Notre Dame de Puits, Mass at chapel of Abouna Yaacoub with Grego

Letter for Pascha 2015

From His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III

Gospel of the Resurrection: Good News of Life

We bring this good news joyfully to all those who will read this letter. We express this good news in this, brief, marvellous and spontaneous Paschal greeting, as we say, “Christ is risen! – He is risen indeed.” This good news is shared between the one who brings it and the one who hears it, good news that is full of faith and joyful, a good news proclaimed by great and small, good news that we repeat hundreds of times on the day of Pascha and the whole paschal period – the good news of life.

The Myrrhophoroi, the holy Myrrh-bearing Women who accompanied Christ as he walked and proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Love and Life, were the first to bring the Gospel of the Resurrection to the frightened, doubting apostles. That is why they have been given the beautiful, splendid, glorious title of holy myrrh-bearers, equal to the apostles.

Good News of Life: the Substance of Christianity

That means that the Kingdom, the centre and basis of Christian faith, is the resurrection. That means that life is at the very heart of Jesus Christ’s mission, as he said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10: 10) That means that anyone who believes in Jesus believes in life, because the gospel of the resurrection is the good news of life.

The good news of the resurrection, having been brought by the myrrh-bearers, became the great news on the lips of the apostles, who spread it from one person to the next – Peter to the twelve, and Mark, Cleopas and Luke to others among the seventy-two apostles. Paul excelled as an apostle of the resurrection, the great teacher of resurrection: such that not one of his epistles omits mentioning the resurrection. He is the great apostle of the resurrection, so that it may be said that resurrection, one of the great concepts in the theology of St Paul, has become an everyday reality in the life of every believer.

So resurrection is not just good news about the life to come – as we say in the Creed, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come,” – but resurrection has been brought about for life for us on earth now. As St Paul says, “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.”(Romans 6: 4)

The whole of life is a transition or Passover, a Pascha. We call it fleeting: years have flown by us like a bird in flight. The Jews or Hebrews are so-called after the crossing of the Red Sea, which symbolises our passing over, to freedom, dignity, a better life (from sin to virtue), from evil to good and from falsehood to truth.

All our life has as its goal life and resurrection. We do everything possible to grow and develop, and conquer all aspects of death through medicine and other inventions: all aimed at life. St Paul sings a hymn of victory over death, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”(I Corinthians 15: 55) St John Chrysostom repeats these words in his Paschal Homily, “O Death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and ye are overthrown. Christ is risen, and life reigns.”

That is why the Great Feast of the Resurrection is generally referred to by two titles or phrases: as Feast of Passover (Pesah=Pascha) and of Life. We must not separate one from the other. Passover is a passage or movement between life on earth and the life to come, eternal life. The Paschal Canon refers to this, “Today is the day of resurrection…for Christ our God has brought us over from death to life, and from earth to heaven, as we sing the triumphal song.” (Ode I, Tone 1)

Unfortunately, man invents also instruments of war, death and destruction. Man destroys what God has built and destroys life.

Christ is Resurrection and Life

Jesus states, “I am the resurrection, and the life.” (John 11: 25) He also said, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6: 35) He said, “He that followeth me … shall have the light of life.” (John 8: 12)He states, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14: 6)

The Evangelist John speaks of Christ, who is the life, in these words, “The life was manifested, and we have seen it.” (I John 1: 2)“He that hath the Son hath life.”(I John 5: 12a) “Ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.”(John 14: 19b)He reports Jesus saying he would give his life “for the life of the world.” (John 6: 51)In the First Epistle of the Apostle John, he writes, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.” (I John 3: 14)

Paul speaks of his relations with Christ Jesus with expressions in which he explains the depth of his relationship with Christ and with the life of Christ and life in Christ.“For to me to live is Christ.” (Philippians 1:21) “The promise of life … is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 1: 1)“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.”(Galatians 2:20b)

We are children of the resurrection and of life: we are resurrection people, to coin a phrase.

Incarnation is Life and Resurrection

Humanity’s mission is to preserve life. We are resurrection people, each and every one, meaning that each of us is the child of life, of resurrection, and the bringer of life to others. Thus it was that in the early period of Christianity in the East we were called, “children of the resurrection,” that is children of life and bearers of the culture and civilization of the resurrection and life.

So our pastoral activity is resurrection and life. Good education is a factor in resurrection and life. Good charitable actions are resurrection and life. Welfare institutions are resurrection and life. Our various Church institutions are resurrection and life. The aid that we bring to this tragic situation is life and resurrection: when hope is dying in the human heart, we revive it.

The expression, “intensive care,” or “reanimation,” suggests restoring human life. Liturgical animation means making the liturgy alive. Reconciliation is a work of resurrection and life, meaning that we restore trust and friendship by bringing confidence and amity to life. Consolation is an act of resurrection, because it revitalises and revives hope in the heart. A smile brings resurrection and life. A warm and loving greeting is resurrection and life. Greeting even a complete stranger in a friendly and considerate way is resurrection and life. Hope comprises several chapters in the book of resurrection and life. The events of the resurrection that we proclaim for twelve weeks during Sunday Orthros(Matins) are all chapters of new life. That is why our Eastern rite is called the rite of resurrection and life. That is why every week ends with the celebration of the resurrection in the Anavathmoi (Songs of Ascent) and begins with the Resurrection, or Descent, so that the whole week is a movement of resurrection and life. In the Christian Creed, we end with mention of our belief in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” So we are born to die and we die to live. Death is not a continuous situation, but a moment of passing on from one life to another.

The human body is at the service of life. Human limbs are instruments of piety and life. They are not instruments of evil and corruption. As the Holy Apostle Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans,“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.”  (Romans 6: 12-13)

What do we see today? People use their limbs, hands, feet, eyes, thoughts, imagination, ingenuity and inventiveness to devise instruments for killing, destruction, terrorism and death. So man destroys what God has created.

I would have liked to apply the above only to the criminal acts that we see nowadays on the media and in our countries in recent years, due to the chaos of war, jihadist, takfiri and Daeshist movements, but it could also be applied to education at home, in school, on the streets and at work.

That means that parents have great responsibility to educate their children about the importance of how they use their body: feet, hands, sight, hearing, smell, imagination, thoughts and all their limbs and functions, so that they all become instruments of friendship, compassion, help, thanks, solidarity, service, giving and life.

It is wonderful to see that our liturgical services make allusion to this education of the human senses and give guidance on how to use these functions, purify them and put them to good use, so that they become instruments of life and not of death. So we read in the Liturgy of the Presanctified, a service to which I referred in my Lenten Letter, and it can be an extraordinary lesson of education for social life and a topic of good advice, which parents can give their children to teach them how to use their limbs and bodily senses for good, learning, edification and life. So we find an instruction for every sense: – sight (“Let the eye be averted from every evil sight…”)- hearing (“…and the ear be deaf to idle talk.”) – speech (“May the tongue be purged of unseemly speech.”) – mouth (“Purify these lips that praise thee, O Lord.”)- hands (“Make our hands abstain from wicked deeds, doing only such things as are pleasing to thee.”) –all our limbs and mind(“..thus sealing with thy grace all our members, and our mind.”)

So, in the face of all that we are seeing, in front of the scenes of death and violence, terrorism, killing, throat-cuttings, beheadings, burning of bodies and severing limbs, let us strengthen our faith in life, in the risen Christ who has conquered death and bestowed life and calls us all to be children of the resurrection and life, to be bearers of the Gospel of life and work for success and the conquest of death by life, enmity by love, and hatred and revenge by forgiveness and reconciliation.

Bearers of the Gospel of Life and Resurrection

Today, seeing the very serious escalation in the tragic situation and the suffering of our people – all people – we need people to bring us all the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, like the Myrrh-bearing Women, like Luke and Cleopas and the other apostles.The eleven apostles and those with them began praying in the Upper Room behind closed doors in their despair, having lost all hope in their great Master, who had assured them on the night of his Passion that he would suffer much, but would rise from the dead on the third day. Well, the third day was passingwithout anyone seeing him, but then suddenly, the shout goes up as Luke and Cleopas return from Emmaus, “The Lord is risen indeed and hath appeared to Simon.” (Luke 24: 34) Each began recounting to the other the events of the resurrection and the appearances of the divine Master in various places. Then, Christ himself, risen from the dead appears to them, entering into the room, though the doors are closed out of fear while waiting in despair. And he says to them, “Peace be unto you.” (Luke 24: 36) “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?  Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see…”(Luke 24: 38-39) So he appears in Jerusalem and Emmaus, on the Mount of Olives, on the shore of Lake Tiberias, Bethany and elsewhere.

The Church expresses its joy in new life through its hymns of the Resurrection and Pascha that fill us with joy, as we notice on the faces of the faithful as they sing with the choir the most beautiful hymns of the joyful Resurrection written by the inspired pen, mind and heart of the great Saint John of Damascus, son of Sarjun ibn Mansur, minister of the Umayyad caliph, monk and hermit in the desert of Palestine in the monastery of St Saba near Jerusalem.

The Resurrection: Good News of Life for all Citizens

Dear brothers and sisters, we have indeed need today of these summons to joy, as we have entered upon the fifth year of the way of the cross and Golgotha of the suffering of us all.

We need to rejoice together, celebrate together, sing together and encourage one another, to convince one another in friendly fashion and bring joy to one another’s heart, visit one another, be in solidarity with one another, helping one another, dancing, singing, especially singing hymns of the Resurrection in our homes, gatherings, meetings, congregations, confraternities, various pastoral activities, youth meetings, scout meetings and all other youth associations. I summon all our faithful to that joy in our parishes everywhere, in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and the world over.

Let Christians on the day of Pascha and the glorious Resurrection, set an example of joy and let the contagion of joy, their joy in the Resurrection of Christ, affect their neighbours and all citizens around them! So our children and all citizens of our Middle East will be able to participate in the joy of the resurrection among all Christian communities, whether they follow the Eastern or Western computus or the Gregorian or Julian calendar.

We Christians are the bearers of a really splendid message of resurrection and life, hope and gladness in the heart of everyone. May the Feast of the Resurrection this year, the fifth of war and suffering, be a feast of joy for all the children of our suffering East!

Joy, gladness, hope, optimism, singing, celebration of the feast-days, family reunions, meetings with friends, acquaintances and neighbours, and especially with those who are afflicted by mourning, the loss of friends and loved ones are really needed by us today to enable us to cope with all the tragic suffering around us. We have spent forty or even fifty days in fasting and prayer, that God may remove from our Eastern countries, especially Syria and Iraq, this evil spirit that can only go out through prayer and fasting.

“God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us.” Let us celebrate the feast and let us joyfully receive Christ, risen from the dead. And we call on him, as did the two disciples of Emmaus, to come and abide in our home, our houses, our districts, our hearts, our institutions, saying like them, “Abide with us: for it is towards evening and the day is far spent.”(Luke 24: 29)

How great our blessedness and joy will be when we hear Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, participating in our festive meal, sitting at table with us, living among our families, breaking bread with us, causing joy and gladness to well up in our hearts through his love so that our hearts will be full of joy and consolation. We feel that Jesus has been our companion on the way of our sufferings and tragedy during the past four years, but we did not know that it was he who was accompanying us along the road and protecting us despite the shells and mortars that were falling on us.

We, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke and Cleopas, become in our turn, bearers of the message of joy and we proclaim to others our spiritual experience, our experience of faith. So we really feel the joy of the resurrection and that Jesus has accompanied us in this tragedy and has saved us from various dangers.

The Martyrs are Children of Resurrection and Life

Many of our parishioners and other citizens have fallen as martyrs and victims of savage warfare. We should like to mention especially three groups of events that have really shaken our feelings and destroyed our morale and have caused fear to well up in our hearts, bringing many of us to emigrate because of fear and lack of security. Firstly, our brothers and sisters in Mosul and on the Nineveh Plain have been driven out; secondly, Daesh (ISIS) slaughtered twenty-one Copts who were Egyptian citizens, and thirdly there occurred the expulsion, killing and kidnapping of many of our Assyrian brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of thirty-five villages along the Khabur River in Northern Syria. We offer our heartfelt condolences to all those who are grieving. We shall remain always trusting in the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, who has destroyed death.

Let us not forget, as I mentioned earlier, that we are the children of the resurrection. Nor let us forget that Damascus itself and the surrounding region, which has seen so much fighting, is the place of the appearance of Jesus, risen from the dead, to Saul, the persecutor, who came to Damascus with the intention of destroying the new Church that had been born in Damascus. There he was, on the road to Damascus, to kill, slaughter, abduct and take captive, when he saw Christ himself, risen from the dead, who appeared to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9: 4)

So Saul continued on his way to Damascus, as mild as a lamb. In Damascus he receives the illumination of holy baptism at the hands of Ananias, the first bishop of Damascus. In Damascus, Saul becomes Paul, the bearer of the good news of the resurrection, and he goes off into the desert of Deraato Mismiyeh, and there he proclaims the good news of Jesus, risen from the dead, and from the East, he goes into the whole world, to announce the good news of the resurrection and life, which is in Jesus Christ.

Call to Resurrection and Life

From Damascus, on the day of the Resurrection, of glorious Pascha – the passing over from death to life, slavery to freedom, lack of dignity to dignity, war to peace – we proclaim, with all the means at the disposal of our churchesand parishes, this shout of victory and life, “Christ is risen!”

From suffering Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and our East, especially Jerusalem, the city of resurrection, we launch this appeal to the whole world.

Instead of joining the various takfiri and jihadist groups, and other murderous, terrorist, destructive, chaotic groups, we say, “Join the two hundred thousand Christians who are celebrating the Feast of the Resurrection and life, love, solidarity, forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, and universal fraternity.”

We address this appeal especially to all those enrolling under the banners of those organisations, telling them to join us, the sons and daughters of the resurrection and life. We tell them, “We should like you also to take part in the joy of the feast. We love you!” In the words of the Church’s doxastikon, “It is the day of Resurrection; let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, O brethren, even to those that hate us: let us forgive all things on the Resurrection; and thus let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead, by death He hath trampled down death, on those in the tombs bestowing life.”

The call to reconciliation means embracing one another and being reconciled. Since the first month of the crisis in Syria, we have not stopped proclaiming thatappeal. Today again, we call for there to be a mutual embrace and reconciliation. We address this appeal to all Syria’s sons and daughters, wherever they may be and whatever their affiliations, rites or communities, including the various opposition groups, whoever and wherever they may be: we are all Syria’s children!

We are glad about the various meetings that have been organised in Russia and elsewhere aimed at bringing together various perspectives in order to reach the peaceful resolution for which we are all hoping of this very tragic crisis, which has made victims of us all.

We in all our churches will remain with hands uplifted in prayer for the realisation of this great goal. We say to everyone in the language of the Qur’an, “Come to a common word between us and you.” (Al-Imran 3: 64) God grant that the day of reconciliation, salvation and mutual embrace may come! Then indeed there will be a great feast for the whole of Syria, a feast of resurrection and life.

How great will be our joy at this great feast, when joy will enter the hearts of thevast majority of inhabitants of this society so full of human wars and disputes – though masquerading as religious under a kamilavkion or a turban, raising aloft symbols or flags adorned with some slogan or other, yet in the end they can be seen as merely internecine, human wars.

So we say to everyone in the East and in the West: dismiss any idea that this conflict is over religion. When I look at what is happening in our countries, it seems to me that Daesh (ISIS) has nothing whatever to do with religion. ISIS is rather an instrument which takes on, very foolishly and insolently, the outward aspectand show of a religious movement. However, in reality they show Islam in a most hideous, deceitful and fraudulent guise.

The conflict is not merely a Sunni-Shi’a one, though this aspect has been seen here and there as significant in Syria. Even this conflict has become a tool and a cover for proxy war in our region and at the cost of all its citizens.

This is in the line of what Pope Francis said in his New Year’s Day letter for the World Day of Peace (2015) and in his Lenten Letter, in which he draws attention to the fact that humans should not be used. So I say with great certainty and with great pain that religion has become a tool; human beings have been instrumentalised and commoditised. Religious conflict has become marketable. Killing the innocent has become a commodity and instrument and slaughtering Christians has become a tool. The Syrian crisis, or world war on Syria, has become an instrument and commodity. Those who profit from this situation and the tragedy of our Arab world and societies are many amongst us: rows, local, regional and international who make war on humans and instruments of us all. Even killing Christian brothers and sisters and expelling them from their villages, properties and sanctuaries has become a tool for unfathomable ends. Killing our children, Christian children is also a commodity and tool for other reasons. The war on Syria is also a commodity: everyone is buying it; every citizen, one way or another, even among us, is using this crisis as a profitable commodity and we wonder whether something of Daesh ideology has not found its way into every human being nowadays.

How greatly we shall rejoice at the great feast, when joy will enter the hearts of all the fighters in Syria and they will discard their weapons and walk all together in the light of resurrection and life.

Being Apostles of Life and Resurrection

You are an apostle if you believe in resurrection and life, and when you proclaim the resurrection and life. Let us be agents of life, prosperity and progress. Let us be agents to build up the culture of life and not be instruments of death, war and destruction. That is the meaning of life: that is its beauty.

In conclusion, I offer my heartiest greetings to all those who will read this letter, especially to my venerable, beloved brother bishops, consecrated monks, nuns and religious and all our faithful, especially the lay-persons who are involved in pastoral work, in parish and church activities who are really servants of the resurrection and life. They realise what Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and might have it more abundantly.” (John 10: 10)

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

With my friendship and blessing

+ Gregorios III

Patriarch of Antioch and All the East

Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

For the Melkite Greek Catholic Church