|Lent Encyclical - February 2, 1999|
Apostolic benediction, benevolent prayer, to our brethren their eminence the Archbishops, our spiritual children priest, monks, nuns, deacons and deaconesses; our venerated Syrian Orthodox people all over the world. May the divine providence embrace them through the prayers of Virgin Mary mother of god and St. Peter and Paul the Heads of the Apostles and the rest of the martyrs and saints.
LORD JESUS IS THE MESSAGE OF HEAVEN FOR ALL GENERATIONS
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8)
Twenty centuries have passed and elapsed on the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. His birth was not the beginning of His time, for He is the Word of God who was begotten of the Father before all worlds. He is of one substance with the Father. Apostle John summarizes the truth of His sempiternal birth first as he explains the doctrine of His birth of time. He opens the Holy Gospel saying "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend itů. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-5&14).
Apostle Paul describes the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word of God saying: "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness... God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory".(1 Timothy 3:16). The Lord Jesus reveals the sublime purpose of His coming to our world: "For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16).
Yes, the Only Begotten Son of God came down from heaven to this our Earth and became man, not that His Holy Name be added to the names of the apostles and prophets, but rather He Himself may become the message of God to men in all their generations. For He "is the same yesterday, today, and forever" according to Apostle Paul; in Him the prophesies of all old prophets have been wholly fulfilled. He is, further, whom the generations longed for. He is the priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, who offered Himself by His own will as an atoning sacrifice for humanity and thus justified, sanctified and made us-the faithful children of God by grace-born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13). For the Only Begotten Son of God was born in flesh on Earth so that we might be born of Spirit from heaven. He was called Son of Man that in Him we, the believers, may become children of God by grace. He founded His Holy Church on the rock of faith in Him, for He is the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), and made it the treasure house of His divine graces instating in it the custodians of His Sacraments, the righteous apostles, disciples, bishops and priests that they may apportion these heavenly good gifts to those who believe in Him.
Ages after ages passed and generations after generations rolled on and the Church of the Lord Christ illuminates with its light those sitting in the darkness and in the shadows of death apportioning the divine gifts to the worthy. And here we are, by the grace of God, in the eve of the 21st century offering thanksgiving to God, who has kept us alive to this day and granted us to be counted among the members of His Holy church that he loved and gave Himself for it redeeming it by His precious blood "that He might sanctify and cleans her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish." (Ephesians 5:26&27); further, He made its banner His Holy Cross on which He was suspended and died redeeming us from death, Satan and Sin. He, likewise, gave it His Holy Gospel inspired by God to be the eternal law incorporating in it His divine teachings and the witnessing of His disciples who were with Him, accompanying Him ever since He began His divine dispensation in flesh.
It was the Holy Gospel that unveiled that truth of the identity of the Lord Christ. In this connection, Apostle John explains the purpose of writing the Holy Gospel: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name." (John 20:31).
The Holy Gospel has illuminated the gloominess of darkness which overshadowed the minds and the hearts of man. It exposed what had infiltrated into the Jewish religion in the way of straying of evil idolatry and false teachings that were far from the spirit of the morality of the Law of Moses. In His sermon on the mountain, the Lord Jesus set straight the religious, spiritual and moral concepts of man. He called for loving God and neighbor even for the love of enemy. He laid down the golden rule of treating others saying: "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets".(Mathew 7:12). He called to Him those who labored to follow His steps saying: "Come to me, all you who labor and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light". (Mathew 11:28-30).
The Lord Jesus made Himself a good example for man who had grown tired of laws, regulations and rituals that no longer quenched his soul that thirsted for righteousness. He, thus, sought and searched for an example to follow and to tread in his steps to satisfy his hunger and thirst to righteousness. He kept searching until he found the Lord Jesus who drew the attention of people to Him, and to Him alone and proclaimed before the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy and the friend saying: "Which of you convicts me of Sin?" (John 8:46). They kept silent and no one uttered a word; for the life of Jesus was purer than the snow of the mountains. No impurity tarnished His pure conduct and His holy inner thoughts, mind and heart, neither His mouth knew any deceit.
When He was asked once about the way leading to heaven He answered: "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). He, likewise, answered the young man, who asked what he should do to inherit eternal life, saying: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me." (Matthew 19:17-21). He, therefore, is the message of heaven to all generations.
The Lord Jesus proclaimed before the public that He is consubtantial with His Father and that he and the Father are one. We heard Him answering His disciple Philip "He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say 'show us the Father'? do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?" (John 14:9&10). He also disclosed that His coming to the world was for the salvation of the world and that He "is about to be betrayed into the hands of men and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up" (Matthew 17:22&23). And so it happened. His resurrection from the dead proved that His redeeming sacrifice, which He offered by His own will on behalf of humanity, was accepted by the Father. In this connection, He spoke in the Book of Revelation saying: "I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of death" (Revelation 1:17&18). Thus, our Lord Jesus Christ lives, and "He is the same yesterday, today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8).
The miracle of His resurrection from the dead bears witness to the truth of His promise that He will raise the dead on the last day, the promise that He made when He said: "For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth-those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." (John 5:26-29). Christ Jesus is, therefore, alive and He quickens the dead. He was named Jesus for He saves His people from their sin (Matthew 1:21). Likewise, He was also named Christ, that is, the Anointed whom God anointed and sent to the world. He is also the Messiah for whom the people of the old order and all peoples waited. The Lord Jesus proclaimed this name when He was handed the Book of the prophet Isiaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth. When He had opened the Book, He found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tiding to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Isaiah 61:1). He then closed the book and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. And He began to say to them "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18-21). His name was also called Emmanuel, which is translated "God with us." (Matthew 1:23). He promised that He would be always with us and among us "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Mathew 18:20). He proved the truth of this promise of His, glory be to Him, when He went with the two disciples of Emmaus, who were travelling to their village on the day of His resurrection from the dead; and also when He appeared to His disciples in the upper room in the evening of that same day while the doors being shut. He, therefore is living and His church lives in Him. He is its head and it is His mystical body, and He shall be with it forever.
How many violent persecutions has the church suffered and how many horrible sufferings it has endured giving countless martyrs throughout the twenty centuries, from the beginning until now. But Christ is in its midst, therefore it will not be shaken. He promised it that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Even the blood of its martyrs has become the seed of faith, as its fathers said.
Malevolent heretics emerged throughout the ages and tried to distort Christian faith. The Holy Spirit, however, who proceeds from the Father, and who descended upon the apostles of the Lord and upon those who believed in Him, in the upper room in the form of tongues of fire, protected the church against idle talk and stumble. For, according to the promise of Lord Jesus, He is the guide, the leader of the church and the protector of its faith. The church has refuted the malicious heresies throughout the ages, and it, up to this day, faithfully keeps the jewel of faith that it received from the righteous Apostles. This faith is proclaimed in the Holy Gospel and is supported by the teachings of the apostolic fathers - "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3), that the fathers may be rewarded by the Lord for this. In this regard, Apostle Paul says to his disciple Timothy: "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but to all who have loved His appearing". (2 Timothy 4:1-8).
Yes, throughout the twenty centuries since the beginning of Christianity up to this day, the church has fought the good fight, kept the faith, and refuted malevolent heresies and routed them in its ecumenical councils excommunicating them together with their all heretic originators. It defined the creeds of faith since the time of the apostles. These were summarized by the Council of Nicea in the year 325 AD into the Nicean Creed of faith which the Church recites in its Masses and daily prayers. The accursed Devil, nevertheless, still deceives some people who follow His orders and change into strays and strayers. In this connection, the Lord Jesus speaks about the latter days saying: "For false Christ's and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you before hand" (Matthew 24:24&25). Also, Apostle Paul says: "Now the spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with hot iron" (I Timothy 4:1&2). St. Paul sounds as though he forsees with us some institutions that claim to be Christian in these days, but Christianity is innocent of them, for they have departed from the true path and have submitted to the accursed Devil. They have adopted the old and the new heresies and rank into the bottom of depravity. The Apostle Paul commands us to isolate the wicked one from among us and turn away from lovers of pleasure who have no love for God (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
It is the last year of the twentieth century, and we are about to step into the first threshold of the thresholds of the twenty first century. The future is unknown to us. Our boat is small and we are plowing the waves in a great and bottomless ocean. The violent storms and the high waves are striking against our small boat and are just about to swallow it. In our lack of faith, we have become like the disciples who were in the ship with the Lord Jesus: "Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him and suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep, then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, Lord, save us! We are perishing!, But He said to them, 'Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?' Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm". (Matthew 8:23-26). The littleness of faith of the disciples was manifested by their great fear as they expected the ship to sink. It slipped from their memory that as long as Christ was in the ship it would never sink, no matter how violent the storm were and how rough the see was.
The Lord Jesus is the Head of the church, and the latter is His mystical body. He is with it and promised it that the gates of Hades would never prevail against it. Therefore, all what we have to do is to receive the next century in faith, hope and love and believe that Christ is with us. And if we have moved away from Him, as the prodigal son did from his father, going to a foreign land and sinking into inequity, we ought to follow his example. The prodigal son reflecting on the Spiritual happiness that we ought to embraced us when we were in the house of the Father enjoying the privileges of the real sonship, and think about our miserable state being far from Him. Thus we may see that our inequities have separated us from God, indeed. We ought to rise up immediately, like the prodigal son, and start the journey back to the house of our Heavenly Father and say to Him: "Our Father who are in Heaven, we have sinned to you, and we are unworthy to be called your children, accept us as your servants." We shall see then that our Father is still waiting for us and He will renew the covenant with us by returning to us the ring of the covenant and give a banquet of joy for us. The Angels of Heaven will rejoice, too, by our return to Him, for they would rejoice even in on sinner who repents. Thus we might return to the rank of children (of God) and be worthy to inherit His Heavenly Kingdom.
Let us be prepared, then, my dearly beloved, to start our journey into the twenty first century with a firm faith, strong hope, love of God and the neighbor, and a true repentance. Let us be sure that the Lord Jesus is with us and the Holy Spirit is our guide, teacher and sanctifyer. Let us offer thanksgiving to God, may He be exalted, who has kept us alive up till now. Let us wait for His second coming which we do not know when it will take place; but we have to keep watch and be not deceived by strayers, who so many times throughout the twentieth century have designated dates for His second coming and they were liers. For the Lord warned us saying: "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only". (Matthew 24:36). "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:42). Apostle John said in the Book of Revelation: "Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will se Him" (Revelation 1:7). He concludes His revelation saying through the Lord's mouth: "Surely I am coming quickly". John, then, answers the Lord with faith and longing: "Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20). The Lord Jesus will definitely come again according to His promise. Indeed, even if we think that He has tarried in His second coming, our conduct must be worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27) as we stand up on the toes of feet of expectation looking up to Heaven expecting His coming, believing that our Christian faith must be in harmony with the conduct of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the message of heaven to us who live on Earth. Our Christianity must necessarily appear in its truth nature, pure and immaculate, before all people. For we are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus on Earth, and the Lord Jesus who embraces us with His providence and looks upon us with the eye of His care, considers all that afflict us of distresses and persecutions afflict Him personally. He appeared to Saul of Tarsus when he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus there, and said to him: "Saul, Saul, why are persecuting Me? And He said, Who are you, Lord? Then the Lord said, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads". (Acts 9:4&5). Saul did not persecute the Lord Jesus Himself, but those who believed in Him. From here we know that Christianity is Christ Himself. The Lord Jesus promised His apostles saying: "He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me." (Luke 10:16). Thus, whoever persecutes the followers of Christ, persecutes Christ Himself. How great, then, the love of Lord to those who believe in Him is, and how great our responsibility is towards this love which should be reciprocated. Our duty, therefore, as believers in Him, is to be pure, righteous and well pleasing to Him, glory be to Him, that we may be worthy to become true witnesses to Him in this life on Earth. Our duty is, further, to endure hardships as good soldiers (2 Timothy 2:3) suffering with Him so that we might be with Him in His second coming counted among those who will be glorified with Him (Romans 1:11) inheriting His heavenly kingdom.
We ought to wake up from the slumber of sin, sober up, and keep watch as we walk briskly towards the twenty first century with firm faith and strong hope.
Dearly beloved: It is, once again, a golden opportunity available to all of us as we are about to receive the Great Holy Lent, to repent truly and couple fasting with prayer and almsgiving. We ask God that He may accept your fasting, prayers and alms and make you worthy of celebrating the feast of His Resurrection from the dead, while you are clad in the robe of righteousness, piety and fear of God, by the grace of God. Amen.
Our Father Who art in heaven...
Issued at our Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria
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