Sunday, September 23, 2012

Met. Ephrem's Sermon for Sept. 16, 2012

Arabic original here, given at the Monastery of St Jacob, Deddeh.

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

Today is the Sunday after the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy and Honorable Cross. Today you heard this passage from the Gospel of Mark, which comes after the Lord Jesus' announcement and prophecy of His passion, death, and resurrection! He also says to the disciples, to the crowds, and to us, "He who desires to follow Me, let him deny himself, or let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me."

What does He mean by the expression 'he who desires to follow me'? Naturally, thre is free will. The Lord gives freedom to all who desire to follow Jesus, but when He says, "he who desires to follow Me," what does He mean?

Where do we follow Jesus? How do we follow Him? Where do we follow Jesus to?

When we read the Gospel, there is the verb 'to follow'. The disciple follows his Teacher to the end. And what is the end-- is it just death? He follows Him forever. He is with Him eternally at all times. He follows Him in his suffering. He resembles Him. He follows Him in suffering death and in His resurrection. That is to say, we Christians are called to follow Christ in this world-- in our suffering, in the death of this world, and also in what comes afterwards, in eternity, in eternal life.

The He says, "let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me." The Fathers say about the phrase, "take up his cross" that it means for him to deny himself. If we want to follow Christ, how are we able to resemble him in everything, at all times? How do we deny ourselves? Naturally, we understand that oftentimes we must give up our rights, we must give up many of our desires, our passions, pleasures of this life. And how many pleasures are affirmed by modern man!

When we read, for example, Saint Isaac the Syrian, who comes to mind with this passage, how does he explain what it means for a person to deny himself? He says, "If believer desires to deny himself, to follow Christ to the end in all things, he must constantly have remembrance of death. This is not in order to be frightening. Or perhaps it is frightening for us to constantly remember our death. This is the truth, but perhaps the saint intends for us to struggle to put to death our old man, to put to death our lusts and passions. He adds something useful when he says, "For us to remember death is for us to constantly recall death and to  live in this world as strangers!"

We should not be attached to this world. We should live in it, but we should not be attached to it because we look to something better. Our aspiration when we are alive with the Lord Jesus is to live in this life and to look to another life, eternal life.

Denying the self, then, is a person dying to his ego, to his pride, to his lusts, and at the same time it is a longing to look to life with the Lord Jesus, to that better life, that life which the saints lived, to that heavenly joy, that spiritual joy.

The passage from the Gospel which you heard points toward this when it says in the last sentence, "there are some among those here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of heaven coming in power." That is, there is a possibility before we leave this life to taste the joy of the kingdom from here, to have a foretaste of this joy that awaits us all with Christ risen from the dead. Amen.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh on Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Arabic original here.

The Necessity of Muslim-Christian Dialogue

It has come to be undeniable in contemporary Christian theology that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, the Abrahamic monotheistic God, even if ways of expressing this faith differ according to different dogmatic systems in Christianity, Islam, and their various denominations. The followers of Christianity and of Islam know that "there is no god but God" alone, with no partner in divinity. When Christians believe in the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" they affirm that these three hypostases are only "one God."

Some Islamic scholars and authorities admit to the monotheism of the Christian faith, among them Sayyed Hussein Fadlallah, who says, "When the Qur'an says that the People of the Book are unbelievers, it does not mean an unbelief that separates them from faith in God and from monotheism. Rather, it means disbelief in the Prophet." And since it is "disbelief in the Prophet," according to his words, Christian disbelief in the mission of the prophet of Islam does not prevent them from meeting Muslims in affirming God's unity and believing in Him.

At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church declared that Muslims "worship with us the one God, the Munificent, the Merciful who judges humankind on the last day." This is the official position of the Catholic Church and is binding on on all its followers with the authority of an ecumenical council. "No going back from this is possible," as Juliette Haddad says  in her book, "Christian-Muslim Joint Statements." Although it has not  issued official pronouncements about this, most theologians of the Orthodox Church accept what was declared at the Vatican Council and we have in the writings of Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, Metropolitan Georges Khodr, and theologians of the Orthodox world confirmation of what we are saying.

On October 28, 1965 the Vatican Council issues a statement "on the Church's relationship to non-Christian religions" which said, "The Church also takes into account Muslims who worship the one God, the Living, the Eternal, the Ruler of all, Creator of heaven and earth, who speaks to humankind... and they also respect the moral life and perform worship to God, especially in prayer, almsgiving, and fasting."

This confession of the Vatican Council is not content with only dogmatic matters. It even proposes practical steps to make effective the encounter between members of the two religions and to work together for the good of humanity and the world. The statement itself calls for developing Christian-Muslim relations and for moving away from the wars and conflicts that have occurred throughout history. "If many conflicts and enmities have sprung up between Christians and Muslims over the centuries, the holy council exhorts all to forget the past and to sincerely move on to mutual understanding, together preserving and strengthening social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom, for the benefit of all people."

There is no doubt that forgetting the past and mutual understanding have become features that bring together many Christians and Muslims. Despite the emergence of some problems from time to time, this insistence on preserving Christian-Muslim relations from any harm that could occur continues. Christian-Muslim dialogue remains an absolute necessity in our world today. Rather than each side looking to score points on the other, let there be cooperation for the sake of realizing the good things that believers have been promised. In this way, let there be praiseworthy competition between believers in the one God.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh on Emigration and the Cross

Arabic original here.

Our Cross

The day after tomorrow, September 14, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Elevation of the Honorable Cross. The best honor for the cross, according to the Gospel, is to take it as a path and a model for the life of those who believe in Christ as savior and redeemer.

Jesus says to His followers,  “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Mark 8:34-36)

Christ was not content to inform His disciples about what would happen with Him. He also called on them to partake of the very same fate if they desired to be His followers. Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407) comments on this passage from the Gospel that it is impossible for the disciples to be saved if they are not continuously prepared for death.

After citing Christ's saying "unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain" (John 12:24), he continues, "Christ not only prepares them for His death, but also for their own death."

There is no doubt that Jesus' logic differs from the logic of this world and of those who live by its rules. Origen (d. 245), one of the teachers of the Church, says about this, "One who loves the present life, thinking it to be good and living the life of the flesh, fearing death, in doing so loses the life that he wishes to save...

However, if a person abstains in his life, denies himself, bears his cross, and follows Christ out of desire for the salvation of his soul, it seems to the world that he loses his life. However, by losing his life for the sake of Christ and His teaching, he gains salvation."

Christ directs these words to His disciples in every time and place, in various circumstances and contexts. This is why Christian Arabs, cast into the furnace along with the Muslim fellow-citizens, are not exempt from this commandment which is based on love and sacrifice up to the ultimate martyrdom. The cross which they are called to bear, which they cannot reject if they wish to be followers of the Nazarene, is commitment to human and national issues, and to realize the values of peace, love, and equality.

This requires them to remain in their land or to return to it, in order to bear witness to the Lord in the place where He wanted them to live and bear witness. Emigration for the sake of saving one's life does not save anything, but perhaps these words of Christ's are true about it: "whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it." Emigration denies love, that single commandment that summarizes the entire Gospel. It is a denial of the love that is required towards our brothers in faith and in the nation, and especially towards the poor and those without means.

Our words are not meant to judge anyone. God alone is the judge. However, they are a call to bear witness to the truth. Arab Christianity will not last through talking about the glories of the past or about Christianity having started in our lands or by changing churches into monuments and museums, or for us to remember our villages only on the occasion of funerals... "What use is it for a person if he gains the whole world but loses his life?" What if we gain the whole world but lose our love for each other?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh on Pipe-Dreams of Empire

The Arabic original, published in this month's Majallat al-Nour, can be found here. This article seems to be directed at a group called the "Orthodox Party". Interviews with its apparent leader, Rodrigue Khoury, can be read here and here. Their blog can be read here.

Orthodoxy or Pipe-Dreams?

Some Antiochian Orthodox are haunted by dreams of an awakening that sends them off on flights of fancy and estranges them from the surrounding reality. These dreams of an awakening prevent those who are having them from facing reality and cast them into the arms of fanciful illusion that satisfies hidden desires that they cannot satisfy in real life. They flee reality in search of a lost paradise that cannot be realized. They search for an imaginary paradise. But their dreams remain an incoherent collection of images and ideas that reflect symptoms of complexes and psychological problems.

Dreams have led them astray and caused them to search for a useless and pointless role. They chase after a tempting and deceitful mirage like people afflicted with sunstroke. They try to tap into it, but they will only find utter failure. The mirage of empty glory, the lure of power, and the temptation of lucre are what they are seeking under the compelling and noble banner of the Church. Satan clothes himself in a robe of light, is this not what the Apostle Paul says?

There are those who dream of restoring the glory of the Byzantine Empire and its capital Constantinople and proof of this is that they raise the banner of the Byzantine state as their emblem, as though the Orthodox faith were not true without the return of an empire whose behavior was no better than "the kings of this world." How many massacres, crimes, and occupations were committed in the name of Christianity? How many times did the Fathers of the Church, chief among them Saint Ambrose of Milan and Saint John Chrysostom, clash with the emperors on account of their excessive use of power and negligence of the Gospel's teachings.

The Antiochian experience of the state differs from subsequent Byzantine and Russian experience. The Church of Antioch has never ruled in our country, thank God. The Church of Antioch did not sully herself with the stain of this world, its strongmen and tyrants. She could not do anything other than take care of her countries and peoples and to work to realize the Kingdom in the here and now, where she lives awaiting the announcement of the Kingdom that is to come. She could do nothing other than bear witness to her Teacher, her Master, her Redeemer in word, thought, and deed. She did not deny her cross. She bore it in order to be crucified for love, not in order to hatefully crucify others for the sake of earthly glory.

The Orthodox Church has realized that holiness does not belong to land or cities or places. All these things are just dust. Rather, true holiness is a lofty goal that human beings, flesh and blood, are called to acquire. "Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem shall you worship the Father... Those who truly worship the Father worship in spirit and in truth," said the Lord firmly to  the Samaritan woman. There where the Church (that is, the group of believers called from that place) is, there the Lord will be among them. Judaism did not comprehend these words and it continued to work to return to Palestine. The price of its return was the removal of an entire people from their land after wars, conflicts and massacres that claimed thousands of victims. How great would the price of a return to Constantinople be, if the means were available? How great do those people estimate the price would be of restoring the glories of their empire?

These fantastical dreams that take the form of associations, groups, and parties seek after an Andalus  that is lost and will never return. They are pipe-dreams at high noon, when laziness and drowsiness overcomes weak souls: "Save us, O Lord, from the noonday demon." Instead of the Orthodox working to fix their presence in Beirut, Tripoli, Akkar, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and Hama... and instead of urgently striving to return to villages from which they were expelled in the mountains near Beirut, and instead of working to halt the exodus to countries with strong economies, you see some people entertaining pipe-dreams that do not eliminate hunger.

Particularly deserving censure is the fact that the people who have these fantasies do not hesitate to use holy names which they confer upon themselves, especially the word "Orthodox" and its derivatives, which they hawk in the market of hateful sectarianism that dominates hearts and minds in Lebanon. There is a "Party of God" and a party that appropriates the cross, a party that claims to speak in the name of the Christians, and parties with Islamic names... and now some Orthodox have taken their turn to change the Church of the Lord, which He redeemed with His blood, into a sectarian party. Orthodoxy is far too precious to be distorted and have its history fabricated by a few people who seek to take their turn at the expense of a living tradition marked by true witness to Christ God our Redeemer.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Akathist Hymn in Syriac

So, some readers of this blog may remember an earlier discussion of Orthodox use of Syriac as a liturgical language here.

 Going through the Sinai manuscripts mentioned in that post, I found a Syriac translation of the Akathist Hymn that I've now transcribed and (minimally) edited. The text is below the jump and can also be downloaded in a prettier font and with better presentation as a pdf here.

The text is taken from Sinai Syriac Manuscript 129 (1255 AD), ff. 127v-136r. It can be viewed here. Any comments or corrections would be much appreciated!

Update: Sept. 6, 2012-- many, many typos corrected. Sept. 7-- formatting problems fixed in the pdf.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Fr. Touma (Bitar) on what needs to be done to help Syrian Christians

Arabic original here. In last week's article, referenced here, Fr. Touma wrote very forcefully about the responsibility that Syrian and Lebanese Christians have to remain in their homeland.You can donate to the International Orthodox Christian Charities Syria relief fund here, by selecting the 'Syria Relief Fund' under 'designations'. I also seriously hope that Orthodox churches in Europe and the Americas are making plans for how to care for a new wave of immigrants from the Middle East.

The Tormented: A Seal upon our Foreheads!

As I was preparing to write the article for this week, I received an email from a Syrian brother in the faith named Sh. M. This is some of what it contained:

“I read your article [the  article from August 26, 2012 about Christian behavior in a time of tension]… What you wrote was very harsh on me personally… Each of us has his own capacity for dealing with what is happening… What applies to me does not necessarily apply to my brother in the flesh or in spirit… I am young and still unmarried and employed. My salary is still acceptable despite the exorbitantly high prices… But my brother A. is married and has an infant child… His work has been halved and his salary is a quarter what it was… The company where his wife was working closed and now she is without work… After enduring much… what is the solution?! I encouraged him to knock on the doors of the embassies, why not?! I told my other brother: Get your passport and your family ready… If an immigration visa can be found, travel to the Scandinavian countries, why not?! In the future, it is possible that I will join you… Father, I am able to remain without food or clothing… But what we cannot bear is for my brother to not be able to feed his son… unfortunately… the times have taken us in this direction…

From the spiritual side… did not the Apostles go out to establish churches in all the earth? So why should we be attached to one land?!  I don’t know… How, when my Lord  and God said, ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head’… I am able to build my family here or there, and my church and my family go hand in hand… The true Christian remains true wherever he is put… For example: my spiritual father is in Lebanon and I don’t think that that is a sin! Even though it is assumed or it is better for him to be the shepherd of the area [here it appears that he means for the shepherd to tend to his flock!

What I mean to say is that the connection to the Church is not bounded by space… The Church of Christ is not bounded by time or space!

I’m sorry! Perhaps I have bothered you with my inappropriate response to what was in your article…. But I wanted to send to you what was within my soul, body, and mind… thank you…”

In addition to this email, a family of Syrian brothers in faith came to us, a husband and wife, along with the husband’s brother and an elderly woman. The last days have been hard on them! They came to Lebanon to live temporarily with the husband’s sister. They are waiting. What will they do? The husband is looking for work, along with his brother. What will they do for a place to live and schooling for the children? The wife is a schoolteacher in Syria. She is required to register with her workplace during the month of September. The security situation is difficult. What will she do!? The family is waiting… and almost perishing!

Both the email and the visit of the family to us in the monastery have led me to expand on discussing the urgent issue of current suffering. Every other issue is set aside for the time being. Let us be concerned with what is more important!

I am not privy to information about what is going on in terms of offering various forms of assistance to those in need due to the current security crisis. However, it does not seem that anyone is minding the current suffering with any regard to its extent and what it may turn into, with the aim of containing it, in accordance with the spirit of communion that should reign over the land of believers, especially in times of difficulty. In this regard, I will present some observations and make some proposals:

First: What I painfully noticed through Sh. M.’s email and receiving the Syrian family is that are without anyone to turn to!  Sheep without a shepherd! I do not want to go into a theological discussion with anyone. We have people suffering! Their sufferings make discussion tiresome! The need, first of all, is to embrace! My body pains me! “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)! Within a single body—and we are the body of Christ—all the body’s powers rush to support the afflicted member, because in true communion that which afflicts one member afflicts the entire body! If that is not our deepest feeling with regard to those who are suffering and who will suffer, then we do not belong to the body, to the one Church of Christ! If becomes a name that refers to nothing!

Second: My feeling is that we are burying our heads in the sand! We do not want—indeed, we fear—facing reality with realism and responsibility. We want to leave the lifeline up to individual initiatives. We ignore, in a sense, what is going on because we do not want to subject ourselves to annoyance! We insensitively imagine and hope that things will return to normal in order to save ourselves the trouble of planning and organizing, and insisting on prayers and supplications!

Third: I do not think that those who hope that things will return to the way they were sufficiently realize all the aspects of what is happening. Naturally, what God has is not what we have. We hope, if it is possible, that the Lord God will take this cup from us! Perhaps, if the faithful concentrate their energies on repentance, mercy, fasting, prayer, and tears, God will turn from handing them over to suffering, as He did with Nineveh (Jonah 3)! Do you still see us “dreaming” of profound universal repentance and that God is able to stop the bleeding, and stop it quickly?! Whatever the case is, as things progress, they portend difficult developments and painful repercussions.  The future appears even more difficult! The rate of suffering is increasing! We are not witnessing events that will pass us by. My  feeling is that we are in the midst of a volcanic explosion! This is not to stir up people’s fears, but to put an end to people’s fantasies, even if it scares them!

Fourth: Now we will either become the Church in spirit and in truth or our confusion will increase so that we do not hear one another’s screaming and the Lord God will scatter us over the face of the earth, in an existential Babel because we did not want to love each other! If today the crisis does not bring us together with Christ and with each other, then nothing will bring us together again! The finger of God is in what happens in history, today, and in what is happening to us in these lands. The time has come “for judgment to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17)!

Fifth: As Christians, events do not concern us as events—who rises against whom, how many are killed and how much is destroyed, what one’s plans are and what one’s interests are. That is the world, and if it speaks it speaks of what pertains to it. We are rather concerned with the word of God in what is happening. The putrescence of the world fills the world! “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throat is an open tomb…their feet are quick to spill blood in the path of destruction and misery. They do not know the path of peace. The fear of God is not before their eyes” (Psalm 13:3 LXX)! Unless the Lord of hosts had left to us a very small remnant, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been made like Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9)! For this reason, “Be instructed, O Jerusalem, lest My soul depart from you; lest I make you desolate, a land not inhabited” (Jeremiah 6:8)!

Sixth: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). When people say, “we have done our share. Now it’s other people’s turn” these are the word of ignorant people whose feeling has died! Those who do not weep with the weeping do not belong to the One who wept for Lazarus! “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). If the Lord God desired that we pass through what is upon us now, then it was to make us holy and to renew the spirit of communion among us! “That both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (John 4:36)! So that, at this time, people’s abundance may supply those who are lacking, that there might be equality (2 Corinthians 8:14)!

Seventh: On this basis, I propose and call for the establishment of a church relief organization that will manage the affairs of displaced people, whether in their own countries or in neighboring countries, especially in Syria and Lebanon. By the affairs of displaced people, I mean everything connected to their situation: sustenance, housing, education, medical care, employment, and pastoral care.

Eighth: I propose and call for the establishment of a central fund for relief and emergency humanitarian aid in order to take care of needs that are arising now or will arise in the future. We must be prepared to face the economic crises that began in 2008 and are increasing in addition to the repercussions of the current local security crisis.

Ninth: I propose and call for funding this fund from two sources:
1—The funds of parishes and all church organizations at home and in the diaspora should dedicate 5% of the money they have in the banks.
2—Fundraising campaigns should be held among the faithful at home and in the diaspora, to give a place for all to bear the burdens of their brothers who are in difficult circumstances, fulfilling God’s words, “Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Tenth: I propose and call for the establishment of fixed and voluntary staff from among God’s beloved, on the diocesan and parish level, to take care of the initial rapid and urgent step to assist children of the faith who are suffering, to become acquainted with them, to monitor their situation, to secure communication with them, and to provide them with pastoral care.

Eleventh: I  propose and call for securing communication and coordination with humanitarian organizations in general in order for us to provide support for all elements of the one nation, in order to meet the needs of those in need, whoever they may be. Taking care of children of the faith rests on the basis of providing bread to the hungry and medicine to the sick, regardless of what “sect” they may belong to. If it is assumed that humanitarian organizations will take care of people’s needs without discrimination, then even more so church organizations according to the rule “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, imprisoned and you came to me” (Matthew 25:  35-36).

Twelfth: The time is critical and the opportunity is coming to bring together the children of the faith once more as one. Hardship renews, draws together, strengthens, and unites. If we do not take the opportunity to treat the wound, then we shall be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. The spirit of communion is the spirit of hope, otherwise we no longer belong to the Church or to the land or to each other. We are facing a great trial. We are in a great fast for the sake of repentance and the needy. Either we will stand indifferently before Christ stretched out upon the cross or we will meet Him rising from the dead on the faces of the suffering and tormented!

Fr. Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St Silouan-- Douma
September 2,  2012