Saturday, December 29, 2012

St. Joseph the Betrothed: Homily for the Sunday after Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel According to St. Matthew 2:13-23
           There is something beautiful in the combination of the different types of people described in the gospel accounts of our Lord’s birth.  Persian astrologers known as the magi, lowly shepherds, a young virgin, and an old man named Joseph all play their roles.  We have spoken of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos many times in the weeks leading to Christmas, as we must, for she is the first to receive Christ, the one through whom the Son of God is born as a human being.  All generations call her blessed and we seek to follow her example of purity, obedience, and humility.
            But today we especially commemorate Joseph the Betrothed, an unlikely and originally unwilling hero of the Christmas story.   We know from the Protoevangelium of James, an early Christian writing, that when it was time for Mary to move out of the Temple where she had grown up, an angel directed the high priest to assemble all the widowers for one to be chosen by a miraculous sign as the guardian, the protector of Mary, the holy virgin.  Joseph was the one chosen; but when he was told of this duty, he refused, saying:  “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel.”  Yes, there is something a bit shocking about an old man who is betrothed to a young girl.  But the high priest reminded him of the importance of fearing and obeying God.  So Joseph did as he was told and took responsibility for Mary as her betrothed. 
            We can only imagine Joseph’s horror at discovering that Mary was pregnant.  We read in the Protoevangelium that “he smote his face, and threw himself on the ground upon the sackcloth, and wept bitterly, saying: With what face shall I look upon the Lord my God? And what prayer shall I make about this maiden? Because I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her.”  But when he heard the word of the Lord through an angel that this child was of the Holy Spirit and that Mary had remained a virgin, he believed and obeyed.   
            Of course, others noted the pregnancy of the young virgin entrusted to the much older Joseph. So they were then brought before a religious court and required to drink the water of ordeal, which would make them sick if they were guilty of sin.  You can easily imagine what their accusers thought that they had done.  They both were unharmed, however, and were set free. 
            Joseph’s life had certainly been complicated by taking Mary as his betrothed.  But then things got even worse.  He had to take the pregnant Mary with him to Bethlehem, where she gave birth in a cave used as a barn for farm animals. And once the baby was born, Joseph found himself at the center of an international crisis with both wise men from Persia and King Herod looking for the child.  Then, the old man had to lead his family by night to Egypt, where they hid out until it was safe to return to Israel, to the town of Nazareth in Galilee.
            Joseph must have wondered many times how he got himself into all this unwelcomed excitement and why God had chosen him for such an unusual responsibility.  But he still obeyed and risked his life in protecting the young Jesus and His virgin Mother. Joseph put aside his own wishes and preferences and did what needed to be done, and thus played a crucial role in the unfolding of our salvation. 
            During this season of Christmas, I hope that we will all take Joseph the Betrothed as a model for how to live.  Perhaps in some ways we can all identify with him.  He had lived a life in the world, having been married with children, and then widowed.  His story shows us that we don’t have to be young or free from worldly cares in order to serve God; neither do we have to be especially enthusiastic volunteers.   Instead, we simply have to obey His calling.  We may not always like it and may refuse at first, as did Joseph and as did figures like Moses in the Old Testament.   But God can be patient and persistent and use us to His glory nonetheless.
            The miracle of Christmas required human cooperation in so many ways.  No one forced Mary to agree to become the Theotokos.  The wise men could have decided that the trip to Palestine was just too far.  Joseph could have abandoned the woman and the child entrusted to his care.  But he didn’t, despite the awkwardness, the danger, and the inconvenience.  On several occasions, he probably swallowed hard, steadied his nerves, kept his mouth shut, and prayed for God to help him one day at a time as he pressed forward. 
            As we celebrate the season of Christmas this year, let us remember that the Son of God took flesh in a world where people make choices.  It’s a world where we all have our priorities, our goals, our vision of what would be nice in life.  The problem is that God’s calling doesn’t always fit with our preferences.   We, like Joseph, are called to obey nonetheless, to respond in freedom, and to play our role in the unfolding of God’s salvation in the world.
            I know that it may seem a bit much to compare our calling with that of Joseph.  It’s hard to compete with being the adopted father of Jesus Christ.  The good news is that it’s not a contest; we don’t have to compete.  Instead, we just have to remember that the Lord was born for us too, that we also are brought into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity through Him.  He invites and calls us all to share in His life, to raise us the joy and blessedness of the kingdom even as we live and breathe.  But in order for this glorious transformation to occur, we must embrace Him, we must respond to Him, we must hear and obey His calling.
            We will do so not in some storybook world of religious platitudes, but in one as harsh and brutal as the one our Savior was born into as a helpless baby.  Unfortunately, there are still those who kill the innocent, even defenseless children, and even more who abuse and neglect them. There are situations of war, persecution, abuse, and poverty that lead families to take refuge in foreign countries, such as our own.    We never have to look far to find sick, lonely, and miserable people who are as vulnerable and needy as the newly born Lord and His mother.  No doubt, we can all play the role of Joseph to them in one way or another by giving generously of our time, attention, and other resources to become their friends, advocates, and protectors.         
            The good news of this season is that, because of Christ’s birth, all human beings are called to the life of heaven.  The particulars of that calling vary for each of us.  And it’s not always as clear as the brilliant star that the wise men followed.  And sometimes even when it becomes clear, we refuse like Joseph did at first.  But one thing is for sure:  we have to listen in order to hear God’s unique calling to us.  And that means prayer, in stillness and quiet, on a daily basis in which our hearts and souls are opened to Him.  It also means cultivating the obedient faith that we see in Joseph.  Like him, we may be called to new, unexpected responsibilities; to sacrifice our standing in the eyes of others; and even to risk life as we know it.
            So like Joseph the Betrothed, let us serve Christ this Christmas season with the fear of God and faith and love.   Let us put aside our excuses and do what has to be done in order for us to participate more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.   Let us be especially attentive to those who are weak, vulnerable, and displaced, for that is how the Lord came to us.  Let us celebrate this glorious feast of our salvation by loving and serving Him in every way we can.  

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!: A Homily for Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Galatians 4:4-7
The Gospel According to St. Matthew 2:1-12

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!
            The glorious feast of Christmas is finally here, and what a wonderful and miraculous blessing it is.  For the Eternal Word of God has become a human being, a helpless babe laid in a manger.  Angels sing in His honor.  The lowly shepherds and the foreign wise men worship Him.  A young virgin becomes a mother, not simply of a Son, but of the Son of God.   And kings tremble, for this baby brings to earth a Kingdom not of this world.
            The good news is that Jesus Christ is born this day, not to judge or to destroy us, but to save and bless us.  He is the Second Adam in Whom the corruption of the first Adam is healed.  By becoming one of us, He brings us into the life of God.  We are made holy, we are fulfilled, we are raised to life eternal in Him.
            Our Lord brings His great joy to the world humbly and peaceably.  He does not arrive in the earthly splendor of a king, with the military power of a conquering general, or in the material comfort of the rich. Instead, He takes the lowest, most vulnerable place for Himself:  born in a cave used as a barn to a family that lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the cruelty of Herod.  Soon Joseph would take the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt by night, fleeing for their lives from a wicked, murderous king.       What a difficult, lowly way to come into a dark and dangerous world.
            But when we pause to consider the glory of our Lord’s Incarnation, we shouldn’t be surprised at all.  For what does it mean for the Immortal One to put on mortality?  What does it mean for the One Who spoke the world into existence to become part of that creation?  What does it mean for the King of the universe to become subject to the kings of the world?  Let’s be clear: it means humility and selfless, suffering love that are beyond what we can understand.  For our Lord, God, and Savior is not a rational concept to be defined, but a Person whose life we are to share.   And so that we could share in His life, He entered into ours, sanctifying every bit of the human experience, every bit of our life, literally from the womb to the tomb that could not contain Him.
            The wise men and the shepherds show us how to respond to the unbelievably good news that God has become a human being:  they worship Him.  Let us follow their example this Christmas season by worshiping Him with our lives, by opening ourselves to the glorious transformation that the Incarnate Son of God has brought to us.  For Christ is born, and the peace and joy of God’s kingdom are ours even as we live and breathe in this world.  Christ is born, and we encounter Him in every human being, especially the poor, needy, weak, and outcast.  Christ is born, and we are made participants in the eternal life for which we were created.
            Yes, this wonderful news really is true.  And the only limits on the blessing of Christmas are those that we place on ourselves.  For the One Who comes as a humble, meek, peaceable baby in a manger never forces us or anyone else.  He is the Mystery of Love made flesh for our salvation.
            This Christmas, let us be like Mary the Theotokos who received Him with joy, like the elder Joseph His steadfast protector, and like the strange combination of shepherds and Persian astrologers who first worshiped Him.  Let us welcome Him into our life, for He has already brought us into His.
Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!


2012 Christmas Encyclical of His Beatitude Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople


By the Mercy of God Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch

To the Plenitude of the Church:

Grace, Mercy and Peace

From the Savior Christ Born in Bethlehem

* * *

“Christ is born, glorify Him; Christ is on earth, exalt Him.”

Let us rejoice in gladness for the ineffable condescension of God.The angels precede us singing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among all people.”

Yet, on earth we behold and experience wars and threats of wars. Still, the joyful announcement is in no way annulled. Peace has truly come to earth through reconciliation between God and people in the person of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, however, we human beings have not been reconciled, despite God’s sacred will. We retain a hateful disposition towards one another. We discriminate against one another by means of fanaticism with regard to religious and political convictions, by means of greed in the acquisition of material goods, and through expansionism in the exercise of political power. These are the reasons why we come into conflict with one another.

With his Decree of Milan issued in 313AD, the enlightened Roman emperor, St. Constantine the Great, instituted freedom in the practice of the Christian faith, alongside freedom in the practice of every other religion. Sadly, with the passing since then of precisely 1700 years, we continue to see religious persecution against Christians and other Christian minorities in various places.

Moreover, economic competition is spreading globally, as is the pursuit of ephemeral profit, which is promoted as a principal target. The gloomy consequences of the overconcentration of wealth in the hands of the few and the financial desolation of the vast human masses are ignored. This disproportion, which is described worldwide as a financial crisis, is essentially the product of a moral crisis. Nevertheless, humankind is regrettably not attributing the proper significance to this moral crisis. In order to justify this indifference, people invoke the notion of free trade. But free trade is not a license for crime. And criminal conduct is far more than what is recorded in penal codes. It includes what cannot be foreseen by the prescription of statutory laws, such as the confiscation of people’s wealth by supposedly legitimate means. Inasmuch, therefore, as the law cannot be formally imposed, the actions of a minority of citizens are often expressed in an unrestrained manner, provoking disruption in social justice and peace.

From the Ecumenical Patriarchate, then, we have been closely following the “signs of the times,” which everywhere echo the “sounds” of “war and turmoil” – with “nation rising against nation, dominion against dominion, great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues, alongside dreadful phenomena and heavenly portents.” (Luke 21.10-12) In many ways, we are experiencing what St. Basil wrote about “the two types of love: one is feeling sorrow and concern upon seeing one’s beloved harmed; the other is rejoicing and striving to benefit one’s beloved. Anyone who demonstrates neither of these categories clearly does not love one’s brother or sister." (Basil the Great, Shorter Rules, PG31.1200A) This is why, from this sacred See and Center of Orthodoxy, we proclaim the impending new year as the Year of Global Solidarity.

It is our hope that in this way we may be able to sensitize sufficient hearts among humankind regarding the immense and extensive problem of poverty and the need to assume the necessary measures to comfort the hungry and misfortunate.

As your spiritual father and church leader, we ask for the support of all persons and governments of good will in order that we may realize the Lord’s peace on earth – the peace announced by the angels and granted by the infant Jesus. If we truly desire this peace, which transcends all understanding, we are obliged to pursue it palpably instead of being indifferent to the spiritual and material vulnerability of our brothers and sisters, for whom Christ was born.

Love and peace are the essential features of the Lord’s disciples and of every Christian. So let us encourage one another during this Year of Global Solidarity to make every conscious effort – as individuals and nations – for the reduction of the inhumane consequences created by the vast inequalities as well as the recognition by all people of the rights of the weakest among us in order that everyone may enjoy the essential goods necessary for human life. Thus, we shall indeed witness – at least to the degree that it is humanly possible – the realization of peace on earth.

Together with all of material and spiritual creation, we venerate the nativity of the Son and Word of God from the Virgin Mary, bowing down before the newborn Jesus – our illumination and salvation, our advocate in life – and wondering like the Psalmist “Whom shall we fear? Of whom shall we be afraid?” (Ps. 26.1) as Christians, since “to us is born today a savior” (Luke 2.11), “the Lord of hosts, the king of glory” (Ps. 23.10.)

We hope earnestly and pray fervently that the dawning 2013 will be for everyone a year of global solidarity, freedom, reconciliation, good will, peace and joy. May the pre-eternal Word of the Father, who was born in a manger, who united angels and human beings into one order, establishing peace on earth, grant to all people patience, hope and strength, while blessing the world with the divine gifts of His love. Amen.

At the Phanar, Christmas 2012

Your fervent supplicant before God
+ Bartholomew of Constantinople

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Savior for Scandalous Sinners Like You and Me: Homily for the Sunday before Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel According to St. Matthew 1:1-25
            Whether we like it or not, we all inherit a lot from our parents and pass a lot along to our children.  It may not be a lot of money, but from genetics to personalities to a thousand other details about what seems normal and natural, we all play our role in shaping humanity from generation to generation.  We do that for good and bad, as a quick look at ourselves and our families reveals.   Those who went before us were not perfect and neither will those who follow us be without flaw.  Nonetheless, God works through imperfect people to accomplish His purposes.  That was certainly the case for the family tree of Jesus Christ.  
            St. Matthew begins his gospel with the family tree of the Lord, with His genealogy. He does so in order to show that the Savior had the right heritage to be the Messiah, the anointed One in Whom all God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled. So he traces the Lord’s ancestry back to Abraham; through David, the great king who was viewed as a model for the Messiah; and through all the generations up to St. Joseph, to whom the Virgin Mary was betrothed when she became the Theotokos, the one who bore the eternal Son of God in her womb. 
            Well, our eyes probably glaze over whenever we read a genealogy in the Bible. It can sound like an endless, unimportant list of who begat whom.  But we must not pass over Matthew’s account of Jesus Christ’s family tree so quickly, for there are many surprises in it.  And in those surprises we see that the Lord is a Messiah quite different from the one most of the first-century Jews expected.  For they typically wanted a military ruler like King David, who would defeat the Romans, and set Israel free from her enemies.  In the eyes of the Pharisees, the Messiah was to be a strict interpreter of the Old Testament law through whom God would bless the righteous and bring judgment upon the sinner.    It was commonly assumed that the Messiah’s coming would be a blessing for law-abiding Jews, but a curse for the Gentiles and the sinners of Israel.
            So how odd that St. Matthew includes in the genealogy the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba.  They are, first of all, women.  Genealogies were usually names of fathers and sons; the women weren’t worth mentioning in that time and place.  They were also Gentiles and sinners, foreigners who were involved in one way or another in something scandalous.  For example, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute in order to conceive children by the father of her late husband.  Rahab is known as “Rahab the Harlot.”  King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband.   Ruth was King David’s great-grandmother and a Moabite woman.  The Old Testament is full of warnings to Jewish men against marrying Gentile women like Ruth. So these are embarrassing figures to include in the family line of the Messiah, who was supposed to be a model of the Jewish faith.  
            This unlikely cast of characters in our Savior’s family tree is a sign that God’s promises are not only for righteous Jewish men, but for everyone with faith, including Gentiles, repentant sinners, and those of shockingly low standing in society.  Matthew prepares us in his genealogy for the unique kind of Messiah we encounter in Jesus Christ:  not one who rewards the proud, powerful, and respectable, but one who blesses the humble, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those with purity of heart who will see God.   
            Immediately following the genealogy, Matthew tells us of the Lord’s birth under circumstances even more shocking than those we have described so far.  Mary, a virgin girl, becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph, her guardian and protector, was horrified by what he assumed was her immoral behavior, and was prepared to end their betrothal.  But an angel told him of the miracle, he believed, and became the adopted father of the Lord.
            We have heard the story so many times that we may have forgotten how shocking, how embarrassing, how unconventional the circumstances of Christ’s conception were.  Surely, many people judged Mary and Joseph and never believed in the miracle of the virgin birth.  Surely, it was difficult for Mary and Joseph to change the course of their lives, and to risk their reputations and physical safety, in order to play their unique roles in the unfolding of our salvation. 
            And when we remember that this is the story of the union in Jesus Christ of God and humanity, of the fulfillment of all God’s promises beyond even the greatest expectations of the Old Testament prophets, of the Incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation, it becomes even more shocking.  For don’t we usually expect that God’s ways are like our ways, that His kingdom is like the kingdoms of earth, that He must love the respectable, wealthy,  and successful more than He does the scandalous, the poor, and the downtrodden?  Don’t we usually think that holiness isn’t embarrassing or unconventional or at least uncomfortable?  And who doesn’t want a faith that leads to success in the world?
            In these last days before Christmas, we should make a concerted effort to accept that the Mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ is not an extension of our personal accomplishments, good characteristics, or abilities.  It is not a reward for good behavior, which is good news because we have all fallen short of holiness in one way or another.   It is not about politics or cultural supremacy, which is also good news because we have all become too comfortable with violence, anger, selfishness, and putting our own pleasure and convenience before God and neighbor.   Instead, the good news of this season lies in the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, now extended to all who have faith in the true Messiah, the One who is anointed to bring light and life to the world, to be the second Adam in Whom our fallen, corrupt humanity is healed and brought into the very life of the Holy Trinity. 
            Though not many people apparently noticed it at the time, God’s promises in the Old Testament extended to all who believed, including Gentiles, sinners, and women.   The promise was not fulfilled in their lifetimes, however, “God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”  So, you see, we are part of the family tree also.  The line that began with Abraham and is fulfilled in Christ includes us.  He is the vine and we are the branches. 
            Yes, I know that we are unworthy and unlikely members of such a family.  Like those who prepared for the coming of Christ and those who have served Him since, we are also sinners whose lives are in many ways scandalous.  Perhaps that’s why the Son of God chose a human heritage full of imperfect people who often fell short; perhaps that’s why He was born in circumstances that at least outwardly commanded the respect of no one; perhaps that is why the Old and New Testaments are so honest about the sins of both the Jews and the early Christians.
            When we look at the Lord’s genealogy, we see people a lot like us.  For His people are not self-righteous snobs who never did anything wrong.  They are not those who have no problems, struggles, and pains. They are not those who think that everything boils down to money, power, reputation, and getting their own way.  They are not those who believe that salvation comes through armies, nations, and political leaders.  Instead, they are those who fall before Christ with faith, humility, and repentance, and who know that the only hope for blessing, peace, and fulfillment in their lives is in His mercy.  In the coming days, let us prepare to celebrate the fulfillment of the Promise made to Abraham in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  For He comes to make us members of His family, to share His eternal life with us; and He will, if only we will believe, repent, and seek first His Kingdom.       

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Orthodox Leaders Discuss Social Outreach at the White House

Orthodox Leaders Discuss Social Outreach at White House

Orthodox service organization leaders meet at White House (Photo: M. Hodde, IOCC)Orthodox service organization leaders meet at White House (Photo: M. Hodde, IOCC)Baltimore, MD (IOCC) — More than 80 representatives of the nation's Orthodox Christian service organizations joined together at the White House today to discuss strategic service alliances with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The White House Conference on Orthodox Christian Engagement was hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement in conjunction with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and facilitated by International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).
Present to discuss the role of Orthodox Christians in social outreach, disaster response, and community development in the United States were Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in the Americas and liaison to IOCC from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America. Also present were Bishop Gregorios of Nyssa of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese and Bishop Sevastianos of Zela, Chief Secretary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Eparchial Synod, representing Archbishop Demetrios of America, a member of the Presidential Commission for Faith-Based Organizations. The Orthodox Christian hierarchs were joined by IOCC Board Chairman, Michael S. "Mickey" Homsey, along with IOCC board members and staff, Orthodox Christian clergy and leaders of Orthodox Christian service organizations.
"The opportunity for this level of discourse with the White House is an important way to build understanding between our communities and contribute toward serving needs here in the United States," said Homsey. "The conference is an important step toward uniting the efforts of Orthodox Christians to effectively serve their communities and builds on similar service IOCC has provided in more than 50 countries around the world over the past twenty years."
The half-day conference brought together the community's leadership to learn more about its multifaceted ministries, and to explore potential collaborations offered by the federal government to support the Church's service work.
"The Orthodox Christian community plays a critical role in social outreach, disaster response, and community development," said D. Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. The conference provided a forum for dialogue on that outreach and areas for mutual cooperation.
View more photos of the event and read the full story on the IOCC's website.

New Patriarch of Antioch Comments on the Plight of Christians in Syria

The Daily Star

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New Greek Orthodox patriarch elected
Yazigi receives congratulations after being elected.
Yazigi receives congratulations after being elected.
BEIRUT: Christians belong in Syria and will remain there despite the challenges facing them, newly elected Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X Yazigi said Monday.
Yazigi, bishop of Western and Central Europe, was elected Greek Orthodox patriarch of the Levant and Antioch, succeeding Patriarch Hazim Ignatius IV who died earlier this month in Beirut.
“Christians are staying in Syria because the land is theirs and they will not leave it,” Yazigi said in remarks to reporters shortly after the news of his election was made public around noon.
The 57-year-old Yazigi was elected with at least ten votes during a meeting at Balamand Monastery near Tripoli, officials with knowledge of the Monday meeting told The Daily Star.
Bishop Antonio Chedraoui of Mexico and Bishop Saba Esper of Syrian region of Bosra-Houran also received votes, the officials said.
The election took place during a gathering of 18 bishops from Greek Orthodox archbishoprics around the world who had arrived to Lebanon to elect Hazim’s successor.
Hazim’s 33-year service at the head of the church came to an end earlier this month after the patriarch suffered a stroke.
Like Hazim, Yazigi is also Syrian. He was born in Latakia in 1955.
In 2008, Yazigi was elected Metropolitan of Western and Central Europe after serving four years as the abbot of Balamand Monastery.
Yazigi, who first graduated from Latakia’s University of Tishreen with a bachelor degree in Civil Engineering, continued his studies at St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology. He then earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Thessaloniki in Greece in 1983.
Rebuffing claims that the ongoing violence in Syria between the regime and the opposition is leading to an end to Christian presence in Syria, Yazigi said that people of Syria will endure the current challenges as they have done in the past.
“In difficult times throughout history, many said that this is the end [for Christians], but with our faith we carried on and we will now,” Yazigi said.
He called on Christians in Lebanon and Syria to stand united against all difficulties, adding that Christians and Muslims in the region share the same fate.
“We are one family and our fate is one. Our journey is toward serving this people and God help us to prevail in this journey,” Yazigi said in a news conference following the meeting.
“We are from this land and this land is part of us,” he said.
Lebanese politicians welcomed the election of the new patriarch and voiced hope that he succeeds in fulfilling the church’s mission in the region.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he is confident that the newly elected Greek Orthodox patriarch will continue supporting coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
“We are confident, especially in these times of great transformations in the region and the Arab world, your [Yazigi] words will have a positive effect in speaking the truth and continuing the establishment of a rich coexistence with Muslims and the establishment of one national identity,” Hariri said.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati also congratulated Yazigi.
In a telephone call Monday with Yazigi, Mikati voiced hope that the new patriarch succeeds in spreading his message of forgiveness between the people of the region.
For his part, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea praised the election of a new patriarch and said he is confident that Yazigi is a good successor for Hazim.
“We wish all the best for the Greek Orthodox Church and its members in Lebanon, the Arab world and the world,” Geagea said in a statement.
“I wish you success and I reiterate my confidence in your national and humanitarian role,” Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi said in a congratulatory letter.
The Balamand Monastery will welcome guests to congratulate Yazigi on his election Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 18, 2012, on page

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Light in the Darkness: Homily for the Sunday of the Forefathers in the Orthodox Church in the Aftermath of the Tragic Shooting in Connecticut

Gospel According to St. Luke 14: 16-24
St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians 3:4-11

            This Friday’s unbelievably horrible school shooting reminds us of the depths of evil, wickedness, and pain that have corrupted and distorted our humanity.  It is difficult enough when our loved ones die of natural causes after a full life, but we do not even have the words or categories of thought to make sense of the terror of the intentional murder of young children and their teachers in a school.  Where is God when such things happen?, it is fair to ask.  Well, as hard as it may be to believe, He was born as a defenseless baby in a world where the evil King Herod plotted to have Him killed; and when that scheme didn’t work, Herod slaughtered all the young male children in the region of Bethlehem.
            In the Savior who is born at Christmas, we behold the glory of a Lord who truly becomes one of us, sharing our vulnerability and pain, and even allowing Himself to be nailed to a cross until He was dead.  Jesus Christ is no stranger to the insane evil of human beings who have so horribly distorted their nature as those created in the image and likeness of God.   And His glorious resurrection is a powerful sign that His love conquers even the grave, even the worst that the forces of wickedness can do even to the most innocent.
            Our calling as Christians is certainly to pray for those who died and for those who mourn them.  Even more fundamentally, it is also to reject from our lives whatever darkness has taken root there so that we will become beacons of Christ’s light that invites others in our darkened world to the brilliant banquet of God’s Kingdom.  St. Paul reminded the Colossians to have nothing to do with “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness…anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language” and lying.  Those are simply the ways of death and there is no telling the damage that they will do to us and others if we let them take over our lives.  Evil is an insane spiral that takes us further away from reality one step at a time.    That is the way of the old Adam who brought sin and death into the world and which, if we let it, will suck the life out of us and leave us half human at best.  We know all too well what depraved human beings are capable of and we do not want to follow their path that leads only to the grave.        The good news that we prepare to celebrate during this season of Advent is that Jesus Christ comes to deliver us from that kind of warped, miserable existence.
             We sometimes forget that life was cheap in the world to which He was born.  For example, the pagan Romans routinely exposed unwanted infants, which meant they literally abandoned them to whatever wild animal or slave trader came along or simply to die of hunger or thirst.  They did not recognize the human dignity of poor people, slaves, or their enemies.  They literally killed human beings for entertainment in the coliseum.  Their sexual immorality was legendary, which is why St. Paul and others had to respond to cases of prostitution, incest, and other forms of debauchery in the early Church.  No, not much is new when it comes to sin.  The Messiah entered such a corrupt world in order to save it and to invite anyone who would hear—Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, male or female—to a radically different way of life characterized by selfless love toward anyone who suffers, forgiveness of those who wrong us, and control over the self-centered desires that threaten to dehumanize us all.
            Unfortunately, many were so distracted by earthly cares that they insanely excused themselves from the blessed life of the Kingdom to which the Lord invited them.  As in the parable in our gospel lesson, they obsessed about money, power, status, possessions, and even their families in ways that made them blind to the brilliant light of Christ shining right before their eyes.  The terrifying truth is that we can do the same thing, shutting ourselves out our Lord’s salvation because we insist that we know better.  We can become experts at coping with the darkness in our lives, or accepting the lies of the world that this, that, or the other thing, will make our problems go away. The harsh truth, of course, is that more of the same isn’t going to help.   They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  The more we choose the world over God, the further we drift from reality, truth, and holiness; the greater mess we will make of our lives.  The results are always the same.  
                In one sense, we are all the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind who were brought into the great banquet described in today’s gospel reading.  We have wounded, weakened, and distorted ourselves with our own sins.  We have also suffered the consequences of the corruption of everyone else from Adam and Eve to today’s criminals and terrorists.  We have all harmed one another.  And terrible tragedies like Friday’s shooting reveal an impossibly hard truth about the human condition in the world as we know it.
            In the midst of our sorrow today, we must remember that Christ was not born simply to make us feel better about our collective failings and struggles, but to save us; that is, to heal and set right all that has gone wrong with those created in God’s image and likeness.  He came to unite our poor, maimed, lame, and blind humanity with the holiness of His Divinity.  He is the God-Man who took upon Himself all our corruption to the point of death, burial, and descent into Hades in order to rise victorious over them and bring us into the eternal blessedness for which we were made.
            Let’s be honest.  Who doesn’t want to make the world a better place?  Which of us hasn’t asked what we could do to bring our culture more in line with God’s purposes?  Aren’t we all wondering what the solution is to horrible acts of violence in our society and to other manifestations of evil?  Well, Orthodox Christianity points to the heart of the matter:  Our most basic calling is to become holy by being as fully united as possible with Jesus Christ.  Whatever is not Christ-like, we should remove from our lives.  The excuses that we make for not doing so are simply that, excuses that reveal our spiritual sickness.  St. Paul told the Colossians to put their sins to death.  The gospel reading tells to get over our excuses and accept the invitation to the great joy of the Kingdom.  Unless we are seriously responding to Christ’s call to holiness in our lives, we will have nothing to offer the world that it doesn’t already have.  We must take the logs out of our own eyes before taking the specks out of other peoples’ eyes.  If we don’t do that, no one will pay any attention to what we say or do any.  And why should they?
            So we need to prepare to welcome Christ in our darkened world by first welcoming Him into even the shadowy corners of our lives.  If we do so, our parish, our families, our friendships, our workplaces, and our relationships will become beacons of light that model for others a better way and draw them to the healing that is found only in the Lord.  If we want to reduce violence in our society, we must first remember Christ’s teaching about murder in the Sermon on the Mount and root out anger and judgment from our own souls.  If we want innocent life to be protected, we must take off whatever blinders have limited our vision of the threats to the well-being of the weak and vulnerable and do what we can to help them.  If we want some level of moral decency in society, we must first become holy in our own lives.
            Our Savior brought light and life to a darkened, dying world.  The good news is that He still does.  Our calling is to respond as fully as we can to His gracious invitation to share in His joy.  If we do so, our lives will become beacons of hope to a despairing and often insane world.  That is how we as Orthodox Christians should respond to this week’s tragedy even as we prepare to welcome the baby born in Bethlehem:  By growing in holiness and drawing others to the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom of God.     

Friday, December 14, 2012

Orthodox Monastery Vandalized in Jerusalem

Price-tag vandals hit J'lem church, Palestinian town

12/12/2012 09:50

Extremists puncture tires in 2 separate incidents, spray-paint "The Maccabis will succeed" on wall near J'lem monastery.

Father Claudio near spray-painted carPHOTO: MELANIE LIDMAN
“Price-tag” vandals targeted sites in Jerusalem and near Ramallah overnight Tuesday, spraying extremist graffiti and puncturing car tires.
The words “tag mahir” – “price tag” – have become affiliated with the extreme fringe of the settlement and right-wing movements.
For the second time in less than a year, vandals targeted the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park.
This time, the vandals wrote: “Happy Hanukka, the Maccabees will succeed” on a stone wall surrounding the structure. They also spraypainted graffiti on a car with the words “Jesus is a bastard,” “price-tag,” and “Happy Hanukka.”
They vandals slashed the tires of three cars.
In the second incident, which took place in Shukba, 18 km. northwest of Ramallah, unidentified persons set a car on fire and spray-painted the words “price-tag” nearby, Judea and Samaria Police reported on Wednesday morning.
Police opened an investigation, but have yet to make any arrests.
Father Claudio, the superior of the monastery, said he discovered the graffiti on Wednesday morning after morning prayers. “I forgave them the first time, I will forgive them the second time. I will forgive them the seventh, and 75th times, the 77th time I forgive,” he said.
“This person needs to write outside. Okay. But he needs to come inside the Monastery. Sit with me, drink one coffee, and I will explain to him why I believe in Jesus and why that is my freedom [to believe],” Father Claudio said. “He needs to come face to face. And I will tell him, ‘Welcome.’ Or with me, or with another priest. Let’s sit, and speak. This is the heart of the religions... I say to these people, ‘Hanukka Sameach’ [‘Happy Hanukka’].”
Father Claudio added that he understands that 99 percent of Israelis support his church, and only 1 percent is responsible for the extremism and hatred.
“This is terrorism. It is terror against Christians,” said Maroun Reem, who lives in the monastery. The tires of her car were slashed, the same car that had graffiti spray-painted in the previous price-tag attack on February 7. Then, the vandals wrote: “Jesus, drop dead,” “Death to Christians” and “Kahane was right.” They called themselves “The Maccabees of Migron [an outpost in the Binyamin region]” and also left the words “price tag.”
“They did it because I have a cross in my car,” she said.
“This does a lot of damage to the country.”
This is the fifth price-tag attack against a Christian site this year, including the previous vandalism at the Valley of the Cross Monastery, and at the Latrun Monastery, the Baptist Church in west Jerusalem, and the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion.
Police have arrested six people – three adults and three minors – in connection with price tag incidents over the past three months. Only two of the suspects were arrested in connection with an attack against Christian holy sites, in connection with the vandalism at the Dormition Abbey’s Franciscan Convent in October.
National Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said officers were alerted to the incident at the Monastery of the Cross early on Wednesday morning.
They had no leads but the investigation was continuing, and may be transferred to a special unit established last year that looks into price-tag attacks, he said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the two price-tag attacks “revolting.”
“The Jewish values according to which we were raised and according to which we raise our children reject outright such behavior. Freedom of worship for all religions will be upheld in Israel and we will bring to justice these contemptible beings who perpetrated this crime,” Netanyahu said.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also condemned the vandalism.
“We cannot accept this disgusting and extremist phenomenon, whose only goal is to damage the coexistence in Jerusalem. We must tear this up from the roots,” Barkat said.
In response to the price-tag attacks, activists from the Bright Tag anti-racism coalition held a candle-lighting ceremony in the Valley of the Cross, near the monastery, for the fifth night of Hanukka with local rabbis and Greek monks.
“Law enforcement agencies in Israel do not take sufficient action to end these violent acts, thus encouraging the Jewish terrorism,” Bright Tag founder Dr. Gadi Gvaryahu said ahead of the candle-lighting.
He blamed extreme-right rabbis, websites, and politicians, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, for encouraging acts of violence against Arab and Christian sites.
The Monastery of the Cross is an Orthodox Christian monastery built around the 11th century on the spot where Christians believes the tree grew that was used to make Jesus’s cross. The monastery has roots in Georgian and Greek Orthodoxy and flies a Greek flag above the fortress-like building, which could be one of the reasons it was targeted. During Hanukka, Jews commemorate a secondcentury BCE victory over Syrian- Greek oppressors.
Ben Hartman and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.