Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE SUNDAY AFTER PASCHA is informally called Thomas Sunday because of the Gospel read on this day, Jn 20:19-31. Many people assume this means that Thomas Sunday is the feast of St Thomas. In fact, St Thomas is remembered in the Byzantine calendar on October 6. What we remember today is rather St Thomas’ confession of faith upon seeing the risen Christ, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).

The meaning of this event is spelled out for us by the Lord in the following verse: “Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (v.29). And if we did not see the implications of that statement for ourselves, the Gospel concludes this passage by saying, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (vv. 30, 31).

Thomas’ Confession

In our culture the exclamation “My Lord and my God!” sounds like a rather banal exclamation of surprise. Sadly, we are used to hearing casually “Oh, God!” or even the Holy Name, “Jesus Christ!” taken in vain. Yet, in first-century Judea – and among many Orthodox Jews today – saying the name of God even in prayer would be considered presumptuous. Since the third century BC Jews have refrained from using the name of God even when reading the Torah. Only the high priest was permitted to read the name of God as written in the Torah, and only on Yom Kippur. Many Jews today simply say HaShem (the Name) when reading such passages or referring to God.

Claiming to be the Son of God was blasphemy in the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of elders in Jerusalem. The Gospel indicates that Jesus was condemned to death precisely for making this claim. “And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said... Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?’ They answered and said, ‘He is deserving of death’” (Matthew 26:63-65).

Claiming to see Christ in glory caused the death of the first martyr, St Stephen, as well. Brought before the Sanhedrin he spoke of God’s mercy toward Israel, and the elders listed. But then he said, “‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:56-58).

Clearly Thomas’ exclamation is presented in the Gospel as an act of faith in Jesus as Lord.

The Apostles’ Teaching

From the beginning, the Apostles taught that Jesus, risen from the dead, was Messiah and Lord. Believers were taught to make this their act of Christian faith: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). They ascribed to Christ the title Lord (Kyrios in Greek) which was used in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, as the equivalent of God’s un-pronounceable name. To call Jesus Lord meant that you were calling Him God: precisely the confession of Thomas.

In the Roman world of the Apostles’ day, Lord was the title of the Emperor: the one who governed the lives of all his subjects. To call Jesus Lord was perceived by many as treason and caused the persecution of many, especially since the Christians often insisted that Jesus alone was Lord. The Roman world had many gods and goddesses; they could easily find room for one more. To claim, as we continue to do in our Liturgy, that only “one is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ” was another matter.

For a believer to claim that Jesus was Lord also meant that he or she was committed to Jesus’ way of life. The usual way of doing things in society was now subject to a new criterion for believers: the Gospel of Christ. This was perceived as unpatriotic by many Romans, to use a contemporary term. Christians didn’t give undivided allegiance to Rome – they had another Lord and another way of life.

Today in many societies Christians are perceived as second-class citizens because they do not follow the dominant culture. This was always true in Islam but is increasingly so in the secular west as well. In Great Britain, for example, Labour Party leader Andy Burnham has pledged to compel all faith schools to teach about gay “rights,” saying he has “no support” for religious schools who argue that it may conflict with their teachings. The consequence for Christians today is that we may be more frequently forced to choose between following the secular values of the state and its culture or the godly values of the Gospel. Choose your Lord. Jesus’ contemporaries in the wider society did not write about Him. They gradually began writing about His followers and thereby showed us what the first Christians believed about Him. From ad 111-113 Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians, whose gatherings he described in part like this: “They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as to a god…” (Epistles book 10, letter 96). As a pagan, Pliny was used to the many gods and goddesses venerated in Roman religion as so he described the Christians as reverencing Christ as “a god.” The Christians would never have said it quite like that, but Pliny is nonetheless witnessing that Christians considered Christ as divine.

A similar witness from the pagan world is Lucian of Samosata (c. ad 115-c. 200), a popular satirist in the Greek world of Asia Minor, who frequently lampooned the gods and public figures of his world as well as those who revere them. In his Passing of Peregrinus, 11 he notes that “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. …it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, deny the gods of Greece and worship the crucified sage and live after his laws.”

While Lucian does not call Jesus “a god,” he testifies that Christians worship Him instead of the gods of Greece. For them, He is clearly divine. While Jesus never said, “I am God.” All the things He did and said convinced the Apostles that He is God.

It would take the next two centuries for the Church, in response to numerous heresies, to define clearly how the Son of God was equal to the Father, and was, at the same time, both God and Man. At the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325), the description of Christ which we find in the Creed became the universal way of professing the truth of the Lord Jesus: “the Only-begotten Son of God, Light from Light, true God from true God – begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

While Thomas the Apostle may not have been able to articulate the Nicene definition of Christ, the Holy Spirit speaking through him gave us the words to express the Church’s perennial faith in Christ: “You are my Lord and my God”
 
WHY WOULD THE APOSTLE THOMAS, who moments before had refused to accept the other apostles’ witness to Christ’s resurrection, suddenly proclaim that Jesus is “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28)? This question has been discussed since the Gospel of John was written.

A Multiple Choice question on the words of St Thomas when he saw the risen Christ might look something like this:

What St Thomas meant was:
A – A simple exclamation (like OMG).
B – That Jesus was God (the Father).
C – That Jesus was the Son of the Father
D – That Jesus was a god

Each of these answers has been offered by serious authors to explain the meaning of Thomas’ words. By themselves, this phrase could mean any of these things; in the context of John’s Gospel and the Church of its day, however, the answer becomes clearer.

St John’s Gospel, the only one to contain this narrative, is the last of the canonical Gospels to be written. In its final form it dates to the end of the first century ad, and manuscript fragments dating to c. ad 125 still exist. The author’s purpose in writing this Gospel is clearly stated in John 20:30, 31: “Truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”

The aim of John’s Gospel, then, is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ, the Son of God. In line with this aim, Thomas’ words here are not presented as an ordinary exclamation, but as an act of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This rules out Answer A, above.

We are left, however, with another question: What might John have meant by calling Jesus “the Son of God”? This was not an unusual title for the Messiah – or for other important figures. It did not necessarily mean, however, what we mean by it. It was often a way of saying that the Messiah (or King or High Priest) was especially beloved or set apart by God.

When we look at the beginning of John’s Gospel, however, we see that John has a higher vision of Christ as Son of God. The Gospel begins with this famous passage: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:11-4, 14, 18). John describes the eternal Word of God, His only-begotten Son, as having become flesh and dwelt among us. He is clearly depicting the Lord Jesus as divine, eternally existing, and uniquely in the bosom of His Father.
We find similar statements in St Paul who describes the genealogy of Christ in this way:“…from them [the Israelites], according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen”(Romans. 9:5) . From the time of the Apostles and Evangelists, Christians recognized Jesus as the unique and divine Son of God. John expressed this belief more firmly and unequivocally that other Scriptural authors.

St Jerome (c. 347-420) taught that John wrote when those who denied the unique person of the Lord were gaining a hearing in the Church. “Gospels” were being written, purporting to contain the “secret” wisdom of Jesus, which resembled Egyptian philosophy rather than the Word of God. John’s work is a clear rejection of these other “Gospels.”

The Witness of Secular Society

Jesus’ contemporaries in the wider society did not write about Him. They gradually began writing about His followers and thereby showed us what the first Christians believed about Him.

From ad 111-113 Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians, whose gatherings he described in part like this: “They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as to a god…” (Epistles book 10, letter 96). As a pagan, Pliny was used to the many gods and goddesses venerated in Roman religion as so he described the Christians as reverencing Christ as “a god.” The Christians would never have said it quite like that, but Pliny is nonetheless witnessing that Christians considered Christ as divine.

A similar witness from the pagan world is Lucian of Samosata (c. ad 115-c. 200), a popular satirist in the Greek world of Asia Minor, who frequently lampooned the gods and public figures of his world as well as those who revere them. In his Passing of Peregrinus, he notes that “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. …it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, deny the gods of Greece and worship the crucified sage and live after his laws.”

While Lucian does not call Jesus a god, he testifies that the Christians worship Him instead of the gods of Greece. For them He is clearly divine. While Jesus never said, “I am God.” He did say things that would lead us to believe and understand that He is God. It would take the next several centuries for all the local Churches to express clearly how the one God could have a Son, how that Son was like the Father and be both God and Man.

At the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325), the description of Christ which we find in the Creed became the universal way of describing the Lord Jesus: “the only-begotten Son of God, Light from Light, true God from true God – begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

Subsequent councils, which discussed how Christ is God and Man, did not receive universal acceptance. This resulted in the break between the Greek and Latin Churches on one hand and the other Eastern Churches (Armenians, Copts, etc.) on the other. It is only in the modern era that Agreed Statements on Christology between these Churches have acknowledged a unity of faith in their different expressions.

While Thomas the Apostle may not have been able to articulate the Nicene definition of Christ, the Holy Spirit speaking through him gave us the words to express the Church’s ongoing faith: You are my Lord and my God”


How great is Your immense mercy, O Lover of Mankind! You endured being struck by the law-transgressors, being touched by an Apostle, and being examined by the impious. How were You made man? How were You crucified, O You, the only sinless One? Teach us to cry out to You with Thomas, “My Lord and my God, glory to You!” (Apostikhon of Vespers
 
ON THIS SUNDAY, April 23, our Church observes two feasts. The first, in the Paschal cycle, is Thomas Sunday, the remembrance of the risen Lord’s appearance to Thomas. The second, from the monthly calendar, is the Feast of the Great Martyr George. When two such observances coincide, the epistle from one and the Gospel from the second may be read at the Liturgy. Today’s epistle reading, Galatians 3:23- 4:5, is for St George.

In this passage St Paul uses a term that begs an explanation. “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law…” (Galatians 4:4). What is “the fullness of the time”? How are we to understand it?

This idea – the fullness of time – was not devised by St. Paul. The Lord Jesus had used it to describe His presence in the world. “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:15).

Time vs. Time

The first step in understanding these terms is to realize that, while our English translations use the same word in both passages, these Scriptures actually employ two different words meaning time. The Gospel phrase is “the kairos is fulfilled” while St Paul writes of the “pleroma of the chronos.” In Greek, the word chronos refers to chronological time: the days, hours and minutes by which we measure our earthly reality.

Kairos, on the other hand, has a different meaning in Greek. It refers to the right or opportune moment, a significant time for an action or a decision. Some translations of Scripture render the word kairos as “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” The same word is used at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy when the deacon says to the priest, “It is the time [kairos] for us to work for the Lord.” He does not mean, “It’s 10 AM, we’d better start” but “the moment has come for us” to fulfill our role as God’s priestly people.

While St Paul uses the term chronos, he uses it in a way that means a time fraught with meaning, in other words, like kairos. He speaks of the pleroma (fullness) of chronos. The word pleroma does not mean “full” as a quantity, but as a quality (completeness or perfection). We also use this word in our Liturgy when, after the Great Entrance, the deacon says, “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord. This does not mean, “Let’s finish up” but “Let us make our prayer complete or perfect” through the offering of the gifts we have brought forth.

Both terms “kairos” and “fullness of chronos” thus mean the same thing – it is the right time, the perfected time for God’s plan in the world to be accomplished.

What Makes This the Opportune Time?

Students of the Scriptures have long reflected on why the First Century of our era was the “right time” for the Incarnation of Christ to bring about our salvation. Many of them note that on a secular level:
  • Politically, the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean world and the civilized areas bordering it. The possibility of safe travel and improved communications brought peoples of the area closer together than ever before. Men from outlying areas were often conscripted, spreading the Roman worldview even beyond the Mediterranean. This also accounts for the number of soldiers, like St George, among the early martyrs.
  • Culturally, the influence of Greek philosophy and literature provided a more unified world view. The Greek language became the dominant language for trade over a large area, enabling communication with a wide range of peoples.
  • Religiously, belief in the numerous Greek and Roman gods and goddesses offered only local, familial and personal protection. Mystery religions emphasized sacrifices, often bloody, to attain blessings. The philosophically-minded disdained all these religions. The result was a religious void, such as St Paul encountered in Athens (see Acts 17: 16-33). To many the appeal of a universal monotheism was strong, even leading some to become proselytes, converts to Judaism, or at least sympathizers with their belief in only one God.

In the Jewish world the time was ripe as well. Many, resenting all foreign rule, were waiting for the Messiah’s immanent appearance to restore their independence. Others, like the Pharisees, were longing for a Messiah who would restore a purer observance of the Torah.

Jews of all types looked to the Old Testament for prophecies or indications of the coming Messiah, “searching what, or what manner of time [kairos], the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you… things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10-12). The first Christians, the apostolic community, saw these signs as pointing to the Lord Jesus. The time of Christ was the kairos for the fulfillment of God’s plan.

The Ultimate Fullness of Time

In Ephesians 1 St Paul expands his understanding of the fullness of time to include the ultimate union of all creation in Christ. “In Him [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself… that in the dispensation of the fullness of time He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1: 7, 9, 10). Here St Paul describes the divine economy in superlatives - the pliromatos of the kairon – in order to point to its ultimate completion, the “absolute fulfillment of super-time,” when Christ will be all in all.

On the Fullness of Time

For St John Chrysostom the first century was not a time of increasing peace and unity, but of decline.

“The fullness of time was the Son’s appearing. Then, when God had done all things through angels, prophets and the Law yet nothing had improved, there was a danger that humanity had come into being for nothing. It was not going merely nowhere, but to the bad. All were perishing together, just like in the days of the flood but more so. Just then He offered this gracious dispensation to insure that creation had not come into being for nothing or in vain. The fullness of time is that divine wisdom by which, at the moment when all were most likely to perish, they were saved” (St John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 1.1.10).
 
FOR MOST AMERICANS a holiday is a one-day affair – at most, a holiday weekend. In the Church, however, Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, is celebrated for a much longer period. We observe Christ’s resurrection for forty days, concluding it with the Great Feast of His Holy Ascension and climaxed with the Great Feast of Pentecost. Based on the fifty days between Pascha and Pentecost this season – and the book which contains the services celebrated every day – is called the Pentecostarion. Pentecostos is the Greek word for fiftieth. The paschal season contains a number of special commemorations including:
  • Bright Week – For the first week of Pascha the daily services are almost identical to the services of Pascha itself. One important characteristic of this week’s services is that they include no readings from the Psalter. With Pascha the New Covenant is in force – to emphasize this spiritual reality nothing from the Old Covenant is read this week.
  • Successive Weeks – While the services resume their regular format there are some reminders of the resurrection. “Christ is risen” and “Now that we have seen the resurrection of Christ” are sung every day. The Sunday resurrectional services in the eight tones are sung daily as well. On Sundays a liti procession and the singing of the Paschalia and the paschal canon form part of our Church’s worship.
  • Mid-Pentecost – At the mid-point of the season we celebrate the feast of Mid-Pentecost, recalling Christ’s teaching in the temple and His promise of the Holy Spirit. This feast, unique to the Byzantine rite, is so emphasized because it was the patronal feast of the Great Church of Constantinople, Aghia Sophia (Christ, the Holy Wisdom).
“We have come to the middle of those days which began with the saving Resurrection of Christ our God and end with the divine feast of Pentecost! Truly this day shines with the light of both feasts and unites them both. It radiates with the announcement of the Ascension of the Lord.”

Christ the Source of Living Water

The central theme of the Pentecostarion is that, through the resurrection, the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon the Church to transform the world. This extraordinary gift was expressed by Christ Himself in the image of living water, when He celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem with His disciples. “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified” (John 7:37-9). This passage, read at the Divine Liturgy on Pentecost, sets forth the paschal mystery as a three-stage process. The first step is the glorification of Jesus, by which the Gospel means His saving death on the cross. The cross was hardly glory in the world’s eyes, but the eyes of faith sees Christ’s humbling Himself to death as His glory, as Christ said before His arrest, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (John 13:31). This is why the inscription on the cross in Byzantine churches is not the one placed there by Pilate (“the king of the Jews”) but rather “the King of glory.” The world sees glory in terms of wealth, power, and ostentatious display. There is none of that in the cross. Christ’s “glory” is found in the depths to which He would go to take on our humanity, embracing even rejection, humiliation and death. This is why St Paul would say, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23-25). The second stage in the Gospel exposition of the paschal mystery is the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. This was possible only as a consequence of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, His resurrection and His ascension. We look again to Christ’s words here: “If I do not go away, the Helper [Paraclete] will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). “Going away” here means Christ’s return to the Father upon the completion of His earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit would remain with the Church forever, according to Christ’s promise: “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever —  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him” (John 14:16-17). The human nature which the Son of God assumed was necessarily limited by space and time. His physical presence on earth would be as temporary as is the presence of any one of us. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand did not become man and so His presence is not limited in this way; once given to us, He remains forever. These two stages are celebrated during the Pentecostarion on the feasts of Pascha, the Ascension and Pentecost. The third step set forth in Jn 7, quoted above, is that the Spirit flow through the Church to water the whole creation. It is God’s plan that the “rivers of living water will flow from within” the believer. The Holy Spirit is not given in order to remain stagnant in us but to flow out and bring life to the world. As has often been said, the Holy Spirit is more like the Jordan River than the Dead Sea. That this overflowing of the Spirit has in fact occurred is the reason for the final observance of the Pentecostarion, the Sunday of All Saints. The saints are proof that the Holy Spirit has been bestowed and has transformed people of every generation since Pentecost. They in turn have allowed this living water to touch us as well through their intercessions and through the power manifested in their relics and icons. The Holy Spirit did not take on our flesh; but to see His “face” we only need to look at the saints. The Holy Spirit is meant to flow through us as well inasmuch as we too have received Him in baptism. We are thus continually called to become who we are, as many Fathers have put it: sharers in God’s grace in whatever measure each person receives. As soon as the festive Pentecostarion season closes, we enter the Fast of the Apostles: returning to the business of Christian living, to taking up our vocation as Spirit-bearers.
From the Paschalia
Our Passover, Christ the Redeemer, is revealed to us today as a noble Passover. This is a new and holy Passover, a mystical Passover, a blameless Passover, a glorious Passover, a Passover for the faithful, a Passover that opens for us the gates of Paradise, a Passover that sanctifies all believers. Come back from what you have seen, O women heralds of good tidings, and say to Sion: “Accept from us the joyful announcement of the Resurrection of Christ! O Jerusalem, rejoice, exult and leap for joy! For you have seen Christ the King coming out of the tomb as fair as a bridegroom!” A glorious Passover has shone upon us: a Passover of the Lord, a Passover perfectly honorable. Let us embrace one another with joy! O, what a Passover, delivering from sorrow: for Christ, coming out of the tomb as from a bridal chamber, fills the women with joy by telling them to bring this happy news to the disciples.
 
A sore point in the relationship between the Churches concerns the date on which we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Often one group of Christians is observing Pascha while their neighbors may have up to a month to go before they do the same. While some people may enjoy having two festive meals as a result (they rarely observe both fasts), Christians have always seen this as a regrettable, if unavoidable anomaly.

The Quartodecimans

The oldest celebration of Christ’s resurrection is not Pascha (Easter) but every Sunday, the Lord’s Day. When an annual festival came into being is not known but it can safely be dated to the second century. The first recorded controversy over the method of calculating the date of this feast took place at the end of thAT CENTURY. THE Churches in the Roman Province of Asia (Asia Minor, today) observed this feast on the date of the Jewish Passover (14 Nisan), on whatever day of the week it falls. Churches in other parts of the Empire kept the feast as we do, always on a Sunday, specifically the Sunday following Passover. According to the early historian Eusebius, St Polycarp of Smyrna (in Asia Minor) and the Pope of Rome, Anacetus (+168) discussed their different practices when Polycarp visited Rome. At that time both practices were considered acceptable. The question became a full-blown controversy in the next generation when Pope Victor attempted to excommunicate the Asian bishops for their custom. Despite several councils ruling against the Asian practice, Victor’s bishops did not support him, and nothing was done on the matter until the First Ecumenical Council (325). This council mandated that all Churches in the Roman Empire celebrate Pascha on the same date. The Church of Alexandria, a city noted for its astronomers, came to set the standard for the Paschal feast. Each year an encyclical letter from Alexandria announced the date of the next Pascha. Their method was gradually adopted throughout Europe, becoming universal in the eighth century.

Revising the Julian Calendar

Since the year 45 BC the Julian Calendar had been the standard calendar in the Roman Empire. It determined that a year consists of 365.25 days; the “extra” quarter days would be joined together in a “leap year” every four years. Even at the time the Julian Calendar was introduced, astronomers knew that it was not perfectly accurate and that it would “lose time” over the years. A calendar revision was proposed in the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages, but was rejected as being too disruptive. In the West, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) called for a calendar revision, feeling that the date of Easter was drifting further away from the time envisioned at the First Council of Nicaea. Finally, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII promulgated a revision which took his name. It was immediately adopted by the Catholic countries of Europe and only gradually by others. The British Empire, including its American colonies, only adopted it in 1752. It was the twentieth century before the Gregorian Calendar would become the standard civil calendar throughout the world (the “common era”). While Western Europe adopted the Gregorian Calendar in the 16th to 18th centuries, Islamic and Orthodox countries did not do so. This meant that the Eastern Churches found themselves in new calendar controversies. Because the Julian Calendar was “losing time” when compared to the Gregorian, there was an ever-increasing distance between the same dates in the two systems. Thus feasts on fixed days of the year, such as Christmas, came to be 11, 12 and now 13 days apart. Some Church calendars note these differences as “O.S.” (Old Style, Julian) and “N.S.”(New Style, Gregorian), because their parishes may use either calendar. Thus January 7 would be labeled “O.S. Christmas”).

Pascha Revisited

The second modern calendar controversy concerns the date of Pascha. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Pascha as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox. However the date of the March equinox is determined differently in East and West. In the East, the equinox is reckoned to be on March 21 (O.S.), while the West calculates it as occurring on March 20 (N.S.). As a result Pascha can be one week, two weeks or even five weeks later than Easter in the West. Up to the nineteenth century the Eastern Churches generally retained their traditional calendars. In Western countries, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or in the Western-influenced parts of the Middle East there was pressure from the state and/or the Western Church to follow the Gregorian Calendar. Thus, in 1857, upon the urging of the Roman curia, Melkite Patriarch Clement (Bahouth) introduced the Gregorian Calendar, causing a schism lasting several years. He was forced to resign but the Julian Calendar was not reinstated. Nations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East gradually adopted the Gregorian Calendar after World War I. The response of their Churches varied. Some, such as the Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian Churches retain the Julian Calendar unaltered. In 1923 the Greek and Middle Eastern Churches as well as the Churches of Bulgaria and Romania adopted a mixed (“Revised Julian”) calendar which retains Pascha on the Julian date but observes fixed feasts such as Christmas on the Gregorian date. This initiated “Old Calendar” schisms by those insistent on retaining the Julian Calendar. Societal pressure in some countries has resolved the calendar question for their Churches. Thus the Orthodox Churches in Finland and Estonia observe the Gregorian Calendar while Catholics in Greece, Israel and Jordan observe the Revised Julian Calendar (for Pascha).

The Calendar and the Churches

Today there are a number of Churches employing the Julian Calendar including the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Poland, Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine, and the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic Churches as well as the Assyrian and Greek Old Calendarists. Greek Catholics in Carpathia, Slovakia and Ukraine generally follow the Julian Calendar although most of their parishes in the West follow the Gregorian. The Churches employing the Gregorian Calendar include the Armenian Church, the Church of the East, the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Estonia and Finland, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church and most Eastern Catholics (Chaldeans, Maronites, etc.). A third group of Churches employ the Mixed (“Revised Julian”) Calendar: the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Poland  and the Orthodox Church in America (although some Polish and OCA parishes are permitted to use either calendar). The Melkite Greek Catholic Church generally follows the Gregorian Calendar. In countries with an Orthodox majority it follows the Mixed (Revised Julian) Calendar.
 
OH, MY GOD! – an exclamation that we hear from all kinds of people, including atheists. In ordinary casual speech it doesn’t connote belief, prayer or hope. Traditionally the apostle Thomas’ words to the risen Christ, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28) have been understood as a confession of the Lord’s divinity. Muslims have customarily seen these words as simply an exclamation of surprise – like “Oh, my God!” – when Thomas saw that Jesus was alive. Who’s right?

Reverence for God’s Holy Name

We know from the Old Testament that Jews have a particular reverence for the name of God. The Torah enjoined using God’s name respectfully in the Ten Commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11). To this day Orthodox Jews will not even say the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh, when reading the Scriptures, replacing it with the word LORD wherever it occurs. Many Orthodox Jews will not even write the word God in English, as a sign of respect. They will only write “G_d” instead. A God-fearing Jew like Thomas would scarcely have used God’s name as an exclamation.

The Lord Jesus in the Gospel of John

Even more to the point is the style and structure of the Gospel of John. The Gospel begins with an allusion to the first words of the Torah – “In the beginning” – but the evangelist is not talking about the material creation. He is writing about the eternal Word of God and proclaiming that God’s Word took flesh in Jesus (John 1:1-19). And so the Gospel begins with a statement of faith in the incarnation of the divine Word of God. Throughout the Gospel Jesus’ enemies charge that He “makes himself equal to God” (5:18) and “makes himself God” (10:34). John records Jesus’ own words, “I and My Father are one” and the reaction they prompted, “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him” (John 10:30-31). The evangelist concludes the Gospel with the same teaching, expressed in Thomas’ confession of Christ as Lord and God. And if the reader still doesn’t get it, he adds “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). From its beginning and throughout to its end the Gospel of John proclaims again and again that Jesus is the Son of God.

And Yet Truly One of Us

In the first centuries after Christ there was a great deal of controversy concerning the nature of Christ. Was He God? Was He Man? How could He be both? One group in that period, the Docetists, stressed the divinity of Christ to such a degree that they minimized His humanity. How could the Son of God really die on the cross, they wondered. Their answer was that it would be improper for Him to actually suffer in this way; and so, they reasoned, He only seemed to die. St Athanasius the Great examined the question more closely. He saw Christ’s humanity as real but transformed by the presence of the Word of God. “The body of the Word, he wrote, “being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all mankind was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were by the same act utterly abolished.” Not only did the Lord, being mortal, have to die as mortals do, Athanasius continued; He could only die at the hands of others. “The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and, when worn out, they die. “But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak. He is the Power of God, the Word of God and very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men, it would have looked… as though He was indeed no more than other men.” “He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others – and those others His special enemies – a death which was to them supremely unbearable and terrible to face. He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat” (On the Incarnation 21, 24). Truly slain as true Man and truly risen as Lord and God – to Jesus the Word of God incarnate be glory forever and ever!

A Reflection for Thomas Sunday

Based on the Homily for April 13th, “On Thomas’ Proof by Experience,” in The Prolog from Ochrid by St. Nikolai Velimirovich and adapted by Anna W. Strelka. When the apostle Thomas touched the wounds of the Lord Jesus, he cried: My Lord and my God. When Mary Magdalen heard the voice of the Risen One in the garden she exclaimed in her soul My Lord and my God. When Saul saw the light and heard the words of the Risen One he acknowledged My Lord and my God. When the pagans saw how countless martyrs endured terrible sufferings with joy they asked, “Who is this Christ?” and the martyrs acknowledged My Lord and my God. When people ridiculed the army of monks and asked them, “For whom do you take on these ascetic labors?” the monks had one reply: My Lord and my God. When people ridiculed maidens vowed to virginity and asked them, “For whom do you give up marriage?” the maidens had one reply: My Lord and my God. When lovers of money asked those who gave up their wealth, “For whose sake did you give up your riches and become poor?” they answered the same thing: My Lord and my God. Some saw Him and said My Lord and my God. Some only heard Him and said My Lord and my God. Some touched Him and said My Lord and my God. Some perceived Him in the fabric of events and in the destinies of peoples and said My Lord and my God. Some came to know Him by some sign and cried out My Lord and my God. Some felt His presence in their lives and cried out My Lord and my God. And some heard about Him from others, yet believed and cried out: My Lord and my God. Truly these last are the most blessed!

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