5th Sunday of Lent – Orthodox Homily on the St. Mary of Egypt

Mary of Egypt, whose Sunday we celebrate today, valued all the temporal ‘attractions,’ the way of the world and the lusts of the flesh more than all else. Running away from home at 12, she made herself a harlot.  For seventeen years, she was self-abused—she didn’t see the image of God in herself or in others, but made herself and others into objects of her insatiable passions through which the devil enslaved her.  

Anyone who has prayed the Great Canon, as we did on Thursday, knows her story.  It seems extreme, that is, such a remarkable story of dramatic conversion.  Some of us may not have such dramatic conversion stories and, so, it may be easy to lose sight of the teaching and witness that’s here for each of us: When we seek or give into the vanities of this world over the Kingdom of Heaven—power, influence, material wealth, or just giving all the other ‘things’ in our lives priority over Christ and His Church, His Kingdom, we do ourselves and others harm.  

But this broken pattern, this way of the world and its priorities, are a dead-end street: good looks and the lusts of the flesh fade with age, power and influence too are temporal, and riches can all be taken away.  Likewise, if we’re putting those everyday ‘things’ in our lives: whether those ‘things’ be work, study, family, before our communion with Christ and His Church, then we’re truly to be pitied for all these things are passing away. 

Because He loves us, the Lord desires better for us; He desires for us to live with eternity before our eyes, that is, to understand our identity as those who are grounded in Him.  He would have us place our hope in His changelessness and not in those things that are changeable and quickly passing away.  He desires to free us from slavery to the passions and the evil one who controls them.  He desires that we put off sin and death and cleave to Him who is wholeness and Life.  

Worldly success, power, and influence feed our egos; the proud person cannot see God or be united with Him because God Himself is humble, not proud.  We sing each Divine Liturgy in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.”  It’s at this point that the Gospel is lifted up that all may see Him who is proclaimed through His Gospel.  Pride, the opposite of what it is to be ‘poor in spirit,’ is incompatible with communion with God.  God demonstrates Himself to us as the ultimate ‘servant.’  He condescends to us, becoming man, one of His own creatures, to enter into and redeem human nature.  He gives His own life to defeat sin and death for us on the cross.  He bears with us patiently in our struggles, as a parent bears patiently with the child he loves. He disciplines us in love that we may learn and grow to participate more and more fully in the life that He alone is.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds His disciples that He must suffer torture and death in order to defeat sin and death on our behalf—to make a way for us to inherit the Kingdom prepared for us, to again re-orientate our souls toward the true life that is only in Him.  These are such stirring words; Christ reveals to them that He must die that mankind may live. 

Immediately after telling them that He will suffer and die on their behalf, that He Himself is the ultimate, the final Pascha (Passover), the ‘Lamb’ to be slain that death may ‘pass over’ all, even as He defeats sin and death as the only sinless one, the disciples begin vying for who will be on top in His Kingdom.  They picture the Kingdom of Heaven just like authority in the world where influence and power politics can put you on top.  We can imagine some of the disciples falling prey to this mistaken thinking, because we ourselves might have done the same.  Jesus reminds us all that the way of the world won’t get us anywhere in the economy of heaven. What’s valued in the world is poison for the soul that desires life with God in His eternal Kingdom.  

Instead, Jesus shows us a better way by example: a way that enables them and us to commune with the living God, to find freedom from vain and worldly pursuits, lust for power, and covetousness over what we don’t have. He says, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  For even the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  

This is also the story of Mary of Egypt, who was busy wearing out her body and destroying both her body and her soul when she was forbidden entrance into the holy church of the cross in Jerusalem where everyone else was thronging.  She couldn’t enter into the holy presence of Christ’s victory over sin and death because she herself had given herself over to sin and death.  The Holy Virgin, whose loving and pure image convicted her, was everything that Mary was not; the Theotokos in her purity, her humility, in her YES to God’s love and calling on her life, in her servanthood and submission, was inwards and outwards a mirror image to Mary’s licentiousness, her brazen vanity, her immodesty in heart and dress, her NO to God and to His likeness in her. Mary knew nolove; the Theotokos knew onlylove and the two were not compatible.   

In her despair over this stark realization of the debased slave she had become, she suddenly desired a change, a completely new beginning.  She desired it with even greater fervor than she had desired the flesh up until that point—she turned away from her former life that was death and toward Christ, Who is Life.  

After years of self-abuse and giving into the basest of passions, it took Mary seventeen years of intense struggle through prayer and extreme fasting to find freedom and win the victory over her passions—for no one is beyond God’s healing and grace if they are willing to humble themselves, admit and confess their sins before God, and, here is the vital part, struggle.  St. Mary was willing to engage a struggle for her soul with tremendous fortitude, and, as she confesses to St. Zosimas, always beseeching the Theotokos for her aid when the struggle against the passions and the remembrance of her former lusts, seized her.  

You may not have the depth of struggles with the passions or pride that Mary did.  Perhaps you’re not so enraptured by this world’s temporal vanities, but we are all in need of continued healing and growth in God’s divine grace, in the humility, repentance, and perseverance in the faith that Mary exemplifies.  We all have need of continued struggle to be freed of the passions and grow in the faith that manifests itself in a servant’s heart and God’s love for those around us.  In fact, our very life in Christ, our communion with Him for all eternity, depends on it!

Our growth in the likeness of God, our return to our full selves—whom God has made us to be as those who have “put on Christ” and for whom so much has been forgiven, begins with this humble honesty with ourselves and confession before God.  Only from this starting point of repentance, and forgiveness, do we learn to come outside ourselves to love our brothers in the world, and so, draw them also into the net of Christ’s God’s love and truth. This is the Gospel.  

In a Mission such as Holy Archangels, there are many opportunities to love and serve and become more like Christ—the church is truly a family where everyone is important and has a responsibility for the growth of the whole: visitors don’t feel welcome unless there’s someone to get here early to welcome them, there’s no trapeza unless we sign up and bring something to share; the music depends on there being those willing to share their gifts to sing.  There are no ‘extras’—all are called to be servants of Christ in imitation of our Lord.  This is the Gospel.  Remember Christ’s words today,“whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Through humble and honest confession and repentance, we grow in love; we become communicants of Life Eternal, children of the Most High God; we grow in those virtues and that Reality that is our true identity in Christ. God has overcome the world.  Those who partake of Him will live free and rise up to life eternal.  Now, as Holy Week approaches, may we with renewed vigor put Christ and His Kingdom first and receive the fruit of our labors, looking unto Christ the Author and Finisher of our Faith.  Holy Mother Mary, pray for us sinners!

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church|14 April 2019
Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
Epistle:            Heb. 9:11-14
Gospel:            Mark 10:32-45