Sacrament of the Holy Priesthood
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, Fall 1997
Inquiring after you we say:
We thank you for your filial noble feeling in inviting us to preside in the meetings of the Convention of the three Patriarchal Vicariates of our Holy Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch in the United States and Canada which will be held this year in the City of Los Angeles, California, hosted by your flourishing Archdiocese, in the period between 31 July to 3 August, 1997.
It gives us pleasure to accept your kind invitation to gather together, God willing, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ who promised us saying: " For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst of them." (Matth 18:20). It is our hope that the lord will bless our gathering by his presence amongst us so that we may glorify and thank Him for His abundant gifts that cannot be told, for " Every good endowment and very perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17), as Apostle James says.
Dearly Beloved: You have done excellent in choosing the Sacrament of the Holy Priesthood immediately after he had founded His Holy Church on the rock of true faith which was proclaimed by St. Peter the head of the Apostles, who said to the Lord Jesus: " You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" . And Jesus answered him: Blessed and happy are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven; and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the doors of sheol shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven" ( Matt 16:16-19).
The Lord gave all the Apostles this power when he appeared to them on of the eve of his resurrection from among the dead as they were assembled in the upper room while the doors were locked. He stood in their midst and said: ‘’peace be with you. As the father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained’’ John 20:21 and 22). He thus ordained them priests, as we are taught by our fathers the saints. Likewise, he ordained them bishops when ‘’ He took them out as far as Bethany, and he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and went up to heaven" (Luke 24: 51 and 52). Thus, the Lord installed in his church shepherds, ministers, teachers and guides and gave them the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, that he may protect and keep them in the truth and remind them with all that Jesus said to them to safeguard the precious jewel of the true faith. He made them, his faithful stewards and partners in the power of shepherding his sheep, endowed with the faculty of speech, on the pastures of his divine teachings, and the stream of waters of his Holy living Gospel so that they may timely offer food to his servants. In this regard, St. Paul says: ’’ And no one takes this honor upon him self but only he who is called of God, as was Aaron" (Hebr 5:4).
Therefore, priests and bishops in their different ranks are set apart by God from among the faithful to go before the people and offer sacrifices for the remission of their own sins as well as the sins of the people. The Lord God thus bestows upon them the grace of carrying the mission of the priesthood and hence obtain divine power exclusive to those who are selected for this high honor with all its spiritual rights and privileges and related duties and burdens. This includes: looking for the lost sheep and carrying it on the shoulders and brining it back to the fold, awaiting the prodigal son, rejoicing by his return and reestablishing trust with him. It also includes calling upon parishioners, warning the urging them to repent, otherwise the Lord would punish His shepherds according to the prophet Ezekiel: ’’If I say to the wicked, ’ you shall surly die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand" ( Ezek 3:18).
In reviewing the duties and privileges of the priest, we realize that the priest, whose mission is primarily to the voice of the people to God and raise his prayers to Him, also performs the duty of a prophet in conveying the voice of God to the people. Priests, thus, must warn, preach to sinners and instruct them to observe the divine commandments. Further, they should make themselves good examples for them, in this way they become a light for the world and salt for earth.
The Lord Jesus Himself, had chosen and called His righteous apostles and pious disciples, and they had accepted His invitation by their full free will leaving behind everything for His sake. He graduated them in His divine school. He used to retire with them from time to time and explain to them His parables and divine teachings so that they may understand what He was aiming at in his invaluable sermons. He further gave them the keys of knowledge and understanding the essence of God’s commandments and prohibitions. Also, He bestowed on them the power of teaching, edification, disciplining, justification and sanctification for the building of the Holy Body of Christ which is the Church. Devils submitted to them in His name, as they joyfully told Him after returning from a journey where He had sent them in pairs before Him to every city and place He had intended to go. He said to them: " Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in Heaven" (Luke 10:19-20). From here, we know that the wage of the Lord’s priests is kept in heaven and not on earth to witch He sent them to preach the Gospel of Salvation. He never promised them with bodily rest and happiness. On the contrary, he demanded of them self-denial, carrying the cross and following Him in the trial of pain and sacrifice in all worldly matters. He said to them: " Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff for the laborer deserves his food. Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves… and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved… and do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matth 10: 7-28). With this, the Lord told them about the hardships they would encounter in life so long as they have chosen to enter through the narrow door and walk in the difficult road leading to the kingdom. At the same time, He assured them of His protection and of their exalted position with Him saying: “But so far as you are concerned, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore fear not. Whoever receives you, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives Him who sent me. He who receives a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man’s reward” (Matth: 10:30, 41and 42).
The Apostle Paul advises the faithful to honor the clergy. He says; “We beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (I Thess 5:12).
But the best and the highest reward are received by the shepherds in Heaven. In this regard, apostle Paul says: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day” (2 Tim 4: 7-8). Thus, those whom the Lord called in this life and they answered His call, and whom He sent, and they fought for the sake of salvation of their souls and those of others, will be called by the Lord to enter His Heavenly Kingdom to inherit the everlasting bliss, being crowned with the crown of righteous, the pious, and the saints. They will be all with the Lord Jesus who promised: “If any one serves me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26).
Let us take the opportunity of us being gathered together, clergy and people, in this blessed Convention, and renew our vow to God to observe His commandments. Let us also renew our pledge to one another to cooperate with each other towards the salvation of our souls and the progress and prosperity of our Holy Syrian Orthodox Church, and thus receive God’s reward on earth and Heaven, and may His Grace be with you all forever. Amen.
Issued at our Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria on the 25th of March, in the year one thousand nine hundred and ninety seven, which is the 17th year of our Patriarchate.