Friday, March 18, 2011

Met. Ephrem's Sermon for Forgiveness Sunday, 2011

The Arabic original of this sermon, given in Kousba on March 6, 2011 can be found here.

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

Beloved, we are on the threshold of Great Lent. Today is called Forgiveness Sunday or the Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise. At this beginning, we must follow a new upward path, as the Apostle says today in his letter to the Romans, “the night is over and day has drawn near,” which means that we must say in our mind that we want the day. Night, as the Apostle explains it, is darkness, it is negative actions, but we must adopt the light because the day has drawn near and we must not live in darkness, but rather in light and day. This is because from today we are preparing to go up this ladder in order to taste the resurrection of Christ. The light is Christ, so let us put him in the center of our life and accept the fast.

For a believing person, the fast is not a period of sorrow but rather a period of joy and this is why you heard the Gospel say, “do not look somber like the hypocrites, but rather wash your faces.” So let your faces be washed with joy. Do not scowl—be joyful in the fast.

Why do we fast? So that we can be light and not heavy, not only with food but also with cares, the cares of life. It is so that we can put them off to the side and not fear and not be bewildered by all the news of the world, no matter how disturbing they are, or by making a living, no matter how difficult it is. Instead, let us have this hope in Christ, that we may live and be victorious in Him and that we will see everything positively.

The we pray day after day, fasting with our brothers and praying with them, since the fast is so that we can draw near to God and to our brothers, so we can step out of ourselves. We fear because we cling to ourselves, so let us pay attention to others. The Gospel asks us to pay special attention to the weak. All of us are weak, but the Lord puts before us people and says to us, “help these weak people.” When we help a weak person, who is poor or ill, we rejoice more than him, as though he is the one giving us help.

This is the ambiance of the fast. It is in refraining not from foods and animal fat, but in refraining from all that does not pertain to God, that we sacrifice a little bit of our evenings out, a little bit of our pleasures. The faithful youth sacrifices and fasts and repents for the sake of all the other youths. A person (a man or a woman), when he fasts or prays or repents does not repent and fast and pray only for himself, but rather he prays for others who do not repent, do not pray, and thus we are given grace upon grace. This is our tradition, the tradition of the saints.

Let us ask God to give us this grace, so that we can pray and fast and rejoice and forgive and not be jealous in our hearts and then the light of Christ will shine in our souls and we will see everything clearly with Christ, amen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fr. Georges Massouh: Towards a New Muslim-Christian Agreement

The Arabic original can be found here.

Toward a New Muslim-Christian Agreement

Metropolitan Georges Khodr says, “What truly allows us to characterize Christianity as Arab is that each of its groups without exception for the past thousand-odd years has written in Arabic. Graf’s book in German Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur gives the titles of Christian books that were written in Arabic by Copts, Suryanis, Nestorians, Rum, and Maronites, including thousands of titles, although they are not published […] and so if we do not resort to the nationalist argument, which did not exist in peoples’ minds in past ages, and content ourselves with the concept of civilization, then it must be affirmed that Christianity spoke Arabic both before and after Islam.”

Needless to say, from the beginning of Christianity until today Christians have been present in all the countries of the Middle East and Christians make up an essential part of the mosaic of these counties’ native populations: Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey. We do not possess any precise information about their numbers or their proportion relative to the general population. If numbers are true and unambiguous in the science of mathematics, for Arabs today they are a matter of opinion or perspective, like their polls, their elections, and their budgets. Thus the numbers of Christians in the Arab world range from high and low estimates depending on the goals of those announcing or publishing the numbers and their aims in doing so. Because the numbers are not precise we will not deal with them.

For years Arab societies have witnessed a withdrawal of the Christian presence in public life. The shared domains that had been able to gather Muslims and Christians together for common work—I mean Arab nationalism, socialism, and the secular parties—failed in creating a state of the people, democracy, freedom, citizenship, scientific and cultural revival, the liberation of Palestine… while at the same time they contributed to many frustrations. Even worse, the states that raised these banners turned into unbearable dictatorships. So the Arab Christians, after having shared a single common fate with Arab Muslims and after most Arab Christians having adopted Arabism as a common denominator with Muslims against the Turkification of the region then against the European mandates and against the Zionist Entity, the “Arab Nationalists” who held the reins of power deviated from the lofty goals that they had raised. And this is what gave people the notion that religious fundamentalism was the ideal alternative for solving all the problems.

This withdrawal of the Christian role from public life has been accompanied by intense emigration that has led to a worrying diminution the numbers of Christians. Dr. Tarek Mitri says that a group of writers and specialists estimated the proportion of Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine to be around ten percent. Mitri attributes this decrease in the number of Christians in the Arab East, which at the beginning of the 20th century is estimated to be a quarter of the population, to various causes depending on the time and the region. Mitri rejects the reduction of the reasons for the decline to a low fertility rate and high emigration rate among Christians caused by increasing feelings of estrangement and anxiety over the future. In talking about emigration, he points to very important economic factors. Christian emigration at the start of the 20th century cannot be separated from the increase in the number of Christians and the improvement in their standard of living. However, emigration in the 1960’s “was in turn fed by a desire for economic advancement.”

The issue of Arab Christians rests on the extent of their view of their role in this dear East. The role of eastern Christians first of all comes out of their faith in the importance of their presence in this East and in their speaking the language of the Qur’an, the Muslims’ book. We affirm the importance of their presence, while presence is not the same thing as mere existence; it is possible to exist without having a presence. Secondly, the existence of Christians in the Arab East must not be merely an accumulation of numbers, or museums, or memories, or traditions. They must be active in the life of their nations through being involved in the issues of their countries and peoples. The participation of the Copts in the Egyptian uprising, despite the support of their patriarch for the former president, is only a promising start that must be crowned with the adoption of a secular constitution based on equality, freedom, and human rights.

Despite the rise of fundamentalisms and religious extremism, Muslim and Christian Arabs must begin to think together about a new Arab agreement based on citizenship, equality, freedom, and democracy. Christian (and Muslim) fears are growing over the increase in religious extremism that uses violence as a means to realize its goals. On this level, Christians are the full partners of Muslims in building the future. However, until today there is no complete plan that puts Arab citizens at rest about what will happen tomorrow. Let us begin from here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Met. Georges' Eulogy for Fr. Elias Morcos

The Arabic original can be found here. A photo gallery of Archimandrite Elias' funeral service can be seen here.

Living is the God before Whom I Stand
When the patron of our brother Archimandrite Elias, the Prophet Elijah, was resisting the world for the sake of God, the world rejected God and was worshiping idols. That poor, hungry prophet stood before the king and queen of his land in order to say to creation, “God is alive.” No one comes before God, not kings and not great men. There is one being and He is God and I am His servant and His messenger before this people that entrusted me with prophethood.
The young Elias Morcos, living in Lattakia, saw that laxity was afflicting our people who are called to be Orthodox, and so he wrote to a friend of his and said, “We are called to aright this people who consider themselves Orthodox.”
And so, from the very beginning of his spiritual awareness, he struggled for the sake of Christ without any visible sign of vocation, without a robe, because he was unable to bear this holy people decaying in their sins and ignorance. He wrote to his friend who was on summer vacation, “We want to aright the Orthodox people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with His love and His obedience, because we want our people to be a church. Because we want the people to shine with the Spirit, to burn with divine love, yearning for the One who announced His longing for them, who was nailed to the wood.”
Elias Morcos understood two things about this topic discussed in the letter. He understood that he was called to adorn himself with the virtues and that all our brethren are called to this, because in the past we grumbled and gossiped and criticized the spiritual leadership and we thought that through this chatter we would revive our people. That was before this young man realized that the issue is for you to put the passions to death in order for it to be right for you to speak. It was not enough for him to purify himself. That on its own would be closing himself off. He had to purify others through the love of Christ. And so he reached out to others in order to be able to reach the Lord. After this, he saw that we have a model for purification and this is monasticism. It is not that this is the sole means of purifying oneself, but it is the means that the Church considers to be the model. And so he came to this place and he prepared for the arrival of some of his comrades from Syria and Lebanon. It became clear that the monastic community is not by itself the model, but rather the individual person who trusts Christ is the model. He read—and I hope that we all become readers of the divine Word, because our Church is the Church of the Word that comes down to you from God as the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
It occurs to my mind that when an institution is founded that it needs organization, cultivation, management, writing. However, the Christian who lies before us in the presence of his Lord understood that there is no institution- there are people who love God, who desire to be purified, who struggle as they go up the ladder or virtues. Because if you see that God is everything, as the Prophet Elijah saw, then you aspire to be like God. It is not enough for us to be human beings. We want to be gods. This is in the books of our Fathers.
This person who was immersed in humility wanted to be beloved of God, to be a witness to the Word, to extend it to his brothers, to not be credited with any virtue he may have, to be broken to the very end, because humility is for a person to become effaced in the presence of God. Because, as the Apostle says, someone who thinks he is something is nothing. Elias Morcos thought he was nothing and this is why he was able, through great difficulties, to gather this small flock in this high place. He was able by the grace of God, hidden by his humility. He did not read his humility. People read him. We read him ourselves. This is why he wanted to be the model of a saint. This is the only thing that is worth striving for.
This did not happen without his constant joy. He felt Christianity to be joy. The joy, however, requires continuous struggle. You cannot go up to the divine presence unless you are convinced that you are nothing. He disciplined as he needed to and he reminded them that they have no partner except the Lord Jesus. He continued to struggle until the very end against the spirit of laxity, but always without judging anyone… If you are beloved of God, He always exempts you from judging before you yourself are judged. The leader of this house, Father Elias, was exempted from judging. And so it is right for us to ask his intercession in the hope of his resurrection and our resurrection and eternal life.
This place renewed men’s monasticism. He and his comrades, those who have departed and those who remain, they wondered, “What is monasticism in its profundity, in its truest theological definition?” It is for a person to cleave to eternal life, as though this world with its delights and pleasures did not exist. From now on we will fight, relying on God, we will fight so that from now on God will take our eyes up to the Kingdom…
He tried to think this and to practice this with humility, with dedication, with brokenness, with indescribable love for his brothers and for all of us, constantly bowing before the face of God. So we would come to this monastery to learn humility, to learn that there is no one besides God, and to proclaim this to the mighty ones of this age and to become simple and content with God’s grace and God’s Word.
God will say to him without judgment: You have made yourself faithful over a small group of men, a small group of monks, and I will put you over many. Enter into the joy of your Lord so that the people will believe that there is nothing other than the face of God and that if we cleave to that face, then we are imitating Archimandrite Elias, even if it is only to a certain degree. We long for that great vision, so that we might die for right belief and for giving right glory, preparing here to enter into the heavenly Jerusalem. May God be with you all and strengthen your hearts.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Met. Ephrem's Sermon for Meatfare Sunday, 2011

Arabic original here.

Beloved, we in the Church and steadily drawing near to the blessed Great Fast. One who follows the calendar of the Church knows that today is called Meatfare Sunday or the Sunday of the Last Judgment. If we want to enter into the depth of meaning of these things, we should search for the link that unites the Judgment with the fast. This Sunday, a faithful, practicing person in the Church eats meat for the last time before the Great Fast. So since this is the beginning of fasting, why did the Church make it so that this passage of the Gospel is read and heard, this passage that talks about the Judgment, that is the day when God Himself comes to judge each person according to his works. Because of our worldly occupations, we do not think enough about how God will come to judge us according to our good and evil works. This exists not only in the Christian religion, but also in Islam and also in Judaism. In this passage from the Gospel, it says that the Lord is on the throne of his glory, that is that He will come to judge us. This is not in the form of the child Jesus, who was born in a cave and suffered and was beaten, but rather in the form of the awesome Creator who created heaven and earth and man in order to give Him glory. He will divide people up and place the first group on his right side, those who did good works. The second group will be on His left, those who did evil works. Thus he will separate people. And what is the standard of judgment? The standard is: I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was sick and you visited me. I was imprisoned and you came to me.

That is, He asks us to look after others, of others in need. The Lord wants us to go out of ourselves, we who are occupied with ourselves most of the time, with our personal affairs. He asks us to go and be concerned with the affairs of God and of others, at least during this time. In this way the fast is training. It is a person’s focusing himself as much as he can on emptying himself for the affairs of God! How does he empty himself for the affairs of God? In prayer and in fasting. But also, as the Holy Fathers say, it is not enough for us to pray and to fast from outward things. We must do works of mercy. We must look after others, not ourselves. A person does not advance, does not grow, if he looks after himself, looks after his ego. The Lord asks us to look after others. This is the deep meaning of the fast, that we see others, that we see their needs. At that point the Lord will bless us and put us on His right side. What does the right side mean in Christianity? It means that we share in God’s glory. And God’s glory is joy, peace, eternal life. The person who goes out from himself, all the meaning of life is in this point: that we see the other and that we love him as he is. At that point we rejoice, not with artificial, external joy, but with profound, deeply-rooted joy. We feel that we live and thus we enjoy the life that God gave us. But as for those who only look after themselves, hear what the Gospel says: they will see God’s glory. All of us will see God’s glory, but the wicked will see God’s glory as a burning fire. The eternal fire is not Hell, it is the state of inner burning for one who does evil works. He sees the face of God and it burns him and he is eternally tormented. So we ask God to give us this joy, the joy of the fast, so that we can purify ourselves and train ourselves for the service of others, amen.