Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE AMERICAN SHOPPING SEASON is at hand. Some people will spend it jostling for bargains; others will pass the time lamenting the commercialization of Christmas. The Eastern Churches, on the other hand, encourage their faithful to prepare for this feast by fasting. Each of these Churches has a pre-Nativity Fast, but each Church observes it to a different degree. Like the feast of Christ’s Nativity itself, this fast originated in the West. In ad 380 the Council of Saragossa in Spain mandated daily church attendance beginning on December 17. Pope St Leo the Great (400-461) described four Fasts, one in each season, “so that over the course of the year we might recognize that we are constantly in need of purification.” He indicated that the “winter fast” was to begin when the “ingathering of the crops was complete.” In France it was specified in the next century that this Fast begin on November 11, the feast of St Martin; the Fast was called “St Martin’s Lent.”

The Eastern Churches are first documented as observing this Fast between the sixth and the eighth centuries. Originally this Fast lasted one week, as in the Armenian Church today. In the eleventh century Pope Christodoulos of Alexandria lengthened it to forty days for the Coptic Church. The Byzantine Church followed suit in the next century. The Syrian Churches (Chaldeans, Indians, etc.) keep it for three to four weeks in December, climaxing the Season of Annunciation.

Why Do We Fast?

St Simeon of Thessalonika, writing in the fifteenth century, explained the purpose of this Fast in terms of its length. “The Nativity Forty-day Fast represents the fast undertaken by Moses, who—having fasted for forty days and forty nights—received the Commandments of God, written on stone tablets. And we, fasting for forty days, will reflect upon and receive from the Virgin the living Word—not written upon stone, but born, incarnate—and we will commune of His Divine Body.” As Moses received the Law after his forty-day fast, we will receive the living Word incarnate at the end of this Fast.

One thread running through this Fast is the remembrance of the time before the Incarnation. Mankind was in one sense disconnected from God, having lost the intimacy with Him which we were meant to have because we were created in His image. Fasting is our way to express our sorrow at man’s loss of fellowship with God.

The process of recovering this intimacy with God climaxed with the Incarnation, but was prepared for centuries by the Old Testament prophets. During the Nativity Fast we commemorate the prophets Nahum (12/1), Habakkuk (12/2), Zepheniah (12/3), Daniel and the Three Young Men in the Furnace (12/17). On the second Sunday before the feast we remember all those in sacred history who came before Christ and prepared the way for Him – His ancestors and ours.

When and How Do We Fast?

Each patriarchate and other local Byzantine Church has a slightly different way of keeping this Fast. According to one tradition a person should fast from meat and dairy for the forty days, but only need fast from fish after December 17. Another tradition holds that fish may be eaten throughout the Fast, but only on Saturdays and Sundays.

In Greece and the Middle East it is customary to mitigate the fast on Tuesdays and Thursdays until December 12 (Greece) or December 19. In the Melkite Church the fast has been shortened to begin on December 10 but to continue uninterrupted after then.

The number of feast days at the beginning of the forty days may account for these practices. Besides the Great Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (November 21 to 25), we observe feasts in honor of these popular saints: the Apostles Matthew (11/16) and Andrew (11/30), Sts Catherine of Alexandria (11/25), Barbara, and John of Damascus (12/4), Saba the Sanctified (12/5) Nicholas the Wonder-worker (12/6), the Maternity of St Anne (12/9), and St Spyridon the Wonderworker (12/12). In addition, of course, we in the U.S. also have the national holiday of Thanksgiving during this time. That doesn’t leave much time for fasting!

There are no penitential services appointed for this Fast like those we know during the Great Fast. Greeks, who do not generally do so otherwise, have the custom of serving the Divine Liturgy daily during these forty days. This practice echoes the idea that the Nativity Fast is a joyous fast, celebrating the immanent coming of Christ. Other Churches may serve the Akathist or the Paraclisis to the Theotokos during these days.

Character of the Nativity Fast

Many contemporary Eastern writers have encouraged the observance of the Nativity Fast in contrast to the popular Western “pre-celebration” of Christmas, which focuses on decorating, spending, and partying. They emphasize preparation for the feast in quietness and a simplified way of life. Instead of a harried pursuit of gifts and cards for people who will likely “re-gift” them for the next Christmas party, the Fast enables believers to focus on the mystery of the Incarnation, the “reason for the season.”

Many see this Fast as essential for us at this time of the year, to shift our focus from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about our appearance, our cuisine and our home decor in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X, emphasized the Nativity as the “feast of almsgiving” in which we celebrate and perpetuate Christ’s love for mankind. “The Nativity of Christ is primarily the feast of divine dispensation – the feast of charity and of almsgiving...  Through acts of mercy, extended to one another and to everyone, no matter what race we belong to, we implore the tender mercies of the divine Child, whose springs of mercies and bounties we will never be able to surpass.  As the pious Augustine says, “the lamp of our love toward our neighbors causes the divine compassion to abide in this creation.”

Pre-Nativity Hymns from the Menaion



Isaiah, dance for joy: receive the word of God. Prophesy to the Virgin Mary that the bush burning with fire will not be consumed by the radiance of our God. Let Bethlehem be prepared! Let the gates of Eden be opened! Let the Magi come forth to see wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger of beasts the salvation which the star has pointed out from above the cave, the life-giving Lord, who saves mankind! (Vespers, Nov 30)

Bethlehem, receive Mary, the City of God: in you will be born the Light that never sets. Let the angels stand in wonder in Heaven, and let mankind glorify the Lord on earth! O Magi from Persia, prepare your illustrious gifts! Shepherds, who pass the night in the fields, sing a hymn to the thrice-holy God. Let everything that has breath celebrate the Creator of All. (Matins, Nov 30)
 
PATRIARCHS IN BOTH EAST AND WEST regularly take the name of one of their predecessors. As a result, they are generally identified as the second, third or tenth of that name in that see. The Greek Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, John V, is an exception to that rule. He is known to history as John the Almsgiver and is remembered in Byzantine Churches on November 12.

Born in c. 552, John was the son of the governor of Cyprus, so his upbringing was that of an aristocrat. He married at his father’s behest, although his preference was for a celibate life. His friend and biographer, Bishop Leontios of Neopolis in Cyprus, wrote that John and his wife lived in continence until her father demanded that they live as husband and wife. The couple yielded to his demands and proceeded to have what Leontios called “a bountiful crop” of children. After a time, the children and then their mother died, leaving John free to live as a celibate devoted to the service of others.

John’s reputation as an extraordinary peacemaker and benefactor of the needy became so widely known over the following decades, that, still a layman, he was chosen – under pressure from Emperor Heraclius – to be Patriarch of Alexandria in 609.

The reason for his extreme generosity was only made known after his death by Leontios. One night when John was 15, he was awakened by a woman “whose face outshone the sun” and identified her as “the first of the daughters of the King.” She promised, “I will lead you into the presence of the King, for no one has as free access to Him as I have.” John knew that the King was the sole Compassionate Lover of mankind and identified this “first daughter” as Compassion. This experience as a teenager set the course of his life.

As patriarch, John immediately set out to assure daily support to over 7000 poor in his eparchy whom he called his “helpers.” Questioned by his staff, John replied, “Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they alone, are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.”

To discourage the many administrators and employees in his service from taking bribes or being influenced by the rich, John increased all their salaries. At the same time he demanded that they never take a gift from anyone. Leontios notes that “by God’s grace their households so prospered from then on, that some of them did not even take their additional pay.” He himself refused the many gifts offered by people seeking advancement, citing Proverbs 15:27 (lxx): “He that is greedy for gain destroys himself, but he who hates taking gifts shall live.”

Alexandria Under Attack

During John’s eleven years as patriarch, his Church was faced with two insurmountable crises: the Monophysite controversy and the Persian invasion of Egypt. The unity of the Patriarchate of Alexandria had been ruptured at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon. The terminology used by this council in its teaching on the nature of Christ was inconsistent with the language of St Cyril of Alexandria at the Council of Ephesus a few years earlier. The patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscoros I, who rejected the teaching of Chalcedon, was deposed and exiled. The council replaced him as patriarch with one of its adherents, Proterios of Alexandria. Dioscoros’ followers in Egypt continued to recognize him, as patriarch.

When Dioscoros died in 454, his supporters elected a successor who rejected the teaching of Chalcedon, while Proterios and his successors supported the council. From this point, there would be two hierarchies. The majority of the Egyptian Christians followed Dioscoros and his successors; today they are known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Chalcedonians, who followed the successors of Proterios, are now known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa.

As long as Alexandria was ruled by the Byzantine Empire there was conflict (often violent) between these two groups. John’s predecessors had attempted to enforce the Council of Chalcedon using the military and had failed. When John became patriarch there were only seven churches in Alexandria following the doctrine of Chalcedon.

John combated the Monophysites, not with arms but with alms. He was accessible to all and his liberality was for all, even for those who tried to cheat him. Approached by a beggar, John gave him six coins. The beggar then changed his clothes and approached from another street with the same request. When he tried a third time he was recognized, but John ordered that the man be given twelve coins: “Perhaps this is my Christ and He is trying me.” As a result his actions were recognized as based on his profound faith. By the end of John’s patriarchate his seven churches had become seventy.

The Persian Invasion

For most of the first millennium the rival “superpowers” in the Middle East were the Roman/Byzantine and the Persian Empires. In the early seventh century the Persians advanced through Syria and by 611 had conquered Syria and parts of Asia Minor. Many Christians – including a number of bishops and priests - fled from Syria to Egypt. When St John saw that many of these refugees were in need, he built a number of hostels to house them and paid the clergy among them as if they were his own.

When Palestine fell to the Persians a few years later, St John mounted a large program of assistance for the Christians of the Holy Land, and ransomed a large number of captives from the Persians. Leontios notes that the Persians themselves were impressed by his compassion and generosity “for even an enemy respects a man’s virtue.”

The Persian armies invaded Egypt in 618 and seized Alexandria the next year, aiming to depose the prefect and the patriarch. St John took refuge in Cyprus where he survived an assassination attempt but died in Cyprus in the year 620.

From Leontios’ Life of St John

“One day when [St John] determined to stop so many people from leaving the church as soon as the Gospel had been read in order to spend their time in idle talk instead of in prayer, what did he do? As soon as the Gospel had been read in the church he slipped away, came out himself and sat down outside with the crowd. Everyone was amazed, but the righteous one said to them, ‘Children, the shepherd must be where the sheep are. Come inside and I will join you. If you stay here, I will stay too. I come to this church for your sakes – after all, I could hold the service at home in my chapel if it was for myself.’”

When the Arabs seized control of Egypt in 642, the Greek presence in the country was all but eliminated and in later years the Chalcedonian patriarchs often resided in Constantinople, where they adopted the Byzantine rite. It was the arrival of Greek and Syrian Christians in the early nineteenth century which helped revive Egypt’s Chalcedonian (Byzantine) patriarchate. In the twentieth century the Greek Orthodox patriarchate expanded through missionary activity into central and southern Africa. It now has 23 eparchies in countries from Angola to Zimbabwe.
 
THERE ARE ALL KINDS OF PRIESTS in the world. Most Eastern religions (e.g. Hindu, Shinto or Buddhist religions) have priests, generally for the performance of their temple rituals. What is the Christian priesthood and is it different from these examples or from the priesthood of the ancient Greco-Roman and Persian religions?

The Old Testament Priesthood

Chapters 28 to 30 in the Book of Exodus detail the choice, the anointing and vesting and responsibilities of the Israelite priesthood. We find some of this material summarized in the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews as well. The Israelite priesthood originated during the exodus from Egypt when Moses’ brother, Aaron, and his descendants were designated as priests to offer the sacrifices in the “Tent of Meeting,” the portable sanctuary which accompanied the Israelites in the desert. In the tenth century bc a temple was built in Jerusalem as a permanent sanctuary by King Solomon and Aaron’s successors served as its priests. Solomon’s temple was destroyed during the Babylonian conquest in 586 bc. Once the Babylonians had been defeated and Jerusalem restored, a second temple was constructed and was dedicated in 515 bc. This was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ad and has never been rebuilt. Jewish Temple sacrifices ceased, although some ultra-Orthodox Jews look to rebuilding the temple in Israel today. The Old Testament priests were charged with offering sacrifices daily in the sanctuary. These included animal sacrifices and offerings of grain, wine and incense. An animal sacrifice was called in Hebrew a qorban, a term translated into Greek as prosphora in the Septuagint. Both these term are used in connection with the Eucharist in Byzantine Churches today. Sacrifices were offered in the temple each morning and evening as well as in connection with personal acts of devotion, such as thanksgiving, or reparation for transgressions of the laws found in the Torah. After the destruction of the temple these sacrifices were replaced in Jewish practice by specific prayers and the role of the priests was all but eliminated. Today Jewish priests (generally in families named Cohen or the like) have very restricted roles in the synagogue, such as giving the blessing at the end of the service (“The Lord bless you and keep you…”).

Christ as the Eternal Priest

In the New Testament the Lord Jesus is proclaimed as “high priest of the good things that have come” (Hebrews 9:11). He is the one who replaces the priests prescribed in the Torah, because He fulfills the Torah in Himself. “He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” (v. 15). He replaces the temple itself, as He Himself prophesied: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But He spoke of the temple of His body” (John 2:22, 24).  The work of Christ for our salvation is described in the Epistle to the Hebrews in terms of the priestly sacrifices in the Old Testament. To fully appreciate this comparison we need to understand how such a sacrifice (qorban) was offered. There were three steps: first the victim had to be killed. This was done, usually by the donor, in the temple courtyard. Secondly the victim was offered on the altar by the temple priest. Thirdly, it was assumed, the sacrifice was accepted by God in heaven. The sacrifice was then consumed, first by the priest; then the rest was given to the donor to be shared at his table. According to this pattern, Christ the victim was killed outside the city of Jerusalem. Then the action moves beyond the earthly plane to the heavenly. As priest as well as victim, Christ offers Himself to God on the heavenly plane. “He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). As a result, one single sacrifice offered by Christ was enough to fulfill the precepts of the Torah. “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (v. 27). Since Christ’s offering of Himself to the Father occurs in the heavens, it cannot be measured in earthly time. It is happening in eternity, “God’s time.” This is why, in the Divine Liturgy, we can connect with Christ’s eternal gift of Himself to the Father and share in consuming what Christ offered – His own Body and Blood.

The Priesthood of the Church

When we are baptized and chrismated we enter into the Church, the Body of Christ. As such we become members of the royal priesthood of Christ. “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Our role as members of this holy priesthood is to offer sacrifice, but what just what “spiritual sacrifices” are we to offer? First of all, as members of the Body of Christ, we offer in our earthly dimension the sacrifice of Christ which He eternally offers to the Father in the heavens. Thus, at the highpoint of the Divine Liturgy, the presiding priest proclaims in our name, “We anoffer You [the Father] Your own of what is Your own [Your Son], in all and for the sake of all.” Secondly, our “spiritual sacrifices” include the sacrifice of praise which is the prayer of the Church, the services of praise which the Body of Christ offers daily (vespers, orthros, etc.). Even when we pray these services privately in our own homes we do so in union with the entire Church at prayer: with the Head (Christ) as well as with the entire Body. A third way in which we exercise our priesthood in Christ is described in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). St Paul explains this in the next verse, “Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2). “This age” summons us to one form of self-indulgence after another – greed, lust, gluttony, and the ultimate expression of pride, the belief that we can remake ourselves by redefining our gender, and re-purpose God’s plan for man and woman. By resisting “this age” we sacrifice the pleasures such self-indulgence may bring in order to demonstrate that God’s plan for us leads to the Kingdom of God rather than to the therapist’s couch or the recovery group. We no longer express our dependence of God by the ritual sacrifices of the Torah, but by the living sacrifice of a holy life, lived in temperance, sobriety and chastity.
 
THE NEW TESTAMENT TELLS US a great deal about the apostles during Christ’s lifetime and the first days of the early Church. With the conversion of St Paul the Scriptures focus on him and his writings; most of the other apostles leave the stage. Nevertheless, we do not have a definitive picture of the role of an apostle in the first-century Church. We know that the apostles traveled extensively through the Mediterranean world and beyond bringing their eye-witness testimony to all who would hear them. What happened once people believed their word and formed Christian communities is less clear. It later became common to speak of some bishops as “successors” to individual apostles (Peter in Rome, Mark in Alexandria, James in Jerusalem, etc), but there is no clear evidence that apostles functioned as the heads of individual local Churches. Thus all bishops are in a sense successors of all the apostles. The practice of St Paul, at least, was to organize a Christian community and then move on, leaving trusted assistants to help it mature. As we learn from St Paul’s advice to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-13), bishops and deacons were then to be chosen from the local community after being tested. Sometimes, however, leaders assume that their followers are ready for leadership before their time. Perhaps this is what happened in Corinth. The chosen leader, Apollos, was being pitted against Paul and Cephas (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12-13). Apollos may have been responsible or he may have been used by contentious people in conflict with one another. In dealing with the problem St Paul reveals a divide that has reappeared in the Church from time to time.

Hierarchic Order and Prophetic Charism

The New Testament shows that, from the beginning, local Churches were organized around a hierarchy: the bishops and presbyters, assisted by the deacons. These ministries remain at the heart of the historic Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) today. They are, as it were, the mortar holding the local Church together. The bishops, by their communion with one another, show forth the interconnected nature of their Churches throughout the world. The apostles, like the Lord Jesus Himself, had an itinerant ministry. Their role was to proclaim the Gospel of which they were eyewitnesses and to encourage believers in the growing number of local communities in the Roman Empire and beyond. Their ministry was prophetic, accompanied by signs and healings. It was also unique because the apostles were eye-witnesses to Christ’s life, death and resurrection. In that they could have no successors. In the ages that followed the same two types of ministry continued. The hierarchical order of bishops, presbyters and deacons continued to provide the structural pattern to Church life. As the number of local Churches multiplied, bishops were given various designations corresponding to their differing responsibilities. Chor-bishops served the countryside, metropolitans served the towns and cities, the bishop of the principal Church in a province was called archbishop and, later, patriarch. These bishops came together in synods from time to time, manifesting the interdependence of each local Church on the others. The prophetic ministry tended to become the province of the monastics. Those who excelled in living the ascetic life, whether as hermits or in monasteries, manifested spiritual gifts which drew believers to join them in their way of life or, at least, to ask for their prayers and counsel. In many cases the bishops relied on the monastics for their spiritual assistance and often looked to them to provide members of the clergy, particularly in remote area. Sometimes, however, there were conflicts. Bishops, responsible for the care of the local Churches, tended to spend money they received on building churches, buying land and enhancing the treasury of their Church. Ascetics, on the other hand, would use whatever they were given to care for the sick and the needy, often criticizing more prosperous Christians (including bishops) for not doing the same. Prophets and hierarchs each were essential to the life of the Church; sometimes they exercised their particular gift by challenging one another.

The Elder in the Church Today

The English word “elder” is generally used to translate two different Greek terms, each referring to a different ministry in the Church. The first, presbyter, refers to the sacramental order in the Church’s hierarchy which surrounds and assists the bishop. Priest, the word we use for this order, is simply a contraction of the Greek term. The second word, geron, (literally “old man”) refers to the spiritual guide, usually but not exclusively, a monk or a nun. The elder or eldress experienced in the spiritual life has the prophetic charism of knowing God by experience and, because of this experience, being able to guide others in their journey to God. While the hierarchical order of bishop, presbyters and deacons is found in every authentic local Church today, the ministry of charismatic elder is less common. The lives of the Fathers and Mothers of the Egyptian desert contain numerous stories of early elders and eldresses. Successive generations have seen great elders arise in the Church such as Sts. John Moschos and Sophronios of Jerusalem in sixth-century Palestine, Symeon the Elder and Symeon the New Theologian in eleventh-century Constantinople and Sergius of Radonezh and Seraphim of Sarov in fourteenth- and nineteenth-century Russia respectively. Some today look to ascetics in monastic centers such as Mount Athos as elders for today. The spiritual elder or geron (in Slavonic, staretz) is generally a person with the spiritual gifts necessary to help others in the spiritual life. First of all is the knowledge of God which comes, not from books, but from prayer and experiential knowledge of God. Secondly the spiritual guide must know the inner life of others, a knowledge that may come as a special gift from God. Some elders manifest signs and uncommon spiritual gifts. One tale of an elder manifesting such a gift is often told about St Porphyrios, a twentieth-century Greek elder. Once he was visited by a Catholic monk from Italy who had come to learn more about the ascetic life of Athonite monastics. As the story goes, when Elder Porphyrios saw him, without asking him anything, he began to describe this monk’s monastery in Italy and their way of life there. He even described a neighboring convent. He saw all the monks and nuns there and mentioned each one of them in specific detail.

The Italian monk was literally dumb- founded because it was the first time in his life that he had met such a man. “If someone had told me about these things; that he had seen and heard these things, I would never believe it,” he later said. “How is it possible for this person who lives in Greece to describe our monastery in Northern Italy in detail, to tell me all those details, to tell me about the monks, to tell me about the nuns, each one of them individually?” Porphyrios attributed this knowledge to God’s grace. Popular veneration of this elder was confirmed by the bishops of the Orthodox Church of Greece who canonized Porphyrios in 2013.
 
A FEW YEARS AGO a Greek pilot had this harrowing experience. In mid-air his plane experienced system failure. The instruments disengaged, the engines cut out and there was nowhere to go but down. Suddenly the pilot saw the holy archangel Michael appear beneath the wings, holding them aloft. He couldn’t believe it. St. Michael guided the plane to safety, then vanished. In our culture there is no room for incorporeal powers such as angels. We class them as myths, along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Their tales may provide pleasantly distracting entertainment, but we “know” that only the corporeal, the physical is real. The Church, based on the witness of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, insists that incorporeal powers – angels – are very real, although generally unseen. They are created, as we are, but with none of the limitations our physical nature imposes on us. The angels are the invisible creation we mention in the Nicene Creed; yet they are not faceless forces: they are individuals differing according to their rank and function. The great number of human beings who inhabit only this planet is nothing compared to the number of angels who inhabit the universe. As St Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “Imagine how great in number is the Roman people. Imagine how great in number are the other peoples who now exist and how many more must have died! Imagine how many have been buried in a century or in a thousand years. Imagine all mankind from Adam to the present day. Great is their number, but it is small in comparison with the angels.” We find the presence of angels recorded throughout the Old and the New Testaments. The prophet Isaiah saw seraphim before God’s throne (Isaiah 6:2) and the prophet Ezechiel saw the cherubim (Ezekial 10:8). The prophet Daniel saw a thousand thousand ministering to God with ten thousand times ten thousand standing before God (Daniel 9 and 10). As we say in the Divine Liturgy, “There stand before You thousands of archangels and myriads of angels, cherubim and seraphim… singing, proclaiming, shouting the hymn of victory and saying ‘Holy!’” The highest in rank of the heavenly powers who minister among us are the holy archangels Michael and Gabriel. Mentioned in several books of the Bible, they are referred to in our Church as the “captains” or “commanders” of the heavenly hosts. In the apocalyptic Book of Daniel Gabriel is described as coming to Daniel “in rapid flight at the time of the evening sacrifice” (Daniel 9:21). He prophesied that in the last days Michael, “the guardian of your people” (Daniel 12:1) would defend and deliver from their enemies “everyone who is found written in the book.” Thus in icons Gabriel is usually depicted as winged while Michael is clothed in a military uniform. The angel Gabriel appears before Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Forerunner and before the Theotokos to announce the birth of Christ. There are angels at His birth in Bethlehem and at His tomb in Jerusalem. Angels populate the garden in the Book of genesis (Genesis 3:24) and the heavens in the Book of Revelation. We call on them in the psalms to protect and help us and to lead us in blessing the Lord.

A Synaxis for the Heavenly Powers

On November 8 the Byzantine Churches celebrate a synaxis (assembly) in honor of the commanders of the heavenly hosts, Michael and Gabriel, along with all the heavenly powers. This feast was first observed in a church at the thermal baths of the Emperor Arcadius in Constantinople and spread from there throughout the Christian East as the principal commemoration of the incorporeal powers. Another feast of St. Michael is kept on September 6 remembering the miraculous spring at Chonae in Asia Minor. A sanctuary dedicated to the Archangel had been erected by local Christians. Pagans sought to destroy it by diverting a stream from a nearby gorge against it; however a lightning strike split a massive rock diverting the stream again and preserving the shrine. Believers attributed the lightning to St Michael and considered the diverted waters forever sanctified.

Other Angels in the Tradition

There are a number of other angels named in Christian tradition, not to mention those in Jewish or Islamic lore. The Book of Tobit, found in the Greek Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Masoretic text, speaks of the angel Raphael, who identifies himself as “one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12:15). Thus seven angels are often depicted in icons wearing priestly vestments. The seven are named in 1 Enoch 20, a book highly esteemed by first-century Christians and still regarded as canonical Scripture in the Ethiopian Church. Besides Michael, Gabriel and Raphael it lists Uriel, Remiel (Jeremiel), Sariel (Selaphiel) and Raguel. Uriel and Remiel are also mentioned in 2 Esdras 4, another early work held to be canonical in some Churches. Uriel and Remiel were sent to explain to Ezra the signs of the times in which he lived. The presence of the archangels in our world was generally thought to indicate an approaching apocalyptic age.
Hail, Gabriel, announcer of the Incarnation of God! Hail, Michael, chief Captain of the bodiless hierarchies, who cry aloud, “Holy, holy, holy are You, O our Mighty God!”
From the Canon, November 8

Dionysius and the Angels

In the late sixth century a certain Dionysios, thought to be a Syrian pupil of the Greek philosopher Proclus, composed a number of works systematizing Scriptural teaching in a philosophical framework. For centuries he was confused with Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian convert of St Paul, and even St Denys of Paris. Since the nineteenth century he has been called by scholars Pseudo-Dionysius. Dionysios’ Celestial Hierarchies arranged the Scriptural names for the incorporeal powers in a specific order, the nine “ranks” of spiritual beings in three “choirs”: those closest to God (thrones, cherubim and seraphim), those closest to us (angels, archangels and principalities) and those in between (authorities, dominions and powers). The names are found in Scripture:
  • Cherubim (Genesis 3; Psalms 80 & 99; Ezekiel 10)
  • Seraphim (Isiah 6)
  • Archangels (1 Thessalonians 4; Jude)
  • Angels (Romans 8; 1 Peter 3)
  • Thrones, Authorities, Principalities and Dominions (Ephesians 1, 3; Colossians 1)
  • Powers (Romans 8; Ephesians 1)
Dionysios felt that this list was far from exhaustive. “How many ranks of heavenly beings there are, what their nature is and how the mystery of holy authority is ordered among them only God can know in detail…. All that we can say about this is what God has revealed to us through them themselves.”
 
THE CHURCH IS “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,” according to the teaching of St. Paul (Ephesians 2:20). What seems wrong with his image? In our experience a cornerstone is an ornamental piece, inscribed with the name of the building, the date of construction, perhaps the names of those responsible for it. A cornerstone may have images carved on it or adhering to it. It may have holy relics or other artifacts encased within it. It may be beautiful, but it is strictly ornamental. If that is what St. Paul is implying, then Christ is an ornament of the Church rather than the reason for its existence. In classical architecture, however, the term we translate as “cornerstone” had a very different meaning. A cornerstone (or foundation stone) was the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. It might not even be visible above ground, but it was all-important to the construction of the building. All other stones in the foundation would be set in reference to this stone, determining the position of the entire structure. This type of cornerstone gives meaning to St. Paul’s image. The building is set upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. But the foundation is set upon the very basis of the entire structure, the foundation stone or corner stone, which is Christ.

Who Are the Apostles and the Prophets?

Different commentators have identified these figures in different ways. While all agree that the apostles are, first of all, Peter and Paul with the rest of the Twelve, the Evangelists and the seventy disciples who first preached the resurrection to the world. It is their message – whether oral or written (the New Testament) – on which the community of believers rests. Some have said that the “prophets” refers to the great persons and events of the Old Testament in which we find the prophecies of the coming Messiah. Others have identified the prophets with those charismatic figures of the Church who have manifested the continuing presence of Christ in His Church by the gifts of the Spirit which they have received. In either case, the image is true: the Church rests upon the witness of those who have known the mystery of God’s plan in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the life of the Church – all of which rest upon the foundation stone, Jesus Christ.

A Stone Rejected

The Lord Himself used the image of the cornerstone when alluding to His own role in the plan of God. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that on the eve of His passion Jesus quoted Psalm 117:22-23(LXX) - “Have you never read in the Scriptures,” He asked, “‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes’” (Matthew 21:42). From its earliest days the Church saw this psalm verse as a prophecy of Christ – He is the Stone rejected by the builders (the leaders of Israel) whom God chose to be the very foundation of His new people, the Church. Builders would reject a stone for several reasons: it was misshapen, it was flawed, or it was just too unattractive for the work at hnd. This image of the rejected stone calls to mind a similar image in the prophecy of Isaiah which we have come to describe as the Suffering Servant: “…there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14). “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7-9). The rejected stone would be restored; his suffering was not the last word. Isaiah tells us: “See, my servant will prosper; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13. Both Isaiah’s prophecy and the psalm’s image of the chief cornerstone, rejected and exalted would be proclaimed by the first Christians as indicators of Christ’s voluntary passion and resurrection.

The Foundation Stone in Jerusalem

Visitors to Jerusalem cannot but be impressed by the Dome of the Rock, an elaborately tiled Islamic shrine at the heart of the Old City. It is as its name suggests a dome erected over a rock, in this case what is believed to be the foundation stone of the ancient Jewish temple of Jerusalem. This stone is considered the holiest site in Judaism, the spiritual junction of Heaven and Earth. Jews traditionally face it while praying, in the belief that the Holy of Holies in the Temple was built over this rock. After the Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD, the conquerors built the dome over this shrine. Curiously enough, the dome erected over this rock is inscribed to Jesus – proclaiming Him as God’s “prophet and servant, Jesus the Son of Mary.” Thus the site believed by Jews to be the foundation stone of the temple is dedicated – by Muslims – to Christ, the living stone, whose sacrifice offered in Jerusalem is the eternal oblation which includes and surpasses all the oblations of the Old Testament.
Christ the Living Stone
Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. 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. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, “Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious; and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.” (Isaiah 28:16) Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” and “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Isaiah 8:14). They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light: you who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:1-10).
 
WHEN PEOPLE READ THE SCRIPTURES they can often easily grasp the basic meaning of the passage. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, Christ is clearly exalting the compassion of the Samaritan over the lack of concern on the part of the priest and Levite. The enmity that existed between Jews and Samaritans is also generally known, so people easily comprehend Christ’s point that your enemy is your neighbor when he is compassionate. We can also easily – if grudgingly – realize that we are called to imitate the Samaritan, even in dealing with people not like ourselves. When passages are not so easily explained, however, people turn to others for help. People may turn to their pastor or another clergyman or instructor. Many will surf the net to see what others say on the subject. As Eastern Christians we have another – and preferred – source for guidance in reading the Scriptures. We look to the tradition of the Church Fathers to explain the sacred texts. Since the rise of academic, rather than pastoral, theology in its Middle Ages, the West has preferred contemporary scholarship to the Fathers’ insights on the Scriptures. Academic scholarship first stressed the context of the Scriptural texts and then sought proof of their historic origins to determine their original literal meaning. One of the approaches favored by the Fathers but out of favor in scholarly circles has been allegory, which sees many passages as a kind of extended metaphor for the entire Gospel. Allegory was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, which inherited from Judaism. It seeks to draw our attention through many well-known Scripture passages to the universal condition of mankind and the all-embracing love of God. It was used in various ways by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and John Chrysostom in the East, as well as Ambrose and Augustine in the West.

Chrysostom on the Good Samaritan

Using this method St John Chrysostom (feast: November 13) was able to help us see through this text God’s constant and all-embracing love for us. This parable becomes a word-picture of the entire mystery of salvation: A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho – Adam, by trusting in himself instead of God, descended from Paradise into this world. Jericho, at 825 feet below sea level is the lowest city on earth, as far down as you can get. He fell among robbers – Mankind apart from God is beset by the band of demonic powers led by the ruler of this age. They stripped him of his raiment – the robe of immortality. They departed, leaving him half dead – he was reduced to the half-life of this earth, subject to sin and death. It happened that a priest …and a Levite came that way, but passed by on the other side – The people of Israel kept to themselves and did not aid mankind. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine – Christ, not from this world, who was accused of being a Samaritan (John 8:48), is that compassionate stranger. He doctors mankind by His teachings (the bandages), His anointing with the Holy Spirit (the oil), and the Eucharist (the wine) by which He begins our healing. He set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn and took care of him - Christ joined mankind to His own human nature, brought him to the hospital of His Church and continued to minister to him as the divine physician. When he left on the next day he gave the innkeeper two dinars and said, ‘Take care of him’ – After His ascension Christ entrusted mankind to the Apostolic Synod personified by its great apostle to the Gentiles, St Paul, and “through Paul to the high priests and teachers and ministers of each church,” saying: “Take care of the Gentiles whom I have given to you in the Church. Since men are sick, wounded by sin, heal them, putting on them a stone plaster, that is, the prophetic sayings and the gospel teachings, making them whole through the admonitions and exhortations of the Old and New Testaments.” So according to St. John Chrysostom, Paul is the one who upholds the churches of God “and heals all men through spiritual admonitions, distributing the bread of offering to each one...” ‘And when I come again I will repay you’ – At my second coming I will reward you. In his important work, Orthodox Psychotherapy, the contemporary Greek Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos expresses the life of the Church in terms of this imagery. “So in the Church we are divided into the sick, those undergoing treatment, and those – the saints – who have already been healed. … The Fathers do not categorize people as moral and immoral or good and bad on the basis of moral laws. This division is superficial. At depth humanity is differentiated into the sick in soul, those being healed, and those healed. All who are not in a state of illumination are sick in soul... It is not only good will, good resolve, moral practice and devotion to the Orthodox Tradition which make an Orthodox, but also purification, illumination and deification.” These stages of healing are the purpose of the Orthodox way of life.”
In another place St John Chrysostom taught that ministering to the spiritually ill in the hospital of the Church is for us all: “Let us not overlook such a tragedy as that. Let us not hurry past so pitiable a sight without taking pity. Even if others do so, you must not. Do not say to yourself: ‘I am no priest or monk; I have a wife and children. This is a work for the priests; this is work for the monks.’ The Samaritan did not say: ‘Where are the priests now? Where are the Pharisees now? Where are the teachers of the Jews?’ But the Samaritan is like a man who found some great store of booty and got the profit. “Therefore, when you see someone in need of treatment for some ailment of the body or soul, do not say to yourself: ‘Why did so-and-so or so-and-so not take care of him?’ You free him from his sickness; do not demand an accounting from others for their negligence. Tell me this. If you find a gold coin lying on the ground, do you say to yourself: ‘Why didn’t so-and-so pick it up?’ Do you not rush to snatch it up before somebody else does? “Think the same way about your fallen brothers; consider that tending his wounds is like finding a treasure. If you pour the word of instruction on his wounds like oil, if you bind them up with your mildness, and cure them with your patience, your wounded brother has made you a richer man that any treasure could. Jeremiah said: ‘He who has brought forth the precious from the vile will be as my mouth.’ What could we compare to that? No fasting, no sleeping on the ground, no watching and praying all night, nor anything else can do as much for you as saving your brother can accomplish.” St John Chrysostom, Eighth Homily against the Judaizers 4: 1-3

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