Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, April 17, 2016
Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We are now getting very close to Holy Week, and the final journey to Jerusalem for the Lord Jesus is about to begin. We focus very much now on our goal, which is Pascha, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today is the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, the Fifth Sunday of Lent and the day before the final week of Lent, which wraps up on Friday, followed by Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
This past week, we heard the life of St. Mary of Egypt read on Wednesday night. Any who have read this narrative are struck by how singularly focused Mary of Egypt was on her task of repentance in the desert. She had spent seventeen years of her life, from the time she was twelve, living in debauchery and sin. And then in the city of Jerusalem, she had a spiritual experience in which she was prevented from entering the church where the True Cross of Christ was kept, prevented because of her sin. And so she began to repent.
Her repentance took her into the desert beyond the Jordan River. There in the loneliness, she prayed for more than forty years without seeing another human being. There, her only companion was God Himself.
It is with these images in mind that we embark upon our seventh meditation in our eight-part series asking, “Who is God?” The answer today is “God is our salvation.”
When we think about salvation, we may first think about the question of where we go when we die. We want to “go to Heaven” and do not want to “go to Hell.” So we see salvation as being saved from damnation.
Another understanding of salvation is that it helps to get us out of our messed-up, broken, sinful state and to become healed and holy. Salvation is therefore understood as what changes us to become more like what God designed us to be.
Both of these views are true in a sense. But they are incomplete. And if we focus only on one or even both of them, then we actually miss the mark entirely.
I love the life of St. Mary of Egypt, because she challenges our incomplete assumptions about what it means to be Christian. Consider the model where salvation is being saved from Hell. Surely it shouldn’t take more than four decades in the desert to avoid Hell and get into Heaven! What is she doing out there, anyway? This seems really extreme.
Or consider the idea that salvation is about changing us to become better people. Surely Mary changed when she repented in Jerusalem. She certainly stopped living the life of sinful promiscuity she once had lived. Wasn’t she basically all better then? Why go out in the desert? And even if the desert is really helping her to become better, what’s the point? She’s not with anyone else, so it’s not like she’s hurting anyone by her sin or can even help anyone with her holiness.
It is true that salvation saves us from damnation. And it is true that salvation saves us from our sins, including the distortion of the human person that comes from sin. But that’s not what salvation is. Those are actually just effects of salvation.
So what is salvation? What was Mary of Egypt doing out there in the desert?
She was seeking God. Why? Because God was her salvation. And God is our salvation, as well.
Let’s take a moment and think about what that means. I am not saying here that God is our Savior. He is, of course, our Savior! He is the One Who brings salvation, the One Who saves us. But we’re going further here—He is not just the One Who saves us. He is what it means for us to be saved. When we receive salvation, it is God Whom we receive. He is salvation itself.
So as we consider the life of St. Mary of Egypt, it all now comes into focus. Yes, Mary was cured of her sexual addiction. Yes, she began to live right. Yes, she was more at peace. Yes, she was definitely saved from Hell.
But that’s not what she was pursuing in the desert. She was pursuing God. She wanted God. She wanted to be with Him. She wanted no distractions. She wanted to do battle against all of her sinful inclinations, not so that she would become “better” or even because doing so would somehow assure her place in Heaven. No, she battled against her sinfulness because that sinfulness was keeping her from God.
Just as she was kept from the holy Cross at the door of the church in Jerusalem because of her sins, her sinful desires kept her from God Himself. So she went into the desert not just to live a moral life and certainly not to try to do “enough” to buy her ticket to Heaven, but rather to eradicate all sinfulness from her soul through ascetic struggle and repentance, precisely so that she could be with God, know God intimately, meet with Him and connect with Him.
In our own Christian lives, it is very easy for us to become distracted. And I am not talking here only about the distractions of the cares of this world that so quickly pull our eyes away from what is truly needful. I am talking about a more subtle distraction, the distraction of a reduced salvation. We become distracted by the idea that salvation is about Heaven when we die. We become distracted by the idea that salvation is about personal transformation.
The problem with these distractions is not just that they are reduced views of salvation. It is also that they make the goal of our Christian life to be something other than Christ! In the one case, the goal is a heavenly reward. In the other, the goal is self-improvement. Yes, of course we should want to be in Heaven after death—though really we should be talking more about the resurrection—and yes, of course we should want to change. But those things are not what salvation is. They are effects of salvation. Our salvation is God Himself.
So if the goal of the Christian life is God, then that means that our Christian life should serve that goal. We have to seek God, seeking to be with Him not for what He can give us or do for us, but because it’s Him. We seek Him to be with Him. To get to know Him.
Imagine if we treated our friends or our family the way we so often treat God—only ever coming to make requests, to ask for something, to want something. That wouldn’t be much of a relationship. But if we approach God in terms of a true mutuality of relationship—seeking to become present to Him just as much as we want Him to be present for us—then that makes God the purpose of our Christian life. We come to Him because it’s Him. We spend time with Him not because we want something from Him but because we want Him.
This is why what I’m about to say is so critical—I will even say that it is absolutely necessary. Aside from all our normal prayers, we have to find that time regularly to stand in silence before the Lord. Read the Scripture a little, then be real before God. Be real before Him. No games. No pretension. He sees you as you truly are anyway. Just be with Him. Be present to Him. Be there for Him. Be there without expectations, without requests, without anything but yourself. Just be.
If you do that, you will begin to see what Mary was doing out there in the desert. You will begin to see that in that silence, God does save us. He does bring us His presence. That’s what salvation is—to be with Him. Everything else just follows from that.
Today, we ask: “Who is God?” And today, we answer: “God is our salvation.”
To the God Who is both Savior and Salvation, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.