Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
ONCE THE LORD JESUS entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday He was in the stronghold of the Jewish political and religious elite: the high priests and the Sanhedrin (council of elders). Chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew shows Him challenging them dramatically in word (parables) and action (His attack on the money-changers). One of those parables, the story of the Vinedressers, was a clear indictment of those who abused their position as God’s representatives in the vineyard of Israel. And “when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them” (v.45).

Matthew does not depict Jesus as explaining this parable; in chapter 23, however, he describes the Lord as using the same image, but with an explanation. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (v. 37) The fate of the servants was an allusion to the fate of the prophets.

The Father of All the Prophets

Contemporary Jews still reverence the “Tomb of the Prophets” Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi on the west side of the Mount of Olives. Tombs of other prophets are venerated as holy sites in Israel (Hosea and Isaiah), Palestine (Zedekiah) and Iraq (Ezekiel). However the prophet whom Jews call the “Father of all the prophets” and whom our Church remembers this week (September 4) has no tomb. As we read in the Torah: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor; but no one knows his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:5, 6). Some authors have suggested that Moses was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent the still semi-idolatrous Israelites from making it a shrine or place of worship.

The bulk of the Torah (Exodus through Deuteronomy) is concerned with the story of Moses. It tells how he was born to an Israelite couple in Egypt. The Pharaoh, in an attempt at population control, had ordered that newborn Hebrew boys were to be killed. “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive” (Exodus 1:17).

Exodus tells how Moses fled Egypt after killing a man who was abusing a Hebrew. He settled in Midian (on the northeastern shore of the Red Sea) and married Zipporah, a daughter of the local priest. While shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks, Moses had this life-changing experience: “And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.’

“So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. Moreover, He said, ‘I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:2-6). Thus Moses is known in our Tradition as “the God-Seer” since he beheld God at the burning bush and when receiving the Law.

Perhaps the most touching image of Moses’ relationship with God occurred just before the Israelites leave Sinai for the Promised Land: “And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. All the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the tabernacle door, and all the people rose and worshiped, each man in his tent door. So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:9-11). 

When Moses asked God to reveal His divine glory, God replied: “… ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you… But He said, ‘You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live… you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen’” (Exodus 33:19-23}.

Moses’ vision of God was true, but imperfect. He would become the perfect seer of God on another mountain, Tabor, when he would appear with the prophet Elias at the Transfiguration of Christ.Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom. He lived to see the Promised Land before he died, but never got to enter it himself. Moses died on Mount Nebo, near Jericho.

Our Church commemorates the Prophet and God-Seer Moses on September 4, the date on which, according to the Menaion, he had seen the Promised Land.

“A Prophet like Moses”

When the Hebrews were preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses uttered this prophecy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear” (Deuteronomy 18:15). After Moses’ death, his assistant Joshua assumed the leadership of the Israelites, but this prophecy was not thought to refer to him. While there would be many prophets among God’s People in the centuries that followed, none of them would attain the stature of Moses. The Torah concludes with this acknowledgement that the prophecy is not yet fulfilled: “But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

Christians see that prophecy fulfilled and exceeded in Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate prophet, law-giver and God-Seer who leads His people – not out of Egypt, but out of Hades, delivering us from the power of Death. As we read in the Gospel of John, “The Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The Gospel of Matthew is so crafted as to portray Jesus as the New Moses. He deepens our understanding of the Commandments and takes us beyond them (“You have heard it said… but I say to you…”). The Beatitudes set out a new way of life, based on self-emptying in imitation of Him.

The very structure of Matthew’s Gospel reinforces the idea of Jesus as the New Moses. The story of His ministry is set forth in five sections of teachings and miracles, just as the Torah is made up of five books. Each section ends with a passage such as this: “And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28, 29). While this device may mean little to us today, its significance would not have been lost on Matthew’s Jewish readers. The Prophet like Moses had come.

With the divine and righteous Moses, the choir of prophets rejoices today with gladness, seeing their prophecy now fulfilled in our midst. For Your Cross, O Christ our God, by which You redeemed us, shines before all as the end and fulfillment of what they foretold in ancient times. By their intercession, have mercy on us all. Kondakion, September 4
 
St Paul wrote most of his epistles to communities rather than individuals. Often, however, he would end an epistle by extending greetings to people whom he knew in that community and from people known to them. Among the latter mentioned in 1 Corinthians are Priscilla and Aquila “and the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor 16:19). We first meet this couple in Acts 18 where we are told, “Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them” (vv 1-3). They became close friends of St Paul and left Corinth with him when he continued his travels. “Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila” (v. 18). Their journey to Syria would take them down the coast of Asia Minor where there were several Christian communities. It seems that Priscilla and Aquila remained in Ephesus, half-way to Syria. St Paul greets them at the end of his Second Epistle to Timothy, who was in Ephesus at the time. The Jews, expelled from Rome in AD 49, were allowed to return in the year 54. Priscilla and Aquila seem to have returned to Rome at that time. In his Epistle to the Romans St Paul greets them as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life” (Rom 16:3-4).

The Church in Their House

We learn from St Paul’s Epistles that, both in Ephesus and in Rome, the local gathering of Christians assembled at the home of Priscilla and Aquila. During the age of persecution in the Roman Empire there were no church buildings as we know them; Christianity was illegal so believers met in private homes. St Paul does not specify what the believers did there, but the description of the first Christians in Jerusalem probably applies everywhere in the first century: “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). As Jews, Priscilla and Aquila probably attended prayers in the synagogue but gathered Christians in their home for the breaking of bread and to hear the apostles’ teaching. When and where Christianity was tolerated, the Church not only met in homes, it acquired houses for community use. In the twentieth century such a house-church was excavated in the ruined Syrian city of Dura-Europus. This house-church, dating from the third century, was extensively decorated with frescoes much like later Byzantine churches. It even had a separate room dedicated as a baptistery: a pattern which would be employed once church buildings became common.

Every Home a Church

In the first centuries AD the home was the usual meeting place of the Church. In later centuries it came to be seen that the Christian family was itself a Church, a “domestic church.” St Paul taught that the family was an image of God the Father and His family: the Son and all those who in Christ have become adopted children of God: “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14-15). The Church is the heavenly family, uniting all who are in Christ to the heavenly Father. In the same way a Christian family takes its identity (its “name”) from God. It is formed by God at the Mystery of Crowning and is the place where family members are meant to encounter God and help one another draw closer to Him. In our Eastern tradition, because the home is the icon of the Church, the home becomes a domestic church. The Mystery of Crowning is where the domestic church is consecrated. It is not just a coincidence at a wedding, as the bride and groom circle the sacramental table, and that the same hymns are sung as at an ordination when the priest-to-be is led around the holy table. As we read in A Guide for the Domestic Church, published by the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, a wedding in the Christian East is “an ordination for service in the domestic church. Husband and wife are called to a unique sharing in Christ’s priesthood by their holy crowning. Their home is their church with a little ‘c’.” Now a church is known not so much by its architecture or its interior design but by the function it plays, the activities it nurtures. A church must be hallowed by the blood of gracious sacrifice, perfumed by the incense of fervent prayer, echoing God’s word and re-echoing man’s response in humble adoration. Anything less and we have Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs”. Our mothers and fathers must rediscover their role as priests of the home and exercise their sacramental powers: the father by blessing his children and the food that nourishes them, by preaching the most eloquent of sermons by the nobility of his conduct; the mother by enabling her family to celebrate the fasts and feasts of the year and by her tending of the light burning before the icons. The children, too, should learn to assume roles in the domestic church as soon as practicable: they can help read the daily scripture passages and assist in the preparation of the foods proper to our tradition.” A Guide for the Domestic Church offers specific suggestions on implementing many of these practices over the course of the year. `Another useful resource for living as a domestic church may be found online at www.melkite.org. Download the “At Home” kits for each of our Church’s fasting seasons (Great Lent at Home, The Fast of the Theotokos in the Home, etc.) for reflections, prayers and activities you can use to keep the spirit of these seasons alive in your house church.

Pass On Your Family Traditions

As the passing on of Holy Tradition is one of the main tasks of the priests of the wider Church, so too passing on of the family story is an important role for parents, the priests of the domestic church. Parents should tell family stories with a sense of appreciation, remembering the good things from their own growing- up years as well as the stories they heard from their parents and grandparents. If you have never done this before, sit down some evening and make a list of these stories and lessons as well as the lessons you want your children to learn from them. The way we tell our family stories can be a great help in bringing our children to see that God is working in your lives: If, with St. Paul, “We know that in all in both the good and bad events of our lives to bring us to where we are in our life now. And so we can tell our stories with a sense of destiny: that God has been at work in our family and is still working, calling us to grow in His love and service. As God worked in the past to bring us to this place in the same way He is preparing us for something else.
 
IN BYZANTINE CHURCHES 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 He gives 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 Ann, mother of the Theotokos (July 25) and of St. John the Theologian, the only apostle not martyred (September 26). The Coptic Church also remembers the Dormition of St Joseph (August 2).

The Tradition of the Virgin’s Repose

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, one or two 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 was 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 firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). To call Him “firstfruits” presumed that there is more to the crop, as St Paul elaborates: “Christ the firstfruits, 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 Resurrection 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 to this day, chiefly at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and at the Syriac Orthodox “Church of the Girdle” in Homs, Syria. During the eighteenth century when the Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch was being established 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 Latin rosary was of Apostolic and Eastern origin.

Mary and Ephesus?

Today some claim that the Theotokos died in Ephesus where St John the Theologian lived for many years because the Lord Jesus had entrusted His mother to him as He was dying on the cross. In the 19th 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 tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.
 
IN THE TRADITIONAL CULTURES of the Middle East language is the prime conveyor of beauty and truth. The elegance with which a thought is phrased – often too florid for our contemporary tastes – strikes even those who disagree with the idea expressed. Truth in such cultures is not bolstered by footnotes but by images that captivate the mind and make the hearer think more deeply about what was said. In the story of the rich young man we saw the Lord Jesus use hyperbole to underline his point. He also used parables, as in that of the landlord and the vinedressers (Matthew 21:33-42), placed in Matthew’s Gospel a few days before the Passion. A parable is a story with a moral rather than a straightforward statement. It is often an extended metaphor, based, as is this parable, on comparison. The story has merit on its own level and may stand out in the hearer’s mind more than the reason why the story is being told. But the parable also has a deeper level, one which may not be evident to the casual hearer but provide much food for thought for those who are seeking God. It is in this sense that parables have been described as veiled statements of truth.

The Landowner and His Tenants

The story in this parable is straightforward enough. The landowner fixed one of his properties for commercial purposes and rented it to vinedressers. The tenants not only did not pay the rent, they attacked the landlord’s agents and, finally, even his son. The Lord left it to the hearers to complete the story, asking “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” (Matthew 13:40). Their response was right on cue and correct – cheat the landlord and you will be punished. But that wasn’t the reason why the Gospel records this story. We read that in the following verses: First of all Jesus quotes Psalm 117:22,23(LXX): “Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone, which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone –This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” Then the Lord removes the veil, as it were. He interprets both the parable and the psalm in terms of the Kingdom of God and of His own role in it. He was the chief cornerstone and those who accepted Him as such would replace the leaders of Israel at the head of God’s people. Matthew concludes with this statement, “When the chief priests heard His parables they perceived that He was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.” (Matthew 21:45-46).

Why Parables?

Earlier in His ministry, when Jesus told the parable of the sower and his seed, His disciples asked Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10) His response shows that parables in the earlier stages of His ministry were meant to draw those who were truly ready to hear the Gospel. And He quoted a passage from the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry in the mid-8th century BC. The Lord told Isaiah that his call for people to repent would be heard but not understood “for this people’s heart has grown dull (or fat)” (Isaiah 6:9,10). Not everyone would be open to him or interested in what he had to say. Jesus said that this text of Isaiah was fulfilled in His preaching to these people. Some people rejected the Messenger (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” ) Others simply would not be interested in anything of God. Jesus’ parables were more likely to arouse interest in people who would be better disposed to hear godly teaching and would be open to Christ and His message. In contrast to the dull hearers of Isaiah’s day, the apostles had shown themselves ready to hear the Gospel as the Lord preached it. “Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear” (v.16), He said to them. You see with the eyes of your heart, and hear with the ears of your soul. This openness would not be enough to keep Judas for betraying Him, but it was sufficient to keep others close to Him until they could experience the resurrection. In the Gospel of Luke we read how the risen Christ opened the understanding of His joyful followers, so that they might comprehend the Scriptures – “the Law of Moses, and the Prophets and the Psalms” concerning His mission on earth – “things that you have witnessed” (see Luke 24:44-47). The disciples’ experience of the death and resurrection of Christ made them able to understand what He had said to them before those events. Now they could appreciate the fullest meaning of His parables because their experience proved to them that He was indeed the chief cornerstone of God’s new temple.

Milk and Solid Food

In a similar way the apostles realized that there were two levels of understanding in the first Christians as well. St Paul tells the Corinthians, “I could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food, for until now you were not able to receive it” (1 Corinthians 3:1,2). They could comprehend the more fundamental teachings but would not be able to grasp the deeper aspects of the Gospel message. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are given a clearer understanding of what these “levels” of Christian faith and life may be. In chapter 6 we read, “Leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying-on of hands, of resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1,2). This list roughly parallels our mysteries of Christian initiation: reception of catechumens, profession of faith, baptism and chrismation. The Epistle goes on to describe the sacrifice of Christ in terms of the temple rite of atonement, which would be re-imaged in our Divine Liturgy, the subject of the early Church’s post-baptismal catechesis, which they called the mystagogia. The Eucharist, they insisted, could not be shared, much less understood, without first experiencing the “elementary principles” of Christian life. Unless we are committed to repentance and a living faith, unless we have been united to the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism, we cannot fully appreciate the Eucharist. We might attend the Liturgy, but we would sooner or later get bored with it and stop coming or take part only for social reasons. We would “hear, but not understand.” We would “see, but not perceive.” The Lord knows better than anyone that all do not have the same spiritual capacity or insight. We would do well to pray for increased understanding of the milk of the Christian life so that we will find the joy in the solid food of the Eucharist that we are meant to enjoy.

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