Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
DOES CHRIST ASK THE IMPOSSIBLE of His disciples? At times it seems so, as when He tells us to “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35). This doctrine goes against the ordinary inclinations of people of every society, social class or station in life. As a result it has been routinely ignored by Christians of every age when they are faced with the choice of actually putting it into practice.

As a result, many non-believers have seen Christians as hypocrites – teaching this principle in theory but ignoring it in practice. In all honesty, many of us might see ourselves in this criticism leveled by the eighteenth-century political philosopher of the American Revolution Thomas Paine: “Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies, are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing; for the doctrine is hypocritical, and it is natural that hypocrisy should act the reverse of what it preaches.” (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason).

In the Old Testament

The Scriptures are full of imprecations against the enemies of Israel. The Torah and the early histories of Israel encourage believing Jews to consider the pagans living in their midst as God’s enemies and, therefore, their own. If they encourage readers to treat their enemies with compassion, it is for a motive other than kindness. The author of Proverbs warns his readers, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Proverbs 24:17, 18). In other words, don’t rejoice over your enemy’s misfortune or God will restore their good fortune to spite you!

In Proverbs we find another word of advice on dealing with one’s enemies which was apparently well regarded among first-century Jews: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21, 22). The author encourages the doing of good from a base motive – Treat your enemy kindly. You will make him feel guilty and God will bless you in the bargain! This is very far from the New Testament teaching and shows us how far from conventional wisdom, even among God’s People, Christ’s doctrine is.

Imitating God

Christ regularly encouraged His disciples to imitate God’s way rather than man’s. God’s way is, of course, the way of mercy and compassion. God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities, For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (Psalms 103:10, 11). While the Jews were long encouraged to trust in God’s mercy, it was Christ who taught us to imitate that compassion in the way we treat others.

The Lord Jesus urged His disciples to strive for perfection in their spiritual lives and He pointed to love for one’s enemies as exemplifying that perfection. Anything less, He identified with the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees. In St Matthew’s Gospel the following injunction concludes and sums up the Sermon on the Mount: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful… You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:32-36, 43-48). If the aim of the Christian life is to imitate the Lover of mankind, the chief sign of that way of life is the way we treat our enemies. We can and should act in the image of God.

Perhaps the most striking example of love for ones enemies in the Gospels is the prayer for His killers which Christ offered while hanging on the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). Arrested for preaching in Christ’s name some years later, the first martyr, St Stephen, used his last breath to imitate Christ’s love for His enemies, praying: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60) as he was being stoned by his killers: God, and those who follow His way, do not let themselves be conditioned by the wickedness of others. Even when forgotten or rejected, they continue to be faithful to loving others.

Forgiving through the Holy Spirit

Imitating God in this way isn’t easy. Some say it isn’t even in our power, but is an attitude that can only be the fruit of grace, given by the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Silouan the Athonite writes, "The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it."

The ability to love one’s enemies is also closely bound to humility. Almost all the difficulties we encounter in loving our enemies are linked with pride: it is from pride that flows the affliction that follows upon insults, hated, bad temper, spite, the desire for revenge, contempt for one’s neighbor, refusing to forgive him and to be reconciled with him. Pride excludes the love of enemies and love for one’s enemies excludes pride.

When we think of asceticism, we may consider prayer vigils, fasting, or making numerous prostrations. The most challenging ascetical feat, however, is to practice love for one’s enemies.
 
IN 1917 THE JOHN RYLANDS UNIVERSITY LIBRARY in Manchester, England acquired a third-century papyrus fragment of great historic interest. It contained the earliest known copy of a hymn to the Theotokos. The verse, still used in the liturgies of all the historic Churches, reads as follows: “Beneath your protection, we take refuge, O Theotokos. Do not despise our petitions in time of trouble, but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.”

This hymn shows that, from as early as the 200s, Christians have looked on the Holy Virgin as their protectress. Our liturgical year includes feasts celebrating the city of Constantinople’s reliance on the Theotokos to protect them. Today’s feast is the most iconic of these commemorations.

The Panagia of Blachernae

In the mid-fifth century, the emperors thought to enhance the city’s role as the Christian capital by collecting many relics from near and far. The patriarch of Jerusalem sent the holy mantle and robe of the Theotokos to the capital. A great church was built at Blachernae on the shore of the Bosphorus in honor of the holy Virgin with an adjoining shrine, the Hagia Soros (Holy Mausoleum) in which the mantle and robe, as well as relics of other saints, were enshrined.

The church at Blachernae became known for the numerous healings and other miracles associated with the church’s principal icon of the Theotokos, the Panagia of Blachernae. This icon was frequently taken in procession around the city asking for the protection of the Virgin. Such a procession was held in 626 when the Avars, from the northern Caucuses, were besieging the city. Their fleet was sunk and, seeing this as divine intervention, the Avars fled. The Christians of Constantinople saw this as a sign of the Virgin’s protection. The kondakion of the Akathist, which we know as We your servants (originally, I your city) was composed to celebrate this victory.

During the latter years of the first millennium Constantinople suffered a series of assaults from hostile powers. When Persians besieged Constantinople in 677 and Muslim Arabs did the same in 717, people turned to the Virgin for protection. Both invasions were repulsed and the Virgin was praised for her protection.

Orthodox Christians sought the Virgin’s protection over the Church during the era of iconoclasm. Every Friday an all-night vigil was celebrated before the Panagia of Blachernae. When all sacred images were finally removed from the church, the icon disappeared. It was reputedly found hidden behind a wall during renovations in 1038.

The Slavic Invasion of 860

In the 830s the Viking-Slavic peoples of Kievan Rus’ begin migrating south. When the Rus’ began raiding settlements on the Black Sea it was inevitable that their forces would come to the gates of Constantinople. In 860 a fleet of over 200 ships from Rus’ entered the harbor of Constantinople where they made a show of force before the city. On June 18, the inhabitants gathered with the emperor and the patriarch, St Photios the Great, in an all-night vigil at the Church of the Mother of God at Blachernae, near the shore. Imploring her to protect the city, St Photios took the robe in procession to the harbor, dipped it into the sea and then took it through the streets to Hagia Sophia. By June 25 the Rus’ began to withdraw from the harbor and entered into a treaty with the empire which led to the eventual Christianization of Rus’ in the next century. St Photios attributed the city’s deliverance to the “never-failing protectress of Christians” On July 2 the robe was returned to Blachernae in celebration, an event still commemorated in our Church every July 2.

The Vision of St Andrew

The memory of these events, as well as the presence of the Virgin’s robe, made the Blachernae church the most popular shrine to the Theotokos in the imperial capital. It would become even more renowned with the events of October 1, 911.

It was a Sunday and the all-night vigil was being served in the church at Blachernae. Among those present was St Andrew, a Fool-for-Christ, a Slav who had been captured during a military incursion and sold as a slave. His master saw to it that Andrew learned to read and the young man became attached to the Church and its worship. He was inspired to adopt the ascesis of feigned insanity, being a “fool-for Christ.” He would pretend madness during the day, but pray all night.

During the vigil, sometime after 3 AM, we are told in the Synaxarion that St Andrew “lifted up his eyes towards the heavens and beheld our most Holy Lady Theotokos coming through the air, resplendent with heavenly light and surrounded by an assembly of the Saints. Saint John the Baptist and the holy Apostle John the Theologian accompanied the Queen of Heaven. On bended knees, the Most Holy Virgin tearfully prayed for Christians for a long time. Then, coming near the ambo, she continued her prayer.

“After completing her prayer, she took her veil and spread it over the people praying in the church, protecting them from enemies both visible and invisible. The Most Holy Lady Theotokos was resplendent with heavenly glory, and the protecting veil in her hands glowed more than the rays of the sun.”

Saint Andrew gazed trembling at the miraculous vision and he asked his disciple, the blessed Epiphanius standing beside him, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?” “I do see, holy Father Epiphanius replied, “and am in awe.”

For a long time, they observed the Protecting Veil spread over the people and shining with flashes of glory. As long as the Most Holy Theotokos was there, the Protecting Veil was also visible, but with her departure it also became invisible. After taking it with her, she left behind the grace of her visitation.”

The icon of this feast shows this appearance of the Theotokos to St Andrew. Some icons, particularly those displayed for veneration on this feast, have a lower tier or an inset depicting St Romanos the Melodist chanting at the ambo. October 1 is also the feast day of this saint.

This vision is celebrated in most Byzantine Churches on October 1. In the Church of Greece, however, the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos has been transferred to October 28 to coincide with the Greek national holiday, “Ohi” Day, marking the start of Greek resistance to the German and Italian occupation during World War II.

The Church at Blachernae

The Church of the Theotokos was severely damaged by fire in 1070 but was rebuilt and restored by two successive emperors. Finally. the entire church complex, along with the surrounding quarter, was completely destroyed on February 29, 1434 when some children accidentally started a fire on the church roof.

A few years before the fire, a portion of the robe had been sent to Russia. When the feast of the robe (July 2) was celebrated during the Tatar siege of Moscow in 1451 the Tatars were unaccountably seized with confusion and fled in disarray. Again, the Virgin’s protection was credited with the deliverance of a Christian city. By the 17th century a portion of the robe was being venerated at the Dormition Monastery in Khobi, Georgia. To this day this relic is carried in procession around that city for veneration on July 2.
 
POOR ST PAUL! Analysts from Muhammad to Dan Brown have blamed him for corrupting Jesus' message and “turning it into” Christianity. Paul is reproached as being the first to turn Jesus from being a humble Galilean rabbi into a god. This approach became current in nineteenth-century Europe. Several German thinkers popularized the idea that St Paul, not Jesus, developed Christianity as we know it. Paul, it was alleged, changed Jesus' message for his own uses. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche railed, “The life, the example, the teaching, the death of Christ, the meaning and the law of the whole gospels – nothing was left of all this after that counterfeiter in hatred [i.e. St Paul] had reduced it to his uses.”

What Does St Paul Say?

We read St Paul's claim in Galatians 1:11-12 that “… the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”St Paul insists that his message did not come from any human source but directly from God. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts 9:1-9 was followed, according to Acts, by his baptism in Damascus where, after a few days, “… in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God'” (v. 20). God, St Paul affirmed “was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:16); Paul does not tell us how or to what degree this revelation took place. The purpose of his writing was not to satisfy our curiosity. By saying that Christ was revealed in him might suggest that this was a kind of interior illumination, perhaps not unlike some people's inner conviction that God loves them.

Paul Echoes Christ

While some critics continue to advance the idea that St Paul reinvented Christianity, others have pointed out the continuity between the early teachings of the Lord Jesus and those of St Paul. These are a few examples of how the teaching of St Paul about Christ iterates the preaching of Jesus about Himself: Christ's Death and Resurrection -- Jesus: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 17:22-23). Paul: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Christ's Death Was a Sacrifice Freely Offered -- Jesus: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Paul: “…and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:2). The Risen Christ is the Source of Life -- Jesus: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (John 5:21). Paul: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Christ's Divinity -- Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM” (John 8:58). Paul: “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). And: “ Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7). These passages offer a good illustration of the different types of language used by Jesus and Paul to express the same idea. Jesus taught in a Semitic culture to farmers, fishermen and sheepherders. He often echoed Old Testament ideas -- also part of His hearers' culture -- often giving them new or expanded meaning. When John describes Jesus' confrontation with the Jews he uses the same words (egō eimi -- I am) we find in the Greek Torah (the Septuagint) account of God's appearance to Moses. When the prophet asked God's name he answered “I am the One Who Is” (egō eimi ὁ ὤν - Exodus 3:14). Jews would have caught the allusion at once -- and did. They realized that Jesus equated Himself with The One Who Is. “So they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). St Paul is writing to city dwellers -- merchants, craftsmen, officials -- in a Greco-Roman culture. Rather than using stories or allusions to the Torah he defined Jesus as “the fullness of Deity in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Not many Jewish farmers would have understood Paul's definition and not many Colossians would have understood Jesus' allusion -- but both meant the same thing.

Did the Church Change the Gospel?

There was a “change” between Jesus' initial preaching in Galilee and the Gospel that Paul taught. Neither the Church nor Paul had anything to do with that change. What fully clarified Christ's teaching was the light shone by His resurrection. At the beginning of Jesus' ministry He spoke regularly in parables. Before His death, however, Jesus' disciples had so grown in their under-standing of Him and His work that “His disciples said, ‘Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure! Now we know that you know all things, and need none to question you; by this we believe that you came from God'” (John 16:29-30). When Jesus had risen from the dead He opened His disciples' mind still further to understand the full meaning of the Old Testament's messianic prophecies. “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Had Jesus “changed” His message or made it clearer? When the first believers in Jesus brought the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world they began the process of expressing it in the way of thinking current in that world. They did not change the message but stated it in a way their new hearers can understand, making it clearer for them as the Lord had made it clearer for His disciples.
Love Still the Basis of Gospel Living
According to the Lord Jesus
And one of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question, to test him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).
And According to St Paul
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13: 8-10).
 
“LOVE, LOVE, LOVE – all you need is love!” That’s what the songs and the tee shirts say. So why do 50% of American marriages end in divorce? And why do so many young people stumble their way through so many abortive relationships? Could it be because love has become a mere slogan, unrelated to the reality of the God who is love? God’s love is described in Luke’s Gospel as being “kind to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). An Athonite elder, commenting on this teaching, opined that God loves the devil as much as He does the Holy Virgin. That kind of love is incomprehensible to most of us. Yet this kind of love is put forward as a model for us to imitate: “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (v.36)

Everyday Ideas of Love

Our ordinary ideas of love fall far short of this ideal. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are.” In other words, what we love displays the secrets of our hearts. Some people focus on sensual love, and everything they desire and fear, admire and loathe follows from this love Likewise people who have given their heart to wealth, to drugs or drink become the slaves of that which they love. Their every action is directed towards the acquisition of what they worship. In the Lord’s words, “Where your treasure is, there your heart shall also be” (Matthew 6:21). Many good people, Church people included, focus on loving their spouses and children and, perhaps, their extended family. There is nothing wrong with that, surely. But the Lord says that we should not get stuck on family love from which we get great rewards in return: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” (Matthew 5:46-47): If you are seeking to live a godly life, you must do more than that.

Gospel Ideas of Love

When the Lord was asked which commandment was the greatest, He didn’t pick just one. He answered, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Matthew 22:38-39). It would be easy to delude oneself into thinking that I love God, when in fact what I love is ceremonial, music, or the fellowship of my church friends. It is not so easy to delude oneself about loving another concrete individual with whom we may not have any particular affinity. As we read in the first epistle of John, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). For the believer, then, godly love is directed toward God, but authenticated by our relationships with others. How can a person show love for God while living an ordinary life in the world? Many suggest that we begin by getting out of ourselves as much as possible in our spiritual lives. We observe a Rule of Prayer without wavering. We don’t pray simply when we feel like it or when it is convenient by without fail. Just as a parent needs to feed their child without fail or a dog owner needs to walk his pet regularly, we need to make that act of love which is prayer as consistently as these other actions. Following a Rule of Prayer becomes as selfless an act because it is done for the Other, not to please oneself. When we approach fasting in the same way it becomes a clear act of love. When people fast when they feel like it or according to their own regimen instead of the Church’s practice, they may well be doing it to please themselves. Fasting on the days appointed in the Tradition, without making excuses for oneself, is a way of leaving one’s ego behind in an act of love for God. If these practices are authentically directed toward God, they will invariably lead us to reach out to our neighbor whom God loves. Almsgiving, particularly in terms of sharing our precious free time with others, is for the Christian a concrete act of love for Christ in His Body or on His creation. Setting up one’s own plan of Godly practices can be little more than an ego trip. We try to show ourselves as truly spiritual by committing ourselves to unkeepable rules of prayer or fasting beyond what it required. We commit ourselves to serve others in ways that we cannot hope to sustain. Invariably we learn than these practices do not suit up and we give off all attempts at reaching out to God. The traditional remedy for excesses like these is that people striving to live for God obtain the blessing of their spiritual guide for each ascetical activity they attempt. People in a free society become used to doing things their own way, to being independent. But a person who resolves to love God needs to move beyond his “rights” and look towards doing whatever is necessary to serve the Other. Following the directions of a knowledgeable spiritual guide in choosing acts of love appropriate to our spiritual maturity and state in life can help us avoid disappointing ourselves and those who we serve by being unable to complete the spiritual work we have begun. Such a guide should be someone who knows both the Church’s Tradition of spirituality and who knows us as well. Having grown through their own practice of the spiritual Tradition, such a guide is helping us, not from books, but from personal experience. By the same token your guide should know you deeply – your strengths and weaknesses, your state in life and responsibilities – and be able to discern what is right for you at this stage in your life. Such a guide is usually a monastic or a priest-confessor, but not every priest or monastic is necessarily the best spiritual guide for you. If you do not now have such a guide, pray that the Lord lead you to such a person who can walk with you on your journey to Him.
Why Do We Love?


The Greek nun, Mother Gavrilia, served in India for many years doing the same sort of work as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her witness shows that she learned about love from her own experience.

“[Once she was asked] What does God want me to do?…The answer was: God is not interested in where you are or what you do…He is interested only in the quality and quantity of the love you give. Nothing else. Nothing else.”

“Love as taught by Christ is offered without expecting anything in return. This is the great, the vast difference [from earthly love]. In this love the ego no longer exists. Our own self ceases to be. We give our love to the other as we receive it from God, without any thought as to what he does with it…. All persons of God love in this way. They do not love because they expect something in return from the one they love. They love because if you cease loving you cease living.”

Shopping Cart

Your shopping cart is empty
Visit the shop

Questions? © 1995-2016 Melkite Eparchy of Newton  ·  All Rights Reserved RSS Feed