21 March 2010

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

A modern icon showing Saint Zozimas meeting Saint Mary of Egypt on the banks of the Jordan in the wilderness

Patrick Comerford

This is the Fifth Sunday in Lent, in the calendars of both the Western Church and the Orthodox Church.

This Sunday is often known in the West as Passion Sunday, although in the Orthodox Church this is the Sunday that commemorates Saint Mary of Egypt.

Passion Sunday marks the beginning of Passiontide. Although earlier editions of the Roman Missal called this day Passion Sunday, Pope John XXIII changed the name in 1960 to the First Sunday in Passiontide (Dominica I in Passione), keeping in step with earlier changes by Pope Pius XII, who had renamed Palm Sunday as the Second Sunday in Passiontide.

Following Vatican II, the name the name of Passiontide was formally dropped from use in the Roman Catholic Church, when Pope Paul VI removed the distinction between Passiontide and the rest of the season of Lent in 1969, making the First Sunday in Passiontide simply the Fifth Sunday in Lent and giving Palm Sunday the official full name of “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord” (Dominica in Palmis de Passione Domini).

Passiontide is observed in many provinces of the Anglican Communion. In the Church of Ireland, the designation Passion Sunday was reintroduced for this Sunday in the Alternative Prayer Book in 1984. Although the title Passion Sunday has not been retained in the Book of Common Prayer 2004 (see pp 36, 264), the Seasonal Designation of Passiontide still appears (see pp 19, 264).

In the Church of England, the liturgical provisions in Common Worship include material proper to Passiontide for use from Evening Prayer on the Eve of the Fifth Sunday in Lent to the evening of Easter Eve (pp 59, 312-313, 396-399, 469-471). This “proper material” includes Seasonal Opening Sentences, Prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayer, special orders for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and seasonal material for Night Prayer and Prayer during the Day.

In many traditions, these last two weeks of Lent remain markedly different from the rest of the season. Traditionally, on Passion Sunday, all statues and paintings in churches were veiled in violet, and they continued to be veiled until the singing of the Gloria during the Easter Vigil.

The tradition of veiling images continues in many places. Passion Sunday was known as Black Sunday in Germany because of the practice of veiling crucifixes and statues in black, although violet veils are more common there today.

In those Anglican churches that follow the Sarum Use, crimson vestments and hangings are used on this day instead of the Lenten array of unbleached muslin cloth, and vestments are crimson until and including Holy Saturday. Reflecting the recent playing down of Passiontide, Common Worship suggests red in the Church of England for Holy Week only, with the exception of the Maundy Thursday Eucharists.

Saint Mary of Egypt

Saint Mary of Egypt receives Holy Communion from Saint Zozimas on the banks of the Jordan in the wilderness

In the Orthodox Church, the commemoration today is of Saint Mary of Egypt, who serves as yet another model of repentance in the season of Great Lent, and who is often regarded as the patron saint of penitents.

The primary source of information for Saint Mary of Egypt (ca. 344-ca. 421) is the Vita written of her by Saint Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638). At the age of 12 she ran away to the city of Alexandria where she lived an extremely dissolute life. Some authorities speak of her as a prostitute during this period, although in her Vita she says she often refused the money offered for her sexual favours. She was, she said, driven “by an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion,” and that she mainly lived by begging, supplemented by spinning flax.

After 17 years of this decadent lifestyle, she travelled to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. But she boarded the ship in Alexandria to set out on a sort of “anti-pilgrimage,” hoping to find among the pilgrims even more partners to satisfy her lust. She paid for her passage by offering sexual favours to other pilgrims, and she continued in this lifestyle after her arrival in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, out of curiosity, she visited the Church of the Resurrection, or the Holy Sepulchre, for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

However, some invisible force seemed to bar Mary from entering the church. She realised there and then that it was her sinful way of life that stood in her way.

She was struck with remorse, and on being confronted by an icon of the Theotokos (the Mother of God) outside the church, she prayed for forgiveness and promised to give up the world and to become an ascetic. A penitent and repentant Mary then entered the church, and there she venerated the Cross. She returned to the icon to give thanks, and heard a voice telling her: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest, true peace.”

She immediately went to the monastery of Saint John the Baptist on the bank of the River Jordan, where she received absolution and then Holy Communion.

On the following morning, Mary crossed the River Jordan and headed off into the wilderness, intending to live the rest of her life in great austerity as a hermit in penitence. All she took with her was three loaves of bread, and once they were gone, she lived only on what she could find in the wilderness.

After many years, and towards the end of her life, a priest named Zosimas found Mary in the Wilderness. When he met her in the desert, she was completely naked and almost unrecognisable as human. She asked Saint Zosimas to throw her his mantle so she could cover herself, and she then told him her life story.

As he was leaving, she asked the priest to meet her at the banks of the Jordan on Maundy Thursday of the following year, and to bring her Holy Communion. When he came again, she crossed the river to meet him by walking on the surface of the water and then received Holy Communion. Once again, she asked him to meet her in the desert the following Lent.

The next year, Saint Zosimas travelled to the same spot where he first met Mary, a journey of 20 days from his monastery. There he found her lying dead, with an inscription written in the sand next to her head, saying she had died on the very night he had given her Holy Communion, Maundy Thursday, 1 April.

Saint Zozimas buried Saint Mary’s body with the assistance of a passing lion. On returning to the monastery, Saint Zozimas told Saint Mary’s life story to the other monks, and they preserved this story among them as oral tradition until it was written down by Saint Sophronius.

We do not know the year in which Saint Mary of Egypt died. Some say she died in 421, but others give the date of her death as late as 522 or even 530. The Synaxarion tells us that Zosimas lived during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (408-450). According to tradition, Zosimas lived for almost 100 years, dying in the 6th century, and the Vita states that he was 53 when he first met Saint Mary.

Her feast day is kept in the Orthodox Church on 1 April and she is also commemorated on this day, the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent.

The Life of Saint Mary by Saint Sophronius is appointed to be read during the Matins of the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete on the Thursday before.

The first canon at Matins this morning is based on another theme, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31).

On this Sunday, it is also customary for Orthodox priests to bless dried fruit after the Divine Liturgy.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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