Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
It is not unusual that some new believers in every church community increase in their faith while others fall away. This was, after all, the point of the Lord’s parable about the sower and his seed (cf., Luke 8:4-18). This may have also been a problem for the community to which the Epistle to the Hebrews was addressed. In chapter two we read this caution to its readers: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Hebrews 2:3, 4) Christ’s preaching had been accompanied by various signs and wonders: He healed the sick and raised the dead, He expelled demonic spirits and performed miracles in the natural order (such as calming the sea, multiplying the loaves and fish). Before His passion He promised that His followers would do the same and more: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 18:12). When the risen Christ sent His disciples forth to spread the Gospel, He promised them: “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues, they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” Mark concludes his Gospel by saying, “They went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” (Mark 16:17,18,20). The Book of Acts records some of these signs and wonders, miracles and gifts which accompanied the preaching of the apostles. Like Christ they healed the sick (cf., Acts 3:1-10), expelled demons (cf., Acts 8:4-8), and raised the dead (cf., Acts 9:36-4). They also bestowed the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying-on of hands: an act so wondrous that the magician Simon sought to buy this power (cf., Acts 8:14-25).

Signs and Wonders after the Apostles

Miracles and healings did not disappear from the Church with the death of the last apostle. Writers of the second and third centuries ad such as Irenaeus of Lyons (120-202) speak of these blessings continuing among the faithful. St Justin the Philosopher (c. 110-165) wrote, “The prophetic gifts remain with us to the present time. Some do certainly cast out demons… Others have knowledge of things to come. They see visions and utter prophetic expressions” (Dialogue with Trypho, 82 ). St Justin also affirmed the effectiveness of exorcisms in the Church. “[Jesus] said, ‘I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions’ … and now we have all the demons and evil spirits subjected to us when we exorcise them.” His claim is echoed in still-extant writings by Theophilus of Antioch (169-185), Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-254), Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339), Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-367), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-387), Basil the Great (c. 330-379), and Gregory the Theologian (329-389). In The City of God 22, 8 St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) described this experience in his diocese: “It is only two years ago that the keeping of records was begun here in Hippo and already, at this writing we have more than seventy attested miracles.”

St Gregory the Wonderworker

On November 17, 380 St Gregory of Nyssa delivered a eulogy praising St Gregory the Wonderworker (c. 213-270), who had been bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Asia Minor. St Gregory’s oration was quickly translated into several languages, giving all the Churches a glimpse of how Christ’s promise was fulfilled in third-century Asia Minor. Son of a prominent pagan family in Neo-Caesarea, Gregory was preparing for a career in law by studying philosophy under Origen, the noted Christian lecturer. Gregory became his disciple and a Christian and later a member of the clergy. The new priest was soon granted a vision of St John the Theologian who directed him to spread knowledge of the Holy Trinity among his people. Neo-Caesarea was still pagan and there was no Christian church in the city. As Gregory of Nyssa describes it, “When Gregory arrived in the city at evening from the countryside, a violent rainstorm forced him to seek shelter in a temple. This place was renowned because one of the demons revered there used to manifest himself to the temple's custodians, and a certain prophet was empowered to utter oracles. Once [Gregory] entered the temple with several companions, one of the demons was petrified at the invocation of Christ's name. Having purified the defiled air with the sign of the Cross, he spent the entire night in prayer and singing hymns according to his usual custom. In this way he transformed into a temple of prayer this place which had been profaned by unclean sacrifices and images.” When the temple priest and servants arrived in the morning Gregory began teaching them as St John had directed. His teaching was confirmed in their eyes by a wonder – Gregory moved an enormous rock by his faith alone – and they became Gregory’s first converts. “The town’s entire populace gathered to learn about this novel wonder, and everyone desired to see this man called Gregory.” “After several persons had received preliminary instruction before the end of the day, they hastened to a first synaxis at sunset ... At daybreak men, women, children, the old and young, and whoever was afflicted by demons or bodily affliction gathered at the door.... Both those who heard and saw him were struck with wonder at the miracles he performed among the sick.” In a short time Gregory’s preaching and witness had brought many to Christ. They all contributed to building a Christian temple and, as Nyssa observed, its existence testified to Gregory’s godly power. “When in our lifetime the city suffered a severe earthquake and almost every public and private dwelling was completely destroyed, the temple alone remained unscathed and unshaken, testifying to that great man’s strength and vigor.” “[Gregory] often gave witness to the power which God bestowed upon him. All the inhabitants of the city and surrounding areas were astounded at such wonders which were reminiscent of the Apostles. They believed his words and actions came from God's power…” Gregory’s reputation grew and over the years many in that region became Christians. It is said that while Gregory began his mission with only seventeen Christians, at his death there remained only seventeen pagans in Neo-Caesarea. In the early centuries, when becoming a Christian meant courting the risk of persecution, receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit was identified with the mysteries of initiation – baptism and the laying-on of hands. In later years, when being Christian became socially expected, such signs and wonders came to be associated with the ascetics and monastics, many of whom were canonized as “Wonderworkers.” Miracles are also attributed to the tombs of the saints, their relics and their intercession. When the Great Church of Constantinople, Agia Sophia was built in the sixth century, relics were placed in the columns. People soon began touching and kissing the column containing St Gregory’s relics. Both Christians and Muslims still venerate his relics by placing their thumb into a hole made in the column for that purpose). Despite the passage of centuries, signs and wonders continue witnessing to those who believe.
 
THERE ARE MANY DESCRIPTIVE TITLES ascribed to Christ in Scripture and the Tradition of the ancient Churches. He is portrayed as the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Great High Priest, the Bread of life and so much more. Perhaps the most frequently heard of these depictions in Byzantine churches is the one which ends most liturgical services: “He is gracious and the Lover of mankind.” Possibly the most important characteristic in Christ’s love for mankind is portrayed in St Mark’s description of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). He assures the sick man, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 5). The reaction of the scribes was unspoken but clear: “Why does this man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). Feeding the hungry, helping the downtrodden are acts of love which anyone can perform, believer or unbeliever. God, however, has the monopoly on forgiving sins! That Christ proclaims the forgiveness of sins seems to equate Him with God, which the Jewish leaders saw as blasphemy. Not only does Christ proclaim the forgiveness of sin: He does so by His word alone! In Jewish practice one had to submit to some sort of ritual in order to convey the need to be cleansed of sin. Before the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, the Jews had a complex system of sacrifices expressing repentance and atonement for anything which they saw as rendering them unfit to stand in worship before the Lord. Depending on their status or ability, people would offer unblemished animals or birds to be killed and burned upon the altar, at least in part, their blood sprinkled before the holy place as a plea for mercy. On the annual Day of Atonement a bull and a goat would be sacrificed by the High Priest for his sins and the offenses of the entire nation. John the Forerunner also had a rite to express repentance. As he described it, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance” (Matthew 3:11). Christ stands in stark contrast to the priests and prophets of Israel: by His word alone He forgives sin. Nothing is needed other than faith in Him!

With His Own Blood

The forgiveness which Christ accorded to the paralytic, to the sinful woman who wept at His feet (cf., Luke 7:36-50) and to others during His earthy ministry is made available to the whole world by His death and resurrection. Throughout the New Testament we see the imagery of the temple sacrifices used to explain Christ as the One who forgives. St John the Forerunner proclaims Him to his own followers as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). St Paul calls Christ’s death “propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:25). “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son,” Paul teaches (Romans 5:10). God, Paul tells us, “… made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The most developed expression of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There, after a lengthy description of the temple and its priesthood, we read, “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having attained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). He is both the High Priest and the sacrifice who, once for all, restores mankind as fitting priests of God on earth.

Forgiveness in the Body of Christ

When the disciples marveled at the healings and miracles wrought by Christ during His earthly ministry, He promised them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12). Among other things, Christ has empowered the Church as His Body to continue proclaiming the remission of sins in His name. This ministry is exercised in a number of expressions by which we can experience God’s forgiveness in our life. To the degree that we enter into them we will find our lives centering on God to a greater degree. In our Tradition the following are emphasized: Daily prayer for repentance, particularly the Jesus Prayer – The morning and evening prayers prescribed by the Church include prayers of repentance. The most basic of these is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” God surely hears these prayers when offered from a contrite heart. Regular Self-Reflection – Periodic, even daily, self-examination helps us to see the direction of our lives. Our entire existence should be lived in the light of the Holy Spirit. Honest self-examination helps us see the degree in which our lives are conformed to Christ’s. A Relationship with a Confessor/Spiritual Father – Each person is in a different place in his or her journey. We may on occasion find thoughts in the Scriptures or the Fathers that touch our hearts but finding someone who knows you and knows the ways of Holy Tradition is like taking a giant step in the Christian life. The fullest dimension of spiritual guidance involves sharing our thoughts and yearnings, not just our sins, with this spiritual guide. The Eucharist and the Remission of Sins – Several times during the Divine Liturgy we are reminded that the Eucharist is given to us “for the remission of sins.” To receive this gift we must approach “discerning the Body,” as St Paul says: sensing the depth of this Mystery and our unworthiness to take part in it. And so before receiving we say the prayer “I believe, Lord, and profess” specifically asking for the pardon of our offences – the deliberate and the indeliberate, whether committed knowingly or inadvertently – so that we may receive the remission of sins and eternal life in this mystery. Observing the Church’s Fasts – The Fasts are another liturgical expression of repentance. Rearranging our lives in obedience to the Church’s weekly and seasonal fasts is a most practical way of affirming our commitment to life in Christ, a daily reminder that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). The Mystery of Confession – This is the sacramental expression of repentance. This mystery appears in Christian history when people first realized that they had reneged on their baptismal commitment in a serious way. Confession was thus considered a “second baptism,” a starting over in the Christian life. Over the centuries it became more widely used and is considered appropriate today whenever a person feels the need for it, particularly:
  • When a serious sin has been committed;
  • When a habitual sin has overwhelmed the Christian;
  • When a Christian has stopped growing spiritually and needs a reorientation of priorities.

Forgive Others to be Forgiven

Perhaps the most difficult part of seeking forgiveness is the one mandated by the Lord: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). God’s forgiveness is for all; but it is only possible to those who forgive others in turn.
 
WHAT DO FASTS, METANIES, PROSTRATIONS, and standing through long church services have to do with prayer? Isn’t prayer the conversation with God we have in our hearts? Why is Eastern Christian spirituality so physical? On the First Sunday of the Fast we proclaimed the Orthodoxy of incorporating material creation (sacred images) in our worship because the living Word of God assumed matter in becoming fully man. On this second Sunday of the Fast we affirm our use of the material in worship for a similar reason. We worship using matter because to be fully human is to be physical. The physical, we believe, will not be left behind in eternal life. The resurrection of the body is the transfiguration, not the elimination, of our physical side. Fully human worship, then, must involve the material as we as the non-material. Two commemorations observed on this Sunday help us reflect on the physical dimension of the life in Christ. The first is the remembrance of St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who championed the Greek Fathers’ teaching on the way we have communion with God. Brought up in the Byzantine court, Gregory entered the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos when he was 20 years old. A threatened Turkish invasion of the holy mountain in 1325 brought several monks including Gregory to Thessalonika where Gregory was ordained to the priesthood and, in 1347, chosen as Metropolitan of Thessalonika. The icon of his enthronement shows him surrounded by Greek Fathers of the previous millennium whose teachings he affirmed.

Gregory and the Light of God

Gregory became involved in a controversy with another Greek monk, Barlaam of Calabria, over how we can know God. The West was just getting reacquainted with the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and others of the classical era. Many adopted their view that dialectics and metaphysics were the highest form of knowledge. Some, like Barlaam, taught that the highest possible knowledge of God that anyone could have was through the intellect. Gregory countered with the teaching of the Fathers that the highest knowledge of God comes, not through reasoning and the application of classical philosophy but through an experience of God gained through application to a life of prayer. The theologian is the person who knows God through experience, not through intellectual study. Doctrinal statements are fully meaningful only for those who have encountered the living Christ. You can study the makeup of a city all you like, he observed, but you will not know what a city is until you visit one. Gregory further taught that a life of prayer can bring us to experience the uncreated light of God, as Peter, James and John did on Mount Tabor. God’s divine actions or energies, which are to God as the light is to the sun, can touch us physically as well as spiritually. This transformation of the whole person, or theosis, comes about by true participation in the very life of God. The whole of human existence becomes permeated by the Divine Presence. Barlaam countered that the grace of God we may receive is something created, distinct from Him. In this Gregory was following the Greek Fathers while Barlaam was more in the tradition of Augustine. The issue thus became part of the East/West controversy of the Middle Ages. In the West theology became increasingly influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and tied to academic study. Piety came to be divorced from theology and even from liturgy, and focused on devotional practices such as the rosary and the Stations of the Cross. In the East theology remained connected to liturgy, prayer and ascetic endeavor: the fruit of a personal experience of God involving the whole person. Gregory’s teaching was upheld by several local councils in Constantinople which were eventually accepted by the other Byzantine Churches. While Gregory himself is remembered on the day of his death, November 14, today’s commemoration focuses on the place his holistic teaching has in our understanding of the Christian life. We can directly experience the action of God in us through the Spirit who dwells in us. We can bring our whole being into contact with God through physical prayer (fasts, vigils, prostrations, etc.) as well as interior meditation. And we may, as some have done, experience the uncreated light of God in this life as well as the next.

God’s Presence in “Mere Bones”

A second observance today points to the presence of the divine energies of God experienced in the very remains of the saints. In the Melkite Church holy relics are solemnly venerated today as “the pledge of the glorious resurrection of sanctified bodies” (exapostilarion at orthros). Thus we venerate the relics of saints in anticipation of their future incorruptibility and their complete transformation after the resurrection. The Second Council of Nicea which affirmed the veneration of icons also spoke about the remains of the saints: “Our Lord Jesus Christ granted to us the relics of Saints as a salvation-bearing source which pours forth varied benefits on the infirm.” What are the “varied benefits” which come from the relics of the saints? In some cases miracles, particularly healings, have taken place at the tombs or reliquaries of the saints. As St Ephrem the Syrian observed in the fourth century, “Even after death they act as if alive, healing the sick, expelling demons, and by the power of the Lord rejecting every evil influence of the demons. This is because the miraculous grace of the Holy Spirit is always present in the holy relics.” In some cases the bodies of the saints have been preserved incorrupt (without decay). In other cases relics have emitted a pleasing fragrance or exuded ointment. Believers see these occasions as evidence that deification is something that involves the body. The physical can be touched by the energies of God and participate in holiness. In the words of the kondakion, “It is a great marvel indeed that healing should come forth from mere bones. Glory to the Creator, to God alone!” Fragmentary relics are place in the holy table when a church is consecrated. They are also found in every antimension used for the Divine Liturgy. Some icons have similar fragments in a small case embedded in them. Largely intact relics (skulls, limbs or even entire bodies) are generally preserved at the place where the saint lived. Thus the reputedly incorrupt relics of St. Gregory Palamas are kept in Thessalonika where he was bishop. Every year on this day they are brought forth in procession and placed before the bishop’s throne in the cathedral for veneration. A Feast of the Holy Relics was formerly celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church on November 5 (or the Sunday after All Saints). It is still observed in the older rite but not in the ordinary (modern) form. It has been said that “the work of the Church is to ‘produce relics,’” because the primary work of the Church is to lead us to theosis, to communion and union with God. By venerating the relics of the saints the Churches of East and West proclaim its commitment to that work and to the presence of the Holy Spirit in it enabling it to bear fruit.
 
WHAT DETERMINES whether someone is a Christian? In our society there are a number of groups which claim the name although they do not believe that Christ is the Son of God or One of the Holy Trinity. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses they may believe that He is a son of God or a God, who is Michael the Archangel incarnate, but does this mean they are Christians? Mormons believe that Christ is the son of God the Father and His wife, the heavenly Mother, but does this mean they are Christians? Many Unitarians call Jesus “the dearly beloved son of God” because they believe He was a man led by the Spirit of God more constantly and entirely than anyone else, but does that mean they are Christians? Others, like Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson espoused the moral teachings of Jesus as the greatest human philosophy while denying His divinity and miracles, but does that mean they were Christians? There is another group which believes that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God and born of the Virgin Mary, that He is the Messiah who ascended into heaven and will come again as Judge. Are they Christians? They call themselves Muslims. The historic Churches of East and West uphold the view of Jesus as described in systematic terms in the Nicene Creed which we recite at every Divine Liturgy. Its vision is in turn based on passages from the Scriptures such as the selections from the Epistle to the Hebrews read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sundays of the Great Fast. These selections focus on different aspects of the Church’s understanding of who Christ is for us. Read to us during this season they remind us of the wondrous greatness of the life we receive through Him.

Image of the Father

Within the first two chapters of this epistle seven Old Testament texts are cited as proof that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is, we are told, God’s “Son whom He has appointed heir of all things” (Heb 1:2). Christ is “the brightness of [the Father’s] glory and the express image of His person and upholding all things by the power of His word” (Heb 1:3). Christ is far superior to the angels because He is begotten of the Father (see Hebrews 1:5), the One who “in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth” (Heb 1:10) and who is seated at the Father’s right (Heb 1:13). The high view of Jesus expressed here echoes the words of St Paul to the Colossians that the incarnate Lord Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col 1:15-17). We find the same depiction of Christ in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. There He is the eternal Word who was “with God” and who “was God” (Jn 1:1) “All things were made through Him,” the Gospel continues, “and without Him nothing was made and without Him nothing was made” (v. 3). “The only-begotten Son, the One Who Is in the bosom of the Father” (v. 18) is “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14). The Scriptures are not presenting doctrine in the abstract. The authors do not seek in presenting this picture of Christ, simply to say what they believe He is. Knowing Christ must lead us to action. Christ is not just another teacher, not even just another prophet, they argue, so do something: believe in Him wholeheartedly. This is not just another preacher, not even a holy man, or a living saint – this is the Son of God. Put everything else on a back burner and listen to Him! The climax of this vision of Christ as the eternal Word of God is the conviction that this Word has come for us, to remake our nature. God is not aloof, removed from us, but present among us and doing the ultimate work of God for us. “Pay even more attention… Don’t neglect so great a salvation” (Heb 2:1, 3), we are reminded, but grab hold of it by uniting yourselves to Christ.

Approaching the Fast

During the Fast, as we know, catechumens are readied for baptism in a more intense way. “Pay even more attention,” they are told, “you are at the entrance to the baptistery where you will receive eternal life. Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” The push is also on for penitents to be reconciled before Pascha and these words apply to them too: “Here’s the chance to wipe the slate clean and start over - Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” As for the rest of us, we were told after our baptism, “You are baptized, you are illumined, you are anointed with chrism. You are sanctified, you are washed in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” You have become the temple of God – the Spirit of God dwells within you. And so the Church also applies these words to all of us the faithful: “Don’t neglect so great a salvation” by letting the Fast slip away without drawing closer to your Savior during this season. Discussing our state after baptism Nicholas Cabasilas wrote, “Once we have received our new existence through baptismal washing, it is by this Bread that we live and by the Chrism that we are moved…The Bread of Life Himself changes the one who feeds on Him, transforming and assimilating him into Himself.” (The Life in Christ 1.6; 4.8). You have the possibility to be transformed in Christ - “Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” In most parishes the Great Fast is a time when people have more frequent opportunities to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is generally served on Wednesdays and Fridays during the Fast as well as some other days. In it we are given the Eucharist in the midst of our fasting as a pointer towards the “inheritance of the heavenly kingdom” that is ours through the death and resurrection of Christ. Uniting with Christ in His Eucharistic Body and His Body, the Church, deepens our life in Christ and calls us even further in our relationship with Him. Christians ought always to pray and fast and read the Scriptures, but those who receive the Eucharist with increased frequency during the Fast should expect to do so more so in response. Don’t neglect the chance to root yourself more deeply in Christ who makes Himself so accessible for your sake. Even many who are not comfortable with prayer or fasting find that they come closer to the image of God within themselves through almsgiving. As we open ourselves to others, sharing our material gifts or our inner selves with them, we are encountering the One who identifies Himself with the least of His brethren. Don’t neglect the great salvation of serving Christ in others. Increasing these or any other aspects of our Christian life demands that we make time in our schedules to do so. Don’t neglect to cut down on your hours before the TV or other entertainment activities – not as a deprivation – but to make room for the One whose great work for our salvation gives meaning to all that we do in response.

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