Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
As we near the end of our Lenten journey this year, we should have all gained at least a measure of insight into our souls’ need for healing beyond what we can accomplish merely by our own willpower in obeying religious or moral laws. Our difficulty in taking even small steps to embrace prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual disciplines reveals how weak we are before our passions. In examining our consciences in preparation for Confession, we catch a glimpse of how far short we fall in fulfilling our calling to become like God in holiness. Lent opens our eyes to why we need a Savior Who offers Himself on the Cross in order to conquer the corrupting power of sin and death, a power that roots in our hearts and from which we can never deliver ourselves. He rose in glory over the worst that evil could do and has made it possible for every human person to become radiant with divine glory.
I am sure, however, that many of us doubt whether that kind of transformation could actually happen in our own lives. Distorted desires root so deeply in our hearts that we often cannot imagine them being set right. Time and time again, we have failed in thought, word, and deed in trying to overcome our besetting sins. We can easily fall into despair about the prospects for finding Christ’s healing for our souls. Perhaps that is why the Church calls our attention today to our Righteous Mother Mary of Egypt, who from the age of twelve lived as a sex addict. Mary refused money for her encounters with men and said that she “lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.” We do not know why she left her parents’ home at a young age and fell into such a wretched existence, but it seems likely that she had been a victim of sexual abuse. Mary referred to forcing herself on “youths even against their own will” as she sailed to Jerusalem. She said that she was actually “hunting for youths” on the streets of Jerusalem on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross when she followed the crowds to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Someone who acted in that way clearly bore extraordinarily deep wounds that she lacked the power to heal.
When an invisible force prevented her from entering the Church to venerate the Cross, Mary’s eyes were opened to her brokenness and she asked for the help of the Theotokos in doing whatever was necessary for her salvation. Thus began her almost 50 years of intense ascetical struggle in the desert. By the time Father Zosima stumbled upon her, Mary had become so radiant with holiness that she walked on water, rose above the ground in prayer, was clairvoyant, and knew the Scriptures, even though she had never read them. Like all those with clear spiritual vision, pride had no place in her soul and she was aware only of her sinfulness and ongoing need for the Lord’s mercy. Mary had not found healing simply by willpower, but by opening herself to receive personally the grace of the Savior through her incredibly difficult struggles.
James and John had yet to go through such struggles when they asked for privileged places of honor in the Lord’s Kingdom, as though He were a political revolutionary about to become a conventional king. They had not yet learned that they would have to suffer and die for the Savior and that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” At this point in their discipleship, none of the apostles had grown beyond trying to use religion to get what they wanted in this life on their own terms. Consequently, they were enslaved to the pride of serving themselves in one way or another. How ironic it is, at least according to conventional standards, that those closest to Christ during His earthly ministry were so blind to the truth about their souls, while a recovering sex addict became a beacon of holy light.
Regardless of the particular maladies of soul that we experience, it is crucial that we not look for their healing merely as a form of self-help. Doing so will simply turn our focus on ourselves and invite pride to take root more firmly in souls, which will also be the case if we fall into shame for not meeting the standards we have set for ourselves. We should not judge ourselves on how well we have done anything during Lent, but must instead simply call for the Lord’s mercy with the benefit of whatever spiritual clarity we have acquired. As today’s epistle reading states, He is the “High Priest of the good things to come…[Who] entered in once for all into the holy place, having found eternal redemption.” Through the Lord’s great Self-Offering, even the most wretched person may enter into the blessedness of the Kingdom through humble faith and repentance. Even the most notorious sinner may become a glorious saint and shine brightly with eternal glory.
That is true not only for Mary of Egypt, but for all of us who need to stop viewing religion as a form of individual accomplishment or a prideful way of gaining earthly power, but instead to focus on taking the necessary steps to open ourselves to receive the healing mercy of Christ. Before Him, we are not self-sufficient and isolated individuals, but members of His own Body whose very life is in Him. No matter what burdens we bear or what particular type of mess we have made of ourselves, He remains the One Who died and rose up for our salvation. Let us use the last week of Lent to do whatever is necessary to open the gates of our hearts fully to the Savior Who alone can work the healing we could never give ourselves. And if you think that somehow you alone are beyond hope, then remember St. Mary of Egypt. It is surely not by accident that we commemorate her each year on this last Sunday of Lent.