Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WHEN CHRIST SENT THE HOLY SPIRIT upon the Apostles and their followers on the first Pentecost, He gave them the divine help to fulfill the command He had given them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19). As we read in the Gospels, they did just that: “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20).

With the end of our Pentecost feast, our attention moves to the Apostles and to their work of spreading the message of Christ’s resurrection. Observing the Fast of the Apostles gives us the chance to recall the hardships they endured in fulfilling their mission and to unite by prayer and fasting with those continuing their apostolic mission today.

The first seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us of their activities in Jerusalem. Beginning in chapter eight we see them and their companions taking the Gospel to Samaria, to the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza, to Lydda and Joppa (chapter 9), to Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital (chapter 10) and “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (Acts 11:19). When Saul set out on his pursuit of Christians, there were already believers in Damascus (Acts 9). After his conversion, Saul – now Paul – would bring the Gospel through Asia Minor and into Europe. The Acts of the Apostles ends with St Paul being brought to Rome for trial before Caesar. He and St Peter would die there as martyrs in the fulfillment of Christ’s command.

Apart from James, the brother of John, whose death is mentioned in Acts 12:2, none of the other Apostles chosen by Christ is mentioned in Acts. Some of the Twelve never seem to have left the Holy Land, remaining together as a kind of apostolic college; others are said to have gone far in spreading the Gospel. The many lives of these Apostles written over the centuries sought to fill in the details.

Perhaps the most travelled of the Twelve apart from Peter was St Thomas, who was said to have gone eastward through the Persian Empire to India’s Malabar Coast, according to the Acts of Thomas (c. 200-225 ad). The Syriac Churches of that region, known as St Thomas Christians, claim descent from this Apostle’s converts among the Jewish merchants who had settled there.

The Apostolic Tradition

While the Apostles lived, they were clearly the ultimate authority among the followers of Christ. They had not only seen the Lord, they were the first chosen by Him as His ambassadors to the world. But when there was no one left who had actually witnessed the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, to whom or to what did the early Christians look for surety in their faith?

Second-generation Christians were counseled to remember what the eye-witnesses (the Apostles) had passed on to them. Thus Timothy, the disciple of St Paul, was advised by his mentor, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). But where would the next generation of Christians find the teachings of the Apostles? First and second century believers looked to three sources for these teachings: the Apostolic Writings, the Apostolic Churches, and the Apostolic Succession of Church leaders who maintained the faith of the Apostles.

The Apostolic Writings – Over the next few years the core of this Apostolic Tradition would be written down and circulated among the different local Churches. Some books would be recognized as reflecting that tradition by individual Churches or regional synods. They would form what we call the New Testament. Other books would not be included in the canon (the comprehensive list of the accepted books). Some were rejected because the Jesus they portrayed was not the Jesus of the Apostolic Tradition. Today they are called apocryphal gospels and acts. It was only at the end of the third century that the final list of New Testament books would be accepted by all the local Churches then in existence.

Other early writings were respected by the Churches and were considered canonical in some Churches, but not in all. One of the oldest is an epistle from “The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth” (1:1), traditionally called “First Clement,” after St Clement I, who was Bishop of Rome from ad 88 to 99, when this work as written. I Clement was not listed in the final canon.

Other early works which were considered Scripture for a time are the first century Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Protoevangelium of James, dated to the early second-century.

The Apostolic Churches – In the mid-first century, Christians looked for leadership to the Church of Jerusalem, which later believers would call “the Mother of all the Churches.” In Acts 15:1-29 we read how St Paul’s controversial mission to the Gentiles was discussed by the Apostles and elders of that Church. When the Romans devastated Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in ad 70, the city’s Christians were scattered. The Churches in regional centers which boasted connections to the Apostles, such as Alexandria in Egypt, the “See of St Mark,” and Antioch in Syria, “where the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:26), became prominent. By the end of the first century the Church of Rome, where both Peter and Paul had ended their days, had come to be considered “the Church which presides in love” as St Ignatius of Antioch called it in his Epistle to the Romans.

The Apostolic Succession – First century Christians also noted how the Apostles, “… preaching through countries and cities, appointed the first-fruits [of their labors] to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe, having first proved them by the Spirit… and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (1 Clement 42, 44). Thus the body of bishops came to be known as the “successors of the Apostles,” and the guarantors of apostolic faith in the Churches throughout the world.

From the Apostolic Tradition

THERE are two ways, one of life and one of death, but the difference between the two ways is great. This is the way of life: First, you shall love God who made you; secondly, yοu shall love your neighbor as yourself; and whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another. Now, this is the meaning of the words, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you”…

Now the second commandment of the Teaching is: You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not corrupt boys, you shall not fornicate, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic or use spells, you shall not kill a child by abortion, or destroy that which has been begotten. You shall not desire whatever belongs to your neighbor, you shall not swear falsely or bear false witness. You shall not speak evil (of anyone), or bear malice towards them… You shall hate no one, but some you shall reprove, and for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.”
The Didache, 1, 2
 
CATHOLICS AND ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS are sometimes criticized by people because of the reverence we show to the saints. Critics may feel that we ignore the Lord, preferring to pay homage to favorite saints. Seeing how some believers act, we may understand why some Protestants and others may feel as they do. Some devotees of the saints lavish more praise on the saints than on Christ. While such behavior may be misguided, an appropriate devotion to the Theotokos and other saints is not. For us, the saints are the “proof” that the Holy Spirit truly came upon the Church at Pentecost. The holiness of their lives points to the grace of the Holy Spirit powerfully working in our world. The saints reveal to us the “face” of the Holy Spirit manifest in the Church. For this reason Byzantine Churches celebrate the Feast of All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read of a number of Old Testament figures renowned in Israelite history for their righteous lives or powerful deeds. The selection read at today’s Divine Liturgy does not mention any of the individuals named in the epistle (some of whom are not the most praiseworthy by modern standards). Rather it begins with the point made in conclusion: that some were powerful and defeated their enemies while others were tortured and put to death. Still others lived righteous lives in hiding and “wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:38). In either case nothing they could do could bring them eternal life. That would only become possible through Jesus Christ and His Church. As the biblical author explains, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would then be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). We can conclude that the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer far exceeds the glory won by the rulers, soldiers and prophets of Israelite history. We can also strive to draw close to the One who is everywhere present, filling all things.

New Testament Saints

There is no one more filled with the Holy Spirit that she who is “full of grace,” the most holy Theotokos. Like her the holy prophet, forerunner and baptist John has a unique place among Christians as, in Christ’s own words, “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). In addition to them, there are countless figures from every age in Christian history honored as saints by the various local Churches. In the Byzantine Churches it has become customary to consider the saints as belonging to one or another of the following categories:
  • Prophets – God’s Old Testament spokesmen such as Elias or Isaiah who called the Jews back to the true God and His ways whenever they strayed.
  • Apostles – The Twelve closest followers of Christ as well as the Seventy who were their companions: eye-witnesses to the presence of Christ on earth.
  • Evangelists – The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
  • Hierarchs – Saintly bishops like Nicholas of Myra, Spyridon of Cyprus or Basil the Great.
  • Righteous Ascetics – Giants in the monastic life, both men and women, including elders (guides in the spiritual life) and solitaries, living in forest or wilderness.
  • Martyrs – Those who gave their lives witnessing to Christ, from the Great Martyrs of the Roman persecutions, such as St. Barbara and St. George, to the new martyrs who died under modern dictators or religious extremists.
  • Hieromartyrs – Hierarchs and priests who sacrificed their own lives as well as offered the Divine Sacrifice of Christ.
  • Confessors - Those who survived torture or imprisonment for the Lord but escaped with their lives, like St. Maximos the Confessor.
  • Unmercenaries –Those who gave of their talents freely to help the poor and the sick, such as Ss. Cosmas and Damian.
  • Fools for Christ – Those who pretended to be mentally incompetent so that their spiritual gifts would not be noticed and praised, like St. Xenia of Petersburg.
  • Passionbearers – Those who accepted suffering, even death, rather than to repay violence with more violence.
On this First Sunday after Pentecost the Byzantine Churches celebrate all the saints, whether their names are known or not. On the following Sundays various local Churches celebrate their own regional saints (All Saints of Russia, or North America, or the British Isles, etc.). Wherever the Holy Spirit has been at work in the Church, saints have been raised up to the glory of God.

Who “Makes” Saints?

Ultimately, of course, it is God who makes people holy by giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. When people make this gift their own and live a heroic life in Christ, others recognize it. When a local Church recognizes that one of its sons or daughters has lived an exceptional Christian life and gives evidence that they are now in glory, it publicly proclaims him or her to be a saint. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches it is the local Church (such as the patriarchate of Constantinople or the Church of Greece) which declares saints. In the East this process is called glorification. In the West recognition of saints is called canonization (inclusion on the canon or list of saints) and is proclaimed by the Pope of Rome.

What Do We Do with the Saints?

God has placed certain saints in our lives and we would be remiss if we ignored them. We have our patron saints (those whose name we bear) and those whose icons may be found in our home. Most of our parishes have patron saints as well. We do well to venerate their icons regularly, asking their intercession with prayers like these:
Pray for me, St. N., for with fervor I come to you, speedy helper and intercessor for my soul. Holy Father/Mother N., pray to God for us.
Observe their feast days according to the Church calendar. If there is no Liturgy scheduled, ask for one to be served in their honor. Why not?
From the Synaxarion
Our most godlike Fathers decreed that we should celebrate the present feast after the descent of the all-holy Spirit as showing in a certain way that the coming of the all-holy Spirit acted through the apostles like this: sanctifying and making wise human beings taken from our mortal clay and, to replace that fallen angelic order [the demons], restoring them through Christ and sending them to God – some by the witness of blood-martyrdom, others by their virtuous conduct and way of life. Thus things beyond nature are achieved…. This is one reason why we celebrate the feast of All Saints. A second reason is because, though so many people have been well-pleasing to God, they were unknown to humanity by name or…because it was not easy to honor them all properly because of their vast numbers. And therefore, so that we may attract the help of them all… the godly Fathers ordained that we should celebrate this feast -all those in whom the Holy Spirit has dwelt He has made holy. A third reason is this. It was necessary for the saints who are celebrated individually day by day to be gathered together on one day in order to demonstrate that, as they struggled for the one Christ and all ran the race in the same stadium of virtue, so they were all fittingly crowned as servants of one God and sustain the Church, having filled the world on high. They stir us also to accomplish the same struggle in its different and many forms, to the degree of power that each of us has, and to press onward with all eagerness.
 
“AFTER THE LONG FEAST OF PENTECOST, fasting is especially necessary to purify our thoughts and render us worthy to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit ... Therefore, the salutary custom was established of fasting after the joyful days during which we celebrated the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit” (from a sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great, +461). The fifty days of feasting from Pascha to Pentecost is followed by a time of fasting which we call the Fast of the Apostles. The first evidence of this fast is found in the writings of the fourth century Fathers, Saints Athanasius the Great of Alexandria and St. Ambrose of Milan. In a letter to his friend and supporter, Emperor Constans, St Athanasius describes the practice of the Alexandrian Church: “During the week following Pentecost, the people who observed the fast went out to the cemetery to pray.” Some 20 years later, St. Ambrose (+397) writes about the practice in his diocese: “The Lord so ordained it that as we have participated in His sufferings during the Forty Days, so we should also rejoice in His Resurrection during the season of Pentecost. We do not fast during the season of Pentecost since our Lord Himself was present amongst us during those days … Christ’s presence was like nourishing food for the Christians. So too, during Pentecost, we feed on the Lord who is present among us. On the days following His ascension into heaven, however, we again fast” (Sermon 61). This fast was first seen as a resumption of fasting following the Paschal season. During the fifty days of Pascha we have celebrated Christ’s resurrection, then His ascension and finally the sending forth of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. We have feasted while celebrating the presence of the risen Christ, but now it is time to return to the more everyday practice of Christians. The struggle to be what we have become, to “put on Christ,” demands a lifelong effort of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We observe times to celebrate the mysteries of Christ among us – the Lord’s Day and the Great Feasts on which we do not fast. But these are respites from the more ordinary Christian practice of fasting. As the Lord said when asked by the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees why His disciples were not fasting, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (Mark 2:19-20).

When Does This Fast Begin?

It appears that in the fourth and fifth centuries this fast began on the day after Pentecost, the last day of the feast. This is still the custom in the Armenian Church which fasts for the week of Pentecost. Something of this practice survives in our custom of the “kneeling prayers” offered at vespers on the afternoon of Pentecost. With these prayers kneeling is resumed as the common practice of prayer which had been suspended during the paschal feast. Later Pentecost was extended to last one week. As a result this Fast begins on the day following the Sunday of All Saints, the octave of Pentecost. As St. Symeon of Thessalonica, wrote in the fifteenth century: “For one week after the descent of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution composed by Clement, we celebrate, and then during the following week, we fast in honor of the Apostles.”

How Long Does This Fast Last?

As Symeon noted, this season, which began as a simple resumption of fasting after Pentecost, was later emphasized in connection with the apostles, particularly with the establishment of the feast of the principal apostles, Ss. Peter and Paul, on June 29. In the ordinary Byzantine and Coptic practice, the Fast lasts from the second Monday after Pentecost to June 28, the eve of the apostles’ feast. This means that the Fast may last for only a few days or may last four or five weeks, depending on the date of Pascha in any given year. This Fast is not kept with the same rigor as the Great Fast or even the Dormition Fast. In Greek and Slavic practice full fasting is prescribed only on certain days during this period. On other days fish, wine and oil are permitted. In the Middle East the Fast has come to be associated more with the apostles rather than with Pentecost. The Syriac – and until recently the Maronite – Churches observed this fast for four days, from June 25 to 28. The thirteenth-century Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Balsamon, insisted on a seven day fast. Today the Melkite Church prescribes a ten-day fast, beginning on June 19.

Keeping This Fast Today

This Fast is sometimes described as a remembrance of the hardships endured by the apostles in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, dramatically outlined some of the difficulties he endured during his ministry. “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep;  in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;  in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28). To be sure, each of the apostles could tell similar tales. The Churches established by the apostles in the Middle East are sharing in their sufferings once more. Christians in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria .and elsewhere in Asia and Africa are enduring renewed assaults from Hindu, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists as well as from the Communist regimes in the Far East. Persecution of Christians in Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, India, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Mali, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sudan, Tanzania and Turkey is reported almost daily. This Fast is a particularly appropriate time to pray for our suffering brethren in these countries. You might chose to express your solidarity with the persecuted Churches abroad by adding the following prayer to your Lenten meals each day of the Fast.

A Prayer for Those Suffering Persecution

Lord, bring an end to tragedy and suffering. Deliver Your Church and Your faithful people from every evil with Your mighty hand. Help us, O God, for You were crucified and died for the salvation of all. Help us, that among us, and in all the world, hatred may be replaced with love, unrest may be replaced with peace, and sorrow may be replaced with happiness, that we have a peaceful life as Your people and live as brothers and sisters with one another. Remember our enemies, those who hate us and oppress us, and repay them not according to their deeds, but rather give them reason and understanding, according to Your great mercy, so that they may see that evil cannot bring good. You are the God of mercy, goodness and the Lover of mankind, and unto You we ascribe glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
 
WHAT DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT LOOK LIKE? We know from the Scriptures that the Father cannot be seen but has manifested Himself to us in His Son. “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). And we know that the Son, incarnate, became visible in His humanity. He looks like one of us. This is why we are able to have icons of Him. As St. John of Damascus wrote in On the Divine Images, “It is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed, invisible God. … But it is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, then you may draw His likeness” (1: 7,8). But what about the Holy Spirit? Has He become visible to flesh? Can we see the face of the Holy Spirit? In a sense we can. The “face” of the Holy Spirit is the face of the saints. The very existence of the saints testifies to the presence of holiness in the Church, for no one can become a saint except by the Holy Spirit. The “face” of the Holy Spirit is not in the monuments which have been erected by Christians over the centuries, impressive as they are. Rather it is in those who have lived the way they did because the Spirit of God dwelt within them. The priest of the French village of Ars, St Jean Vianney knew the Holy Spirit firsthand, we might say. He wrote, “If the damned were asked: ‘Why are you in Hell?’ they would answer: ‘For having resisted the Holy Spirit.’ And if the saints were asked, ‘Why are you in Heaven?’ they would answer: ‘For having listened to the Holy Spirit.’ When good thoughts come into our minds, it is the Holy Spirit who is visiting us. The Holy Spirit is a power. The Holy Spirit supported St. Simeon on his column; He sustained the martyrs. Without the Holy Spirit, the martyrs would have fallen like the leaves from the trees.” (Catechesis on the Holy Spirit). This intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and the saints is proclaimed in the Byzantine Churches which celebrate the Feast of All Saints in connection with the Feast of Pentecost. On Pentecost we say that the Holy Spirit has come upon the Church. On the next Sunday, we demonstrate the truth of this claim by pointing to the saints. The Spirit is certainly present in any saint but it is in the totality of all saints that we find the “face” of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are many and varied; no one person can encompass them all. The Church describes the particular gifts of the saints by designating categories for us to understand and revere them. There are prophets and apostles, martyrs, hierarchs, ascetics, unmercenaries, fools for Christ and more. There are saints whose names we know and those we do not. There are saints whose lives are documented and others whose name is their only memorial. All together they reveal to us the “face” of the Holy Spirit. It is noteworthy that what the West calls “the communion of saints” is referred to in the East as “the communion of the Holy Spirit.” In fully appointed Byzantine churches we find ourselves surrounded by icons of the saints. Frescoes of the saints cover the walls, panel icons in shrines or on icon stands are displayed for veneration. These are not distractions from the altar or pulpit but a wordless demonstration that we are one body with the saints in Christ by the opera-tion of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply the assembly of those physically present; it is the gathering of all who are in Christ.

The Gospel on the Saints

The Gospel passage read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of All Saints is not a continuous episode. Rather it is an assemblage of three teachings concerning what it means to aspire to holiness. The first step is that we are called to bear witness to Christ in the world. “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). Our faith is not meant to be practiced privately, for our personal consolation. Rather we are to be witnesses to Him before others. In today’s world “bearing witness” often means “pointing the finger at” some atrocity or injustice. We are called to “point the figure at” Christ, much as John the Baptist did: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The simplest way to point the figure at the person of Christ is to wear a cross or display an icon in public. Often Evangelical Protestants who do not display icons will erect a plaque in their home or on their door with this verse “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). Recently the British government has prohibited Christians from wearing a cross in the workplace. The policy has been challenged in court by two women who were disciplined for wearing a cross at work. A Foreign Office statement defending the policy said, “In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.” In response the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey commented, “The irony is that when governments and courts dictate to Christians that the cross is a matter of insignificance, it becomes an even more important symbol and expression of our faith.” Witnessing to Christ – even in the Church – may make one unpopular and oppressed. “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” Mt 10:30). The witness to Christ is thus called to not only wear a cross but to bear the cross as Christ did. The saint is one who has heard the Gospel call to put God first in their lives. We may be proud that we go to church, pray, or fast. So did the Pharisee in Christ’s parable. The saint, however, is a person who is ready to put everything else aside to focus on God and His love for us. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). The spiritual son of St Simeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, says that there are three kinds of people in the world: “the carnal man, who wants to live for his own pleasure, even if it harms others; the natural man, who wants to please both himself and others and spiritual man who wants to please only God, even if it harms himself” (cited in Tito Colliander’s Way of the Ascetics, 5). The ascetic in a monastic setting or in the world strives to be that spiritual man: to love nothing or no one more than God. The final section in this Gospel pastiche is Christ’s promise that those who have left home and family for His sake will receive a hundred times more in this life and eternal life in the age to come (Matthew 19:29). This promise is often interpreted to mean that those who go off to serve Christ will prosper materially, it may be that the opposite. That those who place Christ first in their lives will find that He is worth a hundred times more that what the world has to offer and that they will find contentment is what they do have, a place in the kingdom of God.

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