Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN BYZANTINE CHURCHERS the first Great Feast in the liturgical calendar is the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8). The feast of her Holy Dormition (August 15), coming at the end of the Church year, brings this cycle to a close. Like a musical masterwork, our annual remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ begins with an “overture” (the birth of His Mother) and concludes with a “coda” (her entry into the new life which is promised to us).

What Is a “Dormition”?

Our English word echoes the French and Latin words for “sleep.” The corresponding Greek word, koimisis, appears in English as “cemetery,” or “sleeping place.” By calling death a “repose” or a “falling asleep” we are affirming our faith that death is not an ultimate reality.

Mary’s is not the only Dormition observed in our Church. The first saints to be commemorated were the martyrs, witnesses to Christ at the risk of their life; their death was considered as a “crowning” to their testimony. Some saints not martyred were remembered on the day of their peaceful death, their dormition. Thus we remember the Dormition of St Anne, mother of the Theotokos (Jul. 25) and of St. John the Theologian, the only apostle not martyred (Sept. 26). The Coptic Church also remembers the Dormition of St Joseph (Aug. 2).

Several writings describing the death of the Virgin have come down to us; the earliest still in existence dates from the fifth century. But, according to biblical scholar Lino Cignelli, “All of them are traceable back to a single primitive document, a Judaeo-Christian prototype, clearly written within the mother church of Jerusalem some time during the second century, and, in all probability, composed for liturgical use right at the Tomb of Our Lady.”

The early Tradition generally places Mary’s death in Jerusalem, a few years after the death and resurrection of Christ. According to one early version, “…the apostles carried the couch, and laid down her precious and holy body in Gethsemane in a new tomb. And, behold, a perfume of sweet savor came forth out of the holy sepulcher of our Lady the Mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise.”

Other of these writings speak of all the apostles being summoned and/or transported miraculously to attend the Holy Virgin at her passing. When Mary reposes, they see Christ taking her soul to heaven. When they bury her body as the Lord had instructed, the apostles once more see Christ. In one version Peter appeals to Him: “It had seemed to us Your servants to be right that, just as You, having vanquished death, now reign in glory, You should raise up the body of Your mother and take her with You in joy into heaven.” Christ restores her soul to her body and glorifies both with Him. In all these accounts Mary enters eternal life in the fullness of her spiritual and bodily existence.

Employing elements of these accounts, the Churches of the East and then the West began to celebrate the feast of Mary’s passing, which became widespread before the end of the first millennium ad. The eighth century Father, St John of Damascus, has left us several sermons on the meaning of Mary’s Dormition as well as a canon which we still sing at Orthros on this feast. “What, then, shall we call this mystery of yours? Death? Your blessed soul is naturally parted from your blissful and undefiled body. The body is delivered to the grave, yet it does not remain in death, nor is it the prey of corruption. The body of her, whose virginity remained unspotted in child-birth, was preserved in its incorruption, and was taken to a better, more divine place, where there is no death, only eternal life” (First Homily on the Dormition).

The Resurrection of the Body

The Dormition of the Theotokos points to an aspect of eternal life only briefly sketched out in the Scriptures. There we read that the risen Christ is “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). To call Him “first-fruits” presumed that there is more to the crop, as St Paul elaborates: “Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v. 23).

Mary’s participation in eternal life is unique – she is not awaiting the return of her Son; she now fully shares in the eternal life in body as well as spirit by a special gift of grace. Some may see this belief as unscriptural, contradicting the very words of St Paul. Rather they confirm by a historic moment what would otherwise simply be an allegation. Mary’s dormition demonstrates that St Paul’s teaching is not mere words. Human beings can share physically in the Resurrection and Mary is there to prove it.

In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Mary’s dormition “…is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrec-tion and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians. (It is significant that this ¶ concludes by paraphrasing our troparion of the Dormition in witness to the meaning of this feast.) In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death” (¶966).

What Mary Left Behind

One tradition repeated in several early texts concerns the sash or girdle of the Theotokos. Thomas was supposedly the last Apostle to arrive and missed venerating her body. According to the seventh-century Passing of the Blessed Virgin Mary attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, Thomas saw the most holy body of the blessed Mary going up into heaven, and prayed her to give him a blessing. She heard his prayer, and threw him the sash which she had about her. Parts of this girdle are venerated at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and at the Syriac Orthodox “Church of the Girdle” in Homs, Syria. During the eighteenth century some iconographers were moved to “Catholicize” the icon of the Dormition. They showed the Theotokos giving St Thomas a rosary instead of her sash, contributing to the popular notion that the rosary was of Apostolic and Eastern origin

Mary and Ephesus?

We do not know when the site of the Virgin’s tomb in Gethsemane, at the foot of Mount Olivet, became a place of Christian devotion. Some say that the first church there had been built by St Helena in the fourth century. There was clearly a church there in the fifth century. It is well docu-mented that the first Patriarch of Jerusalem, St Juvenal, had taken the veil of the Theotokos from this shrine and sent it to the Empress Pulcheria who had asked him for the Virgin’s “relics” after the Council of Chalcedon (451). The patriarch replied, “Three days after her repose, the body of the Holy Virgin was raised up to heaven, and the Tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane bears only her Veil.” The patriarch then sent this relic to Constantinople where it was enshrined in the church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, a district of Constantinople.

Today some claim that the Theotokos died in Ephesus, where St John the Theologian lived for many years. In the nineteenth century a house claimed to be that of the Virgin was unearthed near Ephesus, based on a supposed vision of Anne Catherine Emerich. This shrine became popular in the West; however there was never any early tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.
 
WHEN THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH was divided over whose leadership to follow, St Paul asserted his unique role of authority in that Church. It was Paul who had first brought the message of the Gospel to Corinth. In Acts 18 we read how Paul had come from Athens and began presenting his views in the synagogue on every Sabbath. Although many opposed him, he persuaded others, including Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, to confess the Lord Jesus as the Messiah.

St Paul describes his role as founder of the Corinthian Church as the one who “begat” it: “…though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). While many dioceses attribute their founding to an apostle, Corinth is one of the few dioceses with a Scriptural witness to its claim. Today the metropolitan see of Corinth is the oldest and most prestigious diocese in southern Greece, tracing itself back to the apostle Paul, its father.

But Only One Is Your Father

When St Paul says that he “begat” the Corinthian Church, he is clearly speaking in a way Jews of his day would recognize. The Jews commonly called Abraham the father of the God-fearing who would become the people of Israel. This claim was a source of pride for the Jews – one which their own actions did not support. Thus St John the Forerunner and Baptist reproached Jews of his day for claiming that being sons of Abraham made them by definition acceptable to God as Abraham was: “…do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:9). As some say today, “God has no grandchildren” – we must all live as His children.

In Jesus’ day many of the Jewish religious leaders had distorted the teaching of the Law and the Prophets by their “authoritative” interpretations. Jesus rebuked them to their face in these words: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men.

“They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant”
(Matthew 23: 2-11).

The Lord reproached the Jewish religious leaders for claiming the authority to interpret the Law and using that as a means to attain worldly prestige and power. Jesus’ own disciples were to distance themselves from such practices.

This passage is often quoted by many fundamentalist Protestants against the practice in the historic Churches of East and West of calling the clergy “father.” If they are correct, then St Paul clearly was violating Jesus’ precept when he claimed to have fathered the Church at Corinth.

When the Gospel passage is read in context, it is clear that the Lord is not speaking against titles or imagery but the abuse they may represent. Even the foremost authority in European Protestantism, John Calvin, did not believe that St Paul was wrong to speak of himself as begetting the Corinthian Church. Commenting on this passage Calvin wrote, “While Paul claims for himself the appellation of father, he does it in such a manner as not to take away or diminish the smallest portion of the honor which is due to God. … God alone is the Father of all in faith …But they whom he is graciously pleased to employ as his ministers for that purpose, are likewise allowed to share with Him in His honor while, at the same time, He parts with nothing that belongs to Himself.”

“Fathering” a Church

Every Church – whether eparchy or local parish – has its fathers, in the sense that St Paul used the term. Some were established by missionaries who were sent for that purpose, either to non-Christian areas or to scattered groups of Christians. Other communities were organized by groups of the faithful who had come from elsewhere and wanted to worship in the ways of their own Church. They often formed a society or organization and contacted Church authorities to request a priest to serve them. In some cases they even built a church, then asked for a priest. This was often the case when Eastern Christians first migrated from their homelands in the nineteenth century. These missionaries, grassroots organizers and the bishops who blessed their endeavors are all remembered as “founders of this holy Church” during every Liturgy served in that church. During the prosthesis a particle is offered on the diskos “in memory of and for the remission of sins of the blessed founders of this holy church.” Secondly, “the blessed and ever to be remembered founders of this holy church” are remembered during the insistent litany after the Gospel or during the Great Entrance. A similar remembrance is made when this litany is chanted at vespers or orthros.

Newer parishes, whose founders are still living, often celebrate a “Founders’ Day” to recognize those who made the Church in their community possible. Such events often include civic recognition, festive meals, and special commemoration at the Liturgy. Our Churches never forget those who have begotten them.

Become a “Blessed Founder”

As new areas develop throughout the country and people move from their home towns to develop them, new Church missions need to be established. In some places recent immigrants from Eastern Christian homelands abroad have arrived as well. Most Eastern Christian dioceses have opened new missions to serve these communities and are eager to learn of other places where their communicants may now be found.

Some parishes have begun to serve the Liturgy in areas near their churches, forming “satellite” missions for their members who live beyond regular weekly driving distance. Members from the main church often accompany the priest to serve as chanters, servers or simply to support these efforts by their presence.

Elsewhere there are groups of Eastern Christians beyond the reach of any existing parish. Anyone who knows where their Eastern Christian friends or relatives have recently settled should notify their respective dioceses. As bishops learn the whereabouts of their people they can explore the possibility of establishing new outreaches in these areas. By contributing to these efforts we might all help beget a new local Church.
 
THE HEALING OF AN EPILEPTIC described in Matthew 17:14-21 took place late in Christ’s public ministry. One indication is that the very next verses speak of Christ warning His disciples about His coming Passion (vv. 22-23). It was only as the time of His earthly ministry was drawing to a close that He began insisting on what was about to happen to Him. Another sign that this healing took place late in Christ’s earthly ministry is the reaction of His disciples. Their question, “Why could we not cast it out?” (v. 19), shows that they had already been healing the sock and exorcizing evil powers in Christ’s name. As we read earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Christ had already given them this power.: “And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease…Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:1, 8).

Mustard Seed Faith

Despite all this, we find the apostles powerless here. Furthermore Christ says that they could not heal this epileptic “because of your unbelief” (v. 20). Granted that the Gospels show how uncertain the disciples’ faith actually was, even after the resurrection. It was only when they received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that they became bold in their proclamation of Christ. Then the sureness of their faith was matched by the hardships they endured and by the signs and wonders they freely performed. At this point, however, the apostles had faith, but it was not extraordinary. Every believer is by definition a person of faith but not every believer has the kind of unwavering faith the Lord describes in Matthew 17:20 – “…assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” This kind of faith – some commentators call it “deep faith” – is clearly not common but it does exist in the Church to witness the truth of the Lord’s words. This is why, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, St Paul identifies a number of particular gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit, among them healings, miracles, prophecy… and faith. This may strike us as odd. Working miracles is clearly a gift given to some, not to all, but so, it seems, is “mustard seed” faith. Countless examples of extraordinary faith have been recorded both in the Scriptures and in the annals of the saints. Although we may not see them ourselves, there are numerous examples of “mustard seed” faith in our own day. Two such instances are described here as a reminder that Christ’s idea of “mustard seed” faith is not an exaggeration.

“Moving Mountains” in Siberia

Imprisoned in a Soviet work camp during the 1940s and 50s, Father Arseny, a Russian Orthodox priest, intervened in a fight to help a young prisoner named Alexei. For "troublemaking," he and Alexei were both sentenced to 48 hours in an unheated cell where the floor and walls were covered with sheets of metal. Outside it was -22ºF. They would probably be dead within a few hours. Alexei was sure they were going to die, but Father Arseny had a different view. “We are here all alone, Alexei; for two days no one will come. We will pray. For the first time God has allowed us to pray aloud in this camp, with our full voice. We will pray and the rest is God's will!” As Fr Arseny’s biographer would later tell it, “The cold had taken Alexei completely; his entire body was numb. But suddenly the cell, the cold, the numbness of his whole body, his pain, and his fear had disappeared. Father Arseny's voice filled the cell, but was it a cell? Alexei turned to Father Arseny and was stunned. Everything around had been transformed. An awful thought came: ‘I am losing my mind, this is the end, I am dying.’ “The cell had grown wider, the ray of moonlight had disappeared. There was a bright light and Father Arseny, dressed in brilliant white vestments, his hands lifted up, was praying aloud. The clothing on Father Arseny was the same as on the priest Alexei had once seen in church. Alexei saw with surprise that there were two men assisting Father Arseny. Both were dressed in the same bright vestments and both shone with an indefinable white light. Alexei did not see their faces, but sensed that they were beautiful. “How much time had passed he did not know, but Father Arseny turned to him and said, ‘Go, Alyosha! Lie down, you are tired. I will keep praying; you will hear me.’ Alexei lay down on the metal-covered floor, closed his eyes, and kept on praying. The words of prayer filled his whole being. All was peaceful and warm. It was important not to forget these words, to remember them all his life. “Father Arseny prayed, and the two others in bright garments prayed with him and served him. The only things that remained in Alexei's memory were the words of the prayer, a warming and joyful light, Father Arseny praying, the two others in clothes of light, and an enormous, incomparable feeling of inner renewing warmth. “Somebody struck the door, the frozen lock squealed, and voices could be heard from the outside of the cell. Alexei opened his eyes. Father Arseny was still praying. The two in garments of light blessed him and Alexei and slowly left. The blinding light was fading and the cell at last became dark and, as before, cold and gloomy. “‘Get up, Alexei! They have come for us,’ said Father Arseny. [Two days had passed. One of the party, a prison doctor was astounded.] ‘Amazing! How could they have survived? It’s true, though; they’re warm.’ The doctor walked into the cell, looked around it, and asked, ‘What kept you warm?’ “‘Our faith in God, and prayer,’ Father Arseny answered…’ “The barracks met them as if they had risen from the dead. Everyone asked, ‘What saved you?’ They both answered, ‘God saved us.’” (Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father by his spiritual son, Alexander)

“Moving Mountains” in the Ivory Coast

The faith of ordinary people is often helped by that of extraordinary believers, the saints. 
After buying her sons, Christian and Elie el-Chartouny, a new car, their mother took them to the Maronite church in Abidjan for the Divine Liturgy on May 8, the birthday of St. Charbel. However, the boys decided to skip the Liturgy and go for a drive instead. Their mother knelt in front of Saint Charbel’s icon, asking him to protect them and bring them back safe. At about 11:30 p.m. the woman heard her sons when they came back home; relieved, she went to sleep. When she woke up in the morning, she found the boys on the balcony, still awake, and the new car wrecked. The boys told her that they were driving too fast and their car went off the road, hitting an electrical post 10 km away from home. At that moment, an old monk showed up, but they didn’t see his face. He came up to the car and pulled it away from the post! He tied a rope to it and pulled it extremely fast, crossing those 10 km in two minutes. Stopping the car in front of their house, he removed the rope and disappeared. The mother’s prayer and Saint Charbel’s intervention had saved the boys. Unwavering faith can move mountains, cars or freezing cold. Just so you know.
 
“IF FATHER ABBOUD HAS ANYTHING and you need it – you can have it.” The saying, common during the depression about the Melkite pastor in Omaha, Nebraska, was reported in his obituary in the Morning World Herald. The writer continued, “He prepared and cooked most of his meals and did his own housework. Once in a great while he smoked a cheap cigar. Food and raiment were things needed, but not desired.” This may not have been so unique as to be newsworthy in those difficult days, but the writer surely thought it was. St Paul described his own ministry in similar terms: “To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands” (1 Corinthians 4:11-12). What little he had, Paul earned by working at his trade rather than relying on the support of believers. Later in the epistle he elaborated: “Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?” (1 Corinthians 9:4-6) At the same time St Paul insisted that there was nothing wrong with receiving one’s support from the Church – that was what the Lord wanted: “Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel. But I have used none of these things…” (1 Corinthians 9:13-15) Unlike other apostles and pastors, Paul supported himself by working at his trade. He gave up the possibility of family life and stability to be a traveling apostle throughout the Mediterranean world, bringing the Gospel to whomever would receive it. Paul’s way of life was different from that of the other apostles, even Peter (Cephas), and the members of the Lord’s own family, like St James. He did what was not required or even expected for the sake of reaching people for Christ. He described his lifestyle in words that would echo through the ages: “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10).

Folly in Our Day

Over the centuries the Church has used this term – fool for Christ’s sake – to describe a number of people whose Christian life has embraced the “foolishness” of the Sermon on the Mount. In the West it is often used to describe people who lived the way few of us would in order to serve the destitute and the outcast. Dorothy Day and her mentor Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, are regularly described in this way. They have been compared to St Francis of Assisi in proclaiming their beliefs, not simply by words, but by the way of life they embraced. They lived by the simplicity of the Gospel rather than the values of this age. Other contemporary Western saints like them have struck a cord among believers and unbelievers alike. Saints like Damien of Molokai, Marianne Cope and Teresa of Calcutta lived among and, to a degree, like the lepers and unwanted they served. Their Gospel, like Paul’s, was lived as well as preached.

Folly in the Christian East

In the Eastern Churches the term “Fool for Christ’s Sake” has been given to a different type of witness. Eastern “Fools” are those who have lived on the fringes of, if not outside, the society of respectable Christians. They imitated folly and even pretended in some case to be deranged in order to proclaim the Gospel to those who could no longer comprehend it. Perhaps the most famous was St Basil the Wonder-worker of Moscow, who could rebuke Ivan the Terrible and get away with it because , living on the streets, he had nothing to lose. It is ironic that the most lavish – and eccentric – cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin is named for him. A near-contemporary Fool for Christ was a bakery worker in an Athens suburb who was popularly known as “Crazy John.” He regularly bought two large bags of bread from his wages and distributed them to the elderly and poor in his neighborhood. He never took credit for his actions, always saying that the bread was “a gift from mister Apostoly the baker, so that you will commemorate him in your prayers." Fools for Christ often display a kind of spiritual sight, a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. One day John did not show up for work. He was found cleaning out the storm drains in his neighborhood, claiming that he was looking for two coins he had lost. Later in the day a flash flood inundated the area – except for Crazy John’s neighborhood which sustained no damage because the storm drains had been cleaned! Over the years Crazy John came to be revered in his neighborhood for the care he showed to those in need, both spiritually and materially. He lived many of the stories told about St. Nicholas in his own way. To the amusement of his neighbors he would often buy large amounts of women’s items from the market. One day someone followed him and found him secretly leaving these items at the doors of poor women who could not otherwise afford them. When he died, his former employer offered this extraordinary eulogy, “God may not have made him a priest, but He surely anointed him a bishop in our neighborhood.”

We Are Called to Folly

When St Paul wrote about the Christian life, he insisted that folly should be part of every believer’s way of living “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18). He was contrasting the way of the Gospel, the way of Christ, with the practices of those who are “wise in this age,” who know how to operate the system which is our worldly society to their best advantage. They know the right people, the right moves, the way things are done in any given culture – not to benefit others but to secure their own comfort or to enrich themselves. They personify “the wisdom of this age” to the admiration of many. Every age and social class has its “wisdom.” In the Gilded Age of nineteenth century New York, socialites yearned to be one of “the 400,” invited to Mrs. Astor’s dances. A century later ordinary people long to be seen on TV or meet “celebrities.” For those who heed St. Paul, however, the folly of the Gospel way of life triumphs over the wisdom of this age. To be in Christ is preferable to being “in the club,” of whatever social, business, or religious elite people “of this age” aspire to belong.
St. Basil of Moscow – Fool for Christ (Commemorated August 2)

Your life, O Basil, was true and your chastity undefiled. In fasting, vigilance and exposure to heat and frost you subdued your flesh for the sake of Christ. Therefore your countenance shone with the brilliance of the sun. Today the faithful glorify your holy falling-asleep. Implore Christ to deliver us from all bondage, dissension and war, and to grant great mercy to our souls!

(Troparion)

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