Melkite Greek Catholic Church
OVER THE YEARS words often change their meaning due to the influence of other languages or new developments in the culture. For centuries the English word “meat” referred to all kinds of solid food. Beginning in the fourteenth century it began to take on the modern meaning of animal flesh used for food. Thus, in the King James translation of the Bible, Ps 103:27 reads “These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.” In the contemporary revision, the New King James version, this verse is translated, “These all wait for You that You may give them their food in due season.”

Another word whose meaning has changed over the centuries is the word saint, The form of our English word saint comes from the Latin sanctus, or holy one but originally did not refer just to the dead. In the Old Testament this word refers to the Jews, God’s chosen people. Thus Psalms 148:14 reads, “He will raise up a horn for His people, a praise for all His saints— for the people of Israel, who are close to Him.” A person was “a saint” because he or she had a special relationship with God.

In the New Testament the saints are those of every nation who have been joined to Christ in baptism. Thus, when St Paul writes to the Romans he passes on his greetings to “Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them” (Romans 16:15). As we often sing in our Liturgy, “all of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The deepest relationship to God we have is to have put on Christ in this mystery.

Venerating the Martyrs

Our tradition of venerating the saints began in the early Church as Christians gave up their lives rather than deny Christ. The martyrs were the first “dead believers” to be counted as saints in the modern meaning of the term. In many places it became customary to serve the Eucharistic Liturgy on the anniversary of a martyr’s death, often at his or her place of burial.

Writing in c. 400 ad, St Augustine explained this practice as he knew it: “We, the Christian community, assemble to celebrate the memory of the martyrs with ritual solemnity because we want to be inspired to follow their example, share in their merits, and be helped by their prayers. Yet we erect no altars to any of the martyrs, even in the martyrs’ burial chapels themselves.

“No bishop, when celebrating at an altar where these holy bodies rest, has ever said, ‘Peter, we make this offering to you’, or ‘Paul, to you’, or “Cyprian, to you”. No, what is offered is offered always to God, who crowned the martyrs. We offer in the chapels where the bodies of those he crowned rest, so the memories that cling to those places will stir our emotions and encourage us to greater love both for the martyrs whom we can imitate and for God whose grace enables us to do so…

“But the veneration strictly called ‘worship’, or latria, that is, the special homage belonging only to the divinity, is something we give and teach others to give to God alone.” (Treatise against Faustus).

Why did St Augustine have to explain this practice? Perhaps because some of his readers – even among the Christians themselves – were confusing the veneration of the martyrs with the pagan’s worship of their gods and goddesses.

Graffiti on the walls of the Roman catacombs are evidence that early Christians asked the martyrs buried there to pray for them. It was not long before Christians who has suffered punishment but had survived were honored as “confessors” who had confessed their faith by the sufferings they endured.

Holy Ascetics

When the martyrdom of Christians ceased in the Roman Empire, asceticism became the way believers found to offer their lives to God. By spending their lives in continual prayer and self-denial, ascetics sought to live as if they were dead to the world. The Church came to see them as “angels in the flesh” and make pilgrimages to their cells in order to obtain their blessings.

The veneration which believers had for their local ascetics continued after the ascetic’s death. Their cells and the places where they were buried (if known) became shrines in which these holy men and women would be honored and their intercession sought.

Since hierarchs were often taken from the ranks of the ascetics, it became the practice to honor leading bishops (the “Church Fathers”) as saints. Basil the Great, his companion Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, were such hierarchs.

Perhaps the first Christians living in the world to be honored as saints were the “equals to the apostles” known for spreading the Gospel, beginning with the witnesses to the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene and her companions. Later, healers and wonder-workers during life or after death would be so honored as well.

Shrines and Relics

In the first millennium, veneration of the saints centered on their tombs or the places in which they lived. People came from elsewhere on pilgrimage to honor them. As the Church spread, people in other areas wanted to venerate these saints “in person” by acquiring their relics or belongings for veneration. When the city of Constantinople was founded in the fourth century, its bishops obtained relics of as many saints as they could. They were frustrated in their attempt to get a relic of the Theotokos (she had been assumed into heaven), and had to content themselves with her garments.

Items belonging to or touched by a saint were the oldest form of relics in the Church, being mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. When St Paul was ministering in Ephesus, the Scriptures relate, “Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:11, 12). Venerating such items became another way of experiencing God’s power at work in the saints.

Canonizing Saints

As we have seen, recognizing a believer as a saint was initially a local affair. Those who had seen how a martyr or confessor had suffered, or how an ascetic had lived, acclaimed them as sanctified and venerated them in the place where they had lived or died, generally under the supervision of the local bishop. For a saint to be venerated by the wider Church, the blessing of the local synod of bishops with the Metropolitan or Patriarch was required. This procedure is still followed by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Beginning in the eleventh century, the Western Church required papal approval for a saint to be recognized and commended to the faithful for veneration throughout the world.

Let us continuously chant unto our God, for He has richly poured forth grace. As Joel preached beforehand, “I will pour out,” he writes, “from the Spirit upon my sons and daughters.” For this strength guided the champions in word and power and silenced the mouths of those against You, O Most Merciful One.

They were not swayed by vain wealth, for they loved Your Kingdom. They neglected things of this life and kept in memory the incorruptible. They went forth on the road, preferring to die rather than to live, that they might pass on to Your life and be fed with Your good things, O Most Merciful One.
From a Kondakion by St Romanos
WHEN WE HEAR THE WORDS confess or confession we naturally think it refers to the confession of sins in the Mystery of Repentance. In this Mystery, to confess one’s sins means to publicly admit them in the presence of a priest. The term confession has a similar meaning outside this Mystery. It means to acknowledge something publicly, to declare or profess outright what we have in our heart. It does not refer only to sins or faults, but to any aspect of our inner life we choose to reveal publicly.

It is in this sense that we make a public confession at the Divine Liturgy when we say: “I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest.” We profess or confess in a public way our inner conviction that Christ is our incarnate Savior. We may believe something without stating it publicly, but when we confess something before others there can be no doubt where we stand.

It is in this sense that the Lord Jesus uses the word in the Gospel passage heard today at the Liturgy: “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10: 32, 33). He promises to acknowledge as His followers those who publicly confess their faith in Him before the world and to reject those who claim to follow Him but keep their faith a secret, perhaps under pressure.

The Lord’s promise in the Gospel is part of a passage in which He warns that His disciples will be hounded to their deaths, even by their friends and relatives. He applies to their time a warning of the Prophet Micah during the exile of the Jews in Babylon “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (v.36).

Confessing Under Fire

The first disciple in whom this prophecy was fulfilled was the protomartyr, St Stephen, who was slain after professing his faith before the Jewish leadership (see Acts, chapters 6 and 7). There, and in many places since then, to confess one’s faith in Christ before hostile civil or religious authorities was like confessing to a crime, often at the instigation of relatives, or acquaintances. The result was generally death.

It sometimes happened that people condemned for their faith suffered, but did not die of their wounds. The fourth-century Church historian Eusebius described some who survived a persecution in Lyons in ad 177 in this way: “They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ … that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply … And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors’” (Ecclesiastical History 5, 1).

The term Confessors, then came to be used for those who suffered for their faith but did not die as a result. Thus we speak of saints like Maximos the Confessor, who was tortured during the sixth-century contro-versies over the nature of Christ. He was exiled for his faith, but was not directly martyred. These confessors joined the martyrs as being the first to be venerated as saints by the Church in the place where they suffered.

Many local figures – ascetics and hierarchs as well as sufferers – would later be recognized as saints by their Churches and assigned feast days on their calendars. Some of them would be added to the calendars of other Churches as well. On the Sunday of All Saints we honor them as well as all those glorified by God whether recognized by any Church on earth or not.

The Saints and Life after Death

Throughout our country we find memorials to those who have come before us – plaques, statues, even parks and buildings dedicated to their memory. These memorials recall their lives and achievements; in other words, they point to the past. The icons of the saints which we honor in our churches and homes do the same and more. They do not simply point to the past – they affirm that the saints are alive in Christ today and with us as we live and worship every day of our lives. By lighting candles or offering flowers and incense before their icons we affirm our faith that the saints are truly with us, witnessing to the reality of eternal life in which they share through Christ’s resurrection.

Many Protestants object to the veneration of the saints in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Sometimes they have good reason, as when people pay more attention to a favorite saint than to the Lord Himself. They seem to revere the saints as “little gods” like those of pagan religions, without any reference to Christ, the Source of our holiness. As we say in the Liturgy, “One is holy, one is Lord – Jesus Christ…”

Other objections are not so good, denying some basic aspects of the historic Churches’ faith. Some people, for example, believe that the dead are asleep (unconscious) until the general resurrection on the last day and that they cannot hear us asking for their prayers. The Scriptures are generally silent about what happens after death, but Catholics and Orthodox espouse St Paul’s faith that the faithful who die are with the Lord. He did not fear dying because it would bring him to Christ, as he wrote to the Corinthians, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He told the Philippians that he wanted to remain with them, but he also wanted to be with the Lord: “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1: 23, 24). St Paul clearly believed that after death he would be with his Lord.

Others believe we should not ask the saints to pray for us – we should pray to Christ alone. At the same time these Christians often ask people – their pastors, prayer group members, TV evangelists – to pray for them. The Scripture describes the worship of heaven as including the prayer of the saints: “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (Revelation 8:3, 4).

Praying for the Saints

The saints now share in the glory of God. This does not mean that they are perfected or complete. This is why the Church not only prays to the saints, it also prays for them. In every Divine Liturgy, after the holy gifts have been sanctified, the priest prays; “Again, we offer You this spiritual worship for those resting in the faith, the forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous soul who has run the course in the faith, especially for our all-holy, spotless, most highly-blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary...” The sanctifying energy of God is ever at work and no one, not even the saints, have had their fill of the love of God. They all are growing in that love, and so the Liturgy can be offered for them as well as with them in the one communion of saints before the throne of God.
ON THE SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST the Byzantine Churches observe the Feast of All Saints. As we read in today’s Synaxarion at Orthros: “Our most godlike Fathers decreed that we should celebrate the present feast after the descent of the All-holy Spirit, as showing in a certain way that the coming of the All-holy Spirit acted through the Apostles like this: sanctifying and making wise human beings taken from our mortal clay and then – to complete the number of that fallen angelic order – restoring them through Christ and sending them to God, some by the witness of martyrdom and blood, others by their virtuous conduct and way of life…”. As we read this we may wonder just how many saints there are. For the definitive answer we need only look to the Book of Revelation. The seer – identified in the first chapter as John – tells us that “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). No one can count the number of those whom the Holy Spirit has sanctified through the Apostles and the Churches they founded. The white robes are said to recall the “Garments of Light” – the fullness of Divine grace – with which Adam and Eve were clothed in the Garden before the Fall. In Revelation 6:11 these robes are given to the martyrs as a sign that they have preserved their union with Christ through the witness they bore. The palm branch is the ancient “symbol of victory” (Palm Sunday troparion). The martyrs’ palms represent how they “vanquished their persecutors and crushed the powerless arrogance of demons” through their struggles (martyrs’ troparion).

Recognized Saints

Christians who witnessed the sufferings and death of martyrs were the first to preserve their memory, often by treasuring their relics or belongings. Once the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ceased, the recognition of the martyrs became more public and official. Veneration of saints was usually a local matter. Saints were honored where they had lived or died. As the Church spread into new areas, those who brought the Gospel also brought a devotion to their local saints. When they brought the saints’ relics as well, a new shrine would be established and the saint honored there as well. Many saints are still venerated only locally; others have been included on the general calendars of the historic Churches. The Theotokos, the apostles, the evangelists, and other New Testament figures as well as many of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets are universally venerated. Some well-known saints, like St Nicholas and St George, have found a place on the calendars of all Churches.

The Synaxarion

Each of the ancient Churches has its own list of saints. In most Eastern Churches this list is called the Synaxarion, a collection of information about each saint on the days the saint is commemorated. The basic Synaxarion used in the Byzantine Churches is that of the Mar Saba Monastery near Jerusalem. Each local Church has added its own saints to this list as well. Thus St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, who edited the Synaxarion for the Church of Constantinople at the beginning of the nineteenth century added a number of saints, particularly the “New Martyrs” who suffered since the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century. Each national Byzantine Church (Russian, Serbian, etc.) has added its own saints to the Synaxarion. The Western equivalent to the Synaxarion is the 16th century Roman Martyrology. Pope Gregory XIII revised a ninth-century French work to accompany his new Calendar. This list has been augmented over the years as new saints were canonized. To give a hint of just how many recognized saints are venerated in the historic Churches let us list the saints honored on just one day, May 23, in the calendars of the various Churches. Venerated by Both East and West – Saint Michael the Confessor, ninth-century Bishop of Synnada in Phrygia Salutaris, who was tortured and exiled during the revival of iconoclasm following the Second Council of Nicaea. Venerated on the same day in the: Greek Synaxaria - Holy Myrrh-bearer Mary, the wife of Cleopas (1st century); Manaen (Manahen), prophet and teacher of the Church of Antioch (Acts 13:1) (1st century); Martyr Seleucus, and Hieromartyr Michael the black-robed, monk of Mar Saba Monastery (9th century). In the Roman Martyrology – Hieromartyrs Desiderius of Langres (c. 411,)Epitacius of Tui and Basileus of Braga (1st c.), Desiderius of Vienne (7th c.), the holy martyrs Quintian, Lucius, and Julian (5th c.), Mercurialis, bishop of Forli (5th c.) Euphebius, bishop of Naples, (2nd c.?), Eutychius and Florentius, (6th c. monks venerated in Byzantine Churches on Aug 23) and St. John Baptist de Rossi, (18 c.) Also remembered on this day are the holy martyrs in Cappadocia who died by having their legs crushed, in the persecution of Maximian Galerius (4th c.) and those martyrs in Mesopotamia, who, at the same time, were suspended in the air with their heads downward. Being suffocated with smoke, and consumed with a slow fire, they consummated their martyrdom. In the Slavic Churches saints honored on this day are Damian of Garegi, Georgia (12th c), Euphrosyne of Polotsk (12th c.), Ioannikios of Serbia (13th c.), Paisius of Galich (15th c.), Synaxis of saints of Yaroslavl and Rostov (one of the oldest Russian eparchies) and the New Martyrs of Kholm and Podlasie (who suffered during World War 2). Also remembered today in various Slavic Churches: Simon, Bishop of Suzdal (c. 12th century), Abramios of Yaroslavl (1219, Anthony, Bishop of Rostov (1336), Paisius of Galich (1460), Adrian and Bogolep of Uglich (late 15th c.), Saints Anthony and Joannicius of Zaonikiev Monastery (16th c.), monks Dorotheus of the Pskov Lavra, (1622), Hilarion of Podolsk (17th-18th c.), Alexander the Wonderworker of Pereyaslav (17th c.), and Joachim of Sartoma (17th c.). The Maronite Church honors Mar Tobias the Merciful (from the Biblical Book of Tobias) in addition to Michael of Synnada. The Coptic Church commemorates St Philotheos of Antioch, martyred during the Great Persecution of Diocletian, and St John IV, Coptic Pope of Alexandria (+792). Many Orthodox and Greek Catholics also commemorate first millennium Western saints. On this day these include saints from the Roman Martyrology as well as these locally venerated saints: Patricius, Bishop of Bayeux in Normandy (+469), Goban, of Old Leighlin (6th/7th c.), Syagrius of Nice (+787) and Guibertus of Brabant (+962). How many saints are there? By this count over forty saints are commemorated by name on this day alone in addition to those remembered in groups! The historic Churches remember upwards of 15,000 saints every year, not to mention those known only to God. These days have seen a number of New Martyrs and Confessors witnessing to Christ despite ISIS and other hostile regimes. Many of their stories can be found on line. In a sense the Synaxarion is still being written. By the prayers of all your saints, O Lord, have mercy on us and save us!
IN THE BYZANTINE CHURCHES the Sunday after Pentecost is observed as the Feast of All Saints. This is to proclaim that the presence of saints in the Church points to the presence of the Spirit who enlivens the Church and transforms those who cherish its life. On this day all the saints – those whose names we know and those we do not – are celebrated, for the state of hearts is truly known only to God. It is also the custom in many places that the next two Sundays after Pentecost honor all the saints of a particular nation or region (e.g. All Saints of Russia, Romania, etc.) or of a particular category (e.g. New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke). The Church of Antioch, “where the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), can point to almost two thousand years of saints in its heritage from the first days of Christianity until today. A few of them whose names are known are celebrated in all the Churches. They include: Saints of the Apostolic Age: During the first century the Greek-speaking Christian community in Antioch became the center for ministry to the Gentiles. Among its saints are:
  • The Chief Apostles Peter and Paul (June 29, which is the throne feast of the patriarchate)
  • Their companions Barnabas, who founded the Church in Cyprus (June 11)
  • Luke the Evangelist, author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (October 18)
  • Others from that era include St Ananias, who baptized St Paul in Damascus (October 1) and St Thekla, the first woman martyr (September 24)
Martyrs of the Roman Persecutions: Throughout the second, third and early fourth centuries local governors, military commanders and Roman emperors called for the persecution of Christians. Some of their victims were Saints:
  • Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer, killed in Rome c. ad 107 (December 20)
  • Sergios and Bacchos in the fourth century (October 7)
  • The Great Martyr Artemios (October 20) , martyred under Julian the Apostate
  • Babylas, third century Bishop of Antioch (September 4)
  • The Great Martyr Barbara (December 4), sometimes said to have suffered in Nicomedia, Asia Minor or in Heliopolis (Baalbek)
  • Christina of Tyre (July 24)
  • Febronia of Nisibis (June 25)
  • Galacteon and Episteme, his wife, martyred at Homs (November 5)
  • Gurias, Samonas and Habib (November 15), martyred in Edessa
  • Julian of Homs the Unmercenary Healer (February 6)
  • Lucian of Antioch (October 15)
  • Terence and Neonilla and their children, Syrians martyred in Carthage (October 28)
  • Zenobius of Aegae beheaded with his sister Zenobia in Cilicia (October 30)
Fathers of the First Millennium: The life of the Greek-speaking Churches of the Christian East was enhanced by the theological writings and poetic hymns of a number of Fathers including Saints:
  • Andrew of Damascus, Bishop of Crete (July 4)
  • Cosmas the Melodist (October 12)
  • Eustathios of Antioch (September 20)
  • John Chrysostom (November 13)
  • John of Damascus (December 4)
  • Meletios of Antioch (February 12)
  • Romanos the Melodist (October 1)
  • Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (March 11).
Ascetics and Monastics: Monasticism began in Syria a few years after it originated in Egypt and Palestine. Both Greek and Syriac-speaking Syrians were drawn to it, some of them becoming highly revered by people in the region. We remember to this day Saints:
  • Ephrem the Syrian and Isaac the Syrian from Nisibis on the border with the Persian Empire, (January 28)
  • Eudokia of Baalbek (March 1)
  • Maron the Hermit (February 14) and his disciples Marana, Kyra and Domnina (February 28), mentioned in Theodoret’s History of the Monks
  • Martha of Antioch, mother of St. Simeon of the Wonderful Mountain (July 4)
  • Peter of Damascus, whose writings are found in the Philokalia (February 9)
  • Simeon the Stylite (September 1) and his disciple Daniel the Stylite (December 11)
  • Andronikos and Athanasia (October 9), a fifth century Egyptian craftsman and his wife who lived an ascetic life in Antioch
The Syrian Popes: Several Syrians became Pope of Rome, particularly in the seventh and eighth centuries when many Syrians, fleeing the Arab invasion, took refuge in Sicily and Italy. These popes were:
  • St Anacetus of Homs (April 20) who reigned from 157-168
  • John V who served only one year, from 685 to 686
  • Sergius I, who was pope from 687 to 701
  • Sissinius, who died after twenty days as pope in 708
  • Constantine, pope from 708 to 715
  • St Gregory III (November 28), who reigned from 731 to 741 and was the last non-European Pope of Rome before Francis.
Missionaries: When Christianity spread beyond the Mediterranean, most Greek missionaries were from Constantinople and went north to the Slavic lands. Most Syriac missionaries went east from the Persian Empire. Thus much of the world was evangelized by those who had been Christianized from Antioch. Still we note:
  • The Syrian missionary to England, St. Theodore of Tarsus, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in the seventh century (September 10)
  • Contemporary Orthodox reverence St. Raphael Hawaweeny, +1915, who was the first Antiochian bishop in America (February 27)
  • Melkites recall the Servant of God Beshara Abou Murad, +1930, who walked from village to village in the Saida eparchy, re-evangelizing the neglected poor
Martyrs under Islam: The recent horrors by the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” are not the first inflicted on Middle Eastern Christians in that name. Among the countless Middle Easterners who have died for Christ we remember:
  • St. Peter the Confessor (October 4) whose tongue was cut out in the eighth century for censuring the errors of the Arabs
  • St. Jacob of Hamatoura and his companions (October 13) beheaded in the fourteenth century by the Mamelukes for refusing to become Muslims
  • St. Joseph of Damascus, martyred for bringing the holy mysteries to Christians during the Druze uprising in the 1860s (July 10). 3000 other Christians were slain during this revolt
  • Although neither has been canonized there is considerable popular veneration for the Orthodox priest Habeeb Khishy of Damascus, tortured and killed by Muslim hoodlums in 1948, and for the Melkite passion-bearer Fathi Baladi, slain in Beirut in 1980, declared a Servant of God by Pope John Paul II
“AFTER THE LONG FEAST OF PENTECOST, fasting is especially necessary to purify our thoughts and render us worthy to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit ... Therefore, the salutary custom was established of fasting after the joyful days during which we celebrated the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit” (from a sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great, +461). The fifty days of feasting from Pascha to Pentecost is followed by a time of fasting which we call the Fast of the Apostles. The first evidence of this fast is found in the writings of the fourth century Fathers, Saints Athanasius the Great of Alexandria and St. Ambrose of Milan. In a letter to his friend and supporter, Emperor Constans, St Athanasius describes the practice of the Alexandrian Church: “During the week following Pentecost, the people who observed the fast went out to the cemetery to pray.” Some 20 years later, St. Ambrose (+397) writes about the practice in his diocese: “The Lord so ordained it that as we have participated in His sufferings during the Forty Days, so we should also rejoice in His Resurrection during the season of Pentecost. We do not fast during the season of Pentecost since our Lord Himself was present amongst us during those days … Christ’s presence was like nourishing food for the Christians. So too, during Pentecost, we feed on the Lord who is present among us. On the days following His ascension into heaven, however, we again fast” (Sermon 61). This fast was first seen as a resumption of fasting following the Paschal season. During the fifty days of Pascha we have celebrated Christ’s resurrection, then His ascension and finally the sending forth of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. We have feasted while celebrating the presence of the risen Christ, but now it is time to return to the more everyday practice of Christians. The struggle to be what we have become, to “put on Christ,” demands a lifelong effort of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We observe times to celebrate the mysteries of Christ among us – the Lord’s Day and the Great Feasts on which we do not fast. But these are respites from the more ordinary Christian practice of fasting. As the Lord said when asked by the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees why His disciples were not fasting, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (Mark 2:19-20).

When Does This Fast Begin?

It appears that in the fourth and fifth centuries this fast began on the day after Pentecost, the last day of the feast. This is still the custom in the Armenian Church which fasts for the week of Pentecost. Something of this practice survives in our custom of the “kneeling prayers” offered at vespers on the afternoon of Pentecost. With these prayers kneeling is resumed as the common practice of prayer which had been suspended during the paschal feast. Later Pentecost was extended to last one week. As a result this Fast begins on the day following the Sunday of All Saints, the octave of Pentecost. As St. Symeon of Thessalonica, wrote in the fifteenth century: “For one week after the descent of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution composed by Clement, we celebrate, and then during the following week, we fast in honor of the Apostles.”

How Long Does This Fast Last?

As Symeon noted, this season, which began as a simple resumption of fasting after Pentecost, was later emphasized in connection with the apostles, particularly with the establishment of the feast of the principal apostles, Ss. Peter and Paul, on June 29. In the ordinary Byzantine and Coptic practice, the Fast lasts from the second Monday after Pentecost to June 28, the eve of the apostles’ feast. This means that the Fast may last for only a few days or may last four or five weeks, depending on the date of Pascha in any given year. This Fast is not kept with the same rigor as the Great Fast or even the Dormition Fast. In Greek and Slavic practice full fasting is prescribed only on certain days during this period. On other days fish, wine and oil are permitted. In the Middle East the Fast has come to be associated more with the apostles rather than with Pentecost. The Syriac – and until recently the Maronite – Churches observed this fast for four days, from June 25 to 28. The thirteenth-century Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Balsamon, insisted on a seven day fast. Today the Melkite Church prescribes a ten-day fast, beginning on June 19.

Keeping This Fast Today

This Fast is sometimes described as a remembrance of the hardships endured by the apostles in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, dramatically outlined some of the difficulties he endured during his ministry. “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep;  in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;  in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28). To be sure, each of the apostles could tell similar tales. The Churches established by the apostles in the Middle East are sharing in their sufferings once more. Christians in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria .and elsewhere in Asia and Africa are enduring renewed assaults from Hindu, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists as well as from the Communist regimes in the Far East. Persecution of Christians in Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, India, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Mali, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sudan, Tanzania and Turkey is reported almost daily. This Fast is a particularly appropriate time to pray for our suffering brethren in these countries. You might chose to express your solidarity with the persecuted Churches abroad by adding the following prayer to your Lenten meals each day of the Fast.

A Prayer for Those Suffering Persecution

Lord, bring an end to tragedy and suffering. Deliver Your Church and Your faithful people from every evil with Your mighty hand. Help us, O God, for You were crucified and died for the salvation of all. Help us, that among us, and in all the world, hatred may be replaced with love, unrest may be replaced with peace, and sorrow may be replaced with happiness, that we have a peaceful life as Your people and live as brothers and sisters with one another. Remember our enemies, those who hate us and oppress us, and repay them not according to their deeds, but rather give them reason and understanding, according to Your great mercy, so that they may see that evil cannot bring good. You are the God of mercy, goodness and the Lover of mankind, and unto You we ascribe glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
WHAT DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT LOOK LIKE? We know from the Scriptures that the Father cannot be seen but has manifested Himself to us in His Son. “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). And we know that the Son, incarnate, became visible in His humanity. He looks like one of us. This is why we are able to have icons of Him. As St. John of Damascus wrote in On the Divine Images, “It is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed, invisible God. … But it is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, then you may draw His likeness” (1: 7,8). But what about the Holy Spirit? Has He become visible to flesh? Can we see the face of the Holy Spirit? In a sense we can. The “face” of the Holy Spirit is the face of the saints. The very existence of the saints testifies to the presence of holiness in the Church, for no one can become a saint except by the Holy Spirit. The “face” of the Holy Spirit is not in the monuments which have been erected by Christians over the centuries, impressive as they are. Rather it is in those who have lived the way they did because the Spirit of God dwelt within them. The priest of the French village of Ars, St Jean Vianney knew the Holy Spirit firsthand, we might say. He wrote, “If the damned were asked: ‘Why are you in Hell?’ they would answer: ‘For having resisted the Holy Spirit.’ And if the saints were asked, ‘Why are you in Heaven?’ they would answer: ‘For having listened to the Holy Spirit.’ When good thoughts come into our minds, it is the Holy Spirit who is visiting us. The Holy Spirit is a power. The Holy Spirit supported St. Simeon on his column; He sustained the martyrs. Without the Holy Spirit, the martyrs would have fallen like the leaves from the trees.” (Catechesis on the Holy Spirit). This intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and the saints is proclaimed in the Byzantine Churches which celebrate the Feast of All Saints in connection with the Feast of Pentecost. On Pentecost we say that the Holy Spirit has come upon the Church. On the next Sunday, we demonstrate the truth of this claim by pointing to the saints. The Spirit is certainly present in any saint but it is in the totality of all saints that we find the “face” of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are many and varied; no one person can encompass them all. The Church describes the particular gifts of the saints by designating categories for us to understand and revere them. There are prophets and apostles, martyrs, hierarchs, ascetics, unmercenaries, fools for Christ and more. There are saints whose names we know and those we do not. There are saints whose lives are documented and others whose name is their only memorial. All together they reveal to us the “face” of the Holy Spirit. It is noteworthy that what the West calls “the communion of saints” is referred to in the East as “the communion of the Holy Spirit.” In fully appointed Byzantine churches we find ourselves surrounded by icons of the saints. Frescoes of the saints cover the walls, panel icons in shrines or on icon stands are displayed for veneration. These are not distractions from the altar or pulpit but a wordless demonstration that we are one body with the saints in Christ by the opera-tion of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply the assembly of those physically present; it is the gathering of all who are in Christ.

The Gospel on the Saints

The Gospel passage read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of All Saints is not a continuous episode. Rather it is an assemblage of three teachings concerning what it means to aspire to holiness. The first step is that we are called to bear witness to Christ in the world. “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). Our faith is not meant to be practiced privately, for our personal consolation. Rather we are to be witnesses to Him before others. In today’s world “bearing witness” often means “pointing the finger at” some atrocity or injustice. We are called to “point the figure at” Christ, much as John the Baptist did: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The simplest way to point the figure at the person of Christ is to wear a cross or display an icon in public. Often Evangelical Protestants who do not display icons will erect a plaque in their home or on their door with this verse “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). Recently the British government has prohibited Christians from wearing a cross in the workplace. The policy has been challenged in court by two women who were disciplined for wearing a cross at work. A Foreign Office statement defending the policy said, “In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.” In response the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey commented, “The irony is that when governments and courts dictate to Christians that the cross is a matter of insignificance, it becomes an even more important symbol and expression of our faith.” Witnessing to Christ – even in the Church – may make one unpopular and oppressed. “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” Mt 10:30). The witness to Christ is thus called to not only wear a cross but to bear the cross as Christ did. The saint is one who has heard the Gospel call to put God first in their lives. We may be proud that we go to church, pray, or fast. So did the Pharisee in Christ’s parable. The saint, however, is a person who is ready to put everything else aside to focus on God and His love for us. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). The spiritual son of St Simeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, says that there are three kinds of people in the world: “the carnal man, who wants to live for his own pleasure, even if it harms others; the natural man, who wants to please both himself and others and spiritual man who wants to please only God, even if it harms himself” (cited in Tito Colliander’s Way of the Ascetics, 5). The ascetic in a monastic setting or in the world strives to be that spiritual man: to love nothing or no one more than God. The final section in this Gospel pastiche is Christ’s promise that those who have left home and family for His sake will receive a hundred times more in this life and eternal life in the age to come (Matthew 19:29). This promise is often interpreted to mean that those who go off to serve Christ will prosper materially, it may be that the opposite. That those who place Christ first in their lives will find that He is worth a hundred times more that what the world has to offer and that they will find contentment is what they do have, a place in the kingdom of God.

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