Fifth Sunday of Lent
St Mary of Egypt
We come today to the fifth and final Sunday of Great Lent, before we embark on the journey to Golgotha, which begins with the raising of Lazarus and the humble entrance of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
As we have seen, each Sunday of Lent is dedicated to a particular theme:
1 On the first Sunday, we celebrated not just the victory of Orthodoxy over heresy, but the way in which the theology of icons reminds us of how the entire material world now partakes in the divine life of God by virtue of His incarnation. In other words, how orthodoxy is inseparable from orthopraxy, how physical asceticism is inseparable from the spiritual progress of the soul.
2 On the second Sunday, we celebrated the memory of St Gregory Palamas. Put simply, what distinguished the theology of St Gregory and the hesychasts from that of their Western-minded opponents, was the idea that the person who is “pure in heart” can experience God directly through his divine energies. This is attested to the experiential knowledge of the Orthodox saints, especially in the vision of God’s uncreated light. In other words, the Kingdom of God is something that we begin to experience in the here and now, as are the fruits of our spiritual labours.
3 On the third Sunday, the Veneration of the Cross reminded us of Paradise, the Tree of Life, and the transformative power of God.
4 And the fourth Sunday referred to St John of Sinai, author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is the instruction manual showing us how we are able to attain to these things, as we make our way along the path of repentance; that is, of our reorientation.
Today, the Church puts before us the example of a person who embodies all of these ideas. As we know from her Life, which was written down by St Sophrony of Jerusalem, St Mary of Egypt was someone who had entirely devoted her life to sin. She didn’t sin, as many do, simply because it was convenient, comfortable, easy, or because she experienced moments of weakness. On the contrary, she sacrificed and toiled for sin, she went hungry and lived in poverty and squalor just to have the opportunity for sin. Why? Because she loved sin, and she found in sin the purpose of her life, the meaning of her existence; and not only in her own sin, but in occasioning the fall of others. Every lost soul was for Mary a victory and a source of satisfaction. In other words, we are not just talking about a person who struggled with the temptations and sins of the flesh, but about a demonic way of being.
It was this kind of person who found herself in Jerusalem on the day of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross, and decided to enter the church in order to see the True Cross, which was there for veneration. She pushed her way through the crowds outside, and reached the doors of the church. The others passed through the door unhindered, but Mary was unable to enter. She tried again, pushing her way through the crowds, but she was stopped by some invisible force, and she was unable to pass the threshold. She had come to see the Cross of the Lord, the Tree of Life, but found the doors of Eden closed shut.
At this point, for the first time in her life, she came to, and she realised where she was and what she had done. And she began weeping and sighing from the depths of her hear. And I tell you this: with the very first teardrop, with the first sigh, or rather with the first thought of true repentance, she already received the forgiveness of God for an entire life of sin. Such is the love of God. He does not hesitate to forgive. He waits for our return, he seeks us, and with the first opportunity, with the first hint and movement of repentance, he rushes in to embrace us.
After this, Mary could enter the church, where she venerated the True Cross, the Lord’s instrument of transformation. And forty-seven years later, when the priest Zosimas found her in the desert, that sinner walked on the water, that prodigal spoke with God as it were face to face, and the feet which previously hastened to cause the fall of the faithful now did not touch the ground as she stood in prayer. The demon of the flesh had become an angel in the flesh.
So, what can we learn from this with regards to our own spiritual life? The first is not to trust in our own strength and abilities. When Mary had tried to enter the church with her own strength, pushing her way through, she was unable to get in. As soon as she let go and put her trust in the Lord, however, she passed through unhindered.
Salvation is not a product of human works, but is a free gift of God’s love. As we say in the prayers of St Basil’s Liturgy, “Not through our own righteousness (for we have done no good deed on earth), but because of Thy mercies and bounties”.
Yes, a great struggle was needed in order for Mary to heal from her former passions – she had spent seventeen years in sin and had to struggle for seventeen whole years in the desert in order to remove all the remnants of her former life from her heart – but this struggle does not take place with our own strength, but with the casting off of our own ego. Just as Mary left all behind, and went into the desert without adequate food, clothing or protection, we also have to leave behind the comfortable familiarity of the passions, without taking anything with us, without placing any hope in our own strength, but rather drinking from the cup which Christ drank and being baptised with the baptism he was baptised with, as today’s Gospel says. In other words, we also have to endure crucifixion, a crucifixion of our ego and pride “with its passions and lusts”. Because the goal of this struggle is not for me to achieve something, but for me to be in a position to receive and partake in what God has already done for us. The door to Paradise is open, but narrow, and if we carry with us a big ego, we will not be able to pass through.
Fr Kristian Akselberg