Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
BOASTING IS NOT SOMETHING we expect to find promoted in religious writing. We see it s very definitely something of this world, of egos and the very worldly habit of stroking them. Yet in both Old and New Testaments, believers are encouraged to specific kinds of boasting.

Several centuries before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength, or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know Me” (Jeremiah 9:23, 24). Knowing God was the greatest pride of the Israelite people, something of which they boasted before the other nations. They knew the only true God, who had revealed Himself to them.

Centuries later, the Israelites’ boast of intimacy with God had been transformed by many into pride in keeping the Law. Christ’s parable of the publican and the Pharisee demonstrates that boasting about one’s love for God can easily become a reason to glorify oneself. In that story the Pharisee seems to be thanking God: “God, I thank You…” he begins, but quickly moves to boasting of his religious observance: he is not “like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get“ (Luke 18:11, 12). Although the Pharisee seems to be talking to God, he is actually talking to himself, congratulating himself on his spirit of piety.

It is difficult to avoid the Pharisee’s boasting, when we start cataloging our acts of devotion. When we decide to go to church twice a week, for example, we may find ourselves feeling superior to those who only go once a week or less. When we commit ourselves to a Prayer Rule, we may begin to look down on those who have not done so. When we count the number of times we say the Jesus Prayer or make prostrations, we may take pride in how our proficiency at these practices has grown. There was a time, not too long ago, when such spiritual arithmetic was encouraged, particularly in the West. That is generally not the case today; nevertheless the temptation to engage in self-praise is there.

Like Jeremiah, St Paul seems to say “Let not the pious boast of their piety, but boast instead about the saving power of the cross.” It is, after all, not our acts of religious devotion that bring us life, but the gift of Christ’s life, offered for us on the cross.

St Paul was especially disturbed by those among the early Christians who were insisting on one particular Jewish practice, as if accepting the saving death of Christ was not enough. Some believers were insisting that converts needed to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses to be numbered among the Christians. Paul strenuously denied this, insisting that these Old Testament practices had lost their obligatory character because Christ’s self-offering was sufficient to unite us to God.

Boasting in the Cross

Still, boasting is not the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the cross of Christ. Some people are no doubt saddened by the thought of it, grieving at the sight of Christ suffering His passion. Some will be thankful that the Son of God offered Himself for us. But what does it mean to “boast” in the cross?

When we think of people boasting of their accomplishments, their children, or their vacations, we know that, first of all, these aspects of their lives are frequently in their thoughts and in their conversation. It may seem that they talk of nothing else. A person first boasts in his heart, then publicly for all to hear. No one can doubt how proud the boaster is of his life’s joys.

How often are our thoughts focused on the cross? Our almost incessant making of the sign of the cross suggests that the cross is often on our Church’s mind. There are other indicators as well. Every Wednesday and Friday, in the hymns appointed for the daily services, our Church “boasts” liturgically about the cross in words such as these: “The precious cross of the Savior is our unshakable wall, for all of us who put our hope in it will be saved” (Tone One Vespers).

The Church encourages us to fast on most Wednesdays and Fridays precisely because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday and crucified on a Friday. Participating in these fasts is another opportunity to “boast” in the cross, acknowledging that Christ’s death on the cross witnesses to an unparalleled display of divine love.

The Divine Liturgy is our opportunity to be mystically present at the cross. While the deacon lifts up the holy gifts crosswise, the priest prays, “Remembering … everything that was done for our sake: the cross, the tomb… we offer You Your own…” By joining Christ in this offering we are exalting the saving power of His cross.

If these traditions are central to our personal spirituality, we would find it natural to boast about the cross in other ways as well. Publicly boasting about the cross can take many forms. The easiest is to publicly display the cross on our person or in our homes. Many people do this, however, without thinking about the meaning of the cross they are exhibiting. The cross witnesses that the death of the Son of God was a victory, not a defeat. By the cross Christ triumphed over death

Unlike certain Evangelicals, Eastern Christians are reluctant to speak publicly about the faith or even invite acquaintances to their church. One notable exception seems to be at the annual Food Festival, when church tours are often organized for Festival visitors. Those parishes which have made the church tours the highpoint of the Festival report that these opportunities for “boasting” have often been a source of new parishioners. The arrangement of our church is not haphazard; rather it has developed over the centuries as a graphic proclamation of Christ – crucified, buried, risen and living in His Body, the Church. Participating in developing a church tour (and appropriate follow-ups) is a way for any of us to boast publicly in the Christ whom we revere in our hearts.

Our Liturgy Boasts of the Cross

Tone 1

The cross was planted upon the place of the skull and from the everlasting spring that flowed from the side of the Savior, it brought forth immortality for us. By Your cross, O Christ, angels and men have formed a single assembly and a single flock. Heaven and earth exult with joy – O Lord, glory to You!

Tone 2

Just as the enemy made Adam captive by the fruit of the tree, so You made the enemy captive by the tree of the cross and Your suffering. For this purpose You came as the second Adam to seek out the lost and bring life to the dead. O Lord, glory to You!

Tone 3

The cross was planted in the earth, yet it touched the heavens; not because it reached the full stature of a tree, but because on it You fulfilled all things. O Lord, glory to You! Great is the power of Your cross, O Lord, for though it was set in one place, it acts throughout the world. It made apostles of fishermen and martyrs of the Gentiles. We beg them to intercede for our souls.
 
THROUGHOUT THE NEW TESTAMENT we read that light is somehow an apt description of God. Thus in St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians we read: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Elsewhere we read even more explicit statements such as this, from the First Epistle of John: “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We also hear Christ telling us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Reflecting on these statements prompts us to ask: Are these teachings merely employing metaphors or symbolic images, or is light of the essence of God, both in Himself and in our world?

It is hard to imagine the apostles believing that light merely represents or symbolizes God. John, along with Peter and James, had witnessed Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor when Christ’s “…face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). St Paul was on his way to Damascus, when “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3) and he was blinded at the appearance of the risen Christ. These were concrete manifestations of light, not simply poetic images.

The Church, reflecting on these Scriptures over the first millennium, struggled to understand how the immaterial God could “be” light. Fathers like St Gregory of Nyssa and St Gregory the Theologian affirmed that God is incomprehensible to us because He is so beyond our nature. God is an impenetrable darkness to us as “He whom the soul seeks transcends all knowledge, separated from every part by His incomprehensibility as by a darkness.”

These Fathers, occupied with more pressing doctrinal issues such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, did not resolve the dilemma: how could God be both darkness and light. It was only in the fourteenth century that St Gregory Palamas, the archbishop of Thessalonika, came to interpret the Fathers’ teachings by making a distinction which would resolve this quandary.

God as Essence and Energy

St Gregory Palamas developed a patristic distinction between the essence of God, absolutely inaccessible to man, and His uncreated energies, which proceed from God and manifest His own Being, and by which He is present to us. In this way he affirmed that God is both knowable and unknowable, both light and darkness. We cannot know God as He is in Himself. As we read in the Gospel, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). We can know God in His energies (to know what God does, and who He is in relation to His creation and to man), because God has revealed Himself to humanity.

Gregory adapted the classical image of the sun, its heat, and its light to describe how the unknowable God can be perceived by His creation. St Gregory considered the sun as signifying God’s essence: God’s deepest self. God, he taught, was completely unknowable in His essence. In this he was in agreement with St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in his commentary on Boethius’ tract On the Holy Trinity that “His essence is beyond all that can be known down here.”

And yet we are told in the Church that God touches us and in accessible to us. We say that the Spirit of God dwells in us and that Christ is in our midst. We have knowledge of and even communion with the unknowable God. According to Gregory, it is God’s energies – the light of God, His grace and His love – which touch us, not His essence. These energies are of God: they radiate from His essence as rays from the sun, but are not the essence itself.

The Uncreated Light

St Gregory asserted that what Peter, James and John witnessed at the Transfiguration of Christ was, in fact, the uncreated light of God, the divine energies which have been manifested to many saints who have come close to Him through repentance and unceasing prayer. According to Gregory, they saw “the essential majesty of God… the ultra-luminous brightness of the archetypal beauty, the formless kind of Divine comeliness… they saw the inconceivable and ineffable Light… they saw the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which they subsequently received, and it abided in them” (Third Homily in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts). This was not a sensory vision or an exercise of reason, but a deifying illumination by God, a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this St Gregory echoed St Maximos the Confessor who says that the Apostles saw the uncreated Light “by a transformation of the activity of their senses, produced in them by the Spirit.” The vision of the uncreated energy of God is theosis, our transformation by the indwelling presence of God.

In the Face of Christ

There are several recorded instances of people seeing the uncreated light of God, but most Christians have not had this experience. We are rather like the apostle Philip who asked the Lord Jesus, “‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered, ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8, 9).

Philip had not witnessed Christ’s transfiguration, so when the Lord reminds him that he has seen the Father, Jesus is not speaking of the uncreated light. Rather, Jesus is referring to the spiritual witness of His teaching and His miracles. God’s presence is uniquely reflected in the words and works of the incarnate Lord for those who are given to see Him. Even when the light of His face is veiled by His humanity, it is possible to see God’s energies manifested in Christ. As He goes on to tell Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? ... The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work” (John 14:9, 10).

One way in which we see the Father through Jesus’ teachings is through the parables and images He puts forth for us to consider. Many of them are incomprehensible to us on the basis of our experience alone. The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son displays an unconditional love beyond our ability to love. The steward who pays a full day’s wage for one hour’s work, the Samaritan who pays for a stranger’s care out of his own pocket, and the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one which was lost present us with standards of love which shed a new and divine light on the Father. “The light of Christ,” as we say in the Presanctified Liturgy, “enlightens all” who allow His teachings to transform them.

In the Life of the Age to Come

St Gregory Palamas described the vision of the uncreated light, the experience of theosis, as a kind of betrothal, anticipating in this life the Light of the future Second Coming of Christ. It is the Light of the future age, which will be visible with the eyes of the heart and which will transform the hearts of those who behold it. The sight of the light of Christ in its fullness cannot but transform the beholder. At that point our divinization will be complete. As we read in the First Epistle of St John, “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
 
PEOPLE USUALLY THING of the Holy Mysteries according to the ways they have experienced them in churches which they have attended. Western Christians, for example, who are used to seeing a few drops of water poured on a baby’s head in baptism, may be astounded to see a baby fully immersed at an Eastern Christian baptism.

The Scriptures contain a number of references to the rites which we call Holy Mysteries, but sometimes these references are not as obvious to us as they were to the first-century readers for whom they were written.

Christian Initiation

St Paul wrote two epistles to the first Christians in Corinth which have become part of the New Testament. The Corinthian believers were divided among themselves over rival teachers and practices. Before addressing any of these issues, he reminded the Corinthians of their baptism! The relationship we have with God in Christ should be our basis for dealing with any practical matters. What may surprise us is that he makes no mention of water at all, or even of baptism in the name of the Trinity. Rather he emphasized the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the time of the apostles, Christian initiation already included a rite for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles records that, ever before the conversion of St Paul to Christ, baptism was not considered complete until the Spirit had been given. We read in Acts 8 how Philip, a deacon, preached the Gospel in Samaria and baptized many people there. The passage continues: “When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).

The Samaritans’ baptism was not a complete Christian initiation until they received the Holy Spirit. The rite which the apostles employed was prayer, with the laying-on of hands.

St Paul, on the other hand, describes the bestowal of the Spirit in terms of anointing and sealing: “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22). The anointing was a visible mark, attesting that the new believer belonged to Christ. This bestowal of the Spirit is what we call the Mystery of Chrismation.

The second image in this brief description is the mention of the Holy Spirit as a kind of “Deposit” or down-payment, guaranteeing the divinizing presence of the Spirit in us. This presence would be fulfilled in the life of the world to come, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

The Wedding Banquet

Even more sacramental allusions are found in the image of the wedding banquet of the king’s son. This portrayal of a future when God is all in all is at the heart of Christ’s parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). A similar parable is found in Luke 14:15-24. In Luke Christ tells this parable in response to this praise of the kingdom to come by one of His hearers, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15).

In Matthew, this feast is described as celebrating the union of the king’s son with his bride, which represents the.Messiah becoming one with his people. It is the long-awaited union of the Lord and His beloved. St John Chrysostom explains the wedding imagery in this parable and connects it with similar expressions in other Scriptures.: “You may ask, ‘Why is it called a marriage?’ – That you may learn God’s tender care, His yearning toward us, the cheerfulness of it. There is no sorrow there: all things are filled with spiritual joy. This is why John also calls Him a bridegroom and Paul says, ‘I have espoused you to one husband’ and ‘This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.”

Those who are invited, however, do not see the eternal significance of this event. They are busy with the things of this age – their view of reality was limited to their business interests. Their short-sightedness cost them everything and others were invited in their place. In Luke, even family life is considered a poor excuse for ignoring the invitation to the king’s banquet.

The setting of this parable in Matthew gives us a key to its meaning. The Lord has just entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He teaches using three parables against the Jewish leaders: the parables of the two sons, the vineyard tenants and the wedding banquet. Each of them features an ungrateful and unresponsive reply to the master’s call.

The parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) concludes with this admonition: “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (v. 32). This reference to John the Forerunner points to the coming of the Messiah as the event which people were called to acknowledge and to which they refused to respond. Official religious leaders will be replaced by prostitutes and the Jewish people by Gentiles in the Messianic age which has already begun.

Matthew adds a final scene describing the king welcoming his new guests to the banquet. One of the guests has come without a wedding garment. The parable ends with this man too losing his place at the table. Here Matthew has made the parable apply to us and the sacramental life to which we have been admitted. Having accepted Christ, we are invited to the table, provided that we have preserved the baptismal garment with which we were clothed. If it has been sullied, it may be laundered by repentance. But if we have not repented, we too shall lose our place at the table.
 
IN BYZANTINE CHURCHES 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 (July 25) and of St. John the Theologian, the only apostle not martyred (September 26). The Coptic Church also remembers the Dormition of St Joseph (August 2).

The Tradition of the Virgin’s Repose

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 Cor 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 Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.” (¶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 to this day, chiefly at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and at the Syriac Orthodox “Church of the Girdle” in Homs, Syria.

During the eighteenth century when the Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch was being established 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 notion that the Latin 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 documented 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, because the Lord Jesus had entrusted His mother to him as He was dying on the cross. 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.
 
TOWARDS THE END of Jesus’ public ministry He began preparing His disciples for His approaching death and resurrection. In Mt 16 this scene concludes with the following prophecy: “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (v. 28). This is immediately followed by a fulfillment of this prophecy: the holy transfiguration of Christ. As St Gregory Palamas says in his homily on this feast, “It is the light of His own forthcoming transfiguration which He terms the Glory of His Father and of His Kingdom.”

At Christ’s transfiguration “some standing here” – Peter, James and John – witnessed the Lord in the glory of His kingdom, if only for a moment. He was not changed – they were. They were able to see what is always there but which they could not imagine before: that God dwelt in man.

St Gregory Palamas describes it this way: “Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by a transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He Himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than He had appeared to them formerly. For He is ‘the true light’ (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and He shone forth like the sun.”

As St Ephrem the Syrian expressed it, “They saw two suns; one in the sky, as usual, and one unusually; one visible in the firmament and lighting the world, and one, His face, visible to them alone” (Sermon on the Transfiguration, 8). In one sense we can say that Christ was not transfigured; it was the apostles’ ability to see Him which was transfigured.

“What He Really Was”

For a moment Christ was revealed to the disciples as what He really was: God incarnate in our human flesh. “We believe that at the transfiguration He manifested not some other sort of light, but only that which was concealed beneath His fleshly exterior. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such, it was Uncreated and Divine” (St Gregory Palamas, Homily on the Transfiguration).

This Light was manifested to the disciples in the radiance of His face and garments: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). As Mark describes it, “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). The immaterial divine nature of the Son of God in manifested in the physical sign of a shining face and garments because this was all that the disciples could absorb. As we sing in the troparion of this feast, Christ was “showing Your disciples as much of Your glory as they could behold.”

Over succeeding centuries the Church deepened its understanding of the incarnation, but not without disagreement. It took several hundred years and several Ecumenical Councils for the Church to articulate its faith in Christ as the incarnate Word of God. By the fourth century the Church was calling Christ “Light from Light, true God from true God… of one essence with the Father” but it took several more centuries and councils to grasp the implications of that statement.

As iconography developed it settled on one particular form to represent the divine nature of the light perceived by the disciples. The mandorla is a design made up of overlapping geometrical shapes which surrounds the image of Christ in icons of the transfiguration. The basic mandorla – an Italian word meaning almond – contains three round or oval concentric circles, in shades of blue or gold, representing the Trinity. The innermost circle is of the deepest shade representing the unseen Father. Other geometrical shapes represent the energy of the divine light shining upon the disciples. The mandorla is generally used in icons representing the glorified Christ at His transfiguration and resurrection and when receiving His Mother at her dormition.

What We Are Meant to Become

In the mystery of Christ’s transfiguration the Church has caught a glimpse of what those who are in Christ are meant to be: persons who in their humanity can have God dwelling in them, reflecting that presence as light. The Lord Himself tells us that at His second coming “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 1:43). The custom of depicting saints and angels with haloes derives from this prophetic statement of Christ.

Becoming “righteous” is our task in this life, in preparation for the glory to come. In both the Old and New Testaments we are frequently instructed how we may become righteous. In the New Testament, however, these instructions are phrased in terms of God dwelling in us. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) is the One whose presence within us guarantees our righteousness before God. This is the “mystery hidden from eternity” (Colossians 1:26), which the Greek Fathers called theosis, the process of our transformation by the presence of God within us.

This process of theosis begins with our baptism. As we sing so often in our services, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). God dwells within us but requires that we “put on Christ” by the way we live. “We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Our cooperation with God dwelling in us to transform us is called synergy by the Fathers: the life-long task of consciously becoming God-like in our thoughts, words and actions in order to radiate the presence of God within us by baptism.

Despite all our best efforts, none of us – not even the saints – can so unwaveringly combat our passions that we realize our potential on our own. And so Christ has given us an outward sign of His love in the mystery of the Eucharist to which we can return again and again. By sharing in this holy mystery we can reinforce our awareness of His saving presence in us and derive the strength we need for our daily ascent to God.

Through the holy mysteries and our striving to live like Christ we can attain a likeness to God and union with Him so far as possible. We who are not holy by nature can become holy, and become partakers of glory.

Looking to the Last Day

In the Second Epistle of St Peter we read his eye-witness account of the transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-18). This is what follows: “And so we have this sure prophetic word, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (v.19). The transfiguration is thus a prophetic anticipation of Christ’s glorious second coming when the “morning star” (Christ) will fill us with His light.

The transfiguration, then, symbolizes the life to come and thus the goal of every Christian pursuit. As St Gregory the Theologian expressed it in his Third Oration On the Son, the holy transfiguration of Christ initiates us “into the mystery of the future”.

O Giver of life, You bent down to the pit without falling into it and raised me up who had fallen. You bore my foul-smelling corruption untouched, and made me sweet-smelling with the myrrh of Your divine nature.

Canon of the Octoechos, Tone 5
 
THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENCES between the three world religions originating in the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). One thing which they all share is the emphasis on God as Compassionate. In the biblical story of Moses, for example, God reveals Himself to the prophet in these words: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

The prophets of Israel continually returned to this theme, adding a new dimension. They saw compassion as a parental trait, paving the way for the Lord Jesus’ description of God as our Father.

In His parables the Lord often returned to themes of compassion. In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) the king, an image of God, is described as “moved with compassion” (Matthew 18:27), in contrast to his servant who shows no compassion to his fellow. The father of the prodigal son, is described, on the bedraggled boy’s return, as “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

The Gospels describe Christ as “deeply moved” with compassion by the death of the widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7: 11-17), and of his friend Lazarus in Bethany (John 11). When recording the miraculous feeding of the four thousand, Mark tells us “Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people…” (Mark 8:1,2). In each case He did something concrete in response.

In the Church God was proclaimed from the beginning as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). In our prayers today we regularly address God as “the only Compassionate One,” in contrast to the evident lack of that quality in our own lives.

What Is Compassion?

When the Gospels describe Christ as being “deeply moved” or being “moved with compassion,” they use a word which points to the heart of that quality. A literal translation of the Greek term would be “to be moved from the bowels.” (i.e. to feel deeply). Compassion is at the other end of the spectrum from the casual “I’m sorry” that people fling out at any unpleasant circumstance. Compassion is a “gut feeling” which we experience when we allow ourselves to be moved by the suffering of others.

People often equate compassion with sympathy, but true compassion is more. A person may express sympathy in response to sorrow with kindness and concern, then move on with their own lives. True compassion, on the other hand, includes expressions of care and concern, but moves on to concrete action. The compassionate person involves himself in the suffering of the other. Unlike the priest or the Levite in the parable, the Good Samaritan directly engages himself in the troubles of the man who was a victim to robbers and does not leave him until the man has recovered.

The compassionate Samaritan, like the compassionate king in Matthew 18 is an icon of God. He it is who involves Himself in the sufferings of the human race to such an extent that He sends His Son and Word to share in their suffering. This Word “…did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Compassion as getting involved is put forward to us as a way of being godlike: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). God is, as we have seen, “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). St Paul goes on to say that God is compassionate to us “… so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4). Reflecting on how God has extended His compassion to us, should energize us into extending compassion to others.

Radical Compassion

Sometimes opportunities for compassion present themselves in daily life, such as taking in the child of a hospitalized neighbor. At other times people have been led to extend compassion in a more radical way. Perhaps no one in our society has personified this degree of compassion more than the late Servant of God Dorothy Day, the twentieth century convert extolled by Pope Francis as one of four “inspiring” Americans in his 2015 address to the US Congress. Foundress of the Catholic Worker movement during the Great Depression, Dorothy Day described one of her early ventures in these heart-rending words, revealing the depth of her compassion: “Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines of men in front of the store which is our headquarters...It is hard to say, matter-of-factly and cheerfully, 'Good morning.' ...One felt more like taking their hands and saying, 'Forgive us -- let us forgive each other! All of us who are more comfortable, who have a place to sleep, three meals a day, work to do -- we are responsible for your condition. We are guilty of each other's sins. We must bear each other's burdens. Forgive us and may God forgive us all!"

The Power of Compassion

Every year on Meatfare Sunday we hear Christ’s parable of the Judgment (Mt 25:31-46). In this story, people are judged based on the degree of their compassion. Christ identifies Himself with those in need to the degree of saying that I was hungry and you gave me food…” and the rest. . Christ identifies Himself completely with those in need: the essence of compassion.

What we may forget is that Christ begins the parable by saying, “All the nations will be gathered before him…” He is describing the judgment of the nations – the Gentiles – not the house of Israel. The faithful will be judged on the basis of their faith – the ‘nations’ will be judged on the basis of their compassion.

If compassion is so important in the Lord’s eyes that He calls the compassionate “blessed of my Father” even though they never knew Him, what should it mean to us?

In contrast to this blessing of compassionate Gentiles, we read a condemnation of the uncompassionate at the close of Christ’s parable of the unforgiving servant. We are told that, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Then the divine Narrator of the parable presents the moral of the story: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart” (Matthew 18:34, 35).

While true compassion often demands a radical generosity, the lack of compassion can separate us from God. The Russian spiritual writer, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, expressed it this way: “Our lack of compassion, hardness of heart, and mercilessness towards others form an impenetrable curtain between ourselves and God. It is as if we had covered a plant with a black hood, and then complained because it died from lack of sunlight.”
 
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?

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