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.”
“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)
Paul: Teacher of Life in Christ
We decided to choose for our meditation the expression, “For me to live is Christ,” since it is, so to speak, central to Saint Paul’s mission. It is the pivot on which turn all the teachings of Saint Paul. Besides, it sums up the true aim of Saint Paul and of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ.
We have tried to go through the Letters of Saint Paul, tracing the meaning of this chosen verse as Saint Paul understood, taught and lived it, experiencing it in all the circumstances of his life. This verse is really the mystic tissue, the link between all his letters. It underpins Saint Paul’s stance on all the various, very diverse themes discussed in his letters.
We have tried, so to speak, to conceal ourself behind Paul, and with our fainter voice echo the thunderous power of his word. This is because we consider that Saint Paul’s words are of today, addressed to us and all contemporary Christians. That is why in our monthly bulletin from Damascus for the Year of Saint Paul we have presented Saint Paul’s Epistles, under the heading “Voice of Paul: Voice of the Shepherd.” Then we have outlined different themes that Saint Paul examined and discussed, under the title, “Letter of Saint Paul to the Damascenes.” Yes, the letters of Saint Paul are always addressed to us and speak to us directly, with the word of life. They are eternal words, speaking to us of Jesus, who is always the same, yesterday, today and for ever. The words of Saint Paul are addressed to us too as children of the third Christian millennium, just as they were addressed to the first Christians of our Arab Christian world, cradle of Christianity, and to the whole world. In this our letter the words of Saint Paul are above all addressed to the sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the Middle East and throughout the whole world.
I wrote a goodly part of this letter in Rome, during the session of the Twelfth Episcopal Synod, presided over by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, with the participation of 253 Patriarchs, cardinals and bishops from around the world - 112 countries, of which 36 from Africa, 24 from North and South America, 17 from Asia, 31 from Europe and 4 from Oceania. Besides, one must count the expert theologians, the male and female superiors general, the auditors, the translators and all the others present at the Synod. Work in the Synod was hard, for we were in session for six hours per day, without counting time for prayer and for studying the numerous papers, documents and bulletins that Synod members received daily in their personal pigeon-holes and which all required the labour of a written or oral reply.
So I literally stole some free time, especially in the very early mornings, to prepare this letter. I spent whole beautiful hours at a time reading all the Pauline Epistles and reflecting on them, noting verses and passages to help me understand and develop the phrase that I chose as the theme of my Christmas Letter in this year dedicated to the celebration of the Bimillennial Jubilee of Saint Paul’s birth. I also read the Acts of the Apostles with the same end in view.
Saul: Paul in the Acts of the Apostles
The Acts of the Apostles mention Saint Paul for the first time in chapter seven. The young Saul was one of those Jews who heard the testimony of Protodeacon Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” who “did great wonders and miracles” (Acts 7:5, 8) and spoke with eloquence, conviction and courage of Jesus of Nazareth, beginning with Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia (Iraq) to Haran and thence to Palestine. He expounded to his hearers their Jewish history, linking all the events of the Torah to Jesus Christ, whom Stephen sees “standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55, 56)
Provoked by Stephen’s faith in Jesus, they dragged him out of the Holy City of Jerusalem and stoned him to death. The witnesses to that bloody tragedy laid their clothes at the feet of the young Saul, who was not only present at that criminal spectacle, but was also in agreement with Stephen’s being killed. Saul heard Stephen ask forgiveness for those who were stoning him, calling upon Jesus in these words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” (Acts 7:58-60)
These were the first words, news and comment that Saul had heard about Jesus. Saul knew the Torah, the sacred scriptures, and knew by heart all the events, but now he heard them in another context, in relation to a person about whom he knew very little.
But this sight only increased Saul’s hatred and “he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison… And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.” (Acts 8:3, 9:1, 2)
The fact that Damascus is mentioned in this chapter of Acts shows how important was the first Christian community in Damascus, which received faith in Jesus Christ shortly after Pentecost, through Jews and others who had been present at the events surrounding the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. Thus they formed the first nucleus of the primitive Church outside Palestine, once faith in Jesus Christ had spread throughout Samaria, Judea, Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea in Palestine. So Damascus preceded Antioch, where “the disciples were called Christians first” (Acts 11: 26) and to which faith arrived later, through Paul, who had recently started on the Christian way.
That means that news of the faith of the first Damascene Christians had reached Jerusalem and that the faith of the Damascenes was so strong as to arouse the hatred of Saul, who was defending Jewish traditions and Mosaic Law with all the strength of his conviction. Thus the faith of the Christians of Damascus had provoked the ire of Saul who sought to destroy this first Damascene Christian community. In fact the very strength of their faith became the driving force behind Saul’s persecution of them. However, we see that Jesus was the catalyst for changing both the ardour of the Damascenes’ faith and that of Saul’s hatred into a new, divine power that spread throughout the world from Damascus, thanks to that same Paul, who as Saul had sought to extinguish that burning faith by his hatred and jealousy.
Jesus and Saul at the Gates of Damascus
Thus occurs a meeting, unexpected as a thunderbolt, at the gates of Damascus: a light from heaven inundates Saul and he falls prostrate to the ground. Thus begins the first conversation between two lovers. Saul hears an unknown voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” to which Saul replies, “Who art thou, Lord?” The voice replies (its sound can be heard though nothing is seen), “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” (Acts 9:4, 5) This is the first “thou and I” between Jesus and Saul. How often will such conversations be renewed between them!
We all know the details of this marvellous story: Saul is led by his companions into Damascus. A meeting takes place with Ananias in the home of one of the first Christians in one of the quarters surrounding the Via Recta of Damascus. The Apostle Ananias, first Bishop of Damascus, baptizes Saul in the river Barada and so Saul is transformed from a hateful figure to a “chosen vessel, who will bear (the) name (of Jesus Christ) before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel… and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 9:15, 17)
From Messiah to Christ
Paul passes from love for the Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures to the love of the beloved Jesus of Nazareth. He speaks of this event several times in his life and in almost every one of his letters. Let us listen to Paul’s defence and explanation of his crossing over from the Law to grace abounding in his life. I would like here to report the event, although long, which explains this wonderful Passover in the life of Saint Paul and that he tells himself, while he was in chains in prison, probably in the citadel of Jerusalem: -But Paul said, ‘I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.’ And when he had given him licence, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying, ‘Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you.’ (And when they heard that he spake in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence: and he saith,) ‘I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia,’ (in 8 or 9 B.C.) ‘yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.
And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ And I answered, ‘Who art thou, Lord?’ And he said unto me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.’ And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said unto me, ‘Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.’ And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus. And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there, came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, ‘Brother Saul, receive thy sight.’ And the same hour I looked up upon him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth, for thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’ And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance; and saw him saying unto me, ‘Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: and when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him.’ And he said unto me, ‘Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.’ (Acts 21:39-40, 22:1-21)
Saint Paul refers again, with great love and gratitude, to the event at Damascus, while defending himself before King Agrippa in chapter twenty-six of the Acts of the Apostles: -
Then Agrippa said unto Paul, ‘Thou art permitted to speak for thyself.’ Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself: ‘I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews: especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently. My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God, unto our fathers: unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope's sake, King Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews. Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead? I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities. Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, at midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” And I said, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: but shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me. Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.’ (Acts 26: 1-23)
The Damascus Experience in the Epistles of Saint Paul
Saint Paul recounts the details of his vision on the Damascus road in his Epistles. It should be mentioned that he changed his name from the Hebrew Saul to his new Greek name, Paul. (Acts 13:9)
In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, (56-58 A.D.), Saint Paul recalls the beginnings of his proclamation of the Gospel, beginnings based on his relationship with Christ, risen from the dead and the appearances of Jesus to the apostles and also to him: -
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (I Corinthians 15:1-10)
It is good to recall that the only place where Jesus appeared after his resurrection, ascension and Pentecost and outside the Holy Land is in Syria, before the gates of Damascus. So, when we venerate the sanctuary of Saint Paul, we venerate a spot where Jesus Christ appeared and thus we venerate both Jesus and Saint Paul.
In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (56-58 A.D.), he says, “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not. In Damascus the governor under Aretas the King kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me: and through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.” (II Corinthians 11: 31-33)
At the beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians, (53-57 A.D.), Saint Paul again recalls his Damascus experience, in which he defends the originality of his mission, based as it is on his unique, personal encounter with Christ: -
But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ: but they had heard only, ‘That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.’ And they glorified God in me. (Galatians 1:11-24)
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, (61-62 A.D.), he refers again to that unique way in which he became an apostle, despite the fact that he had not been one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, nor lived with him during his earthly life in Palestine:-
Ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ… (Ephesians 3:2-9)
In the Epistle to the Philippians, (56-58 A.D.), he recalls again his passing over from the Law and Jewish circumcision to life in Jesus Christ:-
Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3: 5-12)
In the Epistle to the Colossians, (61-62 A.D.), he touches in a general way on his Damascus experience with similar expressions to those in the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Galatians. He appeals to the faithful of Colossae, saying: -
If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily. (Colossians 1:23-29)
In the First Epistle to Timothy, (64 A.D.), who is really a “son (to him) in the faith,” (I Timothy 1: 2) Paul thanks God that the Gospel “was committed to (his) trust” for the glory of the Lord. (I Timothy 1:11) He says further, recalling the period prior to his experience on the Damascus road: -
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (I Timothy 1: 12-17)
In the Epistle to the Romans, (53-57 A.D.), there is a distant mention of that change that Saint Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, when he writes to the faithful in Rome on the matter of the refusal by the Jewish people to recognize Jesus, saying: -
For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: if by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? (Romans 11:13-15)
Saul-Paul’s Stay in Syria (35-38 A.D.)
This great, spiritual Pauline excursus that we have made through the Acts of the Apostles and Saint Paul’s Epistles shows us how important was the Damascus experience in the life and evangelical ministry of Saint Paul. Before undertaking the second stage of the discussion and discovering through his letters the scope of this Pauline phrase, “For to me to live is Christ,” we should like to throw a little more light on Saint Paul’s stay in our region and country of Syria, both in Damascus and (our mother’s district) Hauran, called Arabia or Arab Roman territory by the Romans. Saint Paul says of it in his Epistle to the Galatians, “I went into Arabia.” (Galatians 1:17) Today, this corresponds geographically to the district that lies south of Damascus as far as the present border with Jordan and that was inhabited by the Nabateans, who were from earliest times constituted from Aramean nomads and Arabs.
Saint Paul stayed in Damascus and Arabia for three years after his conversion, as he affirms himself in the same Epistle to the Galatians, where he says, “I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.” (Galatians 1: 17, 18) That means that Saint Paul was baptized by Ananias around the years 36 or 37, as Saint Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, writing of Paul’s missionary activity in Damascus: -
Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; ‘Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?’ But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: but their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. (Acts 9: 19-25)
We don’t know exactly the details of Saint Paul’s stay during those years spent in the region. When did he start preaching in the synagogues, proclaiming courageously Jesus’ name? “And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him.” (Acts 9:29) And when the disciples helped him to escape at night, whither did he go and where did he stay? When he returned to Damascus, how much of that three-year period, mentioned in Galatians, did he spend there?
It is certain that Saint Paul was in contact not only with the first Christian community in Damascus, which was of Jewish extraction, but also lived among the non-Jewish nomadic Nabateans, and probably with Nabatean Arab tribes inhabiting the region of the present-day city of Messimieh in the Hauran. He would have certainly shared in their way of life. He worked at his trade of tent-making, an important craft, especially as those people and many others in those times used to live in tents. But he surely spent a very great deal of time on the purpose of his stay, that of meditating on and deepening his vision of the books of the Torah that he probably knew by heart. I doubt that he had any books with him, but he discovered those books with new eyes.
So Paul lived in this region of the Arabian desert, as had the prophets, and like them he was in the school of silence, solitude, and calm, listening under the Shekinah to what God was saying within in him. He went back over the whole of the Old Testament, with the help of his universal cultural background: Pharisaic Jewish, Hebraic-Aramaic Semitic, Roman Latin, Hellenistic Greek and perhaps Arabic too. He recapitulated all the civilizations and cultures mentioned in Holy Scripture with new eyes. He had lost his sight at the gates of Damascus, but after baptism he regained his true sight. In fact, Saint Ananias baptizes him, then delivers a little sermon as preparation for Communion, as is mentioned by Saint Luke, where he says that Ananias went to Judas’ house. (It was on the Via Recta, one of the earliest and most important thoroughfares of Old Damascus, twenty-eight yards wide and a mile long, after the fashion of Roman cities.) Ananias laid hands on Saul, saying, “‘Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.’ And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.” (Acts 9: 18, 19)
Excursus of the Prophets and Incursus of Paul
This journey of Paul is like that of the prophets, especially of the Old Testament: their inspiration comes to them in the peace of the desert or in the highest mountains, under the Shekinah. Revelation comes to them directly and its words are written on the tables of their hearts. They savour them on their tongue and this food becomes sweeter than honey, entering their inward parts, their very hearts and minds, until that food becomes what they are and they what it is, the revelation becomes them and they it. (cf. Ezekiel 3:1-4, 10, 11)
Thus we understand how Saul-Paul discovered Christ and his teachings without the Gospel (for at that time no Gospel had yet been written) or any other books or papers, and without meeting or establishing a relationship with any of the apostles who preceded him. As he tells us, “..nor did I go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles who preceded me,” (Galatians 1:16, 17). In fact, “they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26) Paul shows us how he discovered the teachings of the Holy Gospel: “For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:12)
Saint Paul was not a faithless and lawless apostate, despising Mosaic Law: quite the contrary. He himself gives us an account of his cultural and religious life: “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel,” (Acts 22:3) who was “a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people.” (Acts 5:34) and, he continues, was “taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” (Acts 22:4) Elsewhere he says, “My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.” (Acts 26: 4, 5)
So Paul was a believer of extraordinary conviction, who remained faithful to that first Jewish conviction over which Jesus had shed new light, “which lighteth on every man that cometh into the world,” (John 1: 9) “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:32)
In Paul, then, the Old Testament books have, so to speak, embraced their perfection in the Gospel, or New Testament in Christ Jesus. So the visions of the patriarchs and prophets have met and fused with the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus. Both visions - indeed, all visions, revelations and utterances - have intertwined, for the one God is the source of all, as Paul wrote in the Epistle to the Hebrews: -
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
There is the old made new, always new, ever-renewed, always young, ever-living: Jesus is born, the new Child, God before the ages. He is of the stem of David according to the flesh, but he is the Word from the beginning: -
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
Yes, Jesus Christ is God and man. He has destroyed all barriers of history, time, place, geography, ethnicity, past, present and future; barriers between people, Jews and pagans, male and female, slave and free, great and small, to make humanity into the new man, as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In him all nations are reconciled, all parties and mind-sets, all trends unite in him, as Saint Paul says: -
But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. (Ephesians 2:13-17)
Paul unifies his thoughts, feelings, vision, message and Gospel around Jesus – bringing together all the ways of seeing, Scriptures and languages that he knew and the Roman, Greek, Hebraic, Aramaic, Semitic civilizations with which he was familiar.
Paul is a lover of Jesus: he became so twice. He loved him without knowing him in the Torah and the Prophets; he loved him a second time on the road to Damascus after the experience of the vision of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. “God …separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace.” (Galatians 1:15)
So Paul unites in himself, his life, teachings and spiritual experience what Saint John said in his Gospel: “And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 16, 17)
Paul Unifies Old and New Testaments
The phrase we have chosen, “For to me to live is Christ” means that Christ has become all in all for Saint Paul and that the person of Jesus is central to the whole revelation of God to mankind in both Old and New Testaments. So we discover what Paul affirmed, that “For …Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us … was not yea and nay, but in him was yea.” (II Corinthians 1:19) He also said, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” (Hebrews 13:8) It means that the covenant of God with human beings and his revelation to them is one, for the source of the covenant and of the testaments is the same: it is he, the one God. What we call the Old and New Testaments are one and the same thing, which can be traced back to a single origin, God, who himself revealed his divine word and confirmed it by the testament of his love and faithfulness to humanity.
So the two testaments are but one, so that what was related in the events and teachings of the Old Testament are fulfilled in a new reality, a new garb, as it were, a new meaning, and complete vision in the person of Jesus Christ, for the testament or covenant is Jesus Christ himself. The revelation is again, Jesus himself: as God says in the book of Ezekiel, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” (Ezekiel 36:26 ) Thus the Old Testament becomes the word of Jesus in the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Mystical Supper, where he says, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” (Luke 22:20)
When reading and analysing the first speeches and sermons of the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles: those of Peter, Stephen, Phillip, Paul (and even the conversation of Jesus on the Day of Resurrection with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus ) we do not find anything of the teachings of Jesus directly, or of his parables or miracles as elsewhere in the Gospel, but we see that these apostles go through the history and events of the Old Testament and thence arrive at the salvation realised by Jesus Christ. Thereby they demonstrate what Saint Paul said, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2)
So the apostles read the Old Testament as devout, believing Jews. (Acts 2:5) In doing so, they see only Jesus. That is what happened to the apostles on the Day of Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where that vision ends with the very beautiful expression, “And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.” (Matthew 17:8) So, Moses and Elijah who had been on the mountain, on either side of Jesus, had disappeared, or rather, the three apostles began to understand that all that had been said on the subject by Moses, Elijah and the other prophets could only be understood through the person of Jesus Christ. That is exactly the meaning of the phrase, “For to me to live is Christ” and it is thus that Jesus became the focus of the life of Saint Paul.
It is thus that we understand the meaning of the first dialogue between Jesus and Saul: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” and his reply, “Who art thou, Lord?” to which Jesus replies, “I am he, whom thou persecutest,” although Saul was persecuting only his peers, his fellow-Jews, for the first Christian community in Damascus was of Jewish origin.
Hence, we can further understand Jesus’ reply to the Samaritan woman, who had begun a conversation with him about prophecy, worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem and the Messiah, when it was Jesus’ turn to interrupt her, stemming the flow of conversation with this peremptory answer, “I that speak unto thee am he.” (John 4:26)
Thus, Jesus is himself divine revelation: it is he who comes instead of the book. Jesus is the Word himself: Jesus is the person; Jesus is all. That is why calling us “the people of the book,” or “people of the religion of the book” is something of a misnomer as it does not correspond to the whole truth of our Christian faith, with its belief in the existence of Jesus as focus of all our creeds, dogmas, devotion, worship, and ethics and all aspects of our spiritual, religious, social, political and professional life. We are more than the phrase suggests. The expression, “people of the book,” cannot cover all aspects of Christian reality, for the “book” is Jesus himself, as we shall see in the Epistles of Saint Paul.
In the same way, it should be noted that the Qur’anic expression “the people of the book” refers to Jews and Nazarenes (Christians), who themselves have inspired books in which there is everything that can be useful for living, enabling them to exercise their judgment and decide all aspects of their life according to their own book: that is the meaning of the phrase “the people of the book.” This is indicated in the Qur’anic verses, requiring judgment to be made according to the book. “Say: ‘I believe in the Book which Allah has sent down; and I am commanded to judge justly between you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord: for us (is the responsibility for) our deeds, and for you for your deeds. There is no contention between us and you. Allah will bring us together, and to Him is (our) Final Goal.’” (Surah 42:15 Council)
So, whoever believes in Jesus and is baptized in the Christian faith, finds his starting point in Christ, who is the subject of all holy books. In those books, he discovers the person and teachings of Christ, who is indeed the way, the truth and the life. They are the way to true life in Jesus Christ: with him and for him and in and for society, in all our obligations and duties, which all originate from our faith in Jesus Christ. So, Christian living is focused, not on the book, but on Jesus, who is himself the book.
Saint Paul’s Experience of Living Christ through his Epistles
After this walk with Paul along the Damascus road, the Via Recta, the streets of Damascus, the Hauran and Syria, we would like to put ourselves under the tutelage of Saint Paul, who himself learnt from the first Christians of Damascus. We are going to open his letters, one after the other, to ascertain and understand through them the reality and truthfulness of what he said: – (Saint Paul’s motto, so to speak, and the subject of our Christmas Letter) “For to me to live is Christ.” So we too will be able, through Paul, to learn how to experience the mystery of Christ, in such a way that for us, as for Paul, to live is Christ and to have the mind of Christ, as Paul had, and to understand, with Paul, the mystery of Christ’s economy of salvation for us, through the events of Paul’s life, the spiritual experiences outlined in his letters and his spiritual teachings to the first Christians, to whom he addressed his magnificent epistles.
In explaining Saint Paul’s Epistles, we should like to follow their order in the New Testament and not their chronology according to academic biblical research.
Epistle to the Romans
In the Epistle to the Romans, we see most eloquent expressions on the theme of “For to me to live is Christ.” Let us allow Saint Paul to speak for himself. That will be our way of dealing with all the Pauline Epistles. Our Christmas Letter is a Christ-centred, Messianic, Christian reading of the Letters of Saint Paul. In fact, we see in these Epistles the radiantly beautiful person of Jesus Christ at the heart of Saint Paul’s life and Gospel and in his way of dealing with all the problems of the first Christian communities. Every person, thing, theme, issue, teaching, opinion, judgment, way of thinking, conduct, feeling of the heart, impression – all such is linked to Jesus.
Paul is “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God.” (1: 1) The name of Paul is linked with that of Jesus in all his Epistles: in them the name of Jesus or Christ occurs three hundred and ninety-six times. Paul is a specialist on Jesus. He is a graduate of the university of Jesus, in the Gospel of Jesus, which he is now preaching to all recipients of his letters.
“Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ,” (1: 6) “beloved of God, called to be saints.” (1: 7) “I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also, for I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” (1:16) “God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” (2:16) “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (5:1) “We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” (5:11) “The gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” (5:15) “They which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.” (5:17) “Might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” (5:21) “So many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (6: 3, 4) “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” (6: 8) “Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (6:11) “Ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ.” (7:11) “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” (8: 2) “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” (8:9) “And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (8:10) “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” (8:11) “If children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” (8:17) “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” (8:34)
Then we find the extraordinarily beautiful expression of Saint Paul in those verses known to all the faithful: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:35, 39) That is his personal experience of Jesus Christ: he does not speak of any one else, for he has found and experienced Christ, remaining in faithful relationship with him, as we see in these verses, despite all persecutions and sufferings that scarred his life.
He continues in the Epistle to the Romans: “Christ is the end of the law.” (10: 4) “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (13:14) and lastly, this expression rounds off the whole collection of advice as he adds, “Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus.” (15:5) “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.” (15: 7) The goal of all that is: “that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (15: 6) Lastly comes the closing prayer: “Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, to God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen.” (16:25, 27)
First Epistle to the Corinthians
In this, one of the greatest of the Pauline Epistles, we see how the life of Saint Paul is linked to Christ’s. He affirms incessantly that he is an apostle like the others, because of his relationship to Jesus. He does not take a step that is not in relation to Jesus. He knows no-one except in Jesus Christ and nothing if not in him.
In the opening ten verses, we see ten times over the repetition of the name of Jesus and we know that the name signifies the person, since all is fulfilled in Jesus: grace, peace, witness, thanksgiving, firmness in faith, fellowship, kerygma, wisdom, justice, holiness, neighbourly relations with faithful and unbelievers, philosophical thought, the events of the Old Testament, Christian tradition, relations between men and women, relations between the faithful in Jesus Christ in Church, faith, hope, charity, struggle (jihad), passions, sufferings, the cross, death and resurrection, victory: all that is in Jesus. Paul is “called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God.” (1: 1) “to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” (1: 2) “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1: 9)
The subject of Saint Paul’s preaching is “Christ crucified.” (1:23) Others may preach about whomsoever they will, but the subject of Paul’s pride is Jesus and his cross, for “Christ Jesus…of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” (1:30) Therefore, he knows nothing of those in Corinth, “save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (2: 2) The true link between a pastor and his parish, between priest and faithful is Jesus, in and through Jesus.
Paul accepts each and every one of the people of Corinth, including the crucified, suffering and doubting. He knows every person in Jesus Christ and accepts him, despite his poverty, pain, illness, weakness, errors and distress, since, for him, the other has become Jesus Christ himself.
Paul has no trust in his considerable education in Hellenistic thought or even in his knowledge of the Bible that he had received at the hands of the great masters of the Law. Paul has “the mind of Christ.” (2:16) He is “of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (4: 1) He plants, waters and builds, but the foundation laid “is Jesus Christ.” (3:11) “For all things are yours…And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's.” (3:21, 23) This principle explains the complementarity of things, the order to be followed and instituted between them, their value, order and importance in the life of the faithful. There can be no foundation, no value, no construction without Christ.
It is what Saint Paul experienced in his apostolic life, as he describes, with all its concomitant features; sufferings, disdain, insults, persecutions, as he says, “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake.. we are weak, ..we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; and labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.” (4: 9-13) This is a disturbing and painful description of Saint Paul’s life, but in and for Christ. His sufferings resemble Christ’s and are the signs of a new birth. Paul engenders the Corinthian faithful; he is their father, mother, master, servant and the one who gives birth to them in Christ.
Saint Paul asks the faithful at Corinth to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. (11:1) So they become the temple of Christ, as the members of their body are the members of Christ. (12:12) They must respect these members, as they respect Christ himself in them: so they glorify God in their members.
The subject of the message proclaimed in the preaching of Paul’s Gospel, is first and last, Christ. So he proclaims the Gospel of Christ, without seeking reward – freely. “Woe to me, if I preach not!” and he bears everything and is ready to lose all prerogatives, provided that there is never any obstacle to the Gospel of Christ. (9:12, 18) He does everything possible to advance his cause, striving, fighting for the Gospel. He becomes all things to all people, for the Gospel. For the Jews, he is Jewish; for those outside the Law he is without the Law; with the weak, he is weak; with the slave, he is a slave to all for Jesus Christ. (9:19-24)
For him, Christ is the rock. (10:4) Indeed, Jesus is the substance of Paul’s reading in all he has learned of the Torah from Jewish culture; he sees all the Old Testament symbolically linked to Christ. He explains all the events that happened in Jewish history with reference to the Gospel of Christ. He understands them all through Christ, for all are “written for our admonition.” (10:11)
Furthermore, human relations are based on Christ. That applies to relationships between man and woman, or wife and husband, as “the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” (11:3) Here we find a real pyramidal view of human relations, with different kinds and conditions of human beings. This arrangement safeguards the dignity, rights, identity and uniqueness of each individual. There can be neither servility nor haughtiness; neither pride, violence nor domination: each assumes his or her rightful place and dignity through a personal relationship to Christ in God, who has created all people equally in his image and likeness.
Saint Paul moves on to discuss the Eucharist, which is the real, fundamental link with Christ, for the Eucharist is Christ. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (10:16) The faithful who celebrate the Mystical Supper and the sacrament of the Eucharist become one in Christ. (11:23-28) Besides, they themselves become the body of Christ, being transformed into Christ. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (12:27) All the members of the body are united among themselves. All the gifts possessed by the members in that body, which is the Church, are linked to it and are at the service of all its members. (Chapter 12) From that may be understood again that whole pyramidal relationship in the Church, the relationship of master to servant, bishop with priests, religious superior with monks or nuns, Patriarch with bishops and they with him, the relationship of the Pope, the highest authority in the Church, with the bishops and the faithful. Therein lies the real link between Petrine primacy and episcopal collegiality. These teachings of Paul on the topic of the body and its members are indeed the basis of the real meaning of Christian unity in the Church and of the search for unity among Christians. They describe the relationship of the members among themselves, of gifts, charismata, services and ministries in the Church that is the body of Christ.
On the basis of this, and according to this way of reasoning, one can understand the song of love in chapter thirteen. It is love (caritas) which is the primary, most important and greatest link between God and man, since God is love, and between human beings too, since they are children of God who is love.
These two chapters, twelve and thirteen, are the basis of all search for Christian unity, but we are, alas, very human and carnal and do not understand the true meaning of that love. All efforts in ecumenical work are halting and uncertain, lost in the quantity of papers, meetings, documents, visits, velleities of protocol, even theological dialogues, kisses, photos, magazine interviews and statements, as was very well expressed by the late Bishop Elias Zoghby, of blessed memory, in his book, We are all Schismatics, for we do not have the mind of Paul, Apostle of Jesus Christ.
May we, in this Jubilee Year of Saint Paul, come to understand the teachings of Paul and may we, like him, have the mind of Christ and then we shall be able to realise that Christian unity, to which all Christians aspire. I would not be exaggerating if I said that those who aspire least to this unity, are, unfortunately, Chief Pastors, while the faithful parishioners are very hungry and thirsty, longing for that unity which Jesus wanted, so that the world, which needs Jesus, might believe.
To summarise what Saint Paul often calls “his Gospel,” that he received from Jesus himself: it is “how … Christ died for our sins …was buried, and … rose again the third day.” (15:3, 4) Here again, he mentions his personal experience of encountering Christ risen from the dead, on the road to Damascus.
The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Gospel message of Saint Paul and of all the apostles. That is why the first Christians in our dear East were called children of the resurrection. “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (15:14, 17) He adds, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (15:19)
This hope is what strengthens Saint Paul in his struggle. That is why he can say that he dies daily for Jesus. (15:31) That is why Saint Paul has the right to end this last chapter of the Epistle to the Corinthians with this triumphal song, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (15:54)
The first sentence of this letter contains the name of Christ and the last is an expression of love for Christ: “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema. Maranatha. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.” (16:22-24)
Second Epistle to the Corinthians
Christ, in Paul’s eyes, is the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. That is why all his letters begin with Jesus. “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ: grace be to you and peace … from the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1: 1, 2)
This letter is characterised by the description of Paul’s participation in Christ’s sufferings. “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” (1:5) However, Saint Paul remains firm unto death in faith, despite his sufferings. (1:9, 10) “But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, …was not yea and nay, but in him was yea.” (1:18,19)
Paul “forgives in the person of Christ.” (2:1) He travels, going to one place after another (2:12) and going from one victory to another in Christ. (2:14) He is “a sweet savour of Christ” (2:15) and his trust even amid difficulties, is boundless. (3:4) All his strength and capability is in Jesus Christ. (4:4-6)
In this letter, especially in chapters three, four and five, Saint Paul expresses his passionate love for Christ and his experience of life in Christ, despite troubles and perplexities, persecutions, sufferings, pains, spiritual and bodily illnesses and betrayals. “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.” (4:10-12) But he is not, so to speak, limited; he does not fall into despair; he is never disappointed, despite troubles and persecutions. (4:8, 9) As he says, “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” (4:16) “For the love of Christ constraineth us.” (5:14) “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” (5:17) “We are ambassadors for Christ” (5:20) and “ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; by pureness, by knowledge, by long suffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned.” (6:4-10)
There is an example of the experience of Paul in his life in Jesus Christ, but nothing destroys his will and enthusiasm, “for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (10:4-6a) Again, Saint Paul describes all his toil with respect to life in Christ: (11:23-33) prisons, stripes, mortal perils, beatings with rods, stoning, shipwrecks, journeyings, floods, robbers, false brethren, weariness, painfulness, watchings, hunger, thirst, fastings, nakedness and from Damascus, escape down by the wall into the desert. (11:23-33)
But Jesus strengthens Paul and says to him in his temptations, “‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (12:9,10)
These are the great challenges and experiences of faith that Saint Paul has lived through in his Epistles, that he might live in Christ and Christ in him.
Epistle to the Galatians
The letter starts with Saint Paul’s ceaselessly repeated affirmation: he is “an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ.” (1: 1) He is the slave of Jesus. (1:10) The content of the Gospel that he brings to the Galatians is Christ, risen from the dead. (1:7) There is no other gospel, for the Gospel is Jesus Christ himself. (1:6-9) Therefore, it is not a gospel “after man,” for Paul neither received nor learned it of man, but “by the revelation of Jesus Christ,” (1:11, 12) who appeared to him on the road to Damascus (1:13-24) and who justified him by his faith in him. (2:16, 17)
Here Saint Paul proudly proclaims his vital, key formula: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (2:20)
Moreover, Paul wishes this very image to be depicted among the Galatians: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” (3:1) Saint Paul himself, like a mother in labour, is suffering the pangs of child-birth “until Christ be formed,” in them. (4:19) Those who acknowledge Christ must be crucified with him, for “they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” (5:24) Paul’s glory is in the cross of Christ: he too wishes to be crucified with Jesus and to be like him. He continues, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks (stigmata) of the Lord Jesus.” (6:14-17)
For Saint Paul, Jesus is everything. In him, he has gained all and in Jesus, every person can reach salvation, for the promise was given by faith in Jesus Christ (3:22) and there is one mediator, Jesus Christ. (3:20) The Law leads us to Christ, (3:24) for we “are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of (us) as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for (we) are all one in Christ Jesus. And if (we) be Christ's, then are (we) Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (3:26-29)
Paul wishes everyone to be like him: a new creature in Christ. In Christ, we are “born again…of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8) That is what the Church Fathers famously termed theosis or divinisation, which affirms that “the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man …might become a son of God.” (cf. our Christmas Letters, Emmanuel 2004 and The Unifying Incarnation 2005) Thus, unity in Christ becomes the goal of human life. Furthermore, unity in Christ becomes the foundation of unity, solidarity, dignity and fellowship among mankind.
We know from history that Saint Paul was martyred, beheaded, in Rome, though even before his death he lived stigmatised by Christ’s sufferings. So Saint Paul is one of the first whom we know to have borne the marks of Christ’s passion, as did later Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Rita of Cascia, Saint Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified and countless others.
It is Paul’s love for Christ that led him to the point of being really crucified with him.
Letter to the Ephesians
This letter was written in prison in Rome. He is the ambassador of Jesus, in chains. (6:20) This is a really Christ-centred letter. Its beginning is extraordinary, affirming the centrality of Jesus Christ. It comes from “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” He recalls the name of Christ eight times in the first twelve verses of the letter, in which he explains the divine economy of salvation realised in Christ. Christ is the basis of our salvation and the beginning, instrument and goal of the divine economy. Jesus is the head of the Church. (1:3-12) “God… hath quickened us together with Christ,” (2:5) “and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (2:6) Formerly, we were without Christ, but now we live in him. (2:12) We used to be far from Christ, but now we are close, in Christ. (2:13) The whole world has become one in Christ. Peoples have been reconciled and unified in Christ. Christ is our peace, he who has made of two peoples but one, destroying the wall of enmity and proclaiming peace to all. (2:12-18)
Saint Paul utters a very beautiful prayer for the Ephesians to discover the mystery of Christ: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:14-19)
Saint Paul invites us to unity, since everything is unified in Christ. For “there is one body, and one Spirit … one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” (4:1-6)
The one Christ brings forth all kinds of gifts or charismata in the Church, for the service of society and for the building up of the body of Christ, so that human beings may reach the knowledge of Christ, Son of God, the reality of a unified humanity and “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (4:7-13)
Growth is in Christ (4:15) Everything that we have learnt is from Christ and in Christ. “But ye have not so learned Christ.” (4:20) Moreover, the whole “truth is in Jesus.” (4:21)
The Epistle to the Ephesians is a real school of experience of life in Christ, following Paul’s example. It is a description of new life in Christ. (4:17-32 and chapters 5 and 6) The golden rule is to “walk in love,” (5:2) which is our priestly (1959), episcopal (1981) and Patriarchal motto (2000).
The love of Christ regulates relations in the Church and society, between husband and wife and in the religious life and it is here that we find a passage that we read during the celebration of marriage, or crowning, where we find, “Submit… yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (5:21-25)
This golden rule finds its highest expression in the centrality and primacy of Christ in the mutual relations of people’s lives and it is what inspired Paul to write to the Ephesians a collection of guidance that lays down rules for their family relations - between children and their parents, servants and masters and indeed everyone. (6:1-9)
The epistle ends as it began, with Jesus: “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen.” (6:24)
Epistle to the Philippians
This is another letter from prison. (1: 7, 13, 14) From his prison, just before the time of his martyrdom, Saint Paul recalls again the event on the road to Damascus. (3:6, 12) He awaits the day of Jesus Christ, (1: 6, 10) but he is joyful, for he says, “the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel.” (1:12, 13) The most important thing in Paul’s life is proclaiming the Gospel of Christ; so he wishes everyone to proclaim and announce the Gospel. He asserts that it is enough for him if Christ is preached, (1:15-18) so “Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:20, 21)
Saint Paul asks the Philippians, as in all his letters, to live in Christ and to walk in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ, “striving together for the faith of the Gospel.” (1:27) “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” (2:5) Here Paul unfolds life in Christ with new features, with general advice and guidance, in which we find again a description of his own life in Christ. What was for him a gain, with respect to his learning, culture and Roman and Jewish origin, he considers as a loss:-
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended (on the road to Damascus): but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (3:7-14)
Paul has lived in Christ and he hastens to Rome for Christ, “for our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (3:20)
Epistle to the Colossians
Saint Paul affirms, over and over again, repeatedly, his intimate relationship with Christ, greeting the faithful of Colossae, in the same way as we have seen in all his letters: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God…to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ.” (1:1, 2) He is in Christ, as are those to whom he writes.
In this letter, Saint Paul employs phrases from Greek philosophy to make the mystery of Christ known. He had already considered the whole Torah as directing towards Christ and now he puts all knowledge and learning at the disposition of Jesus Christ, his beloved and his God. He wants to win over, from his prison in Rome (61-63 A.D.), every kind of thinking for Christ.
The letter begins with a hymn to the mystery of Christ,
who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (1:15-20)
One may think, reading this text, about the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.”
Once again, the primacy and centrality of Jesus appear. This explains to us in a Gnostic philosophical and Christian way, Saint Paul’s motto, “For to me to live is Christ.” For Christ is the content of the Gospel, “the mystery which hath been hid from ages …, but now is made manifest to his saints.” (1:26)
Paul is ready to fulfil everything lacking of suffering in Jesus, for the service of the Gospel, for Christ is for him the absolute in everything. He is the mystery that fills our life, through baptism and who makes of us a new creature. (2:12)
Hence we see that Christians baptised in Jesus’ name must behave as in Christ:-
As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (2:6-9)
For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. (3:3, 4)
Here we may say that theology, in the view of Paul, is Christ himself: the basic substance of the teaching is Christ, the substance of catechetical programmes is Christ. The philosophical and theological programmes of study in seminaries must be Christ and all of them must be based on the person of Jesus, so that Jesus can be the basic substance and the link that unites all subjects and programmes in his person. That applies to dogmatic and moral theology and ethics, for the truth in these teachings is Christ. (2:17, 16-22) This could be equally applicable to fundamental issues in charters and social legislation having to do with the organisation of personal, marital and working relations.
First and Second Epistles to Timothy (64 A.D.)
Here we find again the salutation as in other epistles: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Saviour, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope.” (1: 1)
Paul thanks God for the gift of his conversion on the road to Damascus, in his first letter. (1:12) The beginning of his second letter is similarly steeped in Jesus and in it, Saint Paul reminds his son, Timothy of Jesus Christ, (2:8) for life and death are in and with Jesus. (2:8, 11) He exhorts him to remain faithful to the Gospel he has received in Jesus, who is the foundation of our preaching. (4: 1, 2)
Epistle to the Hebrews
The beginning of this letter summarises and shows the centrality of Jesus in history, in Saint Paul’s life and in the life of every believer: -
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. (1:1-3)
We can easily find clearly described the relationship and profound similarity between the beginning of the Epistle and the Prologue of the Holy Evangelist John:-
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. (1:1-4)
Christ alone has given meaning to history, geography and symbols: everything has been a story of the birth of Christ, making it possible to reckon everything as happening either before or after Christ’s Nativity, since everything is in Christ.
All the Old Testament is, according to this letter, focused on Christ: he is the salvation that we are expecting. (2: 3) All things have been brought into subjection under him. (2: 8) Jesus, once crowned with thorns, is “crowned with glory and honour,” (2: 9) so that “he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one.” (2:11) Christ calls them his brothers (2:12) and children “‘Behold I and the children which God hath given me.’” (2:13) He is like his brethren, (2:17) being one with them and for them (2:18) and they are his house. (3: 6)
Moses is the symbol of Christ’s person, though Jesus is even more important than Moses. (Chapter three passim compares Moses and Jesus.) Christ is the compassionate high priest; Christ is the promised land, Christ is the subject of all the promises given by God to man throughout human history and especially in the history of the people of the Old Testament. (Chapter four) “We have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.” (4:14)
Indeed the end of the whole Law is Jesus Christ, who is the “mediator of a better covenant,” (8: 6) an eternal one, for he is priest after the order of Melchizedek, an order not linked to the Law and its legality. (Chapter six)
Paul’s life in Christ and everything that we have already discovered from his letters on the meaning of that life is the result of his very profound knowledge of the Torah. The Epistle to the Hebrews contains basically all the Messianic expressions that we find in the Pauline Epistles. Moreover, we can understand from this Letter to the Hebrews the depth of Paul’s faithfulness to Jesus and may conclude that the characteristically Jewish identity of Paul’s life was transfigured by his Messianic faith.
So everything that Paul would have learned from the Torah and other books of the Old Testament is to be found in this letter. From that he passes to Jesus, who is the “high priest of good things to come.” (9:11) He is “the mediator of the new testament.” (9:15) “For the law (has) a shadow of good things to come.” (10: 1) Christ, by his incarnation has abolished the first law to found the second. (10: 9)
So we are able “to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.” (10:19, 20) This way is Christ, as he told us when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14: 6) The patriarchs of the Old Testament all walked along this way, by strength of faith, as described in the marvellous expression, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (11: 1) Through it, the elders witnessed with their lives. This faith gave rise to great, heroic exemplars and was realised in Christ.
Saint Paul considers that the whole of life is in Christ. Our life, all life is hidden in Christ. The lives of the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament is hidden in Christ: the whole of the Old Testament is life in Christ and in Christ, the Old Testament gains its true meaning. Saint Paul, the great expert, knowledgeable in Torah, begins with the experience of the elders of the Old Testament and continues through to the experience of life in Christ in the New Testament. He always reminds us that, as was mentioned earlier, the Old Testament “was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” (Galatians 3:24) The Old Testament guided Paul on the road to Damascus and into Damascus and the Hauran wilderness. It changed him, made him take a unique, fundamental step from one covenant to the other, from the Old to the New Testament, from the shadow to the reality.
Paul did not reject or repudiate the Old Testament, but he understood it in its new, true, definitive light. That is why in the same way and with the same strength with which he believed in the Old Testament, he now believes in the New and passes to the New from the Old.
In chapter eleven of the Letter to the Hebrews, he describes aspects of the life in faith of the ancestors: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets.
The chapter ends with these verses:-
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (11:39-40)
Saint Paul passes from the Old Testament (chapter eleven) to the New Testament (chapter twelve), saying: -
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (12: 1, 2)
He expresses the importance of the transition from the Old to the New and Christ, saying: -
For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, (an allusion to the vision of Moses on Horeb) but ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (12:18, 22-24)
So everything has a meaning to the extent that it is linked to Jesus, in the Old and New Testaments and in the life of every human being. Evermore in the life of each man and woman there are always two testaments: “old and new.” The strength of the Christian faith is that it has two testaments, which are in reality the one covenant of the one God, at once both old and new. The power of Christianity resides in this continuous ability to pass from the Old into the New Testament. Our personal Christian faith remains alive insofar as we are able continually to pass (pass over) daily from our “old” testament, from the “old man,” to the New Testament, from shadows to reality, from death to life and from sin to grace. This “passover” is only possible through linking our life to Jesus Christ, who is “the same, yesterday, and today and for ever.” (13: 8)
We need the ardour of Saint Paul, his lover’s love, enthusiasm, faith, striving, devotion, zeal, generosity, openness and the horizons of his vast cosmic, unifying and ecumenical vision. We need his love for everyone, his readiness to give of himself and devotion till death, to the point of being sentenced for love of Christ Jesus, for love of Jesus’ brethren, those who are loved by Jesus.
I am praying for us to arrive, as we follow the highways and byways of our journeys, at Straight Street, the Damascus road.
We all need to walk along the road to Damascus: not the earthly city of Damascus, a political entity, delineated by history and geography, but Damascus, city of encounter with the living Christ, risen from the dead, who calls us to salvation, redemption, love, hope and peace.
We need the Damascus road. May everyone in the world tread the road to Damascus, so that the world may change and people move from shadows to light, from night to day, sin to righteousness, persecution to love, violence to kindness, selfishness to altruism, terrorism to solidarity, fundamentalism to openness, the spirit of vengeance to such feelings as Saint Paul expresses when he exhorts the faithful to have among themselves the thoughts and manners that are in Christ Jesus, and reminds them that the fruits of the Spirit are “love.. gentleness, temperance.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
And with Saint Paul, we say to all those who will read this Pauline Christmas Letter, “…now it is high time to awake out of sleep: … The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly... But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” (Romans 13:11-14)
What a beautiful world is Paul’s! May the world of Saint Paul’s Epistles invade our suffering world today that lies in darkness, in revolt, hateful, vindictive, combative, exploitative, materialistic, carnal, obsessed with sex, superficial, egotistic, vacillating, erring, disorientated, without reference points, aimless: our world has such need of Paul! Beyond Paul, it needs Christ, the Gospel, the Good News. It needs God. It is really athirst and ahungered for God, but the tragedy is that the world is unaware of the fact that it is athirst and ahungered, for its cares, passions, depravation, futility and lifestyle stifle the Word of God planted in the human heart and hence it cannot bear fruit. This world does not hear the voice of the living and risen Jesus, who is waiting for each one of us on the road to our Damascus, on the Via Recta, and calling us by name, begging, challenging, chiding, awakening us from sleep, stupor, insensibility, hardness of heart, to tell us this, “Thou art mine; I have loved thee; I love thee; I know thee by name; thou art a chosen vessel for me; I have chosen thee; I have sought thee; I have called thee. Why dost thou persecute me? Why dost thou stray from me? Why dost thou not acknowledge me in thy life? Why hast thou struck off my name and dwelling-place from thy list of thy friends and companions in times of joy and gladness? Restore my name to the addresses on thy mobile and email. Set me as a seal upon thine heart. Open to me the door of thine heart: I stand at the door and knock.
Happy is he who opens to me! Happy art thou, if thou dost open, for I am coming to thee, I want to stay with thee and fill thine heart, soul, mind and entire life with joy, happiness and hope and open wide thine eyes with love and faith.”
Brothers and sisters, I would like you to feel, as you read this letter, the same strong emotion that I felt while reading the Letters of Saint Paul and gradually writing this letter over recent months in Lebanon, Syria, the Vatican, Germany, England, the United States of America and Mexico.
In all those countries I wrote pages of this letter, which was for me a matter of great joy, gladness, incredible rapture and incomparable sweetness.
Try it. Taste and see how good and gracious the Lord is and how sweet his words. Don’t be afraid of experiencing in your own life what Saint Paul went through: the real experience of the Christian apostles, saints, martyrs, ascetics and monastics down the ages and of every Christian baptized in Christ Jesus.
That is what I wish for you and pray for this to be realised in you, at the intercession of our Most Holy Mother, the Theotokos and at the intercession of Saint Paul. May this letter bring you greetings for the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ and our very cordial good wishes for the New Year 2009!
With my friendship and blessing,
+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Translated from the French by V. Chamberlain