Melkite Greek Catholic Church
THRIVING WORSHIPPING COMMUNITIES OFTEN “give birth” to small groups who devote themselves to one type of service or another: choirs, altar guilds, transport providers, food pantry coordinators and the like. Usually these groups are task-oriented: they remain lay parishioners and come together only to perform the service their group has embraced.

Sometimes the needs are so great in a given place or time that the people commit themselves to a consecrated life of service in order to address an emerging need which existing Church structures are not equipped to handle. The Russian Orthodox Sisterhood of St. Elizabeth in Minsk, Belarus is such a community.

At the end of Soviet rule, some Orthodox Christians in Minsk decided to pool their efforts to help rebuild the city’s Cathedral, destroyed under Communism. They began performing menial tasks, such as carting away construction debris. They soon realized the scope of the reconstruction needed: the entire nation, not just one church building, would have to be rebuilt.

A group of these volunteers formed the Sisterhood of St Elizabeth, now numbering over 300 members, who devote themselves to caring for people with special needs in a number of residential centers in the Minsk area. They help the residents develop a lifestyle based on the cycles and the values of the Church’s traditions, rather than on the eclectic ideas of modern throw-away culture. The members of the sisterhood concentrate on supporting the residents by establishing relationships, discussing problems and challenges, and providing spiritual counsel as well. Some members support this work by maintaining church shops throughout the capital, and conducting a world-wide religious goods service which distributes items all over the world.

Not monastics in the traditional Eastern sense, these “sisters of mercy” embrace a way of life based chiefly on service, rather than on prayer and fasting. In this they resemble many religious orders in the Western Church devoted to teaching, nursing and similar pursuits.

Members of the sisterhood offer a holistic lifestyle to people at risk from the brokenness of a post-Communist civilization. “The world teaches us to be egoists: live for your own sake and it doesn’t matter how other people live!” the sisters reason. “That is why the ministry of a sister of mercy who sacrifices her time, her energy, and her heart to serve her neighbors is rewarded a hundredfold. The Lord gives one an experience of love and mercy they will need when they pass from this temporary life to the eternal one.”

Sisterhood members serve in a 180-bed men’s rehabilitation center, and two similar centers for women and children, where people develop agricultural and construction skills and experience basic human inter-action, which many lack. As the sisterhood grew, it began first a kindergarten and then a primary school. More recently, it has organized a visiting nurse service to care for the homebound.

“Every individual is like a damaged icon that reveals her bright face to the extent that she is purified from sin through repentance,” the sisterhood teaches. “We need to do our best to help people to become pure, to start seeing God’s image within them, and to put effort into fighting their sins and passions. This is not an easy task, so no one can do it on her own, without God’s help and the support of her neighbors. However, if one has hope, faith, and trust in God, coupled with mutual pursuit of Love, everything is possible!”

Offshoots of the Sisterhood

Often monasteries attract volunteers who visit the monastery regularly and offer their services in whatever capacity is needed. In Minsk the opposite occurred. Five years after the sisterhood was organized, several helpers who had been drawn by the dedicated lives of the sisters sought to embrace the full monastic life. There are now over 130 monastic sisters in the community.

Other offshoots of the sisterhood include a youth movement, which was particularly important in reviving the Church after the Communist period. Some of the young people helped organize the several choirs which sing in the chapels of the convent and rehabilitation centers. The Festival Choir, composed of professional musicians, has issued several recordings in support of the works of the sisterhood.

“Deaconing” in Central Africa

In February, 2016, it was reported that the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria had ordained several women as deacons. In fact he had blessed (not ordained) five women to enter ecclesiastical ministry for service in the Church’s 20 central African dioceses. One other woman, a senior catechist, was blessed as “deaconess of the mission” but not ordained sacramentally.

In Byzantine and Western Churches, the term deacon refers exclusively to a man ordained to the first rank in the mystery of the priesthood. In other Eastern Churches the terminology is different. The “full deacon” or “altar deacon” has the sacramental rank; all other ministries, such as catechists or chanters and even altar servers, may be called deacons.

The word deacon comes from a Greek word for servant, and in these Eastern Churches women in the service of the Church, usually as chanters or catechists, are often called deacons. In several Eastern Churches women serving as catechists or chanters are called “deacons;” some wear the orarion.

In the Coptic Orthodox Church, there are deaconesses who live in celibate communities, much like nuns, but their primary focus is service. They are active in conducting religious education and child care, caring for the sick and the needy.

Deaconesses in the Armenian Church are usually found in women’s monasteries – particularly those in “the wilderness.” They are considered true deacons, primarily ordained to provide the Eucharist to the solitaries. Their ministry is not limited to monasteries, however.

St Elizabeth the New-Martyr

The convent and sisterhood in Minsk is named after St Elizabeth Feodorovna. She was the daughter of a German duke who had married the brother of Russian Tsar Alexander III in 1884. In 1905, her husband was assassinated and Elizabeth began re-evaluating her life. On the day of his funeral, she arranged free meals for the poor and homeless of Moscow. She sold her jewelry, furs and other luxuries and used the money to establish a new convent in Moscow, the Monastery of Ss Martha and Mary.

The nuns observed both the traditional ascetical life (Mary) and a ministry of service (Martha). Elisabeth and the other sisters visited the sick, did housework for struggling families and took care of abandoned children, visiting the poorest and most dangerous parts of Moscow. She also established a hospital, with free care for anyone who came to their door, founded a rent-free hostel for female workers and students, a clinic, a school for nurses, a library and a soup kitchen, serving more than 300 meals daily to the poor. 

On the day of her tonsure, Elizabeth had said to her fellow nuns: I am leaving the brilliant world where I have occupied a high position, and now, together with all of you, I am about to ascend into a much greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted. As an ascetic, Elizabeth slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, often for no more than three hours a night. She would rise at midnight for prayer, and spend the rest of the night at the bedside of a seriously ill patient. She was martyred in 1918 because she was a member of the royal family.
ON THREE SUNDAYS EACH YEAR Byzantine Churches commemorate the fathers of the seven great councils of the first millennium. The first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) is remembered on the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension and the seventh (Nicaea II) on the Sunday nearest to October 11. The first six councils are recalled together on the Sunday following July 13, the feast of the fourth council (Chalcedon).

Many Christian churches in America were founded by a pastor who had a Bible, a microphone and a conviction that God wanted him to preach. So he gathered a few followers (often his own relatives), rented space and scheduled services. Americans see nothing unusual in this – after all freedom of speech and individual initiative are hallmarks of the American way of doing things. Why not in the Church?

The historic Churches (those of the first centuries) saw things differently. Many of these Churches had, in fact, been founded by one of the Apostles or their co-workers. They emphasized that the Church is the Body of Christ, an organic unity of Head and members. Like St Paul, these Churches saw unity as a chief mark of the Church and that an important part of their mission was “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3-6).

Still, the first centuries saw a number of teachers with competing doctrines arise in the Church. When they were not accepted by the leaders of a local Church, these teachers or their followers often formed their own rival groups. In some places these groups became more popular than the historic Church. Arians, for example, were prominent in Constantinople through much of the fourth century and in much of the West through the fifth.

The Importance of Councils

The council – whether local, regional or ecumenical – reflects a basic understanding of Church in the Christian East. The Church is the “communion in the Holy Spirit,” a community infused with the life-giving presence of the Spirit of God. Councils reflect this image of the Church as a community. The council is a true image of the Church when it is imbued with and dependent on the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Councils function on every level of Church life in the East. In the local Church, the eparchy, the primary council is the presbyterate which shares in the sacramental ministry of the bishop. Community councils involving deacons and the laity administer the temporal concerns of the eparchy and its parishes. Wider synods govern the life of patriarchates or metropolias. With the establishment of Christianity as the dominant faith in the Roman Empire, the ecumenical council was created.

The Problem of Chalcedon

Like other councils, the Council of Chalcedon dealt with both theological and political issues. The main theological issue was how to express the mystery of Christ’s incarnation in the face of the Monophysitism taught by Eutyches, an influential priest in Constantinople and a disciple of St Cyril of Alexandria. At its second session the Council adopted the concept “two natures in one Person,” employed by Pope St. Leo the Great in a letter to Flavian, the archbishop of Constantinople. When the letter was read to the bishops, they replied, “This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! Thus the Orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!” Leo’s expression has been used in the Greek and Latin Churches ever since. Unfortunately, this term was the opposite of that used by St Cyril of Alexandria a generation earlier, describing the “one nature of the incarnate Word.”

The theological problem was made even more complex by the political, however. The first Council at Nicaea has decreed that the foremost local Churches in the Empire would be Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. At Chalcedon the 500+ bishops present recalled that “the fathers [at an earlier council in Constantinople] rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of New Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honored by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equaling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her.” Thus Constantinople (New Rome) was accorded the second place in the hierarchy previously held by Alexandria.

The Pope of Rome, St Leo the Great, at first objected to this realignment as contrary to the canons of Nicaea I but he later relented and it became law in the empire. The Churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and – because it was the site of the Lord’s death and resurrection – Jerusalem would be the foremost local Churches in the empire. This group of five sees would be known as the pentarchy and their ranking is recognized in the Byzantine Churches to this day.

Thus not only was Roman theological terminology deemed more precise than Alexandrian, the Byzantine see was given precedence over that of Alexandria. The Alexandrian bishops at first delayed and finally refused to accept the decrees of this council and the Egyptian Church was divided into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian parts. Those who accepted Chalcedon were called “Melkites” or Royalists; those who did not called themselves “Copts,” i.e. true Egyptians.

The Copts would later be joined by the Armenians and many Syriac-speaking members of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Along with their daughter Churches in Ethiopia and India, the non-Chalcedonians are today known as the “Oriental Orthodox Churches.”

A New Chapter

These divisions were hardened in the thousand years of Islamic rule in the Middle East. Each Christian group – Melkite, Nestorian and non-Chalcedonian – was designated a separate millet (nation), with its own laws, insuring that the Christians remained disunited.

It was only with the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I that these Churches embarked on a new way of interacting. In 1988 the Coptic Orthodox and the Catholic Churches issued an Agreed Statement on the Incarnation. It said in part, “We believe that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos, is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.”

This was followed in 1990 by an Agreed Statement between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. “The [Chalcedonian] Orthodox agree that the Oriental Orthodox will continue to maintain their traditional cyrillian terminology of ‘one nature of the incarnate Logos,’ since they acknowledge the double consubstan-tiality of the Logos which Eutyches denied. The Orthodox also use this terminology. The Oriental Orthodox agree that the Orthodox are justified in their use of the two-natures formula, since they acknowledge that the distinction is ‘in thought alone’.”

Finally, over 1500 years after Chalcedon, the Latin, Greek and Oriental Churches have come to recognize their common faith in the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ, despite the differing terminology they use to express it.
WE CAN SAY THAT THE GOSPELS are woven around a string of images describing rather than defining how Christ relates to us. Some of these images are drawn from the temple worship (“the Lamb of God” – John 1:29). Others are taken from the history of Israel (“the bread which came down from heaven” – John 6:51) or the writings of the prophets (“the Son of Man” – Daniel 7:13). There are agricultural images (“I am the vine” – John 15:5) and images drawn from sheepherding (“I am the good shepherd” – John 10:11). Of all these images none is more basic to human life as it was lived then than images of light and darkness.

Christ as Light

The Lord refers to Himself as our light: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). As light He is our guide, enabling us to see the truth of God in a dark world. But light is more than an image of Christ as our guide; it is in some way who Christ is in Himself. When He was transfigured on Mount Tabor the Lord Jesus was manifested as light. As Matthew describes it, “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). Mark adds, “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). Luke describes this as “His glory” (Luke 9:32), a term that in Scripture suggests divinity. This experience of Christ’s transfiguration has been understood in the Christian East as manifesting something of Christ’s deepest self. They saw this light on Mount Tabor as the divine energies of Christ revealed for our sake. As several Fathers described it, these energies are like the rays of the sun: not the sun itself (God’s inmost essence) but inseparable from it. The Church took up this identification of Christ as light into the liturgy. One of the earliest examples is the vesper hymn to Christ as the “Radiant Light of the holy glory of the immortal Father.” First recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions, this is the oldest hymn apart from the psalms still used in the Church. The Lord Jesus is also glorified as light in a number of other liturgical prayers, such as:
The Prayer of the First Hour
“O Christ, true Light enlightening everyone who comes into the world…”
The Liturgy of the Presanctified
“The light of Christ enlightens all mankind”
Troparion of the Transfiguration
“Let Your eternal light shine also upon us sinners.”
The Mystery of Holy Illumination
The foremost expression of Christ as our light in the liturgy is, of course, holy baptism. Thus the newly-illumined is clothed with a white garment, called the “Robe of light,” symbol of the baptized’s union with Christ.

How Does Christ Enlighten Us?

In Eastern Christian thought Christ first of all enlightens us by making God manifest to us. It is through Christ that the knowledge of the Holy Trinity came to be known. As we say repeatedly in the Divine Liturgy, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity…” While this revelation climaxed in the bestowal of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, it was revealed in part during Christ’s earthly life as well. After Christ’s resurrection His disciples came to understand that the Father and His Son were one in a unique way, a way which we see proclaimed in the prologue to John’s Gospel: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18). The mystery of Christ as Son of God was not imparted as information, but through experience. The disciples came to know that Christ was one with the Father by sharing His life. At the conclusion of their time with Him, just before His arrest, the result of their lived experience became clear. “His disciples said to Him, ‘See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech! Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God’” (John 16:29-30). In the same way the Holy Spirit was revealed to the disciples through their experience of receiving Him. The Spirit, in turn, illumined them to understand “the mystery which was hidden from eternity and unknown to the angels” – God’s plan to renew creation in Christ. Later Christians would describe the relationship of the Father and the Son as the mystery of the Trinity and see Christ’s greatest teaching as the revelation of that mystery. In the exaposteilarion of the Transfiguration our Church proclaims its faith that Christ is the Light who reveals the Holy Trinity to the world. “O Word, un-transformable Light, the Light of the unborn Father, by Your light which has shown today on Tabor, we have seen the Father's light and the Spirit’s light, illumining the whole creation.”

Believers as Light

Towards the end of the Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry He said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). This gives us the context of what He had told His hearers, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). After His ascension it would be the disciples whose good works would draw those around them to glorify God. While Christ is the Light in the truest sense, those who are in Christ shine with a kind of reflected light due to their union with Him. We reflect the light of Christ when we too manifest God and His love for mankind through the way we live. The icon is a familiar pointer to this truth for us. An icon glows with a reflected light when a lamp or candle is lit before it. The lamp is the source of the light, but it is the icon which attracts us. Similarly people will be attracted to the divine Light when they see it reflected in the lives of believers. Perhaps the most important way of reflecting the light of Christ is by being present to those who are struggling with the darkness of confusion and despair. There words are not necessary – and perhaps even counterproductive. Simply by being present to the fearful can we reflect the light of Christ who is the Lover of Mankind.
In the Darkness of Life
Like a child left alone in the dark, I cry out to You, Son of David, taking refuge in the shadow of Your wings until the storms of destruction pass by. Though my soul is among lions who roar out that there is no salvation for me, my heart is steadfast and I sing these praises:
Jesus, sight for the blind!
Jesus, wealth for the beggar!
Jesus, harbor for those assailed by storms!
Jesus, fortress for all who are besieged!
Jesus, Your glory is above the heavens!
Jesus, Your radiance fills the earth!
Jesus, exaltation of the transcendent Father!
Jesus, bestower of the life-giving Spirit!
Jesus, hear my cry when all others are deaf!
Jesus, call me to Your throne and save me!
Jesus, bottomless ocean of mercy!
Jesus, infinite firmament of truth!
Jesus, light to those in darkness, glory to You!
Akathist to Christ, Light to Those in Darkness
MANY CHRISTIAN CHURCHES in America were founded by a pastor who had a Bible, a microphone and a conviction that God wanted him to preach. So he gathered a few followers (often his own relatives), rented space and scheduled services. Americans see nothing unusual in this – after all freedom of speech and individual initiative are hallmarks of the American way of doing things. Why not in the Church? The historic Churches (those of the first centuries) saw things differently. Many of these Churches had, in fact, been founded by one of the apostles or their co-workers. They emphasized that the Church is the Body of Christ, an organic unity of Head and members. Like St Paul, these Churches saw unity as a chief mark of the Church and an important part of their mission “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:3-6). Still, the first centuries saw a number of teachers with competing doctrines arise in the Church. When they were not accepted by the leaders of a local Church, these teachers or their followers formed there own rival groups. In some places these groups became more popular than the historic Church. Arians, for example, were prominent in Constantinople through much of the fourth century and in much of the West through the fifth.

Constantine’s Solution

When Emperor Constantine accepted Christ and recognized the Church as an important structure in his empire, he faced the rivalry between these groups. In his quest for a strong and united Church, he called the first Ecumenical Council as a vehicle for unifying the teaching and practices of the empire. There had been councils before, of course, but always on regional levels. This council involved bishops from the entire empire (the ecumene) under Constantine’s rule. He set a precedent which would be repeated several times during the first millennium. These councils are:
  1. First Council of Nicaea (325) – Arians held that Christ was like the Father, but was no of the same essence. They believed Him to be the first of God’s creatures. This council rejected Arianism and, in the Creed which it drafted, proclaimed Him as being “one in essence” with the Father. The council also recognized as first sees Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. It unified the celebration of Pascha and issued other canons regulating Church life.
  2. First Council of Constantinople (381) – Macedonius was one of the rival bishops in Constantinople during the Arian controversy. His followers denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In response this Council proclaimed the second part of the Creed (“and in the Holy Spirit…”).
  3. Council of Ephesus (431) – The question “How could Jesus be both God and Man?” was much debated in these centuries. Nestorius taught that Jesus was a man in whom the Logos dwelt and therefore Mary could not be called “Theotokos.” His chief opponent, Cyril of Alexandria, saw that, if Christ were not truly divine, He could not have united that divinity to our humanity. This council endorsed Cyril’s teaching and forbade the development of any further Creed.
  4. Council of Chalcedon (451) – As Nestorius had lessened the reality of the incarnation by emphasizing Christ’s humanity, Eutyches, a disciple of Cyril, seemed to be minimizing His humanity. After several rival councils endorsed first one then the other approach, a new emperor, Marcian, summoned this council which endorsed the teaching of Leo, Pope of Rome, finding it compatible with the teaching of Cyril and Ephesus. The Fathers of this Council confessed that Christ was “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably one in two natures.” The Council also added the sees of Constantinople and Jerusalem to the principal sees recognized at Nicaea, constituting the “pentarchy” (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem).
  5. The (Assyrian) Church of the East did not explicitly accept the Council of Ephesus and the Oriental Orthodox Churches have not recognized the Council of Chalcedon, resulting in schisms between these Churches and the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) and Roman Catholic Churches. Twentieth- century Agreed Statements between these Churches succeeded in expressing their teachings in a harmonious way, thereby eliminating the theological bases for their divisions.
  6. Second Council of Constantinople (553) – Many felt that in his “Three Chapters,” Theodore of Mopsuestia had paved the way for Nestorius’ teachings. To assure the opponents of Chalcedon that the Greek and Latin Churches were firmly behind the Council of Ephesus, this Council condemned his and others’ writings as having inspired Nestorius.
  7. Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) – Attempts at reconciling the teachings of Cyril and Leo sought to stress the unity of God and man in Christ had given rise to two new theological trends. Monoenergism taught that Christ had but one energy. Monothelitism taught that He had only one will. This Council condemned both propositions as minimizing the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity.
  8. Second Council of Nicaea (787) – This Council justified the veneration of icons, based on the true humanity of Christ. If the Word truly became flesh, the Council Fathers reasoned, He could be painted.
  9. Two different gatherings have been called the Fourth Council of Constantinople. The first (869-870) confirmed the Seventh Council, requiring that the icon of Christ be venerated like the Gospel Book. Since it also deposed St Photios the Great as patriarch of Constantinople, the Greek Churches did not accept it. They give the title to a second council (879-880) which reinstated Photios (with the pope’s blessing). They affirmed the Creed without the filioque and condemned those who “impose on it their own invented phrases.” Since the decrees of this Council were promulgated as Roman Law by the Emperor after its minutes had been signed by the Five Patriarchs, some Orthodox consider this an Ecumenical Council. The West continued to call its general synods Ecumenical Councils long after the fall of the Empire. The Orthodox Churches, although they recognize several important “Great and Holy Councils” as normative for the entire Church, do not call them Ecumenical Councils.

    The Councils in Our Liturgy

    Our Church today celebrates the seven councils of the first millennium with special commemorations every year on the following Sundays:
    • The First Council (Nicaea I) – the Sunday following Ascension Thursday
    • The first six Councils – the Sunday following July 13
    • The Seventh Council (Nicaea II) – the Sunday following October 10
    • Each Council is also commemorated individually on the following dates:
      • January 23 – Constantinople III
      • May 22 – Constantinople I
      • May 29 – Nicaea I
      • July 16 - Chalcedon
      • July 25 – Constantinople II
      • September 9 – Ephesus
      • October 13 – Nicaea II

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