If you’ve done any reading from modern Orthodox saints, you know that there is a certain tone among the holy elders of Greece, another from Russia and so forth. Each culture enculturates the Gospel in its own authentic way and speaks of the truth of Jesus Christ with its own voice.
One of the things which makes the particular Antiochian voice distinct—although it is often not well known here in America, as I wrote in my previous post—is that it is not tied to any single ethnicity or culture. The ancient cultures and languages that have called Antiochian Orthodoxy home are diverse—Syriac, Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Cypriot, Central Asian—as are those which now are also home to the Antiochian church—English, American, Central and South American, Turkish, Australian, French, German and others. Ancient Antioch itself was a cosmopolitan city even in the time of the Apostles, and while the city of Antioch of today is now a small Turkish municipality, the spirit of Antiochian identity in its Christian form has remained cosmopolitan and multicultural. Some folks today equate Antiochian with Arabic, but that identification has never really been accurate.
Indeed, one of the greatest voices of the Antiochian church in America, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, regarded himself as being a man who identified with many peoples: “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.”
Yet while the voice of the Antiochian tradition is spoken in many languages and cultures, there is nevertheless a single “Antiochian language,” so to speak, a particular way of being and speaking in the Orthodox Church that is distinct.
I have been talking about this “Antiochian language” recently with friends who know it far better than I, and one of them mentioned to me a phrase used in the Arabic-language publishing and social media of the patriarchate, which gives this post its title: “We speak one language: Antiochian.” It has also been rendered in English as “Our Language is Antiochian. Our Language is One.” This certainly is not a reference to the Arabic language but rather to a kind of spiritual language, that particular voice which is the spirit of Antioch.
With the attention that our archdiocese here in America has received lately from the Patriarchate of Antioch, our connection to that Antiochian language has been strengthened, and I’ve noticed a particular tone—hard to describe, but definitely distinct. If I had to put adjectives to it, I might choose: accessible, direct, refreshing, bright, earthy, peaceful. It is not dark or hard, but it is also not too yielding or liberal. It is loving and un-self-conscious.
A bridge is being built between ancient Antioch and her children here in North America, and now there is traffic on that bridge, a kind of spiritual commerce and economy that has its own idiom. For many, this may be the first time that someone has “spoken Antiochian” to them. It is not that this has been absent from our archdiocese, but we have simply not had access to it in the way that we have over the past several weeks.
As I said, though, that voice is hard to define with adjectives, so I would like to give a few samples, both ancient and modern, which to me all sing in the same spiritual key, which speak with the same spiritual voice. The subjects are different, but the tone (to me) is the same:
Blessed is the person who has consented to become the close friend of faith and of prayer: he lives in singlemindedness and makes prayer and faith stop by with him. Prayer that rises up in someone’s heart serves to open up for us the door of heaven: that person stands in converse with the Divinity and gives pleasure to the Son of God. Prayer makes peace with the Lord’s anger and with the vehemence of His wrath. In this way too, tears that well up in the eyes can open the door of compassion.
– St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Armenian Hymn No. 1,” 4th c.
St. Ephrem is of course familiar to many Orthodox Christians, and he is not often thought of as “Antiochian” exactly, but this tone is still there. (And one recognizes the Semitic image of God’s “wrath” there, of course.) I especially love the phrase “close friend of faith and of prayer.”
Fast forward several centuries, and that same feeling is still there. Here’s Sulayman al-Ghazzi (Solomon of Gaza), an Arabic-speaking Palestinian bishop from the 11th century:
Not all baptized with water are Christians
Without the baptism of the life of the world to come;
In Christ the peoples of the earth have been baptized
Though some of them afterward showed hypocrisy.
They became like a body’s parts in its natural state—
Some helpful, some unreliable.
How many patriarchs are unpraiseworthy in their service,
Miserable bishops and metropolitans,
Who are among the heretics, in place of truth,
Preferring falsehood and slander!
Over them, God has favored a Church
Whose stones are gathered from all corners and climbs.
Truth has built her edifice
Rising to heaven on pillars and columns,
Fashioned from chrysolite,
Precious stones, sapphires, and pearls.
Her foundation is the rock of faith,
Rooted deep with pillars and walls.
All bodily creatures are pleased to see it
When it appears in races and colors,
Byzantines, Russians, and Franks
Joined with Indians, Khuzestanis, Abkhaz, and Alans
Armenians and Pechenegs in agreement
With the people of the Jazira, namely Harran.
And Copts too, in the Lower Egypt father together
From Upper Egypt to Qus and Aswan.
People of Shiraz and Ahwaz in harmony
With Iraq, unto furthest Khorasan.
From the place of the sunrise to the place of its setting,
To the Euphrates, to Sihon and Gihon.
White, blond, and brown in their churches
Praise God with the yellow and the black.
All of them have come to the religion of Christ
And are guided, gaining profit from loss.
Seventy nations, each with a language
Branching off from one Syriac tongue.[*]
Hebrew was the speech of God’s apostles
Before they set out with the mission of the Gospel.
Each apostle gained a language,
Beautiful, reliable, and clear.
Not out of weakness but having heard proof,
Those to whom they preached responded with faith.
So they spread out among their nations,
None fearing the devil’s wiles.
When their service to God was done, they slept,
Having roused many sleepers.
– Suleyman al-Ghazzi, from “Not All Baptized with Water Are Christians” (trans. Samuel Noble), in The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources, pp. 163-164
[*] Medieval Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, generally held that Syriac was the language spoken by Adam and Eve.
And roughly 1,000 years later, we still hear this same direct, refreshing voice from the leaders of the Orthodox Youth Movement:
The Church is the salt of the earth and completes the work of Christ in the world. The Church works, she is present, for the sake of the salvation of the world. We can say that she is the center of being, in her its destiny is achieved. The world corrupts and ages, but the Church is continuously renewed for the sake of the salvation of the world. But if the salt is corrupted, then how can it be salty?
The Church is the group of those who believe in the Lord Jesus and who have united around him to live the life of the Gospel, the life of God. They have no concern except to follow the Lord’s teaching and to follow in his footsteps. The group is in the world and for the world, but at the same time it is not of the world. From the beginning, from the ascension of the Lord to heaven, it is oriented toward the age to come, awaiting the return of the heavenly bridegroom and hastening him on. From now on, it lives in the last days, in the fullness of time, “it uses this world as though it doesn’t use it, and buys as though it doesn’t own.”
– Fr. Elias Morcos, “On Revival in Antioch,” 1964
We become children of the Resurrection when we become bridges of communication and encounter between those who are separated, and between those who are in conflict. Let us be bridges exactly like the Lord who did not ask anything for Himself, but gave the world everything, to such an extent that He offered Himself for the salvation of the world. Let us serve as ways of rapprochement for all. Through love, sacrifice and in deeds and truth we shall build our countries.
We become children of Resurrection when we live our faith in genuineness, depth and meaningfulness. External expressions are bound to change with cultures and ways of living, but the genuine Christian content preserves the trust which has been handed down to the saints under many different circumstances, cases and cultures. Let us imitate the courage of Christ who did not fear anything, even death. Instead He faced the cross with love and brought us to resurrection. Let us face the cross of this crucified East with overwhelming love for all those who are crucified on it, until we reach with them the resurrection we all expect. Let us live these painful days in simplicity, enjoying the bare necessities of life and experiencing the true wealth which is life with God….
Last but not least, we do not forget that God is the Lord of history, so we may always hold to patience and hope which do not fade away. Let us remember the words of the prophets and how much they called, in times of distress, for repentance and faith, until God intervenes and removes the distress. In these troubled days we are witnessing, we are in sore need of faithful witnesses. Let us move out of our distress with more faith, more purity and greater loyalty. When we understand that we only need God and no one else, the effects of resurrection will appear in us and in all our humanity. When this happens all around us shall be transfigured.
– Patriarch John X (Yazigi) of Antioch, Pascha 2013 Pastoral Letter
How should I conduct myself at Pascha? I try to become the Gospel, to become the word so that people may read me and live. Christianity is faces that are illumined in order to give light. This is the living Pascha. It is what causes me to pass through people to the Father’s face. How should I live? “I do not live, it is Christ who lives in me.” Christianity is not a religious system. It is love– that is, clinging to Christ such that you forget your own face in order to see His face and the whole world in His face. If we are people of Pascha, then we are in a state of constantly going beyond ourselves and the world in order to become Him and for Him to become us. It is not a matter of systems and it is not a matter of theoretical principles. Everything is His face, until all faces pass away or we read Him traced upon them.
– Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon, “Who Shall I Be at Pascha?“, 2014
And now this “Antiochian language” is also being spoken to us here directly in America by the representative of our patriarch:
Christ defeated death in our lives! He set us free from fear: from fearing death, from fearing evil, from fearing illness and calamities, from fearing each other, from fearing the uncertainty of the future, from fearing insecurity and unemployment, from fearing violence and terrorism, and from fearing persecution and sufferings for His sake. Instead, He gave us the power and the means to seek the true freedom. The freedom to love each other even though we differ in character, education and profession. The freedom to forgive each other even though we have suffered. The freedom to ask forgiveness from each other even though we have badly hurt each other. The freedom to serve each other even though we differ in origin, background and culture. The freedom to work together even though we differ in thinking, worldview, ability and capacity. The freedom to abide by the truth and raise our children to seek Him. The freedom to defend the unjust and the needy and restore them their rights. The freedom to be at the Lord’s hand, obedient, prayerful and faithful.
Christ defeated death in our reality! He gave us the gift to start anew, to renew our heart, to purify our mind, and to reaffirm our commitment of faith at His service. He restored in us the dignity of our person, the beauty of our nature, and the bounty in our personality.
Christ defeated death in our relationships! Christ is the only mediator between God and man. However, He made us “bridges” of salvation to reach others. As Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America, we are bequeathed an apostolic “lineage:” tradition, inheritance and mission. In this regard, the image of the “bridge” summarizes the Antiochian witness that emerges out of the past, prompts the present and prepares the future of the Antiochian Orthodox Church on the eve of the election of a new Metropolitan to succeed to His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip of eternal memory.
– Metropolitan Silouan (Moussi) of Argentina, “How to Resurrect with Christ: Pascha 2014 Pastoral Letter“
I could give many, many more examples, and of course you can find a good bit of this sort of thing on the Notes on Arab Orthodoxy weblog. But I hope that these passages will suffice to give you some sense of the tone of “speaking Antiochian.” It is different from other languages, and while many of its speakers are these days from the Middle East, it is not the same thing as speaking Arabic, and there is no reason why non-Arabic speakers or people from outside the Middle East cannot speak it. It is a beautiful language, and it speaks to us of our Savior Jesus Christ with a peculiar accent and vocabulary of its own, itself building a bridge between persons, between peoples, and between mankind and God.
As I wrote last week, my hope for us Antiochians here in America is that we may hear more and more “speaking Antiochian” to us, so that we may better learn this beautiful language. And in so doing, not only will our own faith be strengthened, but we will also have something beautiful to offer to our Orthodox brothers and sisters throughout America.