Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
A DESERT IS ONE of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Torrid by day and frigid by night, it offers none of the comforts with which we surround ourselves. And yet, it is a desert – the Judean desert, to be precise – to which St Saba the Sanctified (Dec. 5) followed Christ. In time, in the words of his friend and biographer, Cyril of Scythopolis (echoing St Athanasius), Mar Saba and his followers would turn the desert into a city peopled by monks. Their successors are there today, 1500 years later.

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

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

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

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

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

Saba, a Healer of the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monastery and Its Martyrs

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

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

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

Several monks were able to escape and hid in a nearby cave. An Arab sentry spotted them and demanded their surrender. One monk, Patrikios, surrendered but said he was alone. He, along with other monks, was herded into a cave and a fire lit at the entrance with dung piled in it to produce poisonous gases. Eighteen additional monks perished as a result. After the Arabs left, the survivors returned to bury these martyrs. They are remembered in our Church on March 20.
 
“ALL OF YOU who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, alleluia.” This verse, sung at baptisms in Byzantine churches, is taken from the passage read at today’s Divine Liturgy (Galatians 3:23-4:5). The newly baptized is processed around the baptistery and into the nave wearing the white baptismal garment, the “robe of light.” This rite illustrates St Paul’s point in the passage that the Christian is one who has “put on” Christ. But what does “putting on Christ” mean apart from this ceremony?

Neither Jew Nor Greek

We see St Paul’s explanation in the next verse, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Once a person puts on Christ all human distinctions which divide people from one another – race, social status, gender and any other division people have made to exalt themselves over others – cease to have any meaning. A Christian is a brother or sister to every other person baptized in Christ, of any race or nation. Here St Paul was echoing one of Christ’s most controversial teachings. The family was the most important social structure of His day. It remains so in traditional societies everywhere. But Christ taught that being related by blood was not as important as being “related” in God’s family. “While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brethren stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.  Then someone said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brethren are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.’ But He answered and said to the one who told Him, ‘Who is My mother and who are My brethren?’  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brethren!  For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:46-50). Reflecting on this passage, St Augustine was emboldened to say, “It is greater for Mary to have been a disciple of Christ than the mother of Christ” (Sermon 72). Her physical role of bearing Christ in her womb was, after all, dependent on her spiritual acceptance of God’s will at the annunciation. From the earliest days of the Church the great sign of this union of all believers with one another has been the Eucharist. As St Paul reminded the Corinthians, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). To this day Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox as well as some other Eastern Christians, always receive a particle of “that one bread,” a single loaf broken and divided among participants, as a reminder that at the Eucharist we all share in the one Christ.

Putting on the Mind of Christ

A few years ago it became popular to label coffee mugs, T-shirts and bracelets with the acronym WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”). Christians, this practice suggests, should think and act like Christ as well as pray to Him. St Paul took a similar approach in his epistles. We should imitate Christ’s way of life, particularly in the way we relate to one another. One area in which St Paul frequently urges believers to imitate Christ is in bearing with one another’s weaknesses. “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me’” (Romans 15:1-3). Christ bore our failings even to the cross; we can surely bear with the weaknesses of those we encounter in the fellowship of the Church. Towards the end of his epistle to the Galatians St Paul suggests that not bearing with the weak is really a matter of pride. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:2-3). We are often intolerant of the weak, the ignorant or the poor because we feel ourselves somehow diminished by their company. On the contrary, bearing with the weak is a sign of true inner greatness. As St John Chrysostom observes, “What Paul says is this: If you are strong, then let the weak test your strength (Homilies on Romans, 27). St Paul speaks with great clarity on this subject in his Epistle to the Philippians: humility is a fundamental imitation of Christ: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). We are urged to enter into the lives of others as Christ entered into our humanity, as an obedient servant. St Paul is echoing here the words of Christ after He had washed the feet of His disciples: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14, 15). To put on the mind of Christ, then, means becoming a humble servant of one another in His Body, the Church.

Putting on the Trinity

Gal 4:5-7 expands even further our understanding of the mystery of “putting on Christ.” The aim of the Incarnation, he teaches, is our incorporation into the “family” of God, the interrelationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit which we call the Trinity. We become children of God not by nature (as is His only-begotten Son), but by the freely given act of adoption. “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:5-7) St Paul also teaches here that, because we are adopted children of God in Christ, we subsequently receive the Holy Spirit in our hearts. At our baptism, of course, this is effected in the mystery of chrismation. St. Paul would return to that theme when writing to the Corinthians. Using temple imagery he describes the baptized as holy since the Holy Spirit dwells in them: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). This is expressed in our Liturgy when the priest invites the worshippers to Communion with the words, “Holy gifts for the holy!” Since we have put on Christ and have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, St Paul says, we can call God by name as Jesus did (cf., Mark 14:36). When Moses asked to know God’s name he was told “I am the Existing One,” the One who truly is and who is the source of all existence. Now in Christ we are given another name, Abba, a name of intimate relationship of son to father. In recent years it has been said that Abba was a child’s word, like daddy or poppa, but there is no evidence that it was used by Jesus’ contemporaries in this way. Abba was simply the ordinary word for father in everyday speech. It would later be the term used in monasteries for the head of the community.
 
MODERN MEDICINE HAS FOUND treatments for a number of diseases that had plagued mankind for centuries. Some have even been eradicated, at least in the developed world. This is not the case with scoliosis (curvature of the spine), such as afflicted the woman in St Luke’s Gospel. To this day no one knows the cause of this affliction in most cases. The Gospel says she had been afflicted with this condition for eighteen years, but since scoliosis often manifested at puberty, she was probably not old by our standards. Treatments available in our day such as wearing braces, surgery, physical therapy and pain medication, were unknown in the first century AD. They must have been eighteen long years indeed. The Gospel tells us that the ruler of the synagogue was indignant “because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day’” (Luke 13:15).

The Sabbath in Judaism

One of the hallmark Jewish practices for millennia has been the observance of the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, as a day set apart for God. We read in the Book of Exodus, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.  You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Exodus 31:14). According to Exodus, a person profanes the Sabbath by doing any work on it. In traditional Jewish practice, maintained by observant Orthodox Jews in our own day, work is defined as “constructive labor” – whatever is done to benefit our life in this world. The Talmud – the traditional compendium of Jewish interpretation – lists 39 activities prohibited on the Sabbath, including all kinds of farm or household labor including lighting or extinguishing a fire and moving things about from one place to another. The only exception to these rules would be activity which helps save a life, which is why Jewish health care workers may be employed on the Sabbath. Later commentators have understood these 39 prohibitions as categories, thereby expanding the list of prohibitions. Thus some rabbis teach that, since chaff cannot be picked from wheat on the Sabbath, it follows that one cannot pick the bones from fish as well. Gefilte fish (pre-ground boned fish) became a popular Sabbath food as a result. In their zeal to preserve the Sabbath some rabbis have gone to what even many Jews perceive as extremes. Thus in some Jewish communities it is forbidden to ride a bicycle on the Sabbath because, if the chain breaks, you might be tempted to fix it. In a similar case a man was forbidden to drive his handicapped mother to the synagogue as it violated the Sabbath; the rabbi suggested that she move within walking distance. Then she would be welcome. The ruler of the synagogue in Luke seems to have been of like mind.

Christ on the Sabbath

Christ was frequently in conflict with more observant Jews over Sabbath-related issues. He was not opposed to the Sabbath itself – He is depicted in the Gospel as a regular worshipper in the synagogue on the Sabbath (cf., Luke 4:16). Rather He was opposed to the elaboration of prohibitions favored by the Pharisees. Instead, He favored expanding the traditional exemption. In addition to work involved with saving a life, Christ saw doing good as an appropriate Sabbath activity: “There was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked [Jesus], saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’—that they might accuse Him. Then He said to them, ‘What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:10-12). The Gospels record several incidents of healings which caused controversy because they were done on the Sabbath. St Luke tells how Christ asked some lawyers and Pharisees if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. When they would not answer, He proceeded to heal a man with dropsy (cf., Luke 14:1-6). And it was a Sabbath when the Lord Jesus healed the man born blind (cf., John 9:1-41). We also read in John how Christ healed a paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda saying, “Take up your bed and walk” (John 5:8). The Pharisees did not challenge Jesus; rather they confronted the ex-paralytic: “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed” (v. 10). The man replied that his healer had told him to do so and, we might add, that was enough for him.

Legalism Is Dangerous

The Sabbath prohibitions were intended to free the Jews from a life which knew nothing but toil. Since they were in the form of bans, some Jews came to feel that extending these exclusions enhanced or honored the Sabbath. The Lord Jesus put forth a different approach, insisting that the Sabbath is honored when we do good on it. The lawyers and Pharisees whom Jesus challenged were not the first or the last to turn positive precepts into restrictive commands. They turned the joy which should have accompanied the Sabbath into fear of transgressing a prohibition as a particular school of rabbis understood it. Something similar happens in the Church when we lose sight of the presence of Christ which alone gives meaning to any precept or rubric. When this happens our traditions may become as fruitlessly restrictive as those Christ confronted. Conversely, when we cast them off we may be left, not with renewal but with license.

The Sabbath Today

“Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:3). This verse is read at the start of Jewish Sabbath eve services to remind worshippers that the Sabbath is a remembrance of God’s rest after the work of creation. In the Church the Sabbath has given way to Sunday with its memory of the Lord’s resurrection and the resulting new creation. Nevertheless, the Sabbath still has a place on Eastern Church calendars. In some parishes the Liturgy is offered on Saturday as well as on Sunday. In our Church remembering the original creation is still a focus for our Saturday prayers. The kondakion sung on most Saturdays reflects the connection of the Sabbath with creation: “To You, O Lord, Ordainer and Creator of the world, the universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of nature. Wherefore through their prayers and through the intercession of the Theotokos preserve Your Church and our country in safety and peace: You who alone are most merciful.” The Sabbath as a day of rest is expressed on Holy Saturday in recalling the great Sabbath rest of Christ in the tomb. Throughout the year, and especially on the Saturdays of the Dead, the peaceful repose of those who die in Christ is highlighted.
 
MANY OF ST. PAUL'S EPISTLES begin with an introduction combining greetings to the community he is addressing and to individuals he knew in that community. As in the Epistle to the Colossians, the introduction may include prayers of thanksgiving that the Gospel has taken root there as well as prayers of intercession for the members of that local Church. These introductions provide us with models of prayer for our sister Churches and for our own local community as well. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians begins with verse 9 of chapter 1: “For this reason, we also – since the day we heard it – do not cease to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” What does it mean to be “filled with the knowledge of His will?” St Paul is not talking here about God’s will for one or another individual. Rather he is speaking about the great plan of God for the restoration of creation, for which the incarnation is the linchpin. To know the will of God is to know the depth of His compassion for His fallen creation: a compassion which does not balk at setting aside for a time the splendor of His rightful place on what Scripture calls “the throne of the majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3) to come as one of us, sharing our broken human nature. “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell and by Him to reconcile all things in Himself by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). To know the will of God is to know deeply – as a guiding force in our lives – that in Christ God and His creation have been brought together again. This is “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and generations but now has been revealed to His saints: … Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27). While God’s will is for the restoration of all creation, His will for human beings is that they “may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:2) through Jesus Christ, united to God through Him. In the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch and so many others, “God became man so that man might become god.”

Knowing That You Are the Church

St Paul then turns his attention to practical questions concerning the Church. Many people in our society have come to understand “the Church” to mean its leaders, the clergy. Even practicing believers talk about “the Church” when they mean the hierarchy. In effect they place themselves outside the Church when they speak this way, relegating themselves to the status of spectators, clients, or even customers. The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described this kind of church in terms of the ordinary Lutheran worship experience of his day. Kierkegaard said that in church the clergy and the choir are the actors, God is the prompter giving the lines and the people are the audience. In reality, he affirmed, it is the people who are meant to be the actors. The clergy and the choir are the prompters (“Let us pray”) and God is the audience. That the people of God are the “actors” not the audience points out another dimension to the will of God which we must know: all believers are meant to affirm by their actions their conviction that we are called to union with God. This happens first of all in the liturgical assembly where we are to be more than spectators, “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). St. Paul’s vision of the Church in this epistle is focused, not on distinctions of rank or function but on mutuality: the Church is one body with Christ as its head (see Col 1:18, 24), a theme developed further in other epistles. In his vision believers are called to bear with one another, forgive one another and pray for one another, thus building up the Church as one body. Our unity in the one body to which we have been called is first of all experienced in the local parish. As we look around the church at those worshipping with us we find countless opportunities to support, through prayer and interaction, those whom God has placed in our lives. Through prayer for those around us and by the way we relate to one another before or after the service we can demonstrate that love for our local parish which St Paul calls “the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:14) We can extend our support for one another through the week as well. A custom which some have found helpful is to take your parish directory and so divide the list of names that in the course of one month you are praying each day for five or ten of your fellow parishioners. Making such a commitment is one way of responding to St. Paul’s injunction, “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).

Praying for the Wider Church

The Christian family has been likened to a series of concentric circles. Beyond the local community we see the other parishes which make up our eparchy as well as the parishes of other eparchies in the community in which we live. Beyond them we see the other eparchies of our nation or our patriarchate. Praying for several in turn not only benefits them but deepens our feelings of connection to these fellow believers for whom we may pray. We may be moved to pray in a particular way for the suffering Churches throughout the world. There seem to be few countries in Asia or Africa today where Christians are not in constant danger on account of their faith. As a result of hardships in their homelands Eastern Christians have been scattered around the world in search of peace for themselves and their families. In response their Churches have journeyed with them, at first to support them in their time of need, but then to make with them a new frontier of witnesses to their particular traditions. Thus today we find Coptic churches in Australia, Syriac churches in Sweden and Malankara churches in Texas! We do well to pray for these “diaspora churches” that they may proper as loving witness to the diversity of the apostolic traditions nourished by them for centuries. When we think of missions we often imagine primitive peoples receiving the Gospel for the first time. There are still peoples all over the world whose Churches are in the early stages of development or whose economic environments compel then to continue seeking the support of more prosperous Christians. Missionary churches form another category of fellow believers in need of our intercession.

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