Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN SEPTEMBER, 2013 the Free Syrian Army backed up by [al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat] al-Nusra forces, attacked the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula, some forty miles from Damascus. Christian properties including churches were looted and destroyed. Twelve nuns from the Orthodox Monastery of St Tekla were taken captive and held for ransom. One church which sustained heavy damage was the Greek Catholic Church of Ss Sergius and Bacchus, which may have existed since the early fourth century, before the liberation of Christians by Emperor Constantine in 313. Among the hierarchs mentioned at the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325) was Eutichios, “the bishop of St. Sergius in Maaloula.”

Who Were These Saints?

The story of Sergius and Bacchus (Sarkis and Bakkos, in the local tongue) is found in a Greek work, The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus. This work, dating from the middle of the fifth century, tells the story of two Roman army officers during the reign of Emperor Galerius (305-311) who were martyred for their Christian faith.

According to this Passion, Sergius and Bacchus, close companions, were secret Christians in an age when the Roman army was most inhospitable to Christians in its ranks. When they refused to accompany a Roman official into a pagan temple where a sacrifice to Jupiter was to be offered, their hidden faith was discovered. Ordered to partake of the sacrifice themselves, they refused to do so and were subjected to humiliation and torture. Bacchus was beaten to death and Sergius was force-marched to Resafa, near the Euphrates, where he was executed.

Sergius and Bacchus were among the earliest Christians celebrated as martyrs in the Church. A martyrium (shrine) was erected in Resafa at the site of St Sergius’ death. This shrine was enlarged in the next century and became a popular pilgrimage destination, which it remained until the thirteenth century. The ruins of Resafa, near Raqqa, are an archeological site today.

The Maaloula church mentioned above was noteworthy for having the oldest altar in the world still in use (until the rebels destroyed it in 2013). It was built in the style of the pagan altars used in the area for animal sacrifices, suggesting that a distinctive Christian style had not yet been devised.

Other churches from this period in honor of these saints which remain in use to this day are the Abu Serga Church in Old Cairo, one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt, and the Assyrian Church of Mar Sarkis near Urmia, in Iran, which has been dated by some to the third century ad.

The fifth and sixth centuries saw the spread of devotion to these saints. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I (482-565) changed the name of Resafa to Sergiopolis, in honor of St Sergius, making it an archdiocese, and he had churches built at Constantinople (a mosque since the sixteenth century) and at Acre in Palestine. It is thought that the saints’ church in Constantinople was a preliminary study for the Great Church of Aghia Sophia, built a few years later.

These saints are celebrated in all the Eastern Churches (Armenian, Assyrian, Byzantine, Coptic, etc.) as well as in the Latin Church. Their feast day on the Byzantine, Roman and Syriac calendars is October 7.

Challenging The Passion

Several historians prior to our own day challenged the historicity of the story of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus, dismissing it as fiction. Some did so simply because The Passion reports healings and other miraculous occurrences as part of the tale. Others have criticized the Scriptures in the same way, because they do not accept the possibility of miracles.

Historians have challenged the claim that the martyrs were attached to the soldiers of Emperor Galerius, who would have been campaigning in the Danube at the time specified in The Passion. They suggest that Galerius’ successor, Maximinus II (308-313), an implacable foe of Christians, was responsible for the region at that time.

Some critics found certain anachronisms in the document, pointing to a later era. The Passion, for example, tells how the emperor had Sergius and Bacchus stripped of their armor and dressed in women’s clothing as a public humiliation. Scholars have noted that the only recorded example of such a punishment took place over a century later, when the emperor Julian the Apostate punished army deserters in this way, the only emperor known to have done so. The archaeological evidence of the early churches noted above affirms that, while The Passion may have incorporated later material, the saints it describes were already being venerated in the Church by the time of its composition.

The “Hijacking” of These Saints

Father Edward Pehanich, a Carpatho-Russian Orthodox priest in Pennsylvania, writes of his experience while searching on line for an icon of the saints to put in his parish bulletin. “I was shocked to discover that some elements in our society have proclaimed [Sergius and Bacchus] Patron Saints of Same Sex Marriage and that icons of these holy martyrs have been distributed at Gay Pride events…

“The popularity of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in the gay community stems from a controversial and discredited book by Yale professor John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. In his study Boswell claims he discovered evidence that homo-sexual marriages took place in Eastern Orthodoxy, especially in the late Byzantine period (9th through 15th centuries) and that Sts. Sergius and Bacchus were united in such a marriage. He maintains that a rite known in Greek as adelphopoiesis was actually a same sex marriage that was blessed by the Church. The use of this rite of adelphopoiesis, is documented in ancient Byzantine manuscripts. The texts of the prayers are clear that the ceremony is asking God to bless the uniting of two men as spiritual brothers – pneumatikous adelphous – not carnal, sexual brothers. Orthodox theologian Father Patrick Viscuso notes that the rite is a union that is closer to that of adoption and that adelphopoiesis should be translated as ‘adopting a brother’ or ‘brother adoption’.

“While some in our society cannot imagine an intimate relationship between two men without a sexual aspect, television and movies have popularized the concept of a ‘bromance’. This type of relationship is a close, intimate relationship between two heterosexual men that is clearly non-sexual. Sts. Sergius and Bacchus are 4th century models of men who were intimate friends and also devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and were willing to die for their faith in him.”

Almighty Lord, You made man after Your image and likeness, granting him everlasting life. You made the renowned standard-bearer Peter and Andrew, with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, as well as Philip and Bartholomew to be brothers to one another – not so much by bonds of nature as through the imprint of faith and the Holy Spirit. Likewise You joined Your holy martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, Cosmas and Damian, Cyrus and John to one another by the brotherhood of charity. Grant that these Your servants love one another all the days of their lives without discord or failing. Let nothing disturb their brotherhood, by the power of Your all-holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Theotokos and of all the saints. For Yours is the kingdom…
 
FROM TIME TO TIME, Christians in a number of communities, including the ancient historic Churches, are encouraged to tithe to their congregation. Tithing – the giving of 10% of one’s income – is mandatory in some groups. Mormons, for example are required to tithe and only tithe-paying members are allowed to enter Mormon temples and to receive its “ordinances” (sacraments). Many Pentecostal groups teach that, if you are not tithing, you are robbing God.

Tithing in the Old Testament The practice of tithing arose at the start of the Israelite nation. When the Israelites occupied the Promised Land, eleven of their twelve tribes were given a portion of the conquered territory. The twelfth tribe, Levi, which was set apart as the nation’s priests, received no land. The eleven landed tribes were to give their tithes to the Levites (temple assistants, comparable to our deacons). These mandatory tithes were used to support the priests, manage the temple, and provide relief for foreigners, orphans and widows (see Numbers 18). The tithe was seen in the Torah as a recognition that all of creation was God’s: “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord. If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it. And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27: 30-32).

If a person failed to pay the tithe or held back some of it he was considered to have robbed God. As the nation became more established and prosperous, the temptation to avoid paying the full tithe was not uncommon. The prophet Malachi thundered against this practice, but also promised that those who paid the tithe would be blessed: “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts.” If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3: 8-10).

Malachi distinguishes between tithes and offerings. The tithe was the required tenth of one’s income which was God’s by right. An offering was whatever was freely given over and above the tithe. Sometimes such gifts are called “love offerings,” made from personal devotion rather than by law.

Tithing in the New Testament

Tithing was practiced regularly by Jews into New Testament times. In the Gospels, we see that the Lord Jesus criticized the Pharisees for being strict about determining tithes of everything they have received while ignoring more important matters: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23, 24). He did not condemn tithing, only the mechanical performance of it while ignoring the spirit behind it.

Similarly, in His parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), the Lord Jesus shows the Pharisee taking pride in his fasting and tithing. The Lord does not reproach the Pharisee for doing these things, but for taking pride in them.

That even the poor sometimes gave more than was required was noted – and praised –by Jesus when He visited the temple: “Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood’” (Mark 12:41-44).

Nowhere in the New Testament is tithing mandated. Generosity and openness in giving are recognized and praised while mean-spiritedness is condemned. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), two believers are reproached for pretending to give to the Church whatever they received for selling a piece of land. St Peter discerned the lie and said to Ananias, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (vv. 3, 4).

Giving in the Writings of St Paul

St Paul teaches several principles for giving in 2 Cor 9. First, in v.5 he notes that all giving should be “a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation.” He then adds: “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So, let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (vv. 6, 7). In v.7 St Paul sees the individual believer as responsible for determining the amount he can give “as he purposes in his heart”.

Instead of giving a set amount (the tithe), the believer is expected to give as his heart dictates, out of his faith that he is “in Christ.” Some, like popular Orthodox author Frederica Mathewes-Green, believe that a commitment to tithing, like fasting, can foster spiritual growth. She recommends, “Aim to give a percentage of your income. Start with whatever percentage you give now, and raise it a little each year. In time, you will reach the tithe. Then you will be giving as generously as the people of the Bible, who lived in conditions we would see as abject poverty. … there is no better indication of your priorities” (Christianity Today 59.5).

Many churches have annual pledge drives asking members to make a specific commitment of what they purpose to give in the year ahead. The introduction of set amounts for giving as “dues,” “pew rents,” or “fees” in some churches suggests that many Christians believe in paying only for services rendered.

The Ministry of Giving

St Paul indicates another principle for giving in Rom 12:4-8: “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”

Some Christians have been gifted to teach or lead the Church; others have been gifted to support the Church in a significant way. As good singers should use their voices to build up the Church, those with material abundance should use their wealth as a gift given them to support the Church over and above the average donor. The many believers who have built churches, shrines, schools or hospitals with their own resources have ministered in this way by using the gift they have received.

 
THE GOSPELS TELL US LITTLE about Christ’s chosen disciples other than their names. A few of them – Peter, John, and Philip – feature in the early chapters of Acts but there is little said about the others. Thomas is more prominent in John than in the other Gospels. The story of Thomas and the risen Christ in John 20 is one of the most compelling tales in the resurrection Gospels. In Byzantine Churches this passage is read in two sections, as it occurred. At vespers on Pascha we read the story of Thomas’ doubts when told that Christ had risen. On the following Sunday – “Thomas Sunday” – we read of his encounter with the risen Christ which evoked his act of faith in Christ as “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Non-scriptural tales and writings associated with one or another of the apostles were widely circulated in the first centuries; foremost among them were stories attributed to St. Thomas. The earliest and most widely held concerned Thomas as the Enlightener of India.

The Church beyond the Empire

While the Acts of the Apostles details the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, we know that at the same time Christ was being preached to Jews and Gentiles beyond the borders of the empire: specifically, to the East, in Osrhoene (Mesopotamia), Parthia and Persia and as far as India, especially where Jewish colonies could be found. Traders traveling by caravan or ship were common in the Middle East in the time of Christ. The Greek historian Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) writes of as many as 120 ships sailing through the Red Sea to India every year. St Thomas reportedly sailed to India in ad 52 in one of these ships in the company of a merchant. Jewish merchants had settled in towns along the Old Silk Road and in the coastal cities of India as far back as the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century bc. After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 even more Jews fled Palestine and settled in the established Jewish colonies. It was among them that St Thomas would have a lasting success. Jews had a thriving colony on the Malabar (west) coast of India. They settled in Muziris, the center of the Chera dynasty, near Cochin, where an ancient synagogue may still be seen. According to local tradition St Thomas and his companions organized a number of communities along this southwestern coast of India. There are still several churches in modern-day Kerala, home of the St. Thomas Christians, which claim to have been founded by St Thomas. After several years the apostle undertook a missionary journey to the Coromandel (eastern) Coast where he converted, among others, the wife and son of the prefect of Mylapore, near Madras. The prefect charged Thomas with bewitching them and had Thomas imprisoned. He was tortured and then executed by being pierced with spears in AD 72. The place of his execution outside Mylapore is revered as St Thomas’ Mount to this day. At first the body of St Thomas was enshrined in Mylapore, where miracles were associated with its presence. In ad 232 the bulk of the relics were brought from India to Edessa, the Syriac Christian center at the edge of the Roman Empire. A shrine was erected to house these relics which attracted the attention of the pilgrim-nun Egeria who visited it in the 380s. She described her visit in a letter she sent to her convent in Spain:
“We arrived at Edessa in the Name of Christ our God, and, on our arrival, we straightway repaired to the church and memorial of Saint Thomas. There, according to custom, prayers were made and the other things that were customary in the holy places were done; we read also some things concerning Saint Thomas himself. The church there is very great, very beautiful and of new construction, well worthy to be the house of God, and as there was much that I desired to see, it was necessary for me to make a three days’ stay there.”
St Ephrem the Syrian, who wrote several poetic hymns in the apostle’s honor, has Satan bewail the powerful presence of Thomas’ relics in Edessa:
“I stirred up Death to slay the Apostles, that by their death I might escape their blows. But harder still am I now striken: the Apostle I slew in India has overtaken me in Edessa. … I went there and he was there. I found him both here and there, to my grief.”
The shrine was destroyed by the Zengids, a Turkish tribe who conquered Edessa in 1144. The relics were taken to Patmos, Greece and Ortono, in the Abruzzo region near Rome, where they still remain.

St Thomas’ Writings?

Several early texts are connected with St Thomas: The Acts of Thomas (c. 180-230)– an early third-century Syriac work that tells the story of his missions in India. It is generally accepted as in line with the proven history of the day. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas – written about the same time, this work contains a fanciful rendering of Jesus’ early years focused on prodigies and magic tricks He performs on His teacher and other children. The Gospel of Thomas – the time of its composition unknown, this work was discovered in Greek and Coptic translations in the modern era. It presents “sayings” of Jesus that reflect a kind of Gnostic philosophy which circulated in Egypt in the early Christian era. While TV commentators speculate wonderingly about these “suppressed” sayings of the Lord, a more reliable evaluation of them comes from the fourth-century Father, St Cyril of Jerusalem: “Let none read The Gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve apostles, but one of Mani’s three wicked disciples” (Catechesis 5).
St Thomas Christians Today
St. Thomas’ missions, being outside the Roman Empire, formed part of the Church of the East. Over time they adopted the liturgy of Edessa, the Syriac Christian center. To this day St Thomas Christians consider their Churches “Syrian.” From the fourth century until the sixteenth the St Thomas Christians received Persian and Assyrian bishops from the Church of the East as their spiritual fathers. An Indian archdeacon administered the day to day affairs of the community. Portuguese colonizers in the sixteenth century ousted the bishops and the archdeacon, replacing them with a Portuguese Latin bishop, beginning a long period of extreme latinization lasting to the time of Vatican II. Since then the Syro- Malabar Catholics have slowly begun recovering aspects of their West Syrian heritage. About one third of the Thomas Christians refused to accept the Latin hierarchy and turned to the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch for bishops. Since then some Thomas Christians observe a form of their traditional East Syrian rite of Edessa (Church of the East, Syro-Malabar Catholics) while others follow the West Syrian rite of Antioch (Malankara Syrian Orthodox, Syro-Malankara Catholics and the Mar Thoma Church, a reformed Orthodox group which adopted some Anglican practices during the British rule of India). Each of these Churches has at least one diocese in the United States today.
 
ST. PAUL THE APOSTLE IS THE MOST TOWERING FIGURE of the first century Church. Much of the Acts of the Apostles is devoted to telling his story and his own writings account for more than 30% of the entire New Testament. He was directly involved in Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world. It was those communities which collected his writings and preserved his memory for generations to come. Paul wrote little about himself but what he did write gives an insight into not only his own development but the spiritual life of countless saints in the Church throughout its history. In 2 Corinthians chapters 11 and 12 we see the way Paul looked at important events of his life. He introduces this section by giving us his understanding of what he personally contributed to these events: “If I must boast,” he writes, “I will boast of the things which concern my infirmity” (11:30).

The Escape from Damascus

In Acts 9:1-18 we read of Paul’s extraordinary experience of encountering the risen Christ. The Lord reproached Paul for persecuting Him in His followers. When he finally arrived in Damascus he was baptized and began preaching the Jesus was the Son of God (v.20). This so disrupted the Jewish community, which was expecting Paul to confound the followers of Christ, that they turned on him. Presumably they so convinced the pagan governor that Paul was a threat to the peace of his city that he had guards posted at the city gate to seize him. He could escape in a basket only because he was inordinately short. Another man might have boasted about being chosen to experience Christ in such an immediate way or of being chosen to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles. Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was extraordinary, life-changing and critical in the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Yet Paul does not even mention it here – he “boasts” of his puny stature that helped him escape from the city. People in the contemporary world go to increasingly great lengths to change aspects of their appearance of which they are ashamed. Whole industries such as cosmetic surgery and fitness centers have grown up because people feel themselves inferior because of their appearance. Had Paul been too proud to admit that he was a pipsqueak he may not have made it out of Damascus!

The Thorn in the Flesh

The encounter on the Damascus road was not Paul’s last great spiritual experience. He writes, anonymously, of being caught up into Paradise, the place of God’s glory. Paul does not boast of his mystical experiences, however; he boasts of something quite opposite, a “thorn in the flesh” from which he sought to be delivered. Christians have speculated ever since as what this thorn might have been. It seems to have been a chronic physical infirmity, but of what kind we are not told. Paul asked to be delivered from it – God said “No” and then gave the reason: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (12:9). Paul doesn’t talk about the great spiritual experiences he had been granted. It is too easy to become so focused on such occurrences become ends in themselves. Instead of leading us to God, they take us away from Him. In another passage he tells what he really takes pride in: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Asceticism: Death to the World

St. Paul’s image of being crucified to the world would find repeated expression in the writings of Christian ascetics in both East and West. Those who seek to love God are continually urged to put to death anything which would deflect that love to something else. Anything to which we may be attached and in which we might take pride – our possessions, accomplishments, even our memories, our reputations and convictions – can deflect our focus from the One we seek to love. By gradually putting these things aside, the ascetic strives to sharpen his or her ability to concentrate on God. As we become less and less drawn to the things of this world we become more and more single-minded in our attachment to God. We die to the world and, in the words of the popular Greek monastic adage, “If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”

St Paul and Continual Prayer

Ascetics strive to lessen their attachment to materials things through fasting and almsgiving and to their psychological self-reliance through humble obedience. They seek to fill the void created by these interior deaths through prayer. Here again we find that the inspiration for this dynamic is St. Paul. In a few simple phrases he outlines a program for refocusing our lives on the Lord: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). When we begin to see that everything around us is nothing other that a gift from God, we being to develop an attitude of joyful gratitude. We come to value material things less for themselves than as the work of God in our lives. To the extent that we practice a form of unceasing prayer such as the Jesus Prayer we turn our mind more regularly to God. At first we concentrate on Him during the set times which we set apart for the prayer, Little by little the prayers becomes second nature to us we find ourselves focusing on Him in the midst of our other activities as well.
Leaving Attachments Behind

“Abraham set forth without wondering curiously ‘What does this land look like, that Thou wilt show me? What is awaiting me there?’ He simply set out and departed as the Lord had spoken unto him (Genesis 12:4). Do likewise. Abraham took all his possessions with him, and in that respect you ought to do as he did. Take everything you have, your whole being with you on your wandering; leave nothing behind that could bind your affection to the land where many gods are worshipped, the land you have left.

Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics 18

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