My Beloved, the Blessed Children of the Holy Church,
It is my pleasure to wish all of you a blessed Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to us, and He invites us to go to Him, for He is the Good Shepherd, who sacrifices Himself for His flock, and through His love and compassion, attracts everyone to Himself.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the Church of Christ, and in Her pastoral ministry, the Church follows the example set by Her Heavenly Head and Faithful Good Shepherd. In His earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus Christ offered the supreme model of pastoral care, and He transcended the narrow way of understanding the commandment and the rites. Therefore, in response to Her children’s needs, the Church diligently seeks to provide spiritually beneficent pastoral care by following the footsteps of the Good Shepherd and rising above the letter of the commandment.
When God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, one of them is directed towards keeping the Sabbath, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” (Ex. 20:8-10) This commandment is significant and in the Old Testament the great emphasis was on literally keeping it, as seen in one of the stories written in the Book of Numbers. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man from the congregation gathering wood on the Sabbath. The divine verdict was, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” (Numbers 15:35) With time, more rules were added to precisely regulate the permissible and non-permissible actions on the Sabbath. However, in the midst of the process of developing all these abundant regulations, a shift occurred. The real understanding of the commandment was lost and the emphasis centred on the regulations and rules.
Therefore, when the Good Shepherd came to lead mankind towards the proper understanding of the commandment, the Pharisees critically opposed Him, because of their narrow-minded understanding of the commandment and their emphasis on its external aspect. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, we read, “At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:1-2) How did our Lord Jesus Christ respond? He reminded them of what happened in the days of David the Prophet and said, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.” (Matt. 12:3-4) By using the example of an actual event, Christ explained that although the priests were the only ones allowed to eat the consecrated bread, yet it was not wrong for David and his companions to eat the consecrated bread, because there was a need. Thus, an exception was permitted. Likewise, an exception was given to the disciples to pick some of the heads of grain on the Sabbath, because there was a need for them to eat. Consequently, they were not offenders of the commandment.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave them another example regarding the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple, “Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?” (Matt. 12:5) When the multitude of worshippers brought their offerings and sacrifices to the temple, the priests in the temple offered these sacrifices, even though it was on the Sabbath. Whereas, if an ordinary person did the same thing outside the temple on the Sabbath, it would be considered breaking the commandment of keeping the Sabbath. Thus, the priests were permitted to offer the sacrifices on the Sabbath on behalf of the people, and were not considered guilty of breaking the commandment as they honour the Temple. Consequently, our Lord Jesus Christ told them, “I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:6-8)
On another occasion, Christ healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees were indignant. But He answered them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:11-12) Also our Lord Jesus Christ told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk. 2:27)
Our Lord Jesus Christ came to give light to the world. His life-giving teachings illumined our minds, which were darkened and had gone astray from the way of God. This was a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Is. 9:1,2; Matt. 4:16) Consequently, a mind that is enlightened by Christ will come to understand the depth of the commandment and the spirit of the Holy Church, the Bride of Christ, instead of limiting oneself to the letter of the commandment. The enlightened mind transcends the limitations and discerns the ineffable love of God towards tormented humanity.
The pastoral needs are numerous and variable, and service requires minds that are enlightened by Christ to faithfully minister to our children, youth, and all member of the Church. The fathers and mothers strive to raise their children with minds that have been enlightened by the light of Christ. Likewise, the servants and all the clergy.
Let us rejoice in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, Who leads us in His triumphant procession.
We pray for the peace of the Holy Church.
We pray for our beloved father and vigilant shepherd, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II.
We pray for every suffering and weary soul that our Lord may fill her with the joy of His wondrous birth.
Wishing you many happy returns.
His Eminence Metropolitan Serapion is Metropolitan of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles (www.lacopts.org)
7 January 2020