Sunday, April 29, 2012

Met. Georges Khodr on the Principles of the Orthodox Youth Movement (IV)

From 1950. Part I here. Part II here.Part III here. Arabic original here.

The Third Principle: "The Movement strives to create an Orthodox culture animated by the spirit of the Church."

The Church and Civilization

By culture, we mean everything that the human intellect has produced in history-- philosophies, sciences, arts, and social situations. Culture is a creative activity without any confusion regarding the truth. Like everything in existence, it is either with Christ or against Him. Believers cannot allow activity in the world to be stripped of its Christ, whether or not this activity is separated from the Church by law, because the position of worldly activity toward Him is not that which is officially accepted, but that which actually done. The Church cannot limit her concern to places of worship. She must go beyond this and enter into all manifestations of life, directing the movement of life. History should not go forward in isolation from her. Rather, it should set its course in accordance with her spirituality. She is the source of every good theory that explains humanity and existence and there is no mysticism like Christian mysticism which is based on love and is capable of building up a person with harmonious faculties and inclinations, sensing his complete unity with God, humankind, and creation. The soundness of human reason demands an end to this painful dualism that stands between the Church and civilization. This is possible if we understand that Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation and that the faithful are not performing their duty to God if they are satisfied to work for their own salvation apart from the salvation of culture. Christ is the Savior of the world and thus the Savior of civilization, which is part of the world. This does not mean that the Church should dominate culture from without, in the way that the Western Church dominated it during the Middle Ages. God must become in deed Master of civilization, but from within by means of the spirituality that we sew in our creative, cultural activity. Orthodoxy does not know external dominance over the world and it deplores clerical authoritarianism. It believes in the culture of its free spirit which liberates man from all the enslavements of history and submits him to truth. Culture grows through its free natural faculties, but our natural movements have no life if they are not transfigured by divine grace. This grace enlightens the human intellect from within and through its light the features of Christian culture are produced.

From a theoretical perspective, the question of Orthodox culture is a forgone conclusion. The complicated issue lies in actively applying it to current issues in thought, art, and social life. This application depends on the effort of Orthodox people who are active in all parts of the world, in social, legal, artistic, and other fields. Clergy and laity must participate in this because the spirit of the Orthodox Church commands it. It is especially the responsibility of laity to introduce the life of the Church into the world within their worldly activities. But clergy also must be proficient in worldly culture in addition to the religious sciences, so that they can win educated people for Christ. The culture of the priest must be no lower than the highest cultural level in the country, so that cultured people can feel that they are on the same level of thinking with him, in order to make it possible for them to rise from the culture of sense and reason to that which is outside the bounds of sense and reason.

Orthodoxy and National Heritage

If, by "Orthodox culture" we mean the embodiment of the spirit of the Church in civilization, a consequence of this is that Orthodox culture does not have a specific cultural face. The Orthodox Church is not bound to Greek heritage or to any eastern cultural form. The spirit of the Orthodox Church is shared by Russians, Greeks, Arabs, and others, but there is a great difference between Greek, Russian, and Arab cultures. There is no Orthodox culture that is added to the national cultures of the various Orthodox peoples. An Orthodox person adopts the culture of the country in which he lives and breathes into it his spirit and the spirituality of the Orthodox Church. This spirituality is distinguished by the fact that it is love, sympathy, and humility. Cultural differences between Orthodox people in all the world do not preclude them from embodying the Orthodox Christian life in the various environments in which they live. In other words, we must support the intellect in all the forms of civilization in which it appears. We must especially be present in our Arab Middle East as an Arab Christian movement, robust in thought, literature, and art so that Orthodoxy will be manifest in all nations and peoples.

Orthodox Education

Culture calls us to construct a particularly Orthodox education. The Christian West, in both its Latin and Protestant halves, differs from us in its understanding of the nature of man, his spirituality, and his relationship with God. For this reason, it poses its questions in ways different from how we pose our questions. The creation of Orthodox educational curricula will end the educational crises that we are stumbling through. Schools that are Orthodox in action and not just in name are ones that give instruction in a satisfactory manner and that direct their students in a profoundly spiritual manner in all fields of study. Such is a school that lives in a sound religious atmosphere for its teachers and students. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Met. Georges Khodr: The Existential Resurrection

From his column in today's an-Nahar. Arabic original here.

The Existential Resurrection

The Resurrection is an event and it is an idea. That is, it was an occurrence in the life of Jesus of Nazareth but it was also something with meaning. This is expressed in the Paschal troparion which says, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death." These words mean that when Christ entered death, it had no power over Him, as though there is something that goes beyond the impact of the event and expresses the Savior's triumph over the reality of death.

This death is an event that is explained in the four Gospels in numerous passages, just as it is also a focal point for Paul. In Luke's account, "A great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also mourned and lamented Him" (Luke 23:27). After being lifted up on the wood of the Cross, He "gave up His spirit" (Luke 26:46). The expression "gave up His spirit" is repeated literally in the other Gospels, with mention of witnesses by name. The crucifixion was a physical event, since the Gospels used the current reports of those days, whether or not they believed in salvation. The consistent and true accounts of the death of Jesus of Nazareth are proof of the current text of the Gospels. The people of the first century testified and confirmed the event before the complete Gospels were written down.

Jesus of Nazareth was killed with the encouragement of the crowds of Jews and by a Roman court ruling. We also speak of another event, the Resurrection. This discloses the chief meaning of the death of the Nazarene for His followers. The remaining question is, did the Resurrection palpably occur for you? The beginning of an answer is that Jesus was buried in a cave. This means that a stone, rather than soil, was placed over Him and that this large tomb was witnessed to be empty on Sunday morning. According to Matthew's account, the angel said to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who had come to the tomb, "Come, see the place where the Lord lay." Then he said, "He is risen." So it appears that palpable proof of the Resurrection is based on the absence of a body in the tomb. For Mark, the young man sitting on top of the tomb said to the women who came to the tomb to perfume the body, "He is risen. He is not here. Here is the place where they placed Him." Here again is assurance that it is empty.

Luke expresses the emptiness of the tomb by saying that Peter was there and "saw the linen cloths lying by themselves." That is, without a body. This testimony is the same with John.

The Gospels do not say that Jesus' body moved on the third day and went out. But they all do say that He appeared to His followers. The Resurrection is not a physical event in the same way as that crucifixion, in the sense that it can be physically described. But it is an event that we can deduce or identify from the Teacher's appearances to the diciples and to Mary Magdalene in the garden. Thus, it also has an eventedness or consequence-- another physical reality. It was a real liberation from a real death. We accept it from the testimony of witnesses, the Apostles and companions who said that they saw Him.

We understand the meaning of His crucifixion through the Resurrection. The crucifixion was an event, but you need someone to explain it to you, to bring you from the reality of the event to the reason that was the purpose of the crucifixion: that we may come to life through the Resurrection just as Christ came to life. In other words, the purpose of the Resurrection is us. But this could only occur if Jesus condemned sin in His flesh, as Basil says. For this reason the Feast of Pascha came, to say that after the new life that we have acquired in Christ, we do not await anything else, for "the fullness of time has come," as Paul says, and through the crucifixion we have become children of God, earth has become heaven, and we have been called to the throne of glory.

No one has expressed the meaning of the Resurrection and our acceptance of its implications as Paul did when he said, "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" (Romans 6:3-4). If we do not want to live a new life, it is as though the Savior's Resurrection did not mean anything for us. It is as though we did not accept it and remained in our sins.

For this great Apostle, the Resurrection was not an event that occurred and can then be dispensed of. It became present in the life of the faithful, who come from its light, its warmth, its permanence. This is why the Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov made his daily greeting, "My joy, Christ is risen." This brings to mind Saint Mardarius, who was a Roman nobleman. Once, as he was pacing about the upper floor of his palace, he heard songs rising up from the street. He looked down from above and saw a crowd singing. He asked his servants who they were and why they were singing. They said that they were people from the east, being led to their execution, singing their belief that in their death they will be united to their Savior, who is called Jesus. So Mardarius said in his heart, "People whose religion puts them in such a state of joy on their path to death must have the true religion." So he went down and joined them and was baptized in his blood. We celebrate him as a martyr.

Each one among us who shines with spiritual glory is risen from sin, just as Christ is risen. If we look at the icon in our church and rejoice in it, we are coming from the Resurrection. We begin the week by remembering it, because each liturgy is a pascha.

The first Christians would dress in white when someone dear to them died, since at death he speaks with the Father, as Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, says.

However, God is not only concerned with individuals. He wants the Resurrection to encompass all existence and for this reason on the last day existence is radiance. It is our teaching that Jesus' Resurrection inaugurated new existence and that matter will shine with it on the last day. If our expression is true, matter does not remain material. It will shine with the light of Christ and every existential movement will become a part of the final Pascha.

In this way, we can understand the full meaning of our chanting, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs bestowing life." It is saying that the dead shall rise. This must be explained by our saying that existence itself will become the garment of Christ, and Christ only garbs himself in light.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Laughter... a Parable

So, I'm not sure how I didn't know about the blog Fara7 al-Kiameh until just now, but it's a wonderful resource for (Arabic-language) info about MJO activities and general Orthodox life in Lebanon. Lots of pictures! 

Arabic original, here.

One day, the monks Elias Morcos and Touma Bitar met, and it is a rare thing for two such spiritual peaks to meet. One of the young people wanted to take a picture of this distinguished meeting. He set the picture up with everyone smiling, but Father Elias was grumbling to himself. The photographer asked them not to move in order to get the picture right. He noticed that Father Elias was complaining, so he asked him what the reason was. Father Elias replied, "How can you frame the picture right when you're standing in front of two people with completely opposite heights? The first one is rising up and the second is going down." The two fathers laughed, and Father Touma bent down a little bit so that their heights would even out. Everyone was cracking up, and if the photo could talk, it would tell the story of a funny stance and two monks who are not bothered by shortness or height because they are great in the presence of God...  but through contrition and humility.

Fr. Georges Massouh: What is Orthodoxy?

While this essay is a couple years old-- it was published in Majallat al-Nour in February, 2009 (Arabic original here), it makes for interesting reading when read alongside his recent essay about primarily Islamic religious discourse in the Arab Spring, as it applies some of this same thinking to Orthodoxy.

What is Orthodoxy?

"Orthodoxy" is a quality that encompasses two things: correctness in belief and correctness in life. It is not possible to consider someone Orthodox if he is not correct in dogma and in all its ethical implications. Dogma is not theoretical teaching or sterile philosophy, without fruit in a person's life. Rather, it is the base upon which the faithful build their life, their behavior, and their everyday opinions. One who believes in the cross of the Lord Jesus and in His resurrection from the dead, for example, cannot refuse to bear the cross to which he is called, because in doing so he would contradict what he claims to believe or would render useless the effects of that in which he believes. The same goes for any other dogma.

There is no correctness of belief without correctness of life. Orthodoxy is not complete without this harmony that is supposed to exist between teaching and application. "The rule of faith is the rule of worship" and "the rule of worship is the rule of faith." The Orthodox life rests on the basis of these two expressions. Acts of worship are an essential part of the formation of a proper Orthodox personality, and love of one's neighbor is another part that is no less important than acts of worship. What applies to the saying about the relationship between dogma and acts of worship also applies to the relationship between dogma and one's way of life and between acts of worship and one's way of life. If one strand of this knot is dissolved, then the whole knot dissolves.

However, the way that Orthodoxy expresses the faith and worship occurs within what we have come to call culture and culture is variable and not fixed. This does not at all mean that the faith is variable, but that faith can adopt various forms in order express itself according to civilizational, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic environments. If Christianity had arisen in a world other than the Hellenistic world, then the expression of the faith-- but not the faith itself-- would be different from what has come down to us through the living tradition of the Church. If the Creed was a sufficient expression of faith, then there would have been no need to explain it and comment upon it, according to the knowledge of each successive generation, from when it was set down until the present day.

The expression of the one faith, as it exists in the civilizational, cultural, linguistic, and social environment of every people, can take various forms in one era and can change from one era to another. For Russians to eat fish during Lent, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, the first and fourth weeks, and Holy Week, does not mean that their fast is incomplete. Their climate does not provide them with things that make it possible to go without fish. That the Russians do not use the Byzantine tones in their prayers does not mean that their faith is in some way lacking. For married priests to shave their beards does not mean that they have departed from the Orthodox faith. For women on their period to start partaking of the holy gifts is something praiseworthy, and not an unacceptable defilement. It is the very core of our faith that there is no purity that a human being can acquire spontaneously and so consequently there is no involuntary impurity.

Thus it is necessary to distinguish between that which is fixed and essential-- that which if it is absent, Orthodoxy is absent-- and that which springs from human culture and so by its own nature is variable. A question from a Muslim brother attracted my attention to this when he noticed that we depict the Virgin with a veil and that nuns wear a veil. The point for him being that the ideal Christian woman is veiled. So why, he asked me, are your women unveiled? I added to the examples he mentioned what the Apostle Paul said about women covering their head. Then I tried to explain to him that the Apostle Paul's point, and Christian teaching in general, is to encourage people to exercise virtue, piety, and modesty. His point was not to mandate veils forever. The veil is not the point in itself, but rather the acquisition and preservation of chastity and purity of spirit is the point. Wanting to wear a veil and wanting to not wear a veil are both acceptable.

And so we must pay attention to the distinction between that which is essential and that which is  cultural and we must be careful not to confuse that which distinguishes Orthodoxy in various times, circumstances, contexts and environments, and that which can change without effecting its essence. The religious fanaticism that afflicts us, just as it affects people of others religions and denominations, gets its start from a lack of distinction between what is essential and what is accidental. Orthodoxy is too good to be limited to habits and traditions that many times hide God from the faithful.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh on Religious Discourse in the Arab Spring

The Arabic original, published in an-Nahar, can be read here.

When will there be a Springtime of Religious Thought?

The name "Arab Spring" that is given to the changes occurring in the Arab world will not be true until there is a corresponding renewal of religious thought. Religion is an important and influential factor in Arab societies, as has been made manifestly clear in the results and the ballot boxes in more than one country, especially Egypt. Citizens, because of the repressive regimes that have ruled them for decades, have ceased to believe in secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and republicanism... So it was natural that they resort to the "religious" option when they gained the opportunity to freely express their opinions.

The current or the dominant religious discourse raises anxiety and frustration among many elements of society who hope for an effective change for more political rights, which had been forbidden to them for a long time. This anxiety and frustration is not limited to members of "religious minorities". It is also felt among those who belong to "religious majorities" who are not impressed with religious rule, religious domination of society, the constitution, and general freedoms. These people worry that they are being freed from  tyrannical despotism only to fall under a new despotism, no less tyrannical than the one that preceded it.  

We do not need to search hard for evidence and proof that confirms the backwardness of religious discourse in the Arab countries.  The media is daily replete with fatwas, opinions, and behaviors that in their bizarreness go beyond even the most active imaginations and are incomprehensible to rational people. This in no way means that reasonable voices are absent, but they have no influence on the masses and are disregarded by them. What we are witnessing is the tyranny of irrational religious discourse over everything else.

The great Islamic thinker Sheikh Muhammad Abuduh (d. 1905) said, "Ijtihad is not only permissible, it is also an essential necessity." For him, a true Muslim is one who uses his reason in the affairs of the world and of religion. Muhammad Abduh's concern was to show the possibility of agreement between Islam, modern thought and the contemporary world, and to show a means of realizing this. Abduh criticized "extremism in holding to the externals of Shari'a" and those who make no distinction between  that which is fixed and essential in religion and that which is unessential and can be changed in it. He also criticized "blind tradition" that leads to decline, according to his words, in Islamic society.

What Sheikh Muhammad Abduh was criticizing over a century ago predominates in our religious societies. Fatwas are copied literally from ancient sources without any effort at interpreting them. Blind tradition that looks at externals more than it searches for meaning, opinions fitting for people of long-past centuries that have absolutely no connection to our present age, confusing what is essential and what is accidental, all finally result in declaring those who do not imitate the tiniest details of religious rulings to be unbelievers.

We long for a civil state that makes a complete distinction between temporal and religious authority, even as we hope when the ballot boxes show a majority with a religious-political character, for a discourse from this majority that is in keeping with the spirit of the age. The majority is responsible for reassuring the minority, not the other way around. For this reason, the majority must strive to innovate for the sake of a discourse that takes into account humanistic thought, especially with regard to human rights, especially freedom and equality in citizenship and human dignity. Without this, we will continue to await the true springtime.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fr. Touma (Bitar) : There's Doubt, and then there's Doubt

Arabic original here.

There's Doubt, and then there's Doubt

They say that the Apostle Thomas is the doubting disciple. He was not with the rest of the disciples when the Lord Jesus, to Him be glory, came to them after His resurrection in the flesh. So when they met Thomas and told him that they had seen the Lord, he immediately said, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (John 20:25).

The fath that Thomas is talking about here, and to which John the Beloved Disciple is referring in his gospel, is not like the faith that we know. Faith here means believing. You believe or you don't believe, this is a human action. There's nothing blessed about it. This is why Jesus said to Thomas after eight days, when He came to the disciples while Thomas was with them, "Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). This makes Thomas' doubt, if it is not held against him, an act of not believing what the disciples told him about their seeing Jesus.

In any case, whether we talk about Thomas' faith or his doubt, his faith is not like faith as we understand it today, and neither is his doubt. Faith in the Lord Jesus is not based on using the senses, nor is doubt based on the inability to use them.

Faith, as it occurs to us today, has a human aspect, there is no doubt about this. But it also has a divine aspect. The human aspect is related to receiving on the one hand and on the other hand it is related to response. Initiative in faith belongs to God. We are unable to attain it on our own. Only in Him are we able to attain it. In this way, the initiative towards Mary belonged to the angel Gabriel, "Peace be upon you... the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women" (Luke 1:28). Mary was, at the beginning, in a state of receiving. Then, after dialogue with the angel, she had her response: "Here I am, the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be to me as you say" (Luke 1:38). It is clear that the Lord God did not impose His will. He leaves the way open for us to respond or to not respond. He does not alter what we are inclined towards or what we desire. Naturally, He knows what is to come in advance. He does not act except at precisely the right time, when we are ready to accept what He offers us and thus are ready to accept His demand and fulfill His will. "My word does not return to Me empty," says the Lord!

This presupposes that if we are to accept what is of God, that our internal state must be prepared for it. "Blessed is the man who has resolved in his heart to go up, in the Valley of Baka, to the place that he intends. There the judge will permit him blessings" (Psalm 83:5-6 LXX).

The purity of heart and the soundness of intent that come from humans imply human virtues that are found within a person. Similar virtues are believing, compassion, bearing witness to the truth, faithfulness, helpfulness, being forgiving, generosity, and hospitality. When these virtues and natural, human virtues like them abound in a person, it gives him the capability of acquiring divine blessing. On this basis, they make him ready  to respond to God in the way that Mary responded, with an "amen," "may it be to me as you say." That is, in practice, with faith!

In the above context, when doubt occurs it comes as a "lack of believing." It is, in reality, a human event, part and parcel of the state in which Adam and Eve found themselves after the fall. This is not harmful to a person in his cooperation with God. As long as the heart is prepared, even if a person is beset by doubt, there is nothing to fear. It does not constitute a barrier between him and God. The Lord God will spread certainty of faith into his being at the appropriate time. This certainty is blessed!

The kind of doubt that is harmful to a person, the kind that prevents him from accepting that which is God's and thus from responding to Him, comes from an impure heart. Whenever a person is compromised by self-love and disregards love of the truth, whenever his being is enveloped by selfishness and pride, whenever he is tarnished by jealousies and taking joy in sin, whenever he disregards mercy and and compassion for others, then his doubt comes as a rejection of God. Here, the faculties of perception suggest alienation from God, they suggest being filled up with the self. So the person finds himself in a state of enmity with God, in an existential clash with Him, and likewise in a state of treating the self as a god!

In such a state, one who believes that  making human affairs easier through the intellect is the ideal solution for human cares, is cut off from a sound understanding of the actual state of existence. It is as though an upright state of existence is out of the picture. It is as if a person ignores a blurring of the heart's intentions-- of the entirety of the heart-- and so becomes foolish. Such a person has not only exploited the power of the intellect in his desire to follow his sick passions. He has even reached, existentially, the furthest limit of being aware of his passions. This means that deep down he has adopted an image of himself as an instrument, as an object and no longer as a living being. In his opinion, being an instrument comes to be the mark of precision and thus the supposed virtue par excellence! The person who in his own eyes is no longer a heart and someone who can be loved, but is rather an intellect, turns himself into an object because the intellect does not transcend being an instrument and a biological laboratory. If the heart does not govern this instrument that is capable of being extremely stubborn, if it does not use it for the service of humans and to the glory of God, then at that point the person has completely given himself over to utter darkness. At this point, the intellect proceeds with a dark and brutal force springing forth from a will to disobedience that neither brings one near to human nature nor to the God who created this nature. What is the identity of this dark power and of this state? This is precisely Satan's power that rebels against God, after he completely departed from God and from the soundness of his nature in order to create for himself an existence perverted by falsehood in the image of his total lust for self and his regarding himself as a god.  Through his will and his deepest feeling, he denied the divinity of God the Creator! One who has intentionally sought to kill God has overthrown God within his deepest feeling. Within his consciousness he has turned God into a dead idea, without any value and without any place for expression in him. He has turned Him into an absolute non-entity! This is the peak of foolishness! "The fool said in his heart, there is no God"! In this context, doubt is rejecting and killing God and there is no recovery from this. In such a case, a person's rationality toward his world becomes an indication of spiritual suicide, not just of error. A person commits this within his deepest self and he turns his guidance over to Satan, and through Satan to eternal perdition! As long as a feeling  of what belongs to God and to humans remains alive, even if a person is devoid of God's blessings, then the opportunity remains available for life-giving repentance, through means that God alone knows. If feeling dies, academically, through a complete and willing surrender to darkness and to following the power of the intellect with a blind heart, then a person has given himself over to eternal death, living here in the body and then after that dead! It would be better for such a person to have never been born, says the Bible! It is the will's eternal movement toward a nihilistic existence! This is the outer darkness!

And so, "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23)! 

Archimandrite Touma Bitar
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma
April 22, 2012

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Met. Ephrem's Easter Sermon, 2012

Arabic original here, given at the Church of St. George, Zahriyeh.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Beloved, on this great day that returns to us every year, in the hope that it will return to us every day and every moment, what must we do and what must we be, we Christians who bear the name of the risen Christ, in order for this resurrection, the resurrection of Christ within us, to remain continually? Is it merely a celebration at a given time, once a year? Is it an external celebration that we once again enjoy with tasty foods and drinks? This is blessed by God, but we must read the Gospel, ponder it, and imitate it-- imitate Christ first of all and second His disciples. We are also disciples of Christ, since we have been baptized in His name and have clothed ourselves in Him.

The Gospel that you heard at matins-- the service of the procession-- talks about those women who came very early-- as you also have come very early-- to anoint Jesus. On their way, they wondered, "who will move the stone for us?" because it was very large. This stone is applicable to our hearts. Who can move this stone? What stone? It is the stone of this laziness, this weakness in faith-- the faith of Christians today-- and the stone of these hardships, the stone of this widespread evil. Who will move this stone for us? Who will take this fear out of our heart, this anxiety? This is the great question that they were asking each other, just as we ask ourselves very often today.

They came and saw that the stone had been miraculously moved aside! How was this stone moved aside? The angel of the Lord came down from heaven--  power from heaven and not from humans came to remove this stone from us. Thinking and intellect are not enough. Faith in God perfects all things and even more. What was in the heart of these women? Who is the one who gave them this courage, while the disciples had fled scared? The myrrh-bearing women came very early because their heart was filled with the love of God that we lack. It was filled with their faith and their longing, which compelled God's power to come down and remove this stone.

And so what next? The angel got up and said to them, "Go and tell the good news to the disciples." This is why, beloved, one who has this love, one who still has this longing for the Lord and not for this passing world or for worldly politics, one who has this divine love, this kind of longing in the heart, is able today-- just like the women-- to go and spread the good news of the Resurrection, to give hope to this despairing world and to say to all, "Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Patriarch Ignatius IV's Easter Sermon, 2012

Arabic original here.

“Christ is risen!” Beloved, before all else, I would like to send my congratulations and my regards to everyone in Syria and in Lebanon, wishing that in their days they will rejoice in the Lord, especially because we in this region of the world take joy in the fact that the Lord came from among us. I would like to turn my attention to those of us in Jerusalem and in Palestine, where the Resurrection of the Lord occurred after His birth there and after he spent the years of His life preaching the Good News here, and not in any other region. It is good for me to mention that our Lord trod the soil of Lebanon, as the Bible says that He went to Tyre and Sidon.

It is worth remembering that the Apostle Paul , here in Damascus, was guided to the Christian faith. It was here that he heard the heavenly voice: stop persecuting the gatherings here! Stop resisting Christ and trying to prevent Him from entering the hearts of the people! Stop insulting those who confess Christ as their Lord and God!

Before you were guided to the truth, you used to say, “The God whom you confess is not my God because your God speaks in love and my God says to me, ‘Go and kill and sacrifice all who do not believe in your faith.’” The reversal and what followed it happened in Damascus, just as the divine birth happened in Bethlehem and the crucifixion happened in Jerusalem or nearby. Likewise, the tongue of the Apostle Paul was changed from being a tongue that preached killing, that preached barbaric violence, that preached incitement of people against other people on account of their beliefs. It was here that that tongue changed into a tongue that spoke of love and said that it is impermissible for any human to be a stranger to another.

As you heard in the hymn “Today is the Day of Resurrection,” we must—as the hymn says—learn today to address others, however they may be, by saying “my brother” and we must begin to think of the brotherhood of people and not of their antagonisms. We have said on very important occasions that anyone who uses religion to acquire honor from people or to benefit their families or their children, anyone who does this in the name of religion does the greatest harm to religion, whatever his religion may be.

We here have learned that our God is one and unique. Do not think that we say anything other than that “No one has seen God.” You have heard this statement in our Holy Gospel. God is one and unique and is not three gods, as some think. When we talk about hypostases, we say that the substance is one. The hypostases are undivided. When you separate one hypostases from another, in doing so you divide God. Our God is not a collection of parts. He is one. “I believe in one God.” “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God.” If we leave out any part of this phrase, we have divided the truth in which we believe.

This, beloved, is what we say in order to arrive at the fact that God is one, the one, unique Creator. This means that every person is a creature of God and there is no person on the face of the earth, great or small, learned or illiterate, who is not a creature of the one, unique God. This is why you have one duty toward every person, without exception. One who denies people their dignity denies the fact that God created a person for dignity, and not so that they will not be honored. Why do we complain about ourselves and our sins? Precisely because they are against human dignity and because they are against love for humans. Why do we complain about what happens in Palestine when we see a youth dying, a woman killed, a child martyred? It is because we have a deeply rooted belief that that youth, that woman, that child, were created for a life of dignity and not in order to die at the hands of another human. We do not appoint one person to be a god over another, even if one of them is weak and powerless, fated to fight and struggle while the other possesses all the powers of the earth. We do not bow down to him and we do not worship him.

Beloved, some people criticize us for always being with the weak and the oppressed, the weak in struggles and not the weak in virtue. We believe that the strong do not possess truth, do not possess justice, do not have respect for others.  The one who is strong is weak, weak to the greatest possible degree. They say to us, “Why are others strong in a way different from our own strength?” We say: has it become blameworthy for a person to not want to be a predator, for a person to not want to hatefully, forcefully, oppress others?  We believe that blame goes to one who is not willing to talk to another except in the language of power, compulsion, revenge, killing, and mockery. When we turn our attention during this feast to our brothers in Palestine, we think of this and we ask our questions that we have heart to the world, that perhaps the world may understand. On this morning, I also turn my attention to our brother bishops who guide our people, and how dear is our people to our hearts—I turn my attention to them because on this day they say to our people, “Christ is risen!” and they repeat this wherever they are found. They are present here and at the ends of the earth: in America, in Europe, in Australia, wherever your brothers are found, today they say, “Christ is risen!”

I know that today we might forget those who have died as martyrs. Beloved! All of us will die, but there are those who die for the sake of something that is special to you. They know very well that they must pay the price, without receiving any profit from their work. Many of them are among us.   

Our religions in this region are based on people who died for the sake of true faith. Likewise we say: They die for the sake of Christ and they die indeed, as they say to us that they reject evil in any place and in any form. Beloved! May God almighty have mercy on us in a world in which we do not deserve more than what we do. May God help us to change our world into a world worthy that humans live in it. May this be with one voice: “Christ is risen!”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Met. Elias Audi's Easter Sermon, 2012

Arabic original, taken from here, after the jump.

Today is the day of the Resurrection. Let us be radiant in the season. Let us embrace one another. Let us say "brother". Let us forgive all things to those who hate us in the Resurrection. Let us cry aloud, saying, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."
Thus we chanted today to express our faith and our joy in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who descended to the lower parts of hell in order to rescue Adam and all his progeny from it.
Pascha is a crossing over. It is a movement from the darkness of the grave to the light of the kingdom. This crossing over was achieved at a very steep price. God shed His blood so that we might be saved from the clutches of sin and evil. We rise up to a new life governed by love and the fruits of the spirit. Our Lord went down by his own will in order to bring us over from death which is caused by sin to the life for which man was created.
From the beginning, God created man in His image and likeness. He caused him to live in paradise and gave him rule over creation. But man gave in to temptation and fell. His freedom was the cause of his fall. By his own free will he desired to place himself above God's will and he denied God's surpassing love. But God, in the greatness of His mercy and the profundity of His love did not leave this creature that was puffed up with pride to flounder in sin and in the hell where he had placed himself. Rather, he went down, emptying Himself, adopting the form of a slave, taking on the semblance of humans, in order to save them. He gave Himself upon the cross in order to free them, to free us all. He went down to the depths of darkness in order to raise us up to the new life that we gained in His resurrection.

"Behold, by the Cross joy came to all the world." With His death, the Lord redeemed all and with His resurrection He opened to us the gates of the kingdom, making us children of the Resurrection and the light if we follow His path by our own will. We are God's children. We are in His image and His likeness, free in our decisions. Do we choose the darkness of hell or the light of the kingdom?
Unfortunately, humans take pleasure in sin and always choose the easy path. The path of repentance and return to God is fraught with difficulties. One who chooses to follow the risen Lord must empty himself of his ego. He must clear himself of all selfishness and pride and embrace love and sacrifice. He must love God with all his heart and all his mind and all his power and he must love his neighbor as himself (Mark 12:30-31). This means that he must hope for others what he hopes for himself and that he must distance himself from all that harms his fellow man, in order not to harm the image of God in the face of his brother, in order to not harm himself. Where are we in this regard? Where are we with regard to purity of heart and calmness of conscience? Where are we with regard to the love that seeks recompense and the peace that covers the face, reflecting on others?

What saddens us is that the Feast of the Resurrection comes once again while there is an ache in the heart because peace continues to be distant from hearts and from the corners of the earth. We continue to suffer from hatreds and divisions. We witness wars, killings, forced displacement, hunger, violence, the violation of rights and dignities. Man is still bloodthirsty, avaricious for wealth and power, trampling on the body of his brother and on his dignity. Self-intrest runs wild within humans. Hatred guides them and pride leads them. God said to Adam, "The earth is cursed because of you" (Genesis 3:17). It seems that man is still the cause of the curse that has afflicted the generations since the first ancestor, because he has not rid himself of the old man within him, of his sins and his failings. We chant in the service of baptism, "As many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ." The Christian who has received baptism has buried his old man and has died in Christ in order to live with Him as a new man, rising above the petting things that harm his new life. One who puts on Christ is one who aspires to perfection because our Lord is perfect, free of sin. Do we Christians strive for perfection or do we act like children of this age?

The problem of the Christian is that he forgets the baptism that he recieved and the chrism (that is, the annointing of the Holy Spirit) with which he was sealed. He does not strive to be the salt of the earth and the little leaven that changes the face of existence.
Our Lord was born in a cave in order to teach us humility, but we have grown in pride and narcicism. He recieved circumcission on His eighth day in order to teach us to obey laws and regulations and to cut off from ourselves everything extra and unnecessary. But we have only become more attatched to things that are transitory and false and have rebelled against regulations. He obediently accepted death in order to break the shackles of sin that bind us, and so we are born for new life. But we have only grown in evil and and sin. Indeed, animal instinct has become dominant within us over everything else. Its result is this monstrousness that our evil works have left behind. Are not dessication, drought, hunger, illnesses, killing, death, and the destruction of nature the works of man?
We are in need of the warmth of love and the light of holiness, of openness of heart to heart, of listening to God's voice and obeying it with the innocence and trust of children. We need to speak less and to do more. Words are empty while deeds bear fruit. Let us not forget that hatred is begotten of hatred, evil from evil, violence from violence. Love alone bears the fruit of humility, meekness, goodness, and peace.
Our nation will continue to bleed if we leave a place in our hearts for hatred, selfishness, and self-interest. But our love for one another and our trust in the nation and nothing else will make us into a united people, standing as an impregnable wall before all adversity.
We must work together, all of us, in order to get out of the situation we are in. Are we not ashamed of the disasters that we hear about, afflicting us daily-- buildings collapsing on the heads of their residents, spoiled food killing people, spoiled milk and rotten medicine, with no monitoring and no accountability, contaminated water traded by one person on another's account? They ration electricity and announce that there is even more to come. Those who own generators are not satisfied. Fuel prices double. High-tension electricity wires are a sword extended against the neck of citizens. This is in addition to the deals and commisssions and the waste of public money, the poor management of natural resources, the corruption that permeates what is left of government agencies. Do we forget the infringement of civil liberties, the thefts, the compromises, the breaches of security, the settling of scores, the abuse of history and of nature and even the abuse of elderly women?

When will our ambition go beyond security and bread, beyond freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, the freedom to live in dignity? Are these not obvious things, things that every person living in the nation receives? Some countries, which we in our pride and narcissism considered to be backward, have surpassed us by great strides in the fields of science, innovation, and civilization, while we still gasp after bread, fuel oil, electricity, and water, and we dream of safe, lighted roads free of potholes and the consistent application of laws and fair laws about rent. When will we return Lebanon to being a nation for its children and a developed state, governed by justice, equality, and laws that appy to all, on the principle that no one is above the law and no one is greater than the state? When will we be done with rhetorical excess and mutual accusation, where the truth is lost and no one is concerned with it? When will we transcend self-interest and narrow policies, and put the good of the citizen and his honorable life at the head of our concerns?

We have arrived at this impasse because over the years we have not worked to build a state. We have not monitored and we have not kept account. We have not penalized and we have not acted justly. Instead we have divided up the spoils of a defeated people. Do we not remember that human beings are equal before suffering, before sorrow, and before death? Does the one who trades in people's souls, their life, and their strength, realize that someone may come who will treat him in the same way? Does one who oppresses people recall in which manner he will face the just judge on the last day?
Lebanon needs a moral, cultural, social, and political revival. It must rise from this muddy swamp in which it flounders. This can only happen through everyone coming together, those responsible and citizens, their concerted efforts, their learning from past mistakes in order to build a better future.
Here we must remind you that one who has no history has no future. The writing of history must be objective and scientific, not selective. It should be delegated to objective, academic researchers, impartial historians who recount events without commenting on them and who leave judgment to future generations. It is the right of future generations to write our history according to its truth, with its faults and its points of pride, without aputation and without beautification, apart from the quotas that intervene in our affairs and distort them. If a party protests or students demonstrate in order to express their opinion about the writing of history, then it behooves the state to listen to them and have a dialogue with them, relying on reason and logic to convince them rather than shutting their mouth by force, surpressing them, and beating them.
Because we celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection and because our Lord did not exclude woman from the work of salvation, but rather woman had a prominent role in human salvation through the choice of the Virgin Mary for the Son of God to become incarnate within, thus becoming the Mother of God whom we honor, I wonder how it is possible in the twenty-first century to deny a law that forbids opression and violence against women, dominating them, enslaving them, abusing them? Women are mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, wives, and colleagues at work. So how can one permit himself to harm them or to limit their freedom or to perpetrate violence against them or to rape them? Can any man allow his daughter or granddaughter to be mistreated? So why does he mistreat someone else's daughter or granddaughter?

In Christianity women are equal to men and their partners. They are honored and respected in the image of the Mother of God. Our Lord, risen from the darkness of death appeared to them first when he appeared to the Myrrhbearers who came early to annoint Him. Women deserve all esteem and respect. They must preserve their honor, purity, and virtues in order to assure their presence and acquire their rights and to keep away all exploitation.

And as for the other vulnerable element in society, children, they have the right for the state to forbid their exploitation and trafficking, and violence against them. Children today are adults tomorrow and the pillars of the nation. Among their most basic rights are their rights to obtain shelter, knowledge, care, and a secure and
dignified life.

On this blessed day, we ask our Lord who is risen from the tomb to raise up all from their sins and failings from selfishness and greed, from hatred, oppression, and enmity, unto love and life, unto light and openness and giving. We likewise ask Him to preserve our nation and its children, to spread His peace in our hearts, in our nation, and in all the world, to preserve us from calamities, trials, and from everything that takesus backward. It is our hope that the era of killing and assassinations has passed, never to return. It is our hope that we will return to being brothers, each one of us preserving the life, dignity, and freedom of his brother.
We Christians are a people who believe in freedom and proclaim it.Webelieve that God created us free and that no one has the right to limit the freedom and the life of another. Killing is unacceptable and assassination is unacceptable and they are both condemned. How can a person sleep if he has killed another or has been the cause of harm to another? There are those who cannot bear the killing of an insect or the cutting of a tree. So how can a person cut off another's life?
May the Lord God who rose from the tomb keep you and return this blessed feast to you again in health, goodness, and peace.
Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen! Does this not make us children of life and of the Resurrection? Amen.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bishop Iliya (Tohme) Responds to Recent Events in Wadi al-Nasara

This message, apparently from Bishop Iliya (Tohme), auxiliary bishop of Marmarita for the Archdiocese of Akkar, has appeared on Facebook in various places, such as here and here (on Sunday, April 15). It is supposed to have come from the website for the Church of St. Panteleimon in Marmarita, but I haven't been able to locate this website. If anyone can find an officially-posted version of this message, I would be very grateful. 

What about Recent Events in the Valley?

Since the outbreak of unfortunate events in Syria, the Valley has remained a secure region, for over ten months. However, after the outbreak of events in Homs, and ongoing events throughout the country, the region of the Valley and el-Hisn have begun to witness some tensions, on a sectarian basis. Kidnappings, armed checkpoints, and other things have started to appear.

From the very first moment, the Metropolitan's office has felt the danger that is approaching the Valley, with the first breaches of security, and it took the initiative of opening channels of communication with the neighboring town of el-Hisn. A committee was formed from both the Christian and Muslim sides, under the leadership of the metropolitan, and a communique was issued by the committee, stressing civil peace and co-existence.

For this reason, the metropolitan visited the town of el-Hisn a number of times in order to assure continued peaceful coexistence. Successive events meant that the committee started to be more and more effective, especially in matters relating to lessening the severity of sectarian tension, in order to prevent any serious breaches of security in the region. However, the most serious problem that appeared was the kidnapping of civilians and the theft of their cars, with demands for large amounts of money as a ransom from each of them. In this the committee was prominent in securing the return of many people who were kidnapped from both sides, in a clean manner. On the Christian side, the committee was made up of: Dr Nidal Mansour, Dr Mikhail Yousuf, Mr Jihad Nicola, Fr Walid abbot of the Monastery of St Paul, and Fr Polycarpos. From the town of el-Hisn: Dr Abdelsalam Bitar, Mr Mustapha Shahbaz, Mr Walid Mari, Sheikh Abdelrahman el-Zabi, and Fr Bassam Mamari, as well as others who worked like an unknown army. The committee cooperated with all sides and in coordination with the competent authorities, which had faith in the civilian role in solving the crisis in the region. The cooperation of people from el-Hisn with people from the Valley during this difficult time is an example of the deeply rooted relationship between them. This became clear in the most beautiful manner each time one of those who were kidnapped was returned, and the Muslim's joy for the Christian was just as great as the Christian's joy for the Muslim. The most important thing in this matter is that all returned to their homes safe and sound.

Here we must mention that the metropolitan's office issued a pastoral communique in honesty and truthfulness, in which it expressed its inability to secure the return of anyone due to the departure of the members of the committee from el-Hisn after the situation worsened there and they were subjected to insults, threats, and even physical abuse from armed men. Thus at that point the committee lost its effective half and was no longer able to work on the ground because of the blocking of channels with el-Hisn. This is with knowledge that all the rumors and talk that circulated here and there about events that have occurred have a malicious, inflammatory character. It would be good if we could avoid going into details and repeating rumors and baseless accounts.

Recent events have removed the veil from the true face of the Church. The Church is the mystical body of Christ and she is a spiritual entity, based on prayer over the altar of the Lord. However, during recent events, it has been proven that she can work effectively on the ground, with a strength of spirit that continues to blow in the hearts of her children. We believe that prayer realizes inner peace and raises up spiritual values with love and forgiveness. However, together we have been engaged on the ground at the depth of the events, in order to treat the crisis on the basis of wisdom and rationality.

We emphasize that we are holding fast to language of reason and dialogue. We want to see the resurrection of the Valley and of el-Hisn and of Syria. We do not practice violence and we do not accept it. We reject it in all its forms. We beleive that the call to take up arms is nothing but a call to undermine the state and a call for civil strife. The state is strong and it exerts control on the ground and those who bear arms are waging an assault on the state.

The Feast of the Resurrection comes at a time when we are in need of it. Arise, O Lord, and raise us up with you! Our country needs you and your Resurrection which we worship and praise unto ages of ages, amen.

Bishop Iliya
Feast of Pascha, 2012

Arabic original after the jump.