Melkite Greek Catholic Church
A FEW WEEKS AGO our Saturday Gospel reading from Luke 10 told how the Lord Jesus sent out His disciples to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand. On the tenth Saturday of the Cycle of St Luke we continue our reading of this chapter with the disciples’ return: “Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name’” (Luke 10:17). The disciples are elated at the spiritual power accompanying the proclamation of God’s kingdom. The Lord acknowledges that power: “Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (v. 19).  The disciples do not attribute this power to themselves but to the name of the Lord. Nonetheless Jesus tempers their enthusiasm, because success in proclaiming the Gospel, like any achievement in life, can lead us down the road to feelings of pride and superiority. ‘After all, the demons are listening to Me!” Instead, He tells them, “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (v.20). The image of the “book of life” is used in Scripture to describe the indescribable: that we are called to the eternal life of communion with God, a relationship with the Lord of Sabaoth, because of Jesus Christ. “Those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Revelation 21:27) achieve the ultimate fulfillment of their humanity: living forever as the image of God we were meant to be from the beginning. “It has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Whenever the Church receives a new catechumen into its fold, it prays, “Inscribe him/her in Your Book of Life, and unite him/her to the flock of Your inheritance.” Entering the Church is, thus, an icon of entering the eternal kingdom.

What About “Signs and Wonders”?

The Lord promised that signs and wonders would accompany the proclamation of the Gospel. We read at the end of Mark’s Gospel, “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17,18). The Acts of the Apostles and the other New Testament books give us glimpses of these signs and wonders at work in the apostolic era beginning at Pentecost. Through the centuries that followed, the historic Churches have accepted the real possibility of signs and wonders as affirmations of God’s active presence in the world. At the same time, they are reluctant to put much emphasis upon specific events or claim they are “miraculous.” Some signs are real, but some are not what they claim to be. Some are fraudulent while others appear to be miraculous only because we do not understand the natural forces at work in them. Finally, some may have demonic origins. As the Lord said, “false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). In any case, as the Lord said repeatedly, God has much more in store for His people than signs and wonders. When Jewish elders demanded a sign from Jesus like the manna at the exodus He responded, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:49-51). We rely on Christ, who offered Himself for the life of the world, rather than on real or apparent wonders.

Wonders Celebrated in Our Church

When people think of wonders they often focus on physical healings. These have been many, but there are also remarkable historic events which are celebrated in the life of the Church: extraordinary phenomena that the human mind could not comprehend or explain which deserve our attention. Perhaps the best known is the dream or vision of Constantine the Great as he fought for control of the Roman Empire. As reported even by pagan writers of the age, Constantine was led to inscribe the monogram of Christ on the shields of his soldiers; an act to which he attributed his victory. Over the next decade he would begin to remake the Empire as a Christian commonwealth as a result of this experience. As we pray on his feast, “You gave a most mighty weapon to our emperor: Your precious Cross, by which he governed all the earth in righteousness, shining forth in piety, and has been granted the kingdom of heaven in Your loving-kindness. With him we glorify Your loving dispensation, Almighty Jesus, the Savior of our souls.” The cross is the focus of another event celebrated on our calendar which took place on the morning of May 7, 351. A cross formed by stars and visible in daylight was seen above Jerusalem, stretching about two miles, from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives. It remained visible for several hours. St Cyril of Jerusalem described it in a letter to the Emperor Constantius: “This was not, as may be thought, a momentary passing phenomenon: for it continued several hours visible to our eyes, and brighter than the sun, the light of which would have eclipsed it, had not this been stronger. The whole city, struck with a reverential fear tempered with joy, ran immediately to the church, young and old, Christians and heathens, citizens and strangers, all with one voice giving praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, the worker of miracles; finding by experience the truth of the Christian doctrine, to which Heaven bears witness.” This event is commemorated in our liturgy on May 7 every year.

Wonderworking Saints

Christ’s promise of extraordinary signs has been fulfilled in the saints throughout the ages. These wonders have included healings, gifts of knowledge (where the saints have described people and places they had never known in their ordinary life), and mystic appearances while alive or after death. The Byzantine Churches revere a number of saints as “Wonderworkers,” the most prominent among them being the unmercenary physicians Cosmas and Damian, Nicholas of Myra and Spyridon of Cyprus. Within the past century a number of wonderworkers have been recognized in the various historic Churches such as Pope St Cyril VI (Coptic), St Sharbel (Maronite), Sts Paisios and Porphyrios (Greek) and St Pius of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio, Roman), One recent example concerns this latter saint, Padre Pio. During World War II, when the Allies were preparing to bomb the town of San Giovanni Rotondo, a brown-robed friar appeared in the sky and kept the planes from dropping their bombs. One of the pilots later visited the friary and identified Padre Pio as the one he had seen in the sky. Signs and wonders have been recorded in connection with icons or relics of saints. Others claim to have seen apparitions of Christ, the Theotokos or the saints. Some of these claims are spurious, but others have the ring of authenticity. In any case, signs and wonders may support our faith but they are never the basis for our belief: that is Christ, who alone is the Lover of Mankind.
ON THE NINTH SATURDAY after the Holy Cross we read from the ninth chapter of St Luke’s Gospel. The Gospel portrays the Lord Jesus’ ministry as growing: He is more widely known and more people were seeking Him out. “Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go’” (Luke 9:57). Well, Jesus wanted to reach all of Israel and He frequently called people to follow Him. But here He was not very encouraging. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head’” (v. 58). Why would He say that? The Gospel continues, “Then He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God’” (vv. 59, 60). At first that seems heartless and cruel until we realize that the man’s father was not dead – in the Middle Eastern climate the dead were buried immediately out of necessity. Mourning followed burial rather than preceded it as in many American funerals. This passage shows Christ correctly discerning the motivations of the people whom He approached or who approached Him. Some were called but found excuses not to respond, like this procrastinator. Others, like the first man mentioned, wanted to follow Him but for the wrong reasons. The second-century African writer Tertullian suggested that following Christ “… was not his object. How could it be? … For his wish was not simply to follow Christ, as so many others of the Jewish multitude did, but rather to thrust himself into apostolic honors” (57th Homily). Some seek to “follow Christ” because of the prestige they think it brings. Others seek the spiritual power or authority they see in Christian leaders. In the Acts of the Apostles we read of a certain Samaritan sorcerer named Simon who was converted and baptized by Philip the deacon. Later the apostles Peter and John came to invoke the Holy Spirit upon Philip’s converts, “And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money!’” (vv.18-20). Fortunately Simon repented and asked that the apostles pray for him, but his name is still associated with seeking to buy positions in the Church. It is called simony.

Two Who Responded

In the past 2000 years there have been countless Christians who have brought the Gospel to places where they would have nowhere to lay their heads. In the first millennium Church of the East missionaries traveled to India and China while Byzantines brought the Gospel north to the Slavs. In the second millennium Europeans brought the Gospel to the Americas and Africa. On November 26 the Russian Church honors one of its missionary bishops whose story illustrates what these evangelists suffered for the Gospel’s sake. Born in Ukraine in 1680 to a prominent family, John Kulchitsky became a monk (Fr. Innocent) and professor in Moscow. In 1721 he was chosen to be the bishop of the Russian spiritual mission in Peking. He traveled across Russia and Asia in the days before any modern means of transportation, only to wait for three years on the Chinese border near Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, and finally to be refused entry to that country. The Chinese did not want any foreign missionaries in their country. Homeless, without a diocese or a steady income, Bishop Innocent labored as a missionary in the undeveloped region near the Chinese and Mongolian borders, some 2600 miles from Moscow. At that time Irkutsk was a small settlement. The first road from Moscow was not built until 1760; the Trans-Siberian Railway only in the 20th century. Today the trip by rail takes over three days; how long would it have taken in the 1720s? Bishop Innocent worked among the settlers – mostly exiled Russian criminals – and Mongols, many of whom he brought to Christ. He established the first schools in the region and so improved conditions there that in 1727 the diocese of Irkutsk was created with Innocent as its bishop. He served there for another four years dying exhausted from his labors, at the age of 51, revered by his flock as the "Holy Man of Siberia."

Nowhere to Lay His Head

In 1823 Fr Ioann Veniaminov, a Siberian priest, was assigned to the Aleutian Islands, then owned by Russia. His parish included the island of Unalaska, and the Fox and Pribilof Islands off the Alaskan coast, some 3400 miles from his home (it is only 2800 miles from New York to Los Angeles). The journey took one year over land and ocean. There were no accommodations for Father Ioann and his family. They had to build an earthen hut and a church in which to serve. There were about 1000 people living in his “parish” – both natives and Russian traders –spread over 1000 square miles accessible only by dogsled or canoe. Over the next few years this extraordinary missionary studied and mastered six local Aleut dialects, devising their first alphabet and translating portions of the Scriptures and liturgical books in order to bring the Aleuts into the Church. After fifteen years he returned to Russia to report on his activities. While he was in Moscow, his wife died and he was tonsured a monk, taking the name Innocent, after the pioneering bishop of Irkutsk. In 1840 he was ordained bishop of the Aleutians and returned to his mission field. Bishop Innocent’s see was established at Sitka on the mainland and the bishop now added study of the local Tlingit language and culture to his missionary skills. When his diocese was expanded to include the Yakut area he did the same with the language and customs of the Yakut peoples. In 1867 Bishop Innocent was chosen as Metropolitan of Moscow, where he served until his death in 1879. The diocese he left behind would become the cornerstone of the Eastern Orthodox presence in the United States which purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. One hundred year later Bishop Innocent was canonized by the Russian Church as “Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to America.”
Nowhere to Lay His Head in Death
Bishop Innocent of Irkutsk died in 1731 and was buried in the Ascension Monastery at Irkutsk. During renovation of the monastery in 1764 his remains were found to be incorrupt and his grave became a site for many pilgrimages over the years. He was proclaimed a saint in 1804. In 1921, the relics of St Innocent were taken from their shrine and placed in a Soviet anti-religious museum. They were moved to another museum in Yaroslav in 1939, and were exhibited as “mummified remains of an unknown man.” In 1990, the relics were returned to the Church and placed in the Irkutsk cathedral, to the joy of all the faithful.
OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS we will hear a sequence of narratives that follow one after another in Luke, chapters 9 through 11. Christ gathers His first twelve followers and sends them forth “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1). In the next chapter the Lord sends seventy others in advance “into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). Most Christians know the Twelve as “apostles” and the Seventy as “disciples,” but the Gospel makes no such distinction here. Luke calls the first group simply “the Twelve” whom the Lord “sends forth” (in Greek, apesteilen). In Matthew’s Gospel they are called dodeka mathetais (twelve disciples) in one verse and dodeka apostolon (twelve apostles) in the next (Matthew 10:1,2). Luke speaks of “seventy others” (Luke 10:1) whom He “sends forth” (in Greek, apesteilen – the same word used for the Twelve). They were evidence that the total number of Christ’s followers was growing to the extent that a second circle of more committed followers could be formed. Matthew does not mention the Seventy at all. Luke’s Gospel does not identify the Seventy and the early Christians speculated on who they might be. Several early Christians are called apostles in other New Testament books, however, including Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus, Junia, Silas, and Timothy (St Paul’s Epistles). Paul considered himself an Apostle called by the risen Christ as were the apostles in the Gospels. The evangelists Mark and Luke, not numbered among the Twelve, were considered by many early Christians to be among the Seventy. In the Byzantine Churches both the Twelve – with Paul – and the Seventy are called Apostles. Many of them are commemorated individually throughout the year. The Twelve are celebrated together on a common feast day (June 30) while the Seventy are remembered on January 4.

The Disciples’ Mission

Luke is very specific about the mission of these respective groups. The Twelve, who were the first and closest followers of the Lord, were given “power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases” and were sent forth “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1,2). On the other hand, Jesus sent the Seventy “two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go... heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:1,9). The Twelve may have been well known as Jesus closest followers, while the Seventy were not. This may explain why the Seventy were specifically sent out in pairs. At least two people were required to confirm the truth in serious matters (cf., [cite-pericope]Deuteronomy 17:6[/cite-pericope]). The Seventy were given the role of advance men, preparing the way for Christ’s immanent visits. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, there were over 200 villages in Galilee at the time. To spend a few days in each one would have taken the better part of a year. Some early writers saw the mission of these disciples as foreshadowing the role of Church in proclaiming the Kingdom of God by its preaching and in healing the sick by its sacramental ministry. By the sixth century many had come to see the Twelve as prefiguring the Church’s bishops and the Seventy as images of the presbyters. Others stressed the continuity between the ministry of Christ’s disciples and the Church of their own day. Thus St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “…these are things we see ourselves possessing. Blessed are our eyes and the eyes of all who love Him, We have heard His wonderful teaching. He has given us the knowledge of God the Father, and He has shown Him to us in His own nature. The things done by Moses were only types and symbols. Christ has revealed the truth to us: that not by blood and smoke but by spiritual sacrifices we must honor Him who is spiritual, immaterial, and beyond all understanding” (Homily 76, On Luke).

Instructions for the Mission

In sending forth the Twelve, Christ gave them some specific instructions.” “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart” Lk 9:3, 4). The Apostles from the larger towns along the Sea of Galilee were sent to the out-of-the-way villages in Galilee’s interior. The Lord insists that they first of all share their hearers’ way of life, dressing simply and eating what they eat. They were to accept whatever hospitality was offered, not to look around for better accommodations. As St Ephrem the Syrian commented, they were to be perceived as heralds and evangelists, not merchants or opportunists. Christ gives similar instructions to the Seventy when they are sent forth, adding “greet no one along the road” (Luke 10:4). They were on a spiritual mission, not going to socialize.

God’s Love for All

Christ sent His followers throughout Galilee to preach that the kingdom of God was at hand. The coming of the kingdom was an act of love on God’s part and everyone was welcome to respond to that love. Not everyone will be open to God, but everyone must have the chance to respond. He tells the Seventy, “But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5,6). As St Augustine of Hippo commented, it is not for us to decide in advance who should be invited into the Kingdom : “Since we do not know who is a son of peace, it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside, but to desire that all to whom we preach this peace be saved” (Admonition and Grace 15, 46). For those who would not, the Lord’s response was uncompromising: “Whoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). To the Seventy He added, “I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day [when the kingdom comes to pass] for Sodom than for that city” (Luke 10:12).

Reactions to the Mission

When the Lord’s followers returned from their mission they were overjoyed: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” But He said to them, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17, 20). It is too easy for the successful apostle (or pastor or teacher) to become overly proud of any seeming accomplishments they have achieved when it is God who has been working in them. If we have any cause for joy, it is that we have been called to be in the Kingdom.
Christ’s words to His companions remain true for us today: “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2). Pray for vocations.
MOST OF THE LORD JESUS’ public life was spent among farmers, fishermen, shepherds and tradespeople. Little wonder, then, that the imagery in His parables is drawn from their experience. The image in today’s reading would have been familiar to all. Everyone was dependent on lamps to dispel the darkness. In the first century – and for many centuries before and after – a household lamp was bowl-shaped and generally made of pottery. It had an opening in the center into which oil would be poured and another at one end for a wick. It was generally small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. It might be placed on a shelf or on a lampstand in the center of a table. A larger room might have full-sized lampstands spaced around the room. The lampstand was generally shaped like a candlestick, except that the top was shaped like a flat saucer on which the lamp would be placed, instead of a candleholder. The higher the lampstand, the wider would be the circle of light. The Lord reminds His hearers that, ““No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light” (Luke 8:16). The illustration is obvious, but what is the meaning which the Lord attaches to it? The imagery of light runs through the Gospels. The Lord uses the image to describe John the Baptist: “He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light” (John 5:35). John was a lamp in that he shone light on the salvation that was coming in Christ: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Often, as in Jn 1:9 and throughout that Gospel, the light is Christ Himself, “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” The Lord Jesus described Himself in this way: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). In our liturgy light is frequently depicted as representing Christ. Perhaps the earliest example is the hymn sung at vespers every evening. It glorifies Christ as the “Radiant light of the holy glory of the immortal Father.” It was recorded in the late third- century Apostolic Constitutions, meaning that it was already in use by then.

The Lamp in Luke’s Gospel

The images of the lamp and lampstand are used in Luke to designate something else: the message announced by John the Baptist and proclaimed by Christ – that the Kingdom of God was at hand. God was going to act in a decisive way and the only possible response by His people had to be repentance. Christ’s preaching was the placing of the lamp on the lampstand. His word was to shed light on the house of Israel. This is made clearer by what precedes and what follows the parable of the lamp in this chapter. The first fifteen verses of Luke 8 recount the parable of the sower. In it “The seed is the word of God” (v. 11) which is received in different ways by those who hear it. Some hear, but “the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” Others receive the word with joy, but “in time of temptation fall away.” Others hear the word but “are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life.” Their fruit does not ripen. “But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.” By sowing the seed of the word the Lord Jesus was placing the lamp on the lampstand so that the whole house – the people of Israel – would be illumined. What follows the parable of the lamp is the unsettling vignette in which Christ’s family comes to see Him. His response seems to dismiss them: “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it” (v. 21). In fact, He is exalting those who respond to His message: those who accept the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand and who repent and follow Christ are His family.

What Has Been Hidden?

The next verse in the parable of the lamp is somewhat cryptic: “For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light” (v.17). What is hidden that the Lord Jesus’ teaching is to reveal? For many Jews the “Kingdom of God” was to be an independent Israel, a restoration of the kingdom of David and Solomon. That was not God’s plan. The “Kingdom of God” was to be that all creation be renewed in Christ. St Paul decades later would pick up on elements from the parables of the lamp and the sower in Luke to explain God’s purposes. He would speak of “what was hidden” as “the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ… according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:9-11). Paul’s whole ministry was built on his conviction that the Kingdom was open to Gentiles as well as Jews. Thus he would write to the Colossians that the Gospel “…has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit” in that the Father “… has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love,  in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:6, 12-14). The light of Christ enlightens all mankind.
What Was Hidden Is Revealed
“Here is that great and hidden mystery. Here is that blessed end for whose sake all things were created. This is the divine purpose foreknown before the beginning of creation… This is the mystery spanning all the ages, revealing the supremely infinite and infinitely inconceivable plan of God.” “The mystery of the incarnation of the Logos is the key to all the arcane symbolism and typology in the Scriptures, and in addition gives us knowledge of created things, both visible and intelligible.” 
“The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery forever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature wholly man without lacking either nature, neither the divine by which he is God nor the human by which he became man? Faith alone grasps these mysteries. Faith alone is truly the substance and foundation of all that exceeds knowledge and understanding.”
(St. Maximos the Confessor)
The mystery which was hidden from eternity and unknown to the angel has been revealed through you, O Theotokos, to those on earth; for God took flesh in a union without commixture and willingly took up the cross by which He elevated the first man and saved our souls from death.
(Octoechos, Tone 4)
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY the ruins of a Byzantine-era synagogue in Capernaum were identified by a British cartographer. Later exploration showed that this so-called “White Synagogue” was built on the ruins of a first-century synagogue. Could this have been the one build by the centurion? Capernaum was not a major city. If Roman soldiers were stationed there, enforcing the collection of taxes may have been their chief duty. In the time of Caesar Augustus Roman soldiers were directed to build temples wherever they were stationed. The theory was that supporting the local religion would make their presence more palatable. Personal piety may have motivated this centurion, however, according to the testimony of the Jewish elders: “he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). The centurion is certainly familiar with Jewish practice; as Jesus nears the house, the man’s friends bring Him this message: “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof.  Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed” (vv. 6, 7). To enter a non-Jewish home would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean according to Jewish practice. The centurion’s reluctance has inspired believers for centuries, particularly as they prepare to receive the Eucharist. The second prayer in the Byzantine service of Preparation for Holy Communion, attributed to St John Chrysostom, begins: “O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy or sufficient that you should come under the roof of the house of my soul.” Christ enters each believer in the mystery of the Eucharist just as He was prepared to enter the centurion’s home. While the centurion may have been thinking about Jewish ritual impurity, the Christian using his expression has something else in mind. It is our brokenness, expressed in our sins and transgressions, which renders us unworthy of union with Christ. We are “held in the bonds of slavery to the world, sick with deadly passions” (St Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 5.83). It is Christ’s love for mankind which removes this obstacle for each of us. Thus the seventh pre-Communion prayer repeats the sentiment but adds: “Since you in your love for man willed to dwell in me, I take courage and approach. You commanded: I will open wide the doors which you alone created, that you may enter with love as is Your nature.”

The Centurion’s Faith

This centurion may have been like the centurion in Acts 10 whom St Luke calls a God-Fearer: a Gentile who was nearly a convert to Judaism, keeping as much of the Law as possible, but not submitting to circumcision. A God-Fearer might keep the Sabbath and observe the dietary laws and be permitted to participate in Jewish worship to some degree. In any case, the centurion clearly had faith in the Lord Jesus’ ability to heal his servant. Jesus commends the centurion for his faith, which exceeds that of God’s chosen people: “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (v.7) Israel had received the Covenant, the Law and the Promised Land; yet this foreigner is extolled above them for the quality of his faith. In Matthew’s telling of the story the Lord Jesus adds, “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12). The story becomes an indictment of the “sons of the kingdom” in addition to a praise of the centurion’s faith.

What Do We Mean by Faith?

In ordinary speech “faith” is taken to mean “accepting the truth of a certain body of teaching.” We believe in the God described in the Scriptures and expressed in the Creed. We recognize that their teachings are objectively true. This kind of faith is both good and essential for being a Christian. The priest asks the catechumen seeking baptism, “Do you believe in Christ as king and God?” The catechumen responds by reciting the Creed. This is not the only kind of faith, however. Accepting the truth of God does not make someone a God-Fearer. “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19) There are deeper levels of faith frequently described in Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers. In the Epistle of St James quoted above, the Apostle teaches the need for what has been called “acted-on faith.” A person’s faith must result in works. Thus, if we believe in God, we must worship Him. If we believe that Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church, we must live our Christian life in it. If we believe that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must prove it by the way we act. There is another level of faith which St Paul teaches is a specific gift of the Holy Spirit not given to everyone in the Church; rather it is given to specific persons for the sake of everyone. “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit... But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit…” (1 Corithians 12:4-9). On this level “faith” is a particular gift over and above the believing and “acted-on” faith proper to all believers.

Confident Faith

One level of this deeper faith has been called “confident faith.” This is the assurance deep within a person that “… the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps His covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). It is the confidence that He is compassionate and merciful, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). It is this certainty that God ever loves us which enables the Christian to say to the Father with a full and trusting heart, “Thy will be done.”

Expectant Faith

An even more intense form of faith has been called “expectant faith,” the confidence that God will act in a specific situation. This is the faith of the centurion – a faith which the Lord described in another context, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him’” (Mark 11:22-23). Expectant faith is the hope and simple innocence that every child knows at some point in its life. This level of faith is often tied to the gift of knowledge, where God’s will has been revealed to the believer. The Russian Saint John Maximovich, a man of continual prayer, was called to give Communion to a dying man in a Shanghai hospital. On his arrival he spotted a gregarious young man in his twenties playing a harmonica, who was to be discharged the next day. St John said to him, “I want to give you Communion right now.” The young man immediately confessed his sins and received Communion. The saint’s companion asked why he did not go to the dying man, but prayed with this obviously healthy young man instead. The saint answered: “He will die tonight, and the other, who is seriously ill, will live many years.” And so it happened.
MANY OF THE GOSPEL PASSAGES chosen for Saturday Liturgies recount the Lord Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath. Often these narratives describe the conflict Jesus had, particularly with the Pharisees, over His behavior which they felt desecrated the Sabbath. Observant Jews in every age have revered the Sabbath as one of most important signs of their relationship with God. Its observance is documented from the time of the exodus from Egypt, although the Torah describes it as instituted in Paradise: “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2, 3). For Jews the Sabbath is the most important of the Jewish feasts; a foretaste of the world to come. The Sabbath is a day of rest “holy to the Lord” (Exodus 31:15), on which even slaves were released from their labors. The weekly day of rest has no parallel in any other ancient civilization. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the serving or laboring classes. In addition, the very idea of rest each week was unimaginable. The Greeks thought Jews were lazy because they insisted on having a “holiday” every seventh day. The Sabbath is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment in remembrance of the Lord’s rest at the end of creation. For observant Jews, the Sabbath is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when people can set aside their everyday concerns and devote themselves to higher pursuits. Observing the Sabbath has insured the identity of the Jewish people over the ages. In the words of the popular Jewish saying, “more than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” 

Defiling the Sabbath

From the beginning violating the Sabbath was considered a great offence against God. According to the Torah, “Everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.  Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 31:14, 15). When a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath contrary to the Lord’s command, he was stoned to death by the community (cf., Numbers 15:32-36).  Thus it was clear from the very beginning that this day of rest was not to be taken lightly. By Jesus’ time the death penalty for violating the Sabbath was no longer in force. The moral authority of the Sabbath had increased, however. The Pharisees and others observant Jews elaborated new precepts to insure a “pure” observance of the Sabbath. Thus some taught that on the Sabbath Jews were supposed to remain distant from their Gentile neighbors: “Do not remain near to the Gentiles on the Sabbath” – they would be defiled and thus defile the Sabbath. Some Rabbis taught that, if even one Sabbath were rightly kept the Messiah would appear; if all Israel were to observe two successive Sabbaths as they should be observed, redemption would immediately occur. It should not surprise us, then, that, when Jesus “violated the Sabbath” by working (healing the sick), “the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him” (Mark 3:6).  

Lord of the Sabbath

On the First Saturday in the Cycle of St Luke the Gospel passage read described how Jesus cured a man with an unclean spirit. In Luke 6:1-10 we read what happened on the “second Sabbath after the first,” (v. 1), i.e. two weeks later. The Lord is criticized for plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath. They considered this to be work, a violation of the day of rest. The Lord replies, not saying that plucking grain is allowed on the Sabbath, but with an example from the history of the Israelites: “Have you not even read this, what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God, took and ate the showbread, and also gave some to those with him, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat?” (vv.3, 4).  The showbread, called in Hebrew the bread of presence, consisted of twelve loaves placed on a table in the temple near the altar of incense, representing the constant self-offering of Israel before God. Each Sabbath the bread was to be replaced with newly baked loaves. The older loaves were to be consumed by the priests. The incident to which Jesus referred took place when the young David was on a secret mission for King Saul. He asked the priest for some food for himself and his escort: “‘Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.’  And the priest answered David and said, ‘There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.’  Then David answered the priest, and said to him, ‘Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was consecrated in the vessel this day.’ So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away” (1 Samuel 21:3-6). In contrast to the rigidity of the Pharisees, the priest in David’s time felt free to share the leftover showbread with the king’s servants. Also in Matthew’s longer narrative of the incident Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?” (v. 5) Matthew’s audience of Jewish believers would have understood the reference; Luke’s community of Gentile believers probably would not, hence Luke omits it. In his Commentary on Matthew St Jerome explains the passage this way: “You yourselves violate the Sabbath when sacrificing victims in the Temple: slaughtering bulls, and… circumcising little children on the Sabbath.” Every rule has its exceptions. But the deeper significance of the incident is this: Jesus dispenses with the Sabbath rule as the priest Ahimelech had done. He is the priest with authority over the temple and the Sabbath; as He tells the Pharisees, “ Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple …the Son of man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:5; Luke 6:5). The Pharisees’ aim of perfect Sabbath observance in order to bring in the Messiah is futile: the Messiah has already come.
IN MOST OF OUR PARISHES the Divine Liturgy is served only on Sunday and some feast days. In some parishes the Liturgy is also served every Saturday. Is this because some people are available on Saturdays or is there another reason? We know from the New Testament that the first believers in Christ were Jews and that they continued to observe the Sabbath (Saturday), the day of rest and worship according to the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-10). They also met on “the first day of the week…to break bread” (Acts 20:7). As the Church developed, the custom of sanctifying both days, Saturday and Sunday, became common in Syria, Asia Minor, and Constantinople. The Eucharist (the breaking of the bread) was celebrated on both days. Sunday was most important because it was the day of Christ’s resurrection – the day on which His tomb was found to be empty. But Saturday was observed as well: both as the memorial of the original creation (cf., Genesis 2:2-3) and recalling the “rest” of Christ in the tomb, the “Great Sabbath.” As St Gregory of Nyssa observed in the fourth century: “With what eyes can you behold Sunday if you desecrate the Sabbath? Don’t you know that these days are brethren? He who elevates one disregards the other” (On Reproof). We find two effects of this practice in our liturgy today. The first concerns our lectionary: the cycle of Scripture readings appointed for the year. Our readings chosen for Sunday follow one continuous cycle, the passages for Saturday often follow another and those for the rest of the week may follow a third. When the lectionary was compiled –by the eighth century – Saturdays as well as Sundays were clearly special days, set apart from the rest of the week. The second effect concerns our practice of fasting. Saturdays, like Sundays, are not fast days (except for Great Saturday). Even during the Great Fast the Liturgy would be celebrated on Saturday, often for the departed. In the controversies between the Eastern and Western Churches of the first millennium it was often noted that Westerners fasted on Saturdays but Easterners did not. The Sabbath was for celebration because it was a Eucharistic day.

The First Saturday of St Luke

After the Exaltation of the Holy Cross we begin to read the Gospel of St Luke at the Divine Liturgy. The first and second chapters of Luke relate the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation and visitation of the Theotokos, and the birth and infancy of Christ. Chapter three begins by telling us of the ministry of John the Baptist. All these passages are read on the corresponding feast days. We begin the “cycle of St Luke” with Luke 3:19 – the imprisonment of John the Baptist. On the First Saturday of St Luke we read Luke 4:31-36 which tells how Christ, at the beginning of His ministry, would go to Capernaum, a fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was there that He called and began to form His first followers, the fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John. Luke says that He would teach in the synagogue on the Sabbath. “… and they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority” (v. 32). The Gospel passages read on Saturday often recount events that happened on the Sabbath. In this passage we see the Lord confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. As often happens in the Gospels, this spirit senses the holiness in Jesus and that His mission is to annul the power of Death: “Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are — the Holy One of God!” (v. 34) The Lord rebukes this spirit and expels it prompting the people to wonder, “What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out” (v. 36).

The Second Saturday of St Luke

  On the next Saturday we read Lk 5:17-26, which relates the story of the paralyzed man brought to Jesus. The Lord heals him but, before He does, announces, “Your sins are forgiven” (v. 20). This astounds the onlookers who reason, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 21) The Lord then heals the man, showing that He does in fact have power on earth to forgive sins. “And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today!’” (v. 26) This event must have made an impact on those who witnessed it and on the first Christians who made it known. It appears in Mt 9 and Mk 2 as well, showing how widely circulated this story was. It proclaims Christ as powerful, not only in word but in deed as well: a graphic summons to hear Him in the depths of our souls.

The Third Saturday of St Luke

This Saturday’s passage follows immediate on last week’s. “After these things He went out and saw a tax collector…” (v. 27). Besides its fishery, Capernaum was also the site of mills processing the grain and olives grown nearby. As the town was a good source of revenue, King Herod had an agent there to collect taxes. Local rulers like Herod were responsible to the Romans – they had to deliver the taxes assessed for their region. Rulers would farm out the collecting of customs, tolls and some other taxes to so-called publicans, local residents who bought franchises to collect the taxes in a given area. They often formed societies and pooled their share of the taxes. Mark and Luke name this tax collector “Levi, the son of Alphaeus” while in Mt 9:9 he is called Matthew. The three texts tell the same story and so Matthew/Levi is clearly the same person. Why is he given two different names? There is a clue is the Greek text of Mt where the tax collector is called Mattheion legomenon (the one called Matthew – i.e. God’s gift). Perhaps Levi the tax collector came to be called God’s gift (“Matthew”) in the community of believers. St Jerome thought that Levi had changed his own name; some Eastern commentators had thought that the Lord had changed it. Matthew/Levi is clearly a man of some means. When Christ calls him, Matthew throws a great feast to which other tax collectors were invited, much to the annoyance of the Pharisees. Tax collectors were often thought of as traitors by strict Jews because they had accepted to work for their Roman occupiers. They were often regarded as thieves because they often took more from their fellow-Jews than was their due. Thus, when some tax collectors had responded to the preaching of John the Baptist, he told them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (Luke 3:8). By going to Matthew/Levi’s home the Lord blessed His new disciple’s choice to follow Him and encouraged the other tax collectors to do the same. Many Pharisees resented Him for this; “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” they sneered (Luke 7:34). But in this way the Lord reached people like Matthew/Levi, and even a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, who became His followers and our guides leading us to Him.

Shopping Cart

Your shopping cart is empty
Visit the shop

Questions? © 1995-2021 Melkite Eparchy of Newton  ·  All Rights Reserved RSS Feed