5th Sunday of Lent, St. Mary of Egypt, Ap. 7, 2019, Mark 10: 32-45
How far can we fall into sin and immorality before there is no return, no coming back? Today we have arrived at the 5th Sunday of Great Lent – St. Mary of Egypt Sunday. She is the model of repentance, demonstrating that no matter how dissolute and far from considering God’s ways we find our lives, while we have breath it is always possible to turn to God in repentance, and He will joyfully and completely bring us into His loving embrace. From the age of 12 until 30 years old, the life of St. Mary of Egypt was a picture of immorality, she herself says “I marvel that the sea did not swallow me or the earth not devour me, Worst of women, casting so many men into the snare of death. But I think the Lord who wishes to lose no one: And wills that all be saved bore this with a patient heart, seeking to convert me also, and not willing to condemn me.” Christ through His most precious Mother the Theotokos reaches out to St. Mary of Egypt, sending His angels to bar her way into the celebration of the most holy and life-giving cross of Christ in Jerusalem until she had awakened to her dark and sinful state and repented. The next 40 years of her life are spent seeking only God in repentance and isolation in the desert of Egypt, and God transforms her so thoroughly that when the righteous elder Zossima finds her, she is praying elevated 3 feet off the ground, walks across the surface of the river Jordan, is transported hundreds of miles in a single hour, knows what is happening in Zossima’s monastery, and freely quotes scripture, although she had never read a bible. Such are the lives of the saints all through every generation of the Church. Our journey into the kingdom can not be comprehended in terms of the world’s wisdom and understanding.
What the world holds out as “common sense” works well for understanding the things of the world, and using this worldly understanding, we can become successful by the standards of this world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that were we to pour more of our energy into gaining the things of eternal importance, the things of God, we would be far better off, both now and throughout all eternity! The world tells us that if we accumulate Fame, Fortune and Happiness we will be happy and have “won” in the game of life. This certainly didn’t prove true for Robin Williams or Kurt Cobain or thousands of other “successful” people. It’s almost a maxim that the more you have, the less you appreciate things. The kingdom of God operates on a completely different set of values. Orthodoxy is Paradoxy. When 95% of our time is spent pursuing the values of the world, it should come as no surprise that we struggle with even understanding, let alone being transformed by the values of the kingdom of heaven. “Love your enemies? Bless those who use and persecute you? Whosoever desires to be great among you shall be your servant and whosoever desires to be first shall be a slave to all?” Do we really accept these values and truly act upon them? This is why it is so important to take in as many of the Church services as we can manage, to struggle to develop regular prayer and devotional time. To read the scriptures and writings of the saints, and to place ourselves willingly under God’s influence; that He may slowly transform our hearts, minds and souls, awakening us into true life in Christ.
We are told not to compare ourselves to anyone else but Christ. We pray constantly using the prayer of St. Ephrem during Great Lent. “Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.” Why is this so important? Only in Christ is illumination found. He is the “light that illumines all – the light of the world.” Comparing ourselves to anyone else sets a false standard. When we approach Christ, the closer we get, the more His light intensifies. Under His ever-increasing illumination we are able to see more clearly that which we need to be cleansed and repent of.
Christ is our only point of reference. If we compare ourselves with others, we harm both them and us. First of all, by our very act of judging them, our thoughts are alive and active and shoot off like heat seeking missiles of destruction, homing in on their targets. This is the polar opposite of praying and blessing others, and more closely resembles sending off curses. Matushka Sonia’s dearly departed mother Olga – may her memory be eternal – told about one time she was very angry and thinking very strong judgemental thoughts about her husband Nick who was driving back home to Fort McMurray from Edmonton. When he arrived home a while later, he was looking very beat up and told her he barely made it home as he felt such a weight of exhaustion. She realized it was exactly when she had been launching her fury his way.
But we not only harm our brothers and sisters, we also do great harm to ourselves when we compare ourselves to anyone else other than Christ and Christ revealed in His saints. We let ourselves off the hook and foster in ourselves a dangerous spirit of pride or alternately victimhood, rather than developing the God-pleasing and salvific spirit of humility we so desperately need to acquire. We compare ourselves to those who are struggling and behaving badly. It makes us feel we aren’t doing so badly after all; and then like the Pharisee we can thank God that we are not like them. Or we see our sins and faulty thinking, but blame others for our behaviour. Not our fault! Only the light of Christ can reveal to us the true nature of the state of our soul, so we can see the filth that needs cleaning; turning to Him who is so willing and desirous to “cleanse us with hyssop that we may be cleansed and wash us that we may be made whiter than snow.” At the Wed. evening pre-sanctified service we sang the Lenten verses of Simeon the translator each one describing our true reality and ending with, “Save me before I completely perish O Lord.” A filthy room looks just fine by candlelight but start increasing the light from candlelight to a 20 then a 40 and then a 100-watt bulb and then open the window to the glare of the noon day sun and you will see ever more crud that needs to be cleansed. Comparing ourselves to others is like checking for dirt on our souls with a small little candle. Christ will slowly, gently, but continuously allow His light to fill and cleanse us, if we will allow Him.
Today we hear of two of the elite all-star apostles, James and John, fresh from seeing the great illuminating grace of the Transfiguration, respond to their Lord’s detailed description of His impending death, by petitioning for the seats of honour and power in His new kingdom. Jesus has just told them that He is voluntarily going on his way to be mocked, scourged, spit upon, tortured and crucified and all they can think of is, “how can I take advantage of this?” We all love to tune in to WIFM, what’s in it for me? Christ tells them that while greatness on earth may be understood as being in charge and being served and obeyed by those under us, greatness in His kingdom, amongst His followers would be judged differently, “…whosoever desires to be great among you shall be your servent. And whosoever of you desires to be first shall be a slave of all.” Christ has told them earlier; (Mark 9:35) “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servent of all.” (John 10: 11) “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” and (Mark 8:34) “Whosoever desires to come after Me let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” As we choose to be a slave to all, we begin to express the eternal value of love for others before our own needs, we are no longer even concerned with the rewards of positions of power or authority, it is a non-issue.
Three times now in Mark chapters 8, 9 and today in chapter 10 Christ had told the disciples He was going to His voluntary death on the cross, Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him the first time causing Christ to reply to him “Get behind me Satan …” the second time it says “They did not understand and were afraid to ask Him.” It is basic human nature to deny that which we do not wish to hear. Like James and John in today’s passage we want to change the subject. Much of the raw reality of our life here on planet earth is not a very pretty picture. Through sin, corruption and death entered the world and its effects are monstrous and monumental. We were not ever created to die; death is not natural. We all live in this sick environment that has clouded and obscured the ever-present radiance of God’s reality. This is not His doing nor is it His will. It is the effect of our turning away from Him in rebellion and choosing to go it on our own. In fact, God does all that He can, while still respecting the great gift of free will that He has given us, to turn our mess into blessings, and lead us back to Him and life and salvation. He is “everywhere present and fills all things.” In Romans (8:28) it says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, and to those who are the called according to His purpose.” And as we pray to Him in our Liturgy a little later “Preserve the good in goodness, and make the evil be good, by Your goodness.” But we have to be freely willing to come to Him, to choose to admit that we are helpless and very badly deluded, and that our grasp on what is truly and eternally real is pathetically distorted. As Christ demonstrated to us in the garden of Gethsemane, no matter how much we want something, and even feel and pray that it is right and proper and God’s will, we must always say “However, not my will be done but Yours.” We are often afraid to ask for the truth of God’s light to expose our ways and our faulty thinking. We have a hard time handling true reality. But this is what repentance, and life in Christ are all about.
So we approach Holy Week. Traveling with our Lord, through all of the timeless and eternally significant events of His passion and resurrectional power; through the events that have shaped the redemption of our human race and ushered us into the kingdom of heaven; making possible the realization of our true destiny as the children of our Father God. Let us be mindful that we have much to learn and much to unlearn, as we serve God and each other, taking up our cross and laying down our lives for others. May His ways become our ways in our thinking and in our actions, as we seek to serve Christ and His church, rather than to be served and seek our own benefit. May He find us to be faithful and loving stewards when He calls us to His great judgement seat at the end of our lives and at the end of the age. Glory to Jesus Christ!