Melkite Greek Catholic Church
“This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). The last words of this Gospel passage explain its selection for reading at today’s Divine Liturgy, In the home stretch of the Great Fast we may need to be reminded that effectiveness in the Christian life demands more than occasional application. We must apply ourselves regularly and consistently to maintaining our life in Christ for it to bear fruit. This constant living out of our faith is called asceticism, from the Greek word for “struggle,” ascesis. St Paul witnesses frequently to the ascetical nature of Christian spiritual life. He uses both athletic and military imagery to present the life in Christ as, at least in part, a struggle. Consider the following:
  • “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. … and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:12-14).
  • “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26)
  • “Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
  • “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil….For we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” (Ephesians 6:11-12).
  • “…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
  • “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day…” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Training for an athletic contest or for a military expedition demands single-minded commitment to the struggle. One’s eye must be continually on the goal and our will firm to do anything in order to achieve it.

A Spiritual Combat

In St Paul’s day Christians had no lack of enemies striving to eliminate their Churches as damaging to the state or to established religions. Yet the Apostle does not finger these opponents when describing the struggle. St Paul identified what would later be called spiritual warfare: the interior struggle to keep our minds and hearts centered on the Lord. “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23). The real struggle, Paul teaches, is not with enemies outside but with our own broken nature. The arena where Christians would struggle was not the coliseum but the heart. The Church’s spiritual masters from the Desert Fathers to our own day have sought to determine the course of our spiritual struggle. They agree that our interior combat begins with the assault of what they called logismoi, random thoughts that suggest definite wrongdoing or simply not doing what it takes to keep in shape. There is no word to accurately translate logismoi. It has been variously translated as “prodigal thoughts,” “impulses,” “provocations,” “temptations” or “the seeds of the passions, those suggestions or impulses that emerge from the subconscious and soon become obsessive… blockages, usurpations, deviations that destroy the human being’s basic desire.” These “prodigal thoughts” come to us unbidden from our past, from what we see others do, from entertainment media, from many sources. We may dismiss them and continue on our chosen path or entertain them, allowing them to convince us that what they propose is right for us. As Evagrius of Pontus noted in the fourth century, “It is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware) once described logismoi as “first whispered by demons in obedience to the will of the Satan (the Tempter),” locating their source as further beyond our broken nature. This, too, is suggested by St. Paul who teaches that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Evagrius, writing in the same tradition, insists, “Demons first inspire thoughts and these, when they are allowed to linger, unleash the passions in us. The remedy against this system of demonic attacks is a constant vigilance over thoughts, never allowing them to linger.” Right about now many of us may be assaulted by logismoi suggesting that we dispense ourselves from the Fast, skip a Lenten service, or return to any amusements we have given up for the season. We may be like many who commit themselves to regimens of diet and exercise for a short time and then are tempted to abandon them because they do not see speedy progress. It is, however, one’s commitment to the contest which brings about greater results. As Pope Paul VI noted in another context, “All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.” 

Prayer, Fasting and Spiritual Power
The nineteenth century Russian Saint, Theophan the Recluse, once wrote, “The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as avoid a painful blow.” The opposite is also true as we read in Sotos Chondropoulos’ life of St. Nectarios of Aegina: “One time there was an archimandrite from Egypt who found himself in Athens on some religious business. Although he was a cleric, he was one only by profession… When he performed the Divine Liturgy he did it mechanically, without the faith and humility which is required…” 
[Told about a girl supposedly possessed by an evil spirit, he asserted confidently “There are no demons today” and declared that girl must be a schizophrenic. He would see for himself. When he arrives the possessed girl addressed him laughingly] “My dear priest, how beautiful and playful you seem…” Seizing him she shouted “You dirty, filthy worm… Isn’t it you that hasn’t left a girl or woman in Alexandria untouched? You dare to insist that I do not exist? Then I will make an account of all the ‘good works’ you have done as a mocker of sacred things.” [She told of one scandalous incident after another. The archimandrite collapsed and had to be taken away. The girl was eventually freed from the spirit after being anointed with oil from a lamp at St Nektarios’ tomb.]
WHEN THE RISEN CHRIST APPEARED to His disciples He reminded them “…that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). When we think of the Old Testament prophecies we naturally look to figures like Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest who are formally labeled as “prophets.” The Lord’s words quoted above indicate that there are also prophecies in the Law and in the Psalms as well. In the New Testament there are several psalm verses quoted as referring to the Lord Jesus as the Messiah. At the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, Psalm 2:7 is cited: “To which of the angels did He [i.e. God] ever say, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You’” (Hebrews 1:5). The first Christians did not invent the idea that Scriptural events and texts applied to the Messiah. The Jews looked to the coming of the Messiah and saw references to him in the Scriptures. Early Christians were simply continuing a tradition they had received from Judaism. The difference, of course, was that the Christian believed that Jesus was that Messiah and the Scriptures referred to Him.

Messianic Prophecies in the Psalms

In his Letter to Marcellinus, St. Athanasius the Great, the fourth century archbishop of Alexandria, gave his reader an overview of the psalms understood as referring to the Messiah. He writes, “If you want to sing Psalms that speak especially about the Savior you will find something in almost all of them; but 45 and 110 relate particularly to His Divine Begetting from the Father and His coming in the flesh, while 22 and 69 foretell the holy cross, the grievous plot He endured and what great things He suffered for our sakes. The 3rd and the 109th also display the snares and malice of the Jews and how Iscariot betrayed Him; 21, 50 and 72 all set Him forth as Judge and foretell His Second Coming in the flesh to us; they also show the call of the Gentiles. The 16th shows His resurrection from the dead in the flesh; the 24th and 47th His ascension into heaven. And in the four Psalms 93, 96, 98 and 99 all the benefits deriving to us from the Savior’s Passion are set forth together.” (While St. Athanasius followed the numbering in the Greek Septuagint version (LXX), the above translation follows the Hebrew numeration rather than the Greek, since that is the system used in most English versions.) We often find psalms and individual verses interpreted as messianic in the liturgical services, particularly on the Great Feasts. Verses of Psalm 2, for example, are associated with the Feast of Christ’s Nativity and also with Holy Friday: “Why do the nations rage and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed” (Psalm 2:1,2). At Christmas these verses bring to mind Herod’s plot against the Infant; on Holy Friday they speak to us of the Sanhedrin denouncing Jesus to Pilate. A subsequent verse – “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision” (Psalm 2:4) – recall the ultimate failure of both these plots to destroy the Lord Jesus. Messianic foreshadowings in other psalms have made them important parts of our liturgical celebrations of the mysteries they typify. Psalm 22 (LXX: 21), for example, is for many Christians a description of the experience of Christ on the cross. Mt 27:46 indicates that Christ began to recite this psalm as He was dying. The opening verses of Psalm 68 (LXX: 67) are sung with the refrain “Christ is risen…” as the solemn proclamation of the resurrection on Pascha. Christ’s ascension is understandably evoked in Psalm 47:5 (LXX: 46): “God has gone up with a shout; the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.” One of the references to Christ in the Psalms is repeatedly quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “The Lord has sworn and he will not relent: you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4; LXX: 109). Since this epistle depicts Christ’s sacrifice in terms of the Yom Kippur ritual in the Jewish temple, applying a reference to priesthood is not surprising, but who is Melchizedek?

Priest of the Most High

Melchizedek makes his only Scriptural appearance in Genesis 14. There Abram (later Abraham), then an ally of the king of Sodom, defeats Chedorlaomer, a warring king. The king of Sodom goes out to greet Abram on his victory. Then we are told, “Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with these words: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:18-20). Some Jewish commentators identified Melchizedek with Shem, the son of Noah and descendant of Adam. In one tradition, the Book of Adam and Eve, Shem officiated at Adam’s funeral when he was fifteen, because he was a priest as Adam was. Adam’s priesthood was that of every human being: to refer all things back to their Creator in thanks and praise. To be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek would be to be a priest according to the order of Adam. Melchizedek’s priesthood was connected with a line that predates Moses and Aaron, and links him directly to Adam and God. To be a priest after the manner of Melchizedek, then, means to be a priest with a heritage that was older than that of the Jewish temple priesthood descended from Moses’ brother, Aaron. As “a priest of God Most High” from the earliest ages of mankind, Melchizedek represents a faith in the One God that predates Judaism and suggests the “natural monotheism” of ancient man. Hebrews, reflecting on the picture of Melchizedek in Genesis, describes Melkchizedek as “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God…” (Hebrews 7:3). This image suggests that Melchizedek is not a priest by descent from a priestly line, but by nature. Melchizedek was considered a fitting type of Christ, the eternal Word of God, whose priesthood is eternal and brings together Jews and Gentiles without distinction before the throne of the Father. Another image in the story of Melchizedek struck a chord for the early Christians. Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine,” probably as a gesture of hospitality. When seen in light of Melchizedek’s priesthood, these gifts become a type of the Eucharistic elements, connected to the natural priesthood of Adam and the New Testament priesthood of the New Adam, Christ.

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