Mary of Egypt, whose Sunday we celebrate today, valued all the temporal ‘attractions,’ the way of the world; she valued the lusts of the flesh more than all else. Running away from home at 12, she made herself a harlot. For seventeen years, she was self-abused—she didn’t see the image of God in herself or in others, but made herself an object of insatiable passions.
When we seek or give into the vanities of this world over the Kingdom of Heaven—power, influence, material wealth, we harm ourselves and others, whom we judge in our pride and envy. We can make ourselves ‘feel better’, at least temporarily, by putting others down, by giving into the wants of the flesh, by lording it over others.
But this broken pattern, this way of the world, is a dead-end street: good looks fade with age, power and influence too are temporal and riches can quickly turn into poverty with a bad economy or a natural disaster. If our hope is in any of these things, we’re truly to be pitied for all these things are passing away.
Because He loves us, the Lord desires better for us; He desires we live with eternity before our eyes, that is, to understand our identity as those who are hidden in Him. He would have us place our hope in His changelessness and not in those things that are quickly passing away. He desires to help us so we can put off sin and death, and cleave to Him who is Life.
Worldly success, power, and influence feed our egos; the proud person cannot see God or be united with Him because God Himself is humble, not proud. Pride, as such, is incompatible with communion with Him. God demonstrates Himself to us as the ultimate ‘servant.’ He condescends to us, becoming man, one of His own creatures, to enter into and redeem human nature. He gives His own life to defeat sin and death for us on the cross. He bears with us patiently in our struggles, as a parent bears patiently with his child he loves. He disciplines us in love that we may learn and grow to participate more and more fully in the life that He alone is.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds His disciples that He must suffer torture and death in order to defeat sin and death on our behalf—to make a way for us to inherit the Kingdom prepared for us. These are such stirring words; Christ reveals to them that He must die that mankind may live.
Immediately after telling them that He will die on their behalf, that He Himself is the ultimate, the final Pascha (Passover), the disciples begin vying for who will be on top in His Kingdom. They picture the Kingdom of Heaven just like the way of the world where influence and power politics can put you on top. We can imagine some of the disciples falling prey to this mistaken thinking, because we ourselves might have done the same. Jesus reminds us all that the way of the world won’t get us anywhere in the economy of heaven. What’s valued in the world is poison for the soul that desires the Kingdom of Heaven.
Instead, Jesus shows us a better way by example: a way that enables them and us to commune with the living God, to find freedom from vain and worldly pursuits, lust for power, and covetousness over what we don’t have. He says, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. For even the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
This is also the story of Mary: she was busy wearing out her body and destroying both her body and her soul when she was confronted by the icon of the Holy Theotokos. The icon of the Virgin convicted her with her purity, her humility; she was forbidden entrance into the Holy Church of the Cross in Jerusalem. She couldn’t enter into the holy presence of Christ’s victory over sin and death; she couldn’t bear communion with Him in her present state. The Holy Virgin, whose loving and pure image confronted her, was everything that Mary was not; the Theotokos in her purity, her humility, in her YES to God’s love and calling on her life, in her servanthood and submission, was outwards and inwards a mirror image to Mary’s licentiousness, her vanity, her NO to God and to His likeness in her. Mary knew no love; the Theotokos knew only love.
In her despair over this realization, she desired a change, a new beginning with even greater fervor than she had desired the flesh up until that point—she turned away from her former life that was death and towards a new life in Christ, Who is Life.
After years of self-abuse and giving into the basest of passions, it took Mary seventeen years of intense struggle through prayer and extreme fasting to find freedom and win the victory over her passions—for no one is beyond God’s healing and grace if they are willing to humble themselves, admit and confess their sins before God, as Christ God spoke to the sinful woman who anointed His feet with her tears, saying, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
You may not have the depth of struggles with the passions or pride that Mary did or the woman who anointed Christ’s feet. Perhaps you’re not so enraptured by this world’s temporal vanities, but we all are in need of continued healing and growth in God’s divine grace, in the humility and repentance Mary exemplifies, that Christ God is, if we wish to be in His near presence. We all have need of continued struggle to be freed of the passions and grow in the faith that manifests itself in a servant’s heart and love for those around us.
Our growth in the likeness of God, our return to our full selves—whom God has made us to be as His adopted sons—as those who have “put on Christ” and for whom much has been forgiven, begins with this humility, with our desire to love God more by loving each other right here, in the family of the Church. Only from this starting point of repentance, and forgiveness, do we learn to come outside ourselves to love our brothers in the world, and so, draw them also into the net of Christ’s God’s love and truth.
Fortunately, in a Mission, there are ample opportunities to love and serve, to ‘come outside ourselves’ and grow in humility and Christ-likeness—no where do we see better that the church is truly a family than in a mission where everyone is important and has a responsibility for the growth of the whole: the church doesn’t get set up and taken down for the divine services unless you and I serve, visitors don’t feel welcome unless there’s someone to get here early to welcome them, there’s no ‘trapeza’ unless you and I bring something to share; there are no ‘extras’—all are important—from the narthex to the music stand to the altar and all in between.
Not through worldly power, influence, or self-reliance do we find the fountain of youth; true immortality is found only in participation in the life, the Reality of the Holy Trinity. Through humility and repentance, we grow in love; we become communicants of Life Eternal, children of the Most High God; we grow in those virtues and that Reality that is our true identity in Christ. God has overcome the world and that which partakes of Him will rise up to life eternal. Now, as Holy Week approaches, may we with increased fervor put Christ and His Kingdom first and receive the fruit of our labors, looking unto Christ the Author and Finisher of our Faith. Holy Mother Mary, pray for us sinners!
– Fr. Robert Miclean