By the mercy of God Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
To my brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod,
To the rest of our sons and daughters in Jesus Christ,
The clergy and people,
“Beloved of God, called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:7)
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13)
This expression is a cry from the soul, body and spirit: feelings that we express hundreds of times in our liturgical prayers, especially during the period of Lent, that great, holy gift of Lent. In this cry, there is a great deal of spontaneity and depth of feeling, but perhaps also some superficiality, hypocrisy, lukewarmness of heart and outward show. According to the customary requirements of our rite, this very succinct cry is linked with physical movement, so that the whole body participates in it: the hands, knees, bowing from the waist or prostrating so that the person praying touches the ground with his hands, forehead, mouth or lips or perhaps striking his breast as a sign of repentance, and lifting his eyes to heaven in supplication to ask forgiveness, dialogue, repentance, sighing, great longing and even suffering. All that is summed up in this spiritual expression, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner and have pity on me.” This expression is an introduction to penitence in the period of Great Lent, as we sing at the beginning of the Lenten period, the Triodion, in the troparion of Matins, “The doors of repentance do Thou open unto me, O Giver of life, for my spirit waketh at dawn toward Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled.” With these expressions we find an inner spiritual progression, and also a corporal movement towards the temple and the Holy of Holies, the Church, a movement of body and spirit together.
Penitence in liturgical prayers and services
In the letter of this year 2015, I should like to address my dear brothers and sisters in the language and texts of spirituality, joyfulness and feeling; in the heights, depths and beauty of the very ancient and holy liturgical prayers. They are our amiable, ancient and rich inheritance, the patrimony and heritage of our parents, grandparents and Holy Fathers. This inheritance is 1,200 years old. Perhaps we need to be reconciled to this heritage, for we don’t love and esteem enough. Indeed, we sometimes hate and are hostile to this inheritance, because we don’t know it. As the proverb says, “People are hostile to things they don’t understand.”
Repentance, hatred of sin, rejection of sin, doing away with sin and the price of sin and asking for help to overcome sin is the strongest note in our liturgical prayers. I wish to explain the basics of repentance, which are a reality to be found there, comprising elements of joyful sadness, purifying tears, broad hopes by salvation, continual search for greater perfection, purity, innocence, transparency and clarity, elevation and holiness. I want to explain all that with reference to passages in our prayers, and in so doing hide myself behind the texts of our holy Fathers, sinner that I am.
Psalm 50, which is the psalm of repentance par excellence, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy,” is the psalm prayed by Prophet and King David to express his repentance for two sins, murder and adultery. We pray this psalm four times in our daily liturgical services. It is useful for this psalm’s verses to become our spiritual, daily, natural nourishment, for every one of these verses is an existential expression of penitence and requests for renewal through for the Holy Spirit. It is really very desirable for every Christian to make this psalm a continual prayer: let him learn this psalm by heart. The nine scriptural odes that we pray during the office of Matins during the period of Great Lent are a description of the progress of the people of the Old Testament, their experience of faithfulness to the testament or pact with God, also their experience of infidelity to this pact, of sin and alienation from God and of his very broad mercy and of his firm fidelity to us despite human sin.
Perhaps some people are scandalised, members of the clergy, the dedicated monks and nuns, the faithful in general, by some harsh expressions that we find in some psalms, odes and books of the Old Testament, where, for example perhaps, there is a call for enemies and sinners to be destroyed. Yet we have to understand these texts in their spiritual meaning. In fact, our real enemies are sins and not human beings, and Saint Paul always calls us to spiritual struggle (jihad) and calls for spiritual warfare, especially during the time of Lent, when he says,
“Tak[e] the shield of faith,… take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:16-17)
We have offered a detailed explanation of the spirituality of the nine odes of Matins in the great book of the Triodion and of the Canon of the Paraklitike that we pray during the Office of Matins. (See the prayer books of the Greek Catholic Church.)I find it useful to put here the last part of this explanation that I consider to be a summary of our liturgical prayers, a summary of the spirituality of this holy time of Lent. In fact we discover (I quote the prayer-book) three spiritual dimensions in the Paraklitike:
- 1. The dimension of ascesis or struggle.
- The chants are a repetition of the call to spiritual struggle, penitence, compunction of heart and the practice of the Lord’s commandments. In fact, the pleasures of this world seem sweet, but they always lead to depression and lukewarmness. In fact, on the contrary, fidelity to the commandments of God and devotion to his commandments is the way that leads man to real bliss.
- 2. The mystical dimension,
- which is revealed in feelings and sensations and in nostalgia, or desire for God. These feelings enter into the heart of the person praying and enable him to enter into the company of angels and saints who live the heavenly liturgy in continuous celebration.
- 3. The eschatological dimension
- is the goal and pinnacle of prayer. In fact the faithful person who prays is continually expecting the Bridegroom, and lives in preparation for meeting the Lord like the Wise Virgins. He is very drawn from his earthly life to eternal life with the Lord Jesus who illuminates his eyes, and fills his life with light.
These scriptural, theological and ascetic considerations reinforce the importance of the book of the Paraklitike, which is really the companion of the person who prays, the faithful praying throughout the year: they are hymns of eight tones that are repeated over eight weeks, from one Pascha to the next. This book is really a theological, spiritual school of ascesis and wisdom, which speaks to people of every time and place.
The First Hour, Prime, shows by its psalms how we must avoid the condition of sin and not cohabit with the wicked and says that God knows the secrets of our hearts, that our days are fleeting and ephemeral and that we must learn the way of wisdom, perfection and holiness by preparing for eternal life.
The Third Hour, or Terce, directs us towards repentance, especially through the basic Psalm 50, which we alluded to above.
Sext is characterised by the basic Psalm 90, which is known, in the thought and manner of speaking of our ancestors in faith as the psalm of the dweller, from the first verse, or the psalm of Divine Providence. The spirituality of this hour is accompanying the Passion of Christ, as we read during this hour in Lent, “O Christ God, who on the sixth day and hour, didst nail to the cross the sin which rebellious Adam committed in paradise, tear asunder also the bond of our iniquities, and save us.” And in the final prayer of this sixth hour, Saint Basil expresses his most profound feelings in a very fine, existential prayer, which is full of feelings of repentance to Christ and attachment to him, the desire to distance oneself from sin and this nostalgia, this looking towards Christ who is suffering on the cross. We read there as we pray and thank him, saying, “Deliver us from every dark and harmful transgression and from all the visible and invisible enemies which seek to destroy us. Nail our flesh to the fear of thee, and incline not our hearts to words or thoughts of guile, but wound our souls with thy love, that ever looking to thee,…we may offer ceaseless praise and thanksgiving to thee.”
In the Ninth hour, Nones, we see expressions of penitence and repentance, of wanting to change oneself, feelings of wanting to be always with the Lord in his temple. It is a desire for joy, a spiritual, immaterial dance and complete abandonment before the Lord. We read in the basic psalm of this hour, Psalm 83 (LXX) ”How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, and faints for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh have exulted in the living god. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will praise thee evermore. For one day in thy courts is better than thousands.… For the Lord loves mercy and truth: God will give grace and glory: the Lord will not withhold good things from them that walk in innocence.” So repentance leads to living with the Lord, yielding oneself completely to him, desiring to rely on him and very greatly hoping for salvation. We find very beautiful expressions of penitence, linked to trust and the desire to live a new life, in the prayer at the end of the Ninth Hour, or Nones, in the final prayer of St Basil. In fact, we imagine we are the thief on the cross with the crucified Jesus, asking for his forgiveness, turning our gaze towards him and confessing with feelings of compunction and trust as we read, “O Master, Lord Jesus Christ our God, .. save us for thy holy name’s sake, for our days are passing away in vanity. Take us from the hand of the adversary and forgive our sins, and mortify in us all impure thoughts. Help us to lay aside our old ways so that we may be clothed with new resolve and may dedicate our lives to thee, our Master and Benefactor, so that by following thy commandments, we may come to the eternal rest which is the abode of all those who rejoice. For thou art the true joy and exultation of those who love thee, O Christ our God…”
These are really beautiful expressions of true repentance, gratitude and joy in salvation through repentance.
Expressions of repentance are repeated also in the service of Vespers, and also in Little Compline, and especially in Great Compline, which are special for Great Lent. This last is a very popular service loved by the faithful and known for the prayer, “O Lord of Hosts.” And there we find very well-known and impressive hymns of repentance that draw tears to the eyes of the faithful. ”Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we entrust ourselves to thee, and be not always angry at us.” And also the prayer, ”Open the gate of compassion to us, blessed Mother of God.”
We find in all these a call to repentance, for we find elements of expression of repentance and of wishing to draw near to God. Also the petitions (aeteses) in the Divine Liturgy, Vespers and Matins, where we pray, asking the Lord to spend the rest of our lives “in peace and repentance” and that the end of our life be Christian, “painless, peaceful, and unashamed.” We also find expressions of penitence are repeated in the prayers said in a low voice at the beginning of Vespers and Matins. One of the most beautiful of these prayers that is repeated several times begins as follows:
“Christ our God, who art worshipped and glorified at all times and every hour, in heaven and on earth; long-suffering, merciful and compassionate, loving the just and merciful to sinners, calling everyone to salvation through the promise of good things to come; receive, Lord, our supplications at this time, and direct our lives according to your commandments. Sanctify our souls, cleanse our bodies, correct our thoughts, purify our intentions, and deliver us from all affliction, evil and distress. Fortify us with your holy Angels, so that guarded and guided by their forces we may attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of your unapproachable glory; for blessed are you to the ages of ages.”
Repentance is linked to death and the Last Judgment and to appearing before the Judgment Seat of Christ and waiting for the Bridegroom as referred to in the Midnight Office in Psalm 118 (LXX), “Blessed are the blameless in the way who walk in the law of the Lord,” which is a psalm of love and a ardour for the Word of God, an ardour that drives out fear.
Noteworthy also is this beautiful prayer of St. Basil:
“Forgive us the offences by which we have offended in deed and word and thought, in knowledge or in ignorance, and cleanse us from every defilement of flesh and spirit, making us temples of your Holy Spirit. And grant that we may pass through the whole night of this present life with an unsleeping heart and a watchful mind, as we wait for the coming of the bright and manifest day of thine only-begotten Son.”
Daily liturgical prayer is the guarantee of permanent repentance, which is repentance in a natural way, so that repentance becomes a natural component of our daily lives.
In what follows, I should like to refer to the inspired services of Great and Holy Week and their beautiful spiritual calls to repentance, which constitute a path towards Jesus and being with Jesus.
The beauty of repentance and purity
“Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Saviour, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.” (Hymn of Light)
The unfruitful fig tree and our relationship to Christ’s Kingdom
“I have sinned before thee, my Saviour. In thy compassion, O Christ, take pity on me who call out with fear. May we not be left outside the bridal chamber of Christ.” (Great and Holy Tuesday)
Repentance as friendship with the Lord
“O Bridegroom, surpassing all in beauty, thou hast called us to the spiritual feast of thy bridal chamber. Strip from me the disfigurement of sin, through participation in thy sufferings; clothe me in the glorious robe of thy beauty, and in thy compassion make me feast with joy in thy kingdom.” (Matins of Great and Holy Tuesday)
Wednesday: the day of repentance par excellence
“I have transgressed more than the harlot, O loving Lord, yet never have I offered thee my flowing tears. But in silence I fall down before thee and with love I kiss thy most pure feet, beseeching thee as Master to grant me remission of sins; and I cry to thee, O Saviour: Deliver me from the filth of my works.” (Kontakion for Great Wednesday)
“Grievous was his lack of love. Great was her repentance! Grant such repentance also unto me, O Saviour who hast suffered for our sake, and save us.“ (Lauds of Great and Holy Wednesday)
Repentance and the return to Paradise
and to the beauty of the image of God in us, is what we hear during the Funeral Service, where we say goodbye to our beloved departed in these beautiful words of faith:
“I am an image of thine ineffable glory, though I bear the scars of my transgressions. On thy creation, Master, take pity and cleanse me by thy compassion. Grant me the homeland for which I long and once again make me a citizen of Paradise.”
“Thou who of old didst fashion me out of nothingness, and with thine Image divine did honour me; but because of transgression of thy commandments did return me again to the earth where I was taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of thy Likeness.”
Here it is shown clearly that these calls to repentance and prayers are not, as some think, grounds for frustration or despair. On the contrary, they are the cause of joy and hope and awareness of new spiritual strength, and can even help us in matters of everyday life, bringing success, optimism and positive outlook on life: that is my personal experience. Through repentance and confession I have discovered new dimensions in my life and gained strength, resolve and determination and there has opened up in front of me a new perspective on my life. …
All saints excelled in repentance and were sanctified by acts of repentance. They recommend repentance. Repentance is the way of holiness.
The Jesus Prayer
We recommend for the days of Lent to take up the old Eastern, ascetic, patristic, monastic practice of the Jesus Prayer. This is a prayer of penitence par excellence and helps develop one’s personal, spiritual life. “The words of the Jesus Prayer are simple and brief. They are: `Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.` These words are easy to say and understand, making the prayer one that can be repeated at any time and in any place; whilst driving the car, cleaning the house, washing clothes, or doing any other daily task or activity. As one grows in the practice of this prayer it becomes inwardly a `well of water springing up into everlasting life.` (John 4:14) When beginning this practice, the first prerequisite is learning to free oneself from distraction. Start by repeating the prayer 100 times and gradually increase. To facilitate counting, monks and other worshippers use the Jesus Prayer rope. The number of woollen or silk knots varies from 20 to 30, or 100 to 300. The Jesus Prayer may be synchronized with deep breathing and bodily movements, such as bowing and prostration. In this way the entire body participates in saying the prayer. It slowly penetrates every part of our being and that is why it is called `prayer of the heart.`”[note See Chapter 5 of the Introduction to Liturgical Services and theri Symbolism in the Eastern Church by Archbishop Lutfi Laham, published by Eastern Christian Publications]
The Way of Lent is a Path of Repentance
The Church prepares us for the Lenten Way and repentance through the four Sundays that precede Lent: firstly the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, where we find the prayer of the Publican that we have made the title of this letter, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” (Luke 18:13); secondly comes the Sunday of the Prodigal Son and the merciful father; thirdly the (Meatfare) Sunday of the Last Judgment and finally the (Cheesefare) Saturday of the Ascetics followed by the fourth (Cheesefare) Sunday of the Last Judgment, before the beginning of Great Lent. So Great Lent really is a road of repentance par excellence. It is a holy and sanctifying time, and a time really for making progress towards holiness.
Education for repentance
Our liturgical prayers are a permanent school of repentance. It is important for bishops, priests and spiritual fathers to love and guide the faithful towards the ways of penitence, so that priests become spiritual fathers and directors for their parishes. That is one of the best, finest and highest kind of relationship between priests and the sons and daughters of their parishes: that is why we should work in two different but complementary areas, sacramental confession and spiritual direction. That is why it is important to find the best way to facilitate confession for the faithful. On the other hand, bishops must find time to hear confession by the faithful and give them direction, which can be done during the Lenten services and during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, and also by setting aside special time for hearing confession at set hours, and that these be posted in the narthex.
The sacrament of penance and confession
I should like here to give some practical guidance for the way of penance, especially for the days of Lent and for our Christian life in general.
- Every time that you feel your conscience is weighed down by sin, go to your spiritual father and confess before the merciful God.
- Make your confession especially before Holy Communion.
- Every sin requires sincere repentance.
- You need a spiritual father who helps you with your penance and hears your sincere confession and who can give you guidance towards fulfilling God’s will and walking in the way of holiness.
- You should preferably practise the way of penance and confession outside the Liturgy and go to the priest or your spiritual father especially for confession and for your spiritual direction.
- Penance and confession is the sacrament of the community, for you belong to a Church which is, as we say in the Creed, “holy.”
- Penance and confession is the sacrament of holiness, spiritual progress and Christian perfection. Jesus Christ called us to that when he said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:47)
- Always remain in touch with your spiritual father, who accompanies the way of your Christian life. Be sincere with him, trust him and be obedient to him. Confession of your sin and weakness is not a sign of humiliation and lowliness, but the sign or evidence of a soul who is always seeking the best and is aiming for the transfiguration of his or her Christian life.
Lent a time of penance par excellence
Dear brothers and sisters, dear sons and daughters, the period of fasting is a propitious time, a time of salvation. This is the best presentation and description of the blessed Lenten period. “Let us put off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” We are all sinners; we are all in need of penance, salvation and a life cleared of sins and passions, of everything that enslaves us, food and drink, clothing, pleasure, envy, anger, hatred, bitterness, dispute, pride, obstinacy, gossip, calumny, indiscretion, superficiality, hedonism. Whoever sins is not free, but the slave of sin. The time of Lent is one of holiness, prayer and of liberation from sin, evil and corruption. Let us work with application to practise both corporal and spiritual fasting. Fasting from eating and drinking according to what is possible (although in fact, we are often fasting because of the current situation, due price rises, poverty and hunger, displacement and homelessness). Let us also practise fasting from sin and engage in prayer, meditation and spiritual reading and also approach the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion. May our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ accept our fasting and repentance!
The Practices of Fasting and Repentance
I turn to you, dear friends, to call on you all to go forward in practising the Christian spiritual life more deeply during these days, and I should like to give you some ingredients for this progression.
- Deep personal prayer at home and in church, such as the prayer “O Lord of Hosts” and the Akathist to the Mother of God.
- The practice of fasting and abstinence according to each person’s ability.
- The practice of spiritual and corporal mortification of all kinds.
- A life of Christian charity in social relations.
- Approaching the sacraments of the Church.
- Alms-giving and good works, according to the possibilities and circumstances of each person.
If we do all that, our fast will be agreeable and acceptable and we sanctify the days of Lent, and we transform ourselves by the light of the Gospel of Christ and we give witness to Jesus in our society.
Dear brothers and sisters, in your penitence, “sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders amongst you.” (Joshua 3:5) So ran always the proclamations of the prophets who preached repentance; thus preached also St John the Baptist, who was the great preacher of repentance “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Jesus began his mission by preaching “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
There is a threefold programme that we can gather from the garden of the Church’s prayers: a splendid programme, with interdependent parts and harmonious goals – that is, fasting, prayer and repentance. Fasting prompts prayer; prayer is the way to repentance, and penance is really the substance or essence of prayer and fasting. If you pray, you enliven your fast by oral and mental prayer and meditation. Pray in the depths of your soul and conscience, disclosing your weakness, being humble before God, trusting in him and continually asking his forgiveness. If you repent and return to God and are reconciled with your neighbour, you will have thus attained the goal of prayer and fasting, and purified by good works, you will be ready to make celebrate spiritually and really the Pascha of the Lord and his glorious Resurrection.
“Howbeit, this kind goeth not out, but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21)
This fasting is a fast for Great Lent prior to the Resurrection: a fast that prepares the faithful to celebrate the glorious Feast of the Resurrection. Lent is a way of the cross, and we are in the fifth year of the way of the cross of our Arab countries, especially in Syria, Iraq and Palestine, but also in Lebanon, which is influenced in a dramatic way by the wars that have flared up around it. Today, Lebanon has received at various stages and been hosting refugees and displaced persons from Palestine, dating back to 1949, and from Iraq several times from 2003 onwards and from Syria since 2011. Our countries’ Golgotha is very great: the greatest tragedy of the region’s territories and even of the world since the Second World War. As bishops, our role is to be with our people, alongside our people, before our people, behind our people and in the service of our people. We want to wash the feet of those who suffer, as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Yet we ask forgiveness from our faithful, because, despite our efforts, we are unable really to meet all their needs which are increasing on a daily basis. We are at a loss before the great pain and great suffering of our people in all its Christian and Muslim communities. This is tragedy and suffering on a global scale, which affects everyone. All have been affected by poverty, hunger, cold, lack of clothing, illness, sufferings and disability. The great majority of our faithful suffer from all that, especially in Syria. All are equal now in this kind of suffering. And as we said, this is the case also for all Arab countries, especially, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, and also Libya, Egypt and the Yemen.
The flame of hope
We turn to all our children and all fellow-citizens, as we did in our previous letters with the Holy Father, Pope Francis who said, “Do not let the flame of hope be extinguished in your hearts.” We launched the initiative “The flame of hope for peace in Syria” at Christmas time. We again ask everyone to light this flame daily in their homes and hearts, in their souls and feelings. May it be a real inextinguishable light (despite the occasional lack of electricity or gas or oil!) to lighten the way for all citizens.
We notice with great sadness that many of our faithful are leaving or going away, in various ways, both legal and illegal. How many stories we have heard of their suffering in this flight! Some are going away and leaving the country for good reasons, others, so to speak, without pressing reasons. We urge everyone to stay, to be patient, strong, always to hope and to hang on to hope, faith and trust in God’s will. We can never oblige anyone to stay: but it is a personal decision and is up to each person’s or family’s responsibility.
But we, as pastors are staying with all those who are staying, and are serving them whole-heartedly and with all our strength. We are making continuous efforts to help everyone, by all means at our disposal, of communication, travel, correspondence, reports, congresses etc. We thank all those who help us in this difficult task: local and international, civic or religious, Christian or Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran institutes and others.
Pope Francis speaks to us in our difficulties
We thank His Holiness, Pope Francis, especially for his prayers, his concern, his appeals, his speeches and also for his material assistance through the Roman dicasteries and the various organisations related to the Vatican. In particular, we should like to thank him for his special letter that he addressed to the Christians of the Middle East for the occasion of the Feast of the Nativity and the civil New Year, and we have the pleasure of mentioning here passages which are very beautiful and significant for us and for all our fellow-citizens.
“In the midst of hostility and conflicts, the communion which you experience in fraternity and simplicity is a sign of God’s Kingdom. I am gratified by the good relations and cooperation which exist between the patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches and those of the Orthodox Churches, and also between the faithful of the different Churches. The sufferings which Christians endure contribute immensely to the cause of unity. It is the ecumenism of blood, which demands a trusting abandonment to the working of the Holy Spirit.
“May you always bear witness to Jesus amid your difficulties! Your very presence is precious for the Middle East. You are a small flock, but one with a great responsibility in the land where Christianity was born and first spread. You are like leaven in the dough. Even more than the many contributions which the Church makes in the areas of education, healthcare and social services, which are esteemed by all, the greatest source of enrichment in the region is the presence of Christians themselves, your presence. Thank you for your perseverance!
“Your efforts to cooperate with people of other religions, with Jews and Muslims are another sign of the Kingdom of God. The more difficult the situation, the more interreligious dialogue becomes necessary. There is no other way. Dialogue, grounded in an attitude of openness, in truth and love, is also the best antidote to the temptation to religious fundamentalism, which is a threat for followers of every religion. At the same time, dialogue is a service to justice and a necessary condition for the peace which all so ardently desire.
“The majority of you live in environments which are predominantly Muslim. You can help your Muslim fellow citizens to present with discernment a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and favours peaceful coexistence on the part of all.
“Dear brothers and sisters, almost all of you are native citizens of your respective countries, and as such you have the duty and the right to take full part in the life and progress of your nations. Within the region you are called to be artisans of peace, reconciliation and development, to promote dialogue, to build bridges in the spirit of the Beatitudes (cf. [reference-pericope]Matthew 5:3-12[/reference-pericope]), and to proclaim the Gospel of peace, in a spirit of ready cooperation with all national and international authorities.
“Dear brothers and sisters, even though you may not be numerous, you play a significant role in the Church and in the countries where you live. The entire Church is close to you and supports you, with immense respect and affection for your communities and your mission. We will continue to assist you with our prayers and with every other means at our disposal.
“Dear Christian brothers and sisters of the Middle East, you have an enormous responsibility and in meeting it you are not alone. That is why I wanted to write to you, to encourage you and to let you know how precious your presence and your mission are in the land which the Lord has blessed. Your witness means much to me! Thank you! I pray for you and your intentions every day. I thank you because I know that, amid your sufferings, you also pray for me and for my service to the Church. I do hope to have the chance to come to you in person and to visit and to comfort you. May the Virgin Mary, the All-Holy Mother of God and our Mother, accompany you and protect you always with her tender love.” (Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Christians of the Middle East)
We are grateful also for the appeals which have come from non-Christian sources that are addressed to Christians asking them not to emigrate, saying that a Middle East devoid of its Christian presence, role and mission makes no sense. We have heard these appeals from Muslim sources, especially from al-Azhar University, from the President of the Egyptian Arab Republic, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and others.
Suffering a school of faith
We say all this in the hope of strengthening the faith of our children. Besides, we hear the witness of many of our faithful who tell us about their faith, resistance and experience of God’s protection, and that He protects and preserves all citizens from many disasters. We as bishops, feel that we are being taught by the faith of our faithful.
We thank God for all that, just as we are also rejoicing over the return of some faithful, some citizens to their towns: so for example, at Ma’alula, at Qusayr, some districts of Homs and elsewhere. We are also happy to see and learn that there are now building yards open to begin rebuilding homes and churches at Ma’alula, Nabk, Homs and Yabrud. We are also glad about the compensation given by the State and other aid from our faithful and we also thank all the international institutions and our friends who are helping us in this direction.
We are glad also to note that there is a growth of peace-talks, and requests for advice that have taken place recently in Moscow between government groups and some opposition groups in January, 2015, which gave us a greater measure of hope. We hope that other opposition groups too will be encouraged to come forward for such talks without fear or hesitation and that they will be more open, truly desirous of working together to reach a peaceable solution of the Syrian crisis. All these are positive factors, for which we thank God, and we hope that they will increase the measure of hope and security among all citizens.
On the other hand, we ask for everyone to continue on the road of repentance, of daily prayer in homes and churches, in meetings of various pastoral activities, on their knees, asking God’s forgiveness, raising their hands and asking with Isaiah’s prayer, “O Lord our God, grant us peace, for thou hast given us everything.” And Jesus himself speaks to us saying, as he did to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” (John 14:27) and “I am with you always, even until the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20)With our liturgical services, especially of Lent, we sing with a great deal of hope, “O Lord of hosts, be with us, for we have no other help in times of sorrow. O Lord of hosts, have mercy upon us.” (Great Compline)
Here, I should like to mention some verses from the prophecies of Isaiah, in which we find great consolation and a strong dose of fortitude, of which we have great need:
“I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house. I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.” (Isaiah 42:6-8) “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee.. Fear not, for I am with thee;.. every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory; I have formed him; yea, I have made him.” (Isaiah 43:1-2, 4, 5a, 7)
Fasting as social morale
The Church, during the Lenten season, admonishes and warns us against the sins of injustice and exploitation, which are numerous today, because of the chaos and lack of social connectivity. In fact, we are experiencing robbery and exploitation, especially in the prices of things in the shops and basic commodities.
The Holy Father Pope Francis made allusion to all these social ills in his letter for the World Day of Peace 2015 at the beginning of the civil New Year entitled, “No longer slaves, but brothers and sisters.” There can be found guidance about contemporary sins that are more serious than other sins, which may be called social sins. Here are some passages from this letter:
“Today, as in the past, slavery is rooted in a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object. Whenever sin corrupts the human heart and distances us from our Creator and our neighbours, the latter are no longer regarded as beings of equal dignity, as brothers or sisters sharing a common humanity, but rather as objects. Whether by coercion or deception, or by physical or psychological duress, human persons created in the image and likeness of God are deprived of their freedom, sold and reduced to being the property of others. They are treated as means to an end.
“Another cause of slavery is corruption on the part of people willing to do anything for financial gain. Slave labour and human trafficking often require the complicity of intermediaries, be they law enforcement personnel, state officials, or civil and military institutions.
“I urgently appeal to all men and women of good will, and all those near or far, including the highest levels of civil institutions, who witness the scourge of contemporary slavery, not to become accomplices to this evil, not to turn away from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, who are deprived of their freedom and dignity. Instead, may we have the courage to touch the suffering flesh of Christ, revealed in the faces of those countless persons whom he calls “the least of these my brethren.” (Matthew 25:40, 45)
“We know that God will ask each of us: What did you do for your brother? (cf. Genesis 4:9-10). The globalization of indifference, which today burdens the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters, requires all of us to forge a new worldwide solidarity and fraternity capable of giving them new hope and helping them to advance with courage amid the problems of our time and the new horizons which they disclose and which God places in our hands.” (Message of Pope Francis for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace 1 January 2015)
Both regional and global
These are the social ills that we see growing in our societies, especially our Arab societies, especially in the situation of crisis in our Arab world. In fact we see every day with our own eyes; we feel that we have begun a period of the law of the jungle: exploitation and extortion, social bullying, bribery, price manipulation, the black market and we see, alas, that even the Syrian crisis has become a commodity market, for local, regional and global trade. Unfortunately, we see these ills, which are rampant in our society because of the war and its unfortunate consequences. We see every day pain and suffering increase among all citizens, their poverty, hunger and illness.
The Church reminds us of that at the beginning of Lent, where we read, “While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.” (Vespers for Wednesday in the First Week of Great Lent)
Call to Repentance
The beautiful prayer (said by the priest in a low voice) of the Presanctified calls us to all this:
“O God, great and praised, through the life giving death of thy Christ, thou hast borne us from corruption to immortality. Liberate all our senses from killing passion, setting over them as a benevolent sovereign our inner reason. Let the eye be averted from every evil sight, and the ear be deaf to idle talk. May the tongue be purged of unseemly speech. Purify these lips that praise thee, Lord. Make our hands abstain from wicked deeds, doing only such things as are pleasing to thee, thus sealing with thy grace all our members, and our mind.” (Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified)
The Apostle Paul calls us to this
St Paul also calls us to this:
“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: in the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” (Colossians 3:5-10)
and “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.” (Ibid. 3:12-15)
We wish to everyone a blessed, sanctifying Lent, to help us continue the way of the cross of our countries and their citizens, which will lead, we hope, our beloved Middle East and its faithful towards the joys of the Resurrection.
A Holy, Blessed Lent to all!
With my apostolic blessing and love