Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WHEN PEOPLE THINK of Byzantine Churches today, Constantinople (Byzantium) comes to mind as do the “Ancient Patriarchates” (Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem} which adopted this rite later in their history. The largest Byzantine Churches today are the Slavic Churches (Russia, Ukraine, and the rest). These are also the Churches most represented in the West. But there are other ancient Churches with ancient histories that are less common in the West, such as the Apostolic Church of Cyprus and the Church of Georgia. Neither of these Churches have eparchies in the United States, so we may know little about them.

The Church of Barnabas and Mark

Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean west of Syria, was settled by Greeks in the eleventh century bc. By the first century ad, it was part of the Roman Empire.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Cyprus was one of the first non-Jewish territories to receive the Gospel. “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch,,,” (Acts 11:19). Cypriots trace the founding of their Church to the apostles, specifically Barnabas and Mark, who went there after they parted from St Paul (see Acts 15:36-41). Dependent at first on the Church of Jerusalem and, later on, on Antioch, the Cypriot Church was made autocephalous at the Council of Ephesus (431).

Cyprus was occupied by the Arabs (649-965), the Crusaders (1191-1473), the Venetians (1473-1570), and the Ottoman Turks (1570-1878). Under the Crusaders and Venetians, the Church of Cyprus was subjected to Latin rule and the Latins were recognized as the island’s elite. Under Turkish control the Ottoman millet system was introduced and restored the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church. Its archbishop was declared to be the head of the rum millet on Cyprus. Despite the taxation, harassment and outright persecution at times, the Church prospered under Ottoman rule. By 1878 it numbered two-thirds of the island’s population in its ranks.

As a result of the Russo-Turkish War, the British Empire took control of Cyprus in 1878. Many hoped that Cyprus would be united to Greece, but when Britain ceded control of the island in 1960 it was to an independent Republic of Cyprus. In 1974 those favoring union with Greece deposed the president and sought to unite the island to Greece. The Turkish army invaded and partitioned Cyprus into Greek and Turkish parts. None of the many attempts at reunion which followed have been successful.

The Saints of Cyprus

Cyprus has been called “the island of saints.” Some 240 local saints are commemorated on its calendar. A synaxis for all these saints is celebrated in Cyprus on the first Sunday of October.

Perhaps the most famous Cypriot saints – after the apostles – are:

St Lazarus the Four-Days Dead (Mar. 17) – Lazarus of Bethany, whom the Lord raised from his tomb, is said to have fled to Cyprus in the first persecution of Christians in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 11. He settled in Kition (present day Larnaca), where he is regarded as its first bishop. Lazarus’ tomb in Larnaca, with the inscription “Lazarus, the Friend of Christ,” was discovered in 860. The bulk of his relics were taken to Constantinople in 869, but the emperor built a church over the saint’s tomb. In 1972 a marble sarcophagus containing human remains was excavated below the altar of this church.

The Palm Sunday carol, “Rejoice, O Bethany,” sung in many Middle Eastern churches, is of Cypriot origin.

St Spyridon the Wonderworker (Dec. 12) – Born at the end of the third century, he was a shepherd so known for his piety and generosity to those in need that, after the death of his wife, he was chosen to be bishop of Tremithusia, a village in northern Cyprus.

Spyridon attended the First Ecumenical Council in 325 where he reputedly converted a pagan philosopher to Christ. In his Life, the philosopher is said to have responded, “Listen! Until now my rivals have presented their arguments, and I was able to refute their proofs with other proofs. But instead of proofs from reason, the words of this Elder are filled with some sort of special power, and no one can refute them, since it is impossible for man to oppose God. If any of you thinks as I do now, let him believe in Christ and join me in following this man, for God Himself speaks through his lips.” Stories of St Spyridon’s life and the healings attributed to him are found in the fifth-century Church histories of Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen. His life was included in the tenth-century Menologion written by St Simeon Metaphrastes.

St Spyridon died in 348 and his body was later found to be incorrupt and a source of healing. When the Arab invaded Cyprus in 649, the saint’s holy remains were taken to Constantinople. With the fall of that city to the Turks in the fifteenth century, the relics were taken to the island of Corfu where they are today.

St Spyridon is also regarded as the protector of Corfu. In 1716 that island, then under Venetian rule, was besieged by the Turks. St Spyridon is said to have been seen by the Turkish troops walking through their camp. This apparition sent the Turks into a panic and the siege was lifted after only 22 days. Since then it has become the custom to replace the slippers on the saint’s body when they show signs of wear, because, in walking about the island to care for the people, St Spyridon “wears out” his shoes.

The Hieromartyr St Philoumenos (Nov 29) – Born in 1913, this contemporary Cypriot saint and his twin brother were raised by their devout grandmother on the Church’s prayers and the lives of the saints. At the age of fourteen they entered the Stavrovouni Monastery in Cyprus. After five years, the brothers went to Jerusalem where, in 1939, Fr Philoumenos joined the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher which cares for the holy places in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Known for his piety and devotion to the performance of the daily services even when alone, Fr Philoumenos was appointed guardian of the monastery at Jacob’s Well, near Nablus, where Jesus had asked a Samaritan woman for a drink.

A few months later a group of Zionist extremists came to the monastery demanding the removal of all icons, crosses, etc. and that the monastery be given to them as a Jewish site. The saint reminded them that the Church had served this shrine since the time of the Emperor Constantine and that it had been in Samaritan hands for eight centuries before that.

A few days later, on November 29, a group entered the monastery and desecrated the church. They butchered Fr Philoumenos with a hatchet in the form of a cross, plucked out his eyes and cut off the fingers of his right hand (with which he would make the sign of the cross).

Fr Philoumenos’ body retained its elasticity for several days. When it was exhumed in 1984, it was found to be substantially incorrupt. Fr Philoumenos was glorified as a saint by the Jerusalem Patriarchate in 2008 and his relics enshrined in the church at Jacob’s Well where he had been martyred.
 
PATRIARCHS IN BOTH EAST AND WEST regularly take the name of one of their predecessors. As a result, they are generally identified as the second, third or tenth of that name in that see. The Greek Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, John V, is an exception to that rule. He is known to history as John the Almsgiver and is remembered in Byzantine Churches on November 12.

Born in c. 552, John was the son of the governor of Cyprus, so his upbringing was that of an aristocrat. He married at his father’s behest, although his preference was for a celibate life. His friend and biographer, Bishop Leontios of Neopolis in Cyprus, wrote that John and his wife lived in continence until her father demanded that they live as husband and wife. The couple yielded to his demands and proceeded to have what Leontios called “a bountiful crop” of children. After a time, the children and then their mother died, leaving John free to live as a celibate devoted to the service of others.

John’s reputation as an extraordinary peacemaker and benefactor of the needy became so widely known over the following decades, that, still a layman, he was chosen – under pressure from Emperor Heraclius – to be Patriarch of Alexandria in 609.

The reason for his extreme generosity was only made known after his death by Leontios. One night when John was 15, he was awakened by a woman “whose face outshone the sun” and identified her as “the first of the daughters of the King.” She promised, “I will lead you into the presence of the King, for no one has as free access to Him as I have.” John knew that the King was the sole Compassionate Lover of mankind and identified this “first daughter” as Compassion. This experience as a teenager set the course of his life.

As patriarch, John immediately set out to assure daily support to over 7000 poor in his eparchy whom he called his “helpers.” Questioned by his staff, John replied, “Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they alone, are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.”

To discourage the many administrators and employees in his service from taking bribes or being influenced by the rich, John increased all their salaries. At the same time he demanded that they never take a gift from anyone. Leontios notes that “by God’s grace their households so prospered from then on, that some of them did not even take their additional pay.” He himself refused the many gifts offered by people seeking advancement, citing Proverbs 15:27 (lxx): “He that is greedy for gain destroys himself, but he who hates taking gifts shall live.”

Alexandria Under Attack

During John’s eleven years as patriarch, his Church was faced with two insurmountable crises: the Monophysite controversy and the Persian invasion of Egypt. The unity of the Patriarchate of Alexandria had been ruptured at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon. The terminology used by this council in its teaching on the nature of Christ was inconsistent with the language of St Cyril of Alexandria at the Council of Ephesus a few years earlier. The patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscoros I, who rejected the teaching of Chalcedon, was deposed and exiled. The council replaced him as patriarch with one of its adherents, Proterios of Alexandria. Dioscoros’ followers in Egypt continued to recognize him, as patriarch.

When Dioscoros died in 454, his supporters elected a successor who rejected the teaching of Chalcedon, while Proterios and his successors supported the council. From this point, there would be two hierarchies. The majority of the Egyptian Christians followed Dioscoros and his successors; today they are known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Chalcedonians, who followed the successors of Proterios, are now known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa.

As long as Alexandria was ruled by the Byzantine Empire there was conflict (often violent) between these two groups. John’s predecessors had attempted to enforce the Council of Chalcedon using the military and had failed. When John became patriarch there were only seven churches in Alexandria following the doctrine of Chalcedon.

John combated the Monophysites, not with arms but with alms. He was accessible to all and his liberality was for all, even for those who tried to cheat him. Approached by a beggar, John gave him six coins. The beggar then changed his clothes and approached from another street with the same request. When he tried a third time he was recognized, but John ordered that the man be given twelve coins: “Perhaps this is my Christ and He is trying me.” As a result his actions were recognized as based on his profound faith. By the end of John’s patriarchate his seven churches had become seventy.

The Persian Invasion

For most of the first millennium the rival “superpowers” in the Middle East were the Roman/Byzantine and the Persian Empires. In the early seventh century the Persians advanced through Syria and by 611 had conquered Syria and parts of Asia Minor. Many Christians – including a number of bishops and priests - fled from Syria to Egypt. When St John saw that many of these refugees were in need, he built a number of hostels to house them and paid the clergy among them as if they were his own.

When Palestine fell to the Persians a few years later, St John mounted a large program of assistance for the Christians of the Holy Land, and ransomed a large number of captives from the Persians. Leontios notes that the Persians themselves were impressed by his compassion and generosity “for even an enemy respects a man’s virtue.”

The Persian armies invaded Egypt in 618 and seized Alexandria the next year, aiming to depose the prefect and the patriarch. St John took refuge in Cyprus where he survived an assassination attempt but died in Cyprus in the year 620.

From Leontios’ Life of St John

“One day when [St John] determined to stop so many people from leaving the church as soon as the Gospel had been read in order to spend their time in idle talk instead of in prayer, what did he do? As soon as the Gospel had been read in the church he slipped away, came out himself and sat down outside with the crowd. Everyone was amazed, but the righteous one said to them, ‘Children, the shepherd must be where the sheep are. Come inside and I will join you. If you stay here, I will stay too. I come to this church for your sakes – after all, I could hold the service at home in my chapel if it was for myself.’”

When the Arabs seized control of Egypt in 642, the Greek presence in the country was all but eliminated and in later years the Chalcedonian patriarchs often resided in Constantinople, where they adopted the Byzantine rite. It was the arrival of Greek and Syrian Christians in the early nineteenth century which helped revive Egypt’s Chalcedonian (Byzantine) patriarchate. In the twentieth century the Greek Orthodox patriarchate expanded through missionary activity into central and southern Africa. It now has 23 eparchies in countries from Angola to Zimbabwe.
 
ONE OF THE FIRST CONTROVERSIES in which the Apostolic Church engaged concerned the continuing importance of the old Law, and in particular the need to be circumcised. Many Jewish believers or converts to Judaism wrestled with this question: did one need to be circumcised as well as to be baptized to be a member of God’s new community, the Church.

St Paul’s position, set forth in his Epistle to the Galatians, was clear. If a believer required physical marks as evidence of his faith, it was to be “the marks of the Lord Jesus” (v. 17): the imprint of the cross.

Some Christians had experienced physical torture for their faith; St Paul was one of them. But as St Paul grew in his union with Christ, he came to believe that the “marks of the Lord” applied to more than any scars of physical torture, because the Christian understanding of God and His relationship to His creation was bound up with the cross. Paul did not proclaim Christ’s submission to death simply as a historical event; nor did he see it simply as a dogma to be accepted intellectually. Acceptance of the cross as a way of life was to be the mark of the authentic Christian.

To Be Crucified to the World

In the Epistle to the Galatians St Paul uses the image of dying to the world as the mark of the cross in a believer’s life: “… the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). By this he means that the values of the world – what people prize and strive to obtain – were dead for him. We value possessions and focus on acquiring bigger and better ones. We thrive on the status and respect such possessions gain for us in the eyes of others and may be devastated when we lose them. St Paul’s witness is that attachment to these values cannot co-exist with imitation of Christ, who described them as “the deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19).

In their teaching and practice, the first Christians often returned to this theme that “the world” is opposed to the way of Christ. We find the same imagery used in the First Epistle of John, for example: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vainglory of life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). By the “lust of the flesh” is meant the inordinate pursuit of physical satisfaction of any kind through food, drink, exercise, or any means. By the “lust of the eyes” is meant the deep-seated pursuit of acquiring more of the world’s goods: “the most toys,” of the popular saying. “The vainglory of life” refers to the quest for titles, office and status that every society employs.

People may attach themselves to a specific parish or group of parishioners as a way to recognition in the community or even advancement in business. St Paul, on the other hand, was not cultivating his hearers for his own ends; as he wrote to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Corinthians 2:2).

Detachment from the values of the world would later become the hallmark of monasticism. Monks and nuns embrace poverty, chastity, stability of life or obedience to a superior for the sake of the community. Some of these traits, such as simplicity of life, have been adopted by people in the world as well.

Kenosis: the Mark of the Cross

In his Epistle to the Philippians St Paul focuses on the mind of Christ, which brought Him to the cross and the tomb, as the key to our understanding of the cross. “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 bondservant, 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).

St Paul teaches that the willingness to empty oneself – kenosis in Greek – is what identifies Christ and marks us as His followers. But the way we are to empty ourselves cannot be identical to Christ’s kenosis. The Word emptied Himself of the divine glory, which was His by right, to identify with us. This led to the cross and to the exaltation of Christ as Lord. Of what are we to empty ourselves in imitation of Him? It would be our “glory,” or what we think of as our glory, which we would give up to identify with Him. As Christ became a “bondservant” for our sake, the Christian is called to become a servant of others also. This is what Christ depicted graphically when He washed His disciples’ feet at the Supper then told them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14, 15).

Practicing “Servanthood”

Our Church’s traditional disciplines are based on these teachings. By fasting we learn to distance ourselves from physical pleasures, dying to the world through abstinence from food, drink, entertainment and the rest. In almsgiving we learn to dispose of our resources rather than to hoard them. By joining others in common prayer and ascetic exercises we become servants of one another, helping others to grow in the Christian life as well. It has been said that others will believe in Christ when they see His crucifixion displayed in the lives of His followers. By practicing these traditional disciplines we show that we, like St Paul, attempt to live the cross. As the “Holiday Season” approaches, so does the Nativity Fast, giving us an opportunity to deepen our practice of these disciplines and to explore new ways of serving others as Christ has served us. In this way we prepare for the Feast – rather than just jumping into it – by putting on the “marks of the Lord Jesus” in our hearts.

On Boasting in the Cross “Now indeed [the cross] appears to be a reprehensible thing, but only to the world and to unbelievers. In heaven and for believers it is the highest glory. For poverty too is reprehensible, yet it is a cause of boasting to us. Many mock simplicity, but we are disciplined by it. Paul did not say, ‘I do not boast’ or ‘I do not wish to boast’ but God forbid, as though he were deprecating something absurd and calling on the aid of God to set this right. But what is this boasting in the cross? That on my behalf Christ took the form of a slave and suffered what He suffered on account of me the slave, the enemy, the ingrate” (St John Chrysostom, Homily on Galatians 6,14).
 
IT IS COMMON IN MANY EASTERN CHURCHES to see people touching or kissing the priest’s vestment as he passes in procession. In this way, they express their veneration for Christ in the Gospel book, the Holy Gifts or other sacred object he is carrying. They are doing liturgically what people in Eastern cultures did regularly to express reverence for or dependence upon their religious or ethnic leaders – or even family elders – for centuries.

We read in the Gospels that people would reach out to touch the hem of Christ’s garment in the hope that they would thereby come into contact with holiness and obtain a blessing. On His arrival at Gennesaret, for example, we are told that “When the men of that place recognized Him, they sent out into all that surrounding region, brought to Him all who were sick, and begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well” (Matthew 14:35, 36). The woman with the issue of blood in Lk 8 had the same hope.

The “Issue of Blood”

Modern commentators have debated whether this woman suffered from a genetic blood disease such as hemophilia or a menstrual disorder of some kind. This issue is not raised in the Scriptures, which focus on the results rather than the cause of her condition. In Mk 5 we read that she “had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse” (v. 26). Not only had her condition worsened, but she had become impoverished in the process (she “had spent all her livelihood on physicians” – Luke 8:43).

The Gospels, written for Gentile converts, do not mention another effect of her illness which would have been extremely important to Jews. Whatever the origin of the hemorrhaging, it caused the woman to be ritually unclean according to the Torah. “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, other than at the time of her [customary] impurity, or if it runs beyond her [usual time of] impurity, all the days of her unclean discharge shall be as the days of her [customary] impurity. She shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies all the days of her discharge shall be to her as the bed of her impurity; and whatever she sits on shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever [else] touches those things shall be unclean; he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening” (Leviticus 15:25-27}. Bodily discharges of any kind, being “of the earth,” rendered a person or anything they touched unfit for the heavenly action of worship (“defiling the tabernacle” – Leviticus 15:31). Neither this woman nor anyone who had contact with her could observe the Holydays or offer even the daily sacrifices in the temple on any day she suffered this hemorrhage. Some have surmised that, if she had been married, her husband probably would have divorced her as she would have been unable to care for her children or for others without making them all unclean. She was, in effect, as much of an outcast as a leper as far as participation in the life of her people was concerned. Touching Jesus changed all that.

What Did She Touch?

In Luke 8:44 we are told that this woman “came from behind and touched the border of His garment.” The phrase translated here as “the border of His garment” is more properly rendered as “the fringe of His robe.” The ordinary dress of Jewish men in Christ’s day consisted of a tunic over which they wore a mantle large enough to cover them from head to foot. The Torah prescribed than this garment be fringed with tassels (tzitzit); “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. When you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Numbers 15:38, 39).

Some rabbinic authorities considered blue as the “color of God’s glory”. Covers for the temple vessels were made in this color. Touching the blue-threaded tassel, then, is an attempt to connect with the glory of God.

This garment, reduced in size, is the prayer shawl worn by observant Jews today at worship. Some Orthodox Jewish men wear a kind of scapular under their street wear. Its tassels often may be seen hanging outside their shirts.

Who Was This Woman?

Although the story of this woman is recounting in Matthew 9 and Mark 5 as well as in Lk, her name is never given and she is not mentioned again. Later writers tried to remedy the “defects” in the Gospels by recounting “life stories” of characters like this woman whom the Scriptures mention only in passing. Thus, in the fourth-century Acts of Pilate this woman, now given a name, is portrayed as trying to give evidence at Jesus’ trial: “And a certain woman named Bernice crying out from afar off said: ‘I had an issue of blood, and I touched the hem of his garment, and the issue of blood which I had had for twelve years was stopped.’ The Jews say: ‘we have a law, that a woman's evidence is not to be received.’”

Another fourth-century attempt to “bolster” the Gospel is found in Eusebius’ Church History. He notes that “They say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Savior deliverance from her affliction, came from this place [Caesarea Philippi], and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Savior to her remain there.

“For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases.

“They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city” (Book 7.18).

Later Eastern chroniclers such as Sozomen and John Malalas were not as cautious about the story of this statue as was Eusebius. They accept the story as unqualified fact.

Modern historians suggest that the statue originally depicted the submission of Judea to the Emperor Hadrian but was later give a Christian meaning. The statue was destroyed during the reign of Julian the Apostate and a statue of that emperor erected in its place.

A much later legend based on the story of this woman is the legend of “Veronica’s veil”. In the medieval West, it was said that the woman with the issue of blood was called Veronica (the Latin form of Bernice). She was described as having wiped the face of Jesus on the way to His crucifixion. Although there is no mention of this incident in the Scriptures, it became part of the medieval devotion, the “Stations of the Cross.” In fact, the “veronica” (meaning true image) was not a person, but a relic – perhaps the image of Edessa – brought to Rome in the twelfth century.
 
NOTHING WAS WRITTEN IN HIS OWN TIME about one of the more popular saints in the Byzantine Churches, the Great Martyr Demetrios. The oldest written life of this saint dates to the ninth century, some 700 years after his lifetime! Earlier witnesses to this saint include the seventh-century Miracles of St Demetrios, a testimony to the protection afforded to that city by its patron, St Demetrios. The Miracles consists of two books: the first is a compilation of homilies by Archbishop John of Thessaloniki praising the saint for his intercession for the city. The second is a slightly later account of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans in which the saint once again protected his city from destruction.

Older than these written works, however, is the archaeological record some of which came to light only in the twentieth century.

Life of St Demetrios

St Demetrios is said to have been born in Thessaloniki in about ad 260 to an aristocratic family. The oldest icons we have (7th century) depict him in upper class dress. He is said to have been an officer in the Roman army and many icons portray him in a military uniform. During the Great Persecution of the early fourth century Demetrios was appointed pro-consul of the city, charged by Emperor Maximian with exterminating the Christians there. When it became known that Demetrios himself was a Christian, he was seized and imprisoned in the bathhouse complex at the Roman forum.

Demetrios was executed when his influence over the martyr Nestor became known. Nestor had accepted a challenge to fight the gladiator Lyaeos, a favorite of the emperor. Blessed by Demetrios, Nestor defeated the gladiator but was himself slain by the military commander. Soldiers sent to the prison impaled Demetrios on their lances and disposed of his body. Demetrios’ servant Lupos dipped his garment in the saint’s blood and preserved it along with the earth soaked in the martyr’s blood.

The Great Church in Thessaloniki

The Great Church of St Demetrios is part of the World Heritage site incorporating the Roman forum, palace, temple, hippodrome, and a bathhouse used by the athletes competing there. This was the place where the Saint had been imprisoned and martyred. The complex was excavated by archeologists in 1966.

A church incorporating the old Roman bathhouse was constructed in the early fifth century, by the prefect Leontios, in gratitude for a healing received through the saint’s intercession. This church was enlarged several times over the centuries and attained its present form as a major basilica in 629-634.

By then the ground had so risen that the Roman era bathhouse was actually underground. The basilica was built over the site of the saint’s martyrdom, which was now housed in a crypt.

Over the centuries the church and its surroundings experienced major changes. From 1493-1912, under the Ottomans, the church was used as a mosque. The crypt was filled in with dirt and forgotten. In 1912, when Thessaloniki was joined to the Greek state, the structure became a church again. In 1917 a house fire spread unchecked and destroyed two-thirds of the city, severely damaging. the Church of St Demetrios. Archaeological work in the church over the next few decades unearthed the forgotten crypt and a Roman-era well where, scholars believe, soldiers disposed of the saint’s body after his martyrdom.

The Relics of St Demetrios

The life of St Demetrios described how his servant had dipped his garment into the saint’s blood. This was confirmed in the twentieth century restoration of the church and crypt. The first chapel built over the place of the saint’s martyrdom was discovered. Its Holy Table was found to contain an earthen vessel containing earth impregnated with human blood.

When the Great Church was built, its shrine contained only a carved bed, a classical architectural device. When a body reported to be that of St Demetrios was put forth for veneration in the seventh century, the archbishop dismissed its authenticity. The body was proclaimed to be that of the saint after it started exuding perfumed myrrh. The relics were placed in the shrine where they are venerated to this day. This is why St Demetrios is known as the Myrobelite (Exuder of Myrrh).

For centuries, these relics have been exuding this fragrant myrrh and have been the occasion of many healings. Every year around the feast of the saint (October 26), the reliquary chest is opened and the fragrance of the myrrh can be detected for blocks around.

Exudations of Myrrh

Christians, particularly in the East, have long considered the exudation of myrrh a sign that God confirms the holiness of a saint. From time to time streams of a unique viscous liquid emitting a beautiful aroma have appeared in connection with the relics or icons of certain saints. Healings and other seeming miracles have often accompanied this phenomenon.

Perhaps more famous that the relics of St Demetrios are the myrrh-exuding remains of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra. Housed in the crypt of the basilica in Bari, Italy, St Nicholas’ relics continually exude myrrh. Every year on May 9, commemorating the transfer of the relics from Myra to Bari in 1087, the aromatic liquid is collected from the tomb and distributed to the faithful.

Other saints whose relics have reportedly exuded myrrh include Saints:

Clement the Confessor, Pope of Rome;
Juliana the Compassionate;
Peter the Wonderworker, bishop of Argos;
Simeon of Serbia, founder of Mt. Athos’ Hilandari Monastery;
Simon, founder of Mt. Athos’ Simonopetras Monastery.

>Myrrh-Streaming Icons

-Even more common are myrrh-streaming icons, some ancient and many modern which exude this aromatic liquid in churches, monasteries and even private homes. Widely revered today are:
-A manufactured copy of the icon of the Theotokos, “Softener of Evil Hearts” bought by Anastasia Basharinaya at the glorification of St Matrona the Blind and touched to the saint’s reliquary. At the family home, the icon began exuding myrrh. Taken throughout Russia and to Russian churches abroad, the icon has been the occasion of healings and unusual manifestations. Before the 9/11 tragedy, for example, the icon gave off the smell of blood.
-A modern copy of the Iveron icon of the Theotokos, given on Mount Athos to José Munoz-Cortes in 1982, which began exuding myrrh a few weeks later. It has been taken for veneration around the world ever since.
-A similar depiction of the same icon at Holy Theotokos of Iveron Church in Honolulu, which has exuded myrrh intermittently since October, 2007.
-A framed paper print of the Kazan Icon purchased by Nicholas and Myrna Nazzour on their honeymoon in 1980, began exuding myrrh in November, 1982 at their home in Soufanieh, a Damascus suburb. Since then this liquid – scientifically analyzed as olive oil – has streamed from the icon, from numerous copies, and from Myrna’s hands during prayer.
 
THE SECOND COUNCIL OF NICEAEA – the seventh ecumenical council – which we remember every October is chiefly known for formally recognizing the use of icons as a consequence of the Incarnation. If the Word of God could take on human nature He could be depicted in images. In effect, the Council taught, the Incarnation restricted the Old Testament ban on “graven images” (see Exodus 20:4).

The council, held in ad 787, decreed that, “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented."

While the veneration of icons was officially accepted by the Greek and Latin Churches at this council, it did not mark the end of iconoclasm. Beginning in 811 the Byzantine army had suffered a series of military defeats at the hands of the Bulgars. One emperor had been killed in battle and his two successors forced to abdicate because of military losses. In 814 the new emperor, Leo the Armenian reasoned that “all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors.” As a result, he decreed a revival of iconoclasm, which continued until the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in 843, which we celebrate on the First Sunday of the Great Fast.

Consequences of the Council’s Teaching

In addition to its dogmatic decree, Nicaea II issued a number of canons, some connected to its doctrine on icons; others dealing with various questions of Church discipline. The issues relating to the matter of icons include:

The use of relics (Canon 7) – Since the Roman persecutions of the first centuries It was customary to erect altars over the tombs of – or at least the relics of – the martyrs and other saints. During the era of iconoclasm altars had been consecrated without the usual relics which the iconoclasts saw as idolatrous. Nicaea II mandated that the practice be revived and that relics be inserted in any altars consecrated without them, “For as they took out of the churches the presence of the venerable images, so likewise they cast aside other customs, which we must now revive and maintain in accordance with the written and unwritten law. We decree therefore that relics shall be placed with the accustomed service in as many of the sacred temples as have been consecrated without the relics of the Martyrs.”

Iconoclastic books (Canon 9) – Copies of iconoclastic writings were to be withdrawn from circulation, “And if anyone is found hiding such books, if he be a bishop or presbyter or deacon, let him be deposed; but if he be a monk or layman, let him be anathema.”

Matters of Church Order

During the conflict over images, matters of Church order in place for centuries fell into disuse. The Council restored the earlier practice on:

The selection of bishops (canons 2, 3) - The chief qualification for office in the Church had often become the candidate’s stance on the question of icons. The council mandated the metropolitan of each province to conduct a “diligent examination” to see whether candidates for the office of bishop “be zealously inclined to read diligently, and not merely now and then, the sacred canons, the holy Gospel, and the book of the divine Apostle, and all other divine Scripture; and whether he lives according to God's commandments, and also teaches the same to his people” (Canon 2).

The Council affirmed that “he who is raised to the episcopate must be chosen by bishops, as was decreed by the holy fathers of Nicaea” (Canon 3). The iconoclastic era had seen regular interference in the choice of bishops by the emperors and their representatives. The council sought to return the choice of bishops to the bishops of the local provinces.

Local synods were to resume meeting twice each year as previously. “And if any prince be found hindering this being carried out, let him be excommunicated. But if any of the metropolitans shall take no care that this be done, he being free from constraint or fear or other reasonable excuse, let him be subjected to the canonical penalties” (Canon 6).

Reform of Morals

Since the passions (pride, greed, lust and the rest) have been a part of our makeup since the Fall, the Church must continually be on the alert to combat abuses. The following areas were addressed by II Nicaea:

Greed – Bishops were forbidden to demand payment in any kind from their clergy or people for ordination or preferment, with the strongest penalties imposed on those who did so. “Let him be dealt with according to the Apostolic Canon which says: If a bishop has obtained possession of his dignity by means of money (the same rule applies also to a presbyter or deacon) let him be deposed and also the one who ordained him, and let him also be altogether cut off from communion, even as Simon the Magician was” (Canon 5). The same rule was applied to monastics in Canon 19.

As a help in controlling these and other financial abuses, the Council mandated the appointment of an economos in each eparchy. If the local bishop did not do so, the metropolitan or patriarch was to make the appointment himself (Canon 11).

Bishops and the heads of monasteries were forbidden to sell Church properties, or give them over to their relatives or to local rulers. “The bishop or hegumen doing this shall be turned out, the bishop from his eparchy and the hegumen from his monastery” (Canon 12). Properties thus alienated by the iconoclasts were to be restored (Canon 13)

Vanity - During the struggle over icons simplicity in dress and lifestyle became a sign of those who supported icons. Their opponents mocked clergy who lived simple. The Council warned all clergy to avoid expensive or showy dress “For from early times every man in holy orders wore modest and somber clothing; truly whatever is worn, not so much because of necessity, as for the sake of outward show, savors of dandyism, as says Basil the Great’ (Canon 16).

Lust – Outright sexual impropriety was not addressed by the council. The appearance of impropriety was the subject of several canons. Women were not to live or work in bishop’s houses or men’s monasteries (Canon 18). Monks or priests were not to eat privately with women (Canon 22).

“Double monasteries,” where monks and nuns shared common public areas but had separate living quarters, were no longer permitted “for in thus living together adultery finds its occasion” (Canon 20).
 
FROM TIME TO TIME, Christians in a number of communities, including the ancient historic Churches, are encouraged to tithe to their congregation. Tithing – the giving of 10% of one’s income – is mandatory in some groups. Mormons, for example are required to tithe and only tithe-paying members are allowed to enter Mormon temples and to receive its “ordinances” (sacraments). Many Pentecostal groups teach that, if you are not tithing, you are robbing God.

Tithing in the Old Testament The practice of tithing arose at the start of the Israelite nation. When the Israelites occupied the Promised Land, eleven of their twelve tribes were given a portion of the conquered territory. The twelfth tribe, Levi, which was set apart as the nation’s priests, received no land. The eleven landed tribes were to give their tithes to the Levites (temple assistants, comparable to our deacons). These mandatory tithes were used to support the priests, manage the temple, and provide relief for foreigners, orphans and widows (see Numbers 18). The tithe was seen in the Torah as a recognition that all of creation was God’s: “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord. If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it. And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27: 30-32).

If a person failed to pay the tithe or held back some of it he was considered to have robbed God. As the nation became more established and prosperous, the temptation to avoid paying the full tithe was not uncommon. The prophet Malachi thundered against this practice, but also promised that those who paid the tithe would be blessed: “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts.” If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3: 8-10).

Malachi distinguishes between tithes and offerings. The tithe was the required tenth of one’s income which was God’s by right. An offering was whatever was freely given over and above the tithe. Sometimes such gifts are called “love offerings,” made from personal devotion rather than by law.

Tithing in the New Testament

Tithing was practiced regularly by Jews into New Testament times. In the Gospels, we see that the Lord Jesus criticized the Pharisees for being strict about determining tithes of everything they have received while ignoring more important matters: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23, 24). He did not condemn tithing, only the mechanical performance of it while ignoring the spirit behind it.

Similarly, in His parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), the Lord Jesus shows the Pharisee taking pride in his fasting and tithing. The Lord does not reproach the Pharisee for doing these things, but for taking pride in them.

That even the poor sometimes gave more than was required was noted – and praised –by Jesus when He visited the temple: “Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood’” (Mark 12:41-44).

Nowhere in the New Testament is tithing mandated. Generosity and openness in giving are recognized and praised while mean-spiritedness is condemned. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), two believers are reproached for pretending to give to the Church whatever they received for selling a piece of land. St Peter discerned the lie and said to Ananias, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (vv. 3, 4).

Giving in the Writings of St Paul

St Paul teaches several principles for giving in 2 Cor 9. First, in v.5 he notes that all giving should be “a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation.” He then adds: “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So, let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (vv. 6, 7). In v.7 St Paul sees the individual believer as responsible for determining the amount he can give “as he purposes in his heart”.

Instead of giving a set amount (the tithe), the believer is expected to give as his heart dictates, out of his faith that he is “in Christ.” Some, like popular Orthodox author Frederica Mathewes-Green, believe that a commitment to tithing, like fasting, can foster spiritual growth. She recommends, “Aim to give a percentage of your income. Start with whatever percentage you give now, and raise it a little each year. In time, you will reach the tithe. Then you will be giving as generously as the people of the Bible, who lived in conditions we would see as abject poverty. … there is no better indication of your priorities” (Christianity Today 59.5).

Many churches have annual pledge drives asking members to make a specific commitment of what they purpose to give in the year ahead. The introduction of set amounts for giving as “dues,” “pew rents,” or “fees” in some churches suggests that many Christians believe in paying only for services rendered.

The Ministry of Giving

St Paul indicates another principle for giving in Rom 12:4-8: “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”

Some Christians have been gifted to teach or lead the Church; others have been gifted to support the Church in a significant way. As good singers should use their voices to build up the Church, those with material abundance should use their wealth as a gift given them to support the Church over and above the average donor. The many believers who have built churches, shrines, schools or hospitals with their own resources have ministered in this way by using the gift they have received.

 
IN 1917 THE JOHN RYLANDS UNIVERSITY LIBRARY in Manchester, England acquired a third-century papyrus fragment of great historic interest. It contained the earliest known copy of a hymn to the Theotokos. The verse, still used in the liturgies of all the historic Churches, reads as follows: “Beneath your protection, we take refuge, O Theotokos. Do not despise our petitions in time of trouble, but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.”

This hymn shows that, from as early as the 200s, Christians have looked on the Holy Virgin as their protectress. Our liturgical year includes feasts celebrating the city of Constantinople’s reliance on the Theotokos to protect them. Today’s feast is the most iconic of these commemorations.

The Panagia of Blachernae

In the mid-fifth century, the emperors thought to enhance the city’s role as the Christian capital by collecting many relics from near and far. The patriarch of Jerusalem sent the holy mantle and robe of the Theotokos to the capital. A great church was built at Blachernae on the shore of the Bosphorus in honor of the holy Virgin with an adjoining shrine, the Hagia Soros (Holy Mausoleum) in which the mantle and robe, as well as relics of other saints, were enshrined.

The church at Blachernae became known for the numerous healings and other miracles associated with the church’s principal icon of the Theotokos, the Panagia of Blachernae. This icon was frequently taken in procession around the city asking for the protection of the Virgin. Such a procession was held in 626 when the Avars, from the northern Caucuses, were besieging the city. Their fleet was sunk and, seeing this as divine intervention, the Avars fled. The Christians of Constantinople saw this as a sign of the Virgin’s protection. The kondakion of the Akathist, which we know as We your servants (originally, I your city) was composed to celebrate this victory.

During the latter years of the first millennium Constantinople suffered a series of assaults from hostile powers. When Persians besieged Constantinople in 677 and Muslim Arabs did the same in 717, people turned to the Virgin for protection. Both invasions were repulsed and the Virgin was praised for her protection.

Orthodox Christians sought the Virgin’s protection over the Church during the era of iconoclasm. Every Friday an all-night vigil was celebrated before the Panagia of Blachernae. When all sacred images were finally removed from the church, the icon disappeared. It was reputedly found hidden behind a wall during renovations in 1038.

The Slavic Invasion of 860

In the 830s the Viking-Slavic peoples of Kievan Rus’ begin migrating south. When the Rus’ began raiding settlements on the Black Sea it was inevitable that their forces would come to the gates of Constantinople. In 860 a fleet of over 200 ships from Rus’ entered the harbor of Constantinople where they made a show of force before the city. On June 18, the inhabitants gathered with the emperor and the patriarch, St Photios the Great, in an all-night vigil at the Church of the Mother of God at Blachernae, near the shore. Imploring her to protect the city, St Photios took the robe in procession to the harbor, dipped it into the sea and then took it through the streets to Hagia Sophia. By June 25 the Rus’ began to withdraw from the harbor and entered into a treaty with the empire which led to the eventual Christianization of Rus’ in the next century. St Photios attributed the city’s deliverance to the “never-failing protectress of Christians” On July 2 the robe was returned to Blachernae in celebration, an event still commemorated in our Church every July 2.

The Vision of St Andrew

The memory of these events, as well as the presence of the Virgin’s robe, made the Blachernae church the most popular shrine to the Theotokos in the imperial capital. It would become even more renowned with the events of October 1, 911.

It was a Sunday and the all-night vigil was being served in the church at Blachernae. Among those present was St Andrew, a Fool-for-Christ, a Slav who had been captured during a military incursion and sold as a slave. His master saw to it that Andrew learned to read and the young man became attached to the Church and its worship. He was inspired to adopt the ascesis of feigned insanity, being a “fool-for Christ.” He would pretend madness during the day, but pray all night.

During the vigil, sometime after 3 AM, we are told in the Synaxarion that St Andrew “lifted up his eyes towards the heavens and beheld our most Holy Lady Theotokos coming through the air, resplendent with heavenly light and surrounded by an assembly of the Saints. Saint John the Baptist and the holy Apostle John the Theologian accompanied the Queen of Heaven. On bended knees, the Most Holy Virgin tearfully prayed for Christians for a long time. Then, coming near the ambo, she continued her prayer.

“After completing her prayer, she took her veil and spread it over the people praying in the church, protecting them from enemies both visible and invisible. The Most Holy Lady Theotokos was resplendent with heavenly glory, and the protecting veil in her hands glowed more than the rays of the sun.”

Saint Andrew gazed trembling at the miraculous vision and he asked his disciple, the blessed Epiphanius standing beside him, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?” “I do see, holy Father Epiphanius replied, “and am in awe.”

For a long time, they observed the Protecting Veil spread over the people and shining with flashes of glory. As long as the Most Holy Theotokos was there, the Protecting Veil was also visible, but with her departure it also became invisible. After taking it with her, she left behind the grace of her visitation.”

The icon of this feast shows this appearance of the Theotokos to St Andrew. Some icons, particularly those displayed for veneration on this feast, have a lower tier or an inset depicting St Romanos the Melodist chanting at the ambo. October 1 is also the feast day of this saint.

This vision is celebrated in most Byzantine Churches on October 1. In the Church of Greece, however, the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos has been transferred to October 28 to coincide with the Greek national holiday, “Ohi” Day, marking the start of Greek resistance to the German and Italian occupation during World War II.

The Church at Blachernae

The Church of the Theotokos was severely damaged by fire in 1070 but was rebuilt and restored by two successive emperors. Finally. the entire church complex, along with the surrounding quarter, was completely destroyed on February 29, 1434 when some children accidentally started a fire on the church roof.

A few years before the fire, a portion of the robe had been sent to Russia. When the feast of the robe (July 2) was celebrated during the Tatar siege of Moscow in 1451 the Tatars were unaccountably seized with confusion and fled in disarray. Again, the Virgin’s protection was credited with the deliverance of a Christian city. By the 17th century a portion of the robe was being venerated at the Dormition Monastery in Khobi, Georgia. To this day this relic is carried in procession around that city for veneration on July 2.
 
FROM SEPTEMBER, 2013 TO APRIL, 2014 government and rebel forces struggled for control of the ancient Christian town of Ma’loula, Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to a number of shrines and monasteries. One of them is the ancient Orthodox women’s monastery of St Thekla from which 12 nuns were abducted and held by rebel forces for three months.

Almost unknown in the West today, St Thekla was held in great esteem in the early Church and is still revered in the Christian East. Her festival, on September 24, has attracted pilgrims since at least the fourth century. Today both Christians and Muslims pray at her shrine in this venerable town.

Why Was St Thekla?

The story of St Thekla is told in the Acts of Paul and Thekla, a late first or early second century work written in the lifetime of the apostle John the Theologian but not by him. It is considered apocryphal, chiefly because its teachings are not consistent with those of St Paul in the canonical Scriptures.

In this work Thekla is said to be a daughter of an aristocratic family in Iconium (modern Konya in Asia Minor) who heard St Paul preaching during his stay there (see Acts of the Apostles 14:1-7). She was so captivated by Paul’s preaching that her mother and fiancé denounced him to the authorities and he was jailed. Thekla bribed the guards to gain entry to the prison and spent the night listening to Paul. When she was discovered, she too was arrested and condemned to death so that “all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid.”

Thekla was convinced of the truth of the Gospel and was ready to renounce everything she had for its sake. She was taken to the outdoor theater and placed on a pyre. Then, as the Acts of Paul and Thekla tells it, “They lighted the fire. And though a great fire was blazing, it did not touch her. For God, having compassion upon her, made an underground rumbling and a cloud full of water and hail overshadowed the theater from above” (¶ 22). In the storm which followed the earthquake the pyre was overturned and Thekla was saved.

In the Scriptural Acts of the Apostles we are told that, when St Paul left Iconium he went to Lystra. In the apocryphal Acts we are told that he went to Antioch, taking Thekla with him. In any case, Thekla spent the rest of a long life near Seleucia (modern Silifke, in southern Turkey) where she “enlightened many and died in peace.” Because of the many people Thekla brought to Christ in that pagan region the Church accords her the title “Equal to the Apostles.”

Many early writers in both East and West revered St Thekla as a model for devout women, particularly ascetics. Thus other notable women such as St Macrina and St Melany the Roman were described as “second Theklas” by eminent Church Fathers St Gregory of Nyssa and St Jerome.

The Tomb of St Thekla

The cave near Silifke, in which Thekla reputedly lived as an ascetic and was buried, was revered locally during the time of the Roman persecutions. As St Gregory the Theologian wrote (Oration 31), the fame of this shrine spread and by the fourth century a church had been built around the cave. This church, as well as the ruins of the more prominent church, built over it in the fifth century, may still be seen at the site. This church, as its ruins attest, was the largest in the region. Monasteries for both men and women grew up surrounding it which attracted pilgrims from all over the empire.

The fourth-century Spanish pilgrim nun Egeria wrote about visiting this shrine twice, on her way to and from Jerusalem. On her second visit, she writes, “When I had arrived in the name of God, prayer was made at the [saint’s] memorial and the whole of the Acts of Saint Thekla had been read, I gave endless thanks to Christ our God, who deigned to fulfill my desires in all things, unworthy and undeserving as I am. Then, after a stay of two days, when I had seen the holy monks and ascetics who were there, both men and women, and when I had prayed and made my Communion, I returned to Tarsus and to my journey.”

St Thekla and the Defile

Stories of St Thekla often tell how she was protected from being defiled by “a defile”. “To defile” means to debase or render impure, but “a defile” is a narrow crevice affording passage through mountains. In a number of stories about St Thekla it is said that she was pursued by people intending to defile her. In some versions her pursuer is a would-be lover frustrated by her commitment to chastity. In other versions pagans, resenting her success at proclaiming the Gospel, pursue her in order to silence her. In all versions Thekla flees into the mountains where a defile opens up allowing her to pass through it unharmed. Churches or shrines to St Thekla were often placed near mountain crevices, such as the monastery in Ma’loula, whose name in Aramaic means entry.

The First Woman Martyr?

In the Christian East St Thelka is considered the first woman martyred for Christ, much as St Stephen was among men. Yet, as we have seen, Thekla lived a long life and died in peace. How, then is she a martyr?

Thekla was first described as protomartyr among women by St Isidore of Pelusium, a fifth century Egyptian ascetic and friend of Ss Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. Known for his letters (over 2000 have survived), Isidore wrote to some women ascetics in Alexandria who were facing expulsion from the city for supporting the exiled Athanasius. He extolled “the all-praiseworthy Thekla” as “an eternal monument of purity” and the “head of all women victors and trophy-bearers” (Letter 87). Her “martyrdom” was considered to be all the sufferings she endured for giving herself to Christ. St Thekla thereby became the principal model for Egyptian women ascetics.

Early writers saw the life-long struggle of ascetics such as more intense than the more transient pains of actual martyrs. Their daily struggle with temptation and physical affliction became the “spears and swords” of their martyrdom. Hence St Thekla, as the model for women ascetics was the protomartyr of their kind.

From the Vespers for St Thekla

O Lord, Thekla followed in the footsteps of the Apostle in chains, casting off the chains of earthly passions; captivated by the power of Your love, she was firmly bound to You, O Savior of our souls.

O Lord, Your spotless Protomartyr Thekla was delivered over to the fire, but was not burned since she possessed You as a refreshing dew. She remained safe in the midst of wild beasts, protected as she was by Your hand, O Savior of our souls. As an athlete in your struggles, you overcame the enemy, O blessed Thekla; in martyrdom, you destroyed his schemes. You fled far from Thamyris in order to be espoused to Christ, your true Love. You were the companion of Paul and imitated Stephen in his trial. As the first woman to bear witness to Christ, you have boldness before Him: save our souls from all danger as, in faith, we festively celebrate your sacred memory.
 
WHAT MAKES A PERSON RIGHTEOUS before God? It is a question that religious people continually ask of themselves and their spiritual leaders. Sometimes the answers they receive seem to come from “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Thus over-zealous people of all backgrounds have come to believe at one time or another that they fulfill “God’s will” by destroying the religious monuments of others. But what do the Scriptures tell us bring us closer to God?

The Torah

Jews consider the Torah (the Law) as the cornerstone of their experience of God. Just as Christians see the Gospels as the heart of the New Testament, Jews see the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, as the core of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Torah contains the Commandments which God gave through Moses; observing them is what makes someone an “observant” Jew, obedient to the expressed will of God. “You shall observe My judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18: 4, 5).

When we think of the precepts of the Law which Moses received from God we think of the Ten Commandments. In fact, there are many other precepts in the five Old Testament books of Moses which Jews call the Torah and Christians call the Pentateuch. Later Jews came to see 613 commandments as prescribed in the Torah, including ritual and other precepts in addition to the moral laws. Various Jewish traditions number these precepts differently but all see the observance of the Law of Moses as the way to righteousness before God.

Christ and the Law

In the Gospels Christ is not depicted as critical of the Law but as endorsing it. He was critical of people who abused the precepts of the Law, using it to look down on others or control them. Thus, in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee Christ says that the Pharisee, who observed the precepts of the Law, did not attain righteousness through his actions because he made of them a way to look down upon his neighbor, the Publican.

Observing the precepts of the Law was good, but not enough to make a person godly. The same is true today. As the twentieth-century Greek elder St Porphyrios observed, some people “… make prostrations and cross themselves in church and they say, ‘we are unworthy sinners’, then as soon as they come out they start to blaspheme everything holy whenever someone upsets them a little.”

Jesus taught that the ceremonial precepts of the Torah were good, but that there was something most important. He confronted the Pharisees for insisting on these precepts while neglecting its more humane counsels: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Christ also pointed towards more than mere observance of the various precepts of the Torah. He directed people to see that the Law was to be fulfilled through Him. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). He did not explain how this was to happen; it was the apostolic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit which came to see that there was a way for people of all kinds to be righteous before God. It was not by assiduously observing the precepts of the Torah but by living in Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the Father’s will for Him on earth.

St Paul on Christ and the Law

St Paul was convinced that Christ had fulfilled the Law as He had promised, teaching that “Christ is the end [i.e. completion] of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes”(Romans 10:4) and that therefore “…by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16).

Obeying the precepts of the Law because they are the will of God is the heart of a righteous observance of the Torah. And so, by submitting Himself completely to the Father’s will, Christ totally fulfilled the moral precepts of the Law. In the Garden before His arrest Christ prayed, “O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). He accepted even “this cup” (His approaching passion) if it were His Father’s will.

Christ is also the fulfillment of the ritual precepts of the Law in that He replaces the temple and its cult as the authentic worship of God. When Jesus entered the temple, He drove out those selling the animals needed for sacrifice. People often see this as an attack on commercialism in religion, but this was not Jesus’ point. Asked for a sign to explain His actions, He replied: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said” (John 2:19-22). The Temple would be “rebuilt” as the risen body of Christ. Its offerings would be fulfilled in Christ’s offering of Himself, the eternal sacrifice, in which we share at the Divine Liturgy.

Not an Easy Out

St Paul’s insistence that a person is not made righteous by observing the Law led some people to conclude that they could do whatever they wanted. St Paul never taught that. The point of his teaching is that a person does not earn righteousness by observing the Law. He saw that observing the Commandments or following the lead of the Church was a way of sacrificing our own will in union with Christ who did the same. Thus the believer can say with St Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Uniting ourselves with Christ is the way to attain righteousness according to the New Covenant. We do so in the sacrifice of praise which is the Liturgy and in the crucifying of our own will by keeping His precepts and those of His Church.

To Be Crucified with Christ

“The True Life of a Monk” is an icon often found in Greek and Slavic monasteries, not for veneration but for reflection on what it means to be crucified with Christ.

The monk on the cross is not a recognized saint, not even a particular individual. He personifies the person (monk) who seeks to live in Christ. This is why the schema he wears on his chest is inscribed with the concluding phrase of today’s epistle reading, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”

Instead of Roman soldiers it is demons we see assaulting the monk with the passions of our fallen humanity, which our ego pushes us to gratify: vanity, lust, gluttony and the like. The monk repels their assaults by surrendering his ego to the will of God expressed in the precepts of the Gospel and his monastic rule.

Shopping Cart

Your shopping cart is empty
Visit the shop

Questions? © 1995-2016 Melkite Eparchy of Newton  ·  All Rights Reserved RSS Feed