Selfless Service Over Self-Centered Desire

5th Sunday of Lent, St Mary of Egypt, Mark 10: 32-45

Human beings have an amazing capacity to miss the point, to become blind to truths that should be obvious. We often do that because we become so preoccupied and distracted with our own agendas and desires that we ignore everything else. That is especially the case when the truth goes strongly against our inclinations by telling us what we do not want to hear.

That is what James and John did when they asked for choice positions of honour right after Jesus Christ had told them that He was to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. They were apparently so consumed by their desires for prominence and power that they refused to hear the Lord saying that He was nothing like an earthly king. They boasted of being prepared to follow the Saviour without having any idea of what that would mean. He responded by making clear that the path to true greatness was to follow His way of selfless service. “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

As we begin the last week of Lent, it should be clear to us all that we have not earned a place of honour in God’s reign. If we have practiced the spiritual disciplines of Lent with any integrity and honesty, we will know primarily our own weakness and brokenness. By revealing how easily we are distracted and how enslaved we are to our self-centered desires and habits, they show us that we cannot heal our own souls. And if we have not devoted ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving at all in the previous weeks of Lent, we should confess that in humility and thus gain a greater awareness that we stand in constant need of the Lord’s gracious mercy. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Regardless of how we have approached Lent so far, we must not become paralyzed with a sense of obsessive guilt for not living up to a standard of perfection, for not making ourselves worthy of the mercy of Christ. To do so is simply a form of self-centered pride, for it is impossible to earn grace as a reward for good behavior. Becoming great among the Lord’s servants means laying down our lives for others, lowering ourselves by placing the needs and interests of others before our own. That is the opposite of a self-centered obsession to prove that we are worthy of anything.

Today we remember St. Mary of Egypt, who had lived a grossly immoral life, but then gave herself up in repentance for decades in the desert, where she became a remarkably holy saint. Instead of continuing to gratify her addiction to sexual pleasure, she died to self by rejecting everything that was a hindrance to the healing of her soul through incredibly rigorous repentance for the rest of her long life. She knew that such disciplines did not somehow put God in her debt, but were ways of opening herself to receive the gracious healing of the Lord, which we never deserve.

St. Mary of Egypt was not like James and John in trying to use the Saviour to get what she wanted. Instead, she freely obeyed a divine command to turn away from fulfilling her obsessive desires by uniting herself to the One Who offered His life as a ransom to free us all from slavery to sin and death. Our Lord’s disciples ultimately found victory over their passions in different ways, for they had to learn that greatness in the Kingdom comes through selfless service to the point of suffering and death, not by yearning after what the world calls power and success.

In the remaining days of Lent, we all have the opportunity to embrace our Lord’s way of selfless service in relation to those we encounter on a regular basis in our families, in our parish, at work, at school, and in our larger communities. We all have the opportunity to confess how we have enslaved ourselves to self-centered desires and then to take the steps we can to turn away from them. We all have the opportunity to fill our minds with holy things and give less attention to whatever fuels our unholy passions. We all have the opportunity to follow the example of St. Mary of Egypt in doing what it takes to find the healing of our souls. If our Lord could make a great saint out of her, then how can anyone remain paralyzed in guilt? Our great High Priest offered Himself on the Cross and rose in glory on the third day in order to save sinners, to restore all who bear His image and likeness. Thanks be to God, that includes even people as broken as you and me. In the coming week, let us open the eyes of our souls to this glorious truth through selfless service, humble prayer, and genuine repentance.
Fr. Philip LeMasters

The acquisition of holiness is not the exclusive business of monks, as certain people think. People with families are also called to holiness, as are those in all kinds of professions, who live in the world, since the commandment about perfection and holiness is given not only to monks, but to all people.
Hieromartyr Onuphry Gagaluk

Saturday of the Holy and Righteous Friend of Christ, Lazarus

On the Saturday before Holy Week, the Orthodox Church commemorates a major feast of the year, the miracle of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ when he raised Lazarus from the dead after he had lain in the grave four days. Here, at the end of Great Lent and the forty days of fasting and penitence, the Church combines this celebration with that of Palm Sunday. In triumph and joy the Church bears witness to the power of Christ over death and exalts Him as King before entering the most solemn week of the year, one that leads the faithful in remembrance of His suffering and death and concludes with the great and glorious Feast of Pascha.

According to an ancient tradition, it is said that Lazarus was thirty years old when the Lord raised him; then he lived another thirty years on Cyprus and there reposed in the Lord. It is furthermore related that after he was raised from the dead, he never laughed till the end of his life, but that once only, when he saw someone stealing a clay vessel, he smiled and said, “Clay stealing clay.” His grave is situated in the city of Kition, having the inscription: “Lazarus the four days dead and friend of Christ.” In 890 his sacred relics were transferred to Constantinople by Emperor Leo the Wise, at which time undoubtedly the Emperor composed his stichera for Vespers, “Wishing to behold the tomb of Lazarus . . .”

St Mary of Egypt

Her feast is set on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. She is the symbol of contrition, conversion and austerity.

The memory of this Saint is celebrated on April 1, where her life is recorded. Since the end of the holy Forty Days is drawing nigh, it has been appointed for this day also, so that if we think it hard to practice a little abstinence forty days, we might be roused by the heroism of her who fasted in the wilderness forty-seven years; and also that the great loving-kindness of God, and His readiness to receive the repentant, might be demonstrated in very deed.

“While the end of lent is near so idlers and sinners may be aroused by repentance, having as an example this saint” (Festal Commemoration)

The recorder of the life of this wonderful saint was St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem. A hieromonk, the elder Zossima, had gone off at one time during the Great Fast a twenty-days’ walk into the wilderness across the Jordan, He suddenly caught sight of a human being with a withered and naked body and with hair as white as snow, who fled in its nakedness from Zossima’s sight. The elder ran a long way, until this figure stopped at a stream and called: “Father Zossima, forgive me for the Lord’s sake. I cannot turn round to you, for I am a naked woman.” Then Zossima threw her his outer cloak, and she wrapped herself in it and turned round to him. The elder was amazed at hearing his name from the lips of this unknown woman. After considerable pressure on his part, she told him her life-story. She had been born in Egypt, and had lived as a prostitute in Alexandria from the age of twelve, spending seventeen years in this way of life. Urged by the lustful fire of the flesh, she one day got into a ship that was sailing for Jerusalem. Arriving at the Holy City, she made to go into one of the churches to venerate the Precious Cross, but some unseen power prevented her from entering. In great fear, she turned to an icon of the Mother of God that was in the entrance, and begged her to let her go in and venerate the Cross, confessing her sin and impurity and promising that she would then go wherever the Most Pure led her. She was then allowed to enter the church. After venerating the Cross, she went out again to the entrance and, standing in front of the icon, thanked the Mother of God. Then she heard a voice; ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace.’ She immediately bought three loaves of bread and set off for the Jordan, arriving there the same evening. She received Communion the following morning in the monastery of St John, and then crossed the river. She spent forty-eight whole years in the wilderness in the greatest torments, in terror, in struggles with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts. She fed only on plants. After that, when she was standing in prayer, Zossima saw her lifted up in the air. She begged him to bring her Communion the next year on the bank of the Jordan, and she would come to receive it.

The following year, Zossima came with the Holy Gifts to the bank of the Jordan in the evening, and stood in amazement as he saw her cross the river. He saw her coming in the moonlight and. arriving on the further bank. make the sign of the Cross over the river. She then walked across it as though it were dry land. When she had received Communion, she begged him to come again the following year to the same stream by which they had first met. Zossima went, and found her dead body there on that spot.

Above her head in the sand was written: ‘Abba Zossima. bury in this place the body of the humble Mary. Give dust to dust. I passed away on April 1st, on the very night of Christ’s Passion, after communion of the divine Mysteries.’ Zossima learned her name for the first time. and also the awe-inspiring marvel that she had arrived at that stream the previous year on the night of the same day on which she had received Communion — a place that he had taken twenty days to reach.

And thus Zossima buried the body of the wonderful saint, Mary of Egypt. When he returned to the monastery, he recounted the whole story of her life and the wonders to which he had been an eyewitness. Thus the Lord glorifies repentant sinners. St Mary is also commemorated in the Fifth Week of the Great Fast. The Church holds her up before the faithful in these days of the Fast as a model of repentance. She entered into rest in about 530.

“Came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The world still looks down upon humble selfless service that puts others first, but that is the way of Christ’s salvation and of all true discipleship.

On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we remember St. Mary of Egypt, someone who also had to abandon the ways of the world in order to follow Christ. She had been a prostitute and a slave to her own perverse sexual passions. Her life was an obscene scandal, but that changed when an invisible force prevented her from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She then asked for the help of the Theotokos, entered the church to venerate the Holy Cross, and obeyed a divine command to spend the rest of her life in repentance and strict asceticism as a hermit in the desert. When the monk Zosima stumbled upon her almost 50 years later, he was amazed at her holiness. But like all the saints, she was aware only of her sins and her ongoing need for God’s mercy.

Like hateful violence, sexual immorality stands as another symptom of fallen humanity’s spiritual disease. Regardless of what is popular or easy today, the faithful and lifelong union of man and woman in marriage remains the only context for the sexual joining of two human beings that the Body of Christ has ever blessed or affirmed. Marriage is a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church and is ultimately for our growth in holiness, for our salvation. Passions and desires may tempt us to other kinds of behaviours and relationships, whether we are married or single. Regardless of the particulars, no kind of physical union outside of true marriage provides a way to participate more fully in Christ’s victory over sin and death. We will only make our spiritual state worse by engaging in other activities.

St. Mary of Egypt presents a powerful counter-cultural example that, yes, it is possible to resist even deeply rooted temptations and to turn away from corrupt ways of living that have become all too familiar. Do not accept the lie that life was so much easier for people long ago. Human nature has not changed and our struggles today are surely no harder than hers. When St. Mary of Egypt prayed before the icon of the Theotokos, she acknowledged for the first time the sad truth about her life. She had heard in the past that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and now she knew that she was one. And that humble confession was the beginning of a life of such holiness that we devote a Sunday in Lent each year to her memory.

Have you ever noticed that we do not hide repentant sinners in our Church? Instead, we put them on icons and sing about them because they are wonderful examples of the kind of people we hope to become by God’s mercy. So take heart and keep hope alive. The same Lord who patiently corrected power-hungry disciples and who made a great saint out of an enthusiastic prostitute wants to make each of us shine with the light of holiness also. But for that to happen, we have to follow their example of repentance by humbly setting right what has gone wrong in our lives, serving others in humility, and fighting even our deeply rooted and most appealing passions.

Yes, in Christ Jesus there is hope for us all, no matter what we have done or who we have become. Now, so near the end of Lent, it is time to get over our pride and embarrassment, to take the medicine of confession and repentance, and to follow our Saviour to His cross and empty tomb. For He is still the One who brings light into our darkened world and heals all our wounds.

Posted by Fr. Philip LeMasters

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