Melkite Greek Catholic Church

The Feasts of September

By Archbishop Joseph Tawil

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The Feasts of September By Archbishop Joseph Tawil

The month of September marks the return of our children to their schools and studies and, for the rest of us, the resumption of our normal routine after a vacation break. Time is God's gift to us to experience His loving and mysterious Presence in His creation and in each one of us. ‘For if our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day," (2 Cor. 4:16) "until we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God's Son and form the perfect man who is Christ come to full stature." (Eph. 4:13). "For in Him, the fullness of Deity resides in bodily form." (Col. 2:8) The month of September also marks the beginning of the liturgical year and is illuminated by two Major Feasts: the Nativity of the Theotokos on the 8th and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the 14th. Let us pause a moment with each of them so as to uncover their rich meaning for our daily lives.

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Mary's figure appears in the second chapter of Genesis "crushing the head of the dragon, representing Satan (v. 15). She is the ‘‘Predestined Woman whom God has selected from all eternity to be the shining dawn introducing Christ, the Sun, into the world." (Acathist). "For God who rests upon the spiritual thrones, has made ready for Himself a holy throne upon the earth. He who has made firm the earth in His Wisdom has pre­pared a living heaven in His love for man." (Vespers). "She is the prologue of the pleasure of God and the first announcer of salvation to mankind. According to the Eastern tradition, Mary was born in Jerusalem, in the house of Joachim and Ann near the Pool of Bethsaida, the ruins of which have been unearthed, and where Our Lord healed the paralytic. St. John of Damascus, who lived in St. Saba's Monastery in the Judean Desert which still exists, wrote in one of his homilies, "I will enter this house and I will cover with kisses the walls which are so dear to me, the walls which sheltered the Mother of God." Since there is no distance for those who love, let us go, in turn, and enter in spirit and cover with kisses the birthplace of the Theotokos, the Queen who gave birth to the King of the Universe, and our Mother.

So, God entered our human history through a woman: "when the designated time had come, God sent forth His son horn of a woman... so that we might receive our status as adopted sons." (Gal. 4:4). He became one of us to make us one with Him. He took what we are and gave us what He is. He took our infirmities and gave us His Divinity. All that we have received from Him was lavished upon us through the "Woman full of grace,'' whom all genera­tions shall call blessed forever. And if the Lord, who promised the sinful woman who washed His feet that "wherever the Gospel is preached, what she did for Him will be told in her memory', ‘ (Mark 14:9), how much more will He not do for His Mother "the All-holy and Ever-Blessed Virgin." Indeed, whoever honors the Son, honors the Mother who gave Him birth and, whoever honors the Mother, also honors the Son. They are so intimately associated in the Mystery of Redemption that they cannot be dissociated, as is shown in Byzantine iconography which always requires that the Mother be represented with the Child and never without Him. This is the eloquent picture on our iconostasis, where the Mother of Light is always associated with the Author of Life, Christ the Redeemer and Savior of mankind. This teaches us that, while our worship must be Christ-centered, we can not forget that it was the fiat of Mary which made it all possible.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

This feast commemorates the return of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem after it had been taken away by Chosroes, king of Persia, who invaded the Holy Land and defeated the Romans in 614. It took fifteen years for the Cross to be returned by Herac­lius, the only Roman Emperor ever to visit the Holy Land, who replanted it on Calvary in the midst of the tears of joy of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (629). There is a local tradition that Calvary is located in the center of the world and which gave the name to the adjacent church. The Psalmist says, "Our God is a great God and He wrought salvation in the midst of the earth." (Ps. 73:12). The Church has added to it the following, in speaking to Christ, "When You extended Your arms upon the Cross, uniting all the nations crying out to You, ‘Glory to you, O Lord.'"

The Mystery of the Cross is the Mystery of Mysteries. How can the Source of Life die, the Maker of all be annihilated and exclaim, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" This is the kenosis of the Son of God, who emptied Himself, took the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross. The human mind, which is accustomed to asking why, is completely lost. The Mystery of the Cross is the Mystery of Atonement and wonder: "Let every creature remain silent and adore." For the message of the Cross is complete absurdity for those who are heading to ruin, but to those who are experiencing salvation, it is the Power of God." (1 Cor. 1:18). If we ask why, the only answer we receive is that of St. John, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but have eternal life." (Jn. 3:16). Up until the sixth century, Christians were forbidden to depict Christ on the Cross, because the Cross was the punish­ment of slaves. The first time it appeared was through some Syrian monks living in Narbonne, France, and from whence it spread.

No one is exempt from the cross; not even the Blessed Virgin, who carried her cross from Christ's birth in Bethlehem to Golgotha, where she stood at her Son's side, as He hung on the Cross. The closer we are to Christ, the heavier is our cross for, as St. Paul says, "Those whom He foreknew, He predestined to share the Image of His Son, so that the Son might be the first-born of many brothers." (Rom. 8:29)

The Mystery of the Cross, itself, is not the end. Behind it lies another Mystery, a glorious Mystery of which St. Paul also speaks, "The present burden of our trial is light enough and can earn for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. We do not fix our gaze on what is seen, but on what is unseen. - What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever." (2 Cor. 4:17-19). We have been created for life and not for death. We have been created for glory since, in God's wisdom, the world did not come to know Him through "wisdom." it pleased God to save those who believe through the absurdity of the preaching of the Gospel. (1 Cor. 1:21). This is why the Church proclaims, "Behold, through the Cross, joy has come into the world." Christianity is the announcement of joy, the announcement of hope and the reason for our joy and hope is that Christ is risen and lives forever and is at work in the world, through the Holy Spirit, living in the Church and in us. "Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad with the whole universe visible and invisible, for Christ, our Eternal Joy is risen." (Paschal Liturgy) This is what we must live and inculcate into our children. We thereby give the world the reason for out hope, for Christianity is Christ—and Christ risen—and, since Christ has risen as the Firstborn, we too shall rise in Him and share in His Glory.


The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple

November 21

A Meditation

by Mary Grace Ritchey

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the kontakion reminds us of the reason we venerate the Virgin Mary and why Icons of Christ and the saints can be used: The infinite word of God became circumscribed when He was incarnate in you, O Mother of God. He restored our corrupt image to its former beauty by joining it to the divine splendor. Wherefore we now proclaim our salvation and make it known by word and deed.

Mary was the first to be restored to the image and likeness of God and this feast points out by word ("the icon corresponds entirely to the ‘word' of scripture"-p.10 Theology of the Icon by L. Ouspensky) and deed (the prayers of Liturgy) some explicit instances of this story.

The origin of this feast can be found in the Protevangelion of James. Mary was brought to the Temple by Joachim and Anne at the age of three to be consecrated to the service of God. Preceded by young girls with lighted candles ( often shown in this icon), she entered into the Holy of Holies. The account tells that Mary danced before the Ark of the Covenant. In Archbishop Raya's book Theotokos (p. 96) he says: We are totally convinced that Mary's supreme dignity as future Bearer of God merits her not only to enter the Temple but to penetrate to the most sacred place of the Temple, the "Holy of Holies." This part of the temple is called the "Holy of Holies" because it contained the "Shekhina," the glory of God, with the Manna, the Rod of Aaron, and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. Mary was no mere receptacle of signs and symbols, as was the Temple. She was more sacred and holier because she was to contain Glory Himself . . . (p. 96)

The theme of the feast and the Icon of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is that this historic event marks the end of the physical Temple of the Old testament and is the beginning of the salvation plan for all humanity. Mary is the new Temple or tabernacle of the presence of God! She is the first to be a "Temple of the Holy Spirit" and at Great Vespers the cantor chants: Today let us, the faithful, dance for joy, singing to the Lord with Psalms and hymns, venerating His hollowed Tabernacle, the living Ark, that contained the Word who cannot be contained. For she, a young child in the flesh, is offered in wondrous fashion to the Lord, and with rejoicing Zacharias the Great High Priest receives her as the dwelling of God. (P. 166 The Festal Menaion)

In the reading from Exodus (40: 1-5, 9-10, 16, 34-35) we are reminded that the Israelites were led by the Tent or Tabernacle of the presence of God which contained the Ark of the Covenant containing the Manna, the Rod of Aaron and the Ten Commandments. The cloud surrounding it during the day and the pillar of fire by night signified the presence of God with the Israelites, the people of the one, true God. This portable Temple was replaced by the Temple built by Solomon. The Temple Mary enters is the rebuilt Temple of Zorobabel which no longer contained these five things found in Solomon's temple: "Fire from on high, the Oil of anointment, the Ark, the Holy Spirit, the Urim and the Thummin (p. 153 The Meaning of Icons by L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky)."

At Orthros (Matins) the Magnificat is replaced by these words: "Beholding the entry of the All-Pure, the angels were struck with amazement, seeing how the Virgin entered into the Holy of Holies (p. 190 Menaion )." No one entered the Holy of Holies except the High Priest and only once a year. Yet Zacharias does not prevent Mary from entering the Holy of Holies. This mystery of the incarnation, hidden from the angelic orders, is acknowledged by the one who is to be the father of John the Baptist, Zacharias. Mary enters into the Temple to prepare herself to later become the Temple of the body of Christ and we are led to meditate on the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ, and the Eucharist! The Theotokos (God-bearer) prepares to receive the humanity of Christ. Mary is truly the first Christian (Christian means Christ-bearer) and our model.

The scene in the icon is the inner court of the Temple. (The Temple was divided into three courts, the court of the people which was divided into men and women, the court of the priests and the Holy of Holies.) Zacharias stands on the steps and Mary stretches her hands toward him. In some icons Mary is seen a second time in the Holy of Holies being assisted by an angel. She is to be nourished by "heavenly bread." The virgin does not look like a child except in size because already she is a "mature" or perfect person. The background shows other temple buildings.

The kontakion of the feast states: The All-pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Bridal Chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasure of the glory of God, is led today into the house of the Lord, and with her she brings the grace of the divine Spirit. Of her God's angels sing in praise: "She is indeed the heavenly Tabernacle." (P. 195 Menaion)

The Epistle, Hebrews 9: 1-7, describes the Tabernacle of the old covenant. The Gospel, Luke 10: 38-42; 11: 27-28, speaks of Martha and Mary. Mary is the model of "listener" of the Word of God. It also contains the mysterious words concerning the Mother of God "Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it." Thomas Hopko in Volume III, The Orthodox Faith says "This ‘glory of the Lord' is referred to the Mother of Christ (see also Ezekiel 43: 27-44:4) and it ‘fills' her and all people after her who ‘hear the word of God and keep it' as the Gospel of the festal liturgy proclaims." (P. 143)

All icons are meditation on and symbol of the reality of the incarnation of Christ and the consequences of His incarnation for humanity. Mary, who is "full of grace" by reason that "the Lord is with you" is Temple of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, our gift from God at Chrismation is the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit into our own senses. Mary is the example of each individual's possible theosis. We, too, are tabernacles of the Lord.

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