Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
WE FREQUENTLY HEAR ABOUT the Fathers of the Church, those hierarchs and teachers who have made a lasting impression on the Church’s understanding of the Gospel. These texts offer us ample material on which to reflect despite, or perhaps because of, their antiquity.

On our greatest feasts we often proclaim the Fathers’ most lyrical discourses and poetic verses in the context of the Liturgy. The most noteworthy examples are the Catechetical Homily by St John Chrysostom, which is read on Pascha, and the poetic canons by St John of Damascus and St Cosmas of Maiouma, sung on Pascha and the Feast of the Nativity.

An important patristic text read on the feast of the Theophany is the prayer at the Great Blessing of Water by St Sophronios, who served briefly as Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) but whose theological vision has inspired Eastern Christians ever since. The following is an excerpt from that prayer.

St Sopronios of Jerusalem on the Theophany

“Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon the waters.

Today the unwaning sun has dawned, and the world is lit up with the light of the Lord.

[…]  Today the clouds refresh humanity with a rain of righteousness from above.

Today the uncreated One is by His own will touched by the creature.

Today the prophet and forerunner approaches the Master, but pauses in awe, seeing God’s condescension towards us.

Today the waters of the Jordan are turned into healing by the presence of the Lord.

Today all creation is watered by mystical waters. Today men’s sins are washed away in the waters of the Jordan.

Today Paradise is thrown open to mankind, and the sun of righteousness shines upon us.

Today the water that the people under Moses found bitter, is turned into sweetness at the presence of the Lord.

Today we are free of the ancient grief, and like a new Israel have been redeemed.

Today we are delivered from the darkness and are bathed in the light of the knowledge of God.

Today the world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God.

Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch.

Today error is abolished and the coming of the Lord opens the way to salvation.

Today the heavenly joins the earthly in celebration, and that which is below holds discourse with that which is above.

Today the holy and vibrant assembly of the Orthodox rejoices.

Today the Master hastens towards baptism in order to raise mankind to the heights.

Today He who bends to none, bows before His own servant, so as to free us from bondage.

Today heaven has been deeded to us, for of the Lord’s kingdom there shall be no end.

Today the earth and the sky have divided the world’s joy, and the world is filled with gladness.

The waters saw You, O God, the waters saw You and were afraid. The Jordan reversed its flow when it saw the fire of divinity descending bodily and entering it.

The Jordan turned back, seeing the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove and hovering about You.

The Jordan turned back seeing the invisible become visible, the Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of servant.

The Jordan turned back and the mountains leapt, seeing God in the flesh, and the clouds gave voice, marveling at the One present, light of light, true God of true God, who submerged in the Jordan the death of disobedience and the sting of error and the bond of Hades, giving to the world a baptism of salvation.”

St Proclus of Constantinople on the Theophany

A friend and disciple of St John Chrysostom, Proclus would succeed him as Archbishop of Constantinople in 434. His Discourse 7, On the Theophany, is read in both Eastern and Western Churches on this feast.

“Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy. He bore the world’s sins and crushed the world’s enemy. He sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of men. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.

For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Savior, and the whole world is filled with joy.

Today’s feast of the Theophany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.

On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast of the Theophany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.

At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness.

In today’s feast, we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father.

At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at the Theophany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.

Come, then, and see new and astounding miracles: the Sun of righteousness washing in the Jordan, fire immersed in water, God sanctified by the ministry of man.

Today every creature shouts in resounding song:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Blessed is he who comes in every age, for this is not his first coming.

And who is he? Tell us more clearly, I beg you, blessed David:

‘The Lord is God and has shone upon us.’

David is not alone in prophesying this; the apostle Paul adds his own witness, saying: ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all men, and instructing us.’ Not for some men, but for all. To Jews and Greeks alike God bestows salvation through baptism, offering baptism as a common grace for all.

Come, consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of Baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who baptized.

In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odor of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove reveals the Lord of mercy."
 
THE LORD JESUS' PUBLIC MINISTRY begins, as it were, where John the Forerunner left off. He travels through Galilee, the Gospels assert, preaching like John, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). “News of Him went out throughout the surrounding region and He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all (Luke 4:14-15).

Finally, Luke adds, Jesus came to Nazareth “where He had been brought up” (Luke 4:16) and people were amazed at Him – they knew Him simply as Joseph’s son. Over and over in the Gospels we see people wondering just who Jesus is, the disciples growing in faith and emboldened to proclaim, as Peter did on Pentecost, “that God has made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

The Apostles’ faith continued to develop as they began preaching the risen Christ. By the time St Paul wrote his so-called prison epistles (Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians) some thirty years later, the apostolic Church had come to recognize that Moses and the Prophets had intimated something deeper about the Messiah. Their deepening faith in Jesus’ eternal existence as the Word of God is expressed repeatedly in these epistles.

In the Epistle to the Colossians St Paul makes a straightforward confession of the unity of Christ with the Father. “He is the image [ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation; for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the Church who is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead that in all things He may be preeminent, for it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).

And so, Paul taught, Jesus who was crucified and risen was also the pre-eternal icon of the Father through whom all things were created. In the Epistle to the Ephesians he describes the mystery of Christ in puzzling terms of a downward motion (descent) and an upward motion (ascent). Commenting on a verse from Psalm 68, St Paul writes, “Now this ‘He ascended’ – what does it mean, but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:9-10).

Kenosis: Christ Empties Himself

This movement of descent and ascent is perhaps most clearly explained in the Epistle to the Philippians as a voluntary self-emptying of Himself and thus as a model for our lives. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God has also highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – of those in heaven and of those on earth – and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Colossians 2:5-11).

From the Greek word translated here as “emptied Himself” we have the word kenosis to describe the Son of God’s voluntary descent to assume our nature. He put aside the glory of His divinity to take up our humanity, only allowing it to be seen by Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration. Christ is described as the opposite of many of us who refuse to let our status symbols free from our grasp. He puts aside the glory of being the Father’s icon to become Son of Man. The One who is enthroned upon the cherubim now has nowhere to lay His head.

Glorification: Jesus is Lord

While kenosis expressed the downward movement of the Word’s voluntary setting aside of His glory, the upward movement of His glorification is connected with the term kyrios (Lord). This is the term we regularly associate with Christ but we do not realize how revolutionary that association was at first. In the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, Kyrios was the word spoken in place of the un-pronouncable name of God, “Yahweh,” the name God gave to Moses at the burning bush (see Exodus 3:15), a term we roughly translate as “The One Who Is” or “The Existing One.” Similarly observant Jews today refuse to speak this name, referring to God simply as Hashem (“the name”).

The most basic “creed” in the apostolic Church was connected with this term. St Paul incorporates it into his Epistle to the Romans: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord [Kyrios] and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

And so the apostolic Church, which had first met Jesus in the villages of Galilee, came to know Him as the pre-eternal Son of the Father who descended to become one of us and ascended once more as Lord, bearing humanity with Him to where He was before.

In our Liturgy the emphasis is principally on Jesus as Kyrios, the eternal Word. At the end of Orthros or Vespers the priest turns to the icon of Christ and proclaims, “Blessed is He-Who-Is, Christ our true God, at all times…” The icon to which he points – like all icons of Christ – is inscribed with the same Greek word, Ό ΩN (the One-Who-Is): Jesus of Nazareth, the One-Who-Is, now in glory as God and Man.

Kenosis in the Liturgy

Our liturgical poetry frequently alludes to the contrast between Christ’s divine state and His incarnation. The following hymns illustrate this dimension of our theology in song. Today, He who holds the whole creation in the hollow of His hand is born of the Virgin! He whose Essence none can approach will be wrapped in swaddling clothes as a mortal. God, who established the heavens at the beginning of time will lie in a manger. He who rained down manna on His people in the desert will be nourished by milk from His Mother’s breast! The Bridegroom of the Church, who called the Magi, will accept their gifts as the Son of the Virgin. We bow down and worship Your Nativity, O Christ! Show us also Your Theophany! Ninth Royal Hour of the Nativity

Beholding him who was in God’s image and likeness fallen through the transgression, Jesus bowed the heavens and came down. And without change, He took up His dwelling in a Virgin’s womb: that He might fashion corrupt Adam anew, who cried out to Him: “Glory to Your Theophany, O my Redeemer and my God!” Liti of the Nativity

For our sakes, Christ has come forth from the seed of Abraham, to raise up to the dignity of sons those who had fallen into the darkness of sin, which bowed them down to the earth. Despite His great dignity, He who dwells in endless Light has willed to dwell in a manger for the salvation of mankind. Canon of the Nativity
 
WE FREQUENTLY HEAR ABOUT the Fathers of the Church, those hierarchs and teachers who have made a lasting impression on the Church’s understanding of the Gospel. These texts offer us ample material on which to reflect despite, or perhaps because of, their antiquity.

On our greatest feasts we often proclaim the Fathers’ most lyrical discourses and poetic verses in the context of the Liturgy. The most noteworthy examples are the Catechetical Homily by St John Chrysostom, which is read on Pascha, and the poetic canons by St John of Damascus and St Cosmas of Maiouma, sung on Pascha and the Feast of the Nativity.

An important patristic text read on the feast of the Theophany is the prayer at the Great Blessing of Water by St Sophronios, who served briefly as Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) but whose theological vision has inspired Eastern Christians ever since. The following is an excerpt from that prayer.

St Sopronios of Jerusalem on the Theophany

“Today the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon the waters.

Today the unwaning sun has dawned, and the world is lit up with the light of the Lord.

[…] Today the clouds refresh humanity with a rain of righteousness from above.

Today the uncreated One is by His own will touched by the creature.

Today the prophet and forerunner approaches the Master, but pauses in awe, seeing God’s condescension towards us.

Today the waters of the Jordan are turned into healing by the presence of the Lord.

Today all creation is watered by mystical waters. Today men’s sins are washed away in the waters of the Jordan.

Today Paradise is thrown open to mankind, and the sun of righteousness shines upon us.

Today the water that the people under Moses found bitter, is turned into sweetness at the presence of the Lord.

Today we are free of the ancient grief, and like a new Israel have been redeemed.

Today we are delivered from the darkness and are bathed in the light of the knowledge of God.

Today the world’s gloom is dispersed in the epiphany of our God.

Today the entire universe is lit as by a heavenly torch.

Today error is abolished and the coming of the Lord opens the way to salvation.

Today the heavenly joins the earthly in celebration, and that which is below holds discourse with that which is above.

Today the holy and vibrant assembly of the Orthodox rejoices.

Today the Master hastens towards baptism in order to raise mankind to the heights.

Today He who bends to none, bows before His own servant, so as to free us from bondage.

Today heaven has been deeded to us, for of the Lord’s kingdom there shall be no end.

Today the earth and the sky have divided the world’s joy, and the world is filled with gladness.

The waters saw You, O God, the waters saw You and were afraid. The Jordan reversed its flow when it saw the fire of divinity descending bodily and entering it.

The Jordan turned back, seeing the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove and hovering about You.

The Jordan turned back seeing the invisible become visible, the creator made flesh, the Master in the form of servant.

The Jordan turned back and the mountains leapt, seeing God in the flesh, and the clouds gave voice, marveling at the One present, light of light, true God of true God, who submerged in the Jordan the death of disobedience and the sting of error and the bond of Hades, giving to the world a baptism of salvation.”

St Proclus of Constantinople on the Theophany

A friend and disciple of St John Chrysostom, Proclus would succeed him as Archbishop of Constantinople in 434. His Discourse 7, On the Theophany, is read in both Eastern and Western Churches on this feast.

“Christ appeared in the world, and, bringing beauty out of disarray, gave it luster and joy. He bore the world’s sins and crushed the world’s enemy. He sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of men. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.

For on this day land and sea share between them the grace of the Savior, and the whole world is filled with joy.

Today’s feast of the Theophany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.

On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast of the Theophany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.

At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness.

In today’s feast, we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father.

At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at the Theophany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.

Come, then, and see new and astounding miracles: the Sun of righteousness washing in the Jordan, fire immersed in water, God sanctified by the ministry of man.

Today every creature shouts in resounding song:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Blessed is he who comes in every age, for this is not his first coming.

And who is he? Tell us more clearly, I beg you, blessed David:

‘The Lord is God and has shone upon us.’

David is not alone in prophesying this; the apostle Paul adds his own witness, saying: ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all men, and instructing us.’ Not for some men, but for all. To Jews and Greeks alike God bestows salvation through baptism, offering baptism as a common grace for all.

Come, consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of Baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who baptized.

In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odor of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove reveals the Lord of mercy.”
 
THE LORD JESUS BEGAN His public ministry with the same message that St John the Baptist had proclaimed before Him, namely that the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of heaven” was at hand. What did their hearers understand by this announcement and what should we take it to mean today?

God’s Kingdom in the Old Testament

Biblical reflection on the world saw it as the creation of God. Therefore He was its king from the beginning. We find this in a number of places in Scripture, such as Psalm 93 (LXX 92): “The Lord is king, in splendor robed; Robed is the Lord and girt about with might, For He has made the world firm And it shall not be moved. Your throne has been established of old; You are from everlasting” (vv. 1-3). Here the Kingdom of God is all creation. We sing verses from this psalm as the prokimenon of vespers on Saturday evening. Old Testament prophets also saw Israel as God’s Kingdom. After the Babylonian exile the people of Israel were generally ruled by others – Syrians, Greeks or Romans – with brief interludes of independence. God’s people increasingly looked for God to intervene in human history by reestablishing their kingdom. According to the Book of Daniel, God’s instrument for restoring this kingdom would be the “Son of Man” (Dn 7) or “Messiah” (Dn 9). What was called the “Messianic Age” would usher in the Kingdom of God. Jewish thought generally accepted the thought of the Prophet Isaiah that the great sign of God’s Kingdom would be a time of universal peace and brotherhood on the earth, without crime, war and poverty when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The coming messiah would inaugurate this Kingdom by defeating the powers warring against God’s people. The rabbis therefore rejected claims that Jesus was the messiah, since greed and enmity still exist in our world. He had “failed,” and died as a result. As the twelfth century Jewish thinker Maimonides wrote, failure or death is proof that a defeated leader is not the messiah: “If he does not succeed, or is killed in war, it is certain that he is not the messiah promised in the Torah” (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Malakim 12).

The Lord Jesus and the Kingdom

The Lord Jesus clearly claimed to usher in the Kingdom of God. At the same time He resisted being declared king by the Jews: “When Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (Jn 6:15). His Kingdom, as He would tell Pilate, was “not of this world” (Jn 18:36). The New Testament presents a vision that Jesus Himself is the presence of the Kingdom, what the third-century theologian Origen termed the autovasileia (the Kingdom in Himself). In Him there is perfect communion with the Father and an outpouring of God’s love. The Gospels show Him as constant in prayer and in doing the Father’s will. He manifests God’s love for mankind in a way that no other has done. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he…. By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part 1, p. 49).

The Kingdom Is Within You

While the Lord Jesus is the Kingdom of God in our midst, He tells us that this Kingdom may also be present in human hearts. When people are taken by the love of God and keeping His Commandments, the Kingdom of God is formed within them. When love is present, the God who is love is manifest as love within us. Citing the Scriptures, Origen connects them with the Lord’s injunction to pray “Thy Kingdom come”: “‘The Kingdom of God,’ in the words of our Lord and Savior, ‘does not come for all to see; nor shall they say: Behold, here it is, or behold, there it is; but the Kingdom of God is within you,’ [Lk 17: 20, 21] ‘for the word of God is very near, in our mouth and in our heart’ [Deut 30:14]. Thus it is clear that he who prays for the coming of God’s Kingdom prays rightly to have it within himself, that there it might grow and bear fruit and become perfect’” (On Prayer, 25).

Enduring for the Kingdom

Many Christians today feel that, because God loves His entire creation, this means that everyone will enter the Kingdom of heaven automatically. They find it difficult to harmonize God’s love for us with the need to respond actively to that love. While rejoicing in God’s love for us, we need to remember these sobering words of the Lord: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mt 7:13, 14)… Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Mt 7:24-27). Entering the Kingdom is possible for us, then, if we put the Lord’s teachings into practice, something which may cause us great hardship. Living the Lord’s way may cost us friends, a job, even family support. It will certainly cost us the freedom to live according to our own desires, unmindful of the needs of others. As the nineteenth-century elder of the Optina Monastery in Russia, St Anthony of Optina, wrote in a letter to one of his spiritual children: “Of course, it would be easier to get to paradise with a full stomach, all snuggled up in a soft feather-bed, but what is required is to carry one’s cross along the way, for the Kingdom of God is not attained by enduring one or two troubles, but many!”

The Church and the Kingdom

The ultimate expression of the Kingdom will be in the age to come when Christ, seated at the Father’s right, shall reign forever and ever. There He shall be surrounded by the saints – those who have allowed the Kingdom within them to mature fully through communion with God in prayer and faithfulness to His teachings in action. The Church on earth is, as it were, the “anteroom” of the kingdom of heaven: the vestibule through which we pass in order to enjoy the presence of God within. We enter this “vestibule” through the necessary doorway of baptism. As the Lord told Nicodemos, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Yet for those outside the Church their goodwill toward believers is a kind of baptism into the kingdom, the “baptism” of love. As we read in Christ’s parable of the judgment, “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world... Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Mt 25:34, 40).
 
WHAT DO WE CELEBRATE on January 6? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Just look at the icon: it’s Jesus’ baptism! Actually, neither the icon nor the feast celebrates the fact that the Lord Jesus was baptized. Rather we remember what happened at His baptism and what it represents for us as we live our life in Christ. We do not call this the Feast of Christ’s Baptism, focusing on the historical setting. Rather we call it the Feast of the Holy Theophany, or “manifestation of God,”

Manifestation of the Trinity

The troparion of the feast sets the tone for our reflection: “At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed; for the Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You His beloved Son and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!” The story of this theophany is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John’s Gospel, as we shall see, the Baptist alludes to it as he describes the character and mission of Jesus. The Father’s Voice: Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of a voice from heaven heard at Jesus’ baptism calling Him “My beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). None of the Evangelists say outright that this was the voice of God, but since their picture of Jesus as the Son of God is clear in the Gospels, we can draw no other conclusion. In icons of the Theophany this voice is depicted symbolically by the ray of light which originates in a geometric shape – often a semicircle – and rests over the head of Jesus. The Dove: All the Evangelists, including John, describe the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. In John’s Gospel the Baptist offers his own testimony: “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit;’ and I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:33, 34). In icons the dove is enclosed in an aureole, symbol of divine glory, in the midst of the ray representing the Father’s voice. St John of Damascus compared the dove which appeared at the end of the flood to the dove at Jesus’ baptism. “As, at that time the world was cleansed of sin through the waters of the flood, then the dove brought an olive branch to Noah’s Ark announcing the end of the flood, and peace came to the Earth, so, in like manner the Holy Spirit descends as a dove to announce forgiveness of sins and God’s mercy on the world. Then [it was] an olive branch, now it is our Lord’s mercy.” The graphic presence of the Father (by His voice), the Son (in the flesh) and the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) is the first such manifestation of the Holy Trinity in the New Testament. The second such revelation is at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ as His ministry is drawing to a close.

The Lord Jesus: God and Man

Christ is clearly Lord in icons of this feast. Several signs of His divinity and preeminence are found in the way He is shown. In Western depictions of His baptism Jesus is often shown with His head bowed and hands folded in prayer. That is never the case in our icons. He is shown standing erect, often with His hand raised in blessing. In some older icons Christ is depicted naked. We are back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve, created in communion with God, are naked and unashamed. The original creation is restored and renewed with the coming of Christ.
“Once You clothed the shameful nakedness of our forefather Adam; now You are stripped naked of Your own will!  You covered the roof of heaven with waters; now You wrap Yourself in the streams of Jordan, only merciful Christ.”
In later icons Christ is depicted with a drape around His waist, which represents the winding sheet in which He was wrapped for burial. The river is often depicted in the shape of a cave, suggesting the tomb in which He was laid. In some icons the water envelops His sacred body which is visible in it. We are thus reminded of the death and resurrection of Christ into which our baptism immerses us. In other icons Jesus is not submerged into the water at all. He is depicted astride the river as He blesses it. The River Jordan did not cleanse Christ; it is Christ’s presence in its midst which sanctifies the waters.

Other Signs of God’s Presence

The icon of the Theophany, as well as many of its hymns, includes other elements which point to the divine activity present in Christ at His baptism. Among them are: John the Forerunner: The presence of John the Baptist is an essential part of the story of Jesus’ baptism. In icons, however, the depiction of John is more about Christ than it is about him. In some icons John is showed bowing to the Lord, bent in awe before the One he had come to announce. In other icons John is depicted as gazing up toward heaven, as if beholding the manifestation of the Father and the Spirit. In either case, although he was the focus of all other baptisms which he performed, John was not the center of this one. The Axe: In some icons we see a tree stump with an axe embedded in it near where John is standing. This recalls John’s prophetic words to the Pharisees, “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). The axe ready to cut signifies that the Messiah is at hand. The Seascape: In some icons Christ is shown standing on one or two rocks, sometimes arranged in the form of a cross. Here we are reminded of the resurrection icon in which the Lord is depicted astride the gates of Death. In that icon the personification of Death often lies bound beneath His feet. In the Theophany icon it is often snakes or a sea creature under His feet. In both cases what is depicted is Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. “You crushed the heads of the dragons in the water” (Psalms 73:14).
“When You bowed Your head to the Forerunner, You crushed the heads of the dragons; and when You stood in the midst of the stream, You let Your light shine upon all creatures, that they might glorify You, Our Savior, who enlighten our souls!”
The Sea: At the bottom of the icon we often find two small figures with astonished looks on their faces, often astride dolphins. They personify these psalm verses, alluding to the Exodus but often heard during the feast of the Theophany: “The sea saw and fled; Jordan turned back… What ails you, O sea, that you fled? O Jordan, that you turned back? O mountains, that you skipped like rams? O little hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob” (Psalms 114:3, 5-7).
Today the prophecy of the Psalms swiftly approaches its fulfillment:  “The sea looked and fled: Jordan was driven back” before the face of the Lord, before the face of the God of Jacob!  He came to receive baptism from His servant, so that our souls washed clean from the defilement of idolatry, might be enlightened through Him!
 
WHEN THE “ISLAMIC STATE” FIGHTERS seized Mosul in northern Iraq they marked Christian properties for seizure by painting the Arabic letter ﻦ (“N”) for “Nasrani” on the buildings. Muslims do not use the Arabic word for “Christian” (Maseehi – followers of the Messiah) but refer to Jesus’ disciples as Nasrani, followers of the Nazarene. They assume it is an insult. In response, many Western Christians, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, began displaying the ﻦin solidarity with their beleaguered Eastern brethren. Nasrani is, in fact an ancient designation in the Aramaic-speaking world. To this day the Syriac Christians of India, whether Catholic, Church of the East or Orthodox, refer to themselves as Mar Thoma Nasrani (St Thomas Christians). To be a Nazarene was – and remains – an honorable way for Syriac Christians to call themselves followers of Jesus.

Nazareth in the Scriptures

The Gospels refer to Nazareth as a city (“polis”); by our standards it was probably a small village. In the first century AD Nazareth was a place of no importance, probably inhabited only by local farmers and tradesmen. Apart from the Gospels there is no mention of it in early documents before the third century. This led some scholars to suggest that Nazareth did not exist in Christ’s time. In 2009, however an Israeli archeologist working in Nazareth discovered the remains of a house dating from the first century. “The discovery is of the utmost importance,” she noted, “since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth.” Unlike many of the more populous towns in Galilee, Nazareth had an exclusively Jewish population. There were no Gentiles or even Samaritans living there, a good indication that the village held little economic or political interest. Its residents seem to have been regarded as “Jewish hillbillies” by their neighbors. Thus, when Philip told Nathaniel, from the nearby town of Cana, about Jesus, “Nathaniel said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” (John 1:46). Its residents were devout, however, and had a synagogue where Jesus was accustomed to pray.

Nazareth: Icon of the Divine Humility

As the early Church came to emphasize the divinity of Christ, its appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us grew. The Church spoke of the incarnation as an act of Kenosis, or self-emptying. In the words of St Paul, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phillipians 2:5-7). That the incarnation took place in Nazareth, an insignificant Galilean village, points to the depth of the self-emptying which the Word of God assumed for us. Nazarenes, including the Theotokos herself, were people of no account by the world’s standards. They had nothing of value to either the rulers of Israel or its priests. They were basically “invisible” to the important ones of their day. Nazareth wasn’t “on the map,” as it were. Yet it is here that a young woman was chosen to usher in the new covenant kingdom. As St Paul would later point out, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty;  and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

Capernaum “By the Sea”

The Gospels tell us that Nazareth was “where [Jesus] had been brought up” (Luke 4:16) but that He began His public ministry in the nearby towns of Cana and Capernaum. When He returned to Nazareth, the Lord encountered opposition to His teaching (cf., Luke 4:16-31); and so, as we read in Matthew 4:13, He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum. On the main highway to Damascus, Capernaum “by the sea” (Matthew 4:13) was an important crossroads for traders and other travelers to Asia Minor, Syria and present-day Lebanon. As such it had a customs office and a detachment of Roman soldiers was quartered there. Its location on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (known to the Romans as Lake Tiberias and today as Lake Kinneret) was a rich fishing ground. It was among these fishermen that Jesus called His first disciples, Andrew and Peter, James and John. Capernaum became Jesus’ home after He left Nazareth. There He attracted disciples from Capernaum, including Matthew the tax collector, as well as from the nearby villages of Cana (Nathaniel) and Bethsaida where Philip lived.

Christian Nazareth

Nazareth remained a Jewish town for centuries. Its first church seems to have been built by a wealthy convert, Joseph of Tiberias, at the time of St. Constantine. The church, dedicated to the Annunciation, was rebuilt during the Crusades and again in the eighteenth century. It is located over an underground spring, where the Virgin Mary was reputedly drawing water at the time of the Annunciation. Water from the spring still runs inside the apse of the church and also feeds the adjacent site of “Mary’s Well,” located 150 yards away. The local Jews seem to have appreciated the importance of Nazareth for Christians. In AD 570 a pilgrim from Piacenza in Italy (sometimes identified as Antoninus) wrote of his visit to the town: “The synagogue still has the book which was used to teach Our Lord the alphabet.  There is also a bench in the synagogue where Our Lord would sit with the other children.” Jews were expelled from Nazareth in the early seventh century during the war with the Persians. When the Frankish bishop Arculf visited Nazareth in 670, the synagogue had been turned into a church. The present “synagogue church” in Nazareth is of medieval origin, possibly built in the twelfth century by the Crusaders, and is now sunken about five feet underground. This church was under the control of the Franciscans until the 18th century, when the emir Daher al-Omar passed it to the Greek Catholics. Nazareth remained a predominantly Christian town throughout the modern era until the resettlements after World War I. Today it is the largest Arab city in Israel noted for its software development and munitions industries.

Finds in Capernaum

The nineteenth century saw excavations conducted in parts of Capernaum resulting in the discovery of the ruins of an ancient synagogue, and a fifth-century octagonal church. During the twentieth century further excavations unearthed portions of a first-century house that had been venerated as the house of St Peter as early as the mid-first century. First turned into a church probably in the fourth century, it has come to be known as “St. Peter’s House.” Another modern find is a fishing boat, built sometime in the first century bc, which was discovered in 1986 during an unusually low water level in Lake Kinneret. The boat had been preserved in the mud of the lake-bed, and was found to contain various items, including an oil lamp and a cooking pot. Dubbed the “Jesus boat,” the craft is now on display at a nearby kibbutz.
 
THE LORD JESUS' PUBLIC MINISTRY begins, as it were, where John the Forerunner left off. He travels through Galilee, the Gospels assert, preaching like John, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). “News of Him went out throughout the surrounding region and He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (Luke 4:14-15). Finally, Luke adds, Jesus came to Nazareth “where He had been brought up” (Luke 4:16) and people were amazed at Him – they knew Him simply as Joseph’s son. Over and over in the Gospels we see people wondering just who Jesus is, the disciples growing in faith and emboldened to proclaim, as Peter did on Pentecost, “that God has made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The apostles’ faith continued to develop as they began preaching the risen Christ. By the time St Paul wrote his so-called prison epistles (Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians) some thirty years later, the apostolic Church had come to recognize that Moses and the Prophets had intimated something deeper about the Messiah. Their deepening faith in Jesus’ eternal existence as the Word of God is expressed repeatedly in these epistles. In the Epistle to the Colossians St Paul makes a straightforward confession of the unity of Christ with the Father. “He is the image [ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation; for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the Church who is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead that in all things He may be preeminent, for it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:15-20). And so, Paul taught, Jesus who was crucified and risen was also the pre-eternal icon of the Father through whom all things were created. In the Epistle to the Ephesians he describes the mystery of Christ in puzzling terms of a downward motion (descent) and an upward motion (ascent). Commenting on a verse from Psalm 68 (67, LXX), St Paul writes, “Now this ‘He ascended’ – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:9-10).

Kenosis: Christ Empties Himself

This movement of descent and ascent is perhaps most clearly explained in the Epistle to the Philippians as a voluntary self-emptying of Himself and thus as a model for our lives. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God has also highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – of those in heaven and of those on earth – and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Colossians 2:5-11). From the Greek word translated here as “emptied Himself” we have the word kenosis to describe the Son of God’s voluntary descent to assume our nature. He put aside the glory of His divinity to take up our humanity, only allowing it to be seen by Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration. Christ is described as the opposite of many of us who refuse to let our status symbols free from our grasp. He puts aside the glory of being the Father’s icon to become Son of Man. The One who is enthroned upon the cherubim now has nowhere to lay His head.

Glorification: Jesus is Lord

While kenosis expressed the downward movement of the Word’s voluntary setting aside of His glory, the upward movement of His glorification is connected with the term kyrios (Lord). This is the term we regularly associate with Christ but we do not realize how revolutionary that association was at first. In the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, Kyrios was the word spoken in place of the un-pronouncible name of God, “Yahweh,” the name God gave to Moses at the burning bush (cf., Exodus 3:15), a term we roughly translate as “The One Who Is” or “The Existing One.” Similarly observant Jews today refuse to speak this name, referring to God simply as Hashem (“the name”). The most basic “creed” in the apostolic Church was connected with this term. St Paul incorporates it into his Epistle to the Romans: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord [Kyrios] and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). And so the apostolic Church, which had first met Jesus in the villages of Galilee, came to know Him as the pre-eternal Son of the Father who descended to become one of us and ascended once more as Lord, bearing humanity with Him to where He was before. In our Liturgy the emphasis is principally on Jesus as Kyrios, the eternal Word. At the end of Orthros or Vespers the priest turns to the icon of Christ and proclaims, “Blessed is He-Who-Is, Christ our true God, at all times…” The icon to which he points – and all icons of Christ – is inscribed with the same Greek word, Ό ΩN (the One-Who-Is): Jesus of Nazareth, the One-Who-Is, now in glory as God and Man.

Kenosis in the Liturgy

Our liturgical poetry frequently alludes to the contrast between Christ’s divine state and His incarnation.


Today, He who holds the whole creation in the hollow of His hand is born of the Virgin! He whose Essence none can approach will be wrapped in swaddling cloths as a mortal. God, who established the heavens at the beginning of time will lie in a manger. He who rained down manna on His people in the desert will be nourished by milk from His Mother’s breast! The Bridegroom of the Church, who called the Magi, will accept their gifts as the Son of the Virgin. We bow down and worship Your Nativity, O Christ! Show us also Your Theophany! Ninth Royal Hour


Beholding him who was in God’s image and likeness fallen through the transgression, Jesus bowed the heavens and came down. And without change, He took up His dwelling in a Virgin’s womb: that He might fashion corrupt Adam anew, who cried out to Him: “Glory to Your Theophany, O my Redeemer and my God!” Liti of the Nativity


For our sakes, Christ has come forth from the seed of Abraham, to raise up to the dignity of sons those who had fallen into the darkness of sin, which bowed them down to the earth. Despite His great dignity, He who dwells in endless Light has willed to dwell in a manger for the salvation of mankind. Canon of the Nativity

 
THE GREAT FEASTS OF THE EASTERN CHURCHES are all observed with special hymns, special icons, and often, special rites. We may think immediately of the blessing of palms on Palm Sunday, the blessing of foods on Pascha, the exaltation of the Holy Cross on that feast or the blessing of grapes on the feast of the Transfiguration. The most solemn of these festal blessings, however, is the Great Sanctification of Water on the Feast of the Theophany. Church orders actually prescribe two such blessings on the Theophany. At the end of the Vesper-Liturgy on the eve of the feast a vessel of water is sanctified in the church and the water given to the faithful to drink and to take to their homes. After the Liturgy on the feast itself the same rite is performed over a nearby body of water (ocean, river, lake or stream). Parishes that do not observe the full order may only have one such blessing.

Blessed Water in East and West

Holy Water is commonly used in all Eastern and Western Churches but with some difference in their meanings and purposes. In the West holy water is chiefly for purification. It is placed at the doors of churches for worshippers to bless themselves with it on entering the church as a kind of purification. At the principal Sunday Mass the entire congregation is so purified as the priest goes through the church sprinkling the worshippers. These practices recall the Old Testament tradition of having pools or basins of water at the entry to the temple for the same purpose. In the Eastern Churches purification is more commonly associated with incense. In the Eastern Churches the sanctification of water has a different connotation. It is first of all connected with transformation. At baptism water is transformed that it may be a vehicle for the transformation of the person baptized in it into communion with the Holy Trinity. By being buried in the water and then raised out of it the new Christian experiences his or her own Pascha by being connected to the death and resurrection of Christ, thus becoming a partaker in the divine nature. While at baptism a person is sanctified by being placed in the water, the reverse happens at the Theophany. It is the water which is sanctified by the One who entered into it. At the Great Sanctification of Water on the Theophany a cross, representing Christ, is immersed in the water three times, liturgically re-enacting the baptism of Christ and sanctifying the water. This sanctification of water at the Theophany represents the transformation of creation, begun with the Incarnation and intended to touch all creation. As St. Paul writes, “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:21-22). The rite continues, representing the extension of the blessing of the Jordan to all creation. The priest goes through the church sprinkling everyone and everything with the newly-sanctified water. In Eastern countries this procession may go through the entire neighborhood or village as the people sing the troparion of the Theophany. People would open their doors and the priest would go into their homes, passing from one to another with the blessing of the Jordan. This rite witnesses to the ongoing transfiguration of creation begun at the Jordan. In contemporary society this aspect of the rite has morphed into a scheduled appearance of the priest to bless the home, visit with the family, collect donations, discuss the parish, etc. Something has been lost.

Is Blessed Water Really Holy?

The twentieth century Russian Orthodox saint, John Maximovich, taught: “On Theophany, the Day of the Lord's Baptism, every year a great miracle is performed. The Holy Spirit, coming down upon the water, changes its natural properties. It becomes incorrupt, not spoiling, remaining transparent and fresh for many years. This Holy Water receives the grace to heal illnesses, to drive away demons and every evil power, to preserve people and their dwellings from every danger, to sanctify various objects whether for church or home use. Therefore, Orthodox Christians with reverence drink Holy Water … People who drink a little Holy Water daily, before eating any kind of food, do well. It strengthens the powers of our soul—if it is done with prayer and reverence, and one does not merely expect a mechanical result from it.” The prayer for the sanctification of water certainly supports the idea that a “great miracle” is expected when we sanctify the water. The priest chants:
“… Great are You, O Lord, and wonderful your works, and no word is adequate to sing the praise of your wonders (3 times). “…Therefore, O King, Lover of mankind, be present now too through the visitation of your Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water. (3 times) And give to it the grace of redemption and the blessing of Jordan. Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a deliverance from sins, an averting of diseases, unapproachable by hostile powers, filled with angelic strength. That all who draw from it and partake of it may have it for cleansing of souls and bodies, for healing of passions, for sanctification of homes, for every suitable purpose. … And now, Master, do You yourself sanctify this water by your Holy Spirit” (3 times).
This prayer is an epiclesis – a plea for the sending of the Holy Spirit – asking that God effect a transformation. In this it is similar to the prayer said by the bishop when he sanctifies the Holy Chrism and at the Eucharistic epiclesis in the Divine Liturgy itself. The current order for the Great Sanctification of Water is attributed to St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638) but the above prayer is much older. In the fourth century St Basil the Great speaks of this rite as a “mystical tradition” (On the Holy Spirit, 27:66) which shows that it was practiced before his time. It is also mentioned in the fourth century Apostolic Constitutions, a Syrian work, and in the treatise On the Holy Spirit by St. Ambrose of Milan (died 397). All these sources attribute the sanctification of water to the Holy Spirit.
Partaking at Home

Many people drink a little blessed water and eat a piece of antidoron (blessed bread) as part of their regular Morning Prayers, before eating or drinking anything else. In this way they express their union with the worshipping Church and with the Lord who is transforming us and all creation as well.

This Prayer is often said before partaking:

O Lord my God, may this partaking of antidoron and holy water be for the health and strength of my soul and body, for the control of my passions and infirmities and for the enlightening of my physical and spiritual faculties in Your boundless loving-kindness, through the prayers of Your most pure Mother and of all the saints. Amen.

 
MANY PEOPLE ONLY SEE THEIR PASTOR during liturgical services. They may have no contact with any of the clergy outside of this context. The only other “church functions” they attend may be social or athletic events where the clergy are on the sidelines. The pastor’s most prominent role in our Church today is as liturgist. As a result, particularly in rural or village churches of the Christian East, a man’s voice was his chief qualification for entrance into the clergy. And if he had a nice full beard like Jesus, so much the better! Priests would often preempt deacons and deacons the other clergy if their rendition of the Gospel or a favorite hymn was more lyrical. The best clergyman was a good liturgist and the best liturgist, after all, was the best virtuoso. When parishes were established in this country they were often organized after the model employed by the Roman Catholic churches around them. There the laity had no role in the parish beyond taking up the collection and possibly arranging flowers for the altar. Any ministry in the parish was exercised by the clergy and religious such as teaching sisters. If we look to see how things were done in the New Testament era, a very different picture emerges. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, for example, we find a very clear cut job description. St Paul writes, “To each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift…He himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4: 7, 11-13).

Those with Gifts of Leadership

St Paul lists several types of Church leaders. The Apostles were first of all those who had been eyewitnesses to Christ life and ministry. When a replacement for Judas was to be chosen Peter identified the eligible candidates as being one “of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). He then went on to indicate his own understanding of an Apostle’s role in the Church: “one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” Many people think that Prophets are fortune tellers, telling how the future is to play itself out. Sometimes that is close to the truth. At other times the prophet’s gift is to speak God’s will for the present moment or, rather, to interpret the present moment in the light of God’s will for us. This function in the Church is generally found in the monastic calling. By their vows they become “dead to the world” in a foretaste of the common destiny of all of us. In the Kingdom of God neither possessions nor physical relationships will continue. There will be no ego, no pride, for all the glory will be God’s. In addition some monastics have the gift of discernment, reading the hearts of those who come to them for guidance. Evangelists are those who proclaim the Gospel far and wide. Missionaries and retreat masters have often shared in this gift. Today web masters and bloggers might join in this gift. The pastor/teacher is the person at the head of the local Church, the bishop or his representative, the presbyter (priest). While the others mentioned traveled around the Mediterranean world bringing the good news of Christ, the pastors were the people left behind to shepherd the local community. Their main role was described as “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry,” the “saints” being those who were made holy by being united to Christ in holy baptism. At every baptism we are reminded that “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” You can’t get much holier than that! The pastor in this view is primarily an enabler, giving people the tools needed to take up their place in one of the Church’s ministries. He must see to the training of greeters, singers and servers, of catechists and ministers to the sick, of church council members and workers in any other kind of ministry that might be needed in the parish. And it is because he is this enabler of the saints under his care, because he is the teacher and shepherd of the flock that the pastor presides at liturgical services.

The Work of Ministry

In St Paul’s vision of the Church, there are no passive spectators. All are meant to be active, to be engaged in the work of ministry in one way or another. Most parishes have their regular schedule of projects that mark its life during the year – coffee hours, fundraisers, socials, outings – and people work to make them happen. This is certainly one level of ministry, but there is more. Two such ministries which touch the heart of every parish are those concerned with worship and catechesis. Liturgical singing is a ministry in which all worshippers should be involved. Everyone should take part in the chants appointed for the people. Others have a more particular or specialized ministry as cantors or choir members. A cantor can make or break the liturgical services in the parish because the cantor is the liturgical minister most concerned with the involvement of the people. People have long associated ministering in the holy place with “altar boys.” In fact, the role the servers play is basically the role of subdeacons. In many places the servers are actually vested as subdeacons. At least a few older teens or young adults should be involved in this ministry to supervise and train any younger servers the parish might employ. In some Eastern Churches those senior servers who have a firm commitment to this ministry are actually blessed by the bishop as subdeacons. Another essential ministry in every parish in that of catechist. Many people identify the term catechist with Sunday School teacher, but those who coordinate youth ministry, work with young adults or conduct adult education programs are also catechists. In some churches people have been trained to introduce visitors to the church or help them follow the Liturgy. In other places people have been instructed to conduct church open houses, perhaps in conjunction with a food festival. All of these are catechetical ministries essential for the spiritual growth of the parish.

Commitment and Training

Taking part in many of these activities demands a level of commitment. Cantors must plan their leisure activities around the parish’s schedule of liturgical services. Catechists must commit themselves to a full cycle of sessions in any given year. These demands would be a real burden to anyone who was not convinced that ministering in this way was their return to God of the gift He had given them.

Training Is a Must!

One aspect of any serious ministry is the need for training. The twentieth-century academic Margaret Mead once said in another context, “Zeal without knowledge is a sin.” This certainly applies to ministry in the Church. The desire to serve must be complemented by a willingness to be trained for service. Being smarter than a child, for example, does not automatically make someone a good catechist! Neither does having “learned one’s catechism” (in another age or even in another Church tradition) dispense a volunteer catechist from going through a training program. The result of this interaction of ministry workers and their enablers is, as St Paul has it, “a mature manhood” after the stature of Christ. The parish becomes an icon of Christ and of those who accompanied Him – the apostles, the myrrhbearers, and the rest – each taking up their responsibility in and for the Church according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
 
IN EVERY AGE believers have stressed one or another aspect of the Christian experience. In the last hundred years we have seen increasing emphasis on the Church as community. It is the Body of Christ one in many members. It is the People of God, the new Israel, the fellowship in the Holy Spirit. The Church is no longer primarily identified with physical structures or with the clergy. Rather in our day we are continually reminded that “…you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:l6). One aspect of this re-emphasis on the teaching of the Scripture and the Fathers has been that more and more people have been drawn into service in the Church. Some ancient ministries, such as deacon, subdeacon, or cantor, have been revived or received greater emphasis. Other, newer roles have taken on greater importance: catechist, youth minister or ministers to the sick or the aging. The New Testament witnesses to an abundance of ministries in the apostolic Churches. St Paul encourages people to use the gifts they have been given in oneness of love: “he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8). Clearly St Paul is not speaking about “Church professionals” here – there were none. Everyone, he taught, has a gift and therefore everyone has a ministry. The revival of such practices in the modern Church dovetails with our post-Enlightenment stress on democracy: everyone has a say, everyone votes, everyone serves. While our “volunteer army,” however, has a rigorous boot camp, people often have assumed tasks in the Church or been given them by their pastors without any adequate preparation. Because adults know more than children, for example, it is sometimes assumed that any adult can be a catechist. Because a person is “nice” to their friends or relatives, it may be taken for granted that he or she would make a good doorkeeper or greeter. In some communities the resulting distorted practices have become “traditional.” While some clergy have encouraged people to assume responsibilities without preparation, others still refuse to let laypeople assume any significant duties in the church. It is easier, they say, to do things themselves since they will have to do everything over anyway. Neither of these approaches will lead a parish to the Scriptural model of a mature congregation. In spiritually strong Churches, preparation for ministry is essential. It is not enough to say “come and do.”

“Equipping the Saints”

St Paul indicates the goal of parish life and the proper course of action to be taken to achieve it. “[Christ] Himself gave some to be prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…” (Ephesians 4:11-13). The goal is “the unity of the faith,” for which we also pray in the Divine Liturgy. The means by which this is achieved is the work of ministry exercised by the “saints” (in Biblical terminology, those who have been made holy by their Baptism). The saints, however, have to be equipped for the work of ministry and this is the task of the “pastors and teachers,” those we call the clergy today. To “equip” for the work of ministry means more than giving praise and encouragement, or even providing the basic materials required for the service in question. To equip the saints for the work of ministry means to form them in the spirituality of the Church and the place of their ministry in its life.

Repentance and Ministry

The first aspect in any formation of the saints is the same first step Christ used in the formation of His apostles: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Many people have a loyalty to their parish based on their family or ethnic connection or on their own investment of time and energy over the years. Their connection to their parish may be stronger than their connection to the Church or to Christ. For a mature service, oriented to developing the unity of faith, more is required. Anyone ministering in the Church – anyone serious about their faith – must be a person committed to spending the rest of their life in peace and repentance, as our liturgical prayers indicate. In English and other European languages repentance suggests looking backwards: doing penance for the wrongs you have done. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. There to repent means to change the focus of your life, to look ahead with a new vision. St. Paul, for example, urges, “…do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our lord Jesus Christ…” (Ephesians 5:18-20). Do not simple regret your old behavior: replace it with new behavior in Christ. Repentance, “the discarding of the old, earthly man, and on the other hand, the ‘putting on of the new man who is restored by the energy of the Most Holy Spirit” is nothing other than the life of baptism renewed each day. Each time we receive the Eucharist we in effect revive our baptismal commitment. A life spent in peace and repentance renews that commitment every day. Ministry in the Church is not simply another task in our life. People in the Church looking for spiritual leadership should expect that those in ministry are serving out of a deeper than ordinary faith. Sometimes this does not seem to be so. Church service is too often marred by the presence of the “old, earthly man” in us. The result is frequently a clash of personalities or a partisan spirit leading to cliques or even splits in the community. Instead of leading to unity in faith, Church service becomes fertile ground for the Enemy. Only when Church servants are striving to put on the “new man” every day can such conflicts be avoided. Service in the Church, then, is for all believers, for all have received gifts which have been given to build up the Body of Christ. And the bedrock of any service in the Church for all believers is repentance, adopting the outlook on life of a “new man,” a person united to God in Christ.
The roof of any house stands upon the foundations and the rest of the structure. The foundations themselves are laid in order to carry the roof. This is both useful and necessary, for the roof cannot stand without the foundations and the foundations are absolutely useless without the roof — no help to any living creature.
St. Symeon the New Theologian

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