November 3, 2015

Prophets and Prophecy in the Church

The following homily was delivered on October 19, 2014 for the feast of the Prophet Joel in the Cathedral of the Holy Protection in Edessa, at the request of Metropolitan Joel of Edessa.

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

On this occasion [the feast of the Prophet Joel] he [Metropolitan Joel of Edessa] asked me to say a few constructive and supplicatory words, therefore in obedience I wanted to speak on the Prophet Joel and prophecy in the Orthodox Church and in our Orthodox tradition. Essentially I will speak about the theology of prophecy and generally the great value had by the Prophets in both the Old and New Testaments.

The first point is that when one reads, my beloved brethren, the Old Testament, especially the lives of the Prophets, one will find that the Prophets were not just some thinkers, they were not just some theologians, as we now call them, nor were they philosophers. Because there is a huge difference between a Prophet and a philosopher. Philosophers think and attempt to discover God, while Prophets had an experience of God and God revealed Himself to them. Prophets, and this is very important, have encountered the living God, the pre-incarnate Word of the Old Testament, namely the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Yahweh before the incarnation. They saw Him and they communicated with Him. They acquired a participation in the pre-incarnate Word and through Him with God the Holy Trinity. If we read the books of the Prophets, especially the first chapter of each to see how they begin, we will see this reality.

Reading the book of the Prophet Isaiah we see that it begins: "The vision which Isaiah saw." It is a vision, namely a vision of God. A vision of the pre-incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity. In other prophetic books we see the same thing. For example the book of the Prophet Nahum begins: "The book of the vision." In the book of the Prophet Joel, as well as other books, we see that they begin differently. It says: "The word of the Lord as it was generated to Joel." There is no mention of vision here, but it speaks of the word of the Lord. Words are what we hear, and the Prophets heard the word of God, like Joel. And they didn't simply hear him, because, if we pay careful attention to the phrase, it says: "The word of the Lord as it was generated to Joel." The word of the Lord is generated in the heart of a person who has reached deification by grace.

This is why in the Old Testament a Prophet was a person who possessed prayer, even the noetic prayer of the heart, as we encounter it in the Psalms of David, and around the Prophet disciples were gathered, who lived in this communion with God. This is why they were called the "choir of the Prophets", who prayed and were made worthy sometimes to see the glory of God.

But, as Saint Symeon the New Theologian says, this vision of God had by the Prophets, and the hearing of the word of God which they heard and was generated in the hearts of the Prophets, were not human inventions and different experiences because, as Saint Symeon the New Theologian says, the vision of the Prophet was heard and the hearing of the word of the Lord by the Prophets was a vision. Vision and hearing and taste and sense are united, because in the experience of theosis all the senses are united as one. We see this also on Mount Tabor. They saw the glory of the Lord, the glory of God. And after the disciples heard the voice of the Father: "This is My beloved Son."

During the experience of God all the senses of a person are united, the body is reconstructed, it changes, and a person sees and hears God, they participate in God, participating in eternal life. Thus, all the prophets, such as the Prophet Joel, participated in God and indeed the Triune God, because Christ does not exist, either as the pre-incarnate or as the incarnate Word, separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The second point continues what was previously said, in that because the Prophets had an experience of the living God, and not the god of the philosophers and thinkers, for this reason they made a great war against the religions of their time, religions which believed and worshiped a false god, the idols. The struggle made by the Prophet Joel was a struggle against religion and for the living God. It was a struggle against idolatry and he essentially preached the living God, the God of our Fathers, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we would say today. And in this sense he condemned the other false and alien gods. This is very significant. All the Prophets, like the Prophet Joel, struggled against religion.

Religion has some ideas which differentiate it from the Church. Religion, first of all, is associated with magic as a propitiation of God. In this sense religious people try to atone God, because they think God is too distressed and angry with them, so through magical actions and deeds they atone the divine. The second aspect of religion is superstition. And when we say superstition, we mean they try to identify the uncreated with the created, and they see God in creation. This is so-called Pantheism. In reality this is superstition, which is the hallmark of religion. Another feature of religion is mysticism, as expressed by Plato and the Neoplatonic philosophers. We should not forget that Platonic philosophy was not just a philosophy, but in practice it was a religion, because they believed the soul is immortal by nature and by nature the body was mortal, and they believed the immortal soul was imprisoned in the body and should be released in a mystical way by reverting to the ungenerated world of ideas. This so-called mysticism is a characteristic feature of religion and many religious ceremonies are carried out with this mindset.

The Prophets struggled hard against religion. And Christ is the one who liberated us from the religion that existed in the old days. And today there are such beliefs and religions which worship a false god. And as is usually said, when religion is associated with magic, superstition and mysticism it becomes a sickness of the human personality, and it sickens people. Christ delivered us from the sickness of religion and established the Church, the Church which is the Body of Christ.

The Church is a divine-human organism, the Church is the communion of God and humanity, the communion of the living and the dead, where heaven and earth meet, as Saint John Chrysostom tells us. The Church is the meeting of God and humanity and living in this blessed Body of Christ we are healed and exempted from the sickness of every religion.

You can see, my beloved brethren, what religion created in our times. For example in the Middle East, and wherever Islam exists and is preached, we clearly see the sickness of religion. In the name of religion they create wars, confrontations, perform beheadings, rape and do violence. Saint Gregory Palamas, in a meeting he had during his captivity with someone who was responsible for the burial of Muslims, said among other things that Islam has spread violence and pleasure throughout the world. Muhammad brought violence and pleasure to humanity and terrorist activities create such unhealthy situations, with beheadings, violence, brutality and attitudes of war. This is the illness of religion against which the Prophets fought, such as the Prophet Joel and all the other Prophets until Christ relieved us of these things and created His Church.

The third point, my beloved brethren, is that Prophets did not only exist in the Old Testament. There are Prophets also in the New Testament. Saint Gregory Palamas speaks of this. The Prophets of the Old Testament saw the pre-incarnate Word and at the same time foresaw and prophesied the incarnation of Christ and saw the incarnate Word who would be born at the fullness of time. The Prophets of the New Testament are those who had communion with the incarnate Word, Christ made man, and they speak of the Second Coming of the incarnate Word, when the resurrection of the dead will take place and the Kingdom of God comes.

The prophetic gift has not disappeared from the Church, and remains till this day. The Bishop is not only the Head of the Eucharistic assembly, but he is also the Prophet who preaches the word of God. He is the Prophet who turns all against false worship, and every belief which is foreign from the living God, speaking to the people how to gain communion with the living God. And so he is not only the Head of the Eucharistic assembly, but also a Prophet who teaches and guides the people. This is the prophetic gift had by the Bishop, as well as the royal gift and the archpriestly gift of the hierarchy.

In this sense we honor today His Eminence Metropolitan Joel of Edessa, Pella and Almopias. Because he doesn't only have a prophetic name, but also prophetic grace. He has the grace of a prophet, teaching and speaking infallibly I would say, because he stands on the teachings of the Holy Fathers and not philosophy. He is the one who has the gift of teaching and the gift to hymn the living God and the people associated with Him, the friends of Christ, the Saints. And he honors the Hierarchy and is supremely honored by God. This is why we the Hierarchy love him very much, because he is a rational Hierarch with a humble spirit and humble mind, he has a quality character, love for God and the ascetic life, he has experience in the Holy Spirit, and truly lives as an authentic Bishop within the Church.

And I boast in his presence in the Church as his spiritual brother, because we have the same Elders and received from the same Elder, the ever-memorable Kallistos of Edessa, Pella and Almopias the Priesthood, and we had love and he led us on the path of authentic Orthodoxy, in order to have and strive for an Orthodox mindset and ethos. For this reason we pray that God will protect him in health for many years and that he be a jewel of our Church and this Sacred Metropolis.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ὁ Προφήτης καί ἡ προφητεία στήν Ἐκκλησία", October 2014. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.