Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
9/27/20
How many TV channels can you access – 300, 400, more? How many do you actually use? How fast can your car travel – 150 mph? How fast do you actually drive? Does your Smartphone have more apps than you’ll ever use? Manufacturers design their products based on the conviction that people want more than they really need. As humorist Will Rogers said back in the 1920s, “Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want to impress people they don't like.”

This dynamic, called consumerism, has been known for over 100 years. As more people became financially able to buy more, do more, and travel more “conspicuous consumption” became a way of life for an increasing number of people, particularly in Europe and America. The great symbol of this phenomenon, at least in the U.S. has been “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, when people descend on stores in a Christmas Shopping frenzy to grab the latest thing before it’s sold out.

Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced a way of life devoted to conspicuous consumption, contrasting it to a Christ-centered way of life. “The encounter with the living Jesus, in the great family that is the Church, fills the heart with joy, because it fills it with true life, a profound goodness that does not pass away or decay.

“But this experience must face the daily vanity, the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having (things), that deludes young people with consumerism,” he said before thousands in St Peter’s Square.

“Young people are particularly sensitive to the emptiness of meaning and values that surrounds them. And they, unfortunately, pay the consequences.”

Critics have accused the pope of introducing socialism or even Marxism into Church teaching. In fact, the anti-consumerism he espouses may be found in the New Testament and even in pre-Christian philosophers.

How God Provides

St Paul sets forth his “Christian economics” in 2 Corinthians 9:8 – “God is able to make every gift abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work”. The first plank in his three-fold approach is to recognize that God is able to provide for us. We often emphasize our own contribution to life, forgetting that our talents, our abilities, our very existence comes from God. As we read in the Epistle of James – and repeat regularly in the Divine Liturgy – “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17). We are, to be sure, co-creators with Him by virtue of our creation in His image; but there is nothing good wrought by our hand apart from Him.

Secondly, God provides for us in a specific manner. He provides for us all sufficiency in all things. In other words, He guarantees that we have everything we truly need. Third, He guarantees us an abundance, over and above what we need, but for a specific purpose: for every good work. We have enough for what we actually require and even more, for the purpose of doing good.

What Do We “Need?”

St Paul’s economics are easy to understand in principle, but we find ourselves with a lot of questions when we try to apply his teaching. When does “need” – I must have –become “excess” – I can use or I want? And is it good for me to have everything I want and can afford?

We recognize the negative effects on our body if we eat or drink to excess. But there are even more serious effects on our soul. Our physical cravings can lead to a psychological dependency: the feeling that I can’t live without X, Y or Z. Overeating leads to overweight, physical discomfort and illness; overdependence on material things leads to psychological unhappiness and spiritual emptiness.

Philosophers throughout the ancient world recognized this apart from Christianity. Lao-Tzu, the fifth-century bc Chinese author of the Tao Te Ching said it this way: “To know you have enough is to be rich.” The first-century Roman philosopher Seneca noted, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” Another Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, Himself born into slavery, had so freed himself from dependence on the material that he reportedly said in ad 55 that, “Contentment comes not so much from great wealth as from few wants.” These pagan philosophers would likely have agreed with the Lord when He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man [i.e. one dependent on his material wealth] to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25).

Enough vs. Abundance

St. Paul is clear: the purpose of any abundance we may be given is for doing every good work. Do you have more than you need? Don’t look to add to your holdings – you will simply be frustrating God’s purpose for your life. As the Prophet Isaiah warned those who build their life around making more than they need, “Woe to those who add house to house and field to field… their many houses shall be desolate” (Is 5:8, 9). Wealth, it must be said, is not wrong. Not using it according to God’s plan turns it – and us – aside from God and His way.

Even this is a principle that non-Christians and non-believers of every kind have espoused. This is evident in the way people have made their own the saying “Live simply, so others may simply live.” Non-Christians have attributed it to Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian nationalist or to Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth-century American Transcendentalist thinker. Roman Catholics have found it in the writings of Mother Theresa of Calcutta or in the teachings of their first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. The idea is clearly easy to accept, but demanding when we try to put it in practice.

One help for those who might try to devote their abundance to the doing of good is the teaching of St John Chrysostom. He reminds us that God’s purpose in commanding almsgiving is not only for the sake of the recipient. It is also, if not primarily, for the donor. The recipient of alms receives physical sustenance but the giver of alms grows in his or her spirit, imitating the Giver of all good gifts.

St John Chrysostom on Almsgiving

We are given time by our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ for the seeds of almsgiving to fall upon our hearing. Christ has given us the sower to imitate. He sowed his seed on good earth and from it reaped a hundred fold. Hear the message proclaimed by his action.

Behold, the lovers of God, the lovers of honor, and the lovers of the poor are all gathered together as in an arena – God is standing by, receiving the little money given by the lovers of the poor and granting them in exchange the kingdom of heaven. I beg you, let none of us forfeit this grace. Let none of us neglect this great and world-transcending gift for the sake of a little money. I entreat all of you: with diligence let us purchase the kingdom of heaven.
First Homily on Almsgiving
 
9/20/20
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF PASSAGES that we find in one of the Gospels but not in the others. The raising of Lazarus, for example, is recorded only in John. The birth of John the Baptist, certain of the Lord’s parables, such as the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet are found in only one Gospel, not the others. It may be that the people who first witnessed one of these events or heard a certain teaching were important to the local community and emphasized it in their preaching. Thus this episode found a place in the Gospel written in that community.

This is not the case for the Lord’s call for anyone who would seek to be His follower to “take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). This teaching is found in each of the four Gospels, suggesting that it was important to the first Christians throughout the early Church. One could not be a Christian without carrying one’s cross, they all affirmed, but what does this key passage mean? What is one’s cross? Is it one’s spouse, or one’s rheumatism, as is often held, or is it something more?

In the ancient world, the cross was a symbol of shame reserved for executing the least important members of society. From about the sixth century bc until the practice was abolished by the Emperor St Constantine the Great in the fourth century ad, crucifixion was the “preferred” method of executing slaves, captives and the worst criminals who had no rights in the ruling culture. The painful nature of this punishment is the source of our English word excruciating.

For Christians, the cross quickly became the symbol of sacrifice, of self-giving in imitation of Christ. As Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was the moment of His glorification, so the Christian’s sacrifice would be seen as the time of his or her exaltation with Christ as well.

Sacrificing One’s Life

The first Christians were acutely aware that they might be called to follow Christ to a literal cross, sacrificing their lives as He did. Thus the apostolic brothers Peter and Andrew and some others were actually crucified by pagan authorities. Countless others since then have met their deaths in a host of ways. Practically every day we commemorate martyrs among the saints. This week alone we honor several martyrs of the Roman persecutions: the Great Martyrs Euphemia (9/16), Eustathius and his family (9/20) and a dozen others. Local Churches may also commemorate other martyrs from the Persian, Arab, Turkish or Communist persecutions.

For the followers of Christ, martyrdom is never very far away. Christians today in many parts of Asia and Africa are giving up their lives rather than deny their faith in Christ their Savior. The demise of militant atheistic Communism was followed quickly by the rise of militant Islamism and even militant Hinduism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism as these peoples strive vainly to purify their cultures from foreign influences. Recently a watchdog group in Europe concluded that more than 100,000 Christians are killed each year “because of some relation to their faith.”

Sacrificing One’s Self

As Christ’s death was the consequence of His assuming our whole nature, the sacrifice of blood-martyrdom is inseparably tied to the martyr’s witness to Christ. The very word martyr means witness, a witness made at the cost of one’s life. The Gospel indicates another kind of witnessing unto death in this passage, when Christ says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross…” (Mark 8:34). In addition to our physical life which may be sacrificed in blood-martyrdom, we also have an inner life: the life of our ego. We want do this, own that, eat or drink this. We can satisfy every urge that our material resources allow, or we can deny ourselves to witness to Christ. This is the heart of asceticism, whether in its institutional expression (monasticism) or in the call of every Christian to place God and others first in our lives.

The first such self-denial is that to which St Paul urges us: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11). We are called to destroy that part of us which is bound up with sin – the passions of our broken human nature – and to be crucified interiorly.

In another place, St Paul becomes more explicit: “Therefore put to death your members which are of the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). As St Augustine noted centuries ago, this does not mean that we are to kill or maim ourselves “…but it does mean that one should kill whatever in oneself is unduly attached to the earthly, which makes one take inordinate pleasure in this present life to the neglect of the life to come” (Letter to Laetus). We are to deal violently with our sinful actions and inclinations in imitation of Christ’s death on the cross.

In no previous age has the average person been more able to avail himself of entertainments every day. In our society the stuff of popular entertainment is sin: greed, lust, violence and the rest. It permeates TV, sleazy movies, the Internet and even commercials. It appeals to the voyeur and the gossiper in us. The follower of Christ is called to put aside these entertainments, dying to internet porn, celebrity gossip, and whatever else is “of the earth.”

Our economy is built on consumerism: buying the newest, biggest whatever – simply because we can. Commercials would have us believe that doing so will make us happy and fulfilled. The message of dying to self, on the other hand, calls us to live simply that others may simply live.

Our immediate concerns, our convenience, and the welfare of those closest to us often blind us to the needs of the wider Church and the world around us. Can dying to self also involve putting to death the parochialism of our everyday lives?

It often happens, as St Augustine noted, that our cross drags us along, rather than we carry it. We find the precepts of the Gospels burdensome rather than life-giving, and we observe them only out of a sense of obligation. When we do take up the cross, the Fathers remind us, we need to keep our eyes upon Christ whom we are but following. In the words of Caesarius of Arles, “To what place are we to follow Christ, if not where He has already gone? We know that He has risen and ascended into heaven; there, then, we must follow Him. There is no cause for despair – by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise... Human sin made the road rough; Christ’s resurrection has leveled it. By passing over it Himself, He transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway” (Sermon 159, 6).

Come, O people and behold a most glorious wonder – let us worship the power of the Cross. A tree brought about death in paradise, but this tree has caused life to blossom forth, for the sinless Lord was nailed to it. Receiving incorruption from it, all you nations, let us cry: You who abolished Death by the cross and freed us, glory to You!

Exapostilarion of the Feast
 
9/13/20
MANY OF THE FEASTS we celebrate each year have a special rite connected with them. The Great Sanctification of Water on the Theophany, the hajme service on Pascha and the veneration of icons on the Sunday of Orthodoxy are perhaps the best-known examples of these festal observances.

There is also a special rite proper to the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross (September 14) called, appropriately, the Exaltation of the Cross. During the Great Doxology at Orthros the cross, adorned with flowers and herbage is brought in procession to the center of the church where it is placed on a table or analogion. Everyone then makes three prostrations before the cross. After this, the priest raises the cross high and, facing East, intones a petition. The chanters respond by singing Lord, have mercy one hundred times as the priest blesses the East with the holy cross. He does the same successively facing North then West then South and then East again as he circles the table. He intones the kondakion of the Holy Cross and blesses the people. The cross is placed on the table and everyone makes three prostrations before it, singing “We bow in worship before Your cross, O Master, and we sing praise to Your holy resurrection.” Then everyone in turn venerates the cross. In some churches this rite of exaltation is performed after the Divine Liturgy.

The Discovery of the Cross

This rite is a reenactment of something that happened spontaneously when the cross was first discovered at the excavation for the Church of the Anastasis during St Helena’s expedition to the Holy Land in ad 326-328. The fourth-century Church historian Socrates Scholasticus described what took place in his Historia Ecclesiastica.

The site of Christ’s death and resurrection had been covered over by a pagan temple during the Roman persecutions of the Church. St Helena had the temple destroyed to uncover the sacred site. Three crosses were discovered buried near the Lord’s tomb. The title placed on the Lord’s cross (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) was lying with the crosses but it was not clear on which of the three crosses the Lord had been crucified. The Bishop of Jerusalem, Makarios, had each of the crosses placed in turn on a terminally ill woman. When this woman was healed at the touch of the third cross, it was taken as a sign that this was the cross of Christ.

When local Christians heard of this discovery, they all wanted to see the Lord’s cross and to venerate it. Bishop Makarios, took the cross onto a raised platform and lifted it on high, ‘exalting’ it, for all to see. The people fell to their knees, bowing down before the cross and crying out repeatedly: Kyrie eleison!

As Theodoret of Cyr (393-457) described it in his Ecclesiastical History, Chapter 17, St Helena “… had part of the cross of our Savior conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity.”

Veneration of the Cross

We know from the journal of the Spanish pilgrim-nun Egeria that the cross was venerated on Holy Friday, despite an unusual risk:

“Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the [liturgical] Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it.

“It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching should venture to do so again.

“And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring.”

Recovery from the Persians

In 602 the Persian Sassanian Shah began a 26-year long war against the Byzantine/ Roman Empire. In 614 Sassanian troops conquered Jerusalem and appointed two prominent Jews as its rulers. After only a few months Christians in the city rebelled, but the uprising was quickly crushed. The Persians retaliated by seizing the holy cross and taking it to their capitol as spoils of war.

In 628 a new Shah made peace with the Byzantines. Palestine was returned to Roman control and on March 21, 630 the Emperor Heraclius marched triumphantly into Jerusalem bearing the precious cross. The Emperor, taking off his shoes and his imperial robes, carried the cross into the Anastasis where it was once again triumphantly exalted. It was then resolved that the Feast of the Cross be celebrated throughout the empire, for which reason it is called the Universal Exaltation.

All the Earth Glorifies the Cross

When St Helena found the crosses at the site of Christ’s tomb she noticed a fragrant plant, then unknown in Rome, which she named basil, the royal plant. In the Middle East the cross is adorned with basil leaves at the ceremony of the exaltation. The basil is then distributed to the worshippers.

In the Slavic Churches the ceremony of the exultation is generally performed only by the bishop in his cathedral or an abbot in his monastery. During the ceremony the cross is often showered with rose petals which are then dipped in rose water and given to the faithful.

The Cross – Tree of Life

While the clergy and people are venerating the holy cross, the following is sung:

Come, you people, and look on this marvelous wonder! Let us venerate the power of the cross. In Paradise a tree brought forth the fruit of death, but life is the blossom of this tree on which the sinless Lord was nailed. Reaping incorruption from it, all the nations cry: “You, who through the cross has laid Death low and set us free – glory to You!”

The sayings of the prophets foretold the holy wood by which Adam was set free from the ancient curse of death. Today, at the exaltation of the cross, all creation raises its voice, asking of God plenteous mercy. O Master, who alone are boundless in Your compassion, be our atonement and save our souls.
 
9/6/20
THE GOSPEL PARABLE READ at today’s Divine Liturgy is actually two stories with two different, if complementary, points. The first concerns those invited to the banquet and those who finally came. The second is the issue of the so-called “wedding garment.”

The Gospel of Matthew depicts Christ as encountering increasing opposition the closer He came to the center of the Jewish establishment, Jerusalem. In Matthew 21:1-17, Jesus enters the Holy City, ejects the money- changers from the temple and confronts the chief priests. Then we read four vignettes, each criticizing the Jewish leadership in the harshest of terms.

The first such condemnation is the episode of the withered fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22). Then, in Matthew 21:28-32, we read about the two sons: one who professed obedience to his father, but in words only – a veiled criticism of the Pharisees, who claimed to know the will of God – and the second who actually did the father’s will.

In the words of St Hilary of Poitiers, the religious leaders “...put their faith in the Law and despised repentance from sin, glorying instead in the noble prerogative that they had from Abraham (Homily on Matthew 21:13).

The second son recalls the sinners who repented at the preaching of John the Baptist: the tax collectors and harlots who enter the kingdom of God before “the righteous,” because one can repent of greed and lust, but not for the denial of the need for repentance. Finally, in verses 33-46, we read the parable of the wicked vinedressers, whose infidelity leads the owner of the vineyard to lease it to others. And, as the Gospel reminds us, “When the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them” (Matthew 21:45).

The Royal Wedding

The story of the wedding banquet is in many ways an echo of the parable of the vinedressers. In each story, an important person reaches out to his people; he is rebuffed and finally turns to others. The vineyard owner in the first parable and the king in the second both represent God. The disdainful tenants and the invited guests signify the people of Israel. The new tenants of the first story and the new guests of the second represent the Gentiles, who would respond in faith.

It may be hard for us to imagine the reaction of the invited guests to the banquet. An invitation to such an occasion would be esteemed, even coveted. “But,” as the Gospel says, “they made light of it and went their way: one to his own farm, another to his business” (Matthew 22:5). It is as if Matthew were describing our own day rather than his. This is the way that Many Christians – our own friends and relatives sadly among them – react to their invitation to the Eucharistic banquet week after week. But how could an invitation to a royal wedding be dismissed so easily?

Couching this parable in terms of a royal wedding is a way of saying that the initiative of God in sending to Israel the prophets who announced the coming Messiah was at least as compelling as an invitation to a kingly gala. One after another, prophets came and were recognized in some way as foretelling what was to come. At last the Forerunner came and proclaimed, “Everything is ready – this is the Lamb of God” but was ignored by many who heard him. Those invited had so lost themselves in the concerns of the everyday world that they treated the king’s invitation like junk mail.

Those Who Accept the Invitation

The messengers seek out – not the pillars of society at their farms and businesses –but the insignificant on the highways, representing the Gentiles. According to the Jewish opinion of the day, the Gentiles were inferior in God’s eyes to the Chosen People. Nevertheless, they respond to the king’s invitation while the “important people” did not.

Churchmen are often criticized for catering to the well-to-do: landowners, benefactors, etc. Pope Francis of Rome has repeatedly pushed Catholics to focus their efforts on the poor, without ignoring the leaders of society. In fact, he notes, what generally happens in our world is generally the opposite. “If investments in the banks fail, ‘Oh, it’s a tragedy.’” He said at a Pentecost vigil in Rome; “but if people die of hunger or don’t have food or health, nothing happens. This is our crisis today.” In the language of Matthew 22, Pope Francis might be called “the bishop of the highways.”

The Wedding Garment

In the second part of this parable, the people from the highways have come to the banquet, but one is not wearing the appropriate “wedding garment.” In Jewish tradition, this meant finery, one’s best clothing. A Jewish parable tells of a king inviting people to a banquet. Some went home and prepared immediately. Others continued working and arrived still in their work clothes and so were not allowed in. In the Gospel, this theme of readiness is frequently found in Jesus’ teachings, particularly in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).

Many Fathers interpreted “the appropriate garment” to mean a virtuous life. The Gentiles may have replaced the leadership of Israel in the People of God, but if they ignored the Gospel way of life, they too would be excluded. St Gregory the Dialogist saw the garment as woven out of love for God and love for others. “These are great precepts,” he wrote, “sublime precepts, and for many they are hard to fulfill; nevertheless, this is the wedding garment. And whoever sits down at the wedding feast without it, let him watch with fear: for when the King comes in, he shall be cast forth.”

The “Bridegroom Matins” of Holy Week uses this interpretation as the basis for its beloved exapostilarion, “I see Your bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, but I not possess the right garment that I might enter therein. Brighten the robe of my soul, O Giver of light, and save me.” We must acknowledge our own spiritual emptiness (“I have no garment”) and seek God’s grace (“Brighten the robe of my soul”) to be made worthy of a place at the banquet.

How shall I enter the splendor of Your holy place, for I am unworthy? If I dare to enter the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment, and I shall be chained and cast out by the angels. O Lord, cleanse the stain of my soul and save me, for You are the Lover of mankind.

O Bridegroom more beautiful than all men, who have called us to the spiritual banquet of Your bridal chamber, remove from me the ill-clad image of my iniquities by this sharing in Your sufferings. Adorn me with the glorious robe of your beauty and manifest me as a radiant guest of your kingdom, for You are compassionate. From the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week
 
THE GOSPELS DEPICT St John the Baptist as the “forerunner” or herald, announcing the immanent coming of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of Mark, for example, we hear John say: “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark1: 7, 8).

John’s work as herald of our salvation was not limited to announcing the beginning of Christ’s ministry in Galilee. Our troparion for today’s commemoration mentions that John baptized the Lord Jesus. Then, it continues, “You have fought for the sake of truth and proclaimed to those in Hades that God, who appeared in the flesh, has taken away the sins of the world and bestowed His great mercy upon us.” John’s ministry continued after death, as he announced to the dead in Hades that Christ’s coming was close at hand.

The Story of John’s Struggle

We read the story of John’s final fight “for the sake of truth” in Mark’s Gospel. “For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:17, 18).

John languished in prison because Herod had a superstitious fear of the prophet. He revered John as a holy man, but could not bring himself to follow the Baptist’s teachings.

Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He also swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you – up to half my kingdom” (Mark 6:21-23).

What followed has frequently been retold in literature, music, painting and sculpture. Prompted by her mother, Salome asks for the head of John: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (v. 25).

Because of the oath he had sworn in the presence of his guests, Herod agreed and had John beheaded, making possible the prophet’s ministry in Hades.

Our Observance of John’s Death

Because John, whom the Lord Himself had called the greatest man born of woman, was killed as a result of Herod’s birthday revels, the Byzantine Churches observe today as a strict fast: no parties, no luxury foods, no drink. We see where these things can lead. A number of popular local customs have risen to mark the day among various Eastern Christians. People may:

- Avoid eating anything on round plates, since Salome asked for John’s head “on a platter” (Mark 6:25). Use bowls instead.

- Avoid eating any round fruits or vegetables (they resemble a head)

- Avoid eating anything that requires use of knives or anything that cuts

- Avoid eating or drinking anything red (they remind us of blood).


A contemporary way to observe this commemoration might be to fast and pray for those who have died senselessly at the hands of others through terrorism, armed conflicts or senseless violence. Think of them as John’s “companions in suffering.”

Did John Witness in Hades?

As the Gospels affirm, Jesus was still alive when John was executed. But the New Testament does not teach that John witnessed to Christ in Hades. How and when did this concept enter our tradition?

Origen of Alexandria, the foremost commentator on the Scriptures in the third century, explained that John the Baptist had died before Christ, “so that he might descend to the lower regions and announce His coming. For everywhere the witness and forerunner of Jesus is John, being born before and dying shortly before the Son of God, so that not only to those of his generation but likewise to those who lived before Christ should liberation from the death be preached, and that he might everywhere prepare a people trained to receive the Lord” (Origen, Homily on Luke 4).

Those in Hades would “receive the Lord” upon His death as we read in the New Testament: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey…” (1 Peter 3:18, 19). A number of the Apostolic Fathers such as Saints Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Clement of Alexandria all taught that Christ had descended into Hades. We find the same teaching in the Syriac Fathers Jacob of Sarouj, Aphrahat the Persian and Ephrem the Syrian as well as the Greek Fathers Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus.

Our most common icon of the resurrection depicts Christ emerging from Hades leading out by the hand Adam and Eve (and, by implication, the human race). In many icons John the Forerunner is beside Him, at the head of those who had died before Christ and were now brought to eternal life by Him.

From the Service of This Day

Come, you people, let us praise the prophet and martyr, the baptizer of the Savior; for, as an angel in the flesh, he denounced Herod condemning him for committing most iniquitous fornication. And thanks to iniquitous dancing, his precious head is cut off, that he might announce in Hades the glad tidings of the resurrection from the dead. He prays earnestly to the Lord that our souls be saved.

Let us celebrate the memory of the severed head of the Forerunner, which poured forth blood upon the platter then, but now pours forth healings upon the ends of the earth (Liti Stichera).

The beheading of the Forerunner was an act of divine providence: the occasion for him to announce the coming of the Savior to the souls in Hades. Let, then, Herodias lament and weep, for she has asked for murder, preferring the present life and its pleasures to eternal life and God’s law (Kondakion).
 
THE THREE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS – Matthew, Mark and Luke – all record Christ’s meeting with a rich young man who sought His guidance. The young man (Luke calls him a “ruler”) seeks to know what to do to have eternal life. Christ responds by telling him to keep the commandments. When pressed to be more specific, the Lord begins by listing the Ten Commandments. Then He quotes the Great Commandment from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The young man says that he has kept all these commandments from his youth and presses the Lord to tell him what more he should do. The Lord Jesus then attempts to lead him from a stage of merely being obedient to God’s commandments, to one of being in a relationship of love with God.

Christ tells the young man what must happen “If you want to be perfect” (v. 21): he must give his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus as He went from place to place proclaiming the kingdom of God. The Lord offered this inquirer the chance to join the company of His disciples, to show that he preferred life with Christ to enjoying his possessions. The young man declined.

What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?

The Lord has held out this goal of “perfection” before, in the Sermon on the Mount. Being “perfect” seems an impossible task if we think it means absolute perfection without any fault or stain. In the Greek of the New Testament (and our Liturgy), however, to be “perfect” or to be “complete” might best be translated “to be all that we were meant to be:” living in the light of the Lord, walking in His way. Jesus pushed His hearers to go beyond the commandments to arrive at a more godly way of life.

The Lord then contrasted regard for God with attachment to one’s belongings. They will ever be competing for a person’s devotion; as Christ tells His listeners, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

The path to perfection, as Christ teaches, begins with making a choice between following Him and devoting oneself to enjoying the things of the world. As He said so clearly, “No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

Do I Serve Mammon?

Most of us do not think that we are “serving mammon.” We may even look down on the obviously greedy or on people driven by addictions. Yes, there are people who “serve” money, drugs or sex. They may be slaves to alcohol or tobacco. We don’t believe that we are controlled like that.

We may not be overly driven to making inordinate amounts of money, but we should consider that dependency on mammon takes many forms. We should become more conscious of how many of this world’s riches we feel that we “need,” that we “can’t do without,” from our morning coffee to the latest smart phone. We don’t physically need these things; it is our ego that requires them. Is this not another form of serving mammon?

To reflect on just how our ego may be tied to the things of this world, consider how difficult it is to fast for any length of time: how much we feel the loss of a favorite food and to what lengths we go to find a pleasing substitute... and how happy we are when the Fast is over.

In addition, “mammon” can also include the non-material wealth of this world: power, prestige or social position. How do we feel when another is promoted over us, receives a bigger bonus or a more lucrative assignment. Serving mammon takes many forms and they all interfere in some way with our relationship to God.

The Fathers on the Power of Mammon

When St John Chrysostom commented on this Gospel passage, he noted that being devoted to the things of this world did not make you free. “The rich man is a slave, being subject to loss, and in the power of everyone wishing to do him harm” (Homily 46 on Matthew). Serving mammon is a form of slavery.

In another place, Chrysostom said, “If you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. Be accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the substance of his possessions. Serving mammon is a kind of poverty. As some people today phrase it, “What you own, owns you.”

A century before and on another continent, St Cyprian of Carthage had said much the same thing. “The property of the wealthy holds them in chains... which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money, but its slaves.”

Asceticism and the Pursuit of Perfection

The choice between serving God and mammon is at the heart of Christian asceticism, where making that choice is lived and experienced on a daily basis. It is most intensely observed by monastics, but also by Christians living in this world, married or single. A person living an ascetic life tries to distance himself or herself from being tied to the passing pleasures of the world so as to be more open to following Christ and living the life of God.

People often consider life with God as something of the world to come It is clear to most people, even in the wider society, that our earthly attachments have no place in heaven. A recent installment in Dan Piraro’s widely syndicated cartoon strip, Bizarro! makes this point. Two long-time residents of heaven are observing two younger ones. “Most of the new arrivals seem incapable of conversation,” the eldest notes. “They just stare at their hands in despair,” trying to text, but there are no electronic devices in heaven!

Yes, there are no cigarettes, no movies, no alcohol in heaven. To be without them would surely frustrate someone who has made enjoying these things the focus of life. Thus some Christian thinkers have observed that to be in heaven without the object of one’s passions would actually be to dwell in hell.

But the differences between this age and the age to come are not really the point. Life with God, transformation into the image of God, begins now, with baptism. That life is meant to be experienced in ever deeper ways as we mature in the Christian life here, as well as in the life of the age to come. The Christian seeks to avoid anything which can captivate our minds and, at best, distract us from that relationship to God. Following Christ is meant to be the real source of our joy here on earth, as well as in the world to come. Serving Christ in worship and ministering to Him in the needy should be our joys, rather than obligations to be gotten through as quickly as possible. The Christian life, to paraphrase St Catherine of Siena, is meant to be “heaven all the way to heaven.”
 
MANY AMERICANS ARE FAMILIAR with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted on the cape (tilma) of a Nahuatl Aztec in sixteenth-century Mexico. Such an image is called “not made with hands,” meaning that its origin is spiritual or even divine.

The Guadalupe cape is not the first image of this sort in Christian history. The most famous icon not made with hands is the image of Christ’s holy face known as the Mandylion (sometimes translated as “towel” or “napkin”): its history is fascinating and not altogether clear.

The Image of Edessa

From at least the sixth to the tenth century, a “God-made” image of Christ venerated in Edessa, a Syriac city on the Persian border. In the year 525, the Daisan River – a tributary of the Euphrates – flooded part of the city. During the reconstruction of the city wall, the image, on cloth, was discovered hidden in the wall, over one of the city gates, reportedly inscribed, “O Christ our God, no one who hopes in You will ever be put to shame.”

Contemporary writers associated this image with the story of the first-century king of Edessa, Abgar, who had written to Christ, asking Him to visit Edessa and heal him of an illness. The Lord reportedly wrote back saying that He could not come but would send one of His disciples in due time. After the resurrection, the disciple Thaddeus (Addai) brought the Gospel to Edessa and reportedly healed the king. The fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea recorded this story in his History of the Church and claimed to have seen the letter in the Edessa chancery. The pilgrim nun Egeria, who visited Edessa in 384, also claimed to have seen this letter.

In 593 Evagius the Stoic in his Ecclesiastical History mentions that Edessa was home to a “God-made image” of the face of Christ printed on cloth. The story quickly spread throughout the Churches. The eighth-century Pope of Rome, Gregory II, described this s a commonly-known fact and St John of Damascus cited it in his work On the Holy Images. This image was regularly connected to the stories of Christ, Abgar and Addai. In the version recounted by John of Damascus, a painter sent by King Abgar to make “a likeness of the Lord” could not do so “because of the brightness that shone from His countenance.” The Lord then placed a garment over His face to create the image.

From Edessa to Constantinople

From the sixth century to the eighth, an icon of Christ on cloth served as a banner for the Byzantine army. It had led the army of Heraclius in his seventh-century battles against the Persians, but had disappeared in 705, according to the Byzantine writer Georgios Kedrenos, during an interruption in the reign of Justinian II.

In 984 Edessa, then under Islamic rule, was besieged by a Byzantine army led by its leading general, John Kourkonas, who exchanged a group of Muslim prisoners for the “God-made image.” It was taken to Constantinople where it was received in triumph and enshrined in the chapel of the imperial palace. It is this event which the Byzantine Churches still commemorate on August 16.

The Mandylion remained in Constantinople until the city was sacked by the European Crusaders in 1204. Many of its treasures were looted and taken to Western Europe. The Crusader-King Baldwin II sold a number of Byzantine treasures to King Louis IX of France. The relics were enshrined in his Sainte Chapelle in Paris until they disappeared during the French Revolution.

The Mandylion and the Shroud of Turin

The image of Edessa was described in a sixth-century Greek text as a “tetradiplon” (folded four times). Several modern authors have argued that the Shroud of Turin, folded in this manner, would display only the holy face. They also point to the distinct crease marks on the Shroud, suggesting that it had been folded for a long time. Finally, they cite a certain Gregory, a tenth-century treasurer at Hagia Sophia, who said that the image of Edessa was painted “in sweat and blood.”

They also note that scientists have identified traces of pollen on the Shroud native to all three of the locations associated with the Mandylion: Jerusalem, Edessa and Constantinople.

Images of the Image

The earliest known icon of the Mandylion is preserved at the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. It has been dated to the mid-tenth century, when the actual Mandylion was bought to Constantinople. Since then, many icons have appeared; some showing the cloth, others depicting only the Holy Face.

Icons of the Mandylion present us with a problem when we go to venerate them. Iconographic etiquette dictates that we kiss the hands or feet of Christ in icons, never the face. On icons of the Mandylion it is proper to kiss the cloth, if shown, or the hair of Christ, but not His face. As we say in the prayer before Communion, “I will not give You a kiss like Judas did.”

The holy Mandylion itself, or icons of it – indeed any icon of Christ – point to the divine icon truly made without hands: the Lord Jesus Himself. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation; for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and thata re on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created in Him and for Him” (Colossians 1: 15-16). He is, as St Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “The Wisdom of God not made by human hands, now become a creature for our sake.”

When Christ chose His disciples and sent them forth, He said to them:, “Blessed are the eyes that see the things you see; for I tell you that many prophets and kings have desired to see what you see and have not seen it, and to hear what you hear and have not heard it” (Luke 10:23, 24). The Mandylion, the Shroud, and icons of them give us a glimpse of what they saw, and more.

Before Your most pure image we bow in worship, O Good One, begging forgiveness for our sins, O Christ God; because You chose of Your own free will to ascend upon the cross in the flesh in order to deliver from the enemy’s bondage those You had created. For this reason we cry out to You in thanksgiving: “You have filled all things with joy, O our Savior, when You came to save the world.” (troparion)

“We have come to realize the extent of Your victory, the inexpressible plan of Your perfect Incarnation, and to recognize this miraculous and unpainted icon as a banner of that divine triumph. With hearts full of love, we kiss it in homage and reverence.” (kondakion)

“You became incarnate as You willed, O Lord, choosing to assume our poverty. You showed forth the riches of Your compassion by which You deified me who am dust. We glorify You, O Lover of mankind, gazing upon the image of Your countenance. Thereby, O Savior, grant to Your servants unhindered entry into Eden, overlooking our transgressions.” (At the Gospel of Orthros)
 
"I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD" (John 8:12). These familiar words of the Lord Jesus reflect one of the most popular images in the Scriptures, but what do they mean? How is Jesus the Light of the world?

The rest of this verse sheds light on what is meant here. “I am the Light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” Here and in a number of other places, Jesus is portrayed as a Beacon: one who guides along a right path, who illumines the way for us. He is the “Giver of light,” the One bringing light to our hearts. To say that He is light in this way is to talk about what he does.

But there is another way to see Christ as light. He is light, not only because of what He does for us, but because of what He is. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is not described here as light illumining our minds or hearts, but as He is in Himself: Light in His innermost being.

Based on the Gospel message, the Church proclaims the Lord Jesus as “Light from Light” (Nicene Creed), the “Joyful Light of the holy glory of the immortal Father, the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed: Jesus Christ” (third-century Vespers hymn). As God is Light in Himself, so too the incarnate Christ is the Light of the Father. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

As far back as the third century, the Fathers used our experience of the sun to illustrate this mystery. Like others before him, St Cyril, the ninth-century teacher of the Slavs, reflected, “Do you see in the heavens the brilliant sphere of the sun and how light is begotten and warmth proceeds from it? God the Father is like the sphere of the sun, without beginning or end. From Him is eternally begotten God the Son, like light from the sun; and just as there comes warmth together with light, the Holy Spirit proceeds. Each one is distinguished separately: the sphere of the sun, the light and the warmth – these are not three suns, but one sun in the heavens. So also, in the Holy Trinity: there are three Persons, but God is one and indivisible.”

The Light of Mt. Tabor

Christ was concretely manifested as light at His Transfiguration. “His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as light” (Matthew 17:2) – “white and glistening” (Luke 9:29), “such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). For a moment, His disciples glimpsed what had been hidden since the Incarnation: the Word of God, radiant with divine glory, in the person of Jesus.

In icons of the Transfiguration, this radiance is depicted by a geometric figure behind the representation of the Lord, called a mandorla. While depictions of Christ during His earthly ministry show His head surrounded by a cross and a halo, icons representing Him in moments beyond time and space (e.g. the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Dormition) envelop His whole body in this light of glory.

This same figure is found in icons of the conversion of St Paul. Christ, the “radiant Light” was manifested to Saul of Tarsus (St Paul) on the road to Damascus as “a light from the sky brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13). While this light briefly blinded Saul by its brilliance, it ultimately enabled him to see even more clearly “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed” (Colossians 1:26).

In the Church, the light experienced by Saul has been identified with the light that shone on Tabor, the Radiant Light of the Father, Jesus Christ. As we sing on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, “Christ, who had been radiant in light on the mountain, blinded your bodily eyes; but He allowed your soul to see the Trinity” (from the canon, ode 1).

The “Uncreated Light” of God

In the Gospels we find two seemingly contradictory understandings of our ability to know God. On the one hand, we are told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). On the other hand we hear, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). In the fourth century St Gregory of Nyssa showed how both statements are true.

He taught that the essence of God was unknowable. Like the sun in the imagery cited above, God in His deepest being is unapproachable. The energies of God – His “Light” and “Warmth” – have been made known to us and we can truly know God in His energies.

In the fourteenth century, St Gregory Palamas applied this teaching to the Transfiguration. He explained that, when the Apostles witnessed the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor, that they were seeing the actual uncreated light of God.

Reflecting the Divine Light

We too, Palamas insisted, can experience God’s divine energies even though we can never know His essence: “for those who love ech other, all nature is filled with the light which seems to radiate from the other.” Many saints who have loved deeply have reflected this light. Perhaps the first was the Protomartyr St Stephen, who witnessed to Christ before the council of Jewish elders in Jerusalem, “And looking steadfastly on Stephen, they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).

St Simeon the New Theologian, writing in the eleventh century, described his own experience in similar words: “He gives Himself totally to me, unworthy as I am, and I am filled with His love and beauty. I am sated with pleasure and divine tenderness. I share in the Light. I participate also in the glory. My face shines like that of my beloved, and all my members become bearers of Light.”

The most compelling witness to such an experience comes from Nicholas Motovilov. In 1831 he wrote of seeing St Seraphim of Sarov transfigured with the divine light. They had been discussing how a person can acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit, but Motovilov was puzzled: “I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. Finally, as he described it, “Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said, ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?’” I replied, ‘I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’

“Father Seraphim said, ‘Don’t be alarmed, Your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise, you would not be able to see me as I am.’

“Then, bending his head toward me, he whispered softly in my ear: ‘Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us. You saw that I did not even cross myself; only in my heart did I pray mentally to the Lord God and said within myself, ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Your Spirit which You grant to Your servants when you are pleased to appear in the light of Your magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How, then, shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both!’”

For a moment the Apostles on Tabor saw the light of God which is Christ’s by nature. Likewise, for a moment Nicholas Motovilov saw the light of God indwelling by grace in the person who is in Christ.
 
SUMMER, IN OUR WORLD AT LEAST, is traditionally a time for sun and fun: cookouts, the beach, pool parties and the like. Yet in the midst of summer – in the week which has been compared to the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning – we are called to fast. The first two weeks of August are observed in the Byzantine Churches as the Fast of the Theotokos, in preparation for the feast of her Dormition on August 15.

In the early Church, the Dormition Fast was generally observed in both East and West. Pope St. Leo the Great mentioned it in the mid-fifth century in connection with the seasons of the year: “The Church Fasts are situated in the year in such a way that a special abstinence is prescribed for each time. Thus, for Spring, there is the Spring Fast, the Forty Days {the Great Fast]; for summer there is the Summer Fast… [the Apostles’ Fast]…for Autumn there is the Autumn Fast, in the seventh month [Dormition Fast]; for Winter there is the Winter Fast [Nativity Fast].”

Today the Coptic. Malankara and Syriac Churches, as well as the Byzantine, continue to observe this 14-day fast period. In the Armenian and Maronite traditions, the fast lasts for one week rather than two. In the traditional calendar of the Roman Church, August 14 is observed as a day of fasting in preparation for this feast.

This fast period is one of several aspects of this celebration which has earned it the title of the “summer Pascha,” a feast pointing to the ultimate resurrection of all flesh at the last day. Just as the feast of Christ’s resurrection is paired with the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), the Dormition is paired with the feast of Christ’s Holy Transfiguration (August 6). As Pascha is preceded by the Holy Friday evening observance of the Burial of Christ, the Dormition is marked in many places by a comparable burial service for the Theotokos, when lamentations patterned after the Holy Week hymns are sung. In some places a burial shroud (epitaphios), with the image of the Dormition, is carried in procession as well.

The Paraclisis to the Theotokos

In the Byzantine Churches of the Mediterranean world, the most prominent feature of the Dormition Fast is the celebration of the Paraclisis to the Theotokos, a service invoking the Virgin’s intercession for those we commemorate during the service. It is said that, as the Virgin sensed her approaching death, she prayed continually for her Son’s disciples and for those who would believe their message. And so, as the feast of the Domition draws near, we ask her prayers for our Church and our loved ones with a similar intensity.

The Paraclisis to the Theotokos is patterned in part on Orthros (Matins). There is an opening psalm, troparia, a Gospel reading, and a canon, concluding with an incensing of the whole church and a solemn veneration of the Virgin’s icon. Intercessory litanies for those whom we are commemorating are interspersed throughout the service.

There are actually two canons used, which give their names to the service as a whole. The Small Paraclisis includes the older canon, composed in the ninth century by Theosterictus the Monk. This Paraclisis may be used at any time throughout the year. The Great Paraclisis, which is only sung during the Dormition Fast, was composed in the thirteenth century by the Emperor Theodore II Ducas Lascaris, in exile due to the Fourth Crusade. As a rule, these two services are sung alternately on successive nights during this Fast (the Great Paraklisis always being sung on Sundays). Neither service is sung on Saturday night or on the eves of the Great Feasts themselves.

For What Do We Pray?

Our liturgical books indicate that this service is prayed “in times of distress and sorrow of soul.” The opening troparion expresses these emotions: “We will never cease, O Mother of God, although unworthy, to proclaim your power. If you no longer intercede for us, who will deliver us from so many misfortunes? Who would ever have preserved us free until now? We shall never leave you, O Lady, for you always save you servants from all tribulations.”

The canon of the Small Paraclisis is sung to a lively melody and expresses confidence in the Theotokos’ care for us, in troparia such as these:

- “You who carried within you the Benefactor of all and the Cause of every good favor, let His abundant grace spring forth to all of us. You have the fullness of power, since you’ve given birth to the Lord, the Almighty One.”

- “Give me your pure joy, Virgin pure and immaculate, you who gave birth to the cause of happiness, and fill my heart with the gladness of your Son, our God.


The Great Paraclisis adds other notes to our picture of the Virgin as our intercessor:

- “I profess you, O Lady, to be truly Theotokos: you who have both banished and triumphed over the might of Death, for as the source of Life, you freed me from Hades’ bonds, raising me to life, though I was fallen down to earth.”


- “The turmoils of this life encircle me like bees around a honeycomb, O Virgin. They have seized my heart and now hold it captive, and I am pierced with the stings of afflictions, O Maiden. Yet, O all-holy one, be my defender, my helper and my rescuer.”


One unusual feature of these canons is the following pair of hymns sung after each one, with a metany after each verse:

- “Deliver your servants from all dangers, O Mother of God, for to you, after God, we flee for refuge. You are our impregnable fortress, Our intercessor.”


- “O Mother of God, worthy of all praise, look down with compassion upon the ills of my afflicted body and heal the infirmities of my soul.”


Finally the celebrant solemnly venerates the icon of the Theotokos as the following glorification (or megalynarion) is sung: “May the lips of all heretics be sealed because they refuse to bow before your all-holy icon, which is fashioned after the blessed Hodigitria, depicted by the holy Luke the Apostle.”

This hymn reflects the iconoclastic controversy during which this service was composed. The iconoclasts refused to venerate icons of Christ, His Mother or the saints and for over a century persecuted those who did venerate them.

The Hodigitria mentioned here is the image of Christ enthroned on the arm of His Mother who points to Him, showing us the way to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The original of this icon was reputedly painted by St. Luke. The most famous icon in Constantinople, it was lost during the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453.

Another observance associated with this Fast in the Byzantine tradition, is the outdoor procession with the Holy Cross on August 1. Due to its climate, Constantinople was subject to insect-borne diseases at this time of summer. A procession was held each day of the Fast, praying for relief. Water was blessed and sprinkled over the city as well. Today this observance is remembered on the first of this month with a procession and the Lesser Blessing of Water.
 
THE MIRACULOUS FEEDING OF 5000 with five loaves and two fish is reported in each of the four Gospels. In both the earliest and latest Gospels, there is an unusual unanimity in the details which they relate: more than most other Gospel narratives, including the resurrection. This reflects the great importance which the first Christians attached to this narrative. In it they saw the Lord Jesus connected to the great movements of God in the past, the present and the future.

The Past: the Exodus from Egypt

As is well known, the Gospel of Matthew was written for Jewish believers who were convinced that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. They also saw many Old Testament events as “types,” pointing to New Testament events which fulfill and surpass the Old in God’s plan for our salvation. The early Church Fathers in the Greek and Latin worlds had the same vision. Thus St Cyril of Alexandria would write, “All that is written about the blessed Moses we affirm to be an icon and a type of that salvation that comes in Christ” (Glaphyra [Illumination] on Exodus, 1.3).

The feeding of the 5000 was one such event, in which Christ’s actions reflect that He is the New Moses and more: the One who worked through Moses on behalf of the children of Israel. Just as the exodus from Egypt begins with Pharaoh oppressing the 
Israelites, the Gospel story begins with Herod’s murder of John the Baptist. While Pharaoh oppresses the Israelites because they were so numerous, Herod kills John because of his moral stance.

Hearing about John’s death, Jesus goes apart, to “a deserted place” (Matthew 14:13). Jesus, His disciples and the people who came to Him from the towns and villages were in a “desert” just as Moses, his soldiers, and the crowds were in Sinai.

When the Israelites were in the desert with Moses, God fed them with manna and quail, which Psalm 78:24 calls “the bread of heaven.” While the Galileans were in the wilderness with Jesus, He Himself fed them with bread and fish.

The feeding of the Israelites in Sinai was connected to their passage through the Red Sea “on dry ground” (Exodus 14:23 et al). The feeding of the 5000 is connected to the miracle of Jesus “walking on the sea” (Matthew 14:25) which follows immediately. While the Israelites walked on the ground exposed by the parting of the sea, Jesus walks on the sea itself.

The Present: Jesus Nourishes the Church

This event marks the first time in the Gospel that the whole crowd will be invited to eat together with Christ, showing His desire to gather all His followers around a common table with Him. St Hilary of Poitiers noted that the first Church – those who responded to the preaching of Peter – numbered about 5000 men (Acts 4:4). The 5000 fed in the wilderness point to those 5000 who were the first to be nourished by the presence of Christ in His Church.

On that “table” in the wilderness was bread and fish. We recall that, for Christians during the Roman persecutions, the fish was a code-sign for Christ. The letters of the Greek word for fish – icthys – was an anagram for the profession of faith, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The bread – which Jesus “took…blessed…and broke” (Matthew 14:19) – was an “icon” for the early Christians of the Eucharist, in which we receive the Son of God, our Savior, the Bread of life.

Thus the feeding of the 5000 points to the Church and to its communal meal, the Eucharist.

The Future: the Messianic Banquet

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus pointing to the future: “I say to you that many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). He was alluding to the idea of the Messianic Banquet, the great feast that represented for Jews that communion with God, which the coming of the Messiah would bring about.

This feast is described in Isaiah 25:6-9 in terms which make us think of the feeding of the 5000: “And in this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees. And He will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces; the rebuke of all people He will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. And it will be said in that day: ’Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him and He will save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’” The Messiah would come and restore Israel. The scattered Jews of the world would be drawn back to their homeland and they would all sit down to a great meal of celebration. How could the first Jewish believers in Christ not have thought of this banquet when reflecting on the feeding of the 5000?

When Jesus spoke of many “coming from east and west,” He was adding a new note to the concept of this banquet: it would be open to Gentiles, and many “sons of the kingdom” would be excluded. The kingdom of God – and this, the great feast of the kingdom – would feature Jews and Gentiles eating together (an act forbidden in Jewish tradition). And so in Matthew 15:30-38 we find Jesus’ miracle repeated, after He heals the Canaanite woman in the area of Tyre and Sidon. But this time it is 4000 Gentiles who were fed. The feeding of these multitudes – Jews and Gentiles –would proclaim to believing Jews that the time of the Messiah had arrived.

In Our Worship

Byzantine worship includes several allusions to the feeding of the multitudes. In the Divine Liturgy it is prescribed that five loaves be used to prepare the oblation. The Lamb is cut from one of them; the others are used to provide the particles representing the Theotokos and the saints and the living and the dead for whom we pray. Once again the Church is fed from five loaves.

Five loaves are also used in the rite of artoklasia (breaking of the bread) celebrated on major feasts. The priest prays: “O Lord Jesus Christ our God, who blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and thus sustained 5000 men, bless these loves, along with this wheat, wine and oil, and multiply them in this holy city and for Your whole world, and sanctify the faithful who partake of them…” Traditionally in some churches, many other loaves would be provided to feed the needy while the people sing, “Rich men have turned poor and gone hungry, but they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good thing.” Thus the Messianic banquet and the soup kitchen have something in common: both point to the Lord as the ultimate and unfailing Nourisher of all mankind.

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