Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Met Saba (Esber): The Fullness of Time

Arabic original here.

The Fullness of Time

The Epistle for the feast says, "When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5). What is the fullness of time? It is the most appropriate time for the coming of the Savior. Why? Is the Savior in need of an appropriate time? Of course He is not in need, but those for whose sake He has come are in need. They are not prepared, not capable of seeing and accepting Him at just any time without preparation.

The coming of the Savior means that the act of salvation has started to be realized. Salvation is for us to become children of God, "that we might receive adoption." Is this adoption (that is, salvation) realized for people who reject it or who do not know it? Is it realized in those souls who do not await it or do not desire it? Is it realized in souls that are busy with other things to the point that they forget their salvation? The fullness of time is the time in which Christ became incarnate. It was the time in which Christ was truly born, within a specific human being. It is the time in which man became aware of God's presence within him, the activity of His grace in his life, and so he is born again in a true, spiritual birth.

Historically speaking, this expression means the time in which God was able to become incarnate among people and to live with them. This is what God did, with incredible divine longsuffering. The Holy Bible informs us that God began, in practice, first by offering Himself to Abraham, then Isaac his son, then Jacob, Isaac's son. This was the beginning of divine disclosure, which continued for eighteen or so centuries, until it was completed in the incarnation of the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, Christ. At that time, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

Divine disclosure was gradual because humankind has always been in need of spiritual progression in order to become capable of truly understanding God and of responding to the requirements of His presence in them and among them. Inner hardheartedness prevents man from knowing God. Satisfaction with earthly and bodily things blinds inner sight from the light of God. Knowledge of god needs a refined, spiritual person who realizes the importance of love and forgiveness, a person liberated from earthly things, who longs for spiritual things. The lustful person dies in his lust if he does not transform it into desire for eternal life. The man of dust remains dust and does not see the beauty of heaven.

Those who are to be saved must have a sense of the need for salvation. If not, then what are they saved from? Thus God caused humankind to progress by degrees, and gradually progressed with them in His self-revelation, step by step. To the degree that they became spiritually elevated, He showed them Himself with greater truth. Pagan polytheism, which humans invented out of longing for the source of their life, which they did not know, impeded their knowledge of the true God. This may be hard for some to understand because we live in a culture that has been monotheistic for centuries, but it was very hard for people to realize this before Christ.

The prophets struggled for centuries with the people of the Old Covenant in order to make them realize God's oneness and His presence in every place and time. Despite what God did for them and His saving them from slavery in Egypt-- which was a symbol and an image of spiritual slavery-- no sooner had they settled in Canaan then they hurried to engage in worshiping Baal. They understood, according to the mentality of the time, that their God who had accompanied them and saved them in the desert was a god of desert, war and hardships and that agriculture was not his specialty. The people discovered, after entering into the settled world, their need for agriculture, so they learned it from the Canaanites, who were vastly more advanced than they were. So they took up Baal as a god alongside their God (that is, the Lord), without sensing any duality between the two because each had his "specialization"!

God worked slowly and patiently to change peoples' minds, hearts and morals so that it would be possible for them to know Him as He is, not as they imagined Him or desired Him to be. This is also what He has done with each of us, since He permits us to go through various experiences so that we are purified, come to discover Him present with us, and seek our salvation.

Does this mean that God only worked among the people of the Old Covenant? The earliest fathers of the Church teach us that He used this people to be a leaven of salvific faith for the rest of the peoples. That is to say that He-- to Him be glory-- revealed Himself to humankind through this people, whom He charged with it as a responsibility and not a privilege. But He cared for other people in ways appropriate to their cultures and civilizations.

Pagan Greek philosophy, as well as Egyptian religion (the religion of Akhenaten), for example, were fields for God's hidden work, which we have come to learn about because of the abundance of relics that have come down to us. Greek philosophy arrived at belief in one God. The altar mentioned in the Book of Acts (Chapter 17) dedicated to the unknown god that the Apostle Paul saw on the streets of Athens, on the basis of which he started evangelizing the people of the city was nothing other than an image according to that philosophy's degree of advancement, on the path of seeking the truth. For this reason some churches in the West place images of the great Greek philosophers on the walls of their outer entrances, on account of the fact that their philosophy played a role in preparing the way for Christ.

As for the similarity between Christ's birth from a virgin and the births of other important people in ancient religions, such as Syrian and Egyptian religions and Buddhism, even if these are legends that have attached themselves to some religions and are not officially recognized, this affirms that the enduring human dream of a savior who comes not from earthly lust continues to be a human dream. God speaks to us from our actual situation. He comes to us from our loftiest aspirations and speaks to us in our human language, through our truest hopes and longings. He is not a God who is arrogant with us, but just the opposite, a loving and humble God. As we came to know Him in Christ, He is a God who constantly condescends in order to make Himself known to us. Is not Christ's entire biography a condescension? He condescended to our bodiliness, to a manger, to a poor and simple life... He was only elevated once in His life and this elevation upon the wood of the cross was the apex of His condescension, or what we call in theology His self-emptying, a word taken from the Apostle Paul: "He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, coming in the likeness of men,
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him" (Philippians 2:7-8). And at the lowest point of His condescension, He reached the resurrection, by whose power He saved all humankind.
This meditation during His nativity leads us to contemplate ourselves. How may we receive Him today? How should we prepare ourselves, our hearts, and our inner realities so that we may see His salvific light? How should we prepare ourselves and open ourselves to Him so that His grace may be active in us? Let us replace hardheartedness with love, selfishness with sacrifice, hatred with forgiveness, miserliness with generosity, isolation with cooperation... He has given us all the ways we need to truly and effectively receive Him, so shall we ignore Him and be content with Christmas festivities invented by humans, which have become for many the entirety of Christmas?!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Met Georges Khodr: The Light of Knowledge

Arabic original here.

The Light of Knowledge

The feast has once again revealed the light of knowledge. Our night is all light, an ascension into the profundities of God. The Savior was born at the heart of the world's tragedy, into cold, nakedness and prejudice. His birth provoked Herod's jealousy and hatred for Him reached the point of crucifying Him. The traditional icon for the Nativity places the Child in a manger, wrapped as though for a burial, as though He were cast into the manger for pain and death, as He bore all pain and death.

The Master of the feast does not want us to turn our eyes from the current situation around us, from people's brokenness. Christ is always the newborn child of this brokenness, forever cast into it. Wounds are His companions and in them He reads peace. The peace that the angels sang, Jesus gives to the sick and the thirsty who bring ruin to falsehood by their presence because they demonstrate the truth and follow in His path, the way of wounds.

Those dedicated few who accept on earth the bow of heaven bear witness that we are dust and light all at once, dust called to be aglow, life proceeding from death, lordship proceeding from total brokenness. In the Nativity, God came to us in the form of a servant. In this brokenness, He exercised His lordship over the world, He shone in this world as light. There is no other way than this poverty to sublimity, this humility to greatness, this death to life.The light of the world, its beauty, its salvation from passing away is in there being christs inhabiting it, reflecting the light of Christ, who are born every day through God's kindness and forgiveness.

The issue is no longer remembering Jesus in people's time, as though He were merely an image with which houses are decorated. The issue is whether or not we are with Christ and in Him, for the world to be saved by His coloring and those who are colored by Him. In them alone is the universe saved from darkness and death, rising in the light of the resurrection.

As I strive for sincere devotion, I see You, O Master, as the splendor of the universe and so I cover my face because I am a man of unclean lips, rooted in the world, drowning in my self, taking pleasure in its deceitful enchantment. I turn about it in and I suffocate, as though my hope were defeated. Before what You give, O Lord, I am barehanded. Have you not accepted my poverty as a gift? Your humble presence in the manger is all my wealth. Remind me of this when I am prideful or when I try to acquire something. Say that You are the wealth, O Master.

What is becoming of me in my weakness, when the world in us is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the bloatedness of existing? All these things rage in the secret parts of the soul. Your nativity reveals that you are cast into this frightful furnace that is the heart in order to transform it by the dew of Your presence into a peaceful abode.

Do not let this stubborn sin that nests within us storm to the point of vertigo, and we delight in our torment. Do not nail us to anguish and remorse, but turn us to Your forgiving face so that, if we contemplate it, we may immune to ugly deeds.

O God, do not let transgressions remain defiant and do not let souls be soured by them. Give us tears with which we may wash and be quenched. Touch our mouths with the ember of love, so that they may be familiar with your mercy and repent to you with joy.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Patriarch John X Celebrates Christmas in Aleppo

Arabic original, with pictures, here.

His Beatitude Celebrates Christmas in Aleppo

His Beatitude Patriarch John X arrived in Aleppo on Saturday, December 24, 2016 to celebrate Christmas with the children of this steadfast diocese, who are wounded by the absence of their shepherd, His Eminence Metropolitan Paul.

His Beatitude entered the church in a solemn procession to the beat of a brass band that played and to the great joy of the faithful. He served matins and the divine liturgy at the Cathedral of the Prophet Elias in Aleppo, assisted by Bishop Nicholas Baalbaki; Archimandrite Mousa al-Khasi, Metropolitan Paul's vicar; Archimandrite Alexei Shehadeh, director of the Patriarchate's Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development; and many priests and deacons from the diocese.

Archimandrite Mousa welcomed His Beatitude with the following speech:

"Our master, Your Beatitude the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East John X, more than five years have passed of our beloved country of Syria's suffering, more than four years have passed of our beloved city of Aleppo's pain, more than three years have passed of the bleeding wound of our Diocese of Aleppo and Alexandretta with the kidnapping of our shepherd Metropolitan Paul, and today, amidst this suffering, the Lord visits us with divine consolation, the consolation of your presence among us, and your blessing for us at this Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus.

The nativity of Christ is the inauguration of a new stage in the life of the human race. God created man to live with Him in intimacy and in communion of love. Man chose to separate from God and to fall into sin, but God's love did not leave him to his inevitable fate. Christ became incarnate in order to bring back this intimacy and to inaugurate a new stage of human life, the stage of the human race's rebirth and resurrection. On this year's Feast of the Nativity we experience this sense of rebirth and resurrection.

Today, our city shakes off the dust of harsh circumstances from her shoulders as she inaugurates a new stage, a stage of rebirth, a stage of healing and building. Today, the Diocese of Aleppo and Alexandretta begins in Aleppo the path of healing from her wounds, despite the open wound that remains in her heart, the absence of her shepherd. But this Diocese of Job has learned that the pain of wounds does not mean that she must surrender to them, but is rather a constant reminder to continue along the path of healing.

Our children of this diocese have suffered daily in Aleppo, Idlib and Tabaka from their lack of physical safety and they still suffer the impact of difficult living circumstances, as well as displacement and alienation with all the suffering and hardship that they bring, along with their brothers in Alexandretta, Mersin, Arsuz, and every corner of the world. The question today, with the start of this new stage in the life of Aleppo, is: has the time come for us to rest? Yes, Your Beatitude, the time for rest has come, but we have learned that rest is not in momentary relaxation, but the soul's rest is in striving to seek the resurrection with its redeemer. Therefor, we the children of this diocese make a pledge before you today, Your Beatitude, before our absent-yet-present shepherd, and before the entire Church, from this place, from the Church of Saint Elias in Aleppo, which has not abandoned her children and whose children have never abandoned her, despite the dangers and frightful hardships: we shall not rest except in resurrection. We shall not rest except in rebirth. We shall not rest except in healing. We promise you that the blessing of your presence among us will be the inauguration of the rest of this healing.

When Aleppo was passing through the greatest dangers and the darkest circumstances, two great men entered, challenging all these dangers and circumstances: her pastor, Metropolitan Paul, who refused to not celebrate the Resurrection with his children, so he was kidnapped as he was on his way to them, but his way continues on the path into their hearts, since day after day he is more present in their hearts, their prayers and their hopes; and her patriarch, John X, who, by being present in 2014 to celebrate Christmas with his children in Aleppo, epitomized all courage, daring and sacrificial love. Today, on Christmas 2016, you have come, Your Beatitude, to inaugurate for us by your presence among us this new stage, the stage of striving and hope-- striving for work and building and hope that your blessed presence among us will be an earnest of a presence that will bring our shepherd together with his children always, to celebrate Christ's resurrection and theirs.

I hope that you will permit me to offer you in all humility, in the name of the diocese of Job, her shepherd, priests, parish councils, and faithful, this mosaic icon made by Aleppan hands lifted up for the glory of your patron, Saint John the Theologian as he stands before the cross of our Lord, in the hope that just as John the Beloved once rested on the breast of his Beloved at the Mystical Supper and prayed with Him on the cross, that you will bear us in your holy prayers whenever you celebrate the Church's mystical supper at the divine liturgy and you pray before the cross of our Lord Jesus.

Many years, master!"

In his sermon, His Beatitude spoke explaining the significance of the feast and Christ's incarnation for the salvation of humankind. He wished that this feast will bring peace to Aleppo, in union with the soil of the entire Syrian nation. He stressed the resolve of the people of Aleppo, their steadfastness and their dedication to their land and their nation, and his hope that we will celebrate it in the presence of Metropolitan Paul very soon.

The service of prayers for the feast was attended by the governor of Aleppo, the president of the city council, and a delegation of officials. The divine liturgy was followed by a festival in the churchyard, after which His Beatitude went to the church hall where a cake was cut and the faithful who had come to receive His Beatitude's blessing and to congratulate him on the feast were welcomed.

His Beatitude will continue the schedule of his visit to Aleppo during the coming days.

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos)'s Christmas Message 2016

Arabic original here.

The feast comes once again this year. There are many people in the world today who search for an answer to their many questions. There is a great spiritual thirst that cannot be quenched by anything or anyone. This is the tragedy: many are at the brink of despair and some wonder where the wave of terror today is coming from! It is as though modern life has no meaning. Where can we find consolation that will free man from the fog, when "one thing is needed" (Luke 10:42)?

Christians in the world today, both east and west, "have a form of godliness but deny its power" (2 Timothy 3:5). Most of them, in terms of their leaders, place us in the Middle East in a furnace of hellish flame.

Into such a climate comes the feast, the feast of the birth of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ in a manger for livestock. Is this eternal truth born in our hearts amidst worldly clamor? Of course, we will seek distraction in the temptations of this world in terms of food, drink, clothing and gifts... I am not here to make a condemnation of human customs. But I wanted to warn the faithful about a lifestyle dominated by the destructive spirit of consumption, in which they forget their painful situation on the one hand, and the truth of their divine faith on the other hand.

Beloved, today we are living amidst a new paganism. Worship is not given to the true God, nor is there worship of idols carved from stone. Rather, we have placed before ourselves the god of money and of contingent, material things, the god of war and of many ways of killing with airplanes and advanced warships...

My hope, beloved brothers, is that the holiday season will not pass without us contemplating the meaning of the feast and its benefits for our life, which help us amidst the surrounding social activity to find time for ourselves for quiet, conscious prayer, whether in personal contemplation or at a service in the church. The feasts of the saints preceding the feast help; the story of the feast of the Lord in the Gospel, as well as its service at vespers and matins also help. What does all this inspire us to? How should we live? How should we behave? How do we read current world events in light of divine revelation? These are all questions that can be pondered which will help us weak humans to ascend to God's heaven. Perhaps we will embrace in our hearts this coming divine Man who emptied Himself and humbled Himself to the point of death for our salvation.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Jordanville Visits Balamand

 Pictures after the jump.

Holy Trinity Seminary Press Presents a new book in Lebanon

With the blessing and under the patronage of His Beatitude, Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, staff of Holy Trinity Publications (Jordanville, NY) participated in a week of festivities culminating in the patronal feast of the St John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the University of Balamand (Tripoli, Lebanon). The focus of the week was the recently released scholarly work, Arab Orthodox Christian Under the Ottomans, 1516-1831 by Dr Constantin A. Panchenko of the Lomonosov Moscow State University. On Wednesday, November 30th, Nicholas Chapman, director of Holy Trinity Publications, gave a lecture entitled “From Antioch to America: Levantine Christianity and the New World 1500-1800” in which he surveyed the surprisingly vast network of connections between the Orthodox Church in its ancient homeland and the West. The next day, Dr Panchenko drew from the research in his book with a presentation titled, “A Melkite Proto-renaissance: A Forgotten Cultural Revival of the Melkites in the Late 16th Century”. Finally, the two previous speakers joined Dr Souad Slim of the University of Balamand for a seminar on Saturday morning to discuss important facets and themes of the recently-published book. The lectures and panel discussions will be broadcast on Ancient Faith Radio in the near future.

Throughout the week, the visitors toured ancient villages and cities on the Mediterranean coast and Mt Lebanon, visited early Christian monasteries, recently revived with active monastic communities, and explored archeological sites where centuries-old frescoes have recently been restored.

On Saturday evening, following patriarchal vespers at the monastery church, the staff presented two of Holy Trinity Publications’ newest releases to His Beatitude, Patriarch John X. They also discussed Dr Panchenko’s book, for which His Beatitude provided a Foreword. On Sunday, Dcn Peter Markevich joined His Beatitude and local clergy in serving the Divine Liturgy.

Holy Trinity Publications is deeply indebted to the Institute of Theology, its dean Fr Porphyrios Georgi, the staff and seminarians, for their selfless hospitality and to Dr Panchenko for joining us for the festivities. His book, Arab Orthodox Christians Under the Ottomans, 1516-1831, is available directly from the publisher or from any good bookseller.

With the blessing and under the patronage of His Beatitude, Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, staff of Holy Trinity Publications (Jordanville, NY) participated in a week of festivities culminating in the patronal feast of the St John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the University of Balamand (Tripoli, Lebanon). The focus of the week was the recently released scholarly work, Arab Orthodox Christian Under the Ottomans, 1516-1831 by Dr Constantin A. Panchenko of the Lomonosov Moscow State University. On Wednesday, November 30th, Nicholas Chapman, director of Holy Trinity Publications, gave a lecture entitled “From Antioch to America: Levantine Christianity and the New World 1500-1800” in which he surveyed the surprisingly vast network of connections between the Orthodox Church in its ancient homeland and the West. The next day, Dr Panchenko drew from the research in his book with a presentation titled, “A Melkite Proto-renaissance: A Forgotten Cultural Revival of the Melkites in the Late 16th Century”. Finally, the two previous speakers joined Dr Souad Slim of the University of Balamand for a seminar on Saturday morning to discuss important facets and themes of the recently-published book. The lectures and panel discussions will be broadcast on Ancient Faith Radio in the near future.

Throughout the week, the visitors toured ancient villages and cities on the Mediterranean coast and Mt Lebanon, visited early Christian monasteries, recently revived with active monastic communities, and explored archeological sites where centuries-old frescoes have recently been restored.

On Saturday evening, following patriarchal vespers at the monastery church, the staff presented two of Holy Trinity Publications’ newest releases to His Beatitude, Patriarch John X. They also discussed Dr Panchenko’s book, for which His Beatitude provided a Foreword. On Sunday, Dcn Peter Markevich joined His Beatitude and local clergy in serving the Divine Liturgy.

Holy Trinity Publications is deeply indebted to the Institute of Theology, its dean Fr Porphyrios Georgi, the staff and seminarians, for their selfless hospitality and to Dr Panchenko for joining us for the festivities. His book, Arab Orthodox Christians Under the Ottomans, 1516-1831, is available directly from the publisher or from any good bookseller.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh: "I am of the Party of those who have Died"

Arabic original here.

"I am of the Party of those who have Died"

"Talking about war has come to be corrupting, like war itself. But I belong to the victims of Sin el-Fil and with the same feeling I belong to the southern Dahieh and to the camps. I am of the party of those who have died. All of them are at the same distance from God because those tormented are of the wounded body of Christ who sits at the right hand of God. My brothers died in Sin el-Fil. Husayn is martyred in the Dahieh and the funeral of Palestine is in Lebanon" (Metropolitan Georges Khodr, "From Sin el-Fil ad the Camps," in an-Nahar, May 28, 1985).

We recall the words of Metropolitan Georges Khodr during the Lebanese wars in order to talk about Aleppo. Khodr identified with the Christian dead of Sin el-Fil, the Shi'ite dead of the Dahieh, and the Sunni Palestinians dead. He said that he belongs to "the party of those who have died," the party of the victims. He regarded them all as brothers. He did not sorrow over the Christian more than he did over the Muslim. He did not gloat over the dead, no matter what  side they belonged to. They all came to belong to one body, "the wounded body of Christ." What the world had separated, the blood of Christ, shed for all the world, brought together.

I belong to the victims of West Aleppo and East Aleppo equally. I belong to the victims of all Syria, Syria the grieving mother who "does not want to be consoled" (Matthew 2:18) because her children are no more. Death has taken them from her breast. She is my mother and all of them are my brothers. How can I separate one brother from another? How can I love one of them more than the other? How can I be glad at their death? How can I hate them? How can I rejoice at their misfortune? My God, "You have multiplied your slain in this city, and you have filled its streets with the slain" (Ezekiel 11:6).

Let us return to Metropolitan Georges Khodr, the greatest person to have written about hope in the time of war. He says, "The nation is not an inheritance for profligate children to scatter... God did not entrust the nation to dirty hands. They misappropriated it... Nations are threatened by their sins. They have all grown weary of war and talk of war, of initiators and those responsible, of traitors and those with interests. What remains of acts of heroism if 'they divided My garments among them and for My clothing they cast lots'? The amount of blood and the amount of terror cancels the quality of every song that they have distorted into a war anthem" ("This is the Testimony," in an-Nahar, May 6, 1979).

Syria was scattered by her profligate children, profligate with corruption, love of power, tyranny and self-deification. Syria was misappropriated by dirty hands coming from every direction, from within and without. What is the value of acts of heroism and victories if the Syrian citizen alone is the one to pay the price with his own blood and the blood of his children? Has Cain (in Islam, Qabil) triumphed over Abel?

We close with Metropolitan Khodr, because we are in dire need of someone to remind us of political and national morals. He says, "On the moral level, it must be said that those who have contributed to the destruction of the country cannot govern it because they have lost their credibility. People have grown weary, weary of masks... They seek faces. Lebanon [Syria at the present] will expel every war criminal, for the coming generations will not bear the country's responsibility so long as it does not completely reject the merchants of death."

Syria will not be made by wars. Syria will be made by those of her children who strive for peace. They are her worthy children. They are the witnesses of her unity and her inevitable resurrection.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh: "The Poor We Have With Us Always"

Arabic original here.

"The Poor We Have With Us Always"

There is no doubt that Saint Luke stresses in his gospel more than the other three evangelists the importance of care for the poor and needy. Where Saint Matthew recounts Christ saying in His Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3), we see Luke transmitting the same words of Christ in the following form: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). "The poor in spirit" becomes simply "the poor" without any qualifier.

In this context, Christ says to one of the leaders of the Pharisees, "When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just" (Luke 14:12-14).

At the threshold of the glorious Feast of the Nativity, we need to recall these words and to act according to them. When Christ affirms the necessity of inviting every sort of poor person, He means to tell us that if we want to invite Him to join us in the feast, then we must invite all the poor to the feast and in this way we will have sent Him a special invitation and their presence at the feast will be His own personal presence.

Two weeks before Christmas, we read in the Church the Parable of the Banquet (Luke 14:15-24), which comes directly after the passage taken from the Gospel of Luke above, so as to place even more importance on the centrality to obtaining salvation of love for the poor. Or, as Saint Cyril of Alexandria said, "Because they were hard-hearted, Christ gave them a parable in which He explains to them the nature of the time that He establishes for them." As for the parable itself, it talks about a man who throws a lavish banquet and invites many people to it. None of those invited accept his invitation, making various excuses. He then sends His servant into the town squares and streets in order to invite "the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame," who immediately accept his invitation. At the end of the parable, the one making the invitation says, "none of those who were invited [and refused the invitation] will taste my banquet."

The one making the invitation in the parable symbolizes God. As Cyril of Alexandria says, "The comparison here represents the truth and is not itself the truth." Cyril then wonders who the servant represents in the parable. He answers, "Who is the one sent? He is a servant. Perhaps he is Christ. Although God the Word is God by nature and the Son of God who proclaimed Him to us, He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant."

The tradition of the Church has realized that in this parable, Christ identifies with the poor of every kind-- that is, with those invited. At the same time, He identifies with the servant who was sent to invite them. Christ is the one inviting and the invited at the very same time! We said that He is the inviter and the invited because the one making the invitation is identical to his servant because his servant is of no less dignity than he is.

At Christmas, we are called to imitate Christ, Whose feast it is, so we invite Him to the dinner by inviting His loved ones among the poor. In this way, we resemble Christ twice over: by playing the role of the one making the invitation and by caring for the poor who are invited just as we care for Christ Himself. Here we are met with Christ's words to His disciples shortly before He was arrested: "The poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always" (John 12:8). Yes, the poor we have with us always and in them we have Christ with us always.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Situation of the Orthodox Church in Aleppo

Arabic original, posted November 29, here.

Archimandrite Mousa al-Khasi to Telelumière:
Our Diocese in Aleppo Deserves to be Called the "Diocese of Job"

"He established in our Archdiocese of Aleppo, Alexandretta and Their Dependencies a good seedling and institutional activity without peer. In his absence, just as in his presence, the deposit of this good seedling flourished. What we see today in terms of clinging to the land and the Church and holding fast to the faith and values is the result of the nurturing that members of the diocese received at the hands of our pastor, Metropolitan Paul Yazigi and his approach will continue, as we hall hope for his return."

With a lump in his throat, with great hope for the return of Metropoltian Paul Yazigi, his vicar Archimandrite Mousa al-Khasi spoke to the television channel Telelumière from the offices of the Greek Orthodox diocese in Aleppo, saying, "Our diocese has been subjected to tragedies and great hardships, to such a degree that it deserves to be called 'the diocese of Job'. The first of these tragedies was in Tabaka, from which around 180 families fled. Then the tragedies reached Idlib, with the same suffering in terms of destruction and forced expulsion, but the apex of these tragedies was in the city of Aleppo, where we lost ninety percent of our properties, which were subject to vandalism and destruction. And the great pain remains the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul and his absence from his diocese."

Archimandrite al-Khasi continued, "In addition to losing a large proportion of our properties, fifty members of our diocese have been killed due to the security situations to which Aleppo has been subjected, not to mention the difficulties of social life, the deterioration of infrastructure, the lack of electricity and its constant interruption, and the lack of drinking water, medicines and other necessities of life."

He adds, "On account of this standard of living, we are confronted with a harsh pain, the emigration of members of the diocese to places outside Syria and the exodus of many of them to more secure regions of Syria, to the point that the proportion of those who have left has reached forty-five to fifty percent," explaining that the original number of the church's families in Aleppo was around 4300, of which only 2200 remain on account of the tragedy in Aleppo. "Despite the shrinking number of families due to hemorrhaging emigration, we have on the other hand we have the steadfastness in faith of those remaining, the attachment of the youth to their church and the activities that they undertake, like a hive of bees ceaselessly working day and night to fulfill the mission of their pastor Metropolitan Paul Yazigi. They have not lost hope for his return. The tangible things that we are seeing now make us feel that he is present. We are working so that he will be present and the good seedling that he planted is a deposit for us that we will pass on even better."

Regarding the church's institutional situation, Archimandrite al-Khasi states, "We have six churches in Aleppo, a diocesan council, a youth group, a choir, the St Elias Scouts, various brotherhoods, Sunday schools, and the al-Mashriq Model Schoool,which was looted and pillaged. Faced with this vast amount of tragedy, the Church did not stand idly by, but rather was distinguished by a tenacious will and resolve and made plans and established church institutions in order to deliver a message, which is that the fierce winds will not be strong enough to erase the culture of values and to uproot it from its roots. Therefore our father Patriarch John X has not abandoned Aleppo for a moment. It is at the heart of his daily spiritual and institutional work and for this reason our diocese, despite the absence of its pastor, has not been an orphaned diocese, but rather a diocese flourishing even in moments of weakness, receiving  attention from our father the patriarch and from the fathers of the synod who have embraced this diocese spiritually, morally, and materially."
He added that, with the blessing of Patriarch John X and through the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, he has prepared a range of projects and programs that provide job opportunities for people so that they can work and live with dignity, starting with a charity dispensary that he established with the support of the Nour el-Ehsan Association, which provides medical necessities at nominal prices. The church also has a charitable committee that helps with difficult surgical operations in addition to distributing medicines through the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development and the Red Crescent.

Archimandrite al-Khasi continued, "There have come to be needs at various levels, including the issue of education and strengthening cultural development. We launched the 'Good Seed' program and opened the Mar Elias Kindergarden, which is a largely free kindergarten."

In closing, Archimandrite al-Khasi thanked the delegation from Telelumière for their work and praised the channel's role and the delegation's courage in presenting the Christmas activities that the diocese in Aleppo will undertake, including Christmas concerts and exhibitions, the proceeds from which will go to support needy families. The archimandrite stated that, "Despite the difficulties, our God is present among us, in our faith, and in our hearts."

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Met Saba (Esber): The God of the Bible

Arabic original here.

The God of the Bible

There are certain erroneous or distorted beliefs that are widespread among the faithful. In this brief note, I am concerned with the one that starts out from the basis of the Bible to erroneously state that the face of God in the Old Testament is not the same as in the New Testament. Some believe that God in the Old Testament is only a god of war, cruelty, violence and racism, while in the New Testament, He is only a god of love, forgiveness, mercy and kindness.

This erroneous belief is the result either out of ignorance of the Old Testament, its interpretation and its structure or under the influence of misconceptions similar to the approach of those critics of the Bible who attack it for reasons too numerous to refute here. In each case, the approach to the bible is wrong because it is not a theological approach to a religious book. Many also arrive at erroneous conclusions because they do not understand the essence of inspiration in Christianity or because they take a merely historical approach to the Bible.

In Christianity, divine inspiration has taken place over the course of a long pedagogical relationship of about eighteen and a half centuries. God inspired humankind with what He wanted to say through the historical events that they experienced, speaking to them in their language and according to their understanding, gradually bringing them toward Him. The Bible is not a book of history, even though it uses history to speak theology.

By way of example and not exclusively, I will cite some verses of the Old Testament where God's face appears merciful, loving and forgiving:

"And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin...'" (Exodus 34:6-7, see also Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 4:31, Psalm 86:5 and 108:4, Joel 2:13).

God says, "I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love... I will not execute the fierceness of My anger... For I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst; and I will not come with terror" (Hosea 11:4 and 9).

"... But You are God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them" (Nehemiah 9:17).

"The Lord is gracious and full of compassion,slow to anger and great in mercy. The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works" (Psalm 145:8-9).

And some verses of the New Testament show another face:

"Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (Revelation 19:13-15).

"Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’" (Matthew 22:13). 

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18).

Christ says, "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels..." (Matthew 25:41).

"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" (Matthew 23:13).

These verses, and many others besides in both testaments, show us that relying on an individual verse in isolation from its context leads to misunderstanding, very often completely contrary to its intended meaning. Scriptural inspiration was first of all inspiration in action and not in writing. God intervened in the lives of people and then a group first of all. He set their life straight. He educated them. He disciplined them. He changed their way of thinking, revealing Himself to them to the degree that they could bear His light until inspiration reached its apex with total divine disclosure in the person of Jesus Christ. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." (John 1:14).

God incarnate spent around thirty-three years on our earth teaching, preaching, guiding, saving and fulfilling the dispensation of salvation completely. He did not leave us a single sheet of paper written by His hand. Rather, He sent the Holy Spirit to His apostles and His Church. He inspired some of them to preserve in writing what He taught them by word and deed.

The writers of the Bible in both its testaments read their experience with God and came to understand it by the Holy Spirit not at the time of its happening, but afterwards, then they learned God's intent and transmitted it to the faithful people.

How many times did Christ rebuke His disciples with harsh words because they did not understand what He meant?

God is the same in both testaments. His true image becomes clear in his accompanying sinful humankind until they reach the point of abandoning sin. Some find fault with the existence of sinful people-- and what human is without sin?!-- who played an important role in the history of salvation but they forget that God accompanies sinners in order to save them from their sin and has mercy on them with longsuffering until they repent and change. Dwelling on the sins that appear in the stories of people in the Bible is not important. The important thing is focusing on the grace that changes and transforms these sinners.

God has undertaken-- and continues to undertake-- the task of saving humankind. The Bible came into existence for their salvation because they languished under sin and were enslaved to the devil.

It is also necessary to pay active attention to reading the texts, especially the Old Testament, in a manner consonant with its genre. That is, not reading narratives, poetry, stories, proverbs and wisdom literature all in the same way. Rather, give each genre its due. Poetry is not direct speech like explicit commandments are.

It is likewise very necessary to know that in the Old Testament especially, history was the theater that God used to discipline humankind and to show them gradually through its events His pure divine image until it was completed in their eyes. The Bible very often uses historical events to give a religious-- that is, theological-- lesson.

Here is an example. The Book of Judges speaks of people playing an important role in trying times. It magnifies some of them, such as Samson, and attributes superhuman characteristics to them. All of this is with the intent of making it clear that God's hand, when it intervenes, reigns over all other powers. As for the theology intended by the recounting of events and wars that the judges waged, whether they really waged them as it appears or as it was preserved in the popular memory, it is the following:

When the people sins toward God, they break the covenant and God abandons them, handing them over to their enemies.The people become aware of their error and cry out to God, repenting and confessing, so God sends them a judge to save them from the oppression that has befallen them.

God is a father and a pedagogue. He is a lover and a judge. He is just and forgiving. He is kind and disciplines. He is powerful and tender. Does education not requires firmness and intensity, suppleness and tenderness? To the degree that a person is course and crude and cruel, he benefits from firmness, just as he benefits from sternness. Love is God's essence. His power is the power of love.

As for the superficial teaching that is popular among us, which focuses only on mercy, love and forgiveness, it is incomplete because it does away with the teaching and rebuking face of God who accompanies humankind until they reach the desired ideal.

Education's reliance in the past on fear, violence and punishment and its excessive use of this style does not mean that the correct manner of education today should ignore other aspects, such as judgment, justice and good or evil deeds casting man and all creation into heaven or hell.

May he who realizes his sins, is pained by them and sincerely walks in the way of repentance understand the meaning of the Bible and the essence of God's word and may he have constant nourishment.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Met Georges Khodr: The Path of Giving

Arabic original here.

The Path of Giving

A rich young man asks Jesus, "What should I do to inherit eternal life?" The Lord responds, "In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must keep the commandments," and He listed some of them. The young man said, "I have fulfilled these since my childhood," as though he was searching for something else in order to enter the kingdom of his Lord, which this new Teacher came to proclaim in Galilee and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Then Jesus replied, "You lack one thing: that you sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Then, come and follow Me."

What does this mean, "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor"? Does it mean that the rich must sell their homes and possessions? What do these words mean? Jesus didn't compromise with anyone. He explicitly stated to the rich young man that that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. He then continued firmly, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The Lord placed us before a great difficulty that we cannot downplay. The Gospel is not negligible. It is difficult and we must storm into the difficulty and understand how we can be saved despite the difficulty.

The needle means a needle and not anything else. So the Lord made a comparison and said that the camel-- and we can read it [in Arabic] as the very thick rope used to pull ships-- does not enter the eye of the needle. However we interpret it and however we read it in Arabic or Greek, it means at the very least that it is very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

So what should we do, then? God said through David, "He has dispersed abroad, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn will be exalted with honor" (Psalm 112:9). That is, you cannot stay rich without sharing. The Lord's first intent is that we make people partners in the wealth with which we have been entrusted. Christianity has given this a clear interpretation through the fathers, when they said that the wealth that you have is fundamentally for all people. "The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1). The wealth that you have has been delegated to you to administer it for the sake of people and their benefit. Do not monopolize it for luxury and extravagance; this is unacceptable because luxury does not make people your partners. 

This means, at the very least, that one who is wealthy in terms of food, household goods and appearance should live like other people. He should not enjoy material things more than anyone else, nor should he take pleasure in an image that hurts the poor. At the very least, then, let us not would the poor with displays of luxury. At the very least, let us not live with an indecent image. You can own, but you must not enjoy, you must not take pleasure in what exceeds even what is imaginable. In the society in which you live, you must share with the people around you by giving liberally.

The Old Testament commands the believer to give a tenth of his earnings to the poor. This is no longer a command in the New Testament. In the Church, giving is not a specific number. We do not lessen what was required of the Hebrews, but rather we add to it. It is not true that it is imposed on each person who does not desire for it to be imposed upon him.

Therefore the issue is a command, a final command and not advice. It was a divine command, so that we may feel that others are our partners in God's inheritance and that they are one with us. So come, open your pocket. Open your heart. Give. Disperse. Distribute. Love the humanity to whom you give. Love the people to whom you stretch out your hand in giving. Consider the poor person to be master over you because he gave you the opportunity to give. If you walk in this way along the great and wide path of giving, if you give and disperse, do not consider yourself to be anything, but tremble because God said that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Memory Eternal: Irfan Shahid (1926-2016)

It has been brought to my attention that the great Palestinian-American scholar Irfan Shahid passed away earlier this month, on November 9. His funeral was held at Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Potomac, Maryland on November 18. A brief sketch of his life and career can be found here and a wonderfully-detailed interview about his scholarly career can be found here.

His multi-volume Byzantium and the Arabs is foundational for the study of Christianity among pre-Islamic Arabs:

Rome and the Arabs
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 1
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 1
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2

Monday, November 21, 2016

Carol Saba: Eternal Russia- Her Saints and Demons

French original here.

Eternal Russia: Her Saints and Demons

Russia has been causing a lot of ink to be spilled lately. Particularly in France, on account of the new spiritual and cultural center that was just opened on October 19 of this year at the former sight of the headquarters of Météo France. The complex, which belongs to the Russian state, was set to be formally opened by the French and Russian heads of state but diplomatic tensions between the two countries reduced the scope of the official representation at the event. In an innovation at the level of diplomatic protocol, France, through the voice of her president, publicly questioned the advisability of the Russian president's coming to Paris in this context and then the latter decided to sulk. The new Russian cathedral dedicated to the Holy Trinity, one of the buildings of the complex next to the Eiffel Tower, is to be consecrated in December by Patriarch Cyril of Moscow. It now sits with its five golden onion domes on Quai Branly, not far from the place where President Jacques Chirac put the Museum of the Arts and Civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas now bearing the former head of state's name. The whole thing is thus a new tourist attraction, this time Russian, on the map of Paris monuments. Even before the Napoleonic military campaigns, Franco-Russian relations have always been of the love-hate variety and since then they have known cycles of rejection and attraction.

Russia is indeed fascinating. The Russia of yesterday and today is intriguing. Russia provokes a lot of ambivalence. Some idealize her. Others demonize her. General De Gaulle, who only ever called the Soviets "the Russians," refused to see in Soviet Russian anything other than "a temporary avatar of eternal Russia" and in her government "a modernized form of a deadly autocracy." The latest book by Pierre Goneau, published by Editions Tallandier, is dedicated to a study of the historical, political, cultural, artistic and spiritual depths of this eternal Russia, of this czarist Russia and its four centuries of imperial autocracy. The title chosen by this great specialist on Russia, professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and director of studies of the section for historical and philological sciences at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, already declares the enormous scope of the project: Histoire de la Russie, d'Ivan le Terrible à Nicolas II, 1547-1917. It is a wealth of information. A historical fresco that depicts the three times-- long, medium and short-- of Russian history. Writing that combines a novelistic style with the demands of historicity. A style that knows how to "enclose" personalities and periods, like Russian dolls, the great and the little history of eternal Russia. All the czars pass through it, the great and the less great, the glorious, the mysterious, the erased, the modest, the illumined, and the reasonable. A fresco also rich in portraits of emblematic figures of czarist Russia.

First, of course, Ivan the Terrible. This ambiguous, constantly tormented personality who in an excess of madness founded and combined political terror and a sort of radical mysticism whose secret and recipe only the Russians know. Then passing by Peter the Great, the builder, who constantly looked to Europe but who also embodied the Russian ambivalence, constantly oscillating between East and West. And how can we not mention Catherine II, that originally German czarina, an iron fist in a velvet glove, who knew how to not be a foreigner to the Russians, but rather knew how to fully embrace Orthodoxy and make herself to be seen by the Russians as one of their own. Then comes the figure of czar Alexander II, the civilized man, who dared to emancipate the serfs, one of the last great czars before the rumblings in the empire, before ending with the last of the czars, Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs to sit on the throne, who distilled in the Russian subconscious the entirety of the Russian tragedy, the double image of the czar upon the throne and the Christ-like czar who experiences martyrdom along with his family in extremely dramatic circumstances.

Gonneau's book is a fresco that also arouses real reflection on the Russian syntheses that have been wrought century after century between different confluences and inspirations, those coming from the European, Germanic and Latin, Catholic and Protestant West and those coming from the Asiatic Mongol and Tatar East. The whole of Russia, past and present, is in the crucible of these different confluences. The Russian millefeuille can be discerned in these different historical and sociopolitical strata. This work also and especially provides a framework for understanding today's Russia, which is also, in its own way, decidedly czarist. It informs us of the major characteristic traits of this czarist Russia and of the typical profile that marks its political governance. It reveals the factors of continuity and the factors of discontinuity of such autocratic and imperial, centralized and decentralized governance and its strategies of influence and mental geopolitics. It also informs us of the universal, spiritual and cultural tensions that animates these monarchs and of the geopolitical and geostrategic projection of their influence in the world.

Gonneau's book is not just a book of history, but also one of useful keys for deciphering the reality of Russia today. The book begins with a question: how does one become czar, extending the question with a historical account of the coronation of Ivan the Terrible on January 16, 1547, before affirming that change is continuity in Russia and continuity is change. Eras and personalities change. What underlies them remains. "The Russia of the czars perpetuates itself until the abdication of Nicholas II on March 2, 1917. Then, everything changes... or nothing changes. Stalin was often described as a red czar and Moscow's Kremlin has always been the site of power par excellence." For those who wish to conduct an objective and dispassionate analysis of today's Russia, this historical fresco offered to us by Pierre Gonneau is an ideal help for reflection, analysis, deciphering and questioning. There remain questions that speak to Russia's today.

How does the eternal Russia evoked by De Gaulle extend into Soviet Russia, then post-Soviet Russia, then Putin's Russia? Is there a historical determinism to be seen in the endless repetition of these cycles of attraction and repulsion between Russia and the Europe that she nevertheless claims? How can the factors of incomprehension and misunderstanding that develop be defused? Is there in principle an incompatibility between Russia and Europe? The demonization of Russia by some is just as dangerous for world security as the idealization of Russia by others. In any case, Gonneau's book, which contains valuable keys for further study including maps, an impressive bibliography, a chronological guide to the czars, and an index [embarrassingly rare in French publications], as well as a genealogy of the Romanovs is enlightening in its attempt at better understanding Russia, her saints and her demons, her deadly ambiguities and creative inspirations. It invites the reader to see Russia differently from the black and white of the approximate analyses of the moment, because beyond persons and conjectures, what remains and abides is indeed eternal Russia.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh: Beware of Religious Nationalisms

Arabic original here.

Beware of Religious Nationalisms

Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim (d. 2012) believed that the chief task of Arab Christians lies in translating Christianity for the Arab world, a Christianity that addresses the Arab mind and Arab culture. By this he did not mean translating ancient, particularly Greek, texts into Arabic, but rather by this call he meant that "we arrive at there being a Christianity in which the one being addressed is the Arab person." In his opinion, Christianity is still intellectually closed-off and "Christians still speak to Christians, as though they were living in a bygone era." Therefore, Hazim believed that "our duty is to be able to speak to Muslims" (Ignatius IV, Mawaqif wa-Aqwal, Balamand University, 2001, p. 103). The question then for him is a question of formulating Christian discourse in clear Arabic language that reaches the mind of the Arab and also his heart.

Patriarch Hazim is a great figure of the Orthodox Church who contributed to the Church's revival during the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. He played a major role in ecumenical work and the rapprochement between the churches, especially in the World Council of Churches and the Middle Eastern Council of Churches and he was open to dialogue with Muslims about fundamental issues with which people are occupied in their daily lives. For this reason, he set his sights on working for a Christianity that speaks in Arabic and is understood by Christians, Muslims, Jews and all those who live in the Arab world.

Hazim did not speak of "Arab nationalism," but he did speak of "Arab Christians" and did not attack Arab nationalism. He was not an Arab nationalist, but he was an Arab and he did not boycott Arab nationalists. The priority for him was Christ and His Church and therefore he did not believe in other ideologies that might hide Christ from others. For him, the Arabic language was a means and not an end in itself. It is a means for conveying Christ as Christians believe in Him to the hearts and minds of Muslims. The Arabic language is the vehicle of Christian evangelism in this region because it is the language shared with the majority of Muslims.

Some Christians in our country, rejecting any common denominator with non-Christians, claim that their roots are non-Arab and this is their own affair that we will not discuss here. At the same time, they claim that they have nothing to do with anything that is Arab, since they are Greek-Byzantine-Romans, Syriac-Assyrian-Chaldean-Arameans, or Phoenician Maronites, and God knows best... All of them criticize any national belonging, affirming their ecclesio-cultural choices while adopting a religious nationalism that is closed in on itself. They flee from a nationalism that brings Muslims and Christians together to a unilateralist nationalism that only unites them with members of their sect. A nationalist ideology in the face of a nationalist ideology!

In reality, this nationalism resembles nothing other than Jewish religious nationalism. About this, Patriarch Hazim said, "Those who isolate themselves, whoever they may be, internalize a sort of admission that they are 'God's own chosen people.' This is what the Jews fell into doing, but Christians may also fall into this and Muslims may fall into it as well. Therefore in this region we must a laboratory in which no one may isolate himself, lest each community come to reject the other communities and instead of being receptive to them and dialoguing with them."

The only thing that distinguishes Arab Christians from other Christians in the world is their Arabic language, which makes them responsible for conveying Christ to all who speak it. Is it possible in our country to spread the Good News of Christ in Greek, Aramaic, Armenian or any other ancient language? We are proud of our Church's history, her heritage and her ancient language, but we do not want to kill our present and our present mission in order to revive languages that make us prisoners to history.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh: Christianity in the Cradle of Islam

Arabic original here.

Christianity in the Cradle of Islam

Muslim historians testify to the presence of Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula from its start and spread at the hands of the Apostles. Here we will only present the presence of Christianity in Mecca, the cradle of Islam. Christianity entered the Hijaz, the region that includes Mecca, Yathrib (Medina), Taif, and other cities, at the beginning of the Christian era.

Ibn al-Athir, Ibn Khaldun and others recount that the sixth of the kings of Jurham, whose reign began shortly before the appearance of Christianity, was called by a Christian name, Abd al-Masih bin Baqiya bin Jurham, which means that Christianity entered the Hijaz very shortly after the beginning of Christianity. In his Book of Songs, al-Isfahani states that under the descendants of Jurham, the Bayt al-Haram (the Kaaba) "had a storehouse, a well into which were thrown jewelry and heirlooms that were offered to it, and at that time the bishop (the imam and religious leader of the Christians) was over it."

No doubt the most important testimony to a Christian presence in Mecca shortly before Islam is what appears in the Book of Reports about Mecca of Ibn al-Walid Muhammad bin Abdallah bin Ahmad al-Azraqi, where it states that on the columns of the Kaaba there were "images of the prophets, images of the tree, images of the angels, the image of Abraham, the Friend of the Merciful, and the image of Jesus, son of Mary. Then al-Azraqi mentions that Muhammad, on the day he conquered Mecca, "ordered that all these images be whitewashed, and they were whitewashed. He placed his arms of the image of Jesus son of Mary and his mother (peace be upon them) and said, 'Erase all the images except for what is under my hands,' and he lifted his hands [to reveal] Jesus son of Mary and his mother." The image was destroyed more than sixty years after the conquest of Mecca, in the time of Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr who fought against the Umayyad Caliphate. The Umayyads laid siege to Mecca under the leadership of al-Hajjaj, who did not hesitate to bombard the city with catapults and destroy the Kaaba.

Some Muslim historians speak of part of Quraysh having become Christian. Al-Ya'qubi confirms this in his History and says, "As for those from among the Arabs who became Christians, there was part of the Quraysh, from among the descendants of Asad bin Abd al-Uzza, including Uthman bin al-Huwayrith bin Asad and Waraqa bin Nawfal bin Asad." Likewise, in Ibn Hisham's Life of the Prophet it says of Waraqa that he "converted to Christianity, read the scriptures and listened to the people of the Torah and the Gospel." It also mentions Ubayd Allah bin Jahsh bin Riab, who immigrated to Ethiopia some some of Muhammad's followers. When he arrived there, he converted to Christianity and left Islam. There is also the famous story of Abu Qays bin Sarima bin Abi Anis, who was said by Ibn al-Athir to have "become a monk in the period before Islam and to have put on sackcloth." Among evidence for Christian monuments in Mecca, there is what al-Azraqi said about the presence of "the cemetery of the Christians, on the hill at the bottom of which is Mecca, on the right going out towards Medina."

What we have presented above, especially the fact that an image of the Lord Christ and His mother remained in the Kaaba, confirms the continuation of Christian existence in the Arabian Peninsula in general and Mecca in particular for almost a century. It is certain that the prophet of Islam allowed Christians to remain in Mecca, as evidenced by the statement of Abu Yusuf in his Kitab al-Kharaj that Muhammad "levied a tax of one dinar per year on the Christians of Mecca." As for the disappearance of Christianity from the Arabian Peninsula, this is a story for another time.

*My article "Arabism as a Christian Choice" provoked many questions among its readers. Therefore I will present from time to time various aspects of Arab Christianity.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on the Immaculate Conception

Arabic original here.

The Immaculate Conception

The Orthodox Church especially honors the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God and chants to her at every Divine Liturgy, "More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, who without corruption gave birth to God the Word, true Theotokos we magnify thee." Our Church also teaches that the First Woman, Eve, formed disobedience for the human race, while the New Eve, the Virgin Mary, formed salvation-- that is, our God and Savior Christ-- for the human race. Thus she became a mother for every Christian, who is a brother to our Lord and Savior Jesus.

The Virgin Mary received divinity into her body without losing her human nature, which was united to the divine nature. She is the one who "without corruption gave birth to God the Word." She became the first woman who embodied the words of the Apostle Peter, "that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature" (1 Peter 1:4). And so humanity's divinization was achieved in the person of the Virgin Mary.

It is said that a young monk was praying before an icon of the Theotokos on the Holy Mountain and an angel appeared to him and started teaching him how best to magnify the Virgin Mother of God, telling him as follows: "It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure and the mother of our God..." This icon that is known as "It is Meet (Axion Estin)" is kept until today in the chief church on the Holy Mountain.

This exceedingly great honor for the Theotokos did not prevent us Orthodox Christians from rejecting the decision issued by the Vatican in 1854 known as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This decision claims that at the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother Anne, she was exempt from any stain of ancestral sin, as a gift from God Almighty.

The decision declares that it is a dogma announced by God and that all the faithful most hold to it.

It is our duty as right-believing Orthodox Christians to declare in turn that this dogma does not honor the Virgin Mary, but rather, to the contrary, it degrades her honor by making her into a sort of superwoman, has though she had magically become a demigod. This decision distorts the personality of the Virgin, the magnitude of her love for God, and her freedom to not accept any sin in her human struggle. Like every human, she inherited the results of original sin, especially the experience of pain and death, as Christ Himself tasted them. Like her Son and Creator, she bore the fullness of human nature without attachment to sin.

All this does not mean that we Orthodox do not confess Mary's virginity, which was declared at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, which declared that she is a virgin before begetting, in the act of begetting, and after begetting. The sign of this appears on her icon in the form of three stars: one on her brow and one on each of her shoulders.

In the Orthodox Church, we never diminish the holiness of the Virgin Mary, but at the same time we do not make exaggerated claims that she is exempt from ancestral sin and its consequences, which strips her of the virtue of her human struggle that made her immune to falling into sin, so that she may remain ever pure. We refuse to regard her as a total partner in salvation in the manner of the Holy Trinity, which alone is Creator and is completely distinct from creation, which includes the nature of Mary, our mother and first intercessor and the holiest of all the saints.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Carol Saba on the Lebanese Presidency

Arabic original here.

The Presidency is not Anyone's Favor or Consolation Prize

How we wish you were here, Ghassan Toueini, to throw into the face of Lebanon's bankrupt politicians the famous cry you made to the world at the United Nations in 1978: "Let my people live!" The people are bleeding, the state is disintegrating at an alarming pace, and the leaders involved in presidential chatter are not addressing the dangers facing the nation. And there remains the question: whose president? And for what state? There is no talk of re-establishing and correcting the Taif constitution, which was transformed from being a  pluralist, democratic constitution that preserves diversity within a single state into a consensual democracy that has become a confederation of sects.

There is no talk of the future president's vision or his strategic plan in critical matters, nor is there any talk of his capabilities and network of disinterested relationships that would make it possible for him to move with speed and wisdom locally, regionally and internationally in order to ward off dangers and keep Lebanon neutral. Discourse about the presidency dances to the tune of words like agreements, declaration of intentions, and duopolies. All of these are words pertaining to dividing up influence and interests, which negate the constitution in divided state that has not yet been declared to be a confederation.

The drift of governance in Lebanon since Taif has been toward division and confederation and has produced sectarian "duopolies" [i.e., most Lebanese communities are dominated by a pair of simultaneously colluding and competing parties] that today are the constitutive basis and entryway for this state of sectarian quotas. Today the Lebanese state is nothing but a confederal state made up of four sectarian statelets, each based on a duopoly driven by sectarian anxiety. Each of these duopolies has been forced to coexist after having previously shed each others' blood, and each of them rules its sect and limits any diversity to be found in it. It seems that the newly-emerging Christian duopoly has accepted the trajectory of division and confederation and has gotten in line to claim its share from the other duopolies that by far beat it to dominating the reins of what remains of the state.

This loss of way by the Christians is nothing other than an inevitable result of Christian infighting since independence and the Christians' inability to this day to make a critical assessment of their errors and trajectories. Starting in 1943, they seized the reins of power and rejected national cooperation. This was the start of the transformation of the hopes of the secular constitution of 1926 and of the progression towards the abyss. Through political Maronism, they promoted political sectarianism at the expense of national value, then they fell and along with them the First Republic. Taif came in 1989.

The Christians did not understand and they continued their game of dancing at the edge of the abyss, rejecting the balances of the Taif constitution and fighting among themselves. They were the means of entry for the [Syrian] tutelage that exploited everyone, beat them, and altered the balances of Taif. Political Sunnism arose, taking advantage of the Christian retreat. After that, political Shiism arose to take advantage of the Sunni retreat, especially after the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. So a process of eroding authority and forming duopolies began. After the exit of the tutelage in 2005, there was no critical re-assessment by the Christians and there was no establishment of an expanded Christian base that includes all actors and elites, whose discourse would be "national" and which would put a spring back in the national watch.

So each Christian went in his own direction to support other duopolies that were competing with each other and for the Christian "share". Then there were the lethal steamrollers of March 8 and March 14. The Christians' rolling along did not stop the election of a president by consensus after the Doha Agreement. Until we reached the presidential vacuum. Bkerké completed the erroneous course by limiting the presidency to four poles. This equation, deleterious to the president and the presidency, eliminated two of them and pushed the other two, opposite twins, to form a fragile duopoly. The declaration of intent, mired in generalities and contradictions, conceals more than it declares. How, for example, can the Christian opponent of Hezbollah's project reach an understanding with the party's Christian strategic ally? At the hour of truth, who will eat whom?

A Christian awakening is needed today, so that they do not fall and that Lebanon does not fall once and for all. Bringing back the stolen Lebanese state will not happen by confirming the state of duopolies, but rather through escaping them via a foundational national salvation plan that will re-establish the charter and the formula, put into place a comprehensive national defense strategy controlled by the Lebanese Army, establish policies that will revive the nation of law and fight corruption, draw up an exceptional plan for defending Lebanon and keeping it neutral amidst the region's growing maelstroms on the basis of "Lebanon first", saving its disappearing economy and threatened currency, and resolving the dangerous dilemma of refugees and migrants. At that point, the president will be a plan for a solution and the presidency will not be anyone's favor or consolation prize.

Fr Georges Massouh: Arabism as a Christian Choice

Arabic original here.

Arabism as a Christian Choice

Modern states in the Arab Middle East arose following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but the churches did not divide according to the newly-established states, but instead insisted on transcending borders and nations. The unity of their children--Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian or Jordanian...-- was too strong for their bonds to be broken by political or administrative boundaries.

This discussion is not coming from partisan premises or from current political choices. Rather, it is rooted in all the churches' awareness of their identity and their witness. No one can cast doubt upon the loyalty of members of these churches to their nations, but most of them see that their national loyalty in no way negates their commitment to the issues of other members of their church who belong to the entire Antiochian land.

During what was called the "Arab Nahda", which lasted from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century, Middle Eastern Christians (or at least most of them) adopted the ideas produced by the European Enlightenment. They saw in citizenship, secularism, socialism, and Arab or Syrian nationalism common denominators-- whether linguistic, civilizational, cultural, national, geographic, social, or humanitarian-- that bring them together with their fellow-citizens and partners in a shared fate, both Muslims and other people of the region. They saw in these ideas a gateway to their liberation from the hegemony of a state garbed in religion which forbade them from their natural rights to practice their full citizenship without any diminution. They were the tip of the spear against ignorance, colonialism and narrow sectarian affiliations and against backwards religious thought and the confusion of politics and religion.

What is striking today is that the grandchildren of the Christians who launched the idea of an Arabism that includes all the people of the region have themselves come to fight against this idea. They ignore the fact that their forefathers, when they adopted Arabism, did not adopt it on a racial or genealogical basis. But rather, they adopted it as a basis for national partnership and equality, far removed from religious-- and particularly Islamic-- rule. For this reason, the Islamists fought the idea of Arabism to the point that some of them declared it to be a form of unbelief-- and these are imitated today by the grandchildren who disown their forefathers for their choices.

The Christians of our land were never a single ethnic nation within a political or social framework. They are a single nation within an ecclesiastical framework: they are "a holy nation," as the Holy Apostle Paul said. They did not, however, constitute a religious or ethno-religious nation and they never strove to establish their own ethno-state in imitation of the Jews who boast of belonging to a primarily religious religious nationality, of the sort of being "God's chosen people."

In our land, Christians have carried the banner of partnership with Muslims, without a nationalist or sectarian concern that would overshadow the spirit of partnership with Muslim fellow-citizens. From the Ottoman Empire to Arab nationalism, Syrian nationalism, or Lebanese citizenship, we find that the Christians adopted these things because they bring them together with Muslims and do not separate them from them. We have a shining example of this in the Orthodox Patriarch Gregorius IV Haddad (d. 1928). He supported the Ottoman Empire, then subsequently supported the Arab movement, "and this was not an ideological choice for him, as it was for the secularist intellectuals," according to Dr Tarek Mitri. Patriarch Haddad said in his speech on the occasion of the Recruitment Act (1908) that made Christians equal to Muslims in the Sultanate, "Praise be to God who brought us together in humanity and citizenship and united us in the Ottoman Empire." He then himself supported the Arab movement, without any contradiction with his previous position since the basis upon which he built both his positions was partnership with Muslims and not conflict.

When the Jews strove for their own ethno-nationalist state on the territory of Palestine, the Christians engaged in universal, secular nationalist options and rejected any sectarian or religious isolationism. Is not the return to religio-nationalist options a betrayal of the mind of Christ Himself who put an end to Jewish ethno-religious nationalism, then the Jewish religious establishment killed Him because it regarded Him as a danger to the Jewish people? Do they not kill Christ a second time by going back to the closed-off walls of their sect? Do they not betray Christ who said, "You are in the world but not of it?"