Great Lent: Saintly Help
For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him. (Luke 20:38)
One aspect of Orthodoxy I have come to greatly appreciate is the Communion of the Saints. While “saint” is often applied, even within Orthodoxy, in a generic sense to mean any believer in Christ, this is not the sense in which I write here. I refer to those that so exemplified the holiness of God during their temporal lives that they have been bestowed with the title “Saint”. The Church does not create Saints by the bestowing of the title. The bestowing of the title is the recognition & acknowledgement of the holiness they displayed. Saints are respected, honored & venerated in Orthodoxy. However, Saints are never worshipped as worship is rendered to God alone.
The Body of Christ, the Church, admits to no division or separation between living & dead believers; of saints from Saints, if you will. All are considered to be alive & part of the Body of Christ. Through Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrection death was transformed into a passage from temporal life to non-temporal life. Therefore the departed remain alive & retain consciousness (Luke 16:19-31). They are also active & thus capable of interaction as shown in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-31). In Revelation chapters 4-8 is shown the Heavenly worship in which the departed faithful are revealed to be talking, praying, singing, worshipping & rendering intercessory prayers.
Both of my parents are departed from this bodily life as are other relatives & friends. Many are commemorated in liturgical memorial services throughout the year & during prayer at home daily. I do this because they did not cease being my parents, relatives or friends upon their bodily death. Those commemorated all contributed my development as a person in some way; & thus they contributed to my eternal salvation, a contribution the Church teaches, & I firmly believe, they continue.
So too did the Saints contribute to our eternal salvation in the examples of their earthly lives from which we may learn. They continue to be our fellow co-workers in Christ & they continue to contribute to our eternal salvation. Therefore we can & do ask for their prayers & intercessions just as we, the bodily living saints can & do ask other bodily living saints for prayers & intercessions. Many people think nothing of asking for prayers & intercessions from their parents, relatives & friends still bodily live; & few would refuse to do so if requested by another. And yet, many staunchly balk at the thought of doing so from the Saints. If we cannot ask for prayers & intercessions of our fellow departed Saints, then we cannot ask for such of our fellow un-departed saints.
O Lord Jesus Christ our God, through the prayers of Thy most pure Mother, our Holy & God-bearing Fathers & all the Saints, have mercy on us & save us. Amen.
For Great Lent there are three prominent Saints that greatly assist us on our Lenten journey: St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Andrew of Crete & Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt. From St. Ephrem we pray the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem throughout Great Lent increasing the virtue of humility before God. St. Andrew of Crete wrote The Great Canon which is sung the first four nights of Great Lent as well as the Thursday night of the 5th week increasing the virtue of repentance to God. St. Mary of Egypt was a 6th c. AD prostitute turned desert ascetic who wrote nothing. We know of her blessed life through only one person, St. Zosimus. Her contribution for us in Great Lent is that of her exemplary life in which she mastered the unbridled passions that ruled over her as she ascended in the virtues. We read of St. Mary’s spiritual struggle & transformation from prostitute to ascetic—from sinner to saint—increasing the virtue of holiness in God.
St. Ephrem the Syrian: Lenten Prayer
Troparion: By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile, & your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance. By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe. O our holy father Ephrem, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!
St. Ephrem (4th c. AD) was a prolific hymnographer & theologian. We still have over 400 hymns written by him in existence. St. Ephrem was a staunch apologist on behalf of Orthodoxy. His life was not one of ease & luxury. Under Julian the Apostate came many persecutions of Christians & he was forced as a refugee into exile to Edessa. There he helped build a new Christian community for the Church. In Edessa he wrote many theological defenses, usually in the form of hymns, supporting the Orthodox Faith against heresies taught by Arians, Marcionites, Manichees, Bardaisanites & various Gnostic sects.
Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem:
O Lord & Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, & idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity*, humility, patience, & love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord & King! Grant me to see my own transgressions & not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
St. Ephrem the Syrian is best known for his Lenten prayer which epitomizes the spirit of Great Lent, the putting off of passions (vices) & increasing in virtues. Sloth, despair, lust of power & idle talk are considered sins individually, but they all result from one all-encompassing sin—pride. St. John Climacus in his classic work The Ladder of Divine Ascent states, “Pride is a denial of God.” Pride tells us to judge our brother for his sins; this leads to separation from God (death). Chastity, humility, patience & love are considered worthy virtues individually; however, all result from one all-encompassing virtue—love of God. St. John Climacus, again in The Ladder stated, “Humility is a heavenly waterspout which can lift the soul from the abyss up to heaven’s height.” Humility tells us to judge ourselves for our own sins; this leads to union with God (life).
Our salvation is nothing less than that our ultimate union of love with God the Father through God the Son by God the Holy Spirit, communion in the Most Holy Trinity, the perfect communion of divine love. We begin to unite with, or more properly, to commune in the Most Holy Trinity through the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem as we displace that pride within ourselves with the pursuit & struggle for humility in our pilgrimage through Great Lent, thus “becoming partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) at Pascha.
There is great power in both the vice of pride & the virtue of humility. Pride weakens us spiritually until it ultimately destroys our salvation through denial of God. On the other hand humility strengthens us spiritually until it ultimately secures our salvation through love of God. St. John Climacus testifies about the great power of pride contrasted with the great power of humility. He writes encourages, “If pride turned some of the angels into demons, then humility can doubtless make angels out of demons. So take heart, all you sinners.”
About St. Ephrem the Syrian: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Ephrem_the_Syrian
Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Prayer_of_Saint_Ephraim
Kontakion: O Holy Father Ephrem, as you meditated constantly on the final judgment, you shed abundant tears of sorrow, making your struggles examples that we could follow & imitate, & awakening the slothful to repentance: You are indeed a father of high renown.
O Holy Father Ephrem, pray unto God for us!
* A not on Charity is in order. The virtue of chastity in our modern understanding has been diminished into an understanding involving merely sexual connotations. This is neither the correct nor complete understanding of chastity as a virtue according to Orthodox Tradition. The true meaning of chastity for us here is “wholeness” or “whole-mindedness”. Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou writes, “Chastity is therefore a state of being in which the soul & body work together as one. It is the harmonious relationship between the spirit & the flesh, wherein the body is under the control & will of the mind & spirit.” (Meditations for Great Lent: Reflections on the Triodion, 2012, p. 62)
St. Andrew of Crete: The Great Canon
Troparion: Like the Prophet David you sang a new song in the assembly of the righteous. As an initiate of the Holy Spirit you thundered forth your hymns of grace & the word of righteousness for our salvation, O Andrew, glory of the fathers.
St. Andrew lived at the end of the 7th c. & beginning of the 8th c. He took part in the 6th Ecumenical Council defending Orthodoxy by refuting the Monothelite heresy. He wrote many hymns & is the originator of the liturgical hymn form now commonly known as the canon, a series of hymns or verses organized into 9 odes. His most famous canon is the Great Penitential Canon (aka: Canon or Great Canon) which consists of 9 odes of 250 troparion hymns. It is read in four parts the 1st four nights of Great Lent in the 1st week & again on Thursday in the 5th week.
Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.
So begins the Great Canon as it aids us in identifying our sins & thus encouraging our repentance. It is no longer acceptable in our post-modern culture to call sin what it is—sin. Nor is it acceptable to attribute sin to its real cause—human fallen-ness. As a result many do not know what sin is, or what acts are considered (or were at one time) sinful. Many such acts are no longer considered sinful. The Canon takes us back to the beginning of the Creation in Genesis & leads us through God’s plan of salvation for humankind throughout history. With hymns & imagery about unrighteous & righteous people as well as certain events (Creation, Paradise, the Fall, Tower of Babel…) we once again learn about the real tragedy & consequences of sin in our lives. From the Old Testament alone 74 persons are mentioned, some righteous, some not.
We learn we have committed the same sins as the unrighteous spiritually, even if not physically. Just as Adam & Eve became naked before God after their sin, so too do we stand naked before God due to our numerous sins & wrong attitudes. While we may not have committed actual murder like Cain or Lamech we have committed spiritual murder of ourselves through sin & the passions as well as others through harsh or judgmental words or immoral practices. We learn we also continue to fail to emulate the righteous. We have failed to bring a right sacrifice before God, a humble heart like righteous Abel. We have failed to enter the Ark of salvation like righteous Noah. We can easily & should apply all 250 troparion to our own sinful lives.
St. Andrew in The Great Canon does not leave us lost in our despair & fallen-ness before God. Rather he aids & exhorts us to what is needed next in our journey of salvation—repentance. The Great Canon thus ends with us repenting of our sin in song & asking for God’s love & mercy. “So take heart, all you sinners.”
O my Judge & my Light Who alone knowest me & art coming again with Thine Angels to judge the whole world, regard me then with Thy merciful Eye & spare me, O Jesus. And have compassion on me who have sinned more than all mankind.
About St. Andrew of Crete: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Andrew_of_Crete
About the Great Canon of St. Andrew: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Great_Canon
Text of the Great Canon: http://www.orthodox.net/greatlent/great-canon-fifth-week.html
Kontakion: You sounded forth divine melodies like a trumpet & were a bright lamp for the world. You shone with the light of the Trinity, O righteous Andrew. Therefore we cry to you: Ever intercede for us all!
O Holy Father Andrew, pray unto God for us!
Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt: Sinner to Saint
Troparion: The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother, for you took up the Cross & 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.
Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt was a 6th c. AD prostitute who became a desert ascetic who wrote nothing. We know of her blessed life through only one person, St. Zosimus who taught about her holiness to those in his monastery where her example transformed & revived the spiritual life of the entire monastic community. The monastics in turn passed on her story until it was recorded in writing by St. Sophronius approximately 100 years later. The links below give the details of her transformation through Christ—her journey of salvation.
People generally love rags-to-riches stories where the underdog gets their just reward after overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. Such stories give the readers hope that they too can accomplish great things with their lives. Usually though, they do not because they fail to realize the most important component of the story is the struggle. They are identify themselves at the beginning & desire for themselves the end, but are unwilling to engage themselves in the intervening struggle. Some may rightly discern the need for the struggle, but feel that they cannot do it for one reason or another.
Likewise, Christians generally love sinner-to-Saint stories such as that of the Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt. The same tendencies of the aforesaid stories I think also occur. We Christians identify ourselves as sinners & fantasize about being saints as we also overlook the spiritual struggle. Some may imagine themselves to be saints already—no struggle necessary.
However, Christ did not come to make bad people good; He came to make dead people live. St. Paul exhorts us to work out our salvation with fear & trembling (Philippians 2:12) & for diligence to make our call & election sure for entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:10-11). Salvation is not instantaneous & requires spiritual struggle. It is the spiritual struggle within the heart & mind that truly transforms us. Unlike our rags-to-riches stories however, the spiritual struggle continues after the story is completed in its telling. The spiritual struggle of & for the heart & mind continues throughout our bodily lives.
One more lesson from St. Mary is that no matter how sinful our lives & no matter how mired we are with passions we all can enter into communion with God. One can look at the lives of the Saints & become discouraged with ourselves. Instead let us be encouraged by their example & strive to emulate their holiness. We all may not be Saints, but we all can be saints. Through the humility of St. Ephrem, the repentance of St. Andrew & the spiritual struggle of St. Mary we enter into salvation, union with & in God—the Everlasting Kingdom. “So take heart, all you sinners.”
About Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Mary_of_Egypt
Life of Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt as recorded by St. Sophronius:
Kontakion: 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, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!
O Mother Mary, pray unto God for us!