. Death now need not affect more than the body – our spirits can pass with Christ through bodily death to eternal life. The hymns of the Octoechos constantly sing of the annihilation of Death: “granting life, He has slain Death... He has resurrected Adam, as the Lover of mankind...” (Tone 1 Vespers).

“You have transformed the shadow of death into life eternal,” we sing at Orthros (Tone 1), “breaking the chains of man’s mortality... granting to the human race life eternal and great mercy...” “You raised up human nature, which was held captive and You enthroned it with Your Father in heaven...” (Tone 2).

The New Testament introduces the concept that Christ descended into the depths “... and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Pt 3:19, 20). The Octoechos echoes this teaching in many hymns: “ Your power you descended into Hades and snatching, as from a mighty monster, the souls of those who awaited Your coming, You placed them in Paradise.”

“Sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jas 1:15) and so the Octoechos often connects the resurrection to the defeat of sin. ‘Emmanuel has nailed our sins to the cross and... has delivered us from our transgressions... (Tone 1 Vespers).

Images of the Resurrection

Since this bestowal of eternal life is beyond our senses, the Church often uses images to describe it in a manner our senses can grasp. The destruction of Death’s power is often depicted graphically. “O Christ, you put to shame him who held them in thrall and showed him naked and destitute by your Divine Rising” (Tone 1).

“O Christ the gates of Death opened before You in fear and the gatekeepers of Hades were filled with dread at the sight of You. You smashed the gates of brass and crushed the posts of iron. Then You burst our chains asunder and led us out from the darkness, away from the shadow of death” (Tone 2).

The Octoechos often employs Scriptural allusions to glorify the resurrection, invoking images of:

The Creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3) – “The one who planted a soul within me by His divine breath, submitted Himself to slaughter and surrendered His soul to death. He loosed the everlasting bonds, and has raised the dead with Himself, glorifying them in incorruption.” “You have abolished the curse of the tree by Your cross ... and cancelled the decree that was written against us”. “Paradise is again offered for us to enjoy...”

Cain and Abel (Gen 4) – “The earth of old was cursed, dyed with the blood of Abel from his murdering brother’s hand. Now it is blessed, sprinkled with the divine stream of Your blood.”

Jonah and the Sea Monster – “You have brought us up from Hades, Lord, by worsting the all-devouring monster of the deep, O All-powerful, and destroying his power by Your might...”

The Temple Priesthood – “He is our forerunner into the holy place” (see Hebrews 9:24)

Marriage – “You rose from the tomb as from a bridal chamber” i.e. showing that the heavenly marriage had been truly “consummated” and that God and mankind were one again.
FROM ITS BEGINNING on Lazarus Saturday until the cracking of the last red egg of Pascha, our Great Week and Bright Week services immerse us in a wealth of images, both verbal and visual, of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. In the midst of this sensory overload, there are some evocative symbols whose voices may not be heard. Yet they bring us to the heart of the Paschal Mystery.

The Newly-Illumined On Pascha our regular Saturday evening Vespers is combined with the first Divine Liturgy of the Feast. Since the Matins and Divine Liturgy during the night are so popular in our parishes, it became common to serve the Vesper-Liturgy earlier in the day. As a result many people never see this extraordinary service.

The Vesper-Liturgy includes fifteen Old Testament readings instead of the usual three. Since the catechumens are taken out at this point in the service to be baptized, these additional Scripture passages would be read until the baptisms were completed. Then the newly-baptized would be brought into the congregation during the singing of “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.” Their first full participation in the Liturgy would be on this blessed night of their baptism.

Laurel Is for Victory

The Epistle reading at this Liturgy is not followed by the usual Alleluia. Instead Psalm 81/82 is chanted with verse 8 as its refrain: “Arise, O God and judge the earth, and You shall inherit all the nations.”

In the liturgical symbolism of our Church, Holy Saturday recalls the time Christ’s body lay in the tomb while His spirit was among the dead in what the Greeks called Hades. In singing this Psalm, the Church is calling on Christ to rise from the dead and destroy the power of death, freeing people of every race and nation from its control. As we sing in one of the hymns at this service: “Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: ‘My power is destroyed! I received a mortal as if He were merely one of the dead, but I was powerless to hold Him; and, along with Him I shall lose those over whom I ruled, I held the dead from all ages; but behold, He is raising them all!’”

In the Greek tradition the priest strews bay laurel leaves and flower petals throughout the church during this Psalm. In the ancient world laurel was a symbol of victory or achievement. Wreaths of laurel were awarded to the victors in athletic games; that practice continues at the Grand Prix races to this day. In our liturgy the laurel leaves represent Christ’s victory over death, the fruit of His death and resurrection.

It is a custom in Cyprus that, while the chanters are singing and the priest is strewing the leaves, people stamp their feet, bang on the pews with sticks, even clang pots and pans as a sign of the “harrowing of hell.” The noise graphically portrays the shaking of the foundations of the earth which preceded the Resurrection (see Matthew 28:2) as Christ smashes the locks and gates of Hades and destroys death.

In the silence that speaks volumes when the psalm is finished, we see the church floor covered with the “shattered gates and broken chains of Hades.” Then the Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed: “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said” (Matthew 28:6).

“Have You Any Food?”

At the end of the Paschal Liturgy, the priest blesses a special commemorative bread called the Artos. Unlike the bread offered for the Divine Liturgy, this festive bread is baked with herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, mahleb, fennel, grains of paradise and anise. Depending on local custom, lemon zest, almond extract, honey, olive oil, eggs, or rose water and even red wine may be added to the dough as well. The loaf may be stamped with a cross or an icon of the Resurrection. In many places an actual icon is placed on top of the loaf for the people to venerate at the end of the service.

The Artos is carried in procession and venerated at every service during Bright Week. It is consumed only after this week of Paschal celebration is concluded. How can we explain the unique role this bread plays in our liturgy?

When Christ rose from the dead, the first reaction of those who saw Him was disbelief. As St Luke describes it, “…they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37). The risen Lord’s response was “Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:37). Even that was not enough to convince them all. Luke continues: “But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb and He took it and ate in their presence” (Luke 24:41-43).

The disciples believed in the reality of the Resurrection when they saw Christ eating. In St John’s Gospel, we see that the disciples were out fishing when “Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?” (John 21:5) Similarly, when the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples traveling to Emmaus, He ate with them and “He was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35).

The Artos, then, represents the true, physical nature of the risen Christ, demonstrated when He ate and drank with His disciples, although He had no need of food. Eating what was offered to Him showed that He had not abandoned His humanity when He rose from the dead. As St Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Epistle to the Smyrneans, 3:3, “After the Resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although spiritually united with the Father.” His body that rose from among the dead is the same one that suffered and died. Now this body shares in the life of glory.”

Stichera of Holy Saturday Vesper-Liturgy

Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: “Better that I had never received the One whom Mary bore, for when He came to me, He undid my power. He trampled the brazen gates, and, being God, He raised up the souls which once I held.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

Today, Hades sighs and cries aloud: “My power has been swallowed up! The shepherd has been crucified and has raised Adam up. I am deprived of those over whom I used to rule. I have vomited up all those whom I devoured in my strength. He who was crucified has emptied the graves. Death’s power has lost its strength.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

The great Moses mystically prefigured this present day when he said: “God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath! This is the day of rest on which the only–begotten Son of God kept the Sabbath in the flesh by resting in death from all His works according to the plan of salvation. Returning again to what He was through the Resurrection, He granted us eternal life. He alone is good and the Lover of mankind.
FROM ARMENIA TO EVERY CORNER of the Middle East Palm Sunday is celebrated as a feast for children. Describing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, St Matthew’s Gospel highlights the participation of children in the event. “When the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did and the children crying out in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant and said to Him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, Yes – have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise?’” (Matthew 21:15-16).

Children are singled out for mention in the first historical witness we have to this feast as well. Towards the end of the fourth century, the Spanish nun Egeria, on pilgrimage to the newly-adorned places of Palestine, described what she saw on that Palm Sunday: “As the eleventh hour draws near... all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders’ all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led... From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there though the entire city... everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.” The scene Egeria witnessed has been repeated ever since.

While today the procession is held at the end of Orthros or the Divine Liturgy, Egeria describes it as taking place “at the eleventh hour” (our five PM). This practice echoed the Gospel witness that “Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at everything, He went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). There they spent the night.

Children and the Church Today

Palm Sunday services attract large numbers of families who may never attend the Liturgy otherwise. Many clergy blame negligent parents; others feel that the Church has not tried hard enough to reach these parents.

Still others say that the Church spends too much effort educating children while ignoring adults. After all, they reason, the Lord blessed children but directed His teaching at adults.

Russian Orthodox Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov offers another insight. He suggests that, instead of debating about whether we should teach children, we should reexamine what we do with them. Are we emphasizing secondary matters when we should be introducing them to Christ? He writes: “Children at the age of eight or nine go to church and sing on the kliros, amazing and delighting everyone around them. But by the age of fourteen to sixteen, many – if not the majority – stop going to church.

“Children have not become acquainted with God. No, they are of course acquainted with the lives of saints, and with sacred history as arranged for children. But they are not acquainted with God Himself. No encounter has taken place. The result is that parents, Sunday Schools and – sad as it is – priests have built the house of childhood faith “upon the sand” (Matthew 7:26), and not upon the rock of Christ.

“How can it happen that children do not notice God, despite all the most sincere efforts of adults to instill faith in them? How can it turn out that children still do not find within themselves the strength to discern Christ the Savior in their childhood lives and in the Gospel?

“When responding to this question, we raise yet another adult problem, one that is reflected in our children as in a mirror. This is when parents and priests teach one thing, but live in another way. This is a most frightful blow to the tender strength of childhood faith, an unbearable drama for their sensitive minds.”

“If children only come to church on Palm Sunday, is it because their elders – parents, relatives, adults around them –have not reflected to them their own encounter with the Lord themselves.”

Our Holy Week and Jerusalem

In 326-28 the Empress Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Palestine at the behest of her son to mark the places where Christ lived and died by constructing shrines and churches. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, she was chiefly responsible for two great churches, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (still in existence), and a church on the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s ascension. She also took part in the excavations at the site of the Lord’s death and burial outside Jerusalem, where the Church of the Resurrection stands today. It soon became the practice for great celebrations to take place at these sites, particularly when the events which took place there were being observed. It was at thee shrines that historical commemorations of the events of the Lord’s passion were first conducted.

In time, local Churches throughout the Mediterranean world began to imitate the appealing Jerusalem practices, developing the historical observances of Holy Week as we know them today.

The Power of the Redemption

The first observances of Pascha in both East and West, however, were not attempts to recreate the events of the Lord’s Passion. Rather they were focused on the effects of the Lord’s death and resurrection in the lives of the faithful. Thus the highpoint of the Resurrection celebration was the bestowal of union with Christ and the forgiveness of sins through the baptism of catechumens, which took place before the Paschal Liturgy, and the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday: those whose serious sins had excluded them from the community.

In the same spirit, Byzantine Churches today offer the Mystery of Holy Unction on the Wednesday before Pascha. People are anointed for the healing of their spiritual infirmities, uniting them with Christ, in the power of His death and resurrection.

On Celebrating This Feast

“In His humility, Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and He is glad that He became so humble for our sake: glad that He came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to Himself. And even though we are told that He has now ascended above the highest heaven – the proof, surely of His power and godhead –His love for mankind will never rest until He has raised our earthbound nature to glory, and made it one with His own in heaven.

“So let us spread before His feet – not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither – but ourselves, clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that are spread before Him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms, but with the real rewards of His victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel!
St Andrew of Crete
AS THE GREAT FAST DRAWS TO A CLOSE we are presented with the story of St Mary of Egypt. Her Life, by St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, is read on the Thursday of Repentance, along with the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. On the fifth and last Sunday in the Great Fast, Mary herself is commemorated. The story of her early dissolute life, her remarkable conversion, and the asceticism which characterized the rest of her days made her the classic model of repentance in both East and West.

The second figure in St Sophronios’ Life stands in complete contrast to his principal subject. St Zossima (April 4) is described as a devout monk in an unnamed Palestinian monastery. While Mary lived a free-wheeling and undisciplined life before her conversion, Zossima had been raised in the monastery since his infancy. This practice was not uncommon before the modern age.

We are told in the Life that Zossima "…had been through the whole course of the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his tutors concerning spiritual labors. He had even added much himself in his efforts to subject his flesh to the will of the spirit.” Thus, while Mary was indulging her every carnal desire, satisfying her “insatiable desires and irrepressible passions” (as she described it), Zossima was learning to subject his passions to the spirit.

The Life insists that “he had not failed in his aim. He was so renowned for his spiritual life that many came to him from neighboring monasteries and some even from afar.” Zossima, we are told, “never ceased studying the Divine Scriptures… his sole aim being to sing of God and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures.”

Zossima’s Dilemma

When Zossima, by then a heiromonk, had spent some fifty years in the monastery, he came to think that he had attained a certain level in the ascetic life beyond his fellows. He knew that he had not exhausted the spiritual life, but did not know where to go from here. “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there any man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”

Was Zossima displaying pride? He was not self-satisfied with his achievements nor was he condescending to others less advanced that himself. He more resembled the young man whom Christ told to keep the commandments and who replied, “I have kept all these things since my youth. What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20) Zossima wanted to deepen his spiritual life but was frustrated that he could not find a spiritual mentor who could help him progress.

By way of response, an angel appeared to him and counseled him that there are always unknown struggles in the spiritual life greater than the challenges he had already faced. “That you may know how many other ways led to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan. There he would eventually encounter, not a monk or even another man, but a woman whose witness renewed his spiritual life as well as the lives of countless believers ever since. Zossima remained in his monastery and lived to be over 100. It would be his obedience to tell Mary’s story to the world.

Zossima was not told to imitate Mary’s radical asceticism but to recognize “how many other ways led to salvation.” In this his story resembles that attributed to St Anthony the Great who lived in solitude in Egypt. “It was revealed to Father Anthony in the desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Trisagion with the angels.”

Ways Leading to Salvation Today

As the Great Fast draws to a close, we may feel that we have lived its call to prayer and almsgiving to the full. Yet there are in our midst others who, like St Mary of Egypt, call us by their example to examine the possibilities of stretching our spiritual muscles further than we imagine possible.

Los Angeles attorney Tony Tolbert recalls how there was always room in his family home for someone down on their luck. This memory prompted him to move back into his parents’ house and offer the use of his own fully furnished home for one year so a homeless family could regroup and move on with their lives. “You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Oprah,” Tolbert said. “We can do it wherever we are, with whatever we have, and for me, I have a home that I can make available.”

When Palm Beach physician Richard Lewis died, friends and colleagues gathered at a local mortuary to pay their respects. They were astonished when the doors opened to admit a group of physically and mentally disabled people who came in to join them. Unknown to anyone – including his own twin brother – Dr Lewis had been supporting several group homes in the area caring for the disabled.

Swedish tourists Annis Lindkvist and her sister Emma were visiting Edinburgh, Scotland when a chance meeting changed their lives. Jimmy Fraser, unemployed and homeless after his marriage failed, was begging in the street when the women asked him for directions. They struck up an acquaintance and, ultimately, a friendship. The women obtained a passport for Fraser and paid for his flights so that he could join their family for Christmas. The women took him sightseeing and to a hockey match as well as to Midnight Mass “People promise you things all the time on the street,” Fraser reflected, “but they never materialize… Being homeless is cold, lonely and depressing, and you get a lot of abuse from people. This was an incredible act of kindness!” The women are arranging a similar visit for Easter.

The extraordinary acts of these secular “Marys” bring to life the following words by the nineteenth century Russian saint, John of Kronstadt: “And God reveals his hidden saints so that some may emulate them and others have no excuse for not doing so. Provided they live a worthy life, both those who choose to live in the midst of noise and hubbub and those who dwell in monasteries, mountains and caves can achieve salvation. Solely because of their faith in Him, God bestows great blessings on them. Hence those who, because of their laziness, have failed to attain salvation will have no excuse to offer on the Day of Judgment.

“If you love your neighbor, then all of heaven will love you. If you are united in spirit with your fellow creatures, then you will be united with God and all the company of heaven; if you are merciful to your neighbor, then God and all the angels and saints will be merciful to you. If you pray for others, then all of heaven will intercede for you. The Lord our God is holy; be holy yourself also.”

From the Triodion

The One who dwelled in Egypt as a little Child, the One whom the universe cannot contain, the Lord who knows all has revealed you as a star, shining forth from Egypt. In you we have a model of repentance. Implore Christ, O Mary, that in this time of the Fast we may praise you in faith and love.
AT THE FOOT OF MOUNT SINAI, in the Egyptian peninsula of the same name, sits the monastery of St Catherine. It has been inhabited continuously for over 1700 years, making it one of the oldest such places in the world. Its unique climate has preserved icons and manuscripts from the first millennium ad that look as if they were just made. The greatest treasures it has produced, however, are its spiritual riches: over 170 saints honored in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, chief among them being St John Climacos. A native of the region, St John lived in the sixth century. At 16 he became a monk and spent the rest of his life as an ascetic. For most of his life he lived in a hermitage at the foot of the mountain. When he was 75, he was chosen as abbot of St Catherine’s monastery but ended his life in solitude, as a desert-dwelling ascetic. In the early seventh century another John, abbot of the Raithu monastery on the shores of the Red Sea, asked our John to write a guide to the spiritual life for the monks of Raithu. The result was the klimax or Ladder by which John of Sinai has been known ever since. Using the imagery of Jacob’s ladder (cf., Genesis 28:10-19), he portrays the ascetic life as a climb to heaven with each rung on the ladder being a virtue to be acquired. A twelfth-century icon preserved at the monastery shows monks climbing this ladder. Some acquire all the virtues and complete the ascent to God; others fall off, pulled down by the passions, unable to endure the ascetic life to the end. It has long been the custom in monasteries to read The Ladder each year during the Great Fast. This is turn gave rise to the commemoration of St John on the Fourth Sunday of the Fast.

The Rungs of the Ladder

The first seven rungs portray the most basic virtues necessary for an ascetic life: renunciation of the world, detachment from what was left behind, exile from all we have known, obedience (which is voluntary death of the ego), repentance, the remembrance of death, and cultivating a spirit of mourning. The remaining rungs detail steps needed to make progress on this way of life, such as freedom from anger and irritability, forgetting of wrongs suffered, avoiding gossip and slander, and conquering despondency. Battling gluttony, lust and greed through fasting from food, drink and sleep are depicted as the daily work of the monk. “The farmer’s wealth is gathered on the threshing floor and in the wine-press, but the wealth and knowledge of monks is gathered during the evening and the night hours while standing in prayer and engaging in spiritual activity” (Step 20). On subsequent rings the monk confronts more dangerous enemies – pride and vanity – through humility and the revealing of one’s inmost thoughts. Only through the acquisition of these virtues can the monk attain to prayer, love, and heaven on earth: the state of communion with God.

Some Excerpts from The Ladder

“Blessed is he who, though maligned and disparaged every day for the Lord’s sake, constrains himself to be patient. He will join the chorus of the martyrs and boldly converse with the angels. “Blessed is the monk who regards himself as hourly deserving every dishonor and disparagement. Blessed is he who mortifies his own will to the end, and leaves the care of himself to his director in the Lord; for he will be placed at the right hand of the Crucified. He who will not accept a reproof, just or unjust, renounces his own salvation. But he who accepts it with an effort, or even without an effort, will soon receive the remission of his sins.” From the Fourth Rung “Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. As baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God, in His love for mankind, had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed.” From the Seventh Rung “Forgetting of wrongs we have suffered is a sign of true repentance. But he who dwells on them and thinks that he is repenting is like a man who thinks he is running while he is really asleep.” From the Ninth Rung “He who has become aware of his sins has controlled his tongue, but a talkative person has not yet come to know himself as he should.” From the Eleventh Rung “He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below; but he who has not tasted the things above finds joy in possessions.” From the Seventeenth Rung “It is not darkness or the desolateness of place that gives the demons power against us, but barrenness of soul. Through God’s providence this sometimes happens in order that we may learn by it.” From the Twenty-First Rung “Blasphemous thoughts, this deceiver and corrupter of souls, has often driven many out of their mind. No other thought is so difficult to tell in confession as this. That is why it often remains with many to the very end of their lives. For nothing gives the demons and bad thoughts such power over us as nourishing and hiding them in our heart unconfessed.” From the Twenty-third Rung “The natural property of the lemon tree is such than it lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit; but the more the branches bend down, the more fruit they bear. Those who have the mind to understand will grasp the meaning of this.” From the Twenty-Fifth Rung “Before all else let us first list sincere thanksgiving on the scroll of our prayer. On the second line we should put confession and heartfelt contrition of soul. Then let us present our petition to the King of all. This is the best way of prayer, as it was shown to one of the brethren by an angel of the Lord.” “If you feel sweetness or compunction at some word of your prayer, dwell on it; for then our guardian angel is praying with us.” “Your prayer will show you what condition you are in. Theologians say that prayer is the mirror of the monk.” From the Twenty-Eighth Rung And if You Are Not a Monk… “Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ “I replied to them, ‘Do all the good you can. Do not speak evil of anyone. Do not steal from anyone. Do not lie to anyone. Do not be arrogant towards anyone. Do not hate anyone. Do not be absent from the divine services. Be compassionate to the needy. Do not offend anyone. Do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.” From the First Rung
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN THE GREAT FAST is highlighted in the Byzantine Churches by the veneration of the holy cross. We adorn it with flowers, carry it in procession and prostrate ourselves before it. The Fast is preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ; halfway through the Fast the cross is venerated to encourage us to persevere in our efforts for this season.

Honoring a cross in any way would seem ridiculous to a first-century citizen of the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a humiliating disgrace and an extraordinarily painful method of execution reserved for slaves and other non-citizens, people who did not matter in Roman eyes. Yet St Paul found the cross of Christ a source of pride. “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

The cross had become the sole source of his boasting, knowledge of Christ his sole treasure. “Indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

The Ultimate Sign

For the apostles the cross represented the depth of the mystery of Christ. His passion showed the extent of His love for His people. “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). It represents the totality of His incarnation. He became man in every way, accepting suffering, abandonment, and a painful death to be one with His creatures who endure such things every day. We can never portray our Savior as a “distant God” – He has shared the totality of humanity with us while remaining one with the Father.

The profundity of His descent in order to share our humanity is expressed in the term kenosis. St Paul uses it in what has become a well-beloved synopsis of the Christian’s faith in the incarnation and its meaning for us. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
(Philippians 2:5-11).

In this passage St Paul describes the condescension of the Word of God to us. The only-begotten Son and Word of God “made Himself of no reputation” by taking our nature, and then by accepting the degrading death of a convict, the cross.

This self-abasement or kenosis, however, resulted in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ in glory, proclaimed as Lord by “every tongue.

St Paul saw the power of the cross uniting all peoples, even the Jews and Gentiles, separated by the barrier imposed by the Law. By His death Christ “…abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,  and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Philippians 2:15, 16).

Not only all peoples but all creation was affected by the cross. “… it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19, 20). Through the cross Christ overcomes all the divisions and separations in creation, bringing everything to the fullness and unity which was designed at the original creation and then lost.

The Sign Rejected

Not everyone had the insight of St Paul concerning the power of the cross “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For Jews demand a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24). 

The idea of God emptying Himself and being crucified appeals to no human logic. The Jews expected the Messiah to be manifested with signs of divine power: “glorious things which have never been,” according to one ancient text in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the signs Jews looked for were the ingathering of all Jews into the land of Israel and an era of world peace in which there would be no hatred, oppression, suffering or disease. They generally saw the picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:3-7 as referring to the people of Israel, not to the Messiah.

The philosophically-minded Greeks “seek after wisdom.” There were a host of rival philosophical schools among first-century Greeks: Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Sophists, Stoics and a host of others, all based on reason and logic. Thus when St Paul spoke about the resurrection in Athens (see Acts 17:16-34) some mocked him, others brushed him off. The Lord was not a philosopher; curiously many Gnostics sought to make Him one, which is why many of their writings (apocryphal gospels) were rejected by the early Church.

Imitating the Cross

  As a rule, Jews today reject the notion that the Lord Jesus is the promised Messiah. Muslims teach that He only appeared to die on the cross and that God “took Him.” There are members of both groups who have a thinly disguised contempt for our display of the cross. When the president of Israel visited Pope Francis in 2015 his ultra-Orthodox assistant refused to shake the pope’s hand (he was a man) or greet him with a bow (he was wearing a cross). The pope responded by covering the cross and bowing to her.

Some other ultra-Orthodox Jews were triumphant, while some traditionalist Roman Catholics were ashamed of the pope. Others saw his action as an imitation of the kenosis of Christ who humbled himself. He venerated the cross, not by displaying it, but by living it.

Describing the kenosis of Christ, St Paul urged us, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). He would, no doubt, be pleased to see us reverence the cross today; he would be even more pleased to see us imitate the kenosis which brought Christ to that cross.

A Program for the Rest of the Fast

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12: 1,2).
THERE ARE MANY DESCRIPTIVE TITLES ascribed to Christ in Scripture and in the Tradition of the ancient Churches. He is portrayed as the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Great High Priest, the Bread of life and so much more. Perhaps the most frequently heard of these depictions is the one which ends most of our liturgical services: “He is gracious and the Lover of mankind.”

Possibly the most important characteristic in Christ’s love for mankind is portrayed in St Mark’s description of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). He assures the sick man, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 5). The reaction of the scribes was unspoken but clear: “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v.7)

Feeding the hungry or helping the downtrodden are acts of love which anyone can perform, believer or unbeliever. God, however, has the monopoly on forgiving sins! That Christ proclaims the forgiveness of sins seems to equate Him with God, which the Jewish leaders saw as blasphemy.

Not only does Christ proclaim the forgiveness of sin: He does so by His word alone! In Jewish practice, one had to submit to some sort of ritual in order to convey the need to be cleansed of sin. Before the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed in ad 70, the Jews had a complex system of sacrifices expressing repentance and atonement for anything which they saw as rendering them unfit to stand in worship before the Lord. Depending on their status or ability, people would offer unblemished animals or birds to be killed and burned upon the altar, at least in part, their blood sprinkled before the holy place as a plea for mercy. On the annual Day of Atonement, a bull and a goat would be sacrificed by the High Priest for his sins and the offences of the entire nation.

John the Forerunner also practiced a rite to express repentance. As he described it, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance” (Matthew 3:11). Christ stands in stark contrast to the priests and prophets of Israel: by His word alone He forgives sin. Nothing is needed other than faith in Him!

With His Own Blood

The forgiveness which Christ accorded to the paralytic, to the sinful woman who wept at His feet (see Luke 7:36-50) and to others during His earthly ministry is made available to the whole world by His death and resurrection. Throughout the New Testament we see the imagery of the temple sacrifices used to explain Christ as the One who forgives. St John the Forerunner proclaims Him to his own followers as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). St Paul calls Christ’s death “propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:25). “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son,” Paul teaches (Romans 5:10). God, Paul tells us, “…made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The most developed expression of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There, after a lengthy description of the temple and its priesthood, we read, “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood, He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having attained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). He is both the High Priest and the sacrifice who, once for all, restores mankind as fitting priests of God on earth.

Forgiveness in the Body of Christ

When the disciples marveled at the healings and miracles wrought by Christ during His earthly ministry, He promised them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in 
Me the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my Father” (John 14:12). Among other things, Christ has empowered the Church as His Body to continue proclaiming the remission of sins in His name. This ministry is executed in a number of expressions by which we can experience God’s forgiveness in our life. To the degree that we enter into them, we will find our lives centering on God to a greater degree. In our Tradition the following are emphasized:

Daily Prayer for Repentance, particularly the Jesus Prayer – The morning and evening prayers prescribed by the Church includes prayers of repentance. The most basic of these is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” God surely hears these prayers when offered from a contrite heart.

Regular Self-Reflection – Periodic, even daily, self-examination helps us to see the direction of our lives. Our entire existence should be lived in the light of the Holy Spirit. Honest self-examination helps us see the degree in which our lives are conformed to Christ’s.

A Relationship with a Confessor/Spiritual Father – Each person is in a different place in his or her journey. We may on occasion find thoughts in the Scriptures or Fathers that touch our hearts, but finding someone who knows you and knows the ways of Holy Tradition is like taking a giant step in the Christian life. The fullest dimension of spiritual guidance involves sharing our thoughts and yearnings, not just our sins, with this spiritual guide.

The Eucharist and the Remission of Sins – Several times during the Divine Liturgy we are reminded that the Eucharist is given to us “for the remission of sins.” To receive this gift we must approach “discerning the body,” as St Paul says: sensing the depths of this mystery and our unworthiness to take part in it. And so before receiving we say the prayer “I believe, Lord and profess,” specifically asking for the pardon of our offences, the deliberate and the indeliberate, whether committed knowingly or inadvertently – so that we may receive the remission of sins and eternal life in this mystery.

Observing the Church’s Fasts – The Fasts are another liturgical expression of repentance. Rearranging our lives in obedience to the Church’s weekly and seasonal Fasts is a most practical way of affirming our commitment to life in Christ, a daily reminder that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

Confession: The Mystery of Repentance – This is the sacramental expression of repentance. This mystery appeared in Christian history when people first realized that they had reneged on their baptismal commitment in a serious way. Confession was this considered a “second baptism,” a starting over in the Christian life. Over the centuries, it became more widely used and is considered appropriate today whenever a person feels the need of it, particularly: When serious sin has been committed; When a habitual sin has overwhelmed the Christian; When a Christian has stopped growing spiritually and needs a reorientation of priorities.

Forgive Others to be Forgiven

Perhaps the most difficult part of seeking forgiveness is the one mandated by the Lord: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him,that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). God’s forgiveness is for all; but it is only possible to those who forgive others in turn.
AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY during the Great Fast we read from the Holy Gospel according to Mark – except for today. Why is John 1:43-51 read on this Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy?

The brief answer is that both the Gospel reading and the triumph of Orthodoxy, which we commemorate today, are about seeing God. In the Gospel story we hear how Philip invites Nathaniel to see Jesus (physically); when they meet, Nathaniel sees (spiritually) that Jesus is the Messiah. In the Church, we (physically) see icons; then see (spiritually) that they reflect the reality of Christ’s incarnation.

Nathaniel Sees God

The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel is a brief and almost cryptic tale which many have tried to explain. Nathaniel and his friend Philip were both disciples of St John the Forerunner. They had responded to John’s announcement that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loosen” (John 1:27). The Lord Jesus had gone to the Jordan where John was baptizing, and it is there that John identifies Jesus as the Awaited One. “Again the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’” (vv. 35, 36). Philip may have been one of those who heard John’s testimony, so that when Jesus invited Philip to follow Him, he responded positively. In turn, Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel with the news, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45). Nathaniel replies laconically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46)

Modern commentators generally see this remark of Nathaniel as a somewhat snide dismissal of Jesus because He was a Nazarene. The Fathers approached this passage differently, saying that Nathaniel meant the exact opposite: that, if Jesus was the Awaited One, then He could not have come from Nazareth. St John Chrysostom, for example, suggested that Nathaniel “thought within himself that Philip was probably mistaken about the place” and that Jesus was not from Nazareth” (Homily 20 on John).

In any case, Philip responds with the same words that Jesus earlier said to Andrew, “Come and see.” When Nathaniel finally meets Jesus, the Lord utters another cryptic remark, “’Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit! Nathaniel said to Him, ‘How do you know me?’Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (vv. 47, 48) ’

What was Nathaniel doing under the fig tree? Again, many suggestions have been offered; none of them are attested in the Scripture, so we cannot know for sure. One possibility upheld by many in our Tradition is that Nathaniel was praying at that time: O God of our fathers, send us the One whom You have promised. Send us the Messiah, the Savior. Faith in the promise of a Savior is what marks out a true Israelite. The Lord, they say, saw him at prayer and He saw Nathaniel’s heat. Nathaniel’s response marks him as one of the first disciples of Christ, whom He called before His ministry in Galilee.

You are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” (v. 49) Nathaniel sees that Jesus is the Messiah and acclaims Him with the traditional titles of a royal Messiah: “son of God” and “king of Israel.”

At the end of His public ministry, Jesus’ followers would affirm their faith in His heavenly origin: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech! Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God” (John 16: 29, 30). But it would only be after His resurrection, when the risen Christ was manifested to the disciples, that the full force of Jesus’ words to Nathaniel would be realized: “Most assuredly I say to you: hereafter you shall see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51) Nathaniel, like the rest of the apostles, would grow to see Jesus – not as the earthly conqueror whom devout Jews were awaiting, but as a King not of this world and, ultimately, the eternal Word of God incarnate.

Icons Reveal Christ as God’s Image

In the eighth and ninth centuries ad, some Byzantine emperors and churchmen waged a struggle against the use of icons. This conflict was ultimately ended in 843 with the restoration of icons, called in the Church the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” Today’s observance celebrates this act.

Iconoclasm formally began in the 720s, when certain bishops began questioning the excessive way in which some people were revering icons. In 730 Emperor Leo III took up their cause and issued a decree forbidding the veneration of religious images, “the evil art of painters,” as a later iconoclast council called it. While iconoclasts saw images as a departure from the practice of the early Church, those who supported the veneration of icons did so precisely on the basis of Tradition: the Church had done so for years and was not in error.

It was St John of Damascus (676-749) who gave the Church the insight that the use of icons was the logical consequence of the incarnation of Christ. As he wrote in his Treatise on the Divine Images, “In former times, God who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh, conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake.” St John’s teaching became normative in the Byzantine Church which, since the Triumph of Orthodoxy, has in the minds of many become identified as “the Church of Icons.”

“But I Can’t Fast”

“If there are some gathered here who are hindered by sickness and cannot remain without food, I advise them to reverse their ailment and not to deprive themselves from the Fast, but to care for it even more.

“For there exist – there really exist ways which are even more important than abstinence from food which can open the gates which lead to God with boldness. He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words. Then our physical illness is not a hindrance to our spirit. Let him become reconciled with his enemies. Let him distance from his soul every resentment. If he wants to accomplish these things, then he has done the true fast, which is what the Lord asks of us more than anything else.

“It is for this reason that He asks us to abstain from food, in order to place the flesh in subjection to the fulfillment of His commandments, by curbing its impetuousness … If we eat with moderation, we should never be ashamed, because the Creator gave us such a body which cannot be supported in any other way except by receiving food. Let us only stop excessive food; that in itself contributes a great deal to the health and well-being of the body.”
Abridged from St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Fasting

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