From the 1997 Patriarchal encyclical of His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas
Translated and Published by
the Archdiocese Of
The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch
For The Eastern USA, March 1997
IN THE NAME OF THE ETERNAL, DIVINE AND ALMIGHTY BEING
IGNATIUS ZAKKA I IWAS PATRIARCH OF THE APOSTOLIC SEE OF ANTIOCH AND ALL THE EAST, SUPREME HEAD OF THE UNIVERSAL SYRIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH.
WE EXTEND OUR APOSTOLIC BENEDICTION, BEST WISHES AND GREETINGS TO OUR BROTHERS THE EMINENT METROPOLITANS; TO OUR SPIRITUAL CHILDREN: THE HONORABLE PRIESTS, MONKS, NUNS, DEACONS AND DEACONESSES; AND TO ALL OUR ESTEEMED SYRIAN ORTHODOX PEOPLE. MAY THE DIVINE PROVIDENCE PROTECT THEM THROUGH THE INTERCESSION OF THE VIRGIN MARY, CHIEF OF THE APOSTLES SAINT PETER AND ALL THE SAINTS AND MARTYRS. AMEN.
“From that time on Jesus began to preach: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’.” ( Matt. 4:17 )
Man, with all his intelligence, can not fathom the depth of God’s love to mankind or to comprehend its essence. For He (God) has loved them even to death, the death on the Cross. The Holy Gospel declares: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16). Love was the main reason why God sent His Only-begotten Son into our world. He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified for us, and died and was buried and rose on the third day according to His will, as stated in the Nicene Creed of Faith. Thus He redeemed us who believe in Him, and forgave the original sin we inherited from our first parents, along with our personal sins committed before we were baptized in His Name and received salvation, thus fulfilling His divine promise: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mk.16:16). Because we were baptized in His name, we were born through the water and Spirit a second birth from heaven, and we were justified and sanctified to be children of God by grace, and heirs to His heavenly kingdom. This is the ultimate motive behind the mystery of incarnation and redemption. Concerning this, the Apostle Paul says: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners— of whom I am the worst. (1Tim.1:15). Therefore, when the Lord Jesus publicly began His divine mission in the flesh, by announcing His noble heavenly message, the Gospel of Repentance, He said: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matt.4:17). he also said: The time has come and The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news (Mk.1:15). The Apostle Peter also told those who were troubled in their hearts, after hearing his sermon on the fiftieth day, and asked him and the other apostles: Brothers, what shall we do? Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38). Hence, the message of redemption, brought by our Lord Jesus Christ, is to prepare man for eternal life, by true repentance and true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, by accepting Him as the Savior of the world, by being baptized in His Name and by obeying His divine laws. In this regard, our Lord Jesus says to His heavenly Father: Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent (Jn. 17:3).
Yes, God Almighty knows that we are weak humans, always prone to enter into hard temptations, and eventually fall into the pit of sins so long as we are in this human body. Yet, since we have been baptized in our Lord’s Holy Name, and the Holy Spirit dwells in us, God has prepared for us a way of repentance in order to return to Him after we confess our sins and are sorry for the trespasses which we have committed. Before the ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven, He gave His pure apostles, and just disciples, the authority to bind and loose sins by saying: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (Jn.20:22-23). Through this divine power, the Lord grants graciously the forgiveness of sins to the believers who present to God a pure repentance, because sin is a rebellion and a transgression against the Almighty, and an alienation from Him. The Prophet Isaiah says: But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that he will not hear (Isa. 59:2). The Apostle John, describes sin also as a transgression: Everyone who sins breaks the law (I Jn. 3:4). This law-breaking is the lack of harmony between the thoughts, words and deeds of man; and the commandments of God. By sinning, he breaks the law, rebels against God and obeys Satan, the enemy of God and man at the same time. For Satan is the tempter who tries to entrap man and snare him into disobedience. Moreover, any kind of sin is deemed as breaking the law of God, His commandments and all He forbids, as if it were committed directly against the Almighty. This is what prompted the Prophet David, who committed a terrible sin, to plead with God saying: Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight (Ps. 51:4). Yet, to explain that this sin was personal, and that he also inherited the original sin, he adds: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Ps.51:5).
Sin is very awful indeed and leads to eternal death. The Apostle James said: and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (Jas. 1:15). For the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Therefore when sin overtakes a person, he becomes overwhelmed with apprehension, anxiety, guilt and instability. In fear and trepidation, He expects severe punishment as a consequence for what he has committed. But thanks be to God for sending His Son, Who became an atonement for us by His death on the Cross, thus abolishing sin by His resurrection from among the dead. In so doing, He reconciled us with His heavenly Father, Who wants us to be at peace with heaven in order to be worthy to inherit the kingdom of God. For we have been justified from the original sin when we were buried with Christ in Baptism, even to death, and rose with Him to a new life. Yet, we are humans, and are always susceptible to sin, but on Judgment Day the Lord shall not ask: why did you sin? but rather: why didn’t you repent?
Repentance is a return to God and an obedience to His divine laws. When a sinner searches his soul entirely, deeply, faithfully and honestly, and compares his wretched and sad state of sin, with the happy state which preceded his fall into sin and iniquity, when he was in his Father’s abode with a clear conscience and at peace; he will confess his sins, and feel sorry for his wrongdoing and transgression against God’s laws, and anxiously determine to return to God through repentance. He should not be content with simply doing so, but should also emulate the Prodigal Son who said: I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men (Lk. 15:18-19). Sure enough, he (the Prodigal Son) wearing his worn-out and soiled clothes and with his many sins, went to his father, and lo, he found him impatiently waiting for his return. So, The son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’. (Lk. 15:21-24).
All this signifies God’s love for the sinner and His anticipation for him to return safely to his home. Furthermore the Lord, Who is the Good Shepherd, always searches for the lost sheep. And when He finds him, He carries him upon His shoulders and brings him to the sheep’s fold. Likewise, the father restored to his prodigal son his rank and stature, and dressed him with a new robe, to become a new man with a new life. He placed on his finger the ring of the Covenant, thus renewing with him the Covenant and his trust in him. He also hosted a fancy feast for the local people that they could rejoice with him, and joyfully welcome the return of the prodigal son into their society.
The anger and sadness of the eldest son on his brother’s return, represents the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees and their lack of desire to save the tax collectors and sinners. They do not enter the kingdom of God and they do not let anybody else enter either. Those Scribes and Pharisees even objected to the Lord Jesus for He befriended tax collectors and sinners and sat with them and opened for them the door of repentance to attain salvation by saying: It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matt. 9:12-13). The Lord confirmed this when He accepted the penitents who came back to Him with solid faith, by forgiving their sins. In this manner, the Lord forgave Zacchaeus and Matthew, the tax collectors, Mary Magdalene, the adulterous woman, the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the apostle Peter, the remorseful thief and others. Moreover, the Lord Jesus still forgives all penitents who come to Him with a true and complete repentance. Concerning this, the apostle John says: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atonement for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (I Jn. 2:1-2).
Oh, how great is God’s love for the world, His mercy to the sinners and His desire for their return to Him in repentance! He will surely receive them just as the father welcomed his prodigal son. And how wretched is the sinner, who is ignorant of his misery while he is in a sinful state and has no desire to return to God in repentance. The persistence of the sinner in his sin, and his creation of phony excuses to justify himself, are but an insult to the long-suffering patience of Almighty God. Whereas true repentance produces spiritual happiness which fills the heart of the penitent with joy for his salvation, by making peace and reconciliation with the Lord God. Even heaven rejoices with the penitent. The Lord Jesus says: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Lk. 15:7). This joy points to the true and ultimate faith which fills the heart and the mind.
Surely, the penitent who receives forgiveness for his sins from the Lord by means of a valid priest, (authorized by the Lord Jesus to loosen sins) must continue his relationship as a son with the Heavenly Father by living virtuously, thus producing fruit in keeping with repentance. (Matt. 3:8). Likewise, John the Baptist commanded those who came to him to confess their sins, and then he baptized them with the baptism of repentance, and gave them the good news of the eminent coming of the Savior, saying: “Produce fruit befitting repentance…”.
A penitent should not simply be content with the forgiveness of his sins, but he should ask God like the Prophet David, who sinned and repented, cried and begged the Lord saying: Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions…. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will turn back to You (Ps. 51:1,10-13). A penitent is in need of renewal, renewal of the heart as well as of the conscience. He must pray to God that the Holy Spirit not be taken from him, because if the Good Spirit leaves a person, the evil spirit will replace it as in the case of Saul. David himself experienced this and prayed that the Holy Spirit not depart from him, but rather lead him into the proper paths, that he might remain firm in a state of justification and righteousness: the state which was restored to him after he came back to God through true repentance.
Truly, evil has spread wildly in this corrupt generation. We are drowning in iniquity, and are in desperate need of true repentance, reflected by sorrow and regret over the sins which we committed and are determined to avoid. Again, let us emulate the Prophet David in asking forgiveness from God and doing penance to Him. And, just like the Prodigal Son, may we return to the Father’s home, with sorrow and repentance. Moreover, let us confess our sins to a lawful priest, that he might enrich us with his spiritual advice, as a healing and protecting medicine. And by the authority of the Sacred Priesthood ascribed to him by God, he will recite the prayer of absolution. Through this, we earn the right to return to our previous state of grace, which we received from our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ. Dearly beloved,
In this evil generation, as we prepare to bid farewell to the twentieth century and usher in the twenty-first, we observe humanity marching in darkness, lost in the crooked ways of this world, enslaved by the heavy yoke of sin, and resembling the Prodigal Son in leaving his father’s house and squandering his money on a wasteful life. May the sinning believer also emulate the Prodigal Son in his true repentance and righteous return to the home of his father, that the Father may receive him joyfully. The Holy Church is in need of a goodly number of our budding youth, of both genders, who fear God and heed His commandments, produce good fruits worthy of repentance, and whose hearts are purified and souls renewed. People who make themselves good examples to others by keeping God’s laws and regulations. Who, along with us, listen to the Lord Jesus and hear His divine voice calling us today, just as He called the people twenty centuries ago and until now, through the mouths of His priests: The time has come," He said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news (Mk. 1:15). If the time of our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming, twenty centuries ago, has been fulfilled, and all prophecies have come true and salvation completed, then, the time for His second coming approaches according to His true and divine promises. He also Had appointed it since the beginning. Therefore, let us repent and believe in the Holy Gospel as the Lord commands us. May we also heed the call of the Holy Spirit as He warns and cautions us saying: Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts (Ps. 95:7-8). Also, let us repent immediately because we do not know when the Lord will come again to judge the world, or when we are going to depart from this temporal life to eternity. If we are not in a repentant state, it will be too late for sorrow. Therefore, let us be ready, awake and anxious for our meeting with the Lord Jesus, so that He may make us worthy to be with the Good Thief in the paradise of joy.
May God accept your repentance, your fasting, your prayers and offerings. May He also be merciful to your faithful departed, and prepare you to celebrate His Glorious Resurrection with spiritual joy and happiness. After a full life, may He also make you worthy to enjoy the grace of His heavenly kingdom in the company of the repentant faithful, the just and the righteous. Amen.