St. Mary of Egypt: The Flesh Passes Away

St. John of Kronstadt writes that we can take Great Lent seriously while rejoicing in our Christian way of life if we remind ourselves that the world is our temporary home, not the only life we will know.  If we think the world is all there is we cling to it and try to drain every drop of life out of every little thing.  When we truly believe in God’s Kingdom, we realize life on earth is only a tiny portion of all that exists, and that life is very short compared to the eternity in the afterlife.  His thoughts are a good mediation as we honor St. Mary of Egypt on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent.

“The material objects to which we attach ourselves in our hearts, which we passionately desire or grudge others, kill the soul by withdrawing it from God, the Source of life. The heart out to be always in God, Who is the inexhaustible Source of spiritual and material life: for who is the author of the existence of all creatures, and of organic, vegetable and animal life, of the existence, order and life of all worlds, both great and small?  The Lord God.  We must look upon everything material as dross, as unimportant, as nothingness, as transitory, destructible, corruptible, and evanescent, and pay attention to the invisible, single immortal soul which cannot be destroyed: “To despise the flesh, for it passeth away, and to take care for the soul, the thing immortal.” [*Hymn for St. Mary of Egypt – see below] Prove this by your deeds: fast, gladly bestow charity upon the poor, entertain guests heartily; do not grudge anything to those who belong to your household, zealously read the Word of God, pray, repent, lament your sins, strive with all your might after holiness, meekness, humility, patience and obedience.”  (My Life in Christ, pp. 175-176)

The Troparion for St. Mary of Egypt:

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother, for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. Therefore your spirit, O Holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the angels.

 

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Correcting Vices with Virtues

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”  (Matthew 12:43-45)

Repentance has as its goal spiritual healing as we endeavor to overcome the sickening affects of the Fall.  Confession is not mostly about enumerating sins but rather about finding healing for our spiritual ills.   Fr Alexis Trader reminds us that in penance we are trying to find an antidote for our sins and the church fathers did suggest specific virtuous behaviors to replace sinful ones.  He writes:

“Ascetic tradition singles out eight principal bad thoughts that encompass and engender all the other sins that the mind can commit. The eight bad thoughts include gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. They are the conceptual analogues to specific behaviors, for “what the body acts out in the world of things, the nous acts out in the world of conceptual images.” Hence, the thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms as the gluttonous behavior of someone overeating, the unchaste conduct of someone having illicit sexual relations, the avaricious actions of someone gambling, and for forth. This patristic connection between thought and behavior links the subjective reality of the eight bad thoughts to the objective reality of concrete actions that can be observed and measured by an external observer. 

Furthermore, if bad thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms, their antidotes can also be framed in like manner. For example, in a text attributed to St. John of Damascus, the author notes that

“gluttony can be corrected by self-control;

unchastity by desire for God and longing for future blessings;

avarice by compassion for the poor;

anger by goodwill and love for all men;

worldly dejection by spiritual joy;

listlessness by patience, perseverance, and offering thanks to God;

vain-glory by doing good in secret and by praying constantly with a contrite heart;

and pride by not judging or despising anyone in the manner of the boastful Pharisee, and by considering oneself the least of all men.”

(Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 79)

It is not enough in confession to simply catalog one’s misdeeds.  If we don’t replace our sinful behaviors with virtuous ones, we will find the momentary gain of emptying our sins in confession is confounded by the fact that the same behaviors will continue and become worse.  Healing takes place as we rid ourselves of our sins by replacing bad behaviors with good deeds.  We have to fill our time and our hearts with good things or the empty heart will remain the haunt of our sinful thoughts which also are our demons.

Not the Flesh, But Its Desires

“The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” (Luke 7:34)

Ascetic practice including fasting is not supposed to kill the body, but only the sinful desires that arise in our bodies.  We practice self denial not because God’s creation is evil, but rather because of our own attitudes toward the world.  As  John Chryssavgis notes:

“…what is in fact avoided in authentic ascetic practice is not so much the world, or the things in the world…[but] the desire of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride in riches (I John 2:15-16). Flesh of course signifies the whole of one’s life in the state of conflict with oneself, with the world, and with God. Lust of the eyes implies the blurred vision of the world as created and as intended by God. Pride constitutes the ultimate hubris of humanity that usurps the role of God and seeks to dominate the world.” ( Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, pp. 64-65).

The Crucifixion of Death

In one of the Lenten hymns from the 4th week of Great Lent, there is an interesting exchange in which the nailing of Christ to the cross and piercing His side with the spear is actually bringing about the death of Death.  In the hymn, Hell/Death is personified and is at first puzzled by what it is experiencing  during Christ’s crucifixion.  The confusion turns to panic as Death realizes its own effort to kill the Christ has resulted in its own destruction.

Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull, two for the
thieves, and one for the Giver of Life. Seeing Him, Hell cried to
those below: My ministers and powers! Who is this that has fixed a
nail in my heart?

Crucified heel bone pierced by a nail. (1st Century)

A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly, and I am
torn apart! I suffer inwardly; anguish has seized my belly and my
senses. My spirit trembles and I am forced to cast out Adam and his
posterity! A tree brought them to my realm, but now the Tree of the
Cross cries out to them: Enter again into Paradise!

The hymn is perhaps an Orthodox version of the “substitutionary” theory of atonement.  In the Orthodox hymn, however, the emphasis is not on the innocent Christ dying on the cross in the place of sinful humanity.  Rather, Christ’s torment, suffering and death is actually crucifying Death.  Christ’s own death turns out to be the annihilation of death.

Keeping Lent Strictly

Some of the most well known Orthodox saints were courageously outspoken against abuses within the Church as well as abuses by Orthodox civil rulers or hierarchs.  St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) for example is sent into exile where he dies because of his criticisms of clergy as well as of the Empress.  St. Maria of Paris (d. 1945)  is a more contemporary saint who was troubled by what she saw in the Church of her day as the strict adherence to external ritualism while not having one’s heart changed by the Gospel.  Her stinging criticisms of Russian Orthodox Church life were intended to awaken Church members to live their Christian lives and not reduce Orthodoxy to mindless ritualism.  She refers to the example of Jesus Christ Himself who challenged the Pharisees of His day by declaring Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, not a slave to Sabbath rules. St. Maria says:

“‘We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated the Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no “in the name” nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be the slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man…Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have here a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifest in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules, and prohibitions–a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man?’

Likewise, [St. Maria Skobtsova] considers the ascetic mentality dominant in traditional monasticism, namely the conviction that everything one does is done out of obedience–to God, to the superior, to the monastic rule. The purpose for all of this is the salvation of one’s own soul, becoming “perfect even as your Father in heaven.” Once more, something is not right in such a vision, for

‘The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels–this is a kind of huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ–I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put virtues into practice and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love–and we must love.’

But where is there any recognition of the other, the neighbor who is being fed, clothed, or visited? Rather than self-renouncing, self-giving love that embraces the other, this “strange and fearsome holiness” pursues all kinds of works of love because it is the rule, because God or the superior orders it, because it is necessary for the salvation of my soul.”

(Michael Plekon, The Teachings of Modern Christianity, p. 666).

We can live the Gospel by living a life of love – through acts of generous giving to others, to those in need, to our neighbors or to strangers, we can curb our own desires and serve others.  We turn our self denial into the service of others.  This is an ascetic act which everyone is capable of doing.  We don’t need to leave the world in order to follow Christ.  We can use Great Lent as a time to increase our service to others and thus deny ourselves.

Moses and the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Yesterday on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorated the monastic father, St. John Climacus, author of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT.

The imagery of the spiritual life being a ladder that we climb to heaven is based in the Bible.  In the Old Testament, the Patriarch Jacob dreams about such a ladder which connects earth to heaven (Genesis 28:12). In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51).   In church hymnography, Mary has also been described as a ladder uniting earth to heaven.

St. Gregory of Nyssa also made use of the ladder imagery in his THE LIFE OF MOSES.  There the ladder stretches on eternally into heaven since there is no plateau to the spiritual life: one continues the ascent to God forever.    For St. Gregory no matter how much we ascend to God we will always realize God is even more beautiful than what we perceive.  This  thought causes us to ever move spiritually upward seeking that greater, more beautiful vision of God.  He writes:

“For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course. Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained. . . .

He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being.

Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.”   The Life of Moses, pp. 113-114)

The writings of St. Gregory on Moses also help clarify for us the goals of ascetic practice.  We are not trying to perfect fasting, rather we are trying to develop in our souls the love and desire for what is perfectly beautiful.  Fasting has an end point – we can only fast so much, we can only deny our self food to a finite degree.  Whereas the love for God, the development of the spiritual life goes on forever.  Fasting belongs to this fallen world, while the ascent to God and spiritual growth continues for all eternity.

The Hidden Mystery is Now Revealed

“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”  (Romans 16:25-27)

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12)  [emphases not in original texts]

In the Pauline corpus of writings, there are numerous references to Christ being God’s mystery hidden from all eternity and which God now reveals in  Jesus.  The mystery is a revelation about the nature of God – God is Trinity.  The mystery is a revelation about God’s own abilities to limit Himself and to enter into His creation in the incarnation.  They mystery is about what a human is – capable of being united to divinity, capable of sharing the divine life.    All of this we celebrate in the Feast of the Annunciation.  One of the hymns from the prefeast of the Annunciation proclaims:

THE MYSTERY HIDDEN FROM ALL ETERNITY,                                

UNKNOWN EVEN BY THE ANGELS,                                          

IS NOW ENTRUSTED TO THE ARCHANGEL GABRIEL.                           

HE WILL COME TO YOU, PRECIOUS VESSEL;                               

HE WILL SALUTE YOU, CRYING IN JOY:                                   

REJOICE, PURE DOVE!  REJOICE, ALL HOLY ONE!                    

MAKE READY BY YOUR WORD TO CONCEIVE THE WORD OF GOD!  

 

The time comes for God to reveal the mystery: His plan for humankind is theosis.  It was always God’s plan to share the divine life with humanity.  It is given to the Archangel Gabriel to announce this plan of salvation of God entering into His own creation: God becomes that which is “not God”!  The Archangel comes from the throne of heaven to a backwater village, to an impoverished, young maiden.  The Archangel must have been amazed himself to the surroundings he could see when talking to the Virgin.  The incarnation defied belief, but then the very life God the Son embraced was poverty in the boondocks of Palestine.  Yet this is the very place where God begins the salvation of the world.

“… I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.   For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 1:25-2:3)

“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9)

 

Evil is Converted By a Woman

As we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, we can reflect on the role of the Virgin Mary in the salvation of the world by considering the words of Orthodox Theologian Paul Evdokimov:

“Evil is not destroyed by a man but is converted by a woman.” (In the World, of the Church, p. 165)

In Mary, the sinful flesh of fallen humans is transformed by Christ into a humanity once again capable of theosis.   The flesh is not destroyed but converted!  The incarnation of the Word of God means the flesh, this world, all of history are capable of being redeemed by God.  The fasting of Great Lent is not meant to destroy the flesh but to convert it to being receptive to and capable of bearing the Word of God and the deification that comes to those who unite themselves to Christ.

Evdokimov continues:

“Sharing organically in the descent from Adam, participating in the common destiny of all mankind, Mary, however, was kept from all personal impurity. Every evil was rendered inoperative in her. It is this dynamism, this human reaction so royally free, that Nicholas Cabasilas stressed in synthesizing the Patristic tradition. A human being cannot be saved without the free agreement of his own will. ‘The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of his power and of the Holy Spirit, but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the consent of the most Pure One, without the agreement of her faith, this plan would not have been realizable except through the intervention of the Three Divine Persons themselves. It was not until after having instructed and persuaded her that God took Mary to be his Mother, and took from her the flesh that she was willing to give to him. Just as he wished to become incarnate, so too did he wish that his Mother would give birth to him of her own free will.’

The objective action of her motherhood coincided with the action of her personal, active holiness. This is why she is eternally Theotokos, bearer of God and Panagia, the Mother Most-Holy. In her saying fiat, “Let it be done,” she has become Mother, not only in external obedience but also inwardly, by her love of God who came to her. With the Holy Spirit, she was made Theotokos.“ (Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church, pp. 169-170)

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

(Luke 1:38)

The Feast of the Annunciation (2017)

St Nikolai Velimirovic reminds us that Jesus was not adopted by God only when Jesus dies on the cross.  Jesus did not become God’s Son only at age 30 when He began His public ministry.  Jesus is God’s Son at the Annunciation to the Theotokos.  He was already beginning then His ministry of salvation.  St. Nikolai writes:

“Lastly, there is an important reason on the general, human level for the Lord Jesus’ going to Egypt, and not to some other country. He did not begin His earthly  mission only at the age of thirty, when He opened His divine lips and began to teach. He began His mission at his conception. At His conception by the Holy Spirit, He already had a follower. This was the holy Mother of God. Was not Joseph converted to Christ before His birth? Did not His birth open heaven to the shepherds and fill the astrologers from the East with truth, prayer, and immortality? Did not Herod, together with the hardened leaders and scribes of Jerusalem, fall away from Him and stand against Him while He still lay in the manger? As soon as He was conceived, He became the cornerstone of the palace of salvation, and a stumbling-block to others. As soon as He was conceived, the world around him began to be divided into sheep and goats. Above all, Mary and Joseph were for a short time divided in their view of Him. While Mary knew Him to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Joseph thought Him the fruit of sin. This division lasted only a short time.

But the division made at His birth between, on the one hand, the shepherds and eastern astrologers, and Herod and the wise men of Jerusalem on the other, never came to an end. He came to sow, and at the same time to winnow. And He began his work from His conception in human flesh, right through to His death and glorious Resurrection, and from His Resurrection to this day, and from this day to the Last Judgement. He did not come into the world just to be a thinker. He lept into the drama of human life, as into the darkness of Egypt, to be light and leader, thinker and actor, sacrifice and victor. Indeed, He began His work in the world at that moment when His messenger, the great Archangel Gabriel, came down to Nazareth and announced His coming.”   (Homilies, pp. 53-54)  

The Gospel Lesson of the Annunciation:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Community and Communion


Georges Florovsky recalls the words of Tertullian: ‘Unus christianus, nullus christianus,’ that is, ‘an isolated Christian is not a Christian.’ A person who enters into the life of the Church thereby enters into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, in the mystery of communion. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul develops this important concept. The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of communion, incorporates us not only into Christ as Person, but into the totality of the Body of Christ, which is inseparable from the Head. This new life includes our communion with the Body of Christ, where we are nourished by His Body, quenched by His Blood, and vivified by the Spirit who unites us into one body. This ‘Body’ contains not only the eucharistic assembly ‘here and now’, but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints.

This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong, Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and the prophets – in communion. The communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr. Florovsky calls ‘ecumenism in time’. Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers.”

(Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pp 128-129).