Sunday, February 26, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos)'s Message for Lent

Arabic original here.

Message for Lent

During the time of fasting, we refrain from everything that does not pertain to God so that we may be nourished with the bread of heaven. Spiritual life (that is, life in the Spirit of God) is not acquired without hunger, hunger for invisible food. Being sated is to do without God and "excessive luxury leads to sin."

Saint John Chrysostom says that this is the time of repentance and repentance is nothing other than turning to God. In this way we acquire "the mind that is in Christ Jesus," as the Apostle Paul says (Philippians 2:5).

Training the body through fasting and prostrations brings us closer to God, just as it also brings us closer to our brothers, the poor. The fast does not take us away from our body, but rather it takes us away from its lust, from its selfishness, indeed, from the worship of it. There is an intimate relationship between the body and the soul. God became flesh and dwelt among us in His Holy Spirit and we are no longer sated with anything but Him.

The body is trained through bodily exercises, through fasting and prostrations. The soul is one with the body and it is trained through refraining from sin. There is an intimate connection between the soul and the body. Changes in thinking have an impact on the body. The most important thing during the time of fasting is to turn to God, being occupied with Him first of all: how many Christian families until today take an opportunity out of their obligations to make time for prayer?

Being alone with the Beloved is good, especially during Holy Week. They long for Him, so should we not sacrifice some time out of our worldly occupations to dedicate to seeing the Lord, to speaking to Him? How, when we don't see Him? How, when we don't taste Him? "Taste and see how good the Lord is." How, when we don't get to know Him from close by, when true life is with Him!?

This comes through prayer and also through the neighbor.

Yes, our path of fasting leads us to the vision that we enjoy before it comes to us and into us. It is an earnest effort to connect to God in unity with Him. It is a vision of the Savior risen from death, in the hope of our own resurrection from our stumbling, and along with us the resurrection of the world that is despairing of its darkness. Amen.

The time of the fast is an opportunity for us to practice works of charity. The Bible says: "Redeem your sins by works of charity" (Daniel 4:27).

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh on Trump's Muslim Ban

Arabic original in an-Nahar here.

Mr Trump: Mind Your Own Business!*


We are not concerned by the decision of Mr Donald Trump, president of the United States of America, to prevent the reception of citizens of certain countries, including Syria, except insomuch as it distinguishes between Muslims and Christians. His decision is a purely sovereign American matter and only Americans have the right to debate their president and to ask him whether or not his decision is correct. What concerns us, then, is the impact of this decision on relations between Christians and Muslims in our country.

When Trump exempts Christians from his decision, he is regarding them as "minorities" in a state of danger. He plays the role of the protector of persecuted minorities, but at the same time he wants to build a wall to separate from "Christian" Mexico. Why this zeal for Syrian Christians while expelling Mexican Christians? So what concerns Trump isn't the future of Christians and Christianity in the Middle East, but rather American interests. That's his right, since he's the president of the United States of America and not the Pope or the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Most Syrian Christians do not want to be regarded as minorities. They are the people of the country. They were so before Islam and remained so under it, without favors from anyone. Their relations with Muslims have ebbed and flowed from one era to another according to the temperaments of rulers, governors and invaders... but they have proven that they are an essential component of the country. Their presence extends from the furthest north, from Aleppo, Lattakia and al-Hessake, to the furthest south, to Hawran and "Provincia Arabia," passing through Hama, Homs, Tartous, Wadi al-Nasara and Damascus. Therefore it is not possible to discriminate between Syrian Christians and other Syrians.

Syrian Christians do not want Mr Trump to treat them as "Syrian Christians," but as Syrian citizens. Preventing the reception of Syrians in his country is fine, but it's not fine to exempt Christians. Moreover, the decision implies that there is a crisis between Christians and Muslims, that the Christians are persecuted by the Muslims, and that their future in the region is threatened... and this is not true. The crisis of Christians and Muslims began before the appearance of extremist Islamic groups. It began with the tyranny practiced by the current regime. The crisis of Middle Eastern Christians, then, is the same as the Muslims' crisis and one cannot be solved without solving the other. Their fates are inextricably intertwined and it is only in vain that we go searching outside this framework.

There is no doubt that Mr Trump's decision contributes to pouring oil on the fire of racism, prejudice and hatred that is devouring the entire world. But the decision also serves those who the United States and Russia claim to be fighting: ISIS, Nusra and other such terrorist groups. How is it possible to fight Islamic extremism on the basis of regarding all Muslims as a danger to the international community? Is not preventing Muslims from traveling to the United States tantamount to accusing them of being terrorists simply because they are Muslims? Moreover, how can Mr Trump ignore the fact that ISIS does not discriminate between Syrian Muslims and Syrian Christians in their terrorist operations? In this regard-- and only in this regard-- ISIS seems better than Trump, since they don't practice racial or religious discrimination!

This hypocrisy practiced by Mr Trump in his dealing with the situation of Christians in the Middle East isn't new. What did the United States do in order to help the Christians of Palestine and Iraq remain? And what did the West in general do to prevent the Armenian Genocide, or to prevent the Turks, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, from expelling the Greeks from western Turkey, the Syriacs from Mardin and Diyarbakir, and the Rum from Antioch?

Christians will not be pleased to be pawns in the hands of racists. They are masters of their own fate. They have passed through years and centuries that were much leaner than these days and they were not eliminated. They are here. They shall remain here. This is their country and it shall remain their country. But to Mr Trump we say: mind your own business!*

*Literally: go sew with a different needle.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Baptism is a Death and a Resurrection

Arabic original here.

Baptism is a Death and a Resurrection

Baptisms abound during the season of Theophany, which is popularly called the "Feast of Baptism", during which Christians commemorate Christ's baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Most believers wait for the coming of this feast to baptize their children because they believe in the connection between their children's baptism and the baptism of Christ. However, Christian theology, starting from the Holy Bible, says something else. Christians do not get baptized because Christ was baptized, but because Christ died and rose from the dead.

There is a difference between Christ's baptism by John, which was a purification ritual that could be repeated multiple times, about which John was clear when he said to his disciples, "I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8). And Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again'" (John 3:5-7).

There is no doubt that the Holy Apostle Paul was the first to talk about baptism as participation in Christ's death and resurrection. In his Epistle to the Romans, he says, "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection" (Romans 6:5-3).

The Christian tradition is in agreement, then, in saying that baptism is participation in Christ's death and resurrection and for this reason it is called a second birth. In this regard, Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407) says, "By baptizing the head in water, the old man is buried, is completely drowned in the depths, and is totally hidden. When the head is raised, the new man takes the place of the old." Chrysostom likewise confirms this when he says, "As it is the cross and the tomb for Christ, so it is baptism for us."

As for Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), he says, "Baptism is like death in your descent into the water, and like resurrection in your leaving the water. Just as the resurrection of the Lord, according to the Apostle Paul's explanation, is a rebirth, your leaving the baptismal font is a rebirth." Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386)  says, "Just as Christ, who bore all the sins of the world, died in order to raise you up in righteousness by His crushing sin, you go down into the water and you are buried in it just as he was buried in a tomb, so that you may rise and walk in newness of life." Newness of life is living in the presence of the eternal God, in constant repentance.

Fidelity to baptism requires separation from sin, of which Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 466) says, "The mystery of baptism teaches us to separate from sin. Baptism is in the likeness of the Lord's death. In it, we become participants in Christ's death and resurrection. Therefore, we must live a new life." But if one falls into sin, he does not repeat his baptism, but rather repentance is like a constant baptism. One only dies once and so one is only baptized once.

Theodoret offers us a valuable witness to the early practice of baptizing children, something that is rejected by some Protestant sects, when he says, "If the meaning of baptism was limited to the forgiveness of sins, then why do we baptize recently-born children who have not yet known sin? But the mystery of baptism is not limited to this. Rather, it goes beyond this to greater and more perfect gifts. In baptism, there is the promise of the splendors to come. It is the symbol of the coming resurrection, participation in the Lord's passion and resurrection. It is the badge of salvation, the oil of splendor, the badge of light or more aptly, the light itself."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Spiritual Life in the Parish

Arabic original here.

Spiritual Life in the Parish

What does the parish church offer its members in addition to the Divine Liturgy on Sunday and the other sacramental services like baptism, marriage, and funerals and some charitable assistance? Can the priest not add to this serving, spiritually guiding, and healing souls?

Can the doors of the church not be opened more than once a week for the Divine Sacrifice or for vespers, a paraklisis or other prayers? The Divine Liturgy can be held in the evening during the week, but what is more beautiful and more effective than a Divine Liturgy early in the morning before going to school or work? Because spiritual struggle in personal or liturgical prayer is effective and fruitful in the morning when the mind is fresh and we offer the firstfruits of our thought and prayer to God. In the Antiochian Church, we not long ago had the tradition in every diocese of celebrating the Divine Liturgy early every day in a church specially designated for this. This is because the Church's experience tells us that prayer, especially early in the morning, and closeness with the Lord are priorities in the life of the believer and are reflected positively in the family, at school, at work and in society. The Church is the hospital for sick souls, says Saint John Chrysostom. This is because illness is rooted in our mind (nous).

The holy fathers teach us that man cannot be radically healed except through the grace of the Holy Spirit, naturally by way of repentance (metanoia), whose literal meaning is a change of mind (nous), so that it may be attached to the mind of Christ, as the Apostle Paul calls for in his Epistle to the Philippians (cf. Philippians 2:5).

Beloved, the Orthodox Christian witness does not only rely on the intellect, since it also and especially assumes the purification of the heart through confession and repentance. Saint Seraphim of Sarov says, "Acquire the Spirit of peace in your heart and thousands around you will be saved."

Let us not forget, brethren, that we believers are called to bear witness to Christ in our society, which today is diverse in its denominations and religious communities on the one hand, and in its materialist and worldly inclination on the other hand. The Lord Jesus Himself calls us, through His disciples before His ascension from us to heaven in the body, saying, "Go and make disciples of all nations... teach them to keep all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

He is the one who went about teaching, "preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people" (Matthew 9:35).

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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Time

Arabic original here.

Sermon for New Year's 2017

At New Year's, beloved, we must once again stand and contemplate the meaning of our life, the essence of our existence, and how we spend our time. We must pause over the meaning of time, how we live it and how we should live it.

Generally speaking, we distinguish three aspects of time: the past, the present and the future. If we want to approach the present objectively, we will be sure that it is nothing other than the aspect that overlaps between the past and the future. The present is that tiny finite moment that we cannot separate, but which divides the past from the future. The moment of the present is in reality the only one that is occurring, but it cannot be seized or grasped, since it immediately recedes into the past. A person doesn't live time as moments isolated from each other, but as a broad extension that embraces the past and the future. The present is that station in which the past and future are traversed, in the sense of traversing time and connecting with eternity. In it takes place preparation for eternal life. Time becomes an opportunity to seize eternity. The present is the temporal scope in which man meets God, according to the Elder Sophronius. Prostrations, bowing and rising, express this state: rising from the earth to seek heaven, tying earth's time to eternity. Time, in its present moment, can transform into moments when man encounters God. Time, only in its present moment, can mix with eternity. Thus we can approach time, its meaning, its value and its purpose in its present moment: it grants man the possibility of accessing eternity.

Time is inextricably entangled with the world and with the affairs of the world. It is entangled with life and leads it to death. The sea is this age, the boat is each of our lives, humans are the passengers, the rudder that guides the ship is time, and the destination is death. So it would be ignorance for us to go to death sleeping. Man's lifespan is the time of life that has passed and ended. On our birthdays we rejoice that we have gotten older and that we have added years to our lifespans. Our standard of measurement is, unfortunately, what is gone and passed. Passing time is not the measure of the time of life, but the measure of the time of passing away. But we must be wiser and more wary because we are drawing nearer to death and we do not know when death will open its gates to us. The God who loves humankind has kept the time of death unknown for humans in order to put them in a state of wakefulness and repentance and in a state of expectation: "let your loins be girded about and your lamps burning," especially when they see death knocking at the door for those around them. Unfortunately, however, Christians have come to treat death in an abstract manner where it concerns people around them but not themselves. The logic of Christianity is for the Christian to celebrate the triumph of his entrance into the kingdom, not his entrance into life. For this reason, the Church generally designates the feasts of martyrs and righteous ones on the dates of their martyrdom and repose, not on the day of their coming into life; on the day of their entering into the kingdom, not on the day of their entering into life.

Beloved, we must make this day into an opportunity that we dedicate to remembering God in the time of our personal lives. We must dedicate it to prayer, good works and sacrifice. Let us know that when we offer our present moment to God, we are offering Him our lifespan and our entire life. In this way, we truly live our life as fragrant incense for God, to Him be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Met Saba (Esber): The Fullness of Time

Arabic original here.

The Fullness of Time

The Epistle for the feast says, "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, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5). What is the fullness of time? It is the most appropriate time for the coming of the Savior. Why? Is the Savior in need of an appropriate time? Of course He is not in need, but those for whose sake He has come are in need. They are not prepared, not capable of seeing and accepting Him at just any time without preparation.

The coming of the Savior means that the act of salvation has started to be realized. Salvation is for us to become children of God, "that we might receive adoption." Is this adoption (that is, salvation) realized for people who reject it or who do not know it? Is it realized in those souls who do not await it or do not desire it? Is it realized in souls that are busy with other things to the point that they forget their salvation? The fullness of time is the time in which Christ became incarnate. It was the time in which Christ was truly born, within a specific human being. It is the time in which man became aware of God's presence within him, the activity of His grace in his life, and so he is born again in a true, spiritual birth.

Historically speaking, this expression means the time in which God was able to become incarnate among people and to live with them. This is what God did, with incredible divine longsuffering. The Holy Bible informs us that God began, in practice, first by offering Himself to Abraham, then Isaac his son, then Jacob, Isaac's son. This was the beginning of divine disclosure, which continued for eighteen or so centuries, until it was completed in the incarnation of the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, Christ. At that time, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

Divine disclosure was gradual because humankind has always been in need of spiritual progression in order to become capable of truly understanding God and of responding to the requirements of His presence in them and among them. Inner hardheartedness prevents man from knowing God. Satisfaction with earthly and bodily things blinds inner sight from the light of God. Knowledge of god needs a refined, spiritual person who realizes the importance of love and forgiveness, a person liberated from earthly things, who longs for spiritual things. The lustful person dies in his lust if he does not transform it into desire for eternal life. The man of dust remains dust and does not see the beauty of heaven.

Those who are to be saved must have a sense of the need for salvation. If not, then what are they saved from? Thus God caused humankind to progress by degrees, and gradually progressed with them in His self-revelation, step by step. To the degree that they became spiritually elevated, He showed them Himself with greater truth. Pagan polytheism, which humans invented out of longing for the source of their life, which they did not know, impeded their knowledge of the true God. This may be hard for some to understand because we live in a culture that has been monotheistic for centuries, but it was very hard for people to realize this before Christ.

The prophets struggled for centuries with the people of the Old Covenant in order to make them realize God's oneness and His presence in every place and time. Despite what God did for them and His saving them from slavery in Egypt-- which was a symbol and an image of spiritual slavery-- no sooner had they settled in Canaan then they hurried to engage in worshiping Baal. They understood, according to the mentality of the time, that their God who had accompanied them and saved them in the desert was a god of desert, war and hardships and that agriculture was not his specialty. The people discovered, after entering into the settled world, their need for agriculture, so they learned it from the Canaanites, who were vastly more advanced than they were. So they took up Baal as a god alongside their God (that is, the Lord), without sensing any duality between the two because each had his "specialization"!

God worked slowly and patiently to change peoples' minds, hearts and morals so that it would be possible for them to know Him as He is, not as they imagined Him or desired Him to be. This is also what He has done with each of us, since He permits us to go through various experiences so that we are purified, come to discover Him present with us, and seek our salvation.

Does this mean that God only worked among the people of the Old Covenant? The earliest fathers of the Church teach us that He used this people to be a leaven of salvific faith for the rest of the peoples. That is to say that He-- to Him be glory-- revealed Himself to humankind through this people, whom He charged with it as a responsibility and not a privilege. But He cared for other people in ways appropriate to their cultures and civilizations.

Pagan Greek philosophy, as well as Egyptian religion (the religion of Akhenaten), for example, were fields for God's hidden work, which we have come to learn about because of the abundance of relics that have come down to us. Greek philosophy arrived at belief in one God. The altar mentioned in the Book of Acts (Chapter 17) dedicated to the unknown god that the Apostle Paul saw on the streets of Athens, on the basis of which he started evangelizing the people of the city was nothing other than an image according to that philosophy's degree of advancement, on the path of seeking the truth. For this reason some churches in the West place images of the great Greek philosophers on the walls of their outer entrances, on account of the fact that their philosophy played a role in preparing the way for Christ.

As for the similarity between Christ's birth from a virgin and the births of other important people in ancient religions, such as Syrian and Egyptian religions and Buddhism, even if these are legends that have attached themselves to some religions and are not officially recognized, this affirms that the enduring human dream of a savior who comes not from earthly lust continues to be a human dream. God speaks to us from our actual situation. He comes to us from our loftiest aspirations and speaks to us in our human language, through our truest hopes and longings. He is not a God who is arrogant with us, but just the opposite, a loving and humble God. As we came to know Him in Christ, He is a God who constantly condescends in order to make Himself known to us. Is not Christ's entire biography a condescension? He condescended to our bodiliness, to a manger, to a poor and simple life... He was only elevated once in His life and this elevation upon the wood of the cross was the apex of His condescension, or what we call in theology His self-emptying, a word taken from the Apostle Paul: "He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, coming in the likeness of men,
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him" (Philippians 2:7-8). And at the lowest point of His condescension, He reached the resurrection, by whose power He saved all humankind.
This meditation during His nativity leads us to contemplate ourselves. How may we receive Him today? How should we prepare ourselves, our hearts, and our inner realities so that we may see His salvific light? How should we prepare ourselves and open ourselves to Him so that His grace may be active in us? Let us replace hardheartedness with love, selfishness with sacrifice, hatred with forgiveness, miserliness with generosity, isolation with cooperation... He has given us all the ways we need to truly and effectively receive Him, so shall we ignore Him and be content with Christmas festivities invented by humans, which have become for many the entirety of Christmas?!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Met Georges Khodr: The Light of Knowledge

Arabic original here.

The Light of Knowledge

The feast has once again revealed the light of knowledge. Our night is all light, an ascension into the profundities of God. The Savior was born at the heart of the world's tragedy, into cold, nakedness and prejudice. His birth provoked Herod's jealousy and hatred for Him reached the point of crucifying Him. The traditional icon for the Nativity places the Child in a manger, wrapped as though for a burial, as though He were cast into the manger for pain and death, as He bore all pain and death.

The Master of the feast does not want us to turn our eyes from the current situation around us, from people's brokenness. Christ is always the newborn child of this brokenness, forever cast into it. Wounds are His companions and in them He reads peace. The peace that the angels sang, Jesus gives to the sick and the thirsty who bring ruin to falsehood by their presence because they demonstrate the truth and follow in His path, the way of wounds.

Those dedicated few who accept on earth the bow of heaven bear witness that we are dust and light all at once, dust called to be aglow, life proceeding from death, lordship proceeding from total brokenness. In the Nativity, God came to us in the form of a servant. In this brokenness, He exercised His lordship over the world, He shone in this world as light. There is no other way than this poverty to sublimity, this humility to greatness, this death to life.The light of the world, its beauty, its salvation from passing away is in there being christs inhabiting it, reflecting the light of Christ, who are born every day through God's kindness and forgiveness.

The issue is no longer remembering Jesus in people's time, as though He were merely an image with which houses are decorated. The issue is whether or not we are with Christ and in Him, for the world to be saved by His coloring and those who are colored by Him. In them alone is the universe saved from darkness and death, rising in the light of the resurrection.

As I strive for sincere devotion, I see You, O Master, as the splendor of the universe and so I cover my face because I am a man of unclean lips, rooted in the world, drowning in my self, taking pleasure in its deceitful enchantment. I turn about it in and I suffocate, as though my hope were defeated. Before what You give, O Lord, I am barehanded. Have you not accepted my poverty as a gift? Your humble presence in the manger is all my wealth. Remind me of this when I am prideful or when I try to acquire something. Say that You are the wealth, O Master.

What is becoming of me in my weakness, when the world in us is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the bloatedness of existing? All these things rage in the secret parts of the soul. Your nativity reveals that you are cast into this frightful furnace that is the heart in order to transform it by the dew of Your presence into a peaceful abode.

Do not let this stubborn sin that nests within us storm to the point of vertigo, and we delight in our torment. Do not nail us to anguish and remorse, but turn us to Your forgiving face so that, if we contemplate it, we may immune to ugly deeds.

O God, do not let transgressions remain defiant and do not let souls be soured by them. Give us tears with which we may wash and be quenched. Touch our mouths with the ember of love, so that they may be familiar with your mercy and repent to you with joy.