Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN MATTHEW'S GOSPEL three important moments take place on a mountain: what we call the “Sermon on the Mount”(Matthew 5-7), the Holy Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9), and the eschatological discourse in which the Lord speaks to the signs of His coming (Matthew 24:3 and following). Each of them evokes the memory of an Old Testament event in order to proclaim the person and message of Christ.

In both the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration we see Christ depicted in terms recalling Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai. There are several points of comparison and/or contrast which have been identified since the first Christian centuries: Location – Both events take place “on a mountain;” however there are no mountains in Galilee on the scale of Mount Sinai. The place traditionally identified as the site of the Sermon on the Mount is a hillside on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum. It overlooks a plain which can accommodate thousands. A Byzantine church was erected there in the fourth century. In the 1930s Italian dictator Mussolini sponsored the building of the Church of the Beatitudes on this site to commemorate the Sermon on the Mount.

The place of the Transfiguration is not identified in the Gospels. Jesus took Peter, James and John, we are told, and “led them up on a high mountain” (Mattthew 17:1). In the third century Origen identified the site of the Transfiguration as Mount Tabor, west of the Sea of Galilee, a monadnock, or rocky hill which rises dramatically from the plain which surrounds it. It was a pilgrimage site by the fourth century with several churches at its peak. Today there are two: one Greek Orthodox, the other Roman Catholic, each with a monastery attached. Identifying these Galilee sites as “mountains” emphasizes the connections with the experience of Moses.

The Cloud and Glory – In the days of Moses, “the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days” (Exodus 24:16). When the Father spoke at Jesus’ Transfiguration, the “high mountain” was overshadowed by “a bright cloud” (Matthew 17:5). On Sinai “when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off” (Exodus 20:18). On Tabor the disciples “were fearful as they entered the cloud” (Luke 9:34), sign of their greater intimacy with the divine presence. On Sinai Moses asked to see the Lord’s glory, but the Lord replied: “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). At the Transfiguration, on the other hand, Jesus’ face “shone like the sun and His clothes became white as the light” (Matthew 17). What was concealed in the experience of Moses becomes manifested to the disciples on Mount Tabor. As John’s Gospel has it, “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The Giving of the Law – On Sinai Moses receives the Law from God, which he then transmits to the people. The heart of the Law is, of course, the Ten Commandments but there is much more besides: ritual precepts, commercial laws, jurisprudence, reparations, money-lending, etc. Chapters 21 through 23 of the Book of Exodus are devoted to these laws.

On the mount near Capernaum the Lord Jesus also delivers a Law, the heart of which is expressed in the nine Beatitudes. While most of the Commandments are expressed negatively (“Thou shalt not…”), the Beatitudes are expressed positively as the path to perfection (“Blessed are the…”).

As the Ten Commandments were but a part of the Law given to Moses on Sinai, there is more to the Law of Christ than the Beatitudes. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ continues with an expansion of the Ten Commandments (Matthew 5:28-47). Not only external actions (e.g. murder, adultery) but interior passions (e.g. anger, lust) deviate from the Law. Love must replace the desire for vengeance and that love must extend to all, even our enemies. The result is that “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), which has been described as the summary of the Beatitudes.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Sermon on the Mount concerns the way Christ proclaims His Law. On Sinai God gives His Laws to Moses with instructions to set them before the people of Israel. In the Sermon on the Mount it is Christ Himself who teaches in His own name, placing Himself as the equal of Him who gave the Law to Moses: “You have heard that it was said to those of old... But I say to you…” (Matthew 5: 21, 27, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44).

The Lord Jesus does not negate the Ten Commandments; rather, He gives them greater depth. As He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). He completes or fulfills the Law by addressing our inner motivations as well as our actions. If our aim as believers is to know God, then we must know Him from within, by assuming His attitudes and adopting His ways for living. As He is perfect, so ought we to be.

Is This for Everyone?

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is addressed to “the multitudes.” Yet in the medieval West a common opinion was that the Beatitudes were “intended for those who strive for perfection; they are based on poverty, chastity and obedience and are therefore primarily for those who join the religious life.” Ordinary Christians were counseled that salvation was assured for them if they devoutly observe the precepts of the Church. This opinion was rigorously denounced by Luther and others during the Protestant Reformation as undoing the Sermon on the Mount, but it is still frequently found even in contemporary Roman Catholic writings.

The East, on the other hand, has always seen the spirit of the Beatitudes as basic to the Christian life for both monastics and lay people. The ways in which monastics and laypeople will embrace humility, poverty of spirit, compassion, or the pursuit of righteousness will differ, but their essential importance is the same for both. The Beatitudes point out the path to the King-dom of God, the goal for all Christians.

At two significant moments in our liturgical life the central place held by the Beatitudes in our spirituality is reflected. In many churches, particularly in the Slavic tradition, the Beatitudes are sung at the Divine Liturgy during the Little Entrance. As the Gospel Book is carried to the center of the church, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount is sung as the summary of the entire Gospel message of Christ.

The second liturgical moment pointing to the universal importance of the Beatitudes in our spirituality takes place at the burial service. The Beatitudes climax the funeral hymns at the funerals of non-monastics (laypersons and priests). They are sung with hymns such as the following inserted between the verses: “May Christ grant rest to you in the city of the living. May He open to you the gates of paradise and make you a citizen of His kingdom. May He remit your sins, for He loves you greatly.” Communion with Christ, is the ultimate goal of our life as Christians, whether monastics, clergy or laity. Living the Beatitudes is the universal means to that goal.

The third mountain in Matthew is the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem (Matthew 24). The Lord Jesus speaks there of the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the age and His return. This recalls Zechariah’s prophecy that “The Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4) and all things shall be renewed.
 
WHEN CHRIST SENT THE HOLY SPIRIT upon the Apostles and their followers on the first Pentecost, He gave them the divine help to fulfill the command He had given them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19). As we read in the Gospels, they did just that: “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20).

With the end of our Pentecost feast, our attention moves to the Apostles and to their work of spreading the message of Christ’s resurrection. Observing the Fast of the Apostles gives us the chance to recall the hardships they endured in fulfilling their mission and to unite by prayer and fasting with those continuing their apostolic mission today.

The first seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us of their activities in Jerusalem. Beginning in chapter eight we see them and their companions taking the Gospel to Samaria, to the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza, to Lydda and Joppa (chapter 9), to Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital (chapter 10) and “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (Acts 11:19). When Saul set out on his pursuit of Christians, there were already believers in Damascus (Acts 9). After his conversion, Saul – now Paul – would bring the Gospel through Asia Minor and into Europe. The Acts of the Apostles ends with St Paul being brought to Rome for trial before Caesar. He and St Peter would die there as martyrs in the fulfillment of Christ’s command.

Apart from James, the brother of John, whose death is mentioned in Acts 12:2, none of the other Apostles chosen by Christ is mentioned in Acts. Some of the Twelve never seem to have left the Holy Land, remaining together as a kind of apostolic college; others are said to have gone far in spreading the Gospel. The many lives of these Apostles written over the centuries sought to fill in the details.

Perhaps the most travelled of the Twelve apart from Peter was St Thomas, who was said to have gone eastward through the Persian Empire to India’s Malabar Coast, according to the Acts of Thomas (c. 200-225 ad). The Syriac Churches of that region, known as St Thomas Christians, claim descent from this Apostle’s converts among the Jewish merchants who had settled there.

The Apostolic Tradition

While the Apostles lived, they were clearly the ultimate authority among the followers of Christ. They had not only seen the Lord, they were the first chosen by Him as His ambassadors to the world. But when there was no one left who had actually witnessed the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, to whom or to what did the early Christians look for surety in their faith?

Second-generation Christians were counseled to remember what the eye-witnesses (the Apostles) had passed on to them. Thus Timothy, the disciple of St Paul, was advised by his mentor, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). But where would the next generation of Christians find the teachings of the Apostles? First and second century believers looked to three sources for these teachings: the Apostolic Writings, the Apostolic Churches, and the Apostolic Succession of Church leaders who maintained the faith of the Apostles.

The Apostolic Writings – Over the next few years the core of this Apostolic Tradition would be written down and circulated among the different local Churches. Some books would be recognized as reflecting that tradition by individual Churches or regional synods. They would form what we call the New Testament. Other books would not be included in the canon (the comprehensive list of the accepted books). Some were rejected because the Jesus they portrayed was not the Jesus of the Apostolic Tradition. Today they are called apocryphal gospels and acts. It was only at the end of the third century that the final list of New Testament books would be accepted by all the local Churches then in existence.

Other early writings were respected by the Churches and were considered canonical in some Churches, but not in all. One of the oldest is an epistle from “The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth” (1:1), traditionally called “First Clement,” after St Clement I, who was Bishop of Rome from ad 88 to 99, when this work as written. I Clement was not listed in the final canon.

Other early works which were considered Scripture for a time are the first century Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Protoevangelium of James, dated to the early second-century.

The Apostolic Churches – In the mid-first century, Christians looked for leadership to the Church of Jerusalem, which later believers would call “the Mother of all the Churches.” In Acts 15:1-29 we read how St Paul’s controversial mission to the Gentiles was discussed by the Apostles and elders of that Church. When the Romans devastated Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in ad 70, the city’s Christians were scattered. The Churches in regional centers which boasted connections to the Apostles, such as Alexandria in Egypt, the “See of St Mark,” and Antioch in Syria, “where the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:26), became prominent. By the end of the first century the Church of Rome, where both Peter and Paul had ended their days, had come to be considered “the Church which presides in love” as St Ignatius of Antioch called it in his Epistle to the Romans.

The Apostolic Succession – First century Christians also noted how the Apostles, “… preaching through countries and cities, appointed the first-fruits [of their labors] to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe, having first proved them by the Spirit… and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (1 Clement 42, 44). Thus the body of bishops came to be known as the “successors of the Apostles,” and the guarantors of apostolic faith in the Churches throughout the world.

From the Apostolic Tradition

THERE are two ways, one of life and one of death, but the difference between the two ways is great. This is the way of life: First, you shall love God who made you; secondly, yοu shall love your neighbor as yourself; and whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another. Now, this is the meaning of the words, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you”…

Now the second commandment of the Teaching is: You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not corrupt boys, you shall not fornicate, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic or use spells, you shall not kill a child by abortion, or destroy that which has been begotten. You shall not desire whatever belongs to your neighbor, you shall not swear falsely or bear false witness. You shall not speak evil (of anyone), or bear malice towards them… You shall hate no one, but some you shall reprove, and for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.”
The Didache, 1, 2
 
WHEN WE HEAR THE WORDS confess or confession we naturally think it refers to the confession of sins in the Mystery of Repentance. In this Mystery, to confess one’s sins means to publicly admit them in the presence of a priest. The term confession has a similar meaning outside this Mystery. It means to acknowledge something publicly, to declare or profess outright what we have in our heart. It does not refer only to sins or faults, but to any aspect of our inner life we choose to reveal publicly.

It is in this sense that we make a public confession at the Divine Liturgy when we say: “I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest.” We profess or confess in a public way our inner conviction that Christ is our incarnate Savior. We may believe something without stating it publicly, but when we confess something before others there can be no doubt where we stand.

It is in this sense that the Lord Jesus uses the word in the Gospel passage heard today at the Liturgy: “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10: 32, 33). He promises to acknowledge as His followers those who publicly confess their faith in Him before the world and to reject those who claim to follow Him but keep their faith a secret, perhaps under pressure.

The Lord’s promise in the Gospel is part of a passage in which He warns that His disciples will be hounded to their deaths, even by their friends and relatives. He applies to their time a warning of the Prophet Micah during the exile of the Jews in Babylon “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (v.36).

Confessing Under Fire

The first disciple in whom this prophecy was fulfilled was the protomartyr, St Stephen, who was slain after professing his faith before the Jewish leadership (see Acts, chapters 6 and 7). There, and in many places since then, to confess one’s faith in Christ before hostile civil or religious authorities was like confessing to a crime, often at the instigation of relatives, or acquaintances. The result was generally death.

It sometimes happened that people condemned for their faith suffered, but did not die of their wounds. The fourth-century Church historian Eusebius described some who survived a persecution in Lyons in ad 177 in this way: “They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ … that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply … And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors’” (Ecclesiastical History 5, 1).

The term Confessors, then came to be used for those who suffered for their faith but did not die as a result. Thus we speak of saints like Maximos the Confessor, who was tortured during the sixth-century contro-versies over the nature of Christ. He was exiled for his faith, but was not directly martyred. These confessors joined the martyrs as being the first to be venerated as saints by the Church in the place where they suffered.

Many local figures – ascetics and hierarchs as well as sufferers – would later be recognized as saints by their Churches and assigned feast days on their calendars. Some of them would be added to the calendars of other Churches as well. On the Sunday of All Saints we honor them as well as all those glorified by God whether recognized by any Church on earth or not.

The Saints and Life after Death

Throughout our country we find memorials to those who have come before us – plaques, statues, even parks and buildings dedicated to their memory. These memorials recall their lives and achievements; in other words, they point to the past. The icons of the saints which we honor in our churches and homes do the same and more. They do not simply point to the past – they affirm that the saints are alive in Christ today and with us as we live and worship every day of our lives. By lighting candles or offering flowers and incense before their icons we affirm our faith that the saints are truly with us, witnessing to the reality of eternal life in which they share through Christ’s resurrection.

Many Protestants object to the veneration of the saints in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Sometimes they have good reason, as when people pay more attention to a favorite saint than to the Lord Himself. They seem to revere the saints as “little gods” like those of pagan religions, without any reference to Christ, the Source of our holiness. As we say in the Liturgy, “One is holy, one is Lord – Jesus Christ…”

Other objections are not so good, denying some basic aspects of the historic Churches’ faith. Some people, for example, believe that the dead are asleep (unconscious) until the general resurrection on the last day and that they cannot hear us asking for their prayers. The Scriptures are generally silent about what happens after death, but Catholics and Orthodox espouse St Paul’s faith that the faithful who die are with the Lord. He did not fear dying because it would bring him to Christ, as he wrote to the Corinthians, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He told the Philippians that he wanted to remain with them, but he also wanted to be with the Lord: “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1: 23, 24). St Paul clearly believed that after death he would be with his Lord.

Others believe we should not ask the saints to pray for us – we should pray to Christ alone. At the same time these Christians often ask people – their pastors, prayer group members, TV evangelists – to pray for them. The Scripture describes the worship of heaven as including the prayer of the saints: “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (Revelation 8:3, 4).

Praying for the Saints

The saints now share in the glory of God. This does not mean that they are perfected or complete. This is why the Church not only prays to the saints, it also prays for them. In every Divine Liturgy, after the holy gifts have been sanctified, the priest prays; “Again, we offer You this spiritual worship for those resting in the faith, the forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous soul who has run the course in the faith, especially for our all-holy, spotless, most highly-blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary...” The sanctifying energy of God is ever at work and no one, not even the saints, have had their fill of the love of God. They all are growing in that love, and so the Liturgy can be offered for them as well as with them in the one communion of saints before the throne of God.
 
IN AGRICULTURAL SOCIETIES the end of the harvest means that the workers could relax, celebrate and give thanks. In Judaism this is marked by the Feast of Sukkoth (tents or tabernacles), which celebrates God as the One who provided for the Israelites in the wilderness and who continues to provide for His people to this day. While the Temple stood, Sukkoth was one of the “pilgrimage feasts,” occasions when Jews were expected to visit Jerusalem and make their offerings at the temple.

One of the ceremonies performed daily in the temple during this feast celebrated how God provided water in the desert for the Israelites fleeing Egypt. A golden decanter of spring water would be brought in a joyful procession from the Pool of Siloam to the temple and poured by a priest into a precious vessel which drained over the altar.

This ceremony was accompanied by prayers for a fertile year ahead. People also prayed for the coming of the Messiah for, as Isaiah prophesied, on that day “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). What a shock it must have been to the fervent Jews taking part in this ceremony to see Jesus call attention to Himself: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying,‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink…’” (John 12:37). As God had provided water in the wilderness, so Jesus would quench the thirst of those seeking salvation. As we sing on the Feast of Mid-Pentecost, “As a river of divine glory, the Lord gives streams of goodness to all and calls out: ‘All who thirst, come to Me and drink deeply, because I am the Fountain of compassion and the Ocean of mercy’” (Sticheron at Vespers). 2Rivers of Living Water Jesus’ next words would have been even more startling: “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (v. 38). Water was never abundant in the Middle East; nevertheless, both Jews and Christians emphasized that for religious purposes fresh, running (“living”) water was the most fitting image, as standing water was not life-giving. Thus the first-century book of Church order, the Didache, instructs: “After the foregoing instructions, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. If you have no living water, then baptize in other water, and if you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Didache 7:1).

In our era people used to Biblical citations assume that the Lord Jesus is quoting some Scripture verse in v. 38 cited above. But, as St John Chrysostom and other Fathers pointed out, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” is not a verse from any Biblical book. Rather the Lord is referring to a whole range of Scriptures which make numerous references to the Messiah as the source of the life-giving Spirit.

During the exodus from Egypt Moses brought forth water from a rock at God’s command, an event remembered and celebrated in both the Torah and the Psalms. St Paul would say that this was the Word of God, even before His incarnation, who was caring for his people: “For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

The prophets Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel and Zechariah all looked forward to the Messianic age when rivers of living water would spring forth from the temple or from the Holy City to water all creation. Isaiah in particular connected this flowing of water with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring” (Isaiah 44:2, 3). “You shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

The water that quenches the thirst of the people is the Holy Spirit whom the Lord Jesus, the source of the Holy Spirit, sends into the world. This is what Christ says to the people in the temple, just as He told the Samaritan woman whom He met by the well at Sychar: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:13, 14).

Are You Thirsty?

There is one final element in Christ’s teaching here on which we must reflect. Water quenches the thirst of those who are thirsty; those who are not thirsty will not appreciate it. Similarly the Living Water which is the Holy Spirit is for those who are thirsty (see John 7:37) and are tired from trying to quench their thirst with brackish water (see John 4:13-15). When the Holy Spirit came upon the first followers of the risen Christ at Pentecost, they were refreshed because they were thirsty: they had been waiting for the Messiah and had found Him in Jesus. Those who were not thirsty were untouched by the Spirit or, rather, the Spirit convicted them for their lack of faith in the present work of God.

Taking the Spirit for Granted

There is always a temptation for us to celebrate Pascha and Pentecost with all the richness our Tradition has to offer and then to go back to our daily routines, assuming that we are living the life of the Spirit to the full. Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov described it this way: “We have become mere spectators or hearers removed from the context, the life and the presences evoked by the liturgical texts. In one of his studies on the Liturgy, Fr. Zacharias mentions the song that ends the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, ‘We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit,’ and he asks: ‘Have we really seen anything? Did we really receive the Holy Spirit? Or have we fallen into the habit of acting like the characters in Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes by pretending to see what we do not see?’” (Women and the Salvation of the World, p. 15)

To help us stir up our awareness of the Spirit who dwells in us, the Church takes us from the festal season to a time of fasting, the Fast of the Apostles. All the Fasts are meant to shift our focus from the distractions of everyday life to the relationship we have with God. Shifting our attention from feasting to fasting, the Church is asking us the same question which St Paul asked the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) Through the practices of the Fast (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) – which are the basic practices of the Christian life – we strive to recover our awareness that we have indeed received the heavenly Spirit. As we grow in our Christian life, the promise Christ made to the Samaritan woman will become personally true for us: that the Holy Spirit whom we have received will become in us “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4: 14).

He stood in the center of the temple, the infinite God – God in essence, yet become incarnate for our sakes, taking upon Himself the limits of the flesh – and offered to everyone the living water of His word, saying: Come, and purify your hearts and quench the heat of your passions. Let no one be deprived of drink. The water that I give is the grace of God by which you partake of the better and eternal life. Whoever drinks of it will share with Me, the Creator, the kingdom and the glory of God.
 
THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, which our Church reads publicly from Pascha to Pentecost, climaxes with the trial of St Paul and his journey to Rome where he would ultimately be beheaded. The story of his conflict with the Jewish leadership, his arrest and the various hearings which followed is told in Acts, chapters 20 to 28.

After what has come to be known as his third missionary journey, St Paul resolved to return to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feast of Pentecost. Paul traveled south and landed at the port of Caesarea, the Roman military center in the region. There “a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11, 12). Despite this and other warnings Paul was determined to return to Jerusalem.

St Paul’s reputation was well known among the Jews of Jerusalem. His doctrine that Gentiles who became Christians did not need to be circumcised was particularly offensive in their circles. To devalue circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws was “to forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21) and undermine the very basis of Judaism.

Knowing the animosity of the Jewish leaders, who considered Paul an apostate, St James and the elders of the Christian community in Jerusalem devised a plan to keep Paul safe. They urged him to “…do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the Law” (Acts 21:23, 24).

St Paul complied, but “Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the Law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple” (Acts 21:27-29). St Paul was seized and had to be rescued by the commander of the local garrison.

What followed was a series of hearings which would determine St Paul’s fate, fulfilling Agabus’ prophecy concerning him. As Christ had been tried before the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders), King Herod (the Jewish ruler) and Pontius Pilate (the Roman Procurator), Paul’s trial followed a similar route. He first was tried by the high priests and their council, the Sanhedrin, as recorded in Acts 22. Paul began his defense before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem by tracing his personal religious history: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished” (Acts 22:3-5).

Paul was then taken to the current Roman governor, Antonius Felix by the Jewish authorities to validate their judgment against Him. Once it was clear that Paul was a Roman citizen, however, he was taken from the Sanhedrin by the Romans. He was not subject to their jurisdiction.

Citizenship in the Roman Empire

While full Roman citizenship was restricted to those born in Rome and its environs, people from associated states were granted a form of Roman citizenship, without some of the rights which full citizens enjoyed. Judaea, however was a conquered province with none of those rights. Although a Jew, St Paul had been born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, in Asia Minor, and the citizens of Tarsus were eligible for Roman citizenship.

When St Paul revealed that he was a Roman citizen, the Sanhedrin knew that they could not touch him. It was illegal to whip or torture Roman citizens who could only be put to death for treason, and never by crucifixion, a punishment for slaves and subject peoples. As a result, some Jewish activists, with the blessing of the chief priests and elders, planned to kidnap Paul and kill him. When the Roman military commander in Jerusalem learned of the plot, “he called for two centurions, saying, ‘Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor’” (Acts 23:23, 24). Acts continues describing St Paul’s time in custody under Felix and his journey to Rome to be tried before Caesar. During the journey the ship carrying St Paul is shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. After three months on that island, St Paul continues his journey to Rome, meeting with Christians along the way, showing how the Church had spread into Europe even before the death of the last apostles. Acts ends with Paul in Rome, telling us that “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30, 31).

A New Identity in the Making

In addressing Felix St Paul used the original term to describe the Christian faith among its Jewish adherents. This term, “the Way” suggests that the earliest Jewish-Christians did not consider that they had abandoned Judaism. Rather, their Way was simply a recognition that the prophecies in the Torah, the Psalms, and the other Scriptures had been fulfilled. They saw themselves as observing a “completed Judaism,” to use a modern term, not a different religion.

Contemporary authors often point out that “the Way” suggests a way of life, not a new set of beliefs. The followers of “the Way” had the same Scriptures as other Jews, worshipped in the temple and celebrated God’s promise of a Messiah. The difference between them was that the followers of Jesus believed that He was the Messiah. The uniqueness of their Way was that Greeks as well as Jews were welcome in their company if they accepted Jesus as Lord. As we read in Acts 11, it was among the “Greeks,” the Gentiles in Antioch, that the term “Christian” was first used. Many commentators hold that Christian was originally a term of derision. It contrasted these followers of Jesus with the Caesarians, who patriotically worshipped the Roman emperor. It was certainly used in that way by King Agrippa, who told St Paul sarcastically, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian!” (Acts 26:28)

The third ancient term for believers in Acts is found in chapter 24. Paul is brought before the Roman procurator and is accused by the Jewish spokesman Catullus of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Paul and his company were called Nazarenes because they followed Jesus of Nazareth. While “Christian” became the common name for Christ’s followers in the Greco-Roman world, the Aramaic/Semitic world generally preferred the term Nazarene (Nasrani). Thus the members of the Syriac Churches of India are called Mar Thoma Nasrani, because they trace their identity to the mission of St Thomas the Apostle who brought the Gospel to their nation
 
IN EVERY AGE there are people who have made dramatic turn-arounds in their life, going from one religion – or no religion – to another. These conversions often lead to a person making a significant contribution to the religious life of their age. One convert who has touched every successive age is St Paul the Apostle.

The story of St Paul’s conversion is described three times in the New Testament – twice in the Acts of the Apostles and once in St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. The story is basically the same, although there are a few variations we can note. The basic story, told largely in his own words, is as follows:

Paul’s Background – When he was attacked by Jews in Jerusalem and accused of defiling the temple Paul began his defense by speaking of his upbringing: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ Law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). He described his religiousity in his Epistle to the Philippians. He tells how he was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the Law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the Church; concerning the righteousness which is of the Law, blameless” ( Philippians 3:5, 6). At this time Paul was still known as Saul of Tarsus. The name Paul was given to him upon his conversion. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel (+ad 52) was an important member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. He is described in the New Testament as “a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law held in respect by all the people” (Acts 5:34) and a voice of moderation in their council. When the Sanhedrin was considering how to kill Peter and the other apostles, Gamaliel calmed them, saying “…if this plan or this work [preaching Christ] is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God” (Acts 5:38, 39).

We do not know why Saul did not adopt Gamaliel’s wait-and-see approach to the followers of Jesus, but he describes his own attitude to them like this: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren…” (Acts 22:4, 5).

We may have a clue to Saul’s thinking in what he wrote to believers in Galatia, St Paul described his religious convictions this way: “And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). He had been, after all, a participant in the stoning of the protomartyr, St Stephen. The Commission to Damascus – There was a large Jewish community – some say it numbered 10,000 – in Damascus in the first century ad. This community, which traced its origin to the time of King David, some 1000 years earlier, was so prominent that it was ruled by its own ethnarch in Roman times. Some 130 miles from Jerusalem, Damascus was one of the first destinations to which Jewish believers in Jesus brought their message. Their impact on the Jews of Damascus was so great that news of it reached Jerusalem. Saul “went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1).

What happened on Saul’s journey to Syria is well known. Years later Paul described it for his accusers in Jerusalem with these words: “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’

“And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus” (Acts 22:6-21).

Many English-speaking commentators have pointed out an apparent contradiction between the two stories of this event in Acts. In chapter 9 we are told that “the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one” (Acts 9:7). Paul, however, says that “those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me” (Acts 22:9).

The word in chapter 22 translated as hear may also be translated as understand. In other Scriptural passages it is rendered in just that way. So this verse may mean that Saul’s companions heard a sound but did not understand it as speech. It may also mean that they heard speaking but may not have understood the words. Saul’s Baptism – Saul was led into the city by the hand, “And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). Then, we are told, the following took place: “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.’

“Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’


And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.” Paul Preaches Christ – As a result of Saul’s experience on the road, “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” (Acts 9:19-25).

In 1885 the Melkite Patriarch Gregory II purchased a dilapidated mosque in the old city wall of Damascus. A former church, it had been long revered as the site of St Paul’s escape. It is now a church again.
 
WHEN THE LORD JESUS was passing through the region of Tyre and Sidon a Canaanite woman begged Him to heal her daughter. “But He answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Matthew 15:24). Although He went to areas where non-Jews were numerous, His call was first and foremost to the Jews. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how, after Pentecost, the disciples of Christ took the Gospel beyond the house of Israel as well.

Aramaic/Hebrew-Speaking Jews

The Apostles’ ministry was extended beyond Galilee and Judaea “because of the persecution that arose over Stephen” (Acts 11:19). Outspoken in his profession of faith in the risen Christ as “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56) before the Sanhedrin, Stephen was stoned to death. The Jewish leaders then tried to exterminate the Jerusalem Christians. “… and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…” (Acts 8:1)

The disciples traveled even further in preaching that Jesus was the Messiah. In Acts 11:19 we read that they went “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” where the Lord Himself had never gone. These regions were not Jewish areas, but they each had Jewish communities, made up chiefly of merchants and dating back hundreds of years before Christ.

When the scattered disciples began preaching Christ in the Jewish communities of Cyprus, Phoenicia and Syria they likely did so in Aramaic. Although Hebrew was the classical language of Israel, it had been replaced as the chief language in everyday speech, especially in Galilee and Samaria, by Aramaic. Hebrew was still spoken in Judea, but in a form influenced by Aramaic.

Who Were the Hellenists?

Since the first disciples of Christ were from Aramaic-speaking Galilee, their ministry consisted in “preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them [the disciples] were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:19, 20).

The Hellenists were those Jews who retained their Jewish religious practices but identified with the Hellenic culture of the Roman Empire. Their everyday language was Greek. It was for Hellenists like these that the Scriptures had been translated into Greek, beginning in the third century bc.

Hellenists were, of course prominent in the Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean region, but there was also a Hellenist community in Jerusalem, perhaps started by Jews returning home from the cities of Egypt or Syria. By the time of Christ the Jewish elite, the rulers, the high priests and many of the Sanhedrin had long been Hellenized, often adopting Greek names and other practices. In 2 Maccabees 4:9 we read how the high priest Jason had established a gymnasium in Jerusalem for training in Greek-style games. There were followers of Christ among both the Aramaic-speaking Jews (the “Hebrews”) and their Greek-speaking brethren. But there were often bad feelings between the groups. The apostles had instituted the order of deacons precisely because “there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” of alms (Acts 6:1).

Because the Jerusalem community already contained Hellenists, many commentators contend that it was not the Hellenists or Hellenized Jews (Hellenistas), whom the disciples evangelized in Antioch, but the Hellenas, the Greeks, meaning pagan Greeks who were not members of the Jewish community at all. This was the view of Eastern commentators such as Eusebius, John Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Oecumenius. In addition this is the reading of the Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Vulgate Bibles as well.

This reading is confirmed in Acts 15 which tells of the apostolic council at Jerusalem and the conflict which occasioned it. “And certain men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). If the believers at Antioch were Hellenists (Hellenized Jews) they would have been circumcised already. Clearly these were formerly pagan Greeks who had come to believe in Christ.

Who Were the Proselytes?

The Acts of the Apostles tells of another group among the people who had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11).

Proselytes were Gentiles who had completely accepted Judaism. Once they were circumcised and immersed in a mikvah (ritual bath), they were bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish religion, and were considered full members of the Jewish people. Their religion was Judaism, but not their ethnicity.

The proselytes’ presence in the city at this time was in response to a precept in the Torah which states: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:16, 17). One of these feasts is Shavuot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which is observed seven weeks after Passover.

While the Feast of Tabernacles was being celebrated in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of Christ. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in other tongues “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).

Who Were the “God-fearing”?

Members of another group found a home in the early Church as well. These were the “God-fearing” Gentiles who lived in Israel and observed some of its customs, but were not considered proselytes because they had not accepted to be circumcised. They were not bound the precepts of the Torah but were held to keep the “Noahide Laws,” which godly people observed before the time of Moses. These laws are: Do not deny God.

Do not blaspheme God. Do not murder. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations. Do not steal. Do not eat from a live animal. Establish courts/a legal system to ensure obedience to these laws. Gentiles who observed these laws were considered righteous and deserving of a place in the world to come. The centurion at Capernaum whose servant was dying was described by the Jewish elders in this way “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). This practice seems to the basis of how the apostles solved the issue of the formerly pagan Greeks of Antioch. As they wrote to the Antiochians, “The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings… it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:23, 28, 29).
 
OUR SOCIETY IS VERY DIFFERENT from the first-century world in which the Church began. Older people relied on their families to care for them; there were no social programs to assist them. Widowed women were required to rely on their sons or other male relative for support. A woman on her own had few ways to support herself besides selling herself into slavery or becoming a prostitute.

Rulers in Israel were enjoined to support the widows who had no family to care for them. The local synagogues became their arm in assuring the support of these women. The first Christians in Jerusalem, organized along similar lines, undertook the same responsibility in their communities. In the Epistle of James we see how important this was in the apostolic Church: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Acts 6 tells how the order of deacons was established in part to assure proper care for all the widows in the care of the Church. We also find that women like the Tabitha, whose death and resuscitation was recorded in Acts 9, were instrumental in caring for these widows. She may have been a widow herself as no family members are mentioned in the report. Rather it was the widows of the community who were her principal mourners: “This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did… And all the widows stood by him [Peter] weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:36, 39).

Dorcas represents something new in the condition of widows. In the Christian community they not only received assistance but, as disciples of Christ, they gave it as well. As persons in need they could be given support by the Church, but as Christians themselves they too were called to imitate Christ by caring for His poor.

The “Order” of Widows

Within a short time the Church began organizing formal groups of widows as part of its orders of ministry. St Paul – who believed that all Christian women should be adorned, “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9, 10) – provided guidelines for such an order. After listing the qualities needed for bishops and deacons, he went on to say: “Honor widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. And these things command, that they may be blameless. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

“Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work (1 Timothy 5:3-10).

The order of widows was part of the Syrian Church for several centuries. The chief work of widows in this order was to pray for the Church, particularly for their benefactors. In some places these widows visited the sick or engaged in the instruction of younger women. In other places, however, according to the third-century book of Church order called the Didaskalia, “there are some indeed who profess themselves widows, but do not works worthy of their name” (iii, 10).

In any case, by the fourth century the order of widows declined while another women’s order thrived: the order of deaconesses.

Deaconesses in the Church

When we hear the term “deacon” we think of the sacred minister in our own day with his extensive role in the Liturgy In fact, diakonos is simply the Greek word for a servant such as a waiter or messenger. In the early Church the deacon’s first role was that described in Acts 6: distributing food to the poor, leaving the apostles free to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

St Paul uses the same term to refer to certain women in his communities such as Phoebe (Romans 16:1), whom he says has been a help to many. Writing to the Philippians he mentions two women, Euodia and Syntyche, and asks his readers to help these women “who labored with me in the gospel” (Philippians 4:2). We do not know what kind of help these women provided – perhaps financial – as St Paul’s helpers.

In ad 112 the Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan concerning Christians in his province, Bithynia. He had questioned two ministrae (“female slaves” or “maidservants”) called deaconesses, he wrote, but does not describe their role in the community.

We first see specific roles of deaconesses in the third-century Syrian book of Church order, the Didaskalia. Their duties include:

Visiting Women in Their Homes –“There are houses to which you cannot send a deacon to the women, on account of the heathen, but may send a deaconess… to visit those who are sick, and to minister to their needs, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness;”

Assisting in Baptisms of Women – “Also, because in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required. In the first place, when women go down into the water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing… it is not fitting that women should be seen by men.” The Fourth-century Syrian book of Church order, the Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, adds “And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be (kept) unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important.”

Keeping Order in the Women’s Section of the Church – “Let the Porters stand at the entries of the men, and observe them. Let the Deaconesses also stand at those of the women, like ship-men. If a poor man, one of a low family, or a stranger come upon you, whether he be old or young, and there be no place, the Deacon shall find a place even for these… Let the Deaconess do the same thing for those women that come, whether poor or rich… Moreover, let both the Deacons and the Deaconesses be ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister and serve” (Apostolic Constitutions II, 57, 58).

The Didaskalia directs the faithful to esteem the bishop as they would God, the presbyters as the apostles, the deacons as Christ and the deaconesses as the Holy Spirit. According to this same document, deaconesses were ordained by the bishop in a rite similar to but not identical with the ordination of deacons. The text we have for this rite come from the eighth century.

The roles which deaconesses played, particularly in the baptism of adult women, became less important over time. The order of deaconess eventually lapsed, except in some women’s monasteries, and their roles were assumed by priests’ wives, godmothers or nuns. The order was never formally abolished, however, and deaconesses may still be found in some Armenian and Greek convents.
 
THE GOSPELS ARE UNANIMOUS in telling us that, out of His twelve chief disciples, the Lord Jesus had a special relationship with Peter, James and John. Along with Andrew, Peter’s brother, they were the first called of the twelve. After calling Peter and Andrew to follow Him, Jesus invited James and his brother John, the sons of Zebedee, to do so as well. Jesus then visited the synagogue in Capernaum and He went to the house of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, taking James and John along with Him (see Mark 1:29-31).

The Gospels record that Jesus singled out Peter, James and John, making them His closest associates and favored companions. When the Lord was called to the house of Jairus, who feared for his daughter’s life, “He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James” (Mark 5:37).

It was these same three disciples who witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration on the mountain and who were closest to Him at the end of His ministry. “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?”(Mark 13:3, 4) It was the same three who followed Him into the Garden after the Last Supper. “Then they came to a place which was named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ And He took Peter, James, and John with Him…” (Mark 14:32, 33).

The Death of James

A few years after the death and resurrection of Christ, there was “a great famine throughout all the world, which happened in the days of Claudius Caesar” (Acts 11:28) who reigned from ad 41 to 54. This famine is mentioned by a number of contemporary writers, both Jewish and pagan, such as Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius, who described the famine as “the result of bad harvests that occurred during a span of several years” (Lives of the Caesars, 18).

“Now about that time [the time of the famine] Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also” (Acts 12:1-3). James was thus the first of Christ’s closest followers to die; Peter was freed from prison (see Acts 12:5-11) and went on to strengthen the Churches springing up throughout the Roman Empire.

St Clement of Alexandria, who lived in Jerusalem at the end of the second century, recorded an otherwise unknown anecdote concerning the death of St James. Eusebius included it in his History of the Church. “Concerning this James, Clement, in the seventh book of his Hypotyposes, relates a story which is worthy of mention; telling it as he received it from those who had lived before him. He says that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a Christian.

‘They were both therefore, he says, led away together; and on the way he begged James to forgive him. And he, after considering a little, said, Peace be with you, and kissed him. And thus they were both beheaded at the same time” (History of the Church, Book II, 9). The head of St James is reputedly buried in Jerusalem’s Armenian cathedral, which is dedicated to St James the brother of John and also to St James the Just, the Brother of the Lord. In one of its chapels, built in the fifth century, a red marble slab in front of the altar marks the place where St James’ head is buried, on the supposed site of his beheading.

St James in Spain?

According to the tradition of the early Church, St James died without leaving Jerusalem (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata VI; Apollonius, quoted by Eusebius, Church History VI.18). Nonetheless, there is a highly revered tradition in the West that St James had brought the Gospel to Spain and then returned to Jerusalem where he died.

According to this tradition, sometime after Pentecost, Saint Peter cast lots with the Apostles to determine the portions of the world to which each Apostle would bring the Gospel. James was chosen to travel to Iberia. No certain mention of such a tradition is to be found in any early writings nor in the early councils; the first certain mention we find is in a ninth century martyrology by the Swiss Benedictine monk, Notker of St. Gall.

According to another Spanish tradition, on January 2 in ad 40, the Mother of God appeared to St James standing on a column on the bank of the Ebro River, instructing him to build a church there in her honor. This pillar is venerated today in the present Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza, central Spain.

Even more revered in Spain is the shrine of Santiago (St James) de Compostela in Spanish Galicia, reputed to be the resting place of St James’ body. According to a tradition recorded in the 12th century Codex Calixtinus, St James’ disciples were able to claim his body after his beheading. It was then supposedly transported miraculously to Galicia where it was buried in Compostela. It is said that these relics were unearthed in the ninth century by a hermit and they became the focal point of an annual pilgrimage to Compostela, called the Way of St James, which has been held ever since.

In 1879 the saint’s supposed remains at Compostela were unearthed again and in 1884 Pope Leo XIII issued a bull, Omnipotens Deus, declaring “in perpetuum” that these were indeed the remains of St James and his two companions, Athanasius and Theodorus. There is no historical documentation to support this assertion.

Vespers for St James (April 30)

At Lord to You I Call

You drew men up from the depths of vanity with a fisherman’s rod of grace. You obeyed the commands of the Teacher, O worthy James, who enlightened all your thoughts and revealed you as an Apostle and holy preacher, for you expound His incompre-hensible divinity, O most blessed one.

The illumination of the Spirit descended on you in the form of fire and made you a divine vessel, O blessed one, dispelling with power the darkness of godlessness and enlightening the world with the brightness of your all-wise words, O preacher of mysteries, O leader of the Apostles, James, the eye-witness of Christ.

You illumined those lying in the darkness of ignorance with the lightning flash of your preaching, O glorious James. You revealed them to be sons through faith of the Master and God whose passion and death you imitated with zeal. You became an heir of glory, O wise one, as one speaking from God, and a most faithful disciple.

Come, let us praise James with hymns of psalms: the preacher of heavenly mysteries and expounder of the Gospel; for he was revealed as a river of the mystical Paradise, watering spiritual furrows with heavenly streams, revealing them to bear fruit to Christ God, who, by his prayers, grants cleansing, enlightenment, and great mercy.
 
ON THIS SUNDAY, April 23, our Church observes two feasts. The first, in the Paschal cycle, is Thomas Sunday, the remembrance of the risen Lord’s appearance to Thomas. The second, from the monthly calendar, is the Feast of the Great Martyr George. When two such observances coincide, the epistle from one and the Gospel from the second may be read at the Liturgy. Today’s epistle reading, Galatians 3:23- 4:5, is for St George.

In this passage St Paul uses a term that begs an explanation. “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law…” (Galatians 4:4). What is “the fullness of the time”? How are we to understand it?

This idea – the fullness of time – was not devised by St. Paul. The Lord Jesus had used it to describe His presence in the world. “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:15).

Time vs. Time

The first step in understanding these terms is to realize that, while our English translations use the same word in both passages, these Scriptures actually employ two different words meaning time. The Gospel phrase is “the kairos is fulfilled” while St Paul writes of the “pleroma of the chronos.” In Greek, the word chronos refers to chronological time: the days, hours and minutes by which we measure our earthly reality.

Kairos, on the other hand, has a different meaning in Greek. It refers to the right or opportune moment, a significant time for an action or a decision. Some translations of Scripture render the word kairos as “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” The same word is used at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy when the deacon says to the priest, “It is the time [kairos] for us to work for the Lord.” He does not mean, “It’s 10 AM, we’d better start” but “the moment has come for us” to fulfill our role as God’s priestly people.

While St Paul uses the term chronos, he uses it in a way that means a time fraught with meaning, in other words, like kairos. He speaks of the pleroma (fullness) of chronos. The word pleroma does not mean “full” as a quantity, but as a quality (completeness or perfection). We also use this word in our Liturgy when, after the Great Entrance, the deacon says, “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord. This does not mean, “Let’s finish up” but “Let us make our prayer complete or perfect” through the offering of the gifts we have brought forth.

Both terms “kairos” and “fullness of chronos” thus mean the same thing – it is the right time, the perfected time for God’s plan in the world to be accomplished.

What Makes This the Opportune Time?

Students of the Scriptures have long reflected on why the First Century of our era was the “right time” for the Incarnation of Christ to bring about our salvation. Many of them note that on a secular level:
  • Politically, the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean world and the civilized areas bordering it. The possibility of safe travel and improved communications brought peoples of the area closer together than ever before. Men from outlying areas were often conscripted, spreading the Roman worldview even beyond the Mediterranean. This also accounts for the number of soldiers, like St George, among the early martyrs.
  • Culturally, the influence of Greek philosophy and literature provided a more unified world view. The Greek language became the dominant language for trade over a large area, enabling communication with a wide range of peoples.
  • Religiously, belief in the numerous Greek and Roman gods and goddesses offered only local, familial and personal protection. Mystery religions emphasized sacrifices, often bloody, to attain blessings. The philosophically-minded disdained all these religions. The result was a religious void, such as St Paul encountered in Athens (see Acts 17: 16-33). To many the appeal of a universal monotheism was strong, even leading some to become proselytes, converts to Judaism, or at least sympathizers with their belief in only one God.

In the Jewish world the time was ripe as well. Many, resenting all foreign rule, were waiting for the Messiah’s immanent appearance to restore their independence. Others, like the Pharisees, were longing for a Messiah who would restore a purer observance of the Torah.

Jews of all types looked to the Old Testament for prophecies or indications of the coming Messiah, “searching what, or what manner of time [kairos], the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you… things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10-12). The first Christians, the apostolic community, saw these signs as pointing to the Lord Jesus. The time of Christ was the kairos for the fulfillment of God’s plan.

The Ultimate Fullness of Time

In Ephesians 1 St Paul expands his understanding of the fullness of time to include the ultimate union of all creation in Christ. “In Him [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself… that in the dispensation of the fullness of time He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1: 7, 9, 10). Here St Paul describes the divine economy in superlatives - the pliromatos of the kairon – in order to point to its ultimate completion, the “absolute fulfillment of super-time,” when Christ will be all in all.

On the Fullness of Time

For St John Chrysostom the first century was not a time of increasing peace and unity, but of decline.

“The fullness of time was the Son’s appearing. Then, when God had done all things through angels, prophets and the Law yet nothing had improved, there was a danger that humanity had come into being for nothing. It was not going merely nowhere, but to the bad. All were perishing together, just like in the days of the flood but more so. Just then He offered this gracious dispensation to insure that creation had not come into being for nothing or in vain. The fullness of time is that divine wisdom by which, at the moment when all were most likely to perish, they were saved” (St John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 1.1.10).

Shopping Cart

Your shopping cart is empty
Visit the shop

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