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We wrote previously about the Synaxis of the Primates , at which time the Church was setting the parameters for the discussions to be held between the different Orthodox Patriarchates in Crete this month.

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Since then, there has been significant difficulty in reaching agreement on many issues, including the texts of documents to be released representing the unanimous view of the Heirarchs on many doctrinal issues.

Recently, the Church of Bulgaria requested a delay in the date of the Council until its concerns on several issues could be addressed, including seating at the council, the role of observers (including Latins and Protestants) and doctrinal issues. Unfortunately this was not resolved and the Bulgarian Church has withdrawn from the Council.

The Serbian Church likewise has withdrawn from the Council, citing ” deteriorating relations between us and the Patriarchate of Romania, which are now hard to overcome, due to the anti-canonical incursion of the latter into Eastern Serbia and the founding of a parallel diocese there, which will lead to severing of liturgical and canonical communion of the two neighbouring Churches if the behavior described above is not terminated”.

The Patriarchate of Antioch has an ongoing jurisdictional dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the Persian Gulf, which is unfortunate. There are reports of the Patriarchate of Antioch withdrawing from the Pan-Orthodox Council but the Patriarchate has yet to release a press release to that effect.

Late in May, the Georgian Church released the discussions of its Holy Synod regarding doctrinal concerns they had with the documents released by the Pan-Orthodox Council secretariat. An English translation can be seen here .

Without going into great detail, the Georgian Church’s position on some issues such as mixed-marriages, relations with the Heterodox, and homosexuality is somewhat more conservative than that espoused in the Council’s documents.

On June 13, Patriarch Ilia II sent a letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, advising that the Georgian Church would not be participating in the Pan-Orthodox Council. The minutes of the Georgian Synod meeting are presented here in Greek.

Representative of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Church, Archbishop Andrew of Gori and Ateni, reportedly was quoted as saying;

“The goal of the convocation of the future Council is to demonstrate Orthodox unity before the world community and to express the common position of the Orthodox Church on the burning problems of today”. However, this goal cannot be achieved for several reasons: the Eucharistic communion between the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem has not been restored; in addition to the Church of Antioch, the Churches of Bulgaria and Serbia refused to participate in the Council; several documents including “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World” contain dogmatic, canonical and terminological inaccuracies and require a serious review; the Church of Antioch did not sign the 2016 Resolution of the Primates of Churches whereby it was decided to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council and she did not sign the Council’s Working Procedure either due to the fact that this document cannot be considered approved; the established Secretariat of the Council has proved to be non-functional since it has not been given the right to make decisions, etc.

After that a discussion took place. As is noted in the official report, “In spite of different opinions, the basic position was manifested in that it is possible to solve the existing problems through active work. Therefore, we together with other Churches also ask to postpone the Council until the general unity is achieved”.

It is to be hoped that all these issues may be resolved promptly and that the long-awaited Great Council of all Patriarchates of the Church may occur soon.

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This week, for the first time in many decades, the Patriarchs of the world’s Eastern Orthodox communion congregated in Switzerland to discuss many vital issues. Rather than being designated as an “Ecumenical Council“, which typically focusses on dogma and heresy, this meeting is known as a “Synaxis” (Greek for “meeting”) and is somewhat administrative in flavour, notwithstanding significant theological issues to be discussed. Since the last major congregation of the Church’s patriarchs, many historical developments have created challenges and opportunities for our autocephalous administrations around the world. The collapse of communist dictatorship in eastern Europe and Russia has been conducive to many tens of millions of people returning home to the Church without fear of persecution. The increased freedom of movement of people from country to country over the past century has seen the Orthodox faith spread beyond its traditional milieu in eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East, and indeed spreading throughout ethnic groups not hitherto identified as Orthodox. However, this has created issues of overlapping jurisdictions, and duplicated missionary and charitable efforts. For these issues to be ironed out in a single week would be a Herculean task, but the unanimous will of the Patriarchs to meet on neutral territory to seriously address these issues is a very positive initiative.

His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia and our beloved parish priest from Tbilisi, Father Giorgi Zviadadze of Sioni Cathedral and the Tbilisi Theological Academy, can be seen in the video.

The Georgian Church has numerous parishes outside Georgia’s borders, operating under its authority, but of course in places like France, Britain or the United States, they operate side-by-side with parishes under the authority of Constantinople or many other Patriarchates, all of which are attempting to service the needs of their diaspora as well as evangelising the local population. How potential conflicts or indeed competition between parishes of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church within one city or region may be mitigated is beyond the author’s knowledge, but with God’s help such issues may be resolved.

The persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria, be they of our Eastern Orthodox confession or another Christian group, was of course a major issue to address. Likewise, the fraternal conflict in eastern Ukraine between Orthodox brethren is very distressing for all concerned. The tension between the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine and others regarding the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church(Kiev Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (neither of which have been formally universally recognised as a canonical churches by the Church) , will be an issue that may take many years to resolve.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s press release is provided in full below.

At the invitation of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches took place at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, from 21st to 28th January, 2016. The following Primates attended:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria
Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow
Patriarch Irinej of Serbia
Patriarch Daniel of Romania
Patriarch Neophyte of Bulgaria
Patriarch Ilia of Georgia
Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
Archbishop Rastislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

The following Primates were unable to attend: Their Beatitudes Patriarch John X of Antioch and Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw and All Poland, for health reasons, and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece, for personal reasons. Nevertheless, all three were represented by official delegations of their Churches.

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The Primates of the Orthodox Churches convened to finalize the texts for the Holy and Great Council. In the framework of the Synaxis, on Sunday, 24th January, a Divine Liturgy was held at the Holy Stavropegic Church of St. Paul. Along with the Ecumenical Patriarch, who presided, Their Beatitudes and Heads of the delegations of the Orthodox Churches concelebrated the Liturgy, with the exception of the Head of the delegation of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

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During the Synaxis, whose sessions were held in the apostolic spirit of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4.15), in concord and understanding, the Primates affirmed their decision to convene the Holy and Great Council. The Council will be held at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from June 16th to 27th, 2016. To this end, the Primates humbly invoke the grace and blessing of the Holy Trinity and fervently invite the prayers of the fullness of the Church, clergy and laity, for the period leading to and the sessions of the Holy and Great Council.

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The items officially approved for referral to and adoption by the Holy and Great Council are: The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World, The Orthodox Diaspora, Autonomy and its Manner of Proclamation, The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments, The Significance of Fasting and its Application Today, and Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World. By decision of the Primates, all approved documents will be published.

The Primates also discussed and determined the establishment of a Panorthodox Secretariat, the by-laws of the Council, the participation of non-Orthodox observers in the opening and closing sessions, and the budgetary costs related the Council.

Moreover, the Primates expressed their support for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East and their ongoing concern for the abduction of the two Metropolitans, Paul Yazigi of the Patriarchate of Antioch and Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Archdiocese.

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The proceedings of the Synaxis of the concluded on Wednesday evening, January 27th, 2016, with the closing address by its President, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

At the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy-Geneva, 27th January, 2016
From the Secretariat of the Sacred Synaxis.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s homily provides very sound context for the recently concluded activities. For those interested in more detailed administrative issues, His All Holiness’ keynote address can be read here

 

We are now standing at the crossroads of history. For the major difficulties that our contemporaries are encountering require responsibility that exceeds our ecclesial institutions. Christ is in the midst of history. Christ is in the heart of our life. He walks within time. He passes by us, just as He did in Jericho with the blind man. According to today’s Gospel reading, can we hear him in the crowd? Can we see him, lost as we are in our poverty and mendacity? According to the commentary of St. Ephrem the Syrian, “when our Lord saw that the eyes of the blind man’s heart were open while the eyes of his body were blind, He enlightened the eyes of the body just as those of the heart in order that when the blind man chose to hasten towards Him, he would clearly see his Saviour.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It is with pleasure I received correspondence to this effect, which I would like to share with any readers in Tbilisi.

“Simon Appleby,

Greetings in the Lord!

My name is Father Joseph Fester. I am an Orthodox priest from America under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. My wife is working in Tbilisi for at least the next two years. With the blessing of His Holiness, Patriarch Ilia, we will be offering an English language Divine Liturgy at the Church of St. Andrew (Blue Monastery Church) in Tbilisi starting this Saturday, October 4. Hours starting at 9am and Liturgy at 9:30am. If any of your readers would like more information, they may contact me at jfester99@gmail.com. The choir at St. Andrew’s is learning english and will respond to the litanies in English and as they learn more, we will expand their English language responses. I will serve in English. Everyone is invited to participate, whether Orthodox or interested in the Orthodox Faith.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this information.

Protopresbyter Joseph Fester”

The Blue Monastery is next to the Russian Church in the vicinity of the Tbilisi Philharmonia. A map showing the exact location can be found here.

I am particularly pleased that the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Georgia are co-operating to serve the needs of the Anglophone Orthodox faithful and those curious about the faith in this city. May this initiative be fruitful, and great thanks to all who have made it possible.

 

 

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At present, the heads or representatives of all the Autocephalous Orthodox Christian Churches are engaged in a meeting (“Synaxis” in Greek) in the Phanar in Constantinople, at the invitation of the His All-Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch. This includes His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II. His assistant Father Giorgi Zviadadze, the Rector of the Tbilisi Theological Academy and parish priest of Sioni Cathedral, is also in attendance.

Source

It has been 1227 years since the last and Seventh Ecumenical Council, with Muslim Arab and Turkish invasions, and Communist takeovers, of many Orthodox Christian lands interrupting regular communications between churches. For some time the churches have been moving towards a new Ecumenical Council to resolve some issues outstanding for many years. According to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the purpose of this meeting is ” to deliberate on matters pertaining to the entire Orthodox Church throughout the world and procedural issues for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council, whose preparation is coming to an end.”

Issues of overlapping jurisdictions in ethnically mixed regions have been a bone of contention for some time, that will no doubt be discussed. Georgia suffers from this issue, with both Georgia and the Moscow Patriarchate laying claim to authority over the Church in the Russian-occupied region of Abkhazia. Ukraine also has its share of jurisdictional issues, with Eastern Orthodox communities from both Moscow Patriarchate and the two other self-proclaimed autocephalous Ukrainian Patriarchates in dispute over many issues, including Ukraine’s territorial integrity and national independence.

There are also differences of opinion on the merit of Orthodox Churches engaging in dialogue with the heterodox. The Georgian Church at this time has reservations about the value of such dialogue, whereas the Church of Constantinople is in general more enthusiastic about dialogue, particularly with Old Rome.

The address of His All-Holiness, kindly provided here by the EP’s Hong Kong Metropolitanate, is carefully considered and gives a very good precis on current Orthodox thought on the balance between unity and local autonomy, and Christian values in the midst of a fast-changing world.

“Your Beatitudes and most venerable Brothers in Christ, First-Hierarchs of the Most Holy Orthodox Churches, and honorable members of your entourages,

Welcome to the courtyard of our Church, the martyric and historical Ecumenical Patriarchate, this humble servant of unity in Christ for us all. From the depths of our heart, we thank you for the labor of love, which has brought you here in eager response to our invitation.

We offer glory and praise to our God who is worshipped in the Trinity for rendering us worthy to convene once again in the same place for another Synaxis, as those entrusted by His grace and mercy with the responsibility of leadership for the local autocephalous Orthodox Churches. This is the sixth such consecutive Synaxis since this blessed custom commenced in 1992, shortly after our elevation to the Throne of Constantinople. Like the Psalmist, we too proclaim: “Behold what a good and wonderful thing it is for brothers to dwell in the same place.” Our heart is filled with joy and delight in receiving you and embracing each one of you with sincere love, profound honor and favorable anticipation of our encounter.

Indeed, we could say that our encounter is a great event, both blessed and historical. The breath of the Paraclete has gathered us, and the eyes of those both inside and outside of our Church are anxiously focused on this Synaxis, in anticipation of an edifying and comforting word, which our world so needs today.

This increases and intensifies our responsibility, rendering our obligation more serious, so that through fervent prayer we might seek assistance from above in the work that lies before us; for without this divine support we can do nothing. (Cf. John 15.5) This is why we humbly beseech the Lord, as the Founder of the Church, to bless our work abundantly and through the Paraclete to direct our hearts, minds and decisions for the fulfillment of His holy will, the strengthening and sealing of our unity, as well as the glory of the Holy and Triune God.

As we recall the previous Synaxis meetings of the First-Hierarchs of the Orthodox Churches, all of which with the grace of God were crowned with complete success, we bring to mind in gratitude those who participated in these assemblies, having already departed and being of blessed memory, the late Patriarchs Parthenios and Petros of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch, Diodoros of Jerusalem, Alexy of Moscow, Pavel of Serbia, Teoktist of Romania, Maxim of Bulgaria, as well as Archbishops Chrysostomos of Cyprus, Seraphim and Christodoulos of Athens, Vasili of Poland, and Dorotheos of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, whose contribution to the success of these meetings was exceptionally edifying, also bequeathing to us as their successors an example to imitate and a legacy to preserve. May their memory be eternal!

The reasons that led us to assume the initiative for convening this Synaxis are already well known to you from the Letter of invitation, which we addressed to you. Echoing the words of the Apostle, we wrote to you: “There is fighting without and fear within.” (2 Cor. 7.6) Inasmuch as it exists in the world, our Holy Church always endures the turmoil of historical upheaval, which is sometimes very fierce. In the critical times that we are undergoing, this upheaval is especially palpable in the geographical regions, where the Christian Church emerged, matured and flourished, namely in the ancient senior Patriarchates of the Most Holy Orthodox Church. There, frequently in the name of religion, violence dominates and threatens all believers in Christ irrespective of confessional identity. We follow with great sorrow and concern the persecutions of Christians, the destruction and sacrilege of sacred churches, the abduction and assassination of clergy and monastics, even of hierarchs, such as the long kidnapped Metropolitans of Aleppo, Paul of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch and Yuhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Jacobite Church, whose whereabouts have since been unknown.

Before this phenomenon, which threatens the very existence of the Orthodox Churches, we are called to raise a voice of protest, not as isolated individuals or Churches, but as the one, united Orthodox Church throughout the world.

Nevertheless, the persecution against the Christian faith in our time is not restricted to the above forms of provocative oppression. Equally great is the danger, which arises from the rapid secularization of formerly Christian societies, where the Church of Christ is marginalized from public life, while fundamental spiritual and moral principles of the Gospel are expelled from people’s lives. Of course, the Orthodox Church has never favored the forceful imposition of evangelical principles on people, placing freedom of the human person above objective rules and values. Coercion of any kind does not belong to the nature and ethos of Orthodoxy. Matters pertaining to people’s moral life are treated by the Orthodox Church as being personal, managed by each individual in his or her personal relationship in freedom with their spiritual father and not by the sword of the law. However, this in no way eliminates from the Church its obligation to promote the Gospel principles in the contemporary world, even if these sometimes come into conflict with prevailing ideas.

Our Holy Orthodox Church is characterized by its attention to the traditions of the past, and it is obligated to do this at all times, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and to the ages.” (Heb. 13.8) Nonetheless, history advances, and the Church is also required to be attentive to the problems facing people in every age. A traditional Church does not mean a fossilized Church, one that is indifferent to the ongoing challenges of history. Such challenges are particularly acute in our times, and we are compelled to heed them.

One of these derives from the rapid development of technology and the globalization that it sustains. The Orthodox Church has always been ecumenical in its orientation and structure. Its mission has always been to approach and embrace “all nations,” irrespective of race, color, or other physical features, within the body of Christ. Yet this ecumenical approach has always manifested itself within the Orthodox Church with a sense of respect for the particularity of each people, of its mentality and tradition. Today, technology unites all people, and this undoubtedly has positive consequences for the dissemination of knowledge and information. Notwithstanding, it constitutes a channel for the transmission and, indirectly, the imposition of specific cultural models, which are not always compatible with the particular traditions of the same people. The use of technology should not occur indiscriminately or without an awareness of the accompanying risks. The Church must be vigilant on this matter.

Related to this is also the issue – in many ways supported by technology – of the rapid emergence of scientific achievements, especially in the field of biotechnology. The potential of contemporary science extends as far as intervention into the innermost aspects of nature and genetic modifications capable of healing illnesses; however, at the same time, it creates serious ethical problems, on which the Church can and must voice its opinion. We should confess that the Orthodox Church has not demonstrated due sensitivity with regard to this issue. At our previous Synaxis in 2008, we decided to establish an Inter-Orthodox Committee for Bioethics, which, with the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, convened its first meeting in Crete; unfortunately, the response of our sister Churches was not adequate in order to permit the continuation of this effort. We hope that this will happen in the immediate future so that the voice of Orthodoxy may be heard on such an important subject.

Heeding the present-day existential problems of humanity, Orthodoxy too must continue its efforts for the protection of the natural environment. When the Ecumenical Patriarchate – first among all in the Christian world – highlighted the urgency of this issue, already during the tenure of our venerable predecessor Patriarch Demetrios in 1989, maintaining this effort with a series of international scientific symposia under our auspices, the Orthodox Church for a long time remained the sole Christian voice on this serious matter. Today, other Christian churches and confessions also attribute the necessary importance to this crucial problem, but Orthodoxy still provides par excellence the appropriate response through its liturgical and ascetic tradition, capable of contributing to a resolution for this crisis, which as a result of human greed and indulgence today jeopardizes the very survival of God’s creation.

Finally, our most Holy Church is obligated to pay careful and compassionate attention to the problems created by the economic framework of the modern world. All of us are witnesses to the negative consequences of the financial crisis for the dignity and survival of human personhood, an oppressive crisis for human beings in many regions of the planet, and particularly in countries regarded as being financially “developed.” Unemployment of youth, increase of poverty, uncertainty for the future – all these bear testimony to how contemporary humanity is greatly estranged from the application of the Gospel principles, something for which we too are all responsible inasmuch as we often exhaust our pastoral care on “spiritual” matters and neglect the fact that humankind requires food and basic material resources in order to live in a dignified manner as human persons created in the image of God. It is vital that the voice of Orthodoxy is heard on these matters as well in order to prove that it genuinely possesses the truth and remains faithful to the principles of the Gospel.

However, in order to achieve all this, beloved Brothers in the Lord, there is one necessary condition, namely the unity of our Church and the prospect of addressing the contemporary world with a unified voice. This must also concern our present Synaxis inasmuch as we are entrusted with responsibility for the unity of our most Holy Church.

As we know, the Orthodox Church comprises a number of autocephalous regional Churches, which move within certain boundaries defined by the Sacred Canons and the Tomes conferring their autocephaly while at the same time being entitled to full self-administration without any external interference whatsoever. This system, which was bequeathed to us by our Fathers, constitutes a blessing that we must preserve like the apple of our eyes. For it is by means of this system that we may avoid any deviation toward conceptions foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology concerning the exercise of universal authority by any local Church or its First-Hierarch. The Orthodox Church comprises a communion of autocephalous and self-administered Orthodox Churches.

Nevertheless, it is precisely on this point that a serious question arises. How and in what way is the communion of the Orthodox Churches expressed? Historical experience has demonstrated that very often the autocephalous Orthodox Churches act as if they were self-sufficient Churches, as if they say to the other Churches: “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12.21) Instead of seeking the cooperation of other Orthodox Churches on matters pertaining to Orthodoxy in its entirety, they act on their own and initiate bilateral relations with those outside of Orthodoxy, sometimes even in a spirit of competition. Other autocephalous Churches differentiate their position before non-Orthodox and do not actively participate in activities agreed upon at a Pan-Orthodox level. Indeed, more recently, there are some Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar decisions, which are not adhered to by some Churches despite the fact that they cosigned these agreements. Or what can we say of cases where sister Churches of their own accord dispute canonical boundaries of other sister Churches, provoking bitterness and at times turmoil within this communion? All these things render apparent the need for an instrument, whether institutionally endorsed or not, which is able to resolve differences that arise and problems that are created from time to time, in order that we may not be led to division and conflict.

Thus we can clearly see the paramount importance of synodality in the Church. The synodal system has from the outset constituted a foundational aspect of Church life. Every difference or disagreement in matters of either faith or canonical order was set before the judgment of the Synod. A characteristic example of this is St. Basil’s stance on the matter of rebaptism of heretics and schismatics, concerning which he had inherited the austere tradition of his predecessors in Cappadocia: the matter should be judged by a synod of bishops, who are also able to modify the earlier tradition. (Canons 1 and 47) All differences between Churches or outside them were definitively judged by Synods, whose decisions were ultimately adhered to even by those in disagreement. (“Let the vote of the majority prevail.” Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council.)

This synodal system was and is upheld more or less faithfully, within the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, but it is entirely absent in relations among them. This accounts for a source of major problems. It creates an image of Orthodoxy as being many Churches but not one Church, which by no means concur with Orthodox ecclesiology; instead it comprises an aberration from this ecclesiology and becomes the root of trouble. We are obligated to support the synodal system even beyond the boundaries of our individual Churches. We are required to develop a conscience of one Orthodox Church, and the concept of synodality alone can achieve this goal.

Over fifty years ago, when the late visionary Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras initiated the preliminary steps for the unity of Orthodoxy, the institution of Pan-Orthodox Consultations was established and determined common decisions for the Orthodox on matters pertaining to relations with non-Orthodox. These decisions were considered as binding for all the Orthodox Churches, as if they were incorporated into the “internal regulations” of each of these Churches. Today these same decisions are questioned and even challenged quite arbitrarily and uncanonically by segments within the Orthodox Churches, which purportedly act like ecumenical councils and dispute them, thereby creating confusion among their faithful flock. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is even tolerated by the hierarchal leadership of some Churches, with unforeseen consequences for the unity of their flock. However, synodal decisions must be respected by all, for this is the only way that we can preserve the unity of the Church.

Nonetheless, these Pan-Orthodox Consultations have not themselves exhausted the effort for the unity of Orthodoxy. The Churches decided from very early on that the convocation of a Holy and Great Council was absolutely necessary for the Orthodox Church, formally announcing this to the entire Christian world and commencing preparations for this extraordinary and historical event. The agenda for this Synod was finally restricted to ten topics, of which eight have already run the course of their preparatory stage and been placed before us for determination by the Holy and Great Council. The remaining two topics, namely the manner of declaring a Church as autocephalous and the order of Churches’ commemoration in the sacred Diptychs, have encountered serious difficulties in their preparatory stage, and so the majority of the sister Orthodox Churches decided that they should not present an obstacle for the convening of the Holy and Great Council, which should be confined to the already prepared topics (one of which, namely regarding the declaration of a Church as autonomous, still requires approval by a Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar Consultation).

Of course, even among the topics prepared on a Pan-Orthodox level, there are still some details that need certain revisions and updating inasmuch as they were formulated and agreed upon a long time ago, when different circumstances and presuppositions prevailed. These include, for instance, matters related to the social conditions of the world, such as the relationship of the Orthodox Church with non-Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Movement, and so forth. These documents must be revised by an Inter-Orthodox Committee created for this purpose in order that they might be presented to the Holy and Great Council in a manner adapted to today’s reality.

This is what we have to say about the agenda of the Synod. Nonetheless, it is evident that all the anticipated topics of the Synod pertain to matters of internal nature and organization for our Church. Our predecessors, who determined the agenda of the Synod, rightly decided that, unless the Orthodox Church places its own house in order, it would be unable to address the world with authority and validity. However, the world’s expectations of this Holy and Great Council will surely also include a reference to matters preoccupying people of our time in their daily life, which is why it is mandatory for this Council to extend a Message of existential importance for people in our age. Such a Message – once again well prepared by a special Inter-Orthodox Committee, formulated and approved by the Fathers of the Council – will constitute the voice of the Orthodox Church to the contemporary world: a word of consolation, comfort, and life, which contemporary humanity awaits from the Orthodox Church.

Of course, the convocation of the Holy and Great Council will also demand certain provisions of administrative nature, on which we are called to reflect and resolve during our present Synaxis, as the most appropriate and responsible for this task. Thus, we must deliberate and decide about the way in which the Holy and Great Council will convene, that is to say about how the Most Holy autocephalous Orthodox Churches will be represented there in a manner that is fair and consistent with the principles of our ecclesiological tradition. In the first millennium of our Church’s history, when the institution of the Pentarchy of the ancient Patriarchates prevailed, it was considered absolutely necessary for all the ancient Patriarchates to be represented, even if by a small number of delegates. The emphasis was placed not on the number of those in attendance, but on the assurance of representation by all of the Apostolic Thrones. Over the second millennium after Christ, other Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches were also added, with reference to validation of their status by a future Ecumenical Council (for those not receiving status approval in the past). By analogy, then, and in accordance with the ancient tradition, it would also be desirable in the case of the proposed Holy and Great Council that all Orthodox Churches recognized as autocephalous today should be represented therein by a number of delegates designated by us, if possible at this Synaxis.

Another topic of administrative nature requiring our resolution is that which pertains to the method of pronouncing decisions by the Holy and Great Council. For reasons of fairness to every autocephalous Church, irrespective of the number of its delegates, it is imperative that each autocephalous Church retains the right of a single vote in the final process of decision-making, which will be exercised by its First-Hierarch during the voting process. What remains crucial is the question about whether the final decisions of the Synod will be determined by unanimity or majority among the Churches in attendance at the Synod. If the criterion of our choice is the ancient canonical tradition of the Church, the canonical order compels that the “majority vote” ultimately prevails in the Synod’s decisions. (See Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council) This probably held true in the ancient Church even with regard to matters of faith, given that in many of the larger Synods, such as the 3rd Ecumenical Council and others, even those ultimately declared as heretics by the Synod and repudiated by the Church, namely those comprising the minority, would also have been in attendance. Nonetheless, with regard to matters of canonical nature, the order recommended by tradition undoubtedly leads to final decision-making by majority vote, without this of course ruling out the possibility of an always desirable unanimity. It is up to us to decide about this matter as well.

Beloved Brothers in Christ,

Our Synaxis here is of vital importance. It comes at an historical and providential time, when the Church is suffering formidable upheaval and its ability to exercise its salvific mission is being assessed. Nothing any longer can be taken for granted, as it might be in other ages; everything can change from one moment to another. Complacency is the cause of destruction. Even state authorities cannot provide a guarantee for the Church; neither can affluence or secular influence; nor again do societies welcome the Gospel teaching without debate and dispute. Today we must convince people that we have the word of life, the message of hope and the experience of love. And in order to achieve this, we must have validity and credibility.

A fundamental presupposition for us to convince the world is first of all our own internal unity. It is regrettable and perilous for the validity of the Orthodox Church that to outsiders we often appear divided and dissenting. We hold and proclaim the most perfect ecclesiology; yet we sometimes refuse to apply it. We have a precise order in the Church, defined by the Sacred Canons of the Holy Ecumenical Councils; yet we sometimes give the impression to outsiders that we disagree even about who is “first” among us. We possess the synodal institution as an authority, to which everyone is supposed to conform; yet we allow – whether through carelessness or misdirected ambition, which frequently conceals individual self-defense – the synodal decisions to be trampled by segments of our flock that lay a claim to the infallibility of faith. Generally speaking, we manifest signs of dissolution. It is time for us to give priority to unity – both outside of our Churches as well as among them.

The Orthodox Church, to which we belong by the grace of God, does not have at its disposal any other instrument of preserving its unity except synodality. It is for this reason that any further delay in convening the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church severely harms its unity. Our responsibility in this regard is immense. The Church of Constantinople, which for a thousand years after the great Schism with Rome has served the unity of Orthodoxy by repeatedly convening Pan-Orthodox Synods, is today equally conscious of its onerous obligation with regard to Pan-Orthodox unity. Thankfully, however, it is not alone in this. The other autocephalous Orthodox Churches, too, proved over fifty years ago that they yearn for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council of our Church. Behold, the time has come; indeed, “times are impatient.” Preparations can never be perfect. Let us be satisfied with what we have agreed thus far. Let us resolve without delay – with love and in accordance with the Sacred Canons – any difference we may still have in our relationships to one another. “Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may confess” the one Triune God and the Lord, who suffered and was risen for all people without exception, to a world that is in such dire need of the message of God’s love. Let us proceed to the convocation of the Holy and Great Council as soon as possible, and let us permit the Paraclete to speak, surrendering to His breath.

This is what we have in fraternal love to express to you, dearest Brothers in the Lord, at the commencement of the proceedings of our Synaxis.

 “Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3.20-21)

 (Phanar, March 6, 2014)

 
 

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Today is the second Sunday of the pre-Lenten period, with Meatfare Sunday (the last day of meat consumption before Pascha) falling next Sunday. Following from last week’s theme of repentance and forgiveness, the theme of today is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 15:11-32),

“11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

The simplest interpretation of this is for Christians to imagine themselves as foreigners in a distant land, far from their Father’s house and full of regret for their reckless and disobedient conduct. Through the Lenten period, we are to engage in metanoia (repentance or “change of mind”) and to follow the long and winding road back to God where we belong. The parable assures us that our repentant return home will be greeted with joy by the Father, not justified by our worthy acts but through God’s forgiveness and love. One can think of “the Father’s House” as being salvation and reunification with God. The prodigal chose to walk away from salvation by his own free will and to live foolishly and sinfully, and by his own free will he resolved to repent, to return home and to live humbly under the authority of his Father’s will. Concurrently, the elder brother, by removing himself from the household out of resentment at the favourable treatment the prodigal son received, at least temporarily has removed himself from salvation and God’s presence.

The iconography associated with this parable is very well discussed here

In the Georgian context, it is worthwhile considering how we, as individuals or as a Church, fit into the framework of this parable. Over three-quarters of the Georgian population now declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians. It is worth noting that, to avoid persecution and to improve career prospects, many of today’s Georgian Christians were Communist Party members or Komsomol members in the Soviet era, and openly repudiated organised religion in general or Christ in particular, not unlike Saint Peter repudiating Christ in Jerusalem on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon sincere demonstration of contrition and metanoia, the Church has joyfully received its former enemies into its midst as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is in the glorious tradition of the Early Church Fathers who joyfully baptised the same Roman troops and civil administrators who had previously persecuted them.

Having been accepted “back home” into God’s house, it is imperative for Christians in Georgia to remember the grace that has been bestowed upon them when considering how to deal with the other peoples of the region. The histories of the Georgian and Armenian peoples have been intertwined for millennia, sometimes competitive, sometimes co-operative, but despite the schism over the Council of Chalcedon, it is important for these two peoples to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with some outstanding disagreements, rather than as intractable antagonists. Thousands of Coptic Christians have settled in Georgia, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, but the welcome they have received from Georgian Orthodox parishes when seeking to pray in the temple has often been less than effusive. Some wonderful opportunities to embrace new arrivals or long-standing ethnic minorities as brothers and sisters in Christ, to baptise or chrismate them, and to gently integrate them into Georgian society, have sadly been lost, with some people behaving like the prodigal son’s older brother, filled with anger and resentment when schismatics seek to return home.

At various times in history, many of the people of the North Caucasus, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey had accepted baptism and were vigourous members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Georgian missionaries played no small part in this, using their God-given abilities as orators, teachers and healers to bring the word of God to these regions, and many gave their lives to enlighten these neighbouring peoples, whom they viewed as being equally worthy of salvation as their own people. It is a mark of contempt for these great Georgian evangelists that some people today, claiming to speak for the Church, seek to denigrate or insult neighbouring people of different religions or races simply because they are not Kartvelian.  

Many Muslims from neighbouring countries had Christian ancestors who were forced into apostasy under threat of torture or execution.  I have discussed before the Christian civilisation of the Caucasian Albanians of Azerbaijan, the Christian communities established by Georgian missionaries in Ossetia and Daghestan, and the hundreds of thousands of Christians who inhabited every major town and city in the Persian Empire in the past. Many Muslims from the region are curious about Christianity and are very open to discussing our religion, and not a few are willing to apostasise themselves from Islam and accept Christian baptism when dealt with kindly. When confronted with a person considering “returning home” to the Church, even from a nationality or faith that some consider to be an intractable enemy of the Georgian Church, it is important to consider that we all have been welcomed home by our Father through His grace rather than our own virtue. To reject our neighbours’ sincere approaches places us, rather unfavourably, in the role of the elder brother of the prodigal son. Unlike the elder brother, many of us in the past were in open opposition to God’s Church in Georgia; while the elder brother could with some justification say “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”, there are precious few of us here can truthfully say the same.

For those still in two minds on this issue, one can direct them to the will of the Holy Spirit as expressed in Saint Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

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Tomorrow marks the Feast of Theophany (or Epiphany as it is known in the West), when we commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ by Saint John the Forerunner.

Theophany

The well-known 20th century Orthodox theologian, Father Sergei Bulgakov, very ably described this feast in his book ” Handbook for Church Servers”, 2nd ed

Theophany is understood as a feast in which the event of the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan1 is commemorated and glorified (Mt. 3:13-17. Mk. 1:9-11. Lk. 3:21-22). This feast is called Theophany because during the baptism of the Lord the Divine All-Holy Trinity was revealed: God the Father spoke from heaven about the Son, the Son of God was baptized by John and was witnessed by God the Father, and the Holy Spirit descended on the Son in the form of a dove. This explanation of the feast is given by the Holy Church in its Troparion: “When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan….”

Since ancient times this feast also was known as the day of illumination and the feast of lights, because God is the Light and reveals Himself to illumine “those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death” (Mt. 4:16) and to save according to grace, Who has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior” (2 Tim. 1:9-10), and because on the Eve of Theophany it was the custom to baptize the catechumens, which actually is spiritual illumination and during which many lamps are lit. Besides this, the ancient Church on this day also remembered other events in which the divine worthiness and representation of Jesus Christ was expressed both during His birth, and during His introduction to preach in public after baptism, namely: 1) the worship of the magi as a revelation of Jesus Christ to the pagan world by means of a wonderful star;4 from this commemoration the very feast of Epiphany in the Western Church received the name of the Feast of the Three Kings (Festum trium regum); in the Eastern Church though it was part of the feast, it was not expressed in the character of the feast; 2) The manifestation of the divine power of Jesus Christ in His first miracle at the marriage in Cana of Galilee when the Lord “created the beginning of signs”; and 3) (in the African Church) the appearance of the divine power in Jesus Christ in the wonderful feeding of the more than 5000 persons by Him with five breads in the desert, from which even the feast is called the Phagiphania. 
 
The beginning of the feast of Theophany arose in apostolic times. It is mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions and in the 2nd century the witness of Clement of Alexandria about the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord and doing the night vigil spent reading Holy Scripture before this feast; in the 3rd century the Holy Martyr Hippolytus and Gregory of Neocaesarea; in the 4th century the Holy Fathers of the Church: Gregory the Theologian, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Augustine and many others talked about the event of Holy Theophany during the divine service for this feast; the Fathers of the Church of the 5th century: Anatolius of Constantinople; of the 7th century: Andrew and Sophronius of Jerusalem; of the 8th century: Cosmas of Maium, John of Damascus and Germanus of Constantinople; of the 9th century, Joseph the Studite, Theophanes and Byzas deposited many church hymns for this feast, that up to now are sung by the Church.
 
The Lord, according to the teaching of St. John of Damascus, was baptized not because He Himself needed cleansing, but rather, having taken our cleansing upon Himself, to destroy the heads of the serpents in the water, “to bury human sin through water” and all of the old Adam, to fulfill the law, to reveal the mystery of the Trinity and, finally, to consecrate “the essence of water” and to grant us a paradigm and an example of baptism. Therefore the Holy Church, celebrating the baptism of the Lord, confirms our faith in the highest, incomprehensible mystery of the Three Persons in one Godhead and teaches us with equal honor to profess and glorify the Holy Trinity, One in Essence and Undivided; it accuses and destroys the errors of the ancient false teachers: Patripassians or Sabellians, Arians, Macedonians and others who rejected the triunity of Persons in one Godhead, together with those false teachers who taught the human nature of the Son of God was a phantom; it shows the necessity of baptism for the believers in Christ; it inspires in us feelings of boundless gratitude to the Enlightener and the Cleanser of our sinful nature; it teaches that our purification and salvation from sin is only by the power of grace of the Holy Spirit; it specifies the necessity of the worthy use the gifts of the grace of baptism and the protection in purity of those precious garments of which we are reminded on the feast of the Baptism by the words: “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27); and it commands us towards the purification of our souls and hearts in order to be worthy of the blessed life.

 

On January 6, after the Liturgy is finished, usually, at the springs, rivers and lakes, or ponds and wells, “The Order of the Great Sanctification of Holy Theophany”, i.e. the great sanctification of water in commemoration of the baptism of the Lord is also done the same, as in the Compline of the feast. For this sanctification of water there is a solemn procession with the cross, the Gospel, lamps and banners to the water, during the ringing of the bell and while singing the Troparion: “The voice of the Lord upon the waters…”, etc. The return procession is done while singing: “When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan…”; at the very entrance of the temple we sing the Ideomelon: “Let us sing, O faithful”.

Unlike in the Greek and Russian traditions, Georgian Orthodox parishes do not engage in the casting and retrieval of the Cross from the waters on Theophany. Mass baptisms  are still a feature of the feast though.

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Saint John Chrysostom’s homily on the subject of Theophany is instructive;

We shall now say something about the present feast. Many celebrate the feastdays and know their designations, but the cause for which they were established they know not. Thus concerning this, that the present feast is called Theophany — everyone knows; but what this is — Theophany, and whether it be one thing or another, they know not. And this is shameful — every year to celebrate the feastday and not know its reason.

First of all therefore, it is necessary to say that there is not one Theophany, but two: the one actual, which already has occurred, and the second in future, which will happen with glory at the end of the world. About this one and about the other you will hear today from Paul, who in conversing with Titus, speaks thus about the present: “The grace of God hath revealed itself, having saved all mankind, decreeing, that we reject iniquity and worldly desires, and dwell in the present age in prudence and in righteousness and piety” — and about the future: “awaiting the blessed hope and glorious appearance of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:11-13). And a prophet speaks thus about this latter: “the sun shalt turn to darkness, and the moon to blood at first, then shalt come the great and illuminating Day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31). Why is not that day, on which the Lord was born, considered Theophany — but rather this day on which He was baptised? This present day it is, on which He was baptised and sanctified the nature of water. Because on this day all, having obtained the waters, do carry it home and keep it all year, since today the waters are sanctified; and an obvious phenomenon occurs: these waters in their essence do not spoil with the passage of time, but obtained today, for one whole year and often for two or three years, they remain unharmed and fresh, and afterwards for a long time do not stop being water, just as that obtained from the fountains.

Why then is this day called Theophany? Because Christ made Himself known to all — not then when He was born — but then when He was baptised. Until this time He was not known to the people. And that the people did not know Him, Who He was, listen about this to John the Baptist, who says: “Amidst you standeth, Him Whom ye know not of” (Jn.1:26). And is it surprising that others did not know Him, when even the Baptist did not know Him until that day? “And I — said he — knew Him not: but He that did send me to baptise with water, about This One did tell unto me: over Him that shalt see the Spirit descending and abiding upon Him, This One it is Who baptiseth in the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 1:33). Thus from this it is evident, that — there are two Theophanies, and why Christ comes at baptism and on whichever baptism He comes, about this it is necessary to say: it is therefore necessary to know both the one and equally the other. And first it is necessary to speak your love about the latter, so that we might learn about the former. There was a Jewish baptism, which cleansed from bodily impurities, but not to remove sins. Thus, whoever committed adultery, or decided on thievery, or who did some other kind of misdeed, it did not free him from guilt. But whoever touched the bones of the dead, whoever tasted food forbidden by the law, whoever approached from contamination, whoever consorted with lepers — that one washed, and until evening was impure, and then cleansed. “Let one wash his body in pure water — it says in the Scriptures, — and he will be unclean until evening, and then he will be clean” (Lev 15:5, 22:4). This was not truly of sins or impurities, but since the Jews lacked perfection, then God, accomplishing it by means of this greater piety, prepared them by their beginnings for a precise observance of important things.

Thus, Jewish cleansings did not free from sins, but only from bodily impurities. Not so with ours: it is far more sublime and it manifests a great grace, whereby it sets free from sin, it cleanses the spirit and bestows the gifts of the Spirit. And the baptism of John was far more sublime than the Jewish, but less so than ours: it was like a bridge between both baptisms, leading across itself from the first to the last. Wherefore John did not give guidance for observance of bodily purifications, but together with them he exhorted and advised to be converted from vice to good deeds and to trust in the hope of salvation and the accomplishing of good deeds, rather than in different washings and purifications by water. John did not say: wash your clothes, wash your body, and ye will be pure, but what? — “bear ye fruits worthy of repentance” (Mt 3:8). Since it was more than of the Jews, but less than ours: the baptism of John did not impart the Holy Spirit and it did not grant forgiveness by grace: it gave the commandment to repent, but it was powerless to absolve sins. Wherefore John did also say: “I baptise you with water…That One however will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11). Obviously, he did not baptise with the Spirit. But what does this mean: “with the Holy Spirit and with fire?” Call to mind that day, on which for the Apostles “there appeared disparate tongues like fire, and sat over each one of them” (Acts 2:3). And that the baptism of John did not impart the Spirit and remission of sins is evident from the following: Paul “found certain disciples, and said to them: received ye the Holy Spirit since ye have believed? They said to him: but furthermore whether it be of the Holy Spirit, we shall hear. He said to them: into what were ye baptised? They answered: into the baptism of John. Paul then said: John indeed baptised with the baptism of repentance,” — repentance, but not remission of sins; for whom did he baptise? “Having proclaimed to the people, that they should believe in the One coming after him, namely, Christ Jesus. Having heard this, they were baptised in the Name of the Lord Jesus: and Paul laying his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them” (Acts 19:1-6). Do you see, how incomplete was the baptism of John? If the one were not incomplete, would then Paul have baptised them again, and placed his hands on them; having performed also the second, he shew the superiority of the apostolic Baptism and that the baptism of John was far less than his. Thus, from this we recognise the difference of the baptisms.

Now it is necessary to say, for whom was Christ baptised and by which baptism? Neither the former the Jewish, nor the last — ours. Whence hath He need for remission of sins, how is this possible for Him, Who hath not any sins? “Of sin, — it says in the Scriptures, — worked He not, nor was there deceit found in His mouth” (1 Pet 2:22); and further, “who of you convicteth Me of Sin?” (Jn 8:46). And His flesh was privy to the Holy Spirit; how might this be possible, when it in the beginning was fashioned by the Holy Spirit? And so, if His flesh was privy to the Holy Spirit, and He was not subject to sins, then for whom was He baptised? But first of all it is necessary for us to recognise, by which baptism He was baptised, and then it will be clear for us. By which baptism indeed was He baptised? — Not the Jewish, nor ours, nor John’s. For whom, since thou from thine own aspect of baptism dost perceive, that He was baptised not by reason of sin and not having need of the gift of the Spirit; therefore, as we have demonstrated, this baptism was alien to the one and to the other. Hence it is evident, that He came to Jordan not for the forgiveness of sins and not for receiving the gifts of the Spirit. But so that some from those present then should not think, that He came for repentance like others, listen to how John precluded this. What he then spoke to the others then was: “Bear ye fruits worthy of repentance”; but listen what he said to Him: “I have need to be baptised of Thee, and Thou art come to me?” (Mt 3:8, 14). With these words he demonstrated, that Christ came to him not through that need with which people came, and that He was so far from the need to be baptised for this reason — so much more sublime and perfectly purer than Baptism itself. For whom was He baptised, if this was done not for repentance, nor for the remission of sins, nor for receiving the gifts of the Spirit? Through the other two reasons, of which about the one the disciple speaks, and about the other He Himself spoke to John. Which reason of this baptism did John declare? Namely, that Christ should become known to the people, as Paul also mentions: “John therefore baptised with the baptism of repentance, so that through him they should believe on Him that cometh” (Acts 19:4); this was the consequence of the baptism. If John had gone to the home of each and, standing at the door, had spoken out for Christ and said: “He is the Son of God,” such a testimony would have been suspicious, and this deed would have been extremely perplexing. So too, if he in advocating Christ had gone into the synagogues and witnessed to Him, this testimony of his might be suspiciously fabricated. But when all the people thronged out from all the cities to Jordan and remained on the banks of the river, and when He Himself came to be baptised and received the testimony of the Father by a voice from above and by the coming-upon of the Spirit in the form of a dove, then the testimony of John about Him was made beyond all questioning. And since he said: “and I knew Him not” (Jn 1:31), his testimony put forth is trustworthy. They were kindred after the flesh between themselves “wherefore Elizabeth, thy kinswoman, hath also conceived a son” — said the Angel to Mary about the mother of John (Lk. 1: 36); if however the mothers were relatives, then obviously so also were the children. Thus, since they were kinsmen — in order that it should not seem that John would testify concerning Christ because of kinship, the grace of the Spirit organised it such, that John spent all his early years in the wilderness, so that it should not seem that John had declared his testimony out of friendship or some similar reason. But John, as he was instructed of God, thus also announced about Him, wherein also he did say: “and I knew Him not.” From whence didst thou find out? “He having sent me that sayeth to baptise with water, That One did tell me” What did He tell thee? “Over Him thou shalt see the Spirit descending, like to a dove, and abiding over Him, That One is baptised by the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1:32-33). Dost thou see, that the Holy Spirit did not descend as in a first time then coming down upon Him, but in order to point out that preached by His inspiration — as though by a finger, it pointed Him out to all. For this reason He came to baptism.

And there is a second reason, about which He Himself spoke — what exactly is it? When John said: “I have need to be baptised of Thee, and Thou art come to me?” — He answered thus: “stay now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill every righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15). Dost thou see the meekness of the servant? Dost thou see the humility of the Master? What does He mean: “to fulfill every righteousness?” By righteousness is meant the fulfillment of all the commandments, as is said: “both were righteous, walking faultlessly in the commandments of the Lord” (Lk 1:6). Since fulfilling this righteousness was necessary for all people — but no one of them kept it or fulfilled it — Christ came then and fulfilled this righteousness.

And what righteousness is there, someone will say, in being baptised? Obedience for a prophet was righteous. As Christ was circumcised, offered sacrifice, kept the sabbath and observed the Jewish feasts, so also He added this remaining thing, that He was obedient to having been baptised by a prophet. It was the will of God then, that all should be baptised — about which listen, as John speaks: “He having sent me to baptise with water” (Jn 1:33); so also Christ: “the publicans and the people do justify God, having been baptised with the baptism of John; the pharisees and the lawyers reject the counsel of God concerning themselves, not having been baptised by him” (Lk 7:29-30). Thus, if obedience to God constitutes righteousness, and God sent John to baptise the nation, then Christ has also fulfilled this along with all the other commandments.

Consider, that the commandments of the law is the main point of the two denarii: this — debt, which our race has needed to pay; but we did not pay it, and we, falling under such an accusation, are embraced by death. Christ came, and finding us afflicted by it — He paid the debt, fulfilled the necessary and seized from it those, who were not able to pay. Wherefore He does not say: “it is necessary for us to do this or that,” but rather “to fulfill every righteousness.” “It is for Me, being the Master, — says He, — proper to make payment for the needy.” Such was the reason for His baptism — wherefore they should see, that He had fulfilled all the law — both this reason and also that, about which was spoken of before. Wherefore also the Spirit did descend as a dove: because where there is reconciliation with God — there also is the dove. So also in the ark of Noah the dove did bring the branch of olive — a sign of God’s love of mankind and of the cessation of the flood. And now in the form of a dove, and not in a body — this particularly deserves to be noted — the Spirit descended, announcing the universal mercy of God and showing with it, that the spiritual man needs to be gentle, simple and innocent, as Christ also says: “Except ye be converted and become as children, ye shalt not enter into the Heavenly Kingdom” (Mt 18:3). But that ark, after the cessation of the flood, remained upon the earth; this ark, after the cessation of wrath, is taken to heaven, and now this Immaculate and Imperishable Body is situated at the right hand of the Father.

Having made mention about the Body of the Lord, I shall also say a little about this, and then the conclusion of the talk. Many now will approach the Holy Table on the occasion of the feast. But some approach not with trembling, but shoving, hitting others, blazing with anger, shouting, cursing, roughing it up with their fellows with great confusion. What, tell me, art thou troubled by, my fellow? What disturbeth thee? Do urgent affairs, for certain, summon thee? At this hour art thou particularly aware, that these affairs of thine that thou particularly rememberest, that thou art situated upon the earth, and dost thou think to mix about with people? But is it not with a soul of stone naturally to think, that in such a time thou stand upon the earth, and not exult with the Angels with whom to raise up victorious song to God? For this Christ also did describe us with eagles, saying: “where the corpse is, there are the eagles gathered” (Mt 24:28) — so that we might have risen to heaven and soared to the heights, having ascended on the wings of the spirit; but we, like snakes, crawl upon the earth and eat dirt. Having been invited to supper, thou, although satiated before others, would not dare to leave before others while others are still reclining. But here, when the sacred doings are going on, thou at the very middle would pass by everything and leave? Is it for a worthy excuse? What excuse might it be? Judas, having communed that last evening on that final night, left hastily then as all the others were still reclining.

Here these also are in imitation of him, who leave before the final blessing! If he had not gone, then he would not have made the betrayal; if he did not leave his co-disciples, then he would not have perished; if he had not removed himself from the flock, then the wolf would not have seized and devoured him alone; if he had separated himself from the Pastor, then he would not have made himself the prey of wild beasts. Wherefore he (Judas) was with the Jews, and those (the apostles) went out with the Lord. Dost thou see, by what manner the final prayer after the offering of the sacrifice is accomplished? We should, beloved, stand forth for this, we should ponder this, fearful of the coming judgement for this. We should approach the Holy Sacrifice with great decorum, with proper piety, so as to merit us more of God’s benevolence, to cleanse one’s soul and to receive eternal blessings, of which may we all be worthy by the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, to with Whom the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory, power, and worship now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

 

 

 

 

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Today we are drawing very close to შობა/Shoba (Christmas) and the Holy Bible readings today pay close attention to the role that the Prophets played in foretelling Christ’s birth and preparing the world for His arrival. The past two weeks have witnessed commemorations of individual Prophets both major and minor, and today we commemorate them all together.

A wonderfully detailed interpretation of this icon of the Holy Forefathers is provided here

The Epistle reading is from Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40, referring to the heroic acts of the Prophets from Abraham onwards, including their many acts of self-sacrifice. The Letter to the Hebrews is an exhortation for Christians to be resolute in the face of persecution they were suffering in the 1st Century. The unknown author mentions that, though these sacrifices by the Prophets were noble and unique, the centuries-old promise of redemption from sin has only been recently made possible by the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, allowing ordinary contemporary Christians to experience the same joy of redemption and eternal life as the Holy Prophets who preceded them.

 

32

And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets:

33

who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,

34

quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.

35

Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.

36

Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment.

37

They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented-

38

of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.

39

And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise,

40

God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.

The Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 1;1-25, which accomplishes the difficult task of first reconciling Jesus’ human nature via his geneaological descent from Abraham through King David to Saint Joseph, with his Divine nature as the Son of God, begotten of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary.

1

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:

2

Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers.

3

Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram.

4

Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon.

5

Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse,

6

and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah.

7

Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa.

8

Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah.

9

Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah.

10

Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah.

11

Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon.

12

And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel.

13

Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor.

14

Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud.

15

Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob.

16

And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.

17

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.

18

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.

19

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.

20

But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

21

And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.

22

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying:

23

Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, “God with us.”

24

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife,

25

and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

 

 

 

 

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