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).

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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.

Resurrection: The Saints

hosios_loukas_28south_west_chapel2c_south_side29_-_ignatiosIn my previous post on the resurrection, I began talking about the Orthodox view of the resurrection. In this post I want continue that discussion by exploring  how the Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints testifies to the power of the resurrection.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the first century or very early second century, on his journey to his martyrdom in Rome, wrote to the Church of Rome, pleading with them to allow his martyrdom to take place without interference. He viewed his martyrdom not as his death, but as his heavenly birth. He writes to the Roman Church:

It is good for me to die for Jesus Christ rather than to reign over the farthest bounds of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; Him I desire, who rose again [for our sake]. The pangs of a new birth are upon me. Bear with me, brethren. Do not hinder me from living; do not desire my death. Bestow not on the world one who desireth to be God’s, neither allure him with material things. Suffer me to receive the pure light. When I am come thither, then shall I be a man.1

Echos of Saint Ignatius’ sentiments are heard only decades later. A letter from the Church of Smyrna in AD 155 demonstrates very early veneration of Christian martyrs. It is indicated that the day of a martyr’s death was considered to be his or her heavenly birthday, which was celebrated annually just as the Orthodox Church continues to celebrate these birthdays today, with the celebration of the Eucharist. Furthermore, speaking as if in the present tense, the letter says that, “the martyrs we love as they deserve for their surpassing love to their king and master.”2 This indicates a very early veneration of martyrs.

The earliest recorded veneration of the relics of a saint occurred in the second century for the Holy Hieromartyr Polycarp, who is also the first recorded martyr outside the New Testament.

After his death, the Christians gathered up the remnant of the relics of Saint Polycarp because, as they said, “we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place.”3 Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was a disciple of the Holy Evangelist John, and readily fills Saint John’s description of the martyrs in heaven in Revelation 6:9-11:

I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.

This description by Saint John portrays an image of martyred saints standing before God himself in heaven. A striking type of this reality and an exemplification of our veneration is found in the fact that all Orthodox altars have the relics of saints built into them. Father Georges Florovsky provides a succinct explanation of this new reality:

The saints are alive and with daring they stand before the Lord; they are not dead … the death of saints is more like falling asleep than death,” for they “abide in the hand of God”; that is, in life and in light… and after He Who is Life itself and the source of life was ranked among the dead, we consider no more as dead those who depart with a hope of resurrection and with faith in Him.”4

Conclusion

From a reading of the Old Testament only, one might conclude that those who die are, like the SDA believe, completely unconscious of any earthly reality. This would be true if it were not for the power of the resurrection. The resurrection, however, changes everything. Before the resurrection, the dead were in hades and it was forbidden to communicate with them as King Saul did by enlisting the services of the witch of Endor to communicate with the prophet Samuel. However, when Christ, through death, descended into hades, he destroyed the gates of hell and released the captives, defeating the power of Satan and of death. At this moment, there was a fundamental shift in the “state of the dead.” The dead are no longer imprisoned. The saints of God are now able to stand with boldness before the Lord himself and offer supplications on our behalf, for “whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” This is why we offer prayers to the saints, asking them to offer supplications before the Lord on our behalf, just as we ask our friends and relatives to pray for us. The fact that we can speak directly to the saints and that they can hear and respond is a glorious confession of the power of the resurrection.


1 Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Church of Rome, ch. 6.

2 Philip Schaff, History of the Church, v. 2, ch. 2.

3 The Smyrnaen Church, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. J.B. Lightfoot, ch. 18.

4 Fr. Georges Florovsky, On the Veneration of the Saints.

Judith: Chapter 8 Commentary

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Paolo Veronese, Judith Receiving the Ancients of Bethulia, oil on canvas.

I’m pleased to make available a draft of my translation of the commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the eighth chapter of Judith. This chapter was nearly twice the length of previous chapters and so took some extra time (in addition to relaxing my focus on this work during Lent).

In this chapter Judith chastises the elders for setting dates. They had essentially given God a timeline to dish out his mercy upon them and agreed to give up the city if God hadn’t made himself known in five days. Judith, and rightly so, tells them that this was a very audacious thing to do and that they now need to pour out their souls in fasting, prayer, and repentance and hope they haven’t angered God. She makes her own plans and leaves them at the city gates to watch and pray.

There are a few interesting highlights in the commentary that I’d like to point out. First, Rabanus, like other Fathers before him, likes numerology. The strongest example of this follows (verse 7):

Furthermore, the very same Judith is found in the Scripture begotten in the fifteenth generation, which undoubtedly signifies that the Church itself emerged from the Patriarchs and Apostles through the number seven and the number eight of the Law and of the Gospel, and is appointed so that the glory of Heaven might be merited; for this number of steps was mystically presented in the Psalter and will reveal a type of the future ascension into the heavens, arriving at which the saints are justly able to say, “Behold now bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord: Who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God” (Ps 133:1).

Rabanus follows the example of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who uses this same combination of seven and eight in discussing how high the water rose above the mountains during the flood. Augustine connects the fact that the water rose fifteen cubits above the mountains with baptism, which represents our regeneration, noting that the seventh day of rest (which epitomizes the Law), is thus connected with the eighth day of our resurrection (which epitomizes the Gospel) through this aggregate number of 15.

In the Vulgate and Septuagint, Psalms 119-133 (in translations based on the Masoretic Text like the King James Version, these are Psalms 120-134) are a sequence of fifteen Psalms or Odes of Ascent, also known as Graduals (note that gradus is the Latin word for step). Some scholars believe that these Psalms were sung by the Israelites as they made the journey to Jerusalem for the three great feasts. These Graduals continue to play a significant role in both the eastern and western liturgies. In the eastern rite, their principal use comes as the Church progresses through Lent toward Pascha. In the traditional western rite, these are sung at the third, sixth, and ninth hours on weekdays.

The second highlight that I would like to emphasize is that Rabanus sees the Ten Commandments as a an ancient and obsolete law. He likens Judith’s dead husband to the ten commandments, saying (verse 9):

She had Manasses for a husband, whose name is interpreted forgetful or necessity; who also, standing in the barley harvest over those binding sheaves in the field, died when the heat came upon his head. This is because she is discerned to be bound and subject either to the Ten Commandments of the Law or to a tribal custom from ancient times, but, with the coming Christ and with the sun of the Gospel growing brighter in the world, all that observance of the flesh ceased, and just as the gathering of the meager harvest came to a rapid finish, it was transferred through Christ to cultivation of the spiritual.

Rabanus teaches that the ancient law is a practice “of the flesh” and under the new covenant we are to cultivate the spirit rather than the flesh.

The third highlight that I would like to emphasize is how Rabanus Maurus speaks about prayer (verse 26).

“When therefore she had heard that Ozias had promised that he would deliver up the city after the fifth day” (Jdt 8:9), she reproved the idea, judging it inappropriate to establish for the Lord the time of His mercy, since He alone knew both the time and the manner of His mercy before all things; and because of this it is inappropriate for anyone to impudently demand anything of the Lord, but rather to refer everything to his judgment, just as a certain one of the Fathers is observed to have said as much in a prayer: “Son of God, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me.”

Rabanus is here quoting a prayer of Saint Macarius the Great. The full saying follows:

Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.1

Finally, while Judith, who represents the Church, chastises the ancients, the priests of the Church should still be respected by those of us who have been placed under their leadership. The Blessed Rabanus describes it this way (verse 37):

Judith entrusts the ancients with the gate, because the Holy Church commends the careful protection of the camp of God to the priests of Christ, so that intently vigilant and skilled in oversight they might in this way strive unharmed to fortify and to protect against the ambushes of the enemy through the weapons of prayers.


1 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications 1975), p. 131.