|30 - Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, St Mary of Egypt, April 6, 2014|
Having reached the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we are but two weeks away from Holy Pascha. There is still time for us to repent and to take up our Cross in the form of the Fast, if we have not already done so. For you who have been fasting for the full five weeks, weariness – or rather, disgust and resentment may have risen up in your soul. Your body and mind may be starting to feel like sailors rising up in mutiny against your resolve to keep the Fast. Perhaps you are beginning to wonder: is this really necessary? Is it really worth the trouble?
The story of St Mary of Egypt, which we read Thursday last, is still in our ears as we celebrate her on this the Fifth Sunday of the Fast. We heard how she had spent 47 years in the desert observing an incredibly rigorous ascetic discipline of prayer and fasting in her resolve to repent of her sinful life and attain salvation. We heard her describe to St Zosimas how not only her body, but also her mind and her soul, had risen up many times in rebellion, as it were, against her resolve to keep her vow to the All-Holy Lady, and how demons and devils, clothing themselves in the images of her sensual desires, attacked her as wild beasts hoping to chase her back to Egypt and reclaim her for hell.
Our commemoration of her on this the last Sunday of the Fast (for, next Sunday is already Palm Sunday, the beginning of Great and Holy Week!) offers us the opportunity to pause before our final push to the LORD’s Holy Pascha and reflect once more on why we take up the Great Fast, according to our strength and according to our circumstances, in order to attain the Kingdom of Heaven. With these reflections, we might put down our inner rebellion against the Fast. The Fast is the concrete expression of our repentance. By taking up the Fast, our repentance is no longer a mere fancy that tickles our brain from time to time. Rather, the Fast makes our repentance an incarnate reality in our body, mind and soul.
What is this resentment against the Fast that rises up within us but the arrogant Pharaoh of our mind chasing us into the Red Sea hoping to reclaim us as his slaves? Perhaps we could say it is the wall of enmity that separates us from Christ, the law of sin that is active in us, (Rom 7) which the Fast begins to uncover. It is the Old Man in us rebelling angrily against the Cross, because by it, we deny ourselves, we are denying the Old Man in us. We are striving to lose our life for Christ’s sake. We are striving to put to death the Old Man in us so that we can live in the New Man, which is “Christ in you”. By taking up the Cross, we have entered into a spiritual battle against the Old Man in us, which is absolutely intense because everything – life and death – are at stake.
We should know well by now that when we observe the ascetic disciplines of the Fast, we are taking up our cross as Christ commanded us. We are striving to fulfill our baptismal oath: “I unite myself to Christ!” Through the ascetic disciplines of the Fast, we strive to unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death on the Cross. Having been raised to life and made spiritually whole in the baptismal font, having become physically members of His Body and Blood in the partaking of Holy Eucharist, through the Fast we “take up our bed and walk.” This is how we go and “sell all that we have and give to the poor to follow Christ;” it’s how we “walk in the Light as He is in the Light;” it’s how we “take up our Cross and follow Christ” into the tomb of our heart as into the LORD’s tomb in the Garden. It’s how we push beyond the outward pageantry of Pascha Night, beyond “Resurrection” as a religious idea, and into the inner reality of Pascha as the living reality of the risen “Christ in you!” (Col 1:27)
I can’t say that I love the Fast; but I desire its effect: to be cleansed and healed in my soul and to be made alive in the joy and tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother. By taking up the cross of the Fast and its ascetic disciplines, our baptismal oath to unite ourselves to Christ is no longer just words. By the Fast, we are led beyond the sentimentality of emotional experience, beyond cognitive embrace of a “belief system”. In the Fast, our baptismal oath becomes real, it becomes concrete. The Cross of Christ becomes incarnate, embodied in our earthly bodies, in our mind and in our soul. Our repentance comes down to earth, down into the dust of the ground, into our bodies.
You take up the Great Fast, and not many days later, the romance of sentimental faith begins to wear off rather quickly. The Fast together with the ascetic disciplines that go with it, flushes out the Old Man in you from his hiding place behind the comforts of the flesh. So long as you left him alone, feeding him, pampering him, he left you alone. But now, when you take up the Fast, you are turning around within yourself, you are repenting, and you begin to see in yourself what you couldn’t see before when the eyes of your soul were turned outward into the world. You discover the law of sin active in you like a mighty current bearing you downstream. You stumble against the wall of enmity imbedded in the desire of your will separating you from God, resisting with what seems to be a mindless anger and resentment every demand made on you by the Fast. It seems to be a mindless anger, until you begin to listen to the prayers of the Church. They are reminding you again and again that you have sinned, you have not kept the commandments, you have gone your own way. If you take those prayers to heart, making them as your own, then you may begin to make out deep in the shadowy recesses of your mind the Pharaoh of your mind; that tyrant of arrogance and conceit that rules over you from his throne in your ego!
In your mind, not your heart! For, the wall of enmity that separates us from God lies between our mind and our heart, if you will, so that we are cut off from our heart, our ego residing in the wisdom of its own opinions. In our heart our spirit lies buried, dead in its sins and trespasses. And, it is down from the ivory tower of our mind and into the tomb of our heart that the Cross of the Fast would lead us; for, it is in the tomb of our heart that the LORD united Himself to us in our Holy Baptism through His death on the Cross; and it is the tomb of our heart that the LORD transfigures into a Bridal Chamber that opens onto the Garden of Eden (Jn 19:41) in His Holy Pascha! If we could escape the Pharaoh of our mind and find our way into the tomb of our heart, we could unite to Christ the LORD in the likeness of His Holy Resurrection – not as a religious idea that tickles our brain, but as the deepest reality of our inner man that raises our soul to life in God!
Beloved faithful, we take up the Great Fast, according to our strength and according to our circumstances. Because it grows from the wood of Christ’s Cross, liturgical texts make clear that the same death-destroying and life-creating action that is active in the Cross of Christ begins to work in us as we take up the Fast and make the Cross of Christ to become incarnate in our bodies, our mind, and our soul. It is the death-destroying, life-creating power of Christ working in the Fast, the Cross of Christ given to us by the Church, that breaches the wall of enmity imbedded in our ego and opens the way into our heart; it is the power of Christ’s Cross working in the Fast that puts to death the Old Man in us, and drowns the Pharaoh of the mind to deliver us from our bondage to the devil through the fear of death, so that we can awake to our true selves and descend in the fear of God, with faith and love, into the tomb of our heart as into the tomb of the LORD’s Pascha and come out on the other side in the Garden of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, the Garden of Eden, a new creation as children of God born from above – not as theatricalfiction, but in the concrete, living and spiritual reality of “Christ in you!”
O, brothers and sisters, for the sake of Christ and His Holy Gospel, for the healing of your souls, for your soul’s restoration to her original beauty in the joy and tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother, in the time that remains, let us take up our Cross; let us all take up the Fast, each one according to our strength, according to our circumstances, and raising the Cross of the Fast as our weapon of victory, let us go together with Christ to His Holy Pascha and taste and see in our heart, transfigured as a bridal chamber, the ineffable beauty and joy of the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight in His Holy Resurrection. Amen!