Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
MANY PEOPLE TODAY EQUATE "SPIRITUALITY" with one’s personal inner life. Spiritual seekers are advised to “listen to their heart” to find peace and clarity, often without any reference to God – or at least to the God revealed in the Scriptures – or to a community such as the Church. Their approach is more individual rather than communal, more mind-centered than encompassing one’s entire being, and often more concerned with self-help than with living in union with God.

As Eastern Christians we stand in a tradition that first of all understands spirituality as mankind’s relationship to God through the operation of the Holy Spirit. At its root this relationship is based on an event which joins the material and the spiritual: the Incarnation of Christ. The Word of God took flesh, became human in order to unite us with God. Because He is truly and perfectly man, the risen Christ is now glorified in His body, seated at the right hand of the Father.

The Body in Eastern Thought

The body as well as the spirit is important in Christian life. As St Paul says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20). We are not meant to ignore or belittle the body because we are Christians. The body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul in the work of our sanctification. The body, as well as the spirit, is meant to be transfigured in Christ and so we are called to glorify God in it.

Purifying the Body

The first way in which we glorify God in the body is by accepting and affirming its freedom from the control of sin and death. United to Christ in baptism, we have already been given a share in that freedom, which will be completely realized in the life of the world to come. As long as we are in this life, however, we must work along with Christ-in-us to maintain the body’s freedom from the influence of sin.

And so, one way in which we glorify God in the body is by the Church’s ascetic tradition, which focuses on freeing the mind and the heart from attachment to the things of the senses. Christian asceticism is not anti-physical but seeks to liberate the body from the lure of the sensual so that the physical may be sanctified.

The Church Fathers considered that the most basic ascetic practices focus on controlling the passions or cravings of the body for food and drink and for sexual release. This is not because they are our greatest inner enemies - pride and vanity have that dubious distinction – but because it is easier to conquer our physical cravings than our spiritual impulses. This is why St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, singles out the power of gluttony and lust as the enemy’s first line of attack on the believer. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v.15). How can you surrender to the first assault the enemy mounts against you? If we cannot put aside fatty foods on Wednesdays and Fridays, much less during the Fasts, how can we even begin to deal with things like spiritual laziness (sloth) or pride that afflict us in our innermost hearts?

Worshipping in the Body

We live our life in Christ in our bodies as well as in our spirits and so the Eastern Churches have insisted that the body join the spirit in worshipping the One who created us as both physical and spiritual. We bow, we kneel, we make the sign of the cross, we prostrate, we kiss, we eat and we drink. We glorify God in the body by entering body, soul and spirit in the worship of the Church.

One way we glorify God in our bodies at worship is by standing for prayer. In some churches people are directed to stand or sit at different times during the service. Sitting, however, is the stance taken by an audience rather than a participant, whether it be at the theater or at worship. Worshippers are an “audience” during readings or a sermon; during prayers and litanies they are participants and more fittingly stand rather than sit.

Two bodily gestures in Eastern worship not common in the churches of the West are the metany and the prostration. In the metany, we make the sign of the cross and bow from the waist, extending our right hand until our fingers touch the ground. In the prostration we kneel on both knees and bow until our forehead touches the ground. Both gestures indicate our complete submission to the King of all.

Making metanies and prostrations requires a certain amount of free space around the worshipper. In older churches abroad any seating (benches or stalls) was located around the church walls leaving the center of the church free for worshippers. In churches with Western-style pews, worshippers often move out into the aisles to make prostrations.

The Great Fast

During the Church’ fasts we have ample opportunities to glorify God in the body through more frequent church services and through fasting. Eastern Christian fasting incorporates two ways of using our bodies in worship. In ascetic or total fasting, we do not eat or drink anything. Period. This kind of fasting is in the spirit of Deuteronomy 8:3, quoted by Christ to the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Traditionally people fast this way before receiving Holy Communion. Clergy who will serve the Liturgy – and in some Churches whoever will receive the Eucharist – are expected to fast from sexual activity as well. It is also customary to fast totally for a certain period on all fast days. Thus, many fast this way until noon during these seasons.

The second type of fasting, also called abstinence, is fasting from certain foods (typically meat or dairy products). In many Eastern Churches, people fast totally until noon and then, when they do eat, they abstain from meat and dairy. Since fish is considered “meat without feet” it is not generally consumed on the stricter fast days.

In this kind of fasting, we glorify God in the body by limiting ourselves to what has been called the “food of paradise.” In the Genesis story of creation, humans were created to be vegetarians. God is depicted as telling Adam and Eve: “I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29). It was only after the flood that God told Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). By restricting ourselves to the food of paradise, we are saying that we value above all things the communion with God that our first parents had.

Look upon my afflicted heart, O Christ. Behold how I turn back in repentance. See my tears, O Savior, and reject me not. Embrace me once again in Your compassion and number me with those who are saved, that I may thank and praise Your mercy.

Like the Thief, I cry to You, “Remember me!” Like the Publican, with downcast eyes I beat my breast and say, “Have mercy!” Like the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O compassionate King, that I may praise Your boundless mercy. Canon of the Prodigal, Ode 9
 
PHYSICAL FITNESS IS BIG BUSINESS today. People run to gyms and exercise programs, or they just run. St. Paul sees the value of keeping one’s body in shape, but puts it in a perspective of his own. “Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise for the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

We may readily grasp that spiritual exercise may bear fruit in the life to come, but what promise does it have “for the life that now is”?

A great part of spiritual training is concerned with the control of the passions. We strive to free ourselves from the compulsion to pursue pleasure so that we can pursue a relationship with the living God. If we follow this training, the result in our life now is that we are no longer driven to acquire or possess. We are content.

When a person is beset by greed he is never satisfied with what he has. There is always more, there is always something better to be acquired. While he seems content with his latest acquisition it is only for a moment, because nothing he has truly satisfies. The same is true of people governed by gluttony, lust, popular acclaim or pride. They never have enough.

A person who has learned to control the passions, on the other hand, is content knowing that all he is and all he has is the gift of God. He has learned that material wealth, physical pleasure, or the good opinion of others are all passing and insignificant when compared with the possibility of knowing and serving God. He is happy to devote energy and resources to others as much as possible because he controls them; they do not control him. Controlling the passions makes us free here and now.

Someone who undertakes spiritual discipline devotes himself to developing spiritual strengths or virtues just as an athlete strengthens physical muscles. These strengths, or virtues, enable spiritual athletes to remain faithful in the face of persecution or hardship. How could the martyrs and confessors have endured the torments they suffered without the fortitude spiritual discipline produces? How could people like Father Damien in a leper colony, Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, or Dorothy Day in the tenements of New York have served day after day in such atrocious conditions without the patience and dedication of a spiritual athlete? Without the endurance which spiritual discipline produces believers would quickly fall away from their commitment and collapse on the sidelines. Spiritual discipline develops the endurance to live for God in the here and now.

Another aspect of spiritual discipline is concerned with fidelity to prayer. Many people pray – or say prayers – from a sense of duty. Praying, they feel, is something we “ought to do.” A person of prayer is rather one who senses an authentic relationship with God and who prays out of love rather than a sense of obligation. Such a person reaps the fruits of a commitment to prayer in this life, becoming someone who experiences the presence of God in his life on earth.

The presence of God may be experienced in many ways. There are saints who have experienced God directly in visions or in charismatic gifts. But the presence of God may also be experienced in consolations or in the assurance of blessing from God without any exterior manifestation. In either case to experience the presence of God in one’s “life that now is” is clear evidence of the truth of St. Paul’s statement: godliness profits a person in this life as well as in the life to come.

Repentance: Warm-up to the Spiritual Life

We have all seen runners stretching their leg muscles before beginning a run. Their stretches are a warm-up in anticipation of the effort ahead. Similarly there is a warm up necessary at the start of a spiritual effort. Repentance is the necessary prerequisite to any effective spiritual effort, whether it is the encounter with Christ in the Liturgy or any of the mysteries, the Great Fast, or any spiritual work which we pray may be fruitful. Ignoring our personal spiritual state before undertaking any of these practices borders on presumption. Even world-class athletes, whether physical or spiritual, always begin each contest at the beginning, with a warm-up.

The Gospel story of Zacchaeus’ conversion (Luke 19:1-10) offers some valuable insights into repentance. His spiritual journey begins with an encounter with Christ. At first

Zacchaeus is moved by a kind of curiosity to climb the tree and see who this Jesus is. Then Christ calls him personally and they go off to Zacchaeus’ house. True repentance always involves both our work and the Lord’s. If He calls and we are not even curious nothing will happen. If we seek Him in an inappropriate way – such as only coming to Him when we want something – He may remain silent.

Zacchaeus’ repentance is not mere sentiment; it has concrete exterior manifestations. One is the desire to repair any wrongs he may have done to others. “…if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore it fourfold” (v. 8). We cannot move ahead unless we correct what we can of our past sins. When material things are at the heart of our sin it is relatively easy to make restitution. But how does anyone restore a broken relationship, heal a damaged childhood or re-establish another’s reputation which we have smeared? The one we have harmed may demand something from us or our spiritual guide may offer alternative acts of reparation. But something concrete must be done.

Zacchaeus does not only look back, he also looks ahead. “I give half of my goods to the poor…” (v.8) Zacchaeus actually does something to fulfill the Lord’s precept to love in a concrete way. This dynamic was explained most clearly by St Diadochos, the fifth-century Bishop of Photiki in northern Greece: “When a man begins to perceive the love of God in all its richness, he begins also to love his neighbor with spiritual perception. This is the love of which all the scriptures speak.” (On Spiritual Knowledge and Discernment, 15).

In the Church calendar the story of Zacchaeus is read as the “herald of the Triodion,” the last Sunday before we open that guide to repentance and the Great Fast. As we recall the movements of Zacchaeus’ repentance we should be led to ask ourselves about the quality of our love for God. To what concrete action are we being led to perform during the coming Fast? What tangible form will love take in our lives as we look to the celebration of Pascha? And what past offenses to others which have yet to be righted hang over us and taint our intentions for this season? Like Zacchaeus we are called to begin our spiritual exercise with the “warm-up” of repentance in deed as well as in thought.

On this day, the Sunday before the beginning of the Lenten Triodion, we commemorate the repentance of the tax-collector, the Holy Apostle Zacchaeus, who desired to behold Christ.

The Holy Fathers placed today's commemoration here to prepare us, little by little, for dawning season of the Great Fast. Knowing that we are basically slow to exhibit a desire for repentance, the Holy Fathers, by Zacchaeus' example, teach us in these preliminary weeks the need to recognize our sins and our need to turn away from them. From the Synxarion
 
THIS WEEKEND OUR CHURCH opens the pages of the Triodion, the book containing the texts for all the services leading up to Pascha. This Lenten journey may be viewed on two levels, chronologically and spiritually. Both are important as we look ahead to our celebration of Pascha.

Chronologically, the period of the Triodion consists in three distinct sections: the pre-Lenten period, the Great Fast itself, and the Great and Holy Week. The first, the pre-Lenten period, progressively leads us to the coming Great Fast. It begins with two Sundays which introduce us to thoughts of repentance. Next we have a weekend of observances reminding us of our mortality: the Saturday of the Dead and the Sunday of the final Judgment. Finally, in Meat-fare Week, we are eased into the Fast by beginning to abstain from meat. The last pre-Lenten observance takes place on Cheese-Fare Sunday with the ceremony of forgiveness, in which we ritually ask the entire community to forgive us our offences so that we may begin the Great Fast with pure hearts.

The Publican and the Pharisee

On this first Sunday of the Triodion’s pre-Lenten period we are presented with the Lord’s parable of the Publican or tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. As we begin our Lenten journey, we are reminded how the prayer of the Pharisee did not reach God while the Publican’s prayer was heard. The Pharisee’s devotions were “correct,” but, the Lord teaches, it is not enough to say the right words when the heart is not correct as well.

The basic attitude of the heart for which the Pharisee is faulted is pride: “I fast twice a week,” he boasts; “I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:12)… and that makes me better than that tax collector. The Pharisee is right in one sense: it is good to fast and to give tithes, but his good deeds are made void through his pride.

Reflecting on this parable in its hymnody, our Church describes the Pharisee’s prayer as “ungrateful.” He says, “I thank you, God,” but thankfulness to God is not revealed in his underlying attitude. His inner spirit is not focused on God’s gifts, but on his own perceived accomplishments. He does the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

A consequence of the Pharisee’s self-centered parody of religion is the judgmental way he regards his fellow man: “I am not like other men” (v.11): my devotions make me superior, more worthy in the sight of God. Christ takes the opposite view: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.14)..

Keeping a Proper Perspective

The Scriptures often return to the place of formal religious practices in our spiritual life. Some people – we might call them iconoclasts – reject such practices outright as hypocrisy. The Lord is not one of them. He affirms the value of devotional practices, when kept in a suitable way. He condemns the Pharisees for their attitudes, not their actions. He tells His followers, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, … all their works they do to be seen by men” (Matthew 23:2, 5).

Our fasting should not be a matter of public display. “Moreover, when you fast,” the Lord says, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16, 17).

In Matthew 23, Christ specifies the place of devotional practices in a mature spiritual life. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23). Devotional practices are commendable, but not as a replacement for mutual love.

During the coming Fast we may become so concerned with its devotional aspects, such as attending special services or avoiding meat and dairy products, that we become irritable with others and make void our striving to keep the Fast. The mature approach is that outlined by Christ in the verse above: observe the devotional practices, but do not ignore or abuse others in the process. As the Greek saying put it, it is better to eat the fish than to eat the fisherman!

Isn’t Fasting Obsolete?

In the first century ad, some Christians coming from a Jewish background were concerned with keeping the ritual precepts of the Old Testament in addition to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. In the traditional Jewish view, it was keeping the precepts of the Law which makes a person righteous before God. St Paul repeatedly insisted that this was no longer the case. It is putting our faith in Christ, not the devotions we observe, which justifies us. The Law of Moses, the Apostle taught, was “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

For us, observing the precepts of the Fast are meant to lead us to Christ, not substitute for a relationship with Him. We cannot earn ourselves a place in heaven by fasting, or by any other practice we might undertake. We can fast and pray, however, to express our gratitude for the gifts of God who has united us to Himself in Christ. We fast, not to improve our standing with God, but to respond with gratitude to what He has done for us.

The Canon from the Triodion

Every good deed can be made void through foolish pride, while every sin can be cleansed by humility. Let us then embrace humility in faith and completely turn away from the path of pride.

From Ode 1

God the Word humbled Himself and took the form of a servant, showing that humility is the best means to exaltation. All those who follow the Lord’s example, humbling themselves, will be exalted on high.

To lead us to exaltation with God, the Savior and Master revealed in His deeds the humility which can lift us up on high. With His own hands, He washed the feet of His Apostles.

From Ode 4

Let us hasten to follow the example of the Pharisee in his virtues and to imitate the Publican in his humility. Let us flee what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions.

From Ode 5

O faithful, let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! Let us never claim, ‘We are pure,’ as he did. Let us rightly follow the Publican in his humility and gain the mercy of our God.

From Ode 8

Like the Publican, let us pray to the Lord, entreating His mercy and flee from the Pharisee’s ungrateful prayer and the proud words with which he judged his neighbor, that we may gain God’s forgiveness and light.
 
WE FREQUENTLY HEAR ABOUT the Fathers of the Church, those hierarchs and teachers who have made a lasting impression on the Church’s understanding of the Gospel. These texts offer us ample material on which to reflect despite, or perhaps because of, their antiquity.

On our greatest feasts we often proclaim the Fathers’ most lyrical discourses and poetic verses in the context of the Liturgy. The most noteworthy examples are the Catechetical Homily by St John Chrysostom, which is read on Pascha, and the poetic canons by St John of Damascus and St Cosmas of Maiouma, sung on Pascha and the Feast of the Nativity.

An important patristic text read on the feast of the Theophany is the prayer at the Great Blessing of Water by St Sophronios, who served briefly as Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) but whose theological vision has inspired Eastern Christians ever since. The following is an excerpt from that prayer.

St Sopronios of Jerusalem on the Theophany

“Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon the waters.

Today the unwaning sun has dawned, and the world is lit up with the light of the Lord.

[…] Today the clouds refresh humanity with a rain of righteousness from above.

Today the uncreated One is by His own will touched by the creature.

Today the prophet and forerunner approaches the Master, but pauses in awe, seeing God’s condescension towards us.

Today the waters of the Jordan are turned into healing by the presence of the Lord.

Today all creation is watered by mystical waters. Today men’s sins are washed away in the waters of the Jordan.

Today Paradise is thrown open to mankind, and the sun of righteousness shines upon us.

Today the water that the people under Moses found bitter, is turned into sweetness at the presence of the Lord.

Today we are free of the ancient grief, and like a new Israel have been redeemed.

Today we are delivered from the darkness and are bathed in the light of the knowledge of God.

Today the world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God.

Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch.

Today error is abolished and the coming of the Lord opens the way to salvation.

Today the heavenly joins the earthly in celebration, and that which is below holds discourse with that which is above.

Today the holy and vibrant assembly of the Orthodox rejoices.

Today the Master hastens towards baptism in order to raise mankind to the heights.

Today He who bends to none, bows before His own servant, so as to free us from bondage.

Today heaven has been deeded to us, for of the Lord’s kingdom there shall be no end.

Today the earth and the sky have divided the world’s joy, and the world is filled with gladness.

The waters saw You, O God, the waters saw You and were afraid. The Jordan reversed its flow when it saw the fire of divinity descending bodily and entering it.

The Jordan turned back, seeing the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove and hovering about You.

The Jordan turned back seeing the invisible become visible, the creator made flesh, the Master in the form of servant.

The Jordan turned back and the mountains leapt, seeing God in the flesh, and the clouds gave voice, marveling at the One present, light of light, true God of true God, who submerged in the Jordan the death of disobedience and the sting of error and the bond of Hades, giving to the world a baptism of salvation.”

St Proclus of Constantinople on the Theophany

A friend and disciple of St John Chrysostom, Proclus would succeed him as Archbishop of Constantinople in 434. His Discourse 7, On the Theophany, is read in both Eastern and Western Churches on this feast.

“Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy. He bore the world’s sins and crushed the world’s enemy. He sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of men. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.

For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Savior, and the whole world is filled with joy.

Today’s feast of the Theophany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.

On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast of the Theophany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.

At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness.

In today’s feast, we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father.

At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at the Theophany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.

Come, then, and see new and astounding miracles: the Sun of righteousness washing in the Jordan, fire immersed in water, God sanctified by the ministry of man.

Today every creature shouts in resounding song:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Blessed is he who comes in every age, for this is not his first coming.

And who is he? Tell us more clearly, I beg you, blessed David:

‘The Lord is God and has shone upon us.’

David is not alone in prophesying this; the apostle Paul adds his own witness, saying: ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all men, and instructing us.’ Not for some men, but for all. To Jews and Greeks alike God bestows salvation through baptism, offering baptism as a common grace for all.

Come, consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of Baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who baptized.

In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odor of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove reveals the Lord of mercy.”
 
WHO IS THE GREATEST SAINT after the Theotokos? Recent sentiment in the West looks to her spouse, St Joseph, as the foremost representative of holiness. For the Eastern Churches, however, “the Lord’s witness is enough” (troparion of St John). The liturgy here refers to the words of Christ concerning John, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11) Thus John the Baptist is regularly depicted in the “Deisis” icons flanking Christ, opposite the Theotokos. This same grouping is found as the basic component of icon screens along with the icon of the church’s patron.

A moving testimony to St John comes from the fourth-century Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. John, he writes, “…did not enlarge the boundaries of an empire. He did not prefer triumphs of military conquest to honors. Rather, what is more, he disparaged human pleasures and lewdness of body, preaching in the desert with great spiritual power. He was a child in worldliness, but great in spirit. He was not captivated by the allurements of life, nor did he change his steadfastness of purpose through a desire to live…” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 1.31).

John in the Scriptures

John’s unique holiness is displayed in the story of the Theotokos’ visit to his mother Elizabeth. There the Gospel tells us that, at Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (see Lk 1:39-45). The Gospel thus shows John as aware even in the womb of the greatness of Christ who had been conceived in the womb of Mary. Thus he fulfills the prophecy made by the angel Gabriel to John’s father, Zachariah: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:45).

Reflecting on this event, St Ambrose connects the experience of John in the womb with that of another prophet, Jeremiah. This prophet, who lived during the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, describes God’s call to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). While Jeremiah describes himself as consecrated before his birth, Luke describes John as nothing less than filled with the Holy Spirit.

John reappears in the Gospels as an adult, living in the Judean desert and baptizing at the Jordan. This “desert” was not what we consider desert; it was actually grazing land, useless for agriculture but able to sustain the sheep and goats and the occasional solitary who lived there.

Nothing is said in the Gospels about the intervening years of John’s life, nor how he came to be in the desert. Some modern scholars have speculated that John was a member of the Essenes, a Jewish sect at the time which had retired to the desert and established a community there. Earlier lore, recorded in the fourth-century Life of John by Serapion of Thmuis, held that John was spirited away to the desert by his mother to escape slaughter when Herod’s servants killed the Holy Innocents. In Serapion’s Life, Elizabeth died when her son was seven years old; thereafter the boy was cared for by an ascetic in the desert.

The Ministry of John

St Mark’s Gospel presents us with a thumbnail description of John as a Forerunner, preparing the way for One greater than he by calling people to “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). In Matthew John is depicted preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). God’s action in Christ was immanent; those in need of repentance had best make up their minds to do so.

Matthew singles out the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious establishment – calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) most in need of repentance. He depicts the coming Messiah as One who “will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor” (we would say “clean house”) burning up the unrepentant “with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).

One image from the Gospels has found its way into many icons of John baptizing. John is described as warning, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9), meaning that the house cleaning is about to begin. In many icons an axe is shown imbedded in a tree or tree stump to suggest this image.

In Luke specific examples for repentance are given in response to the question “What shall we do?” John tells the tax collectors not to extort more money than the tax law allows. He tells soldiers not to intimidate or accuse others falsely and to be content with their pay. And he tells everyone to give alms from what they have (see Luke 3:10-14). In St John’s Gospel, another note is added to the Baptist’s message. He identified Jesus as the One who is coming and depicts his own work as a testimony to Jesus. “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world …I came baptizing with water that He should be revealed to Israel” (John 1:29, 31).

The Baptism of Repentance

Immersion into a stream, river or bathing pool (Mikveh) was practiced for ritual purposes in first century Judaism. Orthodox and many Conservative Jews continue the practice to this day. Ritual baths were necessary for Jewish men in preparation for Yom Kippur or the Sabbath, for entering the temple or ascending the Temple Mount. Women were required to bathe for ritual purity after childbirth or menstruation. Gentiles submitted to a ritual bath upon converting to Judaism.

Some differences between these ritual baths and John’s baptism are obvious. Jewish ritual baths are self-administered; John baptized people into the water. Jewish baptism was a physical cleansing to achieve ritual purity; John’s baptism was to signify repentance, a moral act. In John’s time, Jewish people expressed repentance by offering sacrifices in the temple. Since the destruction of the temple, Jews express repentance by prayer, almsgiving or doing righteous deeds. “Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one’s table atones” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, 55a.). Hospitality to the poor had become the Jewish way of atoning for sins.

John’s Baptism and Baptism into Christ

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how St. Paul, “finding some disciples” in Ephesus, learned that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Hearing that they had been baptized with the baptism of John, St Paul explained: “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe in Him who would come after him, that is, in Christ Jesus” (Acts 19:4).

Christian baptism is neither a kind or ritual purification or a symbol of repentance. It is the incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ. Through faith we are buried with Him in baptism and then rise from the water with Him in the likeness of His resurrection. This effects an organic union with Christ in His Body the Church, a result never imagined by John. As we say at every baptism in the words of St. Paul (Galatians 3:27), “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
 
WHAT'S WITH THE ARMENIANS? Every other Church – whether on the Julian or Gregorian Calendar – celebrates Christ’s Nativity on December 25 and His Theophany on January 6. The Armenian Church observes both feasts together on the same day, January 6. So, what’s with them?

The Ancient Practice

The oldest practice documented in Christian history is that of a single celebration of the manifestation of God in the world in Jesus Christ: it included the celebration of Christ’s birth, the adoration of the Magi, all the events of Christ’s childhood recorded in the Scriptures, as well as His baptism by John in the Jordan and His first miracle, at the wedding feast of Cana. St Cyril of Alexandria writes about it at the beginning of the third century.

In the next century, St Gregory the Theologian writing in the year 380, refers to this practice, still observed in his Church in Asia Minor: “Now if the feast of the Theophany, and so also of the Nativity, for it is called both, since two names are ascribed to one reality… The name is Theophany, since He has appeared, and Nativity, since He has been born” (Oration 38, On the Theophany, or the Nativity of Christ :3).

Scholars today believe that this single feast of the Manifestation of God was observed in the West as well, but on December 25. In both cases, the date was determined by the date believed to be the date of the crucifixion. In the ancient world it was commonly believed that the date of a great person’s death coincided with the date of his conception or birth. Some rabbis still teach that a righteous person is entrusted with a mission on the day of his conception or birth. In one who completes his mission in the most perfect way possible, this perfection is expressed in the fact that his mission ends on the same day that it was begun.

In the East it was believed that April 6 was the date of Christ’s conception and crucifixion; consequently, January 6 marked the celebration of His birth. In the West the corresponding dates were March 25 and December 25.

After the First Ecumenical Council in ad 325, Christians in East and West became more aware of the practices of one another’s Churches. The East adopted the Roman date of December 25, dedicating it to the events of Christ’s birth. According to St John Chrysostom this happened at Antioch in approximately 378. Preaching there in 388 on the Feast of the Nativity, he states that its observance was not yet quite ten years old. It quickly spread to the other Churches in the East. The East then devoted January 6 to the commemoration of His baptism.

The Synaxarion read at orthros on the feast of the Nativity notes that the day is devoted to all the events of Christ’s birth: “On the twenty-fifth of this month we commemorate the nativity according to the flesh of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ…On this day we commemorate the veneration of the Magi… On this day we commemorate the shepherds who beheld the Lord.” To this day we read Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and the visitation to the shepherds at the evening Vesper-Liturgy and the story of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel at the morning Liturgy.

In the West, the division was slightly different, with January 6 dedicated to the visit of the Magi, as well as the baptism of Christ, as the following antiphon from vespers on the Roman feast of the Epiphany shows: “We keep this day holy in honor of three miracles: this day a star led the Wise Men to the manger; this day water was turned into wine at the marriage feast; this day Christ chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan, for our salvation, alleluia.”

At first the Armenian Church adopted this arrangement. In the sixth century, when the division between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches became fixed, the Armenians reverted to their older practice.

Manifestation to Israel

The original single feast of the Nativity-Theophany celebrated the first revelations of His divinity, His incarnation, and the beginning of His ministry as Lord and Savior of mankind. It put forth a number of themes which we now find spread out throughout the festal season.

On the feast of the Nativity (and of Christ’s circumcision, on January 1) we celebrate God becoming man in a particular place and time. Jesus is born in the heart of God’s chosen people, Israel, and He is adored by them in Mary and Joseph and the shepherds who came to the cave. These feasts celebrate the particular revelation of God to the nation of Israel in terms of its sacred history, as we proclaim in this verse from vespers: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and celebrate all you lovers of Zion; for the temporal bonds with which Adam was condemned have been loosed; paradise hath been opened for us, and the serpent has been annihilated, having beheld now that the one deceived by her of old hath become a Mother to the Creator. O, the depth, richness, wisdom and knowledge of God, that the instrument of death which brought death to all flesh, has become the first-fruit of salvation to all the world, because of the Theotokos. The all-perfect God has been born from her as a babe; and by His birth He has sealed her virginity; by His swaddling clothes He has loosened the chains of our sins; and by His babyhood He has healed the pains and sorrows of Eve. Let all creation, therefore, exchange glad tidings and rejoice; for Christ has come to recall it and to save our souls.”

Manifestation to the Gentiles

Our vision of Christ’s coming work is widened as the Magi, pagan astrologers, arrive “from the East” to worship Him. The gifts they bring represent kingship (gold), priesthood (frankincense) and a self-emptying death (myrrh). In them Christ’s kingship over all nations is revealed. He is to be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

“You have shone forth from the Virgin, O Christ, supersensual Sun of righteousness. And a star pointed to You, O uncontainable One, contained in a cave, and the Magi were led to worship You. Wherefore, with them, we magnify You. O Giver of life; glory to You!”

Manifestation to All Creation

On the feast of the Theophany another aspect of Christ’s incarnation in celebrated. His coming transforms, not only humanity, but all creation. In His baptism He sanctifies the waters, a primordial element of creation in Genesis, representing the ultimate transfiguration of all things in the Kingdom of God. As we hear at the great blessing of water on the feast of the Theophany, “Today land and sea divide between them the joy of the world, and the world is filled with rejoicing. The waters behold You, O Lord: the waters behold You and they fear. The Jordan turns back its course, and the mountains shout with glee as they behold God in the flesh.”

“Of old, the prince of this world was named king of all that was in the waters; but by Your baptism he is choked and destroyed, like Legion in the lake. With Your mighty arm, O Savior, You have granted freedom to Your creation, which he had enslaved” (Canon at Compline on the Fore-feast of the Theophany).
 
MANY OF US, it’s fair to say, learned the alphabet as children by singing the Alphabet Song. Some of us learned the notes of the major musical scale by singing “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. The principle is an obvious one: we learn through singing.

The principle is also an old one. Psalm 78 recounts the Exodus story for children in song form, “Telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord” (Psalms 78:4). In the fourth century ad Arian controversy songs were used to popularize the doctrines of the Arian and Orthodox parties. And in the eighth century St Cosmas of Miouma used a music form – the canon – to make memorable patristic teachings on the Incarnation by St Gregory the Theologian (“Christ is born – glorify Him.”) and St John Chrysostom (“A strange and wondrous mystery I behold”). Cosmas’ approach worked: we still sing these words today.

What Is a Canon?

This form of poetic hymnody originated in the seventh century and was popularized by St Andrew of Crete, whose Great Canon is a feature of Byzantine Lenten services to this day. Canons have become a standard part of orthros and compline services as well as occasional services such as paraklesis and akathist services, as well as burials. One frequently used canon is part of the service of preparation for Holy Communion. Other canons, such as the Canon of Repentance, are frequently read as part of a Byzantine Christian’s daily prayer.

A canon consists of a number of stanzas called odes (three, four, eight or nine), each consisting of five or six troparia separated by a refrain such as “Glory to You, O our God, glory to You” or “Most holy Theotokos, save us.” The first troparion of each ode, called the Hirmos, is based on one of the biblical canticles from orthros. Apart from the ninth canticle (the Canticle of the Theotokos or Magnificat), these biblical texts are only sung during the Great Fast. At orthros in parish use, the canon may be abbreviated or eliminated completely, apart from the ninth ode.

Many canons were composed as acrostics, in which the first letter of each troparion spells out a verse or phrase appropriate to the theme. St Cosmas of Maiouma’s canon for the Nativity, for example, is written with the following acrostic: “Christ made man remains the God that He was.” Acrostics were used in some of the psalms and in early Greek poetry as well in secular poetry in the Byzantine Empire. English translations rarely seek to duplicate the meters or acrostics of the Greek originals.

The Nativity Canons

Our service books today contain two canons for the Nativity, one by St Cosmas of Maiouma and the other by his half-brother, St John of Damascus. Parts of them are sung during the Nativity Fast, with the entire canons being sung during the feast. The best known troparia are the hirmoi of the first and ninth odes respectively:

CHRIST is born: glorify Him! Christ has come down from Heaven: go out to receive Him! Christ is now on earth: exalt Him! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Praise Him in joy, O peoples, for He is gloriously triumphant.

A strange and wonderful mystery I behold: the cave is Heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, the manger a noble place where reposes Christ the Uncontainable God. Let us praise and magnify Him!

As could be expected, the canons contain allusions to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth. They also expound the meaning of the Nativity as taught by the Fathers. The following troparia reflect these themes:

Christ’s Coming Reverses the Fall ~Man fell from the divine life of grace. Though made in the image and likeness of God, he became completely subject to corruption and decay through sin. But now the wise Creator re-creates man again, for He is gloriously triumphant (from Ode 1).

~When He saw man perishing, whom He had made with His own hands, the Creator bowed the heavens and came down. He took man’s nature from the pure Virgin and He truly became a man, for He is gloriously triumphant (from Ode 1).

~Plainly foreshadowed by a burning bush that was not consumed, a holy womb has brought forth God, the Word, who has taken our mortal nature. He takes away the bitter sorrow of Eve’s ancient curse. We mortals glorify Him! (from Ode 1)

~Though formed from dust, Adam shared in the breath of life from God; yet through the beguilement of a woman, he slipped and fell into corruption. But now, seeing the Lord born of a woman, he cries aloud: “For my sake, You have become like me! Holy are You, O Christ our God!” (from Ode 3)

~In His compassion, the Ruler of Heaven has become one of us, born of a Virgin who knew not man. In these last times, the Word, who is totally above all matter, has taken on our human nature and flesh, so that He might draw back to Himself Adam, the fallen father of our race (from Ode 3).

~By your own will, O Most High, You were born as a man, taking flesh from the Virgin, in order to cleanse away the poison from the serpent’s bite. Since You are God by nature, You lead us all from darkness into the life-giving Light (from Ode 4).

Kenosis (self-emptying) ~O Virgin sprung from the root of Jesse, you have passed the bounds of human nature, for you have given birth to the eternal Word of the Father. By His will, through a strange self-emptying, He passed through your womb, yet left it sealed (from Ode 4).

Theosis ~Obedient to the decree of Caesar, You were registered on the census of his servants, O Christ; and You have set us free, when we had been servants of sin and the devil. Sharing completely in our poverty, You have made our nature God-like through Your union and participation in it (from Ode 6).

~O Christ our Defender, You have put to shame the Devil, the adversary of man, using Your holy incarnation as a shield. When You took our nature, You gave us the joy of sharing in Your nature. It was Adam’s disobedient attempt to gain this which had made us fall of old (from Ode 7).

The Kondakion and Oikos

The Kondakion, associated with St Romanos the Melodist, was a lengthy composition in the same form as our Akathist to the Theotokos. As Canons displaced the Kondakion in Orthros, only the first verses, given below, were retained.

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent in Essence, and the earth presents a cave to the Inaccessible. Angels with the shepherds sing His glory, and the Wise Men with the Star travel on their way, for to us is come a newborn Child, who is God from all eternity.

Bethlehem has opened Eden! Come, let us see! We have found joy in a secret place hidden from the eyes of the world. We can take possession of Paradise that is within the cave. There the unwatered Root has appeared, flowering forth in pardon. There too is the undug well, from which David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has brought forth a Child who will quench the thirst of Adam and all his descendants. Come, then, let us hasten in spirit to the place where has come for all mankind a newborn Child, who is God from all eternity.
 
BEGINNING STUDENTS OF JOURNALISM or other disciplines involving research are taught the importance of the “Five Ws” in compiling information. Fact-finders must be able to answer the following questions on any subject they are investigating: Who (was involved)? What (happened)? When (did it take place)? Where (did it take place)? And Why (did that happen)?

In reflecting on the incarnation of the Word of God, we focus on the last question: why did Christ become man? Our answer is that the reason He assumed our human nature – His incarnation – is to change us by making us partakers of the divine nature (theosis). As the Church Fathers never ceased to repeat: God became human so that man might be deified.

But the answer to that question brings us to ask another one: how do we become deified? The Scriptures give us a two-part answer: our deification results initially from being united to Christ at baptism. We maintain this gift of our deification by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14) in the way we conduct our lives.

We Have Put on Christ in Baptism

The hymn sung repeatedly at baptisms – drawn from St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians – affirms the teaching that we “put on” Christ at our baptism. As the Incarnation began with a concrete, physical act, the conception of the Lord Jesus, so our deification begins with the concrete, physical act of baptism. In this mystery, the earthly humanity of a believer is joined to the divinized humanity of Christ. The believer is organically united to Christ, immersed in Him, just as he is immersed into the water. The believer has clothed himself with Christ, a spiritual reality symbolized by the baptismal garment.

St Paul frequently reminds his readers how their likeness to God has been restored in baptism through the image of “putting-off” and “putting-on.” He tells the Ephesians, “you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). He tells the Colossians, “you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:10). Their divinization is a restoration of their likeness to God which was lost in Eden.

According to the epistle, that “putting-on Christ” also connects us to the eternal God in a new way. As St Paul says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26, 27). A person renewed in baptism is, in fact, no longer simply related to God as creature to Creator; the baptized is now an adopted son of God. Because of our baptism it is realistic to call God “Father.”

We Must Put on Christ in Our Actions

In baptism we ontologically put on Christ. We are connected to Him on the level of our deepest nature. We must also put on Christ psychologically, on the level of our actions and perceptions. In other words, we must strive to think and act like Him. To do that, we must study the actions of Christ and begin to know His mind.

Again, we must turn to St Paul, who gives us an entry into the mind of Christ, particularly in regard to the Incarnation. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, But made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).

The why of the Incarnation, according to the Apostle Paul is our deification. The how of the Incarnation is what has been called the kenosis (self-emptying) of Christ: His voluntary putting aside of divine glory and putting on “the form of a bondservant” (our humanity). As man He further humbled Himself by submitting to all the circumstances of time, place and state of life which we find described in the Gospels. He put on the condition of a village carpenter who became an itinerant preacher, challenging the religious status quo of the Jewish establishment supported by Rome. Little wonder that His path led to the death of the cross.

When St Paul says that we should “let this mind be in you” as it was in Christ, He is echoing the Lord Jesus, who proposed humility as the hallmark of the Christian. After the Lord had washed His disciples’ feet, He told them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” {John 13:14, 15). The Lord was not proposing that His disciples be characterized by actual foot-washing, but by humble service to one another.

As the Word of God exchanged His heavenly glory for the manger in a Bethlehem cave, His followers must learn to exchange their views of their own self-importance for the “form of a bondservant.” In this way, the humility of Christ rather than human “wisdom” will direct our actions.

In addition to humility, the mind of Christ according to the Scriptures is characterized chiefly by dependence on God and compassion toward others. Developing a mindset of humility, dependence and compassion is contrary to the way of thinking most people learn from the society and culture that surrounds us. It requires continual attention and effort to maintain our focus on the mind of Christ. “Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and be holy in all your conduct … as He who called you is holy” (1 Peter 1:13, 15).

St Athanasios on the Incarnation

“What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it we might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? We could not have done it, for we are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father,

Who could recreate man made after the Image. “The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, … By surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, He abolished death for His human brethren ... Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (On the Incarnation 34, 35).
 
EACH MYSTERY OF THE GOSPEL may be said to have three dimensions: the past, the present and the future. In the past we look to the Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in the New Covenant. In the present we look to the fruits of the incarnation in our experience today. The future shows the completion of this mystery in the life of the world to come.

As we approach the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, our Church “celebrates the past,” by commemorating the forefathers, the spiritual and physical ancestors of Christ, the holy prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. To some of them the Scripture specifically attributes particular prophetic texts which point to Christ. Others, simply by their place in the Genealogy of Christ, point to the reality of His human nature and His connection to the people of Israel: “Son of David, son of Abraham.”

Finally, our celebration of the Nativity, built around the imagery of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, takes us back to the time of His coming in the flesh, the event to which the Old Testament pointed. As we sing on the Sunday before Christmas, “O Mary, unwedded Mother, in your virginal womb you bore Christ, whom the prophets had once foretold in contemplation. By His Nativity He now makes the Fathers exult with joy!” (canon, ode 6).

Celebrating the Present: Theosis

While the secular celebration of Christmas, with its crèches and carols, is often content to focus only on the past, the tradition of our Church is more interested in the present: the meaning of Christ’s coming for our life today. Our Byzantine hymns continually connect Gospel events from the past to the present by affirming that “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave…” – “Now the prophecy is about to be fulfilled…” and “Christ is born…” Christ’s nativity – and all the mysteries of the Church year – are not are not a matter of looking back in time; we celebrate them because they are affecting us now.

The purpose of Christ’s coming in the flesh – His incarnation – is to change our life. The early Fathers expressed that purpose in this way: “Christ became human so that man might become divine.” As we sing at every Divine Liturgy, the “only-begotten Son and Word of God” took flesh, became incarnate, assumed our human nature. He took up our nature, becoming like us in all things, except sin, in order to give us a share in His divine nature. The fruit of His incarnation is our deification.

Theosis, the Greek term for deification, means that, because God has become one of us, we can become like Him. He is the only truly Holy One, yet we can become holy by sharing in His life. Because of the incarnation, the impossible has become possible: we can become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Our celebration of Christ’s Nativity proclaims Theosis as the very purpose of the incarnation. During the week leading up to Christmas, we sing this troparion which portrays the incarnation as fulfilling the original purpose of creation: “Bethlehem, make ready, for Eden has been opened for all… Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.” This reflects the Genesis story of creation, in which “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’… so God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1;26, 27). In the teaching of the Church Fathers, this “image” of God in us means the spiritual side of our nature, which distinguishes us from the lower orders of creation. They explained the “likeness” to mean the ability to act in a holy, godlike manner. With the fall, the Fathers teach, we lost that likeness. We retained the image of God in us, but it was scarred, unable to function as God intended.

With the incarnation this likeness was restored to mankind in the person of the Lord Jesus. He was a “new Adam,” the man that God intended. Christ communicated a share in this restored likeness to others after His death and resurrection. By being united to Him in baptism, we could become by God’s grace “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). We no longer relate to God simple as creature to Creator, but as sharers in His own life.

Christ’s incarnation, then, is an invitation to believers to be what we have become, to live in accordance with this share we have in the divine nature. We can live in a close fellowship with God: the intimacy described in Genesis as “walking with God” in the Garden. When we struggle to conform to the image of Christ as depicted in the Gospels, our potential to reflect the likeness to God gradually becomes evident. This is the path to sainthood, made possible by the incarnation.

Celebrating the Future: Transfiguration

The word “incarnation” literally means “becoming flesh.” The Son of God took on the fulness of our human nature, including the body, and transformed it. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven in the body. The result of the incarnation is that there is a human body in heaven, seated at the Father’s right! The incarnation is unto the ages.

In several of his epistles, St Paul sets forth the Gospel teaching that the risen Christ is “the firstborn among many brethren” {Romans 8:29), “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). As He is, so we are meant to be.

“But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’” (1 Corinthians 15:35). After all, the dissolution of the dead body as it returns to the earth is visible to all. St Paul explains at length what the resurrection entails: “When you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body… So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body … And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15:37-49).This “image of the heavenly Man” was revealed to us in the transfiguration of Christ: the human body imbued with the presence of the divine life.

When we celebrate the incarnation, then, we are celebrating the future of the body which the Son of God assumed – and that is our future as well. As Christ’s body is glorified now, so our bodies – our “spiritual bodies,” to use St Paul’s phrase – are meant to be glorified in the age to come. Because of the incarnation, our life in Christ lived in our earthly bodies is destined to be climaxed by an eternal life lived in bodies raised in glory and power – in the image of the heavenly Man.

Hymns on the Sunday before Christmas

“He has shared my poverty, becoming man so that I might become God-like and share in His riches” (sticheron at vespers).

“A strange mystery, wondrous, which causes amazement: the Lord of glory has come down upon earth! He has appeared in a cave, bearing our nature, in order to raise up Adam and to free from her pains the ancient mother of all the living” (canon, ode 9).
 
A DESERT IS ONE of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Torrid by day and frigid by night, it offers none of the comforts with which we surround ourselves. And yet, it is a desert – the Judean desert, to be precise – to which St Saba the Sanctified (Dec. 5) followed Christ. In time, in the words of his friend and biographer, Cyril of Scythopolis (echoing St Athanasius), Mar Saba and his followers would turn the desert into a city peopled by monks. Their successors are there today, 1500 years later.

The story of Mar Saba begins in a Cappadocian village called Mutalaska where he was born in ad 439. When Saba was five years old, his father John, a military commander, was sent to Alexandria and Saba was entrusted to an uncle, who took charge of the family’s estate. In some accounts, this uncle was so harsh that the boy fled, first to another uncle and then, at the age of eight, to Bishop Flavian of Antioch, who placed him in his own household. It was here that Saba first experienced the monastic way of life.

After ten years, Saba was tonsured as a monk and, in 456, traveled to Jerusalem. He wanted to live with the noted hermit, St Euthymios the Great, but the saint sent him to his own elder, St Theoktistos, whose nearby monastery practiced a communal rule. When Theoktistos died in 467, St Euthymios took Saba, whom he called a “child-elder,” as his companion, allowing him to return to the monastery only for divine services on the weekends. When Euthymios himself died in 473, Saba began to live as a hermit.

After five years, Saba sought even more isolation, moving to a cave on the cliffs of the Kedron Valley, south of Jerusalem.

Saba’s life of solitude there only lasted five years; as he became known as an experienced elder, others interested in the monastic life came to join him. By 483 Saba had been forced to build a church and a number of cells on the cliffside to accommodate them. This lavra – a gathering of individual cells around a common church – was the beginning of what we call the Mar Saba Monastery.

Over the next fifty years, Saba became the center of a developing monastic presence surrounding the Holy City. Ordained a priest in 491, he was named archimandrite of all the monasteries in Palestine three years later. His prayers were recognized as instrumental in healings and other wonders which took place around him. Saba himself founded a second monastery nearby, the “New Lavra.” Before his death he had established seven monasteries in all.

Saba, a Healer of the Church

Besides effecting physical cures by his prayers, Mar Saba also strove to heal the physical and spiritual ills of the Church. Saba’s position first thrust him into the midst of a controversy in which the local Church was entangled. The Council of Chalcedon (451) had defined as Orthodox doctrine the belief that Christ was truly God and truly man: one person in two natures. Many in the Eastern Churches did not accept this teaching, supported from time to time by important imperial figures.

On the very day in 511 that Severus was enthroned as Patriarch of Antioch with imperial backing, he denounced Chalcedon and set the Antiochian Church against Rome and Constantinople. When the commander of the palace guard, Flavius Justinus, became emperor in 518, he immediately reversed his predecessor’s policy. Severus fled to Alexandria and a Chalcedonian, Paul I, was installed as patriarch.

To bolster the revival of the Chalcedonian doctrine, Mar Saba led a group of abbots from the Judaean monasteries to eastern Palestine (Samaria) in order to proclaim the emperor’s decree restoring Chalcedonian orthodoxy and ending the schism with the West. Although Severus never returned to Antioch, the controversy split the Church of Antioch in two: the (Chalcedonian) Greek patriarchate and a (non-Chalcedonian) Syriac patriarchate.

Mar Saba returned to the region in 531. In the preceding century, Emperor Zeno (474-491) had attempted to force the conversion of the Samaritans to Christianity. He only succeeded in sparking a series of rebellions against Roman rule. From 529 to 531 an especially violent uprising occurred. When it was finally put down, the Samaritans had been decimated. Many churches and monasteries had been damaged and destroyed in the process.

Mar Saba was asked by the Patriarch of Jerusalem to inspect the areas throughout Palestine damaged in the revolt. In 531 he traveled throughout Samaria and the Decapolis fulfilling this task. Mar Saba then traveled to Constantinople, asking Emperor Justinian to remit the taxes due from the people in Palestine because of what they had suffered during the Samaritan revolt. Saba promised to build a hospice at Jerusalem for pilgrims, and a fortress for the protection of hermits and monks against raiders. Shortly after his return, Saba fell ill and was not to recover, dying at the age of 91, on December 5, 532.

Saba was buried in the courtyard between two churches in the Mar Saba Monastery. In the twelfth century, during the Crusades, the relics were taken to Rome. In 1965 Pope Paul VI returned them to the monastery. They are now enshrined in its principal church.

The Monastery and Its Martyrs

Saba’s principal monastery, the Great Lavra, has been the spiritual center of the Jerusalem patriarchate since its foundation. The order of monastic services developed there, the Typikon of Mar Saba, became the basis for the liturgical life of Constantinople and all the Byzantine churches. Though much augmented and adapted since the first millennium, the ordering of Byzantine services is still called the Typikon of Mar Saba.

The monastery, which numbered 500 at its peak, was frequently assailed by invaders. The first martyrs of Mar Saba were the 44 fathers slain on May 16, 614, during the Persian invasion. As described by St Antiochus, one of the survivors, a band of Arab tribesmen fighting with the Persian army attacked the monastery in search of plunder. When they were unable to find the treasure they expected, they became angry and murdered a number of the monks, beheading some and hacking others to pieces. They are remembered in our Church on May 16.

The Arab armies had taken Jerusalem in 638. The Arab rulers imposed the jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and frequently seized properties from their subjects. Attacks on Christian sites became common. In 797 Mar Saba Monastery experienced a particularly savage assault. On March 13, a band of Arabs attacked the monastery, demanding valuables. Thirteen monks were killed and others wounded. One week later the Arabs returned with reinforcements. The remaining monks were herded into the church and tortured until they would reveal the location of their treasury. The sacristan hid the church vessels and attempted to flee but was captured and beheaded.

Several monks were able to escape and hid in a nearby cave. An Arab sentry spotted them and demanded their surrender. One monk, Patrikios, surrendered but said he was alone. He, along with other monks, was herded into a cave and a fire lit at the entrance with dung piled in it to produce poisonous gases. Eighteen additional monks perished as a result. After the Arabs left, the survivors returned to bury these martyrs. They are remembered in our Church on March 20.

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