Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
Nativity Icon from St. George Melkite Church of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Feast of the Nativity of Christ

A Collection of Reflections

by Frances Collie

Nativity

About the Icon of the Nativity of Christ

The Nativity Sermon of Saint John Chrysostom

ABOUT THE ICON OF THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST

The Feast of the Nativity of Christ is a celebration of both the Incarnation and re-creation of the world in Christ. The liturgical texts for the feast are reflected and represented in the icon. The icon reproduces in artistic designs and harmony the details of the narratives of the Gospels. We see in the icon what our hearts have already heard and sung.

"Today the Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all being, and the earth offers a cave to Him whom no man can approach 'The whole creation is made rich: let it rejoice and be of good cheer. The Master of all has come to live with His servants, and from the bondage of the enemy. He delivers us who were made subject to corruption (Rom. 8.20,21). In swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, He is manifest a young child, the pre-eternal God.'

The ray of light from heaven shines over the place of the Incarnation and points directly to the Christ-child who lays in the manger. In another text we see that all creation is involved in an act of gratitude and welcome to the Incarnate God:

"What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us.'

The ox and the ass in the icon looking down on the Christ-child represent the fulfillment of Isaiah 1.3 The ox knows its owner and the ass its master's crib - i.e., the animal creation joins in recognition of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

The Virgin Mother lies in the center of the icon, as the second Eve. Just as the first Eve was the ‘mother of all living' (Gen.3.20) so the Virgin Mother of God is the Mother of the new humanity restored and deified through the incarnation of the Eternal Son. She is dressed in royal purple and outstretched in majesty. She is lying down because he is tired, her maternity is real and not an illusion.

The angels praise and glorify God and bring the message to the shepherds, one of whom looks in wonder and the other plays his pipe in celebration. If the shepherds symbolize simple folk and the Jewish people, the Magi symbolize wise and learned people, and the Gentile nations.

Below the Virgin, women deal with the practical consequences of a human birth - the washing of the baby. Their function in the icon is to stress the true humanity of the Incarnate God, against heretical teaching that Christ only appeared to be human. This is to show that Christ is a real human who requires caring for all His human needs.

At the bottom left corner of the icon sits Joseph, the one who is not the father of the child, and who represents those who cannot comprehend the wonder of this event, which is beyond the natural order of things. An old shepherd Thyros, representing the devil, is stirring more doubts in his heart, telling him that something went wrong with the mother because there is no human child ever without a human father. A virgin birth is not possible; it goes against all the laws of nature. The face of the Virgin is turned towards Joseph - a symbol of compassion for those beset by doubts in believing.

The homily details in the icon along with the rich coloring help to convey something of the joy of the feast.

(Baggley,, Windows of Perception, Raya, ,Christmas )

THE NATIVITY SERMON OF SAINT JOHN CHRYSOSTOM

I behold a new and wondrous mystery!

My ears resound to the shepherd's song, piping no soft melody, but loudly chanting a heavenly hymn!

The angels sing! The archangels blend their voices in harmony!

The cherubim resound their joyful praise! The seraphim exult His glory!

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth and man in heaven. He who is above now, for our salvation, dwells here below; and we, who were lowly, are exalted by divine mercy.

Today Bethlehem resembles heaven, hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices and, in the place of the sun, witnessing the rising of the Sun of Justice!

Ask now how this was accomplished, for where God wills the order of nature is overturned. For He willed He has the power. He descended. He saved. All things move in obedience to God.

Today, He Who is born. And He Who Is becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man - while not relinquishing the Godhead that is His.

And so the kings have come and they have seen the heavenly King that is come upon the earth, not bring with Him angels, nor archangels, nor thrones, nor dominations, nor powers, nor principalities, but treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Yet He has not forsaken His angels, nor left them deprived of His care, nor because of His incarnation has He ceased being God.

And behold the kings have come that they might serve the Leader of the Hosts of Heaven;

Women, so that they might adore Him Who was born of a woman so that He might change the pains of child birth to joy;

Virgins, to the Son of the Virgin . . .

Infants that they might adore Him Who became a little child, so that out of the mouths of infants He might perfect praise;

Children, to the Child Who raised up martyrs through the rage of Herod;

Men to Him Who became man hat He might heal the miseries of His servants;

Shepherds to the Good Shepherd Who has laid down His life for His sheep;

Priests, to Him Who has become a High Priest according to the order of Melchisidech;

Servants to Him Who took upon Himself the form of a servant that He might bless our stewardship with the reward of freedom;

Fishermen to the Fisher of humanity;

Publicans, to Him Who from among them named a chosen evangelist;

Sinful women to Him Who exposed His feel to the tears of the repentant woman;

And that I may embrace them all together, all sinners have come, that they might look upon the lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world!

Since, therefore, all rejoice, I too desire to rejoice! I too wish to share the choral dance, to celebrate the festival! But I take my part, not plucking the harp, nor with music of the pipes nor holding the torch, but holding in my arms the cradle of Christ!

For this is all my hope! This is my life! This is my salvation! This is my pipe, my harp!

And bearing it I come, having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels sing: "Glory to God in the Highest," and with the shepherds: "and on earth peace to men of good will."

NATIVITY: BIRTH OF OUR LORD GOD AND SAVIOR, JESUS CHRIST

The Feast of the Nativity of Christ is a celebration of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, the Son of God and the fact that through this incarnation the world is transfigured and restored. With the appearance of God the world enters upon a new beginning and takes on a new direction. In incarnation, God became real man to identify with His creation, to save His creation and to divinize humanity and the universe.

St. Irenaeus, a Father of the Church in the 3rd century, speaks of the Incarnation as "the necessary means to bring about salvation that we human beings would never have attained by our own power. The Word of God became human in order that we might become God though God's graceful, divine life. He comes to restore the likeness of God in us." He comes to show us the way to the Father and to restore humanity born bankrupt in a "bank world". Humanity started in Paradise - now, with the coming of Christ, Paradise is in humanity. When we accept the person of Jesus Christ and His self-revelation, the whole wealth and beauty of God becomes ours. We have the potential to rise high above our own limitations to the light and life of God.

When we wonder in awe at this event beyond our wildest imaginings, we must marvel at the Divine pedagogy of God, to condescend out of love for our salvation to choose to send His only begotten Son to take on human flesh as the psychological means to educate humanity. .Beyond all the seasonal exhortations of loving, giving, and forgiveness, etc., the Nativity of the Son of God means that man can now have a relationship with God. We cannot have a relationship with an abstract entity. When God decided to show us His face, so that we could see Him in person and not be bewildered by perceiving the impossible to perceive, He covered His glory with an appearance we can approach and understand: He became man. St. Paul calls this generous attitude kenosis (emptiness) also "condescension". St. John Chrysostom says,"The condescension of God is when God does not appear as He really is, but according to the capacity of the one who seeks to contemplate Him."

In a relationship we can experience the otherness of the person we are relating to. So, we know God only by being united to Jesus Christ, by seeing His face, by experiencing Him in our whole being, person-to-person.

We communicate with and experience others when they reveal themselves to us and in turn we reciprocate with the revelation of ourselves. Experience is cumulative. We know God only by being united to Jesus Christ. The glory of God was revealed and made manifest in a face that invites and reveals. Divinity and humanity were united in the Incarnation, and now they appear without separation in the face of the One Divine Person of Jesus Christ. " Life was made visible. . . and we saw it."(1Jn1:1-2) Heaven and earth are now partners in a unique drama of a sublime movement of relationship. When our humanity meets the humanity of Jesus Christ, the God-made-man, we touch and meet God, Father-Son-Spirit. When His revelation of Himself is so accepted, the receiver becomes richer with all the riches of the Person revealed. God's revelation is regulated with patient love and by the measure of our own spiritual development.

The church invites us and all humanity to rejoice. The liturgy overflows with joyous praise designed to make us aware of the coming of God, who at the moment of His birth radiates goodness and love. All of creation, even mountains and valleys are equally invited "to share in the joy of the feast" because it is a celebration of God's love and care for his creation. We should feel ourselves transformed and alive with new life which we and the whole of creation share.

We, upon hearing these exhortations should be filled with joy and peace because we can "see", "hear", and "touch" the reality and truth of our divinization. We should realize that we are a product of an infinite divine love, that we are immersed in divinity in our present life, that we can experience God through Jesus Christ, and that our final destiny is God Himself.

 

"New Creature"

A new Child, a new creature

Gregorios, by the grace of God,

Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem:

May divine grace and apostolic blessing rest on and embrace my brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod and all the faithful clergy and laity of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

"If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." (2 Corinthians 5: 17)

"For unto us a new Child is born, God before the ages," incarnate in the fullness of time. He took on human nature so that each of us might be in him a new creature, the heir of his glory. That is the great announcement peculiar to Christmas, as Saint Paul expresses it, saying, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." (2 Corinthians 5: 17) Christ, the newborn Child, through his incarnation, a new creation, is man deified (θέωσις): that is the mystery hidden from the ages; Christ himself is the new creature.

Renewal and the new creature in Holy Scripture

Let us take a walk together in this Paradise of the holy Word where we find continually repeated such expressions as newness of life, new, renew, renewal, the call to put off the old and put on the new and to spiritual renewal. I am reviewing those passages which all refer to that renewal which is the substance of the Word of God and the goal of divine revelation. Indeed, we find the call to renewal in all the books of the Old and New Testaments. God speaks in the words of Prophet Isaiah, saying, "Remember ye not the former things...Behold, I will do a new thing." (Isaiah 43: 18-19)

The holy city, Jerusalem, despite her history of holiness, is also called to renewal: "The righteousness [of Jerusalem shall] go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name." (Isaiah 62:1-2)

God himself calls to renewal, as we read in the prophecy of Ezekiel, "And I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within you...A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you..." (11:19; 36:26) And again, "Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit..." (18:31)

In the Psalms of King David, we find, "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 50: 10 LXX) and "Thy youth is renewed like the eagle's." (Psalm 102: 5 LXX)

In other psalms there is always a call to renewal and a new hymnography, new songs: as in (Septuagint) Psalms 32: 3; 39: 3; 95: 1; 97: 1; 143: 9. God himself promises to all humans to bring to pass something new, "For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind." (Isaiah 65: 17 and 66: 22.) The same prophecy is quoted in the Second Epistle of St. Peter, "Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness." (2 Peter 3: 13) The same verse is also mentioned in the book of Revelation ascribed to Saint John, "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away..." (21: 1)

All the books of the New Testament speak of the new, as the whole Testament is new! Gospel is God-spell=Good News, and in Greek the same: Eὐαγγέλιον=Good News. Jesus calls his testament the New Testament, "This is my blood of the new testament..." (Matthew 26: 28) And he promises his disciples a new drink. (Matthew 26: 29) He reminds his disciples not to spoil a piece of new cloth by putting it into an old garment, "No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment..." (Matthew 9: 16-17) The children of the Kingdom always have something new. (Matthew 13: 52) Jesus calls his disciples the new generation, or belonging to the age of renewal, "Ye which have followed me, in the regeneration..." (Matthew 19: 28) We find also similar verses in Mark 2: 21-22 and in Luke 5: 36-38, on the topic of new cloth and old garments, new wine and old bottles.

Saint John links the New Testament with new commandments, "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another..." (John 13: 34) and he links together both Testaments, "I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning...the Word which ye have heard from the beginning." (1 John 2: 7-8)

Saint Paul speaks a great deal about the new creature, and it is the title of our Christmas Letter, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." (2 Corinthians 5: 17) He invites us in his Letter to the Romans "to walk in newness of life," (Romans 6: 4) and "to serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter." (Romans 7: 6) He recommends, speaking of Christ as Passover, "Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump...the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." (1 Corinthians 5: 7) He affirms that "if any man be [baptized] in Christ he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new." (2 Corinthians 5: 17) Saint Paul invites us to free ourselves from the old: he writes to the Galatians, "But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements..." (Galatians 4: 9)

Christ the new Child, God before the ages, "abolished in his flesh the law of [the old] commandments" by his new teachings, "for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace." (Ephesians 2: 15) And as Christ is God and man, the new Adam, Saint Paul invites us to "put off ...the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of [our] mind; and that [we] put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." (Ephesians 4: 22-24) And he invites us to "put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him." (Colossians 3: 10) That gives us strength in the struggle, for "though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day." (2 Corinthians 4: 16) That is the important matter, for, "in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature." (Galatians 6: 15-16)

Similarly, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer affirms that God, "will make a new covenant with" his people. (Hebrews 8: 8) He explains what the New Testament means: "‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' saith the Lord; ‘I will put my laws into their mind and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people'...In that he saith, ‘A new covenant,' he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away." (Hebrews 8: 10-13) Christ is "the mediator of the New Testament," (Hebrews 9: 15 and 12:24): "not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration[the new baptism], and renewing of the Holy Ghost." (Titus 3: 5) There is a danger of the heart becoming very hardened, so that man is incapable of renewing himself. "For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost...if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance..." (Hebrews 6: 4-6)

So we see that all the books of the New Testament contain very beautiful expressions on the topic of renewal. We find in the Revelation of Saint John, "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name." (3: 12) Saint John declares, "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.' And he that sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.' And he said unto me, ‘Write; for these words are true and faithful'. And he said unto me, ‘It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.'" (Revelation 21: 1-7)

Call to renewal and the new creature in liturgical texts

As I said in the preface to this letter, my letter is based on the words of God, on liturgical texts which in their turn reflect the Word of God and the thought, vision and commentary of the Church Fathers on this divine Word.

My reliance on liturgical texts in my letters appears to some as fanaticism for the liturgy, but it comes from my conviction of the deep relationship between texts from Holy Scripture and those of the liturgical prayers and hymns.

In fact, as I have often mentioned, our Holy Fathers read Holy Scripture in its two Testaments, frequently and even daily. They meditated daily on the Word of God and, through their meditations, composed their sermons and commentaries, taught the people and opened their eyes to the treasures of divine revelation. Later came the monks, who read those sermons and, on that basis, composed the hymns which have been handed down to us in our liturgical books.

It is unthinkable that a sermon, letter, teaching, Gospel evening, conversation or spiritual guidance be devoid of verses from Holy Scripture (especially the Gospel and the Epistles), and all the interlinked liturgical hymns and words of the Holy Fathers.

Thus the Word of God becomes the most significant foundational guide. We read it, meditate upon it, make a sermon on it, or turn it into teaching and spiritual guidance: we sing it and proclaim our faith joyfully, with beautiful hymns, well-chosen melodies that our choirs sing in fine voice; our faithful, similarly, sing of their holy faith of which they are proud, and which they consider as their most precious possession and the light that enlightens their way their whole life long.

Dear brothers and sister, walk with me among the hymns of the Feast of the Renewal and Dedication of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, and of the Feast of the Nativity and Theophany (Epiphany) of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. We shall discover the meaning of the new creation, the new creature and spiritual renewal, for there is no feast that is not in some way a call to renewal, to new life, new creation, and the new creature.

Feast of the Renewal and Dedication of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (13 September)

Vespers
Lamp-lighting psalm Tone 6
Let us be dedicated anew, brethren! And, putting off the old man, live in newness of life, placing a bridle on all those things from which death comes. Let us discipline all our members, hating every evil eating of the tree, and so only remembering the old that we may flee it. Thus is mankind renewed, thus the day of the Dedication is honoured.
Orthros
Kathismata Tone 4
Christ has enlightened all things by his presence; he has renewed the world by his divine Spirit; souls are made new; for a house has been dedicated to the glory of the Lord, where too Christ our God makes new the hearts of the faithful for the salvation of mortals.
O faithful people, the festive day of the Dedication has come to Christ's chosen flock, and urges us all to be made new and with shining face faithfully to sing from the depths of the heart songs to the Master as deliverer and him who makes us new.
Ode 8
Today Christ, the second Adam, has shown a spiritual Paradise, this new tabernacle which contains instead of the tree of knowledge the life-bearing weapon of the Cross for those who sing: All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord.
Lauds
Prosomia Tone 4
Today the divine, sacred, honoured and light-bearing house of the resurrection of Christ is shiningly renewed; and the divine tomb distributes life to the world and furnishes an immortal fount; it gushes forth streams of grace; bursts forth rivers of wonders; grants healings to those who hymn it with faith.
The brilliant, shining beam has blazed from on high and enlightens all things; faithfully then let us all honour the Resurrection of Christ the Creator, and let us feast with hymns and celebrate with psalms the life-bearing divine festival of the sacred Renewal, that we find the Saviour and Lord full of mercy.
Tone 1 by Monk John
Be renewed, be dedicated, O new Jerusalem; for the glory and light of the Lord have risen upon thee. For the Father has built this house; the Son has established this house; the Holy Spirit has renewed this house, the Spirit which enlightens and strengthens and hallows our souls.
Tone 3
Come back to yourself, O mortal; become new instead of old; feast the rededication of your soul. Now is the time: let your way of life be renewed. The ancient things have passed away; lo, all things have become new. Bear this fruit for the feast: making the change to a fair change. In this way is mankind renewed, in this way the day of Renewal honoured.

Royal Hours of the Vigil of the Nativity

The First Hour
Stichera by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem
And so Adam is renewed with Eve as they cry: God's good will has appeared on earth to save our race. … Bethlehem... from thee will go forth for me in the flesh a leader of the nations, from a young Virgin, Christ our God, who will shepherd his people, the new Israel.
The Ninth Hour
Mortify our carnal will, so that we, having stripped off the old man, may put on the new, and live for thee, our Master and Benefactor.

Feast of the Nativity (25 December)

ORTHROS
Ode 4 Second Canon
For a new babe, even the Word, has now come forth from the mountain that is the Virgin1, unto the renewal of the nations.
Ode 5
O Christ, ...thou hast set us free, who were servants of the enemy and of sin. Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast divinised our clay through thy union and participation in it.
Kontakion of the Feast Tone 3 by Romanos the Melode
For unto us is born a new Child, God before the ages.
Matins
Ode 9
"Where is the new-born Child and King, whose star we have seen?" the Wise Men said.

Forefeast (Paramone) of the Theophany

COMPLINE
Ode 1
O Lord my God, I will sing on the Forefeast a new hymn of light to thee, who by thy divine Theophany, dost mystically give me the gift of new birth, recalling me to thy divine splendour.
Ode 3
Now, thou hast indeed visibly revealed the hidden mysteries, showing thyself to men today and granting them new birth.
Ode 5
O Creator, who art the New Adam, thou dost renew those born on earth, bringing to pass a strange regeneration and wonderful restoration by fire and the Spirit and water, renewing mankind, without destroying or melting down, through the holy sacrament of baptism.
Through the Spirit thou dost make our souls new and through the water thou dost sanctify our body, compounded from the elements, refashioning man as a living being. For in thy wise economy, as physician alike of souls and bodies, thou dost profitably apply suitable remedies to both.
ORTHROS (5 January)
Ode 4
... "Prepare ye the ways and make them straight for Christ who comes, that by baptism he may shape us anew who were growing old, loosing us from the ancient sentence2."

Feast of Theophany (6 January)

The blessing of the waters
[We thank the Lord for having led us on a new way through new birth and restored our first freedom, since through water and the Spirit he renewed human nature which had grown old through sin.]
ORTHROS
Ode 1
The Lord, King of the ages, in the streams of the Jordan formed Adam anew, who was fallen into corruption…
Second Canon
O Word without beginning, thou hast buried man with thee in the stream: he was corrupted by error, but thou makest him new again.
Ode 6
Christ will baptize in the fire of the last day those who defy him and believe not that he is God: but in the Spirit and by the grace of water he grants new birth to all who acknowledge his divinity, delivering them from all their faults.
Ode 9
Fallen Adam, poor man, cried and the Lord heard him: he came and in the streams of the Jordan made him new again…

...For Christ will sprinkle with the water of renewal those who hasten to him with faith and he baptizes them with the Spirit unto life that grows not old.

In the Appendix to this letter you will find a selection of hymns and spiritual songs about renewal and the new creature from the other Feasts of our Lord, of the Virgin and some Saints through the liturgical year.

Reflections on the theme of renewal

"If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature," (2 Corinthians 5: 17) as Saint Paul tells us. When I read this extraordinarily beautiful verse, many thoughts, reflections and feelings come into my heart and I write them to you in this letter's spiritual meditation.

I begin with a passage from my patron, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, who says, in his First Paschal Oration, "that He who today rose again from the dead may renew me also by His Spirit; and, clothing me with the new Man, may give me to His New Creation, to those who are begotten after God, as a good modeller and teacher for Christ, willingly both dying with Him and rising again with Him." In his Second Paschal Oration, he adds, "The gates of hell are opened, and death is destroyed, and the old Adam is put aside, and the New is fulfilled; ‘if any man be in Christ he is a new creature;' (2Corinthians5:17) be ye renewed."

Jesus Christ is himself the new creature, as we sing at the Feast of the Nativity, "For unto us is born a new child, God before the ages.3"Jesus is a new creature, as he became incarnate. Yet he is God, and that is the new thing, that God became united to man in the person of Jesus Christ, the model for the new creature, by which man would no longer be alone in this world, since God is Emmanuel – God with us. Man is called to be as God created him, in his image and likeness. (Genesis 1: 26-27) That means that man may become God, since God became man, while remaining God, in order that he might unite man to himself and through man, all things in heaven and on earth; so that the whole creation and all people be united in the person of Jesus Christ.

That is the new creature and that is why we find at the beginning of Genesis, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," (Genesis 1: 1) and at the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John, we find, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us..." John 1: 1, 14) So Saint John unites two creations, the beginning of humanity and the beginning of Christianity: Jesus is the new creature and Christianity is a call to man to become a new creature.

Christianity, as I like to define it (without calling it better, greater or higher than any other religion) is a new creature. It is something else, as I have mentioned in many talks and meditations. Christ is a new creature and a man different from men: he is somebody else.

Christianity and the New Testament begin from the blood of Christ. "Drink ye all of it..; this cup is the New Testament in my blood; ...this is my blood of the New Testament." Christianity's real name is the New Testament, the testament of God with man, and the testament of Man with God, the testament of man with his brother-man, with the creation, with the world, the cosmos. Nothing can be new which is not based on the old, and the new has the goal of renewing the old: hence the correlation between the Old and New Testaments, which are in fact one single Testament. Hence too the close relationship between world faiths, for there is much in common between all faiths.

The Holy Gospel is not a book which can become old. It is a book of news, of Good News, the latest news, completely modern and entirely new. It is ever-new and Good News, for its word speaks to people through the Holy Spirit, which as Jesus said, "will teach you all things" and be the "Comforter." (John 14: 26)

Christianity is a new creature, a new way or method, a new vision, new form or look, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus asks of Nicodemus to be "born again ... of water and of the Spirit." He says, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.'" (John 3: 3-9) Christ is a new creature, every baptized person is a new creature, every true believer is a new creature.

The Church, which is the community of believers, is a new creature and that is why the Church, throughout its history, has never hesitated to renew itself and to admit that it must be new, requiring renewal and restoration in all aspects of its life. It is not afraid either to confess that there are sinners among its children, when they stray from the teachings of their Master, Jesus Christ and do not walk according to the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

That is why Pope John XXIII proclaimed Vatican II (1962-65) under this splendid motto of renewal, aggiornamento and Pope John Paul II advanced the idea of the new evangelization, or the new method of evangelization, and on June 28 2010 Pope Benedict XVI announced the formation of a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.

This call for renewal is a continual appeal to man to be in relation with God, who calls him to perfection and who is Perfection beyond the capacities of man's weak and feeble nature. That is what Jesus said to his disciples, when putting to them an almost impossibly high ideal, in the teaching that concludes his magnificent, unique, lofty, sublime commandments that are both divine and human, "Be ye therefore perfect as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5: 48)

What Jesus asks of his disciples and all those who follow him, including all those Christians baptized in his name and indeed the whole world, is just based on this theological truth, (to which we attach little importance, as if it were self-evident, though it is very difficult) which lies at the heart of the meaning of our existence and relationship with God and his with us, and is summed up in this relationship (which people nowadays do not wish to acknowledge at all, though it is at the basis of all our relationships): – that God is Creator, he is my Creator, my origin and the goal of my life, above everything that I am capable of imagining, thinking or understanding.

As we say in the anaphora of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, "thou art God, beyond description, beyond understanding, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing, eternally the same, thou and thine only‐begotten Son and thy Holy Spirit." That is what is said by the Prophet Isaiah (45:15), "Verily, thou art a God, that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour," and that is what Saint Paul said on the Areopagus in Athens, faced with the multiplicity of gods worshipped by the Greeks, "As I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To an unknown God: whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him I declare unto you...For in him we live and move and have our being, as certain of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring." (Acts 17: 23, 27)

This unknown God remains so, as we always misjudge him and we always wish to see and reach him, even as we deny him, for denial is a proof of his existence that is superior to ours and unattainable. Yet we always wish to reach him and to know him better, in his perfection.

God the Creator remains always above our understanding and our relationship with him is always something new, ineffable. Yet if God were to be within our reach, thought and understanding, he would be an idol, like those of the Athenians. He becomes an idol when we fail to discover in him something new, that escapes us. He becomes an idol when he becomes a rite, for we fail to understand that he is a "new Child," close to us, but still "God before the ages," who raises us to himself, divinises us (θέωσις) and perfects us, making us into "a new creature" of an ineffable newness.

That is what happened to the three apostles on Mount Tabor at the transfiguration. The disciples lived with Jesus and knew him very well, but on Mount Tabor, they saw his glory in an ineffable way, above all their expectations. At first they did not understand the meaning of that vision, and what the presence of Moses and Elijah around Jesus meant. Moreover, though the disciples had remained with Jesus until the last moments of his life here below, yet just before his ascension to heaven they were still in ignorance of just how new Jesus' mission was, as if they were still under the Old Testament and with a mindset of this world. "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1: 6)

Saint Paul speaks of that in his Epistle to the Ephesians, praying for them "that they may comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, and that [they] might be filled with all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3: 18-19) He calls the faithful, saying, "Be transformed by the renewing of your minds." (Romans 12: 2) And he says elsewhere, "But we have the mind of Christ." (1 Corinthians 2: 16) So this is not the mind of Aristotle or Kant, but another kind of thinking, an ever-new thinking, the mind of Christ.

Analysis of the meanings of renewal in the texts of Holy Scripture and the liturgy

What do the Biblical and liturgical texts, which we have reviewed, say to us?

The mind and meaning of renewal and the expressions pertaining to the new are all linked to the evangelical, Biblical and liturgical concept found repeatedly in the holy books and in our prayers. From that we return to the first image, the meaning of renewal. At the first stage, the taking stock, metanoia, repentance, the remoulding of the human clay, the return to God, the former beauty, return to Paradise. Metanoia is one of the most important expressions, meaning change of mind, the new mind, a new way of thinking.

Renewal can be realised through the life of faith, hope and charity, through the practice of good works, participation in the sacraments of the Church, reading sacred books, following and living by the teachings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount and Gospel values.

Through renewal, man becomes a new creature, by being divinised. Renewal is salvation, θέωσις, divinisation, spiritual transfiguration, as if God created man anew in his image and likeness. He is in the act of moulding him again, making his clay anew, refining him like gold in the fire, and making him into his image (icon) once more.

We, as believing Christians, are called to this renewal and θέωσις, or divinisation. We are called to become every day a new creature: that is the strength of the Christian faith. What helps us towards realising this renewal is receiving the sacraments, as we said, especially the Eucharist and confession. That is the goal of Christian perfection and Christian holiness.

Christian renewal leads to a new spiritual policy, as Jesus teaches us, at Mid-Pentecost. We have learnt new, modern politics from Christ: that means, a new way, a new way of dealing with problems and difficulties, crises, calamities, illnesses, temptations, challenges and different circumstances that occur in life. That is the quintessence of Jesus' teaching and of his Gospel.

Furthermore, we see in that a new vision, as we find in the service of the Man Born Blind, a vision different from physical sight of the material, bodily eye. Our prayers say that the blind man became "a lamp, shining with new light." New eyes, new ears, new limbs - all renewed!

So the renewal reaches human language and expression or vocabulary: professional, spiritual and social human speech, as we read in the service for Pentecost, which refers to the renewal of tongues, languages, melody, sight and terminology.

Through spiritual renewal, there is renewed in us the knowledge of mysteries, doctrines and teachings. Before our eyes, there shine forth the secret things and symbols of Holy Scripture, all illuminated by the light of new knowledge. The renewal which comes from the Holy Spirit reaches our innermost being, our feelings and aspirations, desires and hopes, as we read at Matins of Pentecost, "Almighty, renew a cherished right spirit within us, to hold it eternally." (Ode 6)

The prayers of Pentecost express the effects of the renewal by the Holy Spirit: that is, apostles speak and each apostle speaks and each believer speaks with extravagant expressions, extravagant gifts and extravagant visions. Besides, it is such a luminous change, as if the believers were in an estrangement from the world and from a worldly way of thinking or worldly mindset.

That is why the true believer feels that if he wants to live his faith in society, he feels estranged, foreign, and others feel him foreign to them and to their way of thinking. Furthermore, the words, terms, phrases, verses of Holy Scripture, prayers, liturgy and so on, become strange for many and they no longer understand those words.

That presents a great challenge to believers, on the one hand and for their non-believing companions, far from faith, religion or the Church. The great challenge for the Church today and for priests, who are spiritual directors, dispensing the sacraments and preaching, is how to dispel that estrangement, whilst conserving the teaching of the Gospel and of the Church. The challenge is how the Church ought to address the Christian and non-Christian faithful and society with words of life, in the light of the Gospel, but with contemporary language, that of development and continuous, extraordinarily rapid change.

The challenge is how to bring to people the new evangelization as something new, attractive, lively, filled with animation and accepted with love. The object of evangelization is always new, in principle, but it is our duty, our responsibility to present it with a new tunic, a new form and to attract people to hear it and live by its inspiration and resplendent light. Thus it becomes a word of life, as Saint Peter said to Jesus in the name of all the apostles, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." (John 6: 68)

Yet we are full of confidence that the world is being renewed by the renewal of the children of faith, as Pope Benedict XVI said, "Those who believe are never alone.4" And "every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world," in the words of the great thinker Lacordaire (1802-61) whose words we learnt while still a seminarian at the Seminary of Holy Saviour.

It is beautiful to notice how the Feast of Renewal in our Church is linked to the commemoration of the resurrection of Christ and the mother of all Churches throughout the world and of Christianity, the Church of the Resurrection (in the West called the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, renewal is really linked to θέωσις, a term which is the key to (especially Eastern) Christian theology, which means that renewal is linked to union with God. Further, it is as a result of that union that those who are really united to God, always discover the new in their life, enabling them to glorify God, serve him and serve their brothers and sisters in society. Believers in God are creative, full of initiative, working miracles, inventive, with ever-new ways of acting, courageous, full of confidence and optimism and always finding an outlet in life. That is the grace of God and of the Holy Spirit who supports our weakness.

Continual, inspired renewal, to which the Scriptural texts and prayers refer, is in complete conformity with the very high human calling in all its great dignity, as Saint Irenaeus says, that "the glory of God is a living man."5 So man is always in search of the heights: he seeks self-fulfilment, he aspires always to the new and more perfect. Real dignity is that man should always keep his essential worth, that is the image (icon) and likeness of God in himself, with its beauty and splendour, as we say in the prayer for a saintly monk or nun, "In thee [Name]was accurately preserved that which is according to the image, for thou didst take up the cross and follow Christ."

So continuous renewal is a very lofty goal, implying renewal for the whole creation, of which man is head, renewal of society, renewal through baptism as second birth, and renewal of the whole cosmos.

Renewal is a source of great joy, an ever-renewed sublimity, but something difficult, requiring much watchfulness, and continuously sustained great effort, for whatever causes death in man must be restricted. Heart, soul, mind and body require an education of all the members and the purification of mind and memory from things that are failing and old, leaving behind what is old and the sins that govern and enslave, lower and degrade man, reducing his stature and making him impure.

All that means that renewal must be from the base, visceral, a rehabilitation, a fresh start, as we say in the prayers, "O chosen apostles, the Holy Spirit ineffably descending upon you has, through your tongues, reformed as in a furnace mankind deformed by sins, and has refashioned them anew for life." (Paraklitike, Tone 6 Canon of Thursday morning, Ode 3, Troparion 2)

That means that the Law itself is liable to become old and obsolete and that is why Jesus always gives us a new commandment, even if the commandment can already be found elsewhere in the Old Testament and the Holy Apostle John talks of a commandment that has already been made known much earlier, from the beginning (1 John 2: 7-8.)

So the commandment, the order itself must be renewed. The Prince of both Testaments is he who unites both in himself and gives newness to all that might be liable to becoming old and obsolete. We are always in a real, continual and present danger of returning to old principles, the Old Testament, the old vision and old mentality.

People today, as in the time of Jesus Christ, expect outward miracles and apparitions from beyond, a faraway place and we forget that the beauty of the righteous is an inner beauty and that the great miracle lies within people, in the depths of their souls. Human beings make miracles and God helps them to bring about in themselves the miraculous inner change of renewal and as Mary said, "For he that is mighty hath done to me great things." (Luke 1: 49) The miracle is the renewal and restoration of human nature, as occurred with the blind, the deaf, the dumb and the lame.

So renewal remains always the fruit of union with God, whence comes "every perfect gift," as Saint James says in his Epistle (1: 17.)

The aim of the feasts that we celebrate during the year, the Dominical and Marian feasts and those of the saints, constitute a continuous renewal for people and a call to unity with God. The feasts are stages in the divine economy, stages of renewal and repeated appeals for renewal, perfection and holiness.

Renewal is also linked to the journey to the Kingdom, as Jesus says to his disciples, that he "will drink no more henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when [he] drink[s] it new with [them] in [his] Father's kingdom." (Matthew 26: 29) We are in a process of continuous renewal, "so that [our] youth is renewed like the eagle's." (Psalm 102: 5 LXX)

Without God and without the link to eternal life and the Kingdom, man becomes obsolete and his strength becomes very weak and feeble. Even human life becomes meaningless, the conjugal life, professional life, the priestly vocation, religious consecration all become obsolete and old, when we do not know how to reveal the new in our souls and our surroundings, in nature, in our relations with the world, the cosmos and other people. We become old, grow cold, insipid and insignificant. Charity grows cold, faith weakens, hope grows ever weaker in us and we fall into danger of division, schizophrenia, personality disorders, lies, delusions and can even lose all meaning in life and become suicidal.

That is why God who loves mankind, knowing human nature, weaknesses, strengths and potential, nevertheless, himself still calls people, "Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5: 48) This call to perfection and holiness is a call to renewal and it is God himself who renews us.

The believing Christian begins the new way forward with the mystery of holy baptism and that is why we sing during baptism, after the three-fold immersion, "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.6" That is why the baptized put on new white robes, the symbol of purity, resurrection and new creation: they really are a new creature in Jesus Christ.

Baptism is the entry or introduction to life in Christ and to new life. It is the beginning of the new way, the appearance of the new vision, the first sign of the new mindset and new behaviour. It is really the road to Damascus, like the new way of Saint Paul.

Baptized Christians are then people called to continuous renewal, as new people, to whom is confided a new mission and role, that of renewing society, community and family, work and so baptism becomes the basis of their social responsibility. That is why one cannot be a good Christian, a real Christian without carrying real responsibility towards society, the homeland, the nation, relatives and so on.

And as Jesus himself began his mission after the baptism at the hands of Saint John the Baptist, so believing baptized Christians start their mission with baptism. The baptized in the name of Christ are called to do the works of Christ their master and realise in themselves what Christ said, "I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly." (John 10:10)

To realise this goal, Pope Benedict XVI founded, as we mentioned, the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization. How happy I was to see that I have been moving in the same direction as the Holy Father as I began preparing my letter some months ago and glad to read about that foundation. We read in the speech proclaiming His Holiness' foundation, "The grace of the Holy Spirit ... constitutes the force of the new law of the Gospel and who always renews the Church; ‛new' in the search of ways that correspond to the force of the Holy Spirit and are adapted to the times and the situations; ‛new' because necessary also in countries which have already received the proclamation of the Gospel."

The Pope continues,"In this perspective, I have decided to create a new organism, in the form of pontifical council, with the specific task of promoting a renewed evangelization in countries where the first proclamation of the faith already resounded, and where Churches are present of ancient foundation, but which are going through a progressive secularization of society and a sort of ‛eclipse of the sense of God,' which constitutes a challenge to find the appropriate means to propose again the perennial truth of the Gospel of Christ.7"

Practical Guidance

In this last part of our letter, we wish to cast light on the significance of the vision of the new creature in the life of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Vatican II was the greatest construction site for renewal in the history of the Catholic Church in east and west. This Council was summoned by blessed Pope John XXIII and I was personally present when the Pope announced that it would be held. He celebrated the Liturgy of the Conversion of Saint Paul on 25 January, 1959 in the Basilica of Saint Paul-without-the-Walls. After having said Mass, the Holy Father went to visit the monastery of the Benedictine Fathers who take care of the liturgical services in the basilica and in the dependency of the basilica. Only the monks living in the monastery were allowed to be present during the reception for the Holy Father's visit. I was there with eight other of our seminarians from Holy Saviour. We were in the Benedictine monastery during our studies at St. Anselm's in Rome as the late, Father Gabriel Acacius Coussa, B. A., then Assessor of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Church (and future Cardinal and Secretary of the same Congregation) wanted all the monks of the Eastern Greek Catholic and Maronite religious communities to study in Rome and we, as members of the Benedictine community were allowed to welcome the Holy Father into the hall inside the monastery. We were present as the Holy Father announced his decision to hold an ecumenical Council, which would have as its aim to work for Christian unity and renewal of the Church. He put forward his well-known formula of aggiornamento.

In fact, the documents of Vatican II discussed the renewal of thought in the Church, the life of the Church and Church government in all their dimensions. It suffices to review the titles8 of the documents of this Council to be convinced of the breadth of Vatican II's horizons. Furthermore, the programme of Vatican II can be described as an enduring programme of renewal for the Church in its interaction with the contemporary world as its influence will continue to be felt for a very long time.

In fact these documents of Vatican II reviewed the life of the Church in all its dimensions, liturgical, sacramental life, the preparation of the servants of the Word, seminarians, dedicated men and women, monks, nuns, deacons, priests, bishops, patriarchs, the ministry of service in the Church - the mystical Body of Christ, Christian doctrine, Christian faith in relation to other Christian Churches and communities and other very varied faiths throughout the world, the relationship of the Church with civil, economic, cultural and academic society, the role of lay-people in the Church and the apostolic missionary work of the Church.

These documents are summed up in the first paragraph of the document The Church in the Modern World:

1. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.

All this requires the Church to be capable of renewal, able to become encultured, acclimatised, interacting in solidarity, with power to influence and desire to develop the world. All this can be done only under the aegis of the Holy Spirit's work in renewing the Church's government, as we quoted from the prayer at the Feast of Pentecost. Any true renewal can only be the result of the Holy Spirit's work through his descent, as we say in our Eastern theology, at the epiclesis. The Church, for its renewal, needs a daily, continuous epiclesis. That is why there is the daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy which is very important, especially in the priest's life, for he daily invokes the descent of the Holy Spirit on the gifts, on the mystical Body of Christ, on the church, his parish, his pastoral activity and service. Thus he can remain in a continuous process of renewal and can lead the parish on a new way, into the real "new age." That is why we pray, "Let thy good Spirit lead me in the straight way." (Psalm 142, LXX) and "Renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 50, LXX)

Renewal in liturgical life

The Saviour ordained, through the decision of the Holy Synod and of my predecessor of happy memory Maximos V, that I should head the Patriarchal and Synodal Liturgical Commission from 1986 onwards. With the Commission, we were able to renew all our liturgical books in a new, attractive presentation and lay the foundational principles for liturgical renewal and animation, and complete renewal in our liturgical services.

We obtained fairly good results in promoting renewal and animation. Yet we aspire to much more and ask our brother bishops and our children, priests, monks and nuns, to become more deeply aware of the significance of renewal in liturgical services, singing, and in administration and celebration of the sacraments, for it is the normal, almost daily place for the relationship with our parish, so that we can bring holiness and new life to it and to all the faithful. Furthermore we think that renewal in prayer and liturgical life amounts to renewal in faith, since lex orandi lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.

Renewal in pastoral work

Besides liturgical life, prayers and sacraments, pastoral work is very important in the priest's life. It is a very large field for continual renewal and for initiatives for excellent work.

Pastoral work refers to the way of celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the sacraments or mysteries of the Church, as we said above. Similarly it has to do with preaching, spiritual counselling, Gospel evenings, pastoral visits, visiting the sick, suffering and others, guiding the confraternities, groups and youth movements etc.

All that requires a great effort for it all to become the bearer of salvation, redemption and joy, faith and hope and spiritual and social activity and solidarity, mutual help, strength, giving. Otherwise it all becomes void, an empty routine, lacking content, attraction, taste or colour, odourless, colourless and tasteless.

That means that the priest must tackle pastoral work with a great deal of care and attention, knowledge and developed awareness, intellectual training, sufficiently extensive spiritual and pastoral experience, in a constant relationship with people, in their different groups, especially the young and those who are distant from the church and especially those who are far from faith, those who doubt and so forth. The art of pastoral work consists in the priest being able to bring together clarity, limpidity and purity of Christian doctrine at the same time as different new directions in the parish, in order to lead it into the pastures, the Paradise of holy faith.

That is an operation of renewal which must aim to make the parish really into a new creature, an ever-developing swarm in a continuously developing world. We must present the Christian faith, Christian doctrine in an attractive, convincing form that is both pleasing and beautiful. Indeed, in society there are many attractions of all sorts: that is why we must confront these different attractions with the word of God, the Saviour, a living, attractive word that makes our faithful feel that it is the word of life for each and every one of them.

Renewal through apostolic and youth movements

The broadest setting for pastoral work and renewal is really in apostolic and youth work and we cannot exaggerate if we say that youth work is the best springboard to parish renewal. Indeed, young folk are demanding: they have broad horizons; their thoughts do not always originate only in the Gospel and in the Church's teaching. That is why the priest has to accompany young people and their ideas. He will be in touch with their society, the setting in which they live, their intellectual and social milieu. He must be aware of the things that make an impression on them and guide them and that permeate their thoughts and hearts, their outlook. He must present to them, on the other hand, the Gospel, the Church's teaching, Christian ethics, spiritual and faith values, so that they become part of their lives and of their spiritual and personal experience of faith. So they can live out these values in their very multicultural society, in the various groupings and trends of everyday living without fear, embarrassment, or restriction, yet without boastfulness or triumphalism.

Here we repeat with pleasure our slogan that all our young people everywhere know, "A Church without young people is a Church without a future, and young people without a Church are young people without a future."

Priests and bishops must convince young people that they have a role and mission in their society and that they have a future, that they are a Church and that they have a homeland and society. With all that, they have a very great, meaningful and daily responsibility. All this is significant in really lessening the influence and rise of emigration especially of young people, by convincing them of their role and mission of faith in our dear East, amongst all our citizens of another religion than their own and that they have the role of bringing to them the message of holy faith in this land where God has spoken to people in the words of Jesus Christ.

Apostolic movements, catechism, parish activities in their various registers are the most propitious areas for the renewal of faith amongst young people, for strengthening them in their convictions and for awakening in them the vocation to be consecrated in priestly or religious life, so that they find their place and role in the parish and Church, society and homeland.

Renewal in eparchies, religious congregations and among consecrated people

The other areas which are significant for renewal of Church and of society, through the Church, are eparchies, religious congregations and training colleges for priests, monks and nuns and religious.

We call upon our brother bishops, superiors general and all those who direct training colleges and catechetical centres, various adult education centres for the laity, for those establishments to be swarms, basic nuclei for renewal of the Church, for a renewed future for the Church and that through them the pastors of the future and those called to build their homeland and society may be developed.

It is also important to renew the rule for consecrated life in our religious congregations for men and for women, especially from within the mother houses and in the various centres where monks and nuns work. The renewal must be based on the old, original form of religious life, according to sacred, patristic teaching and the outlook of the founders. It is very important to animate liturgical life and communal living and to be faithful to monastic vows and commitments. In fact, monks cannot live as such without being in continuous relations with each other, particularly in small groups in religious centres where there are elements of religious life, so that our parish centres where there are religious become spiritual lighthouses, attracting families, young folk, fraternities, youth groups, and enabling them to live an ecclesial, spiritual, liturgical life there thanks to their visits to these monasteries and centres, praying there and making spiritual retreats in them.

So, our monasteries, our youth centres and male and female religious congregations become centres of spiritual renewal for the Church and renewal of faith in our parishes. It is important for monasteries to play this role in renewal and for them to become really attractive, with a spiritual attraction, for all those seeking spiritual renewal and renewal of faith in our parishes.

We should like the Fathers General, Mothers General and Superiors of the different religious provinces and all our brethren and children, the monks and nuns, especially those working in our parishes, to hear this call. We thank them especially on this occasion for everything they do in the way of service in our eparchies, in Arab countries and in countries of the expansion.

Church renewal, modernity, globalization and advanced technology

The new creature is a creation that must be lived in a modern, developed society. The faithful baptized Christian is that new creature. He or she must live out the faith, the Gospel, the Church's teaching and faith values in a fast developing, modern society, in a world of globalization and modernity and through freely available technology that opens up new horizons to the view.

The Church is called to accompany modernity, globalization and must use modern, advanced technology, so that working systems can be developed in the eparchies and parishes using new technology. The Servant of God John Paul II issued guidance on "a change of mentality and pastoral renewal" in his Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development9:

9.....Many Christians are already creatively using [the Internet], exploring its potential to assist in the tasks of evangelization and education, as well as of internal communication, administration and governance. However, alongside the Internet, other new means of communication, as well as traditional ones, should be used...

While the content being communicated must obviously be adapted to the needs of different groups, the goal must always be to make people aware of the ethical and moral dimension of the information....

In the conclusion to this Apostolic Letter, the Pope wrote:

14....To those working in communication, especially to believers involved in this important field of society, I extend the invitation which, from the beginning of my ministry as Pastor of the Universal Church, I have wished to express to the entire world "Do not be afraid!"

Do not be afraid of new technologies! These rank "among the marvellous things" – inter mirifica – which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal Kingdom.

Do not be afraid of being opposed by the world! Jesus has assured us, "I have overcome the world!" (John 16:33)

In 2002, Pope John Paul II issued a Message for the 36th. World Communications Day, heralding the Internet as a "New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel," while more recently, His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI has described the Internet as an "instrument for the proclamation of Christ.10"

Modern communications affect many different areas of church life, liturgical prayers, celebrating the Divine Liturgy, animating the administration of sacraments, organization of pastoral work, parish records, central eparchial records, ways of presenting catechism and Christian education to different groups in the parishes, youth work, ways of bringing the Good News to the different groups that make up our parishes and which are still in part far from the Church and are not reached by the priest's activities for a variety of reasons. All this must be discovered, so that the priest's work can attract and reach all the children of his parish. So the parish becomes really a new creature, a new church.

How I wish that the organisation of our patriarchal Church, in all our eparchies, in Arab countries and countries of the expansion could be open to new working methods in communication and information technology, working with precision in these fields, to make use of them, to develop and increase the Church's effectiveness and its relation with society, and its presence and witness. That is why we are asking specialists in information technology to help us in that direction and the Patriarchal Chancellery is ready to accept the various initiatives or proposals for development so that we can realise this significant, promising idea, so that our Church can really accompany modernity, globalization and advanced technology.

Renewal in our ecclesial and Arab society

The modern development that we desire, and that we have proposed above, is very important if we are to be agents of renewal in our ecclesial society and in our Arab society, this society that is very pluralistic in doctrine and belief, with Churches in their various denominations, influenced positively or negatively by all the various tendencies, by the local or regional context and the global state of affairs. Otherwise, we would be obliged to live as though on an island.

Now the Church cannot live withdrawn on a desert island or in a monastic hermitage in some far off wilderness: the Church must step outside its walls, church halls, presbyteries, monasteries, hermitages, eparchial residences, offices with strength renewed, based on prayer, Eucharist, meditation, spiritual reading or lectio divina, study, research and information. It must throw itself with new power towards meeting with each person, as Saint Paul says, "bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." (2 Corinthians 3: 5) So the Church must become strong, renewed, developed, with broad horizons, so as to be "all things to all men." (1 Corinthians 9: 22)

Thus everyone will be really able to be informed about "the mystery which hath been hid from ages," (Colossians 1: 26) the mystery of salvation and redemption through the Word of God, who is a word for all people, to enable them to come into the light, and "that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly." (John 10: 10) For Christ came to give light to those in darkness and to save those who were perishing, and to reunite all the separated children of God into one and to bring about fellowship between them and an interaction in which all of them feel safe, in stability, dignity, happiness and hope.

That is the apostolate of the Church which is a new creature, ever renewed and renewable: it is a continuous renewal, bringing the message of renewal, development, modernity, prosperity, in society, especially in Arab society with its Muslim majority. This renewal must reach all areas of our Arab world, which needs renewal, especially the areas of young generations. Among the areas that need renewal and very balanced development, areas that are common to both Christians and Muslims, citizens of Arab countries through our different doctrines and beliefs which all have a right to exist and develop and to be really citizens' values.

These values and areas are mainly to do with spiritual values, faith, religion, religious freedom, freedom of worship and of conscience, struggle against religious and social discrimination, and for the rights of women and children, the mentally or physically handicapped, the poor and marginalised, for family values and solidarity, strength and persistence, for a worthy life for every citizen, religious and moral education promoting values of charity and mutual respect, living together, dialogue, acceptance of others and human dignity in an absolute sense (since man is created in the image and likeness of God) and education aimed at eliminating all feelings of hatred, aggressiveness, terrorism, violence, undue influence, persecution, domination and so on.

The work of the Church in all that lies at the heart of its mission and constitutes an area of continuous renewal for its human, spiritual, cultural, faith and social work and activity. Along these lines bishops, priests, monks, nuns, teachers, trainers, catechists must make new Christian generations develop, through preaching, spiritual direction, confraternities, welfare societies, adult education centres, for Christians who are open, aware of their apostolate and the meaning of their presence in society, convinced of the basic elements of their faith and moral behaviour, finding success in their society, being happy, strong and able to withstand the stress of difficulties, pressures, crises, and the pull of various attractions, particularly of emigration, and be strong in the face of temptations to fear, discouragement, despair, isolation and withdrawal. Those Christians are able to live in Christian and non-Christian society and capable of being active apostles, working for good, for the development of Christian society in their church and parish, in their non-Christian society, in their homeland great or small and in the Arab world.

Believing, open renewed Christians are capable of influencing, being in interaction and in joint work. Pastors and Church leaders must really educate such Christians and look to their development. Such Christians can really be the future of their Church and country. Our Melkite Greek Catholic Church needs such faithful Christian citizens.

Our Church cannot renew itself and remain faithful to its Christian apostolate through its Christian children with regard to the Arab world, of which it is an integral part, being in, with and for that homeland; it cannot succeed in its open apostolate except through such Christians, being trained in future frameworks, to be pillars of the Church and society.

To bring about this renewal of Church and Arab society, we pastors, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, influential faithful, business-people, politicians, academics need to be a "strong, coherent Church" if we are to realise the Church's inner work of renewal in the Holy Spirit, just as we need to be strong and capable of interaction in different areas of our society, so that we can really continue to keep the Church in an effectual relationship with society, so that our institutions and different communities can have a great and effective influence on our society, a Christian influence, a faith influence, through spiritual, social, economic, health and political development. Thus and only thus shall we be reckoned with and thus we shall be able to fulfil our Christian mission, our unique vocation.

We must remain faithful to the Christian faith in the Arab world, so that we can be the little flock, but one which is courageous, fearless, ever-present, ever-faithful to our witness and ready for martyrdom if necessary, ever-faithful to Gospel values of holy faith. Thus we can fulfil the various demands of our vocation which Jesus gives us, and which have been entrusted to us since the day we entered upon the Christian faith through holy baptism. Thus we can be partakers in his holy mission, which is addressed to all people, especially to our fellow-citizens. This is a difficult mission, calling us to forgiveness and reconciliation, to turn the other cheek to be struck, to the love of enemies, to giving without counting the cost, to spontaneity, to not always asking for parity. Through this sublime ethic and spiritual character we can realise that to which Jesus called us, when he said, "Ye are the salt of the earth...Ye are the light of the world...Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5: 13-14, 48) In the parable of the leaven in the lump (Matthew 13:33), Jesus pictures the Church as leaven working in the world to transform it. Those are the values of true renewal and which characterise the new creature. That is the basis of the new ethic, which makes baptized Christians faithful new creatures in Christ Jesus.

Renewal through the Synod for the Middle East

The Special Assembly for the Middle East also continues the theme of renewal by its appeal to the Churches to take stock of the way they carry out their mission in the Middle East. Guidance on the matter formed part of the Synod of Bishops' study in relation to the work of the Assembly.

The Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which was held in Rome from 10 to 24 October last, was also concerned with the theme of renewal and asked the Churches to take stock of their mission in the East. The Fathers of the Synod, on 22 October addressed a Message to the People of God11 which emphasised the "renewing force" that our countries' young men and women represent.

The synodal Assembly, at the end of its work, submitted forty-four proposals to the Holy Father with an eye to the forthcoming Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.

Propositio 30 refers to Christian Formation:

To help adults to grow in a living faith, our Churches of the Middle East propose the creation of catechetical centres where they are lacking. On-going formation and collaboration between the different Churches at the level of the laity, seminaries and universities are indispensable. All these centres should be open to all the Churches. Catechists in particular must be properly prepared through a suitable formation which takes into account current problems and challenges.
...It is important that formation includes learning about modern technology and communication science. ..

The next Propositio (31) more especially has to do with the formation of Pastoral Workers:

In order to form leaders and pastoral workers in various areas, we recommend the foundation of inter-ecclesial formation centres in each country which employ the new technology of audiovisual communications. The resources they produce should be available on-line and on DVD to make them as cheaply and widely available as possible.

On the topic of social means of communication, we read in Propositio 33:

The synod fathers have noted the pivotal importance of the new means of communication for Christian formation in the Middle East, as well as for the proclamation of the faith. They are communication networks which hold out the promise of special opportunities for the spreading of the

Church's teaching.

Concretely, the synod fathers advocate the aid and maintenance of the existing structures in this area, such as "Télé-lumière-Noursat," "la Voix de la Charité" and others, so as to fulfil the objectives for which they have been established in an ecclesial spirit.

Propositio 37 refers to A New Evangelisation:

Our Churches are called upon to adopt the mentality of a New Evangelisation by taking into consideration the cultural and social context in which people live, work and act today. This demands a profound conversion and renewal in light of the Word of God and the sacraments, especially reconciliation and the Eucharist.

Conclusion

Dear friends, the expression "new creature" sums up our Christian faith and our Christian ethics and morals and the nobility of our human and divine vocation and our unique apostolate and also gives a meaning to our presence, life, way and existence on this earth as we make our way towards Paradise, towards the Kingdom.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a continuous call to people to arise and be renewed, raise their sights, ascend, move forward and surpass limitations, weaknesses, sins even, knowing that God is able to work miracles in and through them. He created us from nothing for life and is able to create a new spirit in us, make us into new creatures and raise us to the heights of θέωσις and sharing in the divine life in us. So we return to the state in which God created us in holiness and purity in his image and likeness. To that the magnificent Christmas hymn12 calls us,

"Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!
Christ is now on earth, lift up your hearts!
Sing to the Lord, all the earth,
And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,
For he has been exalted."

To all that the Feast of the Nativity calls us and to that I call you, dear friends, my beloved brother bishops, my children the priests, the monks and nuns, the faithful, men and women, young people and children of our eparchies and parishes in Arab countries, countries of the expansion and everywhere. Accept these spiritual meditations, everyone, on the topic of the new creature, which is really Christ himself, the "new Child and God before the ages" and who is each of us; accept, receive these meditations as a Christmas present, as a bouquet of intercessions, of cordial good wishes to you all.

May our Church always remain strong and coherent, unafraid, always moving forward unhesitatingly, not growing old, not despairing, not allowing itself to give way to fear, but always open and always renewed by the Holy Spirit. It will thus resemble the person of whom Jesus Christ speaks in the Gospel – that the child of the Kingdom can bring forth from his store things new and old and sow hope, in order that the gifts of God, his grace, may yield abundant fruit in all the Church's children, thirty-, sixty- and an hundred-fold and eternal life.

Christ is born: glorify him!

Merry Christmas and happy New Year, a year of peace!

With my friendship, my love and blessing,

Gregorios III

Patriarch

Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain

 

On the Nativity of the Lord 2010

"The Cave became Heaven"

The Eparch's Message

"Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shed the light of knowledge upon the world." St. Augustine said: "I want to know only two things: God and the human soul." With Christ's Nativity we are given full knowledge of both God and the human soul. In Jesus, born in a manger, God has appeared to us in His reality, as pure Love, and Man has appeared to us in his real dignity as Son of God. In Jesus, who is at the same time God and man, the Son of God and the Son of Man, we know who God is and who Man is.

The book of Genesis describes the image of the human being, man and woman, in the state of grace, as willed by God when he created them. True human life, in its highest form, is the life that God gave to our first parents, as they came out pure from God's hands. "Let us make Man in our image and likeness", he said (Genesis 2:7). "And he blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so Man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7). All creation came to be by a word of God, Man alone is a divine breath, an authentic image.

But unfortunately this image and likeness were spoiled by sin; and if we look at the humanity today, what do we see? Atheism, materialism, relativism, and secular humanism are the most popular philosophies of today. Marriage, as the permanent union between a man and a woman as willed by God since he created them, is under attack. Divorce and cohabitation without the Sacramental Mystery of Matrimony, abortion and the extremely high numbers of births out of wedlock threaten the family at its very core. Alcohol, drugs, lack of chastity, violence and suicide are epidemic. Is this what God intended when He created Man?

Paradise described in the book of Genesis as the image of Heaven, in which Man and God were living in friendship, in which Adam and Eve used "to hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze" (Genesis 3:8), is no more a paradise; it became a lonely place, empty of God's glory, because of Man's sin. And Heaven was closed for human beings.

With Jesus' birth, Heaven was reopened; Bethlehem's cave became Heaven. In Jesus human nature was restored to its original purity.

To celebrate in a Christian way the Nativity of our Lord, we have to ask Jesus to come into the cave of our soul to transform it, by His presence, into Heaven. "If anyone is in Christ, said Paul, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new." (2 Cor. 5:17). And he said to the Romans: "Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect" (12:13)

Then we will be born again with the Divine Infant; then we will be restored to the true image of God; and then we will have on this earth some of the days of Heaven.

I wish to all of you a Blessed Nativity!

+ Archbishop Cyril S. Bustros

Eparch of Newon

 
Happy Feast of Christmas 2010
The Eastern Catholic Churches - Communion and Witness
Gregorios III, Patriarch of Antioch andAll the East
Damascus, December 2010 Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

The Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops was a great historical event. We thank God and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for its being held.

This Synodal Assembly drafted a programme for us: communion and witness.

Our Eastern Catholic Churches are called to live an inner ecclesial communion with all the Churches of the Middle East, whose chief aim is to realise the Jesus' prayer, "That they all may be one...that the world may believe..." (John 17: 21)

These Churches are called to give witness to their Christian faith, especially in the Arab world, with its Muslim majority.

Peace is the great warranty for sustaining the life of communion and unity, for living Christian witness in the Arab world and for reducing or halting the increasing flow of emigration.

We ask our friends, our brothers and sisters receiving our Christmas good wishes, to pray for Eastern Christians, so that they remain living, believing stones, witnessing to the history and geography of salvation in this Christian East, cradle of Christianity.

We thank all our friends and benefactors who support our Churches, parishes and projects. We pray for them and we wish them abundance of grace from the Saviour, the New Child of the cave of Bethlehem.

We ask for the gift of peace: Lord, give us peace, for thou hast given us everything.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2011!

 

Congress on The Synod for the Middle East and its impact on Arab Countries

Umayyad Palace, Damascus - 15 December 2010

On December 15 there will be held in Damascus, Syria, a congress to discuss the impact on Middle Eastern countries of the recent Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Catholic Bishops. The congress will be held under the auspices of the Syrian Ministry of the Awqaf and the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate.

The Minister, Dr. Muhammad Abd as-Sattar as-Sayyid, acting at the instigation of Dr. Bashar al- Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic, has invited Christian leaders and Muslim muftis and Ministers of the Awqaf from Arab and neighbouring countries, as well as representatives of the Apostolic Holy See of Rome and the Churches of Eastern Europe. His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregorios III will be co-hosting the event.

Invited participants include:

(from the Orthodox Churches outside the Middle East)

  1. H. E. Emmanuel, Metropolitan of France
  2. Representative of H. H. Bartholomaios, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople
  3. H. B. Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa
  4. H. H. Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia
  5. H. B. Daniel, Patriarch of Romania
  6. H. B. Chrysostomos II, Archbishop of Nea Justiniana and all Cyprus
  7. H. B. Hieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece
  8. (from the Catholic Churches)
  9. H. B. Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halyč
  10. H. E. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches
  11. H. E. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
  12. H. E. Archbishop Nikola Eterović, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops
  13. H. E. Vincent Landel, Archbishop of Rabat and President of the Regional Episcopal Conference of North Africa
  14. H. E. Ghaleb Moussa Abdalla Bader, Archbishop of Algiers
  15. H. E. Maroun Elias Nimeh Lahham, Archbishop of Tunis

Patriarch Gregorios III talks about the Synod for the Middle East in Syria and Lebanon

On 26 November Patriarch Gregorios III gave a talk at Rabweh, Lebanon about the significance of the Synod for the Middle East.

On 29 November, he gave a similar talk at the Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria.

Conference on the Synod for the Middle East to be held on December 3 in Lebanon

Interreligious dialogue will be the theme of a conference to be held at the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal College in Beirut, Lebanon, at which His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregorios III will speak, together with Dr. Mohammad Sammak, General Secretary of the Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee of Lebanon, in the presence of a mixed audience of Christians and Muslims of all denominations.

V. C.

 

Icon from the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Syria

Christmas Greetings
from His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III

PDF to Our Priests

PDF to Our Friends and Spiritual Family

 
From Gregorios, Servant of Jesus Christ,

by the Grace of God, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, to the Bishops, members of our Holy Synod, to our sons the priests, to monks, nuns and all the faithful "called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord…Grace be unto you, and peace,

from God our Father,

and from the Lord Jesus Christ." (I Corinthians 1: 2, 3)

"For to me to live is Christ." (Philippians 1:21)

"For to me to live is Christ."

May this verse be a cry from our hearts and souls and a declaration of our faith, in this Bimillennial Jubilee of the birth of Saint Paul and the ever-renewed annual Jubilee of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life, the new Child and God for eternity.

Paul the Lover

"For to me to live is Christ." This is one of the most beautiful expressions that Saint Paul ever wrote. It came from the heart. It is the expression of a lover madly in love, who never tires of ringing inexhaustible changes on this theme, with no hint of lukewarmness, superficiality or superfluity. "You're my life," may seem a hackneyed expression, but how different is Paul's love from that of other lovers and how different the object of his love from theirs!

The beloved for Saint Paul is he who is "more beautiful than the sons of men; grace hath been shed forth on his lips... God hath anointed (him) with the oil of gladness, beyond (his) fellows… Myrrh and resin and cassia are exhaled from (his) garments." It is he whom God hath blessed for ever. He hath made him "reign, because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and (his) right hand shall guide (him) wonderfully." (Psalm 44: 2, 8, 4, LXX)

The beloved, for Saint Paul, is the Word who was from the beginning and is "the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world." (John 1: 9) He is righteousness, life, joy, hope, "for in him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28) He is that blessedness and happiness that "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man." This is "what God hath prepared in Jesus Christ for them that love him." (I Corinthians 2: 9)

He is God who loves mankind (as our Liturgy likes to call him), who spends his life for his sheep, goes in search of them and watches over their unity. He has so loved the world - he loved them so, unto death, death on the cross and he wanted to make his soul a propitiation for our sins. It is he who "for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man." He suffered, was laid in the tomb and rose on the third day, in order to come to the aid of those who were lost and to "gather together into one the children of God that were scattered abroad," (John 11:52) so that all humanity and the whole of creation "might have life and have it in abundance." (John 10:10)

There then is the focus of Saint Paul's love, his loved one, he who is Saint Paul's life; or rather there is the focus of love, the lover and beloved down the centuries, of millions, nay billions of human beings, among whom are countless thousands of martyrs, who were proud generously to give their life-blood for love of him, and countless thousands of ascetics, monks and nuns who left the world to dedicate their lives for his glory - serving the poor, sick, needy, handicapped, faceless and ostracized folk - and giving their lives to their society - developing it and promoting its prosperity and well-being and its spiritual, cultural, and economic progress. For love of him, beloved of Saint Paul "they were ... sawn asunder, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; and in dens and caves of the earth." (Hebrews 11:37, 38) They were not afraid of kings and governors: but "turned to flight the armies of the aliens," so as "to obtain a better resurrection" (Hebrew 11:34, 35) and eternal life with their beloved and the beloved of Saint Paul, Jesus Christ, who in turn "thought it not robbery to be equal with God," but "made himself of no reputation" (literally, "emptied himself" - kenosis) and "took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.".. "He humbled himself," washing the feet of his disciples and "became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus, (the beloved of Saint Paul, beloved of the saints and ascetics, men and women) every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2: 6-11)

In this year dedicated to the second millennium since Saint Paul's birth, we wanted our Christmas letter to be devoted to Saint Paul. We shall try to discover some aspects of his features that faithfully mirror the face of Jesus, whose glorious Divine Nativity we are celebrating. To say the truth, it is our duty that we owe to Saint Paul, whom we consider a spiritual son of this city of Damascus, where we have our residence, for it is at her gates that he found the light. He was baptized in the river Barada at Damascus at the hands of the first Bishop of Damascus, Saint Ananias, the Apostle, our predecessor, and our ancestors, the Damascene Christians, were Saint Paul's baptismal godparents.

One of our hymns dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul is worded thus: "What prison did not hold thee as prisoner? What Church does not have thee as preacher? Damascus takes pride in thee, Paul, for it saw thee cast to earth by light, Rome received thy blood and it too is filled with pride; but Tarsus rejoices more than all for it honours thy swaddling clothes. O Peter, rock of faith and thou, Paul, glory of the whole world, come forth together from Rome and strengthen us." (Hypakoë, Tone 8, of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June)

Paul: Teacher of Life in Christ

We decided to choose for our meditation the expression, "For me to live is Christ," since it is, so to speak, central to Saint Paul's mission. It is the pivot on which turn all the teachings of Saint Paul. Besides, it sums up the true aim of Saint Paul and of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ.

We have tried to go through the Letters of Saint Paul, tracing the meaning of this chosen verse as Saint Paul understood, taught and lived it, experiencing it in all the circumstances of his life. This verse is really the mystic tissue, the link between all his letters. It underpins Saint Paul's stance on all the various, very diverse themes discussed in his letters.

We have tried, so to speak, to conceal ourself behind Paul, and with our fainter voice echo the thunderous power of his word. This is because we consider that Saint Paul's words are of today, addressed to us and all contemporary Christians. That is why in our monthly bulletin from Damascus for the Year of Saint Paul we have presented Saint Paul's Epistles, under the heading "Voice of Paul: Voice of the Shepherd." Then we have outlined different themes that Saint Paul examined and discussed, under the title, "Letter of Saint Paul to the Damascenes." Yes, the letters of Saint Paul are always addressed to us and speak to us directly, with the word of life. They are eternal words, speaking to us of Jesus, who is always the same, yesterday, today and for ever. The words of Saint Paul are addressed to us too as children of the third Christian millennium, just as they were addressed to the first Christians of our Arab Christian world, cradle of Christianity, and to the whole world. In this our letter the words of Saint Paul are above all addressed to the sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the Middle East and throughout the whole world.

I wrote a goodly part of this letter in Rome, during the session of the Twelfth Episcopal Synod, presided over by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, with the participation of 253 Patriarchs, cardinals and bishops from around the world - 112 countries, of which 36 from Africa, 24 from North and South America, 17 from Asia, 31 from Europe and 4 from Oceania. Besides, one must count the expert theologians, the male and female superiors general, the auditors, the translators and all the others present at the Synod. Work in the Synod was hard, for we were in session for six hours per day, without counting time for prayer and for studying the numerous papers, documents and bulletins that Synod members received daily in their personal pigeon-holes and which all required the labour of a written or oral reply.

So I literally stole some free time, especially in the very early mornings, to prepare this letter. I spent whole beautiful hours at a time reading all the Pauline Epistles and reflecting on them, noting verses and passages to help me understand and develop the phrase that I chose as the theme of my Christmas Letter in this year dedicated to the celebration of the Bimillennial Jubilee of Saint Paul's birth. I also read the Acts of the Apostles with the same end in view.

Saul: Paul in the Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles mention Saint Paul for the first time in chapter seven. The young Saul was one of those Jews who heard the testimony of Protodeacon Stephen, "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit" who "did great wonders and miracles" (Acts 7:5, 8) and spoke with eloquence, conviction and courage of Jesus of Nazareth, beginning with Abraham's migration from Mesopotamia (Iraq) to Haran and thence to Palestine. He expounded to his hearers their Jewish history, linking all the events of the Torah to Jesus Christ, whom Stephen sees "standing on the right hand of God." (Acts 7:55, 56)

Provoked by Stephen's faith in Jesus, they dragged him out of the Holy City of Jerusalem and stoned him to death. The witnesses to that bloody tragedy laid their clothes at the feet of the young Saul, who was not only present at that criminal spectacle, but was also in agreement with Stephen's being killed. Saul heard Stephen ask forgiveness for those who were stoning him, calling upon Jesus in these words, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." (Acts 7:58-60)

These were the first words, news and comment that Saul had heard about Jesus. Saul knew the Torah, the sacred scriptures, and knew by heart all the events, but now he heard them in another context, in relation to a person about whom he knew very little.

But this sight only increased Saul's hatred and "he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison… And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem." (Acts 8:3, 9:1, 2)

The fact that Damascus is mentioned in this chapter of Acts shows how important was the first Christian community in Damascus, which received faith in Jesus Christ shortly after Pentecost, through Jews and others who had been present at the events surrounding the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. Thus they formed the first nucleus of the primitive Church outside Palestine, once faith in Jesus Christ had spread throughout Samaria, Judea, Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea in Palestine. So Damascus preceded Antioch, where "the disciples were called Christians first" (Acts 11: 26) and to which faith arrived later, through Paul, who had recently started on the Christian way.

That means that news of the faith of the first Damascene Christians had reached Jerusalem and that the faith of the Damascenes was so strong as to arouse the hatred of Saul, who was defending Jewish traditions and Mosaic Law with all the strength of his conviction. Thus the faith of the Christians of Damascus had provoked the ire of Saul who sought to destroy this first Damascene Christian community. In fact the very strength of their faith became the driving force behind Saul's persecution of them. However, we see that Jesus was the catalyst for changing both the ardour of the Damascenes' faith and that of Saul's hatred into a new, divine power that spread throughout the world from Damascus, thanks to that same Paul, who as Saul had sought to extinguish that burning faith by his hatred and jealousy

Jesus and Saul at the Gates of Damascus

Thus occurs a meeting, unexpected as a thunderbolt, at the gates of Damascus: a light from heaven inundates Saul and he falls prostrate to the ground. Thus begins the first conversation between two lovers. Saul hears an unknown voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" to which Saul replies, "Who art thou, Lord?" The voice replies (its sound can be heard though nothing is seen), "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." (Acts 9:4, 5) This is the first "thou and I" between Jesus and Saul. How often will such conversations be renewed between them!

We all know the details of this marvellous story: Saul is led by his companions into Damascus. A meeting takes place with Ananias in the home of one of the first Christians in one of the quarters surrounding the Via Recta of Damascus. The Apostle Ananias, first Bishop of Damascus, baptizes Saul in the river Barada and so Saul is transformed from a hateful figure to a "chosen vessel, who will bear (the) name (of Jesus Christ) before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel… and be filled with the Holy Ghost." (Acts 9:15, 17)

From Messiah to Christ

Paul passes from love for the Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures to the love of the beloved Jesus of Nazareth. He speaks of this event several times in his life and in almost every one of his letters. Let us listen to Paul's defence and explanation of his crossing over from the Law to grace abounding in his life. I would like here to report the event, although long, which explains this wonderful Passover in the life of Saint Paul and that he tells himself, while he was in chains in prison, probably in the citadel of Jerusalem: -

But Paul said, ‘I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.' And when he had given him licence, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying, ‘Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you.' (And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence: and he saith,) ‘I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia,' (in 8 or 9 B.C.) ‘yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?' And I answered, ‘Who art thou, Lord?' And he said unto me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.' And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?' And the Lord said unto me, ‘Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.' And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus. And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there, came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, ‘Brother Saul, receive thy sight.' And the same hour I looked up upon him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth, for thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.' And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance; and saw him saying unto me, ‘Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me.' And I said, ‘Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: and when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him.' And he said unto me, ‘Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.' (Acts 21:39-40, 22:1-21)

Saint Paul refers again, with great love and gratitude, to the event at Damascus, while defending himself before King Agrippa in chapter twenty-six of the Acts of the Apostles: -

Then Agrippa said unto Paul, ‘Thou art permitted to speak for thyself.' Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself: ‘I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews: especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently. My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God, unto our fathers: unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope's sake, King Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews. Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead? I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities. Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, at midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." And I said, "Who art thou, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me." Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: but shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me. Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.' (Acts 26: 1-23)

The Damascus Experience in the Epistles of Saint Paul

Saint Paul recounts the details of his vision on the Damascus road in his Epistles. It should be mentioned that he changed his name from the Hebrew Saul to his new Greek name, Paul. (Acts 13:9)

In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, (56-58 A.D.), Saint Paul recalls the beginnings of his proclamation of the Gospel, beginnings based on his relationship with Christ, risen from the dead and the appearances of Jesus to the apostles and also to him: -

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (I Corinthians 15:1-10)

It is good to recall that the only place where Jesus appeared after his resurrection, ascension and Pentecost and outside the Holy Land is in Syria, before the gates of Damascus. So, when we venerate the sanctuary of Saint Paul, we venerate a spot where Jesus Christ appeared and thus we venerate both Jesus and Saint Paul.

In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (56-58 A.D.), he says, "The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. In Damascus the governor under Aretas the King kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: and through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands." (II Corinthians 11: 31-33)

At the beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians, (53-57 A.D.), Saint Paul again recalls his Damascus experience, in which he defends the originality of his mission, based as it is on his unique, personal encounter with Christ: -

But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ: but they had heard only, ‘That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.' And they glorified God in me. (Galatians 1:11-24)

In the Epistle to the Ephesians, (61-62 A.D.), he refers again to that unique way in which he became an apostle, despite the fact that he had not been one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, nor lived with him during his earthly life in Palestine:-

Ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ… (Ephesians 3:2-9)

In the Epistle to the Philippians, (56-58 A.D.), he recalls again his passing over from the Law and Jewish circumcision to life in Jesus Christ:-

Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3: 5-12)

In the Epistle to the Colossians, (61-62 A.D.), he touches in a general way on his Damascus experience with similar expressions to those in the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Galatians. He appeals to the faithful of Colossae, saying: -

If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily. (Colossians 1:23-29)

In the First Epistle to Timothy, (64 A.D.), who is really a "son (to him) in the faith," (I Timothy 1: 2) Paul thanks God that the Gospel "was committed to (his) trust" for the glory of the Lord. (I Timothy 1:11) He says further, recalling the period prior to his experience on the Damascus road: -

And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (I Timothy 1: 12-17)

In the Epistle to the Romans, (53-57 A.D.), there is a distant mention of that change that Saint Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, when he writes to the faithful in Rome on the matter of the refusal by the Jewish people to recognize Jesus, saying: -

For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: if by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? (Romans 11:13-15)

Saul-Paul's Stay in Syria (35-38 A.D.)

This great, spiritual Pauline excursus that we have made through the Acts of the Apostles and Saint Paul's Epistles shows us how important was the Damascus experience in the life and evangelical ministry of Saint Paul. Before undertaking the second stage of the discussion and discovering through his letters the scope of this Pauline phrase, "For to me to live is Christ," we should like to throw a little more light on Saint Paul's stay in our region and country of Syria, both in Damascus and (our mother's district) Hauran, called Arabia or Arab Roman territory by the Romans. Saint Paul says of it in his Epistle to the Galatians, "I went into Arabia." (Galatians 1:17) Today, this corresponds geographically to the district that lies south of Damascus as far as the present border with Jordan and that was inhabited by the Nabateans, who were from earliest times constituted from Aramean nomads and Arabs.

Saint Paul stayed in Damascus and Arabia for three years after his conversion, as he affirms himself in the same Epistle to the Galatians, where he says, "I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days." (Galatians 1: 17, 18) That means that Saint Paul was baptized by Ananias around the years 36 or 37, as Saint Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, writing of Paul's missionary activity in Damascus: -

Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; ‘Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?' But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: but their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. (Acts 9: 19-25)

We don't know exactly the details of Saint Paul's stay during those years spent in the region. When did he start preaching in the synagogues, proclaiming courageously Jesus' name? "And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him." (Acts 9:29) And when the disciples helped him to escape at night, whither did he go and where did he stay? When he returned to Damascus, how much of that three-year period, mentioned in Galatians, did he spend there?

It is certain that Saint Paul was in contact not only with the first Christian community in Damascus, which was of Jewish extraction, but also lived among the non-Jewish nomadic Nabateans, and probably with Nabatean Arab tribes inhabiting the region of the present-day city of Messimieh in the Hauran. He would have certainly shared in their way of life. He worked at his trade of tent-making, an important craft, especially as those people and many others in those times used to live in tents. But he surely spent a very great deal of time on the purpose of his stay, that of meditating on and deepening his vision of the books of the Torah that he probably knew by heart. I doubt that he had any books with him, but he discovered those books with new eyes.

So Paul lived in this region of the Arabian desert, as had the prophets, and like them he was in the school of silence, solitude, and calm, listening under the Shekinah to what God was saying within in him. He went back over the whole of the Old Testament, with the help of his universal cultural background: Pharisaic Jewish, Hebraic-Aramaic Semitic, Roman Latin, Hellenistic Greek and perhaps Arabic too. He recapitulated all the civilizations and cultures mentioned in Holy Scripture with new eyes. He had lost his sight at the gates of Damascus, but after baptism he regained his true sight. In fact, Saint Ananias baptizes him, then delivers a little sermon as preparation for Communion, as is mentioned by Saint Luke, where he says that Ananias went to Judas' house. (It was on the Via Recta, one of the earliest and most important thoroughfares of Old Damascus, twenty-eight yards wide and a mile long, after the fashion of Roman cities.) Ananias laid hands on Saul, saying, "‘Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.' And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus." (Acts 9: 18, 19)

Excursus of the Prophets and Incursus of Paul

This journey of Paul is like that of the prophets, especially of the Old Testament: their inspiration comes to them in the peace of the desert or in the highest mountains, under the Shekinah. Revelation comes to them directly and its words are written on the tables of their hearts. They savour them on their tongue and this food becomes sweeter than honey, entering their inward parts, their very hearts and minds, until that food becomes what they are and they what it is, the revelation becomes them and they it. (cf. Ezekiel 3:1-4, 10, 11)

Thus we understand how Saul-Paul discovered Christ and his teachings without the Gospel (for at that time no Gospel had yet been written) or any other books or papers, and without meeting or establishing a relationship with any of the apostles who preceded him. As he tells us, "..nor did I go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles who preceded me," (Galatians 1:16, 17). In fact, "they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple." (Acts 9:26) Paul shows us how he discovered the teachings of the Holy Gospel: "For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." (Galatians 1:12)

Saint Paul was not a faithless and lawless apostate, despising Mosaic Law: quite the contrary. He himself gives us an account of his cultural and religious life: "I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel," (Acts 22:3) who was "a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people." (Acts 5:34) and, he continues, was "taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women." (Acts 22:4) Elsewhere he says, "My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee." (Acts 26: 4, 5)

So Paul was a believer of extraordinary conviction, who remained faithful to that first Jewish conviction over which Jesus had shed new light, "which lighteth on every man that cometh into the world," (John 1: 9) "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." (Luke 2:32)

In Paul, then, the Old Testament books have, so to speak, embraced their perfection in the Gospel, or New Testament in Christ Jesus. So the visions of the patriarchs and prophets have met and fused with the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus. Both visions - indeed, all visions, revelations and utterances - have intertwined, for the one God is the source of all, as Paul wrote in the Epistle to the Hebrews: -

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

There is the old made new, always new, ever-renewed, always young, ever-living: Jesus is born, the new Child, God before the ages. He is of the stem of David according to the flesh, but he is the Word from the beginning: -

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)

Yes, Jesus Christ is God and man. He has destroyed all barriers of history, time, place, geography, ethnicity, past, present and future; barriers between people, Jews and pagans, male and female, slave and free, great and small, to make humanity into the new man, as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In him all nations are reconciled, all parties and mind-sets, all trends unite in him, as Saint Paul says: -

But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. (Ephesians 2:13-17)

Paul unifies his thoughts, feelings, vision, message and Gospel around Jesus – bringing together all the ways of seeing, Scriptures and languages that he knew and the Roman, Greek, Hebraic, Aramaic, Semitic civilizations with which he was familiar.

Paul is a lover of Jesus: he became so twice. He loved him without knowing him in the Torah and the Prophets; he loved him a second time on the road to Damascus after the experience of the vision of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. "God …separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace." (Galatians 1:15)

So Paul unites in himself, his life, teachings and spiritual experience what Saint John said in his Gospel: "And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." (John 1: 16, 17)

Paul Unifies Old and New Testaments

The phrase we have chosen, "For to me to live is Christ" means that Christ has become all in all for Saint Paul and that the person of Jesus is central to the whole revelation of God to mankind in both Old and New Testaments. So we discover what Paul affirmed, that "For …Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us … was not yea and nay, but in him was yea." (II Corinthians 1:19) He also said, "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever." (Hebrews 13:8) It means that the covenant of God with human beings and his revelation to them is one, for the source of the covenant and of the testaments is the same: it is he, the one God. What we call the Old and New Testaments are one and the same thing, which can be traced back to a single origin, God, who himself revealed his divine word and confirmed it by the testament of his love and faithfulness to humanity.

So the two testaments are but one, so that what was related in the events and teachings of the Old Testament are fulfilled in a new reality, a new garb, as it were, a new meaning, and complete vision in the person of Jesus Christ, for the testament or covenant is Jesus Christ himself. The revelation is again, Jesus himself: as God says in the book of Ezekiel, "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you." (Ezekiel 36:26) Thus the Old Testament becomes the word of Jesus in the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Mystical Supper, where he says, "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you." (Luke 22:20)

When reading and analysing the first speeches and sermons of the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles: those of Peter, Stephen, Phillip, Paul (and even the conversation of Jesus on the Day of Resurrection with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus) we do not find anything of the teachings of Jesus directly, or of his parables or miracles as elsewhere in the Gospel, but we see that these apostles go through the history and events of the Old Testament and thence arrive at the salvation realised by Jesus Christ. Thereby they demonstrate what Saint Paul said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (I Corinthians 2:2)

So the apostles read the Old Testament as devout, believing Jews. (Acts 2:5) In doing so, they see only Jesus. That is what happened to the apostles on the Day of Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where that vision ends with the very beautiful expression, "And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only." (Matthew 17:8) So, Moses and Elijah who had been on the mountain, on either side of Jesus, had disappeared, or rather, the three apostles began to understand that all that had been said on the subject by Moses, Elijah and the other prophets could only be understood through the person of Jesus Christ. That is exactly the meaning of the phrase, "For to me to live is Christ" and it is thus that Jesus became the focus of the life of Saint Paul.

It is thus that we understand the meaning of the first dialogue between Jesus and Saul: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" and his reply, "Who art thou, Lord?" to which Jesus replies, "I am he, whom thou persecutest," although Saul was persecuting only his peers, his fellow-Jews, for the first Christian community in Damascus was of Jewish origin.

Hence, we can further understand Jesus' reply to the Samaritan woman, who had begun a conversation with him about prophecy, worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem and the Messiah, when it was Jesus' turn to interrupt her, stemming the flow of conversation with this peremptory answer, "I that speak unto thee am he." (John 4:26)

Thus, Jesus is himself divine revelation: it is he who comes instead of the book. Jesus is the Word himself: Jesus is the person; Jesus is all. That is why calling us "the people of the book," or "people of the religion of the book" is something of a misnomer as it does not correspond to the whole truth of our Christian faith, with its belief in the existence of Jesus as focus of all our creeds, dogmas, devotion, worship, and ethics and all aspects of our spiritual, religious, social, political and professional life. We are more than the phrase suggests. The expression, "people of the book," cannot cover all aspects of Christian reality, for the "book" is Jesus himself, as we shall see in the Epistles of Saint Paul.

In the same way, it should be noted that the Qur'anic expression "the people of the book" refers to Jews and Nazarenes (Christians), who themselves have inspired books in which there is everything that can be useful for living, enabling them to exercise their judgment and decide all aspects of their life according to their own book: that is the meaning of the phrase "the people of the book." This is indicated in the Qur'anic verses, requiring judgment to be made according to the book. "Say: ‘I believe in the Book which Allah has sent down; and I am commanded to judge justly between you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord: for us (is the responsibility for) our deeds, and for you for your deeds. There is no contention between us and you. Allah will bring us together, and to Him is (our) Final Goal.'" (Surah 42:15 Council)

So, whoever believes in Jesus and is baptized in the Christian faith, finds his starting point in Christ, who is the subject of all holy books. In those books, he discovers the person and teachings of Christ, who is indeed the way, the truth and the life. They are the way to true life in Jesus Christ: with him and for him and in and for society, in all our obligations and duties, which all originate from our faith in Jesus Christ. So, Christian living is focused, not on the book, but on Jesus, who is himself the book.

Saint Paul's Experience of Living Christ through his Epistles

After this walk with Paul along the Damascus road, the Via Recta, the streets of Damascus, the Hauran and Syria, we would like to put ourselves under the tutelage of Saint Paul, who himself learnt from the first Christians of Damascus. We are going to open his letters, one after the other, to ascertain and understand through them the reality and truthfulness of what he said: – (Saint Paul's motto, so to speak, and the subject of our Christmas Letter) "For to me to live is Christ." So we too will be able, through Paul, to learn how to experience the mystery of Christ, in such a way that for us, as for Paul, to live is Christ and to have the mind of Christ, as Paul had, and to understand, with Paul, the mystery of Christ's economy of salvation for us, through the events of Paul's life, the spiritual experiences outlined in his letters and his spiritual teachings to the first Christians, to whom he addressed his magnificent epistles.

In explaining Saint Paul's Epistles, we should like to follow their order in the New Testament and not their chronology according to academic biblical research.

Epistle to the Romans

In the Epistle to the Romans, we see most eloquent expressions on the theme of "For to me to live is Christ." Let us allow Saint Paul to speak for himself. That will be our way of dealing with all the Pauline Epistles. Our Christmas Letter is a Christ-centred, Messianic, Christian reading of the Letters of Saint Paul. In fact, we see in these Epistles the radiantly beautiful person of Jesus Christ at the heart of Saint Paul's life and Gospel and in his way of dealing with all the problems of the first Christian communities. Every person, thing, theme, issue, teaching, opinion, judgment, way of thinking, conduct, feeling of the heart, impression – all such is linked to Jesus.

Paul is "a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God." (1: 1) The name of Paul is linked with that of Jesus in all his Epistles: in them the name of Jesus or Christ occurs three hundred and ninety-six times. Paul is a specialist on Jesus. He is a graduate of the university of Jesus, in the Gospel of Jesus, which he is now preaching to all recipients of his letters.

"Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ," (1: 6) "beloved of God, called to be saints." (1: 7) "I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also, for I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ." (1:16) "God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel." (2:16) "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (5:1) "We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement." (5:11) "The gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many." (5:15) "They which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ." (5:17) "Might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord." (5:21) "So many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." (6: 3, 4) "Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him." (6: 8) "Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." (6:11) "Ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ." (7:11) "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death." (8: 2) "Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his." (8:9) "And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness." (8:10) "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you." (8:11) "If children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ." (8:17) "It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." (8:34)

Then we find the extraordinarily beautiful expression of Saint Paul in those verses known to all the faithful: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (8:35, 39) That is his personal experience of Jesus Christ: he does not speak of any one else, for he has found and experienced Christ, remaining in faithful relationship with him, as we see in these verses, despite all persecutions and sufferings that scarred his life.

He continues in the Epistle to the Romans: "Christ is the end of the law." (10: 4) "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ." (13:14) and lastly, this expression rounds off the whole collection of advice as he adds, "Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus." (15:5) "Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God." (15: 7) The goal of all that is: "that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." (15: 6) Lastly comes the closing prayer: "Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, to God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen." (16:25, 27)

First Epistle to the Corinthians

In this, one of the greatest of the Pauline Epistles, we see how the life of Saint Paul is linked to Christ's. He affirms incessantly that he is an apostle like the others, because of his relationship to Jesus. He does not take a step that is not in relation to Jesus. He knows no-one except in Jesus Christ and nothing if not in him.

In the opening ten verses, we see ten times over the repetition of the name of Jesus and we know that the name signifies the person, since all is fulfilled in Jesus: grace, peace, witness, thanksgiving, firmness in faith, fellowship, kerygma, wisdom, justice, holiness, neighbourly relations with faithful and unbelievers, philosophical thought, the events of the Old Testament, Christian tradition, relations between men and women, relations between the faithful in Jesus Christ in Church, faith, hope, charity, struggle (jihad), passions, sufferings, the cross, death and resurrection, victory: all that is in Jesus. Paul is "called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God." (1: 1) "to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints." (1: 2) "God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord." (1: 9)

The subject of Saint Paul's preaching is "Christ crucified." (1:23) Others may preach about whomsoever they will, but the subject of Paul's pride is Jesus and his cross, for "Christ Jesus…of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." (1:30) Therefore, he knows nothing of those in Corinth, "save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (2: 2) The true link between a pastor and his parish, between priest and faithful is Jesus, in and through Jesus.

Paul accepts each and every one of the people of Corinth, including the crucified, suffering and doubting. He knows every person in Jesus Christ and accepts him, despite his poverty, pain, illness, weakness, errors and distress, since, for him, the other has become Jesus Christ himself.

Paul has no trust in his considerable education in Hellenistic thought or even in his knowledge of the Bible that he had received at the hands of the great masters of the Law. Paul has "the mind of Christ." (2:16) He is "of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God." (4: 1) He plants, waters and builds, but the foundation laid "is Jesus Christ." (3:11) "For all things are yours…And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's." (3:21, 23) This principle explains the complementarity of things, the order to be followed and instituted between them, their value, order and importance in the life of the faithful. There can be no foundation, no value, no construction without Christ.

It is what Saint Paul experienced in his apostolic life, as he describes, with all its concomitant features; sufferings, disdain, insults, persecutions, as he says, "For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake.. we are weak, ..we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; and labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day." (4: 9-13) This is a disturbing and painful description of Saint Paul's life, but in and for Christ. His sufferings resemble Christ's and are the signs of a new birth. Paul engenders the Corinthian faithful; he is their father, mother, master, servant and the one who gives birth to them in Christ.

Saint Paul asks the faithful at Corinth to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. (11:1) So they become the temple of Christ, as the members of their body are the members of Christ. (12:12) They must respect these members, as they respect Christ himself in them: so they glorify God in their members.

The subject of the message proclaimed in the preaching of Paul's Gospel, is first and last, Christ. So he proclaims the Gospel of Christ, without seeking reward – freely. "Woe to me, if I preach not!" and he bears everything and is ready to lose all prerogatives, provided that there is never any obstacle to the Gospel of Christ. (9:12, 18) He does everything possible to advance his cause, striving, fighting for the Gospel. He becomes all things to all people, for the Gospel. For the Jews, he is Jewish; for those outside the Law he is without the Law; with the weak, he is weak; with the slave, he is a slave to all for Jesus Christ. (9:19-24)

For him, Christ is the rock. (10:4) Indeed, Jesus is the substance of Paul's reading in all he has learned of the Torah from Jewish culture; he sees all the Old Testament symbolically linked to Christ. He explains all the events that happened in Jewish history with reference to the Gospel of Christ. He understands them all through Christ, for all are "written for our admonition." (10:11)

Furthermore, human relations are based on Christ. That applies to relationships between man and woman, or wife and husband, as "the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." (11:3) Here we find a real pyramidal view of human relations, with different kinds and conditions of human beings. This arrangement safeguards the dignity, rights, identity and uniqueness of each individual. There can be neither servility nor haughtiness; neither pride, violence nor domination: each assumes his or her rightful place and dignity through a personal relationship to Christ in God, who has created all people equally in his image and likeness.

Saint Paul moves on to discuss the Eucharist, which is the real, fundamental link with Christ, for the Eucharist is Christ. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (10:16) The faithful who celebrate the Mystical Supper and the sacrament of the Eucharist become one in Christ. (11:23-28) Besides, they themselves become the body of Christ, being transformed into Christ. "Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular." (12:27) All the members of the body are united among themselves. All the gifts possessed by the members in that body, which is the Church, are linked to it and are at the service of all its members. (Chapter 12) From that may be understood again that whole pyramidal relationship in the Church, the relationship of master to servant, bishop with priests, religious superior with monks or nuns, Patriarch with bishops and they with him, the relationship of the Pope, the highest authority in the Church, with the bishops and the faithful. Therein lies the real link between Petrine primacy and episcopal collegiality. These teachings of Paul on the topic of the body and its members are indeed the basis of the real meaning of Christian unity in the Church and of the search for unity among Christians. They describe the relationship of the members among themselves, of gifts, charismata, services and ministries in the Church that is the body of Christ.

On the basis of this, and according to this way of reasoning, one can understand the song of love in chapter thirteen. It is love (caritas) which is the primary, most important and greatest link between God and man, since God is love, and between human beings too, since they are children of God who is love.

These two chapters, twelve and thirteen, are the basis of all search for Christian unity, but we are, alas, very human and carnal and do not understand the true meaning of that love. All efforts in ecumenical work are halting and uncertain, lost in the quantity of papers, meetings, documents, visits, velleities of protocol, even theological dialogues, kisses, photos, magazine interviews and statements, as was very well expressed by the late Bishop Elias Zoghby, of blessed memory, in his book, We are all Schismatics, for we do not have the mind of Paul, Apostle of Jesus Christ.

May we, in this Jubilee Year of Saint Paul, come to understand the teachings of Paul and may we, like him, have the mind of Christ and then we shall be able to realise that Christian unity, to which all Christians aspire. I would not be exaggerating if I said that those who aspire least to this unity, are, unfortunately, Chief Pastors, while the faithful parishioners are very hungry and thirsty, longing for that unity which Jesus wanted, so that the world, which needs Jesus, might believe.

To summarise what Saint Paul often calls "his Gospel," that he received from Jesus himself: it is "how … Christ died for our sins …was buried, and … rose again the third day." (15:3, 4) Here again, he mentions his personal experience of encountering Christ risen from the dead, on the road to Damascus.

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Gospel message of Saint Paul and of all the apostles. That is why the first Christians in our dear East were called children of the resurrection. "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." (15:14, 17) He adds, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." (15:19)

This hope is what strengthens Saint Paul in his struggle. That is why he can say that he dies daily for Jesus. (15:31) That is why Saint Paul has the right to end this last chapter of the Epistle to the Corinthians with this triumphal song, "Death is swallowed up in victory." (15:54)

The first sentence of this letter contains the name of Christ and the last is an expression of love for Christ: "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema. Maranatha. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen." (16:22-24)

Second Epistle to the Corinthians

Christ, in Paul's eyes, is the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. That is why all his letters begin with Jesus. "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ: grace be to you and peace … from the Lord Jesus Christ." (1: 1, 2)

This letter is characterised by the description of Paul's participation in Christ's sufferings. "For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ." (1:5) However, Saint Paul remains firm unto death in faith, despite his sufferings. (1:9, 10) "But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, …was not yea and nay, but in him was yea." (1:18,19)

Paul "forgives in the person of Christ." (2:1) He travels, going to one place after another (2:12) and going from one victory to another in Christ. (2:14) He is "a sweet savour of Christ" (2:15) and his trust even amid difficulties, is boundless. (3:4) All his strength and capability is in Jesus Christ. (4:4-6)

In this letter, especially in chapters three, four and five, Saint Paul expresses his passionate love for Christ and his experience of life in Christ, despite troubles and perplexities, persecutions, sufferings, pains, spiritual and bodily illnesses and betrayals. "For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh." (4:10-12) But he is not, so to speak, limited; he does not fall into despair; he is never disappointed, despite troubles and persecutions. (4:8, 9) As he says, "though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day." (4:16) "For the love of Christ constraineth us." (5:14) "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." (5:17) "We are ambassadors for Christ" (5:20) and "ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; by pureness, by knowledge, by long suffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned." (6:4-10)

There is an example of the experience of Paul in his life in Jesus Christ, but nothing destroys his will and enthusiasm, "for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." (10:4-6a) Again, Saint Paul describes all his toil with respect to life in Christ: (11:23-33) prisons, stripes, mortal perils, beatings with rods, stoning, shipwrecks, journeyings, floods, robbers, false brethren, weariness, painfulness, watchings, hunger, thirst, fastings, nakedness and from Damascus, escape down by the wall into the desert. (11:23-33)

But Jesus strengthens Paul and says to him in his temptations, "‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.' Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." (12:9, 10)

These are the great challenges and experiences of faith that Saint Paul has lived through in his Epistles, that he might live in Christ and Christ in him.

Epistle to the Galatians

The letter starts with Saint Paul's ceaselessly repeated affirmation: he is "an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ." (1: 1) He is the slave of Jesus. (1:10) The content of the Gospel that he brings to the Galatians is Christ, risen from the dead. (1:7) There is no other gospel, for the Gospel is Jesus Christ himself. (1:6-9) Therefore, it is not a gospel "after man," for Paul neither received nor learned it of man, but "by the revelation of Jesus Christ," (1:11, 12) who appeared to him on the road to Damascus (1:13-24) and who justified him by his faith in him. (2:16, 17)

Here Saint Paul proudly proclaims his vital, key formula: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." (2:20)

Moreover, Paul wishes this very image to be depicted among the Galatians: "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?" (3:1) Saint Paul himself, like a mother in labour, is suffering the pangs of child-birth "until Christ be formed," in them. (4:19) Those who acknowledge Christ must be crucified with him, for "they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." (5:24) Paul's glory is in the cross of Christ: he too wishes to be crucified with Jesus and to be like him. He continues, "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks (stigmata) of the Lord Jesus." (6:14-17)

For Saint Paul, Jesus is everything. In him, he has gained all and in Jesus, every person can reach salvation, for the promise was given by faith in Jesus Christ (3:22) and there is one mediator, Jesus Christ. (3:20) The Law leads us to Christ, (3:24) for we "are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of (us) as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for (we) are all one in Christ Jesus. And if (we) be Christ's, then are (we) Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (3:26-29)

Paul wishes everyone to be like him: a new creature in Christ. In Christ, we are "born again…of the Spirit." (John 3:5-8) That is what the Church Fathers famously termed theosis or divinisation, which affirms that "the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man …might become a son of God." (cf. our Christmas Letters, Emmanuel 2004 and The Unifying Incarnation 2005) Thus, unity in Christ becomes the goal of human life. Furthermore, unity in Christ becomes the foundation of unity, solidarity, dignity and fellowship among mankind.

We know from history that Saint Paul was martyred, beheaded, in Rome, though even before his death he lived stigmatised by Christ's sufferings. So Saint Paul is one of the first whom we know to have borne the marks of Christ's passion, as did later Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Rita of Cascia, Saint Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified and countless others.

It is Paul's love for Christ that led him to the point of being really crucified with him.

Letter to the Ephesians

This letter was written in prison in Rome. He is the ambassador of Jesus, in chains. (6:20) This is a really Christ-centred letter. Its beginning is extraordinary, affirming the centrality of Jesus Christ. It comes from "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God." He recalls the name of Christ eight times in the first twelve verses of the letter, in which he explains the divine economy of salvation realised in Christ. Christ is the basis of our salvation and the beginning, instrument and goal of the divine economy. Jesus is the head of the Church. (1:3-12) "God… hath quickened us together with Christ," (2:5) "and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (2:6) Formerly, we were without Christ, but now we live in him. (2:12) We used to be far from Christ, but now we are close, in Christ. (2:13) The whole world has become one in Christ. Peoples have been reconciled and unified in Christ. Christ is our peace, he who has made of two peoples but one, destroying the wall of enmity and proclaiming peace to all. (2:12-18)

Saint Paul utters a very beautiful prayer for the Ephesians to discover the mystery of Christ: "For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God." (3:14-19)

Saint Paul invites us to unity, since everything is unified in Christ. For "there is one body, and one Spirit … one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." (4:1-6)

The one Christ brings forth all kinds of gifts or charismata in the Church, for the service of society and for the building up of the body of Christ, so that human beings may reach the knowledge of Christ, Son of God, the reality of a unified humanity and "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (4:7-13)

Growth is in Christ (4:15) Everything that we have learnt is from Christ and in Christ. "But ye have not so learned Christ." (4:20) Moreover, the whole "truth is in Jesus." (4:21)

The Epistle to the Ephesians is a real school of experience of life in Christ, following Paul's example. It is a description of new life in Christ. (4:17-32 and chapters 5 and 6) The golden rule is to "walk in love," (5:2) which is our priestly (1959), episcopal (1981) and Patriarchal motto (2000).

The love of Christ regulates relations in the Church and society, between husband and wife and in the religious life and it is here that we find a passage that we read during the celebration of marriage, or crowning, where we find, "Submit… yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it." (5:21-25)

This golden rule finds its highest expression in the centrality and primacy of Christ in the mutual relations of people's lives and it is what inspired Paul to write to the Ephesians a collection of guidance that lays down rules for their family relations - between children and their parents, servants and masters and indeed everyone. (6:1-9)

The epistle ends as it began, with Jesus: "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen." (6:24)

Epistle to the Philippians

This is another letter from prison. (1: 7, 13, 14) From his prison, just before the time of his martyrdom, Saint Paul recalls again the event on the road to Damascus. (3:6, 12) He awaits the day of Jesus Christ, (1: 6, 10) but he is joyful, for he says, "the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel." (1:12, 13) The most important thing in Paul's life is proclaiming the Gospel of Christ; so he wishes everyone to proclaim and announce the Gospel. He asserts that it is enough for him if Christ is preached, (1:15-18) so "Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (1:20, 21)

Saint Paul asks the Philippians, as in all his letters, to live in Christ and to walk in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ, "striving together for the faith of the Gospel." (1:27) "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." (2:5) Here Paul unfolds life in Christ with new features, with general advice and guidance, in which we find again a description of his own life in Christ. What was for him a gain, with respect to his learning, culture and Roman and Jewish origin, he considers as a loss:-

But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended (on the road to Damascus): but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (3:7-14)

Paul has lived in Christ and he hastens to Rome for Christ, "for our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ." (3:20)

Epistle to the Colossians

Saint Paul affirms, over and over again, repeatedly, his intimate relationship with Christ, greeting the faithful of Colossae, in the same way as we have seen in all his letters: "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God…to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ." (1:1, 2) He is in Christ, as are those to whom he writes.

In this letter, Saint Paul employs phrases from Greek philosophy to make the mystery of Christ known. He had already considered the whole Torah as directing towards Christ and now he puts all knowledge and learning at the disposition of Jesus Christ, his beloved and his God. He wants to win over, from his prison in Rome (61-63 A.D.), every kind of thinking for Christ.

The letter begins with a hymn to the mystery of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (1:15-20)

One may think, reading this text, about the Prologue to Saint John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word."

Once again, the primacy and centrality of Jesus appear. This explains to us in a Gnostic philosophical and Christian way, Saint Paul's motto, "For to me to live is Christ." For Christ is the content of the Gospel, "the mystery which hath been hid from ages …, but now is made manifest to his saints." (1:26)

Paul is ready to fulfil everything lacking of suffering in Jesus, for the service of the Gospel, for Christ is for him the absolute in everything. He is the mystery that fills our life, through baptism and who makes of us a new creature. (2:12)

Hence we see that Christians baptised in Jesus' name must behave as in Christ:-

As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (2:6-9)

For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. (3:3, 4)

Here we may say that theology, in the view of Paul, is Christ himself: the basic substance of the teaching is Christ, the substance of catechetical programs is Christ. The philosophical and theological programs of study in seminaries must be Christ and all of them must be based on the person of Jesus, so that Jesus can be the basic substance and the link that unites all subjects and programs in his person. That applies to dogmatic and moral theology and ethics, for the truth in these teachings is Christ. (2:17, 16-22) This could be equally applicable to fundamental issues in charters and social legislation having to do with the organization of personal, marital and working relations.

First and Second Epistles to Timothy (64 A.D.)

Here we find again the salutation as in other epistles: "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Saviour, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope." (1: 1)

Paul thanks God for the gift of his conversion on the road to Damascus, in his first letter. (1:12) The beginning of his second letter is similarly steeped in Jesus and in it, Saint Paul reminds his son, Timothy of Jesus Christ, (2:8) for life and death are in and with Jesus. (2:8, 11) He exhorts him to remain faithful to the Gospel he has received in Jesus, who is the foundation of our preaching. (4: 1, 2)

Epistle to the Hebrews

The beginning of this letter

summarizes and shows the centrality of Jesus in history, in Saint Paul's life and in the life of every believer: -

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (1:1-3)

We can easily find clearly described the relationship and profound similarity between the beginning of the Epistle and the Prologue of the Holy Evangelist John:-

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. (1:1-4)

Christ alone has given meaning to history, geography and symbols: everything has been a story of the birth of Christ, making it possible to reckon everything as happening either before or after Christ's Nativity, since everything is in Christ.

All the Old Testament is, according to this letter, focused on Christ: he is the salvation that we are expecting. (2: 3) All things have been brought into subjection under him. (2: 8) Jesus, once crowned with thorns, is "crowned with glory and honour," (2: 9) so that "he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one." (2:11) Christ calls them his brothers (2:12) and children "‘Behold I and the children which God hath given me.'" (2:13) He is like his brethren, (2:17) being one with them and for them (2:18) and they are his house. (3: 6)

Moses is the symbol of Christ's person, though Jesus is even more important than Moses. (Chapter three passim compares Moses and Jesus.) Christ is the compassionate high priest; Christ is the promised land, Christ is the subject of all the promises given by God to man throughout human history and especially in the history of the people of the Old Testament. (Chapter four) "We have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God." (4:14)

Indeed the end of the whole Law is Jesus Christ, who is the "mediator of a better covenant," (8: 6) an eternal one, for he is priest after the order of Melchizedek, an order not linked to the Law and its legality. (Chapter six)

Paul's life in Christ and everything that we have already discovered from his letters on the meaning of that life is the result of his very profound knowledge of the Torah. The Epistle to the Hebrews contains basically all the Messianic expressions that we find in the Pauline Epistles. Moreover, we can understand from this Letter to the Hebrews the depth of Paul's faithfulness to Jesus and may conclude that the characteristically Jewish identity of Paul's life was transfigured by his Messianic faith.

So everything that Paul would have learned from the Torah and other books of the Old Testament is to be found in this letter. From that he passes to Jesus, who is the "high priest of good things to come." (9:11) He is "the mediator of the new testament." (9:15) "For the law (has) a shadow of good things to come." (10: 1) Christ, by his incarnation has abolished the first law to found the second. (10: 9)

So we are able "to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh." (10:19, 20) This way is Christ, as he told us when he said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." (John 14: 6) The patriarchs of the Old Testament all walked along this way, by strength of faith, as described in the marvellous expression, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (11: 1) Through it, the elders witnessed with their lives. This faith gave rise to great, heroic exemplars and was

realized in Christ.

Saint Paul considers that the whole of life is in Christ. Our life, all life is hidden in Christ. The lives of the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament is hidden in Christ: the whole of the Old Testament is life in Christ and in Christ, the Old Testament gains its true meaning. Saint Paul, the great expert, knowledgeable in Torah, begins with the experience of the elders of the Old Testament and continues through to the experience of life in Christ in the New Testament. He always reminds us that, as was mentioned earlier, the Old Testament "was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ." (Galatians 3:24) The Old Testament guided Paul on the road to Damascus and into Damascus and the Hauran wilderness. It changed him, made him take a unique, fundamental step from one covenant to the other, from the Old to the New Testament, from the shadow to the reality.

Paul did not reject or repudiate the Old Testament, but he understood it in its new, true, definitive light. That is why in the same way and with the same strength with which he believed in the Old Testament, he now believes in the New and passes to the New from the Old.

In chapter eleven of the Letter to the Hebrews, he describes aspects of the life in faith of the ancestors: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets.

The chapter ends with these verses:-

And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (11:39-40)

Saint Paul passes from the Old Testament (chapter eleven) to the New Testament (chapter twelve), saying: -

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (12: 1, 2)

He expresses the importance of the transition from the Old to the New and Christ, saying: -

For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, (an allusion to the vision of Moses on Horeb) but ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. (12:18, 22-24)

So everything has a meaning to the extent that it is linked to Jesus, in the Old and New Testaments and in the life of every human being. Evermore in the life of each man and woman there are always two testaments: "old and new." The strength of the Christian faith is that it has two testaments, which are in reality the one covenant of the one God, at once both old and new. The power of Christianity resides in this continuous ability to pass from the Old into the New Testament. Our personal Christian faith remains alive insofar as we are able continually to pass (pass over) daily from our "old" testament, from the "old man," to the New Testament, from shadows to reality, from death to life and from sin to grace. This "passover" is only possible through linking our life to Jesus Christ, who is "the same, yesterday, and today and for ever." (13: 8)

We need the ardour of Saint Paul, his lover's love, enthusiasm, faith, striving, devotion, zeal, generosity, openness and the horizons of his vast cosmic, unifying and ecumenical vision. We need his love for everyone, his readiness to give of himself and devotion till death, to the point of being sentenced for love of Christ Jesus, for love of Jesus' brethren, those who are loved by Jesus.

Closing exhortation

I am praying for us to arrive, as we follow the highways and byways of our journeys, at Straight Street, the Damascus road.

We all need to walk along the road to Damascus: not the earthly city of Damascus, a political entity, delineated by history and geography, but Damascus, city of encounter with the living Christ, risen from the dead, who calls us to salvation, redemption, love, hope and peace.

We need the Damascus road. May everyone in the world tread the road to Damascus, so that the world may change and people move from shadows to light, from night to day, sin to righteousness, persecution to love, violence to kindness, selfishness to altruism, terrorism to solidarity, fundamentalism to openness, the spirit of vengeance to such feelings as Saint Paul expresses when he exhorts the faithful to have among themselves the thoughts and manners that are in Christ Jesus, and reminds them that the fruits of the Spirit are "love.. gentleness, temperance." (Galatians 5:22-23)

And with Saint Paul, we say to all those who will read this Pauline Christmas Letter, "…now it is high time to awake out of sleep: … The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly... But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof." (Romans 13:11-14)

What a beautiful world is Paul's! May the world of Saint Paul's Epistles invade our suffering world today that lies in darkness, in revolt, hateful, vindictive, combative, exploitative, materialistic, carnal, obsessed with sex, superficial, egotistic, vacillating, erring, disorientated, without reference points, aimless: our world has such need of Paul! Beyond Paul, it needs Christ, the Gospel, the Good News. It needs God. It is really athirst and ahungered for God, but the tragedy is that the world is unaware of the fact that it is athirst and ahungered, for its cares, passions, depravation, futility and lifestyle stifle the Word of God planted in the human heart and hence it cannot bear fruit. This world does not hear the voice of the living and risen Jesus, who is waiting for each one of us on the road to our Damascus, on the Via Recta, and calling us by name, begging, challenging, chiding, awakening us from sleep, stupor, insensibility, hardness of heart, to tell us this, "Thou art mine; I have loved thee; I love thee; I know thee by name; thou art a chosen vessel for me; I have chosen thee; I have sought thee; I have called thee. Why dost thou persecute me? Why dost thou stray from me? Why dost thou not acknowledge me in thy life? Why hast thou struck off my name and dwelling-place from thy list of thy friends and companions in times of joy and gladness? Restore my name to the addresses on thy mobile and email. Set me as a seal upon thine heart. Open to me the door of thine heart: I stand at the door and knock.

Happy is he who opens to me! Happy art thou, if thou dost open, for I am coming to thee, I want to stay with thee and fill thine heart, soul, mind and entire life with joy, happiness and hope and open wide thine eyes with love and faith."

Brothers and sisters, I would like you to feel, as you read this letter, the same strong emotion that I felt while reading the Letters of Saint Paul and gradually writing this letter over recent months in Lebanon, Syria, the Vatican, Germany, England, the United States of America and Mexico.

In all those countries I wrote pages of this letter, which was for me a matter of great joy, gladness, incredible rapture and incomparable sweetness.

Try it. Taste and see how good and gracious the Lord is and how sweet his words. Don't be afraid of experiencing in your own life what Saint Paul went through: the real experience of the Christian apostles, saints, martyrs, ascetics and monastics down the ages and of every Christian baptized in Christ Jesus.

That is what I wish for you and pray for this to be realised in you, at the intercession of our Most Holy Mother, the Theotokos and at the intercession of Saint Paul. May this letter bring you greetings for the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ and our very cordial good wishes for the New Year 2009!

With my friendship and blessing,

+ Gregorios III

Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,

of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

Translated from the French by V. Chamberlain

 

Archbishop Cyril Bustros' Christmas Letter

To the Clergy, Laity and Friends of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton

December, 2004

"When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons" (Gal. 4:4). The expression "fullness of time" designates a new quality of the time. It is a time full of the presence of God. St. John writes in the prologue of his Gospel: "No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, Who is nearest to the Father's heart, Who has made Him known" (Jn. 1:18). Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God. He is the Word of God Who "was in the beginning with God" (Jn 1:1), and Who "was made flesh, lived among us, and we saw His glory, the glory that is His as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1,14).

Christmas is the feast of the appearance of God in the flesh through His Word and Son, Jesus Christ. It is the feast of our salvation: the name of "Jesus" (in Hebrew "Yeshua") means "God saves". This name was given at the command of God's angel: "The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name Him Jesus, because He is the One who is to save His people from their sins" (Mat. 1:2-21). That is why He is also called "Emmanuel", a name which means "God-is-with-us" (Mt. 1:23).

If we ask why the Word of God became man? The answer of the Holy Scripture is this: "to make us partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). St. Athanasius writes: The Son of God became man so that we might become sons of God".

By nature we are created in God's image and likeness. God's image is in our nature, that means in our reason which seeks the truth, in our love which is the reflection of God's love, and in our ability to do good. God is absolute truth, absolute love, and absolute goodness. God's likeness is in our holiness. By sin, we lost God's likeness, although His image remains engraved in our nature. Jesus Christ came to restore God's likeness. That is what He called "born again" (Jn. 3:3). In St. Paul's terms, our destiny is to be not merely "flesh" but "Spirit". He writes to the Galatians: "My point is that you should live in accord with the Spirit and you will not yield to the cravings of the flesh… It is obvious what proceeds from the flesh: lewd conduct, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, bickering, jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity. Against such there is no law! Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit's lead" (Gal. 5:16-25).

That is a good description of what Jesus said to Nicodemus in the Gospel of St. John: "I tell you solemnly, unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God; what is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not be surprised when I say: you must be born from above" (Jn. 3:5-7).

"In this faithless and corrupt age" (Mark 8:38), in this society which calls for immoral and corrupt behavior, we need to hear again and again these Divine words which lift us up to the perfection of our human nature, lead to peace between the peoples of this world, and contribute to the realization of the hymn which the angels sang at the birth of Jesus: "Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom His favor rests". (Luke 2:14).

Merry Christmas, Happy and holy New Year!

+ Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros

Eparch of Newton

Shopping Cart

Your shopping cart is empty
Visit the shop

Questions? © 1995-2016 Melkite Eparchy of Newton  ·  All Rights Reserved RSS Feed