Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE NEW TESTAMENT DEPICTS the mystery of Christ in terms of the rituals of sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. It describes Christ’s sacrifice based on the manner in which animals were sacrificed there. First, the animal was killed, usually by the donor, in the outer court of the temple. Similarly, Jesus was crucified outside the holy city of Jerusalem.

The same pattern is found in our Divine Liturgy, illustrating the connection between the temple, the Cross, and our worship. Thus, the Eucharistic bread, which we call the Lamb, is prepared at the Prothesis, originally in another chapel, but at least at a distance from the Holy Table.

In the temple, the slain animal was taken by the Levites to the priests, who placed it on the altar and offered it to God. In contrast, Christ – being both victim and priest – offered Himself to the Father eternally in the heavenly sanctuary. In our Liturgy, the Lamb and the cup are brought to the holy table and offered “in all and for the sake of all.”

Finally, the sacrificial meat was divided: part was portioned out for God (by immolation), and part for the priests. The greater part was returned to the donor to be shared with the poor or in a festive meal. In our Liturgy the sanctified Lamb and the cup are shared first by the priests and then by the people in the mystical supper of the Eucharist.

On Yom Kippur, there was another step. The blood of the animal was taken into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest and sprinkled there. Finally, the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies and bless the people. Christ was placed in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus, but emerged from the tomb at His resurrection, sharing with those in the tombs the blessing of eternal life.

The Presence behind the Veil

Describing Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the temple ritual, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ entering “the Presence behind the veil” (Hebrews 6:19). This depicts heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, where the Holy of Holies – which no one could enter except the High Priest on Yom Kippur – was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain or veil. We see an allusion to this image at the Great Entrance of our Liturgy, when the priest brings the offered bread and wine behind the iconostasis.

To enter “the Presence behind the veil” alludes to Christ’s return to the Father, where He eternally offers His sacrifice for us and it is eternally accepted by the Father. Because His sacrifice is offered and accepted beyond human time, it is possible for us to partake of it continually in the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy, then, is not a “new” sacrifice but the one sacrifice of Christ, eternally offered and accepted.

In this passage, Christ is called “the forerunner” (v. 20), meaning the One who goes before, to prepare a place for us. Christ has entered the presence of the Father offering the sacrifice of His blood for us who follow behind Him. The same reality is depicted elsewhere in agricultural terms when Christ is called “the first-fruits of those who sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The Promise of Christ’s Return

At His ascension Christ’s disciples are told by an angel, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Ever since, the members of the Church have been waiting for the return of Christ: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).

This promise of a second appearance, or second coming, energized the preaching of the apostles, who placed it.at the heart of our faith. As the Nicene Creed professes, we believe that Christ “… shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.” And this faith gives us hope.

Our Hope for Eternal Life

Another dimension is added to this teaching in the First Epistle of St Peter, where God is praised in these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3, 4).

Putting these images together, we can say that our hope for eternal life in the company of the saints is not wishful thinking, but is solidly based on the reality of Christ’s sacrificial death and its acceptance by the Father. It is confirmed by Christ’s resurrection and becomes ours through our sharing in the Divine Liturgy. As forerunner and first fruits, Christ stands at the head of an endless procession, leading those united to Him beyond the veil into the eternal Holy of Holies.

This Is Our Hope

In popular speech hope is equated with wishing or feeling that something might be true, or might happen. There is nothing wishful about Christian hope, however. It is based on the witness of the apostles to Christ’s death and resurrection and their understanding that we are meant to share in the eternal life He had purchased for us by His blood. In St Paul’s words, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Christian hope, then, is a firm confidence in the witness of the apostles affirmed by the Church ever since.

The Fear of Eternity

Strange as it may seem, many people are afraid of endless life. Apeirophobia – the fear of eternity – afflicts more people than we can imagine. The thought of an impersonal existence that goes on forever amounts to torture. It appears to some to resemble life in prison without parole.

As we know from studying Christ’s sacrifice and the Divine Liturgy, there is no earthy time with God, no succession of tomorrows, only an eternal now. In Christ’s words, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The Christian faith depicts eternity as an endless now, knowing the truly existing One, the inexhaustible cup of life. The life we now share is but a shadow of life in and with God; if earthly time went on forever it would be something to fear. But our hope is not that earthly time would stretch out endlessly, but that an eternal now in the presence of Christ would truly transform us in ways we can but imagine. “… it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Temple, Cross and Altar

Of old, celebrating the dedication of the Temple, the wise Solomon offered to God sacrifices and holocausts of brute animals. Now that the God of grace and truth has come upon earth, He has completely fulfilled these sacrifices. Offering Himself as a sacrifice for our salvation, the Lover of Mankind has sanctified His Church, making it unshakable forever. He alone is Lord, and is glorified in the assembly of His saints.
 
THE NEW TESTAMENT DEPICTS the mystery of Christ in terms of the rituals of sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. It describes Christ’s sacrifice based on the manner in which animals were sacrificed there. First, the animal was killed, usually by the donor, in the outer court of the temple. Similarly, Jesus was crucified outside the holy city of Jerusalem.

The same pattern is found in our Divine Liturgy, illustrating the connection between the temple, the Cross, and our worship. Thus, the Eucharistic bread, which we call the Lamb, is prepared at the Prothesis, originally in another chapel, but at least at a distance from the Holy Table.

In the temple, the slain animal was taken by the Levites to the priests, who placed it on the altar and offered it to God. In contrast, Christ – being both victim and priest – offered Himself to the Father eternally in the heavenly sanctuary. In our Liturgy, the Lamb and the cup are brought to the holy table and offered “in all and for the sake of all.”

Finally, the sacrificial meat was divided: part was portioned out for God (by immolation), and part for the priests. The greater part was returned to the donor to be shared with the poor or in a festive meal. In our Liturgy the sanctified Lamb and the cup are shared first by the priests and then by the people in the mystical supper of the Eucharist.

On Yom Kipper, there was another step. The blood of the animal was taken into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest and sprinkled there. Finally, the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies and bless the people. Christ was placed in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus, but emerged from the tomb at His resurrection, sharing with those in the tombs the blessing of eternal life.

The Presence behind the Veil

Describing Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the temple ritual, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ entering “the Presence behind the veil” (Hebrews 6:19). This depicts heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, where the Holy of Holies – which no one could enter except the High Priest on Yom Kippur – was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain or veil. We see an allusion to this image at the Great Entrance of our Liturgy, when the priest brings the offered bread and wine behind the iconostasis.

To enter “the Presence behind the veil” alludes to Christ’s return to the Father, where He eternally offers His sacrifice for us and it is eternally accepted by the Father. Because His sacrifice is offered and accepted beyond human time, it is possible for us to partake of it continually in the Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy, then, is not a “new” sacrifice but the one sacrifice of Christ, eternally offered and accepted.

In this passage, Christ is called “the forerunner” (v. 20), meaning the One who goes before, to prepare a place for us. Christ has entered the presence of the Father offering the sacrifice of His blood for us who follow behind Him. The same reality is depicted elsewhere in agricultural terms when Christ is called “the first-fruits of those who sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The Promise of Christ’s Return

At His ascension Christ’s disciples are told by an angel, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Ever since, the members of the Church have been waiting for the return of Christ: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).

This promise of a second appearance, or second coming, energized the preaching of the apostles, who placed it.at the heart of our faith. As the Nicene Creed professes, we believe that Christ “… shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.” And this faith gives us hope.

Our Hope for Eternal Life

Another dimension is added to this teaching in the First Epistle of St Peter, where God is praised in these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3, 4).

Putting these images together, we can say that our hope for eternal life in the company of the saints is not wishful thinking, but is solidly based on the reality of Christ’s sacrificial death and its acceptance by the Father. It is confirmed by Christ’s resurrection and becomes ours through our sharing in the Divine Liturgy. As forerunner and first fruits, Christ stands at the head of an endless procession, leading those united to Him beyond the veil into the eternal Holy of Holies.

This Is Our Hope

In popular speech hope is equated with wishing or feeling that something might be true, or might happen. There is nothing wishful about Christian hope, however. It is based on the witness of the apostles to Christ’s death and resurrection and their understanding that we are meant to share in the eternal life He had purchased for us by His blood. In St Paul’s words, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Christian hope, then, is a firm confidence in the witness of the apostles affirmed by the Church ever since.

The Fear of Eternity

Strange as it may seem, many people are afraid of endless life. Apeirophobia – the fear of eternity – afflicts more people than we can imagine. The thought of an impersonal existence that goes on forever amounts to torture. It appears to some to resemble life in prison without parole.

As we know from studying Christ’s sacrifice and the Divine Liturgy, there is no earthy time with God, no succession of tomorrows, only an eternal now. In Christ’s words, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The Christian faith depicts eternity as an endless now, knowing the truly existing One, the inexhaustible cup of life. The life we now share is but a shadow of life in and with God; if earthly time went on forever it would be something to fear. But our hope is not that earthly time would stretch out endlessly, but that an eternal now in the presence of Christ would truly transform us in ways we can but imagine. “… it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Temple, Cross and Altar

Of old, celebrating the dedication of the Temple, the wise Solomon offered to God sacrifices and holocausts of brute animals. Now that the God of grace and truth has come upon earth, He has completely fulfilled these sacrifices. Offering Himself as a sacrifice for our salvation, the Lover of Mankind has sanctified His Church, making it unshakable forever. He alone is Lord, and is glorified in the assembly of His saints.
 
ST LUKE'S GOSPEL is the basis of the Great Feast of the Annunciation which our Church celebrates on March 25. In its first chapter this Scripture describes the appearance of the angel Gabriel – one of the few angels actually named in Scripture – to the Virgin Mary. The ultimate source of this story, however, could only be the Holy Virgin herself as there were no other eye-witnesses.

According to a tradition documented in the first centuries, “Luke, was born in Antioch, by profession, was a physician. He had become a disciple of the apostle Paul and later followed Paul until his [Paul's] martyrdom” (from a second-century prologue to the Gospel). He was thought to be either a Hellenized Jew or a “Greek” (a converted pagan) writing in Greek for a Greek-speaking community. This explains the Greek expression used by the angel in the Annunciation narrative, a phrase which has become part of the prayer life of Christians all over the world: “Hail, full of grace.”

The Angel’s Greeting

In the Gospel the angel greets Mary with the Greek word chaire rather than with the Hebrew/Aramaic salutation, shalom. While each of these expressions has a different literal meaning, both are idiomatic forms of greeting, expressing good will between people. Some translations use the literal meaning, Rejoice, while others use the idiomatic meaning, Hail.

The angel describes Mary in Luke 1:28 as kecharitomeni, another word which has proven difficult to translate. When St Jerome rendered the Bible into Latin he translated this term literally as gratia plena, full of grace. This would create a problem centuries later when Western theology began using gratia as a technical term to mean the holiness bestowed by God. They interpreted Gabriel’s greeting as an indication that Mary was immaculately conceived.

During the Reformation many Protestants rejected both this doctrine and St Jerome’s translation, pointing to the angel Gabriel’s own explanation of the term in verse 30: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor [charis] with God.” Modern Catholic translations of Luke generally favor this interpretation as well, rendering kecharitomeni as “highly favored one.”

The Angel’s Greeting in Prayer

One effect of the Council of Ephesus (431), which affirmed the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, was an increase of devotion to her. St Theodotos of Ancyra, a Father of that council, left us a praise of Mary based on Gabriel’s greeting:
Hail, our desirable gladness;
Hail, O rejoicing of the churches;
Hail, O name that breathes out sweetness;
Hail, face that radiates divinity and grace;
Hail, most venerable memory;
Hail, O spiritual and saving fleece;
Hail, O Mother of unsetting splendor, filled with light;
Hail, unstained Mother of holiness;
Hail, most limpid font of the life-giving wave;
Hail, new Mother, workshop of the birth.
Hail, ineffable mother of a mystery beyond understanding;
Hail, new book of a new Scripture, of which, as Isaiah tells, angels and men are faithful witnesses;
Hail, alabaster jar of sanctifying ointment;
Hail, best trader of the coin of virginity;
Hail, creature embracing your Creator;

Hail, little container containing the Uncontainable (Homily 4:3).

Later poets would use the same literary device in composing Akathists to the Theotokos and, later, to numerous saints. It is also found in the Greek and Syriac hymns of Severus of Antioch (c. 459-538), Andrew of Crete (650-740), and John of Damascus (c. 675-749).

Appropriately enough, the same device is used in our services on the feast of the Annunciation. Several stichera at vespers are extended forms of the Mary-Gabriel dialogue in the Gospel, such as these: “Gabriel stood before you, O Maiden, revealing the pre-eternal counsel, greeting you and exclaiming: ‘Rejoice, O earth unsown! Rejoice, O bush unburnt! Rejoice, O depth hard to fathom! Rejoice, O bridge leading to the heavens and lofty ladder, which Jacob beheld! Rejoice, O divine jar of Manna! Rejoice, annulment of the curse! Rejoice, restoration of Adam: the Lord is with you!’”

“You appear to me as a man,” the incorrupt Maiden said to the supreme commander; “yet how is it that you announce words which are beyond man? For you have said that God is with me, and that He will dwell in my womb. Tell me, how shall I become so spacious a dwelling and a place of sanctity which surpasses the cherubim? Deceive me no more with falsehood, for I have not known lust, I have not partaken of marriage, how then shall I give birth to a Child?”

The Angelic Salutation

The most popular prayer to the Theotokos based on Luke is undoubtedly the “Hail, Mary” which exists in different versions in the Greek, Latin and Syriac traditions. In each of these versions Gabriel’s greeting (Luke 1:28) I is joined to Elizabeth’s greeting when she was visited by Mary after the Annunciation (Luke 1:42).

In the Byzantine tradition the text is this: “Hail, O Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have given birth to the Savior of our souls.” This troparion is sung at vespers every day during the Great Fast and at other times during the year. It is also used by many people as part of their daily rule of prayer. The oldest version in the West is that of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) who used the following text as the offertory chant on the Fourth Sunday in Advent: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The second part of the prayer developed after the twelfth century and was fixed by Pope Pius V in 1568.

The only other tradition which uses this prayer is that of the Syriac Church which has a slightly different version in its book of the hours: “Hail Virgin Mary, full of grace, Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the Fruit of your womb, Our Lord. O Saint Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at all times, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” It is often added to the concluding prayers of the daily office, particularly in India.

The Importance of the Annunciation

The meaning of this feast is well expressed in the hymns of vespers and orthros, such as this one sung at the aposticha of vespers.

Today is the joy of the annunciation, the triumph of virginity! Those below are united to those above! Adam is restored, and Eve is freed from her primal grief. The tabernacle of our nature, mingled with divinity, has become the temple of God! O the mystery! Incomprehensible is the image of His abasement, and ineffable the richness of His goodness! An angel serves the miracle, and the Virgin's womb receives the Son. The Holy Spirit is sent down from on high, and the Father is well pleased. The covenant is enacted by common consent. Saved thereby, let us cry out together with Gabriel to the Virgin: Rejoice, O joyous one, from whom Christ God, our salvation, is come, assuming our nature and elevating it in Himself! Entreat Him, that our souls be saved.
 
Our liturgical life has been developed and enriched by a host of saints: men and women who have become our teachers in the spiritual life through the prayers and hymns which they composed. Not least among them is St Sophronios, seventh century Patriarch of Jerusalem (March 11). It is to him that we owe the Life of St Mary of Egypt, which we read on the fifth Thursday of the Great Fast, the Thursday of Repentance. Born in Damascus in c. 560, Sophronios was trained in classical philosophy and was already lecturing in rhetoric by the time he was twenty. Like many classical philosophers before him, Sophronios chose to live an ascetic life in order to focus his life on the things of the mind. Unlike earlier philosophers, he was also a Christian and his asceticism inevitably led him to center his life on the things of the spirit. In search of spiritual wisdom he began visiting monasteries in Egypt, Syria and Palestine. It was about the year 580 that Sophronios, still a layman, first met St John Moschos, a hieromonk at the monastery of Mar Saba. Sophronios quickly became disciple of the elder Moschos and they would be inseparable companions until Moschos’ death some forty years later. It was to “His Beloved in Christ, Sophronios the Sophist” that the elder dedicated his most important work, The Spiritual Meadow. The two came to adopt what has been called “a voluntary rootless existence” as their form of asceticism.in which they would be entirely dependent on the hospitality of others. Their choice was confirmed, as it were, by the political upheavals their age would endure.

Sophronios in Egypt

A palace revolution in 602 succeeded chiefly in destabilizing the Byzantine Empire. This weakened their ability to resist the encroachments of their chief rival, the Sassanid Persian Empire (Iran today). The Persians invaded and seized Syria and Palestine, routing the Byzantine army. Devotees of the Zoroastrian religion, the Persians destroyed churches and slaughtered Christians in the territories they conquered. To the horror of the Byzantines the Sassanids seized the Holy Cross, taking it from Jerusalem back to their capital, Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. In 605 Sophronios and John fled to Alexandria where they entered the service of the patriarch. In his life of St John the Almsgiver, Leontius of Neopolis tells that the two Syrians ‘… were really honest counselors and the patriarch gave unquestioning ear to them as though they were his fathers.” They remained in Alexandria until the Sassanids continued their march across Palestine into Egypt. While in Egypt St Sophronios contracted a serious inflammation of the eyes called ophthalmia, which often led to total blindness. He made a monastic profession and was tonsured by John Moschos. Then Sophronios went to visit the shrine of the Unmercenary Saints Cyrus and John and was cured. In gratitude he composed an encomium in praise of the saints recounting a number of miracles attributed to them. In English this work is generally called The Seventy Miracles of Ss. Cyrus and John. In 616 the Persians reached Egypt and many Christians fled to the West. The patriarch took John and Sophronios with him to find refuge in Constantinople. When the patriarch died during the journey, our two saints continued on to Rome where John died in 619. Despite the Persian occupation of Palestine, Sophronios made sure that his elder’s body was returned to the monastery where he had been tonsured, St Theodosius near Bethlehem. Sophronios remained in that monastery.

Dogmatic and Other Writings

Controversies over the nature of Christ had been going on since the fifth century. Christians struggled to comprehend how the incarnate Christ could be fully God and fully man. In Egypt the majority of Egyptian monks had rejected the solution of the Council of Chalcedon (451) while the Greeks of the cities accepted it. Since John and Sophronios were working with the patriarch, they promoted the teachings of the council. As Leontius of Neapolis wrote, “setting their own wisdom against that of the mad followers of Severus and of the other unclean heretics who were scattered about the country; they delivered many villages, very many churches, and monasteries too, like good shepherds saving the sheep from the jaws of these evil beasts.” One attempt at theological compromise was Monothelitism which taught that in Christ there was but one will. Promoted by Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople with the blessing of the emperor as a way to reunify the Church in the empire, It began to spread through Syria and Egypt in 629. St Sophronios wrote extensively against what he saw was a betrayal of Chalcedon, but none of his writings on this issue have survived. He returned to Alexandria to persuade Patriarch Cyrus to reject this doctrine. In 633 he made a similar trip to Constantinople but was unsuccessful in convincing either patriarch to reject monothelitism, This doctrine would be condemned finally at the Third Council of Constantinople in 681. A have survived, but his greatest contribution was in the area of liturgy. He composed an “Excursus on the Liturgy,” the Life of St Mary of Egypt and also about 950 troparia and stikhera for the Paschal season. His Prayer for the Great Blessing of Water at Theophany and his three Odes Canons for the Great Fast are used in all Byzantine Churches to this day.

The Loss of Jerusalem

The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius had never given up on reclaiming the provinces he had lost to the Persians. He routed them from Syria and Palestine in 628 and pursued them to their capital to retrieve the Holy Cross. It is the return of the Cross to Jerusalem that we celebrate every year on September 14. By then Sophronios had been elected Patriarch of Jerusalem and it is he who is depicted elevating the Cross in our icons. Christian Jerusalem would be short lived. Muhammad had wanted to capture Palestine and Syria for Islam but he realized Heraclius was too strong for him. After his death, his friend and successor, Caliph Umar ibn-al-Khattab, took on and quickly defeated the Persians. Then an Arab army besieged Jerusalem for two years until the Christians agreed to open the gates to them. Patriarch Sophronios insisted that he would only surrender the city to the caliph himself. Umar ibn al-Khattab came to Jerusalem and toured the city with Sophronios. While they were touring the Anastasis, the Muslim call to prayer sounded. The patriarch invited Umar to pray inside the church but he declined lest future Muslims use that as an excuse to claim it for a mosque. Sophronios acknowledges this courtesy by giving the keys of the church to him. The caliph in turn gave it to a family of Muslims from Medina and asked them to open the church and close it each day for the Christians. Their descendants still exercise this office at the Anastasis. Within a few weeks, relations with the Arabs took a harder turn. Arab troops martyred some sixty Christian soldiers who refused to convert to Islam. A month later, in March of 638, Patriarch Sophronios reposed in Jerusalem; some accounts relate that his death was hastened by grief.
 
AT THE FOOT OF MOUNT SINAI, in the Egyptian peninsula of the same name, sits the monastery of St Catherine. It has been inhabited continuously for over 1700 years, making it one of the oldest such places in the world. Its unique climate has preserved icons and manuscripts from the first millennium ad that look as if they were just made. The greatest treasures it has produced, however, are its spiritual riches: over 170 saints honored in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, chief among them being St John Climacos. A native of the region, St John lived in the sixth century. At 16 he became a monk and spent the rest of his life as an ascetic. For most of his life he lived in a hermitage at the foot of the mountain. When he was 75, he was chosen as abbot of St Catherine’s monastery but ended his life in solitude, as a desert-dwelling ascetic. In the early seventh century another John, abbot of the Raithu monastery on the shores of the Red Sea, asked our John to write a guide to the spiritual life for the monks of Raithu. The result was the klimax or Ladder by which John of Sinai has been known ever since. Using the imagery of Jacob’s ladder (cf., Genesis 28:10-19), he portrays the ascetic life as a climb to heaven with each rung on the ladder being a virtue to be acquired. A twelfth-century icon preserved at the monastery shows monks climbing this ladder. Some acquire all the virtues and complete the ascent to God; others fall off, pulled down by the passions, unable to endure the ascetic life to the end. It has long been the custom in monasteries to read The Ladder each year during the Great Fast. This is turn gave rise to the commemoration of St John on the Fourth Sunday of the Fast.

The Rungs of the Ladder

The first seven rungs portray the most basic virtues necessary for an ascetic life: renunciation of the world, detachment from what was left behind, exile from all we have known, obedience (which is voluntary death of the ego), repentance, the remembrance of death, and cultivating a spirit of mourning. The remaining rungs detail steps needed to make progress on this way of life, such as freedom from anger and irritability, forgetting of wrongs suffered, avoiding gossip and slander, and conquering despondency. Battling gluttony, lust and greed through fasting from food, drink and sleep are depicted as the daily work of the monk. “The farmer’s wealth is gathered on the threshing floor and in the wine-press, but the wealth and knowledge of monks is gathered during the evening and the night hours while standing in prayer and engaging in spiritual activity” (Step 20). On subsequent rings the monk confronts more dangerous enemies – pride and vanity – through humility and the revealing of one’s inmost thoughts. Only through the acquisition of these virtues can the monk attain to prayer, love, and heaven on earth: the state of communion with God.

Some Excerpts from The Ladder

“Blessed is he who, though maligned and disparaged every day for the Lord’s sake, constrains himself to be patient. He will join the chorus of the martyrs and boldly converse with the angels. “Blessed is the monk who regards himself as hourly deserving every dishonor and disparagement. Blessed is he who mortifies his own will to the end, and leaves the care of himself to his director in the Lord; for he will be placed at the right hand of the Crucified. He who will not accept a reproof, just or unjust, renounces his own salvation. But he who accepts it with an effort, or even without an effort, will soon receive the remission of his sins.” From the Fourth Rung “Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. As baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God, in His love for mankind, had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed.” From the Seventh Rung “Forgetting of wrongs we have suffered is a sign of true repentance. But he who dwells on them and thinks that he is repenting is like a man who thinks he is running while he is really asleep.” From the Ninth Rung “He who has become aware of his sins has controlled his tongue, but a talkative person has not yet come to know himself as he should.” From the Eleventh Rung “He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below; but he who has not tasted the things above finds joy in possessions.” From the Seventeenth Rung “It is not darkness or the desolateness of place that gives the demons power against us, but barrenness of soul. Through God’s providence this sometimes happens in order that we may learn by it.” From the Twenty-First Rung “Blasphemous thoughts, this deceiver and corrupter of souls, has often driven many out of their mind. No other thought is so difficult to tell in confession as this. That is why it often remains with many to the very end of their lives. For nothing gives the demons and bad thoughts such power over us as nourishing and hiding them in our heart unconfessed.” From the Twenty-third Rung “The natural property of the lemon tree is such than it lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit; but the more the branches bend down, the more fruit they bear. Those who have the mind to understand will grasp the meaning of this.” From the Twenty-Fifth Rung “Before all else let us first list sincere thanksgiving on the scroll of our prayer. On the second line we should put confession and heartfelt contrition of soul. Then let us present our petition to the King of all. This is the best way of prayer, as it was shown to one of the brethren by an angel of the Lord.” “If you feel sweetness or compunction at some word of your prayer, dwell on it; for then our guardian angel is praying with us.” “Your prayer will show you what condition you are in. Theologians say that prayer is the mirror of the monk.” From the Twenty-Eighth Rung And if You Are Not a Monk… “Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ “I replied to them, ‘Do all the good you can. Do not speak evil of anyone. Do not steal from anyone. Do not lie to anyone. Do not be arrogant towards anyone. Do not hate anyone. Do not be absent from the divine services. Be compassionate to the needy. Do not offend anyone. Do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.” From the First Rung
 
“This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). The last words of this Gospel passage explain its selection for reading at today’s Divine Liturgy, In the home stretch of the Great Fast we may need to be reminded that effectiveness in the Christian life demands more than occasional application. We must apply ourselves regularly and consistently to maintaining our life in Christ for it to bear fruit. This constant living out of our faith is called asceticism, from the Greek word for “struggle,” ascesis. St Paul witnesses frequently to the ascetical nature of Christian spiritual life. He uses both athletic and military imagery to present the life in Christ as, at least in part, a struggle. Consider the following:
  • “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. … and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:12-14).
  • “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26)
  • “Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
  • “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil….For we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” (Ephesians 6:11-12).
  • “…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
  • “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day…” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Training for an athletic contest or for a military expedition demands single-minded commitment to the struggle. One’s eye must be continually on the goal and our will firm to do anything in order to achieve it.

A Spiritual Combat

In St Paul’s day Christians had no lack of enemies striving to eliminate their Churches as damaging to the state or to established religions. Yet the Apostle does not finger these opponents when describing the struggle. St Paul identified what would later be called spiritual warfare: the interior struggle to keep our minds and hearts centered on the Lord. “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23). The real struggle, Paul teaches, is not with enemies outside but with our own broken nature. The arena where Christians would struggle was not the coliseum but the heart. The Church’s spiritual masters from the Desert Fathers to our own day have sought to determine the course of our spiritual struggle. They agree that our interior combat begins with the assault of what they called logismoi, random thoughts that suggest definite wrongdoing or simply not doing what it takes to keep in shape. There is no word to accurately translate logismoi. It has been variously translated as “prodigal thoughts,” “impulses,” “provocations,” “temptations” or “the seeds of the passions, those suggestions or impulses that emerge from the subconscious and soon become obsessive… blockages, usurpations, deviations that destroy the human being’s basic desire.” These “prodigal thoughts” come to us unbidden from our past, from what we see others do, from entertainment media, from many sources. We may dismiss them and continue on our chosen path or entertain them, allowing them to convince us that what they propose is right for us. As Evagrius of Pontus noted in the fourth century, “It is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware) once described logismoi as “first whispered by demons in obedience to the will of the Satan (the Tempter),” locating their source as further beyond our broken nature. This, too, is suggested by St. Paul who teaches that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Evagrius, writing in the same tradition, insists, “Demons first inspire thoughts and these, when they are allowed to linger, unleash the passions in us. The remedy against this system of demonic attacks is a constant vigilance over thoughts, never allowing them to linger.” Right about now many of us may be assaulted by logismoi suggesting that we dispense ourselves from the Fast, skip a Lenten service, or return to any amusements we have given up for the season. We may be like many who commit themselves to regimens of diet and exercise for a short time and then are tempted to abandon them because they do not see speedy progress. It is, however, one’s commitment to the contest which brings about greater results. As Pope Paul VI noted in another context, “All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.” 

Prayer, Fasting and Spiritual Power
The nineteenth century Russian Saint, Theophan the Recluse, once wrote, “The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as avoid a painful blow.” The opposite is also true as we read in Sotos Chondropoulos’ life of St. Nectarios of Aegina: “One time there was an archimandrite from Egypt who found himself in Athens on some religious business. Although he was a cleric, he was one only by profession… When he performed the Divine Liturgy he did it mechanically, without the faith and humility which is required…” 
[Told about a girl supposedly possessed by an evil spirit, he asserted confidently “There are no demons today” and declared that girl must be a schizophrenic. He would see for himself. When he arrives the possessed girl addressed him laughingly] “My dear priest, how beautiful and playful you seem…” Seizing him she shouted “You dirty, filthy worm… Isn’t it you that hasn’t left a girl or woman in Alexandria untouched? You dare to insist that I do not exist? Then I will make an account of all the ‘good works’ you have done as a mocker of sacred things.” [She told of one scandalous incident after another. The archimandrite collapsed and had to be taken away. The girl was eventually freed from the spirit after being anointed with oil from a lamp at St Nektarios’ tomb.]
 
WHEN THE RISEN CHRIST APPEARED to His disciples He reminded them “…that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). When we think of the Old Testament prophecies we naturally look to figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest who are formally labeled as “prophets.” The Lord’s words quoted above indicate that there are also prophecies in the Law and in the Psalms as well. In the New Testament there are several psalm verses quoted as referring to the Lord Jesus as the Messiah. At the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, Psalm 2:7 is cited: “To which of the angels did He [i.e. God] ever say, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You’” (Hebrews 1:5). The first Christians did not invent the idea that Scriptural events and texts applied to the Messiah. The Jews looked to the coming of the Messiah and saw references to him in the Scriptures. Early Christians were simply continuing a tradition they had received from Judaism. The difference, of course, was that the Christian believed that Jesus was that Messiah and the Scriptures referred to Him.

Messianic Prophecies in the Psalms

In his Letter to Marcellinus, St. Athanasius the Great, the fourth century archbishop of Alexandria, gave his reader an overview of the psalms understood as referring to the Messiah. He writes, “If you want to sing Psalms that speak especially about the Savior you will find something in almost all of them; but 45 and 110 relate particularly to His Divine Begetting from the Father and His coming in the flesh, while 22 and 69 foretell the holy cross, the grievous plot He endured and what great things He suffered for our sakes. The 3rd and the 109th also display the snares and malice of the Jews and how Iscariot betrayed Him; 21, 50 and 72 all set Him forth as Judge and foretell His Second Coming in the flesh to us; they also show the call of the Gentiles. The 16th shows His resurrection from the dead in the flesh; the 24th and 47th His ascension into heaven. And in the four Psalms 93, 96, 98 and 99 all the benefits deriving to us from the Savior’s Passion are set forth together.” (While St. Athanasius followed the numbering in the Greek Septuagint version (LXX), the above translation follows the Hebrew numeration rather than the Greek, since that is the system used in most English versions.) We often find psalms and individual verses interpreted as messianic in the liturgical services, particularly on the Great Feasts. Verses of Psalm 2, for example, are associated with the Feast of Christ’s Nativity and also with Holy Friday: “Why do the nations rage and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed” (Psalm 2:1,2). At Christmas these verses bring to mind Herod’s plot against the Infant; on Holy Friday they speak to us of the Sanhedrin denouncing Jesus to Pilate. A subsequent verse – “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision” (Psalm 2:4) – recall the ultimate failure of both these plots to destroy the Lord Jesus. Messianic foreshadowings in other psalms have made them important parts of our liturgical celebrations of the mysteries they typify. Psalm 22 (LXX: 21), for example, is for many Christians a description of the experience of Christ on the cross. Mt 27:46 indicates that Christ began to recite this psalm as He was dying. The opening verses of Psalm 68 (LXX: 67) are sung with the refrain “Christ is risen…” as the solemn proclamation of the resurrection on Pascha. Christ’s ascension is understandably evoked in Psalm 47:5 (LXX: 46): “God has gone up with a shout; the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.” One of the references to Christ in the Psalms is repeatedly quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “The Lord has sworn and he will not relent: you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4; LXX: 109). Since this epistle depicts Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the Yom Kippur ritual in the Jewish temple, applying a reference to priesthood is not surprising, but who is Melchizedek?

Priest of the Most High

Melchizedek makes his only Scriptural appearance in Genesis 14. There Abram (later Abraham), then an ally of the king of Sodom, defeats Chedorlaomer, a warring king. The king of Sodom goes out to greet Abram on his victory. Then we are told, “Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with these words: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:18-20). Some Jewish commentators identified Melchizedek with Shem, the son of Noah and descendant of Adam. In one tradition, the Book of Adam and Eve, Shem officiated at Adam’s funeral when he was fifteen, because he was a priest as Adam was. Adam’s priesthood was that of every human being: to refer all things back to their Creator in thanks and praise. To be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek would be to be a priest according to the order of Adam. Melchizedek’s priesthood was connected with a line that predates Moses and Aaron, and links him directly to Adam and God. To be a priest after the manner of Melchizedek, then, means to be a priest with a heritage that was older than that of the Jewish temple priesthood descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron. As “a priest of God Most High” from the earliest ages of mankind, Melchizedek represents a faith in the One God that predates Judaism and suggests the “natural monotheism” of ancient man. Hebrews, reflecting on the picture of Melchizedek in Genesis, describes Melkchizedek as “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God…” (Hebrews 7:3). This image suggests that Melchizedek is not a priest by descent from a priestly line, but by nature. Melchizedek was considered a fitting type of Christ, the eternal Word of God, whose priesthood is eternal and brings together Jews and Gentiles without distinction before the throne of the Father. Another image in the story of Melchizedek struck a chord for the early Christians. Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine,” probably as a gesture of hospitality. When seen in light of Melchizedek’s priesthood, these gifts become a type of the Eucharistic elements, connected to the natural priesthood of Adam and the New Testament priesthood of the New Adam, Christ.

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