|29 Fifth Sunday of Great Lent: St Mary of Egypt - March 25, 2007|
Hebrews 9:11-14 & Hebrews 2:11-18
Mark 10:32-4”5 & Luke 1:24-38
Today is the feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Theotokos that she is to conceive a child without male seed by the Holy Spirit and become the Mother of God. The feast of Annunciation, when God the Word deigns to unite himself to the humanity given him by the Theotokos and to take up his dwelling as a ‘zygote’ or as a ‘fetus’ in her womb, marks the beginning of the Incarnation. According to the teaching of our holy fathers, this moment marks the consummation of the world’s destiny; union with God is the purpose of creation, the reason the world was created. God becomes man that man might become God in a union of natures that is without confusion, without change, without division, without separation in the Person of God the Word. Because of our fall away from God because of our disobedience of God’s commandments, the Incarnation of God must needs also serve the purpose of redeeming us from sin. But the holy fathers understood the scriptures to teach that from the beginning, God’s intention in creating the world was to unite himself to it and to raise it up into his own divine life. In other words, even if Adam and Eve had not sinned, God still would have become flesh and dwelt among us.
A kind of Annunciation takes place in the faithful when they receive into their bodies the consecrated bread and wine of holy Eucharist. In the sacrament of Holy Communion, God the Word unites himself to us in a union that is without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. We receive God the Word into our bodies as the ground receives the seed; we become temples of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of God. What remains, if that divine seed is to sprout and grow in us so that we are incorporated, body, mind and soul, into the Church, the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all, is for us to turn our heart’s desire to this God whom we have received and who now dwells within us; to bring to him not just our bodies, but to give to him our mind and soul as well so that he may become all in all in us and so that the life we live is no longer our own life – a life that ends in death – but the life of Christ who is in us, and who in his Holy Spirit has trampled down death by his death and granted life to those who are in the tombs. Bringing to God our body, our soul and our mind is the work of asceticism. The Church teaches us how to practice asceticism so that through the Church’s ascetic disciplines, we can redirect our heart’s desire toward the God who loves us and gives himself to us, even to the point of dying on the Cross that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
The feast of Annunciation, which announces not only the conception of God the Word in the womb of the holy Theotokos but which announces also the reason for our existence, therefore, reveals to us the vision that St Mary of Egypt must have seen when she came to the Church that fateful day and was converted from a life of prostitution to the monastic life of asceticism. For on this the fifth Sunday of Great Lent we celebrate the memory of St Mary of Egypt. And the contrast between the profligate manner of St Mary’s life given over to the sensual pleasures of the flesh and the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was given over wholly to the pain of ascetic renunciation surely is not lost on us. The pleasures of St Mary of Egypt’s life of prostitution gave birth to the pain of emptiness and loneliness that, in the same manner that a drug acts on the body, required to be filled by more and more pleasure in order to escape the pain of loneliness that grew exponentially with every indulgence. The pain of the blessed Virgin’s life of asceticism, in which she renounced the pleasures of the flesh in order to give herself to the Spirit, gave birth to the bliss of union with God to the point that she became the Mother of God. And such is the goodness of the God to whom the Theotokos gave herself, that the grace of his blessings is mediated with infinite generosity and compassion even on a sinner like the prostitute, Mary of Egypt. As has become my custom, I would like to tell you the story of St Mary of Egypt; I find it a beautiful story.
The elder Zossima, a hieromonk, had gone off at one time during the Great Fast on a 20 days walk into the wilderness across the Jordan. He suddenly caught sight of a human being with a withered and naked body and with hair as white as snow, who fled in its nakedness from Zossima’s sight. The elder ran a long way, until this figure stopped at a stream and called, “Fr. Zossima, forgive me for the Lord’s sake. I cannot turn around to you, for I am a naked woman.” Then Zossima threw her his outer cloak and she wrapped herself in it and turned around to him. The elder was amazed at hearing his name from the lips of this unknown woman. After considerable pressure on his part, she told him the story of her life.
She had been born in Egypt and had lived as a prostitute in Alexandria from the age of twelve, spending 17 years in this way of life. Urged by the lustful fire of the flesh, she one day boarded a ship that was sailing for Jerusalem. Arriving at the Holy City, she attempted to go into one of the churches to venerate the Precious Cross, but some unseen power prevented her from entering. In great fear, she turned to an icon of the Theotokos that was in the entrance and begged her to let her go in and venerate the Cross, confessing her sin and impurity and promising that she would then go wherever the Most Pure One led her. She was then allowed to enter the church. After venerating the Cross, she went out again to the entrance and, standing in front of the icon, thanked the Mother of God. Then she heard a voice saying, ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace.’ [Note well the profound divine irony: Mary the prostitute turns to Mary the Virgin and receives not scorn or disdain but great mercy in the way of instruction on how to find cleansing and healing and true joy in union with God.] Mary of Egypt immediately bought three loaves of bread and set off for the Jordan, arriving there the same evening. She received Holy Communion the following morning in the monastery of St John the Baptist, and then crossed the river. She spent the next 48 years in the wilderness feeding only on plants, in the greatest torments, in terror, in struggles with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts.
After telling the elder Zossima her story, she stood in prayer and Zossima saw her lifted up in the air. She begged him to bring her Holy Communion the next year on the bank of the Jordan, and she would come to receive it. The following year, Zossima came with the Holy Gifts to the bank of the Jordan in the evening and stood in amazement as he saw her cross the river. He saw her coming in the moonlight and, arriving on the opposite shore of the river, she made the sign of the Cross over the river. She then walked across it as though it were dry land. When she had received Holy Communion, she begged him to come again the following year to the same stream by which they had first met. The next year, Zossima went and found her dead body there on that spot. Above her head in the sand was written: ‘Abba Zossima, bury in this place the body of the humble Mary. Give dust to dust. I passed away on April 1, on the very night of Christ’s Passion, after Communion of the Divine Mysteries.’ For the first time, Zossima learned her name and also the awe-inspiring marvel that she had arrived at that stream the previous year on the night of the same day on which she had received Holy Communion – a place that he had taken 20 days to reach. And thus Zossima buried the body of this wonderful saint, Mary of Egypt. When he returned to the monastery, he recounted the whole story of her life and the wonders to which he had been an eyewitness. Thus the Lord glorifies repentant sinners. She entered into rest in about the year 530.”
Thus the Lord glorifies repentant sinners. To repent is to change the mind; to change how the mind thinks, to change the habits of mind, what the mind thinks on, to change what the mind gives itself to. The body is the instrument of the mind. By means of the body – the hands, the feet, the eyes, the facial expressions, the tongue – the mind expresses itself. At the heart of the mind is the heart’s desire, which expresses itself by means of the will, and the will expresses itself by means of the body. The teaching of the Church is that we were made in the image and likeness of God, so that we by nature desire God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. We long to be one with God, and Holy Scripture speaks of the soul thirsting for God like a thirsty land where no water is. The Psalmist speaks of tasting the Lord and seeing how good he is, of eating his words that are sweeter than honey. The Jews, in the week preceding their passion, read the entirety of the Song of Solomon, which is a nuptial hymn. There, the bride, who represents the soul, yearns for her true bridegroom, “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” And the Orthodox Christian Church, which is more grounded in the OT than even the Jewish religion, comes into her Holy Week, the week preceding the Passion of her Lord, singing in the Bridegroom Matins of the “Bridegroom who comes at Midnight,” whose goodness the faithful are granted to taste in the mystery of Holy Eucharist. Therefore, if we were restored in our body, soul and mind to our natural purity – to our original integrity or virginity – we would discover the true object of our heart’s desire: it is not worldly lovers who love us and leave us, centered as they are on self-love; but it is the heavenly Bridegroom who comes to us at Midnight, giving himself to us in his death on the Cross that we might live, giving himself to us as our food and as our drink that we may partake of the divine nature, that we may become one with him, made to live his life, the life of his own Holy Spirit.
The purpose of the Church’s ascetic disciplines is to lay hold of our heart’s desire by laying hold of our body and bringing it under the control of a mind that has been illumined by a vision of the true God through the teaching of his Church, his bride and his body, so that we may undertake the work – this is taking up our cross – of turning our heart’s desire away from ourselves and from the pleasures of the body and towards the Spirit of the eternal God. In the beginning, the ascetic work is painful; for we are renouncing the pleasures of the flesh and crucifying our flesh with its desires to the Cross of Christ. Remember that St Mary of Egypt spent 48 years in the wilderness enduring the greatest torments, in terror, in struggles with passionate thoughts that assailed her like gigantic beasts. But we renounce the pleasure of indulging the body and we endure the pain of ascetic renunciation out of love for Christ who endured the pain of the Cross out of his love for us. In this way, we lay hold of our body and bring it under subjection to the love of Christ. We wrestle away from its grasp the desire of our heart which yearns naturally for the bliss of God and, having turned our desire away from the body, we direct it to its natural, spiritual end in God. So far, we are experiencing in these ascetic struggles the agony of the cross. But soon, because love of God is what is most natural to us, the pain of the cross or of ascetic renunciation begins to bring forth the beginnings of Christ’s holy resurrection. It is experienced in the freedom, the lightness and joy that descends from above upon our soul and our mind, and our body as well, as our desire is freed from the body and begins to rise up to God in an ascension of love and spiritual yearning that is most natural to it and that infuses the soul with a gladness and a joy inexpressible. For in the cross of Christ, in the ascetic disciplines of the Church, the old man in us with all its lusts and impure desires is dying, and the New Man that was planted in the womb of our soul through our baptism and in Holy Eucharist is growing in us and filling us with himself, the Bridegroom whose words are sweeter than honey, whose fruit is sweet to the taste.
Therefore, when St Zossima came upon the dead body of Mary and buried her in the sands of the desert, he was burying the old man in Mary that had been crucified with Christ. And in honoring her memory, the Church celebrates her resurrection – and the resurrection of all the faithful who are in Christ, the New Man, who comes to us from heaven. Let us, therefore, in the joy of the Cross, trim the lamp of our mind. Let us be vigilant and persevere in the good, and let us go out to meet the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight, on Pascha night, and let us taste and see how good the Lord is.