Thursday, December 9, 2010

Met. Ephrem on the Feast of St. Barbara

This sermon was given during vespers at the Church of St. Barbara in Ras Masqa on December 3, 2010. The Arabic original can be found here.


Beloved, we gather today to celebrate the feast of St. Barbara who lived between the third and fourth centuries. It is an amazing thing, this and other saints who lived in ancient times and who we continue to celebrate over the centuries until today. One wonders: what is the secret of these people? There must be some secret, something distinct about them, such that the whole world honors them and has continued to honor them over such a long period of history!

Their secret is that they were witnesses to Christ against paganism. Saint Barbara, the patroness of this holy church whose feast we are gathered together to celebrate today, was killed by the hand of her own father. He cut off her head because he was a pagan and she could not allow herself to follow those errors. She remained steadfast in her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ the God-Man. She did not backtrack, but rather gave her life as the price for this confession and for this faith.

This martyrdom is the martyrdom of blood. Perhaps it is not demanded of us these days. Perhaps one day it will be demanded of us. However, what is demanded of us today is martyrdom of another kind, which is called white martyrdom. You may be saying, ‘there is no more paganism today.’ From one perspective, that is true. But from another perspective, if you think about it you will find that paganism remains in our life. Before us are new pagan gods that we worship these days in every corner of the world and especially in Lebanon. People these days worship money. They worship authority and worldly glory. They worship lust. They worship entertainment and all the other vices.

Our children who are very young, who are in colleges are exposed to many temptations. They stay out late having questionable parties. They fall into drug use. What do they benefit from that? They lose consciousness and focus and they might lose their entire future.

Beloved, today we must pay attention to all these new idols and resist them. We must become white martyrs. This means that we must be aware and watchful over our spiritual life and not let material life overpower us and conquer our minds. If people are immersed in a life of leisure and luxury and leave aside the life of prayer and spiritual watchfulness, what will become of the children? Naturally, they will depart from the right path and will become subject to the worship of the idols of the world.

Life with Christ makes one immune to evils. It makes one peaceful, loving all people, not stirring up problems and enmities. It makes one obliging and helpful to all in need. Do you have extensive wealth? That is not a problem. Wealth is not an evil in itself. However, know that your wealth will not bring you happiness. Be wise and know how to use it: give to those in need, undertake projects useful to people, to society… Rid yourself of any power that material things may have over you so that you will be strong and defeat this fading world.

Do you know what the purpose of this life is, my beloved, and why God created us in this life? The purpose of life is for us to become saints. God created us so that we can strive and seek after the face of the Beloved through the smoke and wreckage of this world. And so we must possess sound spiritual vision in order to search after the divine things and hold on to them and so that we do not let worldly things distract us from our true concern, from striving for eternal life.

May the Lord Jesus Christ bless you with His divine grace so that you will become victorious martyrs, amen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fr. Touma Bitar on The Crisis of Consultation in the Church

The Arabic original can be found here.



The Crisis of Consultation in the Church

Should the final word in the Church be that of the bishop of the archdiocese alone, or not? Should there be auxiliary bishops or not? Should ordinary believers participate in the ordering of affairs of the community of the Church or not? Should elders (priests) have a say in the policies of pastoral care for the faithful or not? The problem is not here or there or over there. The problem is a problem of consultation, should it exist or not? Affairs among us are in consultation or we are not within the context of the Church of Christ!

Consultation is a practice that has been known in the community since ancient times. The Latin term consilium has almost exactly the same meaning as the Arabic term shura [i.e. consultation]. If you say of a community that it is a matter of consultation among them, you mean that they do not settle on a single opinion until they have consulted each other and reached a consensus about it. Look: “in consultation together there is deliberation and consensus about an opinion” (from the Arabic dictionary Muhit al-Muhit). From another point of view, it is normal that if you say that someone consulted something else about something, you mean that he showed him a way to improve and pointed out the right thing to him. So if people practice consultation, their action indicates the conviction among them that there is a deficiency in having one sole opinion and that in consultation there is wisdom. Similar to this is the verse in the Book of Proverbs that says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that listens to counsel is wise” (Proverbs 12:15). This points to the understanding of the peoples that the best decisions are to be found in consultation. In this context, the definition in the dictionary Lisan al-Arab caught my attention, which is perhaps the basis for the understanding of consultation among the ancients even if it is not common today. They used to say that someone consulted the honey if they gathered it from the hives. Should we not understand consultation to be the effort to extract the honey of the opinion or position, that is the best and most excellent of it, from the wisdom of the elders?

Thus consultation is a characteristic of a group that puts a high value on wisdom and it is the device with which the wise extract the juice of permitted knowledge in order to govern the group with wisdom.

This is in general. But in Christianity, we reach, or it is assumed that we will reach, something that has no comparison to human wisdom because we “have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Ghost teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).

Our model in this is the gathering together of the Apostles and elders and faithful brethren over the issue of whether or not gentile converts had to adopt the Jewish custom of circumcision and keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15). How did they deal with consultation among themselves? First there was “much disputing” (Acts 15:7). And a crowd was gathered there (Acts 15:12). Those who had something to say, spoke. The Apostles Peter and James also spoke. It is not said of them that they were the leaders, nor is this said of any one of the Apostles and elders. The Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:9 said of Peter (Cephas) and James as well as John that they were considered pillars. They were looked upon in the Church as pillars. And if we say that there are pillars, this means that there is a house there that we are talking about. And which house is this house? It is precisely the Church and the Apostles are the pillars of God’s wisdom within it, because it is said “through wisdom is a house built and through understanding it is established” (Proverbs 24:3). The Lord Jesus is Himself the house (the temple) and the wisdom of God! Leadership, as it exists in the world, no longer has a place in the Church of Christ because the Teacher taught thus: “the princes of the gentiles exercise dominion over them…. but it shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:25-26). So pillarship a gift and not a job in the way that there are jobs and leadership positions in the world. The crowd did not listen to Peter and James on account of their primacy of position, but for their primacy of wisdom that the Apostle Paul described, “it is not of the wisdom of the world or of the princes of the world, who are brought to naught” rather it is “the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory which none of the princes of the world knew” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

After they benefited from much disputing, the author of the Book of Acts says, “then the Apostles and elders, with the whole church decided…” (Acts 15:22). Here they attained a single opinion and implemented it and here also the entire Church became one voice. When Peter spoke he used the language of “I”, as did James, and when the consultation was finished the whole Church in Jerusalem said, “The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the gentiles… Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you… to whom we gave no such commandment, it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord” (Acts 15: 23-25) for us to do such-and-such. The question that now presents itself is: how did the Church in her dispute reach this level of agreement?” Was it through majority vote? Of course not, never, because they reached a consensus about what they declared. Was it through bargaining? Of course not, never! They said, “We came to be of one accord.” The Greek word that is translated as “of one accord” is ‘homothymazon’ which appears here and there in dictionaries which the meaning ‘of one heart and one mind’. So it is not a question of bargaining over opinions or a question of bargaining and then agreeing on the surface of the words in an ambiguous manner that allows each group to interpret them in whatever manner pleases them. The issue is that the spirit that the whole group accepted and in which the whole group spoke was the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit. He is the one who made them one and He is the one who made their word, in the end, one word. This is clear from verse 28 of the same of the book (addressed to the gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia): “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…”

Building on this, consultation in the Church is a theantrhopic framework. In it, the Spirit of the Lord is the essential party and the human contribution is only cooperation with the Holy Spirit. God wants man to become a temple for the Spirit of the Lord and thus a mouth for God, as of old Aaron was for Moses. The Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the Church’s perseverance to the end. Thus the Lord says to Peter, “You are the rock and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail over her” (Matthew 16:18). The rock was Christ in whom Peter believed to the point that in faith the rock and Peter came to resemble each other. Of old, water came forth from the rock and the people drank. The living water became the Spirit of God. The people drank of it and will never thirst (John 4:14). Consultation, in the Church is the concern of the group for the brethren to examine within it the Holy Spirit within each other so that the word will not be of flesh and blood but of the Spirit of God who is pleased to reside and work in flesh and blood! This is why consultation among the faithful is the standard and the indicator that what is desired is asking the Word of God in every situation!

Within this framework, the faithful are a group infatuated with holiness and taken over by the wisdom of God in mystery. This is a statement that, for those who do not believe in spirit and in truth, is theoretical, unrealistic, impractical, while for those who have living faith it is more intuitive than the affairs of this world are intuitive for the people of this world. For this reason consultation is the endeavor for the faithful and it is only undertaken among them. Through consultation they bear fruit in the Spirit and without it they become barren. Consultation is a birth-pang so that the word of the Spirit can be born from within the group! Through it we are of the Church and without it the Church pronounces us to be outsiders even if we call ourselves by her name! In the Church we have no substitute for consultation except consultation itself, no matter how difficult “much disputations” and birth-pangs may be!

And so there is no leadership in the Church, but primacy of wisdom and holiness! Thus the ancients chose bishops and elders (priests) from among the confessors and saints. The Spirit does not speak in one who puts himself first, but rather in one who puts himself last. He does not speak in one who considers himself great, but rather in one who considers himself as a child. One who does not seek honor in humility, does not seek status by washing feet, does not seek authority through true service, who does not seek to be seen by the eye of God by retreating from the eyes of men, disturbs the Church of Christ and causes the work of the Spirit of the Lord to stumble. At that point, the Spirit speaks through those who are considered lowly to shame those who are proud in the eyes of man!

If in the Church governance of the group is not given to a single individual by virtue of position and authority, then it is also not a democracy! There is not a majority that governs and a minority that is governed. There are not leaders who govern and a people who are governed. God alone governs! God, not people, must be obeyed so that the Church is not treated like an institution of this world! Do we not say, “Arise O God and judge the earth, for you shall inherit all the nations”? Christ the Lord has inherited all things in His saints!

That there are those who go against consultation because they seek things for themselves and their passions is something that is unavoidable in the group, because the mystery of sin is also at work among faithful Christians in the Church. However, for consultation to become deficient or for it to turn into deliberations like those that the politicians of the world have, or for one in a position of authority to not want to seek out the Spirit of the Lord in the brothers, great and small, this is the big disaster! As long as the group’s general consciousness is upright, then those who stray are set aright by the canons and if they disobey they are cast out. But if the general consciousness is numbed and we fall into insensitivity and heedlessness then how will those who stray be set aright?! They govern and no one objects to them! At that point, the little flock is persecuted because it is considered aberrant, straying and it suffers. Whatever the matter may be, the Spirit of the Lord remains the master of the Church speaks through those other than those who think they are valuable (without consciousness of them) or those who are considered to be ordinary believers, when they keep the faith! Ignorant children without account then speak to those who listen! The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone! If they fall silent even the stones will cry out!

I heard an auxiliary bishop wonder, “what is a bishop?” He responded with all conviction, “He is the one to whom the metropolitan of the archdiocese says ‘stand!’ and he stands or ‘sit!’ and he sits.” I said, “What a pity. Where were we when the apostles and elders and brothers gathered at the first time, and where did we go when ordinary believers in the Church came to be lorded-over, without having a say, most of them scattered between heedlessness, confusion, and bitterness?!

Let us not kill the spirit, lest we die in our sins!!!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)

Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite, Douma

November 28, 2010

Monks from Mount Athos Visit Diocese of Akkar

Adapted from the French original, by Carol Saba, which can be found (with pictures!) here.



A delegation of monks from the Monastery of Simonas Petras on Mount Athos, led by the monastery's abbot Archimandrite Elisha, began a visit to the Archdiocese of Akkar (North Lebanon) on November 29, at the invitation of Met. Basil. The first stage of the visit began with a reception at the seat of the archdiocese in Sheikh Taba, where the delegation was greeted by Metropolitan Basil along with a number of clergy from the archdiocese, Deputy Nidal Tohme, and other local dignitaries. In his welcome speech, Met. Basil highlighted the importance of these exchanges with Mount Athos and pointed out the bonds that exist between the Holy Mountain and the Patriarchate of Antioch. He also referred to the particular bonds that connect the patriarchate with the Monastery of Simonos Petras where many bishops, monks, priests, and faithful like to spend time for healing and contemplation.

The Athonite delegation's visit will continue until December 11. Many visits are planned in different dioceses. In his response to Met. Basil, Fr. Elisha noted his joy in being there with the group of fathers who are accompanying him. "We feel like we are with family here. We came to this region to learn about your works and your spiritual combat and in order to transmit to you the blessing of Our Lady the Virgin Mary, the protectress of Mount Athos." He confirmed that reciprocal visits deepen the bonds that have been created over the past more than twenty years with the dioceses of the Holy See of Antioch, "since the time that many fathers came to study in Greece and lived at the monastery. They are always welcome and they will live in a place in our heart."

After visiting the seat of the archdiocese, the delegation went to the Syrian part of the archdiocese, where a liturgy was concelebrated with Met. Basil at the Church of Holy Virgin in Tartous. On December 2, the delegation visited the National Orthodox School of the Archdiocese of Akkar and were met by Met. Basil and the school's faculty. The inauguration of an exposition of icons was followed by a traditional meal for the occasion of the feast of St. Barbara, an important popular festival in Syria and Lebanon. On December 4, the village of Rahbe was visited by relics of its patron, St. George. Relics of St. George were brought to the village's Church of St. George by Archimandrite Elisha in a large and fervent procession to the sound of bells being rung and rice and flowers being thrown. After the celebration of vespers, the parish priest offered Athonite delegation a ceder to be planted on the Holy Mountain.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Met. Georges Khodr: Christians and Muslims in the World

This column was published in an-Nahar on November 20, 2010. The Arabic original can be found here.



Muslims and Christians in the World

It is extremely difficult to talk about the relationship between these two communities in the world because of the confusion of the religious and political levels within them. Starting from this, religion and the world are always joined in the Islamic mind, according to what most religious scholars say. From this reality, Christianity in the eyes of Islam is the Christianity of the West that since the Crusader campaigns is always politicized. For a period of two hundred years there was combat between a West that was conscious of its own Christianity and the East. Then came colonialism, which in part targeted the Dar al-Islam. Since then the West is always in need of an enemy, it replaced enmity for Communism with enmity for the world of Islam and from that time the West was filled with scholarly studies about Islam, some of which are good and some of which are bad.

The scene is that Europe has been more civilizationally advanced than the Dar al-Islam since the fourth century of the Hijra, while before this the Muslims were the ones with philosophy and science. The Arab East, the bearer of Islamic thought, began to retreat and went back to repeating itself and became civilizationally and materially impoverished. This is what partially explains its tumultuous uprising in terrorist groups supplied with weapons bought from America, which has become the heart of the West, or with weapons sent by America. In other words, the West is slaughtering itself with weapons it produces and whose sale and distribution is ostensibly not supervised. That it, the West itself feeds Islamophobia and ignores whether it will meet its consequences. In this picture, who is responsible for the massacre of Christians in an Iraqi church?

This means that the encounter between Christians (who are always Westerners in the mind of Muslims) and Muslims is impossible because what is involved in reality is not Islam and Christianity but Muslim peoples and Western Christian peoples. This is what leads us to the first question, which is the ability of the Islamic mind to break itself from blending religion and the world or the state and the Islamic world, since it is what the Qur’an calls ‘the first things’ in relation to the last things. That is, the question of how to translate in political terms, the inspired statement, “The last things are better for you than the first” (Surat al-Duha 4). Do the first things have complete independence from the last things since the Dar al-Islam is necessarily armed against the West which is arrogant and eager to stomp on the poor? The second questions is are there powers in the Eastern Christian or Western Christian world that are able to put forward a church that is above political desires? I do not have a realistic answer to these two questions. However, my theological and historical conviction is that a Russia that is once again inspired by her Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Balkans after their break from the Ottomans do not harbor enmity to Islam. In the Russian Federation there are no less than twenty million Muslims who live in peace. Ataturk, after ridding himself of the Greek Christians in Anatolia, no longer had the problem of Christians among his people.

Perhaps there is a third question. How can the West, which has effectively adopted the Islamic view of the blending of religion and state, return to the purity of its Christianity which does not know this blending? Can countries be run by saints?

One of the aspects of this delusion is that Muslims, including Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and perhaps al-Mawdudi, believed that they had only one need, which was to adopt science and technology without changing their understanding of Islam, because within it is the divine view of man and of creation. There is no need for a new view of shari’a or of a new interpretation of the Qur’an or a historical reading of it. Islam is eternally the same and what the first generation of Muslims left us is the truth, since they united laws and jurisprudence and interpretation on the one hand, and the words of God on the other. This is an absolute view of man and of Islamic history, but it is all determined by the word of God. Here we have a problem that is left for Muslim thinkers to solve. Is Protestantism possible in Islam?

In contrast, the countries called “Christian” have become secularized. This means that in European and American life there is no return to God in social life. Of course, it is not true that the West is cut off from faith. Those who say that do not follow Christian thought in the world, however this is separate from political thought.

This brings us back to the meeting of Islamic thought stripped away of all politics with Christian religious thought that looks down on politics and does not mix with them. That is, it brings us back to the purity of spiritual life in both Islam and Christianity and to a dialogue between religious scholars and pious people from the two religions. I mean by this to their true religiosity. This assumes a pure reading of love by Christians of Islam and by Muslims of Christianity. This assumes freedom from worldly benefits and feeling of the domination of one thought over another, free of violence. To expound your faith in peace is to love little or much in the two religions. Those who know their religion do not fear a movement such as this. However, it cannot take place in a country based on political sectarianism. I do not deny Lebanon’s desire to study civilizations in tranquility but that requires significant knowledge of the other and peace is a requirement for dialogue.

If this dialogue is a mask for missionary activity or da’wa, it is not a dialogue. It is a war without weapons. I do not deny the legitimacy of missionary activity and da’wa, but the reality of things leads me to believe that a billion and a half Muslims and two billion Christians will continue to increase in number until the final hour. It is grandiose to think that you can Islamize or Christianize the world.

Any real and sincere encounter between us on the level of the world assumes that we are all free from being fused into any international blocs. This alone ensures us peace in its political sense and so after today there is no conflict because of our liberation from the nightmare of history that divided us and through our detachment from current political factors whose actors desire our division.

It might escape us here that our scholars lived for a time in Baghdad and disputed theology at the Abbasid court with the caliph’s invitation in a spirit of peace and scholarship and refinement. Thoughts were exchanged.

Everyone who studies religions knows that between them there are similarities and distinctions that cannot be surmounted in most cases. However, distinctions can be eliminated or surpassed in some cases and this requires comparative studies that lead to a sound view of the religions.

However, the closeness that I am putting forward is that Christians and Muslims in many countries have lived not only in harmony but also in cooperation. The best example of this is the first period of Umayyad rule when Christians were important functionaries in the Islamic state on account of their knowledge of financial matters, administration, and the navy. They were familiar with Islam and practiced their own religion and wrote Christian theology in Arabic—that is, not in a way that was limited to their own flock. The image of al-Andalus of eight hundred years of convivencia under Arab rule is that mutual social understanding and frequent encounters between scholars was the typical situation.

In sum, the social contract is in principle possible between people of the two religions as long as we are certain that unity of religion is not a necessary condition for social unity under the protection of a secular civil government in each country. To put things more clearly, fusion into a single society and the building up of a single state are possible through good governance for living together. Important basic things in all these fields do not need unity of religious belief. Mutual respect in honesty is sufficient.

However, all of this requires serious, continuous effort that takes us to the point of asceticism. In Christian language this is called love, and in the language of Islam it is called mercy or compassion or friendship.

From where do these virtues come to people? We see that they come down upon them when they know divine love or something approaching it. No crusade, no conquest, no colonization, no victory is from God. Without all these things, God has the right to rule His eternal vineyard so that we will be, Muslims and Christians, as one people.