Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
AS THE GREAT FAST DRAWS TO A CLOSE we are presented with the story of St Mary of Egypt. Her Life, by St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, is read on the Thursday of Repentance, along with the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. On the fifth and last Sunday in the Great Fast, Mary herself is commemorated. The story of her early dissolute life, her remarkable conversion, and the asceticism which characterized the rest of her days made her the classic model of repentance in both East and West.

The second figure in St Sophronios’ Life stands in complete contrast to his principal subject. St Zossima (April 4) is described as a devout monk in an unnamed Palestinian monastery. While Mary lived a free-wheeling and undisciplined life before her conversion, Zossima had been raised in the monastery since his infancy. This practice was not uncommon before the modern age.

We are told in the Life that Zossima "…had been through the whole course of the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his tutors concerning spiritual labors. He had even added much himself in his efforts to subject his flesh to the will of the spirit.” Thus, while Mary was indulging her every carnal desire, satisfying her “insatiable desires and irrepressible passions” (as she described it), Zossima was learning to subject his passions to the spirit.

The Life insists that “he had not failed in his aim. He was so renowned for his spiritual life that many came to him from neighboring monasteries and some even from afar.” Zossima, we are told, “never ceased studying the Divine Scriptures… his sole aim being to sing of God and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures.”

Zossima’s Dilemma

When Zossima, by then a heiromonk, had spent some fifty years in the monastery, he came to think that he had attained a certain level in the ascetic life beyond his fellows. He knew that he had not exhausted the spiritual life, but did not know where to go from here. “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there any man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”

Was Zossima displaying pride? He was not self-satisfied with his achievements nor was he condescending to others less advanced that himself. He more resembled the young man whom Christ told to keep the commandments and who replied, “I have kept all these things since my youth. What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20) Zossima wanted to deepen his spiritual life but was frustrated that he could not find a spiritual mentor who could help him progress.

By way of response, an angel appeared to him and counseled him that there are always unknown struggles in the spiritual life greater than the challenges he had already faced. “That you may know how many other ways led to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan. There he would eventually encounter, not a monk or even another man, but a woman whose witness renewed his spiritual life as well as the lives of countless believers ever since. Zossima remained in his monastery and lived to be over 100. It would be his obedience to tell Mary’s story to the world.

Zossima was not told to imitate Mary’s radical asceticism but to recognize “how many other ways led to salvation.” In this his story resembles that attributed to St Anthony the Great who lived in solitude in Egypt. “It was revealed to Father Anthony in the desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Trisagion with the angels.”

Ways Leading to Salvation Today

As the Great Fast draws to a close, we may feel that we have lived its call to prayer and almsgiving to the full. Yet there are in our midst others who, like St Mary of Egypt, call us by their example to examine the possibilities of stretching our spiritual muscles further than we imagine possible.

Los Angeles attorney Tony Tolbert recalls how there was always room in his family home for someone down on their luck. This memory prompted him to move back into his parents’ house and offer the use of his own fully furnished home for one year so a homeless family could regroup and move on with their lives. “You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Oprah,” Tolbert said. “We can do it wherever we are, with whatever we have, and for me, I have a home that I can make available.”

When Palm Beach physician Richard Lewis died, friends and colleagues gathered at a local mortuary to pay their respects. They were astonished when the doors opened to admit a group of physically and mentally disabled people who came in to join them. Unknown to anyone – including his own twin brother – Dr Lewis had been supporting several group homes in the area caring for the disabled.

Swedish tourists Annis Lindkvist and her sister Emma were visiting Edinburgh, Scotland when a chance meeting changed their lives. Jimmy Fraser, unemployed and homeless after his marriage failed, was begging in the street when the women asked him for directions. They struck up an acquaintance and, ultimately, a friendship. The women obtained a passport for Fraser and paid for his flights so that he could join their family for Christmas. The women took him sightseeing and to a hockey match as well as to Midnight Mass “People promise you things all the time on the street,” Fraser reflected, “but they never materialize… Being homeless is cold, lonely and depressing, and you get a lot of abuse from people. This was an incredible act of kindness!” The women are arranging a similar visit for Easter.

The extraordinary acts of these secular “Marys” bring to life the following words by the nineteenth century Russian saint, John of Kronstadt: “And God reveals his hidden saints so that some may emulate them and others have no excuse for not doing so. Provided they live a worthy life, both those who choose to live in the midst of noise and hubbub and those who dwell in monasteries, mountains and caves can achieve salvation. Solely because of their faith in Him, God bestows great blessings on them. Hence those who, because of their laziness, have failed to attain salvation will have no excuse to offer on the Day of Judgment.

“If you love your neighbor, then all of heaven will love you. If you are united in spirit with your fellow creatures, then you will be united with God and all the company of heaven; if you are merciful to your neighbor, then God and all the angels and saints will be merciful to you. If you pray for others, then all of heaven will intercede for you. The Lord our God is holy; be holy yourself also.”

From the Triodion

The One who dwelled in Egypt as a little Child, the One whom the universe cannot contain, the Lord who knows all has revealed you as a star, shining forth from Egypt. In you we have a model of repentance. Implore Christ, O Mary, that in this time of the Fast we may praise you in faith and love.
 
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). As the Great Fast draws to a close, we turn our eyes to Jerusalem where the Lord will undergo His life-giving passion and death for us. He had spoken repeatedly of the suffering He would endure but, as the Gospel records, His disciples “did not understand this saying and were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32). When Jesus first spoke of the sufferings awaiting Him, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him” (Mark 8:32). By the time recorded in this Sunday’s Gospel selection, the disciples understood the thereat posed by Jesus’ enemies and “they were afraid” (Mark 10:32). In John 10 we read that Jesus’ foes “…sought again to seize Him, but He escaped out of their hand. And He went away again beyond the Jordan… and there He stayed” (John 10:39-40). Still the disciples did not fully comprehend what would happen. At this stage they still saw the Kingdom of God as being “of this world” and were concerned about their own status in this Kingdom as they understood it. They envisioned Jesus restoring Israel’s freedom from the Romans and securing an independent state for God’s people. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, wanted to be Jesus’ principal aides, at His right and left hands in His “glory.” But Jesus’ glory would be the glory of sacrifice, on the cross, and others were destined to be at His right and left hand there.

Why Go to Jerusalem?

The practice of spending the great feasts of the Jews – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – in Jerusalem was based on the precept in the Book of Exodus: “Offer a sacrifice to Me three times each year. Keep the festival of Matzos [Passover]... the reaping festival [Shavuot]... the harvest festival [Sukkot]... Three times each year, every male among you must appear before God the Lord” (Exodus 23:14-17). Since sacrifices were only performed in the temple people would regularly visit Jerusalem on these feasts. The Gospels record several visits by the Lord to Jerusalem for these feasts, the first being when He was twelve years old (cf., Luke 2:41-51). This visit, however, would be a climactic one, culminating in His death and resurrection. The version of the Mosaic commandment in the book of Deuteronomy adds a note: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God … and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). In His Incarnation Christ received the gift of His human nature – He would now give it back to the Father on the cross. But God, who would not allow the death of Abraham’s son Isaac (cf., [cite-pericope]Genesis 18[/cite-pericope]) would not permit His own Son to remain in the grave, but raised Him up on the third day.

The Road Leads through Bethany

About one-and-a-half miles east of Jerusalem lay the village of Bethany (today’s al- ‘Azariya), the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. St. John’s Gospel tells us in detail how Jesus was informed that Lazarus was sick. “This sickness is not unto death,” He answered, “but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany Lazarus was already dead for four days. The dramatic story of the raising of Lazarus from the grave is celebrated in Byzantine Churches on the first day of the Great Week of Christ’s passion, Lazarus Saturday. A day of resurrection, we observe it as a Sunday with the appropriate resurrectional prayers and chants. The resuscitation of Lazarus was the Lord’s greatest miracle so far, but would be but a prelude to His own resurrection which we celebrate on Pascha. The Gospel says that Jesus retuned to Bethany and, while they were at table, Mary anointed Him with costly ointment. When Judas questioned this act of extravagance, Jesus reproved him, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). The next day, the Gospel tells us, Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” The Church rearranges these events in its Great Week observance. It celebrates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem the day after Lazarus Saturday, stressing the connection of Christ’s exuberant reception in Jerusalem with the raising of Lazarus. It defers the memorial of the anointing to the Wednesday of Great Week, the day that we are anointed in preparation for sharing in Christ’s passion.

Another Trip to Jerusalem

On this last Sunday of the Great Fast the Church also remembers another trip to Jerusalem: one that occurred some 300 years after Christ. According to the life written by St. Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventh century, Mary the Egyptian was a runaway teenager who drifted into a fast lifestyle in Alexandria living in part on the proceeds of the sexual favors she dispensed. When she was 29 Mary attached herself to a group going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She went, not out of piety, but to meet others devoted to the same lifestyle. According to Sophronios, she never lacked for companions both on the journey and when she arrived in the Holy City. One day, curiosity prompted her to follow some pilgrims to the Anastasis, the church build over Christ’s tomb. She found herself unable to enter, resisted by an unseen force. Believing that this was because of her wild way of life, she was struck with remorse. She prayed before an icon of the Theotokos in the courtyard, asking for forgiveness and vowing to abandon the world and its pleasures. Returning to the church door she found herself now able to enter. Returning to give thanks before the icon, Mary heard a voice promising, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest/ true peace.” After confessing and receiving Communion, she went into the desert where she remained a hermit for the rest of her life. The image of this extraordinary repentance and commitment to asceticism is held up to the Church as an encouragement to enter wholeheartedly into the remainder of the Fast and the Great Week which follows.
After distancing yourself from the weight of the passions by contemplating God, O Mary, you directed your desires and deeds to that which is on high. Gazing at the icon of the all-pure Virgin and resolutely renouncing all sin, you confidently went to worship the precious Cross. You joyfully visited the holy places, nourished by virtue on the path of salvation, rapidly traveling along the road of holiness. Crossing the streams of the Jordan and dwelling in the wilderness like the Baptist you tamed the rebelliousness of the flesh, calming the wild nature of the passions, O venerable Mother Mary, by your holy way of life. (Vespers)
 
OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECIES are often fulfilled in new and definitive ways in the Gospels. Thus Isaiah’s prophecy of a young girl’s conception would be decisively fulfilled in the conception of Christ by the ever-virgin Mary. St Paul recognizes another kind of connection between the Old and the New Testaments. In Colossians 2:17 he notes that Old Testament observances “… are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” When we stress the connection between actual persons, events, places, and institutions of the Old Testament, and the corresponding reality in the New Testament which they foreshadowed, this is called typology. Thus, for example, the Mosaic Passover (Pascha) celebrating the passage of the Hebrews from slavery to freedom is a “type” of the New Passover (Pascha) in which Christ leads humanity from death to eternal life. Typology is most developed in the Epistle to the Hebrews concerning the temple and the sacrificial role of its priests. When the temple was destroyed and the last High Priest died in AD 70 the Jews were devastated. Here the Christ-believing Jews were reassured that we have the ultimate High Priest in the Lord Jesus of whom earlier High Priests were but a type (see Hebrews 7:23-8:1). “For the Law appoints as high priests men who have weaknesses, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever” (v. 28).

The Temple and its Sacrifices

The arrangements of the Jewish tabernacle and its permanent version, the temple, are set forth in the Torah (Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers) according to a “pattern” shown to Moses on Mount Sinai. The tabernacle- temple is thus a “type,” a reality in itself pointing to something beyond. In Hebrews 8:5 it is described as “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle.” In the Book of Revelation, St John describes his vision of eternity in similar terms: “And after that I looked, and, behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened” (Revelation 15:5). He describes angels in white robes with their chests girded with golden bands (like deacons) and white-robed elders making prostrations. There is singing and incense and the Lamb who stands before the throne of God, having redeemed mankind by His blood. The earthly temple and its rites were a shadow patterned after the eternal liturgy of heaven where an eternal High Priest would offer Himself to the Father to renew His creation. The sacrifices of the earthly High Priest were types of the sacrifice of Christ the Lamb, who stands before the throne of God bearing the blood of His own self-offering for the salvation of the world. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the work of Christ is described in terms of the Jewish high priest and the temple. The High Priest, we are told, went into the innermost part of the temple, called the Holy of Holies, only once a year (on Yom Kippur) with the blood of the sacrificed sin offering. But now, Christ the eternal High Priest has entered “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Holy of Holies once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). “Now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24) He always lives to make intercession for those who come to God through Him (see Hebrews 7:25).

The Temple and Our Churches

The temple, its priesthood and its sacrifices, then, were but types of the eternal sacrifice of Christ which would achieve eternal redemption once for all. Our Eastern Christian temples and our sacrifice of praise, the Divine Liturgy, do more than point us to the heavenly liturgy; through them we are connected to the eternal and ongoing dimension of Christ’s sacrifice which is at the center and summit of all true worship in both the Old and New Testaments. The very design of our churches is meant to show that the mystery of salvation, which was foreshadowed in the Old Testament temple has been fulfilled in Christ. Many elements are similar. We have the holy place (the solea) and the holy of holies (the altar), the incense, the cherubim (ripidia) and the candelabrum. Other elements indicate that what were types have been fulfilled. In place of the jar of manna (see Hebrews 9:1-5) we have the Eucharist. In place of the Tablets of the Law or the Torah we have the Gospel. In place of Aaron’s rod we have the holy cross. And in place of the impenetrable veil we have the iconostasis which makes both visible and accessible the mystery of our salvation in Christ.

What Happens in the Liturgy

Our Divine Liturgy is a kind of living icon, using the imagery of the temple’s sacrificial rite to show that the Eucharist is our participation in Christ’s unique sacrifice. The Liturgy is neither a separate sacrifice nor a mere remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, but an actual entry into that sacrifice, possible because it is offered in “God’s time” rather than ours. As the sacrificial animals were killed outside the holy place and Christ was killed outside the Holy City, the oblations are prepared outside the holy place, in the prothesis (in smaller churches the prothesis is to the side of the holy place). As the animals were brought by the Levites to the priests to be offered, the holy gifts are brought by the deacons and priests to the bishop who takes them into the holy place. As the High Priest took the annual sin offering behind the veil into the Holy of Holies, Christ is described as taking His own blood into the heavenly sanctuary behind the veil. When the oblations are placed on the holy table, the doors and curtain are closed and the prayer of offering is recited “behind the veil.” This imagery is lost when the doors and curtain are never closed. As Christ, having made His offering, remains before the presence of the Father interceding “for those who come to God through Him” (Hebrews 7:25), so the celebrant, after the holy gifts have been offered and sanctified, stands before the holy table making intercession for the entire Church, the living and the dead. As the sacrificial offerings in the temple would then be shared among the priests and those who offered them, the Eucharist is distributed first to the clergy and then to the members of the congregation. And so we too have a High Priest, whose sacrifice takes away the sin of the world. And through the Divine Liturgy we can connect with that unique and eternal sacrifice again and again. “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19, 22). Christ’s sacrifice of His whole being is accepted by the Father. For our offering to be joined to His it must also be the complete offering of “ourselves, one another and our whole life” to Him. May the remaining days of the Fast remind us that we are not created to be satisfied by the temporary pleasures of acquisition and consumption but by the everlasting joys of the heavenly liturgy.

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