"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch


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Wednesday, 26 April 2017


In this post I shall attempt to express the attitudes, ideas, difficulties and theological positions of some of those on both sides of the Orthodox-Catholic divide who take part in the ecumenical dialogue.  This is not meant to be a polemical essay; hence, I shall not be dealing with the Orthodox anti-ecumenical opposition. 

 We shall start with a short homily of Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow:


The Patriarch begins by saying that he was enthroned on the feast of St Mark of Ephesus who was the only bishop not to sign with the other Orthodox bishops at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-9).  The Byzantine emperor wanted western military help to protect Constantinople from the Moors, and thus sought the help of the pope.  According to Patriarch Kirill, St Mark said:
 union must not be motivated by fear;
union cannot take place motivated by mere pragmatism;
and, most importantly, union cannot take place in such a way as to bring about schism.  This council crushed the unity of the Orthodox world.

I was consecrated bishop on the feast of the Victory of Orthodoxy and was enthroned on the feast of St Mark of Ephesus.  I cannot see this as mere coincidence. I am here to protect the purity of the Orthodox faith and to oppose any heresy or shame. 

Before commenting on this, I think it would be a good idea to read some passages from the brilliant essay by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart called "The Myth of Schism":

...That said, doctrines do divide us, and I think that, in the nature of things, the Eastern church inevitably has a keener sense of this. I have among my Roman Catholic theologian friends, especially those who have had little direct dealings with Eastern Christianity, some who are justifiably offended by the hostility with which the advances of the Roman Church are occasionally met by certain Orthodox, and who assume that the greatest obstacle to reunion of the churches is Eastern immaturity and divisiveness. The problem is dismissed as one of ‘psychology’, and the only counsel offered one of ‘patience’. Fair enough: decades of communist tyranny set atop centuries of other, far more invincible tyrannies have effectively shattered the Orthodox world into a contentious confederacy of national churches struggling to preserve their own regional identities against every ‘alien’ influence, and under such conditions only the most obdurate stock survives.

 But psychology is the least of our problems. Simply said, a Catholic who looks eastward should find nothing to which to object, because what he sees is the Church of the Seven Oecumenical Councils (but—here’s the rub—for him, this means the first seven of twenty-one, at least according to the definition of Oecumenical Council bequeathed the Roman Church by Robert Bellarmine). 

When an Orthodox Christian turns his eyes westward, however, he sees many elements that appear novel to him: the filioque clause, the way in which papal primacy is articulated, Purgatory, etc. Our divisions do truly concern doctrine, and this problem admits of no immediately obvious remedy, because both churches are so fearfully burdened by infallibility. And we need to appreciate that this creates an essential asymmetry in the Orthodox and Catholic approaches to the ecumenical enterprise. 

No Catholic properly conscious of the teachings of his Church would be alarmed by what the Orthodox Church would bring into his communion—he would find it sound and familiar, and would not therefore suspect for a moment that reunion had in any way compromised or diluted his Catholicism. But to an Orthodox Christian, inasmuch as the Roman Church does make doctrinal assertions absent from his tradition, it may well seem that to accept reunion with Rome would mean becoming a Roman Catholic, and so ceasing to be Orthodox. Hence it would be unreasonable to expect the Eastern and Western churches to approach ecumenism from the same vantage: the historical situations of the churches are simply too different.
For David Bentley Hart, when we look at the differences between Catholic and Orthodox theology, simply as theology, they are not absolute differences. Some are due to differences of vocabulary, some are complementary, while, with others, we can simply allow the two theologies to correct one another.  

The problem is dogma, not dogma in general, but all the Catholic dogmas defined after the split..  Dogmas do not drop down, ready made, from heaven. They belong to a process of gradual articulation and refinement and the need to formulate them arises in a particular intellectual and historic environment.  However, Orthodoxy and Catholicism have developed in very different environments,  have had different experiences, and have had to solve different problems.  Hence there are Catholic dogmas that have no place in Orthodox tradition.  To accept them, an Orthodox has to go outside his tradition into someone else's.  This implies that their Tradition is somehow defective and that reunion means "becoming Roman Catholic"; and this they don't accept. On the contrary, they consider their own church to be the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" listed in the Nicene Creed.  Hence this short sermon by Patriarch Kirill:

This sermon states the Orthodox doctrine that it is the Catholic Church, and he opposes it to modern liberalism which believes that one Christian church or community is as good as another. With a little adaptation, we would, of course, agree with the Patriarch.

Is there any possibility of union when both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church each claims to be "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Creed?  Is there any possibility of union when the Catholic Church has dogmas that the Orthodox cannot accept?  Is there no alternative to the choice between the anti-ecumenists like Father Peter Heers and wishy-washy Anglican liberals?


St Mark of Ephesus
of Ephesus
With St Mark of Ephesus and Patriarch Kirill, we must rule out any reunion based on fear or on mere pragmatism and apostolic efficiency, or in such a way that it will breed more schism.  I suggest that, for the Patriarch of Moscow, the latter danger is greatest.  I suspect that he is afraid that the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue may reach agreement before the Orthodox Church is ready for it.  An agreement too soon could well cause schism.  Indeed, there are Orthodox bishops who leave the Patriarch of Constantinople out of the dyptichs in the Liturgy because he is infected with "the ecumenical heresy"!  Better, that Catholics and Orthodox work together on tasks that are uncontroversial, and get to know and love each other before agreement is reached.

 We must remember that they have had no Vatican II; and that, before Vatican II, the ressourcement theologians in France, as well as their Orthodox counterparts, covered their ecumenical discussions with a discreet silence, because both church authorities believed ecumenism to be inspired by doctrinal indifferentism.  I once asked a Russian Orthodox archimandrite (he was Welsh actually, but belonged to the R.O.C. and lived in Paris) why V. Lossky, who was so sublime and profound in his exposition of Orthodox theology was so downright silly when it came to Catholic theology.  He gave me a wry smile and said, "Well, you see, Father David, he had to write passages like that because Orthodox theologians in Russia and other Orthodox countries suspected all the Orthodox in France of being infected with Romanism.  If he didn't write passages highly critical of Catholicism, they wouldn't have taken him seriously as an Orthodox theologian."   Vatican scholastic theologians  were just as  xenophobic. 

 What gives us hope for the future is the copernican revolution in our understanding of the Church which took place in Vatican II.  In their dialogue over decades with the Orthodox Russian theologians of Sainte-Serge, the ressourcement theologians in France accepted from the Russians the idea of Eucharistic Ecclesiology.  This explains, better than any other theological theory why the words of Father Lev Gillet are correct.  Father Lev knew both Catholicism and Orthodoxy from the inside.  He wrote:

The whole teaching of the Latin Fathers may be found in the East, just as the whole teaching of the Greek Fathers may be found in the West. Rome has given St. Jerome to Palestine. The East has given Cassian to the West and holds in special veneration that Roman of the Romans, Pope Gregory the Great. St. Basil would have acknowledged St. Benedict of Nursia as his brother and heir. St. Macrina would have found her sister in St Scholastica. St. Alexis the "man of God," "the poor man under the stairs," has been succeeded by the wandering beggar, St. Benedict Labre. St. Nicolas would have felt as very near to him the burning charity of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Vincent de Paul. St. Seraphim of Sarov would have seen the desert blooming under Father Charles de Foucauld's feet, and would have called St. Thérèse of Lisieux "my joy." (Fr Lev Gillet)

Eucharistic Ecclesiology tells us that where the Eucharist is, there is the Church in its fullness, because Catholicism in its fullness is Christ who is fully present in each eucharistic celebration.  There is only one Eucharist, celebrated many times, in which the whole Mystery of Christ is celebrated as a present reality; and the local eucharistic community is the fullness of Catholicism made visible in one place. When I celebrate Mass, all other celebrants in whatever place or time in history concelebrate, and all participants participate with me and my local community.

 The local eucharistic liturgical celebration is also the source of all the Church’s powers, as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document of Vatican II on the Liturgy says.   Hence Tradition arises out of the synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Church operating in the liturgy.  

Tradition is not something that comes out of a central place like Rome or Byzantium, but is shaped in diverse ways by the spiritual traditions of different places, even though all versions have a common source in apostolic preaching, and all share in the mind of the same Christ.  For these reasons, true Catholicism is a diversity in which it is possible to discover unity.  The unity is constantly being discovered and strengthened by the practice of  ecclesial love, the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit, except when ecclesial love gets swamped or obliterated by worldly concerns or diabolical pride or prejudice - the devil uses our limitations.

Father Emmanuel Clapsis of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology writes:
It would be impossible for us to reach any convergence on the significance of the bishop of Rome if our consultation were to begin with a comparison of classic Roman Catholic and Orthodox views of the papacy. Our common reflection on this issue must be situated in the common ecclesiology of communion that our respective churches have begun to share, especially after Vatican II.[30] In 1974 our consultation stated: "The Church is the communion of believers living in Jesus Christ with the Father. It has its origins and prototype in the Trinity in which there is both distinction of persons and unity based on love, not subordination."[31] It also affirmed that the eucharistic celebration "both proclaims the most profound realization of the Church and realizes what it proclaims in the measure that the community opens itself to the Spirit".[32] This kind of ecclesiology leads to an affirmation of the full catholicity of the local church ‑ provided it lives by the Spirit of God which makes it the living body of Christ in communion of love with other local churches that share the same faith and life pattern. Within the unity of the local churches, "a real hierarchy of churches was recognized in response to the demands of the mission of the Church"[33] without, however, the fundamental equality of all churches being destroyed."

Let us now look at a little bit of history that has been mutually agreed by both sides:

Steps Towards A Reunited Church: A Sketch Of An Orthodox-Catholic Vision For The Future

In the first paragraph of our excerpt, it shows that both sides agree on the early church seeing the whole catholic church made visible in the local eucharistic assembly

3. Divergent Histories.  The historical roots of this difference in vision go back many centuries.  Episcopal and regional structures of leadership have developed in different ways in the Churches of Christ, and are to some extent based on social and political expectations that reach back to early Christianity.  In Christian antiquity, the primary reality of the local Church, centered in a city and bound by special concerns to the other Churches of the same province or region, served as the main model for Church unity.  The bishop of a province’s metropolitan or capital city came to be recognized early as the one who presided at that province’s regular synods of bishops (see Apostolic Canon 34).   Notwithstanding regional structural differences, a sense of shared faith and shared Apostolic origins, expressed in the shared Eucharist and in the mutual recognition of  bishops, bound these local communities together in the consciousness of being one Church, while the community in each place saw itself as a full embodiment of the Church of the apostles.

In the Latin Church, a sense of the distinctive importance of the bishop of Rome, as the leading although not the sole spokesman for the apostolic tradition, goes back at least to the second century, and was expressed in a variety of ways.  By the mid-fourth century, bishops of Rome began to intervene more explicitly in doctrinal and liturgical disputes in Italy and the Latin West, and through the seventh century took an increasingly influential, if geographically more distant, role in the Christological controversies that so sharply divided the Eastern Churches. It was only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, during what is known as the Gregorian reforms, that the bishops of Rome, in response to centuries-old encroachments on the freedom and integrity of Church life by local secular rulers, began to assert the independence of a centrally-organized Catholic Church in a way that was to prove distinctive in Western society.  

Gradually, a vision of the Church of Christ as a universal, socially independent single body -- parallel to the civil structure of the Empire, consisting of local or “particular” Churches, and held together by unity of faith and sacraments with the bishop of Rome -- developed in Latin Christianity, and became, for the West, the normative scheme for imagining the Church as a whole. 

Even in the Middle Ages, however, this centralized vision of the universal Church was not shared by the Orthodox Churches.  In April, 1136, for instance, a Roman legate – the German bishop Anselm of Havelberg -- visited Constantinople and engaged in a series of learned and irenic dialogues on issues dividing the Churches with the Byzantine Emperor’s representative, Archbishop Nicetas of Nicomedia.   In the course of their conversations, Nicetas frequently expresses his love and respect for the Roman see, as having traditionally the “first place” among the three patriarchal sees – Rome, Alexandria and Antioch – that had been regarded, he says, since ancient times as “sisters.”  Nicetas argues that the main scope of Rome’s authority among the other Churches was its right to receive appeals from other sees “in disputed cases,” in which “matters which were not covered by sure rules should be submitted to its judgment for decision” (Dialogues 3.7:  PL 1217 D).  Decisions of Western synods, however, which were then being held under papal sponsorship, were not, in Nicetas’s view, binding on the Eastern Churches.  As Nicetas puts it, “Although we do not differ from the Roman Church in professing the same Catholic faith, still, because we do not attend councils with her in these times, how should we receive her decisions that have in fact been composed without our consent --  indeed, without our awareness?” (ibid. 1219 B).  For the Orthodox consciousness, even in the twelfth century, the particular authority traditionally attached to the see of Rome has to be contextualized in regular synodal practice that includes representatives of all the Churches.
From this text we notice that both sides accept the ressourcement theologians premise that solutions to modern problems can be sought in Tradition, in this case in the first thousand years of the Church’s existence when East and West were one.

They also recognise that the way Tradition is shaped reflects the historical experience of particular churches, even though, to be recognised by the universal Church, the deeper coherence in Christ of these diverse forms must be discovered. 

Another document is of great importance, the Chieti Document of 2016.   Here is an exerpt:

The Local Church
8. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of which Christ is the head is present in the eucharistic synaxis of a local church under its bishop. He is the one who presides (the ‘proestos’). In the liturgical synaxis, the bishop makes visible the presence of Jesus Christ. In the local church (i.e. a diocese), the many faithful and clergy under the one bishop are united with one another in Christ, and are in communion with him in every aspect of the life of the Church, most especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. As St Ignatius of Antioch taught: ‘where the bishop is, there let all the people be, just as, where Jesus Christ is, we have the catholic church [katholike ekklesia]’.(4) Each local church celebrates in communion with all other local churches which confess the true faith and celebrate the same Eucharist. When a presbyter presides at the Eucharist, the local bishop is always commemorated as a sign of the unity of the local church. In the Eucharist, the proestos and the community are interdependent: the community cannot celebrate the Eucharist without a proestos, and the proestos, in turn, must celebrate with a community.
9. This interrelatedness between the proestos or bishop and the community is a constitutive element of the life of the local church. Together with the clergy, who are associated with his ministry, the local bishop acts in the midst of the faithful, who are Christ’s flock, as guarantor and servant of unity. As successor of the Apostles, he exercises his mission as one of service and love, shepherding his community, and leading it, as its head, to ever-deeper unity with Christ in the truth, maintaining the apostolic faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the celebration of the sacraments.
10. Since the bishop is the head of his local church, he represents his church to other local churches and in the communion of all the churches. Likewise, he makes that communion present to his own church. This is a fundamental principle of synodality.

It goes on to tell us of the importance of the regional churches. The:

The Church at the Universal Level

15. Between the fourth and the seventh centuries, the order (taxis) of the five patriarchal sees came to be recognised, based on and sanctioned by the ecumenical councils, with the see of Rome occupying the first place, exercising a primacy of honour (presbeia tes times), followed by the sees of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, in that specific order, according to the canonical tradition.(11)
16. In the West, the primacy of the see of Rome was understood, particularly from the fourth century onwards, with reference to Peter’s role among the Apostles. The primacy of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was gradually interpreted as a prerogative that was his because he was successor of Peter, the first of the apostles.(12) This understanding was not adopted in the East, which had a different interpretation of the Scriptures and the Fathers on this point. Our dialogue may return to this matter in the future.

It is a principle of ressourcement theology that something that was allowed or differences that were tolerated over a considerable time within Catholic Tradition cannot be permanently disallowed or become intolerable by ecclesiastical decree.  It was this principle that was cited by Pope Benedict XVI for allowing the celebration of the Tridentine Mass.  He argued that ecclesiastical authority, even the authority of the pope, is a servant of Tradition and not its master.  He said that he did not have the power to permanently forbid the Tridentine Mass, anymore than he had the power to permit female bishops and priests.

This principle, when applied to the dogmatic decrees on the papacy as well as to any other dogma that has been formulated in western Catholic tradition without a corresponding tradition in the Orthodox East, means that they are not teachings that we can ask the Orthodox to accept.  The only thing necessary would be "the numerous Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church would have to 'explicitly recognize each other as authentic embodiments of the one Church of Christ, founded on the apostles'” ( Joint statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (2010).)

That does not mean that all problems are solved.  On the contrary, new problems emerge.  What is the theological status of our “ecumenical” councils since the schism?  Remember that authentic tradition arises from the synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Church operating in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist.  Hence, once we recognise the authentic nature of Eastern and Oriental churches, we also recognise the authenticity of their traditions.  An ecumenical council should reflect the underlying unity of all the traditions in the one, universal Tradition; and the opposite is also true: an ecumenical council, once accepted, should become a permanent part of each of the regional traditions.

  In this context, whatever the legal status in Catholic canon law, the ecumenical councils of the West lack the quality of universality, as they do not represent all the traditions.  However, they do represent the authentic western tradition and are products of the synergy between Church and the Spirit in the western Mass.

  My suggestion is that western ecumenical councils express the truth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but lack the balance and fullness that they would have had if no schism existed.  They therefore cry out for the ecumenical treatment they are receiving.

If a comparison is made between current papal teaching of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis on the papal office and the ecumenical documents that have come out of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, you will be astonished at the influence of the latter on the former.   Orthodox-Catholic dialogue is helping us to become more Catholic, not less Catholic.   I hope that, one day, the Orthodox will see that Orthodox-Catholic dialogue will  help the Orthodox to become more Orthodox, not less.

Monday, 24 April 2017


Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
Amid ISIS attacks, faithful response inspires Egyptian society.
Coffins are carried to the funeral of Egyptian Christians killed in Palm Sunday bombings.

Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response.

“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.

Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city.

On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.

“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“‘You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”

Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.

“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”

Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

So also did millions of Copts, recently rediscovering their ancient heritage, according to Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt which subtitled and recirculated the satellite TV clip.

“In the history and culture of the Copts, there is much taught about martyrdom,” he told CT. “But until Libya, it was only in the textbooks—though deeply ingrained.”

The Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians in February 2015. CT previously reported the message of forgiveness issued by their families and the witness it provided.

“Since then, there has been a paradigm shift,” said Atallah. “Our ancestors lived and believed this message, but we never had to.”

Copts date their liturgical calendar from 284 AD, the beginning of the Roman persecution under Diocletian. Troubles with pagan and Muslim rulers have ebbed and flowed over time, but in his Easter message Pope Tawadros lauded the Coptic Orthodox as a “church of the martyrs.”

This history returned with a vengeance in 2010, when the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Eve. Copts poured out into the streets in anger, presaging the Arab Spring. In the months that followed, Muslims rallied around them and defended their churches.

Nearly seven years later, the nation has grown weary. The Palm Sunday twin suicide bombings killed more than 45 people and are the second ISIS attack on Christian sanctuaries in five months. Twenty-nine people were killed in a suicide bombing at the papal cathedral in Cairo in December. This week, ISIS attacked the famous St. Catherine’s monastery on the southern Sinai peninsula.

All three Christian denominations canceled Easter Sunday festivities, and the Orthodox postponed the reception of condolences. The state declared a three-day period of mourning and held an Easter service for the injured in a military hospital. Muslims reacted in shock and sympathy.

But while signs flutter in public squares about national unity, the visible outpouring of solidarity appears far less.

The atmosphere has changed, said Amro Ali, a Muslim assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

“Among everyone there is now a sense of melancholy,” he said. “The bombings are part of a larger trend where things are just crumbling.”

Following the bombings, the government reimposed a state of emergency (in effect almost every year since the 1980s), expanding police and military powers. Ali connected the mood to the crackdown on activists and the deteriorating economy, but said the Coptic state of depression was more acute.

Many Christians supported current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after the popular military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned President Mohamed Morsi in the hope they would be protected, he said. However, such support has not been provided.

But even in death, the Copts forgive.

For example, the night of the bombings, Orthodox priest Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, his words were broadcast on the popular Coptic TV station Aghaby.

“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is,” said George, addressing the terrorists. But then turning to the church, he said, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them?

“If they know that God is love and experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”

Clearly the Coptic heritage and Jesus’ teaching have an impact on the aggrieved. But will the “never” ever come? Is the scandal of forgiveness wasted?

Soul and Church

Forgiveness is necessary for the individual to overcome the pain of trauma, said Ehab el-Kharrat, a licensed psychiatrist, former member of parliament, and an elder at Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church (KEDC) in Cairo. But the traumatic impact and subsequent forgiveness have also overcome Coptic lethargy, reviving the church.

“The Coptic community is definitely in defiance,” he said. “The services of Holy Week have doubled in attendance, and the churches are flowing out into the streets.”

Under heavy security presence, the traditional Easter Eve service passed peacefully. As per Orthodox tradition, priests in a darkened sanctuary quietly reenacted the Resurrection with an icon of the buried Christ. Previously entombed on Good Friday, light then burst forth as the curtain to the altar was opened and an icon of the risen Christ was paraded through the church.

But the Coptic defiance is not only against an enemy outside, according to Bishop Thomas of Qusia. It is also against the Enemy within.

The Libyan martyrs were a turning point, he said, as Copts watched the victims call out to Jesus in their moment of death. In his Orthodox diocese 170 miles south of Cairo, many have since repented of sin and changed the focus of their life, making faith a priority.

“Martyrdom is linked to the Christian life. To carry your cross and follow him,” said Thomas. “Since we are united to Christ, in this life we are his image.

“As he forgave, so must we.”

The martyrs have set an example, he said, but have also left a great responsibility to the church. Christians must fight fear, keep their joy, and strive for justice. While the struggle is not against flesh and blood, forgiveness does not mean giving up one’s rights.

“It is nice to hear about national unity and that we are all part of one family,” Thomas said. “But it must be based in equality and citizenship.”
For the bishop, justice includes the education system, such as removing texts that buttress discrimination. It also applies to the rule of law, such as prosecuting crimes committed against Copts.

Church and State

But the message of forgiveness can complicate the traditional dual role of the Orthodox church in religion and politics. It bears a difficult burden, forced to defend both national unity and Coptic safety, said Nader Shukry, a journalist and expert in Coptic affairs.

“The Coptic problem is not new,” he told CT after returning from a village in Minya experiencing fresh sectarian troubles. “It is built on the old patterns of ‘reconciliation’ following conflict. And the Copts as the weaker party will always pay the price.”

Shukry visited Kom al-Loufy, 140 miles south of Cairo, where police permitted village Christians to perform Maundy Thursday prayers in a private home. But under their guard, local extremists pelted Copts with stones and burned uninhabited properties. No one was arrested.

“Copts have to act as citizens,” Shukry said, “and allow the church to be a spiritual institution, in which forgiveness is an appropriate response.”

Ali said the state is very happy to have the church be responsible for the problems of its flock. It is just part of what he called a “disemboweled sense of citizenship.”

And in the perpetuation of this pattern of injury, forgiveness, and patience, Kharrat, the KEDC elder, said the government has long been shortsighted. It has chosen to appease the anger of Muslim mobs, being confident that Christians would not cause major difficulties.

Early efforts by young Copts to demonstrate for equal rights and against church attacks during the revolution were a headache for the government, he said. The most prominent movement, the Maspero Youth Union, was ended forcefully: literally crushed under military tanks, previewing the eventual crackdown against most post-Morsi activism.

Kharrat hopes there can be a revival of nonviolent Coptic protest. But of the latest bombings, many believe ISIS is trying to spur on reciprocal religious violence, as it did in Iraq between Sunni and Shia.

“There is great relief the Copts are not hitting back,” he said.

State and Society

But if the example of forgiveness has yet to transform the state, is there hope it will transform society? Kharrat said it already has.

“The families of the martyrs are promoting a worldview that is 180 degrees contrary to that of the terrorists,” he said. “The great majority of Egyptians now carry deep respect for the Copts, who are viewed as patriotic people of faith.”

And Ali, the Muslim AUC professor, is among the admirers.

“Cynics might say that Copts are not in the position to forgive, as they have no power,” he said. “But as an individual, I find it a brave act, and we need more on every level.

“There has been so much hurt in this country, and there is no sense of forgiveness in the body politic.”

Like Ali, Atallah is aware of possible cynicism. Young Christians feeling oppressed over the loss of rights might view the teaching of forgiveness as an opiate, he said.

But instead, he situates the example of the martyrs within a larger cultural struggle over the nature of Egyptian Islam.

Muslims had Christian ancestors, he said, and the Coptic heritage is strong. This helps sanitizes religion into principles emphasizing love, forgiveness, and doing good.

Middle Eastern culture, however, is based on honor and shame, demanding revenge. And Wahhabi-style Islam is an import to Egypt.

Within this clash of cultures, Atallah said many are now witnessing Christian forgiveness, and find it to be exactly what the country needs.

Besides frustrating the extremists who want to provoke the Copts, Christians like the widow of Faheem are winning over Muslims as well. “Their testimony is like a domino, with incredible ramifications in the country,” Atallah said. “It will keep Egypt from becoming like Lebanon during its civil war.”

The spiritual ramifications run even deeper for Bishop Thomas, who has recently received many unexpected visits of sympathy and solidarity from local Muslim sheikhs and charity workers.

For the past 15 years, his school in Qusia has been a home of civic engagement for Muslims and Christians, discussing ethics and childrearing for the sake of their kids. But now Muslims are asking about other issues altogether.

“When people see this attitude from Christians and the church, they ask themselves, ‘What kind of power is this?’” he said. “But with this witness we must also declare the message of Christ, which we are fulfilling—literally. We may not see the response immediately. But we will in the near future

Saturday, 15 April 2017


THE CELEBRATION OF EASTER IN EAST AND WEST: A sermon by St John Chrysostom, followed by a sermon by Cardinal Ratzinger during the Vigil of 2005.  This followed by Fr Louis Bouyer on the Vigil,  Father Alexander Schmemann,  the Orthodox liturgist, and Father Stephen Freeman, also Orthodox, on Easter.  Towards the end, there are two videos by N.T. Wright, Anglican biblical scholar and ex-Bishop of Durham, on the importance of the Resurrection.  Also more videos with Easter liturgical music and celebration.  Material will be added to this post as it arrives.

The Catechetical Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is read during Matins of Pascha.

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

About St. John Chrysostom:

St. John Chrysostom ("The Golden Tongue") was born at Antioch in about the year 347 into the family of a military-commander, spent his early years studying under the finest philosophers and rhetoricians and was ordained a deacon in the year 381 by the bishop of Antioch Saint Meletios. In 386 St. John was ordained a priest by the bishop of Antioch, Flavian.
Over time, his fame as a holy preacher grew, and in the year 397 with the demise of Archbishop Nektarios of Constantinople—successor to Sainted Gregory the Theologian—Saint John Chrysostom was summoned from Antioch for to be the new Archbishop of Constantinople.
Exiled in 404 and after a long illness because of the exile, he was transferred to Pitius in Abkhazia where he received the Holy Eucharist, and said, "Glory to God for everything!", falling asleep in the Lord on 14 September 407.


Altar of the Confessio in St Peter's Basilica
Holy Saturday, 26 March 2005

The liturgy of the holy night of Easter - after the blessing of the paschal candle - begins with a procession behind the light and towards the light. This procession symbolically sums up the entire catechumenal and penitential journey of Lent, but also calls to mind Israel's long journey through the desert towards the Promised Land, and lastly, it symbolizes the journey of humanity, which in the night of history was seeking light, seeking paradise, seeking true life, reconciliation between the peoples, between heaven and earth, universal peace.

Thus, the procession involves the whole of history, as the words of the blessing of the paschal candle proclaim: "Christ yesterday and today. The beginning and the end.... All time belongs to him. To him be glory and power through every age for ever...".

But the liturgy does not founder in general ideas; it is not content with vague utopias, but offers us very concrete instructions about the way to take and the destination of our journey.

Israel was guided in the desert at night by a column of fire and during the day by a cloud. Our column of fire, our sacred cloud, is the Risen Christ, symbolized by the lighted paschal candle.

Christ is light; Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; in following Christ, by keeping our hearts' gaze fixed on Christ, we find the right way. The whole pedagogy of the Lenten liturgy makes this fundamental imperative concrete.

Following Christ means first of all being attentive to his words. Participation in the Sunday liturgy week after week is necessary for every Christian, precisely to enable the person to be truly familiar with the divine word; the human being does not live on bread alone, nor on money or career; we live on the Word of God that corrects us, renews us, shows us the true structural values of the world and of society: God's Word is the true manna, the bread from heaven that teaches us life and how to be properly human.

Following Christ entails being attentive to his commandments - summed up in the twofold commandment to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. Following Christ means having compassion on the suffering, of having a heart for the poor; it also means having the courage to defend the faith against ideologies; it means trusting in the Church and in her interpretation and concretization of the divine word for our current circumstances.

Following Christ means loving his Church, his Mystical Body. By moving in this direction we light tiny lights in this world, we dispel the darkness of history.

Israel was journeying to the Promised Land. The whole of humanity is seeking something like the Promised Land. The Easter liturgy is very specific on this point. Its goals are the sacraments of Christian initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist.

The Church thus tells us that these sacraments are the anticipation of the new world, its presence anticipated in our lives.

In the ancient Church the Catechumenate was a journey step by step to Baptism: a journey of the opening of the senses, heart and mind to God, the learning of a new lifestyle, a transformation of personal existence into growing friendship with Christ in the company of all believers.

Thus, after the various stages of purification, openness and new awareness, the sacramental act of Baptism was the definitive gift of new life. It was a death and resurrection, as St Paul says in a sort of spiritual autobiography: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2: 20).

The Resurrection of Christ is not merely the memory of a past event. On Easter night, in the sacrament of Baptism, resurrection, the victory over death, is truly achieved.

Therefore, Jesus said: "[H]e who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life... he... has passed from death to life" (Jn 5: 24). And on the same topic he told Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life..." (Jn 11: 25). Jesus is the Resurrection and eternal life; to the extent that we are united with Christ we have today "passed from death to life", we are already living eternal life, which is not only a reality that comes after death but also begins today, in our communion with Christ.

Passing from death to life: this, together with the sacrament of Baptism, is the real core of the liturgy of this holy night. Passing from death to life: this is the way by which Christ opened the door, the way the celebrations of the Easter festivities invite us to take.

Dear faithful, most of us received Baptism as children, unlike these five catechumens who are now preparing to receive it as adults. They are here ready to proclaim their faith in a loud voice.

But for most of us, it was our parents who anticipated our faith. They gave us biological life without being able to ask us whether or not we wanted to live, rightly convinced that it is good to be alive and that life is a gift.

They were equally convinced, however, that biological life is a fragile gift; indeed, in a world marked by so many evils, it is an ambiguous gift that becomes a true gift only if, at the same time, it is possible to administer the antidote to death, communion with invincible life, with Christ.

Together with the fragile gift of biological life our parents gave us the guarantee of true life in Baptism. It is now up to us to make this gift our own, entering more and more radically into the truth of our Baptism.

Every year the Easter Vigil invites us once again to immerse ourselves in the waters of Baptism, to pass from death to life, to become true Christians.

"Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light", says an ancient baptismal hymn that St Paul cited in his Letter to the Ephesians (5: 14). "Awake, O sleeper... and Christ shall give you light", the Church says to all of us today. Let us awaken from our weary Christianity that lacks dynamism; let us stand and follow Christ the true light and the true life. Amen.

 Why Keep Watch? Why Vigil for Easter? 
(Excerpts from Fr. Louis Bouyer)

 If Easter night is a Vigil…this is owed, above all, to the fact that it is the night of the Exodus, the night in which the people of Israel were freed from the yoke of the Egyptians and entered into the freedom of being the sons of God…Why then did Israel celebrate this nocturnal Vigil year after year? Why did she dress as a pilgrim? Why did she eat in a hurry like a traveller preparing to leave on a journey? Was all this only a theatrical commemoration, pleasant to imitate, or the revival of a past event? There is no shadow of a doubt that in the eyes of Israel, the Exodus was the most glorious event of her whole history. Israel was the people of God, and she knew this thanks only to the undeniable election that was the consequence of the intervention of God: an intervention which liberated the people from slavery and established them in the freedom of the sons of God.

For the people of Israel, therefore, the celebration of Pasch, the memorial of the Exodus, meant celebrating their own birth and consequently, reaffirming in their own consciousness that they were God’s chosen people, and that God was with them.

For us too the Vigil must be something more than simply a service of remembrance. It is not a theatrical performance aimed simply and solely at registering historical facts in the mind. In the first place, it is something real. We stay awake because we are waiting: because we are waiting for God to pass among us and because when He comes we want Him to find us ready for the wonderful exodus which he makes possible.

 The Holy Vigil - Louis Bouyer

If we wish the restoration of the Paschal Office on Holy Saturday night to arise in the faithful something deeper and more positive than passing admiration, if we wish to grasp the deep sense of christian renewal inherent in the Paschal Vigil, we must be aware of certain conditions in the absence of which we could never come to understand what takes place on that holy night. Among these conditions there is one of utmost importance, which does not seem to have been realized; all the more reason then why we must insist on its importance. This condition involves nothing less than coming to understand, in all its depths, what a Vigil is and what it means: to be specific, the Paschal Vigil. 

Many people who are enthusiastic about the new (but also very ancient) practice of having an all-night Vigil, will believe that they know exactly why the Paschal Vigil has been reinstated. However, they do not realize that the superficiality (not to speak of the childishness) of their response provides the clearest aspect of the excuse used by those who remain indifferent to this recent reform. 

We have heard that Christ rose from the dead at midnight and that is why we celebrate the Paschal Vigil in the night. 

This argument is undoubtedly of little value since we do not know, clearly or precisely, the circumstances of the event. The apparition of the angels, (not of the One who had risen) to the soldiers during the night, suggests that the resurrection had taken place on the evening of the previous day. The apparitions to the disciples, however, do not take place until the following day in the morning. If we were to comply with these circumstances of time, we ought rather to celebrate the Office in the evening, or the morning. It is curious to observe how this two-way celebration is amongst the suggestions of those who are unhappy with these liturgical reforms. If the view of the Paschal Vigil held by these inexpert apologists is taken as valid, it is very difficult not to reach one of these two conclusions. Our work must begin from this precise point, by trying to banish and eradicate, as thoroughly as possible, this way of thinking. Liturgical commemorations have nothing in common with this kind of sentimental superstition which assumes a sort of sympathetic magic (or magic sympathy) between a fact and the exact hour in which it occurred. Let us be honest, no one knows exactly when the resurrection took place. At the same time, there would be no sense at all in giving so much significance to a condition which in itself is not important. Let us be quite clear about it. The fact that the resurrection took place during the night, when the world was immersed in deep sleep, is a fact which has a certain symbolic value and of which the liturgy, quite rightly, makes the greatest possible use. But this again has nothing to do with the superstition attached to the hour X; as if the christian sabbath had something to do with the witches' sabbath which dawns at the first stroke of midnight. 

Having overcome this misconception, how then should we be guided? In the first place it is necessary to discover the necessary relationship that exists between the Vigil and the waiting, the awaiting of the consummation of the christian mystery, that is to say, the parousia, the glorious return of the Saviour. We are then ready to understand why and in what sense the Vigil is so profoundly penetrated by what early christianity calls the "consolation of the Scriptures". Ultimately, we shall examine the specific nature of the Paschal Vigil regarding its aspect as the Vigil of initiation, in as much as it is a preparation for the Paschal Sacrament, specifically of initiation into Baptism, or the renewal of initiation in the most solemn communion of the year. 

1. The first point which needs to be clarified is that the Paschal Vigil is not a kind of impressive "Midnight Mass". It is a sacred celebration lasting the whole night long, from the setting of the sun to its rising. If it were possible to celebrate it in its entirety, we should begin "when the lamps are lit" and not end it until the first light of day dawns. It begins in fact, with the Lucernarium followed by the blessing of the lamps by which watch is kept all through the night. The Vigil should last until the moment in which the dawn breaks, making it necessary to put aside the now useless lamps, that had been lit the previous day at dusk. 

The meaning of this ceremony is to be found in its origins, since its institution took place long before the primitive christian comnunities. This is proven by the fact that the Paschal night, that is the Vigil which takes place during it, was celebrated long before it was transformed into a night of resurrection. To this day, the rites which take place during that night and the readings taken as the theme for meditation, have their origin in this pre-christian Vigil. If Easter night is a Vigil, that is a night in which we do not sleep, this is owed, above all, to the fact that it is the night of the Exodus, the night in which the people of Israel were freed from the yoke of the Egyptians and entered into the freedom of being the sons of God. This was the night in which the same God "passed" among them to give them freedom, dragging their oppressors to their death. The Paschal name originates in this double "passage of God" which kept Israel on the alert as a prisoner in the land of Ham. 

Why then did Israel celebrate this nocturnal Vigil year after year? Why did she dress as a pilgrim? Why did she eat in a hurry like a traveller preparing to leave on a journey? Was all this only a theatrical commemoration, pleasant to imitate, or the revival of a past event? There is no shadow of a doubt that in the eyes of Israel, the Exodus was the most glorious event of her whole history. Israel was the people of God, and she knew this thanks only to the undeniable election that was the consequence of the intervention of God: an intervention which liberated the people from slavery and established them in the freedom of the sons of God. 

For the people of Israel, therefore, the celebration of Pasch, the memorial of the Exodus, meant celebrating their own birth and consequently, reaffirming in their own consciousness that they were God's chosen people, and that God was with them. 

In reality the object of this recurring celebration was something very different from being a mere, if pleasing, recollection of an ancient event and its everlasting consequences. If once again they were ready to begin a way, if once again they were to eat in a hurry, if they were to pass the night in vigil, it was only because the ancient exodus compelled them to keep their hope fixed on another exodus. The fact that God had intervened on that occasion, the fact that He had passed among His people marking them with an indelible blessing, was of importance above all because it was the promise of a new, much more glorious, much more decisive intervention. God will return again to pass among his people. He will return again to manifest himself "with strong hand and arm outstretched", and His people, strengthened by means of this new election - just as in the first Exodus - will pass from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life. It might be said that the mission of prophecy from the eighth to the sixth century, and that of the countless tragic events in which the chosen people partook, from the capture of Jerusalem to its final destruction, had the sole objective of arousing this expectancy in the people (of that time). But no, not at all: However great the past might be, it was not in it but in the future that the religious ideal had to be anchored. That first people of God were not to be the last people of God. The reason for all the trials that had to be borne was precisely this. These were not signs of total abandon on God's part, but whirlwinds announcing the immortal creation that was to occur later. The past, however great and wonderful it might have been, was no more than a sketch of what was to come. The ransoms of the time were not even a shadow compared to those which were later to take place. God would again appear amongst His own people, and take them with Him, He would lead them out of the kingdom of Satan for ever, from sin and death, and He would establish them in His own kingdom where Israel would live for ever in the light of His countenance. Because of this sense of expectation during the Paschal night no one slept. It was essential to keep watch. "If You would only leave the heavens and come down" : This was the cry of the prayer in the night. 

Having been prepared to enter into the eternal kingdom, in which He who was the only faithful "servant' would appear, dragging with Him in His exodus the whole nation, the elect remnant of ancient Israel lived in the imminent expectancy of this Pasch, which would not be a memory but the real Pasch, the only really true Pasch, because the other was no more than a shadow of the one that was to come. 

The way in which Israel celebrates the Passover during the night, and the way Christ lived this with His own chosen ones for the last time on that supreme night, is still,with very simple modifications, the same Pasch as that of the christians. There is in our past also a Passover and an Exodus which we must commemorate. For us too the Vigil must be something more than simply a service of remembrance. It is not a theatrical performance aimed simply and solely at registering historical facts in the mind. In the first place, it is something real. We stay awake because we are waiting: because we are waiting for God to pass among us and because when He comes we want Him to find us ready for the wonderful exodus which he makes possible. The memory of that other Pasch, of that other exodus, holds no other value for us than as a pledge and image of what we are waiting for. God has been among us; He has made Himself present through Christ. But we are not tied to this two-thousand year-old memory, because He arouses in us the jubilant expectation of His imminent return. When, according to the promises made by the angels on Ascension Day, Christ appears again in full glory, there where He left us, to establish us once and for all with Him so that God is all in all, we shall abandon the earth where we have lived as exiles, the country in which we have been subjected to slavery, the world in which we feel like pilgrims and travellers who cannot even rest the night since they have no place to lay their heads. We shall leave it to enter, once and for all, our own land, in the Father's house: that place where He has gone before us, He who willed himself to be the first born for us, where He has gone to prepare a place and from which we are waiting for Him to come, expecting Him from one moment to the next to take us with Him so that we can possess Him eternally. 

When we come to understand all this, we become aware that the Paschal Vigil is something much richer than just a living picture which is more or less commemorative, instructive and edifying. To put it bluntly, the Paschal Vigil has nothing to do with a pious theatrical performance. It is the night in which we do at least once a year, what we should always do and what, spiritually we should be doing at every moment. We deprive ourselves of sleep, of rest, we keep a constant vigil, because if we are christians, and if being christian means something, we are waiting, we must await the final coming, the coming which all those who have preceded us invite us to wait for. "Israel, be ready to meet your God." These words are directed to us with all the power and wisdom that could ever have been directed to anyone. 

This expectancy occurs during the night since divine wisdom traces out and prepares its plans in the darkness of faith, plans that without faith man cannot know through his foolish wisdom. This waiting takes place in the night, because it is the waiting for the day, that day par excellence which the Bible calls the Day of Yahweh, THE day, nothing more. The dawn which we await will be a dawn after which no sun will set because we shall pass, on a journey with no return, from time to eternity. All these things tell us how important the attitude of expectancy which the Paschal Vigil seeks to arouse is for the christian faith. This attitude must predominate, in a permanent way, over our whole lives. The Church very soon passed from the annual to the weekly celebration of Easter, the Sunday Easter, with the precise intention of keeping this sense of Paschal waiting alive and throbbing. 

Later, at the beginning of the fourth century, the aesthetics felt that christianity had become lethargic, too complacently set in the world to await anything else to happen, and so they instituted the daily vigil. This has been preserved by all contemplative orders and has also been maintained, in symbolic form, in the recitation of the Divine Office. 

The Paschal Vigil continued as, and must without doubt become again, the great annual occasion in which the whole Church is united, moved by the memory of the previous times of waiting, to await the last and final passing of God. On Easter night the Church expressed in a physical manner what she should always be doing spiritually: she is like a wife who stays awake because her husband has left her for a moment and she cannot go to sleep again until he reappears, bringing with him the new day which will be the beginning of an eternal springtime. Awake, my friend, my bride, awake and come with me. 

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.

Fr Schmemann on Easter and the Resurrection

Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was educated in France before moving to the United States in 1951, where he quickly gained recognition as a dynamic and articulate spokesman for Orthodoxy. He was for many years Dean and Professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. Through his lectures on college campuses, his regular radio broadcasts to Eastern Europe, and his books, now translated into eleven languages, he brought the Faith to an ever-growing audience. The following paragraphs are from his book Great Lent - Journey to Pascha, published in 1969: 

It is necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is “brighter than the day,” who has tasted of that unique joy knows it. But what is that joy about? Why we can sing, as we do, during the Paschal liturgy: “today are all things filled with light, heaven and earth and places under the earth”? In what sense do we celebrate, as we claim we do, “the death of Death, the annihilation of Hell, the beginning of a new life and everlasting . . .”? To all these questions, the answer is: the new life which almost two thousand years ago shone forth from the grave, has been given to us, to all those who believe in Christ. And it was given to us on the day of our Baptism, in which, as St. Paul says, we “were buried with Christ...unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Thus, on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us . . . That is why, at the end of the Paschal Matins, we say: “Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the grave!” 

. . . It is not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that, in fact, we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us? . . . We manage to forget even the death and them, all of a sudden, in the midst of our “enjoying life” it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various “sins”, yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us; Indeed, we live as if he never came. This is the only sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity. 

If we realize this, then we may undrestand what Easter is . . . and understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it . . . It is the worship of the Church that was from the very beginning and still is our entrance into, our communion with, the new life of the Kingdom. It is through her liturgical life that the Church reveals to us something of that which “the ear has not heard, the eye has not seen and what has not yet entered the heart of man but what God has prepared for those who love Him.” And in the center of that liturgical life, as its heart and climax, as the sun whose rays penetrate everywhere, stands Pascha. It is the door opened every year into the splendour of Christ’s Kingdom, the foretaste of the eternal joy that awaits us, the glory of the victory which already, although invisibly, fills the whole creation: “death is no more!”


The Swedish Lutheran theologian, Gustav Aulen, published a seminal work on types of atonement theory in 1930 (Christus Victor). Though time and critique have suggested many subtler treatments of the question, no one has really improved on his insight. Especially valuable was description of the “Classic View” of the atonement. This imagery, very dominant in the writings of the early Fathers and in the liturgical life of the Eastern Church, focused on the atonement as an act of invasion, smashing of gates and bonds, and the setting free of those bound in hell. Aulen clearly preferred this imagery and is greatly responsible for its growing popularity in some segments of Western Christendom.

The language was obscured in the West by the later popularity of propitiatory suffering (and the various theories surrounding it). Aulen noted, however, that Luther tended to prefer this older imagery. I had opportunity to do a research paper in grad school on the topic. I surveyed all of the hundreds of hymns written by Luther and analyzed them for their atonement theology. All but about two used the Classic View. Aulen was right.

In Orthodoxy, this imagery is the coin of the realm in the hymns surrounding Pascha. All of Holy Week is predicated on the notion of Christ descent into hell and radical actions of destroying death and setting free those held in captivity. St. John Chrysostom’s great Paschal Homily, read in every Orthodox Church on the night of Pascha, is an “alley, alley, in come free!” of salvation.

I have written on this topic before. I thought, however, to share some of the verses from the hymns for the Matins of Holy Saturday. Their language is a pure expression of the spirit of Orthodox Pascha and the atonement teaching of the Fathers.

Hell, who had filled all men with fear,
Trembled at the sight of Thee,
And in haste he yielded up his prisoners,
O Immortal Sun of Glory

Thou hast destroyed the palaces of hell by Thy Burial, O Christ.
Thou hast trampled death down by thy death, O Lord,
And redeemed earth’s children from corruption.

Though thou art buried in a grave, O Christ,
Though Thou goest down to hell, O Savior,
Thou hast stripped hell naked, emptying its graves.

Death seized Thee, O Jesus,
And was strangled in Thy trap.
He’’s gates were smashed, the fallen were set free,
And carried from beneath the earth on high.

O Savior, death’s corruption
Could not touch thy holy flesh.
Thou hast bound the ancient murdered of man,
And restored all the dead to new life.

Thou didst will, O Savior,
To go beneath the earth.
Thou didst free death’s fallen captives from their chains,
Leading them from earth to heaven.

In the earth’s dark bosom
The Grain of Wheat is laid.
By its death, it shall bring forth abundant fruit:
Adam’s sons, freed from the chains of death.

Wishing to save Adam,
Thou didst come down to earth.
Not finding him on earth, O Master,
Thou didst descend to Hades seeking him.

O my Life, my Savior,
Dwelling with the dead in death,
Thou hast destroyed the iron bars of hell,
And hast risen from corruption.

These examples could be multiplied many times over. The section of Matins from which these are taken has over 100 verses! Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha has many ways of acting out this theology. Lights go up at the hint of victory, particularly as we sing the Song of Moses celebrating the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. In some parishes, bay leaves are tossed in the air by the priest in a fairly violent and joyous celebration of the victory. In yet others, at certain points during the Vesperal Liturgy of Pascha, loud noises such as the banging of pots and pans are heard as the liturgy describes the smashing of hell’s gates. There’s is one village in Greece where two parishes have developed a custom of firing rocker fireworks at each other in the Paschal celebration.

Such antics completely puzzle the non-Orthodox and even seem comical. The Paschal celebration in Orthodoxy is far more akin to the wild street scenes in American cities when the end of World War II was announced – and for the same reason!

All of this also explains why many Orthodox are very reluctant to engage in “who’s going to hell” discussions with other Christians (though some Orthodox sadly seem to relish the topic). The services of Holy Week, as illustrated in these verses, are filled with references to hell. I daresay that no services elsewhere in all of Christendom make such frequent mention of hell. But the language is just as illustrated above. It’s all about smashing, destruction and freedom. It is the grammar of Pascha. It should be the grammar of Christianity itself.

Hell is real. Jesus has come to smash it. It is the Lord’s Pascha. It is time to sing and dance.

Orthodoxy and the Resurrection

why does Jesus' Resurrection matter?
N. T. Wright


Descent of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Sepulcher. Year: 2017 Holy Assumption Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Holy Assumption Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra  Holy Fire to be delivered to America for first time

“The Holy Fire, which descends every year on the eve of the Orthodox feast of Pascha in Jerusalem, will be delivered to the various corners of the Earth, with the support of the Russian St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, including, for the first time this year, to the United States of America.

“It is planned to deliver this sacred blessing for the first time to the US, and we’ve already received permission to transport the lampadas with the Holy Fire on board a plane,” the foundation’s press service reported to Interfax-Religion today. The Holy Fire is being brought to the US by the initiative of parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.”


Holy Saturday 2017

I have always listened to Prayer for the Day at 5.43 each morning on Radio Four, just before Farming Today. This morning the speaker was Bishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop for the United Kingdom. I was so moved by his words that I’ve set aside the homily I prepared for this evening and will read you his short talk instead. I hope you will forgive me, but what has saddened me most, ever since the Iraq war began, is the annihilation of ancient Christian communities and churches in the Middle East and North Africa. The blame rests, in part, on our shoulders. This goes back, of course, to the break up of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years’ ago.

Bishop Angaelos said:
Bishop Angaelos
Coptic Bishop in Great Britain
“The celebration of Easter tends to bring its own set of challenges to Christians across the world, who face religious persecution on a daily basis. Most recently, our own Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt suffered brutal terrorist attacks that robbed families of loved ones, and shocked communities as a result of senseless and indiscriminate violence.
Terrorist attacks like these leave us questioning how humanity can reach a stage, when the value and sanctity of life is lost entirely. They can lead us to feel afraid or hopeless, if not also bitter and angry.
Yet, on this eve of Easter Sunday we remember that, although our journey is often characterised by suffering and challenge, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ promises victory over evil and a conquering of death itself.
When I look at the peaceful reaction of my brothers and sisters in Egypt, who face on going terror, I am humbled by their example of determined faith and Christian witness. Many, who were subject to the recent attacks on churches during a time of prayer, have already chosen to return to their churches to pray as families. That, to me, demonstrates the true power of the Risen Lord in our lives today, that we need never again fear death, but see it as a new beginning and entry point to a glorious life to come.
Lord, we pray for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Egypt and for all Christian communities, who are facing constant provocation and attempts to move them to violence and division. May your peace continually reign in our hearts. Amen.
 Dear brothers and sisters, may our celebration of the Resurrection this Easter renew our faith in the Risen Christ and strengthen our desire to live in the power of his Spirit, ever bearing witness to the peace and joy of God’s Kingdom, even in our suffering and pain. On behalf of Fr Prior and the monastic community, I wish you all a very happy Easter. Christ is risen; he is risen indeed. Alleluia.

 Easter Sunday 2017

            “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him.” These are the words addressed by Mary of Magdala to “Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved,” in St John’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb that first Easter morning. The details of the Resurrection we find here are fascinating. To begin with, Mary Magdalene is alone and not with the other women, as the other three gospels relate, and when she goes to the tomb on the first day of the week, it’s still dark, yet she sees that the stone has been moved away. She runs off and finds Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who hadn’t been anywhere near the tomb since Jesus was buried. Why does she say, ”they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” and, if she was alone, why does she say, “we don’t know where they have put him”? Details, but important ones, for it’s the Resurrection of Jesus that John is writing about, the most life-transforming event since the beginning of time, one that changed our vision of suffering and death for ever.

            At this stage Mary hasn’t seen the angel, nor has she looked inside the tomb, something she will do later when she returns to the garden. Only Peter and the other disciple go into the empty tomb and see the linen cloths lying on the ground. Mary fears that the body has been removed or stolen: why else would the stone have been moved away? But why does she speak of herself as “we”? She is the first to see that the tomb has been disturbed, so perhaps speaks in the name of the whole community of disciples. How true that traditional title given to her, apostola apostolorum, the Apostle to the apostles! Later, she will be the first to see Jesus risen from the dead and speak with him, though to begin with she takes him for the gardener. She will be the first to tell the world, “I have seen the Lord.”

Now the Fourth Gospel has an important theme throughout: personal encounter with Jesus that leads to faith. Think of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well or of Nicodemus, who visits Jesus by night; think of his close friendship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus or of that special relationship with the disciple he loved, the one who stood at the foot of the cross with Mary his mother and now runs faster than Simon Peter and, looking into the tomb, is the first to believe in the Resurrection. Think of Thomas, doubting Thomas, who could not believe the word of his fellow disciples, yet when he sees Jesus face to face a week later, gets on his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” It takes time and a personal encounter with Jesus to believe. All these were really encounters with the Risen Christ, for the gospel was written in the light of the Resurrection, and to help us believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

All of us here this morning have come to celebrate Easter because we too have had a personal encounter with the Risen Christ and the experience of his love and friendship. As a result of that encounter, each one of us has a special, intimate and unique relationship with him, a friendship that no one else has, a friendship that strengthens our faith and supports our weakness, even when the going gets hard and we are tempted to doubt. The great thing about Jesus is that he meets us where we are; he comes towards us on the road of life, not to judge but to forgive, not to condemn but to save.

St Paul wrote to the Romans, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” The prayer of the Belmont Community today is that you all come to share in the life of Risen Christ, our hope and our salvation. Amen.

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