A Story Involving Relics from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor

In Book 9.6 of the Chronicle (or Ecclesiastical History) of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, a Justinianic Syriac Monophysite, we read this story:

After [the Persian Emperor] Kavadh, his son Khusro reigned. His mother, during the life of her husband Kavadh, was possessed by a demon, and all the magi, sorcerers, and enchanters who were called by her husband Kavadh, who very much loved her, did not profit her at all, but truth be told, they added demons upon demons to her. She was sent in the fourth [indiction year] in the days of the dux Liberarius to the blessed Moses who had a monastery above Dara, some two parasangs from the region. He was famous, and she was with him a few days and was purified, and returned to her land, having taken from this holy Moses of the monastery called Tarmel the blessing of the bones of Cyriacus the martyr so that she could take refuge in it for her protection, so that the [evil] spirit would not return upon her; and she built for him in a secret [place] a house of prayer in her land in order to honour [him], and he was venerated there. When she remembered the grace that had happened to her through this blessed Moses of Tarmel, she aided the country of the Romans with a purpose and reason that are described below. (Trans Robert R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn in the TTH trans, ed. Geoffrey Greatrex)

According to n. 95, p. 328, Christian literature abounds with stories of Persian monarchs being cured by saints, and according to the Armenian version of Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle, Khusro’s mother was actually baptised.

This story reminds me of a biblical parallel (and no doubt on purpose), the story of Na’aman in 2 Kings 5. Na’aman was a Syrian general who was afflicted with leprosy. Like the Persian Queen Mother in Pseudo-Zachariah, he went to the man of God, in this case the Prophet Elisha (successor to Elijah). To make a long story short, Na’aman was cured by washing in the River Jordan and returned healthy and hale to his people. He vowed that he would worship YHWH in secret — whenever his master bowed to the god Rimmon, he would bow as well, but secretly incline his heart to the God of Elisha. Khusro’s mother also worshipped in secret according to Pseudo-Zachariah, building a shrine to St. Cyriacus (apparently a popular martyr’s name).

Yet unlike Na’aman, the Persian Queen does not convert. She does not offer prayers to Christ our God. Instead, she takes back with her some sort of relic — I imagine the “oil of the saints’, oil that has made contact with a relic and is used for the purposes of healing the sick and casting out demons. The tomb of St. Euthymius in the Judean Desert has a hole through which to pour the oil, and it comes out a little drain at the bottom for you to gather it; such oil recurs frequently throughout the Life of Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), and Cyril of Scythopolis often speaks of the “oil of the holy Cross”, which is probably a similar idea.

Her reverence is for the holy man and the saint who cured her, not, to use the popular Byzantine turn of phrase, “Christ our God.” This is too bad, really. The Church should certainly be seeking to heal those who are sick, be it with demonic possession or physical ailments, but what about the ultimate, deepest sickness, the fallenness of the human soul? Should not Moses have introduced this Persian aristocrat to Christ the Physician? Perhaps he tried, and she would have none of it.

Alas, then, that this woman was cured of a temporal sickness but refused the medicine of the eternal sickness, taking away superstition rather than true religion! No doubt the history of the Church is full of such stories.

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A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 1

I preached a shortened version of this sermon at Evensong at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 2008.  The preaching began with a reading of the hymns by Ephrem the Syrian quoted in my last post.

It is Christmas.  I hope to share with you in this homily some thoughts on the ineffable mystery of Christmas.  The elusive “true meaning” of Christmas that every Christmas special seeks to hunt down is bigger than Santa, gifts, family, friends, carols, winter, snow or anything else that we human beings do.  The true meaning of Christmas, dear friends, is that of the Incarnation, as St. Ephraim says, “the God-man.”  It is this theological mystery I hope to investigate tonight.

People are often afraid of theology, and I’ll skip over a lot of jargon; I’ll use Scripture, hymns, creeds, the Fathers, etc, to bring out the beauty of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—with the understanding that the hymns, Fathers, creeds, etc, are in accord with Scripture.  When we see the beauty and glory and magnificence of this event, I hope that we will be drawn to worship and prayer.  True worship of the true God is the ultimate goal of all proper theology.

Diadochus of Photike says, “Divine theology brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.”  Similarly, Evagrius Ponticus declares, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Worship and prayer are vitally important; both fuel us and drive us into action; may we thus also live better lives in the light of the truth of Christmas, when God came down and lived amongst us.

1. What God is Jesus?  The Creator God.

According to John 1, Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God.  And the Word is not only with God, but is God.  We read the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s tonight so we could read its Christological formulae: Jesus, the Word, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (BCP)  The Word is not other than God.  God, in His fullness, is Jesus.  Anything we can say about God we can also say about Jesus.  So in Psalm 72, when the Psalmist says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen,” (BCP) we can substitute Jesus for the Divine Name, “the LORD”, and proclaim, “Blessed be Jesus, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen.”

This truth is expressed most fully in the Creed of St. Athanasius, which can be found here.  The entire thing is worth a read someday; I encourage you to do so.  Verse 30 reads, “Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.  He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born into the world; Perfect God; perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.” (BCP)

Perfect God.

God.  Jesus is fully God.  He is not some lesser being, some semi-divine creature, or an angelic being.  He is God Himself.  This is a mystery.  We cannot penetrate into the fullness of its glory.  Indeed, it boggles the mind to think on it:  God in the flesh!  There is so much that could be said about the God Who Jesus is—he is the God of the Old Testament, He set the people of Israel free from Egypt, He spoke by the prophets, He gave the law, He showed Moses a glimpse of His glory.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that He is the Creator God.

a. The Creator God

God, according to Genesis 1, created everything.  He spoke, and it happened.  God said, “Let light come into being, and there was light.”  Since God created using speech, it comes as no surprise that we read in John 1, “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (NKJV)  Jesus, the Word, created.  He is the living Word of God the Father, and He brought all things into existence.  He is the One Who creates out of nothing.  Before we rush off into these heights of glorious truth, let us recall the title of a book I once read, Jesus with Dirty Feet.  This Jesus we read of in the Gospels, the One with dirty feet, Who walked the shores of Galilee, Who threw the moneychangers from the Temple, Who wept at Lazarus’ death, Who told stories, Who was born a Babe in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by His mother—this Jesus happens also to be the Creator of the Universe.

Creator.  Of.  The.  Universe.

This is who Jesus is: the Creator of the Stars of Night; the Creator of nebulae and galaxies and comets and solar systems and suns and planets and asteroids and all stellar phenomena; the Creator of ants and whales and bacteria and diatoms and hair and mountains and goats and birch trees and mighty oaks and Niagara Falls and you and me.  As Creator of humanity, He gave unto us a certain creative faculty.  Therefore, all the works of beauty created by humans are traceable back to the Creator God: the architecture of this Church, beautiful poetry, paintings, stained-glass windows, fabulous novels, true philosophy—all because of Jesus.  He is the Creator of the Universe.  He made stuff by talking.  His Word went forth and made all that was, all that is, and all that ever shall be.  As we sing in the fourth-century hymn of Prudentius:

At his word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and Evermore.

This Creator God took on flesh at Christmas.  He was born of a Virgin as an infant.  The mind that hung the Pleiades in the sky was incapable of expressing itself in words and lived off the very milk of a woman whom He created.  Mindblowing.

b.  The God of the Old Testament

Briefly, let us remember that the Creator God has a specific character and history as revealed in the Old Testament; and Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, is that God.  In fact, some of the early Church Fathers taught that the Word of God, Jesus, is the God who speaks in the Old Testament.  I’m not sure I agree, but the implications are that the Second Person of the Trinity is the One Who once on Sinai’s height did “give the Law in cloud and majesty and awe”;  He spoke to Elijah in the still small voice on Mt. Carmel;  He visited Abraham and Sarah; He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets.

This God we worship in Jesus is not just a speaker and Creator.  He doesn’t just order the cosmos and talk to us every once in a while.  He acts.  Remember our Sunday School Bible stories: He brought Noah’s flood, He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, He caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, He gave Samson superhuman strength, He gave Solomon wisdom, He consumed the offerings that Elijah gave on the altar with a mighty flame, He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  The holy God of Israel, Who meets Moses in the burning bush and declares His Divine Name, “I am that I am,” manifests Himself as Jesus.

He is just, righteous, jealous for His holy Name, compassionate and merciful.  Anything we can say about Almighty God we can say about Jesus.  This means also that, in the New Testament, when John says that God is Love, the same applies to Jesus.  That God is Love helps unlock the mystery of why this God of power and might would choose to humble Himself as a poor infant, born into this world not into the halls of kings or emperors but into a manger of all places!