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✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…. (1 Pt 1:1)
So the Apostle Peter begins his first Epistle, reminding us of a truth central to our faith—that we are the scattered of God’s elect, with no earthly place to name as our central sanctuary. The Christian faith can be described as post-exilic, meaning it originated in the period following the destruction of the earthly tabernacle that Israel once understood as the sole place where they could make their offerings to God. In the period of the Babylonian exile, the people of God faced a pressing question: “How can we worship God when there is no Temple?” It was in this context that Israel came to realize the full meaning of their own sacred story—that God had established His covenant with Abraham, and gave His law to Moses, prior to Israel crossing into the promised land, and prior to the existence of the Temple. This understanding brought hope and purpose. If God had been with His people before they had the land and the Temple, they could be assured He could be present with them now that they were, once again, without land or Temple. They could reflect—as we now also can—on the fact that they had been made participants in God’s covenant even before they were blessed with accoutrements of worship in the Temple.
Israel’s focus in exile turned to how they could continue to observe the sacred law without the material house which had been the prescribed location for so many of its observances. This was the origin of the synagogue, in which God’s exiled people could congregate to hear the word of God, and prayerfully internalize the meaning of both the Law and the Temple worship—which, although they could not now be enacted concretely, continued to transmit life to all who sought their spiritual meaning in daily life. The religion of the Hebrews was on its way to becoming a religion of the heart.
At the time the Apostle Peter wrote his first Epistle, an even more crucial milestone had been reached in the sojourn of God’s people. Jesus Christ had been revealed as the incarnate Word of God, uniting humanity to God’s own Spirit in a way not possible through any of the earlier divine intermediaries—whether of the Law, the Temple, or anything else that had served as a sign of what God intended to fulfil, ultimately, not in a temple of stone or in the words of a written law, but in the human heart, and in the community of God’s servants embodying the unity, love, and mercy of God in their day-to-day lives. The Eucharist is, of course, the primary sign of this new covenant, but it should not be forgotten that the realization of its meaning is not limited to its liturgical celebration—and, in some extraordinary situations, may even be required to do without it.
As proof of this, we have before us today the extraordinary example of St. Mary of Egypt. In the account of her life by St. Sophronius, St. Mary tells the elder Zosimas that she has been alone in the desert for forty-seven years. Think about this. For those forty-seven years, St. Mary was without the Holy Eucharist. She was, moreover, without so much as a whiff of incense to bring to her the comforts of the churches in which Liturgy was served. It was not until yet another year had passed that Zosimas brought to her the Sacred Mysteries. It was then that she partook of them—and never again, because the story goes on to tell us that she reposed in the Lord before Zosimas returned the following year.
Was St. Mary without the grace of God for those forty-eight years before Zosimas brought her the Holy Gifts? God forbid! St. Mary tells Zosimas that she has “imperishable food for hope of salvation,” and that she is “fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all.” Zosimas is amazed at how Mary knows the words of sacred Scripture, though she had no access to holy books or chanting. In response to this, Zosimas could only exclaim, “Glory to God Who bestows great gifts on those who love Him.” And, when he returns to visit her for the second time, he prostrates himself before her, even while he is carrying the Divine Gifts.
There is much about St. Mary’s life that is exceptional, and cannot be considered to be the normative pattern for our Christian life in every detail. This year, however, we might hear parts of it in a special way, realizing that it can give us consolation during a time when we ourselves are without certain tangible Gifts of God. St. Mary reminds us, especially this year, of one of Lent’s central messages––that God is no stranger to the desert. St. Mary reminds us of what God’s people have remembered during times in which they did not have access to the house of God—that He is with us, even when our worship has to take place on makeshift altars, or in tents that only dimly reflect the glorious Temple they foretell.
Through the prayers of St. Mary of Egypt, O Lord Jesus Christ our true God, have mercy on us!
See the Lenten Reflections 2020 and Coronavirus sections in our Archives 2020. See also Lenten Reflections: An Invitation to Write if you would like to write for this series between now and Pascha.
V. Rev. Isaac Skidmore holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and a PhD in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria CA. He is an adjunct instructor in the clinical mental health counseling program at Southern Oregon University. He practices as a licensed counselor in Southern Oregon, frequently working with people who are exploring issues of faith, meaning, and identity. He served as rector at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church (OCA) in Ashland OR during a decade of its growth as a mission parish, where he remains attached as auxiliary priest. Of the several articles that he has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue we recommend especially On Mental Health Referrals by Orthodox Clergy.