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The Life of St. Mary the Mother of God
St. Mary was born into a devout Jewish family in Galilee (now part of Israel) when it was part of the ancient Roman Empire. Her parents were St Joachim and St Anne, church tradition teaches us that St. Anna was barren and in her age continued to pray that the Lord may bless them with a child, promising to dedicate any child into the service of the temple. An angel appeared to them telling them they would have a daughter. Three years after the birth of St. Mary her parents dedicated her to God in a Jewish temple. St Joachim and St Anne both died during St Mary’s childhood leaving her an orphan under the guardianship of the temple.
After 11 to 12 years in the temple, the High priest arranged for her to be engaged to St. Joseph the carpenter, a devout Jewish man. Tradition teaches us that twelve righteous men of the tribe of Judah were selected for her betrothal and a dove landing on the staff of St Joseph made it clear to all he was Gods choice. It was around this time the angel Gabriel announced to St. Mary she was to bear the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, this story is accounted for in Luke 1:26-38:
“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
But when she saw him,she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
When Mary’s cousin Elizabeth (mother of the prophet John the Baptist) praised Mary for her faith, Mary gave her famous song, which the Bible records in Luke, 1:46-55:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me -- holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.’”
St Mary remained with St Elizabeth for three months before returning to St Joseph on which it was made known to him that she was pregnant. It was custom for adulterous women to be stoned but the gospel of Matthew notes St Joseph’s wisdom and kindness and then his commitment to her on believing the message of the angel that she conceived through the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Mary and Joseph raised Jesus Christ, as well as other children -- "brothers" and "sisters" whom the Bible mentions in Matthew chapter 13. Protestant Christians think that those children were Mary and Joseph’s children, born naturally after Jesus was born and Mary and Joseph then consummated their marriage. But Orthodox teaching is that they were Mary’s stepchildren from Joseph’s former marriage to a woman who had died before he became engaged to Mary (We strongly maintain that Mary remained a virgin during her entire life).
The Bible records many instances of Mary with Jesus Christ during his lifetime, including a time when she and Joseph lost track of him and found Jesus teaching people in a temple when he was 12 years old (Luke 2), and when wine ran out at a wedding and she asked her son to turn water into wine to help out the host (John 2). Mary was near the cross as Jesus died on it for the sins of the world (John 19). Immediately after the resurrected Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the Bible mentions in Acts 1:14 that Mary prayed along with the apostles and others.
Before Jesus Christ died on the cross, he asked the apostle John to take care of Mary for the rest of her life. Many historians believe that Mary later moved to the ancient city of Ephesus (which is now part of Turkey) along with John, she lived between 10 to 20 years after the crucifixion.
Our church holds a two-week fast for her (1st-16th Misra in August) as well as a month full of praises before Christmas (Kiahk). Plus several significant feasts:
- 1.7th Misra (August) The Announciation of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Joachim.
- 2.1st Bashans (May) The birth of St. Mary.
- 3.3rd Kiahk (December) The Entry of the most Holy Theotokos into the temple at Jerusalem.
- 4.24th Bashans (June) The arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt.
- 5.21st Tobi (January) Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos
- 6.16th Misra (August) Commemoration of the Assumption of the Theotokos.
- 7.21st Baounah (June) Dedication of the first Church for the All-Holy and Blessed Virgin Mary in the city of Ephesus.
- 8.24th Baramhat (April) -The apparition of the Theotokos in Zeitoun between 1968-1970
- 9.21st of each Coptic Month - Commemoration of the Theotokos's passing away in 21 Toba.
St. Mary is the greatest woman that ever lived. She was chosen by the Father to bear His Only-Begotten Son, gave birth to the Savior of the world, and was the first person in history to receive Christ as her Savior. Consequently, she is our model of obedience and submission; of purity and holiness; of humility and royalty. The following books are a starting place in developing an understanding and relationship with our beloved mother.
St. Abba Shenouda the Archmanidrite
Saint Abba Shenouda (Shenoute) the Archmanidrite (348-466 A.D.) was the abbot of the White Monastery of Atribe in the desert of Thebes, Egypt, for more than 65 years. He ruled over 2200 monks and 1800 nuns. He is called Archimandrite (the head of anchorites) because he used to practice the hermetic (isolated) life from time to time, and he also used to encourage some of his monks to withdraw to the desert after a few years of coenobetic life (living together in monastic community). In 431 A.D. he accompanied Pope St. Cyril the Great of Alexandria to the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus.
He was born of good Christian parents in a village near Akhmim in Upper Egypt. His father owned a cattle farm. Like David (in the Old Testament), his father used to send him to tend the sheep while he was yet a little boy. When he reached ten years old, he was put under the guidance of Abba Pijol (Pigol or Pegol), his maternal uncle and abbot of the Red Monastery.
As a youth, Shenouda proved to be spiritually minded to a rare degree, and strove continuously after spiritual excellence. He enjoyed studying and teaching both monks and laymen. And when Abba Pijol departed to heaven, Shenouda was elected to take his place as abbot. Under his guidance, the number of monks reached four thousand; 1800 of them in the Red Monastery and the rest in the White Monastery, while a few of them preferred a solitary life.
Shenouda was greatly concerned about organizing the monastic life. He devised a system that was in fact a combination of St. Anthony's hermetic life, and St. Pachomius coenobetic monasticism. He used to retreat to a remote cell and spend sometime in seclusion, then return to the monastery and participate in the monastic community.
Shenouda built a house outside the walls of the monastery for those who were waiting to be ordained monks. He appointed a chief to the monasteries (also called the archimandrite). He assigned specific periods for individual and group prayers. The doors of his monastery were opened to the villagers every Saturday evening. Thousands participated in the Vespers prayers, spent the night in the monastery, and shared in the celebration of the holy mass the next morning. After the mass, they were invited to share a meal, which the monks prepared and served. Shenouda took advantage of the presence of those people in the monastery to teach them the true faith inherited from the saintly fathers.
Abba Shenouda the Archmanidrite lived in an age full of emotions and startling upheavals. It was an age in which the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus was convened, followed by the council which started the rift between the churches. This same age witnessed the passing away of paganism from Egypt, after the desperate effort of Julian the Apostate to revive it. Finally, it was an age in which Egyptian nationalism reassured itself against all imperial forces. In the midst of this uprising, Shenouda towered like a beacon of light. He loved solitude, yet he shared the life of the world to the full, and was one of the unparalleled defiants against all Hellenistic tendencies. He used his talents of speaking and writing to inflame the crowds, using the pure Sahidic Coptic dialect of Upper Egypt. To all who heard him or read his writings, his words had the power of magic.
But his magic was not the magic of words only; he went about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. The schools attached to his monasteries did not serve the saints alone, but they also served those living in the vicinity as well. His doctors among the monks administered their science to all alike.
One instance of his outpouring love was evident when the Bagat Tribe attacked the region of Akhmim, capturing families and killing villagers. Hearing of this catastrophe, Shenouda crossed the Nile and went to the chief of the Bagats, saying, "Take the riches and give me the people." The chief readily accepted, and handed over to him hundreds of captives. Shenouda sheltered them in his monasteries for three months; he put the sick under the care of the doctors; the children were cared for by the educators, while the social workers looked after the aged and the infirm. All these specialists were from among his monks. During these three months, 94 of the refugees died and 52 babies were born. This instance indicates the well- organized system of the monks under the vigilant eyes of the Archimandrite.
Shenouda was not only a guide to monks, but was also in charge of 1800 nuns. To those he wrote several letters teaching, and guiding them in the right path. Fortunately, many of his writings still exist; they portray for us his clear thinking and deep spiritual insight.
St. Shenouda was also granted the gift of performing miracles in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Shenouda was blessed with an unusual long life. He lived to be 118 years old. His fatherhood over monasteries and convents lasted 66 years. During his long life, Shenouda watched his people closely. His sympathy for them was boundless. Consequently, he became their spokesman and their defendant; and because he identified himself with them, he represented their national aspirations and led them to the realization of their higher selves. For those reasons, he is considered the liberator of Egyptian (Coptic) thought from the (political and pagan) shackles of Byzantium, and the truest representative of the Pharaonic (Ancient Egyptian) genius.
The White Monastery with which Shenouda is identified is unique among the Christian structures; it is more like a Pharaonic temple than a Christian sanctuary. It stands on the edge of the desert, west of Sohag (Upper Egypt), near the ancient town of Atribe. Historians think that it was built in the lifetime of Shenouda. The only remaining part of it is the church joined by the house of the priest. The monastery of St. Shenouda in Sohag was revived by the Coptic Orthodox Church in the late 1990s, and Coptic monks are now living there.
As for the Red Monastery, which gets its name from the red bricks of which it is built, nothing remains of it, except the church also. This monastery is called by the name of Abba Pishoi (Bishoy), a saintly monk of that era.
Shenouda became sick in his last years. His disciples took him to a hermit called Abba Thomas. At the end of their meeting, Thomas said, "I would like to inform you, Father, that I will depart to heaven shortly. You will know that this happened when you see the big stone in front of your cell split in two. I beg you to come and pray on my body before you bury it."
After st. Thomas passed away, Abba Shenouda became very sick, and he called his disciples to his cell. After he blessed them, he commended his soul in the hands of his Savior on July 14, 466 A.D. (Abib 7). He left a great wealth of literature; some of which are preserved in the museums of Naples and London. His biography was written by his faithful disciple Wissa (Besa).