Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN THE BYZANTINES CHURCHES all four Gospels are read at the Divine Liturgy in the course of the year. St John’s Gospel is read from Pascha to Pentecost. On the day after Pentecost we begin reading the Gospel of St Matthew. Selections from this Gospel are read every day for the next eleven weeks. From the twelfth week after Pentecost, this Gospel is read on Saturdays and Sundays while St Mark’s Gospel is read on the other days of the week.

We interrupt the reading of these Gospels on the Monday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, when we begin to read the Gospel of St Luke. This interruption is called the “Lukan Jump” in Byzantine terminology. St Luke’s Gospel (along with other passages from Mark) is read until the beginning of the Triodion.

In our liturgical books, both the epistles and the Gospels from Pentecost to the feast of the Exaltation are described as “after Pentecost.” With the Lukan Jump, the designations change. The epistles continue to be numbered “after Pentecost” while the Gospels are titled “of St Luke.”

In popular use, Slavic Churches tend to call the entire period up to the beginning of the Triodion as “after Pentecost.” In contrast, Greek Churches number these days after the Gospel being read (e.g. Fourth Sunday of St Matthew or Luke). The Melkite Church popularly follows the practice used in the Syriac Churches of the Middle East, numbering the days or weeks “after the Holy Cross.”

The Gospel of St Luke

Longest of the four Gospels, Luke is thought to have been written in a Greek Christian environment, possibly in Antioch or Asia Minor. Traditionally Luke has been identified with the friend and traveling companion of St Paul (see 2 Timothy 4:11). He is thought to have been born in Antioch and trained as a physician (see Colossians 4:14). He is thought to have become a disciple of Christ during the Lord’s public ministry and to have been numbered among the seventy disciples mentioned in Luke 10. He is traditionally identified as the companion of Cleopas, who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24).

It is believed that Luke’s Gospel – and its companion work, the Acts of the Apostles – was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70. It is also thought that his intended audience consisted of Greek-speaking believers, based on his use of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, and patterns familiar to readers of contemporary Greek literature. A fragment from the late second century ad is the oldest manuscript evidence of this Gospel.

The Gospel, of course, tells the story of Christ while Acts tells us about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the apostolic Church. Numerous commentators have pointed out that Luke’s work should be considered a trilogy. The first “volume” in this trilogy would be chapters one and two of the Gospel, what some have called an “infancy narrative.” This section begins by telling of the conception of St John the Forerunner, then narrates the Annunciation to the Theotokos, the nativity of John, followed by the nativity of Christ. The stories of Christ’s circumcision, His encounter with Simeon in the temple and His experience in the temple as a twelve-year old complete this section.

Chapters one and two of Luke are not simply a prelude to the story of the adult Jesus. These chapters are, as it were, a Gospel of its own. In them Luke presents us with the figure of John as the Forerunner, whose conception and birth begin the long-awaited Messianic age. In Byzantine Churches the conception of the Forerunner is celebrated on September 23, introducing both the figure of John and the Cycle of Luke. In previous centuries many Byzantine Churches began the liturgical year with the celebration of this event.

The angel Gabriel, who tells John’s father of what is to come, announces that “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah... to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13-17). Here we see John described as “filled with the Holy Spirit,” as “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” and as making ready “a people prepared for the Lord.” John’s essential characteristics, told in narratives throughout the four Gospels, are expressed here in a few words.

The Gospels’ portraits of Jesus are drawn to show us how His disciples came to see Him as Messiah and Lord over their time with Him, both before and after His death and resurrection. A climactic moment in Matthew, for example, comes when Jesus asks His closest followers, “‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven’’ (Matthew 16:13-17).

Not only are the disciples depicted as coming to learn over time who Jesus was; others, too, arrive at a similar conclusion. Thus the story of the Samaritan woman reaches its climax when her neighbors proclaim, “we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). They come to this realization when they see the Lord at work in their midst. Luke, on the other hand shows us Jesus as proclaimed “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32) “the Son of God” (Lk 1:35) in each incident of his infancy narrative. Zachariah, in the canticle he sings at his son’s birth, prophecies, “you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” (Luke 1:76). Calling Jesus “the Lord” ascribes to Him the divine name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is the same name ascribed to Him by the angel announcing His birth to the shepherds (see Luke 2:11).

The entire first book of Luke’s trilogy climaxes with two proclamations in the Jerusalem temple. When the Infant encounters the righteous Simeon, the prophet proclaims Christ as savior of the world: “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). Finally, when the young Jesus is found “in my Father’s house,” among the temple elders, we see Him taking His place at the head of God’s people, as the ascended Christ will be depicted in the midst of the heavenly host at His ascension. Thus Luke twice tells the story of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God: first, through stories of His infancy and childhood and secondly, in the narrative of His public ministry, death and resurrection.

Elizabeth was freed from barrenness, while the Virgin remained still a virgin, when at Gabriel’s voice each of them conceived in the womb; but the Forerunner John leapt in the womb when he recognized beforehand his God and Master incarnate in a virgin womb for our salvation.
 
FROM SEPTEMBER, 2013 TO APRIL, 2014 government and rebel forces struggled for control of the ancient Christian town of Ma’loula, Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to a number of shrines and monasteries. One of them is the ancient Orthodox women’s monastery of St Thekla from which 12 nuns were abducted and held by rebel forces for three months.

Almost unknown in the West today, St Thekla was held in great esteem in the early Church and is still revered in the Christian East. Her festival, on September 24, has attracted pilgrims since at least the fourth century. Today both Christians and Muslims pray at her shrine in this venerable town.

Why Was St Thekla?

The story of St Thekla is told in the Acts of Paul and Thekla, a late first or early second century work written in the lifetime of the apostle John the Theologian but not by him. It is considered apocryphal, chiefly because its teachings are not consistent with those of St Paul in the canonical Scriptures.

In this work Thekla is said to be a daughter of an aristocratic family in Iconium (modern Konya in Asia Minor) who heard St Paul preaching during his stay there (see Acts of the Apostles 14:1-7). She was so captivated by Paul’s preaching that her mother and fiancé denounced him to the authorities and he was jailed. Thekla bribed the guards to gain entry to the prison and spent the night listening to Paul. When she was discovered, she too was arrested and condemned to death so that “all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid.”

Thekla was convinced of the truth of the Gospel and was ready to renounce everything she had for its sake. She was taken to the outdoor theater and placed on a pyre. Then, as the Acts of Paul and Thekla tells it, “They lighted the fire. And though a great fire was blazing, it did not touch her. For God, having compassion upon her, made an underground rumbling and a cloud full of water and hail overshadowed the theater from above” (¶ 22). In the storm which followed the earthquake the pyre was overturned and Thekla was saved.

In the Scriptural Acts of the Apostles we are told that, when St Paul left Iconium he went to Lystra. In the apocryphal Acts we are told that he went to Antioch, taking Thekla with him. In any case, Thekla spent the rest of a long life near Seleucia (modern Silifke, in southern Turkey) where she “enlightened many and died in peace.” Because of the many people Thekla brought to Christ in that pagan region the Church accords her the title “Equal to the Apostles.”

Many early writers in both East and West revered St Thekla as a model for devout women, particularly ascetics. Thus other notable women such as St Macrina and St Melany the Roman were described as “second Theklas” by eminent Church Fathers St Gregory of Nyssa and St Jerome.

The Tomb of St Thekla

The cave near Silifke, in which Thekla reputedly lived as an ascetic and was buried, was revered locally during the time of the Roman persecutions. As St Gregory the Theologian wrote (Oration 31), the fame of this shrine spread and by the fourth century a church had been built around the cave. This church, as well as the ruins of the more prominent church, built over it in the fifth century, may still be seen at the site. This church, as its ruins attest, was the largest in the region. Monasteries for both men and women grew up surrounding it which attracted pilgrims from all over the empire.

The fourth-century Spanish pilgrim nun Egeria wrote about visiting this shrine twice, on her way to and from Jerusalem. On her second visit, she writes, “When I had arrived in the name of God, prayer was made at the [saint’s] memorial and the whole of the Acts of Saint Thekla had been read, I gave endless thanks to Christ our God, who deigned to fulfill my desires in all things, unworthy and undeserving as I am. Then, after a stay of two days, when I had seen the holy monks and ascetics who were there, both men and women, and when I had prayed and made my Communion, I returned to Tarsus and to my journey.”

St Thekla and the Defile

Stories of St Thekla often tell how she was protected from being defiled by “a defile”. “To defile” means to debase or render impure, but “a defile” is a narrow crevice affording passage through mountains. In a number of stories about St Thekla it is said that she was pursued by people intending to defile her. In some versions her pursuer is a would-be lover frustrated by her commitment to chastity. In other versions pagans, resenting her success at proclaiming the Gospel, pursue her in order to silence her. In all versions Thekla flees into the mountains where a defile opens up allowing her to pass through it unharmed. Churches or shrines to St Thekla were often placed near mountain crevices, such as the monastery in Ma’loula, whose name in Aramaic means entry.

The First Woman Martyr?

In the Christian East St Thelka is considered the first woman martyred for Christ, much as St Stephen was among men. Yet, as we have seen, Thekla lived a long life and died in peace. How, then is she a martyr?

Thekla was first described as protomartyr among women by St Isidore of Pelusium, a fifth century Egyptian ascetic and friend of Ss Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. Known for his letters (over 2000 have survived), Isidore wrote to some women ascetics in Alexandria who were facing expulsion from the city for supporting the exiled Athanasius. He extolled “the all-praiseworthy Thekla” as “an eternal monument of purity” and the “head of all women victors and trophy-bearers” (Letter 87). Her “martyrdom” was considered to be all the sufferings she endured for giving herself to Christ. St Thekla thereby became the principal model for Egyptian women ascetics.

Early writers saw the life-long struggle of ascetics such as more intense than the more transient pains of actual martyrs. Their daily struggle with temptation and physical affliction became the “spears and swords” of their martyrdom. Hence St Thekla, as the model for women ascetics was the protomartyr of their kind.

From the Vespers for St Thekla

O Lord, Thekla followed in the footsteps of the Apostle in chains, casting off the chains of earthly passions; captivated by the power of Your love, she was firmly bound to You, O Savior of our souls.

O Lord, Your spotless Protomartyr Thekla was delivered over to the fire, but was not burned since she possessed You as a refreshing dew. She remained safe in the midst of wild beasts, protected as she was by Your hand, O Savior of our souls. As an athlete in your struggles, you overcame the enemy, O blessed Thekla; in martyrdom, you destroyed his schemes. You fled far from Thamyris in order to be espoused to Christ, your true Love. You were the companion of Paul and imitated Stephen in his trial. As the first woman to bear witness to Christ, you have boldness before Him: save our souls from all danger as, in faith, we festively celebrate your sacred memory.
 
HOW MANY TV CHANNELS can you access – 300, 400, more? How many do you actually use? How fast can your car travel – 150 mph? How fast do you actually drive? Does your Smartphone have more apps than you’ll ever use? Manufacturers design their products based on the conviction that people want more than they really need. As humorist Will Rogers said back in the 1920s, “Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want to impress people they don't like.”
 This dynamic, called consumerism, has been known for over 100 years. As more people became financially able to buy more, do more, and travel more “conspicuous consumption” became a way of life for an increasing number of people, particularly in Europe and America. The great symbol of this phenomenon, at least in the U.S. has been “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, when people descend on stores in a Christmas Shopping frenzy to grab the latest thing before it’s sold out. Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced a way of life devoted to conspicuous consumption, contrasting it to a Christ-centered way of life. “The encounter with the living Jesus, in the great family that is the Church, fills the heart with joy, because it fills it with true life, a profound goodness that does not pass away or decay. “But this experience must face the daily vanity, the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having (things), that deludes young people with consumreism,” he said before thousands in St Peter’s Square. “Young people are particularly sensitive to the emptiness of meaning and values that surrounds them. And they, unfortunately, pay the consequences.” Critics have accused the pope of introducing socialism or even Marxism into Church teaching. In fact, the anti-consumerism he espouses may be found in the New Testament and even in pre-Christian philosophers.

How God Provides

St Paul sets forth his “Christian economics” in 2 Corinthians 9:8 – “God is able to make every gift abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work”. The first plank in his three-fold approach is to recognize that God is able to provide for us. We often emphasize our own contribution to life, forgetting that our talents, our abilities, our very existence comes from God. As we read in the Epistle of James – and repeat regularly in the Divine Liturgy – “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17). We are, to be sure, co-creators with Him by virtue of our creation in His image; but there is nothing good wrought by our hand apart from Him. Secondly, God provides for us in a specific manner. He provides for us all sufficiency in all things. In other words, He guarantees that we have everything we truly need. Third, He guarantees us an abundance, over and above what we need, but for a specific purpose: for every good work. We have enough for what we actually require and even more, for the purpose of doing good.

What Do We “Need?”

St Paul’s economics are easy to understand in principle, but we find ourselves with a lot of questions when we try to apply his teaching. When does “need” – I must have –become “excess” – I can use or I want? And is it good for me to have everything I want and can afford? We recognize the negative effects on our body if we eat or drink to excess. But there are even more serious effects on our soul. Our physical cravings can lead to a psychological dependency: the feeling that I can’t live without X, Y or X. Overeating leads to overweight, physical discomfort and illness; overdependence on material things leads to psychological unhappiness and spiritual emptiness. Philosophers throughout the ancient world recognized this apart from Christianity. Lao-Tzu, the fifth-century bc Chinese author of the Tao Te Ching said it this way: “To know you have enough is to be rich.” The first-century Roman philosopher Seneca noted, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” Another Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, Himself born into slavery, had so freed himself from dependence on the material that he reportedly said in AD 55 that, “Contentment comes not so much from great wealth as from few wants.” These pagan philosophers would likely have agreed with the Lord when He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man [i.e. one dependent on his material wealth] to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25).

Enough vs. Abundance

St. Paul is clear: the purpose of any abundance we may be given is for doing every good work. Do you have more than you need? Don’t look to add to your holdings – you will simply be frustrating God’s purpose for your life. As the Prophet Isaiah warned those who build their life around making more than they need, “Woe to those who add house to house and field to field… their many houses shall be desolate” (Isiah 5:8, 9). Wealth, it must be said, is not wrong. Not using it according to God’s plan turns it – and us – aside from God and His way. Even this is a principle that non-Christians and non-believers of every kind have espoused. This is evident in the way people have made their own the saying “Live simply, so others may simply live.” Non-Christians have attributed it to Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian nationalist or to Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth-century American Transcendentalist thinker. Roman Catholics have found it in the writings of Mother Theresa of Calcutta or in the teachings of their first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. The idea is clearly easy to accept, but demanding when we try to put it in practice. One help for those who might try to devote their abundance to the doing of good is the teaching of St John Chrysostom. He reminds us that God’s purpose in commanding almsgiving is not only for the sake of the recipient. It is also, if not primarily, for the donor. The recipient of alms receives physical sustenance but the giver of alms grows in his or her spirit, imitating the Giver of all good gifts.
St John Chrysostom on Almsgiving
We are given time by our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ for the seeds of almsgiving to fall upon our hearing. Christ has given us the sower to imitate. He sowed his seed on good earth and from it reaped a hundred fold. Hear the message proclaimed by his action. Behold, the lovers of God, the lovers of honor, and the lovers of the poor are all gathered together as in an arena – God is standing by, receiving the little money given by the lovers of the poor and granting them in exchange the kingdom of heaven. I beg you, let none of us forfeit this grace. Let none of us neglect this great and world-transcending gift for the sake of a little money. I entreat all of you: with diligence let us purchase the kingdom of heaven.
First Homily on Almsgiving
 
ST. LUKE'S GOSPEL an interesting insight into the character of St Peter. We read there that, meeting the disciples - who had spent a fruitless night fishing - the Lord Jesus encouraged them to throw their nets in again. “Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. … When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken” (Luke 5:5-9).  Simon had encountered something he did not understand and judged – rightly, as it happened – that it must have been an experience of God’s power. His first reaction was to shrink away from this holy man Jesus. He felt deeply inadequate before the holy; he didn’t belong in Jesus’ company and felt that he would be consumed by this contact for which he was so unprepared.

The Fear of God

This sense of utter inadequacy before the Lord is what the Scriptures call “the fear of God.” “Fear of God” is a phrase we hear repeatedly in our Liturgy. In the Great Litany the deacon invites us: “For this holy house and for those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.” The phrase is repeated when the deacon invites us to receive Communion: “Approach in the fear of God with faith and with love.” We are the ones who have entered “this holy house” and are invited to the Lord’s Table. Do we do so with the fear of God? And just what kind of fear is it? The English author C.S. Lewis wrote that fear of God is not like fear of a wild animal. It is not terror that God is out to get us. Nor is it panic that we will be punished once God catches sight of us, like a schoolmaster looking for the culprit who is disturbing the class. The fear of God, which is praised as a virtue in both Old and New Testaments, is rather the sense of our inadequacy before God that destroys any false sense of self-confidence or self-righteousness we may have once we glimpse the truly holy. St Peter, like many of the first disciples of the Lord Jesus, was a sincerely observant Jew. He kept the Law as best he could, observed the Sabbath and the holy days and the rest; but Peter sensed the difference between these “icons of holiness” (if we can invent such a term) and the real thing (the Lord Jesus). Many of us were raised in the Church and grew up amid its “icons of holiness.” We may have learned the “right answers” expounded in the catechism. We may have learned prayers, practices, principles of morality and the meaning of many elements of our Church’s life but never truly experienced the presence of God. If so, we may find it difficult to appreciate the concept of the “fear of God.” But we then run the risk of believing that we understand God because we know when and how we are to fast or what the Church teaches on this or that matter. But a relationship with God is more than a matter of ritual or doctrine or anything we may feel we possess. As we read in the Sermon on the Mount, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22-23).

The Beginning of True Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; knowledge of the Holy One brings understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Not only is fear of God described in Scripture as a virtue, it is praised as the key to true wisdom. In our culture wisdom is often considered the product of how much information we have acquired. In the spiritual life, however, information alone does not make one wise – particularly physical knowledge gained by the senses. As the twentieth-century Serbian saint Nikolai of Zicha noted, “If someone were to know the number of stars in the heavens and the names of the fish in the sea, the amount of grass in the field and the habits of the beasts in the forest but would not have the fear of God, his knowledge is as water in a sieve. Before his death, his knowledge makes him a greater coward than the completely ignorant.” The depression and despair many in the intellectual elite feel at the approach of death confirms the saint’s teaching. True understanding comes from experiencing our inadequacy in the face of God’s greatness and learning to rely on His compassion.

The Two-fold Fear of God

As with everything in the spiritual life, fear of God is not static: it grows and develops as our experience matures. St Maximos the Confessor expressed it this way:
“Fear of God is of two kinds. The first is generated in us by the threat of punishment. It is through such fear that we develop, in due order, self-control, patience, hope in God and detachment; and it is from detachment that love comes. “The second kind of fear is linked with love and constantly produces reverence in the soul, so that it does not grow indifferent to God because of the intimate communion of its love. The first kind of fear is expelled by perfect love when the soul has acquired this and is no longer afraid of punishment” (First Century on Love, 81-82).
Our fear of God, then, is like a child’s perception of its parent. At first an errant child fears what his parent will do to him when his disobedience is discovered. Later he grows to fear hurting his parent’s feelings, showing ingratitude or being separated from the parent. Fear of God is not meant to disappear as we grow to love God but to develop into that mature realization of the love of God despite our weaknesses, which we call true worship.
Fear of God and Humility
‘There is a humility that comes from the fear of God, and there is a humility that comes from the fervent love of God. One person is humbled because of his fear of God; another is humbled because of his joy. “The person humbled from fear of God is possessed of modesty in his members, a right ordering of his senses, and a heart contrite at all times. But the man humbled because of joy is possessed of great exuberance and an open and insuppressible heart”
(The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian)
 
THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST was manifested to Moses on Sinai in great power. The prophet Elias, trusting in the Almighty One, called down fire from heaven to consume his offerings. The leaders of Israel, seeking to glorify this God of power and might, built one temple after another. Jews flocked there on the great feasts to experience the presence of their wondrous God. Then there came One from Galilee, far from the Holy City and its splendors, to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He surrounded himself with a few fishermen, who would be joined by tax collectors, partisans, and an assortment of people whom He had healed of various diseases. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand and then ushered in that kingdom in a way that even His own followers could not comprehend: the way of the cross. Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders ridiculed Jesus’ claims to kingship. When the charge against Him – the “King of the Jews” – was placed over His head on the cross it was done in mockery. But God’s power is not a matter of thunder and lightning; rather it is the power of love overcoming hate. That is why the cross set up on Holy Friday in our churches displays a title different from the one written by Pilate. Christ on the cross, we proclaim, is “the King of Glory.” The cross is the throne of love, seat of the kingdom of love. We reverence the cross but often do not comprehend the power in it. As Christ predicted, His first followers would go from place to place in the then-known world “fishing for men.” They went to the major cities of the Roman Empire and beyond where Jews had settled. These hubs of civilization had their established religious centers: synagogues, temples, altars. The apostles did not “compete” by building larger temples or more elaborate altars. Instead of the power of these established religions they had only the Gospel, and that in what St. Paul called “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7): a few unremarkable provincial tradesmen, harassed and persecuted, who claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. As the cross replaced the temple as the center of the Holy City of Jerusalem so too the One whom the apostles preached replaced the gods of the Roman pantheon. In time temples became churches and even the great city of Rome would take pride in the tombs of the apostles and martyrs, rather than those of its emperor-gods, as the source of their true life.

The Treasure We Have Inherited

History is filled with tales of the offspring of great leaders or heroes who squandered the inheritance they had received. Some saw themselves as great because their ancestors had been great, when in reality they themselves were weak and selfish. Their unworthiness soon became evident to all. Thus the son of St. Vladimir the Great has become known to history as Sviatopolk the Accursed. We are the spiritual heirs of Peter and the other Apostles. Our Churches are the daughters of the Apostolic Churches whose missionaries left their homelands to introduce new people to the Gospel or to preserve the faith of people wandering in alien lands. We have become so comfortable in our inheritance that we may take this treasure of divine life as ours by right. In our contemporary age we have even come to communicate with God in a casual – and ultimately superficial – way. We are so at home in the church that we have ceased to see it as holy ground. Unlike Peter, who shrank in fear when confronted by the Holy One, we often think, “Well, we should see God’s power manifested too!” As the Apostles bargained with Christ, “Show us the Father – that will be enough for us” (John 14:6) and like the scribes and Pharisees, whom Christ called “An evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:38-39), we seek for a sign – a healing, a vision, a miraculous icon – “that we may believe.” After all, we’ve heard it all before and are unmoved. When Peter first encountered the power in Christ’s love he recoiled out of his own sinfulness. He deeply felt his own unworthiness to be such a direct and personal recipient of God’s favor. And he was right: he was not worthy that God should intervene in his life. But Peter had yet to learn the depth of God’s compassion for His creatures. God does not give us “what we deserve,” but what His love ordains. He does not abandon us to a hell of our own making: He leads us through it to Himself. God’s purpose for Peter was that he be a “fisher of men” and worthiness had nothing to do with it. Divine grace, as it is described in the Byzantine ordination services, “heals what is infirm and supplies what is wanting.” When God works marvelously in people’s lives – as He still does today – it is for the same reason that He worked with Peter: to prompt us to repentance. When Peter was unexpectedly confronted with Christ’s love in power, he repented and turned his life in a new direction. All of us, like Peter, are unworthy of the gifts we have received: even the very gift of life itself. But the love of God covers the nakedness of our weaknesses and ushers us into the inner chamber of communion with God through the mystery of Christ among us.
This is the foremost marvel and a very great example of the power of God: that an earthen vessel has been enabled to bear such a great brightness and to hold so high a treasure. Admiring this, [St Paul] said, “That the greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves,” alluding to those who gloried in themselves. … He used the term “earthen” alluding to the frailty of our mortal nature, and to emphasize the weakness of our flesh. There is no better example of our frailty than earthenware; it is so easily damaged, dissolved by variations of temperature and ten thousand other things. … As he said in another place, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
St John Chrysostom
Eighth Homily on 2 Corinthians
 
THE FEAST OF THE EXALTATION OF THE CROSS is the occasion for us to begin the reading of St. Luke’s Gospel. As we have seen, Pascha begins the reading of John and with Pentecost we start to read Matthew. At the same time we continue the cycle of Epistle readings begun at Pentecost without interruption. Luke, whom St Paul describes as “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) is thought to have been a Greek-speaking native of Antioch, probably a Gentile, possibly a Jewish proselyte. Luke may have been one of the multitudes who came to Jerusalem that Passover, was attracted by the teaching of Jesus and then encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:12-35). Luke may have returned to Antioch as one of the first members of the Church there, as he recalls with pride that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). He later became the companion of St Paul, who was himself a missionary sent out by the Church of Antioch to preach Christ. In Acts Luke describes how he traveled with St. Paul on his journeys to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-15), how he returned with him to Syria and went from there to Jerusalem to report to the Eleven. Luke composed both the Gospel which bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles as a kind of diptych. While the Gospel sets forth God’s call to mankind in Christ, Acts shows the response of the first disciples, both Jews and Gentiles, to the message of salvation.

The Good News on the Move

Luke’s Gospel is based largely on Mark, which commentators think was the first Gospel written in the form we know it. Luke made a significant change, however, to illustrate his theology. Luke rearranges several of the passages in Mark to depict Jesus’ ministry as a purposeful journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, to the confrontation with the Jewish leaders, the cross and the tomb. He does this to say that Jesus’ knowingly and freely embraced the passion. He “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) i.e. to the offering of Himself for the sake of the human race. The Gospel ends in Jerusalem and the Acts of the Apostles picks up there with the early activities of the disciples after the Lord’s ascension. But Acts does not remain in Jerusalem – it leads us through Asia Minor to Rome, the capital of the empire, the heart of the Mediterranean world. The Christian community, Luke tells us, was not simply a local Jewish sect – it was the Body of Christ spread throughout the world.

Christ’s Ministry in Luke

The reading of Luke’s Gospel began during the past week with chapters 3 and 4: the narrative of the Lord’s baptism (Monday), His genealogy (Tuesday), His temptation in the wilderness (Wednesday), the beginning of His ministry in Nazareth (Thursday and Friday) and in Capernaum (Saturday). On the first Sunday in the Cycle of St Luke we read the story of the miraculous catch of fish. Jesus is already known in Capernaum. He has taught in the synagogue on the Sabbaths and healed a man there. He had already attracted the attention of Simon and visited his house where he healed his mother-in-law of a raging fever. The next day everyone was back to work and Jesus appears at the lakeside where Simon and others are ending a fruitless night on the water.

“Depart from me, Lord!”

Simon Peter could be described as a faithful observant Jew. He attended the synagogue, heard Jesus teaching there and invited him to his home. Yet, when he witnessed the miraculous catch of fish he says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). At first hearing Peter’s protest might sound like that of the Gergasenes who saw their swine plunge into the sea: “Leave us alone – don’t make trouble for us.” In fact, his response puts Peter in a long procession of biblical figures overwhelmed by the presence of God in their midst. When Isaiah experienced his vision of God in the temple, for example, he responded: “ ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’ ” (Isaiah 6:5). Peter and Isaiah were overcome by what they had seen. Each recognized that somehow he had been touched by the divine. Their response was to see themselves as unclean, as sinful. They may have been conscious of a particular sin from their past, but there is no evidence for that. Rather their reaction mirrored that of many godly people who unexpectedly came upon the presence of God. Even for those who are striving to live righteously, an experience of the power of the Lord entering into our world makes us confront the great gap between us and Him. We see instantaneously how attached we are to the things of the earth and, correspondingly, how far we are from the Holy One. When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush He told him, “ ‘Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’ … And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:4,6). The only appropriate response of mortals to the holy is the recognition that we have wandered onto Mount Sinai, into a realm beyond our worth. This reaction became something of a pattern for the ascetic Elders of the Christian East. As St. Clement of Rome counseled, “Even if an angel should indeed appear to you, do not receive him but humiliate yourself, saying, ‘I am not worthy to see an angel, for I am a sinner.’” To look upon the holy without repentance, they felt, was like putting oneself on the same plane as God or His saints.

We Are on Holy Ground

In the Syriac Churches of India it is customary for everyone to remove their shoes before stepping inside the church. Every historic tradition has some act of reverence prescribed for setting foot on consecrated ground. In Byzantine Churches it is prescribed that the worshipper make metanies or prostrations and kiss the icons put forth for veneration. Repeating this action by force of habit we forget what they represent: that the church, the Eucharist, the cross we approach to kiss – all these are manifestations of God’s holiness and His love reaching out to us. We see, but we do not perceive. In the same way we do not comprehend that we are always in the presence of God. The people we meet, the grass and trees, the animals and other creatures among whom we live – all these exist as God’s handiwork, as indications of His presence among us. May God grant us to see that every moment of our lives we are standing unworthily on holy ground and that our eyes see the signs of the presence of the Lord.

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