Melkite Greek Catholic Church
AS WE HAVE SEEN, the Lord prophesied the destruction of the Jewish temple and of Jerusalem itself. The Scriptures record other prophecies from the Lord Jesus’ teachings. These sayings sometimes speak of His disciples’ personal futures. Thus at the Last Supper Jesus foretold His betrayal at the hands of Judas. He also spoke of Peter’s imminent denial: “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34).

Jesus’ most solemn prophecy about what awaits His followers is found in the Beatitudes. In Luke’s version, this reads: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22, 23). In Matthew’s version this prophecy is regularly chanted in our divine services.

The First Generation of Christians

St Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, shows the progressively negative treatment which Christians received for Christ’s name. At first, Christ’s followers were taken into custody and forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus (see Acts 4:13-17). When threats did not work, the disciples were beaten (see Acts 5:17-30). St Stephen was stoned to death (see Acts 7:57-60), becoming the first recorded to have lost his life for the Gospel. He is honored in the Church as the first, or Protomartyr.

As a result, many believers fled Jerusalem. Their dispersal became an occasion for witnessing to Christ, first to those in the surrounding area (see Acts 8:4-8) and then “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (see Acts 11:19ff).

Acts 12 tells how the Apostle James was killed and Peter arrested. The Lord intervened and delivered Peter from prison, which enabled him to escape to the Roman city of Caesarea, away from the jurisdiction of the Jewish leaders.

Over the next 25 years, the Church spread throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in the cities of Asia Minor, chiefly through the activity of St Paul and his companions. Their preaching bore fruit in many places and Churches were established in places like Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonika. At the same time, they experienced opposition and persecution from local Jewish leaders (see Acts 17:5-9) or devotees of the Roman gods and goddesses (see Acts 19:23ff.) who were intent on eliminating the new movement being spread in Jesus’ name. Nevertheless, St Paul taught for two years in Ephesus “…so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts !9:10).

Since there were many religions tolerated in the Roman Empire, the Roman state did not interfere with the Christians unless public order was threatened. One of those infrequent occasions is recorded in Acts 21. On his return to Jerusalem, Paul was accused of violating the temple. “…news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.  He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. … when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded [Paul] to be taken into the barracks” (Acts 22:32-34). St Paul was ultimately sent to Rome at his own request and was put to death, presumably in ad 68, when the Empire first set its face against those who professed the Gospel of Christ.

Persecution in the Roman Empire

In the summer of ad 64, fire devastated several sections of the city of Rome. A rumor spread that the Emperor Nero had the fire started so that he could rebuild the city his way. According to the historian Tacitus, Nero tried to diffuse this rumor by accusing the Christians of starting the fire. Tacitus wrote, “To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Chrestians by the populace” (Tacitus, The Annals XV, 44).

The Christians’ “abominations” consisted in refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods or to take part in their feasts. Since religion in the ancient world was tied to nationalism, venerating the Roman gods was considered a sign of loyalty to the state which was thought to be protected by the gods. Refusing to do so marked the Christians as anti-Roman in the eyes of many.

The average Roman believed that refusing to honor the gods resulted in disaster. The Christian apologist Tertullian observed, “They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lions!’” (Tertullian, Apologeticus 5,1)

During the next 150 years persecution of Christians was sporadic and localized, often involving mob violence. In ad 250 Emperor Decius issued a decree requiring citizens to offer public sacrifice to the gods. Christians could not comply and many prominent believers were put to death in this, the first empire-wide assault on Christians.

During the Great Persecution under Diocletian (303-312) Christian worship was forbidden and local governors were empowered to destroy churches and Scriptures and to arrest clergy. The persecutions would not end until ad 311 when Galerius issued his edict of toleration. Before the fourth century was over, the empire would officially become Christian. Persecution in the Persian Empire When Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, they found acceptance and toleration in the Persian Empire and the border kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia which lay between the two empires. Christians fleeing from persecution in the Roman provinces of Syria and Palestine crossed the Euphrates and were welcomed in Persian territory. By the third century the Churches in these regions were developing their own structures. Syriac-speaking believers from Edessa and Erbil (in Iraq today) brought Christianity into the Persian Empire, forming what would become known as the Church of the East.

The Roman persecutions ended in the early fourth century but Roman-Persian conflicts continued until the 380s. During this time, Persian rulers began to think of Christians as Roman agents. They now began to kill the Christians whom they had once welcomed. More Christians were martyred in the Persian Empire during the fourth century than had suffered in the Roman Empire under Decius and Diocletian. Before this persecution ended in ad 401, upwards of 190,000 Christians had been martyred.

The Lord Said… “… beware of men, for  they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles… Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:17-22)

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. … If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. … They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 15: 18,20; 16:2)
PERHAPS THE EASIEST GOSPEL PARABLE to understand is the parable of the sower, found in each of the synoptic Gospels. The fact that the Lord Jesus Himself explains the parable certainly explains why this is so; still, it is up to us, the Church, to apply this parable to later developments in the history of faith, including those of our own day.

What is “the Word about the Kingdom”?

As the Lord explained the parable, the seed is variously described as “the word about the kingdom” (Matthew 4:18), “the word” (Mark 13:14) and “the word of God” (Luke 8:11). At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, we are told that the message which He initially preached was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He began forming His disciples by explaining what it would take to enter this kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5-7).

To speak of the kingdom of heaven was not unusual in a Jewish context; what was unexpected was that Jesus identified the coming of the kingdom with His own presence (see Luke 4:21). Because of His coming, He proclaimed, the age of God’s kingdom had drawn near.

After Christ’s death and resurrection, the Scriptures tell us, the Holy Spirit came upon the assembly of Christ’s disciples. Immediately, Peter began explaining to the bystanders what had happened. His address shows us how “the word about the kingdom” was explained in light of the paschal event: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). To repentance is now joined baptism in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit: the personal entry of believers into the mystery of Pascha and Pentecost.

The word about the kingdom was increasingly identified as “Jesus.” As Peter told the Roman centurion, Cornelius, “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).

As the Gospel spread among the Gentiles, chiefly through the ministry of St Paul, we find “the word about the kingdom” expanded to include the mystery of the incarnation. Encouraging the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility, St Paul writes: “ Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 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 bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians :2:5-7). The word about the kingdom now was expressed as “God became man.” Later Fathers, reflecting further on the Scriptures, would expand this word even further: “God became man that man might become God.”

As the early Church grew over the first few centuries, the rite of baptism came to include an explicit profession of faith. To the above mentioned teachings were added a number of Scriptural doctrines, such as Christ’s Ascension and the resurrection of the dead. Some of these local creeds were employed in the composition of a Creed for all the Churches at the first two ecumenical councils. “The word about the kingdom” had developed into the Nicene Creed.

The Ground Which Receives the Seed

After the Lord Jesus described the seed, He turned His attention to the soil in which the seed was sown. In the development of faith God’s initiative must be accepted by the “soil,” the human heart in which the gift of faith is planted. The soil cannot be forced to bear fruit; neither can the human heart be obliged to accept the Gospel message. Both must cooperate if the heart is to bear the fruit of faith. Later generations would describe this cooperation with the Greek word synergy.

Some seed, the Lord says, falls by the roadside and is trampled underfoot by passersby. It never has the chance to take root because the ground is packed hard by the foot traffic on the road, As St Cyril of Alexandria observed, “All whose minds are hard and unyielding and, so to speak, pressed together, do not receive the divine seed…. They do not accept the words that would produce in them the fear of God” (Homily 41 on Luke).

There are people who come to church, perhaps for some special occasion such as a baptism or memorial, who are not intent on listening to the message of the prayers, the readings or the sermon. They are simply sounds which have no meaning to them. The seed has been sown, but it bounces off the hardness of their hearts which are closed to any sentiment of faith.

The Lord indicates that, when seed falls among the rocks, it springs up for a while and then dies because it is shallow, having no root. Commenting on this passage, St Cyril of Alexandria noted that “There are men whose faith has not been proved. They depend simply on words and do not apply their minds to examining the mystery. Their piety is sapless and without root. When they enter the churches they feel pleasure, often in seeing the multitude assembled. … When they go out of the churches, at once they forget the sacred doctrines and go about in their customary course, not having stored up within themselves anything for their future benefit. If the affairs of Christians go on peacefully and no trial disturbs them, even then they scarcely maintain the faith and that, so to speak, in a confused and tottering state. When persecution troubles them and the enemies of the truth attack the churches of the Savior, their heart does not love the battle and their mind throws away the shield and flees” (Homily 41 on Luke).

In the parable the Lord teaches that some hearts are like fields full of brambles, thorns and weeds. Several Fathers have pointed out that these hearts have been beset by the passions (greed, gluttony, lust and the like). Even if the word of God touches them, the passions which they have entertained for some time are stronger and they choke any movement towards repentance which the believer might have entertained. Their attempts at repentance are weak and shallow. Their intentions are good but not strong enough to overpower the pull of the passions on their hearts.

Why Parables at All?

Christ makes a distinction between those whose curiosity might be roused by a parable and his committed followers who might be expected to understand His teachings. It takes a commitment of faith to make a hearer able to understand the mysteries of the kingdom. People who have already come to see Jesus as Lord and Messiah are already well disposed to incorporate His teachings in their lives. Hearers who have yet to do so are not ready to grasp the heart of His teachings.

In the age when the Church developed the catechumenate for instructing new believers, a similar process was employed. People’s attention was captured during the time of “pre-catechesis.” Once the hearer displayed a measure of faith, they were instructed in the history of God’s saving works. Not until the new believer had professed the Church’s faith and had been baptized, was the doctrine of the holy mysteries presented. We see traces of this process in our liturgical cycle surrounding Pascha. During the Great Fast our Scripture readings focus on the ethical teaching of the Wisdom books and on the basis of salvation history recorded in the Torah. Only after baptism at Pascha does the new Christian hear about the holy mysteries, the heart of Christian experience.
THE SECOND COUNCIL OF NICEAEA – the seventh ecumenical council – which we remember every October is chiefly known for formally recognizing the use of icons as a consequence of the Incarnation. If the Word of God could take on human nature He could be depicted in images. In effect, the Council taught, the Incarnation restricted the Old Testament ban on “graven images” (see Exodus 20:4).

The council, held in ad 787, decreed that, “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented."

While the veneration of icons was officially accepted by the Greek and Latin Churches at this council, it did not mark the end of iconoclasm. Beginning in 811 the Byzantine army had suffered a series of military defeats at the hands of the Bulgars. One emperor had been killed in battle and his two successors forced to abdicate because of military losses. In 814 the new emperor, Leo the Armenian reasoned that “all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors.” As a result, he decreed a revival of iconoclasm, which continued until the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in 843, which we celebrate on the First Sunday of the Great Fast.

Consequences of the Council’s Teaching

In addition to its dogmatic decree, Nicaea II issued a number of canons, some connected to its doctrine on icons; others dealing with various questions of Church discipline. The issues relating to the matter of icons include:

The use of relics (Canon 7) – Since the Roman persecutions of the first centuries It was customary to erect altars over the tombs of – or at least the relics of – the martyrs and other saints. During the era of iconoclasm altars had been consecrated without the usual relics which the iconoclasts saw as idolatrous. Nicaea II mandated that the practice be revived and that relics be inserted in any altars consecrated without them, “For as they took out of the churches the presence of the venerable images, so likewise they cast aside other customs, which we must now revive and maintain in accordance with the written and unwritten law. We decree therefore that relics shall be placed with the accustomed service in as many of the sacred temples as have been consecrated without the relics of the Martyrs.”

Iconoclastic books (Canon 9) – Copies of iconoclastic writings were to be withdrawn from circulation, “And if anyone is found hiding such books, if he be a bishop or presbyter or deacon, let him be deposed; but if he be a monk or layman, let him be anathema.”

Matters of Church Order

During the conflict over images, matters of Church order in place for centuries fell into disuse. The Council restored the earlier practice on:

The selection of bishops (canons 2, 3) - The chief qualification for office in the Church had often become the candidate’s stance on the question of icons. The council mandated the metropolitan of each province to conduct a “diligent examination” to see whether candidates for the office of bishop “be zealously inclined to read diligently, and not merely now and then, the sacred canons, the holy Gospel, and the book of the divine Apostle, and all other divine Scripture; and whether he lives according to God's commandments, and also teaches the same to his people” (Canon 2).

The Council affirmed that “he who is raised to the episcopate must be chosen by bishops, as was decreed by the holy fathers of Nicaea” (Canon 3). The iconoclastic era had seen regular interference in the choice of bishops by the emperors and their representatives. The council sought to return the choice of bishops to the bishops of the local provinces.

Local synods were to resume meeting twice each year as previously. “And if any prince be found hindering this being carried out, let him be excommunicated. But if any of the metropolitans shall take no care that this be done, he being free from constraint or fear or other reasonable excuse, let him be subjected to the canonical penalties” (Canon 6).

Reform of Morals

Since the passions (pride, greed, lust and the rest) have been a part of our makeup since the Fall, the Church must continually be on the alert to combat abuses. The following areas were addressed by II Nicaea:

Greed – Bishops were forbidden to demand payment in any kind from their clergy or people for ordination or preferment, with the strongest penalties imposed on those who did so. “Let him be dealt with according to the Apostolic Canon which says: If a bishop has obtained possession of his dignity by means of money (the same rule applies also to a presbyter or deacon) let him be deposed and also the one who ordained him, and let him also be altogether cut off from communion, even as Simon the Magician was” (Canon 5). The same rule was applied to monastics in Canon 19.

As a help in controlling these and other financial abuses, the Council mandated the appointment of an economos in each eparchy. If the local bishop did not do so, the metropolitan or patriarch was to make the appointment himself (Canon 11).

Bishops and the heads of monasteries were forbidden to sell Church properties, or give them over to their relatives or to local rulers. “The bishop or hegumen doing this shall be turned out, the bishop from his eparchy and the hegumen from his monastery” (Canon 12). Properties thus alienated by the iconoclasts were to be restored (Canon 13)

Vanity - During the struggle over icons simplicity in dress and lifestyle became a sign of those who supported icons. Their opponents mocked clergy who lived simple. The Council warned all clergy to avoid expensive or showy dress “For from early times every man in holy orders wore modest and somber clothing; truly whatever is worn, not so much because of necessity, as for the sake of outward show, savors of dandyism, as says Basil the Great’ (Canon 16).

Lust – Outright sexual impropriety was not addressed by the council. The appearance of impropriety was the subject of several canons. Women were not to live or work in bishop’s houses or men’s monasteries (Canon 18). Monks or priests were not to eat privately with women (Canon 22).

“Double monasteries,” where monks and nuns shared common public areas but had separate living quarters, were no longer permitted “for in thus living together adultery finds its occasion” (Canon 20).
THE BYZANTINE CHURCHES commemorate liturgically each of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium. Both Catholic and Orthodox Churches have held important councils since then, but none of those councils are celebrated with liturgical feasts in either the East or the West. Why are only the seven Councils which we commemorate so set apart? An answer may be found in the title of a recent book on these councils, edited by Sergey Trostyanskiy. Its title, Seven Icons of Christ, indicated the unique character of these gatherings. They articulated the heart of the Church's faith in Christ, expressed in the first two councils by the Creed. The five councils which followed nuanced this faith by insisting that to say that the incarnate Word was “fully God and fully man” meant that He was one person in two natures (Chalcedon), that, as one person, His Mother could be called Theotokos (Ephesus), that He had both a divine and a human will (3 Constantinople) and that as truly man He could legitimately be depicted in icons (2 Nicaea). While all these councils were accepted by the Greek and Latin Churches in the first millennium, the Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenians, Copts, etc.) only accepted some of them. Beginning in 1988 all these Churches signed agreed statements of faith with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Thus, while using contrasting terms and upholding different councils, all the historic Churches share a common faith in Christ as truly God and man.

Was There an Eighth Council?

In the ninth century we find the first signs that the Greeks and Latins had seemingly irreconcilable differences. Two councils were held in Constantinople to resolve the question of who was the rightful patriarch of Constantinople. At that time the patriarchs were closely tied to the imperial court and their fortunes rose or fell depending on who ruled the empire. The situation was intricate; the following timeline may help clarify it. 847 -- Ignatius, of royal stock and an anti-iconoclast, became patriarch shortly after the Triumph of Orthodoxy (restoration of icons). 857 -- With a regime change, Ignatius loses imperial support and is deposed. He is replaced as patriarch by Photios. The new patriarch quarreled with the Pope of Rome over which of them had jurisdiction in Bulgaria. 867 -- A new emperor, seeking an alliance with the West, deposed Photios and recalled Ignatius. Contrary to expectations, Ignatius would not cede Bulgaria to the pope. 869-870 -- A council met in Constantinople to decide the status of clerics ordained by Photios. The pope sent three legates who presided. The other patriarchs were represented as well. Photios was condemned for rousing “continuous turmoil and storms for all the Churches of Christ our Savior, in a multiplicity of ways” and his supporters were deposed.
This council also challenged the imperial practice of deposing patriarchs, decreeing: “We declare that no secular powers should treat with disrespect any of those who hold the office of patriarch or seek to move them from their high positions, but rather they should esteem them as worthy of all honor and reverence …. If, then, any ruler or secular authority tries to expel the aforesaid pope of the apostolic see, or any of the other patriarchs, let him be anathema.” This canon would be invoked in later centuries as the Pope of Rome struggled for independence from various rulers. 877 -- Ignatius dies and Photios is restored as patriarch with no significant opposition. 879-880 -- Another council is called, again with representatives of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Roman legate presented Photios with a pallium sent by the pope. The council fathers abrogated the council of 869-870 and sealed the union of Rome and Constantinople, disrupted by the Photian affair. This council became important later because it had implicitly rejected the addition of the Filioque to the Creed, an addition which was not yet used in Rome at that time. The fathers condemned those who would “impose on it [the Creed] their own invented phrases … and display the audacity to falsify completely the antiquity of this sacred and venerable rule with illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions.” It was not until the eleventh century that Rome would accept the Filioque. After the eleventh century, when the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople had excommunicated one another, Western canonists began to designate the Council of 869-870 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. Acts of this council are not found in any Byzantine canonical collections, however. In the fourteenth century, when the controversy between hesychast and scholastic theologians was raging, some Greeks began referring to the Council of 879-880 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. This designation is generally not followed by all Orthodox. In the words of Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev, “Since the seven ecumenical councils represent the fullness of the Church's teaching, an eighth council is not only superfluous, but also quite dangerous.”

Later Councils

Several other councils have had enough of an impact upon the Churches of East and West that they have been deemed by some to be Ecumenical Councils. In the Greek Church the Hesychast Councils of Constantinople, held between 1341 and 1351 are sometimes referred to as the Ninth Ecumenical Council. This council endorsed the theology of St Gregory Palamas, upholding the distinction between the essence and the energies of God as well as man's ability to commune with these energies. Some Orthodox have proposed that the Council of Jassy (1642), which countered some trends from Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, and the Council of Jerusalem (1672), which refuted Calvinism, should also be considered as ecumenical. The encyclical of the 2016 Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Churches simply described them as “later councils of universal authority.” There have been thirteen other councils which Roman Catholics generally consider to have been ecumenical:
  • Five Lateran Councils (1123, 1139, 1179, 1215, 1512-1517) -- chiefly concerned with Western Church discipline and reform;
  • Two Councils of Lyons (1245, 1274) -- The first was concerned with the Crusade led by King Louis IX of France. The second unsuccessfully sought a reunion with the Greek Church.
  • Council of Vienne (1311-1313) and the Council of Constance (1414-1418) -- dealing with local schisms and heretical movements.
  • Council of Basle-Ferrara-Florence (1431-1439) -- concerned with Church reforms and another unsuccessful attempt at reunion with the Greek Church.
  • Council of Trent (1545-1563) -- The Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.
  • First Vatican Council (1869-1870) -- Decreed papal infallibility.
  • Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) -- Concerned with expressing Church teaching and practice in the contemporary world.
While Catholics usually refer to all these councils as ecumenical, many prefer to call the last thirteen “General Councils of the Catholic Church,” more accurately distinguishing them from those which preceded them.
IF YOU WERE TO WALK DOWN THE STREET of an older Middle Eastern town such as the old city of Jerusalem, do not be surprised if you were to come upon a funeral procession like the one described in St Luke’s Gospel. Some people still walk from the home of the departed following the clergy and the bearers carrying the body, perhaps wrapped in a shroud, in an open coffin or on a bier. A Christian funeral procession might stop at the church before continuing on to the cemetery. The body might be placed in the ground simply wrapped in the shroud, particularly in Jewish or Muslim burials. Christ encounters such a funeral at the Galilean village of Na’in, near Nazareth. “And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ’Do not weep.’  Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, ‘Young man, I say to you: ‘arise.’ So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother” (Luke 7:11-15).

Resurrection or Resuscitation?

We commonly think of what Jesus did for this young man as “raising him from the dead.” Speaking in this way, it is easy to mistake this event as being the same as Christ’s own resurrection. This is clearly not the case. The Lord Jesus rose to the new and eternal life of victory over death. The ways in which He manifested Himself were clearly different from our normal earthly experience. He entered rooms when the doors were closed, appeared in other forms (to Mary Magdalene and the disciples on the road to Emmaus) and ascended to His Father with the promise of a future return. We know of no such happenings in the life of the young man of Na‘in. He resumed the earthly life he had before. As the Gospel says, the Lord gave the young man back to his mother. Speaking precisely we should say that he was resuscitated or revived, rather that resurrected.

Three Resuscitations

The Gospels contain three reports of resuscitations, each one being slightly different. Both Mark and Luke report the revival of Jairus’ daughter. Her father, “a ruler of the synagogue” (Luke 8:40) told Jesus that his daughter was dying. By the time they got to the man’s house they were told that the girl had died. “Now all wept and mourned for her; but [Jesus] said, ‘Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.’ And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead. But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, ‘Little girl, arise.’  Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat” (Luke 8:52-55). Unlike the girl, who had just died, the young man in Luke 7 had been dead for at least some hours. Customarily in the Middle East people would be buried on the day that they died. The third and even more amazing revival is, of course, that of Lazarus who had died four days before Jesus called him from the tomb (cf., John 11). While each of these people were returned to the same earthly life which they had before, the Fathers saw them as indications of the true resurrection to come. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, teaches: “Christ is the Destroyer of death and of corruption: He is the One ‘in whom we live and move and are.’ He it is who has restored the nature of man to that which it originally was; and has set free our death-fraught flesh from the bonds of death. … “We understand that those persons who were restored to life by the power of Christ are a pledge of the hope prepared for us of a resurrection of the dead: namely, this young man, Lazarus of Bethany, and the daughter of the chief of the synagogue. … “For it was by reason of Adam's transgression of the commandment that we, having our faces turned away from God, returned to our dust: for the sentence of God upon human nature was, ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ But at the time of the consummation of this world, the face of the earth shall be renewed: for God the Father by the Son in the Spirit will give life to all those who are laid within it.” (Sermon 36 on Luke).

The Near-Death Experience

In 1975 physician and psychologist Raymond Moody authored Life After Life, recounting a number of cases where people were pronounced clinically dead after heart attacks, accidents or other traumas. They regained consciousness after a period of time, anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours, and told of being able to see their physicians working on them or viewing their death from outside their bodies. One accident victim only came to when he felt a pathologist begin to autopsy him! Most spoke of beatific after death experiences such as a feeling of peace and happiness, meeting spiritual beings and/or dead loved ones and seeing a radiant light. Some – upwards of twenty percent in one study – spoke of frightening experiences: extreme fear, panic or anger, demonic creatures or embittered human-like voices that mock or taunt the subjects. Many of our otherwise skeptical contemporaries have concluded that near-death experiences prove the existence of an afterlife. Some believing Christians have taken these recorded experiences in our own day as confirmation of the Church’s faith. In any case, the Lord did not promise to take away death; rather, He died with us and instead of us. He has transformed death into a bridge for us to cross over to paradise in order to await the great Day of the Lord. This is why St Augustine says, “It is more of a miracle that someone rises to live forever than that he rises to die again.’
NDE’s in the Tradition
Today’s near-death experiences in some ways reinforce the experience of the saints. St Bede the Venerable (673-735) reported in his Ecclesiastical History: “There was a certain householder in that district of the Northumbrians which is called Incuneningum, who led a godly life, with all his house. This man fell sick, and his sickness daily increasing, he was brought to extremity, and died in the beginning of the night; but at dawn he came to life again, and suddenly sat up, whereat all those that sat about the body weeping fled away in great terror; only his wife, who loved him better, though trembling and greatly afraid, remained with him. And he comforting her, said, ‘Fear not, for I am now in very deed risen from the death which held me, and permitted again to live among men; nevertheless, hereafter I must not live as I was wont, but after a very different manner.’” Likewise St Athanasius of the Kiev Caves (+1176) reported retuning to this life after two days in the next world. He refused to discuss what he saw there, saying only, “Even if I were to tell you, you would not believe me or listen to me.” When he was pressed to explain, he would only say “Repent and pray!”
FOR MANY PEOPLE icons are synonymous with a Byzantine church, Catholic or Orthodox. It took centuries for church iconography to develop to the pattern we know today and the Seventh Ecumenical Council, commemorated today, played an important part in that development. In 1932 archeologists discovered a third-century synagogue in Dura (Fort) Europos, Syria, a military stronghold during the Greek and Roman occupation of the region. The city fell during a Persian invasion at the end of that century and was never rebuilt. The synagogue included reasonably well-preserved frescos of Biblical scenes and personages in three tiers above a frieze with symbols at floor level. A smaller Christian house-church with similar frescos was also unearthed. Church iconography in the first centuries AD generally followed the Dura-Europus pattern. The upper walls, ceilings and domes were frescoed with images of Biblical – particularly Gospel - scenes, and icons of the saints. At floor level, below the frescoes, there would be a painted frieze or marble panels. Panel icons put forth for veneration were introduced much later. Panel icons seem to have first been meant for private use. The oldest existing panel icons, at the Greek monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, date from the sixth century. The custom of venerating icons so developed that images were banned by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (the Isaurian) sometime between 726 and 730. Icons were removed from churches and public places in the capitol. The cross was the only image permitted. The emperor’s iconoclastic efforts came to the attention of Pope Gregory III who convoked a local synod in Rome in 731 to affirm the veneration of icons. It decreed the “If anyone, for the future, shall take away, destroy, or dishonor the images of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of His Mother, the immaculate and glorious Virgin Mary, or of the Saints, he shall be excluded from the body and blood of Our Lord and the unity of the Church.” Leo’s son, Constantine V, sought formal Church endorsement for the ban on icons. He convoked a council at Hieria near Constantinople in 754. Over three hundred bishops attended, though none of the apostolic patriarchs or their representatives were present. The council supported the iconoclastic positions of Leo and Constantine and was proclaimed as the seventh ecumenical council. Iconoclasm was not popular among the people of Constantinople or the monks who worked against the imperial decrees. The Council of Hieria was also condemned by a local council in Rome, the AD 767 Lateran Council, which reaffirmed the teaching of the earlier Synod of Rome. The West would not support the iconoclastic emperors and in effect severed communion with Constantinople.

The Second Council of Nicea

Iconoclasm continued through Constantine’s reign. His son, Leo IV, tried half-heartedly to reconcile the parties but died after only five years as emperor. His son, Constantine VI became emperor at the age of nine, ruling with his mother, Irene, as regent. Irene began the movement to restore icon veneration in earnest. When Patriarch Tarasios was appointed in 784, he accepted on the condition that communion with the other Churches must be reestablished. This required calling an ecumenical council. The council met in 787. Over 300 bishops attended, including two legates from Rome. Several bishop renounced iconoclasm. The Roman legates read letters of Pope Hadrian I asking for agreement with veneration of images, to which question the bishops of the council answered: “We follow, we receive, we admit”. The council discussed the theology of icons and condemned the doctrine of the Council of Hieria. The Second Nicene Council issued its own teaching on icons, saying: “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented.” Still, iconoclasm was not yet eradicated. Twenty-seven years later, Emperor Leo V began a second period of iconoclasm which lasted from 814 to 842. Another Synod ratified iconoclasm which remained the official teaching under the next two emperors, Michael II and Theophilos. When Theophilos died in 842 he left his two-year old son, Michael III, as emperor under the regency of his mother, Theodora. Theodora repeated the pattern set by her predecessor Irene. She permitted the restoration of icons in the churches and appointed the like-minded Methodios I as patriarch. A week after his appointment Methodios carried icons in a triumphal procession from the church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia, restoring their veneration to the church. This event is remembered on the first Sunday of the Great Fast, the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

Not Talismans but Pointers

What caused iconoclasm to begin with? The seventh century had seen the increased popularity of panel icons. Some people began to see there icons, not as indicators of the presence of God in the world but as charms. Icons became more important in some people’s eyes than the holy mysteries themselves. Writing in the seventh century, Saint Anastasius of Sinai documented some of these abuses: “Many think that he sufficiently reveres his baptism who, entering the church, kisses all the icons without paying any attention to the Liturgy and the divine service.” Other curious practices became common: the customs of taking icons as godparents for one’s children, of adding paint scraped from icons to the Eucharistic chalice, of laying the sacrament upon an icon so as to receive it from a saint’s hand, etc. Legitimate reactions against such abuses crossed the line into iconoclasm, the complete rejection of icons. If our icons are ends in themselves – whether collecting them or venerating them – they have become talismans or charms for us. Rather they are meant, as 2 Nicea taught, to point us to the ones they represent that we may have living relationships with them in prayer. It is surely right to venerate their icons. Our veneration of these icons reaches its true goal in the living relationship we have with the ones whose images are depicted on them.

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