Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Saint Mary of Egypt

Into the tradition of the Great Lent, the accent of the conversion is often remembered into the liturgical hymns. Because the Lent itself is, at its origins, a monastic tradition, it is very important for the Eastern Christians to have some examples to follow in their own lives. They must know how exactly they can change their lives, and also the fact, that even the biggest sinner can become a saint, if he really repents and makes a change in his life, called in the Greek tradition, metanoia.

The life of Our venerable mother Saint Mary of Egypt is a very good example for the citizens from the cities, who have a very alert way of life, who can’t pray all the time. They may say that there’s no time for praying, for almsgiving, because it is so much to do, especially today. Such a life of a saint is also a good example for the ones who travel. Especially in the past, traveling itself was seen as dangerous: you don’t know what you will meet in your way. Finally, such a life is good to read by the ones who consider themselves saints: they would see that there are some other people who go before them into the Kingdom of God, because God’s paths are mysterious.

The Life of Saint Mary

The life of Saint Mary of Egypt was written by St. Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem (634 - 638). The way he depicts such a life is very interesting. I would say that is like a piece of romantic literature, or a opera theatre. That’s why I will slice it in this way.

Saint Mary is one of the holy women who became saint from prostitute, according to the words of Our Lord, that that the tax-gatherers and the harlots will go before the righteous one into the reign of God (Mat. 21,31).

In the tradition of the Eastern Church, the life of St. Mary is read in the Synaxarion of the Morning Service into the 5th Sunday of the Great Lent, and during the Matins of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete on the preceding Thursday.

The reason for that fact, is that St. Mary is a good example of transformation from a citizen (which, according to the ascetic tradition means full of sins) into a holy of the Desert (which means also, the bearer of the purity).

Saint Mary of Egypt lived during the sixth century in the city of Alexandria and later into the Judaean Desert and passed away in a remarkable manner, according to the legend, in 522. It is notable that the Synaxarion states that Zosimas, the teller of her life, lived during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius II, who reigned from 408 to 450, so she may have lived even earlier.

Such a religious novel begins in a special manner, with “once upon a time”, like all the stories. First of all, the narrator speaks about a holy monastery into the Desert of Palestine and the traditions there. At the beginning of the Great Lent all the monks used to leave their monastery and live into the deep desert with only a few bread and water. Only in the Last Week all of them came together into the monastery, in order to celebrate the Passions of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Between those monks was the holy hieromonk (priester-monk) Zosimas, already a monk for 53 years long. He is commemorated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches on April 4.

Exactly as St. Anthony the Great once, Zosimas was asking himself if there is some other person in the world holy like him, or maybe more. In the same moment a holy angel sent him into the deeper desert, he crossed the river of Jordan and went further for other 12 days. In a morning, making his usual prayers, he saw something like a human shadow, which he thought first it would be a demon. But “the shadow” ran away and Zosimas after her. After some times, “the shadow” told him she is a woman, but being completely naked, can’t stop, so the monk gave her his own monastic cloth. Then the woman started to speak about her life.

She began her life as a young woman who followed the passions of the body, running away from her parents at age twelve for Alexandria. There she lived as a harlot for seventeen years, refusing money from the men that she copulated with, instead living by begging and spinning flax.

One day, however, she met a group of young men heading toward the sea to sail to Palestine for the veneration of the Holy Cross in the City of Jerusalem. Probably Mary was looking already for something in her passion: maybe the infinite seduction of the Lord, but she didn’t know that. Anyway, she decided immediately to go also to Jerusalem. So she went along for the ride, seducing the men as they traveled for the fun of it. But when the group reached Jerusalem and actually went towards the church, Mary was prohibited from entering by an unseen force. After three such attempts, she remained outside on the church. Then she looked through the open door and saw inside an icon of the Theotokos. She began to weep and prayed with all her might that the Mother of God might allow her to see the True Cross; afterwards, she promised, she would renounce her worldly desires and go wherever the Holy Virgin may lead her.

After this heart-felt conversion at the doors of the church, she fled into the desert to live as an ascetic. She survived for years on only three loaves of bread and thereafter on scarce herbs of the land. For another seventeen years, Mary was tormented by “wild beasts: mad desires and passions”. After these years of temptation, however, she overcame the passions and was led by the Theotokos in all things. All those years she didn’t take any Holy Communion or the Sacrament of Confession, because se didn’t met anyone. In the meantime, all her clothes were destroyed, that’s why she was naked, enduring heath during the days and cold during the nights, until her skin became black and hard like an armor.

Following 47 years in solitude, in the end she met the priest St. Zosimas in the desert, who pleaded with her to tell him of her life. She recounted her story with great humility while also demonstrating her gift of clairvoyance; she knew who Zosimas was and his life story despite never having met him before. Finally, she asked Zosimas to meet her again the following year at sunset on Holy Thursday by the banks of the Jordan. That was in fact her Sacrament of confession, and after that, she was waiting for the Holy communion for another year.

After another year, Zosimas did exactly this, though he began to doubt his experience as the sun began to go that night. Then Mary appeared on the opposite side of the Jordan; crossing herself, she miraculously walked across the water and met Zosima.s When he attempted to bow, she rebuked him, saying that as a priest he was far superior, and furthermore, he was holding the Holy Mysteries. Mary then received the Holy Body and Flesh of Our Lord and walked back across the Jordan, after giving Zosima instructions about his monastery and that he should return to where they first met exactly a year later.

A year later, father Zosimas found Mary's body with a message written on the sand, asking him for burial, and revealing that she had died immediately after receiving the Holy Mysteries the year before (and thus had been miraculously transported to the spot where she now lay). So Zosima, amazed, began to dig, but soon tired; then a lion approached and began to help him, that is, after Zosimas had recovered from his fear of the creature. Thus St. Mary of Egypt was buried. Zosimas returned to the monastery, told all he had seen, and improved the faults of the monks and abbot there. He died at almost a hundred years old in the same monastery.

Later, the story of Mary's life was written down by St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Hymn (Troparion) of Saint Mary the Egyptian

“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”


In iconography, St. Mary of Egypt is depicted as a deeply tanned, emaciated old woman with unkempt gray hair, either naked or covered by the mantle she borrowed from Zosimas. She is often shown with the three loaves of bread she bought before undertaking her journey into the desert.

The Veneration of St. Mary the Egyptian

The Eastern Church celebrates her feast day on the day of her repose, on April 1; additionally, she is commemorated on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, the 5th Sunday in Great Lent, as we said already.

In the Roman Catholic Church, she is commemorated on April 3 (or April 2, according to the Roman Martyrology). Although she is venerated by Anglicans, St. Mary of Egypt does not appear on Anglican Church Calendars.

In Goethe’s Faust, St. Mary of Egypt is one of the three penitent saints who pray to the Virgin Mary for forgiveness for Faust. Her words are set by Mahler in his 8th Symphony as the final saint’s appeal to the Mater Gloriosa.

In Ben Jonson’s play Volpone (1606), one of the characters uses the expression “Marry Gip”, which means “Mary of Egypt”.

Mary of Egypt is the subject of operas by Ottorino Respighi and Sir John Tavener, the latter written in 1992 for the Aldeburgh Festival.

Nalo Hopkinson’s science-fiction novel, The Salt Roads, also features Mary of Egypt and takes a historical fiction approach to telling her story.

There is a chapel dedicated to her at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, commemorating the moment of her conversion. Also the Temple of Portunus in Rome was preserved, by being rededicated to Saint Mary of Egypt in 872.

There are many churches carrying her name. An example would be the Russian Orthodox church from Tübingen, Germany.

In the 1st Sunday of the Great Lent 2011, called in the Easter Church, “the Sunday of the Orthodoxy”, one more Monastery started its life, under the patronage of St. Mary. It is the first orthodox monastery southern from Sahara Desert, in Uganda and the first monastery with exclusively native African nuns.

Facts. Mary Magdalene and Mary the Egyptian

Today the majority of the Christians believe that St. Mary Magdalene is a former prostitute, converted by Our Lord. Even if it would be so, there’s no evangelical sign to believe so. The holy Scriptures tell us only that, Jesus healed her, being enslaved before by seven demons (Mark 16,9 anf Luke 8,2). The moment when he did so is unknown, but probably, according to St. Matthew (15,39), that happened after Jesus multiplicated 7 breads and some fishes for the 4000 followers.

The confusion between Mary Magdalene and probably St. Mary the Egyptian occurred for the first time into a sermon of Pope Gregory the Great, in the 6th century. Since then, St. Mary Magdalene was believed to be a converted prostitute, without any proof.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Forty Holy Martyrs from Sebaste

March 9 (Byzantine calendar) - March 10 (Roman calendar)

In many parts of the Christian Church, on 9th of March in the East and on 10th March in the West, there is commemorated the memory of a group of forty soldiers who suffered a martyr's death for their steadfast faith to Christ, by freezing in a lake near Sebaste, in the former Lesser Armenia (now Sivas in central-eastern Turkey). Latest historical research argue that the widespread story about the suffering of the forty soldiers, is in fact a compilation of some more acts occurring at different times and in many places, which is in our opinion, possible, but not essential here. We may see the veneration of the 40 Martyrs as a symbol-feast for all the Christian soldiers who died for their faith during their service.

The feast day of the Forty Martyrs falls on March 9, and may be intentionally placed that it will fall during Great Lent. There is an intentional play on the number forty being both the number of martyrs and the days in the fast. Their feast also falls during Great Lent so that the endurance of the martyrs will serve as an example to the faithful to persevere to the end (i.e., throughout the forty days of the fast) in order to attain heavenly reward (participation in Pascha, the Resurrection of Jesus).

Acts of these martyrs, were written in Greek, Syriac and Latin and are yet extant, also to a “Testament” of the Forty Martyrs.

The Story of their Lives

The 40 Martyrs from Sebaste died as victims of the harsh politic of the Roman Emperor Licinius (c. 263 – 325, Emperor from 308 to 324) who, after the year 316, persecuted explicitly the Christians of the East. The earliest account of their martyrdom is given by St. Basil, the Archbishop of Caesarea (370-379), in a homily delivered on the feast of the Forty Martyrs (Hom. xix in P.G., XXXI, 507 sqq.). His eulogy on them was pronounced about fifty or sixty years after martyrdom, which is historic beyond a doubt.

In the early 4th century Sebaste was the capital of the province of Armenia Minor. In the city at that time was stationed the Legion XII Fulminata (Armed with Lightning), among whom were 40 Cappadocians soldiers who had faith in Christ. Three of them, Cyrion, Candidus and Domnus were already known as very good in studying the Scriptures. Of course, the governor Agricolas, who strictly complied Licinius’ imperial command relating to punish the Christians, found out about the faithful soldiers in his army. Hearing about their faith, Agricolas forced them to worship idols. The Orthodox Synaxarion relates the text of the governor’s command: “As in the wars you have been with a soul and a conscience and you've shown your courage, so far now, with one mind and soul, you must show your obedience to the imperial laws and sacrifice willingly to the gods, before being forced up”. At these words, the holy soldiers, answered the tyrant: “The more for the earthly emperor we fought in the wars and we conquered enemies, as you were witness, you bastard, the more we will fight stronger for the immortal Emperor, and we will overcome your evilness and deceit”.

Refusing to sacrifice to the idols, all the 40 soldiers have been jailed for eight days, beaten with stones, but at the same time have been also lured with gifts to give up their minds. Finally, being organized a process, at which attended also some other governor called Lysius, they were sentenced to death for disobeying the emperor and for witchcraft. The punishment consisted of freezing them in Sebaste lake, located in a mountainous region (an elevation of 1,278 m. altitude). At the time of the passion of this holy martyrs it was still winter, in those days being a keen frost and high winds. So the martyrs were obliged to enter naked in the lake, at the time of the dusk. Around the lake were put some soldiers to guard the martyrs, not to get out. But near the lake there was also a warm bath, made purposely, so if any of the martyrs would changed his mind and would be willing to sacrifice the Roman gods, to emerge from the water and to heat first there.

Being forced to undress and enter the cold waters of the lake, one of the martyrs exclaimed: “We don’t take off our clothes, but we take off the old man. Winter is harsh, but the Paradise is sweet; the cold is strong, but the delight is pleasant. For the Paradise lost we should today no longer endure the corruptible clothes. We shall defame the ice which melts us and to hate our body”.

After a while, one of the 40 gave up and left the lake, but died on the spot, being no able to warm himself into the hot bath. But that night it happened an unusual miracle: the lake’s water has warmed, the ice melted and 39shiny crowns came down from heaven upon the martyrs. This miracle was seen by the only one unsleeping guard, called Aglaius, who numbered only 39 crowns, and realized that a soldier ran away out of the water. Then, the guard woke the others, stripped his clothes and jumped into the lake, shouting that, “I am a Christian, too”. At dawn, the Saints were removed alive from the lake, they broken their legs and so they were left to die.

It is remarkable that the Constantinopolitan Synaxarion reminds here an unusual fact: a mother of one from the martyrs, i.e. Meliton, came there and established him with words of encouragement. Thus, instead of requesting the saving of his son's, she said, “My sweet son, be a little more time patient to become perfect. Do not worry, son. Here Christ stands before helping you!”

The same Synaxarion noted the words of the martyrs before their death: “Our soul is a bird that was rescued from hunters’ race, the race was broken and we’ve been delivered. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth! Amen.”

The army commander then ordered that the bodies of saints to be burned. But Meliton somehow survived and was left to live. When his mother saw him alone standing, she took him on her shoulders and went after the cart full of the other bodies, and Melito, enjoying that will not lose the martyrdom, died in her arms. She ultimately reached the cart and she put her dead son’s body over the bodies of saints.

This strange manhood of a martyr’s mother may be a paradox for us today, if not an act of craziness or cruelness. But it is remarkable that the Christian idea of martyrdom surpasses that, what we might call as “modern humanism”. A martyr’s mother wants her son’s death rather than the loss of the martyrdom. It is known that the martyr’s death in the early Christianity was also seen like the death of the heroes in the old times. Martyrdom automatically ensures salvation and the likeness with the sacrifice of Christ.

The bodies of the 40 saints were eventually burnt, and then were thrown into a river, in order that the Christians not to be able to recover their relics. However, their remains were partially recovered and then spread to various churches in the area.

Being at the end of this story, I think it would be good to make a citation from the Menaion of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

And the names of those 40 martyrs are: Hesychius, Meliton, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Domnus, Eunoicus, Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Euthychius, John, Xantheas, Helianus, Sisinius, Cyrion, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecditius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Candidus, Theophilus, Dometian, Gaius, Gorgonius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valaerius, Philoctimon, Severian, Chudion, and Aglaius.

The Forty Holy Martyrs were captured and suffered for Christ, 4 days above the March's Kalendae, that means, in the twenty-sixth day of February. And they gave their souls to the Lord in the seventh Idae of March, i.e. the ninth day of March, in the times of the Licinius’ governing in the East. But especially, in the times of the of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is due the glory, the honor and the worship as also to the Father and to the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen”.

The Veneration of the Saints

Homelies about the Holy Martyrs

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394) wrote at least 2 discourses in praise of them, which are still preserved in the Patrologia J. P. Migne, P.G., vol. 46, cols. 749 sq., 773 sq.).

St. Ephraem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373), has also eulogized the forty Martyrs (Hymni in SS. 40 martyres).

Sozomen, who was an eye-witness, has left us (in his Historia Ecclesiastica IX,2) an interesting account of the finding of the relics in Constantinople in the times of the Empress Pulcheria (399 – 453).

Veneration in the East

The veneration paid to the Forty Martyrs became widespread, and numerous churches were erected in their honour. One of them was built at Caesarea, in Cappadocia, and it was in this church that St. Basil publicly delivered his homily.

The Churches of St. Sophia in Ohrid (modern-day Republic of Macedonia) and Kiev (Ukraine) contain their depictions, datable to the 11th and 12th centuries, respectively. A number of auxiliary chapels were dedicated to the Forty, and there are several instances when an entire church is dedicated to them: for example Xiropotamou Monastery on Mount Athos, the 13th-century Holy Forty Martyrs Church, in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and a church built in 1760 by the hetman Vasile Roset in Iaşi, the capital of the Principality of Moldova (now, Romania). In Aleppo (Syria), the Armenian Cathedral is dedicated to the Forty Martyrs.

In the West, special devotion to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste was introduced at an early date; their feast day is 10 March. St. Gaudentius, Bishop of Brescia (5th century), received particles of the ashes of martyrs during his voyage in the East, and placed them with other relics in the altar of the basilica which he had erected, at the consecration of which he delivered a discourse, still extant (mention in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, vol. 20, cols. 959 sq.)

Near the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, in the Roman Forum, built in the 5th century, a chapel consecrated to the Forty Martyrs was found, built, like the church itself, on an ancient site. A still preserved picture there, dating from the 6th or 7th century, depicts the scene of the martyrdom.

The Hymn of the Saints (Troparion): “For the pain of the Saints who have suffered for you, we pray to You: Be merciful, O Lord, and heal all our sorrows, ye Lover of mankind!”

A prayer mentioning the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste is placed also in the Orthodox Wedding Service (referred to as a “crowning”), to remind the bride and groom that spiritual crowns await them in Heaven also if they remain as faithful to Christ as these saints of long ago.

Popular Traditions

In Romania and throughout the Balkan Peninsula, the memory of these martyrs gave rise to certain popular customs, consisting of the preparation of food: wheat flour (the crushed wheat grain is a symbol of death), sweets (they remember the joy of victory) and spices, especially cinnamon (symbol of suffering).

Those occasional cakes carry even the name of the Martyrs (rom. “Mucenici”, slav. “мучеников” = martyrs). They are prepared in the form of the cipher eight (8), suggesting the crowns offered martyrs, or maybe it’s the infinity symbol (∞). In other regions, the “Martyrs” are smaller breads sunken in a composition of water with sugar, nuts and milk, that looks like frozen water, reminding the lake where the faithful soldiers died. They are consumed in the family and divided to the neighbors, or in the church after the Holy Liturgy. The meanings of this custom is partly forgotten today, but it remains as a proof of the deep faith of our ancestors and of their power of combining artistic creativity with piety.

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