The Hidden Angel

The Great Church in Captivity

The Great Church in Captivity

“A Turkish official says restoration workers have uncovered the never-before-seen mosaic face of an angel at Istanbul’s Haghia Sophia – a former Byzantine cathedral.”

This was a headline on the Fox News website. This really disturbed me, as it should all Orthodox Christians. “Never before seen,” what about those countless Christians who worshipped in the Church of the Holy Wisdom from the time of Justinian, until the fall of Constantinople. Don’t they count? This is revisionist history at it finest! The angel was not seen since the Ottomans plastered them over to hide the Truth. So, those Orthodox Christians who prayed in the Cathedral, who placed the mosaic are not to be heard. How sad! Where are the voices telling the world how false these assertions are? Who speaks for the Church in captivity, forced to keep it mouth shut to endure? Where is St. Maximos, St. Mark of Ephesus, the voice of the Church? We are a Church in captivity, a Church muzzled for the sake of political expediency. But, where are the voices in the West? Cannot we speak with a loud voice? The sad thing is the only time we scream with our voices is to criticise the Church and her leaders. The Patriarch did this, the Archbishop didn’t do this, our Metropolitan said the wrong thing. How very sad. Why can’t we speak with a loud voice to decry injustice and to say, this is not a dead Church. It was, is and always will be, at its heart a Church built to the Glory of God. That angel’s image should reminds us of the Seraphim that surrounds the throne God. “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of Your Glory!”

St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

St. Mary Magdalene

St. Mary Magdalene

July 22 is the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene. I believe that Mary is one of the most interesting of our saints. She is a woman of great theological significance, but she is not well documented in history. The Tradition of the Church, gives us a good bit to think of concerning this special person. She carries several “titles” in the Church usage. She is known most of all as Mary Magdalene. With this, we know she came from a town named Magdala. This city was located on Lake Gennesaret (“a garden of riches”), which is another name for the Sea of Galilee or Lake Tiberias. Geographically the town would be located presently north-west of Haifa, Israel near the Golan Heights. This places her town north of Nazareth. Mary also carries the titles of “Apostle to the Apostles, Equal to the Apostles and of course Myrrh-bearer” There is mistaken idea that Mary was a prostitute before she met Jesus. This is not true! There is a tradition that Mary Magdalene led such a chaste life that the devil thought she might be the one who was to bear Christ into the world, and for that reason he sent seven demons to torment her. The first time Mary is mentioned in the Gospels is St. Luke 8,1-3; Christ freed her from these demons and she followed him thereafter. She is considered one of the Galilean disciples. We see her prominently in the Passion narratives. She followed Jesus to Jerusalem and was steadfast at the foot of the Cross with The Virgin Mary standing by Jesus in His darkest moments. She figured importantly in the post-resurrectional accounts. She is the first person to see the Risen Lord, whom she saw twice, she spoke to Him near the tomb, She was the first to announce the Resurrection. The privilege of being the “first” witness of the resurrection that was granted to Mary by the Lord is something that twentieth century sensibilities need to absorb. In the time of Christ, women were not considered creditable witnesses. They were not allowed to give testimony, only men were considered believable. Yet to Jesus this didn’t matter. He trusted these disciples, these women disciples to deliver the greatest news in the history of the world. She had seen Jesus die on the Cross, seen Him buried, seen the great stone set at the door, seen the guard posted at the door of the tomb, her tears were shed for her teacher, she saw a stranger in the Garden, until she heard a familiar voice call her name. She then saw Him resurrected and glorified. Joy overcame sorrow! As Jesus instructed her, Mary Magdalene found the other disciples. She was a member of the inner circle; she was trusted by them and when she delivered the message, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20,18) they did not believed her. Jesus had to appear to them and upbraid them before, even her friends, would believe such news.  The other appearances of Jesus are well documented in the Gospels.

After the Ascension and Pentecost, Mary travelled from Jerusalem to Rome where she announced the resurrection. One tradition concerning Mary Magdalene says that she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by Emperor Tiberius. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed “Christ is risen!” Caesar laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red (for more details, see Wikipedia). Each time we answer, “Truly, He is Risen!” we should think of Mary. After many years evangelising across the Mediterranean area, she travelled to Ephesus where she joined St. John the Evangelist and her friend, the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. There she died peacefully. During the second Patriarchate of St. Photios the Great, he had her relics transferred to the Queen City (Constantinople).

Can We Rejoice?

The Holy Theological School of Halki

The Holy Theological School of Halki

In the last few weeks, we have heard from various sources that the secular government in Turkey is planning to allow the historic Holy Theological School of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, located on the island of Halki, to open, again.   The Monastery of the Holy Trinity on Halki was founded during Byzantine period. The establishment of the monastery can be traced back to St. Photios the Great, Patriarch of Constantinople, (858–861 and 878–886). The Halki seminary was founded by Patriarch Germanos IV in 1844 at the monastery. It was intended to supply priests for the Ottoman Empire’s Greek minority, it expanded and grew in size and facilities. Set amid cool pines and palm trees, the seminary has the high ceilings, wide halls and well-worn wooden desks of schools built before computers and air conditioning; but this celebrated school has trained generations of scholars, priests and its graduates became bishops and future patriarchs. As a reaction to the Cypriot/Turkish/Greek crisis, the School was closed by the Turkish officials in 1971. For over thirty-five years, this violation of international law has caused great distress and generated calls for the reopening of the School by government, religious, academic and civic   leaders across the world.  In a past Reuters’ article, this comment was made on the closure: “We have not lost hope, despite the broken promises, because a person only lives as long as he has hope. Even on his deathbed, he resists the end,” His Eminence Metropolitan Apostolos (Daniilidis) of Moschonissia, Halki’s abbot, said from his office atop the “Hill of Hope” on Heybeliada (Halki). Perhaps, the moment we have hoped for has arrived!  Hope for the historic step was generated by statements from Turkish officials. “The Halki seminary on the island of Heybeliada is to be reopened,” Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay said, and adding that they are searching for a formula to integrate the Orthodox theological school into Turkey’s university system. “Although we have not finalized a decision in the Cabinet, my personal impression is that we are going to open the seminary,” said Günay, speaking on Kanal 24 television over [last] the weekend.  This was not the first time a statement with the same tenor has been made by Turkish officials in the last few weeks.

The Holy Trinity Chapel and the School

The Holy Trinity Chapel and the School

The need for Halki is beyond question. Yes, there are good Orthodox Theological schools elsewhere in the world.  Students will attend these schools and get a good education to serve their local churches.  In my opinion, the need for Halki centres on two loci. One, the Patriarchate needs trained clergy and scholars.  These men and women, (yes, I believe Halki should train women theologians) should be prepared and educated, at the very highest level, with an international vision, which focuses on the needs of an international Orthodoxy for the future. In this world of mass media, global communications, and instantaneous change; the Phanar needs to train its own “specialists” in an academic environment that it designs and controls. This prerequisite makes the design of the curriculum critical.  Yes, students should receive the treasury (parakatatheki) of Tradition, but this must be transmitted with the tools of the twenty-first century. Additionally, the perspective of the “needs” of the Patriarchate are not the focus of any institution; Halki would provide this frame of reference. The School would also be a fount of post graduate and exchange student training. These students would come to Turkey from all over the world. Furthermore, the requirements of Turkish law make the training of clergy in Turkey imperative.  Without this source of clergy and future hierarchy, the Patriarchate is slowly strangled, it withers and dies.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Redone needs to be encouraged and thanked for his courageous stance.  We pray that this step occurs quickly.  The world community would, no doubt, look favourably on a government which corrects the errors of the past and looks to the future.

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Abba Sisoes the Great

Abba Sisoes the Great

Abba Sisoes the Great

On July 6th, the Holy Church commemorates Abba Sisoes the Great. We are so far removed from the desert fathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, perhaps we should speak a little about these desert dwellers and their lives. Why did they flee from society and what was the call of these wilderness places? Names like Anthony, Arsenios, Pambo, Syncletica, and Macarios evoke a life of self denial and hardship.  Places like Nitria, Rhaithou, Scetis and Eleutheropoulos as well as other isolated locales sound strange and distant. Nonetheless, they are part of our Orthodox identity and Tradition.  These men and women sought to “follow Christ” and renounced a life in the world.  They had as their model St. John the Forerunner and took to heart the call to Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! They sought to be like angels, to confront evil face to face and to constantly praise and glorify God. Most were lay persons and many were uneducated simple peasants. They saw themselves as sinners, tried to know themselves and to treat all with love and humility. Many came to listen to their counsel even though they sought solitude. Their short sayings have come down to us as beacons of spiritual light. These short sayings are available in books like The Philokalia, The Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and other works. Modern scholars like Fr. John Chryssavgis, Benedicta Ward and Dermas Chitty and many more have made their words accessible. Today, we can sit at their feet for a few minutes as did the pilgrims who travelled to deserted places.  We too can benefit from their wisdom. In our age of cult celebrity and “me first” attitudes; don’t the words of spiritual guides such as Sisoes the Great echo in our hearts.  In the early fifth century on Anthony’s Mountain, a monk asked Sisoes: “How can I attain humility?” The saint replied: “When a person learns to see themselves as inferior to all creatures, with that he attains humility.” (Ward, Benedicta, ed. 1984. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Revised ed. Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications, p. 214.) The Venerable Sisoes the Great fell asleep in the Lord in 429 AD.

Apolytikion of the Venerable Sisoes the Great

“You proved to be a citizen of the desert, an angel in the flesh, and a wonder-worker, O Sisoes, our God-bearing Father. By fasting, vigil, and prayer obtained heavenly gifts, and you healed the sick and the souls of them that have recourse to thee with faith. Glory to Him that has given you strength. Glory to him that has crowned you. Glory to Him that works healings for all through you.”

Holy Abba Sisoes: Pray for us sinners.