Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
PEOPLE WHO FOLLOW the world news reports in the media have become familiar with the Arabic word jihad describing certain radical movements in Islam. What the news reports don’t mention is that jihad, or struggle, is also a fundamental dynamic in Christian spirituality. It is more commonly referred to in Christian writings in the Greek equivalent, ascesis (asceticism), which also means struggle.

In the famous passage from Ephesians read at today’s Liturgy, St Paul describes this struggle in physical imagery, while insisting that our opponents are spiritual, not physical. In v. 12 he says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.” In some English translations the Greek word pali (wrestle) is translated as contend or struggle to avoid the suggestion of physical wrestling. The struggle is spiritual because our opponents are ‘the rulers of the darkness of this age.”

In the first century ad, when this epistle was written, the Roman world was characterized by belief in many gods and goddesses, the worship of the emperor and the promotion of social practices such as abortion and infanticide. Early Christians identified such practices as “works of the flesh” and distanced themselves from them, affirming their higher allegiance to the kingdom of God.

The letter from an unnamed disciple to Diognetus, written in the early second century, summed up this conflict of allegiances: “Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

“They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word--what the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.”

>What Is the Darkness of Our Age?

Every age has its own version of the culture of darkness: works of the flesh which “everybody” sees as acceptable and which takes us far from the way of Christ. Over the past century, people in our “modern age” have glorified genocide, human trafficking, racism and slavery as acceptable and in some cases even as divinely sanctioned. Simply because the state or the dominant population sees something as a good, does not make it alright before God.

Christians today, as in the first centuries, are called to live in the world, yet not to be of the world: not to embrace the values of the age when they conflict with the Gospel of Christ. Some of the values of this age today resemble those of first-century Rome while others have changed. We can identify the following:

Belief in many gods – While few in our society honor the gods of paganism, many accept no god or moral authority above the individual. Each individual is free to be their own god, as it were. This belief in the autonomy of each individual has freed many people from being dominated by more powerful forces. It has also deceived people into believing that they have a “right” to anything they fancy. They can determine their own gender at will, transform the nature of marriage or determine the length of their own life. Abortion has become a woman’s “reproductive right,” with no reference to the “rights” of the child she is carrying. Belief in our autonomy makes gods of us all.

Belief in politics – We do not worship an emperor as did the Romans, but we may be said to worship politics. A value is often embraced, not because it is right, but because it is politically correct. If enough activists on social media espouse a value, politicians will endorse it. If a value, though righteous, is unpopular, few will risk the damage to their reputations if they endorse it. Pollsters and political analysts are now the “priests” conducting our modern version of emperor worship.

Patriotism – St Paul urged his readers to pray for the emperor and in our liturgical services we continue to intercede for all those in the service of our country. We do not, however, automatically endorse all the actions of our government or armed forces. We know that our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God. We are, in a real sense, only “sojourners” here. We are to “obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by [our] lives” (Letter to Diognetus). A true Christian presence in society elevates it, rather than simply follow its lead. The Christian presence in any country is not meant to surrender its soul to the spirit of the age, but to be the soul of the world itself.

Can you fill in the blanks on the cover drawing? If you’ve read Eph 6:10-17, you probably can.  

Christ Himself Is Our Armor



While St Paul assigns specific meanings to each element of God’s armor, we should not see these elements as disconnected or impersonal. Commenting on the passage, St Jerome stresses their interconnectedness in this way.

“From what we read of the Lord our Savior throughout the Scriptures, it is manifestly clear that the whole armor of Christ is the Savior Himself. It is He whom we are asked to put on. It is one and the same thing to say, Put on the whole armor of God and “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our belt is truth and our breastplate is righteousness – but the Savior is also called truth and righteousness. So no one can doubt that He Himself is that very belt and breastplate.

On this principle He is also to be understood as the preparation of the gospel of peace. He Himself is the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. He is the sword of the Spirit, because He is the Word of God living and efficacious, the utterance of which is stronger than any helmet and sharp on both sides.”

Commentary on Ephesians 3.6.1
 
“WHO, ME?” – We can easily imagine the consternation of the rich young man when he heard the Lord tell him: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). This incident is related in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke); each of them describes this young man slightly differently. In Mt and Mk he is described as rich and “young” (the Greek word refers to someone in his late twenties or early thirties); In Mark his youth is emphasized: he is described as “running” up to Jesus who “… looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21), perhaps as one would love an eager adolescent.

In Luke he is described as a “ruler,” (Greek, archon). This could mean that he was a member of the elite ruling class or that he was an archon of the local synagogue. Since he is described as a person of great wealth, he was most likely from a socially important family.

In Mark he is portrayed as eager and seriously curious. In Lk, as many Fathers read it, he was trying to trick Jesus with his question. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, described him in this way: “He fancied himself as having learned the Law and supposed that he had been accurately taught it. He imagined that he could show that Christ was introducing laws of His own and of dishonoring the commandments given by the most wise Moses…. Observe how he mixes flattery with fraud and deceit, like someone who mingles vinegar and honey. He supposed that he could deceive Him in this way” (Homily 122 on Luke).

These two contrasting depictions of the rich young man illustrate how narrative details in the Gospels are not necessarily meant to be of historical importance. Rather, they are to illustrate the point of a teaching. In the case of Mk’s eager learner, the point is that Christ’s invitation is an act of love. Gaining treasure in heaven excels by far the amassing of earthly riches. In the case of Lk’s trickster, the teaching is that Christ does not annul the Law but He fulfills it.

An apocryphal gospel from the late second century, known to some of the Fathers but now lost, adds an interesting thought in the same line. When the young man shows his reluctance to follow the Lord’s counsel, “The Lord said to him "How can you say 'I have kept the Law and the prophets'? seeing that it is written in the Law 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' and look, many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are clad with dung, dying for hunger, and your house is full of many good things, and nothing at all goes out from it to them." If you claim to love your neighbor, you must be ready to do so in deed as well as in word.

“Sell…Give… Follow…”

The heart of the passage is not the character of the inquirer but the counsel which the Lord gave him: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). This advice involves a sequence of three separate acts, one following upon another. First the young man is told to “Sell all you have,” to divest yourself of everything which people in the world value. Attachment to these things is what keeps people from attaching themselves to God. Preoccupation with them distracts us from focusing on the union with God which we have been given. As the Lord said elsewhere, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).

People who have comfortable lives, as well as people who are just getting by, can be equally “attached” to the things they have, or what they would like to have. If our inner live is focused on acquiring things, or on the things we already have, then these things are our masters. Our preoccupation with them prevents us from being concerned with the divine. The first step for the rich young man – and for any of us – is to evaluate how much “all you have” matters to you. Could you live without the internet or your favorite TV channels? Would you willingly give them up to devote yourself to God’s service? The second step in Christ’s plan for us is to “distribute to the poor.” If we wish to serve God, we begin by using our material wealth for the benefit of those who truly need it. The spiritual realm may be beyond us, particularly if we are beginners in the spiritual life. We may find the nitty-gritty world of ministering to the poor to be a more accessible and less threatening way to begin following Christ.

In our comfortable society, we may have gotten used to overeating, to drinking too much, to demanding continuous leisure, entertainment or information. We may consider them essential to our way of life. If so, we might do well to reflect on these words of St Basil the Great:

“Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may be repaid for your kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance?

“But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a greedy person? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed…

“The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear moldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong” (Homily on Greed, 7).

Once a person has dealt with his reliance on earthly things and is firmly set on serving God, he or she is ready to follow Christ. This may mean physically relocating to a different city or even country. It may mean becoming involved with a mission in another part of town. It always means uprooting ourselves in some way from a life with which we have become comfortable, at least for a while, and going where we may be needed.

Is This for Everyone?

In Matthew’s rendering of this scene, the Lord’s instruction is prefaced by the words: “If you want to be perfect…” (Matthew 19:8). This has led people over the ages to assume that His teaching here is for monks and nuns – those whose lifestyle is directed to spiritual perfection. The rest of us just hope to get by.

Actually, Christ’s intention is clear: striving for perfection – the opposite of legalism – is essential to true religion. Thus the Sermon on the Mount was concluded with this invitation to a godlike life, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Striving for perfection with repentance and humility became the hallmark of early Christians. This teaching eventually led to the rise of ascetics and monastics, but did not originate with them. From the first, Christians saw their task as to strive for purity of heart, lessening our vulnerability to and dependency on what St Paul calls, “the desires of the flesh and the mind” ( Ephesians 2:3).

People with responsibilities in the world cannot literally sell and distribute all their goods. They can and should avoid slavery to them: the psychological need to possess or to prefer possessions to people.
 
FROM TIME TO TIME Eastern Christians are reproached for venerating icons because “icons are not in the Bible.” St John of Damascus, whose treatises on icons were instrumental in defeating iconoclasm, taught that the Church’s icons are “in the Bible” because they stand in the context of God’s own self-revelation to us through images. We make icons because God has made icons.

The Perfect Icon of the Father

God the Father Himself is unknowable, beyond our understanding, according to the Torah. To represent Him in physical form would be idolatry. For the Jews even to speak His name would be unseemly. There is, however, an icon of the Father. As St John of Damascus wrote in his Third Treatise on the Holy Icons, “The first natural and undeviating icon of the invisible God is the Son of the Father, showing the Father in Himself” (Treatise III, 18). It is the Lord Jesus Himself who indicates this relationship to God in the following discussion with His disciples. Jesus said to Thomas, ‘“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” A confused Philip interjected, “‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?’” (John 14:6-10).  The Son is the perfect icon of God because the Father is fully present in Him. Jesus would repeat this teaching as His passion drew nearer, knowing that His death and resurrection would validate His claim: “He who sees Me sees Him who sent Me” (John 12:45). This conviction would become central to the Church’s belief, expressed so strongly in the prologue to St John’s Gospel, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, the One who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18). We find the same teaching in St Paul’s writings, expressed specifically in iconographic terms. Thus the Epistle to the Hebrews proclaims Christ to be “the brightness of His glory and the express image [eikon] of His person, upholding all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3). Here and in the Epistle to the Colossians Christ is described as Revealer of the Father, as His icon to the world. “He is the image [eikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things exist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:15-18). As icon of the Father, Christ touches all things with His dynamic presence, creating and maintaining all things by His life.

Man the Divine Icon

According to the Book of Genesis, mankind itself is an icon of God, who is Himself the “iconographer.” “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). In his ability to order creation (and in so many other ways as well) man images the Creator, who is Himself the image of the Father. The Church Fathers saw a significant difference between the Son as the perfect icon of the Father and mankind as the scarred and broken image of the Creator. To explain man’s fallen condition many Fathers made a distinction between the two terms used in Genesis. They saw the image of God in man to be permanent if scarred but the likeness to have been lost. It would only be in the incarnation of Jesus that man would once more become both image and likeness of God. While the Son of God is the perfect image or icon of the Father, every human being is in some imperfect way God’s image. A believer convinced of this teaching reveres every human being as an icon of God.

The Temple, Icon of Paradise

The Scriptures also contain examples of material images which are described as made according to a spiritual model. The tabernacle or portable sanctuary in the desert was constructed by Moses in accordance with “the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture” (Exodus 25:40) revealed to him by God. In the New Testament the temple of Jerusalem and its furnishings, which had become Israel’s permanent sanctuary, are described as “copies of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 9:23), images of a reality in the heavens. But which spiritual realities does the temple represent? Many Scripture commentators find the key in this verse from Psalm 78: “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever” (Psalms 78:69). The temple, they believe, was designed as an icon of creation. According to this view, the results of each day of Creation (cf., Genesis 1) are symbolically reflected in the temple and its furnishings. As described above, the light of day one of Creation can be interpreted as the glory of God and those who dwelled with Him. The temple veil would then symbolize the “firmament” as the primary division between heaven and earth. The bread of presence represents the grass and herbs of the earth, the lampstand represents the sun, moon and stars, the cherubim represent the birds, and the high priest represents mankind at worship, Adam the priest of creation. The temple is thus understood by many Jews as well as Christians as an icon of the universe. God’s creation was no longer recognizable as His temple; an icon – the tabernacle and the temple – was needed to represent it.

Icons of an Icon

In the Epistle to the Hebrews the mystery of our salvation is described in terms of the Yom Kippur liturgy of the Jewish temple: “For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:24-28). The living icon of Christ’s sacrifice is, of course, the Divine Liturgy, in which the holy gifts are brought into the holy of holies “beyond the veil.” As the Jewish temple was an icon of the worshipping world, our oblation is an icon of the sacrifice of Christ – an icon of the eternal reality! Glory to God for all things.
 
THE CHURCHES OF EAST AND WEST generally commemorate the saints on the day of their death, their “heavenly birthday,” as some describe it. In addition the Church remembers three conceptions: that of Christ (the Annunciation, March 25), His Mother (December 9), and St John the Forerunner (September 23). We celebrate these days as festivals recognizing that each was sanctified even before their birth in lieu of the tremendous role they played in salvation history: Christ by virtue of His divine nature and Mary and John by the grace of God given to them. In the Byzantine calendar, as in that of the West, Christ’s conception is celebrated exactly nine months before the festival of His birth. With the Theotokos and the Forerunner the nine months are not exact. Mary’s conception is remembered on December 9 and her nativity on September 8. St John’s conception is remembered on September 23 and his birth of June 24. This is a way of saying that the conceptions were not identical: Christ’s was unique.

The Story of Mary’s Conception

The conceptions of Christ and the Forerunner are recorded in chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke. The story of Mary’s conception is not found in the canonical Scriptures but in the mid 2nd-century Protoevangelium (or Pre-Gospel) of St James. This text tells that, for many years, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Ann were childless and the couple suffered much reproach as a result. When they were in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice to God, the High Priest, Issachar, upbraided Joachim: “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” Both spouses gave themselves to fervent prayer, and the Archangel Gabriel announced to each of them separately that they would be the parents of a daughter who would bring blessings to the whole human race. The icon of the feast shows Saints Joachim and Ann embracing after each had run to share the news of their daughter-to-be. It also very prominently displays a bed to indicate that this conception took place by the usual physical means, unlike the conception of Christ. The first record of this feast being celebrated is from 5th-century Palestine. It spread to southern Italy during the 8th century and from there to England, France, Germany, and eventually Rome. In the East this feast has always been called “the Conception (or Maternity) of St. Ann,” stressing Ann’s conceiving of the Theotokos, just as the conception of Christ is revered as “the Annunciation to the Theotokos.” In the West the feast came to be called “the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and later “the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

The Unique Holiness of Mary

All the Churches of East and West have always believed that the Virgin Mary was, from her conception, filled with every grace of the Holy Spirit in view of her calling as the Mother of Christ our God. This belief is even professed in Islam. Muslim lore records a hadith or tradition, which states that the only children born without the “touch of Satan,” were Mary and Jesus for God imposed “a veil” between them and Satan. In the Middle Ages increasing devotion to the Mother of God in the West saw the rise of opinions on the holiness of Mary. Some came to believe that she was even conceived without human intercourse, as Christ was. Finally, in the 17th century, Pope Benedict XIV formally condemned this opinion. While it was generally believed that the Theotokos was filled with divine grace from her conception, there was no general understanding on how this happened. The Eastern Church calls Mary achrantos (spotless or immaculate), but has never defined exactly what this meant. Following St. Augustine’s thought on original sin, the Western Church gradually came to accept the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was pre-served free from all stain of original sin.” The Orthodox Churches rejected the dogmatic nature of this teaching pronounced by the pope on his own authority. Many also objected to it because it defines Mary’s holiness in terms of a certain understanding of original sin. What does “all stain of original sin” mean? Was the Mother of God exempted from the consequences of the ancestral sin (death, corruption, the effects of sin)? Some Western Catholics still believe that Mary did not (in fact, could not) die but this has never been taught by the Western Church. The “stain of original sin” was described by the 16th century Council of Trent as “the privation of righteousness that each child contracts at its conception.” There is no such understanding in Eastern theology and so to say that Mary was free of it has little meaning in the East. Perhaps this is why many Eastern Catholics, when they hear of “the Immaculate Conception” assume that it refers to the conception of Christ. East and West agree that, the Theotokos was fully human like the rest of us: what Fr Thomas Hopko calls “mere human” unlike her Son who is a “real human” but not a mere human because He is the Word of God incarnate. In his book The Winter Pascha he writes, “We are all born mortal and tending toward sin. But we are not born guilty of any personal sin, certainly not one allegedly committed ‘in Adam.’ Nor are we born stained because of the manner in which we are conceived by the sexual union of our parents.” The Byzantine Churches celebrate the fact of Mary’s conception on December 9, but commemorate her holiness on another feast: that of her Entrance into the Temple (November 21) In the kondakion for that feast we sing “The most pure Temple of our holy Savior, and the most precious and bright bridal chamber, the Virgin, sacred treasury of the glory of God, openly appears today in the Temple of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit. Wherefore, the angels of God are singing: This is the heavenly Tabernacle!” She did not become holy in the temple – she brought the grace of God with her. When and how did she acquire it? Human reasoning does not help us there. Nevertheless we ceaselessly proclaim her as our “all-holy, immaculate, most highly blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary.
Hymns from December 9
Behold! The promises of the prophets are realized, for the Holy Mountain is planted in the womb, the Divine Ladder is set up, the great Throne of the King is ready, the place for the passage of the Lord is prepared. The dry bush that fire cannot consume is blossoming and the treasure-house of sanctifying grace is like an abun-dant flow of blessings that heal the barren-ness of Ann, whom we glorify with faith. In the womb of Ann, a new heaven is created at the hand of God the Creator. From it will shine forth the Sun which knows no setting, illuminating the whole world with His divine rays in His love for mankind and His abundant mercy. Adam, behold your renewal! Eve, exult with joy! A barren, waterless wasteland has pro-duced the most beautiful fruit. She will bring forth the Bread of Immortality for the world, bringing all barrenness to an end. Today, let us also exult in joy together with them.

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