Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
“I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD” (John 8:12). These familiar words of the Lord Jesus reflect one of the most popular images in the Scriptures, but what do they mean? How is Jesus the light of the world?

The rest of this verse (pardon the expression) ‘sheds light’ on what is meant here. “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” Here, and in a number of other places, Jesus is portrayed as a beacon: one who guides along the right path, who illumines the way for us. He is the “Giver of light,” the One bringing light to our hearts. To say He is light in this way is to talk about what He does. But there is another way to see Christ as light. He is light, not only because of what He does for us but because of what He is. “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is not described here as light illumining our minds and hearts, but as He is in Himself: Light in His innermost being.

Based on the Gospel message, the Church proclaims the Lord Jesus as “Light from Light” (Nicene Creed), the “Joyful Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father: the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, Jesus Christ” (3rd century vespers hymn). As God is Light in Himself, so too the incarnate Christ is the Light of the Father. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

As far back as the third century the Fathers used our experience of the sun to illustrate this mystery. Like others before him, St. Cyril, the enlightener of the Slavs, reflected, “Do you see in the heavens the brilliant sphere of the sun and how from it light is begotten and warmth proceeds? God the Father is like the sphere of the sun, without beginning or end. From Him is eternally begotten God the Son, like light from the sun; just as there comes warmth together with light from the sun, the Holy Spirit proceeds. Each one is distinguished separately: the sphere of the sun and the light and the warmth — these are not three suns, but one sun in the heavens. So also, in the Holy Trinity: there are three Persons but God is one and indivisible.”

The Light of Mt. Tabor

Christ was concretely manifested as light at His transfiguration: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2) – “white and glistening” (Luke 9:29), “such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). For a moment the disciples glimpsed what had been hidden since the incarnation: the Word of God, radiant with divine glory, in the person of Jesus.

In icons of the Transfiguration this radiance is depicted by a geometric figure behind the representation of the Lord called a mandorla. While depictions of Christ during His earthly ministry show His head surrounded by a cross and a halo, icons representing Him in moments beyond time and space (the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Dormition) envelop His whole body in this light of glory.

This same figure is found in icons of the conversion of St. Paul. Christ, the “Radiant Light” was manifested to Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul) on the road to Damascus as “a light from the sky brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13) While this Light briefly blinded Saul by its brilliance, it enabled him to see ever more clearly “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed” (Colossians 1:26).

In the Church the light experienced by Saul has been identified with the light that shone on Tabor, the Radiant Light of the Father, Jesus Christ. As we sing on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, “Christ, who had been radiant in light on the mountain, blinded your bodily eyes; but He allowed your soul to see the Trinity” (from the Canon, Ode 1).

The “Uncreated Light” of God

In the Gospels we find two seemingly contradictory understandings of our ability to know God. On the one hand we are told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). On the other hand we hear, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). In the fourth century St. Gregory of Nyssa showed how both statements are true. He taught that the essence of God was unknowable. Like the sun in the imagery cited above, God in His deepest being is unapproachable. The energies of God – His “Light” and “Warmth” – have been made known to us and we can truly know God in His energies. In the fourteenth century St Gregory Palamas applied this teaching to the Transfiguration. He explained that when the Apostles witnessed the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor, that they were seeing the actual uncreated light of God.

Reflecting the Divine Light

We too, Palamas insisted, can experience God’s divine energies even though we can never know His essence: “for those who love each other all nature is filled with the light which seems to radiate from the other.” Many saints who have loved deeply have reflected this light. Perhaps the first was the Protomartyr St. Stephen who witnessed to Christ before the council of Jewish elders in Jerusalem. “And looking steadfastly on Stephen, they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).

St Simeon the New Theologian, writing in the eleventh century, described his own experience in similar words: “He gives Himself totally to me, unworthy as I am, and I am filled with His love and beauty. I am sated with pleasure and divine tenderness. I share in the Light. I participate also in the glory. My face shines like that of my beloved and all my members become bearers of Light.”

The most compelling recorded witness to such an experience comes from Nicholas Motovilov. In 1831 he wrote of seeing St Seraphim of Sarov transfigured with the divine light. They had been discussing how a person can acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit but Motovilov was puzzled: “I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God.” Finally, as he described it, “Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?’

“I replied: ‘I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’

“Father Seraphim said: ‘Don't be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.’

“Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: ‘Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Your Spirit which You grant to Your servants when You are pleased to appear in the light of Your magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both?’” For a moment the apostles on Tabor saw the light of God which is Christ’s by nature. Likewise for a moment Nicholas Motovilov saw the light of God indwelling by grace in the person who is in Christ.
 
SUMMER, IN OUR WORLD AT LEAST, is a time for sun and fun: cookouts, the beach, pool parties and the like. Yet in the midst of summer – in the week which has been compared to the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning –we are called to fast. The first two week of August are observed in the Byzantine Churches as the Fast of the Theotokos, in preparation for the Feast of her Dormition on August 15. In the early Church the Dormition Fast was generally observed in both East and West. Pope St. Leo the Great mentioned it in the mid-fifth century in connection with the seasons of the year: “The Church fasts are situated in the year in such a way that a special abstinence is prescribed for each time. Thus, for spring there is the spring fast, the Forty Days [Great Lent]; for summer there is the summer fast… [the Apostles’ fast]; for autumn there is the autumn fast, in the seventh month [Dormition fast]; for winter there is the winter fast [Nativity fast].” Today the Coptic, Malankara and Syriac Churches as well as the Byzantine, continue to observe this 14-day fast period. In the Armenian and Maronite traditions the Fast lasts for one week rather than two. In the traditional calendar of the Roman Church August 14 is observed as a day of fasting in preparation for this feast. This Fast period is one of several aspects of this celebration which have earned it the title of the “summer Pascha,” a feast pointing to the ultimate resurrection of all flesh at the last day. Just as the feast of Christ’s resurrection is paired with the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), the Dormition is paired with the feast of Christ’s Holy Transfiguration (August 6). As Pascha is preceded by the Holy Friday evening observance of the Burial of Christ, the Dormition is marked in many places by a comparable burial service for the Theotokos when lamentations patterned after the Holy Week hymns are sung. In some places a burial shroud (epitaphios) with the image of the Dormition is carried in procession as well.

The Paraclisis to the Theotokos

In the Byzantine Churches of the Mediterranean world the most prominent feature of the Dormition Fast is the celebration of the Paraclisis to the Theotokos, a service invoking the Virgin’s intercession for those we commemorate during the service. It is said that, as the Virgin sensed her approaching death, she prayed continually for her Son’s disciples and for those who would believe their message. And so, as the feast of her Dormition draws near, we ask her prayers for our Church and our loved ones with a similar intensity. The Paraclisis to the Theotokos is patterned in part on Orthros (Matins), There is an opening psalm, troparia, a Gospel reading and a canon, concluding with an incensing of the whole church and a solemn veneration of the Virgin’s icon. Intercessory litanies for those whom we are commemorating are interspersed throughout the service. There are actually two canons used which give their names to the service as a whole. The Small Paraclisis includes the older canon, composed in the ninth century by Theosterictus the Monk. This Paraclisis may be used at any time throughout the year. The Great Paraclisis, which is only sung during the Dormition Fast, was composed in the thirteenth century by the Emperor Theodore II Ducas Lascaris, in exile during the Fourth Crusade. As a rule these two services are sung alternately on successive nights during this Fast (the Great Paraclisis is always sung on Sundays). Neither service is sung on Saturday night or on the eves of the Great Feasts themselves.

For What Do We Pray?

Our liturgical books indicate that this service is prayed “in times of distress and sorrow of soul.” The opening troparion expresses these emotions: “We will never cease, O Mother of God, although unworthy, to proclaim your power. If you no longer intercede for us, who will deliver us from so many misfortunes? Who would ever have preserved us free until now? We shall never leave you, O Lady, for you always save your servants from all tribulations.” The Canon of the Small Paraclisis is sung to a lively melody and expresses confidence in the Theotokos’ care for us in troparia such as these:
  • “You, who carried within you the Benefactor of all and the Cause of every good favor, let His abundant grace spring forth to all of us. You have the fullness of power, since you’ve given birth to the Christ, the almighty One.”
  • “Give me your pure joy, Virgin all-pure and immaculate, you who gave birth to the Cause of happiness, and fill my heart with the gladness of your Son, our God.”
The Great Paraclisis adds other notes to our picture of the Virgin as our Intercessor:
  • “I profess you, O Lady, to be truly Theotokos: you, who have both banished and triumphed over the might of death; for as the source of Life, you freed me from Hades' bonds, raising me to life, though I was fallen down to earth.”
  • “The turmoils of this life encircle me like bees around a honeycomb, O Virgin. They have seized my heart and now hold it captive, and I am pierced with the stings of afflictions, O Maiden; yet, O All-holy one, be my defender, my helper and my rescuer.”
One unusual feature of these canons is the following pair of hymns sung after each ode with a metany after each verse:
  • “Deliver your servants from all dangers, O Mother of God, for to you, after God, we flee for refuge. You are our impregnable fortress, our intercessor.
  • “O Mother of God, worthy of all praise, look down with compassion upon the ills of my afflicted body and heal the infirmities of my soul.”
Finally, the celebrants solemnly venerate the icon of the Theotokos as the following glorification (or megalynarion) is sung:
“May the lips of all heretics be sealed because they refuse to bow before your all-holy icon, which is fashioned after the blessed Hodigitria depicted by the holy Luke the Apostle.” This hymn reflects the iconoclastic controversy during which this service was composed. The iconoclasts refused to venerate icons of Christ, His Mother or the saints and for over a century persecuted those who did venerate them.
The Hodigitria mentioned here is the image of Christ enthroned on the arm of His Mother who points to Him, showing us the way to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The original of this icon was reputedly painted by St. Luke. The most famous icon in Constantinople, it was lost during the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453.

Procession of the Cross

Another observance associated with this Fast in the Byzantine tradition is the outdoor procession with the Holy Cross on August 1. Due to its climate Constantinople was subject to insect-borne diseases at this time of summer. A procession was held each day of the Fast praying for relief. Water was blessed and sprinkled over the city as well. Today this observance is remembered on the first of this month with a procession and the Lesser Blessing of Water.
 
The story of Christ coming to His disciples in the midst of the sea is found in all the Gospels except for Luke. The version in Matthew, however, is the only one containing the disciples’ confession: “Truly You are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:33). John describes the scene in a much simpler way: “…they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat and they were afraid. But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they willingly received Him into the boat…” (John 6:19-21). Mark’s version ends with these words: “They were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure and marveled for they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:51-52).

Feeding the Multitude

In each of the Gospels the story of Christ in the sea follows the report of how He fed the five thousand from a few loaves of bread and two fish. Both of these incidents came to be understood as pointing to the divinity of Christ. In John’s Gospel Jesus confronts the crowd which had followed Him around the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum: “You seek me, not because you saw the signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes but for the food which endures to everlasting life which the Son of Man will give you because God the Father has set His seal on Him” (John 6:26-27). The people, John suggests, followed Jesus to Capernaum looking for another meal. Jesus’ closest followers, Mark affirms, were not much better. The first disciples “did not understand about the loaves” either. They needed another push to help them see just Who was in their midst. By the time the Gospels were written, however, Christ had risen from the dead. “Beginning with Moses and the Prophets He had expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). The disciples had received the Holy Spirit and began to speak of Jesus in terms reminiscent of God’s dealings with the Jews in the Old Testament. The Gospel pictures of Christ feeding the multitude and walking on the water were drawn with specific Old Testament allusions in mind. Christ feeding the multitude with bread and fish is described in terms reminiscent of God feeding the Israelites with manna during the exodus from Egypt. Jesus’ words to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread that these may eat?” seemed to echo Moses’ words, “Where can I get meat to give to all this people?” (Numbers 11:13) Jesus’ action answered for the believers the response of God to Moses, “Is this beyond the Lord’s reach?” (Numbers 11:23). The Gospel writers had come to see the One who nourished the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai as the same One who nourished their descendants on the hillside. But they described the Old Testament feeding with manna as surpassed by the act of the incarnate Christ. While the Old Testament says that each Israelite was allowed only one omer (c. 3½ liters) of manna, for example, those receiving the bread and fish could eat “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11).While the manna would spoil if not immediately consumed, the bread which Christ gives produces twelve baskets of leftovers. The message would be clear to Jewish believers: Christ is the One who fed Israel in the wilderness and now outdoes what He did in the past!

Walking on Water

The image of Christ walking on the sea is also rooted in the Old Testament which contains several references to walking on water. The fifth-century disciple of St Jerome, Chromatius, writes that God is the One who walked on water in the Scriptures and He is the One who walks on water today: “Who was able to walk on the sea if not the Creator of the universe? He, indeed, about whom the Holy Spirit and spoken long ago through blessed Job: ‘He alone stretched out the heavens and walked on the sea as well as the earth’ [Job 9:8]. “Solomon spoke about Him in the person of Wisdom: ‘I dwelt in the highest places and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. I orbited the heavenly sphere alone and walked on the waves of the sea’ [Sirach 24:4-5] “David likewise declared in his psalm: ‘O God, Your way was through the sea, Your path through the great waters’ [Psalms 76:19, LXX]… “What is more evident than this testimony? What is more clear? It points to Him walking on the water as well as on the ground. This is God’s only begotten Son, who long ago according to the will of the Father stretched out the heavens and at the time of Moses in a pillar of cloud showed the people a way to follow” (Tractate on Matthew 52,2). Both the feeding of the multitude and the walking on water show Christ acting as only God had acted in the history of Israel.

The Confession of Peter

Only in Matthew’s narrative do we read of Peter’s attempting to walk on the water. Peter was an experiences fisherman by trade; presumably he knew how to handle himself in water. In any event Jesus’ rescue of Peter prompts the others in the boat to affirm, “Truly You are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33). The Gospel of Matthew is so crafted that its climax is Peter’s own confession of faith two chapters later: Jesus said to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:15-16). Jesus responds with the praise of Peter and his faith, “on this rock I will build my church” (v.18). What was so special about Peter’s confession if the disciples in the boat had previously said the same thing? Although most English-language Bibles translate both confessions the same, there is a significant difference in the original Greek. While Peter says, Su ei o Xristos o uios tou theou (“You are the Christ, the Son of God”), the disciples in the boat say, alithos theou uios ei, without the definite article o. This is perhaps better translated as “Truly you are a son of God.” The disciples confess Jesus as a holy one, as one beloved of God. But Peter confesses Christ’s unique sonship, which would indeed be the cornerstone of the Christian Church’s faith.
A Spiritual Interpretation

The fourth-century Bishop of Poitiers, St Hilary, lived during the major theological controversies on the Trinity and the Incarnation which shook the Church. He saw this event as a preview of the Lord’s Second Coming which would bring an end to these and any tribulations affecting the Church on earth:

“Once [Jesus] got into the vessel, the wind and the sea calmed down. After His return in eternal splendor, peace and tranquility are in store for the Church. With His arrival made manifest, all people will exclaim with great wonder, ‘Truly You are the Son of God.’ Everyone will then declare absolutely and publicly that the Son of God has restored peace to the Church, not in physical lowliness but in heavenly glory.”
 
THE LARGEST GREEK CITY OF ITS DAY, Corinth was a kind of crossroads connecting mainland Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula to the West. It had two harbors and therefore a good deal of maritime and commercial activity. It contained a thriving Jewish colony; a number of the Jews expelled from Rome in AD 49 had made their way to Corinth (Acts 18:2). There were believers in Jesus among them and Paul stayed with them, bringing the Gospel of Jesus to them, to the Jews at large and, when they rejected him, to the Gentiles. When Paul left Corinth after 18 months there, he took his first collaborators there, Priscilla and Aquila, with him to Syria. It has been suggested that the departure of these pioneers paved the way for the dissentions that would attack the Corinthian Christians. Part of the community looked to the leadership of Apollos, its current elder. Others preferred the way things were when Paul was in charge and longed for the return of those days. Paul tries to end their conflict by stressing that both he and Apollos were only servants of the God who called them to believe. He challenged them with images meant to take their focus off the personalities of their pastors and put it back where it belonged: on the Lord. Paul’s first image is of the Church as a field, with the pastors as its farmers. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). The second image is that of a building under construction: “I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it.” Individual workers at a construction site know that the result of their labors is greater than any individual one of them has achieved. The final product – the structure – is their work plus the underlying vision of the architect. The builders work together to realize, not their own ideas, but the planner’s concept of what the building should be.

When Visions Complete

To this day local communities suffer when a change of pastors results in a change of vision. The vision may change because the circumstances have changed. Thus a parish made up of third-generation members who all know one another finds itself with an influx of new immigrants. The old neighborhood may change and the parish find itself amidst people who might be brought to the church were the church more open to them and their culture. The vision may also change because the new pastor simply prefers things a certain way, a way that contrasts with the parish’s existing practice. These may be small things, such as the new pastor wanting flowers behind the holy table rather than on it (or vice versa). They may be things that impact a larger number of people, such as when and where baptisms may be celebrated. Whatever the issue, the basic principle remains the same: what does the Architect want? Does what we want agree with what the Lord wants for His Church or are there other visions at work here? Do clergy and the parish council have conflicting visions of what they church should be? While we may think we are building the church with “gold, silver and precious stones” we may in fact be using “wood, hay and straw” (1 Corinthians 3:12).

Vision for a Local Church

A healthy local church as described in the New Testament is basically one in which everyone is exercising the Royal Priesthood to which we have all been admitted through our chrismation. In it there should be two distinct types of service, which since the first Church in Jerusalem have been sacramentalized in the orders of presbyter and deacon (Acts 6:1-6). The first dimension is described in Acts 6:4 as “prayer and the ministry of the word,” essentially the ministry of the presbyter, but not limited to him. The traditional “spiritual works of mercy” are, in fact, all aspects of the priestly ministry of prayer and the word:
  • Admonishing the sinner.
  • Instructing the ignorant.
  • Counseling the unsettled.
  • Comforting the sorrowful.
  • Bearing wrongs patiently.
  • Forgiving all injuries, and
  • Praying for the living and the dead.
In the church, the pastor’s role is to insure that the members of the community have the opportunity to worship God and to prepare some of them to assist more actively in it as singers, altar servers, greeters, ushers, etc. “The ministry of the word” includes all forms of proclamation: preaching, evangelizing, catechizing, and publicizing the life of the Church. Here, too, members of the community may be prepared to take part in these activities. As with the liturgical ministries, the priest’s role is that of an enabler, “equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). In addition to prayer and the ministry of the word, serving one’s neighbor has been an important task in the local Church since the beginning. The order of deacon was instituted to assume this ministry. The traditional “corporal works of mercy” are aspects of that ministry open to all, extending Christ’s compassion to the needs of this world:
  • Feeding the hungry.
  • Giving drink to the thirsty.
  • Sheltering the homeless.
  • Clothing the naked.
  • Visiting the sick.
  • Visiting the imprisoned, and
  • Burying the dead.
As the Church grew and acquired buildings and land, the deacons assumed care of these assets as well. There is an ever greater range of activities which can be developed under these umbrellas of serving one’s neighbor and care for the material resources of the Church. The Royal Priesthood can be exercised in a local community when:
  • Opportunities to serve are afforded to all;
  • Those who wish to explore these ministries are welcomed and encouraged;
  • Those who seek to serve are trained to do so according to the norms of the eparchy.

What is the Vision of Your Church?

When the vision of a local community and the pastor support the scriptural vision outlined above, it is likely that they will build with “gold, silver and precious stones.” But what if:
  • There is an ethnic, social or economic clique dominating the parish?
  • People don’t want to serve but to be served?
  • Those who do want to serve are excluded or made to feel unwanted?
  • No one is willing to invest time to train or be trained for a particular ministry?
Then we can expect the results St Paul described: “…each one’s work will become clear” (1 Corinthians 3:13), but we don’t have to wait for “the Day” to reveal it. It will be obvious when people are not spiritually growing, when some people look for another church where there is a more vibrant spiritual life, when the young people in the community only show up for Pascha and family occasions. Paul concludes his appeal to maintain unity with a warning: “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:17). Factionalism in the church, pitting the followers of one leader against another, causing division where there should be an ever-deepening unity is a kind of sacrilege which cannot be ignored.

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