Lent and Priesthood #9: The Priesthood of Purification

Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, April 2, 2017
Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of the great St. Mary of Egypt, one of the most famous of all the ascetics of the Church. Her life is read in full during the services of the fifth week of Lent, and it is a powerful, moving story.

She lived for some seventeen years in fulfilling her lusts. That old 1960s slogan “If it feels good, do it” personified her perfectly. She gave herself completely over to her physical desires. But then she encountered God in Jerusalem—you will have to read her life story if you want the details. But for our purposes today, I will mention that she walked away from that encounter changed. She was so changed that she completely left her former way of life behind and went out into the desert, where she lived in extreme asceticism for nearly fifty years.

While in the desert, she was tempted again and again with those physical desires. And she called out to God to deliver her. She lived in extreme conditions—she brought three loaves of bread with her into the desert, and this food lasted her a few years. After that ran out, she survived on whatever meager plants she could find growing in the desert.

As a result of her struggle against sin, the Lord purified her. When she encountered St. Zosimas, a priest and monk whom God led out into the desert during Lent one year, she not only had the gift of clairvoyance, knowing things about Zosimas that he had not told her, but she also had the gift of reciting the Scriptures, which she had never read. And she also had the ability to walk on water and to transport herself quickly from one place to another. These gifts were very much like those shown by the Lord in His earthly time with us. She was able to do these things quite naturally because she had been purified from sin.

It is about purification in particular that I would like to speak today. The idea that we should seek to live pure lives is not very popular today. We generally are taught that “If it feels good, do it.” Our deepest desires, even fleshly desires, are identified for us by popular culture as being who we really are. They are our “identity,” they say. And if that is true, then certainly the programme of purification undertaken by people like Mary of Egypt makes no sense. Why would you want to purify yourself of your “identity”? Just do whatever feels right. There is nothing outside yourself that should guide you. Listen only to yourself.

Well, that is not Christianity. Christianity is a process of struggle against certain desires. It is a struggle against the desires that are not according to God’s revelation to us. Yes, we feel things very deeply. But feelings are subject to the fallen state of man which we have suffered since the time of Adam. We cannot put our trust in them. As Christians, we put our trust in what God has revealed, even if it’s not what we feel.

Why? It’s because we are God’s creation. We are God’s children. He is our Father, and a father knows what is best for his children even if they do not agree. Parents, imagine if, when you said to your child “I am not going to give you a cupcake, I am going to give you a sandwich,” then your child responded, “I disagree; I really want a cupcake, so that’s what is best for me”? It is obvious that a child doesn’t know what’s best for him. It is sometimes not as obvious for grown-ups. But if we disagree with God, then what are we saying? That we know better than God?

So the question should not be “What do I think is right?” but rather “What has God said?” And we know what God has said. He has said that we should be purified, and He has told us what kind of desires we need to be purified from. In St. Mary of Egypt’s case, it was sinful sexual desires, but there are many kinds of sinful desires that we have. So we must be purified.

Purification is the theme of the passage we hear from Hebrews, the epistle reading appointed for this fifth Sunday of Lent. It is brief, so let’s listen to the full reading one more time:

Christ having appeared a High Priest of the good things to come, through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; neither through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, entered in once for all into the holy place, having found eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of bulls and goats and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:11-14)

In this reading, St. Paul is again speaking on the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Again, we have the image of the High Priest entering into the holy place to offer up the sacrifice. And he compares this sacrifice with the sacrifices of the Old Covenant given to the Jews.

In the Old Covenant, priests would enter into the holy place and offer up bulls, goats and sheep. Those offerings would be slaughtered and often burned, with prayers being said over them. The blood or the ashes would then be sprinkled on people and on objects for their purification. This worked because in the act of sacrifice, God acted upon the flesh of those animals and charged it with His purifying presence. Thus, the people were cleansed from their sin.

But now Jesus, the Son of God Himself, is offered. And, as Paul says, “how much more shall the blood of Christ, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” In other words, if the sacrifices of animals served to purify the flesh of those who received them, then shouldn’t the God-man’s sacrificed blood do so much more?

Not only does Christ’s blood purify the consciences of those who receive it, but it purifies “from dead works,” that is, from the death-bearing actions of when we act on our sinful desires.

And it purifies us so that we may “serve the living God.” That is, this purification gives us power to live in a new way—not only morally but to serve as priests in His great tabernacle made without hands, a tabernacle “not of this creation.” And what is that “tabernacle”? It is no longer the tabernacle “of this creation,” the mobile worship space of the Hebrews in the years of their wandering, but rather the Church of Jesus Christ, which is the tabernacle He has made Himself, the tabernacle which is identified with His own Body, the tabernacle which is Himself.

So when we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, the holy Eucharist, we are receiving that very purification. We are being cleansed of our sinful desires. We are being enabled to live in a different way, not subject to how we feel. And we are being energized to serve God in His Church as the priests of His tabernacle made without hands. This is the priesthood of purification.

It probably doesn’t always feel that way. We don’t often walk away from the Eucharist with a conscious sense of all these things happening. But they still are. And so we struggle forward like Mary of Egypt did, calling out to God in repentance and asking Him to purify us from our feelings that are not according to His revelation. And we study and pray and commit ourselves to know God’s revelation better so that we can become more like Him and not like the demons that tempt us to do whatever feels right.

And we trust God, Who is our Father, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when His revelation seems out of date or old fashioned or hard. Because it’s actually not. Because we don’t actually know better. And the world around us certainly does not know better.

If we do this, we will gradually find ourselves, like Mary of Egypt, becoming like Christ. Her temptation never went completely away, but she still was able to live pure. We may not reach the level in this life that she did—few people do—but we will be gradually making that exodus from selfishness to become people of true, self-sacrificing love. We will become pure.

To the God Who is our purification, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.