Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
RESEARCHING FAMILY HISTORY has become a favorite pastime for many Americans seeking to discover their roots. One reason for this resurgent interest is that, for many, family history was ignored for so long. Many Americans see themselves as forward-looking rather than as fixated on their past. The growing interest in genealogical research shows that at least some Americans want to know where they came from.

In more traditional societies, one’s family tree may be a source of pride or amusement, but it is always an object of interest. Little wonder, then, that the first Christians displayed an interest in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ. They had encountered Him healing the sick and touching their hearts. They knew Him as the One who forgave sins, raised the dead and rose Himself. They looked to His ancestry to discover more about who He really was.

“Son of David, Son of Abraham”

St Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-16); it is the passage we read each year on the Sunday before Christmas. The first words of the passage – biblios geneseos Iisous Christos, translated literally as “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” – would remind the reader of the entire sweep of Jewish history by hearkening back to Genesis, the first Book of the Torah. They would realize that Christ was being presented as both the beginning and the climax of God’s dealing with the human race, starting in the Garden.

Matthew’s genealogy presents Christ as descended from David through the house of Joseph, His adoptive father. Since the time of King David (tenth century bc), Jewish rulers had based their authority on their connection to David. The awaited Messiah was presented in Jewish tradition as “the son of David” for a similar reason: to show that he, like David, was anointed by God to be Israel’s deliverer.

In this passage, Jesus’ ancestry is traced back another millennium to the patriarch Abraham, with whom God had made His first covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. For the first Christians, portraying Jesus as the son of Abraham meant that He was the personification of the nation, heir to the promises made by God to Abraham and to his seed, “who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).

Commentators have pointed out other aspects of this passage which reflect the early Church’s faith in Christ. In this listing of fathers and sons, we find two women – and foreign women at that! This indicates that Jesus is not only son of Abraham and David. He is son of all mankind – Jew and Gentile, male and female – truly one of us in the flesh.

Finally, we note that, besides being an exercise in genealogy, this passage is also built on numerology: the significance of numbers in the narrative it recounts. The ancestry of Christ is divided into three groups of fourteen, the numerological equivalent of “David.” Several less-than-worthy individuals are removed from the Old Testament lists to come up with this number, leaving us with a catalog of the righteous ancestors of Christ. This grouping also alludes to the 28-day lunar cycle. Like the star of Bethlehem, the moon is introduced to show the cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth.

These interpretations suggest that Matthew’s genealogy is an example of what Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, called “interpreted history”: based on events that actually happened, but presented “as they were interpreted and understood in the context of the Word of God.”

“Son of Adam”

St Luke’s Gospel also contains a genealogy: one with a different placement and a different emphasis. While Matthew connects Jesus’ lineage with the story of His birth, Luke places it in the context of His hearers’ idea of Him. “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of…” (Luke 3:23). And while Matthew emphasizes the connections between Jesus, David and Abraham, Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke, of Gentile origin, traces Christ back to the beginnings of the human race, stressing His connection with all mankind. Jesus is not only a son of Israel, but of the entire human race.

Many commentators have noted other discrepancies between these genealogies which would be contradictory, if these passages were not ‘interpreted history.” Thus St Ambrose sees Matthew showing Christ’s royal family heritage and Luke stressing His priestly connection. “We should not consider one account truer,” he writes, “but that the one agrees with the other in equal faith and truth. According to the flesh, Jesus was truly of a royal and priestly family, King from kings, Priest from priests” (Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Luke, 87-88).

Fr John Custer summarizes another theological message in this passage. “Adam has no other ‘father’ but God and no ‘mother’ but the virgin earth from which he was taken. Adam became a ‘living being’ when God breathed into him (Genesiss 2:7). All this resembles the Holy Spirit over-shadowing the Virgin Mary in the conception of Jesus, whose only true father is God” (The Holy Gospel, a Byzantine Perspective, p.408).

“In the Beginning Was the Word”

While not offering a genealogy in the same sense, St John’s Gospel begins with another Genesis-like statement on the Lord’s origins. Using the same opening words as the Book of Genesis, (definitely not an oversight), John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1). The Son of God became incarnate in time (John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”); but even before that, before time, He was with the Father as His eternal Son.

Canon of the Fore-feast, Ode 3

The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary without seed. Let us lift up our voices to the Lord and say: “You have lifted us up from our fallen state. Holy are You, O Christ our God!”

The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. We sing to Him! And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary, for He willed to lift up the human race which fell through the deadly advice of the serpent.

He who is enthroned in the highest heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit saw the humiliation of the human race. The Son of the Father, without beginning, enters into time. Behold, He allows Himself to be born in the flesh as man.

The All-Holy One, who surpasses the angels and all creation in holiness, now gives birth in the flesh to the Messenger of the Father, the Angel of His Great Counsel, in order to lift up those who ceaselessly sing, “Holy are You, O Christ our God!”
 
CHURCHES AND INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIANS of many traditions are displaying Nativity scenes this season. All of them will include an image of the Virgin Mary, although there are serious differences in how these Christians view her. The historic Churches, Eastern and Western, reverence her as blessed and ever-virgin and ask her to intercede with God for us. Most Protestants do not, in the view that there is no warrant in the Bible for such activity. Reverence for the Virgin Mary arose in the early Church in view of its growing belief that her Son, the Lord Jesus, is truly Godv and Man. The story of the annunciation – which is in the New Testament (Luke 1:26-38) – depicts Him as “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God,” conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit of a woman who has “not known a man.” His conception in Mary’s womb was a sign of His true divinity, and reverence for His mother was a way of proclaiming Him as God. By the second century thinkers like St Justin the Philosopher were describing Mary as the “new Eve,” in much the same way that St Paul spoke of Christ as the new Adam: “Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary conceived faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her” (Dialogue with Trypho, 100). As Eve took part in Adam’s sin, Mary was seen as somehow taking part in Christ’s reversal of Adam’s fall.

Stories of Mary’s Birth

As the Eastern Churches continue to do today, early Christians revered oral and other written traditions as well as the Scriptures as ways in which the Holy Spirit reveals the things of God to us.  The second-century Protoevangelium of James is one of the most revered of these non-Biblical texts. It speaks of Mary’s own conception in the womb of St Ann, her birth and her presentation in the temple at Jerusalem. This work also teaches Mary’s virginity before giving birth, the miraculous way in which she gave birth, and her physical virginity even after giving birth. The Protoevangelium would influence, not only subsequent theology, but also the prayer-life of all believers. Our feasts of the Maternity of St Ann (December 9), the Nativity of the Theotokos (September 8) and her Entrance into the Temple (November 21) are all based on this work.

“Theotokos” and “Aeiparthenos”

During the second- and third-century controversies about the divinity of Christ two terms describing the Virgin Mary came into use to support the position that Christ was fully both God and man by nature. The term Theotokos (she who bore God) had been in use in the Church of Alexandria at least from the time of the Arian controversy. They had concluded that, since Jesus Christ is “true God from true God” as the Council of Nicaea (325) declared, His Mother can rightly be said to have borne God in her womb. Churches in the tradition of Antioch, however, expressed doubts about adopting this title. The ensuing Council of Ephesus (431) affirmed the use of Theotokos and deposed the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorios, who had banned its use. By identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word, the council underscored the teaching that Christ was indivisibly God and Man. Devotion to the Virgin Mary and the use of prayer for her intercession spread after this council throughout the Churches. All the historic Churches, except for the Assyrian Church of the East, refer to Mary as Theotokos while the Assyrian Church uses the title “Mother of Christ our God.” In the 1994 Agreed Statement between their two Churches the Pope of Rome, John Paul II, and the Catholikos of the Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, affirmed: “We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety.” The term Aeiparthenos (ever-virgin), widely used in our liturgy, was also popularized at this time, although it did not carry the same weight as Theotokos. The idea that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived and gave birth but ever after was taught as early as the second century, notably by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and became increasingly popular in the fourth century. St Epiphanios of Salamis in Cyprus attests to its widespread acceptance at that time, even while minimizing its importance: “Now how could Joseph dare to have relations with the Virgin Mary whose holiness was so great? But even if she had sexual relations – and perish that thought! – what good would it do us to inquire into this? Which is the better choice, to leave the matter to God, or to insist on what is bad? Plainly, Scripture has not told us that we may not have eternal life, but will go to Judgment unless we believe that Mary had relations again” (Section 780). St John Chrysostom (347-407) defended the perpetual virginity of Mary on a number of grounds, one of which was the Gospel affirmation that, after the crucifixion, “from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:27). This was seen to imply that, after the deaths of Joseph and now Jesus, there was no one else to look after Mary and she had to be entrusted to St John.

Whose Children Were They?

The New Testament includes several mentions of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, such as this one: ““Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?  Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary and His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did He get all these things?” (Matthew 13:54-6) The Gospels depict Jesus’ relatives as resisting His ministry during His earthly life. St Paul reports that the risen Christ appeared to James (cf 1 Corinthians 15:7); subsequently he and other family members became active disciples, with James leading the Church in Jerusalem. The New Testament includes epistles of James and Jude, showing the esteem in which the apostolic Church held them. The Protoevangelium of James affirmed that Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. Eastern writers such as Origen took up this view and it is the most commonly held opinion among Eastern Christians. Thus James is often depicted in icons of the flight into Egypt as a boy walking alongside Joseph. St Jerome, the fourth-century Illyrian monk and Biblical interpreter, held that “brothers and sisters” was a way of saying “relatives” and that James and the others would have been Jesus’ cousins. This is the generally accepted position among Western Catholics. Many Protestants today teach that Mary was a virgin only until the birth of Christ because nothing beyond that is mentioned in the Scriptures. They might be surprised to learn that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other leaders of the Reformation all agreed that the Virgin Mary did not have other children. They did not deny the traditional teachings, but rejected those excessive devotions that exalted Mary at the expense of Christ. Some Anglicans and Lutherans have revived veneration of the Holy Virgin, careful that that “any interpretation of the role of Mary must not obscure the unique mediation of Christ” and that “any consideration of Mary must be linked with the doctrines of Christ and the Church” (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation).
 
FROM DECEMBER 20 TO 24 we observe a five-day “holy week” during which Christ’s birth seems ever closer. This fore-feast of the Nativity culminates on December 24, the Paramony of the feast. During these days we focus on how the birth of the long-expected Messiah is at hand. As we sing during those days, “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner.” The hope that One would come to deliver God’s people from their enemies is found throughout the Old Testament. In Numbers 24 we read a prophecy of Balaam, “I see a star that rises out of Jacob, a stem that springs from Israel’s root; one who shall lay low the chiefs of Moab, shall bring devastation on all the posterity of Seth” (v.17). The “star rising out of Jacob” is a way of saying “a descendant of Jacob.” As we read in Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus was a descendant of Jacob. This expected one was clearly a national leader who would deliver the Israelites from their enemies. Jewish people expected this kind of savior throughout their history. Some Jews, however, looked for more. They read God’s promise to David to mean that the kingdom of Solomon would endure forever: “When your days are ended, and you are laid to rest beside your fathers, I will grant you for successor a son of your own body, established firmly on his throne. He it is who shall build a house to do my name honor. I will prolong forever his royal dynasty” (2 Samuel 7:12-13). As we read in Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus was a descendant of David. The prophets deepened the Jews’ understanding of just who the Messiah would be. We read in Isaiah 40, “Tell the cities of Juda, See, your God comes! See, the Lord God is coming, revealed in power, with his own strong arm for warrant; and see, they come with him, they walk before him, the reward of his labor, the achievement of his task, his own flock! Like a shepherd he tends them, gathers up the lambs and carries them in his bosom” (vv. 10, 11). The promised One is the Lord Himself, our Good Shepherd.

The Tree of Life

Every day during the fore-feast of the Nativity we sing the following troparion: Bethlehem, make ready for Eden has been opened for all. Ephrata, be alert for the Tree of Life has blossomed forth from the Virgin in the cave. Her womb had become a spiritual Paradise, wherein the divine Fruit was planted – and if we eat of it we shall live and not die like Adam. Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning. Like much of our liturgical hymnody, this troparion incorporates a theme drawn from the writings of the Church Fathers: “The Fruit of righteousness and the Tree of Life is Christ. He alone, as man, fulfilled all righteousness. And with His own underived life He has brought forth the fruits of knowledge and virtue like a tree, whereof they that eat shall receive eternal life, and shall enjoy the tree of life in paradise, with Adam and all the righteous” (St Hippolytus of Rome, Commentary on Proverbs). In the Genesis story of creation the Tree of Life was the giver of immortality from which fallen man could not be allowed to eat (cf Genesis 3:22). Were he to do so, Genesis suggests, sin would live forever. For us, however, Christ is the source of our immortality. He is the Tree of Life and, sinners though we are, we are called to eat of this Tree and live forever. We also find the Tree of Life in the last chapter of Revelation. There the Tree is in the center of the New Jerusalem, the ultimate Paradise. For St Augustine and other Fathers, “Paradise is the Church, as it is called in the Canticles…the Tree of life is the holy of holies, Christ…” (St Augustine, The City of God). Christ, at the heart of the Church, gives us life through the Holy Spirit who works in the Church. In our troparion Christ is called the Fruit planted in the spiritual paradise of the Virgin’s womb. As Mary’s cousin Elizabeth proclaimed – with countless generations after her – “Blessed is the Fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42)

The Paramony of the Nativity

Usually translated as vigil or eve, paramony actually refers to the uninterrupted nature of the Church’s prayer on this day. During the day the lengthier Great Hours or Royal Hours are chanted. The Royal Hours replace the ordinary First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours, served every day in Byzantine practice. They contain some different psalms as well as readings from both the Old and New Testaments. While for most of the year the Hours are “cell services” – without choral responses or accompanying ritual, meant to be served by monastics in their cells (or by anyone at work or at home), the Royal Hours are served solemnly in church with hymns, Scripture readings and ceremony, concluding with the Typika. The name “Royal Hours” comes from the practice of the Great Church in Constantinople. The emperor and his court would attend the Hours on these days, emphasizing their importance in the life of the Church. The Royal Hours are served on the Paramony of Christmas, the Paramony of the Theophany and on Great and Holy Friday, which we might call the “Paramony of Pascha.” In addition, some Greek Churches serve the Royal Hours on the Eve of Pentecost as well, but without fasting. At the Royal Hours the following prophecies are read. Each one has found fulfilment in the Nativity of Christ: Micah 5:2-4 “But you, Bethlehem Ephratha, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel.” Baruch 3:36-4:4 “Wisdom has appeared on earth, is at home with mortals… what pleases God has been revealed to us!” Isaiah 7:10-16 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 9:6-7 “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; the government will be upon His shoulder and His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

A Day of Fasting

The Paramony is a strict fast day. Many people don’t eat anything until the evening. This is why the Divine Liturgy is not served until the end of the fasting day, when it is joined to a more elaborate than usual Great Vespers. As on other fast days, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is prescribed for Christmas Eve. In the fullest observance a special service of Great Compline with a Litia for the feast ends the day. Sometimes this leads directly into the Orthros and Divine Liturgy of December 25. The same order is also prescribed for the Eve of the Theophany. In some countries of Eastern Europe the Paramony culminates with a Holy Supper of twelve vegan courses representing the apostles. In the Balkans wheat pies and kutia (boiled wheat) are popular on this day. Come, O Bethlehem, and prepare a birth-place with the most precious manger and the God-bearing swaddling-bands, in which our Life was wrapped. Come, O Joseph, and register yourself with Mary! Christ our God breaks asunder the bonds of death, enfolding men in incorruption. Prepare yourself, O Bethlehem! Adorn yourself well, O manger! The Truth has come! Receive Him, O cave! The shadow has passed away, and God hath appeared to men through the Virgin, assuming our form and deifying our flesh. Wherefore, Adam is restored, and cries out with Eve: Blessing has appeared on earth to save our race!
 
IN OUR FIRST TONE TROPARION of the resurrection, sung repeatedly throughout the year, we chant these words: “Glory to Your economy, O You who alone are the Lover of mankind.” Our secular society uses the word economy for financial matters exclusively; the term has other meanings in the Church, particularly in the East. “Divine economy” is the traditional way we refer to the way God interacts with the world, particularly in achieving the restoration of humanity to communion with Himself. Sometimes the term is paraphrased as plan of salvation or dispensation. The creation itself, and all the events connected with our redemption in Jesus Christ are included in the Church’s term economy. They are the way God “manages” His creation. The highpoint of God’s plan for us is the Incarnation of the Word. Everything in the divine economy leading up to the coming of Christ is in some way a preparation for this event. The saga of Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites in Egypt, their exodus to the promised land and their subsequent history are all aspects of this plan which St Paul calls “the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:9). One particular moment in the story of Israel figures prominently in our celebration during the Nativity Fast: the exile of the Jews to Babylon and the experience of three of them in the fiery furnace. These three young men are remembered along with the prophet Daniel on December 17 each year. They are also specifically invoked on the two Sundays before the Nativity because of the accomplishments of their faith.

The Babylonian Exile

In 605 bc the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and made its king a vassal. Responding to several rebellious incidents the Babylonians pillaged the city in 597 BC and destroyed the temple built by Solomon. The Jewish king, his court and many prominent Jews were taken captive and deported to Babylon. Their exile would end in 538 BC when the Persian king Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home.

The Book of Daniel

The story of the exile and captivity of the Jews forms the background of the Book of Daniel. Its present form, written in Hebrew and Greek, dates to the mid-second century bc, but contains some original Aramaic tales dating from the exile as well. It is generally considered an apocalyptic book, offering its readers consolation that their present troubles (Greek and Roman occupation) would one day end as the Babylonian exile had ended: with the liberation of the Jews and the restoration of true worship. Daniel was a highly placed Jew, highly regarded for his faithfulness to the Law in an era when the Law was largely neglected. The prophet Ezechiel, who lived through the Babylonian exile, puts Daniel in the highest company in this prophecy: “The word of the Lord came again to me, saying: ‘Son of man, when a land sins against Me by persistent unfaithfulness, I will stretch out My hand against it; I will cut off its supply of bread, send famine on it, and cut off man and beast from it. Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job, were in it, they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness,’ says the Lord God” (Ezekial 14:14). The first part of the book includes three dramatic and prophetic scenes concerning Daniel and three other young Jewish nobles. When they were taken captive, they were impressed into their captor’s service and given Babylonian names.  “Then the king instructed Ashpenaz, the master of his eunuchs, to bring some of the children of Israel and some of the king’s descendants and some of the nobles, young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans.  And the king appointed for them a daily provision of the king’s delicacies and of the wine which he drank, and three years of training for them, so that at the end of that time they might serve before the king. Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego” (Daniel 1:3-7). The book uses these names indiscriminately, which sometimes confuses readers. From the first these young Jews refused to violate the Law. They would not eat the meats given them and would only eat vegetables. Nevertheless they rose to positions of responsibility in the Babylonian Empire. When Nebuchadnezzar erected a golden idol on the plain of Dura, the three young men refused to worship it as the king had commanded, even though he had stipulated: “whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:6). When confronted by the king the three Jews insisted, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan 3:17-18). They knew that God could deliver them and believed that He would. But if that was not His will, they would not lose faith: they still were not going to worship the idol. “And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?’ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ ‘Look!” he answered, ‘I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like a Son of God’” (Daniel 3:23-25). The angel of God who protected these young Jews is seen by the Church as a type of Christ, the One who walks among His people at all times, in the midst of every circumstance, even when God seems absent. It is He whose coming in the flesh we are about to celebrate.
Troparion and Kontakion (Dec. 17)

Faith can accomplish great things! Through it the three holy young men rejoice in the flames as if they had been in refreshing water; and Daniel in the midst of lions is like a shepherd among his sheep. Through their intercession, O Christ God, save our souls.


Armed with God’s invisible power, you shunned the adoration of man-made idols, O thrice-blessed young men. Strengthened with this power beyond words, you stood in the midst of a devouring fire and called upon God, saying: “Hasten, O merciful One, and speed to our help, for You are good and have the might to do as You please.”

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