Melkite Greek Catholic Church
WHEN WE THINK about Christian ministry, it is the liturgical ministry of priests or deacons, readers or chanters that most readily comes to mind. But in the Church’s tradition, ministry has a much broader meaning. The ministry of Christians includes many forms of service, all in imitation of “the Son of Man [who] did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).

In one sense, every baptized Christian is called to ministry because we all share in the priesthood of Christ through the mystery of chrismation. “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

The purpose of our ministry as sharers in Christ’s priesthood is to “proclaim the praises of Him” who brought us to eternal life through baptism: to glorify God in word and deed. The means by which we exercise this ministry is by offering up “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” In fact, everything can be done in a godly manner, offered as a spiritual sacrifice to proclaim the glory of God.

The Apostolate of the Laity

In the past century, it has become customary to call the ministry of those believers who are not clergy “the apostolate of the laity.” It was particularly extolled at the Second Vatican Council in its Decree On the Apostolic Activity of God’s People, affirming that “The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it” (AA 1).

The goal of Christian ministry, according to the Fathers of this Council, is that “the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ” (AA 2). Everything in the Church is oriented to this goal in one way or another and everyone in the Church is called to work for this goal. As the Council Fathers went on to say, “No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church.”

It is for this reason that the Council Fathers make this, perhaps their most daring assertion: “The member who fails to make his proper contribution to the development of the Church must be said to be useful neither to the Church nor to himself”. A baptized Christian who does not contribute to building up the Body of Christ is, the Fathers insist, a useless Christian!

Scriptural Patrons of the Lay Apostolate

The Biblical figures commemorated on this Sunday point to a principal way of exercising: using one’s resources to build up the Kingdom of God. Two of them made sizeable contributions in accordance with their stations in life. Joseph of Arimathea, described in the Gospel as “a rich man” (Matthew 27:57) and “a prominent member of the Sanhedrin” (Mark 15:43) used his influence with Pilate to obtain the crucified body of the Lord Jesus and donated his own tomb that the Lord might be buried, as Chrysostom said, “not as a criminal, but magnificently, after the Jewish fashion, as some great and admirable one” (Hom. on Matthew).

Along with “the noble Joseph,” as our troparion calls him, Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” brought a one-hundred-pound mixture of myrrh and aloes – worth thousands, by some estimations. Both these men made significant donations to cover the cost of Jesus’ burial.

In the history of the Eastern Churches there have been many people who gave significant donations to the Church, building churches, schools, hospitals or clinics for the poor. The countryside in places like Greece or Lebanon is dotted with small chapels build by donors to honor their patron saints or in thanksgiving for favors received.

In our society, the equivalent is often an endowment given to the Church. The investments generated by such endowments contribute over the years to the cause specified by the donor. An endowment by the late Father Allen Maloof has helped make possible the publication of Sophia, the journal of the Eparchy of Newton, for over forty years.

Others remembered today contributed lesser amounts, but over an ongoing period of time. The myrrh-bearing women are those who provided for Jesus’ needs out of their own resources: Mary Magdalene, Joanna and other women whose ordinary contributions helped sustain Him during His ministry. While Joanna’s husband was the steward of King Herod’s household, there is no evidence that any of these women were wealthy. They were the equivalent of today’s middle-class parishioners, many of whom continually underwrite the expenses of a church or ministry to the needy.

Applications in the Parish

There are ways based on a person’s professional skills which can help build up the Church and thereby glorify God. But there are also countless believers whose everyday skills in the kitchen or in the workshop have helped build and maintain churches and other properties in Eastern Christian parishes throughout the country.

Our life-skills, even more than our talents, can help build up the Church. The witness-value of a committedly Christian family, for example, is enormous in our society where family values are neglected, if not disparaged. Couples can assist their pastors in preparing others for marriage or parenting by witnessing to the importance of the Gospel in their own family life.

In many parishes the Youth Group is a social club. People believe that they will keep their youth in church by making it fun. A much more effective approach is taken by those who help younger teens prepare for roles of service in the community. Teaching teens to serve enables them to see that working to build up the Church and spread the Gospel in society are not “electives,” but are essential to living our baptismal union with Christ. Present

Applications in the Public Square

Assisting in the activities of the parish or other organized group is certainly one way of building up the Kingdom of God, but it is not the only one. Nor is it the primary one. As the Vatican Council Fathers noted, “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” (AA, 7). The Christian in the business or professional world must be a Christian all week long, not just on Sundays. Christian businesspeople are sometimes criticized for excusing their unchristian behavior in the workplace, saying “it’s just business.” The Christian in business can be an agent for renewal, transforming their business into a place of ministry.

Christian business people perhaps minister best by witnessing that increasing profits is not all that matters to them. The Christian owners of the Chick-Fil-A chain will not open any of their franchises on Sunday because it is “a day to rest and relax with family and friends.” Similarly, a number of retailers, and even entire malls, have opted to close on Thanksgiving Day to allow their employees to enjoy the day with their families. Since so many families travel great distances on that holiday to be together, workers greatly appreciate their employers’ concern. Some other businesses have made Thanksgiving the “first day” of Black Friday, demanding that their employees work on that day without holiday pay, overtime or even the possibility of breaks. Some of these same companies have also eliminated holiday bonuses.
MOST REGULAR WORSHIPPERS in Byzantine churches have heard the terms “octoechos” or “eight tones.” Some think that these terms refer principally to the troparia of the resurrection sung at Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. In fact, the term Octoechos refers to much more. The Octoechos first of all refers to a system of eight musical tones in which liturgical music has been composed and arranged since the Middle Ages. Eight-tone systems are the basis of church music in several historic traditions. The Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Latin and Slavic Churches all use an eight-tone system, although the music of each of these Churches is vastly different from any of the others. In Byzantine practice the Octoechos also refers to the eight-week cycle of texts and music for the daily services throughout the year. Each week in succession a different tone is used, beginning in the week of Thomas, the second week of the Paschal season. Every Saturday evening vespers begins a new tone which is used for all the services of the following week. These texts are contained in a liturgical book called the Great Octoechos or Paraklitiki, which offers a rich source for reflection. The idea of an eight-week cycle seems to have originated with the Jerusalem patriarchate in the fifth century. Noted hymnographers at the nearby Mar Saba Monastery such as St Cosmas of Maiuma and St John of Damascus composed hymns in this pattern. The system began to spread and was formally accepted at the Trullan Council in 692. As the system became popular in Constantinople renowned figures such as St Theodore the Studite contributed to the Octoechos. Their works form a good part of the Paraklitiki today. The Saturday evening and Sunday morning services in each tone celebrate Christ’s resurrection, leading to the often quoted idea that “every Sunday is a little Easter.” Themes for the other weekdays are:
  • Monday – Repentance, the heavenly powers
  • Tuesday – St John the Forerunner
  • Wednesday and Friday – The precious Cross
  • Thursday – Ss Peter and Paul and St Nicholas of Myra
  • Saturday – All the saints and the departed.
  • Proclaiming the Resurrection

    The changeable parts of our Sunday services in the Octoechos are concerned with Christ’s resurrection. During the forty days of Pascha these resurrectional hymns are not sung only on Sundays, but every day. On the five Sundays of the season they are combined with the hymns of Pascha itself and the specific commemorations of the day. The texts in each of the eight tones are different but they all speak of the paschal mystery. The examples cited here are all taken from the first and second tones, but the ideas which they express are representative of the other tones as well. Some of these texts recall the events described in the Gospels: the sealed tomb, the stone rolled away, the angels’ message to the women and the news they brought to the apostles. Thus we hear the following at vespers on Saturday evening: “The myrrh-bearing women came with haste to Your tomb, with their myrrh and their lament. Not finding Your most pure body, they learned from the angel of the new and glorious wonder. They told the apostles that the Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy.” At Matins on Sunday this is sung: “The soldiers keeping watch over your tomb fell down as dead, O Savior, at the lightning brightness of the angel who appeared and proclaimed the resurrection to the women.” We also hear this hymn in which the composer adds a striking image: “The women, coming early to Your tomb trembled at the sight of the angel. The tomb shone with life and this wonder struck them. And so going back to the disciples they proclaimed the Resurrection.”

    Meaning of the Resurrection

    Every Saturday evening vespers includes thirteen resurrectional hymns in addition to the familiar troparion. Over fifty others are prescribed for Sunday Matins. This arrangement gives ample scope for composers to add theology and poetry to their proclamation of this mystery. The greatest effect of Christ’s death and resurrection is that Death’s power to separate us from God is now destroyed. Death now need not affect more than the body – our spirits can pass with Christ through bodily death to eternal life. The hymns of the Octoechos constantly sing of the annihilation of Death: “granting life, He has slain Death… He has resurrected Adam, as the Lover of mankind…” (tone 1 vespers hymns). “You have transformed the shadow of death into life eternal,” we sing at matins (tone 1), “breaking the chains of man’s mortality... granting to the human race life eternal and great mercy…” “You raised up human nature, which was held captive and You enthroned it with Your Father in heaven…” (tone 2). The New Testament introduces the concept that Christ descended into the depths “… and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Peter 3:19,20). The Octoechos echoes this teaching in many hymns: “…in Your power you descended into Hades and snatching, as from a mighty monster, the souls of those who awaited Your coming, You placed them in Paradise.” “Sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:15) and so the Octoechos often connects the resurrection to the defeat of sin. ‘Emmanuel has nailed our sins to the cross and… has delivered us from our transgressions… (tone 1 vespers).

    Images of the Resurrection

    Since this bestowal of eternal life is beyond our senses, the Church often uses images to describe it in a manner our senses can grasp. The destruction of Death’s power is often depicted graphically. “O Christ, you put to shame him who held them in thrall and showed him naked and destitute by your Divine Rising” (tone 1). “O Christ the gates of Death opened before You in fear and the gatekeepers of Hades were filled with dread at the sight of You. You smashed the gates of brass and crushed the posts of iron. Then You burst our chains asunder and led us out from the darkness, away from the shadow of death” (tone 2). The Octoechos often employs Scriptural allusions to glorify the resurrection, invoking images of:
    The Creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3)
    “The one who planted a soul within me by His divine breath, submitted Himself to slaughter and surrendered His soul to death. He loosed the everlasting bonds, and has raised the dead with Himself, glorifying them in incorruption.” “You have abolished the curse of the tree by Your cross … and cancelled the decree that was written against us”. “Paradise is again offered for us to enjoy…”
    Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)
    “The earth of old was cursed, dyed with the blood of Abel from his murdering brother’s hand. Now it is blessed, sprinkled with the divine stream of Your blood.”
    Jonah and the Sea Monster
    “You have brought us up from Hades, Lord, by worsting the all-devouring monster of the deep, O All-powerful, and destroying his power by Your might…” and
    The Temple Priesthood
    “He is our forerunner into the holy place” (cf., [cite-pericope]Hebrews 9:24[/cite-pericope]) or
    Social Custom
    “You rose from the tomb as from a bridal chamber” i.e. showing that the heavenly marriage had been truly “consummated” and that God and mankind were one again.
“THE NOBLE JOSEPH took down from the tree Your spotless body, wrapped it in pure linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb.” This troparion, which summarizes the Gospel account of the Lord’s burial, is sung as the holy shroud (epitaphios) is placed in the tomb on Great Friday evening. It is sung again on the Third Sunday of Pascha, but with this addition: “But on the third day, You arose, O Lord, and bestowed great mercy upon the world!” The noble or righteous Joseph of Arimathea, along with Nicodemus, is commemorated on this Sunday together with the myrrhbearing women who ministered to Christ at the tomb. As we read in the Gospels, Joseph was “a rich man” (Matthew 25:57) and “a prominent member of the council” (Mark 15:43). This “council” may refer to one of the regional courts in Israel or to the Great Sanhedrin, the chief religious court of the Jews which met in Jerusalem. In any case, Joseph and Nicodemus, whom John describes as “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) and one of those in the high priest’s circle (cf., John 7:50-52), had sufficient influence to approach Pontius Pilate and ask to bury Jesus’ body. Jesus is often described as being poor – He Himself alluded to this when He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:19-21; Luke 9:58). He had put aside His carpenter’s craft to preach the kingdom of God and depended on others to provide His needs. He attracted other tradesmen, like Andrew and Peter, James and John who did the same. His followers included the poor but also some prominent individuals as well. The Evangelist Matthew was a tax collector, a civil servant in the Roman administration, as was Zacchaeus who had grown rich in that pursuit (cf., Luke 19:1-10). Others, like the rich young man whom He invited to follow Him (cf., Matthew 19:16-22), were attracted to Jesus but could not break with their wealth or position to follow Him.

Jesus’ Secret Disciples

While Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels before Christ’s death, Nicodemus is featured twice in John’s Gospel, giving us an insight into the struggle which a member of the Jewish establishment would have experienced when drawn to Jesus. Nicodemus first approached Jesus at night when he would not be noticed. This encounter is described in John’s Gospel: “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ “Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ “Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’” (John 3:1-10). Nicodemus appears in the Gospel a second time when the chief priests and Pharisees, alarmed at the people’s reaction to Jesus, were considering how to deal with Him (cf., John 7:45-52). Nicodemus offers a timid resistance to their resentment. “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” (John 7:51). In response the Pharisees ridiculed him: “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (John 7:52). Their rebuke may have served to increase Nicodemus’ attachment to Jesus. He next appears as a public follower of Jesus at His death, assisting Joseph of Arimathea in burying His body. “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:39-40). While the Jews regularly buried their dead enshrouded in spices, there is something more indicated here. Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume study Jesus of Nazareth writes: “The quantity of balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions: this is a royal burial. If Jesus was manifested to us as high priest by the casting of lots for his robe [Christ’s chiton, like the high priest’s, was seamless], so now he is revealed to us as king by the manner of his burial.”

After Christ’s Burial

There is no further mention of either Joseph or Nicodemus in the Gospels or other contemporary sources. Many later writings, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, became popular in the first millennium adADbut are not regarded as historical today. One of the most popular is a homily on the Burial of the Divine Body of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ attributed to St Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (c.310–403). It is often read in monasteries on Great Saturday and an excerpt is frequently sung as people venerate the holy shroud. “When evening had come – for the sun of Righteousness had then set into Hades – a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple for fear of the Jews, came with Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night. Two secret disciples came to conceal Jesus in a tomb, thus teaching by this concealment the mystery of God concealed in Hades in the flesh. Each of them surpassed the other in their affection for Christ. Nicodemus proved his magnanimity by the myrrh and aloes while Joseph proved worthy of praise by his daring and boldness before Pilate. “Now when Joseph went in he acted very shrewdly in order to achieve his desired goal. He did not employ high sounding and pompous words but a humble plea: ‘O Judge, I have come with a trifling request. Give me a dead man for burial: Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the poor, Jesus the homeless, Jesus the crucified, the naked … Give me this Stranger, for what profit does this body bring you? Give me this Stranger whose country we know not, whose Father we know not, whose place of birth and ways we know not …’ “Tell me, O Joseph, do you really bury toward the East a dead man who is the Dayspring of the East? Do you close the eyes of Him who opened the eyes of the blind? … Do you empty out myrrh upon the celestial Myrrh who emptied Himself and sanctified the world? … Do you wash with water God’s body which cleanses all and bestows purification? … “Fearlessly Joseph and Nicodemus bury Him before whom the cherubim stand with reverent fear. Looking upon You dead, stripped and exposed, in his grief and tender compassion he lamented, saying: ‘How shall I bury You, my God? How shall I wrap You in a winding sheet? How shall I touch Your most pure body with my hands? … I magnify Your sufferings. I sing the praises of Your burial and resurrection, crying: O Lord, glory to You!’”
SERVICE IN THE CHURCH TODAY can mean many things. The clergy are said to serve the Divine Liturgy and other services. They are not improvising or directing or even celebrating; their role as servers suggests that their personality take a back seat to what they serve, much as good waiters are unobtrusive when they serve at table. Church members serve in a variety of ways in the worship, teaching and fellowship activities of the community. In many places they are honored today as the Church remembers those who volunteered to serve at the Lord’s burial: Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrhbearers. We also remember the Church’s first ordained servants, the deacons. Both Myrrhbearers and deacons had one thing in common: they served Christ the Unwanted. The Myrrhbearers served the despised and rejected Jesus, condemned by the Jewish leaders and abandoned in death by even His closest followers. These volunteers stepped forward to provide a burial for Him when the alternative was to leave His body for animals to scavenge. The deacons were set apart by the Apostles to serve Christ unwanted in the weakest segment of society: those who had no family to care for them in their old age.

Joseph and the Myrrhbearers

In Mark 15:44-16:8 read at this Sunday’s Liturgy we see Joseph of Arimathea arrange for Jesus’ burial. In John 19:39 we are told that the seeker Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, helped Joseph in this task. This service is memorialized in the troparion sung on this day, itself drawn from the Gospel of St Mark: The noble Joseph took down from the tree Your spotless body. He wrapped it in fine linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb… Mark notes that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (whom John identifies as the wife of Clopas – Cleopas in the King James Bible – and a relative of the Theotokos) saw where Jesus had been buried and returned with others on Sunday morning with more spices. Mark 15:40 tells of a Salome, one of those who had witnessed the death of the Lord, who accompanied them. These women were among those whom Luke says provided for Jesus’ needs from their possessions during His ministry. Others among them, according to Luke were “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Suzanna and many others” (8:3). Matthew 27:56 mentions “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (i.e. James and John). Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, are included among them as well. The Jews did not embalm the dead like the Egyptians. Rather they anointed a corpse and surrounded it with large quantities of spices to counteract the odor of decay. John 19:39 says that Nicodemus brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes for that purpose. When the women returned to the tomb at first light on Sunday morning, according to Mark and Luke, they brought more spices. The odor should have increased to such a degree that further masking would be needed if people were to visit the tomb. But the Lord did not need their spices; not subject to corruption, He had conquered death and destroyed its hold over us. The Myrrhbearers knew that the service they offered was fruitless in a sense – Jesus was dead and they not change that. They could simple perform the last act of love and remain by the tomb in witness to their love for Him. Their faithfulness to serve Christ even in death was rewarded; they were blessed to see the empty tomb and bear witness to the apostles that Christ was risen.

The Seven Deacons

Among the unwanted in the first century AD were widows who had no one to care for them. If a widow had surviving children or other relatives they had someone on whom they could rely. If a widow had no children or relatives she was reduced to the status of a beggar. In the Acts of the Apostles the first Christians are described as faced with a growing problem of caring for those who came to them for help. The Apostles were torn between the needs of those indigents and the mission from Christ to spread the Gospel. They ordained seven men as the first deacons for the purpose of caring for these widows. While the deacons served the material needs of the people, the apostles concentrated on the spiritual: “We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Over the ages the deacons’ ministry of service to the poor evolved to include care for church property and service to the priest at the holy table. As the deacon handled the material side of the Church’s affairs – particularly its charitable ministry – he also came to care for the material side of the Liturgy. He received and apportioned the holy gifts, carried the Holy Gospel, incensed the church and directed the work of the servers. In icons saintly deacons are often shown holding a censer – symbol of their liturgical ministry – and a church or cashbox, representing their material responsibilities.

Serving the Unwanted Today

In many traditional societies people would come together to bury those who died alone; that is not the case in our culture. In contrast, groups of Catholic high school students have dedicated themselves to caring for Christ the Unwanted in the St Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society. They act as pall bearers for the poor and provide a Christian burial service for the deceased who do not have the funds to be buried at a private cemetery, many of whom have no one at end of their life to pray for them or to carry them to their final resting place. Members serve as pallbearers, lead prayers, read Scripture passages and offer condolences to the decedents’ family and friends. In the Louisville, KY chapter teens assist the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office’s indigent burial program. They have been called upon to bury the homeless, some of whom had died on the streets. They buried murder victims who had died at the prime of their lives. They buried babies and children whose death tore at the hearts of their parents. They buried the elderly and disabled who had lost touch with their families. At some of the funerals, grieving family members were present, thankful for their prayers and presence. While at others, there was no one, but the society members and the staff from the coroner’s office. Youth from a chapter at St Ignatius’ High School in Cleveland OH witnessed how their service in the society helped develop their own faith. A thirteen year-old reported, “At my first funeral, as we walked the casket to the exit of the church, the doors opened and there was so much light coming though the doors. I felt God’s presence, and the image it gave me was that I was carrying this person to a new life.” As another student reported, “God walks along side us, helping to carry the casket. He stands with the mourners, giving them comfort. He is with the soul of the deceased, carrying them to rest.” The unborn, the handicapped, the lonely and victims of prejudice of every sort have been identified as among our society’s Unwanted. Those who respond to these marginalized brothers and sisters are the spiritual heirs of both the myrrhbearers and the seven deacons. By their untiring concern they both serve Christ in the Unwanted and make palpable the presence of Christ to them as well.

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