Matthew 11: 27-30
Sometime during my ‘Tween’ years (that terribly awkward period of time spanning from ages 10-12) I remember approaching my parents rather seriously to let them know what I wanted for Christmas. This was the biggest request I’d ever made. This wasn’t just something that I wanted strictly for entertainment value, although I did hope it would bring fun and joy. I felt that it was very practical and something that I discerned that I needed in my life. I asked my parents if I could have an older brother for Christmas. Some of my friends had older brothers and while they could be somewhat obnoxious, gross, and crass, the pros seem to outweigh the cons. Older brothers kept an eye out on you and could defend you against bullies. Older brothers were wiser and could impart crucial knowledge about the greater mysteries of life. Older brothers could be companions on the journey through adolescence helping you navigate through some of the strange twists that life could throw you which they had already experienced. When my parents explained that things didn’t quite work that way, I went a step further and asked if we could adopt an older brother. As it turned out, that too was an impossibility.
Today we celebrate the life of a ‘model’ older sibling. Macrina was a fourth century monastic, theologian, and teacher who founded one of the earliest Christian communities in Cappadocia. Unfortunately, we cannot order a book with her theological treatise or read her own thoughts about monastic spirituality because she didn’t leave any behind. Everything we know about Macrina comes from the writings of her younger brother Gregory of Nyssa who describes her as both beautiful, brilliant, and an authoritative spiritual teacher.At the age of 12 she was betrothed to be married as was the custom of the day, but when her fiancé died, she devoted her life to helping others. When their father died, Macrina convinced her mother to lay aside her wealth to help establish a monastery on their land. The community that was formed at this monastery cared for the poor and disenfranchised and Macrina was known to bring starving women home with her to feed and care for, many of whom later joined the community. Gregory as well as three other younger siblings benefited from her spiritual counsel and they became leaders in the Church, three of them became bishops.[i]
Now you might think that in terms of sibling relationships that this all sounds rather glib. But Gregory notes that as an older sibling she could dispense some ‘tough love’ which he and his brother Basil knew first hand. In the book Holy Women Holy Men, it states that “Macrina frequently challenged her celebrated brothers. She told Gregory his fame was not due to his own merit, but to the prayers of his parents. She took Basil in hand when he returned from Athens ‘monstrously conceited about his skill in rhetoric.’” [ii]When it came to the Christian formation of her famous younger brothers, she was not afraid to mince words which gained her their respect. Basil and his brother Peter later wrote a Rule of Life which would guarantee that Macrina’s teachings on community life would be available to others who wished to follow in the monastic way which she had founded. Gregory was with his sister when she was dying and writes that she refused to be put in a bed and instead insisted to be on the floor with her head propped up with boards as pillows. He reports that she died delivering beautiful deathbed prayers and teachings about the resurrection which reflected her yearning to see the God she loved face to face.
Through Gregory’s witness we see in Macrina a woman who was deeply devoted to living the gospel of Jesus. I think she lived her life through good and bad trusting in the words of Jesus: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me and you will find rest for your souls.” She knew that no matter what the circumstance was, she could find rest in God and that Jesus would be present with her in the struggle, guiding her one step at a time, never giving more than she could handle. And she reflected that love and guidance to countless others in their own hour of need not only helping the poor, but bringing others up in the Christian faith in the context of family and Community. If I’m honest this is my hope, that God is doing for me what I cannot do for myself and in the context of Christian community. After my request for an older brother was denied by my parents, I took my request to God and I prayed in earnest that he would hear me. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that, even though it took a while, not only did I get a brother, I got several.
As we look up into the Clerestory windows we see the founders of many monastic traditions throughout time, a majority of which were likely to have been influenced by this remarkable women, including her brother Basil who is the third window from the rear on my right. All of them and countless other men and women throughout time to this present day have found the rest and encouragement of Jesus in the context of Christian community in the vows of poverty, celibacy, obedience and in offering hospitality.
Blessed Macrina, older sister, monastic, and teacher, whom we remember today.
[i]Holy Women Holy Men, Church Publishing Incorporated, 2010
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