Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
Arabic translation (PDF, 3 pages, 64KB)


Holy and Glorious Pascha 2018
Dear Clergy and Faithful, Christ is risen! He is truly risen!
Now that we have seen the Resurrection of Christ, let us adore the All-holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One. We bow in worship before Your Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Your Resurrection, for You are our God, and we have no other, and we magnify Your name. All you faithful, come, let us adore the holy Resurrection of Christ; for behold, through the Cross joy has come to the world. Let us always bless the Lord, let us sing His Resurrection, for by enduring for us the pain of the Cross, He has crushed Death by His death.

Christ is Risen! He is Truly Risen!

This beautiful hymn is chanted on Pascha and on every Sunday after the Resurrection Gospel of Morning Prayer (Orthros). It is a stark and joyous proclamation that the Resurrection of Christ is absolutely central to the Church, as St. Paul says: “If Christ had not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Corinthians. 15:14). Empty! Pascha is the hinge on which the whole Church year swings – the greatest feast, indeed the Feast of feasts!

Although we did not witness the physical resurrection of Jesus two thousand years ago, it still takes place in each one of us who believes. Jesus appeared to His mother and to Mary Magdalene and brought them joy. He appeared to Peter to assure him he was forgiven for his denial. He appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and, in the breaking of the bread, He cleared up their despair and doubt. He appeared to His disciples in the Upper Room, making them stronger and confident in their belief. Miraculous changes occurred because Jesus appeared.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He continues to appear now and to reveal Himself now in order to forgive our sins. He is not dead: He lives! He instills new hope in us. When we fear, He upholds us. As He appeared to Paul on his way to persecute the Christians in Damascus, He continues to appear to us today through the love we share with one another. In our confused times, He is the way; in our despair, He is our hope; in our sins, He is forgiveness and mercy; in our death, He is our life.

I know the tomb is empty because I see the resurrected Jesus in all of you; touching you I have touched Christ, like Thomas the Apostle. I have seen the Resurrection of Christ: He speaks to me in my daily prayers, and I listen to Him in His Holy Bible, and I hear His inner Voice within me, called conscience. And He touches me in the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments of the Church, especially in the Communion of His Precious Body and Blood, where He gives Himself to me entirely!

My prayer for you on this Feast of feasts is that you, too, will experience His living, loving, life-giving Presence, and that He will strengthen you in your weaknesses and sorrows. May He raise you up each time you fall – “for behold through the Cross joy has come to the world… for He has crushed Death by His death.”

My love, prayers, and blessings for a glorious Paschal Season to you all!

Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen!

Sincerely yours in the Risen Lord,
✠ Most Reverend Nicholas J. Samra
Eparchial Bishop of Newton

 
THERE ARE TWO ICONS put forth for veneration this Sunday in those Byzantine churches which follow the Gregorian calendar. Because it is March 25, we are celebrating the Great Feast of the Annunciation. Because it is Palm Sunday, we are commemorating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a few days before His passion.

Both of these occasions are among our Church’s greatest feasts, each pointing to a different moment in the life of Christ. On the Annunciation we reflect on the conception of the Word of God as a man in the womb of the Theotokos. On Palm Sunday we join in welcoming Him as the One who comes in the name of the Lord, the Savior. These seem to be very different aspects of the mystery of Christ; on both occasions, however, He was glorified with the same title, Son of David.

Why “Son of David”?

David, the son of Jesse, was the second king of the united kingdom of Israel, reigning at c. 1000 bc. The Old Testament describes his era as the golden age of Israel. Variant versions of his life are found in 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles and the Book of Ruth. As king, David conquered Jerusalem and established it as his capital, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the city. David wished to build a temple there to house the Ark, but the prophet Nathan related to him a message he had received from God: “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son” (2 Samuel 7:12-14).

David’s son Solomon did, indeed, succeed his father as king and built the first temple in Jerusalem, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy. After Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam became king, but he could not hold the nation together. The northern tribes broke away and formed their own kingdom and so the second part of the prophecy – “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” – was not fulfilled in him.

When the independence of these kingdoms was threatened, the prophets foretold that a “son of David” would establish a lasting kingdom. As Isaiah foretold repeatedly:
- “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this”;
- “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots”;
and
- “In mercy the throne will be established; and One will sit on it in truth, in the tabernacle of David, judging and seeking justice and hastening righteousness” (Isaiah 9:7, 11:1, and 16:5).

Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah foretold: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth” (Jeremiah 23:5). These and similar prophecies gave rise to the belief among many Jews that the Messiah would be, in fact, of David’s lineage.

Jesus as Son of David

By the first century ad, it was commonly taught that the Messiah would be this “son of David” and, therefore, from Bethlehem. As we read in John’s Gospel, some who heard Jesus speak “…said ‘Truly this is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some said, ‘Will the Christ come out of Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’ So, there was a division among the people because of Him” (John 7:40-43).

In their teaching about Jesus, the Gospels all present Him as the Son of David. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus which opens with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

When the magi came seeking the One whose birth they had read of in the stars, they were sent to Bethlehem as the prophet Micah had foretold, “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The Ruler to come out of Bethlehem was presumed to be the Son of David.

The greatest witness to Jesus’ role as Son of David is the Archangel Gabriel. In the Gospel story of the Annunciation, Gabriel says of Jesus that “…the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32. 33). The Lord Jesus is clearly depicted here as fulfilling the words of the prophets.

Throughout His ministry people referred to Jesus as the Son of David. The most graphic representation of their belief came when Jesus was escorted into Jerusalem as a king while people cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Thus. the proclamation which the angel made at Jesus’ conception is repeated by His people as He approached His passion.

The final allusion to the Lord Jesus as Son of David is found in the Book of Revelation, the last New Testament book, which speaks of the Lord’s return in glory. In one of the author John’s last visions, Christ proclaims, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last… I am the Root and the Offspring of David” (Revelations 22: 13, 16). Christ is not only the descendant of David, but his Creator (root) as well: a claim that only the eternal Word of God incarnate could make.

Fully Us, Fully Other

In many societies, it is customary to take one’s paternal name as part of one’s own. This expresses a person’s roots in a particular family or clan. If a person’s ancestor was of some repute, he would emphasize the connection by laying claim to his name in particular. It is in this sense that an angel addresses St Joseph as son of David (see Matthew 1:20). Calling the Lord Jesus “son of David” says that He is a part of human history in this particular family.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both include genealogies which expressly connect Jesus to Abraham (Mt) and Adam (Lk) as well as David. Emphasizing these human connections, the Gospels indicate that the Lord Jesus is truly one of us, fully man, in order to transform us, as later theology would express it: “Today is the announcement of joy, today is the virginal festivity, today Heaven is joined to earth, Adam is renewed and Eve released from sorrow; the dwelling-place, our own essence, has become God’s temple because a portion of it has been deified!” (Vespers for the Annunciation)

The Messianic title “Son of David” also points to Christ’s role as our Creator and Redeemer. As Messiah, the Son of David is unique, completely different from His creation. In this sense, calling Jesus Son of David emphasizes how different Jesus is from us. The Son of David is like no other. Thus on Palm Sunday we sing, “He who sits upon the throne of the Cherubim, for our sake sits upon a foal. Coming to His voluntary Passion, today He hears the children cry, Hosanna!, while the crowd replies, "O Son of David, make haste to save those whom You have created, blessed Jesus, since You have come for this reason: that we may know Your glory!"
 
IF YOU HAVE EVER BEEN A PARTY to an important contract, such as a real estate transfer, whether you know it or not, you have entered into a covenant – a formal, solemn and binding agreement between parties concerning serious matters, such as borders, property, finances, or ways of life. A covenant establishes a bond between the parties – whether nations or individuals – which goes beyond the specifics agreed upon. A covenant implies a relationship of trust in other areas of life between the parties as well.

Covenants such as these are called bilateral, because they are between two equal parties – two nations, two companies or two individuals – who agree on the terms of their relationship. The Scriptures speak often of covenants between God and individuals, the people of Israel, or the entire human race. These covenants are not bilateral, but unilateral. They are not mutual agreements between equal parties, but unsought gifts of God to man. As Pope Benedict XVI described it, “The covenant then is not a pact built on reciprocity, but rather a gift, a creative act of God's love” ("The New Covenant: A Theology of Covenant in the New Testament").

It is God who determined the terms of the bond which He offers to the recipients of His covenants. This is not “unfair,” because what God offers is so far above and beyond what the other party can contribute. God gains nothing by making a covenant with man; man has everything to gain by keeping the terms which God has established.

The Covenant with Adam (Genesis 1:27-2:3) – The Jews understood creation itself to be a covenant with mankind. God’s part was to create our first ancestors in His image and likeness, and give them “dominion over … every living thing that moves on the earth” (v.28) with “every herb … and every tree …for food” (v.29), except for “the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 3:3). Man’s part was to “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28): to replenish and cultivate, or put in order, the creation God had given.

The Genesis story concludes as follows: “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:3). The Jews considered keeping the Sabbath as the sign which would remind them of God’s covenant with Adam.

The Covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:9-15) –After the flood waters receded, God made another covenant with mankind through Noah, promising to keep creation from being destroyed: “Behold, I establish My covenant with you … never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” In addition to the herbs and fruit of the trees, God now provided that “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (Genesis 9:3). But man was not to eat “flesh with its blood” (blood was the stuff of sacrifice – it was an offering for God, not for man to consume). Man’s part in the covenant was, again, to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:2).

Here, too, the covenant had a sign: God says, “I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. … and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:13-16). Unlike the covenant in Eden, this sign of the covenant was to remind God, rather than man, of what he had promised.

The Covenant with Abram – Gen 12 – The next covenant was with Noah’s descendant Abram, whose name God changed to Abraham. “Behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. … And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, Also, I give to you and your descendants … all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:4-9).

While the earlier covenants were between God and all mankind through Adam and Noah, the covenant with Abram/Abraham was with him and his descendants. Their part was to observe the sign of the covenant, circumcision, which would identify them as being of Abram’s tribe, heirs of God’s promise. “This is My covenant which you shall keep, … Every male child among you shall be circumcised … My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:10, 11, 13).

The Covenant with Moses (Exodus 19:3-9) – The promise that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan was fulfilled through Moses. God promised, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, … you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ (Exodus 19:5)

The people’s part of the covenant was to keep the Ten Commandments and the other precepts God had given them. These precepts were written for posterity and animals were sacrificed to seal the covenant. Moses “…And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you” (Exodus 24:7, 8).

The sign of this covenant was the observance of the three pilgrimage feasts: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Booths): “Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord, the Lord God of Israel” (Exodus 34:23).

The Covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:12-16) – When David was securely established as the Israelite king, he received this promise from God: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house [descendants]. When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He it is who shall build a house for my name.” This offspring was Solomon, who erected the first temple in Jerusalem.

But then the promise continues and expands: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (verse 13), and “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me” (verse 16). What began as a promise concerning Solomon, turns into something greater—the promise of an everlasting kingdom. Another Son of David would rule forever and build a lasting House.

This Covenant is unconditional because God does not place any conditions of obedience upon its fulfillment. The promise made rests solely on God’s faithfulness and does not depend at all on David or Israel’s obedience.

The New Covenant – In the Epistle to the Hebrews Jesus is called the “Mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). In this covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31), Jesus renews many aspects of the Old Covenants described above. As God rested on the seventh day from His work of creation, so Jesus rested on the “Great Sabbath,” from His work of redemption. Animal blood was not to be consumed in the days of Noah because it was an offering to God, but the “blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28) is to be consumed in the Eucharist. While Israel under Moses was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ all the baptized are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9). Gabriel told Mary at the Annunciation, that Jesus “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31). The New Covenant fulfills all the promises of the earlier Covenants.
 
THE NEW TESTAMENT DEPICTS the mystery of Christ in terms of the rituals of sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. It describes Christ’s sacrifice based on the manner in which animals were sacrificed there. First, the animal was killed, usually by the donor, in the outer court of the temple. Similarly, Jesus was crucified outside the holy city of Jerusalem.

The same pattern is found in our Divine Liturgy, illustrating the connection between the temple, the Cross, and our worship. Thus, the Eucharistic bread, which we call the Lamb, is prepared at the Prothesis, originally in another chapel, but at least at a distance from the Holy Table.

In the temple, the slain animal was taken by the Levites to the priests, who placed it on the altar and offered it to God. In contrast, Christ – being both victim and priest – offered Himself to the Father eternally in the heavenly sanctuary. In our Liturgy, the Lamb and the cup are brought to the holy table and offered “in all and for the sake of all.”

Finally, the sacrificial meat was divided: part was portioned out for God (by immolation), and part for the priests. The greater part was returned to the donor to be shared with the poor or in a festive meal. In our Liturgy the sanctified Lamb and the cup are shared first by the priests and then by the people in the mystical supper of the Eucharist.

On Yom Kipper, there was another step. The blood of the animal was taken into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest and sprinkled there. Finally, the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies and bless the people. Christ was placed in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus, but emerged from the tomb at His resurrection, sharing with those in the tombs the blessing of eternal life.

The Presence behind the Veil

Describing Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the temple ritual, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ entering “the Presence behind the veil” (Hebrews 6:19). This depicts heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, where the Holy of Holies – which no one could enter except the High Priest on Yom Kippur – was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain or veil. We see an allusion to this image at the Great Entrance of our Liturgy, when the priest brings the offered bread and wine behind the iconostasis.

To enter “the Presence behind the veil” alludes to Christ’s return to the Father, where He eternally offers His sacrifice for us and it is eternally accepted by the Father. Because His sacrifice is offered and accepted beyond human time, it is possible for us to partake of it continually in the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy, then, is not a “new” sacrifice but the one sacrifice of Christ, eternally offered and accepted.

In this passage, Christ is called “the forerunner” (v. 20), meaning the One who goes before, to prepare a place for us. Christ has entered the presence of the Father offering the sacrifice of His blood for us who follow behind Him. The same reality is depicted elsewhere in agricultural terms when Christ is called “the first-fruits of those who sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The Promise of Christ’s Return

At His ascension Christ’s disciples are told by an angel, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Ever since, the members of the Church have been waiting for the return of Christ: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).

This promise of a second appearance, or second coming, energized the preaching of the apostles, who placed it.at the heart of our faith. As the Nicene Creed professes, we believe that Christ “… shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.” And this faith gives us hope.

Our Hope for Eternal Life

Another dimension is added to this teaching in the First Epistle of St Peter, where God is praised in these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3, 4).

Putting these images together, we can say that our hope for eternal life in the company of the saints is not wishful thinking, but is solidly based on the reality of Christ’s sacrificial death and its acceptance by the Father. It is confirmed by Christ’s resurrection and becomes ours through our sharing in the Divine Liturgy. As forerunner and first fruits, Christ stands at the head of an endless procession, leading those united to Him beyond the veil into the eternal Holy of Holies.

This Is Our Hope

In popular speech hope is equated with wishing or feeling that something might be true, or might happen. There is nothing wishful about Christian hope, however. It is based on the witness of the apostles to Christ’s death and resurrection and their understanding that we are meant to share in the eternal life He had purchased for us by His blood. In St Paul’s words, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Christian hope, then, is a firm confidence in the witness of the apostles affirmed by the Church ever since.

The Fear of Eternity

Strange as it may seem, many people are afraid of endless life. Apeirophobia – the fear of eternity – afflicts more people than we can imagine. The thought of an impersonal existence that goes on forever amounts to torture. It appears to some to resemble life in prison without parole.

As we know from studying Christ’s sacrifice and the Divine Liturgy, there is no earthy time with God, no succession of tomorrows, only an eternal now. In Christ’s words, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The Christian faith depicts eternity as an endless now, knowing the truly existing One, the inexhaustible cup of life. The life we now share is but a shadow of life in and with God; if earthly time went on forever it would be something to fear. But our hope is not that earthly time would stretch out endlessly, but that an eternal now in the presence of Christ would truly transform us in ways we can but imagine. “… it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Temple, Cross and Altar

Of old, celebrating the dedication of the Temple, the wise Solomon offered to God sacrifices and holocausts of brute animals. Now that the God of grace and truth has come upon earth, He has completely fulfilled these sacrifices. Offering Himself as a sacrifice for our salvation, the Lover of Mankind has sanctified His Church, making it unshakable forever. He alone is Lord, and is glorified in the assembly of His saints.
 
WHEN THE ISRAELITES LEFT EGYPT under Moses, the Bible says that they “plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35), taking with them articles of silver and gold and precious fabrics. They also took with them something which would be at the center of their society for over one thousand years: the institution of a High Priest.

There were a number of gods revered in Egypt and each of them had a central sanctuary. Thebes, for example, was the center of the cult of Amun, the “king of gods.” The highest-ranking priest of Amun was called the High Priest. Several other prominent gods had similar sanctuaries and high priests.

The High Priest of Israel

During the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt Moses’ brother Aaron was chosen to be their first High Priest (see Exodus 28). The High Priest served, first, in the portable sanctuary which accompanied the Israelites in their travels. When Jerusalem became the center of Israel, its temple replaced the portable sanctuary. From then on, the High Priest was associated with the Jerusalem temple. When the Romans finally destroyed the temple in ad 70 and forbade the Jews from living around Jerusalem (ad 135), the office of High Priest ceased.

The most important role of the High Priest was to serve in the temple on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the Jewish year. The High Priest first offered a bull in sacrifice for his own sins and those of his household. Then he entered the inner sanctuary of the temple alone. After offering incense, he sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed bull around the inner sanctuary. Then he would offer a goat to be sacrificed for the sins of the priests. Returning to the inner sanctuary, he would sprinkle it with the blood of the goat. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ’s death would be both compared to and contrasted to this ritual.

Christ as High Priest

In this epistle, there are a number of times that Christ is compared to the High Priest of the Jewish temple. The first of these is that both are selected by God: “no one takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4). Two psalm verses are then cited as witnesses to Christ’s call, the first being Psalms 2:7 – “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.”

This verse does not seem to refer to priesthood until we recall that the Israelite high priesthood was held by the descendants of Aaron, passing from father to son. If Christ was to be considered High Priest, it was important to know who His Father was.

The second psalm verse cited in Hebrews is Psalms 110:4 – “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” This verse refers to the priest-king of Salem who greeted Abram after his victory over the Elamites (Genesis 14). Later in the epistle, Melchizedek is described as “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3), a very Semitic image of an unceasing priest and, therefore, “made like the Son of God.”

The epistle thus presents Christ as Son of God and eternal High Priest, without human genealogy or descendants. Yet, He is also described as a very human High Priest, one who can sympathize with our weaknesses because He “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:!5).

Priesthood and Sacrifice

A second point of comparison between the Lord Jesus and the High Priest of the Jewish temple is that both are appointed to offer sacrifices for sins. In the temple, sacrifices were offered each day, year after year, morning and evening, usually by the priests who were delegated to do so. Livestock, grain, meal, wine and incense were offered in sacrifice to God as qurban, or oblations.
The Epistle to the Hebrews contrasts the frequency of these oblations with the one sacrifice of Christ. While the temple oblations were offered daily, Christ offers but one sacrifice. He “who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:26-28).

This contrast is also evidenced by what was sacrificed. It is “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood [that] He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Christ offered Himself, a gift of His whole being, sacrificed on the cross.

The Divine Liturgy and Christ’s Sacrifice

Many of the elements of sacrifice are found in our Divine Liturgy. As the bread – called the Lamb – is prepared, the priest recites these verses, which call to mind Christ’s sacrifice: “Like a sheep, He was led to the slaughter. Like a spotless lamb silent before its shearer, He opens not His mouth. ,,, The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is immolated for the life and salvation of the world.”

St Nicholas Cabasilas describes this rite in his commentary on the Divine Liturgy: “Whatever was said and carried out on the Lamb to symbolize the Lord’s death, are simple descriptions and symbols. The Lamb remained bread, just that now it became a gift dedicated to God, and it symbolizes Christ’s body.”

The holy gifts do not remain a mere symbol, however. During the prayer called the Anaphora or Oblation, the priest retells the events of the Lord’s mystical supper, then, as the Gifts are raised up to God, he joins in offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father, “Remembering, therefore, this precept of salvation … we offer You Your own, from what is Your own, in all and for the sake of all.”

Through this offering we are mystically united with the sacrifice offered by Christ on Calvary, and through the descent of the Holy Spirit we are joined to its eternal acceptance by God on our behalf. The first part of the sacrifice, the killing of the Victim, is past, because Christ died at a certain time and place. The second part, the offering to God, and the third part its acceptance by God, are accomplished in eternity, outside of human time. Because the Liturgy transcends time and space, we can be united to Christ in the Liturgy as He enters the heavenly sanctuary once, for all.

Hebrews summarizes its view of Christ as our eternal High Priest with this invitation to us to join in His sacrifice: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13, 14)

Confusion about the nature of the Liturgy was common in the Middle Ages. Some, reading Hebrews’ description of Christ’s sacrifice as “once for all,” concluded that the Eucharist could not be another sacrifice. Western Catholics countered that the Mass was indeed a sacrifice, “For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different” (Council of Trent). Sadly, this expression did not eliminate the objection that the Mass was another sacrifice, rather than our sharing in the one sacrifice presently being offered by Christ.
 
WHEN THE AVERAGE AMERICAN SEES a skull or skeleton displayed, it is probably Halloween. When the Eastern Christian sees a skull or other bones put forth for veneration in church, it is the deification of our nature that comes to mind. It is particu-larly appropriate that we venerate the relics of the Saints during the Great Fast, as the ultimate transformation of our nature, theosis, is the basis for what we do in the Fast. Created in God’s image, we are meant to reflect His divine goodness in us as in a mirror.

Because of the Fall, however, we need to be recreated in order for us to reflect God. When we strive to grow in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other expressions of devotion, we express concretely our hope for the ultimate re-creation of our nature in Christ.

That re-creation begins at our baptism where we are ontologically united to God in Christ and become by adoption what Christ is by nature. To cherish and preserve this union takes the effort of what has been called “spiritual warfare” or “the ascetic struggle,” the effort on our part to live out in our daily lives what we have become in Baptism.

In some of the Saints, we see visible manifestations of the likeness of God which has developed in them. They display gifts of knowledge or discernment, their intercession may effect healings or preserve from danger. They become icons of the love of God on earth. The Church recognizes their holiness by glorifying them and making icons to suggest graphically their likeness to God.

Theosis Reflected in Holy Relics

Since the early days of the Church, Christians have celebrated the holiness of those who have gone before them by honoring their relics: their remains or objects associated with them during their lives. During times of persecution, Chris-tians treasured these mementos secretly in their homes; when circumstances allowed, they erected shrines to house these relics and celebrate the memory of these saints whose lives reflected the divine presence within them.

Moderns, used to the highly sanitized treatment of death and burial in our day, might be shocked at the idea of kissing skulls and other body parts. Even in our churches, where the last kiss is a traditional part of the funeral service, we find people put off by the idea of kissing a dead body. In earlier periods, where death was not considered something to be hidden away behind cosmetics and canned music, such contact was a normal consequence of the relationship one has with deceased family or friends.

In that context, reverence for the physical remains of the martyrs and other saints may be considered an act of faith that the entire physical creation does have the potential for being transfigured and that the human body in particular participates in the restoration of humanity.

Incorrupt and Healing Remains

The bodies of some saints remain, at least for a time, without any of the usual signs of decay, even though they have not been chemically preserved in any way. Their bodies were so sanctified by divine grace during their lives that, even after death, they were preserved from decomposing. In many cases these relics would even exude myrrh or emit a sweet fragrance, physically wit-nessing to the saint’s holiness. As St John of Damascus attested, “The Lord Christ granted us the relics of the Saints to be fountains of salvation for us, pouring forth manifold bles-sings and abounding in sweetly fragrant oil.”

The second-century martyr, St Cecilia, is perhaps the first to manifest this gift of incorruptibility. When her body was ex-humed at the end of the sixteenth century, it was found to be incorrupt. Her relics still lie in the Church of St Cecilia on the island of Trastevere in the Tiber, reputedly the site of her own home.

Sometimes these manifestations ceased once the Church took steps to glorify the saint. The body of St Charbel, the Lebanese hermit who died in 1898, was exhumed after a bright light was seen surrounding his grave for 45 nights after his burial. His body was found to be in perfect condition, although it was floating on mud in the rain-soaked grave. Examined again in 1927 and 1950, the body was found to be free of corruption. When he was beatified in 1965, the phenom-enon was found to have ceased.

At other times, these signs would recur regularly over the years, perhaps on the saint’s feast. The tomb of St Nicholas of Myra, who died in 346, was said to emit a sweet-smelling liquid with healing proper-ties. With the Turkish seizure of Asia Minor in the eleventh century, the relics were taken to Bari in Italy and placed in a new marble tomb. The same phenomenon began to take place at this tomb and has continued to this day.

Healing through the relics of the Saints is perhaps best illustrated in the case of St Nectarios of Aegina, a saintly hierarch who died of prostate cancer in an Athens charity hospital in 1920. In the next bed, was a man who had been paralyzed for many years. As soon as the Metropolitan expired, a nurse and a nun who had cared for him began preparing his body for burial. They removed the old sweater he was wearing and placed it on the bed of the paralyzed man to get it out of the way. As they continued preparing the saint’s body, the paralyzed man began gaining strength and arose from his bed, healthy, glorifying God who had healed him in this way, the first of countless healings attributed to the intercession of St Nectarios. The room where he died was filled with such a powerful fragrance that it could not be used for patients. It is now a shrine to the saint.

Relics in Our Church

Relics play an important role in our Church, because they point to one of the most basic beliefs mentioned in the Creed, the ultimate resurrection of all flesh in the age to come. Major relics, such as intact bodies, skulls or major body parts are often carried in procession for solemn veneration. Such relics, like noteworthy icons, are often sent from one local Church to another to increase people’s reverence for them and for what they represent. Thus, in 2017, relics of St Nicholas were sent from Bari to Moscow, with the blessing of Pope Francis. The relics remained in Russia for two months where over one million Orthodox Christians lined up to venerate them.

Many churches have fragments of relics from the bodies or garments of the Saints. They may be encased in reliquaries or em-bedded in icons for veneration. Icons are also encased in the holy tables of conse-crated churches, a reminder of the first centuries when the Liturgy was frequently served at martyrs’ graves. In the Byzantine Churches, such relics are sewn into each antimension placed under the chalice and diskos during the Divine Liturgy. Thus, every Liturgy is served over the remains or belongings of a saint.

Reverence for relics, like our veneration of icons, is particularly timely during the Great Fast, as it reminds us of the divine life dwelling in those who truly live the Chris-tian life. In the sanctified remains of the Saints, we see that the state of deification which they attained during this life is prolonged in their bodies after death. The energy of their sanctification does not forsake the body after death; it remains, sometimes in a manifest way, in anticipation of the transfigured bodies of the Saints in the life of the age to come.
 
WE HAVE COMPLETED THE FIRST WEEK of the Great Fast. Hopefully, we have met the goals which have set for ourselves: the degree of fasting and almsgiving appropriate to our station in life, or the participation in the services which our schedule of respon-sibilities allows. Whether we did or did not do so, we should realize that taking part in such practices is not the ultimate purpose of the fasting season. The final goal of the Great Fast – and of our entire life as Chris-tians – is our ultimate transfiguration in Christ.

St Paul – who had seen the transfigured glory of the risen Christ appear to him on the road to Damascus – insisted that we will share in this transformation and that this change is already taking place: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). He daringly asserts that we are being trans-formed to be the mirror image of the risen Christ. Our human nature, he proclaims, is being renewed after the model who is Christ. This is what our later tradition calls theosis (deification), being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): given a share through Christ in the very life of God.

How Can This Be?

We may try to imitate Christ, to pattern our actions on the way of life which Christ has proposed to us; but the change described in the Scripture demands more than our striving to make it so. It demands an ontological change, something that affects us at the heart of our being and turns the water of our human nature in the wine of God. This transformation is what St Paul calls “the mystery decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

The first transformation in this mystery is the incarnation of the Word of God Himself. He assumes our human nature without putting aside His divinity. His glory was concealed – except for the moment of His transfiguration on Mt. Tabor – but He did not cease being the eternal Son of God. His incarnation was complete: “in all things He had to be made like His brethren” (Hebrews 2:17) so that He would transform our entire human nature. St Gregory the Theologian expressed it concisely, “That which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is thereby saved.” In other words, if there is an aspect of our being which the Son did not assume in the Incarnation, then that aspect of our humanity would be beyond the reach of Christ’s redeeming work.

The second transformation is ours: we are incorporated into Christ. When we are baptized into Christ we experience an ontological change, we have “put on Christ.” We have been taken into His family and His divine Father by nature is now ours, as we are “adopted as sons by Jesus Christ in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). Body and soul, we have become the dwelling place of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) and “the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

This ontological change working in our baptism is not abolished when we take off our baptismal garment. Our deification is reaffirmed whenever we partake of the Eu-charist. Christ’s body mystically becomes one with ours, confirming our incorporation into Him. Our entire life becomes a matter of “becoming what you are.” We are called to become consciously and actively what we are mystically through our baptism: to strive for a loving awareness – and even perhaps vision – of the indwelling glory of Christ in the Spirit. In words attributed to St Gregory of Sinai, “Become what you already are, find Him who is already yours, listen to Him who never ceases speaking to you, own Him who already owns you.”

What Will It Be Like?

For most of us, our deification, begun sacramentally, blossoms in our spirits when we live with a conscious awareness of God’s life in us. Rarely is it manifested in our bodies before the life of the age to come. At the end of this age, however, our bodies will share in our transformation, according to the Scriptures.

With all the drama of apocalyptic literature, 1 Corinthians describes the destiny of our bodies: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be chang-ed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incor-ruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

St Paul describes this change as the corruptible putting on incorruption. The physical decay of death, is destined to be reversed, as it were, and the body given a share in the eternal life of grace. The biblical authors themselves could not describe concretely how this will happen. St Paul resorted to imagery: “But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’ Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what 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” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38).

In one of the last books of the New Testa-ment to be written, even imagery is aban-doned. In 1 John the apostolic author professes his faith despite his ignorance of details: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2, 3). Somehow, the vision of God will penetrate our bodily nature.

The Icon and Our Transfiguration

The Church’s faith in the transformation of our mortal bodies by the vision of God is at the heart of our concept of the icon. The bodies of Christ and of the saints are shown as physical, but transfigured. They are of this world, but other-worldly. They may be shown in an earthly setting – a city or a countryside – but even nature is depicted as not of this world. Individual saints are shown on a golden background, representing heavenly glory.

With the rediscovery of classical art in the Renaissance, Western painters moved away from the tradition of iconography, depicting Christ and the saints as naturalistically as possible. In the Eastern Churches, the rules of iconography remain, giving us an image of the transfigured body of the age to come.

By a happy coincidence, it was on the First Sunday of the Great Fast, in the year 843 that iconoclasm was decisively defeated and icons formally restored in Constantinople. As we celebrate this Triumph of Orthodoxy, we cannot fail to see the transfigured bodies in our icons as a reminder that the glory of Christ and the Spirit sacramentally within the believer will one day become physically visible, in the very limbs of the transformed body.
 
IF YOU WERE TO ASK a fitness devotee to describe Clean Week, you would hear about a seven-day nutrition and exercise program involving eating and lifestyle changes designed to “create the healthy habits you need for lifelong health and fitness.”

If you were to ask a committed Eastern Christian to describe Clean Week, you would hear about the first week of the Great Fast with its eating and lifestyle changes, its workouts (prostrations), and its programs for accountability (confession) and support (daily services).

Both approaches invite participants to put aside self-indulgence for a higher goal. The bodybuilder seeks health and fitness; the Christian seeks another kind of transform-ation, one described in the Scriptures as leading to something far greater: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3: 1-4).

“Cast Off the Works of Darkness”

Because our human nature has been scarred by the fall, pursuing the spiritual life does not come easily to us. It is necessary that we take pains to pursue it. We must make a concerted effort to change our focus from earthly things and to set our minds “on things above.” In the Great Fast, the Church provides us with an opportunity to make such an effort. The first step in this program for spiritual health is to distance ourselves from that which is harmful: what St Paul calls “the works of darkness.” In the Epistle to the Romans, he offers a catalogue – by no means an exhaustive one – of such works: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy” (Romans 13:13). These things were recognized as destructive long before Christ or even before Moses. They are the stuff of the “shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments, and yet they appeal to people of all ages and places. Their appeal is proof of the brokenness of our nature.

Traditionally the days immediately preceding the Great Fast are devoted to separating ourselves from earthly pleasures. Most such attempts should be personal, de-termined by the believer and his or her elder. Some practices are communal, meant to remind us of our need to enter fully into the spirit of the Fast.

One such practice in Greece and the Middle East takes place on the Thursday before Meat-fare Sunday when any meat remaining in the house is eaten. In Lebanon this day is called khamis al-sakara (Drunkard’s Thurs-day), because not only meat but also alcohol must be consumed as well. A similar observance is the Slavic custom known as Maslenitsa. In the week before the Fast, all the dairy products in the house are con-sumed, usually in the form of crepes (blini) and other cheese or cream-filled treats. Such events, however, notably the Carnivals in Europe and America, quickly became occa-sions of excess, as people give feasting a rousing send-off.

“Let Us Put On the Armor of Light”

Besides distancing ourselves from what is harmful, the committed Christian sees the Great Fast as an opportunity to evaluate the strength of his or her commitment to Christ. When the Lord was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” He answered by quoting the Book of Deuteronomy: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

In order to keep this first great command-ment, the Christian must evaluate his or her way of life: Do I have a heart fully devoted to God or do I have other “loves” which distract me from loving Him? Am I so attached to things like my comforts (food, drink, etc.) or entertainment (TV, movies, sporting events) that I cannot put them aside, even for a brief time? Is my mind chiefly devoted to the pursuit of possessions – luxury cars, jewelry, clothing, etc. – that I have no mental energy to consider the things of God? The things to which we are attached may not be sinful in themselves, but they can prevent us from keeping the Lord’s commandment to “love the Lord your

God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

It is only by putting aside for a time the good things with which we have been bles-sed that we can determine how attached to them we may be. Would it be easier for me to do without the Eucharist for forty days than to do without cream in my coffee for the same period? One of the benefits of the Fast is that it teaches us what we love, on what we rely, and how much we love the Lord in comparison.

What Is the “Armor of Light?”

From time to time, the Church is criticized as being too negative: of focusing on the “shalt nots.” The first passage from Scrip-ture read during the Great Fast helps set the record straight. In the opening passage from the Prophecy of Isaiah we read, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16,17).

Refocusing our attention away from our own comforts on to the needs of God’s people is one way to “put on the armor of light,” to become the light for the world as Christ intended us to be. As we sing on the Mon-day of Cheese-fare Week “Let us hasten to wash away through fasting the filth of our transgressions. Through acts of mercy and compassion to the needy, let us enter into the bridal chamber of Christ the Bride-groom, who grants us His great mercy” (from vespers).

Triodion Hymns for the Start of the Fast

The gateway to divine repentance has been opened. Let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ, who has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of All a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection.

O faithful, let us joyfully accept the proclama-tion of God that announces the coming of the Fast, as once did the people of Niniveh, and the prostitutes and publicans who heard John preach repentance. Through abstinence, let us prepare for communion at the Liturgy of the Master on Sion. With tears, let us wash ourselves clean before the washing of the feet. Let us pray that we may behold the fulfillment of the old Pas-sover and the revealing of the new. Let us prepare ourselves to worship the Cross and Resurrection of Christ our God, and let us cry aloud to Him: “Lover of Mankind, put us not to shame, nor deprive us of our hopes!”

If you fast from food, my soul, but do not cleanse yourself from passions, you will rejoice in vain over your abstinence. If your intention is not turned to amendment of life, you will be as hateful as a liar in the sight of God, and you will resemble the evil demons who never eat at all. Do not make the Fast worthless by sinning, but firmly resist all evil impulses. Imagine that you are standing by the crucified Savior, or rather, that you are crucified with Him who was cruci-fied for you. Cry out to Him: “Remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom!” From the Triodion
 
MANY PEOPLE TODAY TEND TO 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 (great metany). 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 sub-mission 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, worship-pers 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. Em-brace 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.
 
EASTERN CHRISTIANS LOVE TO THINK in terms of forty days. The Great Fast and its echo, the forty days between the feasts of the Transfiguration and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the churching of an infant forty days after birth and the memorial service forty-days after death are the most obvious examples. This pattern is ultimately drawn from the Scriptures where significant events are regularly place d in this time frame. In the Old Testament, the great flood lasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7). Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24). In Deuteronomy 9 we read that Moses interceded on Israel’s behalf for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelite spies took 40 days to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13). Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him (1 Samuel 17). When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19). It was after a 40-day fast that the Tempter came to test Jesus (Matthew 4: 1-11).

There is another 40-day period mentioned in the New Testament, and also observed in the life of our Church: the 40 days between Christ’s nativity and the day when His parents brought Him to the temple, “to do for Him according to the custom of the Law” (Luke 2:27). While there the Lord encountered the elderly Simeon and Anna, who recog-nized God’s decisive presence in this Child. Through them Christ encounters for the first time those who were awaiting the Messiah’s coming. We celebrate this event on February 2 (the 40th day after Christmas) as the Hypapante, or Encounter, of the Messiah with His people, personified by Simeon and Anna.

What Did the Law Prescribe?

Jewish custom at the birth of a child was that a mother must be purified after 40 days. “She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over”” (Leviticus 12:4).

In Jewish law any participation in the intimate experiences of life and death, including the spilling of blood – the carrier of life – makes a person ritually unclean, that is, incapable of performing ceremonial act such as temple worship. Ceremonial uncleanness is not a question of moral impurity but a recognition that the worship of God transcends the earth and its ways. Someone touched by childbirth or death required purification in specified ways.

There was an additional prescription accord-ing to the Torah: the redemption of the firstborn son. “Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem” (Exodus 13:13). The first of everything (crops, animals, etc.) was to be offered to God in sacrifice: an acknowledgement that every-thing comes from Him and is His. Children could be “redeemed” by offering a gift to the temple in exchange for the child. Orthodox Jews still observe this rite today, exchanging five silver shekels (or their equivalent in local currency) for the child.

The encounter with Simeon and Anna takes us beyond the practices of the Torah to the mystery of God’s saving plan. As St. Luke tells it, “it had been revealed to him [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). He takes the Christ child in his arms and prays what we call the Canticle of Simeon: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to the revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people, Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). We repeat this canticle at the end of every day (vespers) and on completing the Divine Liturgy, as well as when any child is presented in church 40 days after its birth.

Simeon is then joined by Anna who thanks God that she has seen this moment “and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

This Encounter celebrated the coming of the One for whom the Jews longed, the Messiah, and recognized that the Gentiles too would be enlightened through Him.

Our Celebration of This Feast

As might be expected, this feast originated in Jerusalem where the event it remembers took place. It likely began in the era of St Constantine the Great who sponsored the development of Jerusalem as a Christian site. Sermons on this Feast by the bishops Methodius of Patara (+ 312), Cyril of Jerusalem (+ 360), Gregory the Theologian (+ 389), Amphilokios of Iconium (+ 394), Gregory of Nyssa (+ 400), and John Chrysostom (+ 407) have come down to us.

Egeria, a Spanish nun who visited the Holy Land in 381-384, described what she saw: “The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spoke when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. When everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”

The feast soon spread to Antioch and then, to Constantinople and the whole empire. It became particularly important in the Capital during the sixth century when a plague threatened the city. After a solemn procession on this feast, the plague ceased. When this feast was instituted, the birth of Christ and His baptism at the Jordan were observed on the same day, January 6. The Hypapante was kept 40 days later, on February 14. When a separate feast of the Nativity on December 25 became common, the Hypapante was moved accordingly.

Light to the Gentiles

In the Western Church, candles are blessed on this feast (Candlemas) and a candlelight procession held in honor of the “Light to enlighten the Gentiles.” This practice actually began in Jerusalem, as Egeria attests. When the feast was instituted in Constantinople, the procession was introduced there as well. Today some Slavic Churches bless candles on this day, but the procession has disappeared from the Byzan-tine feast.

St Sophronios of Jerusalem (c. 636 ad)

In honor of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light. Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the One who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of His eternal light. Our candles also show how bright out souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

The most-pure Virgin Theotokos carried the True Light in her arms and brought Him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the True Light as we hasten to meet Him.

The Light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the Light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through Him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this Light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness.

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