Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
OUR CHURCH CALENDAR remembers many events in Christian history: martyrdoms, ecumenical councils, miracles, and even earthquakes. There are only three births celebrated, however: that of the Theotokos (September 8), the Nativity of Christ Himself (December 25) and the birth of St John the Forerunner (June 24).

We do not know where or when this feast was first observed, but it is mentioned in writings of fourth- and fifth-century Fathers in both East and West (Saints Ambrose, Augustine and John Chrysostom). The oldest shrine of the Forerunner, at Ain-Karem, home of his parents Zachariah and Elizabeth, was destroyed during the fifth-century revolt of the Samaritans against Byzantine rule. In the sixth century the French Council of Agde (506) declared this feast a “holyday of obligation” – not surprising, considering the esteem in which Christ Himself considered John (see Mt 11:11).

John’s Conception Foretold

The Gospel story of John’s conception and birth, which is the Biblical basis of this feast, is found in Luke 1. We read that John’s father, Zachariah, was a priest “of the division of Abijah” (Lk 1:4). According to the custom of the day, priests were enrolled in various groupings or divisions which took turns serving in the temple for two weeks at a time. The Gospel says that, while Zachariah was offering incense in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth, Zachariah’s wife, would bear him a son, who was to be named John.

Zachariah could not understand how this could be, as both he and his wife were up in years. Because of his reluctance to believe, Zachariah was told by the angel, “Behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time” (Luke 1:20). And so it happened.

John and Elijah

The angel tells Zachariah that his son would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

In this promise we find an echo of the following prophecy from the Book of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophetic books. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). In some arrangements of the Bible, these are the last words of the Old Testament, pointing it forward to the Messianic Age to come.

Believing Jews held that Elijah would come to prepare the way for the Messiah. Many saw John as “Elijah,” the fulfillment of that prophecy, foretelling to all the coming of Christ. As the Lord Himself said about John, “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). Clearly, John is not some kind of reincarnation of the 9th century bc prophet, but he is said to have come “in the spirit and power of Elijah.”

The Forerunner Is Born

The Gospel story of John continues with the narrative of his birth: “Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her. So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zachariah. His mother answered and said, ‘No; he shall be called John.’

“But they said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.’ So they made signs to his father —what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, ‘His name is John.’ So they all marveled. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God”
(Lk 1:57-64).

St Augustine saw Zachariah’s muteness as symbolic of the time before Christ and viewed his release as an image of its passing. “The release of Zachariah’s voice at the birth of John,” he wrote, “has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. His tongue is released because a voice is being born… the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

The Canticle of Zachariah

The Gospel records as Zachariah’s praise of God a beautiful hymn which has found a place in the liturgy of both East and West. Often given the title “Benedictus” (from the first word of the Latin translation), this hymn is for the most part a string of verses from the psalms and other Old Testament texts. It glorifies God for His greatness and for the love He has shown to His people.

“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68-75).

At this point the hymn begins to make specific reference to John. He is described – with what some have called the clarity of hindsight – as prophet, forerunner, and preacher of repentance. These are, of course, the qualities which the Gospels attribute to John during his ministry at the Jordan.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Orient from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).

In our liturgy this canticle is added to the hymn of the Virgin at the ninth ode of orthros during the Fasts.

The One from the East

The word anatole, translated above as Orient, would be used repeatedly in our hymns referring to Christ. Sometimes it is translated as Dayspring, or as the One who rises. We hear it in the Christmas troparion (“to recognize in You the One who rises from on high”). In the troparion “Dance, O Isaiah” sung at crownings and ordinations the word is translated as “His name is Orient.”

The word anatole literally means sunrise and, by extension, the East (where the sun rises). It invokes the image of the rising sun, which itself is an image of Christ. He is the Dayspring, the Sunrise, of God’s saving plan for us. As the sunrise brings the promise of a new day, the appearance of Christ brings the assurance that the Kingdom of God is now at hand. As we sing in the exapostilarion of Christmas, “From on high our Savior came, the rising Sun who shone from the East.” And John is the herald of that rising Sun.
 
BE THE TIME CHRIST BEGAN His public ministry, Rome had been ruling the Holy Land for almost 100 years, through a succession of local governors and administrators. The ruler of Galilee at the time was the tetrarch Herod Antipas, whom the locals called “King Herod.” The region of Galilee was the site of much of the Lord Jesus’ early ministry.

When the Lord’s teaching was rejected in His home town of Nazareth, we are told that “leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea” (Matthew 4:13). It was there that He chose four local fishermen - Peter, Andrew, James and John – and called them to be His followers. As a seaside fishing village, it is likely that Capernaum was a place where taxes would be collected, particularly from the local fishermen. Matthew the evangelist was collecting taxes there when Jesus called him (see Matthew 9:9). It was perhaps to insure that taxes were collected that Roman soldiers were stationed in the area as well.

The Centurion at Capernaum

Matthew does not tell us anything about the officer who called on His help. In the Gospel of Luke we learn a bit more. In Luke 7, the first approach to Jesus on this matter was made by the local Jewish elders: “And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, ‘for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue’” (Luke 7:4,5). Some commentators have concluded that the centurion might have been a God-fearer or even a proselyte (Gentile convert), but this is not mentioned in either Gospel, as it was not pertinent to the story or its message.

In both tellings of this story, the centurion refrains from summoning Jesus to the servant’s bedside, “for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (Matthew 8:8, Luke 7:6). Perhaps the centurion knew it would violate local custom for a Jew (much less a holy man) to enter the home of a Gentile. This is not mentioned, because it too was not pertinent to the story or its message.

What was emphasized by the Lord in both Gospels is the centurion’s faith. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries relied on their being members of the people of Israel to, as it were, guarantee their status before God. But, as the Lord said elsewhere, “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:9).

Many looked to the correct observance of the precepts of the Law as the sign that they were doing God’s will. The centurion, not being a Jew, could not rely on either of these principles. His response, however, showed that he had the deep reliance on God which validates any religious observance then or now.

Christian tradition has also stressed the man’s humility and made it the model for our response when the Lord is near. In both East and West, his words are incorporated into our prayer as we approach the Eucharist.

In the Byzantine prayers before receiving Communion we say, “I know that I am not worthy or sufficient that You should come under the roof of my soul, for all is desolate and fallen” (Second Prayer) and “I am not worthy, O Lord and Master, that You should enter under the roof of my soul” (Seventh Prayer). The centurion’s humble protestation is clearly the model here.

What is the Principal Message Here?

The “punch line” in Matthew’s story of this healing tells us what his principal message is for us. Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith, then He adds: “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:11,12).

The idea that Gentiles would be preferred to Jews in the heavenly realm was scandalous to Jews. When Jesus had expressed a similar idea in the synagogue at Nazareth, it nearly got Him killed: “‘Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”’ So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way” (Luke 4:25-30).

The Lord referred to times in the ninth century bc when the Jews fell away from the worship of the one God, accepting the Phoenician deities Baal and Asherath. The prophets Elijah and his successor Elisha confronted the Jews for their apostasy but ministered to Phoenicians and Syrians who were disposed to hear their message. As the widow of Zarephath confessed to Elijah, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth” (1 Kings 17:24). Their stories are told in the first and second books of Kings.

The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28) is another example of a believing pagan contrasted to contentious Jews. After a confrontation with Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, the Lord went to the region of Tyre and Sidon where a woman begged His help for her daughter. After at first appearing to decline because she was not a Jew, Jesus obliged her saying, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28). Again, a Gentile’s faith is contrasted to the argumentative response of God’s own people.

In each case, the prophets and the Lord Himself step outside the box to respond to a believing Gentile, who is then held up an an example to Jews who doubted Him and n encouragement to the Gentiles who were being added to the company of His followers.

St John Chrysostom on the Centurion

Great is the pride of those who are in places of command; not even in afflictions do they take lower ground. In John 4, for example, the nobleman is all for dragging Him to his house, and says, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” (John 4:49) But not so this man; rather he is far superior both to him, and to those who let down the bed through the roof. For he does not seek His bodily presence, nor did He bring the sick man near the physician… he says, speak the word only… not looking so much to the health of the servant, as to the avoiding all appearance of doing anything irreverent.

Homily 26 on Matthew

 
WHENEVER WE WANT TO DISTRACT an infant or a pet, we place bright colors or movement before their eyes. Their eyes focus on what they see before them and distract them from whatever potential disaster we envision.

We aren’t much different; we, too, can be easily distracted from our more burdensome responsibilities by activities or objects we enjoy. Even the memory of past events, pleasant or painful, can intrude on us and deflect our focus from the task at hand. When these distractions take us away from our family obligations or our relationship with God, we have lost our way. At first, we may not feel lost, but over time the consequences of our choices will become clear.

Many people shook their heads in disbelief at the woman who expressed amazement when her daughter in college stopped going to church. “But we always took her to church,” she reasoned, “if her soccer game was cancelled.” This mother had let the “bright colors” of a good time distract her entire family from making a meaningful connection to God and the Church the focus of their lives.

We don’t have to wonder what the Lord Jesus might have thought about such a situation; He tells us in the Gospel: the alluring distractions that attract us can so cloud our vision that the lamp of our eye goes dark. “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22, 23)

What Clouds Our Spiritual Vision?

We may attribute an inability to focus on our spiritual life on a number of causes. Some of them are completely beyond our control; others can be curbed by our free choice, once we recognize their effect on us. Among these influences are:

The Fall: We are told that Adam and Eve w, for example, ere distracted from God’s way when they became convinced that “the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). They accepted the logic of the tempter and lost their previous intimacy with God. We inherit their naiveté and are easily tempted by similar false promises, making us spiritually weak.
The Passions: As a result of the Fall, we are at the mercy of certain impulses within us which dispose us to sin. Some passions involve normal needs which, out of control, can dominate our soul – a disordered appetite for food or drink (gluttony), for sexual activity (unchastity), or for money and what it can buy (avarice). Provided that they are kept within the proper bounds, desire for these things is normal. More spiritual passions include the need to dominate others (anger), to expect happiness as our right (dejection, listlessness), and to be egocentric (vanity, pride and vainglory). A person who values his or her feelings above all else will be subject to many if not all, of these passions. As St Maximos the Confessor noted, “[A person] errs when the irrationality of feeling is the only form of discernment. He is captured by pleasure and avoidance of pain.”
The Culture Around Us: We accept as normal the ways of the society in which we live. We do things because everyone else does them. Thus we expect to shake hands, rather than bow to one another as they do in the Far East. Because we live in a secular society, inclusive of all religions or philosophies, there are many ideas, viewpoints, and values freely expressed around us; some of them we as Christians should not accept, whether legal or not. One facet of our society, for example, which is not only legal but promoted, is consumerism. Americans are both enabled and encouraged to build their lives around acquiring the latest and best of whatever pleases them. This is in stark contrast to the Lord’s ideal expressed in the Gospel: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon… But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:24, 33). American consumerism has seduced our population in ways that make all sorts of addictions inevitable. Consumer goods, for example, are regularly marketed by sexual images; can pornography and lust be far behind? The most serious departures from a godly lifestyle in our society are those which ignore the Ten Commandments – refusing recognition of God in the public arena, denying a special place to the Lord’s Day, accepting murder (abortion, euthanasia) and adultery (divorce and the sexual “revolution”) – or which seek to redefine reality based on one’s individual wishes (same-sex marriage, gender “reassign-ment”). Because some disorder is not against the law or because “everybody does it” does not mean it is in accordance with God’s way. Christians should be committed to discerning His way for us.

Dealing with the Passions

Christians seeking to foster a relationship with Christ dwelling in them will want to overcome the power of the passions. The most important weapons which can help in this spiritual struggle are vigilance and discernment. The vigilant Christian is one who, regularly examining his world and his own reactions to it, seeks to ascertain whether his responses are determined by one of the passions listed above. Since all the passions are expressions of our ego, we must remain watchful to determine how much our desires (“I want,” “I need,” or “I have the right to”) reflect a hidden egotism. The discerning Christian is one who is able to determine this and frame a response to the enticements of the world in line with Christ’s way for us set forth in the Scriptures.

Dealing with the Culture

St Paul counseled new believers in the culture of his day, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may test what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2) and also, “Test all things: hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22). Christians today need to distinguish what is good in our secular world from what is not.

Modern society is built on the idea that the freedom of the individual is the greatest good. The individual should be free to choose his or her own political leaders, values or religion and publicly promote that choice. Extreme expressions of this concept are the conviction that the individual determines his or her own “truth,” becoming the ultimate judge of his or her actions and identity, determining whether one is male or female, who or how many to marry, when and how to die, etc. irrespective of law or custom.

Are we, first of all, individuals or members of a community (and therefore unable to determine our own truth)? Do obligations to our family, Church or country outweigh our individual preferences? We also are faced with competing Christian visions, all claiming to be based on the Bible, as well as Buddhist, Islamic or atheist perspectives. Is this advice, given to the Christians in multicultural Ephesus, good for us as well: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). All of these counsels apply to us today.
 
THOSE WHO LIVE IN TEMPERATE CLIMATES enjoy a regular alternation of the four seasons, each with its own proper joys and hardships. In our Church we also enjoy a regular alternation of “seasons,” moving from times of feasting to periods of fasting. In our feasts we rejoice over the gift given us from God. When the time of feasting is ended, we return to the ordinary business of Christian life: prayer and fasting.

Prayer of supplication – beseeching God for a special favor – was associated with fasting as far back as time of King David. Fasting intensifies and confirms the sincerity of the prayer. Without fasting, prayer can be simply an expression of idle interest: chatting rather than intensely imploring the Lord. When the Apostles failed to cure an epileptic boy, the Lord Jesus made a point of telling them, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).

Fasting after Pentecost

On the eighth day after Pentecost, Byzantine Churches traditionally begin the Fast of the Apostles. This fasting season lasts until June 28, the eve of the feast of the principal apostles, Peter and Paul. The Coptic Church begins its fast on Pentecost Monday, Syriac Churches have abridged it to last for thirteen days or less.

The first documented mentions of this Fast are from the fourth century. St Athanasius the Great described the practice in Alexandria in his letter to the Emperor Constantius: “During the week following Pentecost, the people who observed the Fast went out to the cemetery to pray.” The Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land in the early 380s, Egeria, described the practice in Jerusalem: “on the day following the feast of Pentecost, a period of fasting began”.

In that era, the Western Church observed this Fast as well. The fifth-century Pope of Rome, Leo I, spoke of this Fast as a chance to make up for any excesses in celebrating the feasts: “Today's festival, dearly-beloved, hallowed by the descent of the Holy Spirit, is followed, as you know, by a solemn Fast. … ordained as a wholesome and needful practice, so that, if perhaps through neglect or disorder even amid the joys of the festival any undue license has broken out, it may be corrected by the remedy of strict abstinence, which must be the more scrupulously carried out in order that what was divinely bestowed on the Church on this day may abide in us” (Sermon 78, On the Whitsuntide Fast).

None of these early documents connect this Fast to the apostles Peter and Paul. This Fast was practiced long before the Apostles’ feast came to be widely celebrated. In the earliest practice this Fast was connected instead to the celebration of Pentecost

Fasting and the Apostles

In later centuries the Fast was extended so that it would end on the eve of the apostles’ feast and came to be explained in light of their memorial. In the Middle Ages, St. Symeon of Thessalonica (+1429) explains: “The Fast of the Apostles is justly established in their honor, for through them we have received numerous benefits and for us they are exemplars and teachers of the Fast … For one week after the descent of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution composed by Clement, we celebrate, and then during the following week, we fast in honor of the Apostles.” At that time, it seems, the Fast lasted only one week.

The apostles were said to have fasted before they set out on their missionary journeys. The fourth-century Canons of the Apostles, a Syrian work, says that the Apostles “…continued to speak in the new tongues of the nations, in which they preached, and He [the Lord] told them what must be done by the congregations with regards to prayer, worship, and the laws, and they thanked God for this knowledge they received. They fasted for forty days, thanking God through it, and then Peter washed the feet of the disciples… then they departed to all the nations to call people to the faith.”

The canonical New Testament recalls one incident when early Christians fasted before going forth in ministry. It describes a certain gathering in the Church at Antioch: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit… they proclaimed the word of God” (Acts 13:2-5). Fasting was again, an expected part of seeking the Lord’s will. Barnabas and Saul evangelized in Asia Minor, then retraced their steps to Antioch:” So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).

Spiritual writers throughout the ages have seen fasting as a critical weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Isaac the Syrian teaches, “… since fasting is a weapon established by God …the human race knew no victory before fasting, and the devil was never defeated by our nature as it is: but this weapon has indeed deprived the devil of strength from the outset… As soon as the devil sees someone possessed of this weapon [fasting], fear straightway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Savior in the wilderness; his strength is at once destroyed and the sight of the weapon given us by our supreme Leader burns him up. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal. He who remains therein, keeps his mind steadfast and ready to meet and repel all the passions.”

For What Should We Fast and Pray?

Since the Fast of the Apostles occurs between Pentecost and the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul, it is particularly appropriate that we observe it by prayer and fasting for the Church: that it perservere in the true faith and not succumb to the pressures of the surrounding culture and endure persecution by its enemies... that it grown in commitment, vocations, and numbers. We can devote specific days of the Fast in prayer for the Universal Church, your patriarchate or particular Church, your eparchy, specific parishes, monasteries, seminaries and other religious institutions. Making a list of such intentions spanning every day of the Fast period helps us focus on both the season and on the needs of the Church. It may become for some a focus for prayer throughout the year.

Advice from St John of Kronstadt

We are told: It is no big deal to eat non-Lenten food during Lent. It is no big deal if you wear expensive beautiful outfits, go to the theater, to parties, to masquerade balls, use beautiful expensive china, furniture, expensive carriages and dashing steeds, amass and hoard things, etc. Yet what is it that turns our heart away from God, away from the Fountain of Life? Because of what do we lose eternal life? Is it not because of gluttony, of expensive clothing like that of the rich man of the Gospel story, is it not because of theaters and masquerades? What turns us hard-hearted toward the poor and even toward our relatives? Is it not our passion for sweets, for satisfying the belly in general, for clothing, for expensive dishes, furniture, carriages, for money and other things? Is it possible to serve God and mammon, to be a friend to the world and a friend to God, to serve Christ and Belial? That is impossible… Let us attentively consider … What makes our hearts become crude? Why do we become flesh and not spirit, perverting our moral nature? Is it not because of a passion for food, drink, and other earthly comforts? How after this can one say that it does not matter whether you eat non-Lenten food during Lent?
 
SEVERAL SAINTS on the Byzantine calendar are described as Equals to the Apostles. Some, such as St Mary Magdalene and the first woman martyr St Takla, were among the earliest witnesses to the Resurrection. Others, were among those who first brought the Gospel to areas beyond the apostolic patriarchates. Ss Cyril and Methodius (Moravia), St Gregory the Illuminator (Armenia), St Nino (Georgia), St Patrick (Ireland), and St Vladimir (Kievan Rus) are among those designated Equals to the Apostles for their missionary activity. This title is also given to the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena. As the first Roman rulers to profess the Christian faith, they had the greatest impact on both the Church and the empire.

Early Years

Constantine was born in c. 272 to a Roman military officer, Flavius Valerius Constantius and Helena, whom some ancient sources call his wife and some do not. St Ambrose of Milan says that she was a stable-maid. Sometime before 289, as Constantius’ career prospered, he married the daughter of Emperor Maximian. Helena and her son were sent to the Eastern court of the emperor in Nicomedea, Asia Minor (Izmit, Turkey today). Helen never remarried and lived quietly with her son.

In ad 293, the Roman Empire had been restructured into four divisions, two in the East and two in the West. The leaders of these divisions, called the Tetrarchy, were constantly jockeying with one another for supreme authority. In 305 Constantius became emperor of the West and Constantine joined him as commander of the Roman troops in Britain. He was in York when Constantius died in 306.The Roman troops in Britain acclaimed Constantine as his successor. He devoted the next seven years to securing his power in the West. His final victory in the West came against Maxentius, who had declared war on Constantine in 311. The following year, Constantine defeated Maxentius’ numerically superior troops at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber, north of Rome. Pushed into the Tiber by his fleeing troops, Maxentius drowned, leaving Constantine sole power in the West. By 324 he would be the sole emperor of both East and West.

Constantine reunified the administration of the empire and restructured its military. He successfully combated inflation and restored the power of Rome after a period of decline. None of these achievements, however, earned him the title “Equal to the Apostles.”

Constantine and the Church

Scholars now feel certain that Constantine had embraced Christianity some time before his famous victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. He remained a catechumen throughout his life. As his death approached, he put aside his imperial regalia and was baptized, never taking them up again.

Constantine reversed the fortunes of the Church in the Roman Empire in every aspect of its existence, beginning with:
-The Legalization of Christianity The last great persecution of Christianity, begun by Emperor Diocletian in 303, was not enforced in the West by Constantius or Constantine. The persecution was formally ended in 311 by Galerius who declared Christianity a religio licita (a form of worship acceptable) in the empire. The growing number of Christians made their support a bargaining chip for the warring rivals for power. Their support turned to Constantine during his struggle against Maxentius when he marked his standards with the ☧ (Chi-Rho), the first letters of the name of Christ in Greek. One of Constantine’s advisors, Lactantius, wrote that he did this in response to advice received in a dream “to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers.” The contemporary historian Eusebius wrote that this dream was preceded by a vision: Constantine “… saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces” (with this sign, you shall be victorious.) In 313, after defeating Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in which property confiscated from Christians during the persecution was ordered restored “without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.” While these edicts expressed only a toleration of Christianity, Constantine actively promoted it.
-Faith & Order in the Church To promote unity in the empire Constantine fostered unity among Christians. In 325 he called the first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) which gave us the Nicene Creed and the patriarchal structure in the Church.
-A New Christian Capital Constantine sought to distance his empire from its pagan origins. In 330 he built Constantinople as a New Rome, free of pagan temples and dotted with great churches. His successors enshrined the relics of apostles and martyrs in these churches and made it the administrative center of the Church in his empire.
-Enhancement of Worship As previous emperors had endowed and built pagan temples, Constantine began constructing Christian shrines and basilicas, including those at Bethlehem, Constantinople and Rome. Most famously, he developed Palestine as a Christian Holy Land and Jerusalem as the “Mother of the Churches” centered around Calvary and the tomb of Christ (both now enclosed in the Anastasis) and the mount of the Ascension. These basilicas made possible the more elaborate forms of worship which we inherited from these centers.

Helena and the Holy City

Much of Helena’s life was spent in relative obscurity. After twenty years together, she and her son were sent away when Constantius married a woman of higher station. In 312, with Constantine poised to take over the empire, Helena was recalled to the imperial court where she remained as a close confidant to her son. She was given the imperial title Augusta in 325.

There are conflicting stories concerning when Helena became a Christian. In the Ecclesiastical History by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-458) we are told that Helena (already a believer) influenced her son to become a Christian. Eusebius, on the other hand, wrote in his Life of Constantine (c. 339) that Helena became a Christian through her son’s influence. In any case, Helena was known for her piety, her regular presence at divine services, and her generosity to the poor. As Eusebius wrote, “This admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.”

In fulfillment of a vow Helena undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine, although she was almost 80 years old. According to Eusebius, Helena “… though now advanced in years, yet gifted with no common degree of wisdom, had hastened with youthful alacrity to survey this venerable land and at the same time to visit the eastern provinces, cities, and people with a truly imperial solicitude. As soon, then, as she had rendered due reverence to the ground which the Savior's feet had trodden, according to the prophetic word which says "Let us worship at the place on which His feet have stood," she immediately bequeathed the fruit of her piety to future generations; for without delay she dedicated two churches to the God whom she adored, one at the grotto which had been the scene of the Savior's birth; the other on the mount of His ascension.” Helena died shortly after returning from this sacred journey.
 
AS THE TIME FOR THE Lord’s passion neared, Jesus tried to prepare His followers for what was to happen. He warned them about His impending arrest, their flight, and about His ultimate death. He also made a promise: “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever — the Spirit of truth…” (John 14:16).

The word Paraclete comes from the world of civil law. In the Roman system, a Paraclete was an advocate, a counselor who advised and encouraged people in the courts. It was the Paraclete who would provide the first Christians with their defense when they were brought before a worldly judge.

Jesus identified this Paraclete as the Holy Spirit, advising His disciples, “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, 12). The Holy Spirit would be their advocate when any authority challenged their preaching.

After His resurrection, the Lord Jesus repeated His promise, this time with an additional dimension. Prior to His Ascension He told His followers: “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) “…for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). The Paraclete, the promised Holy Spirit, would come, bestowing heavenly power on those who received Him.

The Promise is Kept

This bestowal of the Holy Spirit would come a few days later, on the day of Pentecost. This term, from the Greek word for fifty, referred to the Jewish feast of Shavuot or “Weeks,” when the first-fruits of the grain harvest in Israel were to be offered in the temple. Shavuot was observed fifty days after Passover as one of Judaism’s pilgrimage feasts, when men were supposed to go to Jerusalem to make their offerings.

What took place during that feast is described in the Acts of the Apostles: “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).

Peter, the senior apostle, interpreted what had happened as the outpouring of the Spirit prophesied in Joel 2:28-32 for the start of the messianic age (the “last days”). He proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah and called on his hearers, attracted by the commotion, to repent and be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit… Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:38, 41, 42). This outpouring of the Spirit thus marked the beginning of a new community built around the apostolic faith, common prayer and the “breaking of bread” (communal meal/Eucharist).

The Spirit as a Sign of Authenticity

For most of human history communication was by writing, delivered by a messenger. You knew the message was authentic because it was sealed. The message was sealed with hot wax into which the writer’s seal or signet was then stamped. The seal was the stamp guaranteeing the authenticity of the message.

Other seals were identifying marks branded on animals or even slaves. All Jewish men were sealed by circumcision, to demonstrate that they were members of God’s people, Israel.

When the Lord Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, the Father’s voice bore witness to Him, calling Him beloved Son. “And the Sprit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truth of this word” (troparion). The Spirit was the seal on Christ, demonstrating that He was the Son of God.

The same Spirit, who descended on the disciples of Christ, confirmed the truth of their words, the Gospel message. His presence, at work among them and in the Church of every age, is the seal demonstrating the divine origin and truth of the Christian faith.

St Paul affirms that every Christian has been sealed with the Holy Spirit. Writing to the Corinthians, he teaches that the Holy Spirit is within us: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). He expresses this mystery of the indwelling Spirit as an anointing and a sealing: “Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22). We are, in fact, called Christians (anointed ones) because this sealing has confirmed our union to the Anointed One, the Lord Jesus.

In our Church this anointing is given to each newly baptized Christian in the mystery of Chrismation. As the priest anoints the newly-baptized, he announces “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The visible seal of the Chrism signifies the inner sealing of our hearts.

The Spirit marks each Christian as being in Christ, the eternal High Priest and, therefore members of the royal priesthood (see 1 Pt 2:9). Thus, when we join in the worship of the Church, we are acting in union with Christ the High Priest. We also are gifted by the Spirit in particular ways to help build up the Church. Thus every Christian has an individual gift, meant to be used for the good of all.

At Pentecost the Spirit energized the apostles in a remarkable way. The same Spirit works that way today as well, but only in some, generally those whom we call saints. Although not every saint is a wonderworker, each of them reflects the presence of God is some discernible way. Each saint is the “face of the Holy Spirit,” making visible the presence of the Spirit within.

The Spirit as a Promise of Eternity

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St Paul teaches that we are confirmed in the assurance of our union with Christ through our faith in Him and by being sealed with the Holy Spirit. “In Him [Christ] we have redemption through His blood… In Him also we have obtained an inheritance… In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth…in Him also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:9-14).

St Paul calls the Spirit “the Spirit of promise,” who assures us of our inheritance to come. If we have been given the Spirit to dwell within us now, how great a gift will be ours in the age to come.

St Cyril of Jerusalem on Chrismation

“With this unction, your forehead and sense organs are mystically anointed in such a way that, while your body is refreshed with the visible oil, your soul is enlivened by the holy life-giving Spirit.” (Catechesis 21, 3)
 
WHEN THE EMPEROR CONSTANTINE began his program of building churches in the Holy Land, the first shrines he sponsored were at Bethlehem (Christ’s birthplace), Jerusalem (the Anastasis) and the Mount of Olives (shrine of the Ascension and a grotto believed to be where Jesus instructed His disciples). Since that day, pilgrims from all over the world regularly flock to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but the Mount of Olives does not have anywhere near as many visitors.

The most obvious – but not the most important reason – is that the ancient shrines on the Mount of Olives were destroyed, first during the Persian invasion of ad 614. Restored, they were later demolished by the “mad caliph,” al-Hakim, in ad 1209. Rebuilt by the Crusaders, the shrine of the Holy Ascension was turned into a mosque at the time of the fall of Jerusalem to Salah ad-Din in 1188. Still a mosque, it is currently operated as a tourist site.

The Holy Ascension

Perhaps the more important reason why we ignore the Ascension today is that it is overshadowed in the historical Churches of East and West by the more prominent celebrations of Pascha, which precedes it, and Pentecost, which follows it. Christ’s Ascension, nonetheless, is of major importance for our understanding of the mystery of our salvation and of what is to come in God’s plan for us. It is a feast that expresses hope that a place has been prepared for us in the Kingdom of God alongside the risen Christ.

The Ascension marks the end of Christ’s time on earth, as recorded in the Scriptures. Matthew records the Lord’s last words – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28: 19) – but does not describe the Ascension. In Mark’s Gospel the narrative continues: “So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen” (Mark 16:19-20).

It is the evangelist Luke who gives us the fullest picture. In his Gospel we read “‘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.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them” (Luke 24:49-51).

In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the Lord’s words of farewell are followed by the following narrative: “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11).

The risen Christ physically leaves this world, not by dying again, but by being “taken up” into heaven. He had not risen in order to resume the life of men on earth, and so His risen body was not limited in the way that earthly bodies are. He arose in a glorified body, immortal (never to die} and incorruptible (never to decay), for “He clothed the mortal in the splendor of incorruption” (St John Chrysostom).

This body, fully human but glorified, ascended into heaven and, as we say in the Creed, is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The Lord Jesus is exalted and glorified with His heavenly Father, as He was from all eternity, but now in His humanity, in the body incarnate from the holy Virgin Mary. As we pray in the canon at orthros:
- “O Christ, having taken upon Your shoulders our nature, which had gone astray, you ascended and brought it to God the Father” (Ode 7).
- “Having raised our nature, which was deadened by sin, You brought it to Your own Father, O Savior.”

- For the first time, a human body is glorified in the presence of the eternal God, offering our own fallen yet restored nature to Him who is the Source of all life. This is what the Protomartyr Stephen saw in his vision of the risen Lord: he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55, 56).

And yet, Christ is also present to us, as we sing in the kondakion of this feast: “You gloriously ascended, O Christ our God, without abandoning us, but remained with us forever.” Christ had promised to abide with us, as we read in the Gospel of John: “I will not leave you orphans” (Jphn 14:18). His presence, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would be His Body, the Church.

This presence would be realized in various ways, all of which we experience in the Divine Liturgy. He is with us mystically in the Church which gathers to worship, in the Scriptures which are read, and in the Eucharist, our share in His eternal sacrifice. Again, listen to St John Chrysostom: “On high is His body, here below with us is His Spirit. And so, we have His token on high – that is, His body, which He received from us – and here below we have His Spirit with us. Heaven received the Holy Body, and the earth accepted the Holy Spirit. Christ came and sent the Spirit. He ascended, and with Him our body ascended also. … Amazing! Look again, how He has raised the Church. As though He were lifting it up by some engine, He has raised it up to a vast height, and set it on that throne; for where the Head is, there is the body also. There is no interval of separation between the Head and the body; for if there were a separation, then the one would no longer be a body, nor would the other any longer be a Head.”

We Are Ascended Also

In Christ, our humanity is now seated at the Father’s right, but in a real sense He is not alone. His humanity in the heavens is but the first of many who will be glorified with Him. St Paul describes this in an agricultural image: Christ is the first of the crop; we are meant to be the rest of the crop! “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep… For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

Thus, St John Chrysostom, when speaking of the ascended Christ, uses the plural: “we have ascended.” If the “first-fruits” has ascended, the rest of the crop has as well. “We who seemed unworthy of the earth, are now raised to heaven. “We who were unworthy of earthly dominion have been raised to the Kingdom on high, have ascended higher than heaven, have come to occupy the King’s throne, and the same nature from which the angels guarded Paradise, did not stop until it ascended to the throne of the Lord.”

The Second, Glorious Coming

At the offering of the Divine Liturgy the priest prays “Remembering… everything that was done for our sake: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement on the right hand, the second and glorious coming again, we offer You Your own…” In the Liturgy we celebrate the events of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension but also something in our future: Christ’s second coming. We cannot speak of His going forth without celebrating His return.
 
WHO IS THE BLIND MAN? This question is not about the name of the man the Lord Jesus heals of blindness in John 9 (in Christian lore he is given the name Celidonius). He is not named in the Gospel account because his name is irrelevant to the meaning of the passage.

Rather the question is: Of all the people described in this Gospel passage, which one is the blind man?

Several groups are mentioned in the passage: the disciples, the neighbors of the blind man, his parents and the Pharisees. The passage reveals something about each of them.

The Disciples

Christ’s followers are depicted asking a theological question on seeing the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2) The assumption behind their question was commonly shared by people in the ancient world: if you experienced good fortune, you were pleasing to God but if you experienced evil, it was a result of your sinfulness.

This was considered true for individuals and the entire people as well. When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in the first century ad, Jewish thinkers attributed it to the sins of the nation: Israel had offended God and were punished by God withdrawing His protection from them. When Christian Jerusalem fell to the Persians in the year 614 and then to the Arabs in 638, its leaders said the same thing: Jerusalem had fallen because its Church had sinned.

While this connection might be directly or indirectly true in some cases, it is not so here. Neither the man nor his parents had sinned. The man’s condition was according to the providence of God: “that the works of God should be revealed in him” (v. 3).

Today most people are likely to say that our good or bad fortune is not caused by direct divine intervention, but because of purely natural causes. However, it is still important to say that our choices for good or evil can and do have consequences. Societies have fallen because they embraced an immoral culture (based on violence, slavery or perversion). Abortion is sinful; it also lowers birthrates and condemns societies to extinction. Divorce has consequences for the couple’s children and grandchildren. Our sinful choices have effects beyond us.

While the disciples’ reaction is not recorded, we find Christians today connecting their earthly fortune to God’s blessing or punishment in an automatic way. The modern Protestant movement called “the prosperity gospel,” promoted by preachers such as Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, teaches that God wants all His people to be physically healthy and financially successful. If a person is sick or not prosperous, they claim, it is because they are not “right with God.”

While the inquiring disciples in Jn 9 were not “blind,” we may wonder about those today who embrace either of these extremes: by living as if their choices affect only themselves or by following the prosperity gospel.

The Neighbors

Those who knew the blind man were amazed that he could now see. Some could not conceive the possibility and asked: “’Is not this he who sat and begged?’ Some said, ‘This is he.’ Others said, ‘He is like him’” (v.9). Church Fathers such as St Irenaeus, St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom explained their confusion in this way: if the man’s sight had been restored, they could accept it. This man, however, was blind from birth. He has no eyes at all. Jesus filled his eye sockets with clay, “adding [eyes] where before they were not” (St John Chrysostom) and gave them sight.

The Gospel says that Christ “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay” (v. 6). The Fathers directly connect this making of clay with the creation story in Genesis. St John Chrysostom noted, “When He said, ‘that the glory of God might be manifested’, He spoke of Himself, … To have said, I am He who took the dust of the earth, and made man, would have seemed a hard thing to His hearers; but this no longer stood in their way when shown by actual working. By taking earth, and mixing it with spittle, He showed forth His hidden glory; for no small glory was it that He should be deemed the Architect of creation” (St John Chrysostom, Homily 56 on John). St Irenaeus said that this action “manifested the hand of God to those who could understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust” adding: “That which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb, [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him” (Against Heresies V, 15, 2).

The Parents

The man’s parents affirmed his identity: “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind” (v. 20) but they evaded expressing their opinion on the miracle: “… but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself” (v. 21). John explains their reticence in this way: to affirm the miracle would be to avow that Jesus was the Messiah. “His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him’” (vv. 22, 23).

It may have to be explained to us, but Jews would assume that only the Messiah empowered by God could engage in a creative act. It would be easier to claim ignorance that to affirm that God was at work in Jesus and risk the consequences. This might be wisdom in the world, but it would be blindness in the spiritual realm.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees are the “heavies” in this portion of John. In the previous chapter, John 8, Jesus condemns them for not seeing God at work in Him, calling them sons of the devil (see John 8:44). In chapter 10, the leaders of the Jews again confront Jesus, demanding to know whether He was the Messiah. Jesus replies, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:25, 26).

Jesus’ healing of the man born blind concludes with another encounter with the Pharisees (John 9:39-41). He reproaches them indirectly, saying “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.”

But the Pharisees challenge Him further. “Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains.”

The blind man had no sight through no fault of his own. The Pharisees claimed to see, without realizing that their pretension made them worse than blind.

Self-righteousness in religion can render us as blind as they. Relying on the Gospel as preached in the Church can free us from the blindness that results from being one’s own guide.
 
SOME CHRISTIANS TODAY seem to believe that Jesus never judged anyone. They feel that He welcomed everyone, without calling them to turn from their sin. This “live and let live” attitude hardly describes the Jesus we see depicted in the Gospels. Rather these Scriptures show that the Lord reacted differently to different people in different circumstances, teaching us something about Himself and holding a mirror up to our actions as well.

Jesus’ Public Preaching

The Gospel of Mark, perhaps the oldest of the canonical Gospels, describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in this way: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14, 15). The call to repentance was at the very heart of His teaching: of that there should be no doubt. How Jesus approached individuals who were living in sinful situations is another matter. The Lord addressed very strong words to those who were the religious leaders of Israel – the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the Law – whom He judged to be failing in their mission to pastor God’s people. He publicly called them “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matthew 13:4); “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16, 24); “fools and blind” (Matthew 23:17, 19); “white-washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27); and “serpents, brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33). He told them they had hard hearts! In Mt 23 He repeatedly threatened them, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees: Hypocrites! ... How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:13 ff.)” This is hardly the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” beloved of so many. Yet, as the Gospel tells us, His hearers did not reproach Him for being politically incorrect; rather “people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28. 29).

Jesus’ Approach to Individuals

When the Lord was trying to lead people to recognize their own sinfulness and repent, His approach was very different. He was not aggressive or condemnatory, but He was not timid either. When He was dining on the Sabbath with a leading Pharisee, a man with dropsy (edema) was brought before Him. The Gospel says that Jesus answered the (unasked) question of the onlookers by asking them a question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Luke 14:7) His questions forced people to examine their own beliefs or attitudes, opening a way for them to see their own errors and repent.

The Lord used parables in the same way. When He noticed that people were jockeying for the best places at the table, the Lord told a series of parables on being the guest or a host at a wedding. His hearers got the point He was making without any of them being singled out for their behavior.

Two Gospel incidents frequently heard in our Churches show Jesus dealing with people who were public sinners, yet ready to hear His call to repentance. Before the Great Fast we hear the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, who himself admitted getting money by fraud (Luke 19:8). The Lord did not raise the issue of Zacchaeus’ financial manipulations even indirectly. He simply told Zacchaeus that “today I must stay at your house” (v. 5). Jesus allowed Zacchaeus to see Him close up and that alone was sufficient to bring him to repentance.

Something similar happened in the case of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s Well. Like Zacchaeus, her way of life was already well-known and she was probably not welcome among the local women. This explains why she had come to draw water hat the height of the midday heat. Yet Jesus did not bring up the matter of her multiple marriages; He innocently asks her to call her husband. When she tells Him, “I have no husband,” (John 4:17) then He responds, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (vv. 17, 18). Jesus led her to raise the irregularity of her marital situation herself so that He could reveal His mysterious knowledge of her past and lead her to repentance.

Both Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman (Photini, in some accounts) responded to Jesus’ presence by revealing their embarrassing secrets. They could not deceive Jesus into thinking them upright. They could not pretend an untruth in the face of the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

John’s Gospel contains the story of another hapless woman: one caught in adultery (John 8:1-8). The scribes and Pharisees claimed that, according to the Law, she was to be stoned. They were right. The Law prescribed: “If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die—the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 20:22).

In response, Jesus did not criticize the woman, her accusers or the Law. To the accusers He simply said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (v. 8). He trusted that no one would dare to claim to be sinless, and He was right. They began drifting away, leaving Jesus and the woman together.

Daily during the Great Fast we say the Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, asking for same spiritual insight these accusers were brought to remember. We pray, “Grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brethren.” We must know sin when we see it, but not in a way that is judgmental of others.

The Lord did not criticize the woman caught in the act, but neither did He say, “I do not condemn you either; it’s all good.” She had sinned – she knew it and so did He. His response was, “go and sin no more” (v.11).

Fraternal Correction in the Church

The Lord expected His disciples, the leaders of His new community, to deal with sin in its midst. He told them, “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). Confronting sin in the community was as much part of their job as was extending forgiveness to the repentant.

Sometimes Church leaders turn a blind eye to the unchristian behavior of members of their flock so as to keep them in the congregation. The apostles were more concerned with helping their people avoid sin, even to the point of discussing it publicly. These are some of their directives found in the Epistles:

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:1-5).

“Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:20).

“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” {James 5:19, 20).

“On some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 1:22, 23).
 
THE SCRIPTURES READ on the remaining Sundays in the Paschal season present us with some of life’s most debilitating hardships: blindness, isolation, and, today, paralysis. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles read today we hear about the healing of a man named Aeneas in Lydda (Lod), some 23 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Aeneas, we are told, “had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed” (Acts 9:33).

In the Gospel reading which follows, we hear about another man “who had an infirmity thirty-eight years” (John 5:5) and who was healed by the Lord Jesus, at the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha) outside Jerusalem, where the infirm gathered hoping for healing. This pool was used to clean the animals destined for sacrifice before they would be brought into the temple.

It is not clear why the sick gathered there. There was no explicit mention of miracles at this pool in Jewish sources of the day such as Josephus or Philo. The pool itself, buried in the destruction of Jerusalem, was unknown until archeologists uncovered it in the nineteenth century. This led some to suggest that the passage was not historical at all. Rather it was meant to teach that the “angel in the water” foreshadowed the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in baptism, which heals us of sin (see Tertullian, On Baptism, chapter 5).

Others have noted that there were healing springs and pools in the ancient pagan world as well. Cures at those pools followed specific patterns like the one John records here: the first one entering the pool after the water was “stirred” would be healed. John affirms that Christ’s word alone, without any ritual or procedure, was enough to heal. Like the paralytic who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them, and turn to Christ instead.

What Does It Mean to be Paralyzed?

In the Early Church commentators did not often speculate on the pool or even the nature of the man’s illness. It was more common to compare the physical infirmity of the paralyzed man to the spiritual paralysis which afflicts Christians, either occasionally or in a regular way. It was often noted how, in the lives of each one of us, there will be spiritual paralysis: moments of weakness or failure, which can last for many years, as with the paralytic at the sheep pool.

In “spiritual paralysis,” the energies of our soul, of our mind, of our heart, of our will, of our body itself are fettered, fettered by the fact that we have no courage and we have no power within us to move and to act to the full of our longings. We stand, year after year on the very edge, on the bank of the pool that could give us life without being able to enter it.

Christian Life as Synergy,

In one of the last New Testament books to reach its final form, the Second Epistle of St Peter, we see the Christ spiritual life addressed. Spiritual life, we read, comes “… through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by whom have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3. 4). The way to theosis, being partakers of the divine nature, comes because of Christ, God become incarnate so that we might become divinized.

We, however, need to embrace this gift, lest it whither away and we become blind or paralyzed. We do this, the epistle continues, by practicing virtue, self-control, godliness, perseverance, brotherly kindness and love. “For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:3-9). Fruitful Christian life, then, requires that we do our part to make our own the gift of divine life we have received.

We can become shortsighted or even blind to the gift of our baptism, remaining barren and unfruitful – in other words, paralyzed – without being committed to growing in virtue, knowledge, self-control and the rest. We may see this happen in the lives of some Christians who do not consider their baptism seriously, who rarely look to the Gospel, receive the Eucharist or even attend the Liturgy. They are blind to the gift of Christ and therefore paralyzed in the spiritual life. We see it in ourselves, when we cannot focus on the words we read or even the prayers we are saying, distracted by the concerns of daily life.
Paralysis and the Passions

As more philosophically-minded Greeks accepted Christ, they identified the signs of spiritual paralysis in terms of the classical passions: gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, pride and vainglory. A person who is focused on personal comforts (through food and drink, sex or material possessions) will find it difficult if not impossible to center on the spiritual life. If they attend church at all, they find their mind wandering back to the object of their passion.

A story is told about St Basil, the revered Fool for Christ, who confronted Tsar Ivan the Terrible one day because he was not at the Liturgy. Ivan protested that he was indeed in church for the service., Basil replied that the emperor’s body was in church, but his mind was on the Vorobiev hills (where he was having a palace built). When Basil died in 1557, the Tsar acted as one of his pallbearers.

It would be even harder for people ruled by their pride or vanity to look beyond themselves to God or others. Their piety dries up “like baked clay” (Psalms 21:16), withered like a plant with too much sun and no water. This is why combatting the passions has been seen as fundamental to a committed Christian life since the dawn of monasticism in the third century.

In his Homily 37 on the Gospel of John, St John Chrysostom discusses the spiritual medicines necessary to combat the passions and other distractions from the Christian life: “The divine oracles [the Scriptures] are a treasury of all manner of medicines, so that whether it be needful to quench pride, to lull desire to sleep, to tread underfoot the love of money, to despise pain, to inspire confidence, to gain patience, from them one may find abundant resource.” The Scriptures held the medicine; the illnesses were the passions .

The Church as Healer

While the Scriptures portray the incarnate Christ as Healer of the man at Bethesda, it depicts the Body of Christ, the Church, as the source of Aeneas’ recovery. The Church is meant to be a therapeutic community in which Christ continues His healing work in our midst.

“Yesterday you were flung on a bed, exhausted and paralyzed, and you had no one to put you into the pool when the water should be troubled. Today you have Him, who is in one Person God and Man. You were raised up from your bed, and even carried your bed, publicly acknowledging the benefit. Do not again be thrown on your bed by sinning, in the evil of a body paralyzed by its pleasures. As you now are, so walk, mindful of the command, ‘See, you have been made well.

Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you’ (John 5:14), if you prove yourself bad after the blessing you have received. You have heard the loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out’.”

(St Gregory the Theologian, Oration on Holy Baptism, XL, 33)

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