Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE SCRIPTURES READ on the remaining Sundays in the Paschal season present us with some of life’s most debilitating hardships: blindness, isolation and, today, paralysis. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles read today, we hear about the healing of a man named Aeneas in Lydda (Lod), some 23 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Aeneas, we are told, “had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed” (Acts 9:33).

In the Gospel reading which follows, we hear about another man “who had an infirmity thirty-eight years” (John 5:5) and who was healed by the Lord Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha) outside Jerusalem, where the infirm gathered, hoping for healing. This pool was used to clean the animals destined for sacrifice before they would be brought into the temple.

It is not clear why the sick gathered there. There was no explicit mention of miracles at this pool in Jewish sources of the day, such as Josephus or Philo. The pool itself, buried in the destruction of Jerusalem, was concealed until archeologists discovered it in the nineteenth century. This had led some to think that the passage was not historical at all. Rather, they suggested, it was meant to teach that the “angel in the water” foreshadowed the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in baptism, which heals us of sin (see Tertullian, On Baptism, chapter 5).

Others have noted that there were healing springs and pools in the ancient pagan world as well. Cures at those pools followed specific patterns like the one John records here: the first one entering the pool after the water was “stirred” would be healed. John affirms that Christ’s word alone, without any ritual or procedure, was enough to heal. Like the paralytic, who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them and turn to Christ instead.

What Does It Mean to be Paralyzed?

In the Early Church, commentators did not often speculate on the pool, or even on the nature of the man’s illness. It was more common to compare the physical infirmity of the paralyzed man to the spiritual paralysis which afflicts Christians, either occasionally or in a regular way. It was often noted how, in the lives of each one of us, there will be spiritual paralysis: moments of weakness or failure, which can last for many years, as with the paralytic at the sheep pool.

In “spiritual paralysis,” the energies of our soul, of our mind, of our heart, of our will, of our body itself are fettered – fettered by the fact that we have no courage and no power within us to move and to act to the full of our longings. We stand, year after year, on the very edge: on the bank of the pool that could give us life, without being able to enter it.

Christian Life as Synergy

In one of the last New Testament books to reach its final form, the Second Epistle of St Peter, we see the Christian spiritual life addressed. Spiritual life, we read, comes “...through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by whom have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that though these you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:, 3,4). The way to theosis – being partakers of the divine nature – comes because of Christ. God becomes incarnate so that we might become divinized.

We, however, need to embrace this gift, lest it wither away and we become blind or paralyzed. We do this, the epistle continues, by practicing virtue, self-control, godliness, perseverance, brotherly kindness and love. “For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins" (2 Peter 1:8, 9). Fruitful Christian life, then, requires that we do our part to make our own the gift of divine life we have received.

We can become shortsighted or even blind to the gift of our baptism, remaining barren and unfruitful – in other words, paralyzed – without being committed to growing in virtue, knowledge, self-control and the rest. We may see this happen in the life of some Christians who do not consider their baptism seriously: who rarely look to the Gospel, receive the Eucharist, or even attend the Liturgy. They are blind to the gift of Christ and, therefore, paralyzed in the spiritual life. We see it in ourselves, when we cannot focus on the words we read or even the prayers we are saying, distracted by the concerns of daily life.

Paralysis and the Passions

As more philosophically minded Greeks accepted Christ, they identified the signs of spiritual paralysis in terms of the classical passions; gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, pride and vainglory. Someone who is focused on personal comforts (through food and drink, sex or material possessions) will find it difficult, if not impossible, to center on the spiritual life. If they attend church at all, they find their mind wandering back to the object of their passion.

A story is told about St Basil, the revered Fool for Christ, who confronted Tsar Ivan the Terrible one day, because he was not at the Liturgy. Ivan protested that he was indeed in church for the service. Basil replied that the emperor’s body was in church, but his mind was on the Vorobiev hills (where he was having a palace built). When Basil died in 1557, the Tsar acted as one of his pallbearers.

It would be even harder for people ruled by their pride or vanity to look beyond themselves to God or others. Their piety dries up “like baked clay” (Psalms 21:16), withered like a plant with too much sun and no water. This is why combating the passions has been seen as fundamental to a committed Christian life, since the dawn of monasticism in the third century.

In his Homily 37 on the Gospel of John, St John Chrysostom discusses the spiritual medicines necessary to combat the passions and other distractions from the Christian life. “The divine Oracles [the Scriptures] are a treasury of all manner of medicines, so that whether it be needful to quench pride, to lull desire to sleep, to tread underfoot the love of money, to despise pain, to inspire confidence, to gain patience, from them one may find abundant resource.” The Scriptures held the medicine; the illnesses were the passions.

The Church as Healer

While the Scriptures portray the incarnate Christ as Healer of the man at Bethesda, it depicts the Body of Christ, the Church, as the source of Aeneas’ recovery. The Church is meant to be a therapeutic community in which Christ continues His healing work in our midst.

“Yesterday you were flung on a bed, exhausted and paralyzed, and you had no one to put you into the pool when the water should be troubled. Today you have Him, who is in one person God and Man. You were raised up from your bed, and even carried your bed, publicly acknowledging the benefit. Do not again be thrown on your bed by sinning, in the evil of a body paralyzed by its pleasures. As you now are, so walk, mindful of the command, ‘See you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (John 5:14). If you prove yourself bad after the blessing you have received. You have heard the loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (St Gregory the Theologian, Oration on Holy Baptism, XI, 33)
 
THE CHURCH HAS USED MANY TERMS to describe the saints. Some of these are common to all the historic Churches, such as apostles or martyrs. The Eastern Churches also speak of some saints as “Equal to the Apostles,” believers who were responsible for bringing the Gospel to significant groups of people or nations throughout the world. The first of them were St Mary Magdalene, who announced the Resurrection to the dispirited followers of Jesus, and St Takla, the first woman martyr.

The Church has called Equal to the Apostles those who have been responsible for bringing the Gospel to previously pagan territories, such as Ss Cyril and Methodius and St Clement of Ochrid, who evangelized the Slavs of Moravia and Macedonia during the ninth century. An unlikely evangelist given this title is St Nino, the enlightener of Georgia. The Roman historian Tyrranius Rufinus (c345-410) recounts her story as told him by a Georgian prince. Nino, taken captive during the early fourth century, came to the attention of the queen when a sick child was healed by her prayers. She eventually brought the queen and then the king to Christ. Mass conversions followed.

Among the Equals to the Apostles honored in the Eastern Churches are those rulers who first established or championed the Church in their realms. Chief among them are Ss Constantine and Helena whose feast is observed on May 21. As the first Roman rulers to profess the Christian faith, they had the greatest impact on both the Church and the empire.

Early Years

Constantine was born in c. 272 to a Roman military officer, Flavius Valerius Constantius and Helena, whom some ancient sources call his wife and some do not. St Ambrose of Milan says that she was a stable-maid. Sometime before 289, as Constantius’ career prospered, he married the daughter of Emperor Maximian. Helena and her son were sent off to the Eastern court of the emperor in Nicomedea, Asia Minor (Izmit, Turkey today). Helena never remarried and lived quietly with her son.

Constantine and the Church

Scholars now feel certain that Constantine had embraced Christianity some time before his famous victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. He remained a catechumen throughout his life. As his death approached, he put aside his imperial regalia and was baptized, never taking them up again. Constantine reversed the fortunes of the Church in the Roman Empire in every aspect of its existence, beginning with:
- The Legalization of Christianity The last great persecution of Christianity, begun by Emperor Diocletian in 303, was not enforced in the West by Constantius or Constantine. The persecution was formally ended in 311 by Galerius who declared Christianity a religio licita (a form of worship acceptable) in the empire. The growing number of Christians made their support a bargaining chip for the warring rivals for power. Their support turned to Constantine during his struggle against Maxentius when he marked his standards with the ☧ (Chi-Rho), the first letters of the name of Christ in Greek. One of Constantine’s advisors, Lactantius, wrote that he did this in response to advice received in a dream “to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers.” The contemporary historian Eusebius wrote that this dream was preceded by a vision: Constantine “… saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces” (with this sign, you shall be victorious.) In 313, after defeating Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in which property confiscated from Christians during the persecution was ordered restored “without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.” While these edicts expressed only a toleration of Christianity, Constantine actively promoted it.
- Faith & Order in the Church To promote unity in the empire Constantine fostered unity among Christians. In 325 he called the first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) to give it a universally recognized faith and structure.
- A New Christian Capital Constantine sought to distance his empire from its pagan origins. In 330 he built Constantinople as a New Rome, free of pagan temples and dotted with great churches, thus minimizing the influence of the old pagan elite and the shrines with which the Old Rome abounded.
- Enhancement of Worship As previous emperors had endowed and built pagan temples, Constantine began constructing Christian shrines and basilicas, including those at Bethlehem, Constantinople and Rome. Most famously, he developed Palestine as a Christian Holy Land and Jerusalem as the “Mother of the Churches.”

Helena and the Holy City

In 312, with Constantine poised to take over the empire, Helena was recalled to the imperial court where she remained as a close confidant to her son. She was given the imperial title Augusta in 325.

There are conflicting stories concerning when Helena became a Christian. In the Ecclesiastical History by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-458) we are told that Helena (already a believer) influenced her son to become a Christian. Eusebius, on the other hand, wrote in his Life of Constantine (c. 339) that Helena became a Christian through her son’s influence. In any case, Helena was known for her piety, her regular presence at divine services, and her generosity to the poor. As Eusebius wrote, “This admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.”

In fulfillment of a vow Helena undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine, although she was almost 80 years old. According to Eusebius, Helena “… though now advanced in years, yet gifted with no common degree of wisdom, had hastened with youthful alacrity to survey this venerable land and at the same time to visit the eastern provinces, cities, and people with a truly imperial solicitude. As soon, then, as she had rendered due reverence to the ground which the Savior's feet had trodden, according to the prophetic word which says "Let us worship at the place on which His feet have stood," she immediately bequeathed the fruit of her piety to future generations; for without delay she dedicated two churches to the God whom she adored, one at the grotto which had been the scene of the Savior's birth; the other on the mount of His ascension.”

St Helena is also credited with establishing churches on Mount Sinai (site of St Catherine’s Monastery), and in Cyprus (site of the Stavrovouni Monastery). She reposed in 328/329, shortly after returning from this sacred journey, and was buried near St. Peter’s in Old Rome.
 
THE SCRIPTURES READ on the remaining Sundays in the Paschal season present us with some of life’s most debilitating hardships: blindness, isolation, and, today, paralysis. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles read today we hear about the healing of a man named Aeneas in Lydda (Lod), some 23 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Aeneas, we are told, “had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed” (Acts 9:33).

In the Gospel reading which follows, we hear about another man “who had an infirmity thirty-eight years” (John 5:5) and who was healed by the Lord Jesus, at the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha) outside Jerusalem, where the infirm gathered hoping for healing. This pool was used to clean the animals destined for sacrifice before they would be brought into the temple.

It is not clear why the sick gathered there. There was no explicit mention of miracles at this pool in Jewish sources of the day such as Josephus or Philo. The pool itself, buried in the destruction of Jerusalem, was unknown until archeologists uncovered it in the nineteenth century. This led some to suggest that the passage was not historical at all. Rather it was meant to teach that the “angel in the water” foreshadowed the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in baptism, which heals us of sin (see Tertullian, On Baptism, chapter 5).

Others have noted that there were healing springs and pools in the ancient pagan world as well. Cures at those pools followed specific patterns like the one John records here: the first one entering the pool after the water was “stirred” would be healed. John affirms that Christ’s word alone, without any ritual or procedure, was enough to heal. Like the paralytic who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them, and turn to Christ instead.

What Does It Mean to be Paralyzed?

In the Early Church commentators did not often speculate on the pool or even the nature of the man’s illness. It was more common to compare the physical infirmity of the paralyzed man to the spiritual paralysis which afflicts Christians, either occasionally or in a regular way. It was often noted how, in the lives of each one of us, there will be spiritual paralysis: moments of weakness or failure, which can last for many years, as with the paralytic at the sheep pool.

In “spiritual paralysis,” the energies of our soul, of our mind, of our heart, of our will, of our body itself are fettered, fettered by the fact that we have no courage and we have no power within us to move and to act to the full of our longings. We stand, year after year on the very edge, on the bank of the pool that could give us life without being able to enter it.

Christian Life as Synergy,

In one of the last New Testament books to reach its final form, the Second Epistle of St Peter, we see the Christ spiritual life addressed. Spiritual life, we read, comes “… through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by whom have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3. 4). The way to theosis, being partakers of the divine nature, comes because of Christ, God become incarnate so that we might become divinized.

We, however, need to embrace this gift, lest it whither away and we become blind or paralyzed. We do this, the epistle continues, by practicing virtue, self-control, godliness, perseverance, brotherly kindness and love. “For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:3-9). Fruitful Christian life, then, requires that we do our part to make our own the gift of divine life we have received.

We can become shortsighted or even blind to the gift of our baptism, remaining barren and unfruitful – in other words, paralyzed – without being committed to growing in virtue, knowledge, self-control and the rest. We may see this happen in the lives of some Christians who do not consider their baptism seriously, who rarely look to the Gospel, receive the Eucharist or even attend the Liturgy. They are blind to the gift of Christ and therefore paralyzed in the spiritual life. We see it in ourselves, when we cannot focus on the words we read or even the prayers we are saying, distracted by the concerns of daily life.
Paralysis and the Passions

As more philosophically-minded Greeks accepted Christ, they identified the signs of spiritual paralysis in terms of the classical passions: gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, pride and vainglory. A person who is focused on personal comforts (through food and drink, sex or material possessions) will find it difficult if not impossible to center on the spiritual life. If they attend church at all, they find their mind wandering back to the object of their passion.

A story is told about St Basil, the revered Fool for Christ, who confronted Tsar Ivan the Terrible one day because he was not at the Liturgy. Ivan protested that he was indeed in church for the service., Basil replied that the emperor’s body was in church, but his mind was on the Vorobiev hills (where he was having a palace built). When Basil died in 1557, the Tsar acted as one of his pallbearers.

It would be even harder for people ruled by their pride or vanity to look beyond themselves to God or others. Their piety dries up “like baked clay” (Psalms 21:16), withered like a plant with too much sun and no water. This is why combatting the passions has been seen as fundamental to a committed Christian life since the dawn of monasticism in the third century.

In his Homily 37 on the Gospel of John, St John Chrysostom discusses the spiritual medicines necessary to combat the passions and other distractions from the Christian life: “The divine oracles [the Scriptures] are a treasury of all manner of medicines, so that whether it be needful to quench pride, to lull desire to sleep, to tread underfoot the love of money, to despise pain, to inspire confidence, to gain patience, from them one may find abundant resource.” The Scriptures held the medicine; the illnesses were the passions .

The Church as Healer

While the Scriptures portray the incarnate Christ as Healer of the man at Bethesda, it depicts the Body of Christ, the Church, as the source of Aeneas’ recovery. The Church is meant to be a therapeutic community in which Christ continues His healing work in our midst.

“Yesterday you were flung on a bed, exhausted and paralyzed, and you had no one to put you into the pool when the water should be troubled. Today you have Him, who is in one Person God and Man. You were raised up from your bed, and even carried your bed, publicly acknowledging the benefit. Do not again be thrown on your bed by sinning, in the evil of a body paralyzed by its pleasures. As you now are, so walk, mindful of the command, ‘See, you have been made well.

Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you’ (John 5:14), if you prove yourself bad after the blessing you have received. You have heard the loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out’.”

(St Gregory the Theologian, Oration on Holy Baptism, XL, 33)
 
THE STORY OF THE LORD’S ENCOUNTER with the Samaritan woman contains one of the most misunderstood and misused sayings of Christ in the Gospels. The woman raises the question: which is the proper place to worship God, in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim? Jesus responded, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father... The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23). In order to avoid discussing her irregular marital status the woman had dredged up a controversy in which Jews and Samaritans had been engaged for over 1000 years. Since the time of Moses, the focus of Jewish worship was the Tabernacle, a moveable shrine which contained the Ark, the Tablets of the Law and other relic of the Exodus. These relics were eventually placed in the Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem in 957 BC. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC; the Ark and its contents were lost. On their return from exile in Babylon the Jews set about rebuilding their civilization, including the temple. The second temple, completed in 516 BC, stood as the focus of worship in Jerusalem for centuries. King Herod restored and enlarged it in at the beginning of the first century AD and it is this temple which Jesus knew. This second temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during the Jewish revolt and has never been rebuilt. The Samaritans insisted that worship should be conducted on Mount Gerizim. According to the Torah Moses had prophesied, “Now it shall be, when the Lord your God has brought you into the land which you go to possess, that you shall put the blessing on Mount Gerizim…” (Deuteronomy 11:29). To this day Samaritans see this as the reason why this mountain was the proper place to worship God.

Worship vs. Prayer

While the Jews had only one temple in the Holy Land, they had many synagogues. Any town might have a synagogue for prayer or study of the Torah, led by a rabbi (teacher), but the sacrifices prescribed in the Torah could only be offered in the Temple at Jerusalem by the priests (the kohanim). In some cases grain, meal, wine, or incense might be offered; in other instances bulls, sheep, goats, deer or doves would have to be slaughtered and offered. Sacrifices were generally consumed by fire, at least in part. Portions of some sacrifices were consumed by the priests. The most solemn sacrifice of the year was that offered on Yom Kippur. Two goats were offered; the high priest slew one and drove the other out of the city, “taking away the sins” of the people. Christ’s response to the Samaritan woman concerned the authorized worship of God’s people, not personal prayer. Moderns, invoking the Lord’s saying concerning “spirit and truth,” think it refers to prayer. They see it as a rebuke of ritual or of formal prayers, versus spontaneous outpourings of the heart. Often this degenerates into a focus on how God affects “my life,” what “I get out of the service,” etc. In this mindset, churches design services to be “appealing,” to “meet people’s needs,” and so on. This is no way relates to what the Lord was saying to the Samaritan woman.

The End of Temple Worship

The Lord was saying that the days of temple sacrifices were drawing to a close. He knew that His own sacrifice was at hand. Christ, the One who truly “takes away the sin of the world” would replace the sacrifices of the temple with the sacrifice of Himself - the ultimate offering for the people. Through His Church Christ’s worship of God on the cross would be accessible to all mankind, not be confined to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim or any other particular geographic location. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s offering of Himself to the Father in terms of the temple ritual. After describing the temple and its rites, the apostle continues: “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption ... For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us;  not that He should offer Himself often… Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:11-12; 24-27).

Our Worship in Spirit and Truth

Comparing the temple sacrifices, the sacrifice of Christ and the Divine Liturgy we see both contrast and continuity. Christ offers Himself on the cross for the sin of the world as the priests offered their sacrifices in the temple for sin. But Christ’s offering is the ultimate sacrifice, made once for all and need not be repeated. Our worship is rather the sacrifice of praise, recalling His sacrifice without further shedding of blood and making its effects present to us as He commanded when “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19). This connection is especially evident in the Syriac Churches where the Divine Liturgy is called the Holy Qorbono, the same term used to refer to the Temple sacrifices (in Hebrew, korban). Qurban is also the term used for the prosphora among Melkites. There are a number of elements in the Liturgy which reveal it as worship in Spirit and Truth. It begins, for example, with the priest invoking the Holy Spirit as Christ spoke of Him: the “Spirit of Truth”: “O heavenly King, Consoler, Spirit of Truth…” Confessing Him as beyond any human restriction (“everywhere present and filling all things”) the priest calls on Him to dwell within us and purify us for the work of worship which we are undertaking. More importantly, the Liturgy actually is worship in the Spirit. It is here that we truly receive the Holy Spirit in response to the invocation of the priest. The Spirit reaches out to touch us, transforming our oblations – what the Liturgy calls our “spiritual” or “reasonable” sacrifices” – into the body and blood of Christ. In the Holy Mysteries we receive that touch and are healed. Thus we encounter the Spirit, not as a concept or as an emotional “experience,” but as a living sacramental presence striving to make us holy. The Liturgy is also worship in Truth: in the One who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). God-centered and God-focused, our worship both flows from and expresses the heart of Christian faith: that God and man have been reconciled in Jesus Christ.
“Christ our God, who receive as a sacrifice of praise and acceptable worship this reasonable sacrifice without shedding of blood from those who call upon you with their whole heart, Lamb and Son of God, who take away the sin of the world, the unblemished calf, who did not bear the yoke of sin and was willingly sacrificed for us; who are broken, yet not divided, eaten, yet never consumed, but who hallow those who eat; who in memory of Your voluntary passion and life-giving Rising on the third day have declared us to be partakers of Your ineffable, heavenly and dread Mysteries, Your holy Body and precious Blood.”
Ambo Prayer, Liturgy of St. Basil
 
Beginning with chapter 8, the Acts of the Apostles tells how the message of Christ’s resurrection spread from Jerusalem to surrounding areas. We see the deacon Philip evangelizing and baptizing in Samaria, where he is joined by the apostles Peter and John. Philip then travels westward, as far as Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital. In chapter 9 we learn that there are believers in Damascus whom Saul goes to capture. Peter also travels, healing Aeneas in Lydda (Lod) and raising Dorcas in Joppa, both today suburbs of Tel Aviv. He then goes some 75 miles up the coast to Caesarea where he ministers in the house of Cornelius. As often happens, persecution in one place led to the spread of the Gospel in another, Chapter 11 tells how persecution scattered the disciples even further: “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch” (Acts 11:19), The Gospel had now gone over 300 miles in its journey around the world.

Antioch the Great

Called “the Great” to distinguish it from cities in other provinces called Antioch, the city was founded in the 4th century bc by Seleucus I Nicator as a “court city” of his Seleucid Empire. In 64 bc Syria became part of the Roman Empire. Antioch eventually rivaled Alexandria as the chief city of the Middle East and played a particularly strong role in the Roman Empire. Syria had a sizeable contingent of Jews who had full status as citizens. It is likely that the believers fleeing Jerusalem established themselves in the midst of this prosperous colony. We are told in Acts that these believers preached the Gospel, “only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21). These first Gentile converts were called “Christians,” probably not a complement at first. The new community was instructed by Barnabas, himself a Levite, who was one of the first disciples in Jerusalem. He brought Saul – now Paul – with him and they remained there about a year. After that, Barnabas and Paul were sent by the Church of Antioch to spread the Gospel, first in Cyprus, and then in Asia Minor. Towards the end of the third century Rome created a “super-province” called the “diocese of the East,” with Antioch as its capital. Thus, when the principal local Churches were recognized at the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325), “Antioch and all the East” was placed third in rank, after Rome and Alexandria.

1st -3rd Centuries – Martyrs and Ascetics

While St Stephen the Deacon, killed in Jerusalem, is recognized as the Church’s first Martyr, its first woman-martyr was St Takla. Converted by St Paul in Iconium, Asia Minor, she lived for many years in Syria’s Isaurian Mountains. She was killed by pagan sorcerers, jealous of her influence over the local population. The Church of Antioch numbers many martyrs from the official persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Among them its early bishops, Evodios (who died c. AD 68) and St Ignatius of Antioch, called “Theophoros” (the God-bearer), taken to Rome and martyred c. AD 107. Other much-revered martyrs of the age are Saints Lucian, a second century priest and catechist, Babylas, its third-century bishop, and the martyred soldiers Sergius and Bacchos. Syria was one of the first areas in which asceticism began to thrive. A group of virgins settled near St Takla’s dwelling after her death. It still exists as the Monastery of St Takla, near Maaloula, Syria. Another historic monastery still in existence is the nearby Mar Sarkis (St. Sergios) Monastery. Built in the fourth century on the remains of a pagan temple, it is one of the oldest monasteries in the Christian world. It is thought to have been built prior to the First Council of Nicea (ad 325) because it has a round (originally pagan) altar, a practice prohibited at that Council. Antioch’s most famous ascetics were its fifth-century Stylites, Symeon and his disciples who spent their lives on platforms built on columns in a deserted area near today’s Aleppo. Devotees –even including legates of the Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Leo I – consulted Symeon from a ladder placed against the column. Ruins of the column and the church built around it remain today.

4th-6th Centuries – Councils and Disputes

Syria was also a center of the theological controversies with the Arians over the divinity of Christ, with the Monophysites, over how He could be both God and man and with the Monotheletes, over how He could be perfect man if He had no human will – all of which led to the early Ecumenical Councils. A lasting division in the Church arose between those who accepted the fifth century Council of Chalcedon and those who did not. This council based its decisions on Greek philosophical expressions which differed from the terminology used previously, notably by St Cyril of Alexandria. This caused the non-Greek communities in the East – Armenians, Copts, and the Syriac-speaking part of the Antiochian Church – to reject this council. The patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch were divided into Chalcedonian Greek (Melkite) and non-Greek Churches. These non-Chalcedonian Churches are today called “Oriental Orthodox”. Thus by the seventh century Christians of the Middle East were divided into “Roum” (Romans, i.e. Greeks), Jacobites (Copts and non-Chalcedonian Syrians), and Nestorians (the Church of the East).

7th -13th Centuries – Occupation & Exile

The weakened Chalcedonian or Greek patriarchate of Antioch was diminished further in succeeding centuries. The Arab conquerors saw the Greek Christians as allies of their enemies, the Byzantine Empire. They were persecuted more for being Romans that for being Christians. Many fled to places like Cyprus and Sicily. During this time there was often no patriarch or one living outside the area. The Empire recaptured Antioch in 969 and provided the Church with 115 years of security and peace. This was shattered in 1085 when the Seljuk Turks conquered the area, soon followed by western Crusaders. In 1098, Crusaders took the city, and set up a Latin kingdom with a Latin patriarchate. The Greek patriarchate continued in exile in Constantinople. During the nearly two centuries of Crusader rule, the Greek patriarchs of Antioch in exile gradually adopted their hosts’ Byzantine rite in place of their own Antiochian usage. Finally, in 1268, Egyptian Mamelukes seized Antioch from the Latins and the Greek patriarch was able to return to the region. By this point, a series of earthquakes and economic changes had reduced the importance of Antioch and the patriarchs relocated their headquarters to Damascus, the new capital of Syria.
 
ARGUMENTS ABOUT RELIGION are a favorite Middle Eastern pastime. Some are simply talk for talk’s sake: my faith is the oldest, the truest or the best. Sometimes these disagreements have become causes for acrimonious divisions between believers as the number of Jewish, Christian and Muslim factions show. One of the most vehement in the ancient world is mentioned in the Gospel passage about the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42): the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. The division between Jews and Samaritans can be traced to the division of David’s kingdom into northern and southern realms after the death of King Solomon. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, was overrun by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. The South was called Judah and its inhabitants ultimately became known as Jews. The southern kingdom would remain until conquered by Babylon almost 200 years later. The Samaritans claimed that they were the true Israel, descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who survived the destruction of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC. To this day Samaritans prefer to call themselves Istraelites (the word Samaritan means “Keeper of the Law”).There was reputedly one million of them in the 1st century AD. Only c. 750 remain as a distinct community today. Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. This is why the Samaritan woman responded to Jesus’ request for a drink by saying, “‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Given this relationship, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was especially forceful. Samaritans only accept as Scripture the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah (the Law), rejecting the authority of other sections of the Old Testament (the prophetic/historical books) as well as the Talmud, a principal source of Jewish Tradition. Their text of the Torah differs from that used by the Jews as well. The Samaritans claim that their version of the Torah was the original and that the Jews had a falsified text produced by Ezra during the Babylonian exile. Modern Scripture scholars point to considerable editing of the Jewish Scriptures at that time; perhaps the Samaritans have a point.

Question of the Temple

Both Jews and Samaritans believed that God had a unique dwelling place on earth. It was there that the glory of God was manifested just as it had been to Moses on Mount Sinai. They disagreed, however, on the location of this holy place. Jews looked to Jerusalem, where Solomon had built his temple before the division between northern and southern kingdoms. Samaritan worship was focused on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem (modern Nablus), which they asserted was the original sanctuary, in use since the time of Joshua. This was the place, they believe, where Abraham was commanded by God to offer Isaac, his son, as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2). When the Jewish leadership, which had been deported to Babylon in the 6th century BC, were allowed to return, they rebuilt the Jerusalem temple and codified their Scriptures and ritual practices. While in earlier centuries sacrifices were regularly offered in shrines associated with Abraham and other early figures, the newly emergent Jewish leadership insisted that the Jerusalem temple was only legitimate place of sacrifice. In the first half of the 5th century BC the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim and offered sacrifices there. This temple was destroyed in 128 BC by the Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus who captured Samaria and enlarged the Jewish kingdom. Samaritans were not associated with the Jewish revolts against the Romans so, while the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 135 AD, the Samaritans were allowed to remain. The Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was rebuilt at that time and remained until the 5th century AD when the Samaritans revolted against Rome. They were defeated and barred from Mount Gerizim. Samaritans continued to oppose Rome; they were recognized as a legitimate community under Islam. While they never rebuilt their temple, they still celebrate Passover every year at the “altar of Abraham,” at their ancient temple site.

Christ and the Temple Question

In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman He touched on the issue of the temple. The woman said, “‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…’” (John 4:19-23). Jesus dismissed the importance of a physical temple as necessary to worship God. God’s relationship with mankind was changing. When Jesus was in the Jerusalem temple He made this cryptic announcement: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:19-21). The place of sacrifice would not be in a shrine or a temple; it would be the very body of Christ Himself. Here the one definitive sacrifice would be offered for the forgiveness of the sins of all mankind. While Christ’s earthly body would be the temple of His sacrifice on the cross, His spiritual body, the Church would also share in His role as the new temple of God. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, it is a temple made up of living stones, the first of whom is Christ, the Head of the Body. And so it is as the temple of the Living God that we are reminded, “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 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” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Those who are united to Christ in baptism become this holy priesthood whose sacrifice of praise, the Divine Liturgy, whose alms, whose gifts of fasting and other offerings are united to Christ’s own sacrifice. The community of Christians throughout the world is the spiritual house built of living stones and joined to the Precious Stone chosen by God.

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