Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IT IS PROBABLY SAFE TO SAY that most people would prefer to read a story than an academic treatise. Both forms might be conveying the same point, but a narrative is likely to be more compelling – and more memorable – than a dissertation. The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, the Great Feast we celebrate today, rests on such a narrative.

The story is found in The Protoevangelion of James, a second-century telling of the birth and infancy of the Theotokos. We know that in the first and second centuries ad a number of books were written about Christ and His Mother. Some were accepted by all the local Churches as presenting a true portrait of the Messiah. Others were rejected because the Christ they portrayed was not the One who had been preached by the apostles. In some He was a Gnostic philosopher, in other a magician. We call these “apocryphal gospels” and do not see them as the voice of the Holy Spirit to us. Still other books, The Protoevangelion of James among them, were revered by the Christians of their day but not considered canonical Scriptures because their content was not at the heart of the apostolic proclamation or the early Creeds. Their subject matter treated things like Jesus’ physical appearance or the early periods of Christ’s life not covered in the Gospels. They may be true but not central to our faith.

The Source of This Feast

The prayers and icon of this Feast focus on two elements of the Protoevangelion story. In the first, Mary at the age of three is presented to God in the temple at Jerusalem accompanied, as the text reads, “by the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled.” There “the priest received her, kissed her and blessed her.” After describing the scene, the Protoevangelion continues: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord like a dove that is being nurtured: and she received food from the hand of an angel” (8:1). The image of the Virgin receiving food from an angel, often represented in our icon of the Feast, points to the spiritual environment in which Mary was raised and which would prepare the holy Virgin for her future role as Theotokos.

The second vignette is shown in the upper right hand corner of this icon. There Mary sits in the innermost sanctuary of the temple, the Holy of Holies, ministered to by an angel. According to Jewish Law, no one entered the Holy of Holies: “only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (Hebrews 9:8). It is unthinkable that a child would be not only allowed there but actually live there as the Protoevangelion avows.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are given a reason why no one was allowed into the Holy of Holies: “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning” (Hebrews 9:9). By placing Mary in the Holy of Holies, the Protoevangelion is saying that the way into the Holy Place – the presence of God – now is disclosed. It is Christ, who would be incarnate in the womb of this same Mary the Theotokos. For this reason the story and its celebration have been embraced by the Tradition as affirmations of the Gospel.

Mary’s coming into the temple is portrayed as an “Entrance” on this feast in the Christian East rather than as a “Presentation” as in the West. This term puts us in mind of things like the “Great Entrance” at our Divine Liturgy or the Entrance Procession in the Western rites. Her coming is not the blessing of an insignificant child given in a “side chapel,” as it were, but a festive “prelude” or “overture” inaugurating the main event, the New Testament itself. Our celebration of this feast focuses on Mary as the temple of the incarnate God, the one for whom the Jerusalem temple was only a prefiguration.

After their entry with Christ into Jerusalem, His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to the temple and the buildings in its compound. Jesus replied, “‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’” (Matthew 24:2). This feast celebrates the fulfillment of His prophecy. God’s people will no longer reach heaven via Jerusalem; rather the heavens have been opened to us and God’s temple, the Theotokos, is become for us the way to heaven through her childbearing.

“Hail, Full of Grace”

Perhaps the most popular hymn of this feast is the kontakion, O katharotatos naos, which summarizes in a few lines the theology we have been presenting. It reads: “The most pure Temple of the Savior, the most precious and bright bridal chamber – the Virgin, sacred treasury of the glory of God – enters today into the Temple of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit. Wherefore, the angels of God are singing: “This is the heavenly Tabernacle!”

In this hymn two teachings are affirmed. Mary is proclaimed by the angels as “the heavenly tabernacle.” The tabernacle, we know, was the portable holy place which the Hebrews brought with them in the desert until they reached the Promised Land. It was rendered into a more permanent form as the temple. She, not any building, is the holy place where God dwelled.

Secondly we are told that Mary entered the temple “bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit.” People went to the temple to encounter God, to receive His blessings. Mary, instead, brings God’s grace with her. She is proclaimed as “full of grace,” even as a child, by the angels themselves. This feast is thus for the Eastern Churches what the Immaculate Conception is to the West: a celebration of the holiness of Mary, sanctified from her earliest days by the Most Holy Spirit who dwelt in her.

As we have said it was unthinkable that a child, or anyone for that matter, should enter the Holy of Holies. But it is Mary’s rightful place as the woman full of grace, the Platytera between earth and heaven, the foremost worshipper of the Lord whom she would contain within her. Mary at Work

Icons of the annunciation often show the Holy Virgin weaving when the angel appeared to her. This vignette, too, is drawn from the Protoevangelion, which describes Mary as weaving a curtain for the Jerusalem temple with several other girls. The temple veil was like a giant patchwork quilt with each girl assigned by lots to weave a portion, each using different colors. The Virgin was given the most precious colors, scarlet and true purple. Our iconography designates these colors to represent divinity. Christ wears a scarlet or purple tunic with a blue cloak over it. This symbolizes that His divinity (scarlet) put on His humanity (blue) in the incarnation.

In icons of the Theotokos the colors are reversed. Her humanity (a blue tunic) took on divinity (a scarlet cloak) when she conceived the Lord.

From the Menaion



The holy and immaculate one is led by the Holy Spirit into the Holy of holies. She is fed by a holy angel, for she is herself the most holy temple of our holy God, who has sanctified all things by her entry and has deified the fallen nature of mortal men.

With songs let us hymn the glorious arrival of the Theotokos; for today, as the prophets foretold, she is borne into the temple as a gift of great price though she is herself the temple of God.
 
WHEN PEOPLE THINK of Byzantine Churches today, Constantinople (Byzantium) comes to mind as do the “Ancient Patriarchates” (Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem} which adopted this rite later in their history. The largest Byzantine Churches today are the Slavic Churches (Russia, Ukraine, and the rest). These are also the Churches most represented in the West. But there are other ancient Churches with ancient histories that are less common in the West, such as the Apostolic Church of Cyprus and the Church of Georgia. Neither of these Churches have eparchies in the United States, so we may know little about them.

The Church of Barnabas and Mark

Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean west of Syria, was settled by Greeks in the eleventh century bc. By the first century ad, it was part of the Roman Empire.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Cyprus was one of the first non-Jewish territories to receive the Gospel. “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch,,,” (Acts 11:19). Cypriots trace the founding of their Church to the apostles, specifically Barnabas and Mark, who went there after they parted from St Paul (see Acts 15:36-41). Dependent at first on the Church of Jerusalem and, later on, on Antioch, the Cypriot Church was made autocephalous at the Council of Ephesus (431).

Cyprus was occupied by the Arabs (649-965), the Crusaders (1191-1473), the Venetians (1473-1570), and the Ottoman Turks (1570-1878). Under the Crusaders and Venetians, the Church of Cyprus was subjected to Latin rule and the Latins were recognized as the island’s elite. Under Turkish control the Ottoman millet system was introduced and restored the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church. Its archbishop was declared to be the head of the rum millet on Cyprus. Despite the taxation, harassment and outright persecution at times, the Church prospered under Ottoman rule. By 1878 it numbered two-thirds of the island’s population in its ranks.

As a result of the Russo-Turkish War, the British Empire took control of Cyprus in 1878. Many hoped that Cyprus would be united to Greece, but when Britain ceded control of the island in 1960 it was to an independent Republic of Cyprus. In 1974 those favoring union with Greece deposed the president and sought to unite the island to Greece. The Turkish army invaded and partitioned Cyprus into Greek and Turkish parts. None of the many attempts at reunion which followed have been successful.

The Saints of Cyprus

Cyprus has been called “the island of saints.” Some 240 local saints are commemorated on its calendar. A synaxis for all these saints is celebrated in Cyprus on the first Sunday of October.

Perhaps the most famous Cypriot saints – after the apostles – are:

St Lazarus the Four-Days Dead (Mar. 17) – Lazarus of Bethany, whom the Lord raised from his tomb, is said to have fled to Cyprus in the first persecution of Christians in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 11. He settled in Kition (present day Larnaca), where he is regarded as its first bishop. Lazarus’ tomb in Larnaca, with the inscription “Lazarus, the Friend of Christ,” was discovered in 860. The bulk of his relics were taken to Constantinople in 869, but the emperor built a church over the saint’s tomb. In 1972 a marble sarcophagus containing human remains was excavated below the altar of this church.

The Palm Sunday carol, “Rejoice, O Bethany,” sung in many Middle Eastern churches, is of Cypriot origin.

St Spyridon the Wonderworker (Dec. 12) – Born at the end of the third century, he was a shepherd so known for his piety and generosity to those in need that, after the death of his wife, he was chosen to be bishop of Tremithusia, a village in northern Cyprus.

Spyridon attended the First Ecumenical Council in 325 where he reputedly converted a pagan philosopher to Christ. In his Life, the philosopher is said to have responded, “Listen! Until now my rivals have presented their arguments, and I was able to refute their proofs with other proofs. But instead of proofs from reason, the words of this Elder are filled with some sort of special power, and no one can refute them, since it is impossible for man to oppose God. If any of you thinks as I do now, let him believe in Christ and join me in following this man, for God Himself speaks through his lips.” Stories of St Spyridon’s life and the healings attributed to him are found in the fifth-century Church histories of Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen. His life was included in the tenth-century Menologion written by St Simeon Metaphrastes.

St Spyridon died in 348 and his body was later found to be incorrupt and a source of healing. When the Arab invaded Cyprus in 649, the saint’s holy remains were taken to Constantinople. With the fall of that city to the Turks in the fifteenth century, the relics were taken to the island of Corfu where they are today.

St Spyridon is also regarded as the protector of Corfu. In 1716 that island, then under Venetian rule, was besieged by the Turks. St Spyridon is said to have been seen by the Turkish troops walking through their camp. This apparition sent the Turks into a panic and the siege was lifted after only 22 days. Since then it has become the custom to replace the slippers on the saint’s body when they show signs of wear, because, in walking about the island to care for the people, St Spyridon “wears out” his shoes.

The Hieromartyr St Philoumenos (Nov 29) – Born in 1913, this contemporary Cypriot saint and his twin brother were raised by their devout grandmother on the Church’s prayers and the lives of the saints. At the age of fourteen they entered the Stavrovouni Monastery in Cyprus. After five years, the brothers went to Jerusalem where, in 1939, Fr Philoumenos joined the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher which cares for the holy places in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Known for his piety and devotion to the performance of the daily services even when alone, Fr Philoumenos was appointed guardian of the monastery at Jacob’s Well, near Nablus, where Jesus had asked a Samaritan woman for a drink.

A few months later a group of Zionist extremists came to the monastery demanding the removal of all icons, crosses, etc. and that the monastery be given to them as a Jewish site. The saint reminded them that the Church had served this shrine since the time of the Emperor Constantine and that it had been in Samaritan hands for eight centuries before that.

A few days later, on November 29, a group entered the monastery and desecrated the church. They butchered Fr Philoumenos with a hatchet in the form of a cross, plucked out his eyes and cut off the fingers of his right hand (with which he would make the sign of the cross).

Fr Philoumenos’ body retained its elasticity for several days. When it was exhumed in 1984, it was found to be substantially incorrupt. Fr Philoumenos was glorified as a saint by the Jerusalem Patriarchate in 2008 and his relics enshrined in the church at Jacob’s Well where he had been martyred.
 
DAY AFTER DAY Christians say the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to “give us this day our daily bread,” that is, to provide us with what we need for today. The rich man in Christ’s parable (Luke 12:16-22) clearly has a different perspective. He is not just concerned about today but about tomorrow, finding his security in the “grain and goods” he has stored up. The man’s approach seems eminently practical – we do the same with our IRAs and annuities. Nobody wants to end their days on earth in a welfare hotel. But if we put absolute confidence in any earthly resource we will be as foolish as this rich man for “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). The parable raises a number of questions for Christians: what are possessions for? Should a Christian’s use of his or her wealth differ from that of a non-Christian? Where do we find God’s will in these matters?

Need vs. Abundance

The Scriptures frequently speak about money or other assets. It has been estimated that there are over 800 indications in the Bible about using our resources. Perhaps the greatest clarity on this question is found in St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. He tells his readers that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). St Paul’s principle is clear: God provides – that we have “enough of everything” and “an abundance” for doing good. What is “Enough”? – this refers to what we actually need: the “basics” (food, clothing, shelter, etc.). What is actually necessary varies over time and place as well as circumstances of life. We need things in our culture which others societies either did not require or did not have. Today we need health insurance, for example – something which did not even exist before our own age. Similarly “need” is different for a family than for a single person. A single person probably doesn’t require three cars while a suburban family with a son or daughter in college might require just that. Need is different for a couple raising children than for a couple caring for an older relative or for grandparents living alone. The circumstances of our lives and of our society will dictate what we actually need to live the lives which we have been given. St Paul’s principle applies in all circumstances, however. Anything more than what we truly need is given to us by God for the doing of good.

The Age of Conspicuous Consumption

Sociologists have long described the modern age as a time of “conspicuous consumption” when people spend money on expensive or unnecessary items, not to meet their real needs but to display wealth or status. People often are pushed to acquire bigger and better houses, cars, flat screen TVs, etc. – not because they need them but in order to outshine their neighbors or social rivals. Products are marketed with an eye towards making people believe they need something they can never even use (Does anyone really need 400 channels?) In the past products were made to last and to be repaired if necessary; today those same items are designed to break down and be replaced by newer and “better” ones. We are taught to keep upgrading our possessions and thus “better” our lives. This dynamic is not limited to the upper classes of society. The poor are perhaps more susceptible to the tendency to prove one’s real worth by the number of their possessions. The spectacle of teenagers being knifed for their sneakers demonstrates how far the concept of conspicuous consumption has penetrated our society. Two automobiles have become icons of contrasting economic strategies in the world today. The “solid gold Cadillac,” title of a 1950s Broadway play and film, represents the world of conspicuous consumption, of spending for show rather than for need. The second automobile, symbolizing the Scriptural principle of spending for need, is the Fiat compact sedan in which Pope Francis rode during his 2015 American visit. People who had never heard of conspicuous consumption instinctively realized that the pope’s Fiat was saying something important about the ways of God on earth. God’s blessings abound, but they are not meant to be wasted on empty display. As the British newspaper The Guardian quipped at the time, “A Fiat is worth a thousand words.”

The Purpose of Our Abundance

Many people feel that they are just getting by, they have no “abundance” to share with others. This is often because we have come to believe the admen who say you absolutely need the latest model, style or title, especially when promoted by a celebrity. If Alex Trebek says you need it, who am I to judge?! Once we take a realistic look at our needs we find that we can do without things which may be pleasurable or desirable but are not necessary for our life. We may then find that we have an abundance after all. Each person’s life presents a countless number of opportunities to do good with our abundance. We may support – or increase our support for – charitable causes both at home or in our Mother Church, contribute to educational or philanthropic organizations. We will have no difficulty finding ways to use our abundance for good once we have decided that God has actually provided us with an abundance.

Help from the Tradition

Throughout its history the Church has given us a valuable tool to help us recognize that our needs and our desires are not always the same. The weekly fast days of Wednesday and Friday – practiced as early as the first century – and the four fast periods of the year are connected with liturgical observances, to be sure. They have another level of meaning as well. Our ascetic fasts are recurring reminders that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” We put aside food and drink, leisure and entertainment periodically to remind ourselves of a lesson too easily forgotten: that we don’t need stuff, we need God. Our tradition of fasting coupled with almsgiving may be especially important to us today since we live in an age when we can easily pamper ourselves every day and thereby weaken our resistance to evil. People who are addicted to luxuries are less likely to put them aside when forced to choose between keeping them or following the Gospel. As Pope St Leo the Great noted in the fifth century, “Against the threatened attacks of persecutors, against the terrifying shouts of the ungodly, they could not fight with bodily strength or pampered flesh since that which delights the outer does most harm to the inner man, and the more one’s fleshly substance is kept in subjection, the more purified is the reasoning soul” (Homily 70 On the Fast of Pentecost I).
 
THE IMAGERY OF THE TEMPLE runs through the Scriptures and the Church’sTradition, especially in the Christian East. Several of those images are presented to us during these days, offering us the opportunity to reflect on the Temple in the thought of our Church.

God Dwells among the Israelites

The first temple described in the Old Testament was not a temple-building. It was the tabernacle or portable shrine set up by Moses in the wilderness (c. 14th century BC). In its fullest form the tabernacle consisted of a large tent, called the Holy of Holies because it contained the Ark of the Covenant which held the tablets of the Law given by God to Moses. In front of the Holy of Holies stood an altar for burnt offerings and a laver in which the priests washed their hands and feet before offering a sacrifice. The courtyard in which these objects stood was surrounded by curtains mounted on poles.

God Dwells in Jerusalem

When King David conquered Jerusalem and established his capital there (c. 1000 BC), he had the Ark brought to the city (cf 1 Chronicles 15). King David wanted to build a permanent temple for God in Jerusalem but God did not permit it, as David reported to his people:. “Hear me, my brethren and my people: I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God, and had made preparations to build it. But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for My name, because you have been a man of war and have shed blood’ (1 Chronicles 28:3). Instead it was left to David’s son, Solomon, to build the temple of Jerusalem. In 833 BC, a time of peace in the region, King Solomon began the construction of the Temple on a site chosen by his father. David’s site, Mount Moriah, was the place where Abraham had once prepared to offer up his only son in obedience to God (cf. Gen 22). Seven years later Solomon dedicated the completed temple and had the Ark of the Covenant brought into its Holy of Holies. Solomon’s temple is described in some detail in the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary and behind the second veil586 the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies,  which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat” (Hebrews 91-5). The temple signified Israel’s continuing communion with God, expressed in its round of daily and festal sacrifices. “…the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s transgressions”(Hebrews 9:6-7). Solomon also provided a place in the temple for non-Jews, the Court of the Gentiles, “that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this temple which I have built is called by Your name” (1 Kings 8:43). The temple remained the center and heart of Israel for the next three centuries, even though the rulers and people frequently strayed from faithfulness to their God. Finally in 586 BC Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians. The Jews were deported, the temple was destroyed and all its treasures taken off to Babylon, never to return.

The Second Temple

After fifty years in captivity the Jews were freed by the Persians who conquered Babylon. Many returned to Jerusalem and in time rebuilt the temple. The second temple was completed in 349 bc and became the center of restored Jewish life. While the Jews were back in Jerusalem, they were not politically independent so the temple became the sole embodiment of Jewish identity. But since the Ark and other God-ordained vessels had disappeared, the Holy of Holies was left empty. As a result several Jewish groups, like the Essenes, refused to acknowledge the second temple without the “real presence” of the Ark. King Herod the Great renovated and enlarged the second temple in AD 19, covering the façade of the Holy of Holies with gold and white marble. He also added a great plaza around the temple to accommodate the vast number of pilgrims who celebrated the Passover and other feasts in Jerusalem. The football-stadium sized temple with its courtyards and outbuildings could not fail to impress visitors, including the Galilean fishermen and tradespeople who accompanied Jesus. “As [Jesus] went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’ And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2).

Living Temples

Before the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, it had been eclipsed as God’s dwelling place on earth by the incarnation of the Word. Christ is the new and living temple of God on earth. As He told the Pharisees who criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath, “One greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6).Through Christ God has communicated Himself to mankind and also through Christ we can reach out to God as our heavenly Father. In that the Theotokos was the dwelling place of Christ in her womb, the Church also calls her the temple of God. This image is employed particularly on the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos (November 21). In the words of the kondakion, “The most pure temple of the Savior, the precious bridal chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasury of God, enters today into the house of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the divine Spirit.” The Church itself, in that it is the Body of Christ, is His dwelling place on earth. As St Paul told his Gentile followers in Ephesus, “you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,  in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22). Finally our church building is an icon proclaiming that Christ, incarnate of the Virgin and the Head of His Body, the Church, is for us what the temple of Jerusalem once was for Jews. The pot of manna is fulfilled by the Eucharist, the Torah scroll by the Gospel Book and the rod of Aaron by the cross. The cherubim, the menorah and the censer now flank the Holy Table instead of the Ark. The impenetrable temple veil is now made transparent by the icons and we come in and go out freely, as children of the Father and priests of the New Covenant.
 
CONTRASTING OPPOSITES WAS a popular rhetorical device during the time of St Paul. The Lord Himself used the method, usually contrasting concrete things such as new wine and old wineskins or the plank in one’s own eye vs. the speck in one’s brother’s eye. He pointed to those who would be first vs. those who would be last in the Kingdom of God. “Many are called but few are chosen” He noted, and this became a kind of refrain commenting on Gospel incidents (e.g. Matthew 20:16). When St. Paul wrote to communities where believing Jews and their converts often tended to maintain their allegiance to the Law while accepting Christ as the Messiah, he focused on the contrast between those who found their salvation in keeping the Torah (Law) and those who found it by believing in Christ. But Christ alone, Paul insisted, is the source of our salvation and only through faith are we joined with Him. Not having to keep the Law made some people think that they could do whatever they wanted. Paul responded with another contrast: that between flesh and spirit. “The Law is fulfilled in this one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14) he affirmed. Our fallen passions – the flesh – push us to abuse our neighbor instead through sexual immorality, hatred, selfish ambitions and the like. But living in the Spirit produces love, joy, peace and the other characteristics St Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). Darkness and Light in St. Paul When Paul writes to the Ephesians he speaks of darkness and light to contrast a life lived in ignorance of God vs. a life illumined by the knowledge of God. When people are “alienated from the life of God” they walk “in the futility of their minds” (Ephesians 4:17-18) like pagans. Separated from God, they try to figure things out on their own and that inevitably leads to disaster: epitomized, in Paul’s words, by lewdness and every kind of excess. St. Paul included idolatry as another example of our futile self-determination. Of course, actual idolatry was practiced in the ancient world for centuries, dying out in some places only in the fifth or sixth century. But St John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, said that, for those who claim to worship Christ, idolatry may mean something else. Giving service to our passions, he argued, is actually worship of Venus, the goddess of love; allowing wrath to absorb us is actually worship of Mars, the god of war. You more truly worship by your deeds and practices than by your rituals, he insisted, and this is the higher kind of worship! (Homily 18 on Ephesians). St Paul has been criticized for singling out sexual immorality as the height of godlessness. Paul, they say, saw licentiousness as the gravest sin, worse than any other. Note, however, that Paul only starts by focusing on promiscuity. He then goes on to include all kinds of behavior which, he teaches, are equally incompatible with the life in Christ. He names untruthful speech, unresolved anger, theft, and unseemly language as signs of – and here he introduces another contrast – the old man (vs. the new man created according to God). It is perhaps the moralizing of some Christians in earlier days rather than St. Paul which is responsible for our ignoring unresolved anger or lack of mutual love while focusing of sexual morality. It may be argued, however, that, our sexual failings are, in fact, weathervanes indicating our need for self-satisfaction at all costs. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Church when lust and greed drive its members, including their leaders, to turn their backs on the light. Then we see the chilling force of Christ’s own words, “If the light that is in you is darkness, how great must it be” (Mt 6:23).

Christ as Light in St John

The contrast of light and darkness here concerns our ethical behavior; elsewhere in the New Testament this imagery suggests something more. In the First Epistle of St John we read, “This is the message which we have heard from Him [Christ] and declare to you: that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). There is something about God’s very being that can be described as light. Later in the same epistle we are told that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Fathers came to see this love as the expression of the eternal relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and, by extension, between the Trinity and all creation, particularly mankind. In a similar way they came to see light as the expression of God’s holiness, especially in the flesh of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, with His holy transfiguration on Mt. Tabor as the preeminent experience of that light in His flesh.

Baptism as Illumination

The Fathers regularly spoke of baptism as the mystery of illumination whereby we are filled with the light of Christ. In The Life in Christ St. Nicholas Cabasilas writes, quoting St. John Chrysostom, “From our baptism, our soul, purified by the Spirit, is more resplendent than the sun. Not only do we contemplate the glory of God, but we receive again its luster. Just as pure silver, when exposed to its rays, completely sparkles – not only by its own nature but due to the brightness of the sun – so the soul, purified by baptism, is made brighter than silver, receiving from the Spirit the ray of glory such as to possess a proper brilliance such as only the Spirit can communicate. … That which Moses bore on his forehead, the saints bore in the depths of their souls, but with far more brilliance…”

The Taboric Light

This baptismal radiance is so commonly obscured in us by our subsequent acts of sin and neglect that we see Cabasilas’ words as hyperbole, exaggeration. Yet it is this very light which iconographers seek to portray by depicting haloes in the icons of the saints. In addition we have numerous examples of a tangible light – called the Taboric light, in other words, the light experienced on Mt. Tabor – not only in the souls of certain saints, reflecting their union with Christ the Light, but in their bodies as well. Perhaps the most famous of them is St. Seraphim of Sarov, whose disciple, Nicholas Motovilov, described the event in detail. The recognized saints of the Church are not the only ones to reflect this light. The twentieth-century Romanian elder, Fr Dumitru Bejan tells how in the late 1960s he saw, unobserved, two old monks who always stayed behind in church after Matins. “After everyone had left they would lie outstretched on the floor of the church in the form of the Cross and begin to pray with tears to the Savior, asking for mercy, forgiveness, and absolution of sins….As Fr Dumitru watched them pray, to his amazement he saw a translucent flame of light rise and intensify over their heads. Seeing this flame of the grace of the Holy Spirit manifest, Fr Dumitru fell to his knees and joined the two elders in prayer” (Balan, Shepherd of Souls, p. 140-141).
 
“THERE IS ONE BODY AND ONE SPIRIT, … one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:3-6). St Paul insists here on the unity required of Christians because they all share alike in the one Body, the one Spirit, etc. How could there be division when the Body of Christ is one? This is a question which has plagued the Church since its earliest days. It first surfaced as a problem for Church order in third-century Carthage (near Tunis today), capital of the Roman Exarchate of Africa. After some 40 years of peace a new emperor, Decius, began persecuting Christians anew in AD 250. Most Christians in Carthage offered sacrifices to the gods of the state out of fear for their lives, and others bought fraudulent testimonials that they had offered sacrifices, although they had not done so. When peace returned in AD 251, some sought to reconcile all those who returned immediately; others demanded signs of repentance over a lengthy waiting period.

How Is a Divided Church “One”?

Rival groups, not in communion with each other, were formed over the issue. Then the question arose, “What is that other group? Is it the Church? Do its sacraments have the grace of God?” St Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, said “No” – they are outside the Church. He wrote, “For if they shall see that it is determined and decreed by our judgment and sentence, that the baptism with which they are there baptized is considered just and legitimately in possession of the Church also, and the other gifts of the Church; nor will there be any reason for their coming to us, when, as they have baptism, they seem also to have the rest.” Accordingly St Cyprian insisted that those coming to the Church from one of these splinter groups be rebaptized. St Stephen, the Pope of Rome, had a different approach. He espoused the teaching of St Augustine that “the Holy and Sanctifying Spirit still breathes in the sects, but in the stubbornness and powerlessness of schism healing is not accomplished.” And so, he insisted, heretics should be reconciled by the laying on of hands, not baptism. At first Stephen insisted that the Roman position was normative; after Stephen’s death, his successor, Pope Sixtus II let the matter drop.

The Church Re-examined

Several events in recent history contributed to the Churches revisiting the question of Church unity. The twentieth century Russian Orthodox theologian, Fr. Georges Florovsky, was the first to propose a new middle ground. “It is impossible to state or discern the true limits of the Church simply by canonical signs or marks,” he wrote. “In her sacramental, mysterious existence the Church surpasses canonical measurements. For that reason a canonical cleavage does not immediately signify mystical impoverishment and desolation. All that Saint Cyprian said about the unity of the Church and the sacraments can be and must be accepted. But it is not necessary, as he did, to draw the final boundary around the body of the Church by canonical points alone.” Vatican II marked a new appreciation of other Christians. In their discussion of the Church the council fathers employed a new term to restate the Augustinian position: “The one Church of Christ … subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity. (Lumen Gentium, 1: 12, 13). To “subsist” means to “be,” to “have existence” and so the fathers taught that the Catholic Church is where the one Church of Christ is to be found. Yet, they said, many elements of sanctification and truth” are found outside it. The chief ecumenical experience of the bishops at Vatican II was with the various Protestant denominations. Clearly the above statement refers to that context. Most Protestants, for example, have baptism. Not all, however, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. All Protestants have marriage but not many consider marriage a sacrament. When formal dialogs began with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, that explanation proved inadequate. The International Orthodox-Catholic Theological Dialogue issued this statement instead: “Catholics and Orthodox once again consider each other in their relationship to the mystery of the Church and discover each other once again as Sister Churches. …On each side it is recognized that what Christ has entrusted to his Church – profession of apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, above all the one priesthood celebrating the one sacrifice of Christ, the apostolic succession of bishops – cannot be considered the exclusive property of one of our Churches. “It is in this perspective that the Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches recognize each other as Sister Churches, responsible together for maintaining the Church of God in fidelity to the divine purpose, most especially in what concerns unity” (Balamand 12-14). Thus the mystery of the Church “subsists” in each of the historic, apostolic Churches in relationship to one another in a communion of love. While some “elements or sanctification and truth” are found in Protestant denominations, the mystery of the Church subsists fully in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The reason for the different is that during the Reformation all Protestant groups rejected one or another of the sacramental building blocks of the Church such as the Eucharist, Confession, and the priesthood. St Paul insisted that we are meant to remain one. The experience of the past century shows us that we must work to restore our fractured unity as well. Fraternal respect, cooperation in confronting secularism, and respectful study of one another’s beliefs have replaced anathemas in Church life.
The Sister Churches
Currently there are four communions of apostolic Churches: Churches which have existed since the beginnings of Christian history and which share the same basic faith despite a multiplicity of expressions. They are:
  • The Catholic Communion – comprising the Roman (Western) Catholic Church and the various Eastern Catholic Churches.
  • The Eastern Orthodox Communion – the various Byzantine Orthodox local Churches (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Russia, Rumania, etc.) They look to the seven ecumenical councils we celebrate in our liturgical year.
  • The Oriental Orthodox Communion - the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Indian and Syriac Orthodox Churches. They recognize only the first three ecumenical councils.
  • The Church of the East (Assyro-Chaldean) – the Church of the ancient Persian Empire.
In the last 60 years Rome has issued agreed statements with each of these communions to affirm a common faith in the fundamen-tals of Christian belief.
 
WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21)? Many of us may remember the concept of spiritual bouquets promoted by many Roman Catholic religious orders in schools and churches, particularly before Vatican II. A person accomplished so many Masses, so many Communions, so many rosaries, etc. which were then offered for another person or a special intention. This practice, which urged many people to more frequent devotional practices than they would have observed otherwise, was a kind of piety of numbers: the more you do, the better. Is this what the Lord Jesus meant by being “rich towards God”? Instead of amassing earthly treasures are we intended to accumulate spiritual “points” which we can bring with us when we stand before the Judge? Such an approach can bring us close to the Pharisee in Christ’s parable who lists his spiritual accomplishments in contrast to the repentant Publican. At best it reveals our faith as immature, incapable of digesting spiritual meat (see 1 Cor 3:2).

Our True Wealth Is God

The actual treasure which is ours as the adopted children of God is nothing less than “to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). We are, as St. Paul insists, a temple in which God dwells both individually and as Church. Our ability to know God begins with His indwelling presence within us. We certainly know that God loves us in Christ, and may believe that He dwells in us but it often seems to be an abstraction: something we know is true but doesn’t touch us in any significant way. “God loves us… Michelangelo gave us great art… Bell gave us the telephone…” we may know all these things in the same way. But to know God’s love in a way “that passes knowledge” is to do so in a manner that goes beyond intellectual knowledge to a knowledge of the heart. As St. Paul says here, this knowledge is not an end in itself but enables us to be filled with God’s fullness. Once our hearts are opened by a realization of how God loves us, they can experience God’s saving presence. This presence transforms us – deifies us – making us sharers of His divine nature, which the Greek Fathers call theosis. Some people have achieved this “knowledge past understanding” through the direct intervention of God. God makes Himself known unexpectedly to people and energizes their lives dramatically. St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, testifies that “One night there appeared to Basil an outpouring of light, and, by means of divine power, the entire dwelling was illuminated by an immaterial light, having no source in anything material” (Funeral Oration for His Brother, Basil the Great). Most of us, however, have not had such an experience. How do we begin to arrive at this knowledge? Our attentiveness to prayer, the sacraments and the Scriptures are certainly signs that we look to know God. Still, our contact with the Bible and the Church’s liturgy is intermittent. Even if we pray every day, these acts of openness to God are intermittent. Can ordinary people be in more constant communion with God than that?

Sitting in the Presence of God

St. Isaac the Syrian insists that we can and must commune with God continually to be on regular speaking terms with Him, as it were. “Sit in the presence of the Lord every moment of your life, as you think of Him and recollect Him in your heart. Otherwise, when you only see Him after a period of time, you will lack the freedom to converse with Him, out of shame; for great freedom of conversation is born out of constant association with Him.” What St Isaac calls “sitting in the presence of God” others in both East and West have described as developing an awareness of the presence of God. We regularly pray that God is “everywhere present and filling all things” (“O heavenly King”) but are more frequently unaware of God’s presence as we go about our daily tasks. As the Divine Liturgy expresses it, “Christ is in our midst – He is and ever shall be.” Even more compelling is the realization that the Spirit of God is not only with us but also within us through baptism, that we are members of the Body of Christ. If God “dwells within us”, then everything we do is in the presence of God although we regularly forget it. Developing an awareness of the presence of God, then, simply means keeping the memory of God in our thoughts, and living like we really mean it. Many people have learned to use an everyday event to trigger their awareness that God is present now. It may be an icon at one’s desk or kitchen counter, the ringing of a telephone or the sight of a child. Whenever they encounter their “trigger” they say a brief prayer.

Learning to Focus on God’s Presence

Setting aside time for silent reflection helps us refocus our attention on the presence of God in our midst. Spiritual writers of all ages recommend that we go apart – to our rooms, the outdoors, a church – where we can be undisturbed. There we can disengage from the activities of the day, close our eyes and begin to focus on the unceasing presence of God in which we stand. A time of silence may be enhanced by a simple breathing exercise to help us concentrate on the fact that we are in the holy presence of God. St John Climacus, the 7th century abbot of Mount Sinai and author of The Ladder, suggests the next step. “Become aware of God, in whose presence you are while you pray,” he writes. “Then take a formula of prayer and recite it with perfect attention both to the words you are saying and to the Person to whom you are saying them.” In time the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner – became the standard prayer in the Byzantine Churches for resting in the presence of God. Sit quietly and repeat the prayer without hurrying for whatever length of time you have set apart for sitting in God’s presence. It is good to have a regular period of time for this activity – e.g. 15 minutes, for a start – which may be adjusted as circumstances dictate. Counseling 17th century nuns, the Bishop of Geneva, St Francis de Sales, suggests a different kind of adjustment than we would normally consider. “Half an hour’s meditation is essential except when you are very busy,” he teaches. “Then a full hour is needed.” The more harried we are by stress at home or work, the more we need to focus on the presence of God to bring us peace. As Brother Lawrence, the 17th century Carmelite monk, whose teachings are recorded in the book The Practice of the Presence of God, adds another dimension to our consideration of our true wealth as Christians. We are fulfilling our eternal calling as people devoted to the worship of God “I am doing now what I will do for all eternity,” he exclaimed. “I am blessing God, praising Him, adoring Him, and loving Him with all my heart.”

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