'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
"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
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
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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