Saturday, April 08, 2006

St. Mary of Egypt

The following is my homily for the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, April 9, 2006. I must admit to being slightly frustrated with this particular sermon as there is SO much to say about St. Mary of Egypt that simply won't fit in the 10-15 minutes I normally allow myself for preaching. Her incredible determination to devote her life to God at any cost, her superhuman struggles against temptation, the high level of theosis she obtained (which I didn't even mention in my homily) combine to shine like a beacon in our age of lukewarm and often compromised devotion to Christ. Here is the little I said about her; I hope the reader is blessed by it.

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the day we commemorate the penitent St. Mary of Egypt. Mary was born to a wealthy pagan family living in Alexandria, Egypt. She grew up to become a very beautiful girl, which proved to be a curse. Losing her virginity at the age of twelve, she was swept up in the lure of sensuality and soon adopted the life of a harlot.

She continued this horrible life for many years until one day she beheld a group of Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. She joined them, hoping to seduce some of them along the journey. Once she arrived in Jerusalem, idle curiosity drove her to go see the relic of the Holy Cross, which was displayed at the Church of the Holy Resurrection. But when she reached the doors of that Church, something unexpected happened. An invisible force repeatedly pushed her back from the doors, preventing her from going in. Pondering this strange occurrence, she suddenly realized that her own great sinfulness was preventing her from entering such a holy place. Unexpected contrition filled her heart, and seeing an icon of the Mother of God through the doors, she starting weeping and praying. During the journey there, one of the pilgrims had told her that the name of the Theotokos was also Mary. Seeing now with her own eyes this blessed icon of the Holy Virgin, sinful Mary begged Holy Mary to have mercy upon her and open unto her the doors of repentance and lead her to salvation. Suddenly, true love began to fill her heart. Not the false love of so many men she had known before, this was the true love of God, tasted through forgiveness. At that moment, Mary resolved to turn completely away from her life of sin and emulate the purity of the Mother of God. She was allowed at this point to enter the Church, and to venerate the relic of the Cross with a kiss, thus purifying lips once defiled by sin.

That night Mary was led by the Mother of God to the desert across the Jordan and stayed there for the remaining fifty years of her life. The first seventeen years were the most difficult for her, as she struggled against the temptations of the life she had so recently left behind. Memories of her sexual sins, of wine-drinking and of eating various foods, of the songs she used to sing, all haunted her and tempted her to return to her former ways. Many times she set out to return to the city, but would always stop and turn back to the desert. At times she would even drop to the ground and bite the sand in her intense struggle not to make void the grace that had been given her. She continued in this epic struggle until at last she was granted the light of Christ and was released from these temptations. The one who was once disfigured by sin was now transfigured by the love of Christ and became holy.

We might never have known about St. Mary had it not been for the elderly priest-monk, Fr. Zosimas, who was led by God to find her the year before she died. He took her communion, buried her when she reposed, and bought her story out to share with all those seeking salvation.

In the interest of brevity, I left out a great deal of her story. But we can nevertheless imagine the tremendous struggles she faced day and night in the desert as she perfected her repentance and sought the life of God. It’s the degree of those struggles and her stubborn determination to see them through that makes her the model penitent to the Orthodox Church. But can we live up to such a model, or find any way to emulate it in our own life?

It is important for us to realize that the Church calls us to imitate Mary in her repentance, not necessarily in her lifestyle. In other words, even if you are not called to forsake all and flee to the desert to find your salvation, you are still called to live a life of repentance and to engage wholeheartedly in the struggle against your own misdirected passions which stand between you and the glory of God.

Because she is a model of repentance, there are certain characteristics we see in St. Mary of Egypt that we should seek to imitate in our lives. We would benefit to gain her simplicity. When the ugliness of her sins was revealed to her by God, she did not try to deny, cover up or make excuses for them. She did not engage in sophistry to question whether her deeds truly were sinful. She did not blame her sins on others, or seek in any way to lessen her personal responsibility. No, she simply cried out for God to have mercy on her, and determined right then and there to change her life.

We could use a dose of that determination she showed as well. Our love of pleasure and comfort and easy living has rendered us weak-willed and unwilling to challenge ourselves in even the slightest way spiritually. We constantly postpone our repentance. Very few of us have resorted to biting the sand in a fierce fight to avoid sin. We give into our sins much too easily time after time, year after year, and fail to make very much progress toward holiness in our lives.

We could use some of Mary’s clarity of vision. During her first 17 years, she was often burdened by the memory of her sins and was tempted by them to return to her former manner of life. But she resisted, clearly seeing those temptations as an assault on the grace she had received, and she refused to accept them in place of the new life God had given her. Very often we fail to see temptation for what it really is. We may give little thought to the choices we make or the things we do, failing to realize that they can be separating us from God and darkening our souls. We lack clarity in the spiritual life, which our Holy Tradition can give to us if we only pay attention to it and make the effort to learn and follow it.

Often we settle for far less than a deep and meaningful repentance in our lives. We would prefer for salvation to be easy and without struggle. But no one will enter into the kingdom of heaven without mourning and tears and the violent resisting of sin and the instilling of godly repentance.

In the few days that remain of Lent, let us take these things to heart and continue to take upon ourselves the voluntary suffering of fasting, diligence in prayer, and almsgiving, as well as anything else the Lord may put upon our hearts to do. May we use this time to see our own sins and to judge them rightly before God, offering our repentance and seeking to better our way of life. And may God thus bless us to rise with Christ in glorious Pascha!

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 4/10/2006 10:17 PM , Blogger E Rica said...

I'm glad I can catch your sermons even when you don't preach, or if you preach somewhere else.


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