Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
RESEARCHING FAMILY HISTORY has become a favorite pastime for many Americans seeking to discover their roots. One reason for this resurgent interest is that, for many, family history was ignored for so long. Many Americans see themselves as forward-looking rather than fixated on their past. The growing interest in genealogical research shows that at least some Americans want to know where they came from.

In more traditional societies one’s family tree may be a source of pride or amusement, but it is always an object of interest. Little wonder, then, that the first Christians displayed an interest in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ. They had encountered Him healing the sick and touching their hearts. They knew Him as the One who forgave sins, raised the dead and rose Himself. They looked to His ancestry to discover more who He really was.

“Son of David, Son of Abraham”

St. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-16); it is the passage we read each year on the Sunday before Christmas. The first words of the passage – biblios geneseos Iisous Christos – translated literally as “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” – would remind the reader of the entire sweep of Jewish history by harkening back to Genesis, the first Book of the Torah. They would realize that Christ was both the beginning and the climax of God’s dealing with the human race, starting in the Garden.

Matthew’s genealogy portrays Christ as descended from David through the house of Joseph, His adoptive father. Since the time of King David (tenth century bc) Jewish rulers had based their authority on their connection to David. The awaited Messiah was portrayed in Jewish tradition as the “son of David” for a similar reason: to show that he, like David, was anointed by God to be Israel’s deliverer.

In this passage Jesus’ ancestry is traced back another millennium to the patriarch Abraham with whom God had made His first covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. For the first Christians, portraying Jesus as the son of Abraham meant that He was the personification of the nation, heir to the promises made by God to Abraham and to his seed, “who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).

Commentators have pointed out other aspects of this passage which reflect the early Church’s faith in Christ. In this listing of fathers and sons we find two women – and foreign women at that. Jesus is not only son or Abraham and David. He is son of all mankind: Jew and Gentile, male and female, truly one of us in the flesh.

Finally, we note that besides being an exercise in genealogy, this passage is also built on numerology: the significance of numbers in the narrative it recounts. The ancestry of Christ is divided into three groups of fourteen, the numerological equivalent of “David.” Several less than worthy individuals are removed from the Old Testament lists to come up with this number, leaving us with a catalog of the righteous ancestors of Christ.

This grouping also alludes to the 28-day lunar cycle. Like the star of Bethlehem, the moon is introduced to show the cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth. These interpretations suggest that Matthew’s genealogy is an example of what Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, called “interpreted history”: based on events that actually happened, but as they were “interpreted and understood in the context of the Word of God.”

“Son of Adam”

St Luke’s Gospel also contains a genealogy: one with a different placement and a different emphasis. While Matthew connects Jesus’ lineage with the story of His birth, Luke places it in the context of His hearers’ idea of Him. “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed), the son of Joseph, the son of…” (Luke 3:23). And while Matthew emphasizes the connections between Jesus, David and Abraham, Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke, of Gentile origin, traces Christ back to the beginnings of the human race, stressing His connection with all mankind. Jesus is not only a son of Israel but of the entire human race.

Many commentators have noted other discrepancies between these genealogies which would be contradictory if these passages were not “interpreted history.” Thus St. Ambrose sees Matthew showing Christ’s royal family heritage and Luke stressing his priestly connection. “We should not consider one account truer than the other,” he writes, “but that the one agrees with the others in equal faith and truth. According to the flesh, Jesus was truly of a royal and priestly family, King from kings, Priest from priests” (Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Luke, 87-88).

Fr John Custer summarizes another theological message in Luke. “Adam has no other ‘father’ but God and no ‘mother’ but the virgin earth from which he was taken. Adam became a ‘living being when God breathed into him’ (Genesis 2:7). All this resembles the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary in the conception of Jesus, whose only true father is God” (The Holy Gospel, a Byzantine Perspective, p. 408).

“In the Beginning Was the Word”

While not offering a genealogy in the same sense, St John’s Gospel begins with another Genesis-like statement on the Lord’s origins. Using the same opening words as the Book of Genesis (definitely not an oversight), John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through Him, and without him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1). The Son of God became incarnate in time (John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”) but even before that, before time, He was with the Father as His eternal Son. Thus the Gospels present us with a panoramic vision of the eternal Word become one of us: Son of Abraham and David, son of Seth and Adam, King and Priest, the only-begotten Son of the Father, of whose fullness we have all received.

Canon of the Fore-feast, Ode 3



The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary without seed. Let us lift up our voices to the Lord and say: “You have lifted us up from our fallen state. Holy are You, O Christ our God!”

~The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. We sing to Him! And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary for He willed to lift up the human race which fell through the deadly advice of the serpent.

~He who is enthroned in the highest Heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit saw the humiliation of the human race. The Son of the Father, without beginning, enters into time. Behold, He allows Himself to be born in the flesh as man!

~The All-Holy One who surpasses the angels and all creation in holiness now gives birth in the flesh to the Messenger of the Father, the Angel of His Great Counsel, in order to lift up those who ceaselessly sing, “Holy are You, O Christ our God!
 
MANY OF US, it’s fair to say, learned the alphabet as children by singing the Alphabet Song. Some of us learned the notes of the major musical scale by singing “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. The principle is an obvious one: we learn through singing.

The principle is also an old one. Psalm 78 recounts the Exodus story for children in song form, “Telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord” (Psalms 78:4). In the fourth century ad Arian controversy songs were used to popularize the doctrines of the Arian and Orthodox parties. And in the eighth century St Cosmas of Miouma used a music form – the canon – to make memorable patristic teachings on the Incarnation by St Gregory the Theologian (“Christ is born – glorify Him.”) and St John Chrysostom (“A strange and wondrous mystery I behold”). Cosmas’ approach worked: we still sing these words today.

What Is a Canon?

This form of poetic hymnody originated in the seventh century and was popularized by St Andrew of Crete, whose Great Canon is a feature of Byzantine Lenten services to this day. Canons have become a standard part of orthros and compline services as well as occasional services such as paraklesis and akathist services, as well as burials. One frequently used canon is part of the service of preparation for Holy Communion. Other canons, such as the Canon of Repentance, are frequently read as part of a Byzantine Christian’s daily prayer.

A canon consists of a number of stanzas called odes (three, four, eight or nine), each consisting of five or six troparia separated by a refrain such as “Glory to You, O our God, glory to You” or “Most holy Theotokos, save us.” The first troparion of each ode, called the Hirmos, is based on one of the biblical canticles from orthros. Apart from the ninth canticle (the Canticle of the Theotokos or Magnificat), these biblical texts are only sung during the Great Fast. At orthros in parish use, the canon may be abbreviated or eliminated completely, apart from the ninth ode.

Many canons were composed as acrostics, in which the first letter of each troparion spells out a verse or phrase appropriate to the theme. St Cosmas of Maiouma’s canon for the Nativity, for example, is written with the following acrostic: “Christ made man remains the God that He was.” Acrostics were used in some of the psalms and in early Greek poetry as well in secular poetry in the Byzantine Empire. English translations rarely seek to duplicate the meters or acrostics of the Greek originals.

The Nativity Canons

Our service books today contain two canons for the Nativity, one by St Cosmas of Maiouma and the other by his half-brother, St John of Damascus. Parts of them are sung during the Nativity Fast, with the entire canons being sung during the feast. The best known troparia are the hirmoi of the first and ninth odes respectively:

CHRIST is born: glorify Him! Christ has come down from Heaven: go out to receive Him! Christ is now on earth: exalt Him! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Praise Him in joy, O peoples, for He is gloriously triumphant.

A strange and wonderful mystery I behold: the cave is Heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, the manger a noble place where reposes Christ the Uncontainable God. Let us praise and magnify Him!

As could be expected, the canons contain allusions to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth. They also expound the meaning of the Nativity as taught by the Fathers. The following troparia reflect these themes:

Christ’s Coming Reverses the Fall ~Man fell from the divine life of grace. Though made in the image and likeness of God, he became completely subject to corruption and decay through sin. But now the wise Creator re-creates man again, for He is gloriously triumphant (from Ode 1).

~When He saw man perishing, whom He had made with His own hands, the Creator bowed the heavens and came down. He took man’s nature from the pure Virgin and He truly became a man, for He is gloriously triumphant (from Ode 1).

~Plainly foreshadowed by a burning bush that was not consumed, a holy womb has brought forth God, the Word, who has taken our mortal nature. He takes away the bitter sorrow of Eve’s ancient curse. We mortals glorify Him! (from Ode 1)

~Though formed from dust, Adam shared in the breath of life from God; yet through the beguilement of a woman, he slipped and fell into corruption. But now, seeing the Lord born of a woman, he cries aloud: “For my sake, You have become like me! Holy are You, O Christ our God!” (from Ode 3)

~In His compassion, the Ruler of Heaven has become one of us, born of a Virgin who knew not man. In these last times, the Word, who is totally above all matter, has taken on our human nature and flesh, so that He might draw back to Himself Adam, the fallen father of our race (from Ode 3).

~By your own will, O Most High, You were born as a man, taking flesh from the Virgin, in order to cleanse away the poison from the serpent’s bite. Since You are God by nature, You lead us all from darkness into the life-giving Light (from Ode 4).

Kenosis (self-emptying) ~O Virgin sprung from the root of Jesse, you have passed the bounds of human nature, for you have given birth to the eternal Word of the Father. By His will, through a strange self-emptying, He passed through your womb, yet left it sealed (from Ode 4).

Theosis ~Obedient to the decree of Caesar, You were registered on the census of his servants, O Christ; and You have set us free, when we had been servants of sin and the devil. Sharing completely in our poverty, You have made our nature God-like through Your union and participation in it (from Ode 6).

~O Christ our Defender, You have put to shame the Devil, the adversary of man, using Your holy incarnation as a shield. When You took our nature, You gave us the joy of sharing in Your nature. It was Adam’s disobedient attempt to gain this which had made us fall of old (from Ode 7).

The Kondakion and Oikos

The Kondakion, associated with St Romanos the Melodist, was a lengthy composition in the same form as our Akathist to the Theotokos. As Canons displaced the Kondakion in Orthros, only the first verses, given below, were retained.

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent in Essence, and the earth presents a cave to the Inaccessible. Angels with the shepherds sing His glory, and the Wise Men with the Star travel on their way, for to us is come a newborn Child, who is God from all eternity.

Bethlehem has opened Eden! Come, let us see! We have found joy in a secret place hidden from the eyes of the world. We can take possession of Paradise that is within the cave. There the unwatered Root has appeared, flowering forth in pardon. There too is the undug well, from which David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has brought forth a Child who will quench the thirst of Adam and all his descendants. Come, then, let us hasten in spirit to the place where has come for all mankind a newborn Child, who is God from all eternity.
 
RESEARCHING FAMILY HISTORY has become a favorite pastime for many Americans seeking to discover their roots. One reason for this resurgent interest is that, for many, family history was ignored for so long. Many Americans seem themselves as forward looking rather than fixated on their past. The growing interest in genealogical research shows that at least some Americans want to know where they came from. In more traditional societies one’s family tree may be a source of pride or amusement, but it is always an object of interest. Little wonder, then, that the first Christians displayed an interest in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ. They had encountered Him healing the sick and touching their hearts. They knew Him as the One who forgave sins, raised the dead and rose Himself, They looked to His ancestry to discover more who He really was.

“Son of David, Son of Abraham”

St. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-16); it is the passage we read each year on the Sunday before Christmas. The first Greek words of the passage – biblios geneseos Iisous Christos – translated literally as “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” – would remind the reader of the entire sweep of Jewish history by harkening back to Genesis, the first Book of the Torah. They would realize that Christ was the beginning and the climax of God’s dealing with the human race, starting in the Garden. Matthew’s genealogy portrays Christ as descended from David through the house of Joseph, His adoptive father. Since the time of King David (10th century BC) Jewish rulers had based their authority on their connection to David. The awaited Messiah was portrayed in Jewish tradition as the “son of David” for a similar reason: to show that he, like David, was anointed by God to be Israel’s deliverer. In this passage Jesus’ ancestry is traced back another millennium to the patriarch Abraham with whom God had made His first covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. For the first Christians, portraying Jesus as the son of Abraham meant that He was the personification of the nation, heir to the promises made by God to Abraham and to his seed, “who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). Commentators have pointed out other aspects of this passage which reflect the early Church’s faith in Christ. In this listing of fathers and sons we find two women – and foreign women at that. Jesus is not only son of Abraham and David. He is son of all mankind: Jew and Gentile, male and female, truly one of us in the flesh. Finally, we note that besides being an exercise in genealogy, this passage is also built on numerology: the significance of numbers in the narrative it recounts. The ancestry of Christ is divided into three groups of fourteen, the numerological equivalent of “David.” Several less than worthy individuals are removed from the Old Testament lists to come up with this number, leaving us with a catalog of the righteous ancestors of Christ. This grouping also alludes to the 28-day lunar cycle. Like the star of Bethlehem, the moon is introduced to show the cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth. These interpretations suggest that Matthew’s genealogy is an example of what Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, called “interpreted history”: based on events that actually happened, but as they were “interpreted and understood in the context of the Word of God.”

“Son of Adam”

St Luke’s Gospel also contains a genealogy: one with a different placement and a different emphasis. While Matthew connects Jesus’ lineage with the story of His birth, Luke places it in the context of His hearer’s idea of Him. “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed), the son of Joseph, the son of…” (Luke 3:23). And while Matthew emphasizes the connections between Jesus, David and Abraham, Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to “Seth, the son of Adam the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke, of Gentile origin, traces Christ back to the beginnings of the human race, stressing His connection with all mankind. Jesus is not only a son of Israel but of the entire human race. Many commentators have noted other discrepancies between these genealogies which would be contradictory if these passages were not “interpreted history.” Thus St. Ambrose sees Matthew showing Christ’s royal family heritage and Luke stressing his priestly connection. “We should not consider one account truer than the other,” he writes, “but that the one agrees with the others in equal faith and truth. According to the flesh, Jesus was truly of a royal and priestly family, King from kings,’ Priest from priests” (Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Luke, 87-88). Fr John Custer summarizes another theological message in this passage. “Adam has no other ‘father’ but God and no ‘mother’ but the virgin earth from which he was taken. Adam became a ‘living being when God breathed into him (Genesis 2:7). All this resembles the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary in the conception of Jesus, whose only true father is God” (The Holy Gospel, a Byzantine Perspective, p. 408).

“In the Beginning Was the Word”

While not offering a genealogy in the same sense, St John’s Gospel begins with another Genesis-like statement on the Lord’s origins. Using the same opening words as the Book of Genesis (definitely not an oversight), John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through Him, and without him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1). The Son of God became incarnate in time (John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”) but even before that, before time, He was with the Father as His eternal Son. Thus the Gospels present us with a panoramic vision of the eternal Word become one of us: Son of Abraham and David, son of Seth and Adam, King and Priest, the only-begotten Son of the Father, of whose fullness we have all received.

Canon of the Fore-feast, Ode 3

THE SON WAS BORN INEFFABLY of the Father before all ages. And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary without seed. Let us lift up our voices to the Lord and say: “You have lifted us up from our fallen state. Holy are You, O Christ our God!” ~The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. We sing to Him! And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary for He willed to lift up the human race which fell through the deadly advice of the serpent. ~He who is enthroned in the highest Heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit saw the humiliation of the human race. The Son of the Father, without beginning, enters into time. Behold, He allows Himself to be born in the flesh as man! ~The all-holy one who surpasses the angels and all creation in holiness now gives birth in the flesh to the Messenger of the Father, the Angel of His Great Counsel, in order to lift up those who ceaselessly sing, “Holy are You, O Christ our God!”
 
“SING TO THE LORD A NEW SONG: His praise in the assembly of saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King” (Psalm 149:1-2). This psalm is heard at every Orthros service throughout the year. We may know the words by heart, but do we know why we should sing a “new song” – won’t the old favorites do? A new song is, in a sense, like a new outfit. It expresses a new beginning in the life of a person or a community. Thus some commentators think this psalm was written to celebrate King David’s conquest of Zion where he established his capital of Jerusalem – certainly a new beginning for David and his kingdom. Other new beginnings in the Old Testament, such as the bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and the establishment of regular worship there (Psalm 95, 1 Chronicles 16:23-33), occasioned new songs. In Isaiah 42:10 people are enjoined to “Sing to the LORD a new song, His praise from the ends of the earth” as the Jews prepare to return to their homeland after their captivity in Babylon. But the newest of the new songs in the Bible are found, not in the Old Testament but in the New where they celebrate new beginnings that surpass any others in the history of Israel.

New Songs in the Gospel

The Gospel of Luke records four “new songs” which have become part of our Church’s liturgy since the earliest days. All of them are connected with the coming of Christ into the world. They are: The Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:41-56) – This song is placed in Mary’s mouth in the Gospel story of her visit to Elizabeth. It is reminiscent of several Old Testament hymns, especially the “song of Hannah” (1 Samuel 2:1-10), a prayer giving thanks to God for the birth of her son, Samuel. Mary’s Canticle gives thanks because God “has regarded the humility of His hand-maid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed because He that is mighty, has done great things to me; and holy is His name,” alluding to her conception of Christ. Its last lines – “He has received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy: as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever” – received new meaning in light of the Gospel. The promise to Abraham is fulfilled in Christ. This Canticle is thought to be the earliest Marian hymn used by the Church. It is found in the daily services of all the historic Churches of East and West. In the Byzantine rite this hymn is regularly sung at Orthros. The Canticle of Zachariah (Luke 1:67-79) – This song of thanksgiving is uttered in the gospel by Zechariah on the occasion of the birth of his son, John the Baptist. Like the Canticle of Mary, this hymn also refers to “The oath, which he swore to Abraham our father” which is now fulfilled as God has “visited and wrought the redemption of His people; and hath raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant.” This image, a “horn of salvation,” probably alludes to the might of a steer, the leader of a flock. Applying this image to John indicates that he fulfills the biblical prophecy that “I will make the horn of David grow; I will prepare a lamp for My Anointed” (Psalm 131:17, LXX). As the Forerunner of Christ John would be “the burning and shining Lamp” as Jesus described him (John 5:35) powerfully calling the people to repentance. The canticle employs another image, this time for Christ whom John announced. “The Orient from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79). The One who rises from the east is the sun, enlightening those in the dark. The ultimate sun, we may say, is the Lord Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness. This image is also used in the troparion for Christmas, alluding to Christ as the One who led the Magi from the East to be the first Gentiles to worship Him:
Your nativity, O Christ our God, has shed the light of knowledge upon the world. Though it those who had been star worshippers learned through a star to worship You, O Sun of Justice, and recognize in You the One who rises from on high. O Lord, glory to You!
The Canticle of Zachariah may be heard at Orthros on certain days. The Hymn of the Angels (Luke 2:14) – The announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds concludes with these words: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” The prophet Isaiah foretold that “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…and His name will be called … the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). And so this proclamation that Christ, our peace, is on earth resounded through the early Church. “He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation” (Ephesians 2:14). The Hymn of the Angels would be expanded into one of the most solemn chants of the Church by the third century. We find it in expanded form in the Great Doxology, sung at festal Orthros and in another form at daily Orthros. It was introduced in the West in the fourth century and is heard in a slightly different form at festal Masses. In a sense this song represents the entire liturgy of the Church as now reconciled to God and one another in Christ, we join the angels in the worship of God. The Canticle of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) – The fourth New Testament canticle is uttered by Simeon the Just when he greets the infant Christ in the temple. Here too we see Christ proclaimed as the One who reconciles Jew and Gentile in a new people of God. Simeon declared Him to be “A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” This canticle is sung every day at vespers. It also forms a part of the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, said as the priest removes his vestments.

The Ultimate New Songs

The New Testament records two other “new songs.” We find them in the Book of Revalation. The first is Revelation 5:9 where hosts of angels and all creation with them cry out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing! “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:12-13). Finally we are told there is another song – the Song of the Chaste, who have died to the world to follow Christ. “They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being first fruits to God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no deceit, for they are without fault before the throne of God” (Rev 14:3-5).
 
EVERYONE DREAMS, we are told, but not everyone remembers all their dreams. Some dreams have been described as powerful experiences, portraying a numinous presence with clarity, intensity and vividness. Since dreams are so much a part of everyone’s life, they have been the objects of study for millennia, from Babylonian astrologers to contemporary psychologists. Many people today recount dreams of their departed relatives, angels and saints. Is belief in dreams compatible with the Christian faith? Religious interpretation of dreams has figured in all Middle Eastern religions including Christianity. It has been said that approximately one-third of the Bible is devoted to dreams, visions, prophetic calls and angelic visitations. The patriarch Jacob, for example, dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven and sanctified that place as Bethel, the house of God (Gen 28:11-19). It was in a night vision that Jacob heard God’s call to take his people into Egypt (Gen 46:1-4). It was by interpreting their kings’ dreams that Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon. The Gospel of Matthew tells of four dreams experienced by Joseph, the spouse of the Theotokos. In the first dream he learns of the conception of Jesus (Mt 1:20-21); in another he is told to flee Herod’s wrath and go to Egypt (Mt 2:13). Joseph brings his family back from Egypt after Herod’s death as the result of a dream (Mt 2:19-20) and settles in Nazareth after another (Mt 2:22-23). In Acts we are told that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost will result in dreams and vision as the prophet Joel foretold (Joel 2:28-29). Dreams by or of the saints have been reported from earliest days of the Church until today. In the second century The Martyrdom of Ignatius testified that St Ignatius of Antioch subsequently appeared to some eyewitnesses of his death. “It came to pass, on our falling into a brief slumber, that some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us…” In the fourth century St Monica, mother of the Blessed Augustine, was grieving over her son’s immoral lifestyle. She then had the following dream: she saw herself praising God in heaven and her son worshiping with her. Her son was ultimately converted and is now, along with his mother, glorified among the saints.

The Sources of Dreams

Dreams arise from a variety of causes and have been classified by many Christian writers as follows.
  • Dreams of purely human origins – What we have on our minds, good or bad, might surface as a dream. Some dreams, as contemporary psychiatrist Karen Horney writes in her book Self-Analysis, may be the voice of our aspirations. Others, as St Gregory of Sinai attested in the tenth century, are the result of too much food!
  • Dreams of supernatural origin – Not every “spiritual” dream is godly. The Scriptures record incidents of false prophets basing their ideas on dreams and on God’s response. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord. “I have heard what those prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed’” (Jer 23:24-25). Such dreams may urge a person to commit ungodly acts or embrace a false belief, to see ourselves as singled out for unique blessings or cause us to despair.
Other dreams have a godly origin and purpose as the lives of some saints attest. In nineteenth century Italy a nine-year old John Bosco dreamed of Christ and His mother showing him a crowd of “… animals: goats, dogs, cats, bears and a variety of others. “‘This is your field, this is where you must work,’ the Lady told me. ‘Make yourself humble, steadfast, and strong. And what you will see happen to these animals you will have to do for my children.’ “I looked again; the wild animals had turned into as many lambs, gently gamboling lambs, bleating a welcome for that Man and Lady. “At this point of my dream I started to cry and begged the Lady to explain what it all meant because I was so confused. She then placed her hand on my head and said: ‘In due time everything will be clear to you.’ “After she had spoken these words, some noise awoke me; everything had vanished.” The boy would devote his life to working with street children, establishing schools and forming teachers to staff them.

So Should I Believe in My Dreams?

While it is clear that God can and does speak to people in dreams, none of us should presume that we are equipped to discern or judge whether a dream is of God or not. Saints and elders throughout the ages counsel us to be wary of judging that a dream is the voice of God. “He who believes in dreams is completely inexperienced,” says St. John Climacus, “but he who distrusts all dreams is a wise man” The Ladder, step 3. If we are convinced we have had a godly dream, advise Saints Barsanuphius and John, “Strive to receive an interpretation of its significance from the Saints, and do not believe your own idea.” “The Saints” here include those Fathers and elders throughout the centuries who have taught the Church about the ways God communicates with us. It also includes those whom we can consult personally for advice on how to consider our dreams. We should respond to powerful dreams the same way we deal with other areas of our spiritual life: by consulting with our spiritual guide. Someone who knows the Tradition and who knows us equally well can often discern whether our dreams are of God, of our own devising, or of demonic powers. This guide can be wrong and misjudge a godly dream; but if the dream reflects God’s will for us, God surely will find another way to make His will clear to us.
St. Nicholas and the Emperor Another dream celebrated in our Tradition concerns St. Nicholas. When three officers had been unjustly accused to the emperor and condemned to death, Nicholas “appeared for the defense” in dreams, securing their release. Vespers sticheron, December 6 When you appeared in a dream to Constantine the King and to Evlavios, you gave them this warning: “Release at once from prison those you have unjustly confined; for they are innocent – no murder did they commit as you claim. O King, listen to me; or else I shall call upon the Lord!”

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