Saturday, December 24, 2011

Two Christmas Letters by Met. Ephrem

The first letter was sent out to the email list for the Archdiocese of Tripoli. The Arabic text of the second letter, to the Lebanese people, can be found here.

A small Christmas greeting on occasion of the nativity of Jesus

Beloved children,

Nativity is the first appearance of God among humans.

Jesus, whose name means "God saves" is the one who saves us from death, sorrow, despair, and anxiety...

The words of the angels to the shepherds keeping watch: "I bear you good tidings of great joy..."

"Today is born to you a savior, Christ the Lord.. glory to God in the highest and on earth peace
among people of good will." (Luke 2:11-14)

The one who is born is the divine sacrifice for our sake. Electric lights remain on the outside, but divine light is hidden in reading the word of God.

About the Gospel and the divine sacrifice. At that time, the one who is born enters the cave ahead of us and illuminates it.

Jesus was born as a child in poverty. He is the friend of the poor and destitute. During the feast, let us strive to go to them and comfort them.

Beloved, on the occasion of Christmas and the New Year I wish for you bodily health, success in the affairs of your life, and peace and joy in your soul.

The Lord Jesus Christ our God remains our final point of reference and the Church is our solace. She is in your service as much as is possible for her. I hope that you will not be far from her.

You are in my prayers,
Merry Christmas.

Tripoli 20.12.2011

The Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Tripoli and el-Koura, Metropolitan Ephrem addressed this Christmas letter to the Lebanese people in general and to Christians specifically:

A new child is born in a cave in Bethlehem. His bed is a manger for beasts, because there is no place for him in the village inn.

In the wonder of this absolute humility, do you see who that child is? And what is this black cave in which shined the light of the world? Yes, it is the light that illumines the darkness of our life, the shadows of existence.

He came to this scattered humanity, hungry for bread, hungry for truth, hungry for tranquilty for a soul with worn-out faculties, wretched with propaganda for bodily pleasures and raising conflicts and wars. He came to give it true comfort, overflowing with peace and love. But does peace inhabit the world through your coming? Will poverty be lessened and will the wealthy be generous to the opressed? Will the powerful have pity on the weak and will icy hearts melt? Will modern technology and its means of relaxation and pleasure eliminate our hearts' dryness?

It adds: You came in poverty to put an end to the misery of the impoverished. You came in humility to erase the haughtiness of the proud. How, then, should we celebrate you? You gather together the divided into one, so shall we heed your call? You teach us that humankind is one, even if their beliefs differ. The poor want to eat. Children want to learn. The sick want to be healed... All want to live together in peace and security.
The earth is one. The nation is one and good things are shared. So why division between people? Is there anyone who makes light of lofty virtues? Who rejects peace? Who rejects love? Who rejects kindness and gentleness? There is no law against things like this.

Come, beloved brothers, let us acquire the virtues of this newborn one. Come, let us help each other in every good work. We believe in one God. He is the God of peace, mercy, and love. Let us enjoy the joy of the feast. It is an occasion for meeting together, an occasion for us to do one social, humanitarian work.
In the Nativity there is divine disclosure, hope, and joy. A hope that surpasses human logic and human experiences. A joy that joins together the angels' songs with the wise men's prostration, the shepherds' keeping watch, and humankinds' joy. Yes, the feasts of Nativity unite believers, unite mankind.

It concludes: Our joy in the feast is not complete unless we open our hearts to all without exception because the Nativity teaches us to be humble, to pray that peace covers territory of our country Lebanon and likewise in all our Arab surroundings and in the entire world. Joy is not complete unless all share in it, especially those in need-- that is, the poor, widows, orphans, the sick, the oppressed, the suffering, and the sorrowing, all who depend on God's mercy and brotherly consolation. All of us are one in this suffering humanity. We rejoice and we sorrow together. May God give us in this feast and in the new year that He makes us always one in our beloved nation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Three Links

Here are three links for today, all related to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The first is a link to a list of Syriac manuscripts held at the library of Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The list isn't scientific, and leaves much to be desired, but it is still of interest.

The second is an essay about the problem of xenocracy in the Patriarchate of Jeruslaem, by NOCTOC.

Finally, here is an article from the AP about the changing demographics of Christianity in the Holy Land.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Communiqué from the Holy Synod of Antioch's Fall Session

This translation is in no way official. The official Arabic version can be found here.

At the invitation and under the guidance of His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV, the Antiochian Orthodox Synod held its regular session in the patriarchal residence at the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand from the 25th to the 27th of October. Present at the meeting were metropolitans: Spiridon (Khoury) of Zahleh and Baalbek, Georges (Khodr) of Jbeil, Batroun, and their dependencies, Youhanna (Mansour) of Lattakia, Elias (Audi) of Beirut, Iliya (Saliba) of Hamah, Elias (Kfoury) of Tyre, Sidon, and Marjayoun, Antonius (Chadraoui) of Mexico, Damaskinos (Mansour) of Sao Paulo and Brazil, Saba (Esber) of Bosra, Jebel al-Arab, and Hawran, Georges (Abu Zakhem) of Homs, Boulos (Yazigi) of Aleppo and Alexandretta, Silouan (Mousa) of Argentina, Youhanna (Yazigi) of Europe, Basil (Mansour) of Akkar, Ephrem (Kyriakos) of Tripoli and al-Koura, Archbishop Niphon (Saikali) patriarchal representative to the Patriarchate of Moscow, Bishop Ghattas (Hazim) abbot of the Patriarchal Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand and dean of the St. John of Damascus Theological Institute, and Economos Georges Dimas, the Synod’s secretary.

The current session of the Holy Synod was held in delicate circumstances, which the countries of the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Arab Middle East are experiencing, especially Syria and Lebanon, where the Orthodox are the majority of Christians.

The meeting began with a word of welcome from His Beatitude, in which he emphasized the importance of the unity of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lebanon, Syria, the Middle East, and the diaspora and the priority of working to provide satisfactory responses to her children who, along with their partners in citizenship, face many problems and challenges, as His Beatitude laid out in the intensive meetings which he held in Lebanon regarding the organization of the Orthodox community so that it can take its due place in centers of political and administrative decision-making.

Starting from the basis of a single, faith-based approach to the effective Christian presence and the genuine witness of Christians, the Synod is concerned to emphasize the role of the Church in her capacity as a conscience for all the faithful and so it continuously calls to mind what God wills for the good of humanity. The Church cannot stand with her hands tied regarding the oppression and discrimination that peoples and groups are facing.

Starting from the basis of the Orthodox Church having been present in these countries since the spread of the Christian gospel and on the basis of the proactive role that the Orthodox have taken across the ages in the revival of their country as a nation and a civilization, the fathers call on their children to participate actively in forging effective solutions for exiting the crisis and embarking on the path of flourishing and their nations’ advancement.

The fathers of the Holy Synod examined the phenomenon of political changes which are sweeping the region, asking God to inspire those responsible for the fate of the countries of the region to take the right decisions to lessen the citizens’ pains, to ease their life’s circumstances, and to ensure a flourishing future for their children. In this regard, the Synod emphasized:

1. Work in faith and hope for the sake of bringing peace, social justice, and the building of a civil state on the basis of equality of rights and responsibilities for all under a single law to which all children of the nation submit without exception.

2. That the children of the Orthodox community hold on to their homes through Church- and social-solidarity between the flocks of the nation and the emigration.

The Synod likewise studied internal issues, including:

1.  The internal statutes of the See of Antioch: They emphasized that these statutes must take inspiration from the unity of the people, which is enclosed in secrets around its pastors, so that they can offer service pleasing to God. They called attention to the importance of applying these statutes, the basic purpose of which is to ensure opportunities for the faithful’s partnership together, each according to the gifts he has been given. Through this it is possible for all to participate in planning the work of the Church, being involved in it, and bearing responsibilities.

2. The pastoral situation and the necessity of reforming it: The technical developments which the world is witnessing make it necessary for the Church to adopt new positions with regard to pastoral questions that transcend habitual forms and adopt advanced means for helping the faithful to ensure an honorable life and to employ their abilities in general life. In this context, the establishment of productive enterprises is one of the ways to root children of the community. It is likewise possible for educational and social institutions, those existing and those yet to be founded, to ensure, by securing opportunities for work, spaces in which the Church can bear witness to the particularity of her service to the world and her love for it.

3. The state of church media: Media must play a central and important role in solidifying interaction and cooperation between the Church and the world. In order for media to be interactive, it must leave space open for communication in order to determine the reality of the situation and the ideas and proposals that today’s society is producing concerning everyone’s future. Likewise, church media has an interest in building bridges of communication within the single nation and between the societies of the different nations that make up the Antiochian sphere. Likewise, the fathers of the Synod emphasized the universal role of church media and the importance of the Church’s taking initiative in responding to the needs of the flock and of society.
In closing, the Synod expressed its hope that the leaders and peoples of the Arab Middle East will work together to ensure stability, freedom, and a promising future for this region as well as its hope that the Orthodox community will play an effective role in this.

Published by the secretariat of the Holy Synod of Antioch
Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand, October 27, 2011

My own comment:  For the sake of effective church media and the strengthening of bonds between the Antiochian Church in the Middle East and abroad, it would be nice if official English versions of statements like this were published. It would also be nice if a representative of the Archdiocese of North America went to meetings of the Synod....

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Met. Ephrem's Sermon for October 23, 2011

This sermon was originally given on Sunday, October 23, 2011 in Kfar Hazir. The Arabic original can be found here. 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Beloved, you heard this passage from the Gospel according to the Evangelist Luke, which talks about this insane person, and it says that he is insane because there were demons in him. This is something surprising and difficult to comprehend because everything that has to do with demons and evil spirits is difficult and generally hard for a person because man is material and corporeal.

This passage from the Gospel is read more than once in a year, perhaps because of its importance. It says that this person came to the Lord Jesus Christ who expelled demons from him and the person became well. It mentions that when he was insane and ill he would behave strangely, not returning home but going to tombs and not wearing clothes but remaining naked. And this is what we notice among many people who are mentally ill. So how are we Christians to understand this?

Science says that man has a mind, a body, and a spirit and that insanity, as doctors describe it, is an imbalance or confusion in the mind, in the brain. God created the brain, the mind, so that man can be able to order his life. He created the body to bear man in his life on earth. And God also gave man of His spirit in which there is life. Life comes from the spirit. It does not come from the mind and it does not come from the body because this spirit is God’s spirit and life comes from God. But the spirit, according to the research of modern scientists, this spirit, this soul, is reflected in the mind, in the brain, and in the body. It is reflected in the health of the mind and the body. If a person lives through God’s spirit, his mind becomes well and his body also becomes well and healthy. But when a person lives by a spirit other than God’s, by the devil’s spirit, by the spirit of this corrupt world, by the spirit of evil, this is reflected negatively in his mind which becomes confused and its activity becomes unbalanced. It is also reflected in his body, which becomes ill. Sin, for our holy fathers, is an illness.

For this reason this passage from the Gospel is important, because it warns us Christians and it asks us to live by God’s spirit and not by this spirit of this corrupt world. It is at that point that we remain well. Peace remains in us. Joy remains in us. Our mind remains well and our body also remains well.

This is why this insane man, when he sees the Lord Jesus who had mercy on him and expelled from him the spirit of evil—which is active in the world today—he becomes well. He puts on clothes and becomes calm. He is healed of his illnesses of mind and body and follows Jesus. So when evil leaves a person, he becomes calm and is healed.

Beloved, let us Christians return to the way of the Lord, in which there is life and health, the health of mind and soul. Amen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Orthodox Liturgy in Syriac: The Sinai Manuscripts

On an earlier thread in this blog, there was some discussion about the Syriac heritage of the Patriarchate of Antioch, where it was asserted that Syriac is the sole provenance of the other Near Eastern churches, but has no role in the Orthodox heritage, which is imagined to be purely Greek. This is a popular but dangerous discourse, as it feeds into two false discourses about the history of Christianity in Syria: The first is the "perpetual Orthodoxy of the Maronites" where it is claimed that the Maronite Church always accepted Chalcedon and was never Monothelite and that it broke off from the Byzantine Church because it wanted to maintain itsSyriac heritage rather than being Hellenized. This discourse is proven false by the widespread use of Syriac by Chalcedonian Christians in Syria. The second false discourse is that the dispute between pro- and anti-Chalcedonian factions ultimately boils down to an ethno-linguistic dispute between Greeks and Syriac-speakers. Again, this is shown false by both the central importance of Greek-speakers such as Severus of Antioch in the anti-Chalcedonian camp, as well as the widespread use of Syriac by the pro-Chalcedonian rank-and-file in Syria. Instead of seeing ecclesial affiliation among Syrian Christians as somehow being a function of ethnicity, we should recognize that while Greek was the main language of culture among Chalcedonian Orthodox prior to the end of the 8th Century, dialects of Aramaic such as Syriac and Christian Palestinian Aramaic (a language whose literature was purely produced in pro-Chalcedonian milieux) were the main everyday languages of the majority of ordinary Orthodox Christians in Syria and Palestine. This is how Arabic came to be the main cultural and liturgical language among Orthodox around the turn of the 9th century, centuries before the other Christians of the region started using Arabic liturgically: the transition from one foreign language of government and culture to another was not so great a leap, especially when the new language was much more similar to what people were speaking at home.

One presumes that the reason that the place of Syriac in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (and Palestinian Christian Aramaic in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem) is not widely recognized is simply because it has fallen into disuse in the past few hundred years, really coming to an end only in the 16th or 17th centuries. If we look earlier, however, we can find ample evidence of the liturgical use of Syriac among the Orthodox in the form of the large numbers of Orthodox liturgical manuscripts extant in Syriac, we can start to get a feel for the huge importance that that language had among the Orthodox Christians of Syria.

By far, the largest collection of medieval Orthodox manuscripts in Syriac is the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. The Syriac manuscripts found in St. Catherine's Monastery are listed in the volume Catalogue of the Syriac mss. in the Convent of S. Catharine on Mount Sinai, which was published in 1894 and, being well out of copyright, can be read and downloaded on Google Books here. In the 1950's, most of the manuscripts at Sinai, primarily in Arabic, Georgian, Greek and Syriac were microfilmed by a project sponsored by the Library of Congress and so have generally been quite easily available on that format simply by ordering copies of the films from them. However, a major leap forward has happened recently, and many, though not yet most, of these microfilms have been digitized by some good folks in Louvain. This digitized collection can be accessed for free here.

I thought it might be useful, in the context of discussing the use of Syriac by Orthodox, to give links for all manuscripts from Sinai of liturgical texts in Syriac that can be accessed online. Although the earliest manuscript listed here is 9th Century and the latest is 15th Century, 13th Century manuscripts have a very notable preponderance in the collection. This is directly related to the Mamluk conquest of Syria at that time, which led to the destruction of Antioch as a cultural center and the dispersal of manuscripts from the region. As it was with pre-Iconoclastic icons, Sinai is also nearly the sole safe haven in the region against the vicissitudes of time, and thus there is a very large collection of manuscripts from Syria that wound up in Sinai following the turmoil of the 13th Century.

The list of manuscripts and links can be found after the jump.

Met. Ephrem on the Parable of the Sower

This sermon was given in the Monastery of Our Lady in Bkeftine on Sunday, October 16, 2011. The Arabic original can be found here.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

You heard, beloved, this parable that is known as the Parable of the Sower. The Lord wants to speak to man by pointing to what is in nature, as man is usually taken with what is material and does not often understand deep spiritual truth and so this is why the Lord takes the parable from agriculture.

This farmer takes his seeds and casts them-- some fall on the road and the birds come and eat them, some fall on stone where there is no soil and moisture so they wither, some fall on thorns which grow and choke them. The disciples come and ask him, "What is the meaning of this parable?" He says to his disciples, "It has been given to you to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven." Before explaining the parable to them, he said, "You are the diciples, meaning the faithful, you will understand the parable and what is behind this parable is the secrets of thing kingdom." What does "the secrets of the kingdom" mean? It means that which God intends by His divine grace. Each one of us reads the Gospel but few of us understand it. What is required of man for him to understand God's words? Man, in his weakness and materiality is not able to understand everything that God says. He is in need of God's grace, of God's power, in order to be able to understand. We come to church not understanding everything that is said and chanted, unless we are enlightened. If we are faithful, spiritual people, if we are purified, pure of heart, and repentant, then we understand everything.

Then he begins to explain the parable to them, saying, "The ones that fall on the road are those who hear the Word of God and go and do not care about it." How many people hear the Gospel and read it and it does not mean anything to them! The ones that fall upon stone they are those that hear the Word of God but who have no root and no soil to bear them, and so the demons come and immediately snatch them away. The ones in the thorns, they are people taken with the cares of this life, the thorns and pleasures of this life. They have many cares and occupations which choke the Word of God, as the Gospel says; such a person can no longer hear God's Word. As for those who are like good earth, like good soil, they are the ones who hear God's Word and keep it, bearing fruit in patience. They hear like the Virgin who, "heard the word of God, kept it, and acted upon it." Such are those who are good, productive soil, bearing fruit in patience. Why did he say, "bearing fruit in patience"? Because even one who understands the Word of God must always persist and strive in order to be able to keep it and live it. We ask God to give us this grace so that we will understand His Gospel and live it, amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Met. Ephrem's Sermon for October 9, 2011

The Arabic original can be found here. It was originally given in the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Kousba.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

Beloved, this event in the Gospel talks about the Lord Jesus’ passing by a funeral for a young man who was the only son of a widow. The Lord approached the funeral procession—here the Lord represents the procession of Life! The procession of life meets the procession of death. Life meets death.

The Lord Jesus, as it says in the Gospel, had mercy on this widow who was weeping and went and said to her this word of consolation: “Do not weep.” The he touched the dead boy and he arose at once, and he gave him to his mother. Then the people glorified God who worked such a great miracle.

What does this event mean for us humans? Death entered into man by force when he was disobedient and fell, because in the beginning man was not created for death. He was created for life, but because of the weakness of human nature and the fall of man, he became mortal and so the Lord came down from heaven. God, the Creator was incarnate and became man in order to comfort us from this catastrophe that the Apostle Paul calls “the enemy of man.” Death is man’s enemy and life is his hope.

The Lord Jesus came to give us life anew. But the Lord our God who suffered, died, and conquered death, did not erase bodily death. This is wisdom from our Lord, but He has given us the hope of the Resurrection. Through the Resurrection He has given us hope.

A faithful Christian, even if he weeps for someone he has lost, still has hope in the Resurrection. By his faith he considers death in Christ to be a passage to life. This is our consolation, beloved. We die, but the Church does not say, “We die,” but rather, “We repose. We go to sleep,” because we have hope in the Resurrection. The hope of our faith and our comfort is from God. This is why a faithful person, in his prayer and in his faith, is able to have a connection to those who have died, and to be comforted.

We ask God to always comfort our hearts with this faith and this fervent prayer. Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Christians of the Holy Land: Between the Hammer and the Anvil

The Russian original, with pictures, can be found here.

Christians of the Holy Land: Between the Hammer and the Anvil

By Maria Senchukova

Gavriil Nalbandian lives in Jerusalem. By day he paints icons in a small apartment by the Monastery of the Holy Archangels in the Old City, two steps away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At night he returns home, to his wife and children. There is nothing unusual in this lifestyle, but among the pilgrims and the local clergy Gavrill and his family have become a kind of celebrities.

A few years ago, on the eve of the Dormition of the Theotokos a procession went from the Holy Sepulchre to the tomb of the Theotokos. Among the crowd of pilgrims was a student from the Sechenov Medical Academy, Daria Kozlova, and, as they say in the old books, it was pleasing to God that she meet a young man in a choir robe, singing the stichera for the feast in the procession. That was Gavriil.

Now they have two charming sons, in whom is mingled Arab, Russian, and Armenian blood. On the surface, they do not resemble any one people and from birth they have heard a number of different languages.

Gavriil himself comes from a mixed family—his father is Armenian and his mother is an Orthodox Arab. The combination is unusual for us, but here it is not uncommon. Gavriil’s own choice appears exceptional: baptized in the Armenian Apostolic Church, he consciously adopted Orthodoxy and entered the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.

The Miracle of the Icon

He bears an Armenian name. As of recently, he possesses Israeli nationality. He prays in Greek. With his parents, he speaks Arabic and with his children and wife, Russian. He hangs a Russian flag in his car and is thinking about moving to Russia.

For many years, Gavriil—at first single and then with his wife and oldest son—lived in his workshop. But with two children in 15 square meters including the kitchen and bathroom, it was already cramped. Now Gavriil only works here, doing metalwork and painting and restoring icons.

In the workshop it smells of wood and paint. Along the walls there are icons, and there are portraits of the current patriarchs Theophilos of Jerusalem and Kyrill of Moscow and the previous patriarchs Diodore of Jerusalem and Alexei of Moscow.

Gavriil labors below the face of the Savior. I sit beside him and watch.

--Is it really so well-preserved? He shows an icon of Saints Cosmas and Damian that is cracked with age.

I nod approvingly—the better part of my knowledge of art is not enough.

The iconographer smiles mischievously and tells his secret:

--In fact, it is a forgery. A pastiche. Only the board is old. I painted it myself.

--Do you make your work materials yourself?

--No. I order the paints in Greece and Russia. I know the method for making them. Unfortunately, there is no time for making the paints myself. I buy the boards, but I prepare them myself. Oak is the best of all, but oak is expensive. Now I paint on walnut.

--Where did you learn iconography?

--At first with my father, from the age of 11, starting in 1986. In 1997 I was sent by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem to study on Athos and then in Thessaloniki. After that, once I was married, I studied for a year in Moscow, in Saint Tikhon University.

--You learned Russian there?

--I started studying Russian even earlier, in Bethlehem, in annual Russian courses. After studying for two months, I knew the grammar and wrote, but it was not enough practice. But then I married Daria, and the practice appeared.

--Do you usually work to order, or by the call of the heart?

--To order, but also by the call of the heart. This is also an icon.

--Who are your main customers?

--All kinds of people. I work in churches and monasteries. For example, I painted the Church of Saint Gregory in Ramla and the icons there are mine. I worked at the order of the former hegumen of the Tomb of the Theotokos.

The Russian Ambassador (we are often in communication) ordered four icons: for himself, Medvedev, Lavrov, and, it seems, Putin.

Sometimes, I paint as a present. A few years ago, I painted an icon of Saint Alexei of Russia especially for Patriarch Alexei. Patriarch Kyrill is coming on an official visit. If it is possible, I will try to also paint something for him.

The Path to Orthodoxy

--In what faith were you brought up?

--My mother would take my brothers and me to the Orthodox church, but I was baptized in the Armenian Church because my father belongs to them and my parents’ home is located by an Armenian monastery. It is assumed here that one baptizes and raises a child in the father’s confession.

A mixed marriage here is something ordinary. Almost no one understands theological differences and those rare people who do understand do not think about it. My father, for example, is very serious about the faith and about dogmatic theology… but he tries to forget about it.

--Why did you decide to go over to the Greeks?

--I read the holy fathers. I thought. I wanted to become a monk. I wanted to enter the Lavra of Saint Savva. But that did not come about (again Gavriil smiles widely) since I got married.

But such a moment was decisive. I vacillated for a long time. I read the holy fathers over and over again. I did not yet have confidence. Then I started to pray to God, “If the truth is in Orthodoxy, give me a sign so that I will have confidence within myself that I am not mistaken.” In 1992 I was with friends in Ramallah. There they told me that there was a myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos. I went to venerate it, and I saw that it was my icon. And I understood that that was God’s sign.

My father also paints icons. He also taught me. (In fact, the Armenians are iconoclastic, but there is a strong Greek influence). He is a very strongly-believing person. He prays very much, but he does not have wonder-working icons. It is because he is a heretic (in the basic, churchly understanding of the term), but I am not.

--How did your father respond to your decision to change confessions?

--For a long time he resented it. Up to now, he considers me a traitor. He says that understanding theology is not our affair. The important thing is to believe that Christ came to save us and the rest is not important.

--Among the Orthodox is there also such a naïve theology?

In different ways. The Greeks, the majority of whom are more or less educated clergy, are well-versed in theology.

As for the Arabs, I can give an example. Many Orthodox Arab children go to Catholic schools. There they have to go to the Catholic church or else there are big conflicts. Theology is not anything for anyone. In one day they can go to both the Catholic and the Orthodox church. They think it is even necessary to do this—you receive more blessings.

--How did they Greeks accept you?

--Very well. They taught me the Greek language and Byzantine music. I did what I wanted to do. I had an excellent relationship with the former patriarch Diodore. The former Patriarch Irenaeus helped me very much—it was through him that I obtained this workshop.

Between Israel and Palestine

--So you speak several languages fluently: Arabic, Armenian, Greek Russian, Hebrew…

--No, Hebrew not fluently. I studied Hebrew in order to obtain Israeli citizenship. It was necessary for me in order to travel easily. Then we went to Russia and I forgot a lot of it. But I speak it alright.

--Tell me, how do Palestinian citizens travel? Since they can never leave through Israel…

--For ten years now they cannot. They travel through Jordan—there are no borders between Palestine and Jordan. Before, there had been an airport in Gaza but they bombed it a long time ago.

--Do the Arabs who live in Israel, such as your mother, have a citizenship status? Does she not want to live in Palestine, in her country?

--It is all the same to those like my mother. She was born in Beit Sahour. She got married in Jerusalem. She does not think about politics. All her family members live in Palestine and she can go and visit them—she has a Jordanian passport.

Palestinians are worse off. Some of them have an entry permit into Israel three or four times a year, for holidays. There are people who live in Bethlehem who have not been to Jerusalem for twenty years, even though it is fifteen minutes away.

Before, it was easier. If there was a marriage between an Israeli citizen and a Palestinian, the Palestinian received a residency permit for Israel. Now that is not possible.

Christians between the Hammer and the Anvil

--How are the relations between Christians and Muslims in Palestine?

--Very tense. The Muslims consider us to be pagans. I do not want to generalize—We rented a house in an Arab neighborhood and with our neighbors, wonderful people, we visit each other and have very warm relations. But if there is an Islamic government, we cannot live here.

--But does Israel protect the Christians?

--Up to a point. You know, this is how cats play with mice. If there is here Israel without Palestine, it would be the end for us. We are not necessary for them. Here they will build a purely European state. If there is an Islamic Palestine without Israel, this would also be the end for us. They will just destroy us.

--But there are many examples of coexistence. In Hebron, for example, there is a Muslim population, all the women are veiled, but it is calm there.

--In Hebron there are very many radically-minded Muslims. There are simply no Christians there. This is why it is calm. There is only a Russian monastery and the locals think that the Russians are only there temporarily.

The most offensive thing is that no one is concerned with the Christians’ problems. Do many people know what is happening in Gaza? A few times they have burned churches and killed Christians. They prohibit the Orthodox Arab women from going out with their heads uncovered.

There is a Christian bookstore in Gaza. They went to its owner and said, “Either you close this shop or we kill you.” He responded, “No, I will not close it. We are Christians and we live here just like you.” They cut off his head on the spot. Did any of the media talk about this?

Even in Bethlehem (!) you cannot eat and drink in public during Ramadan—they will beat you for it.

Beside Bethlehem is the Monastery of Saint Theodosius. The abbot was beaten several times and they tried to drive him out of these places. He remains there. If only there was someone to intervene! The Palestinian Authority takes no action. Understand it as you like.

When there were hostilities between Israel and Palestine, they fought like this: they would go into Christian homes and from there they would shell Jewish neighborhoods. Of course, the Israeli soldiers would respond by shelling the Christian homes. They also do not care about the Christians.

From the Jewish side, the treatment is no better.

When I had only just met Daria, we went to a Romanian monastery. To get there, you have to go through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. When a child saw us there, he noticed Daria’s cross and started throwing rocks at us. I myself did nothing.

Everyone has heard about the murders of Archimandrite Philoumenos and Matushka Anastasia.

The Christians here are not a political force. For this reason no media report about our problems. No one is interested in us. Here there are religious fanatics of all stripes, and we are between them, like being between a hammer and an anvil.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Met. Saba (Esber) on Preparing for Communion

The Arabic original, published in this month's Majallat al-Nour, can be found here.

Some Words about Going up to Receive

Forty years ago, the predominant custom was for the faithful to go forward to partake of mystery of the Eucharist infrequently, since the predominate understanding said that one should only partake of the Eucharist a few times each year, such as on major feasts... In my childhood, I would hear the grown-ups say that the maximum permissible number of times that the faithful could partake of the holy things was once every forty days, while following a number of requirements.

They based this on man's being unworthy of this dreadful mystery. Without a doubt, for them this conviction stemmed from great honor given to the divine mystery and a realization of their own sins, which required the faithful to prepare with total sincerity in order to partake of the holy mystery. Since the faithful were not able to undertake this preparation continually, they refrained from approaching the holy chalice rather than approaching without having prepared as they should.

I remember that my grandmother would bathe on the Sunday in which she would receive the holy things, after having visited the homes of all her neighbors, asking their forgiveness if she had sinned against them. I likewise know a very faithful man who is not absent from the Divine Liturgy unless he is extremely ill and bedridden. He did not go up to partake at all during the time he practiced his career. His argument was that his job required him to lie constantly, since he worked in real estate. He was convinced that he was unworthy as long as he was going to go back and lie the next day.

In addition to what we have briefly mentioned is ignorance about the mystery of the Eucharist and its place in the life of the believer and his spiritual advancement, as well as ignorance about the concept of the Church and the communion of believers.

With the beginning of the revival that occurred within the See of Antioch after the middle of the twentieth century, the concept changed under the influence of the teaching and preaching of the clergy, especially those who studied theology in institutions of higher education. We came to witness a concern for partaking, and regularly approaching a regular feature among the faithful. However, we also came to witness great negligence in preparing for the great mystery on all levels, to the point that many of those who arrive at church very late approach the chalice without scruple. As for fasting, abstaining from food and drink before partaking, it was left by the wayside.

There is no doubt that the path of moving people from one practice to an opposite practice required the expenditure of enormous effort, but it unfortunately did not give the same importance to the issue of the necessary preparation and worthiness. Unfortunately, emphasis was put on the Church's proper understanding of frequent partaking without giving personal preparation the preaching, education, and effort that it deserves. The new teaching gave all concern to the theological side and to witness to the necessity of frequently partaking and not refraining from it, on the basis of Eucharistic theology and the texts of the divine liturgy themselves, which announce that the sacrifice has been undertaken for the sake of all those present. As for the life of repentance, it was ignored and this is what has brought us to a situation where we see thousands going forward to partake at every Divine Liturgy they attend, while the great majority of them do not practice the mystery of repentance and confession at all, not even once a year.

There is a great distinction between correct theoretical teaching and the pedagogical path that leads to living it in its fullness. Possessing intellectual knowledge of a given matter does not mean living that matter or having experience with it on an existential level. For me to know, for example, the Gospel's view of forgiveness does not mean that I have experience with that forgiveness. This is the case for all the other virtues. So I must be trained gradually in order to arrive at the level of Christian forgiveness.

The Importance of Education

Many of us have ignored or forgotten the importance of practical education. Here I recall that many have come to say that we are the children of God and that we are free in Christ, and this is a true teaching of the Gospel. But the result is that the love of God of which we speak has not led us to behave like His children. At the same time, fear of God has been banished from our hearts and no defense against sin remains that would prevent it from dominating us. This is why we witness today a decline in morals and a breakdown in homes.

The Apostle Paul says, "When I was a child I ate what was for children, but when I became an adult, I started to eat what is appropriate for adults." Ignoring this basic rule within the Church has led us to formalistic spiritual practices. We have come to talk about virtue, forgetting the difficult training that we must live daily in order to arrive at it.

In education there is a clear progression and no one possesses the virtues simply through theoretical knowledge of them. The life of repentance does not deviate from this rule, since it cannot be lived without it. Hence we must pay attention to the importance of preparing our souls and our bodies for total participation in the mystery of the Eucharist, but in the measure of our preparation and our personal life of repentance. This is something where there is no general rule that is applicable to all the faithful in all places and at all times. Here the mystery of repentance and confession serves for our spiritual progress. It is determined for each believer by a father confessor who has final say in guiding the believer as to when to approach to partake and when to refrain. At times the spiritual father may, in order to discipline the believer, resort to forbidding him from the mystery of the Eucharist, with the goal of raising his spiritual level. These matters cannot be defined in a general essay, but rather through personal confession and guidance, between the believer and the father confessor.

Between Worthiness and Preparedness

There is common a confusion between worthiness and preparedness. One who refrains from the holy chalice on the grounds of being unworthy confuses worthiness and preparedness. No human is worthy for God to dwell within him and to be united to Him. What human is completely pure and spotless and without sin? No human deserves this great grace. God's dwelling among us and within us is only because of his overwhelming mercy and his extreme love and his condescension which cannot be grasped by human reason. This is why there will never come a time when I will be worthy of this great grace, the Eucharist. No, and when I think that I have become worthy I have fallen greatly-- I have fallen pride, the mother of all evils.

As for preparedness, it is the work of preparing myself to receive the Lord. Just as one prepares to receive an important person into his home, by cleaning himself and his home, and by putting on appropriate clothes, so too the believer prepares to receive the Lord within his being. I go forward in the spirit of worthiness and with the conviction that I am a sinner and never worthy. But God's vast mercy causes us to go forward, relying upon Him. Because God is merciful to this degree, I require of myself the preparations that the Church has set down generally, and that my father confessor has set down for me personally. This is so that I do not slacken and take advantage of God's mercy, forgetting my obligation to strive for the salvation of my soul.

The Mystery of Confession and the Service of Preparation for Communion

On the basis of the Gospel's teaching, the Church has set down a number of things that help to prepare for partaking. There is the mystery of confession, the prayer before partaking, making peace with those with whom one has a dispute, and setting right the sins that one has committed, in addition to fasting and refraining from all food and drink from the midnight before the divine liturgy and participating in the divine liturgy from the beginning... Adhering to these teachings is required for approaching the honorable body and blood of the Lord.

The Apostle Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, "One who has eaten the bread and drank from the cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." So what then should be done? The Apostle responds, "Let a man examine himself and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

In some Antiochian churches in America, letters at the top of the first page of the Sunday handout in bold letters there is written a warning that a believer does not have permission to enter the nave of the Church if he arrives during or after the chanting of the trisagion (Holy God, Holy Mighty...) and thus does not have permission to partake. In a country where the faithful travel many miles in order to get to their church on Sunday morning, you constantly see people who arrive late for reasons beyond their control following the liturgy from the narthex, without giving excuses that may very well be valid. Why in the East do we not obey any teachings and create within ourselves superficial emotions of faith?

The Relationship between the Eucharist and Repentance and Confession

As for the relationship between the mysteries of the Eucharist and of repentance and confession, it is not a canonical relationship, but rather a living practical relationship. While some call for no approaching the Eucharist except after confession, some others do not see the necessity of making this connection canonically. For you to continually partake without ever confessing, this is something that is not permitted at all. For you to go for repentance and confession prior to every time you regularly partake, this is something that is not possible outside the life of the monastery. The best way remains for you to go to confession and the Eucharist according to the guidance of your spiritual father.

Do not forget to search your conscience well the night before the Divine Liturgy. This activity will put you on the right track and keep you from falling into a routine of partaking, and keep the flame of love for Christ burning within you.

Approach the divine mysteries with a broken heart, convinced that you are unworthy because you are a sinner. Rely completely on God's mercy, saying "Lord I am not worthy for you to enter into my home, but your expansive mercy compels me to approach you." Approach with fear of God, that fear that is found in lovers so that they do not lose their beloved. The fear of God keeps you in continual communion and closeness with Him. The prayer of preparation before communion says, "If you have resolved, O man, to eat the body of the master, approach with fear lest you be burned, because it is fire. And if you have resolved to drink the divine blood, first make amends with those who have grieved you. Then all mystical nourishment is assured."

Do not forget the words of the Apostle Paul, "He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment unto himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many among you are week and sick and many are asleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged" (1 Corinthians 11: 29-31).