Homily 454 – 5th Great Lent – St. Mary of Egypt
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
April 18, 2021
Epistle: (321-ctr) – Hebrews 9:11-14 and (208b) – Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: (47) – Mark 10:32-45 and (33) – Luke 7:36-50
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.
As we look back over the past weeks of Great Lent, we can truly see a journey has taken place.
We begin with the Sunday of Orthodoxy – a definition of dogma about the Ecumenical councils, who God is, who Jesus is, who the Holy Spirit is, who the Church is.
And ultimately, who we are.
The second Sunday we encounter St. Gregory Palamas, and we learn that it is indeed possible to have contact with the uncreated – with divinity, with God Himself.
On the third Sunday, the Cross is brought before us, reminding us of several things. First, that God not only can be perceived by us but actually became us.
Second, that the model of God becoming human was to teach us to deny ourselves. To literally set ourselves, our desires, our will, our ego – to set it all aside, and to ascend the cross in voluntary obedience, as our Lord does.
And that the Cross is our destination in this life, because it is through the cross that we attain access to the Kingdom of God.
Next, we encounter St. John of the Ladder, who provides for us the way in which we ascend our own cross, and attain the Kingdom of God. The Ladder of self-denial is another name we might use for the Ladder of Divine Ascent.
And, this Sunday, just before we celebrate the triumphant entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, we remember St. Mary of Egypt. Oh my.
In St. Mary, among other things too numerous to mention, we see the epitome of self-denial. We see the depths to which she goes. We see the heights to which she attains.
Through her, we see the depths and powerful hold of our own will and desire and ego. We see the depths of our own debauchery and disobedience. We see the result of complete abandonment to the passions.
And we see the proper response to God’s enduring love for us. That response wasn’t found in reading or learning or even going to Church. All those things are important – but secondary to repentance.
Repentance, changing our direction, returning to God – this is the only response to God’s love. The only response to God’s mercy, and God’s grace.
St. Mary embodied that response. She went to the desert. Even there, she was tempted by the memory of the life she had led – sorrowful, of course, but also with a sense of both regret and of longing – of temptation.
She knew and experienced the appeal of that life. And knowing how attracted she was to that life brought her such extreme sorrow. Extreme may not be the right word – it is extreme to us, but may be entirely appropriate sorrow and tears.
Maybe St. Mary’s repentance and sorrow and tears should be considered not extreme, but typical.
I’m always struck by St. Mary’s self-described “mad desire for lewd songs.” She said she seemed to hear them constantly. The thoughts of fornication tempted her also. She describes that desire as burning within her like a fire.
Much like many of the temptations we encounter in our lives today. The damaging things – whether or not we recognize it, or we dismiss it as being an innocent frivolity.
We begin by reprogramming the soundtrack that runs through our minds. St. Mary reprogrammed it, with much effort and suffering and tears, through the first seventeen years in the desert.
We have to reprogram ourselves while we maintain an existence in the brothel which is this world. It is difficult. It is tiring. It is not pleasant. It seems to have no reward.
Yet it is the entry into life itself. It is the narrow and difficult way to joy and radiance and real life. It is being born again.
St. Mary did it while only receiving communion twice in her lifetime that we know of. Once before she went into the desert, and once just before her death.
We at least have the benefit of communion in this life. A periodic reminder of God’s love, and God’s desire that we be united with Him.
Lest we forget, one of the utterly mind-blowing aspects of our faith is that God became one of us – and, although we don’t necessarily like to contemplate it, was tempted by the same things we are tempted by. The same things that tempted St. Mary.
It is critical that we remember this, and think about this, as we head into the last week of great lent and on to the Entrance into Jerusalem and Holy Week.
We must remember that Christ has been and is where we are – except not fallen. He experiences everything we experience – temptation, thirst, hunger, homelessness, all the things.
And His response to those things is our response – whatever the Father wills is what I will have, and experience, and act upon.
Do we know what God wills? The will of God isn’t in future events, it is in the moment – in the now – just as it was in a moment that St. Mary realized what was preventing her entrance into the Church and how she made a commitment in that moment of what was necessary for her salvation.
The will of God is whatever happens to us – whatever situation we find ourselves in. His will for our reaction to those circumstances is to offer thanksgiving and glory – revelation of God – and then to provide what we can to whom we encounter.
In St. Mary’s case, that was a journey into the desert, which would last the remainder of her life, being fed by the hand of God.
For us – it is the same. Denial of who we think we are, to become in and through Christ who we really are. And to experience the resurrection.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!