Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
BOASTING IS NOT SOMETHING we expect to find promoted in religious writing. We see it s very definitely something of this world, of egos and the very worldly habit of stroking them. Yet in both Old and New Testaments, believers are encouraged to specific kinds of boasting.

Several centuries before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength, or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know Me” (Jeremiah 9:23, 24). Knowing God was the greatest pride of the Israelite people, something of which they boasted before the other nations. They knew the only true God, who had revealed Himself to them.

Centuries later, the Israelites’ boast of intimacy with God had been transformed by many into pride in keeping the Law. Christ’s parable of the publican and the Pharisee demonstrates that boasting about one’s love for God can easily become a reason to glorify oneself. In that story the Pharisee seems to be thanking God: “God, I thank You…” he begins, but quickly moves to boasting of his religious observance: he is not “like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get“ (Luke 18:11, 12). Although the Pharisee seems to be talking to God, he is actually talking to himself, congratulating himself on his spirit of piety.

It is difficult to avoid the Pharisee’s boasting, when we start cataloging our acts of devotion. When we decide to go to church twice a week, for example, we may find ourselves feeling superior to those who only go once a week or less. When we commit ourselves to a Prayer Rule, we may begin to look down on those who have not done so. When we count the number of times we say the Jesus Prayer or make prostrations, we may take pride in how our proficiency at these practices has grown. There was a time, not too long ago, when such spiritual arithmetic was encouraged, particularly in the West. That is generally not the case today; nevertheless the temptation to engage in self-praise is there.

Like Jeremiah, St Paul seems to say “Let not the pious boast of their piety, but boast instead about the saving power of the cross.” It is, after all, not our acts of religious devotion that bring us life, but the gift of Christ’s life, offered for us on the cross.

St Paul was especially disturbed by those among the early Christians who were insisting on one particular Jewish practice, as if accepting the saving death of Christ was not enough. Some believers were insisting that converts needed to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses to be numbered among the Christians. Paul strenuously denied this, insisting that these Old Testament practices had lost their obligatory character because Christ’s self-offering was sufficient to unite us to God.

Boasting in the Cross

Still, boasting is not the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the cross of Christ. Some people are no doubt saddened by the thought of it, grieving at the sight of Christ suffering His passion. Some will be thankful that the Son of God offered Himself for us. But what does it mean to “boast” in the cross?

When we think of people boasting of their accomplishments, their children, or their vacations, we know that, first of all, these aspects of their lives are frequently in their thoughts and in their conversation. It may seem that they talk of nothing else. A person first boasts in his heart, then publicly for all to hear. No one can doubt how proud the boaster is of his life’s joys.

How often are our thoughts focused on the cross? Our almost incessant making of the sign of the cross suggests that the cross is often on our Church’s mind. There are other indicators as well. Every Wednesday and Friday, in the hymns appointed for the daily services, our Church “boasts” liturgically about the cross in words such as these: “The precious cross of the Savior is our unshakable wall, for all of us who put our hope in it will be saved” (Tone One Vespers).

The Church encourages us to fast on most Wednesdays and Fridays precisely because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday and crucified on a Friday. Participating in these fasts is another opportunity to “boast” in the cross, acknowledging that Christ’s death on the cross witnesses to an unparalleled display of divine love.

The Divine Liturgy is our opportunity to be mystically present at the cross. While the deacon lifts up the holy gifts crosswise, the priest prays, “Remembering … everything that was done for our sake: the cross, the tomb… we offer You Your own…” By joining Christ in this offering we are exalting the saving power of His cross.

If these traditions are central to our personal spirituality, we would find it natural to boast about the cross in other ways as well. Publicly boasting about the cross can take many forms. The easiest is to publicly display the cross on our person or in our homes. Many people do this, however, without thinking about the meaning of the cross they are exhibiting. The cross witnesses that the death of the Son of God was a victory, not a defeat. By the cross Christ triumphed over death

Unlike certain Evangelicals, Eastern Christians are reluctant to speak publicly about the faith or even invite acquaintances to their church. One notable exception seems to be at the annual Food Festival, when church tours are often organized for Festival visitors. Those parishes which have made the church tours the highpoint of the Festival report that these opportunities for “boasting” have often been a source of new parishioners. The arrangement of our church is not haphazard; rather it has developed over the centuries as a graphic proclamation of Christ – crucified, buried, risen and living in His Body, the Church. Participating in developing a church tour (and appropriate follow-ups) is a way for any of us to boast publicly in the Christ whom we revere in our hearts.

Our Liturgy Boasts of the Cross

Tone 1

The cross was planted upon the place of the skull and from the everlasting spring that flowed from the side of the Savior, it brought forth immortality for us. By Your cross, O Christ, angels and men have formed a single assembly and a single flock. Heaven and earth exult with joy – O Lord, glory to You!

Tone 2

Just as the enemy made Adam captive by the fruit of the tree, so You made the enemy captive by the tree of the cross and Your suffering. For this purpose You came as the second Adam to seek out the lost and bring life to the dead. O Lord, glory to You!

Tone 3

The cross was planted in the earth, yet it touched the heavens; not because it reached the full stature of a tree, but because on it You fulfilled all things. O Lord, glory to You! Great is the power of Your cross, O Lord, for though it was set in one place, it acts throughout the world. It made apostles of fishermen and martyrs of the Gentiles. We beg them to intercede for our souls.
 
When people think of snakes and the Bible, the first thing they may recall is the serpent in the Book of Genesis. There this creature is described as “more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). It personifies the Tempter who causes Eve and then her husband to fall. In response to the temptation of Eve, God punishes the serpent: “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:13). The snake or serpent then becomes the image of all that is evil. Throughout the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms we find many negative references to snakes. Thus the prophet Micah compares the enemies of Judea to snakes who conceal themselves and then emerge when it is time to strike: “They shall lick the dust like a serpent; they shall crawl from their holes like snakes of the earth” (Micah 7:17). Not a very flattering image for anyone who likes snakes. Why, then, do we find the Lord Jesus comparing Himself to a snake: “…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”? What is so different about this snake that makes it a fitting image for the Son of Man?

The Serpent in the Wilderness

The reference to Moses lifting up a serpent takes us back to the story of the Israelites’ exodus from captivity in Egypt. In the Book of Numbers we read that the Israelites made their way through the wilderness of Sinai into the Promised Land but were not welcomed by the local inhabitants. They were under God’s protection and were given the manna for their daily food but they were not satisfied. Many felt that they were better off as slaves in Egypt. “Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.” The “fiery serpents” refers to a species of poisonous snakes whose bite inflames the affected area. The Israelites seem to have stumbled upon an area where such snakes were common. The Israelites interpreted the serpent or snake as a sign of evil: of fatal punishment to God’s People who doubted His care for them. “Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a brazen serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived” (Numbers 21:4-9). The Israelites appear to have taken the bronze serpent with them and enshrined it as a memorial to their deliverance in the wilderness, much as they preserved a jar of manna in the Tabernacle. According to Jewish tradition, the bronze serpent was too much like an idol; hundreds of years later it seems that some of the Israelites were venerating it as their deliverer rather than God. King Hezekiah of Judah, who reigned from 715 to 686 BC, destroyed the bronze serpent for just that reason: “He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image [to Asherah, a Canaanite goddess] and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4).

The Bronze Serpent as a “Type”

The Lord is quoted in John’s Gospel as describing the bronze serpent incident as a type of Himself. A type is a person or event from an earlier era which pre-figures Christ, His Church, the holy mysteries or any aspect of the New Covenant. The sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22, Hebrews 11:17-19), the deliverance of Jonah (Book of Jonah, Matthew 12:39-40), the Israelites’ departure from Egypt (Hosea 11:1, Mattthew 2:15), the water from the rock (Exodus 17:1-7, 1 Coranthinians 10:1-4) are all types cited in the New Testament itself as fulfilled in Christ. In our worship Passover, the celebration of the Exodus, is a type of the New Passover, the resurrection. The Feast of Weeks, 50 days after Passover, is a type of Pentecost, 50 days after the New Passover. In John the words “lifted up” are used twice to describe the type and its fulfillment. The type in this case is not the bronze serpent, which had no power in itself, but the act of displaying it in the sight of the Israelites. This type is fulfilled when Christ is “lifted up,” put on display at His crucifixion. In John’s Gospel the account of Christ’s passion repeatedly shows Christ “lifted up” before the gaze of those around Him. After he had Jesus beaten and crowned with thorns, “Pilate then went out again, and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in Him.’ Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the Man!’ When the chief priests and officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him!’” (John 19:4-6). After Jesus dies, the soldiers come to hasten the death of those crucified that day. They broke the legs of the criminals crucified with Him. Seeing that He was already dead, they merely pierced His side. John notes that “All these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They shall look on Him whom they pierced’” (John 19:36-37). The type is fulfilled as Jesus is lifted up, beheld and looked upon. In the Old Testament the Israelites who looked on it with faith in God’s purposes for them received healing of the venom caused by their sin. In the same way those who fix their attention on Christ receive healing for the sickness caused by the sin of the world.

Two Further “Liftings”

On September 14 the Church remembers two other occasions when Christ was “lifted up”: the Exaltations of the Holy Cross. The feast recalls the finding of the cross in the fourth century by St Helena and the recapture of the cross from Persian invaders by Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century. A highlight of the feast is the lifting up of the cross in blessing over the world while “Lord, have mercy” is repeatedly sung. We are invited to fix our attention on Christ who was lifted upon the cross for us. The cross, like the Eucharist, is an antitype of Christ. While a type is something in the past that is fulfilled in the future, an antitype is something in the present that connects us to the climactic events of our salvation. As we look upon the cross lifted up on this feast we see, as the Israelites did before us, both our sin which brought about Christ’s suffering and His victory which brings about our healing.
Prefiguring you, the most precious Cross, Moses lifted a brazen serpent up high on a pole to oppose the fiery serpents, as it is written. By you we are delivered from the deception of the spiritual serpents.
Canon of the Forefeast
 
ST. LUKE'S GOSPEL an interesting insight into the character of St Peter. We read there that, meeting the disciples - who had spent a fruitless night fishing - the Lord Jesus encouraged them to throw their nets in again. “Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. … When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken” (Luke 5:5-9).  Simon had encountered something he did not understand and judged – rightly, as it happened – that it must have been an experience of God’s power. His first reaction was to shrink away from this holy man Jesus. He felt deeply inadequate before the holy; he didn’t belong in Jesus’ company and felt that he would be consumed by this contact for which he was so unprepared.

The Fear of God

This sense of utter inadequacy before the Lord is what the Scriptures call “the fear of God.” “Fear of God” is a phrase we hear repeatedly in our Liturgy. In the Great Litany the deacon invites us: “For this holy house and for those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.” The phrase is repeated when the deacon invites us to receive Communion: “Approach in the fear of God with faith and with love.” We are the ones who have entered “this holy house” and are invited to the Lord’s Table. Do we do so with the fear of God? And just what kind of fear is it? The English author C.S. Lewis wrote that fear of God is not like fear of a wild animal. It is not terror that God is out to get us. Nor is it panic that we will be punished once God catches sight of us, like a schoolmaster looking for the culprit who is disturbing the class. The fear of God, which is praised as a virtue in both Old and New Testaments, is rather the sense of our inadequacy before God that destroys any false sense of self-confidence or self-righteousness we may have once we glimpse the truly holy. St Peter, like many of the first disciples of the Lord Jesus, was a sincerely observant Jew. He kept the Law as best he could, observed the Sabbath and the holy days and the rest; but Peter sensed the difference between these “icons of holiness” (if we can invent such a term) and the real thing (the Lord Jesus). Many of us were raised in the Church and grew up amid its “icons of holiness.” We may have learned the “right answers” expounded in the catechism. We may have learned prayers, practices, principles of morality and the meaning of many elements of our Church’s life but never truly experienced the presence of God. If so, we may find it difficult to appreciate the concept of the “fear of God.” But we then run the risk of believing that we understand God because we know when and how we are to fast or what the Church teaches on this or that matter. But a relationship with God is more than a matter of ritual or doctrine or anything we may feel we possess. As we read in the Sermon on the Mount, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22-23).

The Beginning of True Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; knowledge of the Holy One brings understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Not only is fear of God described in Scripture as a virtue, it is praised as the key to true wisdom. In our culture wisdom is often considered the product of how much information we have acquired. In the spiritual life, however, information alone does not make one wise – particularly physical knowledge gained by the senses. As the twentieth-century Serbian saint Nikolai of Zicha noted, “If someone were to know the number of stars in the heavens and the names of the fish in the sea, the amount of grass in the field and the habits of the beasts in the forest but would not have the fear of God, his knowledge is as water in a sieve. Before his death, his knowledge makes him a greater coward than the completely ignorant.” The depression and despair many in the intellectual elite feel at the approach of death confirms the saint’s teaching. True understanding comes from experiencing our inadequacy in the face of God’s greatness and learning to rely on His compassion.

The Two-fold Fear of God

As with everything in the spiritual life, fear of God is not static: it grows and develops as our experience matures. St Maximos the Confessor expressed it this way:
“Fear of God is of two kinds. The first is generated in us by the threat of punishment. It is through such fear that we develop, in due order, self-control, patience, hope in God and detachment; and it is from detachment that love comes. “The second kind of fear is linked with love and constantly produces reverence in the soul, so that it does not grow indifferent to God because of the intimate communion of its love. The first kind of fear is expelled by perfect love when the soul has acquired this and is no longer afraid of punishment” (First Century on Love, 81-82).
Our fear of God, then, is like a child’s perception of its parent. At first an errant child fears what his parent will do to him when his disobedience is discovered. Later he grows to fear hurting his parent’s feelings, showing ingratitude or being separated from the parent. Fear of God is not meant to disappear as we grow to love God but to develop into that mature realization of the love of God despite our weaknesses, which we call true worship.
Fear of God and Humility
‘There is a humility that comes from the fear of God, and there is a humility that comes from the fervent love of God. One person is humbled because of his fear of God; another is humbled because of his joy. “The person humbled from fear of God is possessed of modesty in his members, a right ordering of his senses, and a heart contrite at all times. But the man humbled because of joy is possessed of great exuberance and an open and insuppressible heart”
(The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian)
 
WE KNOW FROM SEVERAL of his epistles how adamant St. Paul was against keeping the prescriptions of the Torah – circumcision, the dietary rules and the like. In the Epistle to the Galatians we see one reason why some new Christians proposed keeping them: they wanted to fit in with the Jewish community in order to avoid persecution. “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12). First persecutors of this new community, the followers of Jesus, were Jews. Paul himself had been one of the most dedicated. The Acts of the Apostles describes his zeal in combating them. “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1). By being circumcised, keeping the Torah rules and not mingling with Gentiles, some Jewish followers of Jesus felt that the opposition of the more fervent Jews would be muted. St Paul approached the issue from the other side. The message of the Gospel was that neither the Torah nor the Temple saved; only faith in the Lord Jesus. If believers in Jesus continued to observe these Jewish practices, he argued, it is the Gospel message which would be muffled. People would no longer see Christ as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), the only way to the Father. The unique saving role of Christ in God’s plan would be forgotten.

The Practice of Fitting In

Christians throughout the history of the Church have found themselves is situations where they were eyed with distaste. Christians were considered outsiders at best or traitors at worst if they did not conform to the religious or ethical practices of the majority. The choice believers had in such cases has always been either to confront the majority by upholding their faith in Christ, to adopt the religion of the majority or to attempt a compromise: to keep their faith privately while seemingly observing non-Christian practices. For the first three centuries of Christianity (the Roman era) Christians were suspected of superstitious practices corroding the fabric of the empire. They refused to take part in the state ceremonies honoring the gods and held secret rites behind closed doors. Their neglect of the ancient gods, many believed, would bring disaster on the empire. When confronted, some Christians resisted and upheld their faith. They are revered today as martyrs or confessors. Others renounced their faith, offering sacrifices to the Roman gods or burning incense before their statues. Still others found ways of seeming to fit in. Some signed certificates stating that they honored the gods. In one such document which survived the author says, “I have always continued to sacrifice and show reverence to the gods; and now in your presence I have poured a libation and sacrificed, eating some of the sacrificial meat. I request you to certify this for me…” Often no sacrifices were offered; such documents were simply bought by bribing the officials. Other Christians went into hiding until the danger passed. When the first empire-wide persecution of Christians came to an end in 260, many of those who had sacrificed or bought certificates returned to the Church. Christians did not agree on whether or how they should be received. Most Churches received these people back but with varying penalties. In some places those who had actually offered sacrifices were received as penitents who would only receive absolution and Communion on their deathbeds. Those who had obtained certificates without actually offering sacrifices were to remain as penitents for two years. Those who had betrayed other believers or who had handed over the Church’s Scriptures or holy vessels to be destroyed received additional penances before being readmitted to Communion.

Crypto-Christians

In the Middle East and throughout the Ottoman Empire communities of “Crypto” or “Hidden” Christians arose. These people seemingly converted to Islam while adhering to Christian practices in secret. Many of these communities survived until the dawn of the modern era. There are reportedly still Crypto-Armenian Christians in Turkey and Crypto-Christian groups of Greeks, Latins, and Maronites in Turkish-dominated parts of Cyprus. Perhaps the most famous Crypto-Christians are the Kakure Kirishitan of Japan who found ways of adapting and concealing their faith during persecutions in the seventeenth century. Images of Christ and the saints were transformed to look like Buddhist figures and prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist chants. Some 30,000 of these secret Christians emerged in the nineteenth century when religious freedom was restored. Most renounced any syncretistic practices and rejoined the Catholic Church.

Fitting-In in a Secular Age

In our society conflicts with other recognized religions such as Buddhism are nowhere near as common as conflicts with the value-free lifestyles promoted by many in our secular society. Most people recognize that the historic Churches oppose abortion and have done so since the first century. Other sanctity of life issues such as euthanasia and the profit-driven restrictions on treatment of some managed care systems demand similar choices. Nurses, technicians and other medical personnel may be faced with choices comparable to those described above. Do they refuse to participate in immoral activities and risk losing their jobs or do they commit the sin their employers demand? Observers see a number of areas in modern life in addition to health care presenting similar conflicts, among them:
  • Education – Activists pressure schools to endorse homosexuality, same-sex marriage or sexual permissiveness in their curricula and student activities. Must Christian teachers choose between going along or losing their jobs? Must Christian parents sacrifice to send their children to private schools or to homeschool them rather than leave them where such views are considered “normal?”
  • Politics – Catholics and Orthodox in politics must daily choose between accepting the agendas of their donors and constituents or following the Gospel. As a rule such demands are not made publicly in this country but this is not true elsewhere. In May, 2014 Canada’s Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau stated, “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding [sic] that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.” 

The Tradition on Abortion


First and second century documents show that abortion has never been acceptable in the Church. Speaking of what distinguishes Christians from pagans: "They marry, as do all others; they beget children but they do not cast away fetuses" (From the Letter to Diognetus). "You shall not slay the child by abortions" (From the Didache) "You shall not destroy your conceptions before they are brought forth; nor kill them after they are born" (From the Letter of Barnabas) "Those who use abortifacients commit homicide" (From the Epistle of St. Clement).

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