The Church’s new year arrives right after the commemoration of the Beheading of the Forerunner on August 29. Summer ends with the harvest of a godly seed that testifies to the truth of the Gospel, sealing its witness with the blood of the righteous. Fruit of righteousness always comes with a cost, which is why the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
The new year begins with prayer to the Lord of all to “bless the crown of this year with Thy goodness” and preserve in safety our rulers and cities. Yet even while the prayer is lifted, the stark reality of the end is present and near: like ripened fruit and fleeting days of summer, all glories of men, of kings, of cities, will ripen and dissolve into the dirt from which they were taken, and from which they will be recalled on Judgment Day to be renewed in the year that knows no end.
But on the Church calendar the end is a beginning—the clearing away of what is passing in order to make room for what is eternal. For all its beauty, this earth of ours is still under a curse, and the all-encompassing shadow of our ancestral fall casts its dark imprint upon our lives, even as God declared to Adam, our father, “cursed is the ground for thy sake: in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Gen. 3:17–18). Void of its life-giving communion with God, the earth is barren and all its glory wilts under death’s power. Such is our lot under the sun; such is the end of all our years….
Therefore, it is right and meet that the Church’s first major feast is a token of life and hope, springing from the parched soil of humanity. In blessing “the crown of this year with [His] goodness,” God, first of all, produces the blessed soil from which the tree of life sprouted. The Mother of God, the Most Pure Theotokos, was born on September 8, begotten of two barren elderly parents, Ss. Joachim and Anna, “for from a barren stem He hath brought forth His Mother, a life-bearing branch.” How could a “life bearing branch” proceed from a “barren stem”? The Lord of Creation Who formed the old Adam from the earth and breathed His soul into him, now prepares the “soil”—the Virgin Mary—to bring forth the new Adam, a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45).
Thus, the shadow of death is but a shadow of the resurrection of all, for the God Who is the Alpha is also the Omega, and He Who is First is also the Last. And since the fallen world could not ascend to God, God visited His world by “making a living heaven on earth” in bringing forth her who would become His temple. As we welcome the feast of the Church’s new year, may it also become a new beginning for us, who—in spite of our spiritual barrenness—bare the seed of faith, hope, and love, which grows into a sacred temple of the Most Holy Trinity.
If the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent points us to the peak of the love of God, as we ascend the Divine Ladder as presented by St. John Climacus, then the Fifth Sunday of Lent, which commemorates St. Mary of Egypt, leads us to understand her embodiment within the pit of sin. But now we understand how she reveals herself to us an “exemplar of repentance,” who through the power of the Cross of Christ “cast away the weakness of nature and bravely contended against Satan,” taking the Kingdom of God by conquering her own failed self.
In addition to the Fifth Sunday of Lent, St. Mary’s feast is celebrated on April 1, known to us as April Fools Day. This peculiar coincidence only confirms that Apostle’s words to the church at Corinth:
“Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.” (1 Cor 1:25-27)
The life of St. Mary of Egypt overturns the modern concept of “being born this way,” in other words, as a genetic predisposition or even social conditioning. Her path points to the power of repentance as being definitive after a lifetime of sin, and to the saving, transforming, and deifying grace of the Holy Spirit as having the last word in a soul considered least likely to attain sainthood. Indeed, by forsaking the wisdom of this world with its pursuit of pleasure, power, and pride of life, Mary embraced the seemingly foolish wisdom of God, encouraging us through her example to “take by force” the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 11:12), promised to all who seek to unite their hearts and lives to the Heavenly King.
The Sunday of Mary of Egypt follows the Saturday of the Akathist to the Theotokos, since it is only through the prayers of the Mother of God that Mary the Egyptian harlot was given repentance, and by God’s grace became our righteous mother, wielding the sword of abstinence as she severed the “snare of the soul and the passion of the body.” And if that seems daunting to us today, then let us learn from our Righteous Mother Mary of Egypt that “what is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)
It’s been said that God performs no miracle until all human resources have been exhausted. Both church history and our own lives are filled with examples of God’s strength made perfect in our weakness (2Cor. 12:9), and when His providential care produces miraculous results. The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God is a needed reminder that we are never alone, and all Heaven fights on our behalf in the vicious struggle against the spiritual wickedness that so easily entangles us in despair and destruction.
The historical background for the feast is year 911, when Constantinople was under siege by a powerful and determined enemy. Godly citizens filled the captal’s churches, one of which preserved the miraculous relics of our Lord’s Mother: her robe and veil. As the faithful fervently prayed for deliverance, two of the men–whom we today would classify as a pair of bums from Skid Row–beheld a vision above the congregation: the Mother of God was surrounded by a choir of angels, apostles, and prophets, holding her veil over the city and interceding on behalf of the faithful. The visionaries, Blessed Andrew, fool-for-Christ, and Epiphanius, his disciple, quickly spread the news of what they saw, and the people were encouraged to pray even harder. Ultimately, an unlikely victory was granted to Constantinople’s defenders, and the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos became a commemoration in church history of God’s presence and faithfulness towards his children.
This occasion reminds us that in Christ “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), that we should always be encouraged to live out the truth of the Gospel and expect great things from Good. The vision beheld by Blessed Andrew and his disciple is available to all Christians whose hearts are purified and whose spiritual eyes are attuned to the truths of our precious Faith. The Church’s fullness encompasses both heaven and earth, because in Christ we are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
Those who criticize the Church’s teaching about the Saints or their intercession on our behalf, do so because they don’t understand the full reality of Christ’s redemption: “having made known to us the mystery of His will… that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one, all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth–in Him” (Eph. 1:9-10).
Only in God’s eternal Kingdom will we fully realize the awesome mystery of being a Christian, that which the Apostle Paul described as “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). For now, however, we should receive by faith the wondrous beauty of God’s love, and rejoice in the fact that we have been adopted into an indestructible spiritual family, where the Lord’s Mother is also our mother (John 19:25-27), where we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20), and that when we come to pray, we approach “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company angels, to the general assembly and the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:22-23). This is our unshakeable hope in God and our unwavering confidence in Christ, our refuge in the Holy Spirit, as we face this life’s challenges and battle the sin which seeks to destroy us and others. Glory to God for being glorified in His saints!
Did you know that prison ministry is as old as the Bible itself? In fact, back in the old days, if you were involved in a prison outreach, you were almost guaranteed a seat with the righteous. And there was no need for funding, no need for approval from the church board, no need to climb over the mountain of forms the prison officials place before you just to enter the joint… Hardly so. Back in the day, it was simple: just get kidnapped by your brothers, get sold into slavery, be falsely accused of rape, and land in prison for a decade or two, where you can be a model inmate, rise to the position of an associate warden, and establish a prophetic ministry for the new arrivals. That’s at least, how righteous Joseph did it (Gen. 37-41).
And if that sounds complicated (or, if you’re not at odds with your siblings), then take a cue from the Prophet Jeremiah: he was the founder of the “Miry Pit” prison ministry (Jer. 37-39), and all he had to do was rebuke a couple of kings, lobby for the surrender of his capital to the nation’s worst enemies, and promise that the Lord he would destroy all the guys in charge of his country. Just make sure that, like Jeremiah, you have an Ethiopian on your approved “visiting list,” since you’ll need someone to pull you out of the dungeon: good help is hard to come by in the big house.
In the New Testament, going to prison was practically a required part of “seminary” training for those qualified to preach the Gospel in a fallen world. John the Baptist landed in jail, as did Peter and John. James got the death penalty, Paul had more prison booking numbers than cloaks, and our precious Lord Jesus Christ sanctified with His most pure Blood the grimy walls and floor of the Jerusalem jail, prior to being railroaded by a kangaroo court and torturous passion, as our Lord and Redeemer surrendered His life on behalf of all.
But if we take a closer look at our Savior’s perspective on prison ministry, it appears that He’s more in the business of orchestrating prison breaks, and that’s not only because He’s sending angels (Acts 5 & 12) and earthquakes (Act 16) to spring His chose Apostles, who are imprisoned for righteousness sake.
As odd as it is, Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God of all, has a special soft spot for the most vile and undeserving, according to the world’s standard. After all, Jesus didn’t mind “riding the beef” for a murderer named Barabbas (Matt. 27:16), and then opening the gates of Paradise to a thief, and to all people. Legally speaking, Jesus was the Wise Thief’s “accomplice,” since He helped him to pull off the final heist: aiding in the stealing of Paradise from right under the nose of death! (Luke 23:39-42)
Then again, this is hardly surprising when we consider that God is very much concerned with prison ministry. The Holy Spirit did say, “The Lord gives freedom to the prisoner” (Ps. 146:7), and that God “does not despise His prisoners” (Ps.69:33). Notice that they are “His prisoners”—yes, even those whom we “despise.” Their fall, it appears, is His call.
Prophecies about Christ’s mission leave no room for doubt, for the Lord came “to open blind eyes, to bring prisoners–those who sit in darkness–out from the prison house” (Is. 42:7). The Messiah was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Is. 61:1). And to the captives of an exiled nation that sinned against God, the Word declares, “Because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope” (Zech. 9:11-12).
And that has been the essential message of Christian prison ministry, a ministry of reconciliation (2Cor. 5:18-20), which calls the wayward and the fallen to “return,” to repent, to turn to the only “stronghold” in which all men may be saved: the Lord Jesus Christ. There are no two “gospels”—one for the free world, another for the imprisoned one. No, the Gospel is one, and its eternal Truth is aptly summarized by the Apostle who was both a prisoner and a minister to the imprisoned: “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave” (1Cor. 7:22)
And today’s Christian prison ministry is a sign of the end times. In the parable of the Great Feast, the Master’s servant is told to “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Lk.14:23). Who roams the highways and dwells in the hedges? The fugitives, the vagabonds, the parolees, and those whom you’d never want to invite to a supper, let alone a wedding. And yet, the servant is told to “compel” them, just as “the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if one died for all, then all died; and He died for all…” (2Cor. 5:14-15)
Besides, is there a ministry more overtly “Christian” than prison ministry? It is an outreach to the least deserving, least worthy—from society’s standpoint—who have caused so much harm and pain to others. It is an often thankless task, with no accolades and no awards, but with plenty of obstacles and opposition, both from within the church and prison. There is little opportunity for vainglory, but ample opportunities to practice humility, and to realize that the Christian in prison ministry is called to reach the fallen on Satan’s home turf, in his house, on the threshold of Hell itself. “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20), which is why only Christ the Lord is able to equip the minister to come and “set the captives free” from the demonic bonds of sin’s slavery and criminal addiction.
Through Christian prison ministry, the threshold of Hell is transfigured into a springboard to Heaven, since time in jail is the God-given opportunity for the prisoner to realize the lowly state of his fallenness, the fickle reality of this passing life, and the need to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance. As the righteous Joseph is credited with the first prison outreach in the Bible, even so, the Righteous One whom Joseph foreshadowed will complete the final outreach, desiring to leave the pit of imprisonment “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
In short, I write this not as an armchair analyst or spectator, but as one who by God’s grace is that “brand plucked from the fire” (Zech. 3:3), and who came to the Lord through the prayers and outreach of other Christians. As a lifer with more than 20 years in prison, I testify that prison ministry is a living token of God’s goodness and mercy, and those Christians whom I’ve met, from what I’ve learned, by whom I was encouraged, inspired, and influenced, are the living witnesses to a dying world wherein “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
Finally, Pascha! Finally, after the strenuous weeks of our spiritual struggle, after our feeble efforts and frequent ups and downs of this blessed season, we breathe a sigh of relief, and crowned with the quiet inner joy of the Risen Redeemer, we are looking forward to resurrecting our appetite for our favorite fatty foods and beholding our ascetic resolutions in the rear-view mirror of Bright Week. CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN! And now the only remaining question is whether or not we will be RISEN with him.
Yes, during Lent we embrace an uncommon spiritual life, and with the arrival of Holy Pascha we hope to receive from the Lord an uncommon spiritual grace, a deeper faith, a more profound purification and illumination in living out our Holy Baptism: our union with the Crucified, Risen, and Living Son of God. So where do we, as God’s people, go from here?
Sometimes a helpful guide to our reality in Christ is to see it through the types and shadows of the Old Testament. After all, the Church Fathers said that the New Testament revealed is the Old Testament concealed, and numerous readings during Holy Week pointed the gaze of our hearts to the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt ruled by the iron fist of Pharaoh. This thrilling and unparalleled event isn’t a point in history, but a path of an entire nation. Similarly, Christ’s rising from the dead and trampling death by death isn’t a point to pass, but a path to follow, as we allow the Conquerer of Hell to take us by the hand—as the icon of the Holy Resurrection so vividly depicts—and leads us into a newness of life which leads along a narrow path through the wilderness of this life towards a Promised Land of eternal blessedness and communion with God. Christ did not rise in order for us to be happy or refined slaves, or for us to embrace the ways of Egypt after seven weeks of dieting. No, if our souls are set on “Egypt” then we will be judged together with it, for—according to Christ—were the heart is, there our treasure will be also.
“Therefore,” say the Apostle, “let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth… For indeed, Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for was” (1 Cor. 5). Through our Lord’s Resurrection we are given a new life, a new hope, a new path in His Church which is our eternal family. Will we take Christ’s and and follow Him into this newness, or will we turn back to the “fleshpots” of Egyptian Slavery. With our lives, that question will be answered one way or another.
I heard they’re fighting over Charles Manson’s cold, dead body. There’s great interest in this lifeless relic of recent history—a judge will decide who will wheel away Manson’s frigid corpse. But the real story is what happened to Charlie’s soul, as he skidded toward the shadowy land from which there is no return.
Don’t get me wrong, many people cared about Manson’s soul while he was still among the living: during the long years we did together in Corcoran, I’ve lost count of the letters Charlie got from sincere and godly Christians, who shared Bible verses with him, prayed for him, and begged him to surrender his heart to Jesus. Many of these letters—chipped away from Manson’s amount of fan mail—he would hand to me, as though I was responsible for returning them to God.
It’s not that Charlie hated God; he just wondered what was the point of “receiving Jesus” when his Spirit-filled and zealous Holiness Nazarene Grandma Nancy had already “dedicated” the seven-year-old Charles to the Lord somewhere in the shadow of Appalachian backwoods? Besides, during his sixty-plus years of institutional living, Charlie thought that he had seen all there was to see of Christianity: the shameless hypocrisy of his professing uncles, the vicious abuse in the Christian homes for boys where he spent most of his youth, the open greed of the preachers he encountered, the duplicity of prison converts who spoke of Jesus while denying Him with their lives… This, at least, is what he told me himself.
It’s impossible to detail every conversation about life, death, Jesus, and the afterlife we shared, living side-by-side in our tiny concrete aquarium. The thing about prison is that there is no place to hide; whatever you are and whoever you try to be will surface sooner or later. You get to see the best and the worst in men, sometimes at once. With time, I came to know Charlie as a person—not as the public persona he projected through the kaleidoscope of media outlets and books written about him.
And, as happens to older men in prison, there came a day when Charlie had trouble breathing and was rushed out of our unit in an ambulance, not to be seen again on this side of eternity by men with whom he had shared his last twenty years.
No, he didn’t die. Not yet. For the next three years Charles Manson was being digested in the antiseptic bowels of Corcoran’s acute care hospital, in a wing which is akin to a junkyard for ships that sail no more. Sandwiched between other dying inmates, Charlie’s company was a handful of guards and janitors, as he was pushed through a conveyor belt of doctors and nurses, who medicated one of America’s most notorious prisoners as life ebbed out of him. But just as it says in the Holy Bible, “For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person; yet doth he devise means, that his banished be not expelled from him” (2Sam 14:14).
The church fathers say that God does no miracle until all human resources have been exhausted. Only after everyone had finished preaching to Charlie did he begin to listen to God in the silent solitude of a hospital cell. As weeks turned into months and years, strange things started to happen. Out of the blue, a no-nonsense sergeant said that Manson is refusing all his mail because he gave his life to Jesus. I was used to Charlie’s outrageous tomfoolery (for instance, he often told me that he didn’t believe in death, to which I’d say that despite his unbelief, death would still feast on him). But I never heard Charlie joke about being Christian; this was rather unusual.
So, when in doubt, send a scout: I asked my supervisor, one of Corcoran’s chaplains, to check up on Charlie and see what’s really going on with him. As it was with the spies sent to the Promised Land, our chaplain came back with a conflicting report: Manson told him to go away. This sounded like the Charlie I knew. The chaplain went away, but he returned the following week, and then the next one.
Suddenly, the report went from conflicting to unbelievable. Apparently, Manson was asking the guards to forgive him for his antics, and he asked the chaplain to pray for him—saying he was sorry for what he had done—and to come back and visit again. Very unlike Charlie. Remember, I’ve seen “The Charlie Manson Show” play out before me over and over with anyone who’d give him the time of day. He was an equal opportunity offender, and would never be lost for words with guards, administrators, journalists, visitors, preachers coming to “the belly of the beast” from other states, and the list goes on. I’ve witnessed his conduct in the presence of bishops, priests, and chaplains. Charles seldom missed the chance to leave a lasting impression worthy of an award-winning actor. But here, it appears, his acting career—like his life—was coming to a close.
He became very humble, he was prayerful, and thoroughly broken. And as King David reminds us, “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). Charlie’s shaky steps towards repentance and restoration of a conscience-turned-to-ashes were a distant echo of our numerous discussions over the years. He knew that I cared about him, and was patient with me when I told him that all God requires of him at this point is a renunciation of his false legacy (in his heart of hearts Manson knew that his radical environmentalist stance was but a convenient stage-prop for self-aggrandizement; he admitted he didn’t want to disappoint the people who “believed” in him), a humbling of his soul before the Lord, and seeking of forgiveness from those he had wronged. Yes, it was an extraordinarily long list, but Charlie’s feeble efforts were sincere and came at a time when he had nothing to gain.
Essentially, in the eleventh hour of his life he was doing what is so hard for any of us to do; admit that his life had been a lie, and that the only truth worth keeping was his reconciliation with God and neighbor.
This turn came when no one could possibly “take credit” for converting Manson. God alone had led His lost sheep into the wilderness of secret communion—and away from the world’s prying gaze—and spoke to his heart in a mysterious manner, provoking the desire to cultivate fruit worthy of repentance.
Gone were the theatrics of years past. Gone was the venomous gibberish of a callous guru. Gone was the half-baked environmentalist radicalism, upon which Manson had built his internet citadel. The only thing left was the shriveled spectrum of a sick man, who stood on the threshold of death, seeking company and prayer as he prepared to meet his Maker. And there, by his death-bed, stood Christ in the face of chaplains who prayed with the dying man. There were the unintended answer to the countless prayers uttered by Christians who reached out to Manson throughout the decades of his mad ravings. The chaplains were the final seal of Grandma Nancy’s dedication of Charles to Jesus almost seventy years before. After all, as a wayward sheep, that’s how long Charles Manson spent trying to wiggle out of the Good Shepherd’s loving hands.
The Gospel is a perpetual scandal to the world: Christ is contsantly “eating with sinners” (Matt. 9:10-13), provoking righteous indignation from those who enjoy assigning seating arrangements in heaven and hell. Many had considered the things Charles Manson said and did during his life, and had consigned him to a special place in hell, neglecting the fact that there is only One who has the power to separate the sheep from the goats (James 4:12; Matt. 25:31-46). I’m sure that it was no less of a scandal when the thief who was crucified next to Jesus was promised Paradise by the Lord Himself.
For those of us who have shed innocent blood and are sentenced to rot in prison, we know only that the Redeemer and Conqueror of death and Hades is able to redeem us from the death we willingly embraced and the hell we thoughtlessly unleashed on others, “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Few would argue that Charles Manson was lost, but even fewer would admit that God came to seek and save him.
I’m reminded of the wise observation of the evangelist, D.L. Moody, who said that should we make it to heaven we will be struck by three surprises: the first surprise will be that we will not see many of those whom we expected to be there; the second surprise will that we will see many of those whom we didn’t expect to be there; and the third surprise will be that we will be there.
To Manson’s followers, Charlie is something of a guide, a hero, even a Messianic figure. But to us who knew him, who lived with him, cared for him, and prayed for his salvation, he was just Charlie—a scarred soul that needed Christ’s love, and someone who gave himself over to evil because in this life it tends to produce better dividends. At the end, Charlie came to seek the God Who is Good, and Who spent a lifetime seeking Charles. And even while a judge is set to rule on who will get Manson’s body, Charlie sought to make peace with the Son of Man, and committed his soul unto the faithful hands of the only Judge of the living and dead.
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsel of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God” (1 Cor. 4:5).