Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
If we want a clear example of the difference between the character of our Lord and that of corrupt humanity, we need look no further than today’s gospel lesson. In response to the prediction of His Passion, the disciples James and John asked for an assurance that the Lord would give them privileged places of prominence in His Reign, which they imagined to be an earthly kingdom. “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.” They had no idea what they were asking, of course, for the path to our Lord’s Kingdom is not through self-exaltation according to the conventional standards of the fallen world, but requires uniting ourselves to Him in His suffering, death, and selfless service by taking up our crosses. “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
To this very day, we often distort faithfulness to Christ into the vain pursuit of earthly glory and self-satisfaction in a fashion that is simply contradictory to the way of our Lord, Who offered up Himself fully on the Cross for the salvation of the world. Contrary to any conventional standard of success, He “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant…And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) His salvation is not an easy continuation of the proud strivings that we are all inclined to pursue in one way or another, but their complete opposite. Only those who know their own brokenness and the inadequacy of even their best efforts to bring healing to their souls will gain the spiritual vision necessary to behold the true glory that shines from His Cross and empty tomb.
On this last Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate someone who had no illusions about deserving heavenly or earthly glory of any kind. Our Righteous Mother Mary of Egypt had from the age of twelve lived as a sex addict. She had refused money for her innumerable encounters with men and said that she “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.” Though we do not know why she left her parents’ home at a young age and fell into such a wretched existence, she may well have been a victim of sexual abuse. She confessed forcing herself on “youths even against their own will” as she sailed to Jerusalem and said that she was actually “hunting for youths” on the streets on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross when she followed the crowds to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Only a horribly wounded and miserable person would live like that.
When an invisible force prevented Mary from entering the Church in order to venerate the Cross, Mary’s eyes were opened to her wretchedness and she asked for the help of the Theotokos in finding 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. 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 through attempts at self-glorification, but by humbly undertaking the incredibly difficult struggles that were necessary for her to receive personally the grace of the Savior.
If we have approached Lent with any degree of spiritual seriousness this year, we should resonate with St. Mary of Egypt as someone who knew that she needed healing infinitely beyond what she could give herself. Lent reveals that we find it impossibly hard to pray without distraction for even a few minutes, to fast even in ways that do not threaten our health at all, and to share with others even when it does not compromise our wellbeing. And that is surely only the tip of the iceberg, for our addiction to self-centered desire roots so deeply within us that it corrupts even our noblest aspirations in life. Insisting on getting what we want from Christ on our own terms, as did James and John, is pure folly and will never heal our souls. Entering into the blessedness of His Kingdom requires enduring the suffering that is a natural consequence of dying to the power of sin in our lives as we place serving God and neighbor before serving ourselves. That comes to us no more easily than did the healing from the passions that Mary spent years in the desert seeking.
Remember, however, that the miserable sex addict eventually did find healing and become a glorious saint. She did so not by fooling herself into thinking that she simply needed to accept and act on her inclinations in order to be true to herself. Neither did she try to hide them behind a false layer of religious respectability. Instead, she had the courage to entrust herself fully to the ministry of the “High Priest of the good things to come…[Who] through His own blood, entered in once for all into the holy place, having found eternal redemption.” It should be no surprise that those who entrust themselves to Him must pursue the difficult path of repentance that leads to the Cross.
There is simply no other way to serve the Lord Who said, “the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit upon Him, and kill Him; and after three days He will rise.” There was hope even for St. Mary of Egypt in Him, even as there is for each of us. Like her, we must refuse to be defined by our passions and by whatever wounds we have suffered. Like her, we must take up the cross of doing whatever it takes to find healing for our souls in the Lord Who offered up Himself for the salvation of the world. That was the path to holiness for St. Mary of Egypt, and it must be our path in the remaining days of this blessed season of Lent.
Thank you, Fr Philip.
God bless you.
Thanks for your message. Good strength to you for the remainder of Lent and for Holy Week!
“Lent reveals that we find it impossibly hard to ….. fast in ways that do not threaten our health at all.”
Can you explain what you mean by that statement? Are you saying that most people’s fasting is harming their health?
Blessings and thanks for your comment! I appreciate your reading the posting so closely. What I meant is that we find it hard to fast even in ways that do not harm our health. In other words, even small steps are hard for us. I have added the word “even” to that sentence in order to clarify it.