We continue our series on the spirituality and practices of Eastern Christianity

Resurrection Icon of Jesus Christ— “Descensus Christi ad Inferos,” or the descent of Christ into hell

Resurrection Icon of Jesus Christ— “Descensus Christi ad Inferos,” or the descent of Christ into hell

By Robert Wiesner

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ was the ultimate victory of God over the Evil One. As God, of course, Christ exercised complete dominion over all creation. But there were weapons in the hands of the enemy, weapons called sin, suffering, death, all those troublesome limitations which circumscribe human life.  These things were not in the hands of God, in one sense, because they were the tools of the devil and were used to bring ruin to humanity. The devil used them to bind the human race in misery, hopelessness and slavery to sin.  The Crucifixion and Resurrection changed all that.

With the Incarnation of God in the Second Person of the Trinity, God disposed Himself of the means to take away those tools the devil used against human beings. As man, God experienced and made His own all suffering, hunger, labor and even death, all those effects of the Fall which make human life so very difficult. The devil can never take these things back; he cannot (and would not!) become incarnate, so he cannot (and would not!) take human misery as part of his nature. God did do so, however, and that has made all the difference in the world.

Eastern theology sees the Fall more in terms of its effects than in the Augustinian and Western sense of guilt. Our reluctance to cope with human limitation deriving from original sin is the pathway leading to sin.  We do not like our limitation in personal wealth, so we steal. We take a dislike to our neighbor’s way of invading our personal space, so we murder. We find our neighbor’s spouse more attractive than our own, and so we violate our vows of limitation to one only partner. All these things are understood by God, for He became one of us in all things but sin. All temptations were overcome by Christ, and in His Passion and Resurrection the final enemy, the deadliest weapon in the devil’s arsenal, the great limitation called death, is wrested from demonic hands and becomes, quite literally, a Divine Act. The tools of the devil, in the hands of the Lord, become great possibilities for sanctification and Godly activity, for in overcoming by grace our own temptations and suffering we are healed of spiritual disease. By accepting our human limitations as did Christ, we unite ourselves to the Divine Nature. We grow more like Him with each spiritual victory and finally, in our own death, we enter into the very life of the Trinity.

And so to the icon. The gates of hell have been smashed and now form a prison for the defeated devil. He cowers under the wreck, fully aware that he has been beaten. Around his wrists and legs are the locks and chains previously used to bind the human race; their powers of coercion are now forever destroyed for humanity. Adam and Eve are raised from their graves; their great misdeed has now been transformed into the felix culpa (happy fault) bringing God in the Flesh to a broken world. Surrounding the central figures are all the prophets, kings and righteous ones of Israel, now delivered from the power of Hades and safely delivered into the Kingdom of Heaven. Implicit in the scene is the notion that sin is overcome eternally for all who will it; we are not enslaved anymore, but through the great mysteries of the sacraments, we also are empowered to break our chains and be released from the power of Hades. By Christ’s death we are given the means to be healed of our own infirmities simply by applying the salve of sacramental grace. The almond-shaped mandorla surrounding Christ indicates the full deification of humanity in His Person; flesh is divinized and no longer subject to eternal corruption. Death is no longer the gateway to hell, but the portal to heaven.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

The newest Doctor of the Church: 

Saint Gregory of Narek

By Christina Deardurff

A new Doctor of the Church — joining the 35 Doctors before him — was formally proclaimed by Pope Francis on April 12, Divine Mercy Sunday: St. Gregory of Narek, an Armenian priest, poet and mystic of the tenth century.

The solemn proclamation took place at a Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of the genocidal massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.

Gregory is most well known among both Orthodox and Catholic Christians for his beautiful set of reflections called Lamentations. (Pope John Paul II even cited Gregory of Narek in his 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater.)

The Prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Amato, SDB, pointed out four areas of distinction in St. Gregory’s doctrine:

man’s sense of sin;

the Trinity and the three theological virtues;

defense of the Sacraments and the mediation of the Church;

devotion to the Virgin Mary, the Panaghia, as a “bridge between God and man.”

stgregoryThough first declared a saint in the Orthodox Church, Gregory — and all the saints traditionally venerated by the Armenians — were accepted when Rome incorporated the Armenian Catholic Church into its fold in the 1700s.

The fact remains, however, that Gregory belonged to a Church which was not, at the time, in formal communion with Rome. The “Oriental” Orthodox Churches, including the Armenian Church, did not accept the Christological pronouncements of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, specifically, its precise formulation of the doctrine of Christ’s two “natures.”

Subsequently they broke communion with both the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Given this fact, a few voices in the Catholic community have expressed reservation about Gregory being named a Doctor. Blogger Ann Barnhardt went so far as to label Gregory a “heretic.”

The specific heresy in question is called monophysitism — the teaching that Christ had one true “nature” only, which was either divine or a synthesis of divine and human, but not two distinct “natures.” But the charge of “heresy” does not stand up to examination.

The Armenian Church in the time of Chalcedon was concerned with fighting the spreading heresy of Nestorianism—the teaching that Christ’s human nature was somehow “conjoined,” but not “united,” to the divine nature of the Word. Notes author of The Fathers of the Church, Mike Aquilina, Nestorius “urged people not to address Mary as the ‘Mother of God,’ because she was the mother, he said, of only his human nature.”

The Armenian Church understood Chalcedon to favor the Nestorian view in its stating that Christ had “two natures,” and disapproved.

In fact, the Oriental Churches called Christ’s nature “one,” the “nature of the Incarnate Word,” but also believed it to be both fully human and fully divine.

W.H.C. Frend, in The Rise of the Monophysite Movements, remarks that St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria in the fifth century, thought the wording of two distinct natures “was absurd: the Word became man to repay the debt of man’s sin,” not merely conjoined to a perfect man but “became flesh Himself by descending into the nature.”

Essentially, this represented confusion over the meanings of philosophical terms like “nature” and “person,”whose definitions were still being developed, and were subject to gross mistranslation among the differing languages of the Churches — but, we now see, agreement over the teaching itself.

In other words, despite historically different wording, the Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Churches do profess the same essence of doctrine, namely, that present in Christ is the hypostasis — the unity of full humanity and full divinity in one Person.

The centuries-long divisions over language, and subsequent efforts at reconciliation, culminated, in the year 2000, with a “Joint Declaration” of Pope John Paul II and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Catholicos Karekin II, which says, in part: “They particularly welcome the great advance that their Churches have registered in their common search for unity in Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Perfect God as to his divinity, perfect man as to his humanity, his divinity is united to his humanity in the Person of the Only-begotten Son of God, in a union which is real, perfect, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without any form of separation.”

Profile: The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria

Occasionally, the Copts have been described as a schismatic eastern Christian minority, a lonely community in the land of their forebears. Though they were not unknown to mediaeval and early modern travellers from Europe, Western Christendom appears to have lost sight of the Copts until 1860 when a Presbyterian mission came to convert them to Christianity, and the Coptic archbishop of Asiut asked them the rhetorical question: “We have been living with Christ for more than 1800 years; how long have you been living with him?” —Aziz Atiya, Ph. D., author of The Coptic Encyclopedia

Coptic Christianity is indeed a most ancient Christian faith: it was brought to Alexandria, Egypt, by St. Mark the Evangelist, a mere dozen years after the Ascension of the Lord. (The term “Copt” comes from the Greek word for “Egypt” and denotes the Egyptians who are Christian, and their faith, culture and art.) Christianity spread through Egypt within a half century of Mark’s arrival; papyrus fragments of St. John’s Gospel, written in Greek and Coptic and dated to the first half of the second century, have been found in Upper Egypt.

5th-century liturgical Coptic relief

5th-century liturgical Coptic relief

In fact, one of the three liturgies used by the Coptic Church is the liturgy of St. Cyril, the bulk of which is the one used by St. Mark himself (in Greek) — it was memorized by the bishops and priests until it was translated into the Coptic language by St. Cyril I, the 24th pope of the Coptic Church (the term “pope” was attached to the holder of the seat of St. Mark long before it came into use as a name for the Roman Pontiff).

Formally called the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, this ancient body of Christians is a deeply spiritual and even mystical Church, with an emphasis upon holiness and the mysteries of the Faith; at the same time, it is strongly doctrinal, holding to Scripture, the Apostolic Creeds and the teachings of the early Church Fathers. It celebrates the seven sacraments and has a robust veneration of the Mother of God and the saints.

The contributions of the Coptic Church to the rest of Christianity, though largely overlooked, have been profound. The first and greatest school of systematic Christian study, the Catechetical School of Alexandria, was founded around 190 AD; its graduates included Origen (considered the “father of theology”), St. Gregory Nazienzen, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Rufinus and St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin. It was a “Lighthouse of Christianity” for five centuries, until the Council of Chalcedon in 451, after which, disagreement over doctrinal formulations and political machinations alike drove a wedge between the Coptic Church and the Byzantines and Romans, eventually resulting not only in separation, but persecution.

At Chalcedon, the Copts were accused — unfairly, they say — of following the teachings of monophytism — the doctrine that Jesus has only the divine nature, not two natures, the human as well as the divine.

According to its own testimony, the Coptic Church has never believed in monophysitism as it was portrayed in the Council of Chalcedon. Copts believe that the Lord is perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called “the nature of the Incarnate Word” — two natures “human” and “divine” that are united in one “without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration” (from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic Divine Liturgy).

Another Coptic contribution of inestimable value to Christianity is monasticism, born in Egypt in the last years of the third century and flourishing in the fourth. Monasticism was instrumental in forming the Coptic Church’s character of submission and humbleness, after the teachings of the Great Fathers of Egypt’s Deserts — among them, St. Anthony, the world’s first Christian monk.

All Christian monasticism, in fact, stems either directly or indirectly from the Egyptian example. St. Basil, founder of the monastic movement in Asia Minor, visited Egypt in 357, and even St. Benedict, founder of Western monasticism in the sixth century, based his rule upon that of the Coptic St. Pachomius.

But perhaps the greatest glory of the Coptic Church is its cross, a symbol of not only its faith, but its largely uninterrupted persecution, begun when St. Mark himself was dragged through the streets of Alexandria by Roman soldiers and slain. The Copts have since been persecuted by almost every ruler of Egypt, and even their Christian brothers after the schism of Chalcedon until the Arab conquest in 641.

St Cyril I, the 24th Pope  of Alexandria

St Cyril I, the 24th Pope
of Alexandria

The arrival of Arabic rule brought change to the Christian face of Egypt, and by the second millennium, it was a predominantly Muslim country, in which the Coptic community occupied an inferior position, sometimes with accompanying hostility and even violence.

As the beheading of the 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by Islamic militants confirms, such persecution continues to this day. Among them was a non-Copt, a Chadian citizen who reportedly embraced Christ as his Lord after the example of the Copts: when threatened with beheading, he reportedly affirmed, “Their God is my God,” and shared their fate. We may rejoice that the faith of the Coptic Church is so vital and persevering that it has given the world the witness of these martyrs.

Twenty-one Coptic Christian Martyrs commemorated in new icon

by Robert Wiesner

Amid the enormous number of recent news items from the turbulent Middle East, none has so captured the attention of Eastern Christians as completely as the saga of twenty-one Egyptian migrant workers beheaded by the Libyan seashore on February 14, 2015. They died with the name of Jesus on their lips, and their brutal ISIS executioners made it abundantly clear that their deaths were due to their Christian faith. By any reasonable standards, these young men have joined the ranks of the glorious martyrs adorning the history of Christianity over the last 2000 years.

They are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a body tracing its origins back to the evangelist Saint Mark, who brought the Faith to Alexandria from the Roman Church.

Of course, Egypt in its early years gave generously of its blood to the Church. Romans and then Islam added many names to the Christian calendar through virtually constant persecution. The Coptic Church is no stranger to martyrdom.

Pope Francis wasted no time in acclaiming the new martyrs. Their deaths were perhaps the first opportunity for the Pope to speak of his new emphasis in ecumenical relations, summed up in the term “the ecumenism of blood.” He exclaimed, “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a witness that cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ!” Giving more pungency to his spontaneous remarks is that he delivered them to a group of visiting Scots Protestant churchmen; surely it was not lost on them that true Christian martyrdom cannot be limited only to Catholics! The Pope’s Mass on February 17 was offered in commemoration of the twenty-one.

Pope Tawadros II, the Patriarch of the Coptic Church, received a visit almost immediately from President Al-Sisi of Egypt. In acts which may stand as the first miracles of the new saints, the president offered his condolences and proclaimed a national seven-day mourning period for Egypt. He then pledged the Egyptian government to build a new Coptic church building to honor the martyrs in Minya, the home village of the slain. The Egyptian armed forces also immediately carried out raids on ISIS bases in Libya. These concrete acts of support for the Copts stand without precedent in the troubled relations between the Muslim majority and the Coptic minority in Egypt.

The proclamation of new saints in the Catholic Church tends to be a protracted and complex process. Pope Francis has greatly simplified the matter of late, but even he cannot match the speed with which the Copts recognized their new heavenly patrons. Within three days, new propers for the Liturgy (called Troparia and Kontakia among Eastern Christians) were composed and promulgated. Relics of the martyrs have been distributed even to churches in the United States. A beautiful icon in the distinctive Coptic style was quickly written by the talented hand of iconographer Tony Rezk. Finally, just one week after their glorious deaths, Pope Tawadros II officially canonized the 21 New Martyrs of Egypt on February 21, 2015.

21 New Martyrs of Egypt, icon in the Coptic style by iconographer Tony Rzek

21 New Martyrs of Egypt, icon in the Coptic style by iconographer Tony Rzek


From the Philokalia

The Spiritual Writings of the Eastern Christian Fathers

The Lord taught me to love my enemies. Without the grace of God we cannot love our enemies. Only the Holy Spirit teaches love, and then even devils arouse our pity because they have fallen from good, and lost humility in God.

I beseech you, put this to the test. When a man affronts you or brings dishonor on your head, or takes what is yours, or persecutes the Church, pray to the Lord, saying: “O Lord, we are all Thy creatures. Have pity on Thy servants and turn their hearts to repentance,” and you will be aware of grace in your soul. To begin with, constrain your heart to love enemies, and the Lord, seeing your good will, will help you in all things, and experience itself will show you the way. But the man who thinks with malice of his enemies has not God’s love within him, and does not know God.

If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you; but when you can love your enemies — know that a great measure of the grace of God dwells in you, though I do not say perfect grace as yet, but sufficient for salvation. Whereas if you revile your enemies, it means there is an evil spirit living in you and bringing evil thoughts into your heart, for, in the words of the Lord, out of the heart proceed evil thoughts — or good thoughts.

The good man thinks to himself in this wise: Every one who has strayed from the truth brings destruction on himself and is therefore to be pitied. But of course the man who has not learned the love of the Holy Spirit will not pray for his enemies. The man who has learned love from the Holy Spirit sorrows all his life over those who are not saved, and sheds abundant tears for the people, and the grace of God gives him strength to love his enemies.

Understand me. It is so simple. People who do not know God, or who go against Him, are to be pitied; the heart sorrows for them and the eye weeps. Both paradise and torment are clearly visible to us: We know this through the Holy Spirit. And did not the Lord Himself say, “The kingdom of God is within you?” Thus eternal life has its beginning here in this life; and it is here that we sow the seeds of eternal torment.

Where there is pride there cannot be grace, and if we lose grace we also lose both love of God and assurance in prayer. The soul is then tormented by evil thoughts and does not understand that she must humble herself and love her enemies, for there is no other way to please God.

What shall I render unto Thee, O Lord, for that Thou hast poured such great mercy on my soul? Grant, I beg Thee, that I may see my iniquities, and ever weep before Thee, for Thou art filled with love for humble souls, and dost give them the grace of the Holy Spirit.

O merciful God, forgive me. Thou seest how my soul is drawn to Thee, her Creator. Thou hast wounded my soul with Thy love, and she thirsts for Thee, and wearies without end, and day and night, insatiable, reaches toward Thee, and has no wish to look upon this world, though I do love it, but above all I love Thee, my Creator, and my soul longs after Thee.

O my Creator, why have I, Thy little creature, grieved Thee so often? Yet Thou hast not remembered my sins.

Glory be to the Lord God that He gave us His Only-begotten Son for the sake of our salvation. Glory be to the Only-begotten Son that He deigned to be born of the Most Holy Virgin, and suffered for our salvation, and gave us His Most Pure Body and Blood to eternal life, and sent His Holy Spirit on the earth.

—St. Silouan

Ecumenical Patriarch: Orthodoxy is the “green Church par excellence”

As he received an honorary degree at a Turkish university, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople reflected on peacemaking, ecology, and the economy.

“Orthodoxy is committed to ecology; it is the ‘green’ Church par excellence,” said Patriarch Bartholomew. “We believe that the roots of the environmental crisis are not primarily economic or political, nor technological, but profoundly and essentially religious, spiritual and moral.”

“The most serious contemporary threat of the culture of solidarity is economism, the fundamentalism of market and profit,” he said.

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew attended a climate change forum in the Philippines.

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew attended a climate change forum in the Philippines.

Commission prepares for Great Council in 2016

Special Inter-Orthodox Commission for the Preparation of the Great Pan-Orthodox Council completed its third session April 2 in Chambesy, Switzerland. The council, to take place in 2016, will for the first time ever gather representatives from all fourteen independent Orthodox Churches. The very conception, let alone the convocation of such a great or general council, is entirely unprecedented.  

According to an article posted by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Special Commission has now completed its work on the draft document for the Pan-Orthodox Council, Contribution of the Orthodox Church in the Promotion of Peace, Justice, Freedom, Brotherhood and Love Between People and the Elimination of Racial and Other Discrimination. The article states that the Commission also edited the 1986 document, The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today.

The next step will be that the completed work of the Commission will be considered at the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Council Conference.  The Conference will be held later this year, with a bishop from each Orthodox Church attending, and will be the last step before the holding of the historic Pan-Orthodox Council in 2016 in Istanbul.

The Pan-Orthodox Council will be held in the Church of Hagia Irene—the site of the Second Ecumenical Council of 381, which completed the “creed” recited by most Christians today. Hagia Irene is now a museum in Istanbul, never having been converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Moscow plans St. Vladimir 1000th anniversary celebration

KazanIcon228825_origIn March, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church initiated the first of a series of celebrations to honor the 1000th anniversary of the death of St. Vladimir, “Enlightener of the Russian Land.” These celebrations will continue in various metropolia until the end of the year. The first celebration was held in Kazan, and Metropolitan Hilarion was there for this occasion. The Metropolitan’s first liturgy in Kazan was held on Saturday morning at the Mother of God Monastery, which was built at the location where Matrona found the original Kazan icon in 1579. The most revered icon at the Monastery is now the “Vatican copy” of the Kazan icon, which was given by Pope John Paul II to Patriarch Alexy in 2004.

It has been reported that a 25-meter high statue of Saint Vladimir will be erected this year in Moscow to commemorate the anniversary. The statue will be built on Sparrow Hills overlooking the Moscow city center.

Armenian Church canonizes some 1.5 million genocide victims

The Armenian Church on April 23 conferred sainthood on some 1.5 million Armenian Christians massacred by Turkish Ottoman forces a century ago, in what is believed to be the biggest canonization service in history.

The ceremony came one day ahead of a commemoration that saw millions, including heads of state like presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Francois Hollande of France, marking the hundredth anniversary of the start of the tragedy.

The April 24 service was held in Armenia’s main church, Echmiadzin, an austere 4th-century edifice believed to be the Christian world’s oldest cathedral.

After the ceremony led by Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, bells chimed in Armenian churches across the world and a minute of silence was observed.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Vagharshapat, Armenia, and is considered the oldest cathedral in the world.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Vagharshapat, Armenia, and is considered the oldest cathedral in the world.


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