Christmas Pastoral Letter

Arabic Version as PDF Here

The Most Reverend Robert Rabbat, DD by the Mercy of God

Melkite Catholic Eparch of Australia and New Zealand to
the Clergy, my fellow ministers at the Altar,
the Religious & All the Faithful of our Holy Eparchy.

A Pastoral Letter for the Feast of the Divine Nativity, 2016.

ِِالمسـي ُح  ُولد،ف َ َمـ ّج ُدوه !
Christ is born! Glorify Him ! Χριστός γεννάται! Δοξάσατε

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We live in a visual age. That which is seen has become more important than what is heard. The message often becomes lost in a plethora of images and vision snippets. We have but to think of the election campaigns of both candidates in the recent United States presidential elections. During the lead up to the ballot there was a merging of image and message into a constant bombardment of slogans repeated day and night as media mantra. And this is hardly confined to the United States.

For most of human history the majority of people had their experience of what we would call art, visual stimulation, only at state occasions or in public buildings, temple or church. Today, to the electronic media - television and cinema – there has been added a seemingly endless range of developments in telecommunications, educational supports and lifestyle devices. As well as the ever-present electronic images, there is an abundance of print material, which are also inundated with photos.

Often our society’s obsession with the image is so pervasive that it becomes intrusive. The main street of a new suburb not far from the Eparchy is one kilometre long - there are 73 traffic and pedestrian control signs on each side of the road; in all, 146 signs. This is no longer guidance, it is visual pollution.

All of these stimuli elicit some sort of response – even if, sometimes, it is one of rejection - we wish we could opt out of our image saturated society. However, we often forget that against the contemporary visual bombardment, frequently accompanied by an annoying soundtrack, there are images that serenely speak to our hearts of the only things that matter.

Unlike much western religious imagery, iconography, the sacred art of the Byzantine Church, is didactic. (διδακτκος, teaching). Our icons are not meant to be simply pretty or feel-good. Even a person without a religious education should be able to deduce certain basic facts about the Christian Faith. There is a 5th century Latin maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, how we pray or worship shows what we believe; in the Byzantine East we could add that the way we iconograph reveals what we believe.

At this time of the year, there are seasonal icons that call us to focus on the Mystery that we celebrate and into which we are invited to enter. The icon of the Divine Nativity, even when several scenes are included, as in Slavic icons, is essentially simple and peaceful. Think, but for a moment of the figure of the Virgin Theotokos. She does not kneel before the New-born as in some debased Italianate icons, but lies beside the manger. She is complete and gentle repose after her miraculous birth-giving. She rests on a small rock formation, reminding as that she is “the mountain not hewn by human hands.” (Dan 2:34)

The manger (Lk 2:7) becomes for us more than simply an animal’s food box, but is often shown as a sarcophagus in which the Child, enshrouded, has been laid by his Mother. By this simple, often overlooked iconographic convention, we are reminded of the unity of the Incarnational Mystery – the entire life of Jesus was an integrated salvific act. Importantly, in canonical icons of the Nativity, St Joseph, the Betrothed, is shown at a distance from the Theotokos and the new born Jesus. We are thus reminded that Joseph is not the father of the Child but his guardian.

At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel, tells the Theotokos to name the Child, Jesus, that is, Saviour. His birth, the hidden years, his public ministry, suffering, death and resurrection, are not simply isolated or disconnected events but rather they are the “who” of salvation. As Peter proclaims to the Jewish Sanhedrin, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

In the New Testament two texts are especially pertinent when we consider our Lord, Jesus Christ, as the True Icon. In the Gospel of St John, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9), and in the Letter to the Hebrews, the sacred author writes that Jesus is the “express image” (χαρακτήρ) of the Father. (Heb 1:3)

The medieval Russian iconographer, St Andrei Rublev (c1360–c1428) produced the renowned and much venerated icon of the Old Testament Trinity, the three “angels” at the Oak of Mamre. (Gen18:1) In the visit of the three heavenly entities, Abraham was granted a veiled revelation of the Holy Trinity. Moses was permitted only a glimpse of the Glory, the δόξα, as God passed by. (Ex 33:22) In Jesus Christ, however, we are able to know God in a way that was not possible for any of the prophets or patriarchs of the Old Testament - we know him as the Emmanuel, God-Who-Is-With-Us.

St John the Evangelist recounts that some Greek converts, Hellenistic Jews, came to Jerusalem for the Passover. They approached Philip, possibly because of his Greek name. They had a simple request, “We wish to see Jesus Christ.” (Jn 12:21) They could not possibly have known the full implications of what they were asking...just as we often overlook the demands of discipleship. In the verses that follow, Jesus uses the metaphor of the wheat which falls to the ground and dies that there might be much grain as a reminder of the demands of discipleship.

If we look around us, if we break free of the visual distractions that hedge us in, we will find many in our society who, like these Greeks, wish to see Jesus Christ.

A pious custom recurring in many historical periods has been to press a copy of a renowned icon, upon the original, thus, “absorbing” in some way, a degree of the charism within the original. It is of little value to honour a particular icon if we do not allow its message to enter our hearts and minds, and thus, to re-form our very souls.

When we stand before the icon of the Holy Trinity or when we gaze upon the icon of the Nativity, do we see only a work of art, or do we allow ourselves to be drawn into the Divine Mystery revealed through the hand of the iconographer? In Rublev’s Trinity, we encounter the One of whom St John says, “God is love” (1Jn4:8), whilst in the nativity icon, we see the true and perfect manifestation of that love come amongst us, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.

After the theophany on Mt Sinai, Moses returned to the encamped Israelites having to veil his face because he literally reflected the divine glory. But what of us? At Christmas, do we venerate the nativity icon and take into our hearts and souls some of that glory of which the angels sang; do we radiate that peace which was their wish for humankind? Are we truly bearers of the Mystery who bring the Good News of Salvation to a humankind - men and women, who in the depths of their hearts, wish to see Jesus Christ.

Today, there are some 50 million displaced persons - men, women and children, who, for whatever reason, have been forced to flee their homelands and who have nowhere to go. These brothers and sisters of ours, cast adrift, almost equal the inhabitants of the Empire of which Jesus was a subject. It would indeed be easy to become overwhelmed by the numbers and percentages that are the statistics of modern disaster reporting. However, we must be constantly vigilant, that is keeping watch in Christ, lest the forces of darkness, despair and despondency take hold of our hearts and minds. In the midst of the widespread, murderous rioting at Antioch in AD 387, St John Chrysostom, then still a priest, rallied the Christian Community with a series of sermons each beginning with “Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice!”

Today, Chrysostom, the Golden Mouth, would say much the same to us. Rejoice! Be Christians, not only as a people of prayer, but also as a community of good deeds. Perhaps, most forcefully, he would remind us that “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”

Dear Brothers and Sisters, I know that we live in a society which makes so many demands on our resources. Someone is always asking something of us. However, during this blessed season, we cannot help but be aware of the Divine Gift, who is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word and Wisdom of God, come into this world. For this reason, I can but urge you to be mindful of those who are in need.

May each of you – every family, every household - rejoice in this Blessed Feast. May you know that peace and joy of which the Bodiless Powers sang that first Christmas in Bethlehem.

As a Christmas gift, I would ask that each of you say a prayer for me and for the wellbeing of the Holy Eparchy. With my paternal blessing and with prayers assured,

Robert Rabbat, DD

From our Eparchy, at Greenacre, NSW 24 December 2016.