Monday, September 18, 2017

The Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki

Arabic original here. While some of the information in this article, published unsigned in the weekly bulletin of the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon, is a bit dated, it pleased me to see interest in this extremely important but still sadly little-known figure in the history of the Church of Antioch who, as Antioch's greatest translator, is something of the patron saint of this blog. Below the article, I've put some links to more recent scholarship on him.

The Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki

He was one of the most prolific writers and translators in the Church of Antioch. He lived in the 11th century, according to indications in some manuscripts, but the writings he left for us will remain his lasting influence. His life story is not known precisely. Most of what has come down to us about his life are a few observations made by copyists and writers who came after him. This is something usual in the history of the Church. Even the lives of great teachers of the Church such as John of Damascus were written centuries after their repose. This means that we know writers from their works that they left for us. Returning to the deacon of Antioch, we find that later copyists gave him titles that shed light on his importance. Sometimes they call him "the holy and wise deacon", sometimes "the holy master" [al-shaykh al-qiddis], "the wise philosopher and translator of the holy scriptures", "the teacher", "the venerable deacon" or "Abu al-Fath" ["the victorious"]. This was the custom of the Christians, which continues until today, to indicate an exalted stature. This clearly demonstrates the intellectual and literary position that Abdallah ibn al-Fadl enjoyed. Something that further emphasizes the position of this writer is what the patriarch of Antioch Macarius III ibn al-Za'im (d. 1676) says about him in the preface to his History from the Era of Adam to the Days of Constantine:

"When God looked upon the patience of the Christians, he had mercy on them and sent them a virtuous man called the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl... He was very knowledgeable in the Arabic, Greek and Syriac languages and he translated for the Christians all the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, along with all their commentaries into Arabic, ordering them to read them on all Saturdays, Sundays and feasts of the Lord, as well as the stories of the saints. He spent his entire life in these good works..."

If we study these brief lines, we can deduce that the Patriarch Macarius considered the Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl as a gift from God, who sent him to the people of the Church of Antioch to help her children stand firm in faith. By virtue of his vast knowledge and his ability with the aforementioned languages, the Deacon Abdallah translated the Holy Bible (this is what is meant when the Patriarch Macarius says "he translated for the Christians all the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, along with all their commentaries"). In fact, Ibn al-Fadl translated the lectionary according to the divisions used in the services of the church. In addition to this, he translated the commentaries on the Holy Bible in order to help the faithful to understand the texts.The patriarch's saying that he "ordered them to read them"is a sign of the central place he occupied in the Church of Antioch. At that time, it was customary in the Orthodox Church for there to be an order of "teachers" in the Church. Not every priest or deacon is necessarily a teacher. (The Church was clear about this in the past and perhaps she should bring back this order once more. A priest might, for example, be excellent at administration or pastoral work but not be gifted at teaching, and the opposite may be true. For this reason, the Church determined who would teach and who would serve and only rarely would all these traits be found in the same person).

Sometimes Ibn al-Fadl was commissioned by bishops to compose a work or translate a text according to the needs of the diocese. It is said that the Book of Psalms is the most famous work he translated for us. The Church of Antioch used it for almost 900 years before the publication of the version by Abdallah Arman in 1954. The latter said that in his translation he also relied on Ibn al-Fadl's text.

The noteworthy thing about this deacon is his use of the Arabic language in his works, despite the fact that he was active during the period when Antioch had been liberated from Arab Muslim rule and brought back under Byzantine rule from 969 to 1084. Perhaps in this the deacon reflects a situation where the Hellenization of the Church of Antioch was rejected.

Ibn al-Fadl's activities were not, however, limited to the translation of biblical texts. Indeed, his range of interests included the commentaries of the holy fathers and spiritual and dogmatic works and he was very knowledgeable in philosophy and logic.

In conclusion, we cannot but say that this deacon of Antioch is a model to be imitated in our Antiochian Church on account of his knowledge and zeal for his Church and his having preserved the Orthodox faith. Our deacon did not want to make himself prominent. Rather, his concern was the glory of the Church's Bridegroom and not himself. Thus he fulfilled the words of the Baptist, "He must increase and I must decrease."

For a complete bibliography of Abdallah ibn al-Fadl's original works and secondary literature about him, see this article, by Fr Alexander Treiger.

For further studies of the history of Patristic translations into Arabic, see this and this by Fr Treiger.

For the Arabic text and English translation and study of his Discourse on the Holy Trinity, see this article by Fr Treiger and Samuel Noble.

For translations of his Essay Containing Ideas Useful to the Soul and Refutation of Astrology, consult Chapter 7 of Fr Treiger and Noble's Orthodox Church in the Arab World.

For a brief study of Ibn al-Fadl's Trinitarian thought, see this article by Noble.

For a study of Ibn al-Fadl's Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, see this article by Fr Ramy Wannous.


For a study of Ibn al-Fadl's Book of the Joy of the Believer, see this article by Floris Sepmeijer.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Cross is Our Path to Christ

Arabic original here.

The Cross is Our Path to Christ

How should we understand the cross or how should we translate it into our life? The Lord answered this when He said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." It is as though the Lord wanted to say that there is no way for us to know Him and to see Him except for the way that He Himself chose to reveal Himself to the world: the cross, the tomb and the resurrection. The cross was His path to victory. It was His path to conquering history. It was His path to our heats. We cannot attain anything of truth, anything of light, anything of joy, anything of peace, anything of existence, we cannot have any of this if we do not pass through the cross. We have no choice. The cross was chosen for us and we were cast upon it from the moment we knew Jesus. Whoever belongs to Christ belongs to the wood, belongs to the nails. The nails pierce his flesh; that is, a burden is placed in his spirit and suffering enters into him.

But this path is for us to choose and for us not to choose. If we want Christ, this is His path. But if we want to be comfortable, not to toil, if we want to immerse our bodies in pleasure and go rule over people, then we have no cross and we have no Christ.

Christ warned us of this lethal temptation: for us to mix what belongs to the world with what belongs to Him, for us to accept some sins and some virtues. This is not possible. We cannot accept Christ and the world. Religion and this world cannot be brought together. It is not possible for us to be known and loved by both the good and the wicked, by both the rulers and the ruled, and to belong to Christ. We cannot devour people's wealth, or even just some of it, and belong to Christ. We cannot indulge in illicit pleasures and belong to Christ. We are crucified, we are humiliated, we are killed if we desire Christ. This is our scripture. The path is arduous, planted with thorns. The path ends at the tree upon which the Son of God was cast, crucified, crushed, broken to the point of death and humiliation.

So what comes after this? Those who for three hundred years were killed after their Lord, day after day, who were imprisoned, chased from their homes, devoured by beasts, those who were slaughtered, they became the kings of history and the masters of our hearts. The martyrs triumphed and Nero and his ilk were forgotten in the oubliette of time. This strong is not the one who is pointed out by people. He is not the arrogant, the criminal, the one who loots people's wealth. This one is nothing. But the one who is meek, kind, humble, loving, welcoming, the one from whom is stolen not the one who steals, the one who is cursed and does not defend himself, this one is the master of us all.

The Lord tells us, "If you want to follow me, deny yourself and follow me." The question is: what will become of me if I abandon my lusts, my desires and every one of my whims, if I crush every bit of egotism within me, if I make myself a slave to Christ and a footstool for people, what will become of me? Will people forget me? Of course. But what remains if I am forgotten and crushed in their minds? The Apostle Paul gave the answer in today's epistle: we are alive in Christ Jesus who loved us and gave Himself up for us.

If I empty myself of every semblance of evil within me, then Christ is alive in me. If we cast out the corrupt man within us, then we have engaged in a great trade. We have sold ourselves and bought Christ and no trade is more profitable. The one get from it is vastly more beautiful than what we have cast out. The one we get one who is vastly more clever than the false cleverness that belongs to us. We get one who is vastly richer than the wealth from which we have been saved. We get Christ. We get the Lord, He who alone is good, who alone is wise, who alone is rich, who creates us in every good thing, every mercy and every strength.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Met Antonius el-Souri: The Cross in the Life of the Believer

Arabic original here.

The Cross in the Life of the Believer

The Lord said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23). In the original text, the verb "deny" is "ἀρνησάσθω" which literally means to renounce ownership of something, to disown something, or to give up a claim to ownership of something. In this sense, someone who wants to follow Christ must renounce himself completely and choose, with the fullness of his will, to surrender himself to Christ in order to be able to follow Him faithfully. Someone who wants to walk behind the Lord does not claim that his life belongs to him, but rather realizes that he owns nothing in itself and admits this. Following Christ is a constant, daily choice. It is the path of the cross, whose endpoint is the resurrection...

Why does the Lord say that whoever desires to follow Him must take up "his cross", in the sense that each person has his own cross? What do you think is the connection between our own cross and Christ's cross?

"If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God" (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

In Jewish thinking, the cross or the tree is the cruelest punishment because someone who is sentenced to hang on the tree is "accursed" and "impure". That is, he is cast out and expelled from the Jewish people. The cross is the greatest shame for them. Christ knew His fate among His people "for Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 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 1:22-24).

The cross that Christ calls on us to bear is not connected to our sin and its impurity and shame. Rather, it is connected to bearing on our backs in love the impurity and shame of others. The Apostle Paul says, "God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14). The cross that I am called to bear is  the one upon which I am crucified for the world just as Jesus was crucified for me. But in order for this cross of mine be for the love of Jesus Christ in man and creation, the world must be crucified within me first, through the cross of Christ. If the world has not died within me through the love of Christ, which He revealed to me on His cross-- that is, if the love of Jesus has not triumphed within me over every other love-- and thus if I have not arrived at the point of renouncing myself in complete obedience to the Lord, then I will not be able to be crucified for the world, because the crucified is one, the cross of salvation is one, and the Lord is one, "who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed" (1 Peter 2:24).

Alone with the crucified God-man, I enter into the crucifixion of my passion, the death of the old man, and my rebirth in the divine love that is in Christ Jesus, in His image, because "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:22). Faith in the resurrection is the foundation of salvation through bearing my cross which is in Christ. Because if the cross that I bear is not connected to Christ, it is a cross of shame and impurity on account of my sins and evil deeds and so it is not a cross of salvation since it is connected to my ego and not to my faith in Christ Jesus and my struggle for purification, my striving for enlightenment, and my longing for the vision of God.

My cross is my death to myself in my struggle for repentance so that I may become pure of heart and know my true self in the light of the divine grace that is in the Holy Spirit, through the Son from the Father. My cross is the struggle of prayer, fasting, charity, training to empty myself and position my soul, so that, when the Lord looks at my seriousness, perseverance, and sincerity, He will grant me new birth in Him through His cross. So my cross will become His cross and His cross my cross, because then I will say with the Apostle Paul, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain."

Let him who is able to endure, endure.

+Antonius
Metropolitan of Zahleh, Baalbek and their Dependencies

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Love is Stronger than Death

Arabic original here.

Love is Stronger than Death

He who loves God sacrifices his entire life, consecrating it to Him. He who loves God strives to constantly abide with Him. He who loves God loves life and does not seek his own death or attempt to hasten it. But he must accept death one day because man cannot live forever. Death becomes for him a transition from life to life. Life on earth becomes a passage to where there is true life. Life on earth becomes a short time in which one is prepared at every moment to face his inevitable destiny. The best preparation is repentance and love for one's neighbor, without which one cannot love God.

It is true that death entered human nature as a punishment from God because of man's fall into sin, but it still contradicts this nature that inclines toward life. So God gave man a covenant and a promise that man would live forever, if he so desired for himself. This human will, whose possessor must refine it so that it will draw closer to God's will, is what made this possible. This correspondence between the two wills, resulting from man's free will, is what makes the encounter between God and man an encounter between lovers who cannot bear to wait for each other.

In this context, we will cite the words of Simeon when he the forty-day old child Jesus in his arms, when Joseph and Mary brought Him to the temple and the Holy Spirit inspired him that he would not taste death before seeing the Lord's Messiah. Simeon said, "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-30).

When Simeon saw Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah he had been promised, he became ready to depart for the next life with great joy. He who loves Jesus does not fear death. In the holy martyrs, we have the best examples of this. Their love for Him made them brave enough to face death with great steadfastness and hope. Their love for Him caused them to not betray His Gospel and His teachings. They did not abandon their principles for the sake of this fleeting life, but rather accepted to abandon this fleeting life even if it cost them their life.

The Islamic tradition also takes this approach. There is a story of the Prophet Ibrahim al-Khalil not mentioned in the Torah that is given by al-Ghazali in his Ihya Ulum al-Din in the chapter "On the Servant's Love for God" which goes as follows: 

Ibrahim (peace be upon him) said to the Angel of Death when he came to him to take his soul, "Have you seen a friend kill his friend?"

God (may He be exalted) inspired [the angel] to say, "Have you seen a lover hate his beloved?"

So Ibrahim said, "O Angel of Death, take me now."

We find a similar saying from the famous sufi Sufyan al-Thawri: "Only the doubter hates death, because in no case does the beloved hate to meet his lover."

The struggle between life and death continues and it will go on so long as this world exists. But life if stronger than death because love is stronger than it. Let us love man and sacrifice ourselves for his sake because whether we are believers, atheists or agnostics, in this way, knowing or unknowing, we are loving God.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Met Ephrem Kyriakos on Weddings

Arabic original here.

Weddings

The crown in the Christian marriage service is the one that the holy martyrs receive after having committed to Christ to the point of death during their entire life. Thus we have in the wedding service the hymn "O Holy Martyrs..."

In the past, the crowning took place in the divine liturgy.

If, today, it is sometimes held during the liturgy, it can be very much abbreviated from the usual unnecessary social spectacles.

The Church forbade it from being held on Saturday evenings because marital relations are not proper the night before receiving the Eucharist.

This is in addition to the fact that for the most part the people taking part in the wedding would not come to the divine liturgy on Sunday.

Today, the Church does not prevent the wedding ceremony from being held on Saturday, given the currently predominant social customs known to all. However, she strongly advises the faithful not to get married on Saturday evenings.

*   *   *

On a practical level, there is a harmful confusion regarding the sacrament of marriage and the accompanying preparations and activities that damage the understanding and sanctity of the sacrament.

This includes immodest clothing and wasteful and extravagant spending on dinners, cocktail parties and their accoutrements.

 All these displays have come to overpower the atmosphere of the prayers and the sanctity of the wedding.

The Holy Bible commands women to constantly guard their modesty when it says, "Women should adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing" (1 Timothy 2:9).

In this context, we must remind priests and parishes of the necessity of holding the service of the holy sacrament of marriage in churches, insofar as it is possible in their parishes, and not in resorts or public gardens...

Moreover, they must heed the times when the sacrament cannot be performed, I mean in particular the periods of Advent, Great Lent and the Dormition Fast...

*   *   *
Beloved, these ecclesiastical and paternal recommendations are not intended to overwhelm members of the Church with strict canons. Rather, they are intended to guide our children toward the necessity of keeping our holy Christian traditions and keeping them from being swept away by damaging, worldly social customs.

We must remain the good leaven in this world that is drowning in materialism and harmful lusts.

Try these sound Christian ways, even if they seem narrow in today's world, and you will taste true joy in Christ God, who will never be taken away from you.

+Ephrem
Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Report on Hate Speech against Christians in Erdoğan's Turkey

See here for the full synopsis. For a pdf of the 60-page report, see here. The Stockholm Center for Freedom, who produced the report, is a group founded by Turkish journalists exiled because of the the crackdown on freedoms in that country that began in July of last year.


[...]

The hatred towards Christian minority groups in Turkey and xenophobic euphoria against Christians in general are being fueled in an unprecedented campaign led by Turkey’s rulers, especially the country’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a new case study by Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has revealed.

Turkish president Erdoğan who often spews hate speech against Christians, particularly Vatican, continues to stigmatize millions of people in Turkey and around the world with his systematic and deliberate campaign of churning hostility against Christians. His propaganda machinery amplifies this hateful narrative and the mass media under Erdoğan’s control spread it further to a larger audience.

“Erdoğan has weaponized hate speech against Christians in Turkey and this has been quite worrisome development for some time now,” said Abdullah Bozkurt, the President of Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF).

“He resorts ugly slurs, floats false claims about Vatican, associates his Muslim opponents with fabricated Crusader stories and fan the hostility against Christians,” he added.

SCF has reviewed Erdoğan’s public speeches delivered in recent years to uncover the pattern as well as campaigns run by his associates in politics and media. Turkish president openly ruled out an interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity, branded the European Union as group of infidels led by the Pope, and even accused the United Nation Security Council as representing only Christian nations.

[...]

Another report on hate speech in Turkey, prepared this year by the Hrant Dink Foundation, can be read here. Excerpt:

[...]

In the four-month period covering January-February-March-April 2017, 1806 columns and articles targeting national, ethnic and religious groups have been found. And 2335 hate speech items have been identified in these texts.

In January-April 2017 period, the central issue in print media was the constitutional referendum held on April 16. Along with the referendum, topics like ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ carried out by Turkish Armed Forces in Al-Bab region of Syria, developments concerning the coup attempt on July 15, practices of State of Emergency and emergency decrees having the force of law, Cyprus talks held in Geneva in January, crises between Turkey and Greece over Kardak islets and Aegean islands, anniversary of Khojaly Massacre (February 26), Greek Cypriot parliament’s approval of the resolution that enables the commemoration of ‘Enosis’ (the referendum held in 1950 for annexing Cyprus to Greece), April 24 Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day, Syrian refugees who fled from their country because of the war and came to Turkey had a role in the rise of hate speech.

When a distribution per targeted groups is made, it is seen that Armenians have the largest number of hate speech items against them with 439 items. Syrians follow them with 433 items and Jews has the third place with 298 items. Christians with 210 items and Greeks with 198 items follow them as the groups that are subjected to hate speech.

[...]

Monday, September 4, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Eid al-Adha and the Cross

Arabic original here.

Eid al-Adha and the Cross

Eid al-Adha contains numerous symbols that our peoples continue to live. When Ibrahim al-Khalil intended to sacrifice his son-- Isaac for Jews and Christians and Ismail for Muslims-- God stayed his hand and substituted a ram for the sacrificial son. God redeemed the boy, making the point through this religious event that people should no longer make human sacrifices and that they should substitute animal sacrifices for them. Then Christ came and ended animal sacrifice, offering Himself as a sacrifice once and for all for the salvation of humankind.

But bloodthirsty human sacrifices are still practiced here and there. God's intervention with Abraham was of no use because humankind did not want to learn the lesson from it. It is enough for us to observe what is going on around us in order to realize the enormity of what is happening. Sacrifices and human victims are offered on the altar of the ruler or the leader of a group who has taken the place of God for people. They are convinced that they are nothing but sheep prepared for slaughter for the sake of the ruler's life and continued preservation. It is no wonder, then, that we are witnessing a return to the barbarism of sacrifice and useless killing. Those performing the slaughter are the results of our societies overburdened with prejudice and hatred, the results of the religious backwardness that has led us away from the weightiest thing to which God has called us: mercy.

The problem lies at root in religious education that makes children into followers of a god manufactured by the lusts and hatreds of their fathers. So we can say that children have not been liberated from the perversions of their fathers, but rather have become overjoyed at being prisoners and slaves to them. The fathers feast on their thrones, fashioning from their followers the plans of butchers and suicide-bombers.

Solely with regard to Christianity, the symbolism is not limited to violent bloodshed, after having been so over the course of history. Rather, it includes every sort of spiritual, moral and verbal violence. This spiritual violence, even if it does not include bloodshed, perhaps has a result similar to murder, murder of the spirit, which Christ said is more serious than the death of the body. What can we call a spiritual son who has done away with his freedom and his intellect, handing himself over to a father who has not attained, nor will attain, perfect immunity from sin. "For no man lives and does not sin." He receives all his directions from him without discussion, as though they were the orders of Christ Himself.

If the relationships stays between the father and his son, then the situation is better than if the son wields over society and people his father's absolute authority over him. I once heard, when I was a theology student, a heated debate between two of my colleagues over whose spiritual father was better. Belonging to a spiritual father, then, becomes an affiliation with a party that promotes its president into the image of God. The father does not hesitate to sacrifice his children in order to defend himself, even at the expense of the Gospel's teachings. True spiritual fatherhood is for the father to sacrifice himself for his children even to the point of death, not for him to sacrifice his children.

The Lord said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." The cross, for Christians, is the most sublime sacrifice [Arabic: adha], and Christ Himself is the sacrificial victim. For someone to deny himself means that he does not believe that he is indispensable and that he imitates Christ, satisfied to be crucified like his Teacher. So if someone wants to follow Christ, he must sacrifice himself in order to become another Christ.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Bishop Constantine Kayyal on Joy and the Sanctification of Time

Arabic original here.

How do we Relate to the Joy of Christ?

The word 'joy' (in Greek, χαρά) is derived from the verb χαίρω and various philosophers have attempted to define it. Some of them completely distinguished it from what is known as pleasure (ἡδονή) and others regarded it at a type of pleasure. There is, however, a consensus, if one can say that, among the philosophical definitions that joy is merely a phenomenon.

In both testaments of the Holy Bible, the word 'joy (χαρά) is connected to the word 'grace' (χάρις).

This connection becomes clear through the use of the word 'grace' (χάρις) to indicate the Hebrew word hesed (חֶסֶד). This connection is made manifest in the angel's good tidings to the Mother of God, "Rejoice O full of grace!" (Luke 1:28).

Starting from this simple linguistic description, we see that in our Orthodox Church joy is not a mere phenomenon with this emotional and affective dimension. Our true joy is that which comes from God. It is the result of the work of divine, uncreated grace within us.

The work of divine grace within us occurs in the Church and through the holy mysteries which are, in other words, the channels of uncreated grace which sanctifies us and sanctifies our time. For this reason we find in our Church what is known as the liturgical new year, which is a wonderful expression of the purpose of our creation. That is, the sanctification of our time.

On September first, this liturgical year begins in order to transport us within the vastness of the holy liturgy to the first object our desire, which we lost as the result of our selfishness, leading to our fall from the world of grace to the world of chaos and corruption.

God, however, in His love for humankind, desired to send His only Son, the eternal Word, into the midst of this chaos in which we live, to prepare a way for us that would bring us back to what is loftier and more sublime, that would bring us back to the state of grace from which we had expelled ourselves.

We follow this way sacramentally in our liturgical life, which is nothing other than that path arranged for giving praise to God.

Through the incarnation of God the Son on earth, He restored holiness to our time. He sanctified it simply by dwelling within it. The Creator unites with creation to prepare it, sanctifying it. We came to know the Lord Jesus as perfect man and perfect God. He lived among us and interacted with us, all of this out of love for us, seeking our salvation. So how do we relate to that love? Do we interact with it?

Or does it remain for us merely the commemoration of something that has passed? Our life with Christ is a life renewed by grace, a life whose foundation is prayer and whose goal is ascent and joy at beholding the glory of the Trinity.

Wherever Christ is found, there is true joy and true consolation. If we want to enjoy this joy, then let us seek Him and know that He is present, springing forth from the holy mysteries to permeate our depths. So let us enjoy God's richness and let us become constantly joyful, so long as we seek to be close to Him. "Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24). Our refraining from participation in the mysteries of the Church is a separation from grace and an abandonment of Christ. It is a rejection of true happiness. Every joy ends after a few moments. Material happiness is for what is material and the material has no life within it. But our joy with Christ remains as long as Christ remains within us. Our God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

It is not enough for us to have superficial, intellectual knowledge of Christ in order to obtain true grace. If we do not strive in our effort for purification and the support of uncreated divine grace, our joy will not be perfect. When Christ is firmly fixed within us and in our minds, we will hear His voice saying, "Come, blessed ones of My Father, inherit the eternal kingdom." Then the Good News of the kingdom will spring forth from us because through baptism we have been made worthy to be called children of the Most High and temples of the Holy Spirit. This intimate bond between us and the Lord Jesus becomes manifest and grows within the prayer that we lift up like incense before the throne of the eternal God and which Christ personally offered us. So let us walk with Him toward His great and holy Pascha which is the perfection of the liturgical year, the perfection of the feasts, and the perfection of joy.

Bishop Constantine Kayyal
Abbot of the Patriarchal Monastery of Mar Elias, Shwayya

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: Christ the Cornerstone

Arabic original here.

Christ the Cornerstone

"The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." After the Savior told the parable of the lord of the vineyard who sent his servants to take the fruit of the vineyard but were killed by the workers, who then sent his son to them and they killed him as well, He mentions this verse (Psalm 117:22 LXX). When the Prophet David said this of old, he meant by "the cornerstone" God Himself, so Christ took these words associated with God and applied them to Himself and made Himself the cornerstone, that stone that the Jews rejected and cast aside.

We know that traditional construction involved setting stones in rows, meaning that the stones were placed next to each other without cement. Instead, the stone was supported with wood until it reached the top of the roof, where there would be a hole that had to be filled with a stone called a cornerstone. In old times in villages there would be a master builder who alone knew how to choose the right stone and he would cut it in the shape of a cross and place it in the hole, so if it fit correctly with the stones around it, it would make a "lock" for the entire building. Thus all the building's stones would be held together by one stone at the top of the roof. Jesus took this image and called Himself the cornerstone. And as for us, as the Apostle Peter says, "you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:5). We who believe in Christ have been called the temple of God. This means that we come from Christ and hold fast to Him. And each of us holds fast to his brother if he holds fast to Christ. That is, if each of us is united to Christ, he is at the same time connected to his brother and serves him.

We members of the Church do not have the support of group feeling [Arabic: 'asabiya]. We are not brought together by partisanship or family of flesh and blood. We belong to different races and colors and to different cities. Each of us has his own education, friendships and temperament. Each of us has his own interests on earth, but we transcend them all in order to become God's one family, according to the words of the Apostle Paul: "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Ephesians 4:5-6).

Therefore in our Church let us not look at what divides one individual from another, but rather let us look at what brings people together. We were all bought for a price, the divine blood that flows in our veins, the blood of Christ that we receive from the holy chalice brings us together as one family. The Apostle Paul says in today's epistle, "If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema." That is, let him be cut off from membership in the Church. The Apostle Paul did not say that anyone who belongs to Christianity by identity is a Christian. He did not say that is content merely with being baptized is a Christian. A Christian is someone who loves Jesus Christ with supreme sincerity, applies His teachings, and walks according to His commandments.

Then Paul adds an Aramaic expression, "Maran atha", which means "come, Lord." The Lord comes among us in the divine sacrifice, with His body and blood, with love that has been poured out. So long as the Lord comes to us and comes bringing certain love, we cannot but love our Lord Jesus Christ and lean on Him because He is the cornerstone. In Him we become brothers in one family. If the Lord Jesus is life, we cannot think of anything else. Food, drink and sustenance are all nice things that we need, but they are marginal when compared to Jesus Christ. He is our life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Fr George Massouh: When will Christianity Disappear in our Country?

Arabic original here.

When will Christianity Disappear in our Country?

Is Christianity doomed to disappear in our country? This is a question that I have dealt with previously in several articles, but we return to it today from the perspective of how Christians view themselves and their witness in today's world. We will not repeat what we have said about what the economic recession, the growth of extremist Islam, and the establishment of the State of Israel have contributed to the dwindling numbers of Christians. Instead we will point out some phenomena that have recently arisen in Christians' behavior and attitude toward current events.

The primary phenomenon from which all the other phenomena stem is Christians' neglect of what is essential in Christianity and contentment with what is inessential in it. By 'essential' we do not mean the fundamental dogmatic questions that distinguish Christians from others or those that distinguish Christians from each other according to their various affiliations. Rather, we mean the essence of the moral and life teachings of Jesus Christ.

If we want to characterize Christianity in brief, we would say that it is the imitation of Jesus Christ in daily life and concern for humanity in general and the needy in particular. Love comes at the essence of this essence and Christ Himself made it His only charge for His disciples. Indeed, He made it the only proof of their Christianity, so if they lose it, they cease to belong to Him, and so cease belonging to Christianity. "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

For Christians to depart from this essence in their moral attitudes for political, patriotic, economic or sectarian reasons is absolutely the most disturbing phenomenon. Christians will either physically or spiritually disappear. What does it mean for Christians to remain if they do not imitate Christ and only make the Gospel their measure when it suits them? "By this all will know that you are My disciples." So are Christians known by their behavior or only by their names and their family names? Can we not say that Christianity has disappeared from our country, despite the fact that there remain Christians who are not pleased with life as Christ wants it to be? Does a Christian remain a Christian if he says that the Gospel is not for him right now?

What we are currently witnessing causes us to affirm that the loss of the moral essence among Christians is the most effective factor for the disappearance of Christianity. Here are some phenomena that provide examples of the moral aberrations that provoke fear for the future of Christianity in our country:
When Christians applaud unjust regimes with the excuse that they protect them from a greater danger, as though Christ chose between a lesser and a greater evil. The lesser and the greater evil are both evil!
 
When the "rights of Christians" become more important than the "rights of man".
 
When the "rights of Christians" become more important than Christ's rights. Christ's rights are none other than that the poor be embraced, that the hungry be fed, that the sick be helped, that the stranger be sheltered... As for the "rights of Christians", this doesn't mean anything but the rights of the rich or of those who are in a position to become wealthy, from the rank of "general manager" on up.
 
When Christians support a policy of discriminating among the people of God, violating the basic principles of Jesus Christ's teachings.
 
When belonging to the Church is replaced by sectarian affiliation.
 
When Christ's tomb becomes more important than the people of Palestine remaining in their homeland.
 
When erecting a cross or enormous statues on mountaintops becomes more important than investing the Church's endowments in supporting people to remain in their country against incentives to emigrate.
 
When some people imagine regaining the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, while at the very same time neglect to support those who stand firm in their villages, so that what happened to the people of Constantinople will not happen to them!

Yes, Christianity is doomed to disappear in our country if  we ignore this moral essence of the teachings of Jesus Christ. "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). Where do we stand in terms of these words?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: If You Want to Be Perfect

Arabic original here.

If You Want to Be Perfect

The rich young man who came to Jesus started to speak saying, "Good teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus does not want this man to call Him "good teacher" because He realized that the young man who was speaking to Him thought that Jesus was merely human and not divine, so he was flattering Him by calling Him "good", just as we address each other with titles so that everyone will accept us and we can benefit from people's kindness. Jesus rejects every form of affectation and excessive flattery and so He answers the young man, "If you want to enter the kingdom, then keep the commandments." The commandments are obedience to God and through obedience man enters the kingdom.

Then we hear the man say to the Lord, "All this I have kept from my youth, so what do I still lack?" We understand from this that the man is advanced in spiritual life and perfect in his morals, as it appears. Despite his holding fast to the law, he was able to ask the Teacher, "What am I still missing?", as though he felt that there was something beyond the Law of Moses or loftier than it. Then the Lord answered him with a strange word, "If you want to be perfect, then go sell everything you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow Me." The question confronting us today is, are we called to leave our homes and go about homeless in the streets in order to follow the Teacher? What do these words of Jesus mean for us today?

"If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have and come, follow Me." There is wealth that hinders people from following Christ, that is a barrier between people and Christ. Great wealth may be a burden and a seductive temptation such that people perish in it. When we treat the issue of marriage, the man sometimes complains about his wife, "She has everything, what does she want?" The man thinks that his life-partner is content with money, that she is assured by money, and that money solves everything. This isn't true. No matter how much it is piled up, money doesn't give mercy and compassion and it often reduces mercy, compassion and friendship. Naturally, there are people among us who think that they can buy the world and sell it with their money. This isn't true, even at the level of business. Business is first of all a personal relationship and is based first of all on mutual good treatment.

Then we hear the Lord say in a powerful and quiet way, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." The camel is a camel and the eye of a needle is an eye of a needle, as we know. It is as though the Lord made the kingdom of God impossible for rich people! Indeed, He says that piled-up wealth is contrary to justice and justice requires the distribution of the wealth of the rich to those who do not possess anything and that food not be wasted when thousands of people do not have enough to eat.

The rich person is not only the one who possesses a lot of money. The Arabic word for "rich" [ghani] means "someone who does not need" [yastaghni]. The rich person is one who does not need God, who replaces God with money, beauty, intelligence, culture, influence, authority, glory... If a person becomes attached to any of these things, they prevent him from entering the kingdom. The kingdom of God is entered by the humble who need their Lord and consider Him to be everything.

If we strip ourselves of the love of money, of every pretense, and of attachment to any visible thing, if we strip ourselves of all this, we find ourselves empty of everything and ready to receive God into our hearts. When we need God's presence in us and have empties ourselves of everything apart from Him, at that point we become perfect in Him. "The nations know that the Lord sanctifies us and perfects us" (Ezekiel 37:28). Then we attain God's perfection.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Marriage

Arabic original here.

The Holy Mystery of Marriage

The Christian family is a little church. The marriage bond is a holy bond, not merely a sexual relationship. Hence the importance of educating the family, both parents and children, and raising them spiritually and educationally.

Marital preparation before the marriage has become an urgent matter, as has follow-up after the marriage and keeping up with couples in their daily life under the pressure of the challenges imposed upon us by our time.

Thus there is a need for committed and spiritually and culturally mature pastors who are capable of giving proper guidance.

Among the pressing factors of our time:

1) Social media, which has made it much easier for people to get to know each other, though this is not always with proper intent. For this reason, social media has caused many marital conflicts which have sometimes led to divorce. Additionally, this media has opened the way for long-distance marriage, which is something unacceptable.

2) The economic crisis, consumerism, the woman's having to work.

3) The influence of customs of the diaspora and a lack of dedication to our Eastern Christian heritage and tradition.

4) Hastiness, in many cases, in the matter of the engagement.

5) The absence of marital pastoral care before and after the marriage.

6) Mixed marriage, which very often leads to inherent disagreements.

Where is the treatment for all this? We have said that we need pastors with ample appropriate training to accompany the spouses before and after marriage. There is an important proposal to establish a committee, association or network, which can itself be a committee specialized in marital preparation, whose task is to exchange experiences and emerging studies and which has a common program with other dioceses under the supervision of the Holy Synod. Its members must have training from the following fields: law, medicine, spirituality, sociology, culture, and psychology...

Beloved, marital fidelity is not easy in this "wicked and corrupt generation." Faithfulness comes first of all from commitment to Christian principles and dedication to the practice of the Church. We must avoid bad or tempting cohabitations.

Without prayer, without a god, no marriage can have any sanctity.

Children are always the victims of divorce and their psychological health is inevitably affected. The good leaven that the spouses taste is not at the beginning of their marriage but at the end of their life, if they have guarded their faithfulness to the last breath.

+Ephrem
Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Met Georges Khodr on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

Arabic original here.

Forgive Your Companion as I have Forgiven You

This Sunday is the midpoint between the Feast of the Transfiguration and the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. In the transfiguration, we were promised that we will shine with the light of the Gospel just as Christ shined on the mountain. In the cross, Christ will be victorious and forgive us. But in order for us to be transfigured and forgiven, we must love as the parable from the Gospel has taught us.

The Lord told us this parable about a king who was owed ten thousand talents by his servant. This is equal to hundreds of millions in modern currency. That is, it is a very large debt. It is as though the Gospel means that the king is God Himself and that we owe Him an immeasurable sum. We owe Him first of all life and we owe Him something even more important than life, the redemption worked by Christ on the cross, eternal life, and forgiveness of sins when we repent of them.

God, as the servant said, takes His time. That is, He does not punish a person if the person asks for respite, if he realizes his sin and wants to correct it. The Lord desires all His children, even if they are sinners, because He loves all His children. "For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). People of various sorts, of various believes and various behavior enjoy the same good things that God gives to His beloved ones in various ways. God is a master who treats us according to love.

The servant whose great debt was forgiven held a trivial debt, a hundred dinars, from another servant. Three thousand dinars equals one talent. He started beating him, almost killing him, and put him in jail.

The lesson that Jesus draws from this story is that if you want mercy from your Lord, you must in turn be merciful to people. If you love, your heart grows larger, so that you will be large-hearted with people and have mercy on them.

Why must our hearts grow larger and why must we show mercy? Because people are alone. Every person is alone. Every person is wretched. Not matter how happy we are, in the end we live in isolation and nothing but God can bring us out of our isolation. Everything we have comes to an end: family, livelihood, wealth. God alone is a friend. Every person wants to be visited by another, for the face of another to turn to him, for a neighbor to look out for him, but the one who truly looks out for us is God.

How do we see the Lord? We do not see God's face, but we hear His word and we feel His grace. God looks out for us through others and He is one of the people that we visit. If they visit us, we feel that God has visited us. If they love us, we know that God has loved us. Others want us to love them in hard times, and therefore we console each other and rejoice with one another. Sometimes this might be out of hypocrisy and flattery our out of habit, but a person wants true, sincere feeling.

A person is in hard times not only when he has lost a loved one. He may be having psychological difficulty, so if we see the signs of ennui and irritability on our relative or neighbor, then we should visit him. This is particularly necessary in family life. We must be merciful toward people so that the Lord will have mercy on us.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Met Saba (Esber): Meditations on the Transfiguration

Arabic original here.

Meditations on the Feast of the Transfiguration

The Feast of the Transfiguration is the feast of glory. It is the feast of glorification, of man's glorification by his return to how he was in paradise, before the fall of Adam and Eve. Indeed, it is the return to the perfection of glory that they would have attained had they not fallen.

If man was created to live for some number of years on earth and then to do, what is the meaning of his life? He was created for divine glory. He was created to put on this glory.

Knowledge of glory is the deepest and most deeply-rooted need in man's heart. It is his need that is constantly attached to his nature. Even children long for glory, even if it is without knowledge, as when they want to stand out. Adults find in it a motive for excelling and for great deeds or, if they are wicked, a motive for evil deeds.

Man cannot be satisfied with his situation and accept it. He constantly longs for something better. Man is better than his situation, even if he doesn't know this. Within him is a beauty that he covers with ugliness. But he senses this beauty and feels it in special cases. He strives for it by seeking glory but, far from God, he continues to long for it, no matter what glories he achieves.

There is glory and then there is glory: the glory of the world and the glory of the kingdom, the glory of man and the glory of God, momentary glory and eternal glory, outward glory and inner glory, glory established upon the cross and glory established on the crucifixion of others, glory that comes through the cross and glory that rejects the cross. Do you know what kind of glory you desire?

The glory that God has promised us is to "partake in the inheritance of the saints" (Colossians 1:12). It is the glory of holiness, which God has made possible for us through the cross. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18) and "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17). Therefore Moses and Elijah spoke with Him "of His exit which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31).

The word "exit", in Greek "exodos", indicates His death. Christ's death is intimately tied to the glory of the transfiguration because Christ is glorified in His death (cf. John 12:23). In the annual liturgical cycle, the Feast of the Transfiguration comes forty days before the Feast of the Cross, demonstrating the connection that exists between Christ's glory and the cross. The word "exodos" reveals that Christ's passion is the realization of the Passover of the Old Testament and the true exodus from slavery to salvation.

The unveiling of this divine glory likewise confirms that Christ's imminent death is not something forced on Him by outside powers, but rather a free offering of love, because no soldier would have been able to resist such a glory, when Jesus was arrested, had Christ not remained silent (cf. Matthew 26:53). We chant in the kontakion for the feast, "Your disciples, insofar as they were able, beheld Your glory, so that when they should see You crucified, they would remember that Your suffering was voluntary."

The account of the event of the transfiguration is preceded by the Lord's speaking to His disciples about His impending passion and of the value of self-denial for salvation. The account begins with the words, "After this discussion..." This is an indication of the connection between the cross and the resurrection. The event of the transfiguration was an anticipatory revelation of Christ's glory in order to strengthen the disciples who saw Him and make firm their faith in their teacher and His being the Messiah. The Gospel recounts that the Lord took His chief disciples, Peter, James and John, so that they might see this glory of His.

The troparion for the feast says, "When You were transfigured on the mountain O Christ God, You revealed Your glory to the disciples as much as they were able." This confirms that the disciples saw to the degree that they were able to see. The Holy Spirit had not rested upon them yet.

This glory is attained by one who has passed through the glory of the cross. That is, one who has been freed of the hateful ego and from self-love. Rejecting the cross causes a person to seek glory in self-affirmation, and so his glory then remains a worldly glory destined to fail. It does not give him the fullness and satisfaction that he seeks. This is evident in his dissatisfaction with any profit that he gains and in his constant striving for more of what he already has.

"For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things" (Philippians 3:18-19). "The things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18). We do not limit the word "eternal" to the life after death as it also includes earthly life too.

Earthly glory is by definition passing, a mirage in the life to come, and a cause for perdition. But the promised glory, the glory of man's transfiguration in God's light is the perfection of the image with the divine likeness, is the lasting and original glory, the reason for the creation of man. If this glory, the purpose, does not exist, then what justifies human life? And what makes people bear their personal suffering and the suffering of others? And what gives them the capability to continue with the painstaking effort of life? Life without this divine purpose becomes a heedless passing between strangers who uselessly go along their way, life "from the belly to the grave." History becomes merely a succession of vain mirages. Life, the life of every person, is a short series of events with no justification for its past, no meaning to its present, and no possible end to its suffering. Mention of human suffering and the torments of humanity becomes something unbearable and impossible to bear.

But we know that this is not the case. God declares this in His having also become human. He will show His disciples the transformation that will happen to mankind in His kingdom of heaven, when they too will enter into glory. "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it... For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works" (Matthew 16:25, 27; cf. Luke 9:24, 26) and also, "But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:27), "till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). 

The transfiguration, then, is a sample of man's natural state. It is the beauty of humanity restored, the beauty of original, undistorted creation. Many new this beauty, this glory and experienced it here on earth. The Prophet Moses knew it when his face shined and the Hebrews were not able to look upon him. Many enlightened persons knew it, those who in the purity of their life and their struggle were liberated from the corruption of their fallen nature and became temples for the indwelling of God, such as Saint Seraphim of Sarov and many others.

May God make us worthy to seek this glory. Amen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist

Arabic original here.

The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist

After years of work, Dr Elias Rachid Khalil and a team of researchers have published, at the initiative of Association of Alumni of Maronite Seminaries in Lebanon, an Encyclopedia of the Martyrs of the Churches in Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa (one volume, 1072pp.). This scholarly encyclopedia, which received the blessings of the heads of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the Middle East, is distinguished by something new in the history of the Church, which is that it has brought together the lives of the saints who are celebrated in each of the churches. As for the importance of this encyclopedia, the letter from His Beatitude Patriarch John X at the beginning of the book says it best: "We find in this new work a fundamental step towards greater acquaintance with our shared Middle Eastern heritage, a reminder of the history of the Church militant in our country and a confirmation of our united witness in this stormy time."

Below are selections from my study "The Body of the Martyr is a Living Eucharist: The Witness of the Rum of Antioch" published in the encyclopedia.

The history of the Church celebrates the accounts of the holy martyrs who did not fear death but faced their tormentors with resolve and courage beyond description and did not flinch from declaring their firmness in faith in the Lord Jesus as Lord, God, Redeemer and Savior. The causes of their martyrdoms varies across circumstances, contexts, eras, regions and states. The first of them, Saint Stephen (cf. Acts 7), was killed by the Jews. Some were victims of the pagan Roman emperors, some were martyred under the Islamic caliphate, some were martyred in our present era under states based on the principle of "secularism", and some met their fate at the hands of other Christians who regarded them as heretics who must be punished with death.

Archimandrite Touma Bitar, who has the distinction of having published the Orthodox Synaxarion in Arabic, states that, "The first of those to forge the path to being honored in worship were the martyrs. The faithful honored them in the places where they had been tormented  or were martyred and buried. Their remains were kept with care as the most precious treasures, not necessarily because they had miraculous effects, but because they had fought the good fight, completed their struggle and kept the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). They offered their bodies as a holy living sacrifice pleasing to God (cf. Romans 12:1). They imitated the Lord's death (cf. Philippians 3:10). They bore the marks of the Lord Jesus on their bodies (Galatians 6:17). They are those who no longer live, but Christ lives in them (cf. Galatians 2:20).

It goes without saying that honoring the martyrs began at an early phase of the Church's history. In the account of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (d. 158), the author mentions the Christians' celebrating the first commemoration of his martyrdom. One of the witnesses recounts that Polycarp's killers refused to hand his body over to the Christians for burial and then burned it. But those who loved him collected his bones, which for them were "more precious than gold and silver." From this arose the holy tradition that continues to this day which requires churches to be built over the graves of martyrs or the placing of pieces of their relics in them. The Council of Carthage (397) ordered the destruction of churches that were not constructed over the graves of true martyrs, while the canon seven of the Seventh Ecumenical Council says, "Let the remains of holy martyrs be placed in the churches that were built without them and let him who consecrates a church without any remains of martyrs be deposed for his violating the traditions of the Church."

It is possible for us to say, then, that in Christianity, it is the martyr who celebrates the liturgy, offering his body as a living Eucharist in place of bread and wine. His body is transformed into the body of Christ. His body is transformed into the "Church" in every sense of this word. Did not the Holy Apostle Paul liken the Church to the "body of Christ"? Therefore we honor his relics because they have become a holy Eucharist. In the life of Saint Eubulus (d. 204), it confirms this prevailing belief, as the saint cries out in the face of his tormentor who asks him to offer sacrifices so that he could pardon him and he could stay alive, "Yes, I will offer a sacrifice. But I will offer myself up before Christ God and I do not have anything else to offer."

In this context, Metropolitan Georges Khodr says, "The early Christians performed the sacrifice over the bodies of martyrs because the martyrs are alive and the liturgy is new life... All this means that the martyr or the saint is alive with his Lord and contributes to giving us life." But with the spread of churches and the lack of relics of martyrs, the Church deemed it proper that "the remains of the saints and martyrs be places in the foundations of a new church and likewise the altar. There we make a small hole where we place these remains during the consecration of the church and then we cover the altar with a covering." Metropolitan Khodr closes his discussion of this topic by stating that "the relics of the saints are not merely bones. They are the body of someone in whom holiness has dwelt, the body of someone longing for the resurrection."

As for the necessary conditions for declaring the sainthood of a believer who is witnessed to be upright, it is not a matter of a formal decision being taken by the Orthodox Church after a process of investigations, examinations and interrogations. Rather, each local church may declare the "sainthood" or "glorification" of a new saint. This is because honoring the saints begins with the people who call upon them, honor them, and visit their tombs. Then the spiritual leadership recognizes the truth of this popular movement and declares the sainthood of the person in question. It is worth mentioning that the Orthodox Church does not require miracles as a measure of sainthood, but rather two things must be determined, as Metropolitan Georges Khodr says:

1) The one whose beatification is sought must be of upright belief if he wrote anything. Someone whose beliefs deviate cannot be declared a saint even if, according to his outward behavior, he was a good person.

2) He must have great virtues and have no crime attributed to him.

When talking about Christian witness, we must recall the centrality of the cross in spurring Christians to bear witness to the truth and to keep themselves from bearing false witness. The cross is the essence and epitome of Christ's teachings. Christian behavior cannot be sound without accepting the cross as the sole standard for life in the world and the sole path to the perfection to which are called those who believe in the crucified and risen one. Therefore, the cross is not merely a banner that we raise here and there. It is a way of life and an imitation of the life of Christ the Lord from its alpha to its omega.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fr James Babcock Reviews Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans

This was published some months ago, but it only came to my attention today. For another, more scholarly review by Heleen Murre-van den Berg see here. For the original of Fr Babcock's review, see pp. 34 and 36 of the January 2017 issue of the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton's journal Sophia, here.

Book Review: Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans
by Archimandrite James Babcock

Admittedly I was both intrigued and suspicious when I saw the title and then the publisher of Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans: 1516-1831 by Constantin A. Panchenko. This book lifts the veil covering the hidden years of the Patriarchate of Antioch during Ottoman rule in Lebanon/Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt.

What seemed suspicious was the publisher: Holy Trinity Seminary Press, Jordanville, New York. This monastery is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, the most traditional (and anti-Catholic) part of the Russian Church. I suspected a possibly slanted report.

Yet as I began to read, I quickly discovered that this tale would be reported with an even and balanced hand. To a Melkite, the chapter of greatest interest was “The Catholic Unia,” covering the time of the unfortunate division of the Patriarchate of Antioch in 1724. The author’s impeccable research brings to life the events of those heady days and the regrettable and pretty much unnecessary hostility that arouse out of those events.

To quote the author, “It was a time of active economic and religious expansion of the Catholic world in the Levant [and] was one of the key periods in the history of the Christian East . . . leading to a dramatic rift in the Middle Eastern communities.” Panchenko chronicles the events and activities of the Roman (Latin) Catholic Church among the Melkites.

It should be noted that the term “Melkite” originally referred to all Orthodox Christians in the Middle East. In this sense “Melkite” and “Orthodox” are synonymous. After the division, the term “Melkite” was appropriated by the members of the Antiochian Patriarchate who entered into communion with the Church of Rome. This mixing of names can be a bit confusing as one reads the history of the events.

Panchenko paints a portrait of the sorry state of the Church of Antioch as well as the other Patriarchates (Jerusalem and Alexandria), which did vary from Church to Church, each Church’s circumstances being somewhat different. The bulk of the story, however, unfolds in the Patriarchate of Antioch, a Church already weakened by divisions in earlier centuries.

The history begins with the Arab conquest and the life of the Christians under the Umayyad Caliphate in the sixth century and the fading inertia of the Byzantine culture. In the early years, the culture of the Melkites continued as before; however, when the situation began to deteriorate, the Christians revolted, which resulted in harsher conditions for them. Collection of the jizya tax became more exacting and Christian civil servants were dismissed. A catastrophic earthquake added to the suffering. From the ninth to the eleventh century the Middle East entered into what some historians call “the dark ages.” During this time the “Arabization” of the
Melkites began to take place. Christian scholars began to write in Arabic, and Arabic began to creep into the celebration of the divine services, replacing the traditional Greek.

As the Islamic dynasties shifted from the Abbasid to the Fatimid, for a brief time Byzantine influence began to re-assert itself. This influence ended abruptly with the rise of the Caliph al-Hakim. Severe persecution broke out, resulting in the destruction of the churches and the hierarchy. In Egypt only one Melkite bishop survived.

Soon a new challenge arose for the Melkites—the Crusades. The balance of power shifted from Islamic to Western (Latin) Christianity. Antioch was captured and later Jerusalem. The Latins installed bishops and patriarchs who replaced the Melkite bishops.

With the defeat of the Crusader empire and the rise of the Ottoman empire, the fate of the Christians of the Middle East shifted again. The Ottomans did not try to change the traditional way of life of the population but instead established various means to control it. This resulted in the establishment of the Millet system, wherein each ethnic or religious group was given broad governing powers over its own people with the provision that the leaders pay the jizya, which kept increasing year after year.

Now the spiritual leaders of the church also became civil leaders. This also increased the role of the laity in the governance of the church. Geographical demographics also played a role in the development of the churches. Mount Lebanon became a Christian reserve during this time. Panchenko thoroughly examines the role of the shepherds and their flocks.

A chapter on the role and importance of monasteries and monasticism adds depth to the understanding of the powerful influence they exerted on the life of the church. Here we begin to see the origins of how the division of the Patriarchate of Antioch began.

The author shows the origins of the struggles over the Holy Places of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and the despicable fights that would break out between the monks and spiritual leaders. The chapter on foreign relations shows the beginning of the powerful influence of the Russian Church.

Finally, we arrive at the time of the division of the Patriarch of Antioch into Catholic and Orthodox jurisdictions. Many ugly events unfold and the reader begins to see that this is more of a power struggle, highly influenced by a desire for a more comfortable life which European culture could provide, than a dispute over any kind of ecclesiastical or theological differences.

A brief historical summary, maps, and photos are included. Arab Orthodox Christians under the Ottomans: 1516-1831 is a must-read for all who love the Antiochian church and who lament its regrettable division. Knowledge brings understanding and wisdom, two elements required for the re-establishment and reunion of our church, Melkite and Orthodox.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: Prayer and Fasting

Arabic original here.

Prayer and Fasting

After the Church has entered us into the mystery of the Transfiguration and we have seen Christ's glory on the mountain, the divine word instructs us today that man is healed by prayer and fasting. Let us go past the healing of the young man afflicted with epilepsy and pay attention to Jesus' words after the disciples were unable to perform the miracle: "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move." By this He meant that if your faith has a mustard seed of warmth, then everything is possible. Impossible things are possible, since nothing is possible for God. But you go back to ingratitude and doubt.

The apostles whom the Lord accused had this ingratitude because they still had not witnessed His resurrection and had not received the Holy Spirit. They were prey to the dust that was in them. They were prey to the passions nestled in their souls. The Lord wanted them to look to God and to His power which was capable of transforming them into new people, as though they were the Lord Himself.

The Teacher wanted them to practice faith in two aspects: in the aspect of prayer first and then in the aspect of fasting. My intention is for us to arrive at the core meaning of these two words. The essence of the prayer that makes us capable of miracles is that by which we know ourselves to be capable of attaining God Himself. God has entered into discussion with us. He has entered into dialogue inasmuch as He has made Himself possible for us. If it is right to say it, He has condescended from His almighty power in order to make us capable of standing before Him and with Him, so that we in turn are creators and renewers of this nature, transformers of our own hearts and of the hearts of people.

Prayer is our being in contact with God such that He acts if we act and He speaks if we speak. When the Bible says that God answers, it is not because we are beggars but because we are sons. God responds because we ourselves in the house of the Father are able to change what must be changed. We are given authority over the house of God, which is the universe. God answers and saves us. When one has the sweetness of God, this sweetens everything. When one has God's kindness, this makes the world kind and it in turn becomes gentle.

As for fasting, its purpose is not only abstinence from food. The ultimate intent of what is called fasting here is chastity. Chastity is our abstaining from a lust that rules over us so that we may give God sovereignty within us. Fasting is our giving control over to God so that we do not speak out of whim, but rather we say what God says by our tongues and we express the grace that God has cast into our hearts. Through fasting, man becomes poor before God and knows himself to be be such. Because of this, if he is chaste he is capable of having his prayer heard.

God dialogues with those who are of Him. Those who have acquired God's grace come to be within God and speak to God from within Him. If we become a chaste, praying people, kind to others, loving them, if we want this then God makes us capable of being transfigured with Him on the mountain and of looking out over our life and the life of all people.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Mary

Arabic original here.

Mary

Mary is the Mother of God. She gives birth to Christ God into the world (the Third Ecumenical Council, Ephesus 431).

Mary was the house of God. She is the servant of the divine mystery, "the mystery hidden for ages and unknown to the angels."

Mary is both mother and virgin-- a virgin, that is, the bride of God, consecrated to Him and to no one else. "Rejoice, O bride unwedded." At the same time, she is our mother in giving spiritual love. "Behold, your mother," says the Lord Jesus upon the cross to the disciple John whom He loved (cf. John 19:26-27).

We read in the Gospel passage for the Dormition (Luke 10:38-42), "Mary (the sister of Lazarus) sat at Jesus' feet and listened to His words... one thing is needful" (cf. Luke 10:39 and 42).

This is how the Virgin Mary was. When His mother and brothers came to Him and they said to Him, "Your mother and brothers want to see You," He replied, "My mother and brothers are those who listen to the word of God and do it" (Luke 8:21). There is listening and obedience.

In the Epistle for the Dormition (Philippians 2:5-11) it says, "He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8).

"Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Mary is the image of every pure person. The pure person is the one who only accepts into their heart God's seed, the divine word, not a corrupt human word.

They do not place anything within their soul alongside Christ-- not money, not station (that is, authority or vainglory), not the body (and the pleasure of the body). They worship only God. "You cannot worship two masters, God and money." Christ alone is the bridegroom of the soul. Mary is the bride of God.

Death is participation in the faulty human nature that we have all received. The Virgin received this fragile nature, but she remained impervious to willfully falling and so she was glorified and became a model for us.

Why does she have obedience to God? Because He is her Creator, the one who continuously glorifies our nature and our life. He is all of existence. Without Him I do not exist.

The Lord rewarded her at the end of her life, since she was transported to Him and glorified in the body above the angels, like Elijah.

+Ephrem
Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies