Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Where do we find the truths of our faith? As could be expected, we look first to the Holy Scriptures, the revealed word of God. The Scriptures, however, were not written as dogmatic treatises but as records of God’s intervention in our history. As such they do not necessarily address concerns that arose later among Christians. They must be interpreted in a way that accords with the practices of “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Clarifying the Church’s teachings from the earliest times been the task of its leaders: first the apostles and later their successors, the bishops. While each of them individually has the mission to teach in the name of the Church, the Body of Christ, the determination of correct doctrine has always been a task for its leaders as a group. Thus the Acts of the Apostles records how, all together, the apostles settled the question of Jewish ritual and dietary requirements (cf., Acts 15:8-29). Similar gatherings of bishops, called synods or councils, were held in the early Church as it began to develop structures (dioceses, eparchies). The first ones mentioned in Church annals took place in the mid-second century in Rome and Ephesus. By the end of that century these local decisions were communicated to Churches in other areas. In the third century it became customary for these councils to be held at regular intervals to discuss matters affecting the Churches. When Christianity was officially recognized in the fourth century Roman Empire the Ecumenical Council (convoking bishops from all over the empire) was introduced. Beginning with Nicaea I, ecumenical councils became “the court of last resort” for settling doctrinal disputes in the early Church.

Who Taught the Teachers?

The Nicene Creed and the teachings of later councils would definitively express the Church’s teaching on certain subjects, like the incarnation of Christ. But who taught the Council Fathers and helped them express these doctrines in the way that they did? At the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 381) the bishops sought clarity by consulting the writings of certain noted hierarchs. Extracts from works by Peter I and Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa were read as authoritative teachers. The idea that certain writers were Fathers of the Church was born. By the time of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 481) it was common for the Churches to see some Fathers as ecumenical teachers and hierarchs, whose writings should be revered after the Scriptures and any authoritative council doctrines. Thus at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II, 553) the assembled bishops affirmed, “Hold fast to the decrees of the four councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Theophilus, John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo and their writings on the true faith” (Session 1). The writings of these Fathers are not considered infallible, but the Church sees the consensus that emerges from their teaching as reliable interpretations of the Scriptures for the life of the Church.

The Fathers of January

A number of these Fathers are remembered in our Church during the month of January, namely: St Anthony the Great (January 17) – Not one of the dogmatic teachers, St. Anthony first organized ascetics in the Egyptian desert into a monastic or communal life. He lived from c.251-356. His biography, by St Athanasius of Alexandria, is readily available. St Athanasius the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria (January 18) – These two archbishops of Alexandria were instrumental at two crucial ecumenical councils. Athanasius (c. 296-373) was repeatedly exiled for upholding the teachings of Nicaea I on the Trinity against the Arians. Cyril (c. 376-444) wrote extensively on the incarnation and was instrumental in the fight against Nestorianism, which upheld the realty of Christ’s humanity to such an extent that His divinity paled in comparison. St Maximos the Confessor (January 21) – A monk and writer, Maximos (c. 580-662) opposed the monothelite compromise on the nature of Christ which taught that Christ had only one will. Maximos insisted that this teaching compromised the doctrine of Chalcedon that Christ was completely God and man. He was tortured and exiled for his position (hence the title “Confessor”) but eventually vindicated at the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 681-682). St Gregory the Theologian (January 25) – A member of Cappadocia’s Christian elite, Gregory (329-389) served as bishop in Salima, Nazianzus and finally in Constantinople where he turned the pro-Arian sentiment of the city’s Christians back to Orthodoxy. His writings and sermons on the Trinity were quickly recognized as extraordinary, hence the title “Theologian.” St. John Chrysostom (January 27) – This well known preacher from Antioch (c.347-407) was chosen as Archbishop of Constantinople in 397. He was popular with the poor but castigated the wealthy – including Empress Eudoxia – for their extravagant lifestyles. .He was exiled and died in what is today Abkhazia in the Caucusus. The next year his remains were brought back to Constantinople and buried with honor, the event we remember today. St Ephrem the Syrian (January 28) –Born in the Syriac city of Nisibis on the Persian border, Ephrem (c. 306-373) is known as “the harp of the Spirit” because he expressed his theological thought in poetry. His over 400 hymns are especially revered in the Syriac Churches where they figure in the Liturgy. His Hymns Against Heresies supported the doctrine that Christ was fully human and divine. St Isaac the Syrian (January 28) – A native of Bahrain, Isaac entered the monastic life at and early age, in the seventh century. After only a few months as bishop of Nineveh, Isaac left the active life and spent the rest of his days as a solitary, devoting himself to study and writing. His ascetical homilies greatly influenced the spiritual life of the Syriac, Greek and Slavic Churches as well as his own Church of the East. General Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, Ss. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom (January 30) – Devotees of these saints in Constantinople argued over which one was the greatest. This common feast was established after the three appeared together in a vision to St. John of Euchaita, in the year 1084, and said that they were equal before God: “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.” Through their prayers, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Amen
PHYSICAL FITNESS IS BIG BUSINESS today. People run to gyms and exercise programs, or they just run. St. Paul sees the value of keeping one’s body in shape, but puts it in a perspective of his own. “Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise for the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Tim 4:8). We may readily grasp that spiritual exercise may bear fruit in the life to come, but what promise does it have “for the life that now is”? A great part of spiritual training is concerned with the control of the passions. We strive to free ourselves from the compulsion to pursue pleasure so that we can pursue a relationship with the living God. If we follow this training, the result in our life now is that we are no longer driven to acquire or possess. We are content. When a person is beset by greed he is never satisfied with what he has. There is always more, there is always something better to be acquired. While he seems content with his latest acquisition it is only for a moment, because nothing he has truly satisfies. The same is true of people governed by gluttony, lust, popular acclaim or pride. They never have enough. A person who has learned to control the passions, on the other hand, is content knowing that all he is and all he has is the gift of God. He has learned that material wealth, physical pleasure, or the good opinion of others are all passing and insignificant when compared with the possibility of knowing and serving God. He is happy to devote energy and resources to others as much as possible because he controls them; they do not control him. Controlling the passions makes us free here and now. Someone who undertakes spiritual discipline devotes himself to developing spiritual strengths or virtues just as an athlete strengthens physical muscles. These strengths, or virtues, enable spiritual athletes to remain faithful in the face of persecution or hardship. How could the martyrs and confessors have endured the torments they suffered without the fortitude spiritual discipline produces? How could people like Father Damien in a leper colony, Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, or Dorothy Day in the tenements of New York have served day after day in such atrocious conditions without the patience and dedication of a spiritual athlete? Without the endurance which spiritual discipline produces believers would quickly fall away from their commitment and collapse on the sidelines. Spiritual discipline develops the endurance to live for God in the here and now. Another aspect of spiritual discipline is concerned with fidelity to prayer. Many people pray – or say prayers – from a sense of duty. Praying, they feel, is something we “ought to do.” A person of prayer is rather one who senses an authentic relationship with God and who prays out of love rather than a sense of obligation. Such a person reaps the fruits of a commitment to prayer in this life, becoming someone who experiences the presence of God in his life on earth. The presence of God may be experienced in many ways. There are saints who have experienced God directly in visions or in charismatic gifts. But the presence of God may also be experienced in consolations or in the assurance of blessing from God without any exterior manifestation. In either case to experience the presence of God in one’s “life that now is” is clear evidence of the truth of St. Paul’s statement: godliness profits a person in this life as well as in the life to come.

Repentance: Warm-up to the Spiritual Life

We have all seen runners stretching their leg muscles before beginning a run. Their stretches are a warm-up in anticipation of the effort ahead. Similarly there is a warm up necessary at the start of a spiritual effort. Repentance is the necessary prerequisite to any effective spiritual effort, whether it is the encounter with Christ in the Liturgy or any of the mysteries, the Great Fast, or any spiritual work which we pray may be fruitful. Ignoring our personal spiritual state before any of these borders on presumption. Even world-class athletes, whether physical or spiritual, always begin each contest at the beginning, with a warm-up. The Gospel story of Zacchaeus’ conversion (Lk 19:1-10) offers some valuable insights into repentance. His spiritual journey begins with an encounter with Christ. At first Zacchaeus is moved by a kind of curiosity to climb the tree and see who this Jesus is. Then Christ calls him personally and they go off to Zacchaeus’ house. True repentance always involves both our work and the Lord’s. If He calls and we are not even curious nothing will happen. If we seek Him in an inappropriate way – such as only coming to Him when we want something – He may remain silent. Zacchaeus’ repentance is not mere sentiment; it has concrete exterior manifestations. One is the desire to repair any wrongs he may have done to others. “…if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore it fourfold” (v. 8). We cannot move ahead unless we correct what we can of our past sins. When material things are at the heart of our sin it is relatively easy to make restitution. But how does anyone restore a broken relationship, heal a damaged childhood or re-establish another’s reputation which we have smeared? The one we have harmed may demand something from us or our spiritual guide may offer alternative acts of reparation. But something concrete must be done. Zacchaeus does not only look back, he also looks ahead. “I give half of my goods to the poor…” (v.8) Zacchaeus actually does something to fulfill the Lord’s precept to love in a concrete way. This dynamic was explained most clearly by St Diadochos, the fifth-century Bishop of Photiki in northern Greece: “When a man begins to perceive the love of God in all its richness, he begins also to love his neighbor with spiritual perception. This is the love of which all the scriptures speak.” (On Spiritual Knowledge and Discernment, 15). In the Church calendar the story of Zacchaeus is read as the herald of the Triodion, the last Sunday before we open that guide to repentance and the Great Fast. As we recall the movements of Zacchaeus’ repentance we should be led to ask ourselves about the quality of our love for God. To what concrete action are we being led to perform during the coming Fast? What tangible form will love take in our lives as we look to the celebration of Pascha? And what past offenses to others which have yet to be righted hang over us and taint our intentions for this season? Like Zacchaeus we are called to begin our spiritual exercise with the “warm-up” of repentance in deed as well as in thought.
ONE OF THE SAYING OF THE LORD JESUS which puzzled His hearers and still puzzles people today is, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24). It flies in the face of the “prosperity gospel” preached in many mega-churches as it did in Israel. Wealth is a blessing, it is said, and so the wealthy have been blessed by God. This must be a sign of God’s favor to them. The Lord’s words make no sense in the face of this ‘logic.” When questioned how this could be Jesus replied, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (v. 27). A few verses later in Luke we read the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Christ in which a rich man enters the kingdom of God. This happens when Zacchaeus, a leading tax collector – and, therefore, a man in whose position greed and extortion would be a way of life – is so drawn to the Lord Jesus that his riches cease to matter. He gives half his wealth to the poor and restored fourfold anything gained by fraud. Zacchaeus is therefore the opposite of the rich young man in Luke 18 who chose keeping his wealth over following Jesus. Zacchaeus’ life-changing decision is clearly spelled out, but the dynamics of his encounter with Christ are not. What brought Zacchaeus to such a decision? What did he see in Jesus? We are not told because it is Zacchaeus’ decision rather than how he experienced Christ which is of importance to us. Later events in the life of the Church have shown that there are two principal ways to experience God. The first way is more dramatic, but less common. Here God reveals himself to a person directly, as he did to St. Paul, or perhaps through reading the Scriptures or through an icon. When such an encounter takes place the person meeting the Lord reacts much as did Zacchaeus. He puts aside his “wealth” to follow Christ. While a person’s riches might be monetary like Zacchaeus, it may be other things as well. Paul – Saul as he was then – was not a wealthy man monetarily speaking but he had riches, which he described in Philippians 3:5-8. Paul’s “wealth” was his status as “a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” one who credentials as a practitioner of Judaism was unmatched. He was an observant Pharisee, blameless in his observance of the Law. But after encountering Christ he says, “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ” (v. 7). Throughout the centuries people have put aside their “wealth” for Christ. They gave up lands and possessions like St. Anthony the Great, but also high rank like St Arsenius the Great, scholarly repute like Evagrius, or political convictions like Dorothy Day. They chose to give up their “wealth” for something greater. The second way of experiencing God in the Tradition is through asceticism: struggling to change the focus of our life. Most people today follow the lead of our secular culture in pursuing whatever gives us pleasure or material security while ignoring the continual presence of God on whom we all depend. Like teenagers focused on their iPhones or MP3 players, they are oblivious to the real world around them, in this case the presence of God. When people embrace the ascetic life they work to refocus their lives away from the values of this age. They strive to break away from the compulsions or fixations that enslave so many, from a full-time pursuit of the attractions of the world. They cease relying on their own minds to determine what is good for them and begin looking to God. In their innermost being they hear the Lord’s words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). In this way they prepare themselves to recognize God “everywhere present and filling all things.” The Lord Jesus describer the choice they and countless others have faced like this: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46). The “treasure hidden in a field” is the unique relationship with God in Christ which Zaccaeus, Paul and all the saints had found and which St Paul described as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Each of us can attain this treasure because:
  • While all creation reflects something of God, the Source of its being, we were created with something more of God in us: made “in Our image, after Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26)
  • The Word of God has become one of us in Jesus Christ, completely sharing our humanity so that we might share in His divine life: “God became man so that man might become godlike” (St Athanasius the Great)
  • Christ has lived His human life in perfect communion with His Father: “I am not alone, but I am with the Father who sent me” (John 8:16)
  • Christ has promised to dwell in those who keep His word: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23)
  • When we maintain this communion with God by keeping His word we come to share by grace in His divine nature: “His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him… that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
What are you willing to put aside or to take up to attain this treasure?

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