Sunday, April 3, 2016

Met Georges Khodr: The Cross

Arabic original here.

The Cross

For us, victory in the name of religion is a heresy because the Christian is victorious if they strike him unjustly and he is never victorious if he is the one who strikes. If he strives for freedom, it is not only to liberate himself, but in order to liberate his oppressor as well. He does not liberate himself from those who assault him unless he also liberates them as well. He does not seek to be crucified. Seeking out suffering is not a part of our religion. Liberation from suffering is at the heart of our religion. It is an error to say that we welcome suffering. We only welcome patience in it. For this reason, we have many prayers for the sick. We do not thank God for having permitted illness. We give thanks when He heals it. We are not the ones who said that Christianity is the religion of the sick, the insane, the broken. That is an accusation from Nietzsche. We are a religion of well-being, inasmuch as our religion is fundamentally the religion of the resurrection.

You do not have to seek out suffering. It will seek you out. Proof of this is that Christians were the first to establish hospitals and that the Church established prayer for the sick as one of the cornerstones of worship, with its own night during Holy Week. It is clear in the Gospel that one of the chief tasks of Jesus of Nazareth was that He healed the sick. If you want to give a true definition of the Nazarene, say that He is a teacher and healer of the sick. The great focus on the cross among us is not that it is the site of suffering, but that healing begins there. All those who have taught that we enjoy suffering are wrong. Our true teaching is that our enjoyment is in liberation from suffering.

When I was a boy, I hated it when women would wear the cross openly on their chests. Why this display, when the cross is a sign of Christ's hiddenness? This was not an easy question for me, as the son of a jeweler, someone who made his living from selling jewelry to women, to those who were honorable and to those who were immodest. Women required gold, then, in my childhood. And after childhood, I realized that it was the woman who was showing off and that jewelry is secondary for men.

What does the cross mean, apart from that one must die before he can live? Why was there this focus in Western Christianity on the cross and not on the resurrection? This is the reality of Christians in the West-- I did not say that it is the thinking of their church. I know very well that there is no neglect of the resurrection in Western Christianity. Nevertheless, on a popular level the Western Christian's prevailing concern is with the Lord's defeatedness, even though this is absent from dogma and liturgy. Perhaps this came from people taking pleasure in their suffering, thinking that it was God's having mercy on them. I have absolutely no issue with Catholic services in this regard. They are all pure. My issue is with the masses that love suffering. Perhaps many feel that they will acquire piety through their pain.

Of course, we do not look to make ourselves suffer. That is a sick pleasure. But we must remember that suffering exists and that you cannot flee from it. You do not bear it if it doesn't exist. I know that it is always in your being and resting within you. There is absolutely no distinction between the Christian churches with regard to suffering. No church loves it, even if some take pleasure in their suffering, believing that it will necessarily bring them closer to Christ. It is right to say that I will die in the religion of the cross, if through this death I strive for resurrection.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos) on the Uncreated Light

Arabic original here.

The Light of God

God's grace is uncreated.

"By Grace you are saved" (Ephesians 2:8).

Salvation from evil, from sin and from death were achieved on the cross and appeared through Christ's resurrection from the dead and His sending the grace of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This is what we receive first in baptism, and then in our receiving Christ's body risen from the dead.

Saint Gregory Palamas, whom we celebrate today, said that the divine grace that sanctifies us is God's eternal, uncreated light and distinguished between God's essence, in which man cannot participate, and the uncreated divine energies, in which we do participate.

Here, beloved, we must note that man is not made perfect by his own power, by his human capacities. He is in need of God's support and of His divine power. Here is an important indicator of the great struggle waged by our Saint Gregory Palamas in his claim insistence that this divine power that we receive from God by grace is uncreated. That is, the power is not human. It surpasses humanity and perfects it.

It is true that man must participate, must be a partner, in the work of salvation. He must work, participate and strive to combat his lusts and passions. This is what Orthodox patristic tradition affirms in the dogma of synergy "God works and I work." However, total and complete healing of man's infirmities is only achieved by God's power, which surpasses humankind.

The Protestants will say that salvation is achieved through faith in Christ, relying on Ephesians 2:8-9 [" For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast."]

However, Saint Clement of Alexandria stresses man's struggle through his "fasting" works, his refraining from the passions, in order to tie salvation to works.

Saint Gregory Palamas says that intellectual knowledge is not independent of purity, of our liberation from the passions. Our true knowledge, divine illumination, does not come from studies, but from purity: purity of body, mind and spirit.

We receive this teaching, which is fundamental to our life and its illumination with God's light, on this second Sunday of the fast. It helps us to increase in purity through the way of repentance and to become more liberated from our lusts, so that we may find ourselves ready to receive the light of the resurrection of Christ our Savior.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

J Edward Walters reviews The Orthodox Church in the Arab World

The new issue of the Syriac Studies journal Hugoye came out today. It includes a valuable bibliography of recent Russian works on Syriac and Christian Arabic, prepared by Grigory Kessel and Nikolai Seleznyov. This issue also features a review of The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources by J Edward Walters of Rochester College.

Excerpts:

The texts, and thus the history of Arabic-speaking Christians have too long remained out of reach to Western historians of Christianity, sequestered as they are by historical developments that isolated these Christians from the West and the language barrier that Arabic presents. In the present volume, Samuel Noble and Alexander Treiger take a significant step toward filling this gap by offering an anthology of Arabic texts in English translation that display the range and diversity of the Arabic Christian tradition. This range covers both a broad span of time (as the sub-title suggests, roughly 700-1700 CE) and genres. As such, these texts offer a small, but representative sample that displays the vitality of this understudied and undervalued literary tradition. Several of these texts have never before appeared in English translations, and several have never appeared in any Western language.

[...]

In the Introduction, the editors also offer an overview of Christian literature produced in  Arabic. Throughout the course of this overview, the editors place each text included in this  volume within a broader literary and historical context, which is particularly helpful for scholars who are new to these materials. This overview of Christian Arabic literature shows the range of genres that Arabic-speaking Christians adopted. Each text includes a brief introduction by its  translator and a bibliography for further suggested reading.

[...]

All of the texts chosen for this volume are interesting in their own right, but the collection of these sources into a single volume, with helpful introductions and bibliographies, makes this book an invaluable resource for the study of Arabic Christianity and, indeed, the history of Christianity more broadly.

[...]

Henceforth, historians of Christianity will have no excuse to remain ignorant of the Arab Orthodox tradition. The editors and translators are to be commended for creating such a valuable resource and at such an affordable price. And indeed, in the current socio-poltical atmosphere in which there is so much ignorance concerning the history of Christians in the Middle East, their efforts deserve a wide audience.

Read the entire review here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Patriarch Theophilos at the Monastery of the Life-Giving Spring, Debeen

This is a significant sign of reconciliation between Patriarch Theophilus and the Orthodox community in Jordan. Although I'm not sure it was ever officially announced, as can be seen from the video, Archimandrite Christophoros was not only allowed to continue as spiritual father of the monastery but is congratulated by the patriarch for his service in this capacity. Additionally, the nun Irinea was installed as the monastery's abbess. Axia!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh on Francis and Kirill's Joint Statement

Arabic original here

Francis and Kirill... The People of Syria Know Best


There is no doubt that the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Russia, just in its being held, is a historic achievement in relations between the churches and in restoring unity between Christians. A joint statement was issued by the head of the Church of Rome and the head of the Church of Russia in which they agreed on a variety of complex issues. In this article, however, we will only deal with what pertains to Christian-Muslim relations in our countries, which is being subjected to intense tumults due to the difficult conditions that are afflicting all the people of these countries.

The joint statement talks about Christians as being "the victims of persecution" and as being subjected to "extermination" or "expulsion" and that "their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted"... and this is to a great degree true. However, it is an inadequate depiction of the situation, since it limits the victims of persecutions to the Christians. The statement does not use the same expressions when it talks about "he faithful of other religious traditions", but rather is content with stating that they "have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence." This phrasing involves absolute judgments that are imprecise, unfair discrimination, and makes the statement unbalanced.

Christians and Muslims are, without discrimination, equal in sin and righteousness. Some of them persecute and some are subject to persecution. Some are partners with the regime regime, and practice killing and torture. Muslims are not all friends of God and they are not all demons. Neither are Christians all saints, nor are they all devils... the victims of massacres and forced expulsion are Muslims and Christians. There are Muslim cities and villages that have become ruins in the blink of an eye. Thousands of mosques have been destroyed... It would have been better not to use the phrase "who have also become victims" because this has the sense that they have not been victims from the beginning of the troubles and that what is happening to them is only a reaction.

The joint statement limits itself to only mentioning two of the countries in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq. It calls on "the international community" to make an effort to "to end terrorism through common, joint and coordinated action," then directs an appeal to "all the countries involved in the struggle against terrorism to responsible and prudent action" and urges Christians to pray fervently that there will not be another world war. This talk remains general so long as it does not specify certain matters that must be completely clear. Therefore we wonder:

1. Who are "the countries involved in the struggle against terrorism" mentioned by the joint statement? Our reason for asking this is that there is no country left on earth that has not intervened in Syria under the pretext of combating terrorism. Answer us, for God's sake, is what is meant by "the countries involved in the struggle against terrorism" America, Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey or Israel? Each one of these countries has been accused by one side or another participating in the war of supporting terrorism.

2. Is what is meant by terrorism what is being done by extremist religious groups such as ISIS and others, or the state terrorism practiced by all the countries implicated on land, sea, and air? Did our countries enjoy peace and well-being before the appearance of ISIS and those resembling it? Has there not been terror ruling there tyrannically for decades?

3. Why does the statement fail to mention democracy or to demand freedom for all the people of these countries, so that they can choose the form of government that they deem appropriate? Is there not in this oversight a hidden statement in support of dictatorial regimes in the region? Is there not in this indirect support for what might be called an alliance of minorities in the face of the Islamic majority?

4. Why does the statement fail to mention the State of Israel and the terror against the Palestinian people that continues to occur there? Do Palestinians not deserve a demand for their right to return to their homes? Or have political alliances with the State of Israel prevented treating this fundamental issue which, if not for it, we would not have reached this point of humiliation?

It seems that this statement, in terms of the ambiguities it raises, provides a justification for those who seek a justification for intervening in Syria to secure their interests under the pretext of combating terrorism. It would have been appropriate for this statement to sound the word of truth.

It is good that the joint statement calls for the release of all captives, among them the bishops of Aleppo Paul Yazigi and Yuhanna Ibrahim. These two bishops are the ones who represent Antiochian Christianity in its deeply-rooted history and singular quality of openness to its Muslim fellow-citizens. No outside intervention will preserve Christians, when over many periods, both recently and in the past, Christians have attempted to call upon foreign interventions but quickly regretted it after seeing their grave consequences.

We have no other path to peace apart from Muslim-Christian partnership based on equality and justice-- that is, based on full citizenship. No solution that is not pleasing to the Muslims will be of any use, especially if this solution uses force. We, the children of Antioch, the Great City of God where the disciples were first called Christians, we know the affairs of our country best. Yes, "the people of Mecca best know its twists and turns" and we the people of Syria best know its twists and turns.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Christian Arabic Summer Course in NJ

Beth Mardutho in Piscataway, NJ has expanded its Syriac summer courses to include a course on Christian Arabic:

 Christian Arabic (July 11-22, 2016, 9 AM - 1 PM). Instructor: Alexander (Sasha) Treiger
The course will introduce students to Christian literature in Arabic written from the eighth century to the present. Students attending this course must be able to read Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic. The readings will cover select genres of Christian literature in Arabic: biblical and patristic translations, apologetic and polemical literature, lives of the saints, and world chronicles. Select texts will be read in printed editions (whenever available) and in manuscripts. Additionally, the course will offer a general survey of Middle Eastern Christianity, its ecclesiastical, ethnic, and linguistic divisions, and Christian Arabic Studies as a field of research.

For more information, click here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fr Georges Massouh: The Syrian Hell

Arabic original here.

The Syrian Hell

The crimes that are being committed in Syria have surpassed any atrocities and horrors that the human mind might anticipate. There is no doubt that in our miserable Middle East we have become accustomed to this reality that is pulling us down to the pit of hell. Here is the great atrocity, that we accept what is occurring and go on with our daily life as though nothing is happening-- indeed, we justify what is happening because it is a defense of matters of fate or a war against terrorism. Again and again, it is as though there are those who want to convince us that terror is eliminated by an opposing terror.

The fertile minds of artists, writers and poets have invented depictions of hell on their canvases and in their writings. Likewise, religious texts have given a terrifying description of hell, its fire, its worms and its serpents. Icon-painters and muralists have depicted hell and its unbearable torments. But there is no one whose imagination has reached the level of creativity in depicting hell that has been achieved by the criminals in Syria, coming from every direction, in order to make Syria-- in fact and not in the imagination-- into a real hell surpassing any imagined hell.

We would not have reached this hell had we not accepted the atrocities that were committed over the years. What is happening today is the result of years of our being silent about the crimes of dictatorial regimes and totalitarian parties, whether "secular", "religious" or "sectarian". It is the result of years of turning a blind eye to wars launched in the name of God, in the name of shari'a, or in the name of defending this or that minority. All of us are participants in fueling this raging hell.

We would not have reached this hell had we not justified acts of slaughter, massacres, forced expulsion and barrel-bombing... Someone who becomes accustomed to justifying one crime becomes accustomed to justifying all crimes. We have become addicted to crime. We have become without feeling. Sin, as it is defined by one of the fathers of the Eastern Church, Saint Isaac the Syrian (7th century), is "a lack of feeling." Here also the words of Saint Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) come to us: "He who is silent about supporting the oppressed is a partner with the oppressor."

How can someone who prays, fasts and remembers God every day remain silent-- not to say complicit-- when he sees people before him dying of hunger? "Have you considered him who denies the Judgement? It is he who drives away the orphan, who enjoins not the feeding of the poor.
 Woe to those who pray, but who are negligent in their prayer; who dissemble, and withhold liberality" (Surat al-Ma'un).

Hell has come to us. We do not need to wait for the end of the world in order to go there. We have dragged it here before its time. It was within our power, had we so desired, to bring paradise to our present world and not to have to wait for it to come on the last day. We preferred hell to paradise. Here we are devoured by flames. We are destroyed by hunger. The cold shakes us and oppression puts us to death...

We have seen walking skeletons, wavering between life and death. We have seen fleshless skeletons wrapped in dry skin. We have seen skeletons with bulging eyes that refuse to die, carrying a glimmer of hope. This burning coal of light will bring life back to those bones before they become cadavers. No one can extinguish the bright flash in those eyes that long for life. Those eyes will extinguish the blazes of the Syrian hell.