By: Fr. Philip LeMasters
One of the most memorable trips I have ever taken was to Syria in the fall of 2010, only a few months before the nation descended into the chaos of bloodshed and humanitarian crisis. The conference I participated in was sponsored in part by the Patriarchate of Antioch, and it was wonderful to visit and pray in ancient and beautiful churches and monasteries, to receive a blessing from Patriarch Ignatius IV, and to meet many clergy and laity who continue to preserve the Orthodox faith in extremely difficult circumstances.
The trip also gave me the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Father Alexios Chehadeh, whom I had met at an earlier conference abroad. Father Alexi became the director of the Patriarchate’s Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development, which meant that he oversaw the Church’s many relief ministries in Syria. The scope of these programs was not limited by religious affiliation but helped anyone in need. That is not a new approach, for in the 19th and 20th centuries the Antiochian Patriarchate similarly served the poor, sick, and hungry in a majority Muslim society without discrimination of any kind. As Father Alexi stated, “It’s very important to help all Syrians, because we have to witness Christ in the society. When we read the Bible, especially the New Testament, we see that Jesus Christ came for all, not only specific groups…” (238) When a Muslim woman expressed surprise that the Church was funding courses for students who were mostly Muslims, he explained that this “is our mission in society, which is the same everywhere.” Fr. Alexi traveled all over the country in support of the Church’s many philanthropic ministries in the middle of a war, often putting himself in great physical danger. He said that “People even coming from the areas of rebels towards a safe area to seek safety, they are surprised to find the church and the team of the church with their vests waiting there for them with all the items they need.” In determining where to provide aid, “The question is not whether you are working under the government or under the rebel areas, but how much access do we have and how secure the area is to go there and help people.” (239)
The words and especially the deeds of Fr. Alexi, who fell asleep in Christ during the Dormition Fast in 2020 due to COVID-19, provide a beautiful witness to Jesus Christ, Whose mercy extended even to a Samaritan with leprosy. Among the ten lepers the Lord healed, the only one who returned to thank Him was a hated Samaritan, someone considered a foreigner and a heretic by the Jews. After the man fell down before Him in gratitude, the Lord said, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Our Lord’s gracious interaction with this man shows that His therapeutic ministry extended even to those conventionally understood to be outsiders, sinners, and enemies. The Lord’s love for humanity transcends all political and personal boundaries, and we must not pretend that His benevolence somehow does not extend to those we consider our enemies for whatever reason. Doing so will reveal only our spiritual blindness.
Remember that our Savior praised the faith of a Roman centurion, who was an officer of the Roman army that occupied Israel. By any conventional standard, that man was His enemy. (Lk 7:9) The people of Nazareth tried to throw Christ off a cliff when He reminded them that God had at times blessed Gentiles, whom they considered enemies, through the ministry of great Hebrew prophets and had not helped Jews. (Lk 4:29) He shocked everyone by talking with St. Photini, the Samaritan woman at the well, and then spending a few days in her village. (Jn 4:40) The list could go on, but the point is obvious that our Lord’s love for broken, suffering humanity extends literally to all who bear the divine image and likeness.
Even as He showed mercy by tangible actions such as healing a Samaritan from a dreaded and isolating disease, we must take the actions available to us, no matter how seemingly small or imperfect, to manifest His love to our neighbors, regardless of who they are. This is not a new idea that someone recently came up with, but the way of our Lord and of the Saints. For example, when Roman soldiers came to arrest Saint Polycarp for being a Christian in the middle of the second century, the first thing he did was to show them hospitality by providing food and drink, and then he prayed for two hours. Polycarp knew that they would take him to his death, but he treated his captors as neighbors. In 2013 in Syria, militants forced their way into Cherubim Monastery and were shocked to find that the monks had neither weapons nor money. They “were caught off guard by the monks’ lack of fear and how kind they were treating the invaders.” (150) After the monks served them sandwiches and tea “in a kind, pleasant way, without being fearful,” the intruders spoke to them nicely and asked them questions about their life. The monastery’s abbot said, “So they entered the monastery as violent fighters but ended up feeling like guests. Before they left, they wanted to take a picture with us, so they took a few pictures and they left happy having met us. They came in as wolves and they left as lambs.” (150)
Those who love and serve their enemies become living icons of what it means to “have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” That is what we have done in baptism, putting on Christ like a garment and thus regaining the robe of light repudiated by our first parents. For those who share in His restoration and fulfillment of the human person, “there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” St. Paul teaches that our calling is nothing less than to appear with Christ in glory, which means to shine brightly with the holiness of the heavenly kingdom. That is not only a future hope, but also a present reality, for all that holds us back from becoming radiant with the divine glory even now is our refusal to abandon the ways of corruption that have taken root in our souls. “Anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth” give rise to hatred, fear, and division that cause us to see others as enemies and threats, not as neighbors and fellow children of God. “Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” also play powerful roles in separating us from one another and from the Lord.
The more we open ourselves to receive Christ’s healing for our passions and share more fully in His life, the less attention we will give to the importance of the earthly distinctions that determine so much in this world. The more that we unite ourselves to Him in holiness, the less defensive, suspicious, and resentful we will be in relation to the people we encounter each day, whether in person or through media of some kind. Instead of focusing on where a person or group fits on our chart of friends and foes, we must simply attend to showing them the love of Christ in our words and deeds.
We can learn a lot about how to do so from the witness of Fr. Alexi and the ministries in Syria of our Patriarchate, IOCC, and others who see people not in terms of the conventional standards of our world of corruption, but in light of “the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” We must learn to live accordingly each day of our lives, if we are to have any part in the Lord Who healed a Samaritan leper, who was the only one to show faith in Him by returning to give thanks.
Zachary Wingerd and Brad Hoff, Syria Crucified: Stories of Modern Martyrdom in an Ancient Christian Land. Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021.