Saturday, April 9, 2011

How Much of This Has Been Made Ours?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

St. Andrew of Crete’s Canon of Repentance is chanted on the first four evenings of Great Lent. That is the “perfect” beginning, in that Great Lent is a “school of repentance.” But the Canon is prescribed to be chanted in its entirety on the Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent – almost at the very end. What is the purpose of repeating the Canon well into the Lenten season? An excellent answer is provided by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his celebrated book Great Lent:

If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a “summary” of repentance and its fulfillment. If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our Lenten effort: how much of all this has truly been made ours? How far have we come along the path of repentance? (Great Lent, p. 78)

Great Lent has a way of “getting away from us,” as the season wears on. Often, our well-intentioned good beginning – together with all of the goals we set for ourselves during these “all-revered days” - are undermined for a variety of reasons, including the “fatigue factor” (see the Monday Morning Meditation from earlier in the week). This is clearly behind Fr. Alexander’s analysis. Perhaps the re-intensification of that initial zeal for Great Lent as we draw near to its completion; and then its carry-over into Great and Holy Week will be the “reward” for those who were present at the service yesterday evening (more, by the way, then we have had in the past for this particular service).

In addition to St. Andrew’s Canon of Repentance (which, if done in its entirety, would include about one hundred eighty troparia with the attendant bows!), the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, written by St. Sophronios Patriarch of Jerusalem, is also prescribed to be read in its entirety together with the Canon at the same service. This we did yesterday evening. As Archbishop Kallistos comments about the place of St. Mary of Egypt in the life of the Church:

Just as the fourth Sunday is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the model of ascetics, so the fifth celebrates St. Mary of Egypt, the model of penitents. Her life … sets before us a true verbal icon of the essence of repentance. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 56)

Concerning the reading of this Life within the context of a liturgical service of the Church, Panayiotis Nellas writes the following:

Furthermore, St. Mary of Egypt is likewise present. The reading of her life does not have as its aim simply to move the faithful. It plays in the service an organic part which is at once deeper and more real. The Orthodox faithful know very well that the feast day of a saint is not a simple honoring of a holy person or a recollection of her life for didactic reasons. Rather, it is a real participation in her life, her struggles, her victory and her glory. The reading of her place takes place in order to bring the saint amongst us in a true and real manner with her whole life and all her struggles.

… Thus the liturgical reading of the life of St. Mary makes the saint present in the assembly of the faithful in a sacramental manner, so that she can accompany them and struggle with them in the contest of repentance and prayer. For this reason, at the end of each ode of the Great Canon there are two troparia in which the faithful address themselves to her:
"God Whom you loved and for Whom you longed, Whose path you Followed, O Mother, found you and granted you repentance in His Compassion. Pray, therefore, that we may be freed from sin and Adversity." (Ode Seven)

As the Canon exhorts us to repentance, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt places before our gaze a spectacular instance of repentance as embodied in one of the great saints of the Church. In an historical person of flesh and blood, we encounter the real fruits of repentance. And we discover the great “cost” of repentance, that only through “blood, sweat and tears” is the movement back toward God even possible. St. Mary of Egypt’s life can prove to be very jarring – perhaps even offensive – to our middle-class standards of Christian behavior and moral rectitude; but it is precisely in the radicalness of her repentance that we can witness the depths of the Gospel promise of salvation for any and all sinners who sincerely repent. No sin is too great for the mercy of God; for it was St. Gregory the Theologian who said somewhere that our sins are like drops of water in the ocean of the divine mercy. Hers was the life of a great sinner, and it resulted in a great repentance. We are convinced that we are not great sinners, but what is the corresponding depth of our repentance?

In a further note by Archbishop Kallistos, this may prove to be of some interest to those familiar with St. Mary’s extraordinary life, and the seemingly impossible nature of her life in the desert:

Some modern writers have questioned the historical accuracy of St. Sophronios’ narrative, but there is in itself nothing impossible about such a story. In the year 1890 the Greek priest Joachim Spetsieris found a woman hermit in the desert beyond the Jordan, living almost exactly as St. Mary must have done. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 56)

We will again turn our attention to St. Mary of Egypt as we commemorate her on the upcoming Fifth Sunday of Great Lent. That commemoration will begin on Saturday evening and the celebration of Great Vespers, the service that inaugurates a new liturgical day. Many of the stichera of that service are in honor of St. Mary of Egypt.

This evening we will chant the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God in its entirety, a long structured hymn called “one of the great marvels of Greek religious poetry” by Archbishop Ware.

Fr Steven

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