Today is Good Friday for Western Christians—people associated with the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations and their off-shoots. But for Eastern Orthodox Christians (like me) the date of Pascha (Easter) this year is April 12. Why?
There are many theological sources that explain the two dates for Easter. Here’s a new article by Mycah Hatfield at KATC.com in Acadiana, Louisiana:
Rev. Phillip Rogers, an Orthodox priest in Lafayette, Louisiana, is quoted in the article as saying:
The calendar was recalculated in order to be based on the actual movement of the sun and of the moon and that was done by the Pope in the Middle Ages, but the Orthodox Church, since we are not in communion with the Pope, we did not change.
It’s important to many Orthodox Christians that we still hold the “original” way of calculating the date of Easter. And especially that we don’t celebrate it before Passover, which often happens with the Western date.
I used to be glad that “our Easter” was (usually) on a different date than “theirs.” I was glad for the opportunity for my Orthodox faith to stand out—to be different. (Not to mention the added benefit of buying Easter candy for our kids at 75% off the week after Western Easter.) But in recent years I’ve wished that all of Christendom celebrated this important holiday together. It’s no longer about “us” and “them.” My sentiments are shared by many Christians, as this article by Borgna Brunner in Fact Monster explains:
The issue has been addressed for decades, with the Second Vatican Council (back in 1963) suggesting the second Sunday in April as a date for all Christians to celebrate Easter.
Almost twenty years ago (in Aleppo, Syria, March 5–10, 1997) a meeting organized by the World Council of Churches proposed a solution, but it wasn’t accepted, and here we are today, still celebrating on two different dates most years.
In a multi-cultural country like the U.S., I think it would be especially helpful (and less confusing) for all Christians to celebrate this highest of holy days on the same date. I have many non-Orthodox friends who are attending Good Friday services at their churches today and will celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Sunday, just as our parish is commemorating Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem where He will be crucified. Even in the secular realm, as I watch the little children hunting for eggs in a park just around the corner from our house tomorrow, I’ll wish it was time for the children at St. John Orthodox Church to be joining in that same festivity.
My childhood memories of Easter in Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi (see photos) are happy ones—getting a new (white) Bible with my name engraved on it, Easter candy, and (especially) new clothes. But I also had an awareness from a young age that Easter was what it was all about. Jesus had risen from the dead, and that changed everything.
And so on this Sunday and the following Sunday, I’ll raise a red egg, light a candle and say to all who embrace this faith, “Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!”
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve blogged about my patron saint, Mary of Egypt. But since her feast day is coming up (April 1) and this Sunday is Saint Mary of Egypt Sunday in the Orthodox Church, this seems like a good day for some reflection on her.
About 35 years ago—we had been married for about ten years and were part of a “startup” religious group—my husband returned home from a trip to California he had taken with other “clergy” from our group in Mississippi. They had visited some Orthodox sites and he brought me a gift from one of them—an icon of a scantily-clad saint with sun-bleached skin and hair.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“Her name is Mary of Egypt.”
“So, why did you choose this particular icon to bring to me?”
He hesitated a moment, and then said, “She told me to bring it to you.”
My husband isn’t a touchy-feely sort of guy. At all. He’s also not prone to overtly mystical things. Except, of course, that he’s an Orthodox priest. But he wasn’t a priest when he brought me the icon. He wasn’t even sure about her story. So we looked it up and read about her.
It would be another ten years before I would embrace Mary of Egypt as my patron saint. And another ten years before I would come to realize why she reached out to me. But she’s been watching over me with diligence for over a quarter of a century now, so I honor her on her two feast days each year. It’s a simple gesture, really. I take flowers and place them before her icon at St. John Orthodox Church, my parish here in Memphis. And I continue to ask her to intercede for me in my struggles. That’s all.
But that’s the once-a-year ritual. The other 364 days each year I simply try to keep her in my heart. Be aware of her presence. Ask for her prayers. Icons help with that. So, at the end of this post I’m going to share a few images of this woman who has come to be known and loved as the “icon of repentance” throughout the Orthodox Church worldwide.
Oh—and I know I’ve shared this many times, but Mary of Egypt is also featured as one of the three main characters in my novel-in-progress, Cherry Bomb. I have fictionalized the story of her childhood, giving her the name, “Neema.” And there are weeping icons (hers) in the book as well.
In April of 1997, when I was visiting an Orthodox monastery in Michigan, I penned the following poem on Saint Mary’s Feast Day. Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us.
Saint Mary of Egypt
Fill my soul, O Lord
As you filled the soul of Your Holy Mother;
Let there be no room in my soul
For anything but you.
Fill my belly, O Lord
As You filled blessed Mary in the desert;
Let my sustenance be only You
And the blessing of Your Saints.
Fill my mind, O Lord
As you filled the theologians
With words to teach us Your ways
And wisdom that gives life.
Fill my mouth, O Lord
As you filled the mouth of David,
Enabling him to sing your praise
And teaching repentance through his psalms.
Fill my days, O Lord
As you fill each moment of time
With good works appointed for our sake
Increasing us in virtues and piety.
Fill my nights, O Lord
As you filled the desert nights
With watchfulness, tears and victory
For holy saints who sought you there.
Fill my flesh, O Lord
As you fill those who keep the fast;
With Your own Body and Blood
So that it becomes my only satisfaction.
Fill my eyes, O Lord
As once you filled Saint Mary’s eyes,
First with humble tears of repentance
And finally with your glorious Light.
Continuing my journey through Lent with reflections from God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, I want to share a bit from the pages authored by the Orthodox poet and theologian, Scott Cairns. The essays on each day of Lent are written by different authors. Scott’s reflections are especially meaningful to me, probably because we share the Orthodox spiritual tradition. And also because he is a friend. And a poet.
It’s already the third week of Great Lent… we’re approaching the half way point of our journey. For some of us—those who have struggled to keep the fast, to live a more ascetic life, to pray more, eat less, love more, and forgive—the journey has been exhausting. For others maybe it’s not been so different than the rest of our lives. Those who have been reading my blog for several years know that I typically do “Lent Lite.” And this year has been the same. I’m not a strict faster. And I’m pretty lazy, spiritually. But I have striven to love more and judge less.
In Cairns’ entry on The Third Sunday of Lent, he says:
I must say that it took me a few years before I finally began to understand the efficacy of the Lenten fast; it took a good three years before I would come to know this somber period of preparation as a blessing.
Cairns writes about what he called “the ache of repentance, which is the beginning of our healing.”
Repentance. Not a word most of us like to think about frequently. But without it, we can’t really move forward. And moving forward, as Cairns says—“Don’t beat yourself up”—doesn’t necessarily mean going to extremes in our ascetic efforts.
In his chapter on the Third Tuesday of Lent, Cairns writes about what the church services are like during this time:
Much of the Lenten journey—the long and slow-moving services of the church, the dark vestments, and (most importantly) the coupling of prayer with fasting, and of fasting with almsgiving—has a way of quieting distractions and centering our minds within our hearts. These disciplines reconnect our minds to our bodies, assist our re-pairing our parsed and scattered persons into souls made whole; they also recover for us our often-overlooked connection with others.
I love that he adds that last part—about our connection with others. If we try to go this ascetic path alone, it’s not always fruitful. It needs to also be about love and forgiveness and alms and healing. And those things require the other—someone other than ourselves in the equation.
Cairns ends this chapter with the Lenten prayer most Orthodox Christians pray at every service during Great Lent, and often in our homes with our personal prayers. It’s known as the Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian. I’ll close with this wonderful prayer:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother,
For blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Just over a year ago I did a post, “God For Us,” where I introduced a wonderful book I had discovered by the same name. My friend, Scott Cairns, is one of the authors, which drew my interest immediately. And one of the editors, Greg Pennoyer, is Orthodox. But the book is a blend of Eastern and Western spiritual writings to help us through our Lenten journeys. Interestingly, I didn’t know who Richard Rohr was at the time, and he’s also a contributor, so I’m looking forward to reading his chapters this year.
In the Preface, Pennoyer says:
In Lent we learn that the meaning of life is not dependent upon the fulfillment of our dreams and aspirations. Nor is it lost within our brokenness and self-absorption.
I love that. In an email I read from our pastor this morning, he shared a list of things to fast from and feast on during Lent (which came from a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Milton Gianulis, formerly at Annunciation Church here in Memphis). Pennoyer’s words remind me of this one item in Father Milton’s list:
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
With Pennoyer’s book—as with Father Milton’s list—the emphasis is on positive actions and attitudes rather than rules. It’s about preparing our hearts to receive good things. As Pennoyer continues:
Lent cleanses the palate so that we can taste life more fully. It clears the lens so that we can see what we routinely miss within our circumstances.
Today’s reading, “First Friday of Lent,” is by Richard Rohr. Each reading has Scriptures at the top, so I read them first. They aren’t the same scriptures on the Orthodox “list” so I’m following a more Western tradition on some days. He reminds us that Deuteronomy (10:12-22) promotes a worldview where “the possibility of love of God with whole heart and soul is perhaps first spoken of.” And then he moves to the passage in Hebrews (4:11-16) saying:
Anyone trying to combine good therapy with good spiritual direction and ‘judge the secret emotions and thoughts of the heart’ would love this passage.
And finally he moves on to the passage in the Gospel of John (3:22-36) that contains some of the teachings of John the Baptist, whose icon is portrayed at the beginning of the chapter. (I do love the artistic elements in this beautiful book.) In the Orthodox tradition, the priest blesses our homes just before the beginning of Great Lent. As my husband (who is a priest) sprinkled our walls with holy water last week and we sang, “When Thou O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest,” and then he sprinkled me with some of the holy water, I felt our dwellings preparing for the spiritual journey ahead—our physical dwellings being our home and our bodies. Because we’re not just spirit; we are physical beings.
Rohr summarizes the day’s reading:
The interior and transformative journey that the first two readings point towards—the awakening of soul, the circumcision of heart, the baptizing of body, the release of spirit—has now met it mark in this world. The economy of this world has become an economy of grace, and both John and Jesus are here to wash away any remnants of merit, atonement, or animal sacrifice. The bridegroom instead inaugurating a wedding feast.