Monday, January 25, 2016

Christian Arabic Summer Course in NJ

Beth Mardutho in Piscataway, NJ has expanded its Syriac summer courses to include a course on Christian Arabic:

 Christian Arabic (July 11-22, 2016, 9 AM - 1 PM). Instructor: Alexander (Sasha) Treiger
The course will introduce students to Christian literature in Arabic written from the eighth century to the present. Students attending this course must be able to read Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic. The readings will cover select genres of Christian literature in Arabic: biblical and patristic translations, apologetic and polemical literature, lives of the saints, and world chronicles. Select texts will be read in printed editions (whenever available) and in manuscripts. Additionally, the course will offer a general survey of Middle Eastern Christianity, its ecclesiastical, ethnic, and linguistic divisions, and Christian Arabic Studies as a field of research.

For more information, click here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh: The Syrian Hell

Arabic original here.

The Syrian Hell

The crimes that are being committed in Syria have surpassed any atrocities and horrors that the human mind might anticipate. There is no doubt that in our miserable Middle East we have become accustomed to this reality that is pulling us down to the pit of hell. Here is the great atrocity, that we accept what is occurring and go on with our daily life as though nothing is happening-- indeed, we justify what is happening because it is a defense of matters of fate or a war against terrorism. Again and again, it is as though there are those who want to convince us that terror is eliminated by an opposing terror.

The fertile minds of artists, writers and poets have invented depictions of hell on their canvases and in their writings. Likewise, religious texts have given a terrifying description of hell, its fire, its worms and its serpents. Icon-painters and muralists have depicted hell and its unbearable torments. But there is no one whose imagination has reached the level of creativity in depicting hell that has been achieved by the criminals in Syria, coming from every direction, in order to make Syria-- in fact and not in the imagination-- into a real hell surpassing any imagined hell.

We would not have reached this hell had we not accepted the atrocities that were committed over the years. What is happening today is the result of years of our being silent about the crimes of dictatorial regimes and totalitarian parties, whether "secular", "religious" or "sectarian". It is the result of years of turning a blind eye to wars launched in the name of God, in the name of shari'a, or in the name of defending this or that minority. All of us are participants in fueling this raging hell.

We would not have reached this hell had we not justified acts of slaughter, massacres, forced expulsion and barrel-bombing... Someone who becomes accustomed to justifying one crime becomes accustomed to justifying all crimes. We have become addicted to crime. We have become without feeling. Sin, as it is defined by one of the fathers of the Eastern Church, Saint Isaac the Syrian (7th century), is "a lack of feeling." Here also the words of Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) come to us: "He who is silent about supporting the oppressed is a partner with the oppressor."

How can someone who prays, fasts and remembers God every day remain silent-- not to say complicit-- when he sees people before him dying of hunger? "Have you considered him who denies the Judgement? It is he who drives away the orphan, who enjoins not the feeding of the poor.
 Woe to those who pray, but who are negligent in their prayer; who dissemble, and withhold liberality" (Surat al-Ma'un).

Hell has come to us. We do not need to wait for the end of the world in order to go there. We have dragged it here before its time. It was within our power, had we so desired, to bring paradise to our present world and not to have to wait for it to come on the last day. We preferred hell to paradise. Here we are devoured by flames. We are destroyed by hunger. The cold shakes us and oppression puts us to death...

We have seen walking skeletons, wavering between life and death. We have seen fleshless skeletons wrapped in dry skin. We have seen skeletons with bulging eyes that refuse to die, carrying a glimmer of hope. This burning coal of light will bring life back to those bones before they become cadavers. No one can extinguish the bright flash in those eyes that long for life. Those eyes will extinguish the blazes of the Syrian hell.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

An Interview with Bp Qais Sadiq

Originally posted on Pravoslavie.ru, here

You have brothers who love you. Don’t forget us!

A talk with Bishop Qais (Sadiq) of Erzurum by Fares Nofal 

On this day, when the Church commemorates the great saint of Damascus, John, we would like to acquaint our readers with a remarkable hierarch of the Antiochian Church, the Syrian bishop Qais (Sadiq) of Erzurum. Bishop Qais talks with Pravoslavie.ru correspondent Fares Nofal, an Orthodox Syrian living in Ukraine.
* * *
From November 28-30, vicar of the Patriarch of Antioch Bishop Qais (Sadiq) visited the city of Odessa. On His Eminence’s last day in the city, I had an opportunity to talk with this outstanding hierarch of Antioch about earthly war, higher peace, and the fate of Arab Christianity. 

Your Eminence, you are an eye-witness observer of what is happening today in the holy lands in the Near East—the cradle of Christ and Christianity. But before we begin, could you tell our readers a little about yourself?

—First I would like to give thanks to God that He has allowed me to be with you in these holy, blessed lands—lands that have given us so many teachers and instructors. The very people and the Russian Orthodox Church have always supported us both prayerfully and materially—and Christian Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan remember the Russian help given them in the days of the Ottoman occupation. But today also, Christians—Russians and Ukrainians—do not forget to pray for us, giving us their fraternal love, fighting for our Christian presence in the Arab countries.

I became bishop about a year ago with the title, “Bishop of Erzurum”. Erzurum is a toponym that can today be found on the political map of Turkey. Like many other historical dioceses of Antioch, this metropolitinate witnessed the mass extermination of faithful Arab Christians and Armenians. Judge for yourself: according to various accounts, in 1917 in the city of Erzurum there lived about 25-30 thousand Orthodox Christians, while by 1925 the number of local Christians was reduced to zero. They were all the victims of a cruel Turkish massacre; and, unfortunately, both Ottoman ambitions and Ottoman political methods are still just as brutally cruel today.

Besides my obedience as vicar—assistant to His Beatitude Patriarch John X—I by God’s mercy fulfill the duty of director of the Orthodox Center for ecumenical research, which we founded in Oman twenty years ago. The Center’s slogan—“Service and witness”—reflects its essentially missionary aims: we strive to raise the level of religious education of our Arabic parishioners, living under the oppression of circumstances in the Jerusalem Church. Alas, many of the faithful justly complain that Jerusalem is completely in the hands of Greeks, who themselves prefer the pursuit of their own aims, which we don’t understand, over mission and service to the Arab people. I also serve our Romanian flock, which has grown quite significantly over recent years. Today in Bucharest alone there are around 150 Orthodox Arab families, with over fifty families scattered around the country.
Earlier, under the reposed Patriarch Ignatius IV, as a teacher of canon law and Liturgical theology in Balamand University, I fulfilled the responsibility of advisor to the supreme ecclesiastical court of the Antiochian Church and head of the Antiochian department of external Church affairs. This experience turned out to be quite useful later, when I represented Jordan in the UNESCO and UNICEF ethics committees, and the Antiochian Church in over ninety-two countries of the world where the sons and daughters of the Arab East live as permanent residents. 

Yesterday, Sunday, was a day filled with events for you—you met with the bishop of Odessa, Metropolitan Agathangel, and prayed for the first time with the local Orthodox Arab community. What were your first impressions? How do you see the future for the Orthodox Arabs of this city?
—His Eminence Agathangel received us very warmly. We talked for a long time on themes that concern us—in part, we touched upon the question of the past and future relationships of our sister Churches; and his words simply attached me to this blessed land! In the morning, when we were at the Liturgy in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, I couldn’t help but notice the endless amount of children and teenagers approaching the Chalice; after all, you’ll hardly find this in the European churches… In this I see the main proof that fervent faith is still alive in these good-hearted, pious people, the hope of which, after years of oppression and persecution, is preserved in its children—the future members of the living Church.
As for our flocks, I came here only in order to hear their wishes, their voices (and thanks are due separately to Metropolitan Niphon [Saykali], the representative of the Antiochian Patriarch to the Moscow Patriarch, who supported and strengthened me in my desire to come here). Alas, many of them do not understand the liturgical Church Slavonic language of the Russian Church, and I am glad that they have the opportunity to pray here in their native language; this keeps them together, gives them the needed comfort that comes from a trusting communication with their Creator. Unfortunately I had very little time to really talk with them; but tomorrow or the day after tomorrow I will make a report to His Beatitude Onuphry about their needs and cares, which I hope will be the first step towards the ordering of their Church life here, in Kiev and Odessa.

As we know, the whole of the Orthodox Church has decisively judged the first fruits of “Arab Spring”; and now five years have passed since the beginning of the so-called “Syrian revolution”. How do Antiochian Christians view the results of this “revolution”? What is the general essence of their daily struggle?

—"Arab spring” is, in my view, not a revolution but more of an “Arab autumn”, which destroyed our civilization. And it is obvious that running things behind the scenes of the “autumn” are entirely non-Arab hands. I hoped that the micro-revolutions would happen in the Arab countries and direct them to specific, positive changes. But what we see in, for example, Syria, is not a micro-revolution, but a genuine game of blood, controlled from a distance.

President Bashar al-Assad is a very educated man, who well understands the problems of his country. From the very onset of his presidency he strove to open Syria to the world; under his leadership a cultural and economic renaissance began in the country, and he was trying, as they say, to “change the system”. And it is perfectly natural that the process of a “change of system” takes more than twenty-four hours and even more than two or three years. But his labors where buried by the fruits of the London Colonial Conference of 1907, which had dismembered and weakened the Arab world already many years ago. Everything that is happening in the Near East today is the belated gift of the West to its satellites in the region.

And this “gift” destroyed our Christian heritage—our museums have been plundered, and our holy sites have been demolished. The Mongols, who seized the lands of the Caliphate, did whatever they wanted—but they did not touch its stones or spirit; but now the ISIS fighters, supported by the Wahabites of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, radicals in Turkey and American geopolitics, are putting great effort into wiping Eastern Christian culture from the face of the earth—of course, together with both its living and inanimate bearers. It is no surprise that the next target of these powers is Russia. The hirers of terror do not hide this fact: even Kissinger announced the “fall of European walls of peace” as an effective means of opposing the Russian presence… Migrants are coming to Europe from Turkey, and true Christian Syrians comprise only ten percent of the total number of refugees. The result is that everyone is making a living off of our blood, the blood of the true victims, and we are suffering more than everyone!  

You spoke of forced migration—the real tragedy of Arab culture. But Orthodox Russia went through something similar at the beginning of the twentieth century. The “philosophical steamships” again acquainted the West with Orthodoxy. What do you think—does today’s tragedy of Arab Orthodoxy have some chance of becoming the beginning of a new stage in its existence? Perhaps we should be prepared to see an Arabic Saint Serge in Europe?

—Of course, our history also reminds one of a sort of “philosophical steamship”. The second half of the nineteenth century, as we know, marked by a series of genocides in Lebanon and Damascus, motivated many Arab thinkers and artists to migrate to Egypt, and then to North and South America. This is how a whole trend in Arab literature arose—the so-called “literature of the diaspora”, created, in part, in Arabic publications in America, and in te “Arabic clubs” of Brazil and Argentina. And this literature is mostly Christian.

The twentieth century brought the East new wars, distancing ever further new philosophers and poets, theologians and musicians from their historical motherland. Many outstanding doctors, teachers, and professors in the West today are Arab Christian intelligentsia, forced to flee their own homes. We hope that these brothers of ours who have fallen victim to the Islamist’s blind force will not cast Christ out of the soil of their hearts and remain His faithful witnesses. Of course, this is our task: Who if not the Mother Church will gather her children in the countries of diaspora? We must remain apostles of love and truth and confess our Christianity, our Orthodoxy, without being shy. We cannot be a “minority”—we are all in ourselves the very pinch of salt that makes a large amount of food fit for the table. 

Several days ago, ISIS called Ukraine, right after Russia, it’s enemy. As we know, Russia has intervened in the political situation in the region, and some political critics, polemicists, and even clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church have opined that this was a serious mistake. On the other hand, Metropolitan Louka (al Khoury) after his recent prayer in the Mariamite Cathedral in Damascus supported Russian military aid in the struggle against Islamism. How might you evaluate the given situation? What is the role of Russian aide in the struggle of Syrian Christians?

—Of course, we must discern the difference between political and ecclesiastical relationships. As for the latter, the Russian Orthodox Church has never abandoned us: the abundant prayers of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples and their generous gifts have equally reached their mark. Thanks to this support we feel that we are not alone. And just last year the Romanian Orthodox Church also decided to help us, bringing a gift to Antioch of 500,000 euros for the needy. Nevertheless, there is no greater gift than the holy prayers for peace in the East raised in your homes and churches.

From the political point of view, everything is much simpler: every government has its own interests. The Church cannot support wars or lead them, but it is obligated to bless the defenders of its homeland. For us, as Christians, the homeland is the expanse of our witness of Christ. We know that Blessed Augustine blessed the soldiers who defended their city, saying, “Just as each of us has a mother whom we are called to protect, we must defend our common mother—the motherland.” It is our blessed obligation to stand up for our country. Syria has interests connected with Russia, and Russia has interests connected with Syria; but in the final analysis, the Syrian army is receiving help, and this is the army of truth, fighting against the murderers of our history, our thoughts. And this army will hold out.

For several years now the world’s mass media has been painting a picture of the sufferings of the Christian East—and this of course corresponds to reality, for the Antiochian Church is beyond all doubt a suffering Church. But someone might unjustifiably consider it a dead, powerless Church. So that no one would doubt the authenticity of life in Orthodox Christianity of Syria and Iraq, could you tell us about the main events in the chronicles of the Antiochian Church that have happened over the past two or three years?

—It goes without saying that our Church is not dead—it is a Church of witness, a Church of martyrdom. Confessing the Crucified and Risen Christ, today it is walking His way of the Cross from Golgotha to His rising from the dead. We are proud that Antioch is still giving birth to martyrs, living eternally before the Throne of the Most High. They are the ones who manifest the genuine life of the Church. And who if not the faithful children of the Russian Church, piously preserving the holy relics of hundreds upon hundreds of its own martyrs, can understand and perceive this?

Nevertheless, as the Savior said, let the unbelieving “come and see”. Despite everything, regardless of the lack of elementary financing, the Antiochian Church continues to serve both Christians and Muslims of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq with its schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations. Many of these projects were given a second life personally by His Beatitude John X, who although in an extremely unenviable position (one need only remember the afflictions of the flock entrusted to him and his kidnapped younger brother Paul, the metropolitan of Aleppo), continues his service in hope, faith, and prayer. Thanks to him, a new Orthodox university will soon open its doors to the Arab world in Al-Khumaira—the second after Balamand University, which is educating today more than seventy students who have now received their first university degree. Through the efforts of many of the faithful, construction is being completed on the Patriarchal hospital of the Virgin Mary in Balamand. It is no less important for us to give Orthodox youths of Antioch another chance to establish themselves on their land, and therefore we are granting parcels of land near Beirut to families from Lebanon, with deferred pay and ready houses at cost. I hope that our Church will continue to serve its flock by strengthening its last ties with its Holy Motherland.

News about the suspension of Eucharistic communion between Damascus and Jerusalem has shocked many Orthodox faithful around the world. What are the real roots of this conflict? What steps can each side take to resolve it?

—This is a very painful subject. In fact, the steps taken by the Jerusalem Church, which have trampled upon the very foundations of canon law, were absolutely unexpected for us. Firstly, this is a sign of deep rejection of the rights of a sister Church in its presence in the Persian Gulf countries; and secondly, it is a sign of the waning of love in the hearts of our brother hierarchs.

It all began, as usual, with politics. Wishing to “pay off its debt” before the world, the leaders of Qatar decided to demonstrate their openness to dialogue in general and religious dialogue in particular. Having given different confessions land to build churches, the Qatar authorities nevertheless did not forget their aversion to Arab clergy, who were forbidden to be present on the country’s territory on a permanent basis (I know this from my own as well as others’ experience). So, in the 1990s the question of an Orthodox presence in Qatar was decided by the director of the regional office of American intelligence services—earlier the U.S. ambassador to Oman, based upon his personal family history: his mother’s Greek identity was the reason he directed the authorities to the Jerusalem Patriarchate. It was the present Patriarch of the Holy City, then an archimandrite, who was sent to the American embassy, and it was under his direction that that very Orthodox church was built, and the cornerstone of which was placed by then Patriarch Theodore in circumvention of all existing norms of ecclesiastical law. Unlike the Jerusalem Church, absolutely all the other Churches—including the Russian Church—asked according to the prescribed order for permission from Patriarch Ignatius to build churches in for example the UAE. “Your presence on these lands is precious to our own presence on them.” That is how His Beatitude approved the Russian Church representatives’ request to build a church in Sharjah.

But the hierarchs of Jerusalem did not make any request. In 1999, in my presence, in Oman His Beatitude Ignatius asked Patriarch Theodore: “Your Holiness, when you go to visit your brother, you certainly knock at his door and ask his invitation. Why then did you not knock at our door?” No intelligible answer of course ever came. Nevertheless, we humbled ourselves before the completed fact—although the Orthodox Arabs of Qatar were, to put it mildly, not elated over the Greek-speaking priest sent to pastor them. But apparently this was not enough for Jerusalem. The death of Ignatius IV and the catastrophic condition in Syria and Iraq motivated the Jerusalem Church leaders (of course, with the encouragement of Qatar, which is interested in the politics of the region) to choose a bishop for this territory; and despite our plea not to allow such barbarianism, Jerusalem nevertheless consecrated a bishop with a corresponding title.

Here the following question can be justifiably asked: how can we talk about unity when our brothers are doing everything to trample upon this unity? The Russian and Antiochian Churches, alas, have had the same bitter experience: we have not forgotten about the Ecumenical Patriarch’s meddling in the business of the Ukrainian schism. In such cases we must remember if not our love, then at least canon law, which precisely regulates all similar procedures. I hope that on the threshold of the Pan-Orthodox Council, Jerusalem will forget about its Greek politics, that the Ecumenical Throne would fulfill its duty to put a stop to the current conflict, and the Russian and Romanian Orthodox Churches would say their own word—the word of truth—about the current situation.

What would you like to say to our Russian and Ukrainian readers as a good pastor, faithful brother, and son of the Holy East?

—Your land is a holy land, which you yourselves have sanctified. You have won it yourselves. Your numberless martyrs are your great treasure. Your Church was crucified, and now you are witnessing its resurrection. Preserve your people, not the stones; it is the people who are the “temples of the Holy Spirit”, breathing life by their prostrations into the stone churches. You, the living members of the Church, can preserve your faith and pass it on to future, yet unborn posterity. And of course, do not forget that far away from these lands you have brothers who love you, who have never stopped loving you even when the communists were persecuting your saints. Today, with the help of your prayers and your love, we must overcome the same trials. Do not forget us.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Met Georges Khodr: Sunday of the Forefathers

Arabic original here. Presumably, this article, which appeared in the newspaper an-Nahar is at least partly written in response to this, a document that clearly did not take into account the concerns of non-European Christians.

Sunday of the Forefathers

On the Sunday of the Fathers, which follows this Sunday, there is discussion of Christ's descent from Abraham-- that is, from a believing lineage. Today, however, the discussion is about Jesus of Nazareth's descent from those who preceded Abraham-- that is, from the pagan gentiles. Thus, the emphasis in Western Christianity on Christ's descent from the Jews does not reflect the complete picture that He wanted for Himself: His descent from all humanity. The human concern is for us to stress His descent from the prophets of Israel, but not at the expense of the humanity of our stressing that He is the Son of all humanity.

In His flesh, Christ came from Mary-- that is, from the Jews. The Church expresses this on the Sunday of the Fathers. The Bible says that He came from Abraham and Abraham himself came from Ur of the Chaldeans, from today's Iraq-- that is, from the gentiles. Thus Jesus was from the nations that were not Jewish. When the Church established this Sunday and called it the Sunday of the Forefathers-- that is, those who preceded Abraham-- it was because she wanted to say that the Lord is also from the gentiles.

Therefore we do not only descend from the Jews. The greater part of us came from the gentiles and along with the gentiles who became Christian, we have become part of God's People through baptism. After Christianity emerged from Palestine, non-Jews became the majority in the Church and the Church does not ask any of her members if their father was Jewish or gentile. This is an issue that we have completely overcome.

Christ appears on this Sunday as the descendant of the peoples and not only the descendant of the Jewish people. God prepared them to receive Christ through the Gospel.

There is an exaggerated emphasis in the Christian West on Christ's Jewishness, ignoring what Paul said about Jews and barbarians, that is Jews and non-Jews, being one in Christ Jesus. The West certainly emphasized His Jewish origin in order to combat Nazism, which persecuted the Jews. But there is now no need for this after the end of Nazism.

To my mind, we must stress the Sunday of the Forefathers after the Christian West, faced with Hitler, insisted on stressing His connection to the Old Testament. This is a stage of Western thought that we have passed. Our real need, after the modern world has accepted the Jews in its societies, is for us to stress Christ's universality and so to stress the Sunday of the Forefathers with the same vigor as the Sunday of the Fathers.

We must stress Christ's fleshly origin because He is a man who saved us in His flesh-- that is, in His humanity and this does not cause us to forget His divinity. We are saved through both natures.

We do not have a complex about the Jews spiritually, after having gone past them. We hope for their salvation in Christ-- that is, if they come to know Him. Our connection to them remains the same-- in our hope that they will be baptized. Anything other than this is sentimentalism.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Met Saba Esber: The Fathers and Us

Arabic original here.

The Fathers and Us

There are two currents regarding the fathers of the Church that are competing on Antiochian territory and perhaps in other churches. One calls for following the fathers in every matter and regards any departure from their teaching or new interpretation of their sayings and even the act of facing new challenges to the faith to be a sort of deviation from the faith and a departure from correctness of belief and Orthodoxy. Some followers of this current even go so far as to accuse those who disagree with them of heresy. As for the other current, it regards itself as modernist and fashionable with no need for the fathers. It regards them as old-fashioned, obsolete, from the past, or a milestone in history. Followers of this current focus on the present moment, its givens and its challenges. It is open to the theological teaching in other churches, disregarding the rich heritage of the Church.

One current glorifies the fathers and the other does not give them any importance. Which one do you think is correct? In reality, both are mistaken, because both start from untrue premises. They limit the fathers to the past and ignore the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, His continuing sanctifying activity among those who are purified, those who are illuminated, and those who are deified. First of all, who are the fathers? They are great teachers who are found in the Church and who contribute to confirming the correct faith or confronting heresies. They are regarded as saints in the Church because they combine spiritual sophistication, a virtuous life, and illumination with with learning, particularly theological learning. Many of them attained advanced worldly learning and placed it in the service of the true faith. They enriched the Christian tradition and laid its theological foundations. The fathers of the Church faced the social and religious challenges of their times. They taught and worked. For this reason, the Church regards their teaching as an indispensable treasure. It constitutes a great amount of holy tradition, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

They all combined a life of holiness with theological learning. The fathers of the Church were not theoreticians, even if they commented and explained and some of them excelled in this field or that. They were not leaders of intellectual or even theological schools of thought. They did not start off on the basis of the philosophical thinking that they had mastered, but rather placed it in the service of faith and harnessed it to express the truth that they found in Christ. They spoke in a language appropriate to their times. The Church needs to elucidate and explain the faith to each generation in the language that it understands and the fathers excelled at this.

We may find in some of them, especially those that are distant from us in time, a language that is difficult for us, a style that is not palatable for us, or positions that are not in accord with our present intellectual, social or political concepts. This is due to the difference in styles, theories, concepts and challenges between our time and theirs. The truth is that we cannot speak about them all together because they are not all a single block in all things. Each of them bears the language, the concepts, the science, the customs and the culture of his time. They may differ in their position about a given issue in the Church and this has happened repeatedly in the history of the Church, but they do not differ in the fundamentals of the faith. Let us remember the two different positions taken by the Apostles Peter and Paul and the solution they found for it.

In the 15th century in Russia, there was a great rivalry between Saints Joseph and Nil, to the point that the monks of that time were called either Josephites or Nilites. The central point of contention between them was monasteries' possessions. Is it right for monks to possess land and institutions or not? The Josephites said that it was write to hold possessions in order to put them in the service of the poor in society. The Nilites rejected this because they scrupulously kept to the spirit of monastic poverty and the total renunciation that they had vowed.

The ingenuity and holiness of the fathers lies in their making themselves worthy of God working freely within them and their ability to re-evanelize the people of their time with the true Gospel. The word "evangelism" comes from the word for "gospel" and means planting the Gospel in current society, the here and now. The Church is called in every time and place to use the language of the people whom it is evangelizing and to explain the Gospel to them.

Some limit the age of the fathers to the first eight centuries. This is not the Orthodox teaching in the least, simply because this would mean that the Holy Spirit stopped being active in the eighth century and this is not true. God is still present in His Church and shall remain active in it unto ages of ages. God has never withheld from the Church holy fathers who support mankind with correct teaching and true spiritual nourishment. In this way, we see a chain continuing from the days of the Apostles and Saint Ignatius of Antioch in the first century down to Sophrony Sakharov (d. 1993), whose sainthood has not yet been officially declared.

If we were to study every father separately and compare between the teaching of two who lived in different times, we would find a single content of faith and two different styles of expressing this single content. Certainly, a father in our present age faces challenges that fathers of previous centuries had not faced. The issues that are raised today were not like this in previous centuries, so let us take some examples of them: the relationship of the Bible to ancient cultures, issues of the biological sciences, social and political theories, changes in ethics, etc. After the seventeenth century, humanity began a new manner of intellectual engagement and science has developed a great deal from then until now. This scientific development has made its mark on the human intellect and caused it to deal with all things in critical manner. Those who are concerned with teaching must take these facts into account in order to guard the faith, preserve the faithful, and guide those who are astray.

Should the Church not deal with contemporary challenges, simply because the ancient fathers did not speak about them because they had not yet been posed in their day?

That is not the problem here, so much as it is the manner of dealing with theology. Theological discourse has not been separated from beholding the divine in the Church, specifically in the Orthodox Church. Therefore, the Church's fundamental saying is, "The theologian is one who prays." When a person is sanctified, moving beyond the stage of purification and reaching illumination, he dwells in God an receives His light which enlightens his mind in order to express it in a manner appropriate to his time. If he teaches someone who is not yet illumined, he relies on the teaching of those who have been sanctified and follows their sanctifying path. Theological teaching is not a special intellectual pattern. The Church is not a philosophical school. It it something similar to someone who speaks of love because he has tasted it, known it, an experienced it.

For the fathers, the life of asceticism and prayer was tied to the gift of teaching, guiding and explaining. What they have offered the Church and the world is the result of living experience and not of intellectual theorizing influenced by this or that philosophical school.

For the fathers, the faith supposes that we do not "cherry-pick" their teachings. That is, we do not take teachings and sayings from here or there to prove an idea that we hold or to refute a position that we think is deviant. Rather, we deal with them with what the theologians of our Church call "the mind of the fathers" or "the patristic context." The Church is "patristic" in the sense that the teachings of her fathers are the fundamental basis for understanding her theology, spirituality and way of thinking. Therefore they are indispensable for her. Familiarity with the fathers means imitating their familiarity with Christ and the life of virtue that they lived and absorbing much of their teaching. When you live according to the true spirit of the Church, you acquire an Orthodox (of, if you want you could say "patristic") soul. You look at everything through it and it warns you of errors here and there. However you do not acquire this on your own, but within the assembly of the Church with which you live a unity of faith. The assembly preserves you from extremism or exaggeration and thus helps you to remain on the correct path.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Authority in the Church

Arabic original here.

Authority

"Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant" (Matthew 20:26).

There is no knowledge greater than that which results from love. "Love God with all your heart... and your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:27-39).

There is no love apart from what results from a personal relationship. God is not a stranger to us. We know Him because He became a person. He loved us and we love Him. He said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM is with you" (Exodus 3:14).

The person is made known in the face of Christ. Every person, no matter how poor, no matter how small, made known in Christ is more precious than the entire universe. There is person and there is institution. Each person, no matter how small within the institution, is more important than all institutions. Each unique person has absolute value. The general does not surpass the particular. The Church is not an institution: it is the Body of Christ. Anything that is imposed by force is without value in the eyes of God. Therefore, in the kingdom of God, love-- and not authority-- reigns supreme. In it is the authority of love; its sovereignty is love. How should we understand authority in the Church? Authority (exousia) appears in the Gospels. It was given to the apostles "to bind and to loosen." The devil tried to give it to Christ, but He refused it because He sought something else. The authority that is given to believers is to become children of God. Authority in the Church, then, is a gift of love, not of domination by force.

Hierarchy exists in the state and there is a leader at the top of the pyramid. Christ came to overturn this picture: for Him, the king stands at the base of the pyramid, on an inverted pyramid, bearing the burden of the entire populated world. He is the ruler of all in the sense that he carries the inhabited world by the authority of his humility, his patience, and his love.

"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).

God for us is a relational being. His true being is the Trinitarian relationship. A relationship of love.Therefore, we must learn how to love, how to deny ourselves, how to efface ourselves for the sake of the other. All of this, because love requires sacrifice. Jesus' life was like this: the service of others. "Our brother is our own life," says Saint Silouan.

+Ephrem
Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and Their Dependencies

Friday, December 4, 2015

Fr Georges Massouh: The Incarnation is the Fruit of God's Generosity

Arabic original here.

The Incarnation is the Fruit of God's Generosity

Christianity believes that Jesus Christ is the pre-existent  Word of God and that He Himself took a body from the Virgin Mary and became perfect man without abandoning His divinity: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled" (1 John 1:1). From its founding, the Church has combated heresies and innovations that claimed that Christ did not take a real body, but rather "an appearance of a body" or "a semblance of a body."

The issue of the incarnation has occupied a distinguished place in Christian-Muslim debate (and dialogue), both ancient and modern. It is still, in the present day, at the top of the list of theological problems on which Christianity and Islam cannot find points of agreement. To say that the Word of God became incarnate as a human being and that the Word is perfect God and perfect man, is not palatable to Islamic thought, which regards the Qur'an as the pre-eternal, uncreated speech of God. Christianity, on the other hand, says that since Christ is the incarnate Word of God, the fullness of divinity dwelled in Him bodily.

When they discuss the incarnation of the Word, Arab Christian writers are in agreement that the incarnation is the fruit of divine generosity. The philosopher Abu Zakariyya Yahya ibn Adi al-Suryani al-Tikriti (d. 974) says, "The most excellent of those who are generous is the one who is generous with the most excellent things in existence. The most excellent thing in existence is the being of the Creator. So it was necessary for the Creator to generously give Himself to us, and this was through His connecting to us." God, who is not only generous but the most excellent of those who are generous, must give Himself generously because that is the best thing in existence. Therefore, He generously bestowed Himself upon human nature, honoring it and raising it up to the divine presence, uniting to it when He became man.

Theodore Abu Qurrah, the 9th century Orthodox bishop of Harran, states that the first reason for the incarnation is for God to draw near to man so that man might be able to come to know God. The second reason, which is no less important, is to redeem man and save him from the devil's grip. For this reason, "God sent His Word and His Spirit to the pure virgin Mary and she bore the light of God which is of God and He appeared incarnate (...) and the Word of God came to be in the likeness of man, without sin, even as He is divine. Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit [this is a deliberate echo of an expression from the Qur'an]. He is of His essence and substance-- Creator, not creature."

Ammar al-Basri, a writer of the 9th century, believes that the incarnation is God's honoring man. He says, "God's generosity, honor, goodness and mightiness, which called Him to bring forth out of nothing, establish and create, are what finally called Him to perfect His charity through His becoming incarnate as a human from His creation. This caused for humankind by His becoming incarnate as a human the lot of His sonship and the sublimity of His lordship." Therefore, the Word has taken a body and through addressed people directly because human nature is the best place for the divine to be revealed. Ammar believes that the incarnation of the divine Word is "the most fitting to God's excellence and generosity and is a clearer expression of His generosity towards them and His honoring them than His appearance (in the Old Testament) in a house of stone, an ark of wood, a lowly bush, and a cloud."

As for Paul, the 13th century Orthodox bishop of Sidon, he regarded the incarnation as the best way that God chose in order to connect to man and to transmit the heavenly message to him. He says, "Because God is generous, it was necessary for Him to be generous with the  most sublime thing in existence. There is nothing more sublime than His Word, that is, His reason. Therefore, it was necessary that He be generous with His word, so that He would be the most generous of those who are generous. Thuis it was necessary for Him to take on a tangible being in order to show His power and generosity through it. Since among the creatures there was none nobler than man, He took on human nature from the purified Lady Mary, chosen over all the women of the world."

The Arab Christian writers criticize those who reject belief in the incarnation of the Word and regard the position of those who reject it as stemming from the miserliness with which man responds to God's generosity. In this regard, Yahya ibn Adi says, "If his connecting with us is possible, if we have in it the ultimate honor, and if He has in it the perfection of generosity, then nothing could prevent it apart from inability or miserliness. These two things are attributes of imperfection and He is greater than such things. Therefore He must connect to us." Ammar al-Basri presents the same proof when he says, "Why are do withhold from your  your Creator that He bring you to the apex of His generosity and His honor-- though it does not diminish His kingship and authority, just as it does not diminish His honor that He has offered you-- as though you want to make Him your equal in miserliness?" 

According to Christian theology, Christmas, which we are making are pilgrimage towards, is the feast of the divine incarnation. The most beautiful gift that God has honored us with is His only-begotten Son, who was born in a lowly manger for animals. Those to whom the gift was first sent rejected it, apart from a very tiny few. In the icon of the Nativity, we see a bull and a donkey surrounding the baby Jesus to warm Him. They symbolize the prophecy from the Old Testament, "The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider” (Isaiah 3:1). Be generous, just as God is generous. That is the feast.