|Lent Encyclical - January 30, 2004|
We offer apostolic benediction, benevolent prayers, and greetings to our brethren, His Eminence Mor Baselius Thomas I, Metropolitan of India, and their Eminences the Metropolitans, our spiritual children the venerable priest, monks, nuns, deacons and deaconess, and our blessed Syrian Orthodox people all over the world. May the divine providence embrace them through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and St. Peter, the head of the apostles, and the rest of the Martyrs and Saints. Amen.
The Holy Bible
Our beloved: In response to the call by the Holy Bible institutions of the world, our Holy Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Holy Synod presided over by us and held 9-12 September 2003, had decided that this year, 2004, to be considered the year of the Holy Bible. The reason is to urge the faithful to have faith that the Holy Bible in our hands in its original languages, is the exact same written by the prophets and apostles, and delivered to our ancestors who delivered it to us without any addition or omission. All Christians, regardless of their denominations, language, or civilization, have agreed that God inspires the Holy Bible, that is, it is the living word of God. In that regard, the apostle Paul says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The meaning of “by inspiration of God”, is that the Almighty guided the minds of true prophets and Jesus apostles in a special way, and gave them His Holy instructions, and religious doctrines they should believe in. And they relayed His will to all mankind. He also commanded them to write down these facts in a book to be a beacon, not only to their generation, but also to all generations, and forever. No one disputes what all churches agreed upon, that the center of gravity in the Holy Bible is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. And the ultimate goal for writing down the Holy inspiration is to inform the world about true faith that should be believed in, commandments that should be followed and practiced, and Christian virtues that should be adopted in order to obtain salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle John explained in his Gospel, saying, “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 Bible has indeed a special high rank in our Syriac church because it is the word of the Living God and the first and most important source to our doctrine of faith and heavenly laws. The Holy Bible testifies to that in some of its verses. Jeremiah said, “The Lord saying: Write in a book for yourself all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 30:2). St. Paul the apostle said, “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). St. Peter the apostle said, “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). By his words, St. Peter aimed to say that God Almighty has chosen pious men and relayed through them what He wanted people to know about His Holy Self and His heavenly laws. Through those pious men, God declared His promise to send His Only Begotten Son to the world. They announced it and wrote down their true prophecies in the books of the Holy Bible. That promise was completely fulfilled, verbatim, through Christ in all steps of His mission of salvation. In this regard, St. Paul said, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power. When He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrew 1:1-3).
The Holy Bible being the source of all facts of faith has total authority in faith matters. Faithful should submit themselves to its Holy teachings and keep the commandments of faith and good conduct in tact.
Yes indeed, our saintly fathers, through all their teachings did rely on the holy inspiration written in the Holy Bible. They dipped down in the depths of the Holy Bible and picked precious jewels that prove the rightness of our doctrine of faith. From its words they also obtained innumerable number of books they authored. For example, it was said that, “If we assume an impossible assumption that the Holy Bible written in Syriac, somehow was to be lost or missing, we could find it in the writings of St. Ephraim the Syriac, compiled and collected from the Holy Bible in the forth century”.
The church history testifies that our fathers were the first to study, explain and translate the Holy Bible to many languages. Our monasteries and churches were filled with copies written by monks, priests, and others in our holy Syriac language. The oldest and most important copy found today in the museums of the world is in this language. Not only that, but our fathers also carried the torch of the Holy Gospel to many areas of the world. They depicted special chapters from the books of the Holy Bible to be recited during Sundays and church feasts at the beginning of the Holy Mass Service. They also authored special prayers to be read before reading from the Gospel and during their spiritual mediations. These are all supplications to God to enlighten their minds to understand the meanings of the words of life, because, as we mentioned earlier, they Holy Bible has the high rank in our holy church. According to our Syriac tradition and in every church, a small wooden podium is set in the center of the middle alter on which the Holy Gospel is laid. The outside cover of the gospel is gold or silver-plated, and a drawing of the four apostles and a cross are carved on it. It is for the faithful to kiss and be blessed when they enter the church at the beginning of the service, and when they leave at the end of the service. Thus honoring the word of God - the Holy Bible - and get the blessings and grace of Jesus Christ who is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The church also singled out a special prayer to be recited by a deacon in whom he calls on the faithful to stand up and listen with fear and wisdom to the word of salvation while the fragrance of incense fills up the air. According to our Syriac tradition, the reader of the holy gospel is the one performing the Holy Eucharist, whether he is a Patriarch or a Bishop, or a Priest.
Yes, indeed, our Holy Church urges the clergy and the faithful in general to study the Holy Bible and read it during individual and collective prayers. They should learn a lesson from Psalm 1 in which the author gives the beatitude to the righteous man who walks in God’s law and utters continually its words day and night (Psalm 1-2). And in Psalm 119, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn and confirmed that I will keep Your righteous judgments” (Psalm 119: 105-106).
It is a golden opportunity that we now have in the upcoming great Lent, and we shouldn’t waste it. We should come closer to Jesus Christ, in strong faith and good works, setting His life and mission on earth in flesh, as an example, carrying His Holy Cross and following Him. Let us learn from Him about fasting and prayers, for He fasted forty days and forty nights on our behalf and allowed Himself to be tempted by Satan. He repeated the words of the Holy Bible and defeated the devil. And He revealed to us the secret of how to defeat Satan by saying, “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21). Therefore we should keep praying and abide by the law of fasting, and give charity to the needy especially during days of the Holy Great Lent. The church teaches and commands us to keep ourselves in the company of the books of the Holy Bible, making it the subject of our meditations especially during the quietness of the night. If we, through prayer, beseech and thank God for all His gifts, we should also participate with angels in glorifying and worshiping Him. We should listen intently, with faith, hope and love, to His holy words written by prophets, apostles, and sainted fathers. The Almighty, after speaking to the fathers through prophets, spoke to us through His Only Begotten Son who is His Holy Word…. “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 1&14). We should have faith in Him and obey Him as instructed by the Heavenly Father through His voice from heaven during the transfiguration of the Lord on the Mount, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him” (Matthew 17:5).
So let us listen to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God who commanded us to fast, pray, and have mercy on our fellow needy man in order to be worthy to inherit the heavenly kingdom with him.
God bless you, my beloved, and may He make you worthy to renew your spiritual relation with Him. Continue to listen to His holy voice, and know His will through the study of the Holy Bible, in which the Lord addresses and enlightens us. He is the lamp to our feet, which prevents us from falling. May God accept your fasting and prayers, and make you worthy to celebrate His resurrection with purity, holiness, and joy, and may the grace of our Lord be with you. Amen. Abun d’bashmayo w’sharko (Our Father Who are in Heaven…), Amen.
Issued at our Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria
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