Malankara World

Great Lent

'Be like Living Stones' Ė Patriarchal Encyclical of the Great Lent 2017

by His Holiness Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II

IN THE NAME OF THE SELF-EXISTENT
SEMPITERNAL OF NECESSARY EXISTENCE THE ALMIGHTY
IGNATIUS APHREM II, PATRIARCH OF THE HOLY SEE OF ANTIOCH AND ALL THE EAST
SUPREME HEAD OF THE UNIVERSAL SYRIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH IN THE WORLD

We extend our apostolic benediction, benevolent prayers and greetings to our brethren, His Beatitude Mor Baselius Thomas I, Catholicos of India, and their Eminences the Metropolitans and Bishops; our spiritual children: Very Reverend Corepiscopoi, Reverend priests, monks, nuns, deacons and deaconesses and the entire blessed Syriac Orthodox people throughout the world. May the divine providence embrace them through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and St. Peter, Chief of the Apostles, and the rest of the Martyrs and Saints. Amen.

"Be like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2: 5)

Dearly beloved in Christ,

In the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi, Simon-Peter declared his faith in "the Messiah, the son of the living God" (Matthew 16: 16); the Lord Jesus Christ used his faith as a strong rock on which He built His Church. Hence, the Church is a spiritual house made of living stones that are every believer in Christ. This house was established on the rock of the faith in Jesus Christ. This constitutes the essence of the entire Christian faith: these words summarize the entire Christian dogma and its sublime mission. Jesus is "the Messiah", the Savior Who is long awaited by humanity, through Whom God the Father redeemed humankind and saved it by the abundance of His love. He is a witness of Godís great love and unlimited mercies. He is "the son of God", Who became flesh to save the human race. He is "Living One" without beginning nor end, ever present in the Church and working in her through His Holy Spirit.

The community of believers cannot stand strong facing temptations, nor can it grow in the spirit, rejoice in the Lord or live in peace without the continuous presence of God amidst it. This community of believers cannot perform her mission faithfully and effectively without the permanent renewal through turning back to God in the spirit of repentance, and asking for His enlightenment and discovering His will which "who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (I Timothy 2: 4).

The Marks of the Church:

The Church has four marks which we cite repeatedly in the Creed: "we believe in one Church, holy, catholic and apostolic".

Faith in Christ the son of the living God invites us to fulfill the Lordís wish which He expressed on the night of His voluntary death for our sake, saying: "so that they may be one, as We are one" (John 17: 11). This prayer of the Lord Jesus which means that, in spite of its diversity and the cultural and traditional differences, the Churchís unity is at the heart of the credibility of its mission: "that they may be one, and they have believed that You sent me" (John 17: 8). The Lord Jesus Christ is the source of her unity, and for His sake she will remain one and united, "in one heart and in one breath" (Acts 2: 46).

The Church is catholic, i.e. universal, because she gathers all nations; she is not a church of a certain nation or of a particular people, as was understood in the Old Testament; rather, she is the church of "all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (John 1: 12). This is what was revealed to St. John the Apostle and he recorded it in the Book of Revelation saying: "there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Revelation 7: 9).

The Church is holy because God does not dwell except in holy places, for He is holy and the sanctifier of saints. Christian life is a constant struggle to reach holiness though this goal is hard to reach. The faithful has to constantly seek holiness through the purification of their souls from worldly passions and through acquiring Christian virtues. This is what the Lord reminds us of through St. Peter the Apostle: "for it is written, ĎYou shall be holy, for I am holyí." (I Peter 1: 16).

The Church is an apostolic church because she is established on the faith of St. Peter and the rest of the Apostles. Here is what we chant weekly in the Sheemo on Friday morning: "ܥܰܠ ܫܶܡܥܽܘܢ ܟܺܐܦܐ ܡܳܪܰܢ ܥܺܕܬܶܗ ܒܢܳܐ܆ ܘܥܰܠ ܫܰܒܥܺܝܢ ܘܰܬܪܶܝܢ ܥܰܡܽܘܕ̈ܺܝܢ ܐܰܬܩܢܳܗ̇" On Simon the rock, our Lord built His Church, and on the seventy two pillars, He founded her". Therefore, Christ is the Head of the Church while the faith of the Apostles led by St. Peter, is the foundation of the Church. The seventy two preachers who were all witnesses and martyrs for the sake of this faith, became the pillars of her growth. The word of the Old Testament was thus fulfilled: "God is in her midst; she shall not be moved" (Psalms 46: 5, from Syriac).

A Martyred Church for Christ, Alive in the Holy Spirit:

In addition to the four marks, we can describe the Church as a persecuted church since she has always faced persecution since her foundation till this present day, in fulfillment of the Lordís words: "In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (John 16: 33). Thus, persecutions strengthened the faith of the believers and Tertullianís famous words spread since the fourth century: "the blood of the martyrs became the seeds of faith".

The Church is persecuted because she fights the evil one and its forces. The more she endures tribulations and persecutions and offers martyrs, the more she is strengthened and grows like a tree high above and yields fruits, thirty, sixty and a hundred times.

Through the Church, the gospel of life spread to the entire world and salvation became available to all. The Church became witness of Christ in the world, through the Holy Spirit Who preserves her and strengthens her with His gifts. This entails that every believer become an active member of the body of the Church. The faithful is called to submit his will to the Lord and allow the Holy Spirit to work through him, by realizing Godís kingdom among the people.

The Mission of the Church:

The mission of the Church is the salvation of the souls, of the entire world. Therefore, the universal Church constantly seeks to spread the gospel of Christ among all the nations, "to know Christ and the power of His resurrection" (Philippians 3: 10), so they may believe in Him as a savior and redeemer.

To complete this mission, we find servants in the Church who have dedicated their lives to minister to Godís people and to accompany them in their journey of faith. These are the priests in all their ranks, in the serving capacity of priesthood, where ministry means service, in accordance to the Lord Jesusí words to His disciples: "whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant" (Matthew 20: 26). The Lord himself gave an example of this serving ministry by washing the feet of His disciples though He is the Lord and Master (cf. John 13: 1-5). Thus, we understand the mission of the Church to be service of the world in order to sanctify it.

The Church is called to renew herself, clergy of all ranks, as well as all the believers. She is also called to a complete renewal of her religious, educational and social institutions according to the teachings of the gospel and its spirit.

May we renew our commitment to the Church, "the temple of God" which makes us "spiritual temples" of Him, by the power of His gospel and the grace of the mysteries of salvation and the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. We renew our commitment to the holiness of the Church, as sheep of one shepherd, Christ our God Who redeemed man and saved the world. Let us listen hence to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ and let us obey His commands, the teachings of the Church and the inspirations of the Holy Spirit in the context of the events in our lives and the signs of times. Obedience leads us to follow Christ in our behavior and initiatives. We then become His own, whom He protects and preserves: "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand." (John 10: 27-28).

We pray that the Holy Spirit may renew in us the temple of God, especially in these holy days while we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead, by rendering a true repentance. The Great Lent is an opportune time to offer almsgiving and do charity to others in order to show our love to our fellow humans, realizing the meaning of the words of St. Paul: "if anyone destroys Godís temple, God will destroy that person. For Godís temple is holy, and you are that temple." (I Corinthians 3: 17). We ask God to help us preserve the temple of God which is in us by remaining united to Him through adhering to the words of the Gospel, the grace of His sacraments and the law of love inscribed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Hence, we do not become preys of sin and evil. We trust that the Lord shepherds His Church, protects her and surrounds her with keepers who stand at her doors and protect her from evil day and night, as we pray in this beautiful hymn: "ܥܰܠ ܬܰܪ̈ܥܰܝܟܝ ܥܺܕܬܐ ܢܳܛܽܘܪ̈ܶܐ ܩܳܝܡܺܝܢ܆ ܒܠܺܠܝܐ ܘܒܺܐܝܡܳܡܐ ܡܶܢ ܒܺܝܫܐ ܢܳܛܪܺܝܢ"

We lift our hands in prayer to the Lord during this Holy Lent for peace and security in the countries of the Middle East. In particular, we pray for peace in Syria and Iraq: May violence, terrorism and destruction be stopped. May the people regain peace of mind and live safely. May the emigrants return to their homes and properties. We beseech the divine grace for the return of all the prisoners and kidnapped. We fervently pray that their Eminences Boulos Yaziji and Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim, the kidnapped Archbishops of Aleppo, may celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ with their spiritual children in Aleppo and thus the joy of the Resurrection abundantly fill our hearts.

May the Lord bless our fasting, accept our prayers and be pleased with our offerings. We ask Him to have mercy on the souls of our beloved departed ones and make us worthy to joyfully celebrate the feast of the Resurrection through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and all the saints and martyrs. May His grace be with you all, Amen. ܘܐܒܘܢ ܕܒܫܡܝܐ ܘܫܪܟܐ

Issued at our Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria
on the twenty fourth of February, of the Year Two Thousand and Seventeen,
which is the third year of our Patriarchate

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