In this Great Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, usually people speak about the theology of the Virgin Mary, who she was, who she is in the Church, her role within the Church, and we’ve spoken about these things many times. Much less do we concentrate on the Gospel today, which doesn’t speak about the Virgin Mary at all, but rather mentions another Mary who is the sister of Martha, who also had the brother Lazarus, whom we hear Jesus raised from the dead on the fourth day after his death, on the Saturday a week before his own resurrection. We celebrate this, obviously, on Lazarus Saturday at the beginning of Holy Week.
We see that in this particular story—and it’s interesting that the Church places it on this day, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary—we see that Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to his words, listening to his teachings, and not doing what is expected of her, which is to serve, because especially at the time of Christ, in the Jewish society, the women were there to serve; they were not there to learn Scripture, to learn the Law. That was for the men, and so the women would stay [away].
It was the same thing at the synagogue: the men would go into the synagogue and study; the women would have to stay outside or in a special section for them. Their job was to serve the people, to run the household, but not to learn the Scripture and not to learn the faith and to engage in the faith as much as the men were. It was a very patriarchal society.
We see that Mary is doing the opposite of what is expected of her, and Martha gets annoyed with her, because she is left alone to serve all the guests that were in her house. Of course, there were many, many people there coming to see Christ. So Martha goes to Christ and she complains about her sister and says, “Do you not care that my sister is sitting here, doing nothing and listening to you and not doing her job as a woman of the household?”
And what does Christ do? He rebukes her, and he responds with something we would not expect a first-century rabbi to say. Christ does this many times: goes against the cultural grain, the traditions of his people, to prove a point. Christ tells her, “Martha, you are very anxious about many, many things, but there is only one thing that is needful, and Mary has chosen it.” So he is reminding Martha that, yes, there is work to be done; yes, there are obligations to be fulfilled; yes, everybody has a role within society to a certain degree, but in the end, the beginning, at the forefront of our lives, on the front burner, as a priority, we have to have our spirituality, our relationship with God, our understanding of our faith, our understanding of Scripture, our understanding of who Christ is and what he has come to do.
This is something that we as Christians today understand, logically. We say, “Yes, that is something that we should try to do as Christians,” but it’s much more difficult to put it into practice. It’s easy to say it. It’s easy to understand it. It’s easy to say that we are Christians and that we believe in certain things, but it’s much harder to place those beliefs, that morality, that set of things that we try to do, to put into practice what we believe—it’s much harder to put those things into practice in our daily lives and to put them at the forefront, in front of everything else that we do.
Really what happens is—and I include myself in this—is that we usually push that spirituality, that priority to the back burner, and we get overwhelmed with the everyday, mundane necessities of life: We need to go to work, we need to pay the bills, we need to take our children to school, we need to take our children to extra-curricular activities. We need to do all these things that clutter up our lives, and in the end we have no time for peace, for quiet, for calmness, and for personal prayer.
One of the things that helps us to try to move away from this chaos that we live in today is a tradition that unfortunately in our day and age—and at least I’ve noticed it amongst our people, especially the Greek Orthodox—is that a tradition that is again falling away is the Jesus prayer. Many of you may be wearing what we call a komboskini, a prayer rope. I wear one on my right hand as well. Some of you have it on; some of you do not. Some of you have never seen one, but many people who wear it—I’ve seen amongst the youth sometimes—somebody gave it to them or they bought one in Greece or they got one from a monastery.
They think that it’s simply a religious bracelet or a Greek bracelet, something that tells them that they’re Orthodox, but really they don’t understand the significance of it. Really, the komboskini, the prayer rope, is made up of little knots that are hand-made. This cannot be made by a machine, because it is too difficult to be done. There are seven little crosses in every knot, that is seven different prayers that are read by the person who’s making it. Usually there are about 33 knots on the wrist, which is 33 years of Jesus’ life. If you multiply 33 times seven, that’s 231 prayers that somebody put into one komboskini that our children or one of us wears. So we are carrying around 231 prayers for us that someone else took the time to do. I make these myself, and I make them for people as well. It’s a good way for me to focus my time and my mind on prayer as well. It takes approximately, depending on how fast you go, maybe an hour and a half to two hours to make one of these. So somebody has to take time out of their day, to have peace in their mind and their heart, and to pray for that person to make one of these.
So when we wear these, we shouldn’t be wearing them as fashion statements, and we shouldn’t just be wearing them to say that we’re Orthodox. Rather, we should be using them. And how does one use them? Well, there’s the tradition, in monastic circles… If you go to a monastery and you speak to a monk or a nun, they will tell you very well and very easily what the Jesus prayer is, because this is what they do, day in and day out, 24 hours a day, sometimes even in their sleep, and that is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And they repeat this, over and over again, for every knot that they use. And they count, and they do it so often that it gets to the point where they don’t even need the prayer rope any more. It just becomes a prayer that repeats in their heads at all times, and especially at times when they need it.
This is something that we can apply to our daily lives. I speak about this to the youth group, I speak about it to the kids at camp, and I speak about it even to you adults, because it is something that helps us in our daily lives. It’s a simple tradition that we can incorporate into our very busy lives, so that even sometimes when we’re driving in the car, we can use it and pray. Even when we are at work or we have a few minutes to spare, we can pray. Even when we are waiting in line at the supermarket, we can pray.
These things may seem funny to us, or they may seem unlikely that we may actually pray at these times, but when this very simple prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”—begins to play in our heads over and over, we will see that it begins to calm us. It begins to push out all those negative thoughts and all those negative distractions that we have in our minds that plague us every day, but do not allow us to have a peace of mind and a calmness within our hearts and our souls.
We see that, especially at times, at least for myself, I have anxiety or I get upset or something bothers me or there’s high stress, I find that that prayer kicks into my mind right away, and it helps calm me at that moment so that I can make the proper decisions, and I can be peaceful and calm and treat my neighbor with love and compassion and not be agitated.
So this is one of those things, one of the many traditions that we have in our Church, that allows us to keep Christ at the forefront of our minds, the forefront of our hearts, because as people we are forgetful. We forget. We forget about Christ, we forget about our faith, we forget about the teachings of the Church in our daily lives, because we are bombarded by so many secular things, so many worldly things. Really, in the end, it doesn’t matter what we say we believe. It doesn’t matter that we say we’re Christians on the final Day. It only matters what we do, and that’s why Christ’s last words at the end of the gospel are what?
The woman says, “Blessed is the woman who bore you, the womb that bore you, and the breasts that suckled you.” And he says, “Rather, blessed are the people who hear the word of God and keep it.” So it’s not enough just to hear. We all hear. We all know what’s right and wrong. We all hear what we should believe. We come to church sometimes, we listen to the priest talk and talk and talk, we listen to the prayers, and we know what we’re supposed to do. But to actually do those things is the difficult part, and I think all of us can identify with that, how difficult it is to actually apply those teachings, that ethic, that morality to our daily lives, to every single decision that we make.
So the only way that we can do that is if we keep Christ in our minds and our hearts, and the Jesus prayer is an excellent way of doing that, so that we can always be guided by that faith in everything that we do. If we do not, then we become just like everybody else. We become just like everybody else who may not believe in anything, who follow other religions, who follow other philosophies or follow nothing at all and basically live their lives according to their own philosophies and their own religion and their own belief system.
But for us, we claim that we follow the true God, and we try to conform our lives to what he has to say about things and how what is good for us, so this is one way that we can try to do it. Blessed are those who not only hear the word of God, but keep it in action. Amen.