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Lent Encyclical - February 10, 2001



  February 10, 2001


We offer apostolic benediction, benevolent prayers, and greetings in the Lord to our brethren, their Eminencies the Metropolitans, our spiritual children the venerable priests, the devout monks, nuns, deacons, and our blessed Syriac Orthodox people. May the divine providence embrace them through the prayers of the Virgin Mary the Mother of God and St. Peter, the head of the apostles, and the rest of the Martyrs and Saints. Amen.

"For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love" (Galatians 5: 6).

Apostle Paul in this statement of his, which he forwarded at the time to the faithful in Galatia, emphasizes the importance of faith that is coupled with good works in the true Christian life. He thus makes faith that is coupled with good works a fact of faith in the lucid Christian religion. In doing so, he reveals the nullity of the law of circumcision which was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, the father of fathers, and between God and prophet Moses and his people. Moreover, he shows that this law of circumcision, like uncircumcision, has neither a spiritual value nor any importance in Christendom anymore; rather, it renders him who practices it as a religious duty alien to Christ. In this connection, Apostle Paul says elsewhere, "If you become circumcised, Christ will be of no advantage to you" (Galatians 5:2).

The important thing in Christianity is the faith that one declares once he becomes a follower of Christ Jesus. Equally important is faith which is made effective by love; that is, faith which is coupled with good works, after one has made a covenant with God by his rebirth of heaven through the Sacrament of the Holy Baptism, thus becoming justified, sanctified and a son of God in grace. He then proves the trueness of his faith by adorning himself with good works, especially with the virtue of true love, which the Lord Jesus considered a clear sign distinctive of His disciples, saying "By this every one will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Yes, by our love for God, which is made manifest through our love for the neighbor, we adorn ourselves with faith that is made effective by love.

Apostle Paul further defines faith saying, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). In other words, faith is acceptance of all that God has proclaimed to us on the facts of faith through His prophets in the books of the Old Testament, and through His righteous apostles and disciples in the books of the New Testaments, even if they were beyond the comprehension of our human minds. These include also the creeds of the Christian faith defined by the three Ecumenical Councils: that of Nicea (AD 325), that of Constantinople (AD 381) and that of Ephesus (AD 431). The acceptance of these creeds by the faithful has thus become obligatory.

Faith also is certainty of the things hoped for in such a way that we see them as if they were actually fulfilled. Christian faith, therefore, combines in itself the submission to the doctrines of faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God and Redeemer of human race. The power of the living Christian faith is made manifest when coupled with good works, its parallel, which, like faith, are necessary for salvation. In this regard, Apostle James asks those who claim they are believers: "What is the use, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but has not works? Can his faith save him?… You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe, and tremble. Would you know, O frail man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (James 2:14-25).

Yes, the statement of Apostle James may seem to contradict the words of Apostle Paul, who says: "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; Whom God has preconstituted a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God…Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law" (Romans 3:24-31). Then, Apostle Paul takes Abraham, just as Apostle James did, as an example for this, saying: "Abraham believed in God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness…How was it then reckoned to him? Was it when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? It was not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. He received circumcision as a sign or a seal of the righteousness which he had by faith, while he was still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe, without being circumcised, and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them also, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith of our father Abraham" (Romans 4:1-12). In this connection, Patriarch St. Severius the Great, the Crown of the Syrians, wrote to Julian, the bishop of Halicarnassus, on the reconciliation between the writings of the two Apostles on the matter of justification by faith and deeds. The explanation he gave can be summarized as follows: A non-Christian upon believing in Christ, even though he has no good works, receives remission of sins, whether it be serious or personal, through faith alone. After he is baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, he attains salvation according to the saying of the Lord Jesus, "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe, shall be condemned" (Mark 16:16). Through baptism he is born of heaven and becomes a son of God through grace and starts a new covenant with God. He is determined to walk according to the Gospel of Christ coupling his faith with good works, otherwise his faith would be of no avail, as put by St. James, "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). The case is just as that of Abraham. Abraham's faith was counted righteousness while uncircumcised. After he was circumcised he offered to God good deeds coupled with faith. He obeyed God and offered his only son Isaac to be slaughtered.

We have seen the Lord Jesus laying emphasis on the works of Abraham by saying to the Jews in response to their claim that their father was Abraham, "If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham" (John 8:38 & 39). The faith of a man, therefore, must be a "faith that is made effective by love" (Galatians 5:6), as also expressed by St. Paul, who says: "It is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified" (Romans 2:13). This statement is based upon the teaching of the Lord Jesus, who says: "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father Who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). The Lord, glory to Him, upheld this teaching of His in putting it to practice when "His mother and His brothers came to Him once, but they could not reach Him for the crowd. And He was told, 'Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you. But He said to them, 'My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." (Luke 8:19-21). No wonder then the Lord of glory proclaimed the law of ruling in the judgement of the worlds in heaven to be the law of "faith working in love". The distinguishing sign of this love is serving the least of His brethren. For on the Day of the Judgement, the Lord Jesus will say to the righteous faithful, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me? (Matthew 25:34-40). To the wicked then He will say, "Depart from me, you accursed, to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41).

The Lord justifies pronouncing this judgment against the wicked by the fact that they did not do good to those who were in need, as if they did not do it to the Lord Jesus Himself. The wicked thus shall go into everlasting torment, and the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 25:46). In this connection, Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians, "For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive according to what he has done in the body whether it be good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). In his epistle to the Hebrews, Apostle Paul wrote, "For God is not so unjust as to forget your work and labor of love which you showed toward His name, in that you served the Saints and you still do" (Hebrews 6:10).

From here we know that the Lord Jesus wants us to serve saints and His needy brethren and feel with them. He wants us to look after them, lend a helping hand to the poor, and call on the widows and orphans, considering our service to them a service to the Lord Jesus Himself, for they are His little brethren. We should consider what we do with and to them as if we were doing it to Him. This kind of work is considered to be the heart of the Christian faith, as indicated by Apostle James, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). Moreover, mercy is the daughter of love; therefore, he whose heart thrives with love of God, this love shall be manifested in his love for the neighbor.

We see our teacher Apostle Paul singing the praises of the virtue of love in chapter thirteen of his epistle to the faithful in Corinthos. From here, this chapter is called "the song of love", where the works, fruits and sacrifices of love are favored over martyrdom for the faith, working dazzling miracles, even moving mountains, and speaking in numerous tongues. The Apostle concludes this chapter saying, "And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Love, therefore, is the greatest among virtues. It is the cream of the divine commandments. How sublime the answer of the Lord Jesus was to the lawyer who asked Him, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus said to him, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets". (Matthew 22:35-40). How splendid the love, which Apostle John described is, when he said "God is love".

Dearly beloved:

In the parable of the ten virgins, the five wise and the five foolish, the Lord Jesus teaches us a lesson in faith, hope and love. All the ten virgins were believers and waiting for the Second Coming of the Lord in solid faith and unfailing hope. When the Lord delayed His coming, they all slumbered and slept. When the Bridegroom (The Lord) came, the five wise virgins entered with Him to the marriage feast. Now, the five foolish virgins, who had faith and hope, like their other five wise friends, had no oil of good deeds, especially oil of love and that of its daughter, mercy; consequently, their lamps went out. They went to sellers to buy oil. While they went to buy, the bridegroom came and the five wise virgins, who were ready, and who had, besides faith, love and hope, good deeds, the deeds of mercy and love, entered with Him to the marriage feast. As for the foolish virgins, they were expelled to the outer darkness.

Faith, therefore, without works is dead. The Lord teaches us this also in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). On this parable, the Doctor of the Church, St. Jacob of Saroug, constructed a magnificent spiritual sermon in a meemro (metrical homily) that ranks among the top in the world of Syriac spiritual literature. In this homily, St. Jacob maintains that no sin was ever recorded against this rich man, and he was never noted with any abominable act. Rather, he adhered tenaciously to the Mosaic Law. Moreover, he called Abraham "my father Abraham". Nevertheless, when he died, he saw himself being tormented in Hell, the reason being that he had no mercy upon Lazarus the poor who was laid down at his door desiring to fill his stomach with the crumbs that fell from his table.

Dearly beloved:

The arrival of the Holy Lent is considered a golden opportunity for us to enter into a spiritual struggle against the devil and overcome him by our faith, which is the sign of victory. Let us then keep on observing the Law of the Lord day and night and practice the exalted virtues. Let us couple our faith with good deeds, particularly the deeds of mercy, such as giving out alms, helping the poor, and tending to the orphans and widows. In doing so, our faith would work in love, indeed, and we will attain victory in faith.

May God accept your fasting and prayers, and make you worthy to celebrate the feast of His resurrection from the dead with joy and delight. May grace be with you.

Abun d-bashmayo w-sharko (Our Father Who art in Heaven…).

Issued at our Patriarchal house in Damascus, Syria
on the 10th day of February, in the year two thousand and one
which is the 21st year of our Patriarchal reign.

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Last Update: February 18, 2001