Monday, August 22, 2016

Fr Touma Bitar Evaluates the Crete Meeting: Conciliarity and Consultation (I)

Arabic original here. For Fr Touma's thoughts on the council before it took place, see here.


Conciliarity and Consultation

For us, conciliarity and consultation are not closed off and limited to those who meet, decide what they decide and say what they say, and then their decision is almost automatically the Church's decision and their words the Church's words. The principle of representation is worldly and alien to the Church. Representation is a political concept, in the broad sense of the word. Consensus, majority, minority, binding the few to the decision of the many as on a superficially democratic basis, this is all part of the institutions of this world. The Church's pastors are not her delegates who speak in her name. Those who regard themselves as the Church's exclusive official spokesmen treat her and present her almost like an investment corporation, not like the Body of Christ, and so they either ignore the Spirit who is supposed to be active and bringing together within her or they claim to speak in His name automatically on account of the fact that they sit on the seat of pastorship, which is supposed to be founded by Him. The seat of pastorship is not equal to the seat of headship and no one speaks in God's name as a head, merely because he occupies this seat. The Church has no head but Christ-- not even metaphorically! Pastorship is a service and a testimony. To talk of headship as a service is a distortion and falsification of the reality of pastorship in the Church. So long as the idea of headship exists in some people's minds, then the framework for dealing with people is authoritarian, not pastoral. You have a leader and you have those who are led. The psychology of a leader is not the same as the psychology of a pastor. This is not of God's Spirit, no matter how much they try to disguise it with talk of service and pastorship. Talk of ecclesiastical headship and authority is out of place; let us only speak of service and pastorship. We say that we are all brothers and slaves of Jesus Christ in and for each other. The work of the pastor is of the same stuff as the work of the Chosen Apostle, who presented himself to his spiritual son Timothy in this way: "I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Timothy 2:10). The emphasis is on our obtaining salvation "with eternal glory." This is the service of the pastor and he has no other.

The pastor is of the flock and belongs to it and so therefore stands in front of it. He and it are, in Christ, kneaded with the water of the Holy Spirit and salted with the salt of the Hypostatic Truth, Jesus Christ, to Him be glory. Everything apart from this is alien, even if the reality of the situation is that turning a blind eye to excess is a fault. So the act of pastoring is pastoring with the Spirit of God for the Word of Truth. I know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. What is of humans in the Church is not separate from that which belongs to God. God is the one who takes the initiative and who receives in us. Therefore Christ, in the Spirit, is the one who speaks in those who speak and the one who listens in those who listen, the one who acts in those who act and the one who is acted upon in those who are acted upon. He is the one who acts in us, so that we might want to work for His good pleasure. Therefore he who is not united to the Spirit of God, he who does not have the Spirit of God in him, should not speak. He who is not possessed by deep longing to hear the Word of Truth should close his ears because every word that is not from God is void. All hearing that is not in God is emptiness! He alone is the one who is with us and among us as chief of our salvation. Hence the starting-point of pastoring is the resolve to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. He who does not prepare himself to be an extension of his Master can only shepherd himself and his own passions! That which is not received in the Spirit of God is not given as from the Spirit of God! That which is not given as from the Spirit of God is not spiritual, even if it is words about God! A single lit candle can light ten thousand extinguished candles, even if you do not say a single word about it. Light is more eloquent. Ten thousand words about light cannot light a single extinguished candle! Darkness deafens speech. The Spirit is the one who gives life. The body is of no use. All speech that is not in the Spirit is gibberish.

For this reason, the Church is not an institution, even if she has an institutional aspect. The institutional aspect in her is inseparable from the serving spirit that has been washed in the Spirit of God and bears witness to Him. Even notionally, it is inappropriate to regard the institution separately from the servant who bears witness in it, lest it transform into something human, psychological and propagandistic and thus a lurking-place for the Antichrist. Who is the Antichrist? He is the one who has the appearance of Christ without His Spirit! Every institution in the Chuch that is not an effective servant of the Word of Truth, bearing witness to His Spirit, is deep down at war with God, a cancer cell, no matter how resplendent it is on the outside. He who is not with Me is against Me. And he who does not gather with Me divides.

The pastor, then, speaks Christ in himself and in the flock and so at that point becomes, in Spirit and in truth, what he is presumed to be: a shepherd from the Shepherd, something that the Apostle Paul often expressed in his epistles, such as when he told the Romans, "Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God" (Romans 1:1). He is a bondservant, and because he is this, the Lord leads in him and through him and he speaks as one with authority! What is needed is for God's lordship to be manifest in his making himself a bondservant to Jesus Christ. In that he is found to be, in Spirit and in truth, open to his Lord, bearing witness to Him, and serving Him in His people. Only then does he become the Spirit's tongue among the people of God, spokesman for the Church as Aaron was the tongue for God's spokesman!
Living is the God before whom I stand. This, in every place, at every moment, in every earnest effort. The moment when the pastor no longer realizes, with intense certainty, that he stands in his heart before God, the time has come for him to withdraw from shepherding his people, be silent, and enter into the desert of his soul until, through vigils, prayer, fasting, compunction of heart, and tears, his spirit is renewed, lest he be found to be a false witness if he speaks and pastor of his own private thoughts and whims when he approaches the word and his flock. Is it not said, "Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you" (1 Timothy 4:16)? And also, "But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:5)?

These are hard words, who can accept them? This is unrealistic, they thought. That which is impossible for people is possible with God-- and we do not want what which is not from God. We cast it out! Every seed that the heavenly Father did not sow will be plucked out!

 Therefore, conciliarity and consultation require pastors to be, with regard to living tradition, completely transparent for the Spirit of God in the people of God. In any case, in the Church, tradition is not merely sayings that have come down to us and the Creed. Deep down, the meaning of tradition is not repeating what predecessors said, walking in the paths established by the ancients, or performing rituals as they arranged them, or preserving customs that have come down to us. Of course, our consciousness-- which is an apostolic and patristic consciousness, the same as the consciousness of those who preceded us going back to the earliest Church-- includes much of what has reached us from those who were present before us. But in terms of consciousness, it goes beyond approaching the past as an act of copying and repeating it. That is fundamentalism, not tradition! Fundamentalism is a repetition that causes the inheritance of the past to be empty of life, no matter how literal the repetition. The letter kills-- the Spirit is what gives life! The shame of fundamentalism is that it preserves the form, but it does not spread new life. Within its framework, one remains in antiquity in spirit and it is limited to belonging to the Church according to bygone intellectual, canonical, and ritual structures and the customs of predecessors, as though the structure of the Church was complete with the Byzantine Empire and with its demise, there is no longer anything to be added except a bit of economy and the rest is rumination! Fundamentalism is when you make faithfulness to Orthodoxy into the equivalent of freezing history and the quest to cling exclusively and nostalgically to the past. In reality, fundamentalism is disabling Orthodoxy and slaughtering it, not preserving it and drawing from the fountains of life within it!

As for tradition, it is completely alien to fundamentalism, just as life is alien to inanimate objects. Its distinguishing feature is that it is alive, because it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church always. It gives life, because its orientation is every person's interaction-- at every time and place-- with the new life that belongs to the Word of God in the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit, here and now, is the seal of the true faith in the Church. This is true Orthodoxy, not rumination on the sayings and customs of predecessors. Movement in history is not backwards, but forwards. If modernism, which disregards the spiritual life and focuses on changing form and language, seeking modernization, constitutes a real threat to the Church today, then fundamentalism, which is manifestly concerned with preserving the form, perhaps out of fear of modernity, as though fundamentalism, if it merely preserves the form, could abide in Pentecost automatically today-- I say, this fundamentalism severely distorts Orthodoxy! Neither one nor the other is what is needed. Rather, we go back to the past to seek to know the consciousness of the Apostles and the experience of the holy fathers regarding the word of life in the Holy Spirit and we benefit from them. Today, in situations we are in, in the circumstances we are going through, before the challenges and concerns that are facing us, it is possible for us to plunge into the unseen war, in Christ, with the guidance of the Lord's Holy Spirit. At that point, we and our predecessors become partners, in Spirit and in truth, in the one spirit, the one consciousness, the one salvation, and the one glory that is in Jesus Christ!

In light of the above, conciliarity is a theanthropic effort, not a merely human effort, that envisages observing the flashes of the Holy Spirit in the affairs at hand in the Church. Clerics and servants are unable to bear witness in this context, if the spirit that is active in them is not the very Spirit to whom they seek to bear witness! This does not come about mechanically as a result of the place where they are. The spirit of concord that is sought in every teaching or interpretation authorized in the Church is not between the members of the council, whether local or ecumenical, among themselves, but with the Holy Spirit: "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." Otherwise, it is human and hollow, man's worship of himself. And if, in such a case, there is talk of fellowship with the Holy Spirit, it is nominal. Any consideration of the final word as belonging to the members of the council and those whom they consult, is stepping away from God and misappropriating Him, and so it is a rejection of Him and an act of man's regarding himself as god. No one in the Church speaks of God as though He is absent or in His name, but rather with Him. Or you could say, God speaks in him because God is always present, living, active and Lord in the Church. It is only if we realize the truth of this. Otherwise, we find ourselves consciously or unconsciously abolishing God, wielding an infallible individual or collective papism. The collective version is inevitably poured into the vessel of the one that is stronger than others in terms of influence and who makes the rest think that he, God, the council and the Church are one, that sovereignty belongs to consultation, and that he is nothing but the voice of God in it. In that case, you have inverted papism and you have it as a type of institutional, bureaucratic headship that is no different from any worldly, bureaucratic institutionalism except in its slogans. No matter how much various sorts of divine claims are attached to it, you find yourself confronted with a witness that fabricates God's presence and work in the Church. In an article published by Saint Justin Popovich in 1976 about the infallibility of European man following the Second Vatican Council, he discusses the essential content of papism, saying,"In the history of the human race there have been three principal falls: that of Adam, that of Judas, and that of the pope. The principal characteristic of falling into sin is always the same:  wanting to be good for one’s own sake; wanting to be perfect for one’s own sake; wanting to be God for one’s own sake. In this manner, however, man unconsciously equates himself to the devil."

Any reduction of conciliarity and consultation to one person or a group of people is an extension of paganism that claims to approach the incarnate God in God's Spirit. But this is only in form, while they are actually only approaching God in their own delusion! This is the essence of humanity's fall! In the words of Saint Justin, "The fall of the pope is a consequence of the desire to substitute man for the God-man."

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma, Lebanon
July 17, 2016

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on Priests Making Home Visits

Arabic original here.

To the Parish Priest: Home Visits

The priest is an icon of Christ. Through his visits to homes, he demonstrates Christ's presence in the home. People today, more than at any time in the past, need to see the face of their father the priest. Visits have a sacramental character. Without the priest knowing where it is from, divine grace does its work through him. The Lord Jesus said to the tax-collector Zacchaeus, "Make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house." Then He said, "Today salvation has come to this house...
 for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:5, 9, 10).

Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ is the model for the parish priest who visits and checks up on his flock. From the time He began to announce the kingdom, He would go about the cities and villages, evangelizing, teaching, and healing every illness and weakness among the people: He went into people's homes (Lazarus, Zacchaeus) and to their workplaces (the shore, the public highway, tax-collection centers, the temple, the Samaritan woman's well, etc...).

*     *     *

When the priest visits a home, it causes the family to feel that the entire Church is checking up on them. For his own part, he is visiting "the church that is in the home" (1 Corinthians 16:19). Wouldn't it be nice here if the priest would often make an effort on his visits (even apart from special circumstances) to bring along members of his parish council or even others from among his zealous children who volunteer to come?

In this regard, I will remind you about the establishment of the Pastoral Center for Patristic Heritage and the Center for Youth and the Family by the Archdiocese of Tripoli and Koura... They were established to train committed volunteers from the Archdiocese to contribute practically, each according to their specialization, to helping the priest and the members of his parish council check up on members of the parish, teaching them and participating in their needs and problems, as well as helping to organize their health, psychological and spiritual affairs. These two centers have yielded a large group of people and I hope that all who are zealous for their Church and their parish will get to know both centers up close, through the Archdiocese, so that there will not be any home that goes without personal attention.

Last but not least, I would like to recount to you a confession, a word of advice given to me by Patriarch Ignatius IV of thrice-blessed memory, immediately after I was consecrated as a bishop by his hand. He said, I will entrust you with this last piece of advice:

"In the past, we waited for people to come to us, but today you must go to them personally, to their homes. This is how you carry out sound and effective pastoral work."

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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

La Gaceta Interviews Met Siluan (Muci)

Spanish original here.

"Those who blow themselves up with explosives are all young," says a prelate.

Affirms Siluan Muci, a bishop of the Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

Educating for peace is a condition sine qua non for peaceful coexistence in a society of different people. His Eminence Siluan Muci, metropolitan for Argentina and bishop of the Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Antioch, promotes education with religious values as an antidote to violence, fanaticism and intolerance.

Metropolitan Muci looks to the youth and to children as the elements of society that most need to be educated in peace. "Today those who blow themselves up with explosives are all young. They are not 50 or 60 year-old men. Recruiting is done among the youth and not among older people," he said in an interview with La Gaceta before the start of his presentation at the National Congress for Interreligious Dialogue. The prelate referred to his own interreligious experience in conflict situations, such as what he lived in Lebanon.

Muci was born in Venezuela to a Lebanese father and a Syrian mother, but he lived his entire childhood and youth in Lebanon. Thus he holds dual nationality. He recounts that when he was a child, he went to a Roman Catholic school but had many Muslim friends. "This experience not only allowed me to get to know other children, but also their cultures and religious holidays," he remembers to point out the importance of education in tolerance in a society where coexistence between Muslims and Christians is a must. "When the dimensions of forgiveness and mercy--as well as hope-- are not transmitted, the minorities are very afraid," he affirms.

"During the Lebanon war, many Christians and Muslims didn't go to fight, but rather went to the Red Cross to sign up as volunteers to save lives. There were moments where it was a question of either taking up arms or healing wounds. During the Lebanon war, when there were no signs of peace, many civil society organizations, including a group for the disabled, did a 130km march to demonstrate for peace." For him, education in religious values and faith placed in God is the lifeline against violence.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Bishop Qais Sadeq visits Bukovina

Arabic original, with dozens of photos, here.

August 1-4

At the invitation of Metropolitan Melety, Archbishop of Chernovtsy and Metropolitan of Bukovina in Ukraine, Bishop Qais Sadeq, Bishop of Erzurum and patriarchal assistant, visited the Metropolis of Chernovtsy in Ukraine, where, on Monday, August 1, he joined with its metropolitan in serving the vigil for the Feast of the Prophet Elijah according to the Julian Calendar at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in the city center. He was welcomed there by the metropolitan with a speech focusing on the eccelsiastical ties between Antioch and Ukraine, wishing for the See of Antioch, its children everywhere and its Holy Synod, under the presidency of Patriarch John X, spiritual growth, health, peace and tranquility.

Bishop Qais responded with a speech in which he said, "I come to you bearing blessings for you from our father Patriarch John X and the prayers of your Antiochian brothers that there may be peace in your country and that the grace of God may cover your people, whom we love. I come to you from the Holy Land, specifically from the heart of Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians; from Damascus, where Paul passed and Ananias lived; from Tyre and Sidon, where the Savior's feet trod; from Iraq, where Abraham was called to be a father; from Egypt, which welcomed the Holy Family and witnessed the life of our monastic saints; from Jordan and Palestine, where the Savior was born, lived, was crucified and rose. We Middle Eastern Arabs are the brothers of the Savior and He is a son of our lands. Our Orthodoxy is original and apostolic. We did not acquire it from outside... I do not want you to forget that it was Antioch that begat you in Christ because Orthodoxy only came to you from Antioch, since the first bishop of Kiev was Michael of Antioch."

On the morning of the following day, Tuesday, August 2, the Feast of the Prophet Elijah according to the Julian Calendar, His Grace Bishop Qais joined Metropolitan Melety in the services of consecrating the new altar and the divine liturgy at the Church of the Prophet Elijah in the village of Zrub-Komarovsky near the Ukrainian-Romanian border. During the divine liturgy, the Deacon Silouan was ordained to the priesthood. The service ended with a procession of the Holy Gospel around the outside of the church, where the four passages of the Gospel for the consecration of a new church were read at the four corners of the church and the church and the people were sprinkled with holy water. Metropolitan Melety welcomed Bishop Qais, who replied with a word of thanks and prayers that there will be peace in Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Ukraine. Metropolitan Melety presented Bishop Qais with a commemorative gift, a bilingual service-book for hierarchs in Ukrainian and Romanian, and the priest of the church gave His Grace an icon of Saint Nicholas the Wonder-worker.

Metropolitan Melety honored with grammotas, medals, and tokens of appreciation those who had contributed to building the church, first among them the church's pastor and the mayor of the town, whom he honored with the Order of Saint Vladimir. The faithful and pastors then sat at the agape table in the courtyard of the church, giving thanks to God for His gifts and divine grace.

In the evening, His Grace Bishop Qais headed to the Diocese of Ternopol, where he was the guest of Metropolitan Vladimir of Pochaev. He spent the night at the Great Lavra of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the city, where he prayed before the wonder-working icon of the Theotokos, received a blessing from the water that flows from the Spring of Our Lady (a rock inside the monastery cathedral bearing the footprint of the Theotokos) and visited the relics of the righteous Saints Job, the founder of the monastery, and Amfilokhy, the organizer of Russian monastic rules.

The history of the monastery on Mount Pochaev goes back to the thirteenth century, when Batu Khan occupied Kiev during the years 1240-1241 and Russia found herself under the Tatar-Mongol Yoke. A number of monks from the Kiev Cave Monastery headed to the region of Volyn seeking refuge, which they found on a rocky mountain covered with a thick forest. They came to this place, where they settled in a spirit of strict asceticism according to the rules of Saint Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev Cave. They named the new place of their hermitage after the Pochaina River, one of the sources of the Dnieper, by the banks of which their monastery was located and in which the Holy Prince Vladimir baptized his people.

The next afternoon, Wednesday, August 3, His Grace visited the Theophany Monastery for women in the city of Kremenets, part of the Diocese of Ternopol, where he was met by the abbess of the monastery, Mother Marionula (Panasyuk) and the nuns, who are 80 in number, practicing a life of communion imbued with prayer and work. The nuns operate a cattle farm, grain farms,  workshops for sewing, embroidery, beekeeping and mushroom production, and greenhouses for vegetables, in addition to organizations for providing religious instruction to the children of the city.

On the morning of Thursday, August 4, the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene according to the Julian Calendar, Bishop Qais joined His Eminence Metropolitan Melety, Archbishop of Chernovtsy and Bukovina, in the services of consecrating a new altar and the divine liturgy at the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos in the village of Kolishevka near the Ukrainian-Moldovan border. The service also included a procession of the Holy Gospel around the outside of the church, where the four passages of the Gospel for the consecration of a new church were read at the four corners of the church and the church and the people were sprinkled with holy water.

After words of welcome, Metropolitan Melety honored with rammotas, medals, and tokens of appreciation those who contributed to the rebuilding of the church and decorating its walls with icons. The agape table which included the faithful and their pastors in the church courtyard was an earnest of the unity of the parish around its pastor.

His Grace completed his visit to Ukraine and headed to Romania for a visit accompanied by Metropolitan Melety. They stopped to visit the martyr Saint John the New (patron saint of Bukovina) at his monastery in the city of Suceava an received a blessing from his relics. Bishop Qais then made the journey back to Bucharest, where he went to give thanks to the Lord for all the graces and blessings he was given, seeking a blessing from the relics of the Holy New-Martyr Dimitrie Basarabov, the patron saint of Bucharest, and the relics of Saints Constantine and Helen, patron saints of the city's cathedral, and Saint Nektarios of Pentapolis.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh: Has the End of Time Drawn Near?

Arabic original here.

Has the End of Time Drawn Near?

When Jesus' disciples asked their Teacher about the signs of His coming and the end of the world, He did not specify a date, but rather talked to them about signs whose purpose was nothing other than indicating that "the coming of the Lord is near." Then He tells them, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven nor the Son, but My Father only," because the Son of Man "comes (like a thief) in the hour they do not expect."

It is not for man to prophesy about the end of the world and venture to propose dates for it. Jesus warned His disciples about such people, describing them as false prophets and antichrists. The Christian must only be ready at every moment for Christ's coming. There is an ancient text iterpreting the Gospel of Matthew whose author is anonymous which says, "What is the reason for concealing the date of death from man? The date is hidden from man so that he will constantly do good, expecting death at every moment. Likewise, the date of Christ's second coming was hidden from the world so that the generations may spend their life in expectation of His return."


"Watch therefore, for you do not know what day your Lord is coming." In his interpretation of this verse, Saint Hilary of Poitier (d. 367) says, "The Lord is teaching us that there are benefits to our ignorance of the date of His return (which He has concealed from all by His silence), spurring us to keep watch and keep His commandments. We must be occupied with constant prayer in order to prevent the thief from sneaking in... It is good for us to be prepared. Our ignorance of the date of Christ's coming must spur us to be awake, since we await His coming eagerly."

 When the Church talks about Christ's second coming, she does not mean to say that He came two thousand years ago and then was completely absent until He comes again at the end of time. Christ is present in His Church and has not been absent from her for a moment. Therefore the Christian must live as though the end of the world has occurred, since the Church is an image of the kingdom to come and Christ is present in her through the holy mysteries and His living word. So what more is there to wait for than this? What is meant by the second coming is when Christ will visibly appear for a second time before all the peoples.

What confirms what we have said is that the signs that Christ mentioned in His reply to the apostles are signs that have been repeated over the course of history, even in every generation. Indeed, we encounter these signs at every time and place since the creation of the world-- wars, famines, plagues, earthquakes and floods... Let us not forget that the first world war happened when Cain killed Abel: half the world killed the other half! And epidemics from the Black Plague to the Spanish Flu to AIDS and swine influenza and natural disasters from Noah's Flood to the tsunami in Indonesia... each generation has its wars, its plagues and its natural disasters. Therefore these signs serve to remind the faithful to do good and repent and are not simply to announce to them the end of the world.

The sin that dominates the world today is not new and so it is not possible to predict the date of the end on the basis of the events that are occurring today, especially in our countries from the Tigris and Euphrates to the Mediterranean. The Apostle Paul says, "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

There is no benefit to talking about the end of the world with a literal interpretation. Instead, we must regard it as a call to repentance and goodness. After all, is not each person's death the end of the world for him?! For him, what is the difference between a single death and the deaths of six billion people alongside him, at that moment? Why should we occupy ourselves with a matter in which we have absolutely no say? Our lack of knowledge of precise times is a great mercy from God!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

L'Orient-Le Jour: "Will the Jihadists Spare the Christians of Aleppo? Of Course Not..."

French original here.

"Will the Jihadists Spare the Christians of Aleppo? 
Of Course Not..."

Inhabitants of West Aleppo describe their daily life since the beginning of the Battle of Aleppo

"If I was afraid of Fateh al-Sham, I wouldn't return to Aleppo!" confides R Tam, a student in West Aleppo. The great Battle of Aleppo is only beginning, but the first round won by the rebels does not seem to excessively frighten the populations in neighborhoods under the control of the regime.

Last Saturday, the rebels inflicted a blow against the regime and its allies by breaking the siege that the regime had established on July 17. The fighters of Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria) played a key role in this offensive. In late July, the jihadist group broke its ties with its parent (al-Qaeda), with the latter's approval, in order to move closer to the other rebel groups and win the hearts of the people. Known for its many abuses and suicide bombings, Fateh al-Sham now finds itself at the gates of Aleppo, welcomed as liberators by the inhabitants of East Aleppo but considered the most radical group by the inhabitants of West Aleppo.

"Am I afraid of Fateh al-Sham? Yes, but we have a great army," says Jack Khazanji, 23. "We Aleppines have been suffering horribly for four years and our quality of life has greatly diminished, but we will never abandon our city," says Georges J Khoukaz, a merchant in the western neighborhoods. "We are not afraid of the groups that are fighting against us, but if things get worse, we, the people, are ready to take up arms for our country," he continues. The past weekend was a rough test for the nerves of the people of West Aleppo, as it was for those of East Aleppo. If joy and hope have appeared in the rebel camp, fear has quickly gripped the populations in pro-government neighborhoods, who fear being surrounded. Between east and west, the contrast is striking.

But yesterday, determination and hope quickly swept away the fears in West Aleppo. "When we saw that Nusra attacked the south of the city, we were shocked. But the fear went away quickly, because we are ready to fight," says Tony Sakkal, 37. In 2012, he decided to leave Aleppo for Tartous after Fateh al-Sham (at the time, al-Nusra) seized his factories in al-Shkayef, one of the industrial zones of Aleppo. After the jihadist group's recent alliance with the rebels in Aleppo, Sakkal now fears the worst. "Will the jihadists spare the Christians of Aleppo? Of course not, they'll cut off our heads. They are worse than the Islamic State, since the fighters of the Islamic State all come from abroad, but those of Fateh al-Sham are from among us, which makes them more dangerous. I hope that they will not penetrate into the city, or else we'd better prepare to face a third world war. All the people of West Aleppo, both Christians and Muslims, hate them because we have all lost relatives because of their shelling."

A student at the University of Ebla, located in the province of Idlib but whose location has been transferred to Hamdaniya in Southwest Aleppo, R Tam lives between Syria and Sweden, where part of his family has resided for more than 40 years. He has not yet obtained Swedish nationality. A year ago, he nevertheless decided to return to live in Aleppo, while the security situation was at the lowest. Last Saturday, the neighborhood bordering Hamdaniya, Ramousa, fell into the hands of the rebels. "Classes were suspended at the university, but I can't really say that the security situation is any worse than usual," he says.

Since the city was divided in two in 2012, many residents of West Aleppo say they have become accustomed to the situation. "The first days of the offensive, over the weekend, people were a little bit afraid, but not more than usual. We went through worse than that a year and a half ago," recounts Jack Kazanji. Despite the battle, the young man hasn't changed anything in his usual way of life. Yesterday night, he went out to meet with friends in a café close to Aziziya Square, particularly frequented by the city's Christians. Yet the fighting was raging nearby. "We don't have any water, any electricity, to say nothing of the internet connection on our telephones, which is spotty. But when I see people smiling around me tonight, I know that it's because they no longer feel the pain and suffering. There are bombs and deaths one street over, and we are having a party. It's because people are tired of the war and we don't fear death."

"The main road has been closed, so my parents were unable to go to Beirut to catch a plane. But in our neighborhoods, the situation is good," says Lara*, 22. "I can't say that after what happened this weekend the situation is any worse than before." On Sunday, rumors circulated that the inhabitants of West Aleppo were stockpiling food and water in preparation for  a siege. "That's very exaggerated," says Lara, "There is everything, but the shops are making sure to hold on to goods in order to charge residents three times as much." "It's true that since the road was cut, prices have increased in a very strange way," says Jack Khazanji. A kilo of tomatos that was worth 100 Syrian pounds [around 75 cents] last week is now selling for 400 or more. "Fuel and bread as well," says R Tam. All are holding on to hope that the main road will be reopened in the coming days.

* This name has been changed.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Fr Touma (Bitar) on the Council of Chalcedon

Arabic original here.

Dogma and New Life

A Sermon on the Fourth Ecumenical Council

Today, brothers, we remember the fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which was held in Chalcedon, near Constantintople, today's Istanbul. This was in the year 451. The world's bishops flocked there from every direction, to the point that their number reached 630 fathers. For us, the ecumenical councils are, generally speaking, occasions for defining the faith, clarifying it, refuting every strange teaching and thus every strange way of life. For us, we receive the faith from those who preceded us and we pass it on to those who follow us. Just as each of us receives life from his parents and passes it on to his sons and daughters. What was the basic topic of the Fourth Ecumenical Council?

The basic topic is the person of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ, as the council ruled, is God and man together at the same time. He is God in every sense of the word and He is man in every sense of the word. However, even if the Lord Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, He is one person. This means that if we were to say that the Lord Jesus is only God, then there would not have been an incarnation. The incarnation that occurred-- that is, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Theotokos Mary and her conceiving the Lord Jesus-- would be without meaning and without value. Likewise, if the Lord Jesus was only man, then the incarnation would be of no benefit. Why would He become incarnate, if it were to be only a man? Then, if He were only a man, then He would have been born as all people are born. But the Lord Jesus was born in the body of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. So when we say that the Lord Jesus is God in every sense of the word and man in every sense of the word, we explain the meaning of the incarnation. The incarnation happened because God wanted to become man. The Son of God became man in every sense of the word. And if He became man in every sense of the word, this was for a specific purpose. He is God who became man. Why? Because He wanted, through his taking on man, to give man the opportunity to become divine in Him. This is the meaning of the incarnation. This is the value of the incarnation. The incarnation occurred for this reason.

There were strange ideas about this teaching that was expressed by the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Among these strange ideas that were refuted and rejected by the Church is the idea that the Lord Jesus Christ's divinity overpowered His humanity. This was completely rejected because the Lord Jesus' humanity was completely preserved. However, Jesus willingly submitted His humanity to His divinity. He became man, He remained man, and He continues to be man forever. Let no one think that the Son of God became man for a short period of time, after which He shed His humanity and returned to His previous state before the incarnation. This is not true. The Son of God became man because He wanted to take up our humanity, to become man, and to remain man forever. So it is not true that the Lord Jesus Christ's divinity swallowed up His humanity. His humanity remained fully preserved. The Lord Jesus ate and drank just as we eat and drink and His bodily functions were like our bodily functions. The Lord Jesus was different from us in one thing only: He did not know sin while we know sin-- indeed, all of humankind has fallen in sin. For this reason, in truth, He became incarnate, to free us from sin!

In addition to this, there was another strange teaching that said that since the Lord Jesus Christ was God and man together at the same time, He did not have a human soul. This too was rejected. It was known as Apollinarianism at that time, after the Apollinarius of Laodicia. The Lord Jesus has a human soul just as each of us has a human soul. The idea being that that which the Lord Jesus does not assume in man, He does not redeem. Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus Christ was not two persons, but one person. Of course, there is a mystery, there is a truth that is beyond human apprehension. So the Lord Jesus in one person. At that time, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, supported the line of regarding the Lord Jesus as two persons with a theory stating that Mary was the mother of Jesus but not the Mother of God. Thus, in Nestorius' mind, there was Jesus and there was God. What does that mean? Does it not mean that there are two persons, even if it does not state that directly? This, of course, was rejected by the Church, which broke relations with its proponent. The expression that we use in the Church for breaking off (that is, breaking off from the Church-- a person being expelled from the Church) is to anathematize. The Church anathematized Nestorius-- that is, cut him off from her communion. The Church held fast to the belief that Mary is the Mother of God. This does not at all mean that she begat the divinity. Only stupid people think we say that. No, never. That would be a heresy! God exists from eternity and forever. And Mary is created. However, when we say that Mary is the Mother of God, we mean that she gave birth to God in the flesh, not in an absolute sense. With regard to divinity, the Son of God is begotten of the Father from eternity. Is this not what we say in the Creed? "Begotten of the Father before all ages." With regard to His humanity, He Himself is born of the Virgin Mary. Therefore, saying that Mary is the Mother of God perfectly expresses Jesus Christ's being one person, while being both fully God and fully man. His identity in the incarnation is the identity of the Son of God, distinct from the person of the Father but of one essence with the Father. The Fourth Ecumenical Council was an extension of the Third Ecumenical Council, which was held in the city of Ephesus. There the Church anathematized Nestorius. In the Fourth Ecumenical Council, she wanted to confirm the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of the Lord Jesus. This is our faith, then: the Lord Jesus is God incarnate.

When, at the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus gave His disciples bread, He said to them, "take, eat, this is My body which is broken for you." And when He said "this is My body," He gave them Himself. The word "body" does not only mean that which is material and sensory. This word also meant the entire being. The Lord Jesus Christ gave Himself to them completely as God and man together. Therefore, when we participate in the sacraments, when we take part in Holy Communion, we participate (partake, eat) the Lord Jesus Christ, God. We participate in the body, under the sign of bread and wine, an extension of His body. So we participate in God, we eat God in a certain sense. When a person eats, the food that he receives is transformed into nourishment for his life. This entire process that occurs: we eat, the food goes down into the stomach, then the stomach lining absorbs the food and sends it into the blood by which one is nourished... this entire process means that food nourishes life and gives new life. So when we eat the body of the Lord Jesus and drink His blood-- when we participate in His totality as God and as man together-- we gain life. We are nourished by the new life that is His life. God gives us His life, which is Himself. We are not nourished by bread alone. Man is granted in the incarnation and in everything that the Lord Jesus achieved from the beginning until the ascension, until Pentecost, for God to become in the body food for him. The life that is given to us is God's own uncreated life. God is living. When the Lord Jesus gives Himself to us in the bread and wine, He gives us His life. So in this way we participate in the eternal life that belongs to God.

So where does this get us? When we participate in God, in the body, under the sign of the Eucharist, this makes us citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We do not only belong to this earth. Of course, we are of the dust of the earth. But it is also given to us to be born of the Spirit of God. This is what we receive at baptism, when the one being baptized is born of water and the Spirit. He is born in every sense of the word, unto heaven, unto God's kingdom. So this makes us at the same time citizens of the earth and citizens of heaven. Naturally, this causes us to regard everything in this life from the perspective of this dual allegiance, to earth and to heaven. What do I mean by these words? Each of us takes two or three meals in a day. This is something normal. Everyone, whether they believe in Jesus Christ or not, does this. But those who believe in the Lord Jesus treat these meals in a different manner than those who do not believe, with a different purpose. What do I mean by this? First, when I sit at the table-- or rather, before I sit at the table-- I pray and say, "The eyes of all hope upon you and you give them food in due season. You open Your hand and every living thing is filled with happiness." So I treat the food that I eat as a temple for the blessing of God's Spirit. My concern is that I partake of it in a spirit of chastity and restraint, so that I will not only receive bodily nourishment from it, but also primarily a blessing from above. In this manner, I treat bread and every sort of food with faith. This is what every believer must do. As the Apostle Paul said, he eats for the sake of God, drinks for the sake of God, dresses for the sake of God, and does everything for the sake of God. The important thing is that one makes what Christ realized in Himself his own also. We make ours when we treat everything in this world as belonging to God. Everything is from Him, in Him, and belonging to Him. Everything is from Him and we sign everything over to Him. We do not necessarily sign it over to Him directly, but through others. Therefore, we love God if we love our brothers. How do we know that we love God? Precisely if we love our brothers! Thus we do not eat only in order to gain good bodily health. This isn't the only purpose. We eat in order to praise God, first of all. We do not stand at the border of nature. Of course we must eat. But our first concern is that when we eat, we seek heavenly nourishment through material food. Thus through prayer, following the commandments, and chastity in dealing with food and with thanks to God for everything He gives us, then, in addition to this, with the participation of our brothers who are hungry, weak, and in pain, who do not possess what we possess... by doing these two things: by making food a means for giving praise to God, by following His commandments, and by making food a means for loving our brothers, in these two ways we treat food as something that both gives us bodily nourishment and brings us new life at the same time. Everything in our life as believers has theanthropic value, not only human value. It is never possible to separate these two things. We deal with everything as humans because we are humans. At the same time, however, we treat everything divinely because through His incarnation the Lord Jesus gave everything a divine value. He is God who has become incarnate. And we, through human things, seek to become divine. He became incarnate and we are becoming divine. Therefore, we treat everything in our life both humanly and divinely.

For this reason, the dogma of the Fourth Ecumenical Council is fundamental, extremely important, and not only so that we know that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. That is one part of the subject. The second part is that the Lord God became incarnate in order to grant us to treat everything and to pass by means of everything to His own life, His own divinity. Dogma defines our spiritual path to the face of God! Everything we deal with comes to be for our divinization. We treat it according to God's commandments, with the love of God, with blessing, with thanks, with remembrance of the name of God. Anyone who treats something in the world as having value in itself departs from the faith. I do not treat money as a cash, but as a means of meeting my needs and the needs of those around me. This money that I use stops at the limit of the dust of life in this world if I am content to use it for myself. But when I use it to fulfill God's commandments, out of love for my brothers, I make it into a means for his divinization and my own. The Lord God took up our humanity which is dust, and made it His body. He brought it into His life. Thus we take up everything and treat it with the fear of God and it becomes, through our following the commandments, an instrument for acquiring God's life, for acquiring divinity. Thus through everyday, normal human things, we become gods! The Lord Jesus expressed this in many of the things that He said. For example, if one of us gives another a glass of cold water, truly I say to you that his reward will not be lost. This may ensure our being taken directly to the kingdom. So we must deal with everything-- not only matters of life, but everything on earth-- we must use everything on this earth for the sake of the kingdom! In this way we receive the kingdom of heaven here and now. In this way we grow until we reach the fullness of the stature of Christ until, in death, we are completely joined to the Lord God. In this way we realize our humanity on earth. Our humanity, then, enters into the sphere of divinity. We start to become divinized from this moment. In this way the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God is realized completely in us. If we do not treat the things of God and the things of this earth in this way, then we remain strangers to everything that the Lord God wanted to realize in His incarnation. At that point, all the words that are said about Jesus being both God and man cease to have value for us. If we do not reflect the incarnation in our life, if it does not change us completely so that we come to be of God, of His mettle, then God's work effectively has no value for us. We become atheists deep down, even if we believe!

Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan-- Douma, Lebanon
August 7, 2016