Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WHEN WE THINK about Christian ministry, it is the liturgical ministry of priests or deacons, readers or chanters that most readily comes to mind. But in the Church’s tradition, ministry has a much broader meaning. The ministry of Christians includes many forms of service, all in imitation of “the Son of Man [who] did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).

In one sense, every baptized Christian is called to ministry because we all share in the priesthood of Christ through the mystery of chrismation. “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

The purpose of our ministry as sharers in Christ’s priesthood is to “proclaim the praises of Him” who brought us to eternal life through baptism: to glorify God in word and deed. The means by which we exercise this ministry is by offering up “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” In fact, everything can be done in a godly manner, offered as a spiritual sacrifice to proclaim the glory of God.

The Apostolate of the Laity

In the past century, it has become customary to call the ministry of those believers who are not clergy “the apostolate of the laity.” It was particularly extolled at the Second Vatican Council in its Decree On the Apostolic Activity of God’s People, affirming that “The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it” (AA 1).

The goal of Christian ministry, according to the Fathers of this Council, is that “the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ” (AA 2). Everything in the Church is oriented to this goal in one way or another and everyone in the Church is called to work for this goal. As the Council Fathers went on to say, “No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church.”

It is for this reason that the Council Fathers make this, perhaps their most daring assertion: “The member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself”. A baptized Christian who does not contribute to building up the Body of Christ is, the Fathers insist, a useless Christian!

Scriptural Patrons of the Lay Apostolate

The Biblical figures commemorated on this Sunday point to a principal way of exercising: using one’s resources to build up the Kingdom of God. Two of them made sizeable contributions in accordance with their stations in life. Joseph of Arimathea, described in the Gospel as “a rich man” (Matthew 27:57) and “a prominent member of the Sanhedrin” (Mark 15:43) used his influence with Pilate to obtain the crucified body of the Lord Jesus and donated his own tomb that the Lord might be buried, as Chrysostom said, “not as a criminal, but magnificently, after the Jewish fashion, as some great and admirable one” (Hom. on Matthew).

Along with “the noble Joseph,” as our troparion calls him, Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” brought a one-hundred-pound mixture of myrrh and aloes – worth thousands, by some estimations. Both these men made significant donations to cover the cost of Jesus’ burial.

In the history of the Eastern Churches there have been many people who gave significant donations to the Church, building churches, schools, hospitals or clinics for the poor. The countryside in places like Greece or Lebanon is dotted with small chapels build by donors to honor their patron saints or in thanksgiving for favors received.

In our society, the equivalent is often an endowment given to the Church. The investments generated by such endowments contribute over the years to the cause specified by the donor. An endowment by the late Father Allen Maloof has helped make possible the publication of Sophia, the journal of the Eparchy of Newton, for over forty years.

Others remembered today contributed lesser amounts, but over an ongoing period of time. The myrrh-bearing women are those who provided for Jesus’ needs out of their own resources: Mary Magdalene, Joanna and other women whose ordinary contributions helped sustain Him during His ministry. While Joanna’s husband was the steward of King Herod’s household, there is no evidence that any of these women were wealthy. They were the equivalent of today’s middle-class parishioners, many of whom continually underwrite the expenses of a church or ministry to the needy.

Applications in the Parish

There are ways based on a person’s professional skills which can help build up the Church and thereby glorify God. But there are also countless believers whose everyday skills in the kitchen or in the workshop have helped build and maintain churches and other properties in Eastern Christian parishes throughout the country.

Our life-skills, even more than our talents, can help build up the Church. The witness-value of a committedly Christian family, for example, is enormous in our society where family values are neglected, if not disparaged. Couples can assist their pastors in preparing others for marriage or parenting by witnessing to the importance of the Gospel in their own family life.

In many parishes the Youth Group is a social club. People believe that they will keep their youth in church by making it fun. A much more effective approach is taken by those who help younger teens prepare for roles of service in the community. Teaching teens to serve enables them to see that working to build up the Church and spread the Gospel in society are not “electives,” but are essential to living our baptismal union with Christ. Present

Applications in the Public Square

Assisting in the activities of the parish or other organized group is certainly one way of building up the Kingdom of God, but it is not the only one. Nor is it the primary one. As the Vatican Council Fathers noted, “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” (AA, 7). The Christian in the business or professional world must be a Christian all week long, not just on Sundays. Christian businesspeople are sometimes criticized for excusing their unchristian behavior in the workplace, saying “it’s just business.” The Christian in business can be an agent for renewal, transforming their business into a place of ministry.

Christian business people perhaps minister best by witnessing that increasing profits is not all that matters to them. The Christian owners of the Chick-Fil-A chain will not open any of their franchises on Sunday because it is “a day to rest and relax with family and friends.” Similarly, a number of retailers, and even entire malls, have opted to close on Thanksgiving Day to allow their employees to enjoy the day with their families. Since so many families travel great distances on that holiday to be together, workers greatly appreciate their employers’ concern. Some other businesses have made Thanksgiving the “first day” of Black Friday, demanding that their employees work on that day without holiday pay, overtime or even the possibility of breaks. Some of these same companies have also eliminated holiday bonuses.
 
CHRISTIANS HAVE BEEN STUDYING the Gospels since before they were written. Think about it. During the first decades after Christ’s resurrection the apostles reflected on their time with Christ and how to proclaim Him to all nations. Their belief in Him affected the way they told His story. When the evangelists collected their reminiscences and put them in writing they arranged them in ways that proclaimed their faith in Him. The Fathers of the early Church also studied the Scriptures, some writing extensive commentaries. All these authors wrote as believers, seeking to illumine their faith with knowledge. In seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe a different approach developed. Scholars, many of them influenced by rationalist philosophy, rejected one or another aspect of the Gospel, particularly those who conflicted with this philosophy. There was no room for miracles or even the resurrection in the thought of many of these authors. It was not until the late twentieth century that this trend in biblical scholarship came to be replaced by more Scripture-friendly approaches.

Was There a Pool of Bethesda?

One of the approaches in the era of rationalist biblical scholarship was to deny the factual nature of anything in Scripture not corroborated by other contemporary evidence. If a person, place or event did not figure in other writings, it was deemed non-historical. The Gospel passage of Christ healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15) was cast into doubt because there was no evidence that this pool “having five porches” (John 5:1) ever existed. Some scholars concluded that the passage, if not the whole of John’s Gospel, was written by someone who had no knowledge of Jerusalem. All this changed in the nineteenth century when German archeologist Conrad Schick discovered the remains of just such a pool. In the 1960s further excavations unearthed an adjacent Roman temple beneath the ruins of a Crusader era church and an even older Byzantine sanctuary. Scholars now believe that the pool and the adjoining temple were established by the Roman garrison in honor of Asclepius, their god of medicine and health. During the Roman occupation of Jerusalem a number of Roman structures were built in and around the city, including an arena, baths and a theater. A pagan shrine, like these other signs of the Roman presence, would have been outside the city walls of Jerusalem and thus less offensive to the Jewish population. Today it is within the walls, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Asclepius was one of the more popular gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Over 400 such shrines were reportedly functioning throughout the empire. Everyone, after all, wants good health and well-being, which were Asclepius’ “specialty.”

Was the Paralytic a Jew?

If the pool at Bethesda was a Roman shrine to a pagan god, was the paralytic a pagan rather than a Jew? The Gospel passage does not suggest it. By noting that “a great number of sick people” were there, the Gospel suggests that they were Jews. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud mentions that people were actually cured after visiting “the shrine of an idol.” The sick probably wouldn’t care who healed them if there was a chance that they could be cured. Since the paralytic, once cured, was reproached by Jews for carrying his bed on a Sabbath it is safe to assume that the man was himself a Jew. The passage ends with the following: “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.’ The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.” (John 5:14). If the man was not a Jew; this exchange would not have taken place. Some commentators have suggested that, if the pool was attached to a pagan shrine, Jesus would not have gone there. Others have countered that He who ate with publicans and sinners would not hesitate to go among His people wherever they were.

What About the Angel?

There remains controversy regarding the following description of the pool: “In these [the porches] lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had” (John 5:3,4). The reason for the controversy is this; a number of the oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel simply do not have the end of verse 3 (“waiting for the moving of the water”) or verse 4. The earliest surviving manuscripts containing this verse are “Western” (from North Africa and Italy). The first Greek mention of John 5:4 is in a homily of St John Chrysostom. By the ninth century, however, almost all the Greek texts of the Gospel contain it. This has led most biblical scholars to consider these verses a “gloss” or commentary in the margin added by a scribe which eventually was copied directly into the text.  On the other hand, without these verses Verse 7 begs for an explanation. It says, “The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’” Who stirs up the water? – the only explanation put forth is the one in the contested verse (the angel). Perhaps this event was so well-known that the evangelist neglected to explain it and the explanation was added later. At this time we do not know with any certainty. There is one other indication that verses 3 and 4 are a gloss. We read there that it was an angel (some versions even say “an angel of the Lord”) who stirred the water. Early Christians, however, saw any power in pagan religions as satanic. This “angel,” then, would have been a fallen angel. Thus the St Justin the Philosopher, writing in the early second century, noted that “the Devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 69). One hundred years later, Tertullian contrasted the angelic presence in the waters of baptism with the “unholy angel of the evil one [who] often does business with that same element [i.e. water], with a view to man’s perdition” (De Baptismo, 5).

Meaning of the Passage

Taking the above points into consideration we can see a deep meaning in this passage. The evangelist is contrasting the capricious, lottery-like application of the demon’s healing power at Asclepius’ pool with the loving, personal encounter which the paralytic had with Christ, the true Physician of souls and bodies. The regenerative power of Christ is open to all who seek union with Him. The Lord’s question to the paralytic at the pool, “Do you want to be made well?” is echoed by the priest’s question to the catechumen at the font, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” In each case, the desire is sufficient to evoke Christ’s healing power.
My soul has suffered cruelly for many years, O God of all goodness: do for me what You once did for the paralytic, that I may be able to walk in the ways where You invite those who love Your name.
From the Canon, Ode 3
 
“All the widows stood around him, crying…” (Acts 9:39). The description of the recently deceased Dorcas or Tabitha does not mention that she was a widow. It does note, however, that those who mourned her were not her relatives but widows. It is likely, then, that Dorcas herself was a widow. As we know from the institution of deacons, care for widows was one of the first functions that the earliest Christians undertook. It was not long before these women were organized into formal groups with specific responsibilities in the Church. St Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, written 20 to 25 years later, includes a chapter devoted to overseeing the formal group of widows in the Church at Ephesus. The epistle indicates that this group should include: ∙ Widows Who Had No One to Care for Them“Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grand-parents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (verses 3-8). That families care for their elderly members is a hallmark of most traditional societies. There are always exceptions, however, due to inability, greed or other circumstances such as upheavals in societies. In 2012 China enacted a law requiring adult children to visit their parents regularly, As Chinese traditional society changes into a modern urban nation, the elderly are often left to their own devices. The new law threatens court action against those who abandon or neglect their parents. “If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need” (verse 16). ∙ Widows 60 Years of Age and Older“No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, … As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan” (verses 9, 11-15). By the time this epistle was written widows in Ephesus has a recognized status in the Church. Like the bishops and deacons, enrolled widows had to show a certain stability of life before they could be enrolled. They had to be content with their station in life, to be psychologically free to pledge themselves to the service of God and the Church. This is the same principle behind the later regulation that married men could be ordained deacons, but once ordained could not marry. ∙ Widows Known for Doing Good –  “… and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds” (verse 10). Dorcas is described in the Scripture as “always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). We do not know what else she did but we do know that she made “robes and other clothing” (Acts 9:36) because the mourners displayed them to Peter. Handiwork was a preferred occupation for women in the Church for centuries, lay and monastic. In nineteenth-century Britain a “Dorcas Society” was founded to provide clothing and other necessities to the poor. Chapters that continued to exist since then diversified to include other forms of community service.

Widows in Later Centuries

Widows’ institutes continued to be a feature of Church life in the second and third centuries. We find references to them in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, in The Shepherd of Hermas and in the works of Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The late second-century Didascalia or Instructions of the Apostles describes the principles governing enrolled widows in Antioch. Bishops are enjoined to only enroll widows over 50 who are mild and even-tempered. They were to be at the service of the bishop and have one particular occupation. Didascalia 15 lays down this precept: “A widow should have no other care save to be praying for those who give, and for the whole Church.” In 1899 the Syriac Catholic Patriarch, Mar Ignatius Ephrem II Rahmani published a fifth-century Syrian work called The Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Syrian Church at the time widows seem to have served as eldresses. They are charged with instructing other women, supervising the deaconesses, and visiting sick women, “but in the church let her be silent” (Testament 40). A prayer for instituting widows is given in which the bishop prays that the widow be instituted “for edification and good example.” In this prayer the widows are called “those who sit in front” in recognition of their special status within the Church. In The Testament’s order for the Oblation (Liturgy), however, the widows are positioned “within the veil” on the left side of the sanctuary, behind the presbyters. The widows are directed to receive the Eucharist after the deacons, but before the readers and subdeacons. This is the last reference to an order of widows that survives from the early Church. It is assumed that this order, like those of virgins and deaconesses, was absorbed in the newer institution of monasticism. Women monastics would exercise many of the same functions as these earlier women both in their monasteries and in the churches of the people.

Widows Today

Up to our own day widows and other older women continued to contribute their handiwork and other forms of service to the Church. Many of our churches dating from the nineteenth century were supported by the older women in the community who baked or cooked various foods every week to raise money for their church. More recently the Church has focused on providing senior citizens (men as well as women) with opportunities to socialize (bingos, trips etc.). Would not some of these seniors find new life devoting themselves to prayer and/or service? The Church might best serve them by reminding them of the words of St. Paul: “The widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”
 
ON THE FIRST FEW SUNDAYS of the paschal season we recall the events surrounding the Lord’s resurrection: the empty tomb, the appearance to the disciples, and the confession of Thomas. The next Sundays speak of the effects of the resurrection in the Church through the risen Christ. Each Sunday we find ourselves near water – today it is the pool by the Sheep Gate – because we first experience these effects at baptism. The first effect, mentioned today, is healing. The man in John 5:1-15 is described as paralyzed, unable to move, in other words powerless. The woman presumed dead and resuscitated by Peter in Acts 9:36-40 was even more powerless. But as Christ had foretold about the emerging Church, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). In the Church’s imagery both these people represent all of us who have been rendered helpless through the fall. Separation from direct communion with God renders mankind powerless to reach its intended goal: the true fulfillment of human nature, created after the image and likeness of God. Our human nature remained broken, unable to heal and restore itself until the coming of Christ. As Christ’s coming to Siloam transformed the life of the paralytic and the coming of the Church in the person of Peter to Joppa, so too the kingdom of God in our midst transforms our human frailty. We become capable once more of growing into communion with God. We find many images in the Scriptures, the Fathers and in the works of Christian writers meant to illustrate what Christ has done for us by His coming. We hear of “salvation,” “redemption,” and “deliverance” or – more recently – “liberation.” One of images more likely to be found in the Eastern Fathers is “healing.” Christ treats our bruised and wounded nature with therapy rather than with judgment or punishment. As St. John Chrysostom taught, Christ tends our wounds like the Samaritan, with wine and oil – His precious blood and the gift of the Holy Spirit – and entrusts us to a spiritual hospital, the Church, for our ongoing therapy. In the Gospel story of the paralytic Christ prescribes such an extended treatment for His “patient”. “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest something worse come upon you” (John 5:14). Our nature can suffer a relapse without some form of ongoing rehabilitation. And, as often happens in physical conditions, a spiritual setback can make us worse than our original conditions. Spiritual healing, then, is not an instant cure but a lifelong remedy.

The Church’s Course of Therapy

The early Church set as the goal of this therapy the continual remembrance of the presence of God. Only to the degree that we live consciously in His presence will we become strangers to that spiritual infirmity which is sin. To achieve this awareness that God is ever with us, the Eastern Churches have generally prescribed three ongoing “medications” to be taken together:
  • The Purification of the Heart
  • Unceasing Prayer
  • Sharing in the Holy Mysteries
The heart – that innermost core of our being – is meant to be “wholeheartedly” turned to God. We are called to “serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12); yet we know that it is often far from God and His ways. We desire to be “independent,” of God and of others who stand in the way of our “fulfillment.” In order to attain that fulfillment we may find ourselves seeking to control, to manipulate, to possess whatever we can, not realizing that we have fallen into the same trap that Eve did. Any “success” we may have in contriving to dominate others or the world only results in shame at our nakedness. The true course of our life is meant to reflect our creation after the image and likeness of God. We are created to reflect the heart of God in our own hearts, so often far from Him. As Christians we see this true humanity perfectly fulfilled only in Christ “…who being in the form of God did not consider it robbery to be equal with God but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7-9). At the same time we aspire to imitate Him by pruning our hearts of our selfish cravings to mirror His heart of love for the world. We begin the therapy of the heart by examining the cravings that distract our heart from serving God. According to a number of the Fathers, denying even our most innocent needs or wants can help train our hearts to control rather than follow the lead of its cravings. “If you have the urge to ask something, don’t ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don’t look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home!” (Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics, chapter 5). To the degree that we are no longer captive to our passions will we be free to put God and others first in our lives. In that our hearts will be renewed after the pattern of Christ. As St Diadochos of Photiki wrote in his Hundred Texts on Spiritual Knowledge, “Only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like Him who through love has reconciled us to Himself” (#4). Just as some medications must only be taken with others, purification of the heart must be accompanied by a commitment to a fuller prayer life. As eliminating or controlling our passions empties the heart of its distorted cravings, working towards the constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.) fills the heart with the awareness that we are constantly in the presence of God. Our path to spiritual healing is marked by milestones, the Church’s mysteries. Each time we approach the chalice or humble ourselves in the mystery of repentance we are reaffirming our baptismal commitment to die with Christ in order to live with Him. In turn we are receiving the help for our journey that only the indwelling presence of the Lord can bring. Few of us would undergo any physical therapy under our own direction. In the same way spiritual therapy should be followed with the help of an experienced therapist. The elder or spiritual guide – one who knows the proper course of therapy and the needs of the individual patient – is necessary for truly effective treatment. When the Lord asked the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6) he responded that he had no one to help him. Our willingness to seek out a spiritual guide to help us is an important indication that we too want to be restored to spiritual health through the therapy of the Church.
By the pool of Probatica lay a paralytic. Seeing You, O Lord, he cried out: “I have no one to plunge me into the pool once the water has been stirred up! By the time I get there, someone else has gone in ahead of me and received healing. Thus I remain paralyzed!” The Savior was touched with compassion and said to him: “I have become a man for your sake. I have assumed flesh for your sake. How can you say that you have no one? Pick up your mat, I say, and walk!” All things are subject to You, Lord; all things obey You; You do whatever You wish. Be mindful of us all, O holy God, and in Your love for mankind, take pity on us! Vespers, Sunday of the Paralytic

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