The Truth of Great Lent - A Sermon on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt (2024)

The Truth of Great Lent - A Sermon on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt (2024) - Holy Cross Monastery

My brothers and sisters, today we have already reached the final Sunday of Great Lent. In only a few short days, we will once again see Christ resurrecting Lazarus the Four Days Dead; we will once again follow Him as He makes His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; we will once again become witnesses to the great and fearsome events of Holy Week; and finally, we will once again share together in the incomparable joy and exultation of Pascha night. But today, on this last Sunday of the Fast, the Holy Church sets before our eyes that which is the spiritual crown of the entire Lenten season: the life of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt.

Since Holy Scripture tells us that the Lord God “declares the end from the beginning” (cf. Isaiah 46:10), perhaps it is likewise necessary for us to understand the cycle of Lenten Sundays from the beginning before we can truly comprehend their end on this Sunday of St. Mary. Of course, there are a multitude of themes and countless layers of meaning contained in the Sunday commemorations of Great Lent, and time would fail us to do more than merely scratch the surface. And so today I wish to focus simply on one of many such themes: the theme of divine truth.

For centuries, our world has taught us to look for truth within ourselves. Descartes — often called the father of modern philosophy — insisted on accepting only the truth he himself could prove to his own satisfaction, using his own rational mind. Such radical skepticism has become a defining characteristic of the modern world. But of course, such a dry and barren worldview cannot in any way satisfy the human heart, and so it was not long before opposing philosophies began also to arise; for instance, Romanticism in Europe and Transcendentalism in America urged their followers to rely not on reason, but rather upon intuition, emotionalism, and subjective experience in seeking out the truth. But regardless of whether we ourselves are drawn more toward scholarly rationalism or personal intuition, either way the message of the modern world remains clear: in the words of Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things.”

Although few today are familiar with the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Shelley, or Emerson, nevertheless the influence of their ideas on the modern world — and therefore on each and every one of us — has been incredibly profound. And though their worldviews fundamentally contradict one another, yet both in equal measure work to cultivate within our hearts that supremely pernicious attitude Fr. Seraphim (Rose) often described as “knowing better.” To whatever extent we think we “know better” — to whatever extent we put our trust in our own thoughts, feelings, intuitions, or reasonings — to that same extent we cut ourselves off from “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

This is the message of the first Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday we call “the Triumph of Orthodoxy.” On this Sunday we anathematize those impious souls who dared subject divine truth to their own proud and obstinate minds, while we bless the memory of those righteous ones who clung with humility and steadfast love to “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Church reminds us quite simply that Jesus Christ is Himself “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6) — and that besides Him there is no other. Therefore if we ourselves desire to know the truth, we must first lay aside all earthly wisdom as well as our own vain imaginings, and turn instead with humility of heart to Jesus, the Son of God, “Who [is] the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person” (Heb. 1:3)

On the second Sunday of Great Lent — the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas — the Church testifies to us that this same “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” is revealed to us in very truth “in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). We Orthodox have been given to know with absolute certainty — through the unfailing witness of the saints — that God has opened to us sinners His own divine life itself. We have been given to know that God became incarnate not only to forgive us our sins, and not merely to reveal to us divine truth from a distance (as mediated by our rational minds), but above all in order to make us by grace what He Himself is by nature (cf. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, et al.). And of course, scholastic understanding alone is in no way sufficient to bring us to "the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) — no, such a glorious and incomprehensible gift can only be given by the Mysteries of the Church, yoked together with the inner life of prayer and repentance.

And though deification is indeed the free gift of God, yet it is a gift (to borrow the words of one of the poets) “costing not less than everything.” This is the truth revealed to us on the third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross: that Christ did not ascend the Cross instead of us, but rather so that He could be with us in all things: even in suffering, and even in death. Therefore let us never give in to the seductive desire to somehow escape the Cross; rather, let us take up the Cross with eagerness and irrepressible joy, knowing that in this world it is only on the Cross that we can truly and completely be with our Lord. After all, He Himself has told us over and over again: “whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).

This may seem to us an exceedingly hard saying; but in truth, it is not so. Rather, it is as that most spiritual of all poets, St. Ephraim the Syrian, once wrote: “Let us patiently suffer hardship, in order to avoid the hardship of empty suffering.” Because despite all the false promises of the modern world — despite even its many wonders of science and medicine and technology — nevertheless it is absolutely certain that our lives in this fallen world will always and inescapably remain full of suffering and pain and death. In fact, the modern world proves to us beyond any doubt that the more we try to insulate ourselves from external suffering, the more our inward suffering inexorably increases — eventually becoming all but impossible to bear. No, my brothers and sisters, the profound words of St. Ephraim remind us of the great truth that the choice we face is by no means whether or not to suffer, but rather whether or not our suffering will have any meaning. So let us take our inspiration from the Church’s Lenten hymnody concerning the holy martyrs: “…they said to one another, ‘Even if we do not die today, yet someday we shall surely die… Let us turn necessity into an act of generous love… and let us purchase life with death.’” For indeed, the truth is that only by dying can we at long last begin to live. As Christ said: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:24-25).

Yet all this by no means contradicts the great truth that Jesus Christ came into this world to free us from suffering, or the truth that all suffering is ultimately the result of our fall into sin. And so it is precisely our Heavenly Physician’s art of healing us from our suffering that the Church celebrates on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday dedicated to perhaps the most profound psychologist who ever lived: St. John Climacus. His book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, has an all but unmatched ability to reveal to us the truth about our own minds and hearts, and about the many passions which so insidiously infect and afflict them. Yet St. John’s teachings have the power not only to reveal the truth about our inmost selves, but also to bring divine healing to even the most grievous spiritual sicknesses from which we suffer. For truly, there is no depth of sin and depravity from which the grace of God is not able to deliver us — no matter how far gone we might be.

And this brings us to today: the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. She is the most powerful example in history of God’s incredible power to transform even the most wretched of sinners into nothing less than “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), into “the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). She is the manifestation of the truth of all of God’s promises, and the living fruit of all the spiritual seeds we ourselves have been seeking to sow during Great Lent. Having once again heard her absolutely amazing life read in church just a few days ago, each of us should be left pondering one supremely important question: how can we become like her?

Indeed, this is the central question of Great Lent itself: having been made the beneficiaries of such a superabundant spiritual inheritance, how are we to make all these infinite treasures of grace and divine truth our own? Seeing that God has given us so much, what is it that God asks from us in return? In short: what is the reason we are not yet saints?

Because surely we cannot possibly make the excuse that God Himself has not yet granted us the necessary grace. If we are not yet convinced of this, all we need do is look again at the life of St. Mary of Egypt. She grew up in utter debauchery, as isolated as anyone can be from the grace-filled life of the Church; so completely had she cut herself off from God that she was physically unable even to walk across the threshold of a church. And even after her repentance she partook but once of Holy Communion, and from then on until the very day she died she had no access whatsoever to churches or to monasteries, to the Holy Mysteries or the divine Scriptures, to the Church’s prayers and hymns and written teachings, to a spiritual father, or even to so much as a single friend or fellow-struggler. In short, she spent her entire Christian life completely deprived of the countless blessings and helps and spiritual aids which we ourselves scorn and take for granted every single day. Yet she is a saint — and we are not.

So what was it that she had, and we do not? Well, quite simply, she had what that other St. Mary likewise had: “the one thing needful,” the simple willingness to give herself entirely to God.

This is truly the only thing that God wants from us, as is written already in the Old Testament: “My son, give me thine heart” (Prov. 23:26). There is nothing more demanded of us than this, and nothing more is required than this for us to become “the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). If we give God this one thing, the only thing that we truly have to give — our freedom — then He will in turn give us all things in heaven and on earth, and infinitely more besides: He will fill us with Himself.

And the life of St. Mary proves to us beyond all doubt that none of our sins, none of our passions, and none of our circumstances can in any way stop this from happening. The only thing that can possibly prevent God from making us into saints is our own unwillingness to let Him do so.

Just yesterday we too, like St. Mary, stood together before the icon of the Mother of God, calling out to Her with our whole hearts through the beautiful Akathist Hymn. And just as that one moment of prayer was enough to transform St. Mary’s entire life (both in this world and in the next), so too our brief time of prayer before the Mother of God is already more than enough to transfigure our own lives also — if only we ourselves do not forsake Her, but rather steadfastly imitate St. Mary of Egypt who said:

…always I turned to the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking Her to extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. I always had her as my Helper and the Accepter of my repentance. And thus I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. Since then even until now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.

But let us have no illusions. Despite the unmatched sincerity of her repentance, nevertheless — as we just heard — St. Mary still had to struggle for seventeen long years with the constant unspeakable temptations which inevitably came upon her as a result of her past sinful and passionate life. And so too it will be with us. Because — as we all know but so often forget — repentance is not something accomplished in a single moment, but rather continuously, throughout the entire remainder of our life. And though the only thing required of us is indeed the offering up of our own free will, nevertheless that “one needful thing” is undoubtedly the hardest thing that any of us will ever do.

Yet St. Mary also proves to us that we never need do it alone. Even if we find ourselves utterly forsaken by all earthly companionship and aid, yet we will always have with us our Protectress: the All-Holy Mother of God. And though we might fall backward into sin ten thousand times each day, nevertheless the gates of repentance remain always open to us, and the grace of God stands constantly ready to make even the worst of sinners into the greatest of saints.

So let us be of steadfast courage and unwavering hope as we complete this final week of the Fast. Let us place ourselves always under the protection of our Heavenly Queen, offering up to God — with broken hearts and humble spirits — our shattered and misshapen will, with firm faith that one day soon He will resurrect our souls deadened by sin, just as surely as He will raise up Lazarus the Four Days Dead only a few short days from now. And let each one of us strive to make our own the sincere and total repentance of St. Mary of Egypt, which in very truth is the only thing God needs to make us all into gods by grace.

+Through the intercessions of the Theotokos and the prayers of our venerable mother Mary of Egypt, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen!

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