Sunday, March 17, 2013
Fifth Sunday of Great Lent: St Mary of Egypt
Mary of Egypt, it is said, ran away from home at the age of twelve to live a dissolute life in the city of Alexandria. Although she is said to have prostituted herself to earn a living, as often as not she would engage in sexual activity freely, earning her keep through begging and spinning flax. So committed was she to sexual pleasure that, after years of living this way, she went to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, not in fact to venerate the Cross as the other pilgrims, but out of a perverse desire to draw the pilgrims into her own lust, luring them away from their holy desire to have union not with God, but with her. It is only when a divine force prevented her from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that Mary, filled with remorse, repented, and came to commit herself to a life of severe asceticism.
Many of us, even if we do not live at the extremes of Mary either in lust or in asceticism, nonetheless follow her earlier, wicked example. If we do not abandon ourselves to sin materially as she did, like her we imagine that we have the resources to make a life entirely of and by ourselves. We survive by our own meager efforts, and in the remaining time we have during the day, we indulge whatever pleasures strike our fancy. In the face of the preaching of the Gospel, especially when it challenges how we have chosen to live, we would prefer to draw our fellow Christians into complicity with our wickedness, or at least seek out the hidden faults of our clergy, and so hope in this hypocritical way to blunt and dull any critique they might launch against our sins.
In contrast to the self-sufficiency so craved by Mary and by ourselves, we are confronted with Jesus Christ: But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. In the face of our insistence that we live or die by our own work, or that we contribute something so that we can claim to have be the principal authors of our life, the saving work of Jesus reminds us that the whole of our redemption is not our work, not our project, but rather his. It is not our hands that made the tabernacle, but his, not the blood of anything or anyone else which was shed, but his own.
Yet, rather than belittle us, this work of Christ's, while it undoes our delusions of self-sufficiency, also serves to liberates us. It liberates us from the fear that our resources are not enough. It liberates us from the worry that what have have contributed is so crooked, so contrary to love, that whatever God might do for us, we must always, even in eternity, live a diminished life. Rather, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that the redemption was worked by God Incarnate, and by him alone, and therefore its worth, its glory, is undiminished by our sins and waywardness. We can, we must receive it from him, but in receiving it, it comes to us already glorious, already splendid, already heart-breakingly beautiful.
This beauty, this splendor, this glory is who we have become in the work of Jesus Christ. With Mary of Egypt, can we not bend the knee in penitence, and so enter into the wonders of the kingdom prepared for us by the Father?