Remembering Mary of Egypt in Lent

A bit of history as to how and why St Mary of Egypt became the focus of one of the Sundays of Great Lent.  As is well known, the themes of the Sundays of Great Lent changed through the centuries and earlier biblical themes were replaced by monastic figures as monasticism began to dominate the church after the restoration of the icons.  As the Byzantine Empire disappeared, monastic  rubrics and practice became the church norm in the 14th Century and beyond.

“The Fifth Sunday in Lent was formerly dedicated to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and later, probably by the end of the fourteenth century, assigned to St. Mary of Egypt (5th century). A model of repentance, St. Mary’s commemoration was moved from 1 April, which would often fall in the Lenten period, during which time the celebration of the saints was forbidden (Canon 51, Council of Laodicea, 4th cent.).”  (Footnote, The Homilies, p. 554)

The story of Mary of Egypt was a popular one in monastic circles and she was upheld as a true hero of the monks – a model of the monastic life.  Her feast day, April 1, often fell during Great Lent.  The 4th Century Church had forbidden the celebration for saints on the week days of Great Lent as inconsistent with the more solemn nature of the fast.  The 14th Century solution of the monastics was to move her feast to the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, ensuring it would be celebrated every year without breaking the ancient canon forbidding the celebration of saints on the weekdays of Great Lent.   Commemorating Mary of Egypt on a Lenten Sunday  occurred during a time in which the traditional biblical themes for the Sundays of Great Lent (the Prodigal Son, the Publican and the Pharisee and Last Judgment) were displaced and moved into what we now call the pre-Lenten period.  It is a sign that liturgical practice – the rubrics and typikon – have always been undergoing change.  There is no reason to think that what we are doing now is the way Great Lent must always be kept.  The liturgical practice has changed through history and can be changed to better suit the contemporary pastoral ministry of the Church.

Commemorating Mary of Egypt annually during Lent enabled the monks to reaffirm certain themes important to them and to honor a Christian woman who exemplified to them the Christian life.

The story of the Desert Fathers and Mothers begins with the Bible itself. They based their lives on a distinct theology of the desert found on the pages of the Old and New Testaments. For example, the Old Testament speaks of Moses, who went up on a mountain forty days and forty nights to receive God’s revelation of the covenant (Ex. 24:18). The children of Israel later wandered in the wilderness for forty years under Moses “to humble and test you [Israel] in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deut. 8:2). Later prophets such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) lived in the desert as they warned the Israelites to forsake their worship of false gods. On the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), the high priest laid the sins of Israel on the head of a scapegoat and sent it into the wilderness as a sign of repentance and God’s forgiveness.    (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 199-205)

The desert fathers and mothers reinforced certain themes which the monks felt need to be brought into the forefront of the minds of others monks.

Above all else, theirs was a life that sought God, and God alone. That is why they declared a virtual war on the inner adversaries that hid secretly in their hearts, and they were watchful of their stealth attacks (Prov. 4:23). They concentrated their energies on the source of their problems, the inner person—its selfish orientation, dark impulses, sexual preoccupations, greed, lust, anger, unforgiveness, hatred, and other “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19 – 21 NRSV).  (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 284-88)

The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (2019)

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others:   

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”   (Luke 18:9-14)

A little quiz.  Where are the two places where God says He lives?

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.    (Isaiah 57:15)

1] God claims to dwell in heaven, in eternity, the high and holy place [which some might also say is the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple].

2]  God dwells with those who are humble and contrite.  So that means God also dwells with sinners, because sinners can be seriously contrite over things they have done.

In this verse (Is. 57:15) we also understand why it is that the Publican went away being declared righteous by Christ rather than the Pharisee who strove to keep God’s law and wanted to be righteous but was extremely proud and judgmental.  For the Publican, that great sinner showed himself both contrite and humble.  So, God dwelt with him which makes him righteous even though he is a sinner!  That is part of the good news for all of us.  If we show ourselves contrite and humble ourselves before God, God will come to dwell with us.  God does not despise us because we are sinners, which is what we pray at the Divine Liturgy right before we sing the Trisagion Hymn (Holy God, Holy Mighty…) when the priest says:

“You do not despise the sinner, but instead have appointed repentance unto salvation. . . Forgive us every transgression, both voluntary and involuntary. Sanctify our souls and bodies, and enable us to serve You in holiness all the days of our life… “

The Sacrament of Confession is exactly given to us as an opportunity to humble ourselves before God and show heartfelt contrition for our sins.

It is worth noting that St John Chrysostom said it wasn’t that the Publican called himself a sinner which was virtuous.  For as Chrysostom says, there is no particular virtue in his calling himself a sinner when in fact he is one!  In admitting to being a sinner the Publican was simply being honest, truthful.  It was his entire disposition which showed his humility and contrition which resulted in God declaring him righteous.  It is when we recognize that our sins are a disappointment to God and realize our sins truly sadden God that we come to our own contrition of heart (see for example Genesis 6:6).  The Pharisee who kept every jot and tittle of the law and who strove to be righteous by meticulously keeping the law, had a heart which was far from what God wanted.  For God wants our heart to be filled with and motivated by love, not by a rigid fanaticism for legal detail.  Humility and contrition are heart conditions and in this case it is good for us to have these heart conditions.  And both in terms of our physical heart and our spiritual heart, fasting is good for the heart.

This humility is taught throughout the New Testament.  The Apostle Peter says:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.   (1 Peter 5:5-6)

St Paul the Apostle writes:

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.   (Philippians 2:3-4)

There is a long prayer known as the Litany of Humility.  It teaches us how humility is so counterintuitive.   In Part this prayer reads:

That others may be loved more than I

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may increase and I may decrease

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I

O Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

In this prayer we learn what leads to humility – the desire that others be more praised than I am, more esteemed than I am, more loved than I am.  I learn humility when others are chosen ahead of me and when I hope and wish that others become more holy than I am.  We learn humility when we hope that God will notice the good in others before God pays attention to any goodness in me.

This prayer hopes for true humility and yet we might cringe when we pray for these things because in our hearts, we want God to notice us first and notice our goodness before anyone else’s.  And we are always tempted to show we are better than others and to notice and even point out and judge every little fault and failure of others.  Instead we would be wise to remember the words of St. James:

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James 2:13)

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee tells us there is a right way to pray and a wrong way to pray.  That should make us stop and think.  Maybe we believe  all prayer or any prayer is better than no prayer at all.  Not so, says Christ.  He says there is a wrong way to approach God in prayer – and he tells the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee to show us this.  We should each pay attention to the Gospel lesson.  Not all prayer is accepted by God.  Think about the story of Abel Cain’s sacrifice from Genesis 4:3-7 –

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain and the Pharisee both show us there is a wrong way to approach God in prayer.  Nothing good comes of this.

There is however a right way to pray and to approach God in prayer.  That way includes humility and contrition for one’s sins.  It is the way which makes our prayer acceptable to God so that God declares us to be righteous even if we are sinners.

The sinful Publican shows us that even a sinner can be declared righteous by God.  And God even dwells in the heart of the sinner if the sinner is humble, confessing his or her own sins.  As we prepare ourselves for Great Lent, we are being asked today to think about our prayer life and how the spiritual condition of our heart shapes our prayers.  The spiritual condition of our heart determines whether God declares us righteous or not.

Old, Calendar Christmas

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The old priest was feeling his age as he turned to face the congregation and read the Gospel for the Christmas service.  He was weary, should have retired years ago, but had little incentive to do so.  His life had been the church, and he didn’t want to be left alone in his senescence.  His wife had passed away a few years ago.  He himself had survived cancer and chemo.  Now every day he felt the effects of the disease and the treatment and his many years – fatigue, his constant companion.

4147855595_428ae2921d_mAs he pronounced the Peace before reading the Gospel he felt exhausted; he had no sermon prepared.  He doubted that it mattered.  They wouldn’t want a long sermon anyway as they wanted to get back to the warmth of their homes on this cold winter day to celebrate Christmas with their families.    Each person present had his or her own expectation about what they should get out of the Christmas service, each their own interpretation of the feast, each their own need this Christmas.  Christmas was so personalized with its message determined by each person, dictated by their own sentiment, or piety, or need.  Besides, they all had heard the Nativity narrative so many times, he knew better than to imagine they were paying attention to him.

He had tried every year to find a Christmas message that pleased them.  He had heard every year what some wanted or expected from him on this holiday and what they didn’t like about his homily.   He wished just once he could please them all.  Maybe too big a miracle to hope for.  Besides at this point in his life he had said everything he had to say on the Feast, nothing new came to mind.

25293764221_02cccd892c_mHis eyes seemed blurry as he opened the newly donated Gospel book for the first time – a gift to the parish for the Nativity that year.  The gold cover was so pure, the colored lights from the Christmas tree in the nave danced on it.

It crossed his mind that each person present would hear what they wanted from the Gospel lesson.

“The reading is from the Gospel according to . . .”

The pages were exquisitely colored, magnificently adorned with illustrations and illuminated with stunning calligraphy.

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He couldn’t seem to find the page. He blinked to try to clear away the haze on his dry eyes.  As he looked, behold, what was written in front of him said “the Gospel according to Peanuts”.  He turned the page only to see “the Gospel according to Jean Shepherd”,  and a few pages later according to Valentine Davies, and then according to Dr Seuss.   As he quickly flipped the pages he saw a Christmas story about Frosty, another about Rudolph, the Grinch, Scrooge, Snoopy and Santa.   He could not believe his eyes!

6489769137_7f7c3496ac_mThe words of the text staring at him read: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas…”

The congregants were looking expectantly at the priest.  It was after the all the advent of their favorite holiday.

He was rapidly flipping pages until he had came to the back cover of the Gospel.  He stopped.

There, stuck between the back matter and the cover was a flattened ball of paper – as if someone had written a bad idea, crumpled it up and stuck it in the back of the book, where it became crushed.

Some of the congregants were embarrassed for the old priest, others were feeling impatient, wondering what the problem was.  Some thought the old man had lost his place again in the book, a few sniggered thinking he finally had lost his mind.

39062359321_8715e2ecc5_m He clumsily unfolded the wadded paper.  It was badly tattered, and the script was faded almost to the point of being illegible.  When he flattened the time-worn paper, his eyes cleared and he recognized the hand and the words.  The mystery was revealed.

Everyone was startled when for the first time, they heard the angel so clearly say:

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “

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The Buzz

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The bee is an insect that was admired in antiquity by numerous philosophers and saints.  Bees were cited for various reasons and virtues as examples for good people to emulate.  I’ve enjoying photographing bees, those great pollinators of flowers.

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Bees are essential in agriculture and important for food production.  In one way or another, bees are involved in most of the meals we eat.  They are an insect for which we should give thanks to God, and for which we should pray.

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“Like a bee that secretly fashions its comb in the hive, so also grace secretly forms in hearts its own love.  It changes to sweetness what is bitter, what is rough into that which is smooth.”  (Pseudo-Macarius, FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES & THE GREAT LETTER, p 132)

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“Like a bee one should extract from each of the virtues what is most profitable. In this way, by taking a small amount from all of them, one builds up from the practice of the virtues a great honeycomb overflowing with the soul-delighting honey of wisdom.”   (St Gregory of Sinai,  THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 41544-41546)

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You can find a prayer for bees and links to other posts I have made about bees at The Blessing of Bees and at How Sweet It Is To Be.

 

“Battlefield Graves”

Photos by John Bobosh

The Normandy invasion of WWII has long captured my mortal imagination.  I’ve thought about the many lives lost on that longest of days.  Those coming ashore, whatever dreams they had for life, realized the nightmare of war.  Up and down that coast, dreams were shattered, sunk beneath the waves, ripped from the limbs of those who held them, slowly bled from those who succumbed more slowly from the ravages of war.  When my son visited Normandy this year and sent me some photos from there, it revived in me a poem I once penned about D-Day.

Field of dreams

Dying

One by one

Would have soared.

Now, beneath the turf lying

Silent.

Never to see the light of day.

No longer embodied

By the dreamer

It can’t be freed

Of the earth settling above.

A massive monument built

To remember what we cannot know

Is  lost.

What might have been

Imagined.

You can’t take it with you,

It remains interred.

Buried

In the heart

Of the earth.

We ponder

A dream

Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

On the 7th Sunday of Pascha we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.  [2018 Sermon notes]

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Note:  it is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers, not of the decisions of the Fathers or the decisions of the Council.  The focus is on the people involved in the Council .       Christ did not come to reveal dogma, but to unite all of us humans to God.  The Fathers of the Council wrestled with finding a vocabulary with which to express this truth, but what is even more important is they were writing about what they experienced in Christ.

Love – the main teaching of Christ is about people.     Our goal as Christians is to be united to Christ, not just follow some rubrics or rules or regulations.

Tone 4 Troparion (Ascension)
You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, granting joy to Your Disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the blessing, they were assured, that You are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world!

Christ’s brings joy to His disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples benefit from the blessing.  Christ is oriented toward those who love Him, toward those who follow Him, to the people of God, the Church.  His focus is not doctrine or buildings but people, the people He wishes to unite to the Holy Trinity – to us!

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Tone 8 Troparion (Fathers)
You are most glorious, O Christ our God! You have established the Holy Fathers as lights on the earth. Through them You have guided us to the true Faith. O greatly compassionate One, glory to You!

Christ establishes the Holy Fathers as lights on the earth – not their doctrines.  It is the Fathers that guide us to the true faith, not their decisions.  Very people focused.

In the Epistle, St. Paul is worried about “the flock” – the people of God – and he warns the leadership about impending problems that require them to deal with and protect the people, the Body of believers.  He is warning them about the destructive false teachings, but his concern is the believers themselves.

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Paul said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

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Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock – pay attention to people.  The elders are overseers and shepherds of the flock – the people.  We are not to make rubrics or rules more important than the flock.  Doesn’t mean that rubrics or doctrines are unimportant, but that the focus has to be the membership, the people.  The troubles that will arise are also from the members!  We need to pay attention to the members.

Finally, we have the Gospel lesson in which it is clear that Jesus is also concerned about His followers, His disciples, about all of us in the Church.

Gospel: John 17:1-13
Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.

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I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.

Christ’s concern is that we might know God.  For Him, knowing God means experiencing eternal life.  Any concern about right doctrine is a concern about our really experiencing God as God reveals Himself to us.  It is ultimately a concern about us, that we might fully experience what God is offering to us.  And Christ wished that we might experience the oneness, the unity, the love that is shared by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The concern about Church unity and Church doctrine is focused on us, our salvation, our experience of the blessed Trinity.  It is all about God’s love for us.

Imaging Washington, D.C.

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I took a few days off to visit my son in Washington, D.C.  (Above – the Washington Monument as seen from the National Museum of  African American History.)

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Sometimes we get the impression that the only thing going on in D.C. is political scandals and divisive polarity.  But as seen above, in art, everyone can get along – political opponents as well as the living and the dead!

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But D.C. is also home to many people, and has interesting neighborhoods which offer many amenities not available in my hometown.

39031520052_7bb867241e It has fantastic museums and restaurants.  (Above, “Drift” by Matthias Pilessnig at the Renwick.  OK, maybe too hard to imagine, but I liked it the first time I saw it several years ago.)  (Below, the ceiling at the White House Visitor’s Center, which is rich in history, but doesn’t get the attention it deserves).

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Of note on this visit, we went to the National Museum of  African American History.  Honestly, I think every American should visit this museum.  Especially for those who feel America is the greatest country on earth.  That greatness – specifically the vast wealth of our nation – was originally built upon the blood of the slaves – the nation would not have attained its power and wealth without the evil of slavery.  There is an inestimable debt owed all those slaves who died to make America great.  They planted the seeds but never got to eat the fruit of America’s greatness or prosperity. The Orthodox Church claims to be built on the blood of the martyrs – America was built on the blood of the slaves (I’m not taking anything away from the patriots who fought a war for Independence –  but they too benefited from the institution of slavery.)

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The building looked to me like the bows of ships, slave ships to be exact, but the gold color of the building made me realize the cargo was gold – but only to the slave masters and their families.  The slaves were not given their share of the wealth for they were not even valued as human beings.

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The museum portrays the true “Paradox of Liberty” – while the leaders of the colonies were declaring freedom and independence for themselves, they were enslaving an entire people, and didn’t want to see the inconsistency in their thinking.  They were happy for the chance to become wealthy while enslaving others to maintain their lifestyles.  For me, the museum was emotionally painful – to note the human willingness to sacrifice others because of greed.  A sinful and shameful way of life by people claiming to be Christian.  We cannot be a Christian nation as long as the shadow of slavery and racism darkens our hearts.  Christ told us to “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).  We would be a Christian nation if we did that.  Below, a cross from a slave’s grave.  Christ said we have to take up the cross in order to follow Him.

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A little political (or photographic) trickery for those who embrace their end of  the country’s political polarity.  Note in the first photo below the Christmas tree is the right of the Capitol dome:

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But wait, now it is to the left of the Capitol dome:

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And now it has disappeared:

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My prayer is that we believers will stop looking at the faith through polarity of the political right and left and instead will view politics through the eyes of Christ.  We are to pray for our political leaders (1 Timothy 2:2), but we also remember Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

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You can view all of my photos from this year’s visit to D.C. at Washington, D.C. 2017.  (Above, a hall in the Smithsonian Castle).  There are a couple of older collections of photos at Washington DC 2015  , Washington 2013, Washington 2012 , Washington 2010 and Washington 2008.   It helps in visiting D.C. to have a son who is a long time resident and a Smithsonian docent.