“A light to lighten the Gentiles”
Letter of Patriarch Emeritus Gregorios III
For the Christmas Feast 2017
This is the first letter since my renunciation of patriarchal service. I drafted these basic ideas in early November during a visit to Palermo, capital of Sicily, where, at the Pontifical Theology Faculty for all Sicily’s dioceses, I gave the inaugural address for the academic year 2017-18. I added some other ideas while attending and speaking at a congress on the topic of Christian Persecution Today held at the Schönblick Conference Centre, near Stuttgart (Germany). On both occasions I highlighted the presence and role of Christians in the East and the importance of peace for that.
On 16 November at Istanbul airport, during a long wait to return to Beirut, I started writing the first pages. For me, Istanbul means Constantinople, New Rome, capital of Orthodoxy and capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire - until its fall in 1453
At the time of writing the present, it is almost eighty-five years since I entered this world in my dear home-town of Daraya (today destroyed by war), where Saul-Paul saw the light of the risen Christ. With the sixtieth anniversary of my priestly ordination (1959) already on the horizon, I have served some forty-three years, first as patriarchal vicar in Jerusalem, then as bishop and latterly as patriarch (1974-2017).
I begin this letter as the decorative Christmas lights in Europe and the whole world are being switched on in readiness for this feast of the Nativity of the Lord, which we welcome with this troparion, “Thy Nativity has shone upon the world with the light of knowledge, O Christ our God … Sun of Righteousness… Dayspring from on high.”
In Byzantine Greek usage, the Christmas period ends on 2 February with the Feast of the Meeting (Hypapante). At this meeting, Simeon the Elder, who had been so longing for the advent of Christ, sings this universal, cosmic hymn, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant, depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2: 29-32)
Indeed, Simeon, a Jew awaiting the arrival of the promised Messiah, has an outlook that is far-sighted, wide-ranging and lofty –not limited to the Jewish people, though they (as we) are called to a universal mission that goes beyond the borders of history, geography, religion, nation, nationalism, ethnicity and tribe, which would otherwise limit us as human beings, diminishing, confining, truncating and narrowing our vision and depriving it of depth, prophetic spirit and global reach.
I write this letter in the airports of Munich and Istanbul in a vast, global atmosphere that I have always experienced in world airports in my many trips from 1956 until now (sixty-one years.) During these trips, I have come into contact with all sorts of people, speaking and communicating with each one, talking, smiling, giving him or her a flower from the Holy Land as a souvenir, explaining my projects, without regard to his or her religion, language and ethnicity. These are my fellow human beings, made in the image of God and for whom God in the person of Jesus Christ came to earth as man two thousand years ago, so that every person anywhere in the world might become God, in the image and likeness of God, who created humans and gave them dominion over creation (Genesis 1: 27-28) and gave them the light of life, that they in turn might become – as the Child born in the cave, Jesus Christ said, in the Sermon on the Mount, that charter for Christianity and humanity, “Ye are the light of the world… Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14, 16)
All the preceding underlay my choice of title, “A Light to lighten the Gentiles.” My life at every stage, as student, seminarian, priest, bishop and patriarch in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Egypt and in the capitals, towns and villages of the world, has been spent in the glow of this light.
My life, at the end of my eighty-fifth year, has been lived in the atmosphere of this universal, global light, that my Saviour, Jesus Christ has bestowed on me, from the day of my birth (15 December, 1932), my baptism (25 June, 1933), my monastic vows (1949), my priestly ordination (15 February, 1959), my episcopal consecration (27 November, 1981) and the beginning of my patriarchal service (29 November, 2000).
Now, after my giving up patriarchal service (2017), I experience this luminous, global, universal atmosphere, first in the holy Church, of which it is said Ex Oriente Lux, and in my Melkite Greek Catholic Church, of which the late Mgr Neophytos Edelby gave this radiant description, in three parts:
“We are Arab, but not Muslim
Eastern, but not Orthodox
Catholic, but not Latin.”
In formulating these three attributes, the famous metropolitan was trying to avoid reducing or confining within a restricted framework the vision of our Eastern Greek Catholic Church. On the contrary, he wished to draw the eye to the far reaches and vast extent of the Church’s role and mission of bringing this divine light to Middle Eastern Arab society, and to the whole world.
This vast world is my world, as a human being. It is God’s world, as St John the Evangelist writes, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3: 16) The liturgical text refers explicitly to this verse in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, where the priest prays, “Thou hast so loved thy world as to give thine only-begotten Son, that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
In my turn, I love this world as God has loved it. In this Christmas letter I wish to speak to this world, just as I used to address everyone in my patriarchal pastoral letters. I love you, God’s world. I love you, my world, my human world. Child of this world, I love you. I love you, my Catholic (in the sense of the meaning in Greek) Church. I love you, holy Churches of God, as we pray in the litany at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy and in Vespers and Matins “For the holy Churches of God and for the unity of all.” All my brothers and sisters who are reading this letter, I love you regardless of religion, nationality, ethnicity or geography.
Those are the parameters of this letter and the horizons of my concerns after my renunciation of patriarchal service, the scope of my projects, thought, heart, will and strength. Furthermore, they are, and should be, the scope of the mission of the Church, founded by the New-born of the cave at Bethlehem, in order for it to be the Church for every human being, bringing the proclamation of God’s love and light to everyone that comes into the world. That is what we pray at Prime, “Christ, the true light that enlightens and sanctifies every person coming into the world, let the light of thy countenance shine upon us, that we may see thine unapproachable light.”
He is the Christmas light, the Child of the cave and God before the ages. He became incarnate (took flesh) and entered human history, the history of his world, God’s world, without the limits of this limited world.
Through Christmas, the incarnation, God entered everyone’s history, everyone’s time (chronos). The Limitless One entered limited human chronos. That is the ever-new Christmas miracle. Limitless God enters limited human boundaries: as we sing in a Christmas hymn addressed to the Mother of God, “Why art thou filled with wonder, O Mary? Why art thou amazed at that which is come to pass in thee?” “Because I have given birth in time to the timeless Son…” (Matins of the Nativity, Tone 4) Another hymn replies, explaining as follows the definitive miracle of the Incarnation, “This is according to his good pleasure, as He knoweth and wisheth... He hath participated in our nature, without separation from His own essence. Desiring to perfect the heavenly world, Christ is born in two natures.” (Orthros of the Nativity, Tone 4)
Through the incarnation, Jesus has hallowed all creation with the light of his birth. He has sanctified everyone, everybody, of every colour, race and nationality – African, Arab, Chinese, European or Indian …from East, West, North or South. Through the incarnation, the light of Christ has entered all people’s situations (or conditions), be they healthy or sick - handicapped, suffering, tortured, despairing, sinful, criminal, robbers - great kings or little people, wealthy or poor.
That is what St John the Evangelist expressed at the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the word…In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1: 1, 5) And of John the Baptist he says, “The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light. [Christ.]” (John 1: 7-9) That is why Jesus said of himself, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8: 12)
The Presanctified Liturgy proclaims this light that enlightens the whole world. The celebrant, carrying a lighted candle, proclaims, “The light of Christ illumines all.” All the liturgical feasts are feasts of light. At Epiphany (Theophany), St Paul tells us in his Epistle to Titus, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” (Titus 2: 11)
Our prayers in all rites are prayers of light. In our Church’s rite, there is an allusion to light in every sacrament and service. At our baptism (photismos), we are illumined and sanctified. At Orthros, we sing, “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us.” (Psalm 118: 27 LXX) In the fifth ode for Orthros of the Nativity, we sing, “The people that before walked in darkness this day have seen a light from the beacon on high.” (cf. LXX Isaiah 9: 2) During weekdays of Great Lent, there is a series of short hymns called hymns of light (photogogika), in which we ask God to enlighten “our heart,” or the “eyes of our soul.” At daily Orthros the priest says, “Glory to thee, who hast shown us the light.” At Prime, he addresses Christ with this prayer, “Christ, the true light that illumines and sanctifies every man that cometh into the world…” At Vespers, there is a prayer of thanks for the gift of light. We sing a third-century hymn of light, “O gladsome light of the holy glory of the immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ.”
And what should we say about the celebrations for Great and Holy Saturday, called the Saturday of Light, which is the prelude for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Can we forget this day’s ceremonies that take place in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem? And this day’s prayer entitled, prayer for the sanctification of light? And the Paschal night’s invitation, “Come ye hither and take a light from the Light that knows no evening”?
The Second Vatican Council came to affirm the universality of the light of faith for all. The first dogmatic constitution has the beautiful title Lumen Gentium - “Christ is the light of nations” – and deals with the universal mystery of the Church. The Council also produced a declaration, entitled Nostra Aetate (1965), dealing with the Church’s relations with non-Christian religions. In this paper, the Church asks Christians to respect “the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these people…The Church regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which … often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people.” (No. 2) The declaration also talks about the Jewish religion and Islam. (Nos. 3 and 4.)
Hence we see the importance of communication between all religions, to build a better world, the civilisation of love, to invalidate Huntington’s hypothesis of a clash of civilisations and religions.
Hence we know that we are all called to be torchbearers of the light of faith in our society, country, family and relations with everyone, because the light that God has given us is not for us alone, but to share with our brothers and sisters on this earth. The values of our faith call us to that, where we find many verses from all religions about light. I should like to close by quoting these verses.
Thus, there are many verses in the Torah on the topic of light. On the first day, God created light: “Let there be light, and there was light.” (Genesis 1: 3) We have quoted some verses from the New Testament on light. In the Qur’an too there are many similar verses. There is a Surah entitled “Surah on light,” where one reads “God is the light of the heavens and the earth.” (Surah 24: 35)
In the Liturgy of St Basil, we find the Gospel prayer, “O Lord and lover of mankind: make the imperishable light of Thy divine knowledge to shine in our hearts…for thou art the enlightening of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God.” He sent his only-begotten Son, our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the light that enlightens all nations. We pray for him to illumine the hearts, thoughts, feelings, souls and bodies of the readers of this letter.
I wanted this letter to be a fresh declaration of long-standing, faithful love to all my readers. For me, at this new stage of my life, it is a brotherly, fatherly, human, sentimental way to communicate spiritual faith to all those men and women who are dear to my heart, relatives, monks of my Salvatorian Order, patriarchs, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, friends and benefactors who have accompanied me on this eighty-five year long journey. All of you have been for me a beacon of love, affection and friendship, filling my life with light and have helped me to bring this light to all. It has really been a walk of light, in which I have felt that we were, together with you, all in the procession of the Saturday of Light, peace and of life, a walk with Jesus, who continually encourages us, by saying, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8: 12)
Jesus Christ sought by his birth to give light to all creation and to the whole world. He has called us too to be light for the world.
We pray to him, at the intercession of his Mother, whom we call Mother of the Light, to illumine our way, our path, in the New Year. May he enlighten those who bear responsibility in this world, so that he, the prince and king and God of peace, may guide and inspire them to bring about peace in this world, to our war-torn Middle East, which has been walking on the way of the cross for years, especially in Iraq, Syria and Palestine and in all the Arab countries.
With the Prophet Isaiah, we pray, “Lord God of peace, give peace to our countries. Give us peace, for thou hast given us everything.”
Holy Year of Light and Peace!
+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Love, Reconciliation and Peace