Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Fr Georges Massouh: John the Baptist or the Prophet Yahya?

Arabic original here. All Qur'anic passages are taken from Tarif Khalidi's translation.

John the Baptist or the Prophet Yahya?

The text of the Qur'an presents three key figures who appear in the New Testament: Jesus Christ, His mother Mary, and Saint John the Baptist, who is the seal of the prophets for Christians. In what follows, we will examine the figure of John, Yahya in the Qur'an, and his degree of similarity and difference from Yahya in the Islamic tradition.

John the Baptist appears in the Qur'an several times under the name "the Prophet Yahya", which was the usual form for the name John in the Arabian Peninsula before Islam. In Surat al-An'am (83-86), the name Yahya appears in the list that mentions the names of prophets from the Old Testament, from Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David to Zakariya, Isa and Elias... The Qur'an considers all of these to be righteous prophets whom God God to spread His message, guided along the straight path,
and made the most excellent in the universe. I should point out here that this article deals only with the personality of John and not any of the others, so I will not talk about "the Prophet Isa" or, as Christians know Him, the Lord Jesus Christ. That will come in time.

The Qur'an presents the story of John's conception in three different places: in Surat Al 'Imran (83-86), Zakariya asks God to grant him a son, "It was then that Zachariah prayed to his Lord saying: 'My Lord, grant me from on high a blameless progeny. You always hear prayers.'" The angels call out to him, "God brings you glad tidings of the coming of John, confirming the truth with a word from God-- a lord among men, chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous." Most exegetical works say with regard to these two ayas that God brings Zakariya glad tidings of a child, who is Yahya, who will bring glad tidings of the coming of a word from God, which is Isa ibn Maryam. He will be a "lord among men" who "rules his nation with knowledge and virtue", someone who is chaste and "refrains from approaching women", "a good prophet who carries out God's and people's rights and is exempt from sin." It is noteworthy that in this account, when Zakariya asks his Lord to give a sign confirming John's conception, God says to him, "Your sign is that you shall not speak to people for three days, except in gestures. Remember your Lord frequently." The sign of muteness is also mentioned in the Gospel of Luke (1:18-22), not only for three days, but the entire time John was in the womb.

Surat Maryam is the sura that dedicates the largest section to discussing Yahya (ayas 2-15). Zakariya asks God to grant him "a kinsman from on high to be my heir and heir of the House of Jacob, and make him, my Lord, acceptable to You." What is meant here by inheritance is not money, but prophethood and goodness. Surat Maryam then continues, "O Zachariah, We bring you glad tidings of a son, whose name is John. Upon none before him have we bestowed this name." Here the Qur'anic account meets the account in the Gospels, which says, "So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. His mother answered and said, 'No; he shall be called John.' But they said to her, 'There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.' So they made signs to his father—what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, 'His name is John.' So they all marveled" (Luke 1:59-63). The Qur'anic text adds, "'O John, take firm hold of the book.' And we granted him sound judgment when still a child." Take firm hold of the book. That is, with seriousness and interpretive effort. We granted him firm judgment when still a child, that is, We gave him the power to understand the secrets of the Torah when still a child, before reaching adulthood.


Surat Maryam continues the description of the figure of Yahya, "And tenderness, from on high, and purity. He was truly a pious man, dutiful toward his parents, and was not arrogant or disobedient." Tenderness from on high (the name John in Hebrew means "God is gracious"), he was not arrogant or disobedient, he was not proud and did not disobey his Lord. Surat Maryam finishes the discussion of Yahya by saying, "Peace be upon him the day he was born, the day he dies and the day he is resurrected, alive!" (aya 15). It is the very same aya that the very same sura attributes to Christ the Lord when he says of himself, "Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am resurrected, alive! (aya 33). This means, according to Islamic exegesis, that God announces to Yahya and Isa that they will rise on the day of resurrection. This highlights a fundamental disagreement between Christians and Muslims regarding Christ's resurrection, which Christians believe has truly already taken place.

There is no doubt that the Qur'an, in comparison to the Gospels, recounts only a part of what these Gospels say about Saint John the Baptist. The Qur'an does not mention the event of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan at the hand of John, John's testimony about the Theophany, his preaching that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near, and his decapitation... In its presentation of Yahya, however, the Qur'an does not present anything that contradicts Christian tradition. It remains that the figure of John in the Qur'an is a radiant personality whom Muslims love and hold in esteem. This is what we must see and take into account in order to build and solidify bridges of love between Christians and Muslims.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Met Georges Khodr: Light has Dawned upon Us

Arabic original here.

Light has Dawned upon Us

Today we take leave of the Feast of Theophany, where we commemorated the Savior's baptism in the River Jordan. The Church saw fit that this passage from the Gospel of Matthew be read to us, in which there is a discussion of light where the Evangelist Matthew mentions a passage from the Book of Isaiah, where he says of Galilee of the gentiles, the region where the Lord lived, "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."

There is an outpouring of light with the coming of Jesus. In Orthodox dogma, we say that the Church is based on what the Apostles have given us, by which we remain in the light. There are many bad ideas in the world and they assault us day after day in various forms: strange doctrines, strange ideas, and strange social behavior in all fields attack the Church and people are confused between the Gospel and these bad things that we are exposed to every day. But the firm believer does not deviate from the good doctrine he has received in the Holy Church, what the Apostle Paul summarized when he said that our belief is that Christ died and rose. We preserve this faith so that we may live secure from sin and error.

Therefore today's Gospel reading ends with the words "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This is what I would like to alert you to: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This does not primarily mean that the end of the world has come since Jesus was not talking about the end of the world then, but rather He was talking about His coming. "Repent, for I will be king over you if I am raised upon the cross and escape the tomb." This is the kingdom of heaven, that Christ is king over souls and that we ourselves enter into His possession, into His sovereignty, and that we allow Him to govern us. Jesus governs us in obedience if we obey Him. At that point, we are in the kingdom of heaven.

We will not wait years and years to enter the kingdom of heaven. We will not wait for death to enter the kingdom of heaven. Today we are in the kingdom of heaven if we make Christ king over our hearts. Wherever a person is, he is in God's kingdom if he makes himself a slave of God, obedient to God and to the Gospel in everything, preserving every evangelical virtue and desiring virtue. God's kingdom exists and is not far from any of us, but we nevertheless must enter it. This means that one enters himself into the kingdom or he withdraws himself from the kingdom. He enters himself into virtue or he withdraws himself from virtue.

For this reason He said, "repent." That is, repent so that you may witness God's kingdom. The blind man does not see the light, but the light exists. We do not witness God's kingdom if we are in sin or in false doctrine. Therefore we must change. He says: change, change your minds, change your thoughts. This is the meaning of repentance. Profound repentance is that a person changes his bad thoughts. We are required to change our thoughts in order to enter God's kingdom.

The Gospel challenges us by saying "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," repent, for now you are in the kingdom. If you want to be in the kingdom, be as nothing. "And if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts." Open your hearts so that Christ alone may become king over you, that you may be in His possession.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Theophany is the Manifestation of the Holy Trinity

Arabic original here.

Theophany is the Manifestation of the Holy Trinity

We said the John the Forerunner prepared the people of God to receive Christ through humility, "There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7-8).

Christ is perfect man and perfect God, who came to baptism as a human person, but without sin. He entered the water and there demonstrated that He would die, so His baptism indicated that He would taste death in the body. But after this baptism, the voice of the Father was heard saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

John the Baptist bears witness, saying, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him" (John 1:32). 

So the Holy Trinity is who baptizes believers in Jesus: the Father spoke, the Son was witnessed incarnate, and John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit and openly announced the Trintiy for the first time in human history.

This is what Christ publicly declared to His disciples after His resurrection:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

Thus God appeared as Holy Trinity on the banks of the River Jordan at Jesus' baptism: God the Father is the source, God the Son is eternally begotten of the Father just as light comes out of the sun, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father: "the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father" (John 15:26).

Word is accompanied by a spirit from man. The Holy Spirit is the breath of life that is in Christ and in us in baptism.

Theophany happened once by the River Jordan, but it also happens within us at every moment, in every aspect of our life: in our thoughts, our words, and all our actions.

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

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fr Georges Massouh: Salvation is Nobody's Business but God's

Arabic original here.

Salvation is Nobody's Business but God's

When Jesus' disciples asked their Teacher, "Who then can be saved?" He answered them clearly, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:25-26). Jesus' reply came in the context of His discussion with a very wealthy young man who kept to the entire law, practicing it strictly. However, when Jesus asked Him, in addition to carrying out the commandments, to distribute his wealth to the poor and to follow Him, "when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions."

Carrying out the the commandments and general ethical principles of the law is not sufficient for a person to attain salvation, because one is required to be superior to limiting oneself to fulfilling some of the commandments. One is required to go beyond the commandments to freely love. After Jesus, is is presupposed that those who are new in their spiritual and practical life will practice them, but as believers advance in their spiritual life, love, where there is free giving and self-sacrifice, takes the place of the commandments. After the coming of Jesus Christ, the standard for salvation is not only fulfilling the commandments, but also practicing gratuitous love.

The Holy Apostle Paul says in his Epistle to the Galatians, "No one is justified by the law in the sight of God... the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:11, 24). It is clear, then, that salvation is not automatically tied to fulfilling the law, its rulings and commandments. Salvation is God's business and not the business of us humans. "Who shall be saved?" is a question that no one but God alone can answer. "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
If the matter of salvation were left in human hands, it would be a great catastrophe, as every person would judge others for salvation or perdition according to his whims and prejudices and not according to what the Gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ say. 

In our current reality, there are still those who claim salvation exclusively for their nation [Arabic: umma], their church, or their denomination... They sit on God's throne and condemn someone to becast into eternal hell or send someone to heaven. Is the human person not a bundle of positive and negative emotions? So how can man, who is governed by his inherited hatreds and instincts, his disappointments and fleeting emotions, justly judge the salvation and perdition of others? Therefore, one cannot judge anyone. Rather, one should pray for the salvation of one's own soul and of those who with whom one shares a faith community. It is hoped that one will pray for the entire world and not only for part of it.

When we talk about salvation, we must be aware of the fact that our chances are not better than others' chances. There are those who surpass us in works of love and boundless giving. On Judgment Day, God will not ask us about our religious or denominational affiliation and how much we have practiced laws and commandments, as these things were established to educate us and guide us to the truth. Rather, He will ask us, "Show me where you have loved your brother." Despite people's sins, whatever good they have done, final judgment remains exclusive to God alone: "with God all things are possible." This is the final word and there is nothing else besides it.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Historical Background to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem's Real Estate Portfolio

Source.

The Politics of church land administration: 
The Orthodox Patriarchate of  Jerusalem in late Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine, 1875 – 1948


by Konstantinos Papastathis and  Ruth Kark


Introduction

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is institutionally structured as a monastic Brotherhood, having as its primary duty the protection of Orthodox rights over the Christian Holy Places. The alleged lack of pastoral interest in the laity, coupled with prevention of the admission of Arab clergy to the religious bureaucracy by the dominant Greek ecclesiastics, led from the nineteenth century onwards to a significant internal polarization between the two groups. The Arab nation-building process, the Greek  national myth of  Helleno-Orthodoxia, the activity of foreign powers in the Holy Land and especially that of Russia, the overall secularization process after the Tanzimat reforms, and the development of an Arab Christian bourgeoisie have all been analytically described as substantial factors in the formation of the Arab Orthodox movement and the subsequent dichotomy between the Greek Patriarchate and the Arab congregation.

Overall, the local Orthodox viewed Greek rule as the ‘outsider’ that had usurped the Arab cultural patrimony. For that reason they believed that they should acquire full control of Patriarchal affairs or at least participate on equal terms in the administration. Following the paradigm of the other ecclesiastical jurisdictions, and with Russian support, the Arab Orthodox demanded an end to alleged religious imperialism via the laicization of the communal power structures and the establishment of a Mixed Council. On the other hand, the dominance of  Helleno-Orthodoxia, i.e. the complete equation between the Greek national identity and Orthodoxy, led the Greek hierarchy to treat any Arab claim as a hostile act that should be opposed by all possible means.

The dispute, however, had an economic aspect as well, i.e. the administration of the immovable property in which the Brotherhood invested from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. As was noted by James Finn, British Consul in Jerusalem (1846-63), the Patriarchate ‘besides maintaining without diminution its ancient property, … has for several years past pursued a scheme of buying up houses, or shops, or waste ground, or even fractions (kirfits [sic] or twenty-fourth parts) of such properties all over the city indiscriminately, till it is believed that more than a quarter of the whole [within the city walls] has come into their hands as free-hold purchase’. Moreover, certain Patriarchal officials acquired landed properties outside the walls, which were further improved through plantation and cultivation. In the early 1920s the Patriarchate had already become the owner or the trustee of vast amounts of real estate, estimated at about 631 properties. According to Tamari, the Patriarchal vakf, together with the Russian land endowments,were more numerous than ‘Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic endowments put together’. Katz and Kark identified 355 of these properties, of which 176 alone covered an estimated 36,779 metric dunams (1 dunam = 1,000 sq. metres). Moreover, of the total area of 900 dunams of the Jerusalem Old City, 317 dunams belonged to the Patriarchate.

This article suggests that at the core of this rivalry stood the mode of management of the vast Church-owned urban and agricultural real estate. Our aim is twofold: a) to present the historical course of the relevant land dispute from the late Ottoman period to the end of the British Mandate; and b) to critically assess its political connotations within the framework of the nation-building process and the power struggle between state powers with conflicting interests. The general themes under investigation are: Church and state with special reference to the governmental policies towards religious property; and Church and community, with special reference to the ecclesiastical land administration and how this affected the relationship between them. Our thesis is that both the Ottomans and the British pursued a pro-Greek policy.

The article is divided into two main parts. First, we elaborate on the question of land acquisition in late Ottoman times, paying special attention to the instruments used by the Patriarchate to accumulate real estate. In the second part, we examine the dispute in relation to land administration, focusing on its political dimension during a period of extreme social unrest. In conclusion, we critically assess the respective Ottoman and British policies. It is argued that their de facto pro-Greek stance was not only the out-come of their domestic political considerations, but was also dictated by their diplomatic priorities. Moreover, it is argued that the institutional framework established in respect to the vakf  properties was another factor blocking Arab involvement in their administration. To this end, the legal channels through which the Patriarchate accumulated them are of special importance.

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Read the whole article here.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Met Georges Khodr: John the Forerunner

Arabic original here.

John the Forerunner

On the day after the Feast of Theophany, we celebrate the Synaxis of Saint John the Baptist. John's personality appears to us as enchanting and vexing at the same time. A man at the ultimate point of humility, in order to reveal Christ to Israel. He disappeared and wanted to disappear, as he regarded his mission as having been completed with the coming of the great, hoped-for one. Therefore his role ended after he baptized Jesus in water and was imprisoned on account of the truth he spoke to Herod.

We might ask why he was able to be humble, how it was possible for him to live this new life, and how he could confront the unjust king and to be brought by his resistance to the point of martyrdom. The secret of this lies in the fact that he renounced everything people possess and everything people desire. He lived alone in the desert to show that man's solitude is with God and his encounter is with the truth. This is perfected in a life of poverty without food or shelter. John foraged locusts and wild honey.

Our eating much means that we fear death. Our not eating means that we do not fear death. We think that food protects us against the danger of death. But John sought solitude until the end, to the point of hunger. He renounced all the glories that surround us. He renounced the priesthood, though his father was a priest and priesthood was his right. At that time, priesthood meant a certain amount of glory. He renounced the glory that he could attain by being close to King Herod, who gladly listened to him. Since he renounced the glory of the royal palace, he rebuked the king. He did not conceal his conscience on account of the friendship that bound him to the king.

John believed that God has rights over people and that he had to remind everyone of God's right over them and that they are all dust. But someone who treats such issues puts himself at risk and John put himself at risk when he said to his friend the king, "It is not permissible for you to take your brother's wife." These words did not amuse the adulterous king, even though he was pleased by other things that John said.

Then came that wild party. The king invited the country's grandees and ate and drank with them until he got drunk and swore to give the dancing-girl anything she wanted, even half his kingdom. She went to her mother, who asked for John's head on a platter. After this, his head was a light to the world.

This great corpse, which we celebrate on August 29, was a preparation for the death of the Savior. John was a man who lived before Jesus, but like a savior. Therefore the Holy Church made a feast for him on the day after the Theophany of the Lord Jesus, as he also appeared in light.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Sergei Brun on the Church of Antioch under the Crusaders

Originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of The Wheel.

An Eastern Church Amid the Struggles of Rome and Constantinople:
The Patriarchate of Antioch During the Crusades


by Sergei P. Brun

 The Age of the Crusades is by far one of the most popular subjects in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue (or rather, in the ongoing Orthodox-Catholic polemics), a time period which constantly arises in the field of historical as well as theological deliberation. The Christian East, suffering from the aggression of the Latins, is indeed a popular image, constantly present in the Orthodox perception of history and in Orthodox historical memory. This image is, in fact, one of the principal generators of the ‘victim complex’ in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox mindset. In many ways, this complex derives from the fear of change: the fear to be changed  by the other and, ultimately, by communion with the other. That is why in the Eastern Christian communities one may find an overly protective attitude in which the Catholic West is perceived as a force of subjection, latinization, and a threat to the traditions and spirituality of the East that is protected and harbored by Byzantium.

Yet in the case of the Patriarchate of Antioch in the age of the Crusades (11th to 13th centuries) we see an Eastern Orthodox Church that was beset equally by prolonged, intensive periods of Latin and Byzantine intervention, episodes that had immense consequences for its history and tradition. The position of the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church of Antioch during the period of the Second Byzantine (969–1084) and Latin rule (1098–1291) in Syria is often entirely overlooked, since most authors concentrate exclusively on the conflicts of Rome and Constantinople, seeing the latter as the single voice of Orthodoxy. But is the Orthodox Church bound to the position of Constantinople, and the Orthodox world to the Byzantine Empire? This is a fundamental question, pertaining to Orthodox Christians’ identity and perception of history.





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Read the whole article here.