Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN THE BYZANTINES CHURCHES all four Gospels are read at the Divine Liturgy in the course of the year. St John’s Gospel is read from Pascha to Pentecost. On the day after Pentecost we begin reading the Gospel of St Matthew. Selections from this Gospel are read every day for the next eleven weeks. From the twelfth week after Pentecost, this Gospel is read on Saturdays and Sundays while St Mark’s Gospel is read on the other days of the week.

We interrupt the reading of these Gospels on the Monday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, when we begin to read the Gospel of St Luke. This interruption is called the “Lukan Jump” in Byzantine terminology. St Luke’s Gospel (along with other passages from Mark) is read until the beginning of the Triodion.

In our liturgical books, both the epistles and the Gospels from Pentecost to the feast of the Exaltation are described as “after Pentecost.” With the Lukan Jump, the designations change. The epistles continue to be numbered “after Pentecost” while the Gospels are titled “of St Luke.”

In popular use, Slavic Churches tend to call the entire period up to the beginning of the Triodion as “after Pentecost.” In contrast, Greek Churches number these days after the Gospel being read (e.g. Fourth Sunday of St Matthew or Luke). The Melkite Church popularly follows the practice used in the Syriac Churches of the Middle East, numbering the days or weeks “after the Holy Cross.”

The Gospel of St Luke

Longest of the four Gospels, Luke is thought to have been written in a Greek Christian environment, possibly in Antioch or Asia Minor. Traditionally Luke has been identified with the friend and traveling companion of St Paul (see 2 Timothy 4:11). He is thought to have been born in Antioch and trained as a physician (see Colossians 4:14). He is thought to have become a disciple of Christ during the Lord’s public ministry and to have been numbered among the seventy disciples mentioned in Luke 10. He is traditionally identified as the companion of Cleopas, who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24).

It is believed that Luke’s Gospel – and its companion work, the Acts of the Apostles – was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70. It is also thought that his intended audience consisted of Greek-speaking believers, based on his use of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, and patterns familiar to readers of contemporary Greek literature. A fragment from the late second century ad is the oldest manuscript evidence of this Gospel.

The Gospel, of course, tells the story of Christ while Acts tells us about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the apostolic Church. Numerous commentators have pointed out that Luke’s work should be considered a trilogy. The first “volume” in this trilogy would be chapters one and two of the Gospel, what some have called an “infancy narrative.” This section begins by telling of the conception of St John the Forerunner, then narrates the Annunciation to the Theotokos, the nativity of John, followed by the nativity of Christ. The stories of Christ’s circumcision, His encounter with Simeon in the temple and His experience in the temple as a twelve-year old complete this section.

Chapters one and two of Luke are not simply a prelude to the story of the adult Jesus. These chapters are, as it were, a Gospel of its own. In them Luke presents us with the figure of John as the Forerunner, whose conception and birth begin the long-awaited Messianic age. In Byzantine Churches the conception of the Forerunner is celebrated on September 23, introducing both the figure of John and the Cycle of Luke. In previous centuries many Byzantine Churches began the liturgical year with the celebration of this event.

The angel Gabriel, who tells John’s father of what is to come, announces that “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah... to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13-17). Here we see John described as “filled with the Holy Spirit,” as “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” and as making ready “a people prepared for the Lord.” John’s essential characteristics, told in narratives throughout the four Gospels, are expressed here in a few words.

The Gospels’ portraits of Jesus are drawn to show us how His disciples came to see Him as Messiah and Lord over their time with Him, both before and after His death and resurrection. A climactic moment in Matthew, for example, comes when Jesus asks His closest followers, “‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven’’ (Matthew 16:13-17).

Not only are the disciples depicted as coming to learn over time who Jesus was; others, too, arrive at a similar conclusion. Thus the story of the Samaritan woman reaches its climax when her neighbors proclaim, “we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). They come to this realization when they see the Lord at work in their midst. Luke, on the other hand shows us Jesus as proclaimed “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32) “the Son of God” (Lk 1:35) in each incident of his infancy narrative. Zachariah, in the canticle he sings at his son’s birth, prophecies, “you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” (Luke 1:76). Calling Jesus “the Lord” ascribes to Him the divine name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is the same name ascribed to Him by the angel announcing His birth to the shepherds (see Luke 2:11).

The entire first book of Luke’s trilogy climaxes with two proclamations in the Jerusalem temple. When the Infant encounters the righteous Simeon, the prophet proclaims Christ as savior of the world: “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). Finally, when the young Jesus is found “in my Father’s house,” among the temple elders, we see Him taking His place at the head of God’s people, as the ascended Christ will be depicted in the midst of the heavenly host at His ascension. Thus Luke twice tells the story of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God: first, through stories of His infancy and childhood and secondly, in the narrative of His public ministry, death and resurrection.

Elizabeth was freed from barrenness, while the Virgin remained still a virgin, when at Gabriel’s voice each of them conceived in the womb; but the Forerunner John leapt in the womb when he recognized beforehand his God and Master incarnate in a virgin womb for our salvation.
 
IN THE CALENDAR USED TODAY by the Byzantine Churches the Liturgical Year begins on September 1. In earlier calendars used in some local Churches, however, the year began with the Feast of the Conception of St John the Forerunner. This feast originated in the East in the fifth century and was observed in some Western dioceses as well although it is not on the general Western calendar. The basis for this feast is the sequence of events recorded in Luke 1:5-25 – the annunciation to Zachariah, the penalty of Zechariah and the conception of John.

The Annunciation to Zachariah

“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zachariah, of the division of Abijah [Abihu]. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blameless in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years” (vv. 5-7). In 1 Chronicles 24:7-19 we read that King David and Zadok the High Priest set a schedule for each of the priestly families (named after the sons of Aaron) to serve in the temple. Each family served for eight days, from Sabbath to Sabbath, twice each year. During their times of service the priests lived in the temple quarters, away from their wives and children. In addition all the divisions served during the “pilgrimage feasts” – Pesach, Shavuoth (Pentecost) and Sukkoth (Tabernacles) – when all Jewish men were expected to come to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices.
“So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zachariah saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him” (vv. 8-12).
Some commentators think that the mention of “the multitude of the people” suggests that this event took place during one of the pilgrimage feasts. It could also have been on a Sabbath when more people would have come to worship. St John Chrysostom thought that Zachariah was in Jerusalem for the Day of Atonement when the angel visited him.
“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zachariah, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’” (vv. 13-17).
The angel’s message describes John as a prophet, calling the people to repentance. The mention that he “shall drink neither wine nor strong drink” suggests that John would also be a Nazarite: one set apart and consecrated to the Lord by a special vow. The first requirement for a Nazarite is that “he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink” (Numbers 6:3). Nazarites were forbidden to cut their hair or do anything that would make them ritually impure. These practices come down to us in monasticism through the witness of John.

Zachariah’s Penalty

“And Zachariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.’ And the angel answered and said to him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.’ And the people waited for Zachariah, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless” (vv. 18-22). It is often wondered why Zachariah was penalized for questioning Gabriel when the Holy Virgin was not (cf., Luke 1:34). Perhaps it is because conception by a virgin was unknown while there were well-known cases of God enabling conception in old age in the Old Testament. As a priest Zachariah was surely familiar with Sarah’s conception of Isaac (see Genesis 17:15-19) and the conception of the Nazarite Samson by the elderly wife of Manoah (cf., Judges 13). Each of them would play a critical part in the development of God’s plan for His people, as would John. Another well-known woman who conceived in answer to prayer is Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel (cf., 1 Samuel 1, 2). Long childless, she prayed, “O Lord of hosts, if You will… give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.” Samuel, dedicated as a Nazarite before he was conceived, would be the spiritual guide of David and Solomon.

The Conception of John

“So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people’” (vv. 23-25). Zachariah and Elizabeth lived in the “hill country” of Judea (Luke 1:39). The town of Ein Kerem, southwest of Jerusalem has long been revered as the place of Zachariah’s home, the Visitation and John’s birth. Texts from the sixth and seventh centuries attest to celebrations there connected with the Forerunner and his parents. The tenth-century Book of the Demonstration, attributed to Eutychius of Alexandria noted: “The church of Bayt Zakariya in the district of Aelia bears witness to the visit of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth.” The two modern churches of St John in Ein Kerem (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) were each built on the remnants of ancient churches.
At the time that Zachariah officiated as a priest in the holy Temple, presenting the prayers of the people to the compassionate Benefactor, he saw an Angel of God, who began to speak to him and said, “Your prayer has been heard! Take courage, old man, and do not doubt. You will have as your child the holy Forerunner, who will be the greatest of those born of women; and in the power of Elijah, he will go before Christ!” (Vespers Sticheron) Joy to you, O barren one unable to give birth! Behold, you conceive today the one who is really a Torch of the Sun, who will enlighten the whole world that suffered from blindness. Rejoice, O Zachariah, and cry out in all confidence: “The one who will be born is a Prophet of the Most High!” (Troparion)

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