Christmas Letter 2008

From Gregorios, Servant of Jesus Christ, by the Grace of God Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, to the Bishops, members of our Holy Synod, to our sons the priests, to monks, nuns and all the faithful "called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord…Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1: 2, 3)
“For to me to live is Christ.”
(Philippians 1:21)

“For to me to live is Christ.” May this verse be a cry from our hearts and souls and a declaration of our faith, in this Bimillennial Jubilee of the birth of Saint Paul and the ever-renewed annual Jubilee of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life, the new Child and God for eternity.

Paul the Lover

“For to me to live is Christ.” This is one of the most beautiful expressions that Saint Paul ever wrote. It came from the heart. It is the expression of a lover madly in love, who never tires of ringing inexhaustible changes on this theme, with no hint of lukewarmness, superficiality or superfluity. “You’re my life,” may seem a hackneyed expression, but how different is Paul’s love from that of other lovers and how different the object of his love from theirs!

The beloved for Saint Paul is he who is “more beautiful than the sons of men; grace hath been shed forth on his lips... God hath anointed (him) with the oil of gladness, beyond (his) fellows… Myrrh and resin and cassia are exhaled from (his) garments.” It is he whom God hath blessed for ever. He hath made him “reign, because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and (his) right hand shall guide (him) wonderfully.” (Psalm 44: 2, 8, 4, LXX)

The beloved, for Saint Paul, is the Word who was from the beginning and is “the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1: 9) He is righteousness, life, joy, hope, “for in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)  He is that blessedness and happiness that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man.” This is “what God hath prepared in Jesus Christ for them that love him.” (I Corinthians 2: 9)

He is God who loves mankind (as our Liturgy likes to call him), who spends his life for his sheep, goes in search of them and watches over their unity. He has so loved the world - he loved them so, unto death, death on the cross and he wanted to make his soul a propitiation for our sins. It is he who “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man. ” He suffered, was laid in the tomb and rose on the third day, in order to come to the aid of those who were lost and to “gather together into one the children of God that were scattered abroad,” (John 11:52) so that all humanity and the whole of creation “might have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)

There then is the focus of Saint Paul’s love, his loved one, he who is Saint Paul’s life; or rather there is the focus of love, the lover and beloved down the centuries, of millions, nay billions of human beings, among whom are countless thousands of martyrs, who were proud generously to give their life-blood for love of him, and countless thousands of ascetics, monks and nuns who left the world to dedicate their lives for his glory - serving the poor, sick, needy, handicapped, faceless and ostracized folk - and giving their lives to their society - developing it and promoting its prosperity and well-being and its spiritual, cultural, and economic progress. For love of him, beloved of Saint Paul “they were  ... sawn asunder, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:37, 38) They were not afraid of kings and governors: but “turned to flight the armies of the aliens,” so as “to obtain a better resurrection” (Hebrew 11:34, 35) and eternal life with their beloved and the beloved of Saint Paul, Jesus Christ, who in turn “thought it not robbery to be equal with God,”  but “made himself of no reputation” (literally, “emptied himself” - kenosis) and “took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.”.. “He humbled himself,” washing the feet of his disciples and “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:  that at the name of Jesus, (the beloved of Saint Paul, beloved of the saints and ascetics, men and women) every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2: 6-11)

In this year dedicated to the second millennium since Saint Paul’s birth, we wanted our Christmas letter to be devoted to Saint Paul. We shall try to discover some aspects of his features that faithfully mirror the face of Jesus, whose glorious Divine Nativity we are celebrating. To say the truth, it is our duty that we owe to Saint Paul, whom we consider a spiritual son of this city of Damascus, where we have our residence, for it is at her gates that he found the light. He was baptized in the river Barada at Damascus at the hands of the first Bishop of Damascus, Saint Ananias, the Apostle, our predecessor, and our ancestors, the Damascene Christians, were Saint Paul’s baptismal godparents.

One of our hymns dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul is worded thus: “What prison did not hold thee as prisoner? What Church does not have thee as preacher? Damascus takes pride in thee, Paul, for it saw thee cast to earth by light, Rome received thy blood and it too is filled with pride; but Tarsus rejoices more than all for it honours thy swaddling clothes. O Peter, rock of faith and thou, Paul, glory of the whole world, come forth together from Rome and strengthen us.” (Hypakoë, Tone 8, of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June)