|Office of Educational Services
Melkite Eparchy of Newton
1710 Surf Avenue – Belmar , NJ 07719
Voice 732-556-6917 – Cell 201-417-3804
email – email@example.com
“It was at Antioch that the disciples were first given the name of Christians”. (Acts 11:26)
There is a great deal of talk today in the Churches about evangelization: the bringing of the Gospel to the men and women of our world. Evangelization certainly lies at the very heart of the Gospel in that it is a direct expression of the love of God for all His creatures. However, in the average Christian circle, evangelization sometimes is more a matter of bringing more people to our church which may be something quite different.
The two concerns need not be unrelated, however, if ‘our church’ is in fact a community of faith. It is no secret that many of our parishes are primarily social communities, serving either recent immigrants and their descendants, who see the church from an ethnic bias, or the old cliques who grew up together and are more interested in maintaining their social and power structure rather than Christian living. At best they may be liturgical communities which maintain a good Sunday morning experience for a community whose members have little to do with one another the rest of the week.
And so the first challenge in evangelization is in forming a Christian community in the parish which is centered on living the Christian life and which is welcoming to others. It is, after all, unjust to invite people into a parish which has little or no use for the Christian Life.
In some parishes people have little or no previous exposure to the broad vision of Christian life, much less an ongoing experience of Christian community. Their Christianity is on the level of milk, not solid food, in the imagery of the New Testament. As a beginning resource for developing such communities, we at Educational Services have adapted elements of the Antioch Weekend, an initiatory weekend program long used in some circles of the Western Church.
The Antioch Weekend was developed at the University of Notre Dame in the early 1960’s to help Catholic college students live a more complete and dedicated Christian life. Itself based on Cursillo techniques applied to the YCS Study Weekend format, it has since been adapted for use in parishes, prisons, youth groups and many other circumstances where people desire a fundamental experience of Christianity. The version promoted by our Office adapts it to the particular circumstances of the adults in our Byzantine parish communities and builds on it to provide for an ongoing experience of Christian community.
The program may be used in a number of ways, with diverse audiences. The first use of the Antioch in a parish should be with the ‘regulars’, in the attempt to create a basis in faith to the existing community and to initiate small groups. The weekend may be repeated several times during this preliminary period affording as many people as are willing the opportunity to participate in this program.
Subsequently the weekend could be held once or twice a year, depending on the size of the parish (or group of parishes), as an initiation program for new residents, converts, marriage partners, etc. as a way of introducing them into both the doctrinal and communal sides of the Christian life. People unable or reticent to commit themselves to a full weekend program may be invited to participate in an ongoing group and then attend a weekend when they are ready. The Initial Weekend The Antioch Weekend was envisioned as catechesis in the best sense: as communication of life. Knowledge is involved, but it is not the kind of knowledge that can be contemplated in a detached way, like a formula describing a chemical reaction. It is knowledge of the living God which must have immediate implications for life in that it is a call to repentance, that change of mind and heart which marks the Orthodox believer of every age.
The presentation of an integrated Christian vision from the Gospel and the basic core of patristic Christianity is at the heart of the Antioch Weekend. The talks aim at proclaiming and personalizing the basic aspects of the Nicene Creed (the Trinity and the Christian Community) and the individual Christian life. God’s fatherly love is presented in the context of His Old Testament promises that He will be with Abraham and His descendants and that He will make of them a great people. This first promise is seen as fulfilled beyond expectation the incarnation, where the Son of God becomes present to us by becoming one of us, and at Pentecost, where the Spirit takes up His dwelling in us forever. The second promise is realized in the Church, the numberless descendants of Abraham by faith. The personal prayers (praying with icons, Morning Prayers, prayers in the groups) and the liturgical services (Akathist, Confession, the Liturgy, and the Panagia) attempt to express these basic beliefs in the dynamic of worship. The individual Christian life is seen as our response to the mystery of God’s love thus proclaimed and celebrated.
One of the reasons weekends work is that they bring people into a new, though temporary, social environment. Many participants will have heard already what they will hear in the course of the weekend program. But the weekend takes them ‘out of their ordinary environment—where the Gospel is not taken seriously and where they are surrounded by temptations, distractions, and lack of faith—and creates a climate that facilitates encounter with the Lord.
The team’s faith can be contagious. The gospel both requires and promises radical change, and a weekend can help participants believe that such change is possible for themselves by demonstrating it in the lives of the team members who are men and women like themselves.
The Ongoing Program
The first page of the original Antioch Weekend leaders’ manual warns: “Do not bother putting on an Antioch Weekend without also forming a follow-through program. The weekend itself is designed to be only an invitation into a program.” The Antioch Weekend is designed to be only a small part of an overall effort. For growth in Christianity, continued participation in some sort of follow-through program is more important than making an Antioch Weekend.
Hence to the original Antioch Weekend we have added a design for an ongoing program utilizing the small-group process so effectively used by many churches. Such programs basically consist of opportunities to pray together, to share the experiences of living a Christian life, and to study some appropriate elements of that life. In our Church this would presume opportunity for liturgical worship and for exposure to Eastern spirituality. Accordingly a basic follow-through program might consist. of bi-weekly or weekly meetings with:
- a) Vespers or other appropriate service
- b) A time for informal sharing of personal Christian experience
- c) Presentations and discussions on the various chapters of Archbishop Joseph Raya’s The Face of God (McKees Rocks, PA, God With Us Publications, 1987), a basic introduction to Eastern spiritual themes, such as wonder at the mystery and economy of God,the response of the Church as personified in the Mother of god, prayer, the mysteries, repentance. This work is useful for people who know the externals but need to be introduced to the spirituality which underlies them.
The growing Christian should expect to move beyond this milk to more solid food. This is the Theosis Program, described below, a further development of Christian growth experiences based on a deeper level of the good news: the concept of deification or sharing in the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). This, in turn leads into the next segment of the program, leadership training,, which revolves around the maturing of Christians in ministry and prepares them to take more significant roles in the community.
A combination of factors prompted the Office of Educational Services to develop what it calls the Theosis Program. The first of these is the spiritual condition of our parishes. Up until now the principle of adhesion in many parishes has been a mixture of social, familial and ethnic ties among people who really had not yet come to be at home in the wider society. The Church was our ‘reservation’: a place where we could be comfortable in the company of our peers and thus fulfill our religious ‘obligations’ in a relatively painless environment.
All that is over. We can purchase hummus and tabboule in supermarkets. We can socialize in the wider society more comfortably. We can take part in non-ethnic civic groups or fraternal organizations without feeling out of place. We no longer look to the church to be our social center. Those who have seen the primary function of the Church as a place to be with ‘our own kind’ while simply tolerating its spiritual identity or even the Christian life itself, will identify with the Church less and less. Their descendants have no need of these ‘non-church churches’. People will look to our Church only because (or if) they find a vibrant spiritual life there. Once more, as in its earliest years, the Church has no other purpose than to live the life in Christ!
As individuals within our congregations come to realize, through various means, that they are the temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:19), they need to be brought together in groups where they can freely and easily speak their faith, in groups where they can share their lives as Christians and hear with their “new ears” the teaching of the Spirit that their own commitment to the Lord may be dëepened. When this happens, the liturgical life flourishes, people get involved in the life of the community, even the collection goes up! These committed believers; become the nucleus of faith, which can gradually spread its influence throughout the worshipping community and involve others in the following of Christ. Unless such communities develop in our parishes, we cannot in conscience encourage people to join our Church. We will be promoting a spiritual heritage which has no contemporary expression, which is found in the pages of books but not in the local congregation.
The first goal of the Theosis Program, then, is to assist in the development of spiritual life groups in our parishes. The name we have given this program is the Greek word for deification, the Eastern Churches’ key understanding of what the Christian life is all about. The program aims to arouse within us a deeper awareness of what God is doing in us, so that we can grow in the Christian life ourselves within the framework of our Eastern Christian tradition.
A second factor influencing the design of this program is the existential situation of our diocese. Although we have had a hierarchic jurisdiction for over thirty years, most of our parishes are functioning much as they were before we received a bishop. Each parish functions on its own with little if any reference to other parishes in the diocese. The geographical distances involved accounts for some of this, but there is also the reluctance we all feel to change. In response to this situation we felt the need to enable our communities to experience a further dimension of theosis: what the Fathers called the ‘community of the Holy Spirit.’ For this reason the program includes interparish weekend retreats and days of prayer, leaders meetings and conference calls as we seek to link together people of faith in parishes throughout the diocese in a common experience of our Eastern spiritual tradition. The Theosis Program would thus be a vehicle through which this eparchy could move from being simply a canonical entity to a discernible community in the Holy Spirit.
The first stages in the program, reflecting these two factors, include:
- a) A Weekend Retreat bringing together members of all our Melkite parishes in a given area;
- b) The formation of Ongoing Study and Support Groups back home in each parish;
- c) Periodic Days of Prayer bringing weekend participants back together for prayer and sharing.
Christ has promised us a life full of adventure: “1 came that they might have life and have It to the full” (Jn 10:10). His coming has as its purpose to bring us to a fullness of life, to energize us in a way that sets no limit to our potential by making us sharers in the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). The Theosis Program seeks to bring us to a deeper perception of this reality and, by a greater experience of the community in which He has placed us, to give us a richer experience of that life here and now.
To schedule a Theosis weekend or for more information, contact the Office of Educational Services.