Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fr Touma (Bitar): Why Icons?

Arabic original here.

Why Icons?

Today, brothers, the Holy Church commemorates the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which affirmed the veneration of icons after a long period during which those who venerate them were persecuted and most ancient icons that had existed before the eighth century were destroyed.

What is the importance of icons in the Church? First of all, brothers, we honor icons and do not worship them. For this reason, all that can be said about us worshiping idols if we use icons in the Church is false. There is a great difference between veneration and worship. Worship belongs to God and God alone. But man expresses himself with word and image. Man has senses with which he expresses himself. Thus we use incense. Incense, for us, is a sign of venerating the faithful and of worshiping God in the faithful. So too with the Holy Bible. There are words in it, but these words are only vehicles for God's presence among us. We cannot express ourselves in a non-human way. We are human. Thus we express ourselves with sound, with the written word, with icons, with incense... All of these are languages. However, we need to know that the word of God which is read to us, though it has a human garb is not limited to human words. These words bear a divine presence. Thus we call this book the Holy Bible. It is the Holy Bible because it has a human dimension and another, divine dimension. It is different from every other book in the world. All the books in the world are human books, but the Holy Bible is a theanthropic book. In other words, we believe that the Son of God became flesh, that God became human. He is God and man at the same time. The Lord Jesus Christ is both God and man. For this reason, everything that goes out from God to man is divine and human in the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, God and man. The Holy Bible, then, contains human words, but these human words bear the divine presence, just as the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, which He took from the Virgin Mary, bore His divine presence. God was present in it and they were one and the same. Thus the word of God is a human word and a divine word at the same time.

The same thing can be said with regard to icons. In itself, an icon of course has colors. And of course there are shapes and lines. When we draw something, we place its name over the drawing. If there is an image of someone-- anyone at all-- without a name over it, then we do not regard it as an icon and we in no way venerate it. Then, when we are venerating an icon, in practice we regard the veneration as being directed toward the person depicted in the icon. We have here, for example, Saint Barbara. When we prostrate before Saint Barbara, we are not prostrating to the wall, but before the saint who is in heaven and who is present through the icon that we drew of her on the wall. In the same way, we kiss the Holy Bible. When we kiss the Holy Bible, we are kissing God, who was pleased to give us Himself through these human words. So our veneration is not of colors. It is not of wood. Rather, it is of the one who is depicted on the wood. So we venerate God and His saints in human shapes and human expressions. The Church has held fast to venerating icons because venerating icons is based on the incarnation of God. The icon indicates that the Son of God-- the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity-- became incarnate indeed. He became human in every sense of the word. He became perceptible. God became perceptible in His body. God in the body ate, drank and suffered. So this is something that surpasses human understanding. One cannot understand something like this. But one is allowed to accept this through faith, through this trust that God indeed became incarnate, indeed became perceptible. He who is imperceptible gives us Himself  in a perceptible image in the icon. And He gives Himself in an auditory manner through human words. He gives us Himself through the worship that we perform: through the incense, through the motions, through the words... The priest, for example, is flesh and blood like any human. At some point, this body will become dust. But the Lord God was pleased at the raising of the priest's hand and at his making the sign of the cross in a particular way, to indicate the name of the Lord Jesus. In this way, in practice, he gives the blessing of Christ, who is unseen, in a visible manner. For this reason, people bow, receive a blessing and make a prostration, knowing that this priest is a man like other men. But this man was chosen by the Church, a hand was placed upon him, and God's grace was brought down upon him, that he might become a servant of the Lord God. The priest, when he vests and serves according to the order established by the Holy Church, is not, in practice, the one who is performing the divine service. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is invisible, is the one performing it through him, who is visible, for the life and sanctification of the faithful. In the same way, we prepare the Eucharist. We prepare the bread, the wine and the water, and we sanctify them. In other words, the Lord God, who is invisible, is pleased to rest, by the Holy Spirit, in the bread and wine. They become, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christ's body and blood. This is what we partake of when we partake of the mysteries. When we partake of them, we taste bread and wine, but this bread bears Christ as His body. That is, we receive God who is pleased to give us Himself under the sign of the bread. This is what the Lord Jesus did at the Last Supper. When He was with His disciples, He took a loaf of bread and gave it to the disciples, saying, "Take, eat, this is My body." And He took the cup-- the cup of wine at that time-- and said to them, "Drink of it all of you, this is My blood." For this reason, we do what the Lord Jesus Christ did at the Last Supper. Then, by the Lord's Holy Spirit, this bread and wine become Christ's body and blood whenever we gather together to participate in the Divine Liturgy. I cannot explain it, but I accept it. You cannot explain it. You must only accept with faith. This is a truth that surpasses the human intellect. It surpasses human understanding. But it is a certain truth in every sense of the word.

So this is our life in Christ. For this reason, icons are very important and we kiss them and make prostrations in front of them. But this kiss that we press upon the icon is directed at the one depicted in the icon. That is, when we kiss an icon of the Lord and Our Lady, we are kissing the Lord and Our Lady, not just the wood. The wood must be there because we have bodies, because we are of this world, and we can only express what is imperceptible through what is perceptible. God is imperceptible in Himself. God is spirit. Nevertheless, He became perceptible when He became incarnate, in order to give Himself to us in a way befitting us. For this reason, these perceptible things that we use in the Church in order for the faithful to be sanctified through them bear God's presence. Thus we must honor with perfect honor these perceptible things that bear God's imperceptible presence. That is, we must consider the Lord Jesus Christ to be present here and now with us. When I give you a blessing, I am not giving it to you from myself. Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who is giving it to you through me. I become a sort of human instrument in a sense. Through me, you receive the presence of God who surpasses apprehension and transcends time. In other words, it is the same thing that happened two thousand years ago and still happens now. The difference is that at that time, the Lord Jesus Christ lived among the disciples in the body. Then He ascended into heaven and sent us the Lord's Holy Spirit, so that we may persist in the work He did, by the power of the Lord's Holy Spirit, by regarding God as present-- yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever-- as He is active in our life in every sense of the word. And so the icon is a creed: "I believe in one God, the Father almighty..." Then we say: "And in the Lord Jesus Christ," who became incarnate from the Virgin. So the icon points to God having become incarnate and to man's having been granted to enter into a connection with God through the icon, through the word, through incense, through every perceptible, human thing. Man has become capable of talking with God in his human language. When one says, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy," he does not only speak words, but also directs words to the Lord God. He says to Him, "Have mercy on me, O God!" Now, as I am addressing you, am I speaking words without any purpose, or am I speaking in order to enter into a connection with you? Words connect people. It is language that ties people to each other. In the same way, when I use words, images, or anything perceptible as an instrument for bearing God, I am entering into a connection with God. I talk with God, just as you speak with God. Each of us is granted to speak with God, to enter into a relationship with God, into a connection with God, through perceptible, material things. We are human and need these things. Can I address you if I do not speak to you? If I do not lift my voice? If I do not transform this speech that is in my mind into words and sound so that it will reach you, so that there will be a link between my mind and your minds, between my heart and your hearts, between my presence and your presence, and then so God's presence will be in me and in you? All of this makes the icon something absolutely fundamental for expressing the nature of the Christian faith. If this was not so, then Christians at that time would not have sacrificed so many martyrs and struggled to keep icons. Without icons, they seem to say that God did not become incarnate. But God did become incarnate. God became man. God became perceptible. He gave us Himself. At every Divine Liturgy, we sense God's presence. We receive Him in a living form, in a perceptible form, in a human form. But at the same time, He is God and He was pleased to give us Himself in this way. For this reason, we receive and we give thanks and rejoice. We hold fast to the faith of the Church and to what our holy fathers have taught us.

The epistle says something very clear: "The man of heresy-- that is, turn from someone who teaches contrary to the teaching of the Church after having been warned time and again, knowing that he has gone astray-- and he is in sin, having condemned himself in himself." So we turn away from the man of heresy if he clings to his heresy, if he clings to his teaching that is strange to the teaching of the Church. For this reason, we the faithful must hold fast to what what the Church teaches us. There is no question of changing words. Indeed, there is a divine presence in these words. Therefore, let us preserve everything we have received from our holy fathers, transmit it to our children, and continue to transmit it with perfect trust.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan-- Douma, Lebanon
October 15, 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Free to Download: Irfan Shahid's Books on Byzantium and the Arabs

Dumbarton Oaks has made free for download all of Irfan Shahid's works on Byzantium and the Arabs, an extremely valuable resource documenting Byzantine-Arab relations and Christianity among the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period.


The Arabs played an important role in Roman-controlled Oriens in the four centuries or so that elapsed from the Settlement of Pompey in 64 B.C. to the reign of Diocletian, A.D. 284–305. In Rome and the Arabs Irfan Shahîd explores this extensive but poorly known role and traces the phases of the Arab-Roman relationship, especially in the climactic third century, which witnessed the rise of many powerful Roman Arabs such as the Empresses of the Severan Dynasty, Emperor Philip, and the two rulers of Palmyra, Odenathus and Zenobia. Philip the Arab, the author argues, was the first Christian Roman emperor and Abgar the Great (ca. 200 A.D.) was the first Near Eastern ruler to adopt Christianity. In addition to political and military matters, the author also discusses Arab cultural contributions, pointing out the role of the Hellenized and Romanized Arabs in the urbanization of the region and in the progress of Christianity, particularly in Edessa under the Arab Abgarids. 

The fourth century, the century of Constantine, witnessed the foundation and rise of a new relationship between the Roman Empire and the Arabs. The warrior Arab groups in Oriens became foederati, allies of Byzantium, the Christian Roman empire, and so they remained until the Arab conquests. In Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, Irfan Shahîd elucidates the birth of the new federate existence and the rise of its institutional forms and examines the various constituents of federate cultural life: the phylarchate, the episcopate, the beginnings of an Arab Church, an Arabic liturgy, and the earliest attested composition of Arabic poetry. He discusses the participation of the Arab foederati in Byzantium’s wars with her neighbors—the Persians and the Goths—during which those Arab allies, most notably the Tanūkhids, contributed to the welfare of the imperium and the ecclesia. The Arab federate horse galloped for Byzantium as far as Ctesiphon, Constantinople, and possibly Najrân in Arabia Felix. In the reign of Valens, the foederati appeared as the defenders of Nicene Orthodoxy: their soldiers fought for it; their stern and uncompromising saint, Moses, championed it; and their heroic and romantic queen, Mavia, negotiated for it.
Just as the Tanūkhids rose and fell as the principal Arab foederati of Byzantium in the fourth century, so too in the fifth did the Salīḥids. The century, practically terra incognita in the history of Arab-Byzantine relations, is explored by Irfan Shahîd, who recovers from the sources the political, military, ecclesiastical, and cultural history of the Arab foederati in Oriens and the Arabian Peninsula during this period. Unlike their predecessors or successors, the foederati of the fifth century lived in perfect harmony with Byzantium. Federate-imperial relations were smooth: the Arab horse reached as far as Pentapolis in the West and possibly took part in Leo’s expedition against the Vandals. They were staunchly orthodox and participated in two ecumenical councils, Ephesus and Chalcedon, where their voice was audible. But their more enduring contributions were cultural, and may be associated with Dāwūd (David), the Salīḥid king; Petrus, the bishop of the Parembole; and possibly also Elias, patriarch of Jerusalem (494–516), a Roman Arab. The federate culture gave impetus to the rise of the Arabic script, Arabic poetry, and a simple form of an Arabic liturgy—the foundation for cultural achievements in subsequent centuries.
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 1, part 1, Political and Military History is devoted to the main Arabian tribes that federates of the Byzantine Roman Empire. In the early sixth century Constantinople shifted its Arab alliance from the Salahids to the Kindites and especially the Ghassanids, who came to dominate Arab-Byzantine relations through the reign of Heraclius. Arranged chronologically, this study, the first in-depth account of the Ghassanids since the nineteenth century, draws widely from original sources in Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. Irfan Shahîd traces in detail the vicissitudes of the relationship between the Romans and the Ghassanids, and argues for the latter’s extensive role in the defense of the Byzantine Empire in its east.
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 1 part 2, Ecclesiastical History provides a chronologically ordered account of the involvement of the Ghassanids in ecclesiastical affairs in the eastern region of the Byzantine Empire. Tracing the role of Arab tribes both inside and outside the Roman limes, Irfan Shahîd documents how the Ghassanids in particular came to establish and develop a distinct non-Chalcedonian church hierarchy, all the while remaining allies of the Chalcedonian emperors. Ghassanid phylarchs such as Mundir emerge not merely as loyal foederati but devout Christians. Shahîd extensively and critically analyzes the Greek, Syriac, and Arabic sources, including many obscure or unfamiliar texts to illuminate the religious landscape of the Arabs of the sixth century.

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 2, part 1, Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography, and Frontier Studies is a topical study of the military, religious, and civil structures of the Ghassanids. Irfan Shahîd’s detailed study of Arab buildings of the sixth century illuminates how Byzantine provincial art and architecture were adopted and adapted by the federate Arabs for their own use. As monuments of Christian architecture, these federate structures constitute the missing link in the development of Arab architecture in the region between the earlier pagan (Nabataean and Palmyrene) and later Muslim (Umayyad). Drawing from literary and material evidence, Shahîd argues that the Gassanids were not nomadic, as traditionally believed, but thoroughly sedentary both in their roots and in the late Roman frontier zone they inherited. The third of four volumes dedicated to the sixth century, this book extensively depends upon the previous two volumes (volume 1, part 1, Political and Military History; volume 1, part 2, Ecclesiastical History).
Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume 2, part 1, Toponymy, Monuments, Historical Geography, and Frontier Studies is a topical study of the military, religious, and civil structures of the Ghassanids. Irfan Shahîd’s detailed study of Arab buildings of the sixth century illuminates how Byzantine provincial art and architecture were adopted and adapted by the federate Arabs for their own use. As monuments of Christian architecture, these federate structures constitute the missing link in the development of Arab architecture in the region between the earlier pagan (Nabataean and Palmyrene) and later Muslim (Umayyad). Drawing from literary and material evidence, Shahîd argues that the Gassanids were not nomadic, as traditionally believed, but thoroughly sedentary both in their roots and in the late Roman frontier zone they inherited. The third of four volumes dedicated to the sixth century, this book extensively depends upon the previous two volumes (volume 1, part 1, Political and Military History; volume 1, part 2, Ecclesiastical History).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: The Hegemony of Obscurantist Thinking

Arabic original here.

The Hegemony of Obscurantist Thinking

When religious thinkers treat various issues in their writings, they often resort to arbitrary comparisons between religions that are without scholarly or methodological value. They likewise fall into the trap of confusing modern concepts and their insistence on these concepts being rooted in their sacred texts. They do not hesitate to say that all contemporary concepts were described in their sacred texts before the European Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Recently I read a dossier by one of the monthly Arabic journals containing "studies" on the topic of secularism. My attention was drawn to an article by one of the "great Arab thinkers" named Hasan Hanafi, entitled "The Basis of Secularism is in the Noble Qur'an and its Roots are in the Ancient Heritage."This article was illogical, unsystematic and lacked the scholarly foundation demanded of undergraduates (and so how much more should it be required of one of the "intellectual points of reference"!).

There is a deficiency among some thinkers, which is beginning from an inappropriate starting-point. If the rubric for his thinking is "the basis of secularism is in the Qur'an..." then why does he start out with a fierce attack against Christianity as, "the obscurantist, mythological religion, the religion of sin and salvation, of surrounding rational man with a sin he did not commit, the sin of Adam, a salvation he did not work for, and faith in Christ." Does he, for example, want Christians not to believe in Christ? Is he an intellectual or a religious missionary?

On the other hand, Mr Hasan Hanafi says of Islam, "Since Islam is the last of the religions, it contains within itself all the secular values: reason, science, human rights and democratic governance." What is even more surprising is that he said, "If secularism means the centrality of man in the universe, defense of his freedom of will, and the establishment of a free, socialist, democratic society, then these goals spring forth from Islam, since man is God's vicegerent on earth."

Hasan Hanafi does not turn to philosophy, sociology and the other human sciences in order to support his opinion with evidence and logical proofs. Rather, he turns to the Qur'an as the only point of reference to defend his perspective. Hasan Hanafi permits himself to judge Christianity to be an "obscurantist, mythological" religion, while Islam is "the religion of reason." But he quickly falls into a contradiction since he resorts to obscurantist, irrational discourse in order to support his point of view. Or what should we call using Qur'anic verses in a "scholarly study" that does not treat questions of Islamic jurisprudence in worship and ethics, but rather philosophical and intellectual issues with no connection to the Qur'an.

Then we come to the non-obscurantist reality so that perhaps Hasan Hanafi might come to his senses and open his eyes to reality. Theoretical talk is nice. Indeed, it is magnificent. But the reality that refutes the theory makes theoretical discourse sterile and worthless. Where are the intellect, science, human rights and democratic governance in most of our Arab-Islamic countries? The obscurantist mentality dominates an overwhelming majority of our peoples. We are absent from the competition to produce science on the global level. "Human rights" are constantly violated. Democracy is despised by our peoples who are subservient to their rulers.

We're not going to defend Christianity against Islam and we're not going to enter into useless debates and senseless discussions. We understand secularism on the basis of "the separation of the state and religion," which is the only concept that Hanafi did not treat in his "study". The fundamental reason for this lies in confusing scholarly discourse with religious discourse. The beginning of true intellectual activity is separating scholarly discourse and religious discourse.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Fathers

Arabic original here.

The Fathers

Today we celebrate the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which defined the veneration of icons. The icons highlight for us people who have become new in Christ. We observe that an icon displays a saint as someone not of flesh and blood. He transcends worldly, bodily existence in order to be seated at in the ranks of light in the heavens, from which he looks down upon us as a new person. Our fathers' every concern is that we become new creatures who have no relation to flesh and blood or to an environment or past time, as though we were created today.

The Apostle Paul said, "You do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). Each of us comes from a man and a woman. This is the beginning, but we do not stop at that point. After our mothers give birth to us as slaves, we go on to the freedom of Christ. Every person strives to be a Christian. A Christian is a project. He is baptized so that he may strive over the course of his life to become a Christian. But he does not reach perfection, even in eternal life, because in heaven we become perfect together. Together we become a glorious Church for Christ. Christ casts upon us a garment of light and we become creatures of light through this garment that is cast upon us.

But what happens to us on earth after we have become the project of a person in baptism? There come people in the Church who renew us in Christ Jesus. They have been renewed. They have become free. Every link between them and this body, between them and the selfishness of this world, its domination and its slavery has been broken. They are no longer indebted to any of their lusts or people's lusts. The Holy Spirit now moves them and they are no longer moved by the prejudice of village, town, sect or party. The Holy Spirit blows in them and heaven moves them. The heavenly person is treated as ignoble, a stranger, rejected and despised because he is a reminder to the people of the earth that they are called to become heavenly as they move upon the earth.

The people of heaven, the great believers, are hated by the people of the earth. The people of the earth, who are still tied to dust, to the aims of this world, to the deceit of lust, hate heaven and have no communion with the children of light.

Because of the darkness that prevails over this world, God raised up in the Church fathers capable of generating children of God the Father. There are those who break off people's tie to flesh and blood in order to established a new tie between them and the Lord. God establishes for Himself a family in the Church, which is not the human family made up of a man, a woman and children. I do not mean by this all who are affiliated with Christ by baptism. Rather, I mean those who have become conscious anew that they are a member of Christ's body, a part of Christ.

The time has come for us to know that we were born and are born in Christ's Church and in her we become new people because we follow Jesus and we have been made brothers of the Lord and children of God.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Met Saba (Esber): Lord, Do not Rebuke Us Harshly

Arabic original here.

Lord, Do not Rebuke Us Harshly

Master,

Perhaps the most difficult thing in Your Gospel is that you leave the wheat among the tares until the final judgment. You have made us understand that Your Church on earth is not a collection of saints so much as a group of strugglers who seek holiness.

They may not attain it. They may only see it from afar. Many times, they may not ever see it.

You wanted Your Church to be a group of seekers of truth. You are the Truth and in you it is seen. We are amazed that it is persecuted and contested until the end of the age.

Our struggles and our sins which we attach to You cause us to imagine that we are defending You and Your body on earth.

The reality, however, says: we are for this one or that one of Your servants more than we are for You.

You have also taught us that holiness is only given when it is truly sought on the narrow way.

Thus we have learned that we must be hard on ourselves and not on others and that we must require truth and uprightness of ourselves before anything else.

Then You offered Your life so that truth, purity and sacrifice might have the highest place in Your creation. Your sacrifice was a real translation of Your words.

And because You effaced Your person with Your word, Your whole life was a condescension.

You only went up twice.

The first time was so that the enormous crowd could hear Your teaching, when You went up the mountain to give them the new Law.

The second time was upon the cross. On the hill of Golgotha, You let them raise You as a martyr, to embrace the world with Your hands stretched out to it.

Your being lifted up like this was the apex of condescension, because it led you to the tomb, in a cave of earth.

By this ultimate condescension of Yours, You rose again and caused life to dawn, that light of which You said in Your Gospel, that you came in order to give to us, that we may have its fullness.

But we often act in the opposite way to You.

We love to show off and puff ourselves up, for people to see us as leaders more than as servants and fathers!

We want followers, even if we lead them to perdition!

Because we are small, we make ourselves big not through You but through them in order to feel that we are doing something, that we are influential, that we have status.

If Your children, in their love for us, only know us from the outside, what excuse is this for us when we know ourselves and we know how much stupidity, meanness and filth there is within us?

Did You not teach us, Master, how we should go down in order for You to raise us up?

Do You not direct us towards knowledge of the high station that is fitting for Your people and Your servants?

Is it not enough for us to be at Your feet?

Is not all fullness in our listening to You as Mary did, and she attained the good portion that is not taken from her?

Amidst our intoxication with ourselves and our ego, we often forget You, O Master, and we replace You with our followers.

We are occupied with the demon that dwells in us and we follow his whispers, so we no longer see You or hear You. In this way he leads us to false glory, to our doing what we believe to be the truth, when it is really only our own transgressions.

We no longer distinguish, O Master, between our whims and our zeal for Your house.

My Lord, do not let the turmoil drive us to acting against Your Gospel.

Have pity on us and our hardness of heart. Pour out Your abundant mercy upon us.

You have given us a terrible responsibility because You were pleased for Your Holy Spirit to be in vessels of clay, we who are quick to shatter.

How do we keep our vessels uncracked, when it is very easy to slip and imagine that we are Your followers who have been charged with reforming Your Church, when the world is very seductive?

My Lord, how many times have we been tempted to act against Your Gospel in order to best serve Your Church?

And how many times have we violated Your Gospel when we sanctified a means to an end?

And how many times have we betrayed You when we used You as an instrument for our own interests and desires?

Teach us, my Lord, that we are not better than You because no servant is better than his master.

Help us to accept Your example, the example of the servant who is oppressed and does not oppress.

Strengthen our steps so that You may be our first love.

Make us listen to You move than we talk about You, so that we may distinguish well between Your will and our passions.

Master, over history you have often taught us that You permit outward and inward persecution when we evade the truth and stray from the straight path.

Do not rebuke us harshly, my Lord, because we almost cannot bear it.

Preserve for us a remnant that bears witness to You, to the fullness of the life that You desire, and to the joy that Your angels have proclaimed since You honored our earth with Your visitation.

My Christ, the people of Your Church have grown weary on account of us. Forgive us and lead us to the straight path.

We desire You, my Lord. Do not let us distract ourselves from You with the things that pertain to You.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: I Say to You, Arise

Arabic original here.

I Say to You, Arise

Today's Gospel reading is about a miracle that the Lord performed, which shows us once again that the chief reasons for Jesus' working miracles is that He loves people. He took pity on the widow of Nain and raised her son.

Miracles are not, at root, for the Lord to prove something. He did not do them to give us proof of His divinity, since He says, "Believe in Me because of the words I speak to you. Otherwise, believe because of the works." This is the weakest sort of faith, for us to follow Him on account of miracles, while the strongest faith is for us to follow Him because of His words, because of the divine gift of words that no human pronounces, and because of the life that He spent among us, loving to the point of death. Therefore, in the Gospel of John the miracles are called "signs" because He uses them to indicate teaching. He uses them to demonstrate the aims of the Gospel and not to demonstrate might.

Christ did not reveal God's might as the Jews did. He revealed God's power in His own way. God's power was the cross. That is, He revealed a weakness that was, after the resurrection, determined to be in fact a strength. God comes down to humankind and lives with them. This is His power. He can cast aside His glory in order to be hidden among people. People desire power and it is one of their three temptations. Man is confronted with three temptations: the temptation of money, the temptation of power or glory.

Christ stepped down from all this, He refrained from all of this in order to die for something weak, so that His power might shine and so He might triumph in glory.

In this context, Jesus rose the youth from the dead and sent him to his mother. Here we must notice what Jesus said to this youth: "I say to you, arise." He could have just said "arise", but He said, "I say to you, arise."

From behind the event, if each of us looks at his weakness and his spiritual death, at his fallenness, his decline and his abandonment, at the same time he looks at the splendor of Christ, because each of us is dead and Christ says to each of us by name, "I say to you, arise."

What every single one of us must believe that Christ could have come to humankind even if there were only one human. The important thing is not that we say that Christ is the Savior of the world-- and it is true that He is the Savior of all people-- rather, the important thing is that every single one of us says, "Christ is my own savior." Each one of us can say this if he wants to reveal his weakness before Christ and confess it.

People talk about others and say that they steal and kill and lie and cheat. I have never heard someone complain about himself and say publicly, "I lie. I cheat. I take illicit profit. I have murdered." True Christianity is for me to confess before all people that I am a sinner, an adulterer, a liar, a murderer. This is what the early Christians did when confession was public. They confessed their sins and not others' sins.

When someone confesses that he is a sinner, Christ says to him, "I say to you, arise." And at that moment he arises from his sin to become a new person.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Conference in DC This Week: Byzantium, the Arabs, and the Rise of Islam

For more information, a program and abstracts of the presentations, go here.

Colloquium in Memory of Irfan Shahîd (1926–2016) 
 

“Byzantium, the Arabs, and the Rise of Islam” gathers leading scholars to explore areas that interested the late Irfan Shahîd. Within the broad framework of the relations between Byzantium and its Arab neighbors, speakers investigate a wide array of sources, from epigraphic and archaeological materials to the canon of Arabic poetry. Topics include the religion of the pre-Islamic nomads of Arabia, the Christian presence in the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, and the possible pre-Islamic Arabic translation of the Bible.

The morning session takes place at Georgetown University in the CCAS Boardroom (ICC 241), and the afternoon session and reception are held at Dumbarton Oaks in the Oak Room, 1700 Wisconsin Avenue.

Participants
  • Ahmad Al-Jallad (Leiden University)
  • Nadia Maria El Cheikh (American University of Beirut)
  • Sidney Griffith (The Catholic University of America)
  • Robert Hoyland (New York University)
  • Walter Kaegi (University of Chicago)
  • Maria Mavroudi (University of California, Berkeley)
  • Jack Tannous (Princeton University)
  • Alan G. Walmsley (Macquarie University/Dumbarton Oaks)
Organizer: Emma Gannagé, Georgetown University

For information, contact the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University (202-687-2735 or arabic@georgetown.edu) or Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (202-749-8269 or events@doaks.org).

Co-organized by the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Cosponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Medieval Studies Program at Georgetown University.

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): The Olive Tree

Arabic original here.

The Olive Tree

The olive tree has been known in our country from ancient times. It is a symbol of peace and mercy. The word 'mercy', eleos, and the word 'olive', elaia, are similar and we repeat in the Church kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.

The Olive tree is mentioned in the Old Testament, at end of the Flood, when "the dove came to him in the evening, and behold, a freshly plucked olive leaf was in her mouth" (Genesis 8:11). Olive oil and the olive tree are mentioned 140 times in the Bible.

It is mentioned in the Holy Gospel and also in the Qur'an, where a verse says, "God is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light is like a niche in which is a lantern, the lantern in a glass, the glass like a shimmering star,  kindled from a blessed tree, an olive. Its oil almost aglow, though untouched by fire. Light upon light! God guides to His light whomever He wills..."*

Here let us recall that in the Mystery of Baptism, we anoint our children with oil upon which the priest has prayed, saying, "The servant of God (name) has been anointed with the oil of gladness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen... for the healing of soul and body (on the chest and back), for hearing the faith (on the ears), (on the hands and feet) to work and walk in Your ways O Lord." Then the child is plunged into the water and rises three times, as a symbol of death and the resurrection. This reminds us that soldiers' bodies were anointed with oil before going off to battle and death so that they might be saved from the enemy's arrows.

The olive tree can live for over a thousand years and is evergreen. Olive oil is extracted from it, which is good for eating, in addition to being used in the production of soap. Olive wood is used to make household utensils, as well as being used for heating, as is what is left over from the fruit after pressing.

We will also mention here other benefits of olive oil and the olive tree for other occasions and purposes, including welcoming the Lord Christ on Palm Sunday, during the famous procession, with palm and olive branches decorated with flowers.

Additionally, people who fast during days of fasting, when they refrain from animal products, rely on olive oil for meals based on plants that the earth produces in springtime. Last but not least, we will mention that olive oil is used as the oil of chrism, "the oil of holy anointing", which grants the gifts of the Holy Spirit, indicating the divine virtues and eternal life. Let us not forget that it is used as a medicine in prescriptions: remember the Good Samaritan who used oil and wine to dress the wounds of the man who fell into the hands of thieves (Luke 10:34).

I say all of this, beloved, in order to remind you to preserve this tree, the olive tree blessed by God, which constitutes a precious, valuable inheritance for us in al-Koura. We who live on this land must never neglect the olive trees. Let us always have this concern form them, based on faith and not only on financial benefit, so that we may care for our livelihood and participate with our hands in our livelihood from the olive tree. The Lord always rewards us with this work in order to assure our sustenance and, especially, our salvation and the well-being of our country.

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

*Here (and always on this blog), I use Tarif Khalidi's translation of the Qur'an. You should too. It's far and away the best in English.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh on Suffering

Arabic original here.

The Treatment for Suffering is Love

Man's inevitable fate is, sooner or later, bodily death. Young and old stand equal before death. Death does not distinguish between children and the elderly. Is there a solution for this inevitable fate that is death? No, even if medical science and new drugs could prolong human life and reduce suffering, they will not reach the point of ending the inevitability of bodily death.

If bodily death is inevitable, then what about suffering? Why does man suffer? Is suffering part of human nature or is it something alien to it? There are many questions that both believers and unbelievers have about the suffering that all humans experience without exception.

To start with, it must be said that suffering does not only result from illness, but rather it results from many factors, so the source of suffering is not single but multiple. There is suffering that afflicts those who are physically healthy but who suffer from emotional, psychological, financial or intellectual (not achieving desired intellectual ambitions), or spiritual disappointments... Man does not live without suffering: this is the golden rule.

According to the Christian faith, death and suffering are alien to human nature. God, the source of every good thing, created man eternal. That is, not dying and not suffering... but man, in his rebellion against God-- that is, in his rejecting the source of life and departing from Him-- sentenced himself to death, suffering and torment. The coming of Christ, His submitting to death on the cross and His resurrection restored the relationship between God and man. But suffering and death remained the two-edged sword at the throat of all mankind.

Metropolitan Georges Khodr states that God is not the cause of everything that happens to us on the face of this earth. Khodr says in his conversation with Samir Farhat, "There are factors in nature and in the essence of humanity. If God liberated us from the responsibility of suffering, then it would be possible for us to be liberated from the dark image of this god, the god who delights in tormenting humankind. The natural inclination, particularly in the East, is that the good and the bad in life comes from God. In the New Testament, after Jesus bears mankind's suffering, God is no longer the cause of human suffering. We are transported from a purely philosophical, theoretical position to a position of participating in Christ (This World is not Enough, Ta'awuniyyat al-Nur al-Orthodoxiyya lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi', p. 207).

Christ came to redeem man and to release him from sin so that he may live with Him forever. Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross after having shared in the suffering and torments of humankind. Nevertheless, He gave this humankind great hope, He who is the resurrection and the life with God forever. Therefore we can say that suffering is an inevitable aspect of life on earth. The solution to it for believers is nothing other than to accept it as a bitter reality that is only mitigated by the belief that it is a path to purification from sin and attachment to Christ, who redeems this suffering through His suffering and raises us from the dead to eternal life, "where there is no pain, no sorrow and no sighing."

It remains that we treat suffering as a place where the most sublime love between man and his fellow man becomes manifest. Love alone is what can mitigate suffering. For a suffering person-- whether he is sick, hungry, widowed, orphaned or a refugee-- to see that there is someone concerned with his pain, who will perhaps cause him to feel others' pain, is the beginning of holiness. Love can do anything. Love can move mountains. Love is the great marvel.

Met Georges Khodr: Mercy

Arabic original here.

Mercy

Mercy is when a person embraces others, when he places them within his heart. But how do we treat people in actual reality? First we have an image of them that might come from their behavior and might come from our imagination. It is not true that we have precise knowledge of every person. We imagine that this person is such a way because we were told that he is from such-and-such a town and the people of that town are miserly or generous. We can't hold a man to his town's reputation. Then we say that his grandfather treated us in such-and-such a way and so he must be like his grandfather. The Bible has taught us that a person does not bear his father's sin and that everyone is his own person.

In addition to this, in our environment, we think that a person behaves in a certain way because he belongs to a certain religious community. This is not true. A given religious community is not all the same. Of course, someone might find a difference between himself and other people and be unable to bear such differences, wanting people to all say the same thing as him, whatever that might be.

Mercy is our taking everyone as he is and seeing his behavior as it is, not because he is from this village or this religious community. There are good people in every place and every society who may belong to any number of different countries or creeds. It is not true that they are wicked or fanatical merely because they belong to one of them. So mercy today means first and foremost that we see the person as he is and interact with him as he is, without regard to what groups he belongs to.

The person before us may be weak, and so we interact with him on this basis. The person before us may be a cheat, a liar or a thief, and so we interact with him on the basis of the Christian mindset that is in the Gospel. We do not keep silent about evils, but rather we resist them with gentle persuasion, with mercy, with affection, with goodness. We resist evils with good behavior, as the Apostle Peter says in his first epistle, " not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing..." (1 Peter 3:9) 

We do good to another person with good behavior and so, without judging him, we condemn with kindness. The person before us whom we cultivate with this spiritual beauty that is within us is vexed because the liar, the cheat and the thief are troubled if they are faced with a good person. His existence stands as a rebuke to them. And so begins hostility toward every upright person: "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12).

The Lord Jesus' answer to all of this is "be merciful." This is the secret. Why must we be merciful with those who are hostile to us? Because we have been delegated with shepherding them. Every person is someone's shepherd. Following the example of the compassionate Samaritan woman, each one of us takes care of the other, saves him.

God made us each other's shepherds or, to put it in other words, each one is the other's physician. Why must I have mercy on my enemy? The answer: because you know his fault. His enmity has brought him near to you. You know his shortcomings and you treat them. Each one of us must purify his heart from all enmity and see the other because he is one of God's children.

We do not have enemies. The people around us are all God's children and God's children have in them good and bad. Christianity is a realistic religion. It is a religion of treating people with love and mercy.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): The Grace of the Holy Spirit

Arabic original here.

The Grace of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the third hypostasis of the Holy Trinity. The grace of the Holy Spirit, or God's grace, is the uncreated energy that comes from the divine hypostasis.

It is within man's ability to participate in this uncreated energy, but he cannot participate in the divine essence.

This energy is what sanctifies man, enlightens him, divinizes him and makes him a temple of God. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul says, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23).

The Apostle Paul distinguishes between the natural, earthen man and the spiritual, heavenly man. He says, "The first man Adam became a living being and the last Adam, a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Here we recall that the spiritual, heavenly man is the one who lives by the Spirit of God and not by the spirit of the world.

Someone who is baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is supposed to live according to the Spirit of Christ God and His commandments, while one who is not baptized, who does not know Christ or does not want to know Him, remains a natural man who has lost the divine grace of the Holy Spirit.

Divine grace is like an electrical current which we do not see, of which we only see the effects. It is what gives us tears of repentance, for example, it is what gives us tears of joy, tears of peace and love, and all these things are fruits of the Spirit, as we have previously mentioned.

Here there is an important question to ask: how do we distinguish between the Spirit of God and a spirit that is not of God, that is, for example, from the devil? The Bible says, "By their fruits you shall know them" (Matthew 7:20).

If there is disturbance rather than peace, anger rather than kindness, confusion rather than light and clarity, this means that it is not from God's Spirit.

The most difficult question is how do we know that a person is a deciever? This is known by his not confessing Jesus Christ, by his lack of love and lack of humility: humility is the distinguishing characteristic of men of God and pride is the distinguishing characteristic of people who deceive. Heretics rely first of all on their egotism and pride. The spiritual man confesses his sinfulness at every necessity.

Beloved, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and His grace takes place according to the commandment of our holy fathers, by preserving the Lord's commandments.

Divine grace is given, first of all and especially, to practicing members of the Church. The Church does not monopolize divine grace, but she does confirm it. One who participates in the divine mysteries in fear, love and repentance has, more than others, the grace of salvation. This is by keeping God's commandments in his entire life.

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: There is No Fear in Love

Arabic original here.

There is No Fear in Love

On the shore of the Lake of Tiberias, the Lord joined with the disciples in their daily activities and He used their boats to evangelize. He asked them to move one of the boats a little bit from the shore so that He could address the crowds and talk to them about the kingdom of God. Everything that is ours belongs to God. Our homes belong to God. Every tool, every intellect, every institution should give praise first to God and then treat our private concerns.

After Jesus evangelized in the boat, it went on to perform its own business in the sea, fishing. The Lord was with the fishermen when they caught many fish, after He ordered them to cast their nets in the deep. All things, everything of this world, comes to be by God's word. If they are not according to His word, they are harmful and destroy man.

When Peter and his companions pulled in this great amount of fish, he said to the Lord, "Get away from me, for I am a sinful man." The Lord's passing among us, the Lord's observing us, conscience, the word of the Gospel or prayer must produce the feeling within us that we are sinners. God is strict. Were he not, he would not be saving us. Sometimes God collides with us to the point of causing wounds because pain on account of sin is our starting-point towards eternal life. This feeling existed of old in all peoples and we feel it in the Old Testament: Moses veils his face when the Lord appears to him on Sinai. It is as though Peter started to feel that this teacher who had brought them together is the God whom we fear, before whom we cover our faces. He was overwhelmed by anxiety. He was overwhelmed by trembling, but the Lord said to him, "Do not fear. I will make you a fisher of men." But He made this conditional on his confessing that he was a sinner.

You cannot be a shepherd of Christ's Church if you do not know at every moment that you are responsible before God and before your own conscience. We are not masters over people and we do not rule their consciences. Rather, most of our interest is in strengthening consciences, in drawing their attention to God's will so that people will become masters over themselves. Priests are not masters. They are brothers who rouse the conscience so that man may rule over the universe.

"I will make you a fisher of men" and therefore you must not fear. The fundamental condition is that you do not fear, since you must love. When the Lord appeared to Peter after the resurrection, He said to him, "Simon son of Jonas, do you love me more than these?" Peter said, "Yes, Lord, I love You." So He said to him, "Feed my sheep." That is to say, "You, O Peter, after straying have returned to the perfect faith out of a love renewed. Your love has made you able to be a shepherd." Love is the condition for being a pastor. Otherwise, the pastor is taking advantage of the flock and lording over it out of egotism. If you are able to be kind to people and of accepting them as they are with all their sins, you do not judge them but have mercy on them. If you can do this, then you are pastoring in the way that God pastors, with God's staff, with God's word. Otherwise, you are pastoring them with your own staff, with your own word, with your own lusts.

Do not fear, Peter, because you must love in order to fish men. The Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, who was present at the miraculous catch, said in his first epistle, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18). Therefore, if you love, you pastor without inciting people against each other because you do not fear. If you pastor with love, then people are not diminished because of your words. Instead, they open and reach into the world and are comfortable with their Lord. Someone who lives in fear is someone who cannot forgive. And he who cannot forgive cannot receive God.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki

Arabic original here. While some of the information in this article, published unsigned in the weekly bulletin of the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon, is a bit dated, it pleased me to see interest in this extremely important but still sadly little-known figure in the history of the Church of Antioch who, as Antioch's greatest translator, is something of the patron saint of this blog. Below the article, I've put some links to more recent scholarship on him.

The Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki

He was one of the most prolific writers and translators in the Church of Antioch. He lived in the 11th century, according to indications in some manuscripts, but the writings he left for us will remain his lasting influence. His life story is not known precisely. Most of what has come down to us about his life are a few observations made by copyists and writers who came after him. This is something usual in the history of the Church. Even the lives of great teachers of the Church such as John of Damascus were written centuries after their repose. This means that we know writers from their works that they left for us. Returning to the deacon of Antioch, we find that later copyists gave him titles that shed light on his importance. Sometimes they call him "the holy and wise deacon", sometimes "the holy master" [al-shaykh al-qiddis], "the wise philosopher and translator of the holy scriptures", "the teacher", "the venerable deacon" or "Abu al-Fath" ["the victorious"]. This was the custom of the Christians, which continues until today, to indicate an exalted stature. This clearly demonstrates the intellectual and literary position that Abdallah ibn al-Fadl enjoyed. Something that further emphasizes the position of this writer is what the patriarch of Antioch Macarius III ibn al-Za'im (d. 1676) says about him in the preface to his History from the Era of Adam to the Days of Constantine:

"When God looked upon the patience of the Christians, he had mercy on them and sent them a virtuous man called the deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl... He was very knowledgeable in the Arabic, Greek and Syriac languages and he translated for the Christians all the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, along with all their commentaries into Arabic, ordering them to read them on all Saturdays, Sundays and feasts of the Lord, as well as the stories of the saints. He spent his entire life in these good works..."

If we study these brief lines, we can deduce that the Patriarch Macarius considered the Deacon Abdallah ibn al-Fadl as a gift from God, who sent him to the people of the Church of Antioch to help her children stand firm in faith. By virtue of his vast knowledge and his ability with the aforementioned languages, the Deacon Abdallah translated the Holy Bible (this is what is meant when the Patriarch Macarius says "he translated for the Christians all the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, along with all their commentaries"). In fact, Ibn al-Fadl translated the lectionary according to the divisions used in the services of the church. In addition to this, he translated the commentaries on the Holy Bible in order to help the faithful to understand the texts.The patriarch's saying that he "ordered them to read them"is a sign of the central place he occupied in the Church of Antioch. At that time, it was customary in the Orthodox Church for there to be an order of "teachers" in the Church. Not every priest or deacon is necessarily a teacher. (The Church was clear about this in the past and perhaps she should bring back this order once more. A priest might, for example, be excellent at administration or pastoral work but not be gifted at teaching, and the opposite may be true. For this reason, the Church determined who would teach and who would serve and only rarely would all these traits be found in the same person).

Sometimes Ibn al-Fadl was commissioned by bishops to compose a work or translate a text according to the needs of the diocese. It is said that the Book of Psalms is the most famous work he translated for us. The Church of Antioch used it for almost 900 years before the publication of the version by Abdallah Arman in 1954. The latter said that in his translation he also relied on Ibn al-Fadl's text.

The noteworthy thing about this deacon is his use of the Arabic language in his works, despite the fact that he was active during the period when Antioch had been liberated from Arab Muslim rule and brought back under Byzantine rule from 969 to 1084. Perhaps in this the deacon reflects a situation where the Hellenization of the Church of Antioch was rejected.

Ibn al-Fadl's activities were not, however, limited to the translation of biblical texts. Indeed, his range of interests included the commentaries of the holy fathers and spiritual and dogmatic works and he was very knowledgeable in philosophy and logic.

In conclusion, we cannot but say that this deacon of Antioch is a model to be imitated in our Antiochian Church on account of his knowledge and zeal for his Church and his having preserved the Orthodox faith. Our deacon did not want to make himself prominent. Rather, his concern was the glory of the Church's Bridegroom and not himself. Thus he fulfilled the words of the Baptist, "He must increase and I must decrease."

For a complete bibliography of Abdallah ibn al-Fadl's original works and secondary literature about him, see this article, by Fr Alexander Treiger.

For further studies of the history of Patristic translations into Arabic, see this and this by Fr Treiger.

For the Arabic text and English translation and study of his Discourse on the Holy Trinity, see this article by Fr Treiger and Samuel Noble.

For translations of his Essay Containing Ideas Useful to the Soul and Refutation of Astrology, consult Chapter 7 of Fr Treiger and Noble's Orthodox Church in the Arab World.

For a brief study of Ibn al-Fadl's Trinitarian thought, see this article by Noble.

For a study of Ibn al-Fadl's Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, see this article by Fr Ramy Wannous.


For a study of Ibn al-Fadl's Book of the Joy of the Believer, see this article by Floris Sepmeijer.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Met Georges Khodr: The Cross is Our Path to Christ

Arabic original here.

The Cross is Our Path to Christ

How should we understand the cross or how should we translate it into our life? The Lord answered this when He said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." It is as though the Lord wanted to say that there is no way for us to know Him and to see Him except for the way that He Himself chose to reveal Himself to the world: the cross, the tomb and the resurrection. The cross was His path to victory. It was His path to conquering history. It was His path to our heats. We cannot attain anything of truth, anything of light, anything of joy, anything of peace, anything of existence, we cannot have any of this if we do not pass through the cross. We have no choice. The cross was chosen for us and we were cast upon it from the moment we knew Jesus. Whoever belongs to Christ belongs to the wood, belongs to the nails. The nails pierce his flesh; that is, a burden is placed in his spirit and suffering enters into him.

But this path is for us to choose and for us not to choose. If we want Christ, this is His path. But if we want to be comfortable, not to toil, if we want to immerse our bodies in pleasure and go rule over people, then we have no cross and we have no Christ.

Christ warned us of this lethal temptation: for us to mix what belongs to the world with what belongs to Him, for us to accept some sins and some virtues. This is not possible. We cannot accept Christ and the world. Religion and this world cannot be brought together. It is not possible for us to be known and loved by both the good and the wicked, by both the rulers and the ruled, and to belong to Christ. We cannot devour people's wealth, or even just some of it, and belong to Christ. We cannot indulge in illicit pleasures and belong to Christ. We are crucified, we are humiliated, we are killed if we desire Christ. This is our scripture. The path is arduous, planted with thorns. The path ends at the tree upon which the Son of God was cast, crucified, crushed, broken to the point of death and humiliation.

So what comes after this? Those who for three hundred years were killed after their Lord, day after day, who were imprisoned, chased from their homes, devoured by beasts, those who were slaughtered, they became the kings of history and the masters of our hearts. The martyrs triumphed and Nero and his ilk were forgotten in the oubliette of time. This strong is not the one who is pointed out by people. He is not the arrogant, the criminal, the one who loots people's wealth. This one is nothing. But the one who is meek, kind, humble, loving, welcoming, the one from whom is stolen not the one who steals, the one who is cursed and does not defend himself, this one is the master of us all.

The Lord tells us, "If you want to follow me, deny yourself and follow me." The question is: what will become of me if I abandon my lusts, my desires and every one of my whims, if I crush every bit of egotism within me, if I make myself a slave to Christ and a footstool for people, what will become of me? Will people forget me? Of course. But what remains if I am forgotten and crushed in their minds? The Apostle Paul gave the answer in today's epistle: we are alive in Christ Jesus who loved us and gave Himself up for us.

If I empty myself of every semblance of evil within me, then Christ is alive in me. If we cast out the corrupt man within us, then we have engaged in a great trade. We have sold ourselves and bought Christ and no trade is more profitable. The one get from it is vastly more beautiful than what we have cast out. The one we get one who is vastly more clever than the false cleverness that belongs to us. We get one who is vastly richer than the wealth from which we have been saved. We get Christ. We get the Lord, He who alone is good, who alone is wise, who alone is rich, who creates us in every good thing, every mercy and every strength.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Met Antonius el-Souri: The Cross in the Life of the Believer

Arabic original here.

The Cross in the Life of the Believer

The Lord said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23). In the original text, the verb "deny" is "ἀρνησάσθω" which literally means to renounce ownership of something, to disown something, or to give up a claim to ownership of something. In this sense, someone who wants to follow Christ must renounce himself completely and choose, with the fullness of his will, to surrender himself to Christ in order to be able to follow Him faithfully. Someone who wants to walk behind the Lord does not claim that his life belongs to him, but rather realizes that he owns nothing in itself and admits this. Following Christ is a constant, daily choice. It is the path of the cross, whose endpoint is the resurrection...

Why does the Lord say that whoever desires to follow Him must take up "his cross", in the sense that each person has his own cross? What do you think is the connection between our own cross and Christ's cross?

"If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God" (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

In Jewish thinking, the cross or the tree is the cruelest punishment because someone who is sentenced to hang on the tree is "accursed" and "impure". That is, he is cast out and expelled from the Jewish people. The cross is the greatest shame for them. Christ knew His fate among His people "for Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

The cross that Christ calls on us to bear is not connected to our sin and its impurity and shame. Rather, it is connected to bearing on our backs in love the impurity and shame of others. The Apostle Paul says, "God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14). The cross that I am called to bear is  the one upon which I am crucified for the world just as Jesus was crucified for me. But in order for this cross of mine be for the love of Jesus Christ in man and creation, the world must be crucified within me first, through the cross of Christ. If the world has not died within me through the love of Christ, which He revealed to me on His cross-- that is, if the love of Jesus has not triumphed within me over every other love-- and thus if I have not arrived at the point of renouncing myself in complete obedience to the Lord, then I will not be able to be crucified for the world, because the crucified is one, the cross of salvation is one, and the Lord is one, "who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed" (1 Peter 2:24).

Alone with the crucified God-man, I enter into the crucifixion of my passion, the death of the old man, and my rebirth in the divine love that is in Christ Jesus, in His image, because "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:22). Faith in the resurrection is the foundation of salvation through bearing my cross which is in Christ. Because if the cross that I bear is not connected to Christ, it is a cross of shame and impurity on account of my sins and evil deeds and so it is not a cross of salvation since it is connected to my ego and not to my faith in Christ Jesus and my struggle for purification, my striving for enlightenment, and my longing for the vision of God.

My cross is my death to myself in my struggle for repentance so that I may become pure of heart and know my true self in the light of the divine grace that is in the Holy Spirit, through the Son from the Father. My cross is the struggle of prayer, fasting, charity, training to empty myself and position my soul, so that, when the Lord looks at my seriousness, perseverance, and sincerity, He will grant me new birth in Him through His cross. So my cross will become His cross and His cross my cross, because then I will say with the Apostle Paul, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain."

Let him who is able to endure, endure.

+Antonius
Metropolitan of Zahleh, Baalbek and their Dependencies

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Love is Stronger than Death

Arabic original here.

Love is Stronger than Death

He who loves God sacrifices his entire life, consecrating it to Him. He who loves God strives to constantly abide with Him. He who loves God loves life and does not seek his own death or attempt to hasten it. But he must accept death one day because man cannot live forever. Death becomes for him a transition from life to life. Life on earth becomes a passage to where there is true life. Life on earth becomes a short time in which one is prepared at every moment to face his inevitable destiny. The best preparation is repentance and love for one's neighbor, without which one cannot love God.

It is true that death entered human nature as a punishment from God because of man's fall into sin, but it still contradicts this nature that inclines toward life. So God gave man a covenant and a promise that man would live forever, if he so desired for himself. This human will, whose possessor must refine it so that it will draw closer to God's will, is what made this possible. This correspondence between the two wills, resulting from man's free will, is what makes the encounter between God and man an encounter between lovers who cannot bear to wait for each other.

In this context, we will cite the words of Simeon when he the forty-day old child Jesus in his arms, when Joseph and Mary brought Him to the temple and the Holy Spirit inspired him that he would not taste death before seeing the Lord's Messiah. Simeon said, "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-30).

When Simeon saw Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah he had been promised, he became ready to depart for the next life with great joy. He who loves Jesus does not fear death. In the holy martyrs, we have the best examples of this. Their love for Him made them brave enough to face death with great steadfastness and hope. Their love for Him caused them to not betray His Gospel and His teachings. They did not abandon their principles for the sake of this fleeting life, but rather accepted to abandon this fleeting life even if it cost them their life.

The Islamic tradition also takes this approach. There is a story of the Prophet Ibrahim al-Khalil not mentioned in the Torah that is given by al-Ghazali in his Ihya Ulum al-Din in the chapter "On the Servant's Love for God" which goes as follows: 

Ibrahim (peace be upon him) said to the Angel of Death when he came to him to take his soul, "Have you seen a friend kill his friend?"

God (may He be exalted) inspired [the angel] to say, "Have you seen a lover hate his beloved?"

So Ibrahim said, "O Angel of Death, take me now."

We find a similar saying from the famous sufi Sufyan al-Thawri: "Only the doubter hates death, because in no case does the beloved hate to meet his lover."

The struggle between life and death continues and it will go on so long as this world exists. But life if stronger than death because love is stronger than it. Let us love man and sacrifice ourselves for his sake because whether we are believers, atheists or agnostics, in this way, knowing or unknowing, we are loving God.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Met Ephrem Kyriakos on Weddings

Arabic original here.

Weddings

The crown in the Christian marriage service is the one that the holy martyrs receive after having committed to Christ to the point of death during their entire life. Thus we have in the wedding service the hymn "O Holy Martyrs..."

In the past, the crowning took place in the divine liturgy.

If, today, it is sometimes held during the liturgy, it can be very much abbreviated from the usual unnecessary social spectacles.

The Church forbade it from being held on Saturday evenings because marital relations are not proper the night before receiving the Eucharist.

This is in addition to the fact that for the most part the people taking part in the wedding would not come to the divine liturgy on Sunday.

Today, the Church does not prevent the wedding ceremony from being held on Saturday, given the currently predominant social customs known to all. However, she strongly advises the faithful not to get married on Saturday evenings.

*   *   *

On a practical level, there is a harmful confusion regarding the sacrament of marriage and the accompanying preparations and activities that damage the understanding and sanctity of the sacrament.

This includes immodest clothing and wasteful and extravagant spending on dinners, cocktail parties and their accoutrements.

 All these displays have come to overpower the atmosphere of the prayers and the sanctity of the wedding.

The Holy Bible commands women to constantly guard their modesty when it says, "Women should adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing" (1 Timothy 2:9).

In this context, we must remind priests and parishes of the necessity of holding the service of the holy sacrament of marriage in churches, insofar as it is possible in their parishes, and not in resorts or public gardens...

Moreover, they must heed the times when the sacrament cannot be performed, I mean in particular the periods of Advent, Great Lent and the Dormition Fast...

*   *   *
Beloved, these ecclesiastical and paternal recommendations are not intended to overwhelm members of the Church with strict canons. Rather, they are intended to guide our children toward the necessity of keeping our holy Christian traditions and keeping them from being swept away by damaging, worldly social customs.

We must remain the good leaven in this world that is drowning in materialism and harmful lusts.

Try these sound Christian ways, even if they seem narrow in today's world, and you will taste true joy in Christ God, who will never be taken away from you.

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Report on Hate Speech against Christians in Erdoğan's Turkey

See here for the full synopsis. For a pdf of the 60-page report, see here. The Stockholm Center for Freedom, who produced the report, is a group founded by Turkish journalists exiled because of the the crackdown on freedoms in that country that began in July of last year.


[...]

The hatred towards Christian minority groups in Turkey and xenophobic euphoria against Christians in general are being fueled in an unprecedented campaign led by Turkey’s rulers, especially the country’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a new case study by Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has revealed.

Turkish president Erdoğan who often spews hate speech against Christians, particularly Vatican, continues to stigmatize millions of people in Turkey and around the world with his systematic and deliberate campaign of churning hostility against Christians. His propaganda machinery amplifies this hateful narrative and the mass media under Erdoğan’s control spread it further to a larger audience.

“Erdoğan has weaponized hate speech against Christians in Turkey and this has been quite worrisome development for some time now,” said Abdullah Bozkurt, the President of Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF).

“He resorts ugly slurs, floats false claims about Vatican, associates his Muslim opponents with fabricated Crusader stories and fan the hostility against Christians,” he added.

SCF has reviewed Erdoğan’s public speeches delivered in recent years to uncover the pattern as well as campaigns run by his associates in politics and media. Turkish president openly ruled out an interfaith dialogue between Islam and Christianity, branded the European Union as group of infidels led by the Pope, and even accused the United Nation Security Council as representing only Christian nations.

[...]

Another report on hate speech in Turkey, prepared this year by the Hrant Dink Foundation, can be read here. Excerpt:

[...]

In the four-month period covering January-February-March-April 2017, 1806 columns and articles targeting national, ethnic and religious groups have been found. And 2335 hate speech items have been identified in these texts.

In January-April 2017 period, the central issue in print media was the constitutional referendum held on April 16. Along with the referendum, topics like ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ carried out by Turkish Armed Forces in Al-Bab region of Syria, developments concerning the coup attempt on July 15, practices of State of Emergency and emergency decrees having the force of law, Cyprus talks held in Geneva in January, crises between Turkey and Greece over Kardak islets and Aegean islands, anniversary of Khojaly Massacre (February 26), Greek Cypriot parliament’s approval of the resolution that enables the commemoration of ‘Enosis’ (the referendum held in 1950 for annexing Cyprus to Greece), April 24 Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day, Syrian refugees who fled from their country because of the war and came to Turkey had a role in the rise of hate speech.

When a distribution per targeted groups is made, it is seen that Armenians have the largest number of hate speech items against them with 439 items. Syrians follow them with 433 items and Jews has the third place with 298 items. Christians with 210 items and Greeks with 198 items follow them as the groups that are subjected to hate speech.

[...]

Monday, September 4, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Eid al-Adha and the Cross

Arabic original here.

Eid al-Adha and the Cross

Eid al-Adha contains numerous symbols that our peoples continue to live. When Ibrahim al-Khalil intended to sacrifice his son-- Isaac for Jews and Christians and Ismail for Muslims-- God stayed his hand and substituted a ram for the sacrificial son. God redeemed the boy, making the point through this religious event that people should no longer make human sacrifices and that they should substitute animal sacrifices for them. Then Christ came and ended animal sacrifice, offering Himself as a sacrifice once and for all for the salvation of humankind.

But bloodthirsty human sacrifices are still practiced here and there. God's intervention with Abraham was of no use because humankind did not want to learn the lesson from it. It is enough for us to observe what is going on around us in order to realize the enormity of what is happening. Sacrifices and human victims are offered on the altar of the ruler or the leader of a group who has taken the place of God for people. They are convinced that they are nothing but sheep prepared for slaughter for the sake of the ruler's life and continued preservation. It is no wonder, then, that we are witnessing a return to the barbarism of sacrifice and useless killing. Those performing the slaughter are the results of our societies overburdened with prejudice and hatred, the results of the religious backwardness that has led us away from the weightiest thing to which God has called us: mercy.

The problem lies at root in religious education that makes children into followers of a god manufactured by the lusts and hatreds of their fathers. So we can say that children have not been liberated from the perversions of their fathers, but rather have become overjoyed at being prisoners and slaves to them. The fathers feast on their thrones, fashioning from their followers the plans of butchers and suicide-bombers.

Solely with regard to Christianity, the symbolism is not limited to violent bloodshed, after having been so over the course of history. Rather, it includes every sort of spiritual, moral and verbal violence. This spiritual violence, even if it does not include bloodshed, perhaps has a result similar to murder, murder of the spirit, which Christ said is more serious than the death of the body. What can we call a spiritual son who has done away with his freedom and his intellect, handing himself over to a father who has not attained, nor will attain, perfect immunity from sin. "For no man lives and does not sin." He receives all his directions from him without discussion, as though they were the orders of Christ Himself.

If the relationships stays between the father and his son, then the situation is better than if the son wields over society and people his father's absolute authority over him. I once heard, when I was a theology student, a heated debate between two of my colleagues over whose spiritual father was better. Belonging to a spiritual father, then, becomes an affiliation with a party that promotes its president into the image of God. The father does not hesitate to sacrifice his children in order to defend himself, even at the expense of the Gospel's teachings. True spiritual fatherhood is for the father to sacrifice himself for his children even to the point of death, not for him to sacrifice his children.

The Lord said, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." The cross, for Christians, is the most sublime sacrifice [Arabic: adha], and Christ Himself is the sacrificial victim. For someone to deny himself means that he does not believe that he is indispensable and that he imitates Christ, satisfied to be crucified like his Teacher. So if someone wants to follow Christ, he must sacrifice himself in order to become another Christ.