Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
OUR NATURE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED in Christ… our nature is being transformed in Christ… our nature will be transformed in Christ.

At first glance this may seem like a grammar exercise about verbs. In fact it is a summary of theology: exploring the magnitude of the mystery which is Christ in us.

Christ’s Coming Has Transformed Us

The focus of our Christmas celebration is most often based on the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke. They speak of the trip to Bethlehem, the angels and shepherds, the magi and the star. But from the earliest days of the Church believers have seen the birth of Christ containing, as it were, the whole life and death of Christ as a seed. His acceptance of our human nature necessarily includes His acceptance of the cross and death, and His renewal of mankind by His resurrection In the same way our decision to have children must include the decision to accept the Terrible Twos, the Traumatic Teens, and all that follows.

For many religious people, when something holy comes into contact with something profane the holy thing becomes defiled. This principle is found in Judaism and Islam and accounts for the ritual washings and similar practices in these religions. The message of the Gospel, however, is that when the Holy One, the Son of God, comes into contact with something profane it is the profane thing which is changed. It is sanctified by contact with the holy. God is not defiled by His fallen creation; His creation is transformed when He enters into it in Christ. As described by St Gregory of Nyssa, “The Word in taking flesh was mingled with humanity, and took our nature within Himself, so that the human should be deified by this mingling with God: the stuff of our nature was entirely sanctified by Christ, the first-fruits of creation” (Against Appolonarius, 2).

By taking on our humanity the Word of God assumes all that we are, except sin, so that we can become by grace what He is by nature, children of the Father. Our nature is transfigured in Him. It is divinized or deified. As St Gregory the Theologian boldly expressed it, “He took our flesh and our flesh became God, since it is united with God and forms a single entity with Him” (Third Theological Oration).

Our society, and contemporary culture in general, is committed to the value and freedom of the individual. We recognize that each person has worth in himself or herself and this is good. But a stress on individualism inevitably leads to the separation of peoples from one another. At worst, people are alienated from society, from God, from one another. At the least, we find it hard to see the communal dimension to the incarnation: that the entire human race is irrevocably changed because the Son of God has come into it.

Christ’s Presence Transforms Us

“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). These final words of Christ to His disciples before His ascension affirm His continuing presence with us. His physical presence was limited in time; His spiritual presence will last as long as time itself will last. The focus on Christ’s spiritual presence is His Body, the Church. It is the mystery or sacrament of the risen Christ, which – like all sacraments – reveals His presence behind a veil. The Church is the world being transformed in Christ; at the same time it is Christ transforming the world. The faithful, insofar as they are living a life of repentance, seeking to model their lives on Christ’s, are the world being transformed. The faithful, insofar as they celebrate Christ’s presence in the Scriptures, in baptism, the Eucharist and the other mysteries – including the mystery of love for others – are Christ transforming the world. The saints are those who witness by their lives that we can be transformed and transform others in Him.

Christ’s presence in the Scriptures was at first practically limited to its public reading in the assembly. People would listen carefully so as to memorize what they heard. Only the wealthy could afford hand-copied Scriptures for their personal use. In addition Books of Scripture, particularly the Gospels, would be richly adorned, carried in procession and offered for veneration, reminding believers that Christ was truly in them. Since the invention of printing the Scriptures have become increasingly available; as a result we may not be as quick to recognize the divine presence in a paperback Bible as in the Gospel on the holy table. What enables us to experience the presence of Christ when we read the Scriptures – or, for that matter, when we assist at the Liturgy or other mysteries? St Isaac the Syrian offers the following advice: “Never approach the words of the mysteries that are in the Scriptures without praying and asking for God’s help. Say, ‘Lord, grant me to feel the power that is in them.’ Reckon prayer to be the key that opens the true meaning of the Scriptures” (Ascetical Treatises, 73).

Even more hidden to us is the presence of Christ in others. This presence calls silently for us to acknowledge Him, a call that we often are too deaf to hear. Some, like Mother Teresa and others like her, can hear that call and they become the light and salt of the Gospel sayings. The presence of these saints with their acute hearing of Christ’s voice is one of the signs that Christ is transforming the world even now.

Christ’s Return Will Transform Us

“Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). St Paul expresses here his hope in the final transformation of “all who have loved His appearing.” Like St. Paul we await our ultimate transformation at Christ’s return. As the Church celebrates Christ’s appearing in the flesh (the Nativity) and His appearing in power at the Jordan (the Theophany), we are reminded that Christ’s first coming would find its ultimate fulfillment only in His second coming.

“In His first coming He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. In His second coming He is clothed with light as with a garment. In His first coming He bore the cross, despising its shame; He will come a second time in glory accompanied by the hosts of angels. It is not enough for us, then, to be content with His first coming; we must wait in hope of His second coming. What we said at His first coming, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,’ we shall repeat at His last coming...” (From the Catecheses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem)

St Athanasios on the Incarnation



“What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it we might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? We could not have done it, for we are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.

“... Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorrupt-ion in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (On the Incarnation 34, 35).
 
ALL THE HISTORIC CHURCHES – Greek, Latin and Syriac – include in their liturgical observance of Christ’s nativity (although on different days) a remembrance of the cruel slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the young boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding area slain on the orders of King Herod the Great. In our calendar December 29 is devoted to commemorating this tragic event. This episode is described in the Gospel of St Matthew as a result of the visit of the wise men who came seeking the newborn king of the Jews. After King Herod had consulted with the chief priests and scribes, he sent the wise men to Bethlehem “…and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also’” (Matthew 2:8).The wise men found the Child, offered Him their gifts, but “…being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12). The Gospel continues: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah - lamentation, weeping, and great mourning - Rachel weeping for her children
refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matthew 2:16-18). This passage in Matthew is the only reference in the Scriptures or in other records of the time to the slaughter of these children. This led many in the past two centuries to deny the historical character of the story. Others have pointed out that the tale perfectly reflects the character of Herod. At the beginning of his reign he had executed his second wife Mariamne, her brother and her mother as threats to his reign. In 7 bc Herod killed his own sons Alexander and Aristobolus for the same reason. In 4 bc his son Antipater suffered the same fate. In his Saturnalia the late pagan writer Macrobius (c. 395-423) attributed the following remark on Herod’s reputation to the Emperor Augustus, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” One reason why contemporary accounts do not mention the slaughter of the Innocents may be the insignificant number of boys killed. Although later descriptions number these victims in the thousands – one Coptic source refers to 144,000 – scholars today reckon the number to be no more than twenty or thirty, based on the estimated population of the area in the first century. We cannot imagine that the death of two or three dozen children would have attracted attention in an age in which thousands routinely died in earthquakes, invasions and the like.

The Tears of Rachel

Matthew connects the death of the Innocents with “Rachel weeping for her children,” a reference which many today would not readily understand. Rachel, the wife of Jacob, was connected with Bethlehem in Jewish lore. She died giving birth to her son Benjamin “…and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which marks Rachel’s grave to this day” (Genesis 35:19-20). Rachel’s son Benjamin survived, and so Rachel did not weep for him. Rather the verse from Jeremiah quoted in the Gospel refers to Ramah, the area near Rachel’s grave from which in the sixth century bc to which Jews were driven for deportation to Babylon. Rachel “wept” for the children of Israel lost in the Babylonian exile; now she “weeps” for the Innocents.

The Flight into Egypt

The Gospel tells us that, warned in a dream by an angel, Joseph took the Child and His Mother to Egypt, thus escaping Herod’s wrath (see Matthew 2:13-15). By way of commentary, Matthew closes his mention of their stay in Egypt with the words of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Again, there is no other Scriptural mention of the Child Jesus in Egypt. Later writings describe in detail an elaborate itinerary through Gaza and Sinai and along the Nile to Old Cairo where the Lord and His family reputedly lived until the death of Herod. In some versions they are accompanied by St James, the Lord’s Brother; in others by Salome, His midwife. Many of the details of the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt are chronicled in a manuscript by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria (AD 384-412), who is said to have received these details during an apparition of the Holy Virgin. The Coptic Orthodox Church continues to distribute an “official map” marking the places they visited on their journey. Most famous of the many shrines along this route are the Abu Sergha (St. Sergius) Church and the St Mary’s Church in Old Cairo. A nearby cave is reputedly the place which housed the Infant and His family. A number of apocryphal writings from later periods describe this journey as a series of miracles wrought as the Lord passed through Egypt. Demons were expelled, the sick healed and idols shattered at the sight of Him. In one of these works, the sixth-century Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of Christ, an idol testifies before falling to the ground, “The unknown God is come, the One who is truly God; nor is there any one besides Him who is worthy of divine worship; for He is truly the Son of God” (Arabic Gospel 4:11).

The New Moses, the New Israel

The passages in Matthew’s Gospel which speak of the slaughter of the Innocents and the flight into Egypt form what the Jews call a Midrash, or homiletic story: here, a kind of commentary on the identity of Christ. He is the King of the Jews, feared by the tyrant Herod but recognized by the Persian sages. He is the new Israel brought out of Egypt. He is the new Moses saved from slaughter as an infant as Moses was (cf., Ex 1:22.). Then He was sent home when the danger was past, as Moses was, “Go, return to Egypt…for all the men who sought your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19, all but reproduced in Matthew 2:20). This prepares us to see the adult Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as the new Lawgiver, giving added depth to the Law of Moses. Thus in Matthew 5:21 we see Jesus redefine Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” How much of the story of Christ in Egypt is theological meditation and how much is history? It is certainly prudent to reject the medieval elaborations to the biblical narrative. As to the Gospel core, we can, along with Pope Benedict XVI, accept it as both history and reflection until proven otherwise.
Seeking the hidden Treasure, the impious tyrant today sacrificed innocent children, and Rachel was left without comfort. Seeing the unjust slaughter and premature death of those whom she bewailed, her heart was broken. But now she is consoled, seeing them in the bosom of Abraham.
From the Vespers of December 29
 
At every Divine Liturgy the celebrant prays for the Church hierarchs in words such as these: “Graciously bestow them to Your holy Churches in peace, honor, safety health, long life, rightly dispensing the word of Your truth.” This last phrase is actually taken from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). When the verse is translated as “dispensing” or “imparting” the word of Your truth, it suggest the act of passing on the Gospel from the bishop to His Church. When the translation “rightly dividing the word of truth” is used, something more is suggested. The bishop’s role is to separate the ideas circulating as “Gospel” into true and false, dividing one from the other. Anyone can say that their interpretation is faithful to the Tradition. It is the bishop’s role, St Paul tells Timothy, to make a judgment and separate true from false teaching. St Paul spent his life proclaiming Christ despite all kinds of hardships. He was indignant that others were proclaiming false teachings and attributing them to Christ and His Church. He wrote to the Galatians, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel – which is not another – but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-8). These “other gospels,” which were no authentic gospel at all, were generally doctrines or practices from other traditions which some teachers were intermingling with the Gospel of Christ. The one St Paul found himself opposing most vigorously was that believers in Christ were required to be circumcised. People had to physically become Jews, its practitioners, taught, in order to unite to Christ. St Paul had cleared his teaching with the chief apostles (cf., Galatians 1:18-19) but his opponents continued in their views until the Jerusalem Church, led by St. James, the “brother of God” as he is called, confirmed that circumcision was not necessary, only faith in Christ (Acts 15:6-21). The Apostolic Church had rightly divided the word of truth, determining what was essential and what was not.

What Was Paul’s Gospel?

The Gospel which Christ had preached was simple, according to the evangelists. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Paul’s summary of the Gospel which he preached in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 tells us how he understood the kingdom of God to be at hand. “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures: and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.” It was in the death and resurrection of Christ that the kingdom of God was to be found.

Perversions of the Gospel

St. Paul did not hesitate to say that the promoters of circumcision in the Church were perverting the Gospel. Over the centuries a number of alternatives to the Gospel emerged: teachings which St Paul would surely have called “another gospel.” Some of the following first millennium teachings about Christ were quickly discarded; others have been revived over the years by different sects. Some early alternative gospels taught that:
  • Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and Panthera, a Roman soldier (Palestinian Talmud)
  • Jesus was born as man and later adopted as a “son of God”
  • Jesus was not fully man: he had a human body and a divine mind
  • Jesus was created by God the Father and not equal to Him (Arianism)
  • Jesus’ physical body was only an illusion, therefore He did not die on the cross
  • Jesus’ human nature was overwhelmed by His divine nature (Eutychianism)
  • Jesus had two natures but only one will, the divine, therefore His humanity was incomplete (monothelitism)
  • Jesus only seemed to die on the cross; instead God took Him to Himself (Islam)
The first centuries also saw the rise of teachings that denied:
  • The value of the Old Testament (Marcionism)
  • The value of marriage (Montanism)
  • The true brokenness of our human nature (Pelagianism)
  • The value of icons (iconoclasm)
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of groups with their own alternative gospels which teach that:
  • God is the physical father of Jesus. They are “one God” only in that they are united in spirit, mind and purpose (Mormons)
  • Jesus is the incarnation of God’s first creature, Michael the Archangel, who became Messiah at His baptism (Jehovah’s Witnesses)
  • Jesus was one of the many good spiritual teachers like Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius and others who attained divinity (New Age groups)
All of these tendencies we call heresies, from the Greek word heteran (other), as in “another gospel.” These heresies spoke about God and Christ but not in ways deemed consistent with the Scriptures. They came from another source than divine revelation and ultimately were rejected by the Church. Bishops, gathered in councils, divided what they saw as true from false teachings and rejected the early heresies. Their summary of the true Gospel, the Nicene Creed, remains the unique statement of our common faith.

Our Dogmatic Hymns

For centuries the Eastern Churches have also used liturgical hymns to assert their teaching in the face of heresies. The following sticheron from the vespers of the Nativity proclaims the Gospel faith of the Church with clarity and thereby refutes many of the heresies mentioned above. St. Paul would have approved. Come, let us rejoice in the Lord! Let us proclaim the present mystery by which the partition has been broken and the flaming sword withheld: now shall the Cherubim let us all come to the Tree of Life. As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise whence I had been driven by the original disobedience. Behold, the Image of the Father and His immutable Eternity has taken the form of a servant! He has come down to us from a Mother all-pure, and yet He has remained unchanged: He has remained true God as He was before, and has taken on Himself what He had not been, becoming Man out of His love for man. Wherefore, let us raise our voices in hymns and sing: “O God who was born of the Virgin, O our God, have mercy on us!”

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