The Word Magazine May 1997 Page 4-6
THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION
By Seminarian Bassam Nassif
In a time when the Orthodox Christian Church is facing new challenges, and the interaction between Her and different religious thoughts is growing and intensifying, it is needful and valuable to bring to light the unique traditional stand and mission of the Church of Antioch. The experience and mind-set of Middle Eastern Christians can certainly help to give many solutions to the new challenges facing the Orthodox Church in the Twenty-first century.
In Antioch, the Disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26), and the great missionary Paul and the unyielding faithful Peter worked to establish firmly the Kingdom of God in the hearts and minds of the Antiochians. In the meanwhile, a vivid interaction between Christians, Jews, and Pagans started to shape the mind and tradition of the local apostolic Church, impacting Christianity on a universal level. The book of Acts records the instance when Saints Peter and Paul confronted each other in Antioch over the issue of circumcision of the Gentiles. Their reconciliation happened after the first Apostolic Council proclaimed that the Good News is for all beyond any ethnicity (Acts 15). The same Holy Spirit who worked diligently and unceasingly in the Church continues today to shine the light of Truth in the words and prophesies of the Antiochian patriarchs and faithful. Throughout its history, the Patriarchate of Antioch has played a conciliatory role, as for example between opposing parties at the time of the councils. Most impressing is this Antiochian spirit of openness to other faiths and traditions, wisely dialoging the world with words of love and truth. The tradition of Antioch is the pride of the entire Orthodox Church.
Soon after the spread of the Gospel in Antioch, the Church of the East carried the Cross of Christ and followed the Master. She grew and matured while suffering violence and great pain: Roman-pagan persecution, schisms with the nonChalcedonians, Jihad of the Muslims, Byzantine invasions, Crusaders invasions which forced Latinization, Mongol invasions which destroyed the city of Antioch (an event that led to the transfer of the Patriarchate’s residence to Damascus in 1322), Ottoman occupation, Uniatism and proselytism by 19c. Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Up to this century, the Orthodox of Antioch stand as a “confessing Church”, armed with the humility of kenosis (self emptying and sacrificing for others) and the power of love. Today, the Orthodox Church of the Arab East continues to bear the cross of suffering. Through Her endurance, the Church stands as Christ’s witness to the world: the Bride of Christ is manifesting the power of His Resurrection by Her remarkable “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Reconciliation between humankind, creation, and God brings peace, the peace that breaks down the walls of hostility between people.
The experience of Antioch in this holy ministry encompassed the whole creation. Saint Isaac the Syrian asked: “What is a compassionate heart? It is a heart which burns for the whole of creation, for the birds, for the beasts of the earth, for every creature.” Most striking is the theology and the person of Saint John the Damascene, prime minister of the Damascus Court during the reign of Caliph Ommyad. Saint John was an important symbolic figure representing the presence of Christianity in Islam, a presence capable of disassociating religious affiliation from political allegiance. Although his Faith was that of his state’s enemies, his loyalty to the Caliph gave a striking example about the possible continuity of the Orthodox presence in the homeland of Islam. His theology on the divine energies of the Risen Christ transforming and transfiguring matter reveals his traditional understanding of the ministry of reconciliation in the Church of Antioch. Using Greek as the universal language, the Church of Antioch lived and developed in first an Aramaic, then an Arab, cultural milieu. The Orthodox faithful of Antioch constitute a large part of the indigenous people in the East.
This spirit of openness is present in many historical events in the Patriarchate of Antioch. Today the work of the Holy Spirit continues to enrich the confessing Church, making fruitful Her ministry of reconciliation. The vision and prophesies of Her Patriarchs in the Twentieth Century are rooted in the tradition of the Church.
Starting from Patriarch Meletios Dumani, a man of rare wisdom and deep understanding of Orthodox ecclesiology, this Patriarch sent in 1904 an important letter to the then Russian Archbishop Tikhon in North America. Saint Tikhon was administering the needs of the Orthodox immigrants in North America. This letter was about the consecration of the Arab Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny in Brooklyn, in order for the Bishop to take care of the Syrian-Arab immigrants in the New World under the supervision of Tikhon. The late Father John Meyendorff noted that “very often, the Orthodox identify their ecclesial allegiance with ethnic culture and nationality, so that the concept of autocephaly becomes practically indistinguishable from national separatism.”2 Father Meyendorff most probably had in mind the situation of the Orthodox in North America. He outlined the unique tradition of Antioch by writing that “with a wisdom inherited from the Apostolic origins of the Church of Antioch, Patriarch Meletios proclaims that Bishop Raphael’s consecration in North America, by the local Archbishop Tikhon, would not prevent him