Letter of His Beatitude
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem,
For Great and Holy Lent 2013
Gregorios, by the grace of God,
Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem:
To my brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod
and all the faithful clergy and laity of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church
“Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Corinthians 1: 3)
Solidarity in Faith and Charity
Come ye faithful! Let us work the works of God in light. (Friday Vespers, First Week)
While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit. (Wednesday Vespers, First Week)
Solidarity in Faith and Charity
Through these and many similar words, the voice and words of our holy Fathers, our Mother Church exhorts and invites us to practise the blessed virtue of fasting, which is the soul’s springtime.
In my turn, I address to the sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church, pastors and faithful, this quadragesimal letter entitled, “Solidarity in Faith and Charity.”
Today, faced with the disasters evidenced by our Arab countries, we have especial need of solidarity, expressed through these words of Saint Paul, “… whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12: 26)
Today the members of this same one body, the whole Church, or most of it, is suffering. Members of the homeland are suffering! Our families are suffering.
That is why we are all called to solidarity in the Lenten services, where we read,
Those who show compassion to the poor, lend to the Saviour with awakened understanding, as it is written. What indescribable joy! For God grants them for eternity abundant recompense for their alms. (Meatfare Tuesday)
Through fasting let us all ascend the mountain of virtuous action, forsaking the sensual temptations that creep upon the ground. Let us enter into the darkness of holy visions; by the divine and mystical ascent, let us become godlike and let us look upon Christ our beloved in his beauty. (Tuesday of the First Week of Lent: Matins, Canticle Two)
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. (Wednesday of the First Week of Lent: Vespers Sticheron Tone 8)
The situation in the Eparchies
The current situation in Syria has exceeded the scope of limited aid. Here is a description of the tragic situation in our Syrian eparchies. We need to be informed about it, both within our Church, in the Arab world beyond and in emigration countries.
The news reaching you through the media does not adequately express the catastrophic situation that citizens in general and our parishioners in particular are experiencing in the eparchies of Homs, Lattakieh, Safita and Marmarita (Christian Valley with 143 villages), Aleppo, the Hauran and Damascus.
Many of our faithful have been abducted, and have had to pay big sums as ransom in order to be freed. One hundred of our faithful have been killed, martyred, and 1000 Christians of all communities.
Twenty churches have been destroyed, damaged, laid waste, abandoned, in the above-mentioned regions, and the Divine Liturgy can no longer be celebrated. The faithful have left them, the priests have gone, as they can no longer gain access to these churches, nor have the parishes been able to hold services, for the last year or more.
To all this should be added displaced citizens in general. It is said that they number about two million. They are scattered everywhere. They pay exorbitant rents, not finding work. They have lost their homes, their jobs, their factories, shops and means of livelihood…
In addition we have poor people due to the economic crisis caused by the reduction of revenue and price increases.… Besides this, many of our faithful have left Syria for neighbouring countries, and for Europe or America.
This is but a pale reflection of the situation of our parishes. Let us add to that the situation of our students who are pursuing their studies with great difficulties, because of the perils around schools. Some schools have been closed or moved to safer places, but less appropriate for teaching, including our new school in Damascus (at Mleiha on the road to the airport), with 2200 pupils, which we have transferred to our old patriarchal school within the Cathedral precincts. The school was hit by three rockets, causing heavy damage.
Let us not mention the state of mind that overwhelms our parishes: doubt – fear – apprehension – suspense – depression – despondency … the loss of a husband, mother, daughter, relative, friend, abductee, displaced person…
There follows a list of regions and areas damaged or laid waste to various extents:
· Eparchy of Homs: the bishop’s palace, the majority of churches and church institutions in the city of Homs, Qusair, Dmeineh Sharqieh, Rableh, the St. Elijah Sanctuary, Jousi, Yabroud, Krak des Chevaliers, Christian Valley.
· Eparchy of Aleppo: the bishop’s palace, churches, institutions, the (Christian) Salibi district.
· Damascus and environs: Zabadani, Harasta, Daraya (my hometown), Douma, Ain Terma, Qassaa (in Damascus) and other localities.
Churches to the rescue
All churches have been mobilised to come to the aid of citizens, including our own parishioners. We have knocked on every door, both locally, in the East and in the West, everywhere, to gather together the wherewithal to be able to continue our service and duty to our faithful, and indeed to all those who turn to us without distinguishing between one or other Muslim and Christian denomination. We renew our thanks to all who have helped us, whether within or outside Syria.
We don’t know how we shall be able to continue the various aid programmes: equipment, food, heat, rent, school fees, medicines, etc…
That is why we are writing this letter at the beginning of Great Lent, to point out some aspects of the tragedy of our homeland, especially our parishes, and to make aware the sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church throughout the world and enable them to share in this concern and these heavy responsibilities incumbent upon us as Patriarch and on our brothers, especially the Pastors of our Eparchies in Syria.
Appeal for solidarity
For Christmas 2012, we launched an appeal for solidarity, of which this is the main part:
As Christmas draws near, given the present situation of our faithful in Syria, I address my brother Bishops in our Eparchies in Arab countries and worldwide, our male and female religious congregations, priests, monks, and nuns and lay-persons, especially businessmen and women who have global relations at various levels!
I call upon them to show solidarity with our faithful in Syria, to help us meet the immediate, urgent needs, especially of internally displaced persons in the country.
We ought to think also of the future, when we shall have to cope with more serious problems, such as
- Rebuilding or repairing damage to our churches (especially in the Eparchy of Homs)
- Rebuilding or repairing damage to many institutions, presbyteries, old people’s homes…
- Rebuilding or repairing the homes of thousands of our faithful, in co-operation with the state and other organisations.
- Coping with problems such as rent, costs of education, health care.
Your aid can be given as monetary donation, advice, a word to persons able to help, NGOs, associations, institutions…
Your help is valuable! Your solidarity is vital! We put great trust in you!
Help us to help and serve, to console and support our Christians in their land, homeland and homes, in this country which is rightly called the cradle of Christianity.
So we found it necessary to form a central Solidarity Committee in Syria under our patronage to bring about the content of this appeal. We propose the formation of a committee also in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, among others, and also in the eparchies of the expansion, and in our parishes in Western Europe.
We hope that our brother Bishops will help us with this and propose names of business-people and people of global influence and relations to be members of local committees.
We hope thereby to be well-prepared and practically to cope with future challenges awaiting our faithful and our Christian presence.
Solidarity: an act of Faith
Solidarity finds its source in the faith that we are one Church, one body, one Christian family, one single homeland. Faith is expressed in good works, especially through effective charity towards those in need. Those in need are our Church’s children.
The Holy Father calls for that in his letter for Lent this year entitled, “Believing in love arouses charity.”
We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. (cf. 1 John 4: 16)
Faith without love is like a barren tree: both virtues require one another.
Lent invites us to grow in charity, in love of God and neighbour, through practical directions for fasting, prayer and charitable giving.
Today solidarity is more needful than ever: hence our appeal to all Christians of the Middle East, in all countries and denominations. We have to unite in solidarity in order to cope with the challenges of current situations of our sons and daughters, and to preserve the Christian presence, and to cope with emigration that is likely to empty the Christian East of Arab Christians.
The great problem of today is “to be or not to be”! Our appeal to form a committee of solidarity in our eparchies in Arab countries is a matter intimately linked to the future of Christians in the Middle East: a matter of life or death!
We are determined to be optimistic! Our solidarity everywhere is the real remedy against pessimism, fear, discouragement, frustration, despair, doubt… Solidarity is the real proof to show that we are a “strong, coherent Church,” capable of coping with difficulties, however great, because it is trained in faith and charity, and in trust in Divine Providence that assures us, “But there shall not an hair of your head perish.” (Luke 21: 18)
St Paul’s Experience of Calamities
St Paul experienced many dramatic situations, similar to what we are experiencing in Syria and perhaps even more so, as he described in his letters. In spite of that he remained steadfast in his convictions based on his faith in the Gospel and his love for Jesus, as we read in this passage:
For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:6-11)
Let us stay in contact
Brothers and sisters!
It is to this that I am calling you at the beginning of this Lent. We shall inform you through our website and means of contact about the results of our efforts to form the central solidarity committee; for it will be the lifeline for our presence, witness, communion and service in this East, the cradle of Christianity.
Solidarity for Communion and Witness
Through this letter, we call upon the efforts of everyone everywhere together to find all the means to cope with the challenges. We appeal too to our Muslim brothers to support our efforts to preserve the Christian presence with them and for them. They well know how important and effectual this Christian presence has been and still is in the history of the Arab world at every level.
They know how much our educational, cultural, health, religious, social and intellectual institutions, are in the service of all citizens without distinction. That is all threatened with disappearing if the Christian presence were to vanish from the region.
Christian solidarity should then be Muslim-Christian solidarity, as the aim is to serve our society, our Arab homelands without distinction, as was the case throughout history. We Muslims and Christians should be in solidarity for a better future for our rising generations.
It was said of the early Christians, especially in Antioch, where they were first called Christian: “See! How they love one another.” We need this witness today. This love is indeed the lifeline for the Church in the Middle East to enable it to be “communion and witness.”
This was the topic of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation and the synthesis of the Synod for the Middle East that we held in Rome in October 2010, on the eve of the outbreak of crises in the Middle East.
Watch and walk in love
Dear friends! I’d like to remind you of my patriarchal and priestly motto: “Watch and walk in love.” Now we are all called to make this patriarchal motto, the motto of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Scripture tells us: “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith,” (1 John 5: 4) to which I add, “Our love is the victory.”
That is my appeal at the beginning of this blessed Great Lent, on our arduous road, the way of the cross of our country, Syria, and of our Arab countries, the cross of our faithful, towards the joys and hopes of the Resurrection, of the springtime of the Resurrection.
In conclusion, we call upon everyone, as we usually do, to practise fasting, abstinence, prayers, self-denial, ascesis, good works, and to grow in virtue, compassion, forgiveness, perseverance and love. (See the Appendix below)
Solidarity in Lenten prayers
We renew our call to fast and pray as we did in our Christmas Letter, 2012, especially to hold daily prayers in all our churches for reconciliation, dialogue, peace and security in Syria and all our Arab countries.
Our conviction is firm: reconciliation is the lifeline. The real victory for us all will come when we reject weapons and halt the flow of arms, from wherever they come. This will be the preliminary to reconciliation.
Once more, we should like to hear the voice of our holy Fathers, the voice of piety, of faith, hope and charity:
Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendour of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life. (Monday of the First Week of Lent: Sessional Hymn Tone 2)
Holy Lent to each and all.
With my blessing, affection and prayer!
1. Fasting rules
In order to be useful, we give here a brief presentation of the rule of fasting and abstinence, of the different kinds of abstinence and the basic rules on this subject in the Oriental tradition of the Eastern Church and its application in our Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
Great Lent in the Ancient Discipline of the Church
The days of fasting (abstinence) are the days of Wednesday and Friday of the Carnival Week before Cheesefare Week and Monday through Friday of the weeks of Lent and of Great and Holy Week, except the day when the Annunciation falls (25 March).
Great and Holy Saturday is the only Saturday on which one must keep a fast. It is forbidden to fast on the other Saturdays of the year, because Saturday (Sabbath) is a holy day linked with the day of the Resurrection (Sunday).
Days of abstinence are for the whole time of Great Lent, including Sundays and during all of Holy Week, unless the Annunciation falls then, except Palm Sunday, when fish may be eaten.
The Meaning of Fasting and Abstinence
Fasting is abstinence from any food and drink from midnight until Vespers. So the person fasting eats a single meal a day after Vespers or after the Liturgy of the Presanctified, or at midday after the Festal or Sunday Liturgy.
Eucharistic or sacramental fasting in its deepest meaning is linked to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and to Holy Communion. According to the ancient tradition, anyone presenting himself for Holy Communion should have fasted by abstaining from all food and drink. In fact, communion finishes or brings to a close the fast. One can say that it breaks the fast, whether after a day of fasting or during Great Lent. In that case the person fasting ends his day and his fast by celebrating the Presanctified Liturgy, which is the service of Vespers with solemn communion. In the same way, the Fasts of the Preparation for Christmas and for Epiphany end with the Divine Liturgy, preceded by the service of Vespers. In the same way, the fast of the last three days of Great and Holy Week ends with Paschal Communion on Easter morning.
Abstinence is abstinence from meat and gravy, dairy products, eggs, milk, cheese and butter, whilst fish is permitted on some days: 25 March and Palm Sunday. Wine and oil are permitted on certain days.
The Wisdom of Fasting
The Holy Fathers of the Church consider Great Lent or the Great Fast of the Great Days as a carrying out of the tithe for God. Forty days is almost a tenth of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. In fact, we read in the commandments, to carry out the tithe and receive blessing. (Deuteronomy 12:6-7) To that we add the Advent Fast, the Apostles’ Fast and the Dormition Fast. The different fasts fall in all four seasons of the year to sanctify the whole year. The Advent Fast is in autumn, the Great Fast of forty days is mostly in winter, the Apostles’ Fast is in late spring and the Fast of the Dormition in summer.
So the faithful Christian who observes the different fasts remains in a continuous relationship with the spiritual and ascetic exercises and in a spiritual watchfulness to enable the Holy Spirit to work in him. In the same way he keeps his fitness of soul and body together.
Many people seek out doctors and scientists to get information relevant for keeping their bodily good health but we should not be at all surprised to find that the wisdom of the Church in distributing the fasts is absolutely in agreement with medical instructions and even superior to their advice, for it is aimed at health of soul and body. So is fulfilled the saying of the great master Jesus, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33) And again he says, “It is written, man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4) That was the reply of Jesus to the tempter in the desert. St. Paul says, explaining the true meaning of Lent, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31) And he also says, “Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.” (I Corinthians 6:20)
The Canon and Discipline of Fasting and Abstinence in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church
Our Holy Synods have more than once dealt with the question of fasting and abstinence, especially between 1949-54. General guidance was given, above all, after Vatican II, that each local bishop organise the discipline of fasting and abstinence suitable to his eparchy.
Despite different dispensations which were put in place for different situations in life, the discipline of fasting according to the old, Eastern tradition remains firm and, thank God, fairly well practised in many monastic religious institutions, among the clergy and faithful.
We have presented in this letter the wisdom of Lent according to the ancient discipline. Some eparchies apply dispensations, so that people fast in the first week and on the last three days of Holy Week. With all the respect that we have for the authority of each eparchial bishop to put in place the discipline suitable for his eparchy, we would like to remind everyone of what the canon law particular to us says in Article Number 107, which corresponds to canon 888 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches: “We exhort the faithful to take on the discipline of fasting and abstinence noted in the liturgical books.” That is what we have explained above and that is what our fathers and ancestors always practised. But we do not wish to make anyone’s conscience heavy but rather leave to each one of our children, our sons and daughters, to organise himself his own method of fasting and abstinence according to the circumstances of his own life, his work and his health.
On the other hand we exhort everyone, bishops, priests, monks and nuns and our children, the sons and daughters in our parishes, to fast according to the old tradition for fasting will never be for us the cause of death and it will not hurt at all our health. On the contrary, it is good for all, for soul and body.
However, for the sick, or someone in a special situation it is his conscience which must be his guide as to how to practise Lent. He can also ask the advice of his parish priest.
That is why we address ourself to everyone, “Do not be afraid of fasting. Make of this time of preparation for the Feast of Pascha some of the most beautiful days of your life.”
And we exhort everyone, priests, monks and nuns, monasteries and families not only to abide by the laws of ecclesiastical fasting but moreover to live during this Lenten time a simple life with regard to food and drink, jewellery, cosmetics and clothing, so that we have recourse to all methods of creating an atmosphere of piety, compunction and inner peace in all aspects of our life.
Apart from physical fasting, we call upon you to put Christian spiritual living into practice with depth, conviction and joy. Here are some ways of doing this:
- more personal, deeper prayer in the home and in church and above all, participation in Great Compline and the Akathist
- practising fasting and abstinence to the best of one’s capability
- exercising bodily and spiritual mortification in different ways
- living out brotherly charity in social relations
- approaching the holy Mysteries
- alms-giving and benefaction, each according to his possibilities and condition of life.
We recommend to all, with St. Paul, to leave the works of darkness to put on the armour of light. We are all sinners in need of metanoia (penitence) and to be rid of sin, passions and everything that enslaves us with regard to food and drink, clothing, pleasure, jealousy, anger, hatred, vengeance, disputes, pride, obstinacy, calumny, stupidity, amusements and superficiality. He who commits sin is not free, but is the slave of sin.
The period of Lent is a period of purity, holiness, prayer and liberation from sin, evil and corruption.
If we do all this, our period of Lent is welcome and we sanctify the days of Lent and are illumined by the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, giving witness to Jesus in our society. Brothers and sisters, do penance, make yourselves holy, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Here is a time very pleasing to God, a time of salvation. It is the period of Lent which comes to us as a spiritual spring-time, preparing us to shine with the light of the glorious Resurrection and the saving Passover.
2. Special Celebrations for Lent
According to ancient Byzantine church tradition, the fast-days of the Lenten period are days when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated as a sign of repentance.
However, in order to allow the faithful to receive communion, consecrated elements are carefully preserved after the Sunday Divine Liturgy and offered on fast-day evenings, at Vespers during the Liturgy of the Presanctified, meaning that the elements are already consecrated. This Liturgy, which is in fact Vespers is followed by communion, therefore includes no Eucharistic consecration.
It should also be noted that Great Compline is served on the five first days of Lent.
On Friday evening of the first five weeks of Lent, the Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God is sung in all churches.
Liturgy of Saint Basil
The Liturgy of Saint Basil is celebrated:
- On the first five Sundays of Lent
- On Great and Holy Thursday
- On Great and Holy Saturday
Translation from French: V. Chamberlain