Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
MOST BELIEVERS KNOW that the Western Church observes a day of prayer and remembrance for the dead on November 2, All Souls Day. Few know, however that certain Slavic Byzantine Churches also observe memorial days at this time, each with a slightly different focus. The Russian Church, for example, keeps the Saturday before the Feast of St Demitrios the Myrrh-Exuder (October 26) as a memorial Saturday, remembering those who died during an important battle in their struggle against the Mongols. Other Churches keep the Saturday before the Feast of the Holy Archangel Michael (November 8) or the Saturday before the Feast of the Conception of the Forerunner (September 23) as Memorial Saturdays.

Why Saturdays?

The principal memorial days in all the Byzantine Churches also fall on Saturdays: the Saturday before Meatfare Sunday and the Saturday before Pentecost. In addition, most Saturdays during the year (unless there is an important commemoration from the Menaion) are devoted to remembrance of the departed.

The Synaxarion for Meatfare Saturday explains why Saturdays have been chosen for remembering the departed: “We always remember the souls of the dead on the Sabbath, for the Sabbath (Saturday) is the day of rest. In Hebrew, Sabbath literally means ‘rest.’ As the Jews have this day for their repose and paused from every work and professional dealing, we Christians have it to remember the repose of those who preceded us. Since the dead have rested from all worldly cares, we offer supplications for them on the day which means ‘rest’”

The custom is also connected to the “Great Sabbath,” Holy Saturday, the day when Christ’s body lay in the tomb. At vespers on that day we sing the following sticheron: “The great Moses foretold this day when he said, ‘God blessed the seventh day.’ For this is the blessed Sabbath, the day of rest on which the only begotten Son of God abstained from bodily work, as He had ordained that it would occur in death. Through His Resurrection, He returned to what had been His state; and in His goodness and love for mankind, He bestowed eternal life upon us.”

The Synaxarion describes the proper way to observe a memorial: “On this day, we hold memorial services and have kolyva blessed in the church, we give alms, and perform various works of mercy.” Many of our Churches could emphasize the works of mercy as memorials more than they do.

In our day, it has become customary to offer memorial services after the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, the day when people congregate in our churches. Still, the liturgically prescribed memorials are meant to be held on Saturdays.

Praying for the Departed

Eastern Christians who attend funerals or memorial services in a Protestant church, are often struck by the absence of prayer for the dead in these events. The life and work of the departed are recalled by any number of eulogists, but none of them offer a prayer for the departed. In many Protestant traditions, the state of a departed loved one cannot be affected by prayers and Liturgies offered for them by the living. One contemporary Lutheran catechism for example asks: “For whom should we pray? ...We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead.”

In contrast, prayer for the departed is the chief focus of our traditional memorial services. The Synaxarion quoted above calls on several patristic writers to witness the power of intercession for the dead: “In his funeral oration for his brother Caesarios, St. Gregory the Theologian recommends alms on behalf of the reposed as being good. And the great Chrysostom in his commentary on Philippians says, ‘Let us think of ways to benefit the departed. Let us give them what help we can, namely almsgiving and offerings. For truly this brings them great advantage and very much gain and benefit.

“The custom of the priest commemorating those reposed in faith over the awesome Mysteries has not been without purpose nor arbitrarily ordained and delivered to God’s Church by His all-wise Disciples.’ Again, ‘In making arrangements when you dispose of your property, together with your children and relatives, let your will also include the name of your Judge as a joint heir, and let not the mention of the poor be absent …’” The Judge, of course is the Lord. Chrysostom was encouraging people to include His Church in their wills as offerings in their memory.

“St. Athanasius the Great also says that even if one has died and dissolved into the air, do not decline to provide oil and candles at the grave and to plead with Christ our God, for they are acceptable to God and bring great recompense: if the deceased was a sinner, that you may lose his sins; if righteous, that it may add to his reward. If one is a stranger without means, having no one to take care of these matters, God, being righteous and compassionate, will proportionately measure out to him His mercy, as He knows best.

“Moreover, he who offers such services to the dead also partakes of the reward, because he has shown love and concern for the salvation of his neighbor. It is as when one anoints a friend with perfumes, he receives the sweet aroma first. As for those who do not fulfill the wills and testaments of the deceased concerning these matters, they will positively be condemned.”

Whom Do We Remember?

At Liturgies and memorial services throughout the year people submit the names of their departed family members and friends for commemoration. On certain days specific groups are remembered. On the Church’s principal Memorial Saturdays, however, individuals are not commemorated as such. Rather, the Church asks us to remember “all those who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection.” We particularly remember any who may not have received the Holy Mysteries before they died. As we pray in the Canon at Orthros:

“In Your mercy, grant a place with the faithful and the just to those drowned in the sea or slain in battle, buried by earthquakes, murdered or consumed by fire.

“O Lord, all those who have died in faith at sea or on land, in rivers, springs, lakes or wells, devoured by savage beasts, birds or reptiles anywhere on earth come before You. Grant Your rest to them all.

“O Christ our God, on that Last Day when You shall render just judgment, raise up in glory those who have been devoured by the creatures of the sea or the birds of the sky.

“O our Savior, grant rest to all the faithful who died suddenly and unexpectedly, in the midst of joy or sorrow, prosperity or misfortune.

“O Christ our Savior, grant rest to those destroyed by the cold, killed while travelling. overcome by hail, snow or storms, crushed by stones or buried alive.

“You know what is best for every creature which You have formed. O Lord our God, deliver from all torment those whom You have permitted to die unexpectedly through some sudden accident.

“O Lord, grant rest with Your saints to those whom, in Your ineffable Providence, You allowed to die from drugs or poison or by choking on bones.

In short, we recall “all the faithful who died in every generation since time began.”
 
NOTHING WAS WRITTEN IN HIS OWN TIME about one of the more popular saints in the Byzantine Churches, the Great Martyr Demetrios. The oldest written life of this saint dates to the ninth century, some 700 years after his lifetime! Earlier witnesses to this saint include the seventh-century Miracles of St Demetrios, a testimony to the protection afforded to that city by its patron, St Demetrios. The Miracles consists of two books: the first is a compilation of homilies by Archbishop John of Thessaloniki praising the saint for his intercession for the city. The second is a slightly later account of the Slavic invasion of the Balkans in which the saint once again protected his city from destruction.

Older than these written works, however, is the archaeological record some of which came to light only in the twentieth century.

Life of St Demetrios

St Demetrios is said to have been born in Thessaloniki in about ad 260 to an aristocratic family. The oldest icons we have (7th century) depict him in upper class dress. He is said to have been an officer in the Roman army and many icons portray him in a military uniform. During the Great Persecution of the early fourth century Demetrios was appointed pro-consul of the city, charged by Emperor Maximian with exterminating the Christians there. When it became known that Demetrios himself was a Christian, he was seized and imprisoned in the bathhouse complex at the Roman forum.

Demetrios was executed when his influence over the martyr Nestor became known. Nestor had accepted a challenge to fight the gladiator Lyaeos, a favorite of the emperor. Blessed by Demetrios, Nestor defeated the gladiator but was himself slain by the military commander. Soldiers sent to the prison impaled Demetrios on their lances and disposed of his body. Demetrios’ servant Lupos dipped his garment in the saint’s blood and preserved it along with the earth soaked in the martyr’s blood.

The Great Church in Thessaloniki

The Great Church of St Demetrios is part of the World Heritage site incorporating the Roman forum, palace, temple, hippodrome, and a bathhouse used by the athletes competing there. This was the place where the Saint had been imprisoned and martyred. The complex was excavated by archeologists in 1966.

A church incorporating the old Roman bathhouse was constructed in the early fifth century, by the prefect Leontios, in gratitude for a healing received through the saint’s intercession. This church was enlarged several times over the centuries and attained its present form as a major basilica in 629-634.

By then the ground had so risen that the Roman era bathhouse was actually underground. The basilica was built over the site of the saint’s martyrdom, which was now housed in a crypt.

Over the centuries the church and its surroundings experienced major changes. From 1493-1912, under the Ottomans, the church was used as a mosque. The crypt was filled in with dirt and forgotten. In 1912, when Thessaloniki was joined to the Greek state, the structure became a church again. In 1917 a house fire spread unchecked and destroyed two-thirds of the city, severely damaging. the Church of St Demetrios. Archaeological work in the church over the next few decades unearthed the forgotten crypt and a Roman-era well where, scholars believe, soldiers disposed of the saint’s body after his martyrdom.

The Relics of St Demetrios

The life of St Demetrios described how his servant had dipped his garment into the saint’s blood. This was confirmed in the twentieth century restoration of the church and crypt. The first chapel built over the place of the saint’s martyrdom was discovered. Its Holy Table was found to contain an earthen vessel containing earth impregnated with human blood.

When the Great Church was built, its shrine contained only a carved bed, a classical architectural device. When a body reported to be that of St Demetrios was put forth for veneration in the seventh century, the archbishop dismissed its authenticity. The body was proclaimed to be that of the saint after it started exuding perfumed myrrh. The relics were placed in the shrine where they are venerated to this day. This is why St Demetrios is known as the Myrobelite (Exuder of Myrrh).

For centuries, these relics have been exuding this fragrant myrrh and have been the occasion of many healings. Every year around the feast of the saint (October 26), the reliquary chest is opened and the fragrance of the myrrh can be detected for blocks around.

Exudations of Myrrh

Christians, particularly in the East, have long considered the exudation of myrrh a sign that God confirms the holiness of a saint. From time to time streams of a unique viscous liquid emitting a beautiful aroma have appeared in connection with the relics or icons of certain saints. Healings and other seeming miracles have often accompanied this phenomenon.

Perhaps more famous that the relics of St Demetrios are the myrrh-exuding remains of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra. Housed in the crypt of the basilica in Bari, Italy, St Nicholas’ relics continually exude myrrh. Every year on May 9, commemorating the transfer of the relics from Myra to Bari in 1087, the aromatic liquid is collected from the tomb and distributed to the faithful.

Other saints whose relics have reportedly exuded myrrh include Saints:

Clement the Confessor, Pope of Rome;
Juliana the Compassionate;
Peter the Wonderworker, bishop of Argos;
Simeon of Serbia, founder of Mt. Athos’ Hilandari Monastery;
Simon, founder of Mt. Athos’ Simonopetras Monastery.

>Myrrh-Streaming Icons

-Even more common are myrrh-streaming icons, some ancient and many modern which exude this aromatic liquid in churches, monasteries and even private homes. Widely revered today are:
-A manufactured copy of the icon of the Theotokos, “Softener of Evil Hearts” bought by Anastasia Basharinaya at the glorification of St Matrona the Blind and touched to the saint’s reliquary. At the family home, the icon began exuding myrrh. Taken throughout Russia and to Russian churches abroad, the icon has been the occasion of healings and unusual manifestations. Before the 9/11 tragedy, for example, the icon gave off the smell of blood.
-A modern copy of the Iveron icon of the Theotokos, given on Mount Athos to José Munoz-Cortes in 1982, which began exuding myrrh a few weeks later. It has been taken for veneration around the world ever since.
-A similar depiction of the same icon at Holy Theotokos of Iveron Church in Honolulu, which has exuded myrrh intermittently since October, 2007.
-A framed paper print of the Kazan Icon purchased by Nicholas and Myrna Nazzour on their honeymoon in 1980, began exuding myrrh in November, 1982 at their home in Soufanieh, a Damascus suburb. Since then this liquid – scientifically analyzed as olive oil – has streamed from the icon, from numerous copies, and from Myrna’s hands during prayer.
 
THE EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS is one of the most beautiful in the New Testament. It was probably written at the end of St. Paul's life or compiled from his writings shortly after his death. Although it is addressed (in most manuscripts) to the Church in Ephesus, it does not deal with any local problems like some other Pauline epistles. Rather it speaks of the Church is a more general or universal sense, stressing its mission to make the Gospel known throughout the world. This has led some scholars to suggest that it was a kind of circular letter sent to first-century Churches as a summary of St Paul's teaching. The epistle begins with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places… He destined us in love to be His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved… He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:3-10). This theological hymn celebrates the mystery of God's will, described later in the epistle as “the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:8-9). It describes this mystery as the Father's plan to unite all things in Him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” In this way the vision of Paradise set forth in the beginning of creation would at last be fulfilled.

The Heavenly Places

Several times in this epistle (e.g. 1:3, 1:20, 2:6) St Paul uses the Greek term en tois epouraniis, literally “the heavenlies” and translated here as “the heavenly places.” Other English translations, such as “the heavenly sphere” or “the heavenly realm,” suggest that St Paul is not talking about geography here -- a place up above -- but about the condition of eternal life in communion with God. This life is first of all the communion of Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is in the Trinity that the mystery hidden from the ages finds its home. It is God's plan to extend to us, who are created in the divine image, a share in this communion. Not even “the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” are aware of this; it is “through the church [that] the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). This teaching is the inspiration for this theotokion sung frequently at vespers and orthros in Byzantine Churches: “The mystery which was hidden from eternity and unknown to the angels has been revealed through you, O Theotokos, to those on earth; for God took flesh…” It is through the incarnation of Christ -- in which the Theotokos played an essential role -- that the principalities and powers came to discover the eternal plan of God. The divine plan, according to St Paul, is centered on Christ crucified and risen from the dead, whom the Father raised Him from the dead “… and made Him sit at His right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and He has put all things under His feet and has made Him the head over all things for the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20-23). We are reminded of this teaching every time we enter a Byzantine church building and see the icon of Christ “in the heavenly places” (the dome), often surrounded by saints and angels. Thus He is depicted as head of the heavenly Church and of the Church on earth, namely us who are gathered in the church to worship Him.

Adopted into God's Household

St Paul uses another image to describe our place in this eternal plan of God. We are “chosen” and destined” to be “His sons.” In the Greek original we are destined “eis huiothesian” (for adoption as sons). As Christ is Son of God by nature, we who are united to Christ are God's sons by adoption, a free gift bestowed on us who could never earn such a status by our own efforts. This brings us to the portion read at today's Liturgy: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 2:4-6). In Christ human nature is found for the first time in the heavenly realm. There is a human body -- the risen Christ -- glorified by the divine nature to which it is united not for Himself alone but as “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), “the firstborn of many brethren” (Romans 8:29). We celebrate this on the Feast of the Holy Ascension of Christ, singing hymns such as this: “Ascending in glory today from the Mount of Olives, in Your great love You lifted up our fallen nature and placed in on God the Father's throne” (doxastikon at vespers). St Paul teaches that therefore we too are enthroned in the heavenly sphere with Christ but that this full deification of believers will happen only “at his coming … when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power … [and] the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:23-26). It is this vision of the future which we proclaim at the end of the Nicene Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”

Where Do We Come In?

St Paul concludes his thought in Ephesians 2 by repeating an idea mentioned in v. 5 cited above. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast” (vv. 8-9). No one can earn the gift of God -- it is freely given, not a response to our merits. Yet there is a place for our works and St Paul mentions them in v. 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before-hand that we should walk in them.” We are meant to devote ourselves to doing good, but not in order to earn what is a free gift of God. Rather our good works, whatever they may be, are done in response to God, our thanksgiving for giving us both our life on earth and our future in the heavenly realm. In this the Fathers saw a synergy of God's initiative and our response. Neither one alone brings about our salvation; both together bring us to eternal life.
“… [Salvation] comes not by any effort of ours, nor of any good works, but out of God's love; and yet not by His love alone, but of our virtue also. For if it was by His love alone, it would follow that all must be saved. If salvation were the result of our virtue alone, then His coming was needless, and the whole plan of God would be unnecessary. But it is the result neither of His love alone, nor yet of our virtue, but of both. He chose us, says the Apostle; and He who chooses, knows what it is that He chooses. That on our coming near unto Him, He should vouchsafe us such a great privilege, as to bring us at once from a state of enmity, to the adoption of children, this is indeed the work of a really transcendent love.” (St John Chrysostom on Ephesians 1)
 
In BYZANTINE CHURCHES 2 Timothy 2:1-10 is often read when one or another martyr is commemorated. When this epistle was written, first-century Christians were already experiencing attacks – often violent – in various parts of the Mediterranean world. A Church leader had to be prepared to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3). What may surprise us is the first part of St Paul’s injunction: “the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (v. 2). The first requirement for a Church under arrack is to prepare a new generation of leaders who can instruct others in turn.

A Lesson from the Middle East

For many generations Church life in the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem was relatively stable. Christians had a recognized civil identity and each ordered its own life according to its respective statutes. They suffered periodic attacks by Muslims or Druze, but these assaults did not affect their inner identity. That situation changed in the nineteenth century for Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. That century saw a growing Western presence in Egypt which brought prosperity which Coptic businessmen had not seen for centuries. It also brought other Christians to settle in the country – Roman Catholics from Italy, Orthodox and Melkites from Greece, Syria and Lebanon – whose clergy seemed better educated than their Coptic counterparts. More significantly, Protestant missionaries began making inroads among the Copts while some Copts formed the Coptic Catholic Church with the blessings of Rome. The response of the Coptic Orthodox patriarch was to make the training of new leaders on all levels a matter of prime importance to their Church. Prior to 1850 the Coptic Church handed on its faith and tradition in a somewhat haphazard fashion, just as other Churches had done in placid times. Future priests observed their elders and learned hymns and rituals by observation and rote. In response to the challenge of their more effective neighbors, the Copts developed strong clergy formation programs over the next fifty years. This included, but was not limited to the training of priests. Before anything else, they trained chanters, catechists and deacons precisely in order to teach others the faith and traditions of their Church. Over the next century some of these chanters and deacons became priests. Perhaps more significantly, the readers and catechists – all with their own professions in the world – turned toward monasticism and revitalized monastic life in the country where it all began. Today the Coptic Orthodox Church is the strongest Church, spiritually speaking, in the Middle East. It has withstood Muslim violence despite the government’s hands-off treatment of Islamic fundamentalists. Where Copts have emigrated to the West, they quickly established churches at a surprising rate. While other Eastern Churches have taken several generations to begin using English in their liturgical services, the Copts began doing so almost immediately, assuring that their young people, many of whom were trained as “servants” (readers, etc.), would have a place in the life their Church. Today each Coptic diocese in the United States has an elaborate and extended training program for “servants.” Participation is expected and laziness is not tolerated. While other Eastern Churches lament poor Sunday School attendance, Coptic youth are training as “servants” over and above their Sunday School classes, beginning in the fourth and fifth grades. While other Eastern Churches resist imposing any standards for ministry in the Church, the Copts are more than able to maintain quality programs, the fruit of 150 years in the spirit of 2 Tim 2:2.

Training in the Coptic Church Today

Many of us would be shocked to see how seriously St Paul’s advice to Timothy has been taken in the Coptic Church. The following general guidelines from their Southern U.S. diocese show how seriously this Church takes training its “servants”: “The Servants Prep Program is a 3-year program as established by our Diocese. Each disciple must complete all three years to become a qualified servant, carrying and preserving the teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the ministries of the church and in our community. 
  • Class is every Friday from 7:30 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. There will also be Saturday retreats/seminars. Disciples are expected to attend these events.
  • There will be three (3) semesters and periods of evaluations per year: Fall, Spring and Summer. You need to score a minimum of 75% to move to the next semester.
 “Every disciple is expected to do their part by establishing their own spiritual canon, working on their personal relationship with the Holy Trinity, and maintaining regular attendance of the Divine Liturgy, partaking of the Eucharist, and confessing.  “The disciple is expected to have a fully integrated Orthodox Christian life, which means being consistent in behavior across all aspects of life (church, work, family, social life, etc.) and striving to live a life of purity and holiness pleasing to our Lord.”

Serving in Our Churches

The experience of our Churches today is similar to that of the Coptic Church in some respects. Most of our churches, like theirs, were founded by immigrants. Unlike them, we spent many years acclimating to our society in negative ways. Churches were westernized in the belief that this made them more acceptable in Western eyes. As a result many people had little idea of their own Tradition. Many confused their grandparents’ ethnic customs with the Church’s Tradition. We then went through a period in which people relearned the basics of their Tradition. Those who have done so can relate comfortably to the Eastern Christian traditions of prayer and fasting which a previous generation had lost. It is time to move to the next step: training young people as readers, chanters and catechists to the degree that they can train others in turn. The optimum time to begin bringing people into ministry, particularly the liturgical ministry, is during the middle school years. It is a time for growing self-confidence and before young people get involved with high school activities, jobs, and the like. They have sat in the pew long enough – they are ready to take on some form of service. Incorporating young people into already existing structures for church ministry may also address a long time problem in many churches. Young people are less likely than some of their elders to turn what should be roles of service into their personal place in the spotlight. Young people may be more open to see reading or singing in church as selfless ministries, learning to sing “without envy.” As the Coptic Pope Athanasius II wrote in the sixth century, “They [chanters] also teach others how to sing without envy... If the chanters are not singing with the Holy Spirit, let them not sing”.
 
WHEN PEOPLE THING about violating God’s law they think about sins of commission: doing something prohibited like stealing, harming another, or the like. We often forget that sins of omission – things that we neglect to do – are often even more damaging. The rich man in Christ’s parable is not accused of any sin of commission. He is not blamed for being rich any more than Lazarus is praised for being poor: in itself having money is not a sin. We are not told how he made his money. He is not accused of defrauding people as Zacchaeus claimed to have done. The only thing he is accused of is not giving alms. The poor man, Christ says, lay at the rich man’s gate, hoping for scraps. It may be easy to ignore a panhandler on the street; it is not so easy to ignore him when he is at your doorstep day after day. Yet this is what the rich man did. He did not overlook abstract appeals from far-away charities; he passed by a flesh-and-blood person in need on his own doorstep, “the living creature,” as St John Chrysostom describes him, “for whom God cares” (On Wealth and Poverty).

The Purpose of Wealth

One of the ultimate questions behind this parable is, “What is money for?” In the ethics of the world the answer is clear: money is there for us to buy more and bigger and newer and better. According to the Scriptures, however, though we walk in the flesh, we do not live according to the flesh. We know that our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. The purpose of money according to the vision of the kingdom of God depicted in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is set forth directly in St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. He writes, “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Corintians 9:8). Our resources as meant to provide us with “all sufficiency,” meaning everything that we truly need, and “an abundance” – everything more than we need – for doing good. Does having multiple cars and homes or a TV in every room fall under the heading of “sufficiency”? The rich man in Christ’s parable may have felt that he “needed” every scrap he had acquired but, as St. John Chrysostom affirmed, he did not know what he needed it for: “If a person enjoys luxury in moderation and distributes the rest to the stomachs of the poor, then his wealth does him good. But if he is going to give himself up to luxury and profligacy, not only does it not help him at all, but it even leads him down to the great pit. This is what happened to this rich man” (On Wealth and Poverty).

Where Do We Encounter God?

Devout believers are convinced that they encounter God in worship – in the words of the Bible, in the Eucharistic presence. The Lord taught the very thing: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). When the Body of Christ comes together in worship – particularly in the Divine Liturgy – the Head is surely there as well. But Christ also indicates another instance of His presence in our midst. He affirms that He is present in the needy of this world. In His parable of the last judgment Christ rewards those who fed and clothed Him, who welcomed Him or visited Him when He was sick or in prison. “Assuredly I say to you,” He tells them, “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). In the Liturgy we truly encounter the glorious Christ: the candles, the singing, the incense and the icons all point to Him as He is now: at the right hand of the Father, praised by the saints and angels. But in the poor we encounter the Christ who put aside His glory and took on our broken humanity that we might ultimately share in His divine sonship. The person in need is an icon of the humiliated Christ, the suffering Christ, the dying Christ – as much an icon of Christ in its way as is the Liturgy. Most of us find it easier to see the Lord of glory in the Liturgy. It seems to take a Dorothy Day, a Mother Teresa of Calcutta or a Father Damian of Molokai to see Christ incarnate in human weakness. The late Catherine de Hueck Dougherty, daughter of a noble Russian family, tells of how her parents recognized the presence of Christ in the poor. “Early in my childhood, the truth that Christ is in my neighbor was shown to me by my parents’ example and words. No one was ever turned from our door, bum or beggar, woman of the streets or thief. The men were welcomed by my father. He gave them a bath himself, or mother would do it for the women; then they would be given clothing if they needed it. They would be served by Mother and Father and by us children – if we had been good through the week and thus worthy of serving Christ in the poor – on our best linen and from our best china in the main dining room” (My Russian Yesterdays). The baron and baroness had clearly learned what the rich man in Christ’s parable had not: that the beggar at the gate is one whom God sends as a means for the salvation of the rich. As St John Chrysostom phrased it, “The Rich Man had in Lazarus an opportunity to learn virtue and to show forth love. Instead of accepting Lazarus’ help, he betrayed himself with heartless greed and an unwillingness to share his own wealth… For nothing can so make a man an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors. Indeed, even though you fast, or sleep on hard ground, or even suffer unto death, but should take no thought of your neighbor, you have done nothing great; despite what you have done, you still stand far from this model of a perfect Christian” (On Wealth and Poverty).
Who is the Rich Man?
“If we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. “We are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance. Just as we would not call a person healthy who was always thirsty, even if he enjoyed abundance, even if he lived by rivers and springs, (for what use is all that water when his thirst remains unquenchable). Let us do the same in the case of wealthy people: let us never consider those people healthy who are always yearning and thirsting after other people’s property; let us not think that they enjoy any abundance. For if one cannot control his own greed, even if he has appropriated everyone’s property, how can he ever be affluent? But those who are satisfied with what they have and pleased with their own possessions and do not have their eyes on the substance of others, even if they are the poorest of all, should be considered the richest of all. For whoever has no need of others’ property but is happy to be self-sufficient is the most affluent of all.”

St John Chrysostom, Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man

 
WOULD WE BE AFFECTED if someone rose from the dead? We would probably say “Yes,” but the Lord says “No.” What does He know that we don’t? Throughout the centuries, and even today, many people have what might be called mystical experiences. They see visions and dream dreams, to quote the prophet Joel. Thus St. Paul experienced the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and it changed his life. Similarly St. Peter and the other disciples encountered Christ risen from the dead and proclaimed it throughout the world. These experienced energized their ministries and jump-started the spreads of the Gospel throughout the ancient world. Such experiences continued throughout Christian history right up to our own day. One well-known Christian thinker in the modern world, the Russian Orthodox bishop in London, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) described his encounter with the Lord in these words:
“I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed Him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of Him. I was found; I did not find Him. “I was a teenager then. … I could not accept aimless happiness. Hardships and suffering had to be overcome, there was something beyond them. Happiness seemed to be stale if it had no further meaning. … I decided that I would give myself a year to see whether life had a meaning, and if I discovered it had none I would not live beyond the year. I had no use for Church. I did not believe in God.”
Young Anthony attended a religious lecture at the Russian youth organization under duress. He was greatly disturbed by the lecture and asked his mother for a copy of the New Testament to check the truth of what the speaker had been saying. He describes what happened:
“I expected nothing good from my reading, so I counted the chapters of the four Gospels to be sure that I read the shortest, not to waste time unnecessarily. And thus it was the Gospel according to St Mark which I began to read. “I do not know how to tell you of what happened. I will put it quite simply and those of you who have gone through a similar experience will know what came to pass. While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a Presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of Him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will… This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist.”
PBS commentator Frederica Mathewes-Green tells of a similar experience. She was a vocal agnostic who had dabbled in Hinduism. In Facing East –A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (San Francisco, 1997), she describes her husband Gary as “a political animal who just didn’t think much about God.” She then tells how that changed:
“Gary’s shell began to crack when a professor required his philosophy class to read a Gospel. As he read the words of Jesus, he became convinced that here was one who ‘speaks with authority.’ Since Jesus said there was a God, Gary began to doubt his doubting.”
Frederica’s turn came on their honeymoon trip to Europe where the following took place:
“One day in Dublin I looked at a statue of Jesus and was struck to my knees, hearing an interior voice say, ‘I am your life.’ I knew it was the One I had rejected and ridiculed, come at last to seize me forever.”
What was different about these people compared to the brothers of the rich man in Christ’s parable?

Why “Few Are Chosen”

Some of those mentioned above, like the apostles, were religious people. They observed the precepts of Judaism as practiced in their day. Others, like Anthony Bloom and Frederica Mathewes-Green were contemptuous of religion and had ridiculed it. Yet somewhere deep inside them was a search for meaning, a hidden disposition to faith, even if they were not practicing any religion at the moment. Thus, when these momentous experiences took place, they received them wholeheartedly and changed their entire way of life. People who have no interest in God or in any kind of an interior life, who are content pursuing a materialist way of life might easily shrug off a spiritual experience as some kind of delusion. They might blame it on a touch of the flu or having too much to drink. Similarly the rich man’s brothers in the parable may have paid lip service to the Scriptures but the focus of their lives was far from the things of God. They would not even have heard a voice from the dead.

Christ’s Alternative

A parable is a story with a moral, not a detailed history of an event. In this case, as in most, the moral is found at the end of the story. When the rich man in the parable asks Abraham to send Lazarus to shake up his brothers, Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). In other words, they have the Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – as their means of discerning the mind of God for them. Why would Christ say that when He Himself had to open the Scriptures to His disciples before they understand that God’s plan was being fulfilled in their midst? This saying, of course, is directed at us – it is the moral of the story. We are meant to base our faith on the mystery of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures rather than on some fantasy that the holy Virgin or an angel might visit us. Just as our daily life must be based on something more practical that a hope of winning the lottery, so our Christian life must have the solid foundation of the word of God to us. We have not only the Law and the prophets, but the Gospels and Epistles. We have the witness of Christ and the apostles, the testimony of the martyrs and the ascetics. We have the power of the holy mysteries, the voice of our liturgical texts and the unspoken voice of the holy icons. These are the voice of the Lord to us – let us hear them in faith.

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