Meditation on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt – The Fifth Sunday of Great Lent

St. Mary of Egypt and Abba Zosimas

On this the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we have an opportunity to learn from three different examples that the Church presents us, the Epistle, the Gospel reading, and the life of St. Mary of Egypt. 

As a starting point let’s look at the last sentence of the Epistle reading (Hebrews. 9, 13). St. Paul ends this passage with the statement “Purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” We might ask ourselves, what are ‘dead works?” For examples let’s first go to the Gospel reading of today (Mark 10, 32 – 45).  Jesus tells His disciples exactly what is going to happen during His passion. James and John respond in a way that shows how much they don’t get it. They believe Jesus will be an earthly ruler and they want to share in His glory and His power. Their selfish desire is to have a position of prominence over the other disciples. Driven by their egos, they want to be first. In response to their desire to be the most important of the disciples, Jesus defines true leadership for them and  for us. Christ replaces their “dead works” of ambition with what it is to truly live in Christ as a servant leader.

The next lesson that the Church presents to us today to help us purify our ‘dead works’ is the story of St. Mary of Egypt. We all know Mary’s story, her conversion from sinner to saint. Looking at her and her early life of degradation, we can see several lessons of “dead works.” No doubt, her lifestyle is a warning to us to not attach ourselves to the pleasures of this life, the pleasures that seduced Mary.  There is also a much deeper lesson here for us. Think, what do we feel of when we look at the young Mary? We might say to ourselves – “what a sinner, she is beyond hope, I thank God I am not like her.”  How can we point our finger and judge her?  We see that God is not finished with Mary, but in our own mind we have already passed judgement on her! 

As Mary’s life unfolds, we see the love of God and the prayers of the Theotokos bring her to repentance and to conversion. She destroys her dead works and becomes a model of contrition. Being prevented from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher  by the  force of her sins.  Mary recognizes her wretchedness and asks for forgiveness and seeks redemption. After being freed to venerate Christ’s Holy Cross, she flees to the desert beyond the Jordan in obedience to the directions of the Theotokos. Here she finds her true self. 

The life of Mary was documented for us by St. Sophronios, the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventh century.  Sophronios introduces us to the Monk Zosimas, who is lead by God to travel to the desert in search of a holier monk to spiritually edify him.  Zosimas journeys into the Jordanian wilderness and encounters a naked stranger. Without telling him her name, Mary recounts her life story. She confesses all her past sins leaving out nothing. She relates how she came to the desert lead by the instructions of the Theotokos. She informs him that she has struggled in the wasteland for 47 years. She tells the monk that for the first 17 years, she battled her demons of temptation; but how her heart was cleansed and purified by God’s love. As she speaks, Zosimas is profoundly affected by her humility and her holiness. Mary’s old life, all her “dead works,” have been purged away and Zosimas sees a soul truly alive in Christ. For us today during this period of “social isolation,” we are living isolated as did Mary. Isolated from everyone, Mary found God and God’s grace. What an opportunity we have to follow the lonely isolation that Mary’s example provides us.

Take a moment to look at the icon, it shows Abba Zosimas giving St. Mary Holy Communion. He returned, one year after their first encounter on Holy Thursday,  as Mary had requested. He had not said anything about her to anyone. To his amazement, he witnessed  a miracle, as this still unidentified woman, walked on the water and crossed the River Jordan so that she could receive the sacrament. The holy woman asks the monk to return again next year on that very same day to the spot they first met to again give her Holy Communion. Zosimas does as she asks, only to find the incorrupt body of the dead saint laying on the ground. Scratched in the sand beside her was a note asking the monk to bury and to pray for “Mary, the miserable sinner”. The note also said that she had died the very day she first received communion from his hands the year before. Zosimas marveled that Mary had traveled the journey of two days in only one hour and had then peacefully fallen asleep in the Lord. With the miraculous help of a wild lion, Zosimas buried body of the holy saint and returned to his monastery to relate her story. This is the story that was chronicled for us by St. Sophronios. There are many more details you can read for yourself in her life. But even now, close to the end of Great Lent and during our time of isolation, let us remember that Our Lord can heal our dead works of ego, ambition, pride and sinful living if we only turn to Him in sincere repentance. ….God Bless! dn g

Silence

This last Friday, I did not place my accustomed posting on this blog.  Ria and I were in Houston for the forty day blessing of our newest grandson, Peter.  It was a great honour for us to be present as a new child of God made his entrance into the temple of Our Lord.  I hope you all excuse me for being a proud Papou and skipping the last entry.  I promise to make it up, as this conversation continues.

LazarusToday, I would like to talk about silence.  As I was growing up, my parents always referred to the Friday before the Saturday of Lazarus – as the “Silence (oi koufi)”.  I always thought this was because the Akathist had finished and there wasn’t a service that night.  Ok, there was silence.  Now, I look at this a bit more deeply.  If you remember a few years ago, there was this movement to help young people make better decisions by using the question, “What would Jesus do?”  As I recall, there were even little rubber bracelets with the letters “WWJD” on them. In this case this is the question that should be asked.  The Gospel reading of the Raising of Lazarus, (John 11, 1 – 45) begins with Jesus apparently hesitating to go to his friend’s aid.  Well, this supposed hesitation had a real purpose, for all to see the glory of God.  How was this to be accomplished?  Our Lord seemingly was blasé about Lazarus’s illness and rushing to his side.  After staying put for two days, Jesus prepared to go to Bethany informing His disciples that Lazarus was dead. As Jesus encountered Martha and Mary, they expressed thoughts that we all feel at sometime, “if only.”  They were sure that if only Jesus had been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died, but Jesus was silent and missing.  For us to truly understand Jesus’ hesitation, we need to know a bit about the Jewish teaching concerning death.  At day four, in the Jewish understanding, the soul left the body in other words the body was a cadaver, a corpse. So if Lazarus was a corpse, Jesus did not simply resuscitate him.  As Jesus called forth Lazarus and Lazarus walked out of his tomb Christ created life from dead matter.  The Creator God bestowed life on Lazarus.  Christ is God and the silence of Lazarus’ tomb was shattered. To the assembled crowd this silence was deafening.

Being in the Desert

It hardly seems possible, but here we are at week four of Great Lent.  The Church tries to bolster our spirits by holding up the Holy Cross as a symbol of courage, sacrifice and victory; pointing us to the Resurrection.  Never the less, if you’re like me there is this feeling of a slump.  We start the fast with enthusiasm and zeal, but we’ve come this far and it seems that we’re tiring of the whole thing.  Besides during this Lenten period, it seems that there are “slumps” everywhere, the markets have really slumped, the employment picture is slumping, and even the new president’s popularity numbers are slumping.  I guess we are not immune to the sense of dissatisfaction even with the course of our progress towards the Great Feast. 

Sign of Victory
Sign of Victory

 As a young boy, I remember my dad, who was a priest, always placed the Holy Cross on a tray of bright yellow daffodils.  This sign of spring and the promise of the coming of Pascha seemed enough when I was that age.  Now, I don’t know!  I am much older; life is much more complex.  Our consumer society offers so many distractions and alternatives.  In every Orthodox parish there is the increased availability of services during this period, but there is also all those other things that sidetrack us.  It is so easy to say not tonight, not this morning, next time.  So what should we do?  I know you’re probably thinking … Here it comes – the scolding and the guilt trip.  Actually no – because this year I am more at fault than most of you!  Well, again, what do we do?  I really don’t know.  Last night, when I was trying to think how to structure this entry something came to me.  Maybe, what I need is to quiet the clamor.  The word that came to mind, which reminded me of St. Gregory Palamas, is hesychia, silence or quiet.  This might be the time to sit down, shut the world out and let God speak to me and tell me how to fight the slump.  What a novel idea listen, don’t think – don’t talk – just listen. As you probably guessed, the concept of not thinking and being quiet is difficult for me.  I’ll let you know if it helps.

Adams Longing

As we enter the second week of Great Lent, I would like to reflect on a theme, which recurs   throughout the hymns of the Church during this period.  Repeatedly, we are reminded of the image of the fallen Adam seated outside the gates of Paradise lamenting his state.

Adam's Grief
Adam's Grief

 Most strikingly this image is brought to our attention during the first and fifth week of the Great Fast with the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  This beautiful piece of poetry is more than words and chant.  The difficulty that we experience is that the theology and metaphors are lovely, but how do we relate to them in this day and age.  The theme of repentance has been developed from the pre-lenten Sundays until this time in Lent, so let’s leave that one aside.  I would like to think about an aspect of the illustration of Adam sitting in front of the gates pondering his circumstance.  The idea that we must sit back and consider “where we are” is one painfully close to home.  When I think about the things that must have been going through Adam’s mind, one possibility keeps bothering me more than any other.  It occurs to me that he might very well be thinking about being separated from a friend, a real friend, one who genuinely cared for him.  Was Adam aware of his new condition? How aware was he of the emptiness in his heart and did he long to have God back in his life?

 During these difficult days, people out of work (me included), the economy in a tailspin, major companies in trouble and the markets very unpredictable, the sense of uncertainty can be overwhelming.  What must Adam have been thinking? Talk about an uncertain future!  Did he ask the same questions we all have asked?  Where do I go from here?  My world has changed, it will never again be the same, – can I cope?  Where has God gone?  The reality is that even after Adam had disobeyed God’s law; God came looking for him.  The plan of salvation was already in process.  God loved so much He already had humanity’s restoration willed through the grace of the mystery of the incarnation of the Son through the Holy Spirit, for our sake.  As Christians, we live in the light of Christ’s Resurrection.  Our fallen nature has been lifted out of Hades,  just as our ancestral parents were seized by the hand of Christ and rescued from darkness.  When we think that our life is so dark know that Christ our God is there in the darkness waiting to lift us up by the hand.

The True Helping Hand
The True Helping Hand

                                                   Our prayer should be: “O my God, here is my hand!”

The Beginning of Great Lent 2009

 AS OUR HOLY ORTHODOX CHURCH PREPARES US GREAT LENT, SHE PREPARES US FOR A JOURNEY.  SHE SPEAKS TO US CONCERNING OUR JOURNEY TO PASCHA.  THE JOURNEY WE BEGIN IS TO THE CROSS, TO THE TOMB AND TO THE GLORIOUS RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD, GOD AND SAVIOUR, JESUS CHRIST.  WE ARE REMINDED THAT WE WILL NOT MAKE THIS JOURNEY ALONE, BUT THAT WE WILL JOURNEY WITH THE LORD, AND TRAVEL WITH OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN CHRIST.  PREPARING FOR THIS JOURNEY WE ARE NOT GIVEN A LIST OF THINGS TO BRING, NOR DOES THE CHURCH TELL US WHAT TO EAT OR NOT TO EAT ON THE ROAD.  HOWEVER, SHE SPEAKS DIRECTLY TO US ABOUT OUR ATTITUDES.  LENT CAN BE SUMMED UP BY THE PHRASE, “SHARING AND CARING” INSTEAD OF “DO’S OR DON’TS”.  ATTITUDES CONCERNING OUR NEIGHBOUR ARE OF THE PRIMARY IMPORTANCE DURING THIS PREPARATION FOR PASCHA.  IN OUR HEARTS, EACH OF US KNOWS THAT OUR LIVES ARE FAR FROM PERFECT.  WE REALIZE THAT WE MUST SEEK FORGIVENESS FROM GOD FOR FALLING AWAY FROM HIM, BY PUTTING HIM OUT OF FOCUS IN OUR LIVES.  WE KNOW THAT THIS FORGIVENESS IS NECESSARY FOR OUR RETURN TO HIM.  AT THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT FAST, WE ARE TOLD THAT THE FORGIVENESS, WHICH WE SEEK FROM GOD IS CONDITIONAL.  IT IS CONTINGENT ON OUR ATTITUDES TOWARD OTHERS. ARE WE PREPARED TO SHARE OURSELVES WITH OUR NEIGHBOUR?  ARE WE PREPARED TO CARE WITH COMPASSION?  CAN WE FORGIVE OTHERS?  DO WE CARRY ANIMOSITY IN OUR HEARTS, WHILE SEEKING FORGIVENESS FOR OURSELVES?  OUR FORGIVENESS FROM GOD IS COMMENSURATE WITH THE FORGIVENESS WE OFFER THOSE WHO HAVE OFFENDED US.  THE GREAT CHRISTIAN MARTYR OF THIS LAST CENTURY, DIETRICH BONHOEFFER SUMMED UP OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS IN THIS WAY:   

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

” IN A WORD, LIVE TOGETHER IN FORGIVENESS OF YOUR SINS, FOR WITHOUT IT NO HUMAN FELLOWSHIP CAN SURVIVE.  dON’T INSIST ON YOUR RIGHTS, DON’T BLAME EACH OTHER, DON’T JUDGE OR CONDEMN EACH OTHER, DON’T FIND FAULT WITH EACH OTHER, BUT ACCEPT EACH OTHER AS YOU ARE AND FORGIVE EACH OTHER EVERY DAY FROM THE BOTTOM OF YOUR HEARTS.”

AS WE BEGIN OUR LENTEN JOURNEY, LET US NOT BE SO CONCERNED WITH WHAT ENTERS OUR MOUTHS, AS WHAT COMES OUT OF THEM.  AS WE PROVIDE FOR OUR SPIRIT IN ADDITIONAL PRAYER AND SOUL SEARCHING.  LET US SUBDUE OUR EGOS AND OUR JUDGEMENT OF THOSE WE ENCOUNTER.  LET US TURN TO GOD IN REPENTANCE WITH HUMILITY, ONLY AFTER WE SOFTEN THE HARDNESS OF OUR OWN HEARTS AND GRANT FORGIVENESS TO THOSE CLOSE TO US.  WE MUST REACH OUT TO THOSE WHO HAVE HURT US OR OFFENDED US.  EQUALLY WE MUST GENEROUSLY ACCEPT OTHERS SEEKING OUR FORGIVENESS.  AS THE HYMNS OF VESPERS OF FORGIVENESS REVEAL:

 “REJOICING IN THE VIRTUES OF THE SPIRIT – MAY WE PERSEVERE WITH LOVE, AND SO BE COUNTED WORTHY TO SEE THE SOLEMN PASSION OF CHRIST OUR GOD, AND WITH GREAT SPIRITUAL GLADNESS TO BEHOLD HIS HOLY RESURRECTION.”