This particular chapter is rather short, so the highlights are scant. In the previous chapter, Judith exhibited the head of Holofernes to the inhabitants of Bethulia. Bolstered by this defeat over one of the most powerful men in the world by a “mere” woman, the citizens are primed for a confrontation.
Likewise, the Church, also a woman, has overcome the ancient enemy. Rabanus helps us to flesh out the impact of this defeat on the citizens of heaven.
The Church, with maternal affection as well as magisterial authority, teaches her children how they should pursue the spiritual enemy: clearly that as soon as the sun rises they should hang the head of their enemy upon their walls. That is, as soon as the serenity of divine reconciliation and supernal solace have illuminated them, the believers should, with the Gospel teaching by which they are strengthened, disclose the wounded pride of the ancient enemy to everyone. And clothed with celestial weapons, that is with the shield of faith, the breastplate of justice, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God, they should—not sluggishly, but vigorously—pursue the flying wedge of enemies.
The flying wedge is a traditional offensive military formation used by the Romans and still in use today in the military and even in the game of football. Rabanus likes to make the story real.
In chapter thirteen, the deed is done. Holofernes loses his head. (Chapter thirteen does seem apropos for the loss of one’s head). The Blessed Rabanus Maurus finds this event and its setting to be to be a veritable treasure trove of practical object lessons, rich with allegory.
As Holofernes lies completely sloshed in his bed, Rabanus crafts an image in which each object in the tent takes on an allegorical meaning. In verse 5 he says:
The pillar that was at the head of Holofernes’ bed signifies the hardness of the depraved heart that generated the error of faithless complacency. The sword that hung tied upon it is the malice of evil intention; the hair of the head: the exaltation of an arrogant mind; the neck, in truth: the stubbornness of evil action; and the canopy, which is a net for flies, signifies the snares of deceitful thought.
Recall that Judith represents the Holy Church. Rabanus now takes this symbolism and applies it to the way in which the Holy Church works even today in verses 6 and 7:
She goes to the pillar and looses the sword, by which she might cut off the head of the most wicked enemy; with the malice of a hard heart stripped away, she cuts off from the enemy the opportunity for fierce temptation [or attack].
She removes the canopy because she uncovers his deceptions, with which he strives to entangle the guileless and incautious, and in the same way she is “rolling away the headless body of the enemy” whenever she shows the enemy himself to be infirm and debilitated in every part, with the result that the easier the soldiers of Christ think the most wicked enemy himself can be overcome, the more thoroughly they learn that he will be weak and conquerable.
Later on in verse 24, Rabanus connects this remarkable defeat with the prophesy made in the book of Genesis, and also God’s enabling of the apostles (the founders of the Church) with power over the enemy. He says:
…the Lord says to the cunning serpent in the beginning, “She shall crush thy head” (Gn 3:15). And the Truth Himself says to Her in the Gospel, “Behold, I give you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy” (Lk 10:19).
But not only does God, through the Church, overcome the devil. The Church also uncovers what the devil and his minions are up to so that he is easily seen through. In Bethulia, Judith presents the head to her people in triumph. Rabanus likens this demonstration to the Church’s exposition of the devil’s deceptions in verse 27:
Judith is bringing forth the head of Holofernes in the view of the people and showing them “his canopy, wherein he lay in his drunkenness,” whenever the Holy Church exposes in lucid discourse the ancient enemy’s arrogant mind and plainly uncovers for them his deception, in which the majority wickedly believed, so that they might know how perverse their enemy is and the magnitude of the omnipotent God’s righteousness, by which, under the authority of faithful spirits, he was overcome and driven back.
This is a useful image. Judith holding the head of Holofernes is an image worth imagining every time the devil’s schemes are exposed by the Church. And what are we to do with this knowledge? Rabanus gives that answer very clearly in verse 28:
Divine protection preserves these unharmed from every fraud of the enemy and the contamination of error, so that, with all these things having been fully understood, they give proper thanks and they unceasingly give back devoted praises to their creator and redeemer in return for this.
In this chapter Holofernes stashes Judith in his treasure chamber with the rest of his treasure. This seems quite symbolic. The good Abbot, Rabanus, comments on it in verse 3, noting that it symbolizes the secular leadership holding preachers of the Gospel in high regard:
What does it mean that Holofernes instructed Judith to stay in the place “where his treasures were laid up,” unless it means that the leadership of this age consents to hold a very great position for the preachers of the Gospel among those who have a mind that is both intelligent and a recipient of sound faith? For the intensification of a virtuous will is the most valuable treasure of the heart, where the figurative Judith stays, because the Holy Church steadfastly resides there.
The rest of the story is focused on Holofernes’ attempt to draw Judith into his revelry and to seduce her. He is absolutely smitten by her and can’t stand the thought of having her in his camp without having her in his bed. He tries to talk her into eating his food and drinking his wine, but she insists on eating the food that she has brought with her and that is prepared by her maid, so that she won’t be defiled by his food.
Holofernes is a bit put off by this and looks for a way to draw Judith into his feasting. He sees that she has meager provisions and hopes that by this he can draw her into consumption of his victuals. Her food symbolizing her religion, Rabanus observes that this event represents the fact that among secular leaders ,”the worship of the Christian religion is seen to be of little value and they strive to draw its practitioners into the filth of images or the seductions of the carnal pleasures” (verse 4).
Then, alluding to a means of escape from these traps, he describes a practice that aligns closely with the practice of some Orthodox countries or Jurisdictions even today. In preparation for receiving the Eucharist, many Orthodox faithful fast and pray during three days of confession leading up to Holy Communion. Recall that Rabanus Maurus was an Abbot in what is present day Germany. Consequently, it seems plausible that the practice we find in many Orthodox countries today was also found in eighth century western Europe. The blessed abbot describes it this way (verse 5):
But those with a faithful soul and a sure hope assure themselves that divine grace quickly comes to help, persist in prayers the entire night of this world, and baptize themselves with a fountain of tears; they wash the bed of their heart with a psalm throughout each night and water the couch of their thoughts with pious tears (cf. Ps 6:7); and in this manner during the three days of Catholic confession, completing their prayer through faith, hope, and love, (cf. 1 Cor 13:13) they finally on the fourth day, that is in the scintillating light of the Gospel, prepare for themselves victory over the enemy, and the author of death and darkness himself, blinded by his own malice, they convict as guilty, with eternal liability.
The key for Rabanus is that the Holy Church and her members remain pure in spite of living in the secular world. Consuming her own food, she is “in no way polluted by the idolatry or superstition of the Gentiles,” but has, as the Lord Himself said to his Disciples, “meat to eat, which you know not … My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, that I may perfect His work.”
UPDATE (8/7/2019): After more research, it seems that the above description of a penitential practice may instead be alluding to the quarterly penance practiced by all Christians during a period now known as Ember Days or Embertide. The three Ember Days were always on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the same week. On the fourth day, Sunday, the faithful would celebrate Holy Mass. These days were widely observed throughout the Frankish empire by the time of Rabanus Maurus, having been enjoined by Charlemagne in 769. Embertide does not seem to have ever been observed in the eastern Church.
At the end of chapter ten, Judith arrives in the camp of Holofernes and bows before him, showing respect. In chapter eleven, she very cleverly employs a goodly bit of truth to beguile Holofernes into believing that she has defected to his side and wants to help him conquer the Jews. Holofernes, being charmed by Judith’s divinely enhanced beauty, falls for her.
Judith’s speech is an interesting one. The Blessed Rabanus Maurus, our expositor, finds in her words a prophecy of distant future events described by Josephus through the proxies of Eusebius of Caesarea and Tyrannius Rufinus. Rabanus quotes extensively from Rufinus’ history to demonstrate the fulfillment of Judith’s prophecy. Rufinus is a historian who extended, revised, and translated Eusebius’ history (into Latin). And Eusebius himself quoted extensively from Josephus’ account of Titus’ siege of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Eusebius’ commentary on the events highlights the intent behind Rabanus’ citation (verse 4):
However, the Church that had been assembled in Jerusalem was commanded in a response received from God to leave and go over to a certain town across the Jordan, Pella by name; so that with the holy and just men withdrawn from the city, it might become a place of retribution for heaven, as much upon the sacrilegious city as upon the impious people, through the destruction of the fatherland and for the imposing of expulsion.
This aligns with what Judith told Holofernes (verse 1):
For it is certain that our God is so offended with sins, that he hath sent word by his prophets to the people, that he will deliver them up for their sins. And because the children of Israel know they have offended their God, thy dread is upon them.
But how does Holofernes respond to Judith’s description of the future? Judith is a knockout, and Holofernes seems to be lured into her trap by her beauty, buying most of what she says. But, Rabanus juxtaposes Holofernes with Herod, revealing a parallel between Holofernes’ apparent interest in the God of the Jews and Herod’s exploitation of the wise men. Maybe Holofernes is more shrewd than we thought. Wrapping up the chapter, Rabanus makes this practical (verse 16).
…blessed is he who receives an ambassador of the truth, not with a depraved spirit, but with pure disposition of heart; because whoever pretends to seek out God Himself with perverse intent, together with Holofernes and Herod (cf. Mt 2:8), will never, joyful at the sight of His glory, rejoice to reach Him, but in the end he will be sorry that he suffers the well deserved punishments of his iniquity.
(A brief aside in explanation of the delay… As I mentioned a while back, I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-hodgkins lymphoma back in 2017. I underwent chemotherapy for six months and was unable to pay much attention to this type of work for quite some time. At this time I am in remission. Glory to God! In addition to medical issues, I also made a move from Colorado to North Carolina. My family and I are settled into our new home and I am now starting to get back into some of my old projects.)
In chapter 10, Judith departs Bethulia, making her way to the camp of the Assyrians and to Holofernes himself. Below I present some highlights from the commentary.
The paradigm of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant is often used to help understand both the visible and invisible parts of the Church. The Church Triumphant is comprised of all those saints who have triumphantly completed the race of this life and are now joined together with all the bodiless powers of heaven that we don’t see. “The Church which is militant upon earth in essence also is triumphant in the victory performed by the Saviour, but it is still undergoing battle with the ‘prince of this world,’ a battle which will end with the defeat of satan and the final casting of him into the lake of fire” (quoted from Orthodox Dogmatic Theology).
As I have noted in previous posts in this series, Rabanus considers Judith to be a type of the Holy Church. Judith brings her maid along with her. In this chapter, he likens this maid to a combatant in the Church Militant (Verse 8):
What does it mean that Judith, about to go forth into combat, gave those things necessary for her along the way to her maid to carry, unless it means that the Holy Church, hastening to contend against the enemy in the stadium of this world, makes use of certain corporeal ones according to her own needs for the present work. If they faithfully carry this out, they can attain true freedom, in such a way that they are made joint heirs and participants in future proprietorship, like the renowned free maid released by Judith her mistress, recalled at the end of this book.
Judith’s passage is interrupted by the watchmen of the Assyrians. Rabanus likens these watchmen to the philosophers and philologists of the Gentiles and draws a parallel between how they take Judith to Holofernes’ tent and how these “watchmen” turn the Christians over to the secular authorities. When Judith is in the custody of Holofernes, he treats her well and Rabanus likewise draws parallels to historical incidents when the secular authorities treated these Christians well. For example (verses 19-20):
From this point onward in the Ecclesiastical Histories it is also found that the leaders of the Gentiles themselves, with the gentleness and moderation of the faithful having been seen, ceased to impose punishments and force upon them. Just as Tiberius Caesar established edicts lest anything might set in motion adversity and opposition to the teaching of Christ, and threatened death to the accusers of the Christians, so also the Emperor Claudius, even though he afflicted the Jews with diverse calamities, did not harm the Christians.
Finally, Judith shows respect to Holofernes by prostrating herself before him. Rabanus teaches through this that we should likewise show honor where honor is due (verse 25):
That Judith pays homage to Holofernes is not an apprehensive confounding of role, but a preservation of order. For as often as holy men bestow honor upon an earthly power—not out of the vice of flattery, but from the duty of honor—they do this.
In support of this teaching he provides many examples from scripture, such as when Elijah prostrated himself before King Ahab (verse 29):
Regarding this, the prophet Elias is found in Kings to have paid homage to the evil king Achab, by no means with the piety of religious devotion, but with the duty of honor (3 Kgs 18:41–43).
I’d like to announce a new Amazon Alexa Skill called Orthodox Daily. The purpose of the skill is first and foremost to make it easy to experience the daily scripture readings appointed by the Church. Once you enable this skill, your Echo will be able to read these passages to you on demand. The second purpose of the skill is to provide overview information about today (or any day). Alexa can tell you if today is a fast day and what specifically is allowed (e.g. fish) along with commemorations of feasts and saints. In order to use this skill, you must first enable Orthodox Daily.
In the process of building the Alexa Skill, I also ended up building a web service that provides the same information using a RESTful api. This api is intended to be used by mobile app developers as well as parish webmasters. I may eventually build a mobile app using this api, but would be happier if someone else did it first. You can find out more details about the api on orthocal.info, which also where the Alexa skill is hosted. If you decide to use this api, please let me know so that I can ensure that I don’t break things that you are using.
Since I was in the process of building a calendar service and I’ve always wanted an Orthodox calendar feed for my Google Calendar, I also built an iCal feed with the commemorations, fasting information, and scripture references. It works in both Google Calendar and Apple’s iCal, and hopefully other calendar applications as well.
I offer thanks to Paul Kachur for working out the algorithm that figures out the readings, commemorations, and fasting times and also for collecting the information that makes up the database for this application. I could not have built these services without the work that that Paul did in his Orthodox Calendar project.
Every Orthodox monk knows that step six of the Ladder of Divine Ascent is the Remembrance of Death. Many monasteries maintain ossuaries like the one pictured in the photo above in order to keep the knowledge of death ever present.
Reading about the remembrance of death and attempting to put it into practice can provide some benefit, but it is a bit like learning to ride a bike by sitting on the couch and reading a book. A friend of mine spent a few years volunteering for hospice care and sitting for long hours with people who were expected to die within the next twenty–four hours, coming face-to-face with death many times. In some ways I envied his fortitude, though in reality I wasn’t really prepared to face it that directly. Maybe I should admit that I was too slothful to step out of my little box and do the same.
When I first read the diagnosis I felt sick to my stomach. I got the notification in my email that a test result had been submitted and logged into the patient portal to look at the result. I’m not sure how many times I read that diagnosis with all its medical jargon and puzzled over those words. There was a short phrase embedded on that page that was hard to argue with, “The morphology and staining pattern are diagnostic of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.”
I found myself trying to believe that it was just a lump in the armpit and that it was probably just stage 1 cancer that could be cured with a few shots of localized radiation. I found myself looking for alternative therapies on the internet, drinking green smoothies, eliminating sugar and white flour, and just generally being careful about everything I ate. I looked for alternatives to chemotherapy, but even the naturopath I talked to told me this was my best chance. Then I got my PET scan results.
You don’t really understand what the remembrance of death is until you come face to face with it. I’m not even sure I understand it yet and I’ve come closer to it now than I ever have been. Have I admitted to myself that I might not make it through this?
Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov) said, “A monk should remember every day, and several times a day, that he is faced with inevitable death, and eventually he should even attain to the unceasing remembrance of death.” My disease has brought me a lot closer to this state, but I must admit that I do not yet have unceasing remembrance of death. Maybe I’m in denial. I still find myself looking for alternative cures on the internet and thinking this is just another mountain that I will climb and overcome.
Saint Ignatius continues, “When we forget about death, then we begin to live on earth as if we were immortal, and we sacrifice all our activity to the world without concerning ourselves in the least either about the fearful transition to eternity or about our fate in eternity.” It is for this reason that I feel that I must, though it is a struggle to do so, give thanks unto God for this mountain that will help me to become more familiar with that fearful transition.
May I be like Saint Porphyrios who said this about his cancer: “I’m in great pain, but my illness is something very beautiful. I feel it as the love of Christ. I am given compunction and I give thanks to God.”