Christmas Encyclical Letter 2017 from Patriarch Bartholomew

Patriarchal Encyclical for Christmas 2017
Prot. No. 1123



+ Bartholomew

By God’s Mercy Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch
To the Plenitude of the Church
Grace, Mercy and Peace from the Savior Christ Born in Bethlehem

* * *

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, dear children,


By the grace of God, we are once again deemed worthy to reach the great feast of the birth of the divine Word in the flesh, who came into the world to grant us “well-being,”[1] remission of sin, of captivity to the works of the law and death, in order to grant us true life and great joy, which “no one can take from us.”[2]

We welcome the “all-perfect God,”[3] who “brought love into the world,”[4] who becomes “closer to us than we to ourselves.”[5] Through kenosis, the divine Word condescends to the created beings in “a condescension inexplicable and incomprehensible.”[6] He “whom nothing can contain” is contained in the womb of the Virgin; the greatest exists in the least. This great chapter of our faith, of how the transcendent God “became human for humankind,”[7] while remaining an “inexpressible” mystery. “The great mystery of divine Incarnation ever remains a mystery.”[8]

This strange and paradoxical event, “which was hidden for ages and generations,”[9] is the foundation of the gift of human deification. “There is no salvation in anyone else; for there is no other human name beneath heaven through which we must be saved.”[10]

This is the supreme truth about salvation. That we belong to Christ. That everything is united in Christ. That our corruptible nature is refashioned in Christ, the image is restored and the road toward likeness is opened for all people. By assuming human nature, the divine Word establishes the unity of humanity through a common divine predestination and salvation. And it is not only humanity that is saved, but all of creation. Just as the fall of Adam and Eve impacts all of creation, so too the Incarnation of the Son and Word of God affects all of creation. “Creation is recognized as free when those who were once in darkness become children of light.”[11] Basil the Great calls us to celebrate the holy Nativity of Christ as the “common feast of all creation,” as “the salvation of the world—humanity’s day of birth.”[12]

Once again, the words that “Christ is born” are unfortunately heard in a world filled with violence, perilous conflict, social inequality and contempt of foundational human rights. 2018 marks the completion of seventy years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, after the terrible experience and destruction of World War II, manifested the common and noble ideals that all peoples and countries must unwaveringly respect. However, the disregard of this Declaration continues, while various abuses and intentional misinterpretations of human rights undermine their respect and realization. We continue either not to learn from history or not to want to learn. Neither the tragic experience of violence and reduction of the human person, nor the proclamation of noble ideals have prevented the continuation of aggression and war, the exaltation of power and the exploitation of one another. Nor again have the domination of technology, the extraordinary achievements of science, and economic progress brought social justice and the peace that we so desire. Instead, in our time, the indulgence of the affluent has increased and globalization is destroying the conditions of social cohesion and harmony.

The Church cannot ignore these threats against the human person. “There is nothing as sacred as a human being, whose nature God Himself has shared.”[13] We struggle for human dignity, for the protection of human freedom and justice, knowing full well that “true peace comes from God,”[14] that the transcendent mystery of the Incarnation of divine Word and the gift of human deification reveals the truth about freedom and humanity’s divine destiny.

In the Church, we experience freedom through Christ, in Christ and with Christ. And the very summit of this freedom is the place of love, which “does not seek its own”[15] but “derives from a pure heart.”[16] Whoever depends on himself, seeks his own will, and is self-sufficient—whoever pursues deification by himself and congratulates himself—only revolves around himself and his individual self-love and self-gratification; such a person only sees others as a suppression of individual freedom. Whereas freedom in Christ is always oriented to one’s neighbor, always directed toward the other, always speaks the truth in love. The aim of the believer is not to assert his or her rights, but rather “to follow and fulfill the rights of Christ”[17] in a spirit of humility and thanksgiving.

This truth about the life in Christ, about freedom as love and love as freedom, is the cornerstone and assurance for the future of humankind. When we build on this inspired ethos, we are able to confront the great challenges of our world, which threaten not only our well-being but our very survival.

The truth about the “God-man” is the response to the contemporary “man-god” and proof of our eternal destination proclaimed by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (Crete, 2016): “The Orthodox Church sets against the ‘man-god’ of the contemporary world the ‘God-man’ as the ultimate measure of all things. “We do not speak of a man who has been deified, but of God who has become man.” The Church reveals the saving truth of the God-man and His body, the Church, as the locus and mode of life in freedom, “speaking the truth in love,” and as participation even now on earth in the life of the resurrected Christ.”

The Incarnation of the divine Word is the affirmation and conviction that Christ personally guides history as a journey toward the heavenly kingdom. Of course, the journey of the Church toward the kingdom, which is not realized remotely or independently of historical reality—or its contradictions and adventures—has never been without difficulties. Nevertheless, it is in the midst of these difficulties that the Church witnesses to the truth and performs its sanctifying, pastoral and transfiguring mission. “Truth is the pillar and ground of the Church … The pillar of the universe is the Church … and this is a great mystery, a mystery of godliness.”[18]


Brothers and sisters, children in the Lord,


Let us celebrate together—with the grace of the divine Word, who dwelt in us, as well as with delight and fullness of joy—the feasts of the Twelve Days of Christmas. From the Phanar we pray that our Lord and Savior—who was incarnate out of condescension for all people—may in this coming new year grant everyone physical and spiritual health, along with peace and love for one another. May He protect His holy Church and bless the works of its ministry for the glory of His most-holy and most-praised Name.

Christmas 2017

+ Bartholomew of Constantinople

Your fervent supplicant before God


To be read in church during the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of Christmas, following the Holy Gospel.

[1] Gregory the Theologian, Oration XXXVIII, on Theophany, namely the Nativity of the Savior, iii, PG 36, 313.

[2] John 10:18.

[3] Doxastikon of the Aposticha from the Great Vespers of Christmas.

[4] Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, vi, PG 150, 657.

[5] Ibid. vi PG 150, 660.

[6] John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, iii, 1, PG 94, 984.

[7] Maximus the Confessor, Various chapters on Theology and Economy concerning virtue and vice, First Century, 12, PG 90, 1184.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Col. 1:26.

[10] Acts 4:12.

[11] Iambic Katavasia on the Feast of Theophany, Ode VIII.

[12] Basil the Great, Homily on the Nativity of Christ, PG 31, 1472-73.

[13] Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, vi, PG 150, 649.

[14] John Chrysostom, On Corinthians 1, Homily I, 1, PG 61, 14.

[15] 1 Cor. 13:5.

[16] 1 Tim. 1:5.

[17] Theotokion, Aposticha of the Ainoi, October 12.

[18] John Chrysostom, On Timothy I, Homily XI, PG 62, 554.

Christmas Letter from Archbishop Gregorios 2017

Encyclical for the Nativity of Christ 2017 PDF Print
Dear beloved in Christ,


The feast of Christmas is in sight once again to remind us of the love and philanthropy of the worshipped in Trinity God. The Only-begotten Word of God takes on flesh ‘through the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’ and is born in Bethlehem of Judea. The Magi from the East are led by the Star and visit the holy manger, in which the divine Child was wrapped in swaddling clothes, ‘because there was no guest room available for them’ (Luke 2.7). The Angels in heaven chant the hymn of joy, peace and that blessed Hope with which the God-man Christ enriched the world: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and goodwill to all men.’ (Luke 2.14).


We thus celebrate this divine chronicle and commemorate the Event that changed the course of human history. God’s peace was brought to divided humanity, and opposites were reconciled. Both Jews and Gentiles were given the opportunity to reunite with Christ, who united earth with heaven through His humility and sacrifice on the Cross. For this reason, the Apostle Paul writes: ‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near’ (Ephesians 2.14–17). The hymnographers of Christmas interpret in a prophetic insight the Mystery of Christ’s incarnation, which the Church treats as its high treasure in prayer, worship and theology. The Church celebrates joyfully these days and chants, ‘comprehending in awe the mystery O’ Lord, the angelic powers were astonished, as You condescended to become a child, You that adorned the stars with the pole and sat in the manger…’ as well as, ‘let us be exalted in Christ, narrating this great mystery’ (hymns of Christmas). The hymnographer thus expresses poetically those secretive occurrences, which took place inconspicuously, far from the eyes of the rulers of this world. Therefore, brothers in Christ, with sacred silence and grace, let us celebrate this year the Mystery of our salvation, for thus shall we experience those mysteries that the Prophets of Israel and the Sages of the ancient world saw ‘through the glass darkly’, while the faithful Christians have been experiencing them divinely for the last two millennia.


May the Ruler of peace, Christ our true God, bring His peace ‘to those far and near.’ May He reconcile the people of all nations, and enlighten all of us to embody the letter and the spirit behind His teaching, He who ‘opened the heavens and descended on earth’ in order to introduce His Gospels to the world; for He ‘made Himself of no reputation, taking on the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men’ (Philippians 2.7). The hymnographer of Christmas also writes: ‘Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shined the light of knowledge upon the world’ (dismissal hymn). Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, being faithful to the orthodox Christian tradition, let us go to the Church these sacred and unique days and partake of Holy Communion. Let us forgive ourselves and one another, let us be charitable to the poor and the sick, let us pray in deep faith and humility, so that the God-man Christ may be formed and rekindled in us and around us. Let us beseech the Divine Child to remain with us ‘all the days of our transitional life’ and grant us His peace and the blessed hope of the Saints and of all those who, throughout the centuries, have experienced the Mystery of the Divine Economy. Praying and partaking in your joy of Christmas, of the New Year as well as of Theophany, I wish you health and the blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ upon your pursuits in the New Year 2018, and I remain with warm wishes and with love in the Lord and honour.


London, Christmas 2017

Archbishop Gregorios

of Thyateira and Great Britain


The Restoration of the Female Diaconate

The question of the role of women in the Orthodox Christian Church is, not surprisingly, a matter of discussion at the present time.  As unfortunately is the case with much in both secular and churchly life, such discussion is often bedevilled and befogged by emotion, misinformation and much else that is inimical to a sober consideration.  In fact, the question is not new at all.  What is new is, on the one hand, the wholly proper secular concern over the treatment and role of women in the workplace and in society at large – something in which Christianity has much to contribute – and, on the other hand, the more particular question of the proper recognition within the Church of the way in which ministry and ministries are seen and evidenced in a way that makes the fullest use of the talents, grace and mission given to each one of us in the Holy Spirit as equally baptized and equally adopted sons and daughters of God, remade equally in his redeemed image and likeness.  This question has prompted an interesting discussion in the online article (link below) in the context of the decision by the Patriarchate of Alexandria to restore the female diaconate.  I say interesting, not least because of the calibre of the theologians contributing to the discussion.


Reader Anthony

The Revival of the Order of Deaconess by the Patriarchate of Alexandria


Philip Sherrard: The Sacred and Secular – An Artist’s Perspective





Philip Sherrard: The Sacred and Secular – An Artist’s Perspective

From an early age I have loved painting with a single-minded passion that has never abated. So I will give a talk on my own journey towards the divine through art.

In connecting my personal journey as an artist to the theme of the Sacred and Secular in Life and Art, I need to start where most of us in the West begin.

Philip Sherrard’s statement that ‘unless we can reinstate the sense of the sacred at the heart of all our activities, there can be no hope of avoiding the cosmic catastrophe for which we are heading’ struck a deep chord in me, because, with few exceptions, we have all grown up in a secular

culture, and the journey from the secular to the sacred is a long one for all of us. To free ourselves from the shackles of an egocentric life, which is what a secular society engenders, and to move into the realm of the sacred, entails a lifetime process of purification – a cleaning of the inside of the cup – this gradual cleansing is reflected in whatever one does – whether making a painting or sweeping the floor.

Given the scenario most of us have been presented with reminds me of a line from a wonderful article I read years ago written by the Sisters of St. Xenia Skete in California on ‘Literature, Culture and the Western soul’:We did not always wander dejectedly in the wasteland of neon and soap operas.’ (1)

Too often, artists of today feel it is their obligation to replicate the wasteland around them to bombard the world with images of violence and destruction with the view that by doing so, they are doing us a favour by being ‘responsible’ or ‘relevant’ or ‘politically correct’ or whatever the fashionable buzz word is.

This same article continues:

‘We must learn again what beauty is. … We must feel again that pang of homesickness, that bittersweet joy at almost touching, yet never grasping, almost hearing, yet never catching, Him whose Beauty makes art beautiful. In its truest, deepest sense, that is what art does; that is why we need it. It continually whets a thirst it cannot quench, continually reminds us of a hunger it cannot satisfy. It leads us up to the very highest reaches of human experience, and then leaves us still homesick, still longing for we know not what, and at that point the spirit is enabled to go on, to find its true home in God.’ (2)

Returning to the book, ‘The Sacred in Life and Art, Philip Sherrard includes a memorable quote from Gogol: ’If Art does not accomplish the miracle of transforming the soul of the spectator, it is but a transient passion..’We live in a world of ‘Transient passions’, and looking back to my beginnings as an artist, I would say that this is an all–too-prevalent

characteristic of most modern artists. At the root of our lives we have suffered from the curse that has afflicted most creative people over the past few centuries – that in assuming the role of creator with a small ‘c’, we have forgotten to acknowledge our debt to the Creator, with a capital ‘C’ – our Maker in Whom we live and move and have our being – without Whom there would be no artistic gifts, no wonderful insights – in fact, there would be nothing at all – not even us! If we acknowledged this fact from the time we began to paint – how different our art – and indeed we ourselves would be! If we became fully aware of the enormity of this revelation, all we could do is fall on our knees and say ‘Thank you!’ Everything we receive is a gift, including the creative energy an artist is blessed with. It is freely given from God, and the way it’s used depends on the individual. Like prayer, when it is working as it should, it works through you – you are the channel through which it flows if it’s kept sufficiently

clear – and here is the great stumbling block.

There’s a clue in Phillip Sherrard’s book, where at the very beginning, he expands on the origins of the word Sacred: ‘The word sacred is one of a whole of cognate words – words like sacrament, sacrosanct, consecrate, sacrifice – the original meaning of this last, ‘sacrifice’, being precisely to ‘make sacred’. This word ‘sacrifice’ holds the key.

But what to sacrifice? Looking back, I can see it was more my parents who sacrificed to ensure that all of us children were educated. But what did I sacrifice for my art? One can go through a list of the usual things an artist gives up – money, a comfortable life, fame and fortune (with rare exceptions) but the most important one – and the most difficult one to sacrifice is the sacrifice of one’s own ego. Having been given such a lavish gift, your artistic ego jumps in and becomes totally inflated – ‘Aren’t I just wonderful that I’ve been given this talent!’ – a little like the Pharisee who pities the publican for not being ‘special’ like he is.

The very fact that you were given this gift is enough to justify the fact that you are set apart as a very special person in this universe – and herein begins the beginning of one’s own personal fall – which I certainly have experienced more than once my life – in the form of an early failed marriage, of alienation from my fellow artists as a result of competitiveness and ambition – in other words, all the characteristics of the fallen world. So much so that on several occasions I have had made to make the decision to stop painting altogether, in recognition of the fact that I was turning into a ‘painting machine’. But every time I did this, something strange and wonderful would happen – whether it was after a few weeks, months, or even years (and this has a happened several times in my life), inevitably my gift – my art, my muse – call it what you will – my oldest and dearest friend, would return and say – ‘What about me’? And then I would resume where I left off, and it would be like it had never been away.

Only now that I have reached my eighties do I feel free of many of these negative traits that cut across my life as an artist. Although they didn’t actually stop the flow of creative inspiration, they certainly tainted this glorious gift with totally inappropriate coverings of skin.

I see more than ever, that for me, the purification process has meant a constant re-examining of myself and my motives, in order to remove these impediments which separated me from my fellow artists as well as from my Creator, and at last I’ve begun to experience the free flow of grace in the form of creativity that, if anything, has increased in my old age.

At this point, I think it would be useful to trace my progression in art from the secular to the – I won’t glorify it with the word ‘sacred’ – to the gradual

freedom from the ‘transient passions’.

Like many young artists when beginning their careers, I was totally unaware of the fact that art had in some way needed to have some relation to the spiritual.

In my beginnings as an art student, being an artist seemed more related to the world of free spirits, of hedonism, of total freedom. This only shows my ignorance at the time, and it was only years later that I began to link the world of art with the life of the spirit.

Paradoxically, at the same time that all this was going on, for at least the first ten years as a painter, when I had no interest whatsoever in the pursuit of the spiritual, it is in retrospect I can see that it was my art itself which was the Ariadne’s thread inexorably drawing me closer to my Creator. So, before I was even vaguely what one would call religious, painting was the only place for me that was akin to a spiritual practice. I wasn’t praying or meditating, or following any ascetic regime – nevertheless when I was working properly I was brought to a point of stillness that only years later I recognised as the kind of attention mentioned in such writings as the ‘Triads of St Gregory Palamas’, where he talks about the nous being brought back to itself from its wanderings abroad.

When people would ask me how I knew a painting was finished, my answer was that for me the test of whether a painting was ‘there’ or not was whether I would fall quiet when looking at it, and whether the observer would have the same reaction.

Only much later in life, through (my husband) Robin’s pilgrimages to the Holy Mountain did I discover the term Hesychasm – the practice that leads one to stillness, as well as such terms as ‘one pointed attention’, single mindedness’, ‘circular attention,’ ‘nous returning to itself’ etc. Without being aware of what it was, I was actually doing it. Before I met Robin and he became my teacher and guide, it was my art itself that was teaching me. Much later I came across the concept of ‘Ora et labora’- the discipline of monastics who alternate manual work with periods of prayer – a discipline which is universally practised on the Holy Mountain. In Phillip Sherrard’s book, he says:

Yet we can only ourselves fulfil our priest-like task on condition that our own inner world is animated by God.’ I think here he is referring to what I recognise as a sense of the inevitable – of having a ‘calling’ – but although I was worshipping at the altar of (beauty) art – like too many creative people, this was an altar that for many years didn’t include the Creator. He was calling me throughout this time, but wrapped in myself as I was, I didn’t hear His voice. I heard the call, but didn’t recognise the Caller.

There was a long period from the time my search began in the mid sixties to the early eighties when eventually Robin encountered the Tradition on Athos, and very soon after that we became Orthodox.

The search itself was a long period of purification, which I must say, is still going on, and will continue to go on until I depart this life.

This process of moving from being a ‘man of flesh’ to ‘one of the spirit’ is beautifully expressed in one of my husband’s poems : ‘The Love of Woman’ (in this case I merely substituted ‘the love of art’ which fits just as well: In this poem, he traces the progression of love from the earthly to the divine. At the end of each stanza he repeats this refrain:

Here lies my weakness;

Here my greatest sin

My heart’s in nothing

That you are not in.’

But at the very end, something changes: Here I substitute ‘Art’ for ‘Woman’ but the meaning is the same:

To love of Art at its utmost peak

The many tongues of silence softly speak

To tell the lover that when freed of pride

Naught shall his love from love of God divide.

Here dies my weakness

Here decays my sin

My heart’s in nothing that Thou art not in.’

I will end with a paradox. Previously I stated that I would know if my work had reached its desired end –

which was to bring one to a state of stillness.

The paradox is that in reaching this point, one has to travel through many countries in oneself – in my case, this seems to involved a continual search for that moment of surprise which gives me new energy each day to carry on my explorations – of unexpectedly chancing on a new way of seeing the world around me, and finding the best means of expression – in the hope that the viewer will be surprised and delighted at the result. So the paradox appears to be the juxtaposition of surprise with stillness.

I once read that some saint said the action of the Spirit was three-fold:

It was instantaneous, unpredictable and unexpected. When that happens in my work, I know I’m on the right track.

(1) ‘Literature, Culture and the Western Soul’

Sisters of St. Xenia Skete, California.

(2) Ibid.

This article on The Poor by Aboot Tryphon is well worth following up: