Σάββατο 14 Μαΐου 2022

The Vindication of the Mother of God


At Christmas time, the Virgin Mary gets a bit of attention in the wider culture. A woman gives birth in difficult circumstances: Mother, baby, ox and ass, the manger. It’s a very touching scene. She quickly fades from the scene however, with some five centuries of culture desperately afraid that she will get too much attention.

In that vein, she is pretty much absent from Easter. We have eggs, chocolate, bunny rabbits, and the resurrection of Christ (along with new dresses and such), but Mary has no place in our culture’s Easter imagination. Some of this is undoubtedly the result of 500 years of a dominantly anti-Catholic Protestantism. You have to mention Mary at Christmas, but she can conveniently be forgotten at Easter.

Unless you’re Orthodox.

In Orthodoxy, there is essentially no teaching regarding Christ that ignores His mother. There is no teaching regarding Jesus that ignores His humanity and His humanity requires that we remember her. When the Council of 431 (3rd Ecumenical) declared Mary to be “Theotokos” (“Birthgiver of God”) it was on account of its concern that the full truth of who Christ is not be distorted. The mystery of the Incarnation (rightly understood) makes it possible to speak the paradoxical title of “Birthgiver of God” (not just “Birthgiver of Christ”). Christ is fully God and fully man. The one born of Mary was God and man. God was born of her.

This is echoed as well in the prophetic word that was spoken to Mary when she brought Jesus to the Temple 40 days after His birth (in concordance with the Law). Simeon the prophet, holding the child in his arms, said to His mother:

“Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)

His words speak of a “sword.” This is far deeper than a hint that what is to happen to her Son will make her sad. He didn’t say, “It will cause you grief.” The suffering of Christ on the Cross is equally the sword that pierces the soul of Mary. Mary is the first Christian, the first to believe the word concerning her Son. His suffering is her suffering. His suffering is to be our suffering as well. If you have been united with Christ on the Cross, then, in some measure, your own soul has been pierced by the sword that pierced the soul of Mary. St. Paul says,

“I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live. Yet, not I, but Christ lives in me, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Mary is the first of those who have been crucified with Christ.

Our ignorance of such things (or our forgetfulness), encourage us to forget that our discipleship is marked by the Cross and defined by our communion with the Crucified Lord. Too easily, the resurrection of Jesus comes to mean nothing more than a promise of life after death. “Jesus died and was resurrected so that I could go to heaven.” While that is sort of true, it represents a serious diminishment of the gospel.

As Christ was on the Cross, His thoughts turned to His mother. He endures the suffering and the shame of the crucifixion. She shares in the shame and, in that, a sword pierces her own soul. Christ gives her to the care of St. John, “the disciple whom He loved.” He does not merely ask John to care for her, but says, “Behold your mother.” John must now be her son. Incidentally, this supports the Church’s teaching that the “brother and sisters of Christ” are not children of Mary. It would have fallen to them to take of her had that been the case.

As the Church enters into the depth of Holy Week and approaches the Lord’s death and resurrection, the Theotokos is ever present on its mind. At what becomes a liturgical climax the Church gathers around the funeral shroud icon (epitaphios) in the center of the Church. Following its commemoration of Christ’s suffering and death, the burial shroud had been placed there for the faithful to venerate. They have offered their lamentations.

At this last moment, as the priest stands before the image, we hear these verses from the choir:

Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify thee in faith and in love.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee!

I escaped sufferings and was blessed beyond nature at Thy strange birth, O Son, who art without beginning. But now, beholding Thee, my God, dead and without breath, I am sorely pierced by the sword of sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee!

By my own will, the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble at seeing me clothed in the blood-stained garments of vengeance; for when I have vanquished my enemies on the cross, I shall arise as God and magnify thee.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Let creation rejoice, let all born on earth be glad, for hateful hell has been despoiled, let the women with myrrh come to meet me, for I am redeeming Adam and Eve and all their descendants, and on the third day shall I arise.

Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify thee in faith and in love.

The verses are a dialog between Christ and His mother. It gathers her whose heart had been pierced with the sword of shame and grief into His own compassion. He encourages her with the promise that He will rise and vindicate her. He will be glorified and will magnify her. Her faithfulness, humility, and obedience will be justified before all the world. “All generations will call her blessed.”

She replies, recalling the mystery of her Son’s “strange birth.” Though she now sees His body lying “dead and without breath,” she urges Him to arise.

He responds that He is “covered by the earth” by His “own will.” He is no one’s victim but is doing the very thing He was born to do. And now He is clothed in the “blood-stained garments of vengeance.” Vanquishing His foes by the cross, He will rise and magnify her.

He closes, repeating the initial verse. At the repetition of “I shall arise,” the priest takes up the funeral shroud and bears it into the altar. The doors are shut and every light, every candle in the Church, is extinguished. In silence the Church waits. Mary waits. All creation holds its breath.

Quietly, the priest begins to sing, “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing…” He will shortly come forth bearing the newly kindled light which spreads to all. And the Paschal procession begins around the Church (I’m describing the Slavic practice).

His resurrection is a vindication of His mother. Equally, it is the vindication of every believer. For we, too, have stood silently by the tomb, venerating His dead body. We, too, have had some share in His shame, either from others or cast upon us by our own unfaithfulness and doubting. Was I wrong to believe in, O Lord? Have you forgotten me? I am surrounded by my enemies and they mock me. Where are You, Lord?

“I shall arise,” Christ says.

Mary saw Him. Mary Magdalen saw Him. Peter and John saw Him. Then the twelve. Then James the Brother of the Lord. Then by over 500. And even to St. Paul He appeared, as if to one born out of time.

And they began the procession that continues to circle the earth singing, “Enable us on earth, to glorify Thee in purity of heart.” At the head of our procession is His Mother – now vindicated and magnified by all. She told the truth. She gave birth to God the Word. We call her blessed.

Videos from St. Maximus Orthodox Church Choirs & ORTODOX™ (Vatopedi monastery, Athos)

Τρίτη 10 Μαΐου 2022

Martyr Christopher of Lycia (from Cyrenaica?), and, with him, the Martyrs Callinika and Aquilina


Orthodox Church in America

The Holy Martyr Christopher lived during the third century and suffered about the year 250, during the reign of the emperor Decius (249-251). There are various accounts of his life and miracles, and he is widely venerated throughout the world. Saint Christopher is especially venerated in Italy, where people pray to him in times of contagious diseases.

There are various suggestions about his descent. Some historians believe that he was descended from the Canaanites, while others say from the “Cynoscephalai” [literally “dog-heads”] of Thessaly.

From here: The roots of that iconography lie in a hagiographic narrative set during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, which tell of a man named Reprebus, Rebrebus or Reprobus (the "reprobate" or "scoundrel") being captured by Roman forces fighting against tribes dwelling to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica and forced to join the Roman numerus Marmaritarum or "Unit of the Marmaritae", which suggests an otherwise-unidentified "Marmaritae" (perhaps the same as the Marmaricae Berber tribe of Cyrenaica).

Saint Christopher was a man of great stature and unusual strength. According to tradition, Saint Christopher was very handsome, but wishing to avoid temptation for himself and others, he asked the Lord to give him an unattractive face, which was done. Before Baptism he was named Reprebus [Reprobate] because his disfigured appearance. Even before Baptism, Reprebus confessed his faith in Christ and denounced those who persecuted Christians. Consequently, a certain Bacchus gave him a beating, which he endured with humility.

Because of his renowned strength, 200 soldiers were assigned to bring him before the emperor Decius. Reprebus submitted without resistance. Several miracles occurred along the way; a dry stick blossomed in the saint’s hand, loaves of bread were multiplied through his prayers, and the travellers had no lack thereof. This is similar to the multiplication of loaves in the wilderness by the Savior. The soldiers surrounding Reprebus were astonished at these miracles. They came to believe in Christ and they were baptized along with Reprebus by Saint Babylus of Antioch (September 4).

Christopher once made a vow to serve the greatest king in the world, so he first offered to serve the local king. Seeing that the king feared the devil, Christopher thought he would leave the king to serve Satan. Learning that the devil feared Christ, Christopher went in search of Him. Saint Babylas of Antioch told him that he could best serve Christ by doing well the task for which he was best suited. Therefore, he became a ferryman, carrying people across a river on his shoulders. One stormy night, Christopher carried a Child Who insisted on being taken across at that very moment. With every step Christopher took, the Child seemed to become heavier. Halfway across the stream, Christopher felt that his strength would give out, and that he and the Child would be drowned in the river. As they reached the other side, the Child told him that he had just carried all the sins of the world on his shoulders. Then He ordered Christopher to plant his walking stick in the ground. As he did so, the stick grew into a giant tree. Then he recognized Christ, the King Whom he had vowed to serve.

Saint Christopher was brought before the emperor, who tried to make him renounce Christ, not by force but by cunning. He summoned two profligate women, Callinika and Aquilina, and commanded them to persuade Christopher to deny Christ, and to offer sacrifice to idols. Instead, the women were converted to Christ by Saint Christopher. When they returned to the emperor, they declared themselves to be Christians. Therefore, they were subjected to fierce beatings, and so they received the crown of martyrdom.

Decius also sentenced to execution the soldiers who had been sent after Saint Christopher, but who now believed in Christ. The emperor ordered that the martyr be thrown into a red-hot metal box. Saint Christopher, however, did not experience any suffering and he remained unharmed. After many fierce torments they finally beheaded the martyr with a sword. This occurred in the year 250 in Lycia. By his miracles the holy Martyr Christopher converted as many as 50,000 pagans to Christ, as Saint Ambrose of Milan testifies. The relics of Saint Christopher were later transferred to Toledo (Spain), and still later to the abbey of Saint Denis in France.

In Greece, many churches place the icon of Saint Christopher at the entrance so that people can see it as they enter and leave the building. There is a rhyming couplet in Greek which says, “When you see Christopher, you can walk in safety.” This reflects the belief that whoever gazes upon the icon of Saint Christopher will not meet with sudden or accidental death that day.

The name Christopher means “Christ-bearer.” This can refer to the saint carrying the Savior across the river, and it may also refer to Saint Christopher bearing Christ within himself (Galatians 2:20).