We offer apostolic benediction and benevolent prayers to our brethren their Eminencies the Metropolitans, our virtuous spiritual children the priests, monks, nuns, deacons and deaconesses, and our venerated Syrian Orthodox people all over the world. May the divine providence embrace them through the prayers of Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and Sts. Peter and Paul, the heads of the Apostles, Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono, and the rest of the Martyrs and Saints. Amen.
THE FIFTEEN HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH
OF MOR YA`QUB BURD`ONO AND THE RIGHTEOUS QUEEN THEODORA
After inquiring about you and offering apostolic benediction we say:
Behold, the ship of our life has anchored in the harbor of the year two thousand of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in flesh. Some of us consider this year the close of the second Millennium whereas others consider it the beginning of the third Millennium. Whether we accept the first or the second opinion, we must thank God who kept us alive to this day. We ask God to be with us in our new path in the coming year.
We seize the opportunity of the arrival of the Holy Lent for this year to listen carefully to the voice of God with which He called upon men through His prophets, especially Prophet Jonah. Following God’s command, Jonah went to Nineveh and cried against it proclaiming that destruction, perdition and great tribulations were imminent; for the wickedness of its inhabitants had come up before the Lord. The people of Nineveh believed in God and proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. They made ground their bed and heaven their cover. Shedding tears, they turned to God in repentance. And thus God had mercy upon them and they were delivered from destruction. They became an example for all penitents. “God, who spoke of old to the fathers by the prophets,” says Apostle Paul, “has spoken to us by His beloved Son Jesus Christ” the Incarnate God, Whose birth we are celebrating at the close of the second or the beginning of the third millennium.. He is the Word of God Whom John the Apostle describes in the Holy Gospel saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, a glory as of the only Son from the Father full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1&14). “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The Word of God was incarnate for our salvation and redeemed us by His death on the Cross and His resurrection from the dead. He began His loud, open, and corporeal mission by calling people to repentance saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
This is our Lord Jesus Christ Who put on our own body and became one of us. And like us He was tempted in everything except sin. He suffered, died, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day, according to His will. He ascended to heaven and sat on the right of God the Father. He shall come again with great glory to judge the living and the dead, He Whose kingdom has no end, as confessed in the Nicean Creed. Yes, He promised us that He would come again with His angels in great glory. Some people thought the time of His coming would be the year 2000, although He had, glory to Him, proclaimed the truth of His coming by saying, “But that day and that hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36). He stressed that we must stay awake and be watchful. Staying awake means constant spiritual wakefulness accompanied by earnest repentance and awareness of Gods’ law. It also means reflection on the dispensation, in flesh, of the Lord Jesus and on His work of redemption and accepting Him as our Savior. It further means believing in the doctrine of His second coming which John, the beloved Apostle, sums up in the Book of Revelation saying, “Behold He will come with the clouds; and every eye shall see Him…” (Revelation 1:7). But, when will the time of His second coming be? We do not know. We must believe in what the Lord Jesus has proclaimed regarding the facts of faith and wait in faith and longing for His second coming. Let us follow the steps of Apostle John and say with him, “Come, Lord Jesus” (cf. Revelation 22:20).
How nice it is to seize the opportunity of the arrival of the holy and blessed Lent and repent before God; and to couple the fast with prayer and almsgiving that God may accept them. God thus will forgive our sins and make us worthy to be counted, on the day of His second coming, among the good and the righteous, who will rise in the resurrection of life and inherit, with Him, His heavenly kingdom.
The year 2000 AD marks the fifteenth anniversary of the birth of Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono (St. Jacob Baradaeus), and the righteous and the godly Empress Theodora. In his epistle to the Hebrews, Apostle Paul urges us to remember our instructors who spoke the Word of God to us. He further advises us to reflect on their conduct taking their faith as an example (Hebrew 13:7). Accordingly, we are issuing this fatherly encyclical urging you to ponder over the life story of Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono and that of the righteous and God-fearing Queen Theodora. We exhort you to follow their examples in spiritual struggle and tenacious adherence to the doctrines of faith. For God chose them to be two strong and steadfast pillars in the Holy Church, and they fought to preserve the true faith.
Subsequent to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, there remained no bishops in the Syrian Orthodox Church towards the middle of the sixth century AD, except for three. Our Holy Church saw in the resolutions of the said Council a deviation from the doctrine it received from the righteous Apostles and holy Fathers, whereas the Byzantine state adopted its resolutions, and thus started persecuting those who rejected them. The Byzantine state killed some of the rejecters and exiled others. Others died as a result of the severity of persecution, and still others were dislodged. In this crucial period, God sent to the church a brave man, Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono, one of the greatest and foremost among the leaders of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
At that crucial time Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono protected the Syrian Orthodox Church against the attempts of its enemies to eradicate it. He encouraged its followers to preserve the jewel of the Orthodox faith that it received from the righteous Apostles and Fathers.
Mor Ya`qub wore the monastic habit in the Monastery of Fsilta near his home town. He mastered the Syriac and the Greek languages. He was known by his piety and working miracles. He was a hermit and an ascetic. His rough garments became like saddle-cloth, hence he was called Burd`ono.
Mor Ya`qub was a great scholar, a successful preacher and a capable theologian. He went to Constantinople and was received with great honor by Empress Theodora, the daughter of a Syrian priest from Mabug (Manbej) and the wife of Emperor Justinian.
Empress Theodora served the non-Chalcedonian bishops in distress. These were the Syrian and Coptic bishops, who were being persecuted and executed. Thanks to Empress Theodora’s efforts, Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono was ordained a universal bishop in 544 AD by Mor Theodosius, Patriarch of Alexandria who was exiled at the time in Constantinople. Three imprisoned bishops participated with Patriarch Athanasius in laying hand. Mor Ya`qub, the universal bishop, set out on his mission touring Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. He visited and ministered to churches and confirmed the faithful in the Orthodox faith. He ordained seventeen Metropolitans and hundreds of priests and deacons. He went up to his Lord on the 30th of July, 578 AD, and the Holy Church celebrates a feast in his memory.
The righteous Queen Theodora, the Empress of Byzantium from 523 to 548, was born in 500 AD in the Syrian city Mabug (Manbej), the same year in which Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono was born in the city of Tel Mawzalt (known today as “Viran Sehir”) in Turkey. Her father was Theophil, son of Me’no, a Syrian priest from the village of Kamua in the Azal mountain adjacent to the Syrian district of Jazirah. Theodora was brought up in a Christian environment at the home of her father, the virtuous Syrian Orthodox priest. She married Caesar Justinian, the protector of the faith of the Council of Chalcedon, which the Byzantine state had adopted. In spite of this, Queen Theodora held to the faith of her Syrian fathers who rejected this Council and its resolutions. The tempests of ferocious persecution and their sweeping torrents failed to shake her faith. She was known by her intelligence and fear of God. She helped her husband rule the country and run its affairs, and saved him from plots planned against him by his enemies, who almost destroyed him. Theodora also passed laws that are held in high esteem to this day.
In that crucial period, the righteous Queen Theodora hosted in her palace the persecuted fathers of the two churches, the Syrian Orthodox and the Coptic Orthodox, relieving their suffering from the Byzantine state, but she could not, however, stop the persecution. Instead, she herself suffered, and bore many of her husband’s enemies who accused him of bias in favor of the Syrian Orthodox Church of his wife.
The Lord saved Queen Theodora from the conspiracies plotted by the enemies of the Church to destroy her. By her courage and firm determination she never tarried behind in marching forward on her thorny path. She departed to the heavenly chambers, and her pure spirit joined the spirits of the godly women in the Paradise of delight. Among those, are the spirit of Queen Helen, the Syrian Orthodox daughter of an Edessan priest and the mother of Emperor Constantine. Her spirit also joined the spirits of the rest of the righteous and the pious, that she may wait in faith for the second coming of the Lord when her pure spirit will unite with her body and she will rise in the resurrection of the righteous and the pious. There she will receive the reward that the Lord God has prepared for spiritual fighters who will be crowned with the crowns of glory on that great day.
Contemporary, reliable, and honest historians who have full knowledge of her life have provided credible accounts on her origin, early life, pure conduct and her immaculate inner self and thoughts. At the forefront of those, was the Syrian Chronicler St. John of Ephesus who had close relationship with her family and knew her quite well. He wrote about her childhood and her marriage to Justinian the Caesar. The latter had promised her father that he would not force her to change her faith which rejects the Council of Chalcedon and its resolutions. He delivered his promise, indeed. Her staunch enemy, who was also an enemy of truth, the Chronicler Procopius, failed to deny her the glory that she earned with her wisdom and her courage in helping her husband Caesar Justinian. The dishonest and unjust Chronicler Procopius, tried to smear her virtuous conduct. But the saying, “the sieve cannot coneal the sunlight in the middle of the day” remains true.
It gives us pleasure in this encyclical of ours to exhort the children of our church, both clergy and laity, to dedicate this year, the year 2000 AD to reflecting on the wondrous mysteries of divine Incarnation and Redemption, and to learning lessons from the struggle of the righteous Martyrs, Saints and Confessors who bore the Cross of the Lord and followed Him on the way to Golgotha. They suffered torture for the sake of adhering to faith in Him through the last twenty centuries and, as such, they were shining stars that radiated light in the sky of our Syrian Orthodox Church. They inscribed their spiritual struggle with characters of light on the pages of the history of the Church and that of the world. At the forefront, was the Apostolic warrior Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono who was able to expose the evil intentions of the tyrannical Byzantine state that robbed Syria and Egypt of their resources and used religion to serve its political ends. The Byzantine state caused divisions in the ranks of the Christian Church in the East to ensure the survival of its colonization of that blessed region. It tried to obliterate the characteristics of the Syrian Church, distort its history, and destroy its heritage and culture. The Byzantine state further accused its fathers with heresies of which they were as innocent as the wolf was of the blood of Jacob’s son.
Let us all take resemblance to Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono in trading with the evangelical talents, and let us ask for his intercession. Let us beatify the righteous Queen Theodora who preferred the disgrace of Christ, that is, the bearing of the Holy Cross, to all the glories of the world, that our names may be inscribed, as was hers, with the names of the Saints in the Church of the first born in heaven.
On the occasion of the fifteen hundreth anniversary of Queen Theodora’s birth and that of Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono, we command that this encyclical of ours be read in all our Syrian Orthodox Churches in the world. We command that this be done during the Holy Mass of the first Sunday of the Holy Lent, and once again on the 30th of July which marks the feast of Mor Ya`qub Burd`ono. Let our religious, educational, cultural and social institutions organize spiritual seminars on their life. Let us take them as examples in holding to the true faith and swerving not even by a hairbreadth from the faith and doctrines that we received from our fathers. Let us do this so that we may be worthy, like them, to receive the crown of glory that Apostle Paul mentions when he talks about himself saying, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Let this happy commemoration be a cause for blessing to you all, and may the grace of our Lord be with you. Amen.
Abun d-bashmayo w-sharko (Our Father Who art in Heaven…).
Issued at our Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria
on the 12th day of February, in the year two thousand
which is the 20th year of our Patriarchal reign.