Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN ACTS 16 WE SEE THE GOSPEL spread to Philippi, a town in western Macedonia near the border of Thrace. Originally established in the fourth century bc as a mining town and military garrison on an important east-west road, Philippi stood at the northernmost tip of the Aegean Sea, and was a prosperous city in the first century ad. It was considered a “miniature Rome,” governed by the laws of the capital by Roman officials. Almost 900 miles from Jerusalem, Philippi was the northernmost place visited by St Paul in his journeys and the first place in Europe evangelized by the Apostle. Between ad 45 and 58 St Paul had visited a number of cities in Cyprus, Crete and Asia Minor (Turkey today) and would go on to visit the Greek cities of Thessalonica, Athens and Corinth. In all he made three circuits of this area, visiting some cities several times and spending over a year in some places where his message was well received. Some ten years later, while in a Roman prison, Paul sent this community his Epistle to the Philippians, a letter included in the New Testament. In it we learn that the Philippians were Paul’s most generous helpers. “Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need” (Philippians 4:15-16). The next generation of Fathers – notably St Ignatius of Antioch and St.Polycarp of Smyrna – visited and wrote to the Philippian Christians. In the following generation St Irenaeus of Lyons referred to Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians as a forceful witness to the Gospel and a guide to salvation. During the fourth through sixth centuries ad Philippi was a recognized Christian center in the Roman Empire. Its churches, particularly the great cathedral, were said to rival the churches of Constantinople. Weakened by invasions of Slavic tribes at the end of the sixth century, Philippi was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 619; after that it was little more than a village. Philippi was rebuilt as a garrison in the tenth century as a defense against the neighboring Bulgar tribes. It prospered again at least until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks when it fell into ruin. After the Greek War of Independence (1821-32) the area became part of the Kingdom of Greece. It was not until the twentieth century that archeologists began excavating the ruins of Philippi, identifying a number of structures including the great basilica of St. Paul.

Other Cities Visited by St Paul

Chapters from the Acts of the Apostles read in Church this week record St Paul’s ministry in the following places as well:
  • Phrygia and Galatia (Acts 16) – Provinces in western and central Anatolia, in what came to be called “Turkey in Asia;”
  • Troas (Acts 16, 20) – On the Aegean Sea, the chief port of north-west Asia Minor. With a population of 100,000 at its height, Troas was the seat of a bishop at least until the tenth century. The city was destroyed during the Ottoman invasions of the fourteenth century;
  • Thessalonika (Acts 17) – Already 400 years old when St Paul visited it, this city, Thessalonika remained an important center through the later history of the Roman Empire. It fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1430 and remained as capital of their Balkan province until 1912 when it was surrendered to Greece. In Byzantine times and again today it is considered its nation’s Second City;
  • Berea (Acts 17) – A small city in southwestern Macedonia, it has much the same history as its larger neighbor, Thessalonika;
  • Athens (Acts 17) – One of the oldest cities in Europe, it was the intellectual capital of ancient Greece. When St Paul was there, Athens had been given the status of a “free city” of the Roman Empire because of its classical past. It remained a center of pagan learning until ad 529 when the emperor closed its philosophical school. Conquered during the Fourth Crusade (1204), Athens quickly fell to the Ottomans until the Greek War of Independence in the nineteenth century. In 1838 it became the capital of modern Greece;
  • Corinth (Acts 18) – Julius Caesar founded the Roman city of Corinth in 44 bc on the site of the ancient Greek city destroyed a century earlier. It has been rebuilt again and again after successive invasions and earthquakes. After a particularly devastating earthquake in1858, New Corinth was built a few miles away. This too suffered a major earthquake in 1928. Its location on the Gulf of Corinth has always made it a hub for the transport of goods and materials to Europe;
  • Ephesus (Acts 19, 20) – One of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world (c. 250,000) in Paul’s day, Ephesus had been founded in the tenth century bc and prospered as the shrine city of the goddess Artemis. Destroyed in ad 263 by Gothic invaders, it was rebuilt as a Byzantine city. Its commercial importance declined as its harbor silted up and, by the time of the Ottoman conquest in the fourteenth century, Ephesus was a mere village. The town was completely abandoned in the next century.

These Churches Today

The Church in Athens believes itself in continuity with the first century Christians in the city. It names as its first bishops Hierotheus, who lead the Church from before ad.52, and Dionysius (53-96). The eparchy of Corinth looks to the apostles Onesephorus, Silas and Apollos as its first-century leaders and the eparchy of Thessalonika traces itself back to the apostles Aristarchus and Silvanos, two of Christ’s Seventy disciples, and names Gaius as its first bishop, in the first century. These eparchies, placed under the Patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century, are currently dioceses in the Autocephalous Church of Greece. The Archbishop of Athens is the first hierarch of this Church, formed after the War of Independence. The Apostolic Church of Cyprus, consisting today of twelve eparchies, traced its history back to the apostle St Barnabas who accompanied St Paul to the island in the first century. Five years later Barnabas returned to Cyprus and established the Church there. The Apostolic Church of Crete, consisting of nine eparchies, is an Autonomous Church dependent on the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It claims the Apostle St Titus, the disciple of St. Paul, as its first head. The provinces of Asia Minor were placed under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Constantinople when that city was made the capital of the Roman Empire (ad 335). This is still the case, but few Christians reside there. In 1923 The "Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations" was signed by the governments of Greece and Turkey. Around 1.5 million Christians in Asia Minor were deported to northern Greece and 500,000 Muslims from Greece were relocated to Turkey. – around two million persons. Many of these Christians emigrated to North and South America as a result. The patriarchate consists on five eparchies in Asia Minor and the “New Territories” ceded to Greece after the twentieth-century Balkan Wars and six eparchies in the Greek Islands (the Dodecanese). Some 30 diaspora eparchies in Western Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia are also subject to the ecumenical patriarchate.
 
THE BAPTISM OF CATECHUMENS ON PASCHA was one of the most widespread practices of the early Church. Speaking of baptism, St. Paul had written, “We were buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). The connection Paul made between Christ’s burial in the earth and our burial in the water was so powerful in the minds of early believers that Holy Saturday, the eve of Christ’s resurrection, became the most appropriate day for baptism in both East and West. Those baptized on this day would share in the Eucharist for the first time on Pascha, the “Feast of Feasts” and celebrate their new life in the days that followed. To this day the Scriptures we read at the Divine Liturgy on this Sunday reflect on various aspects of the mystery of baptism. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we saw the jailer and his family baptized after experiencing the power of God and hearing the word of the Lord. In the Gospel we see the Lord approach a blind man at the Pool of Siloam – water again – and healing him. The Lord anoints him and he is able to see for the first time in his life. More than that, he sees with the eyes of his soul and confesses his faith in Christ. Countless people today are familiar with a similar image from the eighteenth-century hymn, Amazing Grace, where the new believer proclaims “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” These readings taken together suggest a pattern that has been followed throughout the centuries. People have heard the word of God, then been baptized, and anointed (chrismated), when they came to faith in Him.

Sight and Light

In the Middle East Holy Saturday is still the most popular day for baptisms. Christians of all traditions call this day sabt al-noor, the Saturday of Light, from another early image of baptism. Very early in the Church’s life baptism came to be called Holy Illumination. The term is used by St Justin the Philosopher in Rome and St Clement of Alexandria in the second century to say that when we come to know God, then we are able to see clearly. Like the man once blind, we are delivered from darkness and, most particularly, we are able to see the divine plan. Our “spiritual eye becomes full of light” and we can recognize the hand of God at work among us. At a baptism our radiant new nature is represented by the shining white garments the newly baptized puts on while we sing, “Give me a robe of light, O You who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment, O most merciful Christ our God.” We find the same image described beautifully in Agathangelos’ description of the baptism of the first Armenian Christians in the fourth century: “They went forth in great joy, in white garments, with psalms and blessings and lighted lamps and burning candles and blazing torches, with great rejoicing and happiness, illuminated and become like the angels.” For the same reason the Church describes the Feast of the Theophany, the remembrance of Christ’s baptism, as the Feast of Light. As we say in Kondakion for the feast, actually the first verse of St. Romanos’ Kondakion on the Life of Christ: Today you have appeared to the inhabited world, and your light, O Lord, has been signed upon us, who, with knowledge, sing your praise, ‘You have come, You have appeared, the unapproachable Light.’ The Gospels say that, at Christ’s baptism, the heavens were opened, which the Fathers assumed to mean that the mystery of the Trinity was revealed. Christ is the Light who enables us to see by revealing the mystery of God and His plan for our regeneration to the world. Clement of Alexandria also speaks of this light as being “signed” upon us. He describes this sign as a “seal,” a mark of belonging – in this case, to Christ. At our chrismation, the completion of our baptism, we receive this “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” who affirms that we belong to the Lord. We are His, and He is ours, as a pledge of the life that awaits us in glory.

Our Call to Respond

In the passage from Romans quoted above, St Paul makes another connection. As we have seen, he links baptism in water with Christ’s burial; he also relates Christ’s risen life to the way the baptized should live here and now. We can live a ‘resurrection life’ by following the Scriptural precepts that characterize the new life for believers. Later in the epistle St Paul expresses it this way, “…present your bodies a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. And do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:1,2). The first verse concerns our actions. Where in the Old Covenant people would offer animals, grain or other offerings in the temple, we the baptized are told to offer all our faculties as our act of worship. “Turn this body in which you are clothed into a censer…” we read in the letters of St Anthony the Great. There is nothing that we have or that we are which is not meant to be given over to God. We are called to commend “ourselves, one another and our whole life to Christ God.” Sometimes this “spiritual worship” is a matter of giving things up, as during the Fasts. At other times, such as during this festive season, it may be a matter of sharing the things that we enjoy with others in acts of hospitality. In either case we are called to see all our actions as oblations, like the prosphora, the candles or the incense we give over completely to God in church. The second verse is concerned with our attitudes. We are urged to avoid thinking like people who do not know God: to avoid thinking that the purpose of life is acquiring more and more of the world’s goods or respect. If our values are formed by the commercials we see on TV or the lifestyles promoted there, then we are conforming to this world. After all, sitcoms or reality shows never feature people who serve others, do they? If we accept the social engineers’ idea that other people – even our own older relatives or unborn children – are an inconvenience to be put aside, then we are conforming to this world. If we endorse the concerns of special interest groups rather than the values of the Gospel, then we are conforming to this world. We have been given a new life; we need to develop a new mind as well.
From the Pentecostarion
I have lost the very eyes of my soul, wherefore I come to You, O Christ, as did the man who had been blind from birth, and I cry out to You with repentance: “To those who stumble in darkness, You are a radiant and resplendent light.”
O Sun of Justice, Christ our God, by Your pure touch You filled completely with light the man held in darkness from his mother’s womb. Enlighten the eyes of our souls as well, making us children of light and of the day, that we may cry out to You with faith: “Great and wondrous is Your mercy toward us, O Lord, Lover of Mankind: glory to You!”
Who can speak of Your sovereign power, O Christ? Who can count the multitude of Your wonders? As You were seen in two natures on earth, so did You grant a double healing to the sick: You healed the eyes of the soul of the man born blind as well as his bodily eyes, so that he could see You. And he confessed that You are a hidden God, granting great mercy to the world!

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