Holy Transfiguration, Great Walsingham: Orthodoxy in Norfolk

Holy Transfiguration, Great Walsingham: Orthodoxy in Norfolk


For those who want to know the complicated stuff

10 Apr 2020


Before the beginning of the Liturgy, there is a part of the service that no one ever sees or knows is happening unless they happen to be around at the time. This is where the priest prepares the the bread and wine for the Eucharist, and is called the prothesis or the proskomede, which means preparation.

In its present form the prothesis probably dates from the 14th Century.  When a bishop (Metroplolitan) is presiding, the prothesis is performed just before the offertory procession called the Great Entrance. otherwise it is done before the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word (readings from the New Testament).

At the prothesis service, the priest first cuts a large cube of bread, that has embossed on its top a seal, from the loaf of bread traditionally called the prosphora, which means offering. This cube is called the Lamb, and stands for Christ, the "Bread of life", the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world".

While the priest is cutting the Lamb from the prosphora bread, he recites from the prophesy of Isiah "He was led as a lamb to slaughter (Isiah 53:7-8). He cuts the Lamb so that the seal is at the top and centre. The embossed seal is square in shape, with the symbols of Jesus Christ (IC XC) on the top, and Victor (NIKA) on the bottom.   The Lamb is then cut from the bottom in the sign of the cross so that it can be easily broken into 4 pieces at the time of the consecration. The priest also symbolically pierces the side of the Lamb with a special knife referred to as the spear, while reciting the words of John 19:34-35.

After having poured wine and water into the chalice. the priest places a piece of bread on a small plate called the diskos next to the Lamb in memory of St Mary, followed by other pieces of bread in memory of St John Baptist, the prophets, apostles, hierarchs, martyrs, monastic saints, healers and the whole company of the righteous, with special mention of saints to be remembered on that particular day, then lastly another piece of bread in memory of the saint whose liturgy is being celebrated (Basil or John Chrysostom). Those bits of bread are then joined by other bits of bread to remember the local bishop (Metropolitan) , for civil authorities, and the faithful both living and dead.

The plate, (diskos) and chalice are then covered with a cloths while the priest recites psalm 93 and other verses while censing, and finishes with the prayer; O God, our God, who sent the Heavenly Bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord and God Jesus Christ to be our saviour, redeemer and benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us; bless this offering and accept it upon Thy heavenly altar.  Remember those who offer it and those for whom it is offered, for thou art good and lovest mankind. Preserve us blameless in the celebration of Thy divine mysteries, for sanctified and glorified is Thy most honourable and majestic name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen.

This service ends with a small dismissal and benediction.

The prothesis is a rather late development in the history of the Liturgy.  It signifies he gathering of the entire church of God into one great assembly. Christ, together with the saints and both the church triumphant (the dead) and the church on earth. The prothesis shows that the eucharist is always the action of the whole church and offered on behalf of all and for all.

Following this, the priest censes first the altar, then the ikons followed by the whole church and whoever is there at the time while reciting the 51st psalm.  The clergy then pray a prayer beginning "Oh heavenly king..." followed by "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace goodwill to men", three times, they open the central doors of the ikon screen (the royal doors of the ikonostasis) and the Liturgy begins with the words, "Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages amen".
2 Apr 2013

Orthodoxy and the Holy Liturgy

The Orthodox church commonly uses the word 'Liturgy' to describe the act of worship that elsewhere uses 'Holy Communion', the 'Eucharist' and other terms. This is because the word 'liturgy' describes 'common work' or 'common action'. Thus, the Holy Liturgy is the common work of the Orthodox church.

This is where the people of the Orthodox church gather together in common to worship God in common action. This is where we come together as one body of God's people, instead of living our own separate lives doing our own separate things.

In this particular act of worship, the Holy Liturgy may be celebrated once only on any given day in an Orthodox Christian community.  It is not something Orthodox Christians (lay or ordained) will be part of more than once a day. Always everyone, always together, children infants and adults. 

Because of the characteristics the Orthodox church assign to the Holy Liturgy, it may never be celebrated privately by the clergy alone, it may never be served for some while excluding other Orthodox Christians, it may never be served for any private purposes or intentions. Within the holy Liturgy there may be prayers offered specifically for the sick, the dead or within the context of special projects or events, but there is never a Holy Liturgy celebrated other than on behalf of all people for all people.  Because in Orthodoxy the Holy Liturgy is the central mystical action of the whole church, it is always resurrectional; a manifestation of the Risen Christ to God's people. It is always communion with with God; a joyful, Simcha almost, meeting between humanity and Divinity.

There are two parts to the Holy Liturgy. The gathering component, called the Synaxis, has its origins in the synagogue gatherings of pre-Christian times where the focus is centred on the proclamation and meditation upon scripture. The second component is that of the eucharistic sacrifice, the origin of which being in Jewish liturgical worship where the focus is on the priestly sacrifices of the People of God, the Jews, and in the central salvation act of the Passover, the Pesach or Pascha.

The first part was historically called the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Catechumens are aspirants to Orthodoxy, those who have as yet to be formally received  into the 'tribe' of Orthodox Christians through chrysmation (baptism) and reception. Historically there was a point in the Holy Liturgy where only Orthodox Christians would be allowed to stay for the whole of the service. At such a point, non-Orthodox Christians would be expected to leave, not even being able to witness or hear the prayers of interceding, offering, and consecration, and certainly not being able to see the congregation take the bread and wine. The second part, the Liturgy of the Faithful, forms the second part.

Only Orthodox Christians are allowed to receive the bread and wine. Non-Orthodox, and within Orthodoxy those who are not ecumenically within full dialogue of their patriarchate, may not take the bread and wine.

14 Feb 2013

Orthodoxy and housework

Luke 10:38-42.  There are far more important worthy interesting wholesome things than a clean and tidy house.

4 Oct 2013

In every Orthodox community throughout the world Christians will find some water and celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan by a blessing. But that is a characteristic of Orthodoxy and what in part attracts people to Orthodoxy. Nothing changes. A Christian living in the 1st or 2nd century would recognise the worship in an Orthodox church as being derived from a liturgy familiar to them. The timelessness of God is echoed through Orthodox worship and practice in the sense that nothing changes. Following the normal Liturgy, led by the choir singing the “Theotrophic Troparion” (a hymn to all intents and purposes) the congregation walk to the edge of the Ford a few minutes from the church, where the water will be blessed and the hand Cross dipped into the water. Theophany, in the greater sense of the word, indicates a point in time when God reveals Himself to the world. The bible describes eight events beginning at the burning bush and concluding with the ministry of Jesus that would come under the the category of Theophany. Many traditions use Epiphany to describe Theophany, but whatever word or tradition is used, the really important thing is that there is a point in time, space and life where God and mankind meet in a special way.

18 Oct 2015


The sixteenth century translators of the Bible are responsible for the mistranslation of Hades, Tartaros, & Ghenna, as Hell.

Hades – the 'Unseen Place' – is a translation into Greek of the Hebrew/Aramaic word Sheol, which Jesus would have spoken, meaning, meaning the 'abode of the departed', or, 'the pit'.  Hades was understood to be a temporary place of the departed, whereas Hell is a permanent state or destination.  This distinction is quite clear where the personified Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire,  i.e. Hell  (cf. revelation 20:13).

The Revises King James version of the Bible correctly distinguishes between Hades and Hell where they occur.

Because they believe in free will, Orthodox do believe that it is possible to reject God, not only in time but in eternity. In this sense they believe in Hell. Nevertheless, there is a strand of Orthodox teaching that allows for the hope of universal salvation for Christians and non-Christians alike. A good summary of Orthodox thinking in this area may be found in Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev's chapter _"Eschatology" - in the "Cambridge Companion to Christian Theology", edited by Mary B.Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff (Cambridge University Press, 2008). 

18 Oct 2015


In Orthodox Christianity, the Theotokos holds a special place in the history and life of the church.  A hymn often sung in our worship addresses her as follows:

"More honourable than the cherubim,

and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim,

thou who in virginity didst bear God the Word,

thee, true mother of God, we magnify."

There are unmistakeable similarities in Christian ikonography (and Mary's place in the church) with the Egyptian Goddess Isis and her son Horus.  Both are often depicted with the child on the lap of their mother, the feasts of both (Horus and Jesus) would fall around the latter part of December, Horus and Mary are often depicted as having a role in feeding the people, they also are depicted breast-feeding their respective children, both Mary and Isis are viewed as being the ideal perfect mother, both have been considered to have miraculous powers. The similarities are impossible to dismiss, but just because we can see similar qualities and depictions of both doesn't diminish Marys position in the Divine Plan, nor does it elevate Isis to an identity alien to faith. The fact is, as part of the Human Condition we look to God to supply our needs ,and answers to eternal questions. If God chooses to use recurring themes to satisfy His Creation then that isn't a question for us to resolve, it is a question for God.

The term Theotokos was adopted as a title for the virgin Mary at the Third Ecumenical Council (AD 431), though it had already been in use in the life of the Church for some time.  It was a theological statement, emphasising that Mary's son, Jesus, is fully God as well as fully Man, and that His two natures are united as one Person of the Holy Trinity.  "Mother of God", which the Orthodox church has adopted, is one of the phrases commonly used to render Theotokos, though it is not an accurate translation, and without clear guidance could be subject to misinterpretation. It also has the disadvantage of being a translation of Meter Theou, which is less commonly used, but which occurs alongside Theotokos,, even within the same hymn, potentially leading, in translation, either to tautology or to convoluted renderings of one or other of the phrases.

Other possible translations of Theotokos are "God–Bearer", "Bearer of God", "Birthgiver of God", or "Birthgiver to God".  The last, though clumsy, is probably the closest to an accurate translation of the meaning.  The search continues for a more helpful, accurate and satisfactory translation.  

18 Oct 2015


This means 'called to one's side', or 'called to one's aid', hence; an advocate. a helper, an intercessor, a counsellor, one who gives solace or encouragement.  With reference to the Holy Spirit, the term 'Comforter' is often used.
14 Feb 2013

The Meeting of the Lord

The Feast of 'The Meeting of the Lord' marks the end of the season of Theophany. In other traditions it is called 'The Presentation of Christ', 'Candlemas' or 'Feast of the Purification of Mary'.  

The event is described in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:22–40). which describes how Mary and Joseph took the Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days (inclusive) after his birth to complete Mary's ritual purification after childbirth, and to perform the redemption of the firstborn, in obedience to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12-15, etc.) which describes how every firstborn male was to be brought into the temple to be dedicated to God on the fortieth day after birth.

Luke explicitly says that Joseph and Mary took the option provided for poor people (those who could not afford a lamb) (Leviticus 12:8), to sacrifice "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." Leviticus 12:1-4 indicates that this event should take place forty days after birth for a male child, hence the Presentation is celebrated forty days after Christmas.

Women contract tumah (ritual contamination) through childbirth.  The time period of the woman’s purification after childbirth differs and is based on the sex of the child as explained in Leviticus 12:1-8.  Here we see that Jesus was named on the day of His circumcision but they did not offer sacrifices until the days of Mary’s impurity were completed. 

Upon bringing Jesus into the temple, they run into Simeon, who had been promised that "he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (Luke 2:26). The term "Lord's Christ" actually refers to the Messiah promised to the Jewish race by God. Simeon prayed the prayer that would become known as the Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon, which prophesied the redemption of the world by Jesus:

"Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).

Simeon then prophesied to Mary: "Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35).

The elderly prophetess Anna was also in the Temple, and offered prayers and praise to God for Jesus, and spoke to everyone there about Jesus and his role in the redemption of Israel (Luke 2:36-38).

Leviticus 12 explains that women who gives birth to a male child shall be contaminated for 7 days as in her days of menstruation (niddah = separation from marital relations and sacred things).  Circumcision on the 8th day pictures the putting to death of the fleshly nature in order to be made clean.  The new mother must be in blood of her purification for 33 days. This is basically a ceremonial purification from the blood of birth, life, and death.  During that time, she may not touch anything sacred and she’s unclean until time of purification is complete.  After the 33 days are complete, she must bring a sin offering and a whole burnt offering.  The sin-offering can be a young pigeon or a turtledove and the whole burnt offering can be a lamb or a young pigeon or a turtledove.  After that the woman can now be with her husband and enter the Tabernacle/Temple.

The Jewish perspective on this is that "Tumah" is a built-in component of women's natural monthly cycle. Her status of "impurity" demonstrates her descent from a peak level of holiness, when she had the ability to conceive a new life through her union with her husband. The status of "tumah" is not meant to imply sinfulness, degradation or inferiority. On the contrary, it emphasises, in particular, the great level of holiness inherent in woman's power to create and nurture a new life, and the great holiness of a husband and wife's union, in general. Since a woman possesses this lofty potential, she, also bears the possibility of its void; hence her status as tameh, ritually impure. Since she experienced "the touch of death," so to speak, with the loss of potential life, as reflected by her menstruation, she enters this status of being "impure."

After having given birth to a baby boy, a woman must wait a minimum of seven days before beginning her pure days; while after a baby girl is born, she must wait a minimum of fourteen days. Since the female child inherently carries a higher degree of holiness, due to her own biological, life creating capability, a greater void, or tumah, remains after her birth. Thus, the greater tumah after a baby girl's birth reflects her greater capacity for holiness (due to her creative powers) and necessitates the longer wait to remove this ritual impurity.

3 Sep 2013

Forgiveness Sunday

The weeks leading up to Pascha (Easter) are known as Great Lent. This period is a process and not just an event in time. The purpose of this process is as a preparation to celebrate Pascha when it arrives.  As part of this process, the Great Lent begins in earnest with Forgiveness Sunday.

The purpose of Forgiveness Sunday is to be reminded that Jesus included in His teaching that forgiving others is a necessary part of drawing close to God. "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, looking miserable. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly". (Matthew 6:14-18).

What happens on Forgiveness Sunday is this.  After the dismissal at Vespers or in our case the Sunday Liturgy, the priest stands before the congregation and in turn comes forward, venerate the icon, and then each makes a prostration (bows low enough to touch the floor with a finger as a gesture of humility) before the priest, saying, "Forgive me, a sinner." The priest also makes a prostration before each, saying, "God forgives. Forgive me." The person responds, "God forgives," and receives a blessing from the priest. 

Then it gets logistically interesting, because each person lines up around the church to give and receive forgiveness from each person in the congregation. No one is left out. We each all ask forgiveness of everybody, and everybody seeks our forgiveness of them for every offence that might have happened since the previous year when Forgiveness Sunday took place.

 Orthodoxy and Orthodox Christians accept that we can be indifferent to others, selfish, uninterested in others problems, have little or no concern for their troubles, and this act of reconciliation helps us come face to face with those uncomfortable things about us, with which we usually manage in our consciousness by just being polite and friendly to others instead of doing something practical for others, or by forgetting or ignoring their needs in our prayers.This act of reconciliation, whether we feel another who seeks to be reconciled does so unnecessarily for we haven't felt offended by them over the year, recognises that with the best will in the world a year in a community rarely goes by without doe small, albeit unintended, slight, and sets in motion our intentions and thoughts towards the sacrifice of Pascha whereby we can absorb the full meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. 

15 Feb 2013

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Without exception, the lives of everyone alive are marked by important dates whereby things past are remembered. Birthdays are the obvious example, but as a nation we also mark the end of WWI and WWII, when Germany was defeated by allied forces. In England we mark the Queens' Official Birthday, and hold a ceremony to mark the opening of Parliament as well as particular anniversaries like a centenary of a national or international hero.

In just such a spirit, Orthodoxy celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Feast is kept in memory of the final defeat of Iconoclasm and the restoration of the icons to the churches. Sometime between AD 726 and 730, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian began the iconoclast campaign. He ordered the removal of an image of Jesus prominently placed over the Chalke gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and its replacement with a cross. Over the years conflict developed between those who wanted to use the images, claiming that they were "icons" to be "venerated", and the purists who claimed they were simply idols. Pope Gregory III called a synod in AD 730 and formally condemned iconoclasm as heretical and excommunicated its promoters. The papal letter never reached Constantinople as the messengers were intercepted and arrested in Sicily by the Byzantines.The Byzantine Emperor Constantine V convened another meeting,the Council of Hieria in AD 754, and the attending 338 bishops assembled concluded, "the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation—namely, the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. . . . If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, etc. . . . let him be anathema". This Council claimed to be the legitimate "Seventh Ecumenical Council".

So there we have it, no ikons for 26 years until AD 780 when Constantine VI ascended the throne in Constantinople. But being a minor state affairs were managed by his mother Empress Irene. She decided that an ecumenical council needed to be held to address the issue of iconoclasm and directed this request to Pope Adrian I (AD 772–795) in Rome. Adrian announced his agreement and called the convention on 1 August AD 786 in the presence of the Emperor and Empress. The initial proceedings were interrupted by the violent entry of iconoclast soldiers faithful to the memory of the prior Emperor Constantine V unhappy that this matter was being raised again, with possibly a different outcome. This caused the council to be adjourned until a reliable army could be assembled to protect any proceedings. The council was reassembled at Nicaea 24 September AD 787. During those proceedings the following was adopted:

"... we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message. 

... we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects"

Despite that decree, disagreement continued with iconoclastic practices and beliefs. After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor, Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora, and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in AD 842 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia, restoring the icons to the church. This occurred on 19 February, 842 (which that year was the first Sunday of Lent). The Synod decreed that a perpetual feast on the anniversary of that day should be observed each year on the First Sunday of Great Lent, and named the day, "the Sunday of Orthodoxy" (ἡ Κυριακὴ τῆς Ὀρθοδοξίας), and continues to be remembered by Orthodox Christians today. 

After the Hours are recited and before the Liturgy begins, ikons are processed by the congregation around the church while the choir sings. Many people bring their own ikons from home, and those who don't remove one from the walls of the church to join in the occasion.

18 Apr 2013


The word Akathist really means "Standing", from ἀ-, a-, "without, not" and κάθισις, káthisis, "sitting".  In an Akathist the whole congregation is expected to stand (with the exception for those physically unable to stand). Generally speaking, Akathist is mandatory for the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Gospel, but in its wider context an Akathist is a prayer sung or said for a specific purpose in commemoration of a particular saint or one of the Trinity.

The structure of an Akathist follows a recognisable form. The hymn itself is divided into thirteen parts, each of which is composed of a kontakion and an oikos (Greek: οίκος, house, possibly derived from Syriac terminology).  The term kontakion  derives from the Greek word κόνταξ, kontax, meaning pole, specifically the pole around which a scroll is wound. The term describes the way in which the words on a scroll unfurl as it is read and in the context of a church service describes how the words of the particular kontakion unfurl within a service to underpin the intentions and purposes of the service.

The oikos is a specially constructed stanza, in honour of a particular feast, which is sung, together with the kontakion develops the ideas expressed in the kontakion and, as a rule, concludes with the same words as the kontakion. Like the kontakion, it is a condensed form of a hymn.  The Greek word means `house’, signifying that the Oikos contained all the essentials of a household.  Similarly, the Oikos of the church service was a brief summary of the saint or feast day being celebrated. The kontakion usually ends with the exclamation: Alleluia, which is repeated by a choir in full settings or chanted by the reader in simple settings. Within the latter part of the oikos comes an anaphoric entreaty, such as Come or Rejoice.

Most frequently, however, the use of the term Akathist has come to refer to a hymn that seeks the prayers of Mary, and to magnify her position of honour as perceived by many.

17 Jun 2013

Liturgy of The Presanctified Gifts

Because Great Lent is a season of repentance, fasting, and intensified prayer, Orthodoxy regards as especially desirable that people attend church and take the eucharist more frequently than they would do normally. However, the Divine Liturgy has a festal character not in keeping with the season, and as such the Presanctified Liturgy is celebrated instead, with the usual Divine Liturgy only performed on Saturdays and Sundays. 

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served on Wednesday and Friday evenings, although some churches may celebrate it only on one of these days. It is a service that takes place at the liturgical end of the day, and what happens is this.

During the psalms of Vespers, the presanctified gifts are prepared for communion. They are transferred from the altar table where they have been reserved since the Divine Liturgy, and are placed on the table of oblation. After the evening hymn, Old Testamental scriptures are read, between which the celebrant blesses the kneeling congregation with a lighted candle and the words: “The Light of Christ illumines all,”. After the readings, the evening Psalm 141 is solemnly sung once again with the offering of incense. Then, after the litanies of intercession and those after which the catechumens were dismissed in former days, the presanctified eucharistic gifts are brought to the altar. Then the congregation are called to take the eucharist.

2 Apr 2013

The Great Canon of St Anthony of Crete

During Great Lent, Christians of all denominations have the opportunity to use this time as a preparation, a process, for the refreshment, the Simcha, of Pascha (Easter).  Some will use this time to attend a bible study, some will attend the Stations of the Cross, others might use a rosary, follow a part of scripture as it unfolds or read an academic text to deepen their understanding. many will do nothing at all. One of the opportunities presented to Orthodox Christians is to attend a service known as The Great Canon of St Anthony of Crete.The Great Canon was written by St. Andrew of Crete, a bishop who was initially a monk in Jerusalem (refer to our Gallery pages for more information about St Anthony).

This complex poem is actually a chanted hymn, and was written in the early 700′s, and is called “Great” for two reasons: it is incredibly long (about 250 verses), and it is majestic. It is a liturgical poem consisting of nine parts, and is an internal dialogue between St Anthony and his soul. The ongoing theme is an urgent exhortation to change one’s life and St Andrew always  mentions his own sinfulness placed in juxtaposition to God’s mercy, and uses literally hundreds of references to good and bad examples from the OT and NT to “convince himself” to repent. Attending the Great Canon helps us see how in Israel followers of Jesus understood the scriptures and repentance.

In our modern times, we have a different, maybe even distorted, sense of what is meant by sin, and The Great Canon focuses our attention back onto the subject.  It is written primarily in the first person, and goes chronologically through the entire Old and New Testaments drawing examples (both negative and positive) which it correlates to the need of the sinful soul for repentance return to God, the fundamental message of both John Baptist and Jesus, not to mention most of the prophets of the Old Testament.  

What then ought someone expect from attending The Great Canon?  To those who are paying attention, it allows reflection so we can give thought to how we should think about ourselves. When our time comes for confession, what should we bring to that event? What ought we say? What have we done, or not done, that in some way creates a divide between ourselves and those around us, the narrower and the wider society, and God?  What has to happen for us to want to change? To live a life that will bring us closer to God, we have to really want to take steps that will bring that about, and to realise that with every passing day without doing something about coming to God, we are closer to the final event that precludes us being active about making a difference in our lives and that of others. Finally, those attending The Great Canon should leave being in a better state for being able to pray and talk honestly with God.

22 Feb 2013

St Mary of Egypt

St Mary of Egypt was a woman who had the most prodigious of appetites for sex, and during Great Lent there is an opportunity for Orthodox Christians to listen to an account of her life and how she turned her life around.  The purpose of such an occasion is to discover what repentance could be for us from someone who had much to repent.

The service within the context of Great Lent, is actually three accounts.  Her own account, the account of the priest who discovered her hiding in the desert, and a joint account. In brief, this is what we hear.

At the age of 12, Mary ran away from home and settled in Alexandria, where she made a living by begging and spinning flax.  From time to time she took money in return for sex, but as often as not she had as much sex as she could handle and didn't charge, enjoying it as much as she evidently did.  We don't know enough to know if she was a nymphomaniac, but the accounts that describe he appetites might well match such a description.

When she was 29 she travelled to Jerusalem to see what a pilgrimage looked like, and with half an eye on picking up some men for some spare sex on the way. She paid for her passage by taking money for her fun, but when trying to follow pilgrims through through some church doors, she described that at the door of the church as she was about to step over the threshold, she was driven back "by some kind of force".  Mary describes how she perceived it was all the immorality of her life held her back from entering church, and she responded to this experience by asking forgiveness, at which point, what was preventing here entry lifted away and she went in. Mary decided to leave her old life behind and went travelling into the desert, and at some point, was baptised in the Jordan, and settled down to a life of solitude and prayer. It was only after a period of 48 years later, when she was an old woman, that a priest sought by the name of Zosimas found her, and this forms the second part of her life story.

Zosimas was a priest and a monk, and having entered the religious life as a boy, his life experience couldn't have been more different from Mary. Yet, at the age of 53, he hit a crisis in his life. He became tormented by the thought that he had attained perfection in life and there was nothing new for him to learn, and this thought left him in  a miserable state. He believed he was guided to the desert beyond Jordan so he could discover what other ways to God may be found. He left the monastery expecting to find a particularly holy monk, one closer to God than he believed himself to be, from whom he could discover great things. It took him 20 days before he came across Mary and at first he really didn't like what he saw.  Being a solitary she saw no need to wear clothes, and so she stood, old, naked, skin wrinkled dried and blackened by the sun, anorexically undernourished through fasting with white short cropped hair that she had kept hacked short herself.

It wasn't clear at first who was most scared of whom. Zosimas hadn't seen much of women before never mind an old emaciated naked one, and certainly Mary felt threatened enough to run away from this man. But Zosimas felt that this was the one to whom he had been guided, and when they eventually found themselves talking Zosimas realised that she had a holy presence and personal power greater than anything he had previously encountered. 

And so we come to the third story: The Story of Mary and Zosimas together. From the moment they met, their lives were found to be reversed. Mary, the sinful woman, became teacher and source of sanctity, whereby Zosimas, the venerable priest and monk, became disciple and suppliant. As well as having a great understanding of the mystery of God, she wasn't shy about disclosing the details of her seedy life before she found God. She explained how it was that she had been able to survive the harsh conditions of desert life, the deprivations not only of material comforts, but the comforts of society, which she had given up in repentance for her former way of life. Mary really had no comprehension of how close to God she had become, nor how almost tangible this closeness could be experienced by someone else sitting beside her.

Eventually she asked Zosimas for a favour. She asked him to go back to the monastery and return on Holy Thursday the following year and bring her the Eucharist, without telling anyone about her. Zosimas reluctantly agreed, for he had spent enough time with her to feel he had become her disciple. He felt renewed by her company and her account of her life, and going back to the monastery left him fearful of feeling deflated again, but a year passed by and he returned, as requested, with the Eucharist. Mary received them and said the familiar words,'Lord now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation', whereupon Zosimas was sent away again for another year with the instruction to return, again with the Eucharist, the following Holy Thursday.

But when the time came and Zosimas returned, he found her dead, with a letter to him written in the sand beside her body. From this he learned that she had died within an hour of receiving the sacrament the previous year. He learned, also, for the first time her name, for she signed herself "Mary the sinner." Zosimas buried her, there in the desert, then he went back to the monastery to let people know about her and how she had touched his life.

Surrounding this story, for we don't really know if either of these people actually lived or if it is a heroic poetic tale, is a wealth of other details which may or may not be credible or true, but these are the bare bones of her life, and during Great Lent Orthodox Christians have the opportunity to dwell on someone who lived a wholly immoral life, someone who suddenly decided they wanted to know God, and who spent her remaining years in sorrow and repentance for all the wrong she had done in life. To some, there is also an encouragement that here was a woman who found a closeness with God in a barren desert, that a monk and priest who had spent his whole life in a monastery with all the attendant privileges that having ready access to services and liturgy, regular meals and shelter could only dream of finding. 

The story of Mary in the desert show us, that ordinary Christians living ordinary lives, lives not spent in cloisters, can be as close to God as much as we would want. We only have to want it and long for it enough, and then be prepared to do something about it.

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