Judith: Chapter 12 Commentary

Judith () Veronese 3
Paolo Veronese (circle of), Judith feasted by Holofernes, Oil on canvas,” The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology Oxford, England, UK

I have completed a draft translation of the Commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the twelfth chapter of Judith. The entire translation project, An Explanation of the Book of Judith, is also available for viewing.

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.

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Judith: Chapter 11 Commentary

Paolo Veronese (circle of), Judith Falling to Her Knees, Oil on canvas, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, England, UK

I’m pleased to make available a draft of my translation of the commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the eleventh chapter of Judith. The entire translation project is also available for viewing: An Explanation of the Book of Judith.

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.

For further information about this translation project, please see my series of posts on Judith.

Judith: Chapter 10 Commentary

Paolo Veronese (circle of), Judith Leaving Bethulia, Oil on canvas, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, England, UK

I’m pleased to make available a draft of my translation of the commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the tenth chapter of Judith!

(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).

A New Alexa Skill

orthodox-crossI’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.

The source code is MIT licensed. Please report bugs and feature requests using the Github Issues page.

The Remembrance of Death

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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.

Stage 4.

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.”

Ethics of Organ Transplantation

In my studies with the Saints Cyril and Athanasius Institute for Orthodox Studies, after reading The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, I was assigned to answer the question, “Which social issue do you find most challenging or troubling in its treatment in the document, and why?” I’d like to share my response here.

Because I am personally intrigued by the idea of organ transplantation, I found section XII.7 to be particularly interesting, though I am concerned that it may not have gone far enough in some cases. The document does do a good job addressing all the salient points surrounding the issue of transplantation. The key points I identify are:

  1. The ability to improve or extend life
  2. The creation of a black market for organs
  3. The will of the donor
  4. Identification of the moment of death
  5. The integrity of the personal identity of the recipient
  6. The growing of fetuses for the purpose of organ donation

Transplantation of organs can be a blessing. An excellent example of a type of transplantation that improves the quality of life of the recipient is a cornea transplant. I have personally known a person who received a cornea transplant and his life was demonstrably improved. Consequently, I cannot make the case that organ transplantation is universally immoral. It does enable doctors to express compassion through healing.

I do believe that each of the six points above are addressed adequately, carefully, and mercifully in the document with the exception of item 5. The document states that, “in no circumstances moral justification can be given to the transplantation that threatens the identity of a recipient, affecting his uniqueness as personality and representative of a species.” I believe that this articulation is good as far as it goes. But I believe that it should have contained more detail rather than leaving the interpretation up to the judgement of doctors.

While modern medicine, rooted in reductionist thinking, does not see a link between personality and most organs other than the brain, medicine has not always held this position. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for instance, links various aspects of a personality to specific organs. For example, difficulty in making decisions is usually attributed to gallbladder issues. Worry is often linked to issues of the spleen. TCM is not unlike its ancient European counterparts. In Hippocratic medicine, the four humors (as opposed to organs) give rise to four temperaments. While modern medicine generally discards these paradigms as being rooted in ignorance, we continue to find that treatment modalities such as acupuncture established by these forms of medicine continue to be effective. Furthermore, the Fathers of the Church clearly teach that the nous resides in the heart. These ancient teachings raise questions about the spiritual impact of a heart transplant or even of blood transfusions.

Not only do we have traditional approaches to medicine and some teachings of the Fathers creating questions about transplantation, but there exists anecdotal evidence together with some scientific theories that call into question the belief that the heart is merely a pump. People have experienced personality change. While our contemporaries are astounded at such a notion, the ancients would probably have asked sarcastically, “what did you expect?”

These views are generally considered pseudoscience by mainstream scientists. Then again, frontal lobotomies were mainstream in the ’40s and ’50s, but are now banned in many countries on moral grounds. There have been enough questions raised for me to be concerned. And, the burden of proof lies upon the advocates of transplantation. Many who call themselves skeptics criticize what they believe to be a pseudoscientific explanation for personality transference. I consider myself a skeptic of the belief that transplantation does not impact the identity of the recipient and that the heart is merely a pump.

The following video poses interesting questions about heart transplants in particular.

Judith: Chapter 9 Commentary

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Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Judith, c. 1892

I’m pleased to make available a draft of my translation of chapter 9 of the Commentary on the Book of Judith by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus.

In Chapter 9, Judith stops and prepares for what she is about to do through prayer. Below I offer highlights from the commentary on her prayer.

Judith’s prayer hearkens back to more ancient events as she draws parallels between what is about to happen and Biblical events that bear similarities.

Rabanus notes that (verse 4):

in prayer, she aptly commemorates the act of Simeon the patriarch, who together with his brother Levi avenged the violation of his sister among foreigners by the sword of revenge, because it would happen that Holofernes, who wanted to commit an act of passion upon Judith, would be punished by his own sword in divine judgement.

The entire story she is referring to here can be found in Genesis 34 (and what a startling story it is!).

Later on Rabanus discusses how she compares the hoped-for subversion of the Assyrians with the drowning of the ancient Egyptians in the sea (verse 6):

Just as above she compared the immoderate with the passionate, so too she now compares the proud with those puffed up. For instance, she likened the Assyrians trusting in their arms to the Egyptians of old fighting against the Israelites, so that she might show that just as on that occasion the power of God was manifested in the submersion of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, so also here it can be revealed in the subversion of Holofernes and the Assyrians, because the same Lord, the same power, and the same justice endures both then and now, and through all the ages.

Judith uses this approach repeatedly as she asks for help from God. She points out how God acted in the ancient Scriptures and then asks Him to do it again in the present.

A Pause

I have been working on this translation for about one year now and I am over half-way done, having seven chapters left. As I may have mentioned before, this project was provoked by an assignment that I completed during the course of my studies with the Saints Cyril and Athanasius Institute for Orthodox Studies. For the past year, the institute has been somewhat dormant and in a state of uncertainty. I was pleased to discover that the Institute is back and consequently I will be taking the next semester off from translation to complete the final module of the certificate program. I may share some of my thoughts here as I progress through the reading and assignments, but I won’t have time to work on this translation.