Patriarch’s 2014 Christmas Letter

Letter of His Beatitude Gregorios III
Patriarch Antioch and All the East
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
For the Feast of the Nativity
25 December 2014

From Gregorios III, servant of Jesus Christ,
by the grace of God, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem,
to our brother bishops, members of our Holy Synod,
and all our children in Christ Jesus, clergy and people, called to be saints with
“all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours;
grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”

(1 Corinthians 1:2-3)

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” (Luke 2:29)


The Incarnation as Meeting

“For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)

Thus exclaims the righteous Elder Simeon, when he takes in his arms the Lord of the universe at the close of the celebrations relating to the Nativity of Christ. Sometimes called the Presentation of the Lord, in the Greek tradition this feast is known as the Hypapante, meaning the Meeting of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ in the Temple: it is primarily the meeting of God and man.

Feast of Meeting

Furthermore, this feast represents the meeting of the Old and New Testaments, or the meeting between Jesus’ infancy, or childhood, and the old age of Simeon and Anna, both advanced in years. It is also the meeting between the Law of the Old Testament and Grace in Jesus’ person, as the Apostle John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

The term “meeting” is more popular than ever nowadays: meetings are organised at all levels. Unfortunately, they do not always bring us the benefits expected: that is because God is a stranger to these meetings. However, God continues going to meet humans, to fill their life with goodness, blessings and happiness. That is precisely the meaning of the Christmas celebrations, of which this Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple marks the close.

Our first meeting with God was when our parents presented us in church, similarly to the way in which Jesus was presented in the temple. Later, we met Jesus at our holy baptism. We often meet him in the other holy sacraments, especially the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist, and also in prayer and the life of grace and again through our Christian vocation in the service of our neighbours.

The meeting of God with us and his entry into our life fills our hearts and gives our life all its existential dimensions. That is what we sing in Ikos 14 of the Akathist hymn, “Seeing a strange childbirth, let us estrange ourselves from the world by transporting our minds to Heaven; to this end the Most High God appeared on earth a lowly man, that He might draw to the heights those who cry out to Him: Alleluia.”

That is what is sung in the services of this feast’s celebration, so rich in figures and comparisons between the meeting of Jesus with Simeon and the various appearances and meetings in the Old Testament.

God’s desire

It was Jesus’ desire that brought Simeon to the temple, a deep desire latent in his heart. There is an interesting legend about this meeting between Simeon and Jesus, represented in the icons of the monastery that bears the name of Simeon the Elder, dating from the eleventh century and situated in Jerusalem on the hill called Simeon’s hill. These icons tell in colour what I consider to be the story of old Simeon’s approach to faith, or the way of the Gospel. This is the tale:

When the Jews were scattered abroad after their exile in Babylon, the Greek language was largely adopted by them. They then felt the need to translate their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is called the Septuagint, and we use it in the Byzantine Greek tradition, for our liturgical readings and prayers. The name Septuagint is derived from the story that there were seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish scholars from the Greek city of Alexandria, (Greek evidently because it was founded by the famous Macedonian military leader and King, Alexander the Great), who were set to the task of translating the Bible – or Torah, Prophets and other Writings – from Hebrew to Greek. When they shared out the work, it fell to one Simeon and another to translate the book of the Prophet Isaiah.

When both translators came to chapter 7, in which we find the well-known verse, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us)” (Isaiah 7:14), it was a problem for them and the translation became arduous. They were confronted with a mystery surpassing their understanding. What was to be done? They were puzzled, but they were obliged to translate the text as it stood in Hebrew, even if that was beyond their understanding.

Simeon was the one who doubted more, hesitating at the text and the mystery hidden in this text, and he meditated at length on the topic. The doubts that assailed him prevented him from sleeping. “A virgin shall conceive…” He sought a sign, evidence, to help him understand this mystery, this wonder… but to no avail. He then thought of a strange way of demonstrating this. “I shall throw my ring into the sea, in Alexandria. If I find it again one day, that will be evidence that this unheard-of marvel will be realised; a virgin will give birth to a child and remain virgin.” So that is what he did.

Once the translation was finished, he returned to Jerusalem and lived in a house, which later became a monastery named after him. There, Simeon’s longing grew day after day, but in vain. However, his faith in God comforted him and gave him hope.

One day when he was dining out, he asked for fish and chose his favourite. As the cook was preparing it for him, to his great astonishment, he found a ring in the fish’s mouth. He brought the fish on a platter with the ring and said to Simeon, “We found this ring in the mouth of the fish you chose: here it is.”

To his great surprise, Simeon discovered that this strange ring was his own. Just as Jesus told Peter that he would find in the mouth of the first fish he caught a coin to pay Caesar’s tribute money, (Matthew 17:27) so it happened with Simeon’s fish that had in its mouth the ring he had thrown into the sea in Alexandria. For Simeon, this was a sign that Isaiah’s prophecy was not a dream or myth, but a truth and that a miracle would happen.

Thus it was that the Spirit guided him to the temple, carrying him by a great, burning desire to see the Christ, the virgin’s son heralded by Isaiah. That is how Simeon met Mary and Joseph bringing the child Jesus to be presented at the temple. That is when the old man approached to take Jesus in his arms and sing the hymn, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word,” (Luke 2:29) that we repeat every day at the end of Vespers in the Byzantine Greek rite. It is as though we are bidding farewell to this life in order to receive another each evening, and to welcome the King of all! The priest also recites this thanksgiving hymn at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

Meeting: goal of the Incarnation

The Incarnation – this doctrine very difficult for Christians (and non-Christians, Jews and Muslims) – is the meeting of God with man and the meeting of man with God. God first encounters man through creation. In Michelangelo’s fresco at the Vatican creation can be seen presented as a movement towards meeting, with God stretching out his hand towards Adam’s at creation. The whole collection of events of the Gospel is made up of meetings. Jesus stretches out his hand to humans with their feelings, wounds, souls, pains, doubts…In the icon of the Resurrection, Christ descends into Hades (Sheol), stretching out his hand towards Adam and Eve and raising them from the tombs and death. Thus the events of the Gospel are events of meeting.

Adam and Eve meet each other to give life. They become the first couple in the meeting of soul and body, the meeting of shared lives. In the Bible, God says: “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him an help meet for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

And God created woman from within the man, from his side (the deepest part of Adam), and gives her to him. God calls the meeting: he sponsors the meeting between Adam and Eve; he accompanies this meeting. We find him walking in Paradise and calling to Adam and Eve, as if he wanted to spend some time with them. But they hide from him. Grace is the basis for meeting with God. Sin causes estrangement from God, loss of contact with him and the divine pact or covenant.

The Old and New Testaments, those holy books, are books of the covenant, meeting. The events of the Old Testament tell us about all God’s meetings with his people, his difficulties, setbacks, and the failures of many of these meetings, and the repeated calls that God made to meet his people.

That is precisely the role of the prophets, to talk of the meeting of man with God; and that is the role of Jesus, which crowns the role of the prophets. He also calls to meeting, for he himself is the focus of meeting. He is the person whom we meet in the incarnation, faith and sacraments. Jesus calls us to meet with him alone, saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” (John 14:6); and again: “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Jesus: Master of Meeting

Jesus is the great master of meeting. It is he whom we meet. Let us go! For “We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ.” (John 1:41) Messengers from Saint John the Baptist ask him, “Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?” (Luke 7:20; Matthew 11:3). And Saint Peter exclaims, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

“Follow me,” is an oft repeated saying in the Gospel. Jesus lets no occasion slip to meet human beings: great and small, disciples, children, old people, young people, the sick, Pharisees and other sinners and even the dead, whom he meets to raise. And the two disciples at Emmaus…

Jesus was walking on the paths of humanity, of all men and women: he goes to meet them. The examples are numerous, especially of unscheduled visits: the meetings with the Samaritan woman (John 4:6-26), with the widow of Nain and the raising of her only son (Luke 7:11-17), with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)… Let us say rather that all those cited above were in the schedule of Jesus’ love.

For he loved man to the end: he has never hated any of those whom he created. But rather he came that all “might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) He came to “gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.” (John 11:52) He did not come then for just one individual or elite group from among the Jewish people who may have sought to claim him exclusively for themselves. Now Jesus can never be limited to one nation, people, individual, society, party, line or view. Furthermore he wished to honour the human being by his divine image.

Jesus calls each one to meet him. “Go and sell that thou hast… and come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him.” (Revelation 3:20) “Come and see.” (John 1:39). “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.” (Matthew 13:16) So the eyes, ears and all the human sense organs become an instrument and tool for meeting God, for meeting Jesus.

Jesus speaks to his disciples: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain.” (John 15:16) “I am not come to call the just, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32). And Jesus emphasises, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matthew 7:7) He exhorts us to meet him and meet one another, “Go into the whole world! Preach the Gospel to every creature!” (Mark 16:15)

Jesus likes private meetings, “If a man love me… my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23)

Jesus meets everyone. But he takes special care of those who do not count on that. So, he leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and goes in search of the lost sheep, which has gone astray, then brings it back on his shoulders. (Matthew 18:12-14). He is the father daily scanning the horizon to try to catch the outline of his son in the distance, and when at last he does see him is moved to run to meet him as he is still making his way back, kisses him and does not let him finish his rehearsed apology of repentance and remorse. (Luke 15:11-22)

Can we forget the events of the resurrection? They are above all meetings, affectionate initiatives on the part of Jesus, who promised to his disciples not to leave them comfortless (John 14:18), but to come to them. After his resurrection, indeed, he does come to them while the doors are shut and says, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36; John 20:19-20) He speaks to the hesitant and doubtful disciple, Thomas. He accompanies incognito the two disciples, Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus. (Luke 24:13-35) He surprises the apostles with an almost mistrustful turn of phrase, “Have ye here any food?” (Luke 24:41) He appears to them, here and there, as described by the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and Saint Paul. In the end he appears also to Saul, who is not yet Paul, on the road to Damascus, far from the place of the Gospel events in Palestine. (Acts 9:1-9)

Can we forget his appearance (discreetly passed over in silence in the Gospels) to Mary, his Mother and to Mary of Magdala, the converted sinner, on the resurrection morning? (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18)

So we see Jesus on the paths of each and every man and woman in the hills and valleys of Palestine, from Capernaum to Nazareth in Galilee, through Samaria and as far south as Jerusalem in Judea. He is God on the way – on the paths of humanity.

Before his ascension to heaven, he told his disciples to go and meet others as they went on their way, to preach the Gospel to anyone prepared to listen, and to unwilling listeners, to those who have ears to hear and those who do not. He taught his disciples how to meet others. (Luke 10:1-16; Mark 6:7-12)

The Church: meeting place

The meeting of Jesus in the temple is the symbol of his meeting with the community, since the temple is the meeting-place of the community. In the temple, he meets all those who frequent it.

The word “church,” in the etymological sense, in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and related languages, means a place of gathering and meeting. That is what the word synagogue means (for Jews, the Greek word means meeting-place), as does the Latin ecclesia, whence is derived the word for church in several other languages.

Jesus went frequently to the temple and synagogues. He was presented in the temple at forty days, then he entered the temple at twelve years old, when according to Jewish custom he came of age.

The Evangelist Luke tells how Mary and Joseph lost Jesus in the Passover crowds, then returned to Jerusalem and found their son in the temple, teaching the doctors and priests. (Luke 2:41-52).

We see him in the Gospel, going often to the temple, where he preaches, works miracles, and drives out the sellers and money-changers. (Mark 11:15; Luke 19:45) He compares his body to the temple, where his meeting with Simeon took place.

Similarly, the church is a place of communication, dialogue, teaching, catechesis, meeting with God in prayers, hymns and liturgical celebrations. It is the place where we live out our faith with other believers. This is true also for the mosque and the synagogue, and for all places of worship.

In the temple, in church, God meets man. He asks after man, his situation and problems. So he asks Cain, “Where is Abel, thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9) He asks Adam, in Paradise, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9) God meets man. God, the creator, asks about his creature. That is what we call Divine Providence. God is full of mercy, Polyeleos, he loves humans, Philanthropos: he is full of compassion and mercy.

Compassion drives one person to meet another, especially the one who needs love, compassion and assistance. That is what I read in various places during my visit to Taiwan: See, feel, love!

Seeing and meeting

The eye and sight play an important role in meeting. The watchful, loving and affectionate eye discovers what is not visible at first glance. That is what Simeon says on meeting Jesus, “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation… a light to lighten the Gentiles.”

After our meeting with Jesus in communion, we sing, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith.”

The eyes speak, as we speak with our tongue. That is what we find in the Gospel. Many events witness to this. Peter saw and believed. (Luke 5:8-9). Thomas saw and believed: “Unless I see the mark of the nails…” (John 20:24-29). John the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22) Jesus blesses the eyes, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.” (Luke 10:23) He says to Nathanael, “Because I said to thee that I saw thee under the fig-tree, thou hast believed,” (John 1:50) and to Thomas, “Happy are they that believe without seeing!” (John 20:29) The Apostle Saint John writes in his First Epistle, about his experience on the basis of sight, “What we have seen and heard, we preach to you.” (1 John 1:3)

Mary, Our Lady of Meeting

The whole Gospel is a call to meeting. Mary, at this Feast of the Meeting, delivers Jesus to humanity, the world, through the medium of Simeon. She gives Jesus to the world. She carried him in her womb. She gave birth to him in a cave. Now she delivers him to Simeon in the temple, meaning she gives him to the church.

That is the meaning of Marian iconography in the Byzantine Greek tradition. The Mother of God is never represented alone, but is always with Jesus whom she offers or shows to the world, calling people to meet him. That is why we insist on our faithful observing the very expressive Eastern tradition of iconography of the Mother of God which always represents her with her divine Son, Jesus Christ. Similarly, when their piety incites them to erect a little oratory in the street, or even a statue, we ask them always to let Mary be with her Son, Jesus. So, Mary draws believers to Jesus. Or else she shows him, as we say in the Akathist, as God who loves mankind. This icon is called Hodegetria: she who shows the way.

Humanity is meeting

The Feast of the Meeting is humanity’s feast. God has created us to found together a single human family. The popular proverb says, “Hills do never meet, but acquaintance doth often.” People do meet one another. An Arabic proverb says, “Paradise without humans is uninhabitable.” Surat Al-Hujurat (49:13) of the Qur’an says, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” Jesus describes how God rejects an offering from a person on bad terms with his brother, not knowing how to make peace with him. “Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” (Matthew 5:24)

As we mentioned above, the church, as a linguistic term in many languages, means the place where believers meet. So the church of stone and flesh is the meeting-place. Its essential mission and role is to help the faithful meet God and meet one another as brothers and sisters.

The sacraments of the Church are sacraments of meeting

The Second Vatican Council stated, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,” (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes 1) and of course, of their pastors. Just as Jesus’ mission is the meeting of God with man, so the Church’s mission is the meeting of God with humans and the meeting of people with one another. That is why the sacraments (mysteries) of the Church are sacraments of God meeting people and of their meeting with God and their fellow humans. The Church’s sacraments are the community’s sacraments.

Thus baptism is the sacrament of meeting with Christ, “For as many of you have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27) It is also the meeting of the community of those who believe in Jesus, which is called the Church.

The Aghion Myron (or confirmation) is the gift of the Spirit to the believing community, for the Spirit animates and forms the community.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of the community in its finest expressions. The term “liturgy” means the work of the community, the people. And communion unites the believer to Christ and to his brother in Christ. That is what Saint Paul states in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, where he discusses at length the relationship between the members of the body to one another, and the relationship of the faithful to Christ and to one another in the Church and through the Church. (1 Corinthians 12:12-30)

The sacrament of marriage is also the sacrament of meeting par excellence: father, mother, husband, wife, children… The family is the human meeting-place par excellence.

The sacrament of priestly ordination is a sacrament of dedication to the service of God and the community in the Church.

The sacrament of repentance is the community’s progress towards holiness, restoring the faithful’s relations with God and with one another. Sin destroys the relationship with God and other people. Sin is the opposite of encounter, because it distances people from God and from their fellows.

The sacrament of anointing the sick is one of healing among people and the encounter of the Church with suffering humanity, a sacrament of preparation of human beings for meeting with God in eternity.

The Church is the People of God: people meet there

The sacraments of the Church are really the basis for the meeting of the Christian people, of Christians with one another, with all human beings, because the sacraments make up the Church and its unity, so that the faithful can become one people, one nation, as Saint Peter states, “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people…the people of God.” (1 Peter 2:9, 10a)

Pope Francis talks about this in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, especially in the following passages,

“The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone. God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age. He has chosen to call them together as a people and not as isolated individuals. No one is saved by himself or herself, individually, or by his or her own efforts. God attracts us by taking into account the complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community. This people, which God has chosen and called, is the Church.” (113)

“Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love. This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. It means proclaiming and bringing God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way. The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” (114)

So the Church is a meeting-place, and not one of shrinking inwards and isolation. It represents a constant call to meeting. Added to that internal ad intra mission of the Church, to “gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:52), as did Jesus, must be added that of the ad extra mission, for the faithful to be light, salt and leaven in society.

Thus the Church shows the meaning of the faithful’s presence in society, because individuals have no meaning without society. Their value lies in their being in society. As Pope Saint John Paul II very well defined in his message for the World Day of Peace in January 2005, “The social nature” of human persons is their “being with and for others.” You are in society, but you are for society. That is the meaning of the saying of Jesus that sums up the ideal for living, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) It is said that Jesus came to “gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.” (John 11:52) In our Liturgy we say, “He came to gather together what was divided, and bring light to the darkness.”

Jesus prayed for all those who believe in him, for the unity of humanity, encounter, solidarity, mutual help, and especially during the last hours before his passion and death, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee.” (John 17:21) This constitutes the great Christian vocation, the role of Christians throughout the centuries in East and West: working for meeting, good relations, dialogue, living together and unity.

No salvation for the individual without the community, and no salvation for the community without the individual!

When we were young novices, we were asked why we wanted to enter the monastery. We had to reply, that we wanted to save our souls and those of others. That is the meaning of consecration in the priestly and religious life. As we said above, the sacrament of priestly ordination is one of meeting.

That is what Pope Francis stated in Evangelii Gaudium:

“If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize that every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction that we might receive, but rather because they are God’s handiwork, his creation. God created that person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God’s glory. Every human being is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives. Jesus offered his precious blood on the cross for that person. Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love.” (274)

All human beings are apostles to their brothers and sisters: hence the importance of education at home and in school, an education in personal responsibility to the community. A responsible person, not an indifferent and irresponsible one, is a person capable of building up society.

In answer to these three questions put to the staff of a German hospital, I saw these three answers:

Who, if not we?

Where, if not here?

When, if not now?

Also in Germany, I read during a congress that many little people, in many little places, taking many little steps, can change the face of the world.

Family: meeting place

Meeting happens in the family, which provides natural daily opportunities for meeting for its members. That is why we encourage our families to intensify opportunities and aspects of family meetings, in gladness, prayer, meditation, Gospel reading, and eating together, making trips and taking walks together, attending the Divine Liturgy together, and in taking part in parish activities.

Saint John Chrysostom speaks of the family as a “domestic church” or “city church”, that is, society’s church, because the power of the Church helps it to fulfil its mission in the city and in society.

Pastoral work is meeting

The Church must go down into the street, to the reality of meeting people, all people, to be aware of situations and help with finding and solving the faithful’s problems.

That is the duty of pastors, especially priests, who are called to meeting the faithful and making their voice heard to the bishops and patriarchs, to the different bodies of the Church. The Holy Father Francis invites us to do that in Evangelii Gaudium, as we find in these extracts below that explain the importance of meeting and contacts between the parish, family and parish clergy:

“To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people. .. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people. He takes us from the midst of his people and he sends us to his people; without this sense of belonging we cannot understand our deepest identity.” (268)

“Jesus himself is the model of this method of evangelization which brings us to the very heart of his people. … Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world.” (269)

“Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness.” (270)

“It is true that in our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns…. Clearly Jesus does not want us to be grandees who look down upon others, but men and women of the people. This is not an idea of the Pope, or one pastoral option among others; they are injunctions contained in the word of God which are so clear, direct and convincing that they need no interpretations which might diminish their power to challenge us.” (271)

“My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an “extra” or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing. All around us we begin to see nurses with soul, teachers with soul, politicians with soul, people who have chosen deep down to be with others and for others.’’ (273)

Meeting in my life

Meeting is the real meaning of the Feast of the Entry of the Lord into the Temple. Meeting is the great reality of my life and the life of every other human being too. Meeting is the sum total of relations between man and his fellow-man, between the individual and society.

I have only ever felt happy in my relations with people. I understand the importance of meeting in my life, when I reflect on it, from the class-rooms of the noviciate in the monastery of Holy Saviour and later in Rome, then in the very extensive meetings that followed with students from Europe, my German friends, especially on the Pax Christi pilgrimage, in 1959, walking from Metz (France) to Trier (Germany), where Jesus’ Robe was on display. Along this road, we passed through villages where brother fought against brother, villages destroyed by war, and we formed ties with the families under whose roof we spent the night, every time in another village… Also all the friendships that I’ve made in the course of my life with thousands of people: personal, existential friendships, which have formed and shaped the fabric of my life, and stamped my feelings and personality as priest, bishop in my dear Palestine and patriarch.

How sad and poor is life without meeting! How rich is life with and through meeting. The priest is the man of dialogue par excellence.

Meeting has indeed played a great role in my life, of which the very stuff is meeting.

The creation of the review Unity in Faith, in 1961, was founded on the longing to see Christians meeting one another in unity with Jesus and through Jesus, knowing their Eastern heritage and meeting one another through this heritage. For unity amongst Christians is based on mutual acquaintance, mutual enrichment, the discovery of the personality of others, and the wealth of their tradition, liturgy and history.

My pastoral service in the villages of the Shuf, in south Lebanon, east of Saida, enriched my life. Those were my best years for wonderful meetings with people who believed in Jesus, were proud of their faith and open to relations with all other fellow-citizens.

Founding Providence Home

This foundation, (1966) still in south Lebanon and east of Saida, is the fruit of thousands of wonderful meetings with my predominantly German friends, who fill my memory with love, sincerity, faithfulness, gift of self, generosity, dedication, hospitality, faith and devotion. They loved me and I loved them. They venerated me and I them. They enriched me and I enriched them. They generously gave money to help me in my religious, priestly and apostolic work with my very numerous large and small projects for pastoral service in Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, directing the Major Seminary of the Basilian Order of the Holy Saviour, supporting the catechists in the villages, little social projects of the Shuf villages and the rest of South Lebanon and the Unity in Faith review. In return, I enriched them through liturgical celebrations, talks on Eastern heritage, sacraments, Marian devotion, commentary on the Gospel from my Eastern perspective and pictures of rural life in Syria, especially in my mother’s town of Khabab.

Together we constituted an admirable meeting between East and West, which was a school of faith and mutual enrichment. That is the highest meaning of meeting, deepened through mutual giving, friendship, mutual service and respect, esteem, sincere feelings, gifts, feasts, friendly meals… It all goes to making meeting between people a reason for real happiness, where there is no room for selfishness, exploitation, love of money and extortion. There is no room for all that in true and sincere meeting between human beings. It ought to be like that in the case of meeting between priest and people in the parish. Freedom is the basis for meeting, together with spontaneity, simplicity, openness and a smile: they are all the foundational ingredients for meeting, its continuation, fruits, and burgeoning friendships. I’ve experienced all that in a life full of meetings: my pastoral life.

I have always enjoyed pastoral service best: pastoral visits to homes, working with young people, confraternities… These meetings help the priest in his pastoral work of keeping holy faith alive in the hearts and minds of the faithful of our parishes.

Projects for meetings

My life’s projects were the fruit of Meeting. They are centred on meeting. I recall especially projects called Meeting, including the Al-Liqa’ Center (Liqaa = Meeting) for Christian and Muslim heritage in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. With my friend, Dr. Geries Khoury and several Muslim and Christian university professors, I founded it in 1982.

Also in 1982, we started a series of projects called Meeting (Liqaa), including the Liqaa housing project, with thirty-six flats for young families, the Liqaa parish, the Liqaa clinic, the Liqaa pastoral centre and the Liqaa parish hall, all in Jerusalem.

Meeting projects have accompanied me from Jerusalem to Lebanon and Syria. After my patriarchal election in 2000, Divine Providence was pleased to crown all the projects of meeting with the great Liqaa Center for the dialogue of civilisations at Rabweh in Lebanon, fruit of the generosity and magnanimity of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman. I had only visited him on one occasion, with respect, affection and trust, when he at once opened his heart and mind in favour of my project of our founding together this great centre, named Liqaa which we inaugurated in 2010.

My life, thank God, has been and still is rich, because it has been rich in meetings. I have sought and still look for meeting. Meeting, in my life, is not a fortuitous thing, or a chance, or a propitious occasion. I have sought meeting, always provoked it. I cannot pass by a person without meeting him or her in some way or other, by a smile, wave, nod or other sign. I have never passed close to a person without feeling a relationship of love, of proximity to him or her. I could tell thousands of stories on the topic of the magic, miracle and fruits of these meetings: I could write a book on the topic.

The priests meets people in their weakness

So the Church and priests have to meet the people, especially those who are rejected, poor, marginalised, sick, neglected and elderly, receiving no consideration, enjoying no privileged place or dignity in society, disrespected and feeling excluded and far from the Church. Meeting them all is wonderful as they all have a stake in the meeting.

Pope Francis said the whole Church and all its members are “called to care for the vulnerable of the earth.” (209) Here is a list of those who are most fragile, to be found in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium,

“It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others. Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all. For this reason, I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis.” (210)

“I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour?” (211)

“Doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights. Even so, we constantly witness among them impressive examples of daily heroism in defending and protecting their vulnerable families.” (212)

“Small yet strong in the love of God, like Saint Francis of Assisi, all of us, as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples.” (216)

Meeting of civilisations and religions

Meeting not strife! That is the great challenge. The theory of Samuel Huntington was of the clash of civilizations (1996). Hitler’s notorious book, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) was a foundational Nazi document that led to the murderous extermination of communities in the Second World War (1939-1945), in which some ninety million people were killed.

The so-called Arab Spring is based on this destructive theory of struggle, quite contrary to God’s will for humanity in the mystery of Christmas, the incarnation and redemption and in the message of the Gospel. The hymn of the angels is this marvellous human plan, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.” (Luke 2:14) This hymn sows the seeds and sets the bases for the meeting between earth’s children, their meeting with each other and God, resulting in happiness!

Meeting means sharing, acceptance of others, their way of thinking, civilisation, faith, culture, mind-set – human, entire, universal – a meeting of civilisations and religions, or rather of people in their civilisations and religions, each one in his own. The whole world is meeting with God, with nature.

It’s very important for us as fathers and mothers, especially priests, missionaries, monks and nuns, to perfect the art and philosophy, spirituality and technique of meeting as human beings. We must all excel in the virtue and charism of meeting: we cannot pass by others without seeing and meeting them.

Meeting is the basis for friendship. Humanity today very much needs this kind of meeting. Meeting arouses trust in others, awareness of the dignity and value of others, as they are our brothers and sisters, partners in life, created in the image and likeness, as icons of God.

Meeting is the foundation of friendship and trust among nations, and therefore the foundation for world peace, as the Second Vatican Council stated. On the other hand, wars are founded on mistrust between peoples, nations, believers of different religions and denominations, tribes, even districts of the same city or members of one family, and are the fruits of envy, individual interests, selfishness and desire for domination.

We very much need this real meeting based on faith and humane and religious values, including the value of the person: we need a cultural and civilizational meeting between nations of East and West.

Meeting centres and initiatives

Today we very much need to create meeting centres in our torn world! I am glad, as I mentioned above, that I was able to found this series of meeting centres. Following the wars and tragedies in our Arab world, we need to found little meeting centres aimed at developing understanding of interpersonal encounter, especially among the inhabitants of a single country, city, district, among members of a single family, to help heal the soul and feelings, to ward off the aftereffects and aftermath of war, violence and terrorism, to wipe out the barbaric, ugly, dirty and inhuman images and scenes that pervade our society and are broadcast by the media. That especially wounds the souls of children and young people and lays the foundations for a generation of violence, terror, killing, hatred and enmity. Wars intensify all that.

We are very much afraid that these destructive feelings and factors are permeating our Arab society and destroying our social and faith values. It is desirable for teachers and psychologists specialising in the family to write booklets for different age levels, with graded courses, on the topic of the principles for meeting, dialogue, reconciliation, mutual help, communication, mutual respect, trust and forgiveness, and for governments to adopt these booklets for official teaching. Recently, in 2014, the Adyan (Interfaith) Foundation published in Arabic a book to this effect.

We are facing a great ideological danger, represented by the so-called Islamic State. This movement disseminates by means of barbaric, hideous videos a strategy, evidently aimed at destroying society and negating the above-mentioned values and principles, by inspiring fear and terror among citizens.

Because of all that, we have to expend great efforts, by all means, to maintain and spread the culture of meeting at all levels: culture, sport, school, university, but also in factories, fraternities, clubs, welfare societies… to break down this wall of enmity between people, of which Saint Paul speaks in his Epistle to the Ephesians (2:14-16),

“For he [Christ] is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby.”

Appeal for the discourse of meeting

Through this Christmas Letter, we are appealing to the whole world, Arab and other countries. We ask them to act on the basis of justice, law, forgiveness, dialogue and meeting, which is preferable to that of war, weapons and armament. We are making this call as Syrian Patriarch and addressing it to our dear Syrian government, states in the region and throughout the whole world. It is absolutely imperative to change our outlook and ways of dealing with disputes and interests. That is the real power of our Christian and Gospel faith values. For faith is part of the solution of problems and clashes of our countries in their diversity.

So we return to the values of the Incarnation, which we celebrate on Christmas Day: it is the mystery of meeting. Christians must highlight the values of our faith to resolve the problems of our countries. The world must find a way other than that of war.

The Berlin Wall stood for many years, but in the end it fell bloodlessly twenty-five years ago, in 1989. In order to protect it, fifty thousand soldiers were stationed there, but it fell. Unfortunately, the Israelis have built a wall eight metres high, which stretches over long distances on the West Bank, separating brethren from one another. But that has not averted the danger of war between Israel and the Palestinians, since the Israelis have not understood that their security and stability are not guaranteed by force and weapons.

We pastors of East and West are called to spread the discourse of dialogue in society, in order to take part effectively in replacing the logic of war.

That is the duty of Christians and Muslims. We must create congresses and summit meetings between Christians, Muslims and Jews to strengthen the attraction of meeting and counter the tendency toward division, partisanship, instinctive withdrawal, fear, hatred, enmity, exclusion of others, even killing, subjugating, stealing money, destroying homes, factories, places of worship and the remnants of their spiritual civilisation.

We participate in many of these meetings in order to build up the civilisation of love, reconciliation and peace.

Longing for God through dying

Simeon’s song – “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word,” – is the expression of longing that can be found in Saint Paul, “having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ,” (Philippians 1:23) “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) That is the meaning of the Christmas hymn, a song of preparation for death, to be with Christ.

Every day, in the Divine Liturgy we offer these two petitions, “That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord,” and “A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defence before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.”

I should like to apply Simeon’s song and these petitions to my life, especially when I look around me and see that very many people of my age, in my family, religious order, Church, patriarchate, among my friends of various nationalities, responsibilities and dignities, have gone before me to meet the Lord in life eternal.

That is why this prayer is more than ever on my lips and in my heart, as it was with Simeon, and at the end of the daily Divine Liturgy I repeat with longing, abandonment to the will of God, trust and ardour the Nunc dimittis, “Lord, now lettest thou …” With Saint John, I cry, as at the end of the book of Revelation, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

Simeon’s song sums up the spirituality of time, duration and expectation of the wise virgins who go to meet the Bridegroom at midnight. That is the spirituality we find central to our liturgical services of the hours, the midnight office (which has disappeared even in our monasteries), in the Paraklitike and the Menaion. It is a spirituality that strengthens us in the face of life’s difficulties and places us on a constant footing of readiness to welcome the Bridegroom, as we find in the services of Great and Holy Week. “Behold, the bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching!”

Watch! That is my patriarchal motto. Watching is the programme for my life here below, and for my preparation for life above. Our prayers are very beautiful, especially those of Great and Holy Tuesday, which are most ardent prayers to meet the Lord Jesus! Here are some extracts:

“Brethren, let us love the Bridegroom and prepare our lamps with care, shining with virtues and right faith; that like the wise virgins of the Lord, we may be ready to enter with him into the wedding feast. For God the Bridegroom grants to all the crown incorruptible.” (Kathisma in Tone 4 from Matins of Holy and Great Tuesday)

“Why art thou slothful, O my wretched soul? Why dost thou waste thy days in thinking of unprofitable cares? Why art thou busy with the things that pass away? The last hour is at hand and we shall soon be parted from all that is here. While there is still time, return to soberness and cry: I have sinned against thee, O my Saviour, do not cut me down like the unfruitful fig tree; but, O Christ, in thy compassion take pity on me as I call on thee in fear: May we not be left outside the bridal chamber of Christ!” (Ikos in Tone 2 from Matins of Holy and Great Tuesday)

“I see thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Saviour, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter there. Make the robe of my soul to shine, O Giver of Light, and save me.” (Exapostilarion in Tone 3 of Matins of Holy and Great Tuesday)

“I slumber in slothfulness of soul, O Christ the Bridegroom; I have no lamp that burns with virtue, and like the foolish virgins I go wandering when it is time to act. Close not thy compassionate heart against me, Master, but dispel dark sleep from me and rouse me up ; and lead me with the wise virgins into thy bridal chamber, where those who feast sing with pure voice unceasingly : O Lord, glory to Thee.” (Sticheron in Tone 2 from Lauds of Holy and Great Tuesday)

“Come, ye faithful, and let us serve the Master eagerly, for he gives riches to his servants. Each of us according to the measure that we have received, let us increase the talent of grace. Let one gain wisdom through good deeds; let another celebrate the Liturgy with beauty; let another share his faith by preaching to the uninstructed; let another give his wealth to the poor. So shall we increase what is entrusted to us, and as faithful stewards of his grace we shall be counted worthy of the Master’s joy. Bestow this joy upon us, Christ our God, in thy love for mankind.” (Aposticha in Tone 6 from Matins of Holy and Great Tuesday)

“Behold, my soul, the Master entrusts thee with a talent. Receive his gift with fear; make it gain interest for him ; distribute to the needy, and make the Lord thy friend. So shalt thou stand on his right hand when he comes in glory, and thou shalt hear his blessed words, ‘Enter, servant, into the joy of thy Lord.’ I have gone astray, O Saviour, but in thy great mercy count me worthy of this joy.” (Aposticha in Tone 7 from Matins of Holy Tuesday)

Good wishes for the Feast: wishes for meeting

To you all, my dears, I send best wishes for this Feast of the divine Incarnation at the Feast of the Nativity, Feast of Meeting, of love, mutual enrichment, respect, compassion, pity and love.

We invite you to multiply the various sorts of meetings in your surroundings, especially families, to meet one another at meals, prayers, friendly gatherings, joyfully. Otherwise, our families will become islands, with everyone at his computer or mobile phone or using twitter. Thus we are in contact with those at a distance and neglect those closest to us. Our families need to meet continually. Our children need love from their parents, to meet them, just as parents need their children’s love.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” God’s great desire becomes an encounter. Simeon invites us to this meeting. He has patiently waited a long time to see the Salvation of God. Saint Paul tells us of the long and painful wait, saying, “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.” (Romans 8:19)

Our Arab world is waiting, very much expecting the birth of a new world, especially in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, in the expectation of seeing the end of years of war, pain, suffering, harshness, killing, death and destruction.

The way of the cross and prayer

We resort to prayer for salvation to come about and for the way of the cross of our suffering to end. That is why we carried out an initiative for holding prayer services over a period of thirty days, every day in a different church of all Christian communities of Damascus, from 22 September to 22 October. Then, we launched an appeal for prayer in the family, asking every one of them to light a candle every evening and meet to pray for peace in Syria, with a spiritual reading from the Gospel. In that way we respond to the appeal of Pope Francis, asking us never to let the flame of hope be extinguished in our hearts.

Our letter: meeting you all

We should like, through this letter, to meet our beloved brother metropolitans, archbishops and bishops, members of our Holy Synod, our dear brothers and sons the priests, our venerable sisters and daughters the nuns, dear deacons, and all the faithful of our eparchies and parishes, in the patriarchal territory in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine (especially Beit Sahur and Bethlehem), Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait and the rest of the Arab countries, where our children work and excel in their societies, with their skills, degrees, presence and role.

Through this letter we meet our eparchies, communities and faithful in the countries of the expansion in Canada and the United States, in Australia and New Zealand, in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and also the faithful scattered over several other countries of Latin America, where, despite our desire, we still have no organised ecclesiastical hierarchy, but where our faithful are numerous.

We also meet through this letter our faithful scattered over Europe, especially in the context of the organised parishes in Marseilles, Paris, Brussels, London, Stockholm and the faithful in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Austria…

I have been able to visit many of these parishes, near and far. For all men and women, I beseech abundance of grace from the Saviour, that they may abide in faith. And I wish for them to be able, like Simeon, to meet the Lord in their life, with great longing, hope, love and trust.

To everyone everywhere, I wish the potential for meeting to increase in his or her life, that he or she may bring to others the joy of the Gospel and help them to meet in their turn Christ Jesus. Thus the new-born Child, God before the ages, will be for each person a Light to lighten his heart, as Saint Peter says in his Second Epistle, until “the day star arise in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19)

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant…” is the flame of hope, love, passion, happiness and joy. We pray for everyone to meet the Lord and Saviour in his or her life. We invite them to commemorate daily as do we, “our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, who offered her Son at the Temple, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves, and each other and all our life unto Christ our God .”

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…” At the end of the Divine Liturgy and Vespers, every day we repeat this prayer, daily expecting the coming of God into our life here below, to bring us to life eternal, there to meet the Lord and be always with him.

Merry Christmas! Happy and holy 2015!

With my affection, blessing and prayer

+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem