Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN BYZANTINE CHURCHERS the first Great Feast in the liturgical calendar is the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8). The feast of her Holy Dormition (August 15), coming at the end of the Church year, brings this cycle to a close. Like a musical masterwork, our annual remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ begins with an “overture” (the birth of His Mother) and concludes with a “coda” (her entry into the new life which is promised to us).

What Is a “Dormition”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resurrection of the Body

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

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

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

What Mary Left Behind

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

Mary and Ephesus?

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

Today some claim that the Theotokos died in Ephesus, where St John the Theologian lived for many years. In the nineteenth century a house claimed to be that of the Virgin was unearthed near Ephesus, based on a supposed vision of Anne Catherine Emerich. This shrine became popular in the West; however there was never any early tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.
 
EVERY YEAR on the Great Feast of the Transfiguration, pilgrims climb Mount Tabor to worship at one of the churches there commemorating this event. Yet none of the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration mentions where the incident took place. The Gospels simply say that the Lord Jesus took His disciples Peter, James and John “up on a high mountain by themselves” (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2).

Mt Tabor, five miles south of Nazareth and eleven miles west of the Sea of Galilee, is traditionally identified as the site of the Transfiguration. Origen of Alexandria, who lived in Palestine for the last twenty-five years of his life, was the first to write about Mt Tabor in this context, in the middle of the third century. Origen claimed that identifying Mt Tabor as the site of Christ’s Transfiguration was an “apostolic tradition” held in the local Church.

Other Fathers from that period who echoed Origen’s view were St Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386), St Epiphanius of Salamis (c.310-403), and St Jerome (c.347-420).

The fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c.265-340) thought that Mt Hermon on the Syrian border was another possibility because the Lord is described in Mt 16 as being in Caeserea Philippi which is at the base of Mt Hermon.

The weight of tradition has favored Mt Tabor, however, as the place where Jesus was transfigured, and it is there that commemorative shrines have existed since the fourth century. By the sixth century there were three basilicas on the site, recalling the three tabernacles which St Pater wanted to erect there (see Matthew 17:4).

Meeting God on the Mountaintop

There are several elements in the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration which resonate with memories of the Old Testament. The first is that mountains natural reflect the glory of God: “The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all its fullness, You have founded them. The north and the south, You have created them; Tabor and Hermon rejoice in Your name” (Psalms 89: 11, 12). It is noteworthy that the two mountains mentioned in this verse are the ones cited as possible sites of the Transfiguration.

Experiencing God on the mountaintop also reminds us that God is inaccessible to us, who are mired in the affairs of everyday life below. To commune with God we must “climb the mountain,” that is, rise above these worldly cares to attain union with Him. This “spiritual ascent” is a frequent theme in ascetical writings.

The Transfiguration connects us with other mountaintop experiences in the Scripture. When God first reveals Himself to Moses it is on Horeb, “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1): “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:1. 2).

In Exodus 24 we read how Moses received the Ten Commandments by going up Mount Sinai to meet the God of Israel. “Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:16-18).

Many archaeologists believe that Horeb and Sinai are peaks in the same mountain range in the desert peninsula separating Egypt from Israel. Both Scriptural events are commemorated at the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai.

God-seers Moses and Elias

In addition to Christ and the Apostles, two others are described in the Gospels as being present at the Transfiguration. Why were Moses and Elias (Elijah) witnesses to this event?

Both these figures are described in the Old Testament as having seen God. In the passage cited above, Moses encountered God in “the midst of the cloud” on the mountain where he received the Ten Commandments. The cloud, representing the presence of God, reappears at the Transfiguration, surrounding Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.  After the destruction of the Golden Calf, Moses encountered God again in the Tabernacle, the Israelite’s portable temple. “And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses… So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:9, 11).

A similar revelation of God to the Prophet Elijah on Mt Horeb is recorded in 1 Kings 19. The Prophet, fleeing the idolatrous queen Jezebel, takes refuge in a cave on Mt. Horeb “And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the Word of the Lord came to him… And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13).

On Mount Tabor Moses and Elias, who had experienced the invisible God on Sinai and Horeb, now witness to the incarnate God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Light of Glory

Another aspect of the Transfiguration story is the light which envelops the Lord Jesus: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). The Jewish believers in Jesus for whom this Gospel was written could not but recall the “great vision” of the Prophet Daniel of a man “clothed in linen” whose face had “the appearance of lightning” (Daniel 10:6). Daniel’s vision was of an angel come to defeat the Persians. The Lord Jesus was come to do battle with sin and death.

St Gregory Palamas explained that the light on Tabor was a manifestation of God’s uncreated divine energy comprehensible by the apostles. He described it as an extraordinary gift of God in this life and likened it to a curtain falling from the eyes of the beholder. At the end of the age, however, as Christ promised, the saints would reflect this light s well: “… the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

In the Christian East the radiant light of the Transfiguration was often a sign of the saints’ intimate communion with God in this life. The Desert Fathers Pambo, Sisoe, Silouan, and Arsenius were all described as physically reflecting the light of God. People who witnesses St Sergius of Radonezh at the altar saw a wonderful light surround him at the anaphora and enter the chalice. Ss Seraphim of Sarov, Theophan the Recluse and John of Kronstadt were all described by their contemporaries as shining like the sun, reflecting the divine light.

The event of Christ’s transfiguration, then, points to the divinity which is His by nature and which can be ours by grace when we maintain communion with Him.
 
OUR CHURCH YEAR may be said to alternate between feasts and fasts. There are two fast days in most weeks – Wednesdays and Fridays – as well as four fasting seasons (before the Nativity, Pascha, Ss. Peter and Paul and the Dormition of the Theotokos). Those who observe all these fasts are keeping approximately one-third of the year as days of fasting.

As we know, the Great Fast and the Great Week before Pascha are the most diligently observed fasts in the Church. After that, the most thoroughly kept fast is that before the Dormition, which in our Tradition lasts from August 1 through August 14. While there are no special services during the fast of Ss. Peter and Paul and only a few during the Nativity Fast, there are many liturgical observances during the Dormition Fast.

The first day is marked by the Procession of the Holy Cross. In the Byzantine era the Cross was carried solemnly through the streets of the city each day. We also serve the Lesser Blessing of Water on this day, to solemnize the start of this fast.

Like the Great Fast, the Dormition Fast has special services to set this time apart. In many Slavic Churches the daily offices (vespers, matins, etc.) are prayed in the Lenten format. In Greek Churches an intercession service, the Paraclisis to the Mother of God, is held nightly. In many churches there are actually two Paraclisis services (the Greater and the Lesser) held on alternate days.

This Fast also includes the Great Feast of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ which is kept from August 6 to 13. This period is so rich in opportunities for prayer and worship that it has traditionally been called our “Summer Pascha.” The Transfiguration celebrates Christ as the radiant Light of the Father’s glory while in the Dormition we see Christ, who trampled down Death by His death, take His Mother into the light of His resurrection. In many churches a service resembling the Matins of Holy Saturday is held in which the shroud of the Theotokos is carried in procession to recall her burial.

Asceticism in Our Church

At first not all these fasts were connected to a feast day, as they are today. Pope St Leo the Great in c. 450 explained these fasts as seasonal ascetical exercises: “The Church fasts are situated in the year in such a way that a special abstinence is prescribed for each season. Thus, for spring there is the spring fast – the Forty Days; for summer there is the summer fast… ; for autumn there is the autumn fast, in the seventh month; for winter there is the winter fast.” The Christian is called to practice at least part of the time the ascetical struggle which monastics observe every day.

Christians say the Lord’s Prayer often – perhaps several times each day. We repeat “Thy will be done” so regularly that its meaning may be blunted for us. We offer lip service to the idea of doing God’s will while spending most of our time satisfying our own will. In Christian asceticism we practice setting aside our own will so that we may be ever more open to God’s will, so often expressed in the needs of others.

The Fathers teach that, since the Fall, each person’s will has tended to serve its own ego exclusively. And so, being open to the will of another does not come easily. We have to develop new habits – habits of putting our needs and desires aside to serve God and others. It takes much practice before we can say, as Christ did to the Father “not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Our modern world makes self-denial even harder for us to practice. Even working class Americans have more luxury that the royals and aristocrats of previous ages. We expect central heating and air conditioning, a refrigerator and a dishwasher, not to mention the rapid travel and instant communication which other generations never imagined. We have the possibility of doing whatever we want – and a culture of consumerism which pushes us to indulge ourselves at every turn.

As a result we find our spiritual life smothered. We become the person in Christ’s parable “who hears the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22). The regular observance of Christian asceticism, as in the fasting seasons, offers us a remedy against the rampant egoism of our age.

During the fasts the committed Christian makes a concerted effort to reverse that direction by using the means which the Lord indicated in the Sermon on the Mount. We strive to put God first through increased prayer. We seek to serve our neighbor through more intense almsgiving (the “alms” being the sharing of our time as well as our resources). Trying to distance ourselves from self-indulgence through fasting reminds us how little the rest of our life is open to God and to others.

The “How” of Fasting

Many people approach fasting in term of abstinence from meat and dairy products. We eat only “the food of paradise,” the fruit of the earth that our first parents enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Some take this in a strictly chemical sense avoiding these foods while indulging themselves in meat and dairy substitutes. They fast from the substance of these foods but not the pleasure which the taste of them brings.

Some cultures, such as the Mediterranean, are so rich in fasting foods that it is possible to indulge oneself in delightful dishes without eating meat or dairy products. Here we must note that the Eastern Christian tradition of fasting tells us to avoid, not only meat and dairy, but eating any kind of food to excess.

Many Fathers say that there are three ways of eating. The first way, appropriate to non-fasting days, is to eat adequately. We should rise from the table not feeling hungry but not feeling overstuffed either. On fasting days, however, we should eat temperately, eating simply to sustain life and remaining a little hungry after eating. As St Gregory of Sinai said, the third kind of eating – eating more than one needs – “is the door to gluttony through which lust comes in.” How much food is “enough” will vary from person to person, but the Fathers’ principle is general enough to apply to us all.

Great Paraclitic Canon to the Theotokos By Emperor Theodore Ducas Lascaris

From the First Ode
Most holy Theotokos, save us. My humble soul is troubled by the rising storms of afflictions and woes; and clouds of misfortunes overcome me, bringing darkness to my heart, O Bride of God. But since you are the Mother of the Divine and Eternal Light, shine your gladsome light and illumine me.

Most holy Theotokos, save us. From countless trials and afflictions, from grievous foes and misfortunes of life have I been delivered by your mighty strength, O spotless and pure Maid. I extol and I magnify your immea-surable sympathy, and the loving care that you have for me.

Glory… Having my hope now in your mighty help, O Maid, I flee for refuge to you. Unto your shelter have I run wholeheartedly, O Lady, and I bow my knee and I mourn and cry, weeping. Do not disdain me, the wretched one, for you are the refuge of Christian folk.

Now… I shall not cease from making known most manifestly your great deeds, Maid of God; for if you were not present to intercede on my behalf and importune your Son and God, who would free and deliver me from such storms and turbulence, and surmount the perils that trouble me?
 
THE NINTH CHAPTER of St Matthew’s Gospel records several miracles in succession: the healing of a paralytic, of the ruler’s daughter, of a woman with a flow of blood, two blind men and a mute man. Only in the case of the two blind men do we find that the Lord Jesus “…sternly warned them, saying, ‘See that no one knows it’” (Matthew 9:30). Why did the Lord want these two to keep quiet while not demanding that the paralytic and the others do the same?

The key seems to be in the way the blind men approached Jesus. Unlike the others healed in this chapter, the blind men called out to Him, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” (v. 27) They accorded Him the messianic title “Son of David.” But was Jesus ready to be acclaimed as Messiah at this stage of His life?

What Kind of Messiah?

Many Jewish people at the time of Christ were looking for the Messiah, God’s “Anointed One”. Most looked for a royal warrior – another David – who would drive out the Romans from the Holy Land and restore the power of Israel in the region. This political Messiah would usher in a period of prosperity and power for the people of Israel.

Others in that period thought that the Messiah would restore the old priestly line and the temple rites used before the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. He would be a priestly Messiah, renewing the temple and restoring the original spirit of its liturgy.

The Lord Jesus had a very different view of His role. He was not to be an earthly king; He never urged political dissention or encouraged revolt against Roman rule. As He was to tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).

Neither did the Lord Jesus attempt to restore the usages of Solomon’s temple. He would fulfill the entire Old Covenant in Himself, becoming the new temple, the house of God on earth. It was with this in mind that the Lord told the Jews on driving away the money-changers, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said” (John 2:19-22).

The “Messianic Secret”

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, biblical commentators began using the term “Messianic secret” to describe Jesus’ reluctance to be described as Messiah. Had Jesus allowed Himself to be proclaimed “Messiah” while not fulfilling His hearers’ this-worldly expectations, He would have made it impossible for anyone to come to believe in Him. He would have given them the right word, but the wrong idea. He might also have come to the attention of the religious and political authorities before He had developed followers nurtured to any degree with His vision of God’s Kingdom.

Rather we see Jesus beginning a long process of choosing disciples and allowing them to discover for themselves that He was God’s Anointed. Jesus never claimed the title of Messiah for Himself and only hinted at it among those most committed to the Kingdom of God. Thus we are told: “…when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me’” (Matthew 11:2-6). Jesus leaves John and his followers to draw their own conclusions.

Some people perceived that Jesus was more than just a teacher. When two of John’s disciples went after Jesus, He turned and asked “What do you seek?” The tongue-tied Andrew could only say, “Where are you staying?” But after spending the day with Jesus, Andrew would tell his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41).

The Gospels record the disciples’ slow process of learning what the Lord Jesus’ mission actually was. At times they seemed no more attuned to Jesus’ teaching than were the crowds. When Jesus taught the importance of inner purity rather than the ritual purity of “clean” and “unclean” foods, the disciples found it hard to accept. “Are you thus without understanding also?” Jesus replied (Mark 7:18).

While the Gospels show how gradually the disciples grew to appreciate Jesus as the Messiah, they also note that others had no hesitation in proclaiming His true identity. The demons, as bodiless powers, understood from the start just who Jesus was. The spirit which Jesus expelled in Capernaum affirmed, “I know who You are – the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The Gerasene demoniacs protested, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, Son of God?” (Matthew 8:29). Jesus silenced them all and “…did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ” (Luke 4:41).

Neither Power Nor Glory

The disciples found it hard to think of God’s kingdom except in terms of power. When the Lord began preparing His disciples to see that the Messiah must suffer, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Matthew 16:22-23). Later in Jesus’ ministry – despite several previous warnings that the Messiah must suffer – the Lord reiterated His teaching (Luke 9:44-48): “‘Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men.'" But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.

Despite all this, when Samaritans refuse to allow Jesus entry into their village, the disciples’ reaction still shows their lack of understanding. They had yet to comprehend the ways of God’s kingdom. “And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them’” (Luke 9:54-56).

Even the experience of the Resurrection was not sufficient to turn the disciples from their pursuit of power. When they were all gathered in Jerusalem with the risen Christ, the Book of Acts relates, “… they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’” (Acts 1:6-8). It would only be by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that the first Church came to understand the real mission of the Messiah
 
THE SCRIPTURES ARE FILLED with writings of the prophets, particularly the fifteen books named after the most celebrated Hebrew prophets. Nevertheless, the one most revered as “the pillar of the prophets and their leader” (aposticha) seems to have written nothing, except a letter to King Jehoram of Israel, which was delivered sometime after the prophet had left this world (see 2 Chron 21:10-12).

Elijah (Elias) the Thisbite lived in the ninth century bc, in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Five hundred years had passed since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Several generations had come and gone since David and Solomon ruled in God’s name. Their kingdom had been divided in two and thereby weakened by rivalries among its leaders. The Israelites had grown lax in their conviction that there was but one God. Proximity to and intermarriage with neighboring Canaanites had made them more accepting of these other gods, such as Baal, favorite of the king’s wife, Jezebel. The dramatic story of Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal is recorded in 1 Kings 17-19.

Elijah – whose name means “Yahweh is my God” – personifies the most important characteristic of the Hebrew prophets. He is described repeatedly as consumed by zeal for the Lord, devoted to observing and restoring the worship of the one true God in a spiritually feeble age. The commitment of the Israelites to their God would wax and wane over succeeding generations and other prophets would rise up to do as Elijah had done in his day to exalt the name of the one true God.

Elijah the Wonderworker

The Scriptures recount several marvels in the life of Elijah for which he is especially revered. The most dramatic involves the drought brought about by the prophet who warned the king, “There will be no dew or rain except at my bidding” (1 Kings 17:1). The three-year long drought was ended at Elijah’s prayer, after the prophets of Baal had failed to do so, bringing about the conversion of the people to the Lord. “When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: ‘The Lord alone is God! The Lord alone is God!’” (1 Kings 18:39).

A series of wonders took place in Zarephath, a village near Sidon. There Elijah multiplied flour and oil for a poor widow so that “she and her household had food for a long time” (1 Kings 17:15). Elijah also restored the widow’s son to life after a fatal illness had claimed him by prostrating himself three times over the child and praying, “O Lord, let this child’s life return to his body” (1 Kings 17:21). St Ephrem the Syrian would see this triple prostration as an image of Christ’s triple descent (to becoming man, to death, and to Hades) in order to bring life to the human race.

Elijah the Ascetic

Monastics in the Christian East have long revered Elijah as a kind of proto-monk, a desertdweller for the Lord. During the drought God sent Elijah east of the Jordan to Wadi Cherith, a secluded ravine out of Ahab’s reach where “ravens brought him bread and meat morning and evening, and he drank from the river” (1 Kgs 17:6). Modern commentators have noted that the original Hebrew text has no vowels and that the same consonants in the word ravens can also be read as Arabs. Perhaps Bedouin tribesmen brought food to Elijah in his wilderness retreat as their descendants would assist hermits in later centuries.

Monastics also identified with Elijah’s forty-day fast on his journey to Mount Horeb (see 1 Kings 19:8). At the conclusion of this fast the Lord revealed His presence to Elijah in “a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). This they saw as an icon of the monastic life. The monk distances himself from the world through fasting and other ascetic practices to pursue communion with God (theosis).

Elijah and Mount Carmel

Several events in the life of the prophet Elijah are connected with Mount Carmel, a promontory on the Mediterranean near the city of Haifa. Christians, Druze, Jews and Muslims all revere this place for its connection with Elijah. Early in the spread of monasticism ascetics settled in the area, often living in caves on the outcropping.

When Western monks came to the Holy Land during the Crusades, they found Eastern hermits settled on Carmel and stayed among them. The Western monks adopted the Easterners’ way of life in the spirit of Elijah. When they returned to Europe, however, these “Carmelites” were obliged to adopt a communal way of life. While living as a hermit was considered the summit of monastic life in the East, it was seen as eccentric in the West.

Elijah’s Return

The last Old Testament prophetic book, Malachi, ends with these words of the Lord: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:23-24). Believing Jews saw Elijah’s return as a herald of the Messiah’s coming. To this day many Jews pray every Sabbath: “Elijah the prophet, Elijah the Thisbite – let him come quickly in our day with the Messiah, the son of David.”

Christians, of course, believe that the Messiah has come – it is Jesus. Jesus Himself identified John the Baptist as Elijah come again: “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). But Christians also believe that Elijah is “the herald of the Second Coming of Christ” (aposticha): the coming in power at the end of the age.

In 2 Kings 2:11 we read “And it came to pass while they [Elijah and Elisha] were walking, speaking together as they walked, behold, a chariot of fire came between the two of them and Elijah was swept up in a whirlwind…” The current Hebrew text, on which most modern translations are based, says that Elijah was swept up “into heaven.” The oldest existing text, however, the Greek Septuagint, says that he was swept up “as if into heaven.” This accords with the statement in the Gospel of John, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13).

Jewish commentaries describe heaven as the dwelling place of the angels. Christians, however, see heaven as the state of intimate communion with God: something made possible only after Christ. Thus the Church Fathers echoed the Septuagint reading of 2 Kings 2:11. St Athanasius would write, “Elijah did not ascend into heaven… Heaven was reserved for the Creator, the Author of mankind. Thus, with Enoch and Elijah, God gladdened the people with a promising hope by spreading before them an ‘airborne highway’ as though for horse-drawn vehicles” (Homily 2 on the Ascension).

As St. Gregory mused concerning Enoch and Elijah, “…even he [Elijah] did not go beyond the boundaries of the earth, but who knows what kind of transportation each of these ascensions was, which lifted them off the face of the earth, yet did not remove them from earth altogether” (Homily 1 on the Ascension).
 
ON THREE SUNDAYS EACH YEAR Byzantine Churches commemorate the fathers of the seven great councils of the first millennium. The first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) is remembered on the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension and the seventh (Nicaea II) on the Sunday nearest to October 11. The first six councils are recalled together on the Sunday following July 13, the feast of the fourth council (Chalcedon).

Many Christian churches in America were founded by a pastor who had a Bible, a microphone and a conviction that God wanted him to preach. So he gathered a few followers (often his own relatives), rented space and scheduled services. Americans see nothing unusual in this – after all freedom of speech and individual initiative are hallmarks of the American way of doing things. Why not in the Church?

The historic Churches (those of the first centuries) saw things differently. Many of these Churches had, in fact, been founded by one of the Apostles or their co-workers. They emphasized that the Church is the Body of Christ, an organic unity of Head and members. Like St Paul, these Churches saw unity as a chief mark of the Church and that an important part of their mission was “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

Still, the first centuries saw a number of teachers with competing doctrines arise in the Church. When they were not accepted by the leaders of a local Church, these teachers or their followers often formed their own rival groups. In some places these groups became more popular than the historic Church. Arians, for example, were prominent in Constantinople through much of the fourth century and in much of the West through the fifth.

The Importance of Councils

The council – whether local, regional or ecumenical – reflects a basic understanding of Church in the Christian East. The Church is the “communion in the Holy Spirit,” a community infused with the life-giving presence of the Spirit of God. Councils reflect this image of the Church as a community. The council is a true image of the Church when it is imbued with and dependent on the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Councils function on every level of Church life in the East. In the local Church, the eparchy, the primary council is the presbyterate which shares in the sacramental ministry of the bishop. Community councils involving deacons and the laity administer the temporal concerns of the eparchy and its parishes. Wider synods govern the life of patriarchates or metropolias. With the establishment of Christianity as the dominant faith in the Roman Empire, the ecumenical council was created.

The Problem of Chalcedon

Like other councils, the Council of Chalcedon dealt with both theological and political issues. The main theological issue was how to express the mystery of Christ’s incarnation in the face of the Monophysitism taught by Eutyches, an influential priest in Constantinople and a disciple of St Cyril of Alexandria. At its second session the Council adopted the concept “two natures in one Person,” employed by Pope St. Leo the Great in a letter to Flavian, the archbishop of Constantinople. When the letter was read to the bishops, they replied, “This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! Thus the Orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!” Leo’s expression has been used in the Greek and Latin Churches ever since. Unfortunately, this term was the opposite of that used by St Cyril of Alexandria a generation earlier, describing the “one nature of the incarnate Word.”

The theological problem was made even more complex by the political, however. The first Council at Nicaea has decreed that the foremost local Churches in the Empire would be Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. At Chalcedon the 500+ bishops present recalled that “the fathers [at an earlier council in Constantinople] rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of New Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honored by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equaling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her.” Thus Constantinople (New Rome) was accorded the second place in the hierarchy previously held by Alexandria.

The Pope of Rome, St Leo the Great, at first objected to this realignment as contrary to the canons of Nicaea I but he later relented and it became law in the empire. The Churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and – because it was the site of the Lord’s death and resurrection – Jerusalem would be the foremost local Churches in the empire. This group of five sees would be known as the pentarchy and their ranking is recognized in the Byzantine Churches to this day.

Thus not only was Roman theological terminology deemed more precise than Alexandrian, the Byzantine see was given precedence over that of Alexandria. The Alexandrian bishops at first delayed and finally refused to accept the decrees of this council and the Egyptian Church was divided into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian parts. Those who accepted Chalcedon were called “Melkites” or Royalists; those who did not called themselves “Copts,” i.e. true Egyptians.

The Copts would later be joined by the Armenians and many Syriac-speaking members of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Along with their daughter Churches in Ethiopia and India, the non-Chalcedonians are today known as the “Oriental Orthodox Churches.”

A New Chapter

These divisions were hardened in the thousand years of Islamic rule in the Middle East. Each Christian group – Melkite, Nestorian and non-Chalcedonian – was designated a separate millet (nation), with its own laws, insuring that the Christians remained disunited.

It was only with the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I that these Churches embarked on a new way of interacting. In 1988 the Coptic Orthodox and the Catholic Churches issued an Agreed Statement on the Incarnation. It said in part, “We believe that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos, is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.”

This was followed in 1990 by an Agreed Statement between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. “The [Chalcedonian] Orthodox agree that the Oriental Orthodox will continue to maintain their traditional cyrillian terminology of ‘one nature of the incarnate Logos,’ since they acknowledge the double consubstan-tiality of the Logos which Eutyches denied. The Orthodox also use this terminology. The Oriental Orthodox agree that the Orthodox are justified in their use of the two-natures formula, since they acknowledge that the distinction is ‘in thought alone’.”

Finally, over 1500 years after Chalcedon, the Latin, Greek and Oriental Churches have come to recognize their common faith in the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ, despite the differing terminology they use to express it.
 
BY 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” (Matthew 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 as an example to Jews who doubted Him and an 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
 
THE FAST OF THE APOSTLES, which we have just completed, leads up to two festivals in our Church: the Feast of the Prime Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul (June 29) and the Synaxis of the Apostles (June 30). On this second day we assemble for another gathering (synaxis) in honor of the Twelve, the companions of Christ who became the core group around whom the early Church was built. As St Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (A.H.3.1.1).

The New Testament records that the first Christians sought to replace Judas who had fallen way. St Peter outlined the qualities required for an apostle: “Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21, 22). To become one of the Twelve, then, one had to have witnessed the entire ministry of the Lord Jesus and His resurrection.

Two men were proposed who met these requirements, “Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias” (v23). Neither of these men are mentioned by name in any of the Gospels. They were presumably among the Seventy, the second rank of the Lord’s followers, whom our Church remembers with a synaxis on January 4.

Twelve or More?

Six of the Twelve are mentioned in all four Gospels as well as Acts: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Thomas. Several others are mentioned in some of these writings: Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite (the Zealot), Judas the son of James, Nathaniel, and Levi the tax collector.

In addition, St Paul is listed among the Twelve although his witness was to the risen Christ (see Acts 9:1-9).

Some commentators have said that some of the “extra” names are alternate names for the same people, such as the tax collector Matthew/Levi and Judas (Jude)/ Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus. Many Jews at the time had Greek or Latin names as well as their family names which were Hebrew or Aramaic in origin.

Others have said that Twelve was a symbolic number in the culture which produced the Scriptures, representing perfection or completion. Still others give the following explanation: the Twelve were in fact the witnesses to the Twelve Tribes of Israel while Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles.

What Is Apostolic Succession?

The ancient Churches sought to guarantee the apostolic origin and authority of their preaching by using the term Apostolic Succession. Basically, this meant that a particular Church or group of Christians taught what the Apostles taught and practiced what the Apostles did. In a similar way, the connection of a local Church with the Apostles was manifested by the connection of its bishop with the person of the Apostles.

At first this meant that the bishop knew and/or was taught by an apostle. As Irenaeus wrote about St Polycarp in the second century, “Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time” (A.H., 3:3:4).

In time, Apostolic Succession came to mean that a local Church had been founded by one of the original Apostles and there was an unbroken chain between that apostle and the current bishop. This materialistic approach focused less on the succession of the teaching than on the material succession of the hierarch. Thus, the Pope of Rome was considered to be the successor of Peter and Paul and the Pope of Alexandria to be the successor of St Mark the Evangelist.

A disciple of St Irenaeus, known to us as Pseudo-Hippolytus, summarized the tradition of his Church, as follows:

“Peter preached the Gospel in Pontus, and Galatia, and Cappadocia, and Betania, and Italy, and Asia, and was afterwards crucified by Nero in Rome with his head downward, as he had himself desired to suffer in that manner.

“Andrew preached to the Scythians and Thracians, and was crucified, suspended on an olive tree, at Patras, a town of Achaia; and there too he was buried.

“John, again, in Asia, was banished by  Domitian the king to the isle of Patmos, in which also he wrote his Gospel and saw the apocalyptic vision; and in Trajan's time he fell asleep at Ephesus, where his remains were sought for, but could not be found.

“James, his brother, when preaching in  Judea, was cut off with the sword by Herod the tetrarch, and was buried there.

“Philip preached in Phrygia, and was crucified in Hierapolis with his head downward in the time of Domitian, and was buried there.

“Bartholomew, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of Greater Armenia.

“And Matthew wrote the Gospel in the Hebrew tongue, and published it at Jerusalem, and fell asleep at Hierees, a town of Parthia.

“Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians, and was thrust through in the four members of his body with a pine spears at Calamene, a city of India, and was buried there.

“James the son of Alphaeus, when preaching in Jerusalem. was stoned to death by the Jews, and was buried there beside the temple.

“Jude, who is also called Lebbaeus, preached. to the people of Edessa, and to all Mesopotamia, and fell asleep at Berytus, and was buried there.

“Simon the Zealot, the son of Clopas, who is also called Jude, became Bishop of Jerusalem after James the Just, and fell asleep at the age of 120 years and was buried there.

“Matthias, who was one of the Seventy, was numbered along with the eleven Apostles, and preached in Jerusalem, and fell asleep and was buried there.

“And Paul entered into the Apostleship a year after the assumption of Christ; and beginning at Jerusalem, he advanced as far as Illyricum, and Italy, and Spain, preaching the Gospel for five-and-thirty years. And in the time of Nero he was beheaded at Rome, and was buried there.”

In fact, every bishop in the world, in union with the other bishops, is a successor of all the Apostles whether his see existed in the first century or not.
 
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 Matthew 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” (Luke 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 Archangel 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).

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” (Luke 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.
 
OVER THE YEARS words often change their meaning due to the influence of other languages or new developments in the culture. For centuries the English word “meat” referred to all kinds of solid food. Beginning in the fourteenth century it began to take on the modern meaning of animal flesh used for food. Thus, in the King James translation of the Bible, Ps 103:27 reads “These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.” In the contemporary revision, the New King James version, this verse is translated, “These all wait for You that You may give them their food in due season.”

Another word whose meaning has changed over the centuries is the word saint, The form of our English word saint comes from the Latin sanctus, or holy one but originally did not refer just to the dead. In the Old Testament this word refers to the Jews, God’s chosen people. Thus Psalms 148:14 reads, “He will raise up a horn for His people, a praise for all His saints— for the people of Israel, who are close to Him.” A person was “a saint” because he or she had a special relationship with God.

In the New Testament the saints are those of every nation who have been joined to Christ in baptism. Thus, when St Paul writes to the Romans he passes on his greetings to “Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them” (Romans 16:15). As we often sing in our Liturgy, “all of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The deepest relationship to God we have is to have put on Christ in this mystery.

Venerating the Martyrs

Our tradition of venerating the saints began in the early Church as Christians gave up their lives rather than deny Christ. The martyrs were the first “dead believers” to be counted as saints in the modern meaning of the term. In many places it became customary to serve the Eucharistic Liturgy on the anniversary of a martyr’s death, often at his or her place of burial.

Writing in c. 400 ad, St Augustine explained this practice as he knew it: “We, the Christian community, assemble to celebrate the memory of the martyrs with ritual solemnity because we want to be inspired to follow their example, share in their merits, and be helped by their prayers. Yet we erect no altars to any of the martyrs, even in the martyrs’ burial chapels themselves.

“No bishop, when celebrating at an altar where these holy bodies rest, has ever said, ‘Peter, we make this offering to you’, or ‘Paul, to you’, or “Cyprian, to you”. No, what is offered is offered always to God, who crowned the martyrs. We offer in the chapels where the bodies of those he crowned rest, so the memories that cling to those places will stir our emotions and encourage us to greater love both for the martyrs whom we can imitate and for God whose grace enables us to do so…

“But the veneration strictly called ‘worship’, or latria, that is, the special homage belonging only to the divinity, is something we give and teach others to give to God alone.” (Treatise against Faustus).

Why did St Augustine have to explain this practice? Perhaps because some of his readers – even among the Christians themselves – were confusing the veneration of the martyrs with the pagan’s worship of their gods and goddesses.

Graffiti on the walls of the Roman catacombs are evidence that early Christians asked the martyrs buried there to pray for them. It was not long before Christians who has suffered punishment but had survived were honored as “confessors” who had confessed their faith by the sufferings they endured.

Holy Ascetics

When the martyrdom of Christians ceased in the Roman Empire, asceticism became the way believers found to offer their lives to God. By spending their lives in continual prayer and self-denial, ascetics sought to live as if they were dead to the world. The Church came to see them as “angels in the flesh” and make pilgrimages to their cells in order to obtain their blessings.

The veneration which believers had for their local ascetics continued after the ascetic’s death. Their cells and the places where they were buried (if known) became shrines in which these holy men and women would be honored and their intercession sought.

Since hierarchs were often taken from the ranks of the ascetics, it became the practice to honor leading bishops (the “Church Fathers”) as saints. Basil the Great, his companion Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, were such hierarchs.

Perhaps the first Christians living in the world to be honored as saints were the “equals to the apostles” known for spreading the Gospel, beginning with the witnesses to the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene and her companions. Later, healers and wonder-workers during life or after death would be so honored as well.

Shrines and Relics

In the first millennium, veneration of the saints centered on their tombs or the places in which they lived. People came from elsewhere on pilgrimage to honor them. As the Church spread, people in other areas wanted to venerate these saints “in person” by acquiring their relics or belongings for veneration. When the city of Constantinople was founded in the fourth century, its bishops obtained relics of as many saints as they could. They were frustrated in their attempt to get a relic of the Theotokos (she had been assumed into heaven), and had to content themselves with her garments.

Items belonging to or touched by a saint were the oldest form of relics in the Church, being mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. When St Paul was ministering in Ephesus, the Scriptures relate, “Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:11, 12). Venerating such items became another way of experiencing God’s power at work in the saints.

Canonizing Saints

As we have seen, recognizing a believer as a saint was initially a local affair. Those who had seen how a martyr or confessor had suffered, or how an ascetic had lived, acclaimed them as sanctified and venerated them in the place where they had lived or died, generally under the supervision of the local bishop. For a saint to be venerated by the wider Church, the blessing of the local synod of bishops with the Metropolitan or Patriarch was required. This procedure is still followed by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Beginning in the eleventh century, the Western Church required papal approval for a saint to be recognized and commended to the faithful for veneration throughout the world.

Let us continuously chant unto our God, for He has richly poured forth grace. As Joel preached beforehand, “I will pour out,” he writes, “from the Spirit upon my sons and daughters.” For this strength guided the champions in word and power and silenced the mouths of those against You, O Most Merciful One.

They were not swayed by vain wealth, for they loved Your Kingdom. They neglected things of this life and kept in memory the incorruptible. They went forth on the road, preferring to die rather than to live, that they might pass on to Your life and be fed with Your good things, O Most Merciful One.
From a Kondakion by St Romanos

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