Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY on the weekends of the Great Fast portions of the Epistle to the Hebrews are read. Usually these readings follow the order of the epistle itself. On this first Sunday, however, the reading we hear is from chapter 11, chosen for a particular reason appropriate to the Fast. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” we are told (Hebrews 12:1).  Today this race refers, not to the Christian life in general, but to the “race” of the Great Fast. For those who are observing the Fast as fully as the canons prescribe, the weekend offers a break. The Fast is mitigated and we can participate in the holy mysteries. But on Monday we begin again, and need the encouragement to go on. We are offered two examples to encourage us in this effort: the “cloud of witnesses” of the many who have endured trials for their faith and the image of the suffering Christ “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12:2).

Who Are the Witnesses?

In chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews the witnesses held up are some of the great figures of the Old Testament. In the earlier part of this chapter the following heroes of the Israelites’ pre-history were cited: Abel (Genesis 4), Enoch (Genesis 5), Noah (Genesis 6-9), Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 11-25). These figures lived centuries before there was a Hebrew people, but they were all, according to their time, godly people, people of faith: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:12,13). The “promises seen afar off” begin with the pledge of God’s favor made to Cain and Abel, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” and culminates in the assurance of the Promised Land which God gave to Abraham, “To your descendants I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7). The list of witnesses continues with Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the descendants of Abraham, whose lives are recorded in Genesis 17-50. It was in the time of Joseph, the son of Jacob (also called Israel) that the clan of Abraham goes to Egypt. It would only be with Moses, the first witness in the passage we read today (Hebrews 11:24-1:2), that this clan, the Israelites, would return to the Promised Land. In today’s passage the figures come from the Israelites’ Golden Age, beginning with the Exodus and continuing through the era of the judges, clan chiefs who held power after Moses from the fourteenth to the eleventh century BC. According to the Book of Judges Israel’s enemies defeated them whenever they ignored the precepts of the Law. God’s promise to the judges was that they would defeat Israel’s enemies and regain Israel’s freedom. The leaders mentioned in this passage thus defeated the Midianites (Gideon), the Canaanites (Barak), the Philistines (Samson) and the Ammonites (Jephthah). The era of the judges was followed by the united kingdom of Israel (c. 1050-931 BC). The second king, David, and his mentor, the prophet Samuel are mentioned next. 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1 are devoted to the story of King David. God’s promise to David came by way of the prophet Nathan, as we read in 2 Sam 7:12-16. “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom … And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” The promise of a lasting kingdom did not happen in the years that followed. After the Golden Age the united kingdom was divided, invaded and conquered. The descendants of Abraham were exiled and scattered. Their lands fell to the conquering Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans in succession. We are told that the cloud of Old Testament witnesses “did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11:39,40). The promised kingdom of David would not be ushered in until the Incarnation, and then it would be a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:6). That “something better” would be the eternal life of union with God which the Old Testament saints only achieved in light of the death and resurrection of Christ. Our icon of the resurrection depicts the perfecting of these Old Testament witnesses. It shows them being led out of Hades, grasping the hands of Christ, whom St Paul calls the first-born from among the dead. Thus the our ancestors would be fulfilled only in our day, the day of the Church. The Lord Jesus, we are told, is “the originator and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is the Originator of our faith: the One who, creating us in the image and likeness of God, first offered us the eternal life of communion with Himself. And He is the Perfecter of our faith: the One who, when our ancestors strayed from the path of life, took on our humanity in order to unite us with Himself. And He is the Leader of believers along the narrow road of perfection, where He crosses with them from glory to glory, guiding them to the Father through their unity with Him.

Later Witnesses

The era of the New Testament and the Church gives us another cloud of witnesses who “were tempted, were slain with the sword.” (Hebrews 11:37). Beginning with the apostles themselves, Christians were martyred for their faith by hostile rulers or followers of other religions and even by fellow Christians who disputed certain doctrines. Those who suffered in the Roman or Persian persecutions stand shoulder to shoulder with those who suffered under the iconoclasts and with the new-martyrs of the Islamic, Soviet and Nazi yokes. Practically every day in the Church calendar martyrs from one or another era are commemorated. We are reminded of their endurance in the face of torment as we look to return to the inconveniences of the Fast. The Church has also its hosts of those who “wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). These are the ascetics who lived in the wilderness of Egypt, Palestine and Syria as well as the remote monasteries of Asia Minor, Greece and the so-called “Northern Thebaid,” the forests of Russia. These monks and nuns embraced ascetic disciplines, which seem so extreme to us, in order to help them let go of their attachment to the things of this age. They too silently urge us on to observe the Fast.
Hymns from the Triodion
Through fasting, the wondrous Enoch was taken up from the earth. Imitating his example, let us be taken up from corruption and enter into life. Because he had fasted, David won the victory over the Philistine and obtained a kingdom. By abstinence let us also gain the victory over our enemies and receive the crown from the Lord. Let us strive to have these virtues: the patience of Job, the single-mindedness of Jacob, the faith of Abraham, the chastity of Joseph and the courage of David. On the mountain, Moses stretched out his arms in the form of a Cross and put to flight the Enemy. Stretching out Your hands upon the Cross, O Savior, You put to death the destructive tyranny of Death.
 
Until fairly recently it was popular in Christian circles to identify oneself as a “soldier of Christ.” There was biblical precedent for the image. St Paul, for instance, told Timothy that he “…must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3). Catholics maintained various “knighthoods,” recalling the Middle Ages. Protestants even devised a “paramilitary” church, the Salvation Army with its popular theme song, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” While the Gospels offer negative images of soldiers whipping Christ and gambling for His clothes, they also show us soldiers in another light. We see soldiers listening to John the Baptist and asking him what they should do (cf., Luke 3:14). We hear of God-fearing soldiers, like the centurion in Capernaum who “loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). And the first fruit of the Gospel among the Gentiles was an officer of the Italian Regiment stationed in Caesarea, Cornelius the Centurion (cf., Acts 10). Perhaps because armies do see more of the world than many other people, Christian soldiers grew in number, even during the time of the Roman persecutions. They were often targeted by their anti-Christian superiors and many were martyred. Military martyrs like St George and Ss. Sergius and Bacchos, who suffered in Asia Minor during the great persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century, became models for other Christian soldiers in the East who saw themselves as, first of all, in the army of the Lord.

The Thundering Legion

In AD312 St Constantine the Great experienced his famous vision of the cross. The next year, as Emperor of the West, he issued an edict of religious toleration, thus ending the persecution of Christians in his realm. Licinius, as Emperor of the East, signed on, but kept a wary eye on the Christians he ruled. Licinius knew that, if he were to fight Constantine, the Christians would side with their protector. As the struggle for universal control intensified, Licinius began ordering the extermination of Christians. Licinius was particularly wary of Christians in the army. They refused to offer the usual sacrifices to the Roman gods and were considered a threat to the traditional Roman social customs. There were a number of Christians – soldiers included – in Asia Minor where the Twelfth or “Thundering” Legion was stationed near Sebaste to protect the eastern border of the empire. In 320, when Licinius ordered a major persecution of Christians, forty soldiers from this unit refused to take part. We learn what happened next from St Basil the Great who lived nearby only a few years after the soldiers’ ordeal. St Basil’s mother Emilia had erected a chapel at Ennesi, the family estate, to house their relics and their story was part of the family lore. According to St Basil, the legion commander and the local governor each tried to convince the soldiers to comply with the orders they had received. They were unsuccessful. Threats, torture and imprisonment followed but the men remained firm. Finally the unit was condemned to a slow but certain death. The soldiers were ordered to march naked onto a frozen pond during a particularly bitter winter night. A warm bath was set up nearby to tempt the men to recant. Ignoring the urging of their guards, the forty encouraged each other to remain firm and not give way: they were soldiers of Christ.

The Victors Revealed

Frostbite and hypothermia began taking their toll, when one of the soldiers gave in and recanted. Then, Basil reports, the most remarkable thing happened. One of the guards had a vision of angels richly adorning the soldiers who had remained faithful to Christ. Overcome by the sight, he tore off his own clothes and joined his suffering comrades on the ice. St Ephrem the Syrian, commenting on the martyrs’ ordeal, likened this guard to St Matthias replacing Judas in the company of the apostles. Some icons of these saints depict a woman seemingly helping one of the soldiers. St. Basil tells it this way. By morning most of the soldiers had succumbed to the bitter cold. The prefect ordered all the bodies to be taken away in wagons and be burned. One was found still alive and the guards set him aside, but, at a sign from him, his own mother hoisted him onto the cart alongside his dead comrades for their final journey. Licinius’ fears were well founded. In four years Constantine defeated him, taking control of the whole empire. He was imprisoned and later hanged by order of Constantine. What remained of the martyr’s relics were collected and enshrined at Emilia’s chapel. Emilia’s granddaughters gave a portion to the Bishop of Brescia in northern Italy who built a church in their honor. Relics were also sent to Constantinople as the fourth century historian Sozomen described. The Forty Holy Martyrs are remembered for their steadfastness in trial. They came to be seen as personifying the words of Christ in the Gospel, “He who shall endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Their endurance earned them remembrance in our liturgical services. In the mystery of Crowning bride and groom are blessed with these words: “Remember them, O Lord our God, as you remembered Your Holy Forty Martyrs, sending down upon them crowns from heaven.” The martyrs’ faithfulness to Christ was rewarded; the couple’s fidelity can expect a like reward. As models of endurance the Forty Martyrs are the only saints commemorated on a weekday during the Great Fast, encouraging us to endure whatever hardships we may experience in this season.
“O martyrs of Christ, you have made the holy Fast resplendent by your glorious deeds. Being forty in number, you hallowed the forty days of the Fast, imitating the redeeming Passion through your sufferings for Christ. Since you have boldness, intercede that we may celebrate in peace the third-day Resurrection of the God and Savior of our souls!” Sticheron from Orthros
St Basil the Great on the Martyrs
“What trouble would you not take to find some one to pray for you to the Lord! Here are forty, praying with one voice. Where two or three are gathered together in the name of the Lord, there is He in the midst. Who doubts His presence in the midst of forty? … “Let your supplications be made with the martyrs. Let the young men imitate their fellows. Let fathers pray to be fathers of sons such as these. Let mothers learn from a good mother. … She herself lifted him in her arms and placed him on the cart with the rest bound for the pyre: a veritable martyr’s mother! “O sacred troop! O glorious company! O invincible battalion! Flowers of the Church, yes, I repeat, human flowers! Stars that shine among the stars! Martyrs worthy of the praise of all the centuries! To you the doors of paradise were opened, and from the palaces of heaven the angels, prophets, patriarchs and all saints came out to witness your triumphal arrival. A sight worthy of the angelic army: forty warriors in the very flower of their youth who have disdained this life, who have loved the Lord above parents, children, wives and relatives. They disregarded this temporal life that they might glorify God in their members.… “Having raised up the trophy of their victory against hell, each one received a crown from the hand of Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion to the ages of ages.”
From Homily 19
 
TODAY IS THE SUNDAY OF ORTHODOXY, which celebrates the restoration of the Orthodox use of icons in the Byzantine Empire. But what exactly is “Orthodoxy” and what does it have to do with icons? Literally the word means “rightly proclaiming” – those who glorify God in the correct manner. The oldest use of this term in the Christian East is in reference to the understanding of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed. If you could not profess this creed, then you were not Orthodox. Thus the sixth century Code of Justinian, the compilation of laws in the empire, decreed: “We direct that all Catholic Churches, throughout the entire world, shall be placed under the control of the Orthodox bishops who have embraced the Nicene Creed.” Since then the Eastern Churches in the Roman Empire and their offshoots have called themselves Orthodox. There are two major groups of Orthodox Churches: those of the Byzantine tradition, called in English “Eastern Orthodox” and those of the Syriac and Coptic traditions, called “Oriental Orthodox.” The Armenian Church, considered one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, does not generally use the term as Armenia was not part of the Byzantine Empire. It was only after the separation of the Greek and Latin Churches in the Middle Ages that the term “Catholic” became more identified with the Western Church and “Orthodox” with the Eastern Churches. To this day, of course, Orthodox use the term “Catholic” and vice versa. Most Greek Catholics continue to use the term “Orthodox” when it appears in their liturgical texts, as well.

Orthodoxy and Icons

As the controversy over icons developed in the Byzantine Empire, many saw the use of icons as a necessary consequence of the Incarnation of Christ as expressed in the Nicene Creed. If the Word of God truly took flesh, He could be depicted in images. As St John of Damascus wrote, “In the old days, the incorporeal and infinite God was never depicted. Now, however, when God has been seen clothed in flesh and talking with mortals, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation.” Since the Church saw icons as connected with its faith in the Incarnation, it came to see icons as an expression of the Orthodox faith. Thus the definitive restoration of icons in Constantinople on the first Sunday of the Great Fast in the year 842 was called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”

The Synodikon of Orthodoxy

During the Great Doxology at Orthros a procession is formed of many people carrying icons. When the procession comes to a halt the typikon prescribes the chanting of a document called the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy.” Although there are many local variants of this text, they all begin as follows:
“Let us Orthodox people, now celebrating this Day of Orthodoxy, especially glorify God, the Author of all goodness! Blessed is He forever. This is our God, who acquired and established His beloved heritage, the Holy Church, the foundations of which He laid even in Paradise, thereby comforting by His infallible Word, our forefathers who had fallen through disobedience. This is our God who, directing us to His saving promise, left not Himself without a witness, but first foretold the future salvation through the forefathers and prophets, and by manifold means gave lively descriptions of it. This is our God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in antiquity to the fathers by the prophets, and in these latter days spoke to us by His Son, with whom also He created the ages: who declared His goodwill toward us, disclosed the heavenly mysteries, assured us the truth of the Gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit; who sent His apostles to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to all the world, and confirmed it by various powers and miracles. Following this salutary revelation, and holding this Gospel, we believe…” And the people proclaim the Nicene Creed.
After the Creed the Synodikon continues:
“As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught... as the Church has received ...as the teachers have dogmatized... as the Universe has agreed... as Grace has shown forth... as Truth has revealed... as falsehood has been dissolved... as Wisdom has presented... as Christ awarded... thus we declare... thus we assert... thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring them as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.”
And the People respond in a loud voice: “This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.” The Synodikon concludes with the proclamation of Many Years to the living defenders of Orthodoxy, Memory Eternal to the departed and Anathema to those who deny the faith just proclaimed. When we venerate icons, then, we point in a concrete if wordless way to the truth of Christ’s Incarnation. He took on our nature completely and transfigured it completely, including our material side, which we honor in this material way. Icons of the saints point to the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life, in the Church which transformed them as well. Icons, therefore, profess without words what we proclaim verbally in the Creed.
An Ancient Synodikon
The following Anathemas are taken from an 1111 edition of the Synodikon by a monk of the Monastery of Oleni in Moroea. They show how Orthodox Christians of that age identified icons with faith in Christ’s Incarnation. “On every innovation and action contrary to the tradition of the Church, and the teaching and pattern of the holy and celebrated Fathers, or anything that shall be done after this: Anathema!… On those who accept with their reason the incarnate economy of God the Word, but will not allow that this can be beheld through images, and therefore affect to receive our salvation in words, but deny it in reality: Anathema! Those who apply the sayings of the divine Scripture that are directed against idols to the august icons of Christ our God and his saints: Anathema! Those who share the opinion of those who mock and dishonor the august icons: Anathema! Those who say that Christians treat the icons like gods: Anathema! Those who dare to say that the Catholic Church has accepted idols, thus over-throwing the whole mystery and mocking the faith of Christians: Anathema!”
 
WE ARE ALL FAMILIAR WITH THE IMAGE of the eight-ounce glass containing four ounces of liquid. Is it half full or half empty? The way we see it reveals more about the viewers than about the glass. The Church numbers the Sundays during the Great Fast in successive order. Thus today is the First Sunday, next week will mark the Second Sunday and so on. For many people the Fast is an endurance test and so this numbering may suggest something like, “Oh God, only one week is over. There’s another five weeks to go!” A more positive way of looking at things might number the Sundays in count-down fashion: Sixth Sunday before Pascha…Fifth… Fourth… it’s getting closer… we’re almost there! This system may be more in keeping with the vision expressed in the Scriptures read at this Sunday’s Liturgy. Scholars tell us that this selection comes to us from the days when catechumens were intensifying their preparation for baptism at Pascha. The readings suggest promise, blessing and the joy of being part of God’s plan at its most critical moment. The Epistle to the Hebrews, read every Saturday and Sunday during the Fast, is addressed to Jewish believers in Christ. It includes a number of references to Jewish history and practice, some recorded in the Old Testament and others taken from Jewish tradition. The passage read today, from chapter 11, is actually the conclusion of a longer praise of Old Testament notables renowned for their faith, from Abel onward. It is faith that sanctified all these elders in Jewish history because “…without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6). Catechumens, who would be asked to profess their faith during this season, are thus reminded to place their trust in the Person of God and in the wisdom of His divine plan for mankind. The punch line of this chapter, however, is its last verse. Despite their faith, the heroes and heroines of the Old Testament “… did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not have been made perfect apart from us.” The entire course of God’s providential care for the Jewish peoples is depicted as a kind of preparation for something more. That “something better” is, of course, the life in Christ which the catechumens will receive at baptism and the assurance of eternal life which we all will receive as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.

The Promise to Nathaniel

While the Gospel according to St. Mark is read at all other Liturgies during the Fast today the Church turns to the Gospel of John. We hear in detail of the Lord’s first encounter with this future disciple, but again the purpose of reading it today is in the punch line, the last verse of the passage: “Most assuredly I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51). Again we have the promise of “something better” to be fulfilled in the future. Whether we are catechumens preparing for baptism or faithful preparing for Pascha today, we are being told that, with faith, we will see the inauguration of the new age, the fulfillment of all promises, and the manifestation of the Kingdom, in the resurrection of Christ. A number of Fathers including St John Chrysostom said that the descending and ascending of the angels promised here was fulfilled in the Paschal mystery. As the Blessed Theophylact, eleventh-century Archbishop of Ochrid in Bulgaria, emphasized in his Explanation of the Gospel of St. John “All these things did, in fact, take place at His Crucifixion and Ascension. As the time of His Passion approached, an angel from heaven strengthened Him; at His Tomb there was an angel, and again at His Ascension, as Luke relates.” The Church reads these promises to us today saying: You catechumens will be joined to the company of the saints when you will be enlightened, taste the heavenly gift and be partakers of the Holy Spirit (see Hebrews 6:4). All of us will see heaven opened in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the empty tomb and on Mount Olivet as we enter into the celebration of Pascha. And finally we will hear another promise from the angels at Christ’s Ascension: “This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Those forty days don’t seem so long now, do they?

Catechumens in the Church Today

In the early centuries of the Church in the Mediterranean world the catechumens received at Pascha were adults. During the persecutions they were people who had been attracted by the unwavering faith of the martyrs. After the persecutions were ended it was often the recognition by the state that gave people the impetus they needed to join the Church. When the Church was firmly established as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, the baptism of infants began to outnumber the baptism of adults. The Byzantine Liturgy retains a number of features from the period of the adult catechumenate. At every Divine Liturgy and every Presanctified Liturgy there are the prayers for and dismissal of catechumens. In some local Churches they are still a part of every Liturgy; in others they are omitted unless there are actual catechumens present. In addition, during the last weeks of the Great Fast, prayers for those preparing for baptism at Pascha are added. In fact there has never been a time when there have not been catechumens in one or another of the Byzantine Churches. The expansion of Eastern Christianity into the Balkans and the Slav lands brought whole new peoples to the font. In the second millennium the eastward expansion of the Russian Church into Asia and ultimately Alaska did the same. More recently the Christian Churches in Africa – Catholic Orthodox and Protestant – have grown enormously. With the end of Communism, as with the end of the Roman persecutions, many came forward for baptism in those nations as well. In our country the presence of catechumens in a parish is a kind of litmus test about the life of the parish. Are there catechumens or not? Are the only catechumens we receive those who will marry into one of the parish families? If there are no catechumens is it because our parish is more club than church? Are we content with the absence of catechumens – and the absence of vocations – in the parish as long as things are done our way? If so our celebration of Pascha will be missing something critical. The catechumens – and perhaps the angels – will have gone elsewhere.
The mystery of our salvation was once announced by the divinely-inspired prophets. They foretold this illumination for us who have arrived at the last days. By it, we receive knowledge of God, the one God and Lord, glorified in Three Persons; and we serve Him alone. Having one faith and one baptism, we have put on Christ. Wherefore, we confess our salvation in word and in deed, and we restore our likeness to God. Sticheron at Vespers

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