More than sixty Antiochian Orthodox Christians travelled to Lebanon from December 7 through December 14, 2011, and three of them returned as newly consecrated auxiliary bishops Bishop John (Abdalah), Bishop Anthony (Michaels) and Bishop Nicholas (Ozone). The Vice Chairman of the Archdiocese Board of Trustees, Mr. Fawaz El Khoury, and Archpriest Thomas Zain together planned and directed an extraordinary itinerary for the North American pilgrims which provided an opportunity to witness the glories of Lebanon in addition to the overwhelmingly joyful consecrations themselves.
While others have chronicled both the details of the December trip greater detail, it occurred to me that at least one stop on our extensive travels provided an excellent metaphor both for the consecration of the new bishops and for the function of bishops in our Holy Tradition. Toward the end of the trip we were able to venture into the mountains to behold the glory of the famous Cedars of Lebanon.
This leg of the trip began from our hotel literally at sea level where it was warm and sunny and took us along winding highways to reach the snow covered mountains of northern Lebanon. Although the temperature was just above freezing, the sun was brilliant and the cedars soared majestically. The local guides and souvenir vendors provided fascinating details about their precious cedar forest. One guide claimed he could point to the very trees which adorned the Lebanese flag, the national coinage, and the airplanes of Middle East Airlines.
It is important to note that these trees are ancient. We heard speculation that some of the trees were as much as 6000 years old. We know, for instance, that the Phoenicians used cedar trees to build both commercial and military ships as well as houses, palaces and temples. There are at least 75 references to the cedars in the Bible. Moses ordered the use of cedar wood for the treatment of leprosy. Both Kings David and Solomon used cedar trees to build their temples in Jerusalem and their palaces. Isaiah used the cedars as a metaphor for the pride of the world (2:13). Their antiquity, therefore, came to represent immortality.
Because of their antiquity these trees, which soar as high as 130 feet in the air, have developed root systems which can go three times as deep in the earth. Antiquity and roots – are these not two qualities which describe the place and function of bishops in our church? During the service for the consecration of a bishop, the candidate must proclaim publicly that he has written with his own hand the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, that he accepts the decisions of the Seven Holy and Ecumenical Councils, that he accepts all of the canons which the Holy Fathers have formulated, and that he will commit himself to the preservation of the peace of the Church for the remainder of his life. Our three new bishops actually proclaimed this ancient faith and our historic roots twice, once at Great Vespers on Saturday night and again during the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning.
The Cedars of Lebanon are also noteworthy because they vigilantly hold their branches horizontally as in a position of prayer and supplication. They can, therefore, be a symbol of constancy and fidelity. During the Second Confession of Faith, the candidate must expound on the basic tenets of the Creed and affirm the Orthodox Church’s insistence on the eternity of God the Father. He must further attest to the co-eternity of the Son and reject “the wicked belief of Arius.” He must testify to the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He must confess that in His Incarnation the Son is perfect God and perfect Man with two natures and two wills, that He died and rose again, and that He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Bishops down through the ages have maintained this posture in theology and in leading the faithful in prayer the same way the Cedars have stood with branches upraised through the millennia.
Tragic though it may be, the Cedars of Lebanon are actually enduring a slow process of deforestation from natural and human causes. The government of Lebanon and other countries where cedars grow have undertaken an active program to conserve and to regenerate the cedar forests. As history progresses and Christ tarries, is it not equally important that the Holy Church repopulate the ranks of the hierarchs both to succeed bishops who have reposed and to tend to a growing flock. During the Third Confession of Faith, the candidate for bishop must stand in the tradition of the forefathers and assert, “I believe those traditions and narrations concerning the One Catholic and Apostolic Church, which we have received from God and from the men of God.”
Given their antiquity, their soaring heights and deep roots, their posture of prayer, and their need for continuing replenishment can we not see the Cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for the episcopate? The Cedars, clustered near each other with nothing but rock around them, support each other and demonstrate how the Church gathers us out of the world and around the bishop. As we pray that God “exult us like the Cedars of Lebanon” who stand mighty, let us hold up our bishops so that we can faithfully follow the truth that they guard. Our new bishops join their brother bishops and archbishops in reverencing the past, leading our worship, maintaining the peace and unity of Christ’s Holy Church, and replenishing their own ranks and the ranks of the clergy. God grant many years to all of our bishops, especially the newly consecrated Bishops John, Anthony and Nicholas!
Fr. Michael Ellias
Pastor, St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, Brooklyn, NY
Secretary of the Antiochian Archdiocese