As a young woman in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, Saint Mary became a prostitute. She did not do this because of necessity but to gratify her own lusts. After living this way for over a decade she decided to go with the pilgrims to Jerusalem for the feast of the Holy Cross. She did this not out of piety but in effect, as a vacation. She planned to support herself by seducing other pilgrims. She tried to enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher but an invisible force prevented her from entering.
This happened three times. And then she realized she could not enter the church because of her sinful way of life. Looking at an icon of the Mother of God, she resolved to end her sinful lifestyle. Then she was able to enter the church and venerate the icon. She then heard a voice telling her to go to the monastery of St. John the Baptist on the bank of the Jordan River. There we went to confession and received Holy Communion. She then crossed the Jordan River and went to live alone in the desert. She lived alone for over forty years seeking to win the struggle over her passions.
We only know the story of St. Mary because a year before her death she met Saint Zosima of Palestine. She told him her story and asked that he come to bring her Holy Communion the following year. When St. Zosima was bringing her Communion she walked across the Jordan River to meet him. A year later, Saint Zosima went to look for her in the desert and found her lying dead and he buried her. Saint Zosima told her story to the brethren of his monastery and it was finally written down by Saint Sophronius.
The example of St. Mary of Egypt teaches us that it is always possible to repent and change one’s life no matter how far from God we have gone.
Troparion — Tone 8
The image of God was truly preserved in you, 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, holy mother Mary, Rejoices with the angels!
Kontakion — Tone 3
Having been a sinful woman, / you became through repentance a Bride of Christ. / Having attained angelic life, / you defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross. / Therefore, most glorious Mary, you are a Bride of the Kingdom!
March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation, the visit of the archangel Gabriel to Mary, proclaiming God’s plan that she would give birth to His Son.
We read the story of the Annunciation on this day, in Luke 1: 24-38. It begins with Gabriel saluting Mary with “Hail,” which can be translated as “rejoice.” One of the recurring phrases with which Mary is addressed in Orthodox worship is, “Rejoice, O unwedded bride.” Origen wrote that a salutation like this is never “addressed to a man; such a special greeting was reserved only for Mary.”
Gabriel tells Mary, “The Lord is with you.” These words alert us that God is going to do something extraordinary with the person to whom they are addressed. In the Old Testament, Nathan says the words to King David when David plans to build a temple for the Lord (2 Samuel 7:3). In Judges 6: 12 the angel of the Lord comes to encourage Gideon to fight the Midianites, and says, “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor” (Judges 6: 12).
Mary is understandably troubled by Gabriel’s words, and by his formal greeting. She is, after all, just a young girl. In answer to her question of how the birth will take place, Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” His words tell us that this is a uniquely miraculous birth, far beyond any other, including the birth of John the Baptizer which Gabriel also has foretold.
Once again, similar words occur in the Old Testament, describing something important. In Isaiah 32: 15-20 we read about the future transformation of everything in creation, when “the Spirit is [will be] poured upon us from on high.”
Luke uses words that tie Christ’s birth to the Old Testament, the preparation for His coming, to remind us that God always prepares us for things. But then he makes it clear that this birth, the coming of Christ, is the end and fulfillment of all that preparation. Gabriel says: “…and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
|Troparion – Tone 4
Today is the beginning of our salvation,
The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
Rejoice, O Full of Grace,
The Lord is with You!
Young Mary stands in the presence of this imposing celestial being. She hears these life-changing words. She knows that Gabriel is waiting for her response. Without equivocation, without any more questions, she calmly says, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Her decision will be costly—Simeon will soon tell her of the sword that is to pierce her soul. But she trusts that agreeing to be “the handmaid of the Lord” is the right thing. A reading for this day, Hebrews 2: 14, tells us that it is indeed the right thing for our salvation: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he [Christ] himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Mary is the one through whom this deliverance took place.
This and many other Christian Education resources are available at http://dce.oca.org
On this day the church commemorates St. John of the Ladder. He is called this because he wrote a book on the human soul and journey called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, in which he compares this journey with a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. St. John was the abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine at the base of Mount Sinai where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush.
The monastery contains what is traditionally said to be the bush in which God appears to Moses and is one of the oldest still functioning monasteries in the world, being founded by
Emperor Justinian in 565 AD.
Saint John entered the monastery when he was sixteen years old. Having spent time learning to be a monk he felt called to greater solitude. He lived as a hermit in a cave at the base of Mt. Sinai. When he was about 75 years old, the monks of the monastery, knowing of his holiness and wisdom, asked him to become their Igumen or Abbot. At the request of the abbot of another monastery, in the early seventh century he wrote the book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” showing a ladder of thirty rungs (referring to the thirty years Jesus spent before he began his public ministry). This book is one of the most important books in Christian history and is often read during Great Lent. In some Orthodox monasteries the Ladder is read during the monastic meal. In some places during Lent is read in Church on Lenten weekdays. Although this book was written for monastics, all Christians can benefit from its wisdom.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent
On March 18 the Church marks the repose of Saint Nikolai of Zicha.
Nikolai Velimirovich was born in 1880 to a large family in the village of Lelich, Serbia, and spent his early years there. He was educated in Belgrade and Switzerland, earning a doctorate in theology in 1909.
The next years were filled with activity. He was tonsured a monk, keeping the name Nikolai. Ordained to the priesthood, he was then given the rank of archimandrite. He taught at his alma mater in Belgrade, using the summers to study in Russia. He went to England to lecture at Oxford and received honorary doctorates from Cambridge University and Glasgow University. In 1919 he returned to Serbia, where he was consecrated a bishop and appointed to the Dioceses of Zicha and Ochrid.
After two years as a missionary bishop in the United States, Bishop Nikolai went back to Ochrid. It was then that he wrote the “Prologue from Ochrid.” Its English translator, Mother Maria, describes the book: “The blend of lives of the saints and solid Christian teaching makes a rich mixture that is loved and valued in the Serbian-speaking world.” Bishop Nikolai himself had the vision to add the lives of 200 saints “from different Orthodox peoples” to the older Slavonic Prologue, thus making his book widely useful to more people seeking to learn about holy people in many countries.
Bishop Nikolai was in Zicha when the Nazis overran Yugoslavia. Like many other Serbs, he was sent to the terrible Dachau concentration camp. He survived, but deprivation and suffering permanently diminished his physical health.
However, his incarceration and survival also enabled him to view faith from two perspectives: freedom and imprisonment. So he offers a unique lesson in his answer to a question once posed to him, asking what particular spiritual exercise he practiced. Bishop Nikolai said, “I tried to visualize God’s presence. And as little as I succeeded, it helped enormously to prevent me from sinning in freedom, and from despairing in prison. If we kept the vision of the invisible God, we would be happier, wiser and stronger in every walk of life.”
When Bishop Nikolai returned to the United States in 1946, he taught at three Orthodox seminaries, including Saint Tikhon’s Seminary in Pennsylvania. He insisted on teaching in English, though until that time most courses had been offered in Russian. Bishop Nikolai’s vision led him to understand that men who would serve in American parishes needed to be taught in their own language.
|Kontakion – Tone 3
Born at Lelich in Serbia, you served as archpastor at the church of Saint Nahum in Ochrid.
You presided on the throne of Saint Sava at Zhicha,teaching the people of God and enlightening them
with the Gospel, bringing them to repentance and love for Christ.
And for His sake you endured suffering at Dachau. Therefore, Nicholai, we glorify you as one newly
well pleasing to God.
Saint Nikolai’s vision was extensive. He found a lesson in the life of the unbaptized Mahatma Gandhi, writing: “Against weapons, ammunition and army Gandhi places fasting; against skill, wiliness and violence he places prayer; and against political quarrel, silence.”
Christ gave the example of fasting, prayer and silence to His disciples, of course. Bishop Nikolai considered Gandhi a “warning” from God to Christian believers not to abandon those three sources of spiritual power given by the Lord so long ago, but largely ignored today. The lesson Saint Nikolai took from Gandhi, like the others he offers, are helpful for every day of our lives.
This and many other Christian Education resources are available at http://dce.oca.org
We are all very aware that we live in “this world”, the world of labor, illness, fear, depression, etc. We seem to be very far from the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. We tend to think of heaven only in terms of the future. In other words, the Kingdom of Heaven is where we go after we die if we’ve led good lives. Or if we watch television programs about the end of the world we will hear about a great cosmic battle between Christ and the antichrist with all sorts of disasters, etc. But in either case, the Kingdom of Heaven is something in the future, either our own personal future or the future of the whole cosmos. But neither of these views represents the fullness of Christ’s message.
When we read about Christ’s ministry we read that the Kingdom of Heaven is being inaugurated by Him. The first words of his public ministry are “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand…” (Mark 1:15) Or in today’s Gospel, our Lord says to the apostles “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
Today’s Gospel refers, in the first case, to the Transfiguration, but Christ’s teaching is that the Kingdom of Heaven is present in His earthly ministry. He inaugurates the Kingdom. The Kingdom begins with Christ’s healing, His preaching, His miracles. Of course, we do not live in the fullness of the Kingdom, which will come at the end of time, but the Kingdom has “broken into” our world in the person of Jesus Christ.
Of course, Christ has ascended into Heaven, but He does not leave us alone. We encounter Christ and have a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven in the Divine Liturgy, in the Gospels, in icons. So while we, at times, are very aware that we live in a fallen world, the Kingdom of Heaven has indeed drawn near.
Tone 1 Troparion of the Cross
O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance!
Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries;
and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation!
Tone 7 Kontakion of the Cross
Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden;
it has been mysteriously quenched by the wood of the Cross.
The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished;
for Thou, O my Savior, hast come and cried to those in hell:
Enter again into Paradise!