|33 Fifth Sunday of Great Lent - April 13, 2008|
ST MARY OF EGYPT
Galatians 3:23-29 (Saint)
Luke 7:36-50 (Saint)
The First Sunday of Great Lent celebrates the triumph of Orthodoxy with the restoration of icons to the worship of the Church. The triumph of Orthodoxy is much more than the legitimatizing of religious art. It is ultimately a triumph of the Church’s theological vision of who we are and what is our natural destiny. We are creatures who in the very principle of our being have been made in the Image or the Icon of God. And, the icon of God in which we have been made is not a thing but a person, the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the very principle of our being, in other words, we are made to exist in communion with God; and the intimacy of that communion is so profound that God became man and dwelt among us that we might become God, not in our human essence of course, for he is uncreated and we are created, but by grace, i.e. in personal communion.
On the Second Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate St Gregory Palamas. This, too, is the celebration of the triumph of Orthodoxy. One might say that at the heart of St Gregory Palamas' defense of the Church’s Faith was the theological vision of man as persons created in the image of God, that is to say, created to exist in communion with God, and that the center of our being is not the mind but the heart. In other words, the essence of human life is not reason but love. Love is higher than reason. Love is the master of reason. Reason is the servant of love – as anyone who has ever been in love knows full well, when all the faculties of one’s mind are devoted to extolling the praise of one’s beloved. To be human is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind and one’s neighbor as oneself.
Having celebrated the triumph of this theological vision of human nature and destiny that is at the heart of the Church’s evangelical proclamation, the Church takes us to the Third Sunday of Great Lent and the veneration of the Cross. Here, in the middle of Great Lent, we come to the heart, the “sacred root” or the “hierarch” of the Christian Faith: Christ crucified. On the Cross, God demonstrates his great love for us not just in word but in deed. In the anaphora of St John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, the theological truth of Christ’s sacrifice is opened up to us, when we hear the Church praying: …”When he had come and had fulfilled all the dispensation for us, in the night in which he was give up – or rather gave himself up for the life of the world…” In other words, it wasn’t the soldiers driving the nails into the Savior’s hands; it was the Lord himself, fixing himself by his own volition, his own will, to our accursedness and death; he who is the very principle of our being, the Image in whom we were made, with those nails united himself to the disintegration of our death that has come upon us because of our sin. By his cross, he descends into the abyss, into the void into which we had fallen because of our transgressions. He descends into hell, looking for us, calling to us to come to him, that he might gather us up into himself and heal us of our anger, our fear, our hatred, our fragmentation and alienation and make us whole, restoring us to the principle of our being, which is communion with God, if we want it.
On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church commemorates St John “of the Ladder”. She sets before us the book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which he wrote for those wanting to know how to pursue the way back to God. You can see the logical progression in these Sundays of Great Lent. Having set before us the theological vision of our nature and destiny, and having revealed the Cross of Christ illumining our darkness, the Church, in the commemoration of St John Climacus, is showing us how to unite ourselves to Christ’s Cross that we might scale it as a ladder back to our home in heaven, restored to personal communion with God in the love of the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, which is in accordance with the principle of our being, our natural destiny.
Now we come to this the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent and we commemorate St Mary of Egypt. Let me tell you her story, as it has become my custom so to do, and then we’ll consider how her story fits into this logical sequence of the Sundays of Great Lent.
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.”
St Mary of Egypt’s story is an icon that illustrates what is at the heart of these Lenten Sunday proclamations: God is love. We are made in his image, which is Christ Jesus, so that we are love, and our erotic desires are satisfied only in God. God, writes St Maximus the Confessor, “is said to be the originator and begetter of love and the erotic force. He himself, as the begetter of love and the erotic force, is what is truly longed for, loved, desired and chosen.” Erotic love is that love that originates in our hearts and goes out looking for someone to love. It is so powerful because that is what we are in the principle of our being. We cannot exist without loving. We all love something. Each one of us right now is giving ourselves to something in love. St Mary of Egypt was a prostitute. She was giving her love to the pleasures of the flesh. In this, she is like all of us. We give our love to the pleasures of the flesh, to the praise of men, to the wisdom of our own opinions – but not to God. We have taken the love that animates us at the core of our being, that we can’t exist without, and we have directed it everywhere else but toward God, toward divine love. We direct it toward what we want in order to be comfortable, to be popular, to be entertained. In biblical terms, we have given our love over to the desires of the belly, and we have made the belly the center of our being. The belly is not the center of our being. The heart is. But because we have chosen to come out of our heart and into our belly, we are bored, lonely, and sad; and that gives birth to anxiety, fear, and anger. What is tormenting us is this erotic force within us. It won’t leave us alone, because that is what we are. The erotic force by its very nature wants to give itself to a beloved; and so when we are bored in our dark emptiness, the erotic force compels us to go looking for something to love, in the desperate hope of finding fulfillment and satisfaction.
But God, not the things of this world, is the originator and begetter of the erotic force. And we were made in the image, the Person, of Jesus Christ. We were not made in the image of the world. Our erotic love simply won’t be happy until it is drinking from the font of the Eternal Spirit of God. But to get to the font of the Eternal Spirit, we need to make our way back to the heart, back to the bridal chamber, back to the Garden of Eden. We need to make our way to the tomb, for that is what our heart has become. But there is only one way back to the tomb that is our heart, the tomb that is the bridal chamber, the tomb where Christ is coming to meet us, to consummate his love for us there in the intimacy of the bridal chamber of our heart. That way is the way of Christ’s Cross; the way of self-renunciation, of crucifying the desires of the flesh and of our vanity and our pride, of losing our life for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at Midnight. I think it safe to say that by sending St Mary of Egypt off into the desert – in other words, away from the pleasures of the world – the Holy Mother wanted her to discover, her profound emptiness and how her heart had become a tomb filled with the stench of corruption because she had forsaken the God in whose image she had been made and she had descended from her heart into her belly. But I think it safe to say that she also wanted St Mary to learn that it was precisely there, in her heart that had become a stinking tomb, that the Heavenly Bridegroom was coming to meet her at Midnight, at that moment when the old world dies, that it might be cleansed of its stench and its corruption in the blood of the crucified God, and raised up, refashioned in the Spirit of Him who is the very Love of God.
Beloved, do you know how to get to your heart? Do you know how to find the bridal chamber? The Church does. All you need to do is let her pick you up and carry you to the Midnight hour of Pascha. Pascha is not a dramatic production. It is not entertainment. It is not a mere religious observance, a memorial or a commemoration. It is real. It is a mystical participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, the Image of God in which you have your being, the originator and begetter of the erotic force within you. If you truly wish to prepare yourself to meet this Heavenly Bridegroom who comes to you at Midnight on Pascha night, resolve from this day, from this hour, from this moment, to leave the world behind. Stay in the world only to fulfill your obligations there. But discard all that is not needful or necessary and come to the services of the Church that you may listen to what she says, that you may see what she has to show you, that you may surround yourself with her saints and with all the faithful, that you may be clothed in the garment of her light, that you may be taken up into her arms and carried to Pascha to meet the Bridegroom who comes to us at Midnight, and that you may enter into the joy of the Lord and drink from the font of the Eternal Spirit’s living waters. Amen.