Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
OUR CHURCH CALENDAR remembers many events in Christian history: martyrdoms, ecumenical councils, miracles, and even earthquakes. There are only three births celebrated, however: that of the Theotokos (September 8), the Nativity of Christ Himself (December 25), and the birth of St John the Forerunner (June 24).

We do not know where or when this feast was first observed, but it is mentioned in writings of fourth- and fifth-century Fathers in both East and West (Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chrysostom). The oldest shrine of the Forerunner, at Ain-Karem, home of his parents Zachariah and Elizabeth, was destroyed during the fifth-century revolt of the Samaritans against Byzantine rule. In the sixth century, the French Council of Agde (506) declared this feast a “holyday of obligation” – not surprising, considering the esteem in which Christ Himself considered John (see Matthew 11:11).

John’s Conception Foretold

The Gospel story of John’s conception and birth, which is the Biblical basis of this feast, is found in Luke 1. We read that John’s father, Zachariah, was a priest “of the division of Abijah” (Luke 1:4). According to the custom of the day, priests were enrolled in various groupings or divisions which took turns serving in the temple for two weeks at a time. The Gospel says that, while Zachariah was offering incense in the temple, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth, Zachariah’s wife, would bear him a son, who was to be named John.

Zachariah could not understand how this could be, as both he and his wife were up in years. Because of his reluctance to believe, Zachariah was told by the Angel, “Behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time” (Luke 1:20). And so it happened.

John and Elijah

The Angel tells Zachariah that his son would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

In this promise we find an echo of the following prophecy from the Book of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophetic books. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). In some arrangements of the Bible, these are the last words of the Old Testament, pointing it forward to the Messianic Age to come.

Believing Jews held that Elijah would come to prepare the way for the Messiah. Many saw John as “Elijah,” the fulfillment of that prophecy, foretelling to all the coming of Christ. As the Lord Himself said about John, “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14).

The Forerunner Is Born

The Gospel story of John continues with the narrative of his birth: “Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her. So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zachariah. His mother answered and said, ‘No; he shall be called John.’
But they said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.’ So they made signs to his father —what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, ‘His name is John.’ So they all marveled. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God” (Luke 1:57-64).

St Augustine saw Zachariah’s muteness as symbolic of the time before Christ and viewed his release as an image of its passing. “The release of Zachariah’s voice at the birth of John,” he wrote, “has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. His tongue is released because a voice is being born… the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

The Canticle of Zachariah

The Gospel records as Zachariah’s praise of God a beautiful hymn which has found a place in the liturgy of both East and West. Often given the title “Benedictus” (from the first word of the Latin translation), this hymn is for the most part a string of verses from the Psalms and other Old Testament texts. It glorifies God for His greatness and for the love He has shown to His people.

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68-75).

At this point the hymn begins to make specific reference to John. He is described – with what some have called the clarity of hindsight – as prophet, forerunner, and preacher of repentance. These are, of course, the qualities which the Gospels attribute to John during his ministry at the Jordan.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Orient from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).

In our liturgy, this canticle is added to the hymn of the Virgin at the ninth ode of Orthros during the Fasts.

The One from the East

The word anatole, translated above as Orient, would be used repeatedly in our hymns referring to Christ. Sometimes it is translated as Dayspring, or as the One who rises. We hear it in the Christmas troparion (“to recognize in You the One who rises from on high”). In the troparion “Dance, O Isaiah” sung at Crownings and Ordinations the word is translated as “His name is Orient.”

The word anatole literally means sunrise and, by extension, the East (where the sun rises). It invokes the image of the rising sun, which itself is an image of Christ. He is the Dayspring, the Sunrise, of God’s saving plan for us. As the sunrise brings the promise of a new day, the appearance of Christ brings the assurance that the Kingdom of God is now at hand. As we sing in the Exapostilarion of Christmas, “From on high our Savior came, the rising Sun who shone from the East.” And John is the herald of that rising Sun.
 
THOSE WHO LIVE IN TEMPERATE CLIMATES enjoy a regular alternation of the four seasons, each with its own proper joys and hardships. In our Church we also enjoy a regular alternation of “seasons,” moving from times of feasting to periods of fasting. In our feasts we rejoice over the gift given us from God. When the time of feasting is ended, we return to the ordinary business of Christian life: prayer and fasting.

Prayer of supplication – beseeching God for a special favor – was associated with fasting as far back as time of King David. Fasting intensifies and confirms the sincerity of the prayer. Without fasting, prayer can be simply an expression of idle interest: chatting rather than intensely imploring the Lord. When the Apostles failed to cure an epileptic boy, the Lord Jesus made a point of telling them, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).

Fasting after Pentecost

On the eighth day after Pentecost, Byzantine Churches traditionally begin the Fast of the Apostles. This fasting season lasts until June 28, the eve of the feast of the principal apostles, Peter and Paul. The Coptic Church begins its fast on Pentecost Monday, Syriac Churches have abridged it to last for thirteen days or less.

The first documented mentions of this Fast are from the fourth century. St Athanasius the Great described the practice in Alexandria in his letter to the Emperor Constantius: “During the week following Pentecost, the people who observed the Fast went out to the cemetery to pray.” The Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land in the early 380s, Egeria, described the practice in Jerusalem: “on the day following the feast of Pentecost, a period of fasting began”.

In that era, the Western Church observed this Fast as well. The fifth-century Pope of Rome, Leo I, spoke of this Fast as a chance to make up for any excesses in celebrating the feasts: “Today's festival, dearly-beloved, hallowed by the descent of the Holy Spirit, is followed, as you know, by a solemn Fast. … ordained as a wholesome and needful practice, so that, if perhaps through neglect or disorder even amid the joys of the festival any undue license has broken out, it may be corrected by the remedy of strict abstinence, which must be the more scrupulously carried out in order that what was divinely bestowed on the Church on this day may abide in us” (Sermon 78, On the Whitsuntide Fast).

None of these early documents connect this Fast to the apostles Peter and Paul. This Fast was practiced long before the Apostles’ feast came to be widely celebrated. In the earliest practice this Fast was connected instead to the celebration of Pentecost

Fasting and the Apostles

In later centuries the Fast was extended so that it would end on the eve of the apostles’ feast and came to be explained in light of their memorial. In the Middle Ages, St. Symeon of Thessalonica (+1429) explains: “The Fast of the Apostles is justly established in their honor, for through them we have received numerous benefits and for us they are exemplars and teachers of the Fast … 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.” At that time, it seems, the Fast lasted only one week.

The apostles were said to have fasted before they set out on their missionary journeys. The fourth-century Canons of the Apostles, a Syrian work, says that the Apostles “…continued to speak in the new tongues of the nations, in which they preached, and He [the Lord] told them what must be done by the congregations with regards to prayer, worship, and the laws, and they thanked God for this knowledge they received. They fasted for forty days, thanking God through it, and then Peter washed the feet of the disciples… then they departed to all the nations to call people to the faith.”

The canonical New Testament recalls one incident when early Christians fasted before going forth in ministry. It describes a certain gathering in the Church at Antioch: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit… they proclaimed the word of God” (Acts 13:2-5). Fasting was again, an expected part of seeking the Lord’s will. Barnabas and Saul evangelized in Asia Minor, then retraced their steps to Antioch:” So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).

Spiritual writers throughout the ages have seen fasting as a critical weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Isaac the Syrian teaches, “… since fasting is a weapon established by God …the human race knew no victory before fasting, and the devil was never defeated by our nature as it is: but this weapon has indeed deprived the devil of strength from the outset… As soon as the devil sees someone possessed of this weapon [fasting], fear straightway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Savior in the wilderness; his strength is at once destroyed and the sight of the weapon given us by our supreme Leader burns him up. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal. He who remains therein, keeps his mind steadfast and ready to meet and repel all the passions.”

For What Should We Fast and Pray?

Since the Fast of the Apostles occurs between Pentecost and the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul, it is particularly appropriate that we observe it by prayer and fasting for the Church: that it perservere in the true faith and not succumb to the pressures of the surrounding culture and endure persecution by its enemies... that it grown in commitment, vocations, and numbers. We can devote specific days of the Fast in prayer for the Universal Church, your patriarchate or particular Church, your eparchy, specific parishes, monasteries, seminaries and other religious institutions. Making a list of such intentions spanning every day of the Fast period helps us focus on both the season and on the needs of the Church. It may become for some a focus for prayer throughout the year.

Advice from St John of Kronstadt

We are told: It is no big deal to eat non-Lenten food during Lent. It is no big deal if you wear expensive beautiful outfits, go to the theater, to parties, to masquerade balls, use beautiful expensive china, furniture, expensive carriages and dashing steeds, amass and hoard things, etc. Yet what is it that turns our heart away from God, away from the Fountain of Life? Because of what do we lose eternal life? Is it not because of gluttony, of expensive clothing like that of the rich man of the Gospel story, is it not because of theaters and masquerades? What turns us hard-hearted toward the poor and even toward our relatives? Is it not our passion for sweets, for satisfying the belly in general, for clothing, for expensive dishes, furniture, carriages, for money and other things? Is it possible to serve God and mammon, to be a friend to the world and a friend to God, to serve Christ and Belial? That is impossible… Let us attentively consider … What makes our hearts become crude? Why do we become flesh and not spirit, perverting our moral nature? Is it not because of a passion for food, drink, and other earthly comforts? How after this can one say that it does not matter whether you eat non-Lenten food during Lent?
 
ON THE FIRST Sunday that occurs during the Apostles’ Fast our Church regularly reminds us of the call of the leaders of these apostles by the Lord. The Gospel passage read at the Divine Liturgy is Matthew 4:18-23, the call of the fishermen. Mark and Luke also tell of this incident, at the effective beginning of Christ’s public ministry. The call of these disciples seems unusually abrupt to many readers. Jesus approaches some fishermen and says “Follow me,” and they do. In the Gospel of John we read of a previous encounter that may make this prompt response a bit less jarring.

Meeting Jesus at the Jordan

John describes both Jesus and some of those who would become His followers among those around John the Baptist at the Jordan. While Jesus and the apostles mentioned in John were from Galilee, they may have first met in Judea, where John was baptizing. John the Baptist had acquired a reputation for radical holiness and had drawn people from even farther away than Galilee (cf., Mark 3:8). It is not unreasonable than religious Galileans like Jesus and His future followers would have traveled to Judea as well. In John we read: “Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), ‘where are You staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour).  One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus” (John 1:35-42). The disciples’ question, “Where are you staying?” implies that Jesus was not at home; He was a visitor in lodgings. His fellow Galileans were thus doubly attracted to Him. He had John’s endorsement and He was from their own native region. It is also in light of this passage that the Byzantine Churches call Andrew the First-Called of the apostles. Next called of the apostles, according to John, would be Philip and Nathaniel. As John tells it, “The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’  And Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’” (John 1:43-46).

Back in Galilee

The Gospels do not dwell on Jesus’ return from the Jordan. Matthew outlines it in a few words: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum… From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 4:12,13,17). This was the same message that John was spreading around Judea (cf., Matthew 3:1) – it is as if Jesus was continuing John’s work in Galilee. The Gospel of John reports how, soon after returning to Galilee, Jesus “and His disciples” (John 2:2) attended a wedding at Cana. This is the first we hear that Jesus has disciples. When did they begin to follow Him? Once Jesus began His own ministry He quickly surrounded Himself with local followers, some of whom had been attracted to John the Baptist. When Jesus approached Andrew and Peter as they were fishing, He invited them to follow Him, but with a promise. “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:20). This image becomes clearer at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus tells His eleven foremost disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Ultimately these former fishermen would be catching their fish in Asia Minor and Europe.

The Kingdom of God

All through Jesus’ ministry the preaching of Jesus was filled with “kingdom talk.” The Lord’s Prayer, the parables, and even His final word to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), all use this term drawn from Jewish experience and expectation. In Jewish history the kingdom of God was a worldly entity, the kingdom of David. This kingdom was short-lived. It was divided on the death of David’s son, Solomon, and then destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. From then until the coming of Christ the Jews largely lived under foreign rule, but always looked for the restoration of “God’s kingdom,” meaning their independence. By announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand the Lord was dismissing the ideas that the kingdom was a matter of political independence and therefore something in the material future. For Jesus the “kingdom” was something of the spirit. With the incarnation it is “at hand.” With the spread of Christ’s public ministry through the ministry of the apostles it “has come near to you” (Luke 10:9) because the kingdom of God is inner communion with Him. It was already realized in Christ and would become possible for anyone with His death and resurrection which occasioned the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As St Paul writes, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19,20). Thus the kingdom of God is life in and with God, which is now ours mystically through our sharing in the life of the Church and in the ways we make Christ’s teachings the basis of our life. The kingdom will come in power at the end of the age when “Christ who is our life appears” and those who are in Him will share in His glory (cf., Colossians 3:1-4).

Jesus’ “Good News”

The message preached by both Jesus and the Forerunner was that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. In Mark’s Gospel a comment is added: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14,15). We associate the term “gospel” with the four New Testament texts which speak of the life and message of Christ. In the Roman Empire a “gospel” was an imperial proclamation heralded with fanfare – “good news,” as it is often translated. By adopting that word the apostles were saying that Jesus was the “real news” in our world.
“The kingdom of heaven has no price tag on it: it is worth as much as you have. For Zacchaeus it was worth half of what he owned, because the other half that he had unjustly pocketed he promised to restore fourfold. For Peter and Andrew it was worth the nets and vessel they had left behind; for the widow it was worth two copper coins; for another it was worth a cup of cold water. So, as we said, the kingdom of heaven is worth as much as you have.”
St Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, 5.2
 
IN HIS EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS St. Paul speaks of a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Jews, he indicates, have the Law (the Torah), the record of God’s revelation to Moses, as their guide, unlike the Gentiles. This does not make them superior or holier in any way, “For there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11). St Paul goes on to note that there are sinners and righteous people among both Jews and Gentiles. Sinful Jews “will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:12-13). Gentiles, “who do not have the Law,” (v. 14) have another standard by which they are judged. Gentiles, who “by nature do the things in the Law … who show the work of the law written in their hearts,” (v .15) are judged by whether their conscience is in accord with the way of God. “In the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (v. 16) Gentiles will be judged by the witness of their conscience. The Lord Jesus’ parable of the last judgment (cf., Matthew 25:31-46) expresses the same teaching in story form: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the Gentiles will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (v. 31-32). Some are judged righteous because “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (v. 35-36). While commentators usually stress the charitable basis of the judgment, the point of the parable is actually that the righteous Gentiles served Christ without knowing Him: “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You?” (v. 37). These righteous Gentiles were simply following their conscience, doing what they felt was right. But when a person’s conscience leads them to love God’s creation as He does, then “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (v. 40).

What Is Conscience?

The idea that there is something within a person which leads them to decide what is right or wrong is found in many ancient cultures. Conscience, as St Paul uses the term, comes from the thought of the Greek and Roman philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Seneca and Philo. It is described as a sense of moral awareness or consciousness that enables a person to judge something to be ethically right or wrong. Those with a well-developed conscience have a keen sense of right and wrong. People with no such beliefs may be amoral, even sociopaths with no principles governing their lives other than their own needs or desires. Early Christian thinkers like St Clement of Alexandria and St Justin the Philosopher saw the truths in classical philosophy as preparing the Greeks to meet Christ just as the Torah did for the Jews. They saw the best of human thought as leading inevitably to the teachings of the Lord Jesus. This is why in many Byzantine churches frescoes depicting the pagan Greek philosophers were placed on the outer porches. Thus it was natural for St. Paul to use the philosophical term conscience when speaking about Greeks.

A Christian Conscience

Christians are called to form their consciences, their sense of right and wrong, not from secular philosophy but according to the teachings of Holy Tradition. Thus, when Fathers like Ss. Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem or John Chrysostom instructed catechumens, they used as examples the Biblical figures who personified the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. St Basil the Great developed a coherent system of Christian ethics in his works The Judgment of God, Faith and Morals. He, too, based his teaching on the Scriptures but not simply on isolated passages. The word of God, he insisted, had to be proclaimed all-inclusively so that people could correctly form their consciences. St Basil warned the clergy to be sure to preach the word of God in its fullness; if they omitted some necessary teaching they would be accountable for their hearers’ transgressions. For an Eastern Christian, that fullness is based, not on principles of philosophy, but on the mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ. It consists ultimately in putting on what St Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) which we discover in the pages of the Gospels. We also understand this mind to be expressed in other elements of Tradition, the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church. These include all the Scriptures as well as the creeds, the writings of the Church Fathers, the texts of our liturgy, the canons of the councils, the icons, and the witness of the saints.

The Mind of Christ Today

The heart of the authentic Tradition – in contrast to mere custom – is marked by its continuity with the practice of the apostolic Church and by its agreement with the consensus of the Church’s experience through the ages. Thus, for example, abortion has been condemned by the historic Churches since the first century. Similarly sexual activity between any except married couples has never been accepted in the Church. The unbroken Tradition is that God’s purpose for sexuality is directed at something more than bodily pleasure. In such cases we cannot claim to be discerning the mind of Christ by picking and choosing those teachings of the Tradition which suit us. Rather we are called to embrace the entire authentic Tradition which the Church has received it and passed it on to us. Other issues seem to fall into much grayer areas where there is no clear or unwavering Tradition. Thus Christians can claim precedents for pacifism and for supporting the government or the armed forces in both Scripture and Tradition. Politics, the economy, the environment and social ethics are contemporary issues on which Christians often take opposing stands. As long as there is no clear teaching on such questions, Christians may take whatever stand is in accord with their conscience. Some may not feel any guilt at supporting a free-market economy or open borders while others, who find these practices objectively wrong, would be morally guilty if they condoned them. The one person violates his conscience by endorsing such an act; the other person would not be guilty of sin for doing so. The dilemma of conflicting consciences is a classic theme in Western literature. A recent example is A Man for All Seasons, the drama about St Thomas More who resisted King Henry VIII in his drive to separate the Church of England from Rome. When Thomas refused to endorse the king’s plan, his friend the Duke of Norfolk advised him, “Oh, just come along and do it.” Thomas More responded, “Oh, that's fine for you. Your conscience allows you to do that. And when you die, you go to heaven. And as for me, I go to hell.” And Norfolk says, “Well, do it for friendship’s sake.” And he says, “When I go to hell, Norfolk, will you come with me ‘for friendship’s sake’?”
 
IN MUCH OF THE WORLD TODAY multi-cultural communities abound. There are cities whose residents trace their lineage to every part of the globe, where a host of languages, religions, foods and music abound. At the same time we know that there are also more homogeneous communities – usually smaller or more isolated – where a different ethnic, religious or even regional background would set people apart as being outsiders. In these traditional societies uniformity is more valued than diversity. Israel during its formative period was such a society. In many respects it was similar to its neighbors in the Middle East with one exception that set them apart from others: Israel held strongly to monotheism, belief in only one God, and to a moral system believed to be given by Him. Neighboring peoples – such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites – each revered a host of gods and goddesses which the Israelites held to be no gods at all. The Israelites classed all these peoples as goyim, a word which first referred to a horde of pests, such as locusts. Our Bibles translate goyim as “Gentiles.” Jewish identity was to a great extent defined by their monotheism, which was always threatened when they mingled with Gentiles. Their identity – and their purity before God – suffered when “they mingled with the Gentiles and learned their works” (Psalm 106:35). There were numerous occasions during the first millennium bc when the political elite fostered alliances with goyim and adopted some of their ways. By the time of Christ permissible contact between religious Jews and Gentiles was severely restricted. Thus Jesus sent His disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God first among Jews: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). The Jews considered themselves the people of God, the nation through whom He worked in the world. The Lord Jesus was referring to this conviction when He told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). This did not mean that their place as God’s chosen people was given to them as a privilege but as a responsibility. God would work through Israel for the sake of all who would believe in Him. Gentiles, too, would take their place in God’s People. St Paul saw Christ as the One who fulfilled Israel’s role in God’s plan by bringing together Jews and Gentiles: “Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as …Isaiah says: ‘There shall be a root of Jesse; and He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in Him the Gentiles shall hope” (Romans 15:8-9,12). By the time of Christ Jewish territory was part of the Roman Empire, a multi-cultural society. The ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were still worshipped but Greek philosophy had a greater moral authority. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers had more influence over the leaders of the empire than did the traditional Roman deities. St Paul, whose travels took him to numerous cities in the Roman Empire, knew the ethical dimension of Greek philosophy. He recognized that, even without direct revelation from God, people could arrive at an ethical stance that in many respects paralleled what God had revealed to His people Israel. Thus St Paul wrote, “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:14-15). Through reason people can discover the basic principles of a godly life – what has come to be known as the “natural law.” Thus the first generation of Christians, who had been led by God to see faith rather than ethnic heritage as the key for membership in God’s people, came to value the highest aspirations of philosophy as compatible with and even fulfilled in the Gospel.

St Justin the Philosopher

Over the next few centuries in the Roman Empire a number of people trained in classical philosophy became Christians. Many would become the intellectual leaders of the Church, the great Fathers to whom we still look for inspiration. One of the first pagan philosophers to embrace Christianity was Justin, born in Nablus into a pagan Roman family who had settled in Palestine in the first century. Justin tells that he was given the classical Roman education and explored the various philosophical currents of his time, ultimately adopting Platonism. In his Dialogue with Trypho 8, Justin writes of encountering an old man – a Palestinian or Syrian Christian – who encouraged him to explore the Biblical prophets who, he said, were more trustworthy than pagan philosophers. Then, as Justin would recall, “Straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while turning over His words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable.” Justin lived the life of a traveling lecturer promoting his newly-adopted philosophy, Christianity. Arriving in Rome he established a philosophical school advancing his faith by his lectures and writings, several of which have survived. He taught that the writings of the Old Testament prophets were fulfilled in what he called “the memoirs of the apostles” (the Gospels). Like St Paul, Justin came to see that the most exalted pagan philosophers had “the law written in their hearts.” He called Socrates and Heraclitus “seminal Christians.” They possessed the seed of the Gospel; the mature fruit would be revealed only in Christ. Justin was also deeply impressed by the fearless witness of the Christian martyrs in the face of persecution. He writes, “For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death …perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man … would not rather continue always the present life” (Second Apology, 12). Justin was subjected to the same fate in ad 165, denounced by a pagan philosopher, Crescens, whom he had debated. According to his pupil Tatian, Justin was tried with six others by the prefect of the city and was beheaded. The holy martyr Justin the Philosopher is commemorated in the Church on June 1. Justin’s view of classical philosophers as “seminal Christians” may be seen in the frescos of Plato, Socrates and the rest who often adorn the outer porches of Greek churches. During the Ottoman period the only schools allowed to the Christians were often conducted on these porches under the watchful gaze of these philosophers.
You emptied the cup of the wisdom of the Greeks, yet still remained thirsty until you came to the well where you found water springing up to eternal life. Having drunk deeply of it, you also drank the cup which Christ gave to His disciples. Wherefore, O Justin, we praise you as a philosopher and martyr of Christ.

Troparion, June 1

 
IN THE BYZANTINE TYPIKA, the Scriptures read at the Divine Liturgy are chosen in two ways. On feasts the passages selected refer to the event being celebrated. The Gospel reading usually recounts the event while the Epistle selection often suggests its spiritual meaning. On most days of the year the Church reads the Scriptures continuously according to the following pattern: the Gospel of St John and the Acts of the Apostles are read from Pascha to Pentecost; Matthew and the Epistles, beginning with Romans, are read from Pentecost to the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). The Epistles continue in order after this feast with Hebrews read especially during the Great Fast. The Gospels are read as follows: Luke from the Holy Cross to the Great Fast and Mark on the weekends of the Fast as well as to fill in any gaps caused by the varying date of Pascha. Thus we are now at the start of the public reading of Matthew and Romans in the Byzantine Churches.

The Gospel of Matthew

In printed Bibles the Gospel according to St. Matthew is the first of the four. For many years this arrangement was thought to reflect the sequence in which the Gospels were composed: Matthew first, then Mark, etc. Most contemporary scholars, however, feel that the simpler Gospel of Mark was written first (before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and then developed by Matthew after that event. The first ancient testimony to Matthew comes from the second century Bishop of Hieropolis, Papias. In a work now lost but quoted by others, Papias says that “Matthew composed the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew dialect [of Aramaic]”. If Papias is correct, Matthew’s collection of sayings was written for a group of Jewish Christians who spoke the Palestinian (“Hebrew”) dialect of Aramaic. Matthew’s original work, then, may have been simply a collection of sayings later incorporated into the Greek narrative we now have. Our Matthew, although written in Greek, was still written for Jewish Christians. Of all the Gospels Matthew is the one that most refers to the Old Testament. Jewish customs are mentioned but not explained since the readers would be familiar with them. Questions about observing the Law of Moses and the Sabbath come up again and again. We know that there were many Jews who understood and spoke Greek – it was the universal language of the Mediterranean – and there were many Jews who no longer spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. It is thought that the Gospel was written in a Jewish Christian community in Syria, probably at Antioch. Matthew’s Gospel is clearly a literary work with specific movements and themes. Sandwiched between the infancy narrative and the story of the passion and resurrection of Christ, Matthew puts forth five narratives and discourses that remind us of the five books of Moses (the Torah). Jesus is the New Moses, giving the new law, written in the hearts of those who love Him. The Gospel is roughly divided in two, focusing on its main message. The first part leads up to the confession of Peter (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”) in chapter 16 and the transfiguration of Christ (“This is my beloved Son”) in chapter 17. The second part then takes us to Jerusalem and the great events of the Paschal mystery. Jesus is revealed in His passion (“Truly this was the Son of God” – 27:54) and in His glorification (“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” -28:18). Jesus is not only the “new Moses;” He is the “One greater than the temple” (12.7), “greater than Jonah” and “greater than Solomon” (12.41-42). Today’s reading from Matthew (4:18-23) is, as it were, the kickoff to the earthly ministry of Christ. Christ calls His foremost disciples, the brothers Peter and Andrew and their fellow fishermen, the brothers James and John. He then sets out preaching “the Gospel of the kingdom” (v. 23) throughout Galilee. The kingdom of God was, at first, the Hebrew commonwealth, those who believed in the one true God. When a kingdom, “like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5) was established people began to think of God’s kingdom as a physical entity. After being a subject people since their subjugation to Babylon in 587 BC, the Jews sought freedom from their occupiers and looked to the Messiah as a political liberator. Jesus message contradicts this: “the kingdom of God has come upon you,” He says (Matthew 12:28), by His presence. He confronts the ultimate oppressor, through whom physical, psychological and spiritual traumas befall us, and He defeats him. The kingdom of God is where Jesus is and is revered.

Epistle to the Romans

The first printed Bibles did not attempt to put the Epistles in chronological order. They put the longest first and worked their way down to the shortest for each author. Romans is St. Paul’s longest epistle but not his first. At St. Paul’s death (c. AD 66) only one of our Gospels (Mark) had been written. His epistles are, therefore, the first surviving documents of the Christian movement. In the first century AD there were long-established Jewish communities in all the principal cities of the Roman Empire. St. Paul’s own plan on visiting such a city was to first preach Christ in the local synagogue. Inevitably some people accepted that Jesus was the Messiah and others did not. In AD 49 Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. The Roman historian Suetonius suggested that this was because the Jews were so vehemently contending about whether Jesus was the Messiah. In any case, Jews returned to Rome after Claudius’ death in AD 54. It was to the believers among them that Paul addressed his epistle. In the selection read today St Paul affirms that “everyone who works what is good” – the Gentiles as well as Jews – can be just in the sight of God. While Jews lived in the midst of Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean world, strict Jews did not mingle with Gentiles. If a Gentile wished to join them – and some did – they would have to observe the entire Law, starting with circumcision, just as any observant Jew would do. Keeping the Law of Moses was the great – and only – sign that a person was living according to God’s will. Paul’s teaching was very different. Observance of the Law of Moses was fine, but people could be pleasing to God by following what their conscience tells them is right for they would be following the heart of the Law (the Ten Commandments) without explicitly knowing it. As the third-century commentator Origen wrote, “The Gentiles need not keep the Sabbaths or the new moons or the sacrifices which are written down in the law. For this law is not what is written on the hearts of the Gentiles. Rather it is that which can be discerned naturally, e.g. that they should not kill or commit adultery, that they should not bear false witness, that they should honor father and mother, etc.” (Commentary on Romans 1.228). Paul here prepares the ground for his most important teaching: that it was acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah which made one a true member of God’s People, be he Jew or Gentile. If a person believed in Christ, then it did not matter whether he was circumcised or not or whether he observed all the ritual practices of Judaism.

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