The Fast of Saint Mary
By Anthony Bebawi
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; One God. Amen
We have entered into a season in which the whole church together starts to again attain to the spiritual heights which were reached during the season of Great Lent- a season beginning with St Mary’s fast and ending with the incarnation of the Son of God. The period of St Mary’s fast, in particular, is a time in which the members of the church body are filled with the desire to fast for longer periods, to attend more church services and to care for those things which are spiritual rather physical. It almost feels like the members of the church, me being the first to be guilty of this, awaken from the slumber which began after the Resurrection.
Why is this the case?
It is because of the fact that she was just like one of us, a human just like the rest of us, yet she bore the Saviour of the world and was lifted higher than the heavenly hosts and, as it says in Psalm 45, “At Your (Christ’s) right hand stands the queen in gold…” We venerate the mother of God for she represents the path to perfection – for although we are called to imitate Christ, we cannot attain of this perfection without the intercessor of the human race.
So, in considering this period of St Mary’s fast, let us look at three of the qualities which granted St Mary the honour of being called the Theotokos.
In the first chapter of St Luke’s gospel, in the recount of the Annunciation, St Mary says “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This single phrase said by St Mary is the single greatest act of obedience performed by any member of mankind, for in saying this she accepts, by her own free will, to bear the suffering which lays ahead of her; to follow her Son even to the Cross;
“Whereas Eve once disobeyed, St Mary now obeys; whereas Eve closed herself to God, Mary opens to His will” (St Theophylact of Ohrid).
It is through this obedience that humanity was saved and it is also through obedience that we may also be saved, for in obedience humanity’s corrupt will is not allowed to impose itself – in becoming obedient your will is only able to do the work of Him who sent you (John 4:34).
Let us be attentive in remaining steadfast in our obedience, for when Moses was not obedient in his instructions to speak to the rock, he was denied entry into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:8-12). So we too, are denied entry into the eternal Promised Land if we are not obedient in following the instructions set before us by God.
Immediately upon hearing the news of the conception of the Son of the Highest in her womb, St Mary did something that, according to the wisdom of the world would not be considered normal. In Luke’s gospel it says that “…Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah” (Luke 1:39). Now, the specific use of the word haste has one major repercussion on our understanding of the Character of St Mary; it indicates how little she cared for herself and how much she cared for others.
Despite the fact that she was pregnant at the time, St Mary took it upon herself to journey to Elizabeth to care for her needs. Now, when we think journey in this sense, it might sound like a short journey but the distance from Nazareth to Judah was approximately 160km and this was either done by caravan or on foot and took at least 3-5 days. Thus the fact that she left in haste makes this all the more astounding.
Now, upon reaching the house of Elizabeth we have the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth in which the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps upon hearing Mary’s greeting. Then we have what is called the Magnificat or the Prayer of St Mary in which St Mary says:
“For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name” (Luke 1:48-49)
When we generally think of humility the first thing that comes to mind is to regard one’s self as bearing no gifts; an idea that almost denies the grace by which God grants to each person their own capabilities. But from St Mary we read the true means by which a person may attain to heavenly humility, for she considered herself to be blessed, yes, but only account of the mercy of God and His love towards His creation – “For He who has mighty has done great things for me…..”
St Mary then stays with Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1:56). Notice here that this would mean Elizabeth had reached the time of her labour for Archangel Gabriel announced that “this is now the sixth month for her [Elizabeth] who was called barren” when he appeared to St Mary in Nazareth. This almost seems like a strange thing for St Mary to do; you would expect her to stay to help Elizabeth during her delivery considering that she came to Judah in haste. But when we consider the humility of St Mary, the reason for this becomes clear – It is to hide her service from the relatives of Elizabeth.
For St Mary did not desire the praise of man but rather that of God, seeking before all things the kingdom of heaven despite the great glory bestowed on her of carrying the Word of God, and in doing so she followed the commandment:
“…when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:3)
St Theopan the Recluse says that the principal thing in prayer is “to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” Who other than St Mary has reached the perfection of this virtue? For she spent her youth away from the desires of the world and devoted herself wholly to the service of God. It is in this time that Mary was tested and found worthy of bearing the Son of God for within a year of her having left the temple, the Archangel Gabriel came to her to bear the good news of the coming of Christ.
Through her well known prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), St Mary glorifies the Lord as one who has seen Him face to face, announcing the characteristics of God. His greatness, mercy, compassion, holiness, justice and richness towards His people and all of mankind.
St Mary’s life was one of prayer in which she continually stood before the face of God till the end of her life, trusting Him in all things. Even when she stood before the cross of the Son of God she did not despair, but trusted completely in His plan, knowing that no matter what was to occur that God had ordained it to be so.
Because of her great faith in the power of God, her prayer was always accepted before God. In the wedding in Cana of Galilee, she intercedes on behalf of the bridegroom to the Son of God and although He says “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4), the request is carried out for the sake of her who is called the Intercessor of the human race. Thus, let us also ask for her intercession so that we who still live in the sins of this world may have our prayers accepted before the throne of God
During this fast, let us look at the example St Mary set for the rest of the human race and attempt to practice the virtues which made her worthy of bearing the Son of God. Virtues that in turn make us worthy of bearing the Holy Spirit which dwells within us and being counted among those who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Glory be to God forever. Amen,