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.
Troparion, Tone 8.
As the Sunday of Mary of Egypt approaches and her feast-day on April 1, we encounter a poignant charge to repentance in our lives, this one embedded in our Liturgy centuries ago, here in the vortex of Great Lent. So, alongside the Scripture readings is a monk’s tale, a parable taught not by Jesus specifically, but coming to us from the treasury of Orthodoxy itself. It is the story of a monk and a pilgrim in the desert. As the seventh-century Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius, who wrote it down, says, he is writing what he heard about: “the holy story which has reached us…In the monasteries of Palestine, there lived a man renowned for his way of life and his gift of words. From the days of his infancy, he was reared in monastic trials and good deeds…seeking always to subjugate the flesh to the soul.
“Frequently, he was deemed worthy of divine visions, illuminated from on high…However, he began to be tormented, for it seemed that he had attained perfection and needed no teaching from anyone. And so, he began to reason: Is there a monk on earth capable of passing on to me any new kind of spiritual achievement in which I have not already succeeded?” This monk, then, while fasting in Lent and following the tradition of his monastery to wander out into the desert, this monk gifted with words and visions, encounters what his soul is lacking. After twenty days fasting in the wilderness, he sees an extraordinary pilgrim: “black as if scorched by the fierce heat of the sun, the hair on the head white as wool.” And this “fugitive” speaks, calling Abba Zosimas by name.
Look not at the things which are seen, but at those which are not seen; for the things which are seen may be timely, but the things which are not seen are for eternity. (Cyril of Alexandria, Homily 104)
Jesus offering the parable of the great feast awaiting us, as one step in our Orthodox Advent pilgrimage, calls to mind the recovery experience of coming back from the Pandemic, even with our fears about the virus now and in the future. It has been a sweet excitement and relief, even a celebration, beginning to go back to all the different events and places that were closed for so long. Each return—to the theater, to libraries, sports events, to shopping places—has been exhilarating, with a sense of community reunion to it. But we come back somewhat changed, don’t we? In some ways now, it’s easier to just talk about going back to events, rather than to actually get off the couch and go to them, even if safety is no longer the whole reason for isolating ourselves.
It is easy to hedge on actually doing much of anything. It is easy to stall on getting out there, even with things opening again. I hear myself saying: “I said I’d see you there today?” or “Goodness, does it say that zoom event is this afternoon?” I feel like a toddler who’s just learned to play “Don’t See Me.” My friends, it is going to take the grace of God to get our motivation and social disciplines back. The same thing can be said about motivating our spiritual lives. The Gospel is speaking to us today.
Commanders of the heavenly hosts, we who are unworthy beseech you, by your prayers encompass us beneath the wings of your immaterial glory, and faithfully preserve us who fall down and cry to you: Deliver us from all harm, for you are the commanders of the powers on high! (Troparion for the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers, Tone 4)
As the angels are gathering for the great Feast of the Synaxis of the Archangels, those of us wary of believing in angels at all may question their very nature. Yet we are standing as close to a mighty explanation as Psalm 104:4, and to Psalm 103:20-21 for the powerful efficacy of their ministry revealed. God who “makes his angels spirits and his ministers a flaming fire,” as the Psalmist says, is both terrifying and gorgeous to behold. That the angels of God “excel in strength, do his commandments, hearken to the voice of his word…and do his pleasure,” identifies them as front-facing essential workers in the economy of Salvation and in our lives among the faithful.
“Take a close look at a branding iron,” Basil the Great teaches us, “and the nature of angels’ holiness will become plainer: Remember that fire is required to heat it; yet, we would not claim that the branding iron and the fire are the same substance. The angels are a similar case; they are essentially aerial spirits, composed of immaterial fire, as it is written, ‘He makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flaming fire’ (Ps 104:4). Angels exist in space, and when they are seen by those who are worthy, they assume an appropriate physical form” (On the Holy Spirit, PG38.138A). For us then, in our deepest prayer and praise, we are able to see the divine illumination of angelic appearances in the same manner as viewing, perhaps, a rainbow, which can truly appear visually and radiantly upon occasion, and can powerfully signify God’s promise in Scripture, but has no physical body.
“The indescribable glory of His face was changing through grace”—Menaion for August.
Since the feast-day of the Mandylion Ikon of Christ, memories of encountering it have been galvanizing my prayer, recalling an extraordinary encounter meeting it on pilgrimage many years ago. The Mandylion Icon “Not Made by Hands” occupies a central place among Orthodox images of Christ, although its origins are shrouded in mystery. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 gave attention to it, and to commemorate the triumph of the holy images, it is this icon of Christ which is venerated at the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The expression “not made by hands” derives its meaning from its Gospel context: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made by hands” (Mark 14:58). The term acheiropoietos in the Greek and spas nerokotvornyi in the Russian describes icons carrying the heritage of being created not by the mere agency of icon-painters, but by the tradition of direct impression of Our Lord’s body; they claim to derive from the first example and thus be genuine and pleasing to God.
The Mandylion Icon of Christ is displayed in a prominent place in the church, censed during the Liturgy, and often carried in procession. It is traditionally seen over doorways and gateways; and it is also often present, symbolizing Christ’s invisible presence, when the penitent and priest stand together in the church for the Sacrament of Repentance. Witnessing this icon for the first time was a jolting experience for me, at once unsettling and yet startlingly infused with love. One evening, during a memorable Russian pilgrimage, as we made the rounds of several Vespers services, we were joined by a Russian Orthodox nun, Sr. Galina. Even with no shared language, we became fast friends because we are both red-headed. Trailing behind her, I learned to circumnavigate the church and venerate the icons.