In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the first gospel reading, Christ plainly tells his disciples what was about to happen. They were on their way to Jerusalem for the last time, and the disciples knew that this was a dangerous move because it put Christ’s enemies in a position to get at him, and they were well aware of the fact that they wanted to get after him. So his disciples were afraid. He said, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death and shall deliver him to the Gentiles, and they shall mock him and shall scourge him and shall spit upon him and shall kill him. And the third day he shall rise again.”
Christ knew exactly what was going to happen to him. It wasn’t that Christ got caught off guard or was caught in a trap. He intended to suffer, to die, and to rise from the dead. And the reason why Christ had this intention was for me and for you, because it was for our salvation. God is holy, and sinners cannot abide in his presence. We read about in the prophecy of Isaiah when Isaiah saw a vision of God in the temple, and Isaiah wasn’t someone who was living an unrighteous life. He was devoted to God, but when he saw God high on his throne, his response was, “Woe is me, for I am undone because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips!”
Sin separates us from God, but Christ came to take away our sins, to free us from the bond that we couldn’t break and to pay the debt that we couldn’t pay. This reading ends with this phrase: “For the Son of man came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life, a ransom for many.” We are like captives or slaves that need to be ransomed to be set free, and Christ paid that debt for us. No matter how far we may have strayed, if we’ll only come to Christ and receive his mercy, there is forgiveness, healing, and restoration.
And this is exemplified by St. Mary of Egypt, whom we celebrate today. If you attended the Great Canon on Wednesday, you would have heard her entire life read. It’s read every year on that day, and then we follow that up with a service in her honor today. And also, on April 1, she is commemorated, so she’s commemorated on three occasions.
St. Mary of Egypt was not born a pagan. Her life doesn’t spell this out, but she clearly had to have been baptized; for one thing, she had a Christian name. And yet she walked away from the Christian life, and she entered into a life of debauchery. And yet, when she went to Jerusalem, on a whim, and tried to enter into the Holy Sepulcher and was unable to enter and finally realized that it was because her sins had separated her from God, her heart was touched, and she looked to an icon of the Virgin Mary and began to ask for her prayers. The Gospel message that she no doubt had already heard prior to this point but had ignored finally registered. Then she was allowed to enter into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to venerate the Cross of Christ, the Cross of Christ that paid that debt.
Then we’re told that she went and was told by a voice to cross over the river Jordan. She went first to a church that was on the banks of the Jordan that was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and received holy Communion. One interesting thing about this that’s also not spelled out in the Life is that, having lived the kind of life that she lived, if the canons were strictly enforced, she would not have been able to have communed for many, many years, but the Church in its mercy recognized that she had had a complete change. And the purpose of the canons and the purpose of penances is not to punish—it’s not to check the boxes or to fulfill the letter of the law—it’s to bring about our salvation and our repentance. In her case, that had already been accomplished, so she was communed on that day, and then she went into the desert and lived a life of repentance.
While we have breath, we can still repent. Many people grow up in the Church and, like St. Mary of Egypt, though they’ve been given baptism, though they have everything available to them in the Church, they turn away from that. If that describes you, today is the day of salvation. Now is the appointed time. You can come back to Christ. We shouldn’t presume on tomorrow. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to have other opportunities, but as long as we have breath, there is repentance. So we shouldn’t allow the demons to tell us that it’s too late for us, that we’ve gone too far away from God, and that there’s no way for us to come back, because if that were true of anybody, it would have been true of St. Mary of Egypt, but in her case it wasn’t. She not only was allowed back into communion, but she became one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church.
Another thing that we can learn from the Life of St. Mary of Egypt is that no matter how close we are to God, we can always draw closer, because in that Life we’re also told about St. Zosimas, who was a man who had lived his life in monasticism, dedicated to God. He reached a point where he thought that there really wasn’t anything that anyone else could teach him, because he had mastered every form of asceticism. And yet, he prayed to God that he would show him if there was more that he could learn, and he encountered St. Mary of Egypt and he realized how much further away he was from God than she was. So there’s never any point where we can say, “I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do. I can coast my way into heaven.” Wherever we are in our life, we need to rededicate ourselves and strive and struggle to draw closer to God.
We have only one more week of Lent, and then we have Holy Week. Every year that I’ve been Orthodox, it seems like Lent goes by faster, and that’s why at the beginning of the Fast I encourage you all to try to pour yourself into it from the very beginning, because I’m sure many of you are standing here thinking that you haven’t done what you really wanted to do with this Fast. Well, there’s still time. Make the most of what days remain of this Fast, and then the next time a fast begins, try to begin it with even greater effort than you did this one.
But God is there. He seeks our salvation. He is not looking for reasons to send us to hell; he’s looking for reasons to save us. He looked so hard, in fact, that he became a Man and suffered the most horrible kind of death for us, because he wanted to save us. So he is calling to you today to draw closer to him, wherever you are spiritually, and to come and to know him and to have communion with him. Amen.