Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN THE GOSPEL OF LUKE, as we have seen, the Lord Jesus is shown fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. The expressed aim of this Gospel is to proclaim what has been fulfilled. Jesus is also depicted as prophesying Himself: He foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and the persecution of His own followers. Jesus’ final words to the disciples before His ascension form a promise: “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

The “Promise of My Father” is, of course, the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit and the Incarnation

The infancy narratives in Luke are filled with references to the Holy Spirit. In Luke we are told that John the Forerunner would be “…filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). The Holy Virgin is promised a visitation of the Holy Spirit as well when she agrees to conceive the Lord: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

When Elizabeth and Mary, both now pregnant, meet one another, the Holy Spirit is again said to be present: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). When John is born, his father Zachariah is said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:67). Luke also says that “the Holy Spirit was upon” Simeon when he encountered the infant Christ in the temple (Luke 2:25).

Early in Luke’s Gospel John the Forerunner tells us that “One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16). He is, of course referring to the Lord Jesus.

The Holy Spirit in Christ’s Public Life

Luke also connects the presence of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ baptism (see Luke 3:22), to His encounter with the devil in the wilderness (see Luke 4:1), and to the beginning of His public ministry in Nazareth. Jesus appropriates to Himself the statement of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). The bulk of Luke’s narrative on the words and works of Jesus are illustrations of how the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him.

Jesus did not claim to possess the Spirit exclusively; rather He insisted that His disciples ask for the Spirit and the Father would send Him. “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13). It has often been noted that in Matthew, the verse reads very differently: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11). Does Luke, who seems to be so conscious of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the event of Christ, more readily see the Holy Spirit as the greatest of the Father’s gifts to us?

The Holy Spirit would be present to Jesus’ disciples when they were harassed or persecuted. Even then, they had no need of a reasoned defense, because the Holy Spirit would be with them: “Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say.  For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11).

The Holy Spirit in Acts

Luke is the only evangelist to add a second volume to his Gospel – the Acts of the Apostles. As the Gospel proper is devoted to the ministry of Jesus, the second volume focuses on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the infant Church.

The disciples had been empowered by Christ to minister “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2) in His name. Now the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to proclaim that it is in Christ Himself that the kingdom of God was to be found. As Peter said, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

The preaching of the apostles and the accompanying miracles they performed were seen as the effect of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This in turn was believed to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel (Joel 2:28, 29).

According to Joel, the Holy Spirit was to be poured “on all flesh.” The Spirit was not to be the exclusive property of the Twelve. Preaching to those gathered outside the upper room on Pentecost, Peter set forth the Church’s basic message of evangelism in the same terms as Joel’s: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).

Receiving the Holy Spirit was at the heart of entry into the Church, joined to repentance and baptism. When it became known that Philip, a deacon, had baptized some Samaritans, the apostle Peter and John went to them “…that they might receive the Holy Spirit…Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15, 16).

In Ephesus St Paul encountered some believers who had received John’s baptism, but not baptism into Christ. Then, we are told, “… they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:5, 6). 

This bestowal of the Holy Spirit in connection with baptism is what we call the Mystery of Chrismation.

“You must also know that the Holy Spirit empowers the martyrs to bear witness … A person cannot bear witness as a martyr for Christ’s sake except through the Holy Spirit. If ‘no one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit,’ will anyone give his life for Jesus’ sake except through the Holy Spirit?

“Great indeed, and all-powerful in gifts, and wonderful, is the Holy Spirit … He is working suitably for each of us present here. Being present in our midst, He beholds the temper of each, beholds also his reasoning and his conscience, and what we say, and think, and believe. Great indeed is what I have now said, and yet is it small.

“For consider, I pray, with mind enlightened by Him, how many Christians there are in all this diocese, and how many in the whole province of Palestine, and carry forward your mind from this province, to the whole Roman Empire; and after this, consider the whole world; …And as the light, with one touch of its radiance sheds brightness on all things, so also the Holy Spirit enlightens those who have eyes; for if anyone is not vouchsafed His grace, let him not blame the Spirit, but his own unbelief.”
St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture XVI, 21, 22.
 
AS WE HAVE SEEN, the Lord prophesied the destruction of the Jewish temple and of Jerusalem itself. The Scriptures record other prophecies from the Lord Jesus’ teachings. These sayings sometimes speak of His disciples’ personal futures. Thus at the Last Supper Jesus foretold His betrayal at the hands of Judas. He also spoke of Peter’s imminent denial: “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34).

Jesus’ most solemn prophecy about what awaits His followers is found in the Beatitudes. In Luke’s version, this reads: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22, 23). In Matthew’s version this prophecy is regularly chanted in our divine services.

The First Generation of Christians

St Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, shows the progressively negative treatment which Christians received for Christ’s name. At first, Christ’s followers were taken into custody and forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus (see Acts 4:13-17). When threats did not work, the disciples were beaten (see Acts 5:17-30). St Stephen was stoned to death (see Acts 7:57-60), becoming the first recorded to have lost his life for the Gospel. He is honored in the Church as the first, or Protomartyr.

As a result, many believers fled Jerusalem. Their dispersal became an occasion for witnessing to Christ, first to those in the surrounding area (see Acts 8:4-8) and then “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (see Acts 11:19ff).

Acts 12 tells how the Apostle James was killed and Peter arrested. The Lord intervened and delivered Peter from prison, which enabled him to escape to the Roman city of Caesarea, away from the jurisdiction of the Jewish leaders.

Over the next 25 years, the Church spread throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in the cities of Asia Minor, chiefly through the activity of St Paul and his companions. Their preaching bore fruit in many places and Churches were established in places like Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonika. At the same time, they experienced opposition and persecution from local Jewish leaders (see Acts 17:5-9) or devotees of the Roman gods and goddesses (see Acts 19:23ff.) who were intent on eliminating the new movement being spread in Jesus’ name. Nevertheless, St Paul taught for two years in Ephesus “…so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts !9:10).

Since there were many religions tolerated in the Roman Empire, the Roman state did not interfere with the Christians unless public order was threatened. One of those infrequent occasions is recorded in Acts 21. On his return to Jerusalem, Paul was accused of violating the temple. “…news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.  He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. … when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded [Paul] to be taken into the barracks” (Acts 22:32-34). St Paul was ultimately sent to Rome at his own request and was put to death, presumably in ad 68, when the Empire first set its face against those who professed the Gospel of Christ.

Persecution in the Roman Empire

In the summer of ad 64, fire devastated several sections of the city of Rome. A rumor spread that the Emperor Nero had the fire started so that he could rebuild the city his way. According to the historian Tacitus, Nero tried to diffuse this rumor by accusing the Christians of starting the fire. Tacitus wrote, “To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Chrestians by the populace” (Tacitus, The Annals XV, 44).

The Christians’ “abominations” consisted in refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods or to take part in their feasts. Since religion in the ancient world was tied to nationalism, venerating the Roman gods was considered a sign of loyalty to the state which was thought to be protected by the gods. Refusing to do so marked the Christians as anti-Roman in the eyes of many.

The average Roman believed that refusing to honor the gods resulted in disaster. The Christian apologist Tertullian observed, “They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lions!’” (Tertullian, Apologeticus 5,1)

During the next 150 years persecution of Christians was sporadic and localized, often involving mob violence. In ad 250 Emperor Decius issued a decree requiring citizens to offer public sacrifice to the gods. Christians could not comply and many prominent believers were put to death in this, the first empire-wide assault on Christians.

During the Great Persecution under Diocletian (303-312) Christian worship was forbidden and local governors were empowered to destroy churches and Scriptures and to arrest clergy. The persecutions would not end until ad 311 when Galerius issued his edict of toleration. Before the fourth century was over, the empire would officially become Christian. Persecution in the Persian Empire When Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, they found acceptance and toleration in the Persian Empire and the border kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia which lay between the two empires. Christians fleeing from persecution in the Roman provinces of Syria and Palestine crossed the Euphrates and were welcomed in Persian territory. By the third century the Churches in these regions were developing their own structures. Syriac-speaking believers from Edessa and Erbil (in Iraq today) brought Christianity into the Persian Empire, forming what would become known as the Church of the East.

The Roman persecutions ended in the early fourth century but Roman-Persian conflicts continued until the 380s. During this time, Persian rulers began to think of Christians as Roman agents. They now began to kill the Christians whom they had once welcomed. More Christians were martyred in the Persian Empire during the fourth century than had suffered in the Roman Empire under Decius and Diocletian. Before this persecution ended in ad 401, upwards of 190,000 Christians had been martyred.

The Lord Said… “… beware of men, for  they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles… Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:17-22)

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. … If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. … They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 15: 18,20; 16:2)
 
THE OVERRIDING THEME OF THE GOSPEL of Luke, as we have seen, is that the Lord Jesus fulfills the prophecies written about the Messiah in the Old Testament. Luke emphasizes this teaching in his telling of the risen Christ’s appearance to His disciples. In Luke 24 the Lord tells the disciples at Emmaus “…beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (v.27).

Luke then records how Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem. “Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the  Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (vv. 44, 45).

But Jesus did not only fulfill the Scriptures concerning Himself, He also prophesied what would happen after His death and resurrection. When Jesus entered Jerusalem – an event we celebrate as joyful – Luke says that, “ Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it,  saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side,  and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another,  because you did not know the time of your visitation’” (Luke 19:41-44).

Jesus specifically prophesies the destruction of the temple, the center of Jewish worship: “Then, as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations, He said, ‘These things which you see—the days will come in which not one  stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down’” (Luke 21:5,6). These prophecies were to be fulfilled in the century that followed by the Roman army.

The Roman Occupation

Much of history throughout the world can be summarized as larger states gobbling up their smaller neighbors. In the Middle East the fourth century bc saw Alexander the Great conquer much of the ancient world, including the Holy Land. The Jewish territories were allowed a certain autonomy under their new masters for over 150 years. Then, in the second century bc, the drive to impose Greek culture and customs on all their dependents saw Judaism prohibited and the temple desecrated. The Jews revolted and, in 164 bc under the leadership of the Maccabees, the Jews seized Jerusalem and purified the temple, ushering in a period of Jewish independence. To this day Jews celebrate this restoration on the feast of Hannukah.

The next century saw Rome become the dominant power in the area. The Jewish kingdom became dependent on the Romans who ruled Syria. An abortive revolt was crushed in 40 bc and the Holy Land became a Roman province.

In 37 bc Rome appointed Herod the Great, son of an Edumean proselyte, as king of Judaea. A great admirer of Greco-Roman culture, Herod built classical cities and fortresses in his kingdom. He also enlarged and adorned the Jerusalem temple, giving it the form it had during Christ’s lifetime.

When Herod died in 4 bc, Rome took direct control of Judea, appointing a Roman procurator as chief administrator. This prompted the rise of several abortive Jewish independence movements. Jesus’ disciple Simon the Zealot – and some say Judas Iscariot as well – were drawn from these movements.

After several years of sporadic violence, a full scale revolt erupted in ad 66. The Romans crushed it and, in ad 70, they razed Jerusalem to the ground. According to the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, hundreds of thousands of Jews perished or were sold into slavery. The temple was destroyed and its treasures taken to Rome as booty.

A brief period of independence was attained in ad 133 but was quickly crushed by the Romans. Jerusalem was captured and “plowed up with a yoke of oxen.” A Roman city named Aelia Capitolina was built on the site and Jews were forbidden to live there.

The destruction of the temple marked the effective end of Jewish liturgical worship. The prayer services of the synagogues replaced the daily sacrifices of the temple. The leadership role of the priests was taken over by the rabbis.

The New Temple

For Christians, the destruction of the temple had another effect: it reminded them of the connection between the temple and the body of Christ as the focus of worship. In the Gospel of John we read Jesus Himself making this connection after driving the money-changers from the temple. “So the Jews answered and said to Him, ‘What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘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 2:18-22).

The Lord Jesus was now not only the temple; for Christians He was the High Priest as well: “we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God…” (Hebrews 4:14). “But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12).

Jesus thus replaces, in the mind of the first Christians, temple and priest. In addition, He becomes the very sacrifice itself: “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). “He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

Priests Plunder the Temple

“At this time, one of the priests, the son of Thebuthus, whose name was Joshua, was assured by the oath of Caesar, that he should be preserved, upon condition that he should deliver up certain of the precious things deposited in the temple. This Joshua handed over from the wall of the holy house two candlesticks, like those that lay in the holy house, with tables, and cisterns, and vials, all made of solid gold, and very heavy. He also delivered to him the veils and the garments, with the precious stones, and a great number of other precious vessels that belonged to their sacred worship.

“The treasurer of the temple, whose name was Phineas, was also seized. He showed Titus the coats and girdles of the priests, with a great quantity of purple and scarlet, which were there for the uses of the veil, as also a great deal of cinnamon and cassia, with a large quantity of other sweet spices, which used to be mixed together, and offered as incense to God every day. A great many other treasures were also delivered to him, including not a few sacred ornaments of the temple. When these things were delivered to Titus, he [the treasurer] was granted the same pardon that was given to those who deserted of their own accord.”
(Flavius Josephus, History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, VI, VIII, 3)
 
THE FIRST MAJOR ISSUE confronted by the apostolic Church concerned the Torah, and particularly its law on separation from the Gentiles. Beginning with the call of Abraham, God had set apart a people to serve Him as priests and prophets. This people – named Israel, after Abraham’s grandson – was to be a distinct people, from whom God would select a Messiah, or Savior for the world.

To ensure that the people of Israel would always know that God had made a unique covenant with them, they were enjoined to distance themselves from the idolatrous Gentiles around them. They were forbidden to intermarry (see Deuteronomy 7:1-3) and interaction in general was discouraged in order to prevent Jews from adopting idolatrous behaviors. When this separation was ignored, the effects were seen as disastrous, as Psalm 106 indicates:

"They did not destroy the peoples, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them, but they mingled with the Gentiles and learned their works; they served their idols, which became a snare to them. They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons, and shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; 
and the land was polluted with blood.
Thus they were defiled by their own works,
And played the harlot by their own deeds” (vv. 34-39).

There were Gentiles who were drawn to Judaism, usually by contact with Jews in Palestine or the diaspora. Some abandoned polytheism and adopted the worship of the One God. Those who in addition adopted the Jewish customs and laws – in particular, circumcision – were considered proselytes, Jews by adoption.

There were other Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel and were open to its practices but had not entered fully into the people of Israel. They were often Roman army officers or had positions in the structure of the Roman provincial administration. These were called the “God-fearing” – non-Jews who were sympathetic to Judaism but had not fully converted. The Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48) was one of these Gentile sympathizers to Judaism.

When Gentiles Encounter Christ

According to Acts 10, St Peter was in Joppa (modern Jaffa), a Mediterranean port city some 30 miles from Jerusalem, when he had the following experience: “… he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’

But Peter said, ‘Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.’

And a voice spoke to him again the second time, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again” (vv 10-16).

Called by the Roman officer to visit him in Caesarea and speak to him of God, Peter replied: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). St Peter thus saw his vision of the “great sheet” as a decisive reversal of the division between Jews and Gentiles.

There was an even more powerful reversal to follow. While Peter was proclaiming the Gospel to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit cut him off. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter,  because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10: 44-48).

The news of this remarkable event spread quickly and when Peter returned to Jerusalem he was confronted by “those of the circumcision"(Acts 11: 3) among the brethren. After Peter recounted his experiences in Joppa and Caesarea, Acts continues, “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (v.18).

This “Gentile Pentecost” forced many Jewish believers in Jesus to reevaluate the idea that the Jews alone were God’s people and that Gentiles were by definition unclean.

In Gentile Territory

The next step in the spread of the Gospel is described in Acts 11. “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch…” (v. 19). Antioch was the provincial capital of Syria while Phoenicia (Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut) and Cyprus were important trading centers on the Mediterranean. There were several Jewish colonies in these regions which had been there since at least the second century BC.

We read in Acts that the believers who had fled persecution in Jerusalem brought the Gospel to these Jewish colonies “preaching the word to no one but the Jews only” (Acts 11: 19). That soon changed as the visitors in Antioch began teaching “the Hellenists” as well, bringing “a great number” to the Lord. The term Hellenists often referred to Hellenized Jews but it seems clear that here the term refers to Hellenized natives of the region. Thus the first non-Jewish believers in Jesus were the ancestors of the Melkites – Orthodox and Catholic – of Antioch! And, as we read in this same chapter of Acts, “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).

While the initial opening to the Gentiles was as a result of Peter’s experience in Caesarea, it was St Paul and Barnabas who were the first explicitly sent to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. As missionaries of the Church at Antioch, these apostles visited Cyprus, and southern Asia Minor (Pamphilia and Pisidia) where they met with success as well as opposition (see Acts 13 and 14). After completing a circuit in Asia Minor, the apostles returned to Antioch.

The Council at Jerusalem

Not everyone accepted the apostles’ openness to the Gentiles.”And certain men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’  Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question” (Acts 15:2). Their meeting with the other apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Church is described in Acts 15.

The apostles’ decision recorded in Acts 15 was as follows: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (vv 28, 29).

The Church’s connection to Judaism was effectively broken.
 
AFTER CELEBRATING THE EXULTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS, our Church begins to read St Luke’s Gospel at the Divine Liturgy. This “continuous reading” begins with Luke 3:19-22, telling of the baptism of Christ and the arrest of John the Forerunner. These events mark the start of Christ’s public ministry in Galilee.

Each Gospel passage read at the Liturgy has its own message, but the entire work also has an underlying point which helps us to see how each scene relates to the divine plan for our salvation. In the author’s words, the aim of the Gospel of Luke is “to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1). The Gospel describes the mystery of Christ among us and presents each aspect as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies which looked for a Messiah to come.

Christ’s entire ministry of teaching and miracles is presented by Christ Himself as the fulfillment of these words of Isaiah 61:1, 2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 3:18,19).

In Luke 7:27 the Lord describes John the Forerunner as fulfilling Malachi 3:1: “This is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.’ Further along in this Gospel the Lord speaks of John as the last of the prophets, the very end of the Old Covenant: “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it” (Luke 16:16).

The Lord’s most striking indication that He was the fulfillment of the prophets came at the end of His earthly life. “Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’ But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (Lk 18:31-34).

This was not the first time that Christ had spoken of His death and resurrection as the fulfillment of the prophets’ writings. In Luke 11:29-32 He spoke of Himself as fulfilling the “sign of Jonah.” In Matthew’s Gospel this “sign” is explained more fully: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

As Luke had noted, the disciples “understood none of these things”(Luke 18:34). It was only after the Lord’s death and resurrection that they were brought to understand what they had been told. We read that, when the risen Christ appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself… And they said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?’”(Luke 24:27, 32).

The Gospel tells us that one of the two disciples was Cleopas. Since this story appears in detail only in Luke, it has been inferred that Luke himself was Cleopas’ unnamed companion. Another early tradition recorded by St Cyril of Alexandria is that the second disciple was Cleopas’ son, Symeon.

Luke’s Gospel concludes with Jesus explaining His passion, death and resurrection as fulfilling the Scriptures: “‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written,and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:44-48).

More Has Been Fulfilled

In Christ, the promise that the Messiah will come is fulfilled; but the “things which have been fulfilled among us” include more than the life and work of Christ, so Luke’s narrative continues in a second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. Acts narrates the progress of the early Church from the upper room to the gates of Rome itself. God’s plan is to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to “all nations” (Luke 24:47) and beyond, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Thus would be fulfilled the prophecy uttered by Simeon that the Lord Jesus would be “A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Jerusalem, the Mother Church

The first Church depicted in Acts is the small community gathered in the “upper room” which had been put at their disposal. This group of Jesus’ followers were led by the remaining apostles, “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers”: a group said to number “about a hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:14, 15). It is this group who chose Matthias to replace Judas and upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost.

In response to the Pentecost miracle of tongues and Peter’s preaching which followed (see Acts 2:1-42), “that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (v. 42). This number would have included natives of Jerusalem and its surroundings as well as “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” who had come to Jerusalem for the festival: “both Jews and proselytes” (vv. 5 and 10). Proselytes were those Gentiles who had come to belief in one God, accepted the teachings of Judaism, been circumcised and were now considered part of the people of Israel. Their mention here signifies that the Gospel has spread from Jesus’ Galilean disciples to the centers of the Jewish people.

The first few chapters in Acts focus on the growing Church characterized by the preaching of the apostles, the response of the Jewish leaders and the development of the office of deacons. The apostles all appear to still be in Jerusalem, at the heart of this community. St Luke summarizes this first phase in the Church’s life as follows “… the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

The Church Disperses

The next period in the Church’s life comes as a result of the preaching of Stephen, one of the first deacons. Some members of the Freedmens’ Synagogue denounce him to the council of Jewish leaders. Stephen is convicted as a blasphemer and stoned to death (see Acts 6:8-7:60). As a result, we are told, “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles… Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:1, 4). The scattered members of the original Church in Jerusalem found themselves preaching Christ and forming believers and Churches throughout these provinces.
 
THE GREAT FEASTS OF THE CHURCH are each celebrations of an aspect of the mystery of Christ: Of these feasts Pascha is considered “the Feast of Feasts,” the center of our Church life, the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. While Pascha is celebrated with feasting, the Great and Holy Week which leads up to Pascha observes the last events of Christ’s earthly life along with His death and burial by fasting.

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

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

Our Reasons for Feasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Reason for Fasting

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

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

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

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

Sharing in the Mystery of the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

The Source of Our Celebrations

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

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

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

The Story of Mary’s Birth

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

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

The Place of Mary’s Birth

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

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

Our Celebration of This Feast

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

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

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

Hymns of Mary’s Nativity

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

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

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

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

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

The Indiction

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

On this day Byzantine churches read the Gospel of the beginning of Christ’s public ministry as recorded in Luke 4:16-22: “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.”

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

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

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

The Acceptable Year of the Lord

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

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

The “Year of the World”

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

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

From the Canon for the Indiction

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

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

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

Forgiveness: the Heart of the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Parable of the Unjust Debtor

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

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

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

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

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

A Russian Tale

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

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

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

What Is a “Dormition”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resurrection of the Body

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

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

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

What Mary Left Behind

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

Mary and Ephesus?

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

Today some claim that the Theotokos died in Ephesus, where St John the Theologian lived for many years. In the nineteenth century a house claimed to be that of the Virgin was unearthed near Ephesus, based on a supposed vision of Anne Catherine Emerich. This shrine became popular in the West; however there was never any early tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.

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