Mary’s Apocalypse – A Cautionary Tale

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“The Assumption of Mary” Sano di Pietro (c. 1448-1452)

Holy is God Who has compassion on account of the Theotokos.  We give Thee thanks, O Son of God, that from eternity we did not see the light, and today through the Theotokos we have seen the light: and again they shouted with one voice, saying:  Hail, Theotokos, full-of-grace!  Hail, lamp of the inaccessible light!

Apocalypsis Mariae Virginae 23:1

The story of how Mary died, just like the story of how she was born, is not in the Bible. Christians generally rely on apocryphal legends for details about these things. The feast of Mary’s Dormition or “falling asleep” is a latecomer to Church history and Christians apparently did not really celebrate it until the 5th or 6th century. Like much of its dabbling in the apocrypha, the Church does not really admit which of many apocryphal sources ultimately influenced its liturgical commemorations, but we know that many of the traditions surrounding Mary’s death come from Jerusalem, although there are different local traditions. We also know that the Orthodox Church long credited Dionysius the Areopagite and Ignatius of Antioch with transmitting the tradition. 

Stephen Shoemaker, a professor from the University of Oregon who specializes in the study of early Christianity and particularly the role of Mary, once made available a number of these traditions in translation on his website which was linked through Wikipedia. However, he has updated since those translations have become a book, so I spent a lot of time yesterday, fruitlessly searching the internet for them. I may one day buy the expensive book, but in the mean time, while searching some classic (and free) sources, I found something even more interesting and surely unknown to many. Looking through volume 9 of the famed Ante Nicene Fathers collection I happened upon the “Apocalypse of the Virgin” translated by Andrew Rutherford from the text of M. R. James in Texts and Studies, ii., 3, (1893) from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

During these days of the Dormition Fast (Aug 1-14), it is customary to pray in alteration two supplicatory canons, or intercessory hymns to the Virgin Mary. These hymns are called the great and small Παρακλητικος κανων. Paraklētikos is an adjective coming from the word Παρακλητος or Paraklēte (“counselor” or “advocate”) which is usually an appellation of the Holy Spirit but is also applied to Christ (cf 1 Jn 2:1). These hymns of paraklēsis or fervent supplication are addressed to the Virgin Mary. Although I do not think she is usually called a Paraklēte, the Coptic Church does call Mary the Προστατης prostátēs which means “one who stands before.” (In case you are wondering: yes, that is where the English word “prostate” comes from). In Ezekiel 22:30 where Israel is likened to a furnace, God says “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.” Orthodox Christians who call the Mother of God “faithful advocate of the human race” believe that she is one of the pre-eminent ones who “stands in the gap” for us, as the Apocalypse of Mary will show. Continue reading Mary’s Apocalypse – A Cautionary Tale

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Keys to the Kingdom – Paul Tillich, Martha, & Mary

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The Life of Mary of Egypt. 17th century Russian icon.

The following is based on an essay I wrote two years ago.

A few weeks ago on the 3rd of the Coptic month Paona (June 10) was the commemoration of one St. Martha of Egypt. According to the Coptic Orthodox Synaxarion (lives of the saints):

On this day also, the ascetic and fighter St. Martha, departed. She was born in the city of Mesr (Cairo) to wealthy Christian parents. She loved fornication and unchastity in her youth and her works became known. However, the mercy of God from above encompassed her, and moved her to go to the church. That was on the Nativity of Our Lord. When she came to its door and wished to go inside, the servant delegated to watch the door told her, “It is not meet for you to go into the holy church, for you know what you are?” A confrontation took place between them, and when the Bishop heard the clamor, he came to the door of the church to see what had happened. When he saw the girl, he said to her, “Do you not know that the house of God is holy, and only the pure enter it.” She wept and said, “Accept me O father, for I am repentant from this instant, and have decided not to go back to my sin.” The bishop replied, “If it is true what you have said, go and bring back here all your silk clothes and gold ornaments.”

She went quickly and brought back all of her clothes and ornaments and gave them to the Bishop. He ordered that they be burned immediately, then he shaved off the hair of her head. He put on her the monastic garb and sent her to one of the convents. She fought a great spiritual fight, and she frequently said in her prayers: “O Lord, if I could not bear the disgrace from the servant of Your house, so please do not put me to shame before Your angels and saints.” She continued the spiritual fight for twenty-five years, during which she did not go out of the door of the convent, then departed in peace.

I had the pleasure of having breakfast with a friend a couple days later and we talked (among sundry other things) about the irony that having been raised with relative freedom, we now are interested in Orthodoxy, a religion of many rules and injunctions, while other friends of ours who were raised in very strict Christian homes are currently living the wild life at college. The conversation reminded me of the story of St. Martha above and how I had wanted to write about it but hadn’t had the chance. So what does St. Martha have to do with going wild at college? Continue reading Keys to the Kingdom – Paul Tillich, Martha, & Mary