As we stand a few days away from the fifth and final Sunday of Lent, I am shocked that it has already come to this. But in some way, it seems all too appropriate as we focus our attention on St. Mary of Egypt, the example par excellence of the fulfillment of our own ascetic journey during these last five weeks. By putting St. Mary at the center of our focus, the Church gives us one final, hope-filled push to reassure us that our ascetic endeavor is not pointless.
We began Lent by celebrating the use of icons in worship as evidence of God’s working in and through human flesh to bring forth true and living icons of Himself. And didn’t we just learn about St. Gregory Palamas and his belief that human beings could exist in intimate knowledge and true experience of God?
And I know the Church just placed Christ’s Cross in front of us to encourage us as we each take up our own cross and follow Christ. Of course, as we take up our cross and follow Him, we learned from St. John Climacus that this following is a process that begins with the renunciation of the life of this world and ends in communion with the life of the world to come.
St. Mary represents the fullness of each of these lessons. When the elder Zosimas comes to her, he finds her walking on water in imitation of Christ, having spent the entire last 40 years seeking fellowship with Him. Through extreme ascetic striving (living only off of what she could find in the desert), she took up her cross after a complete and utter renunciation of all that her life had been before. For Orthodox Christians, St. Mary of Egypt is placed before us as the model after which we should design our own lives.
She is evidence that it can be done.
And she is also evidence that it won’t be easy.
St. Mary was brought to a sharp awareness of herself when she tried to enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher but was mystically stopped from doing so. As she attempted to enter the church, she was confronted by her own impurity, her own sinfulness, her own need to take up the cross and follow Christ. If it was this way for her, then how can I possibly expect to escape such self-confrontation?
These last five weeks have been some of the most personally grueling, embarrassing, and frustrating weeks of my life. On Sunday, the deacon at our church reminded me of St. John Chrysostom’s convicting question, “What good is it if you don't eat meat or poultry, and yet you bite and devour your fellow man?” Sadly, I have seen all too clearly how readily I feast on my brothers and sisters.
I have acted impatiently. I have acted unkindly. I have said things I don’t think or mean, and I have thought mean things I didn’t say. I have accused. I have blamed. I have resented. I have judged and failed to forgive.
But at least I’ve eaten vegan. Sometimes.
The level of my self-deception, in many ways, knows no limits, and it is the job of the Fast to uncover my attachments, my delusions, and my false securities. It is the work of Great Lent to come face to face with my complete and utter need to be transformed by God’s grace, from the miserable wretch that I am into the living, breathing Icon of His Son that He calls me to be.
St. Mary answered that call, and she encourages us the rest of us to do so, too.
She encourages us to confront ourselves and, in doing so, truly find ourselves. She encourages us to ask ourselves what we think want (what we really, really want) ... and then to let it go and to turn to the Lord in faith. Because all too often we don’t know what we want (what we really, really want) - or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t know what we ought to want.
Which is what leads me to my consideration of the Gospel reading this coming Sunday. Because more times than not, I find that I am way more like Christ’s disciples than I ever thought, and it’s usually not in that holy, inspiring, we-left-everything-to-follow-you kind of way. It’s usually in that kind of way that likely to make Jesus #FacePalm when I ask for something that I clearly don’t understand.
In Sunday’s Gospel, not two verses after Jesus has described the painful, gruesome, and utterly humiliating death that awaits Him in Jerusalem, James and John (those lovable brothers) approach Christ and boldly say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mk. 10:35). Christ patiently entertains their request, which they then make: “In your Kingdom, one of us sits at Your right, and the other at Your left.”
How often do we too seek this glory? How often do we boast in our fasting (even if only to ourselves) as if our 40-day endeavour were really all that braggable? How much is it that we want to promote our own selves in this, so that everyone will see us seated in glory at the head of the Lord’s table?
But Christ’s response is compassionate and clear. He tells James and John, and He tells us: “You do not know what you ask” (Mk. 10:38). He reminds them that He is headed toward His death, a death that is lowly and of ill repute. He will die at the hands of violent men, and He will lay down His life for the life of the world.
Then He asks them, and He asks us: “Are you in?”
His glory is one thing - but His death? We want to sit by Him in His Kingdom, but do we want to die beside Him on the cross?
To take up the cross means coming face to face with all that it is be human. It means to see our mortality and utter weakness. It means to gaze upon Christ’s (and our) broken humanity in all its frailty. It means to see clearly the end of our sin. It means to perceive ourselves for who we really are.
So are we brave enough to stare ourselves in the face in order to come to know our need for Christ?
St. Mary saw the need and accepted the challenge. And she invites us to do so, too. She reminds us that it is not all doom and gloom as we see the truth of ourselves, but that there is hope for communion with the Living God.
But are we certain this is what we want (what we really, really want)? Do we want to see who we are?
So we have three more weeks as we journey toward the Cross, and we are presented with a choice:
Do we want to glorify ourselves as James and John tried? Or do we want to glorify Christ in our bodies by daily taking up the cross as St. Mary did?
St. Mary reminds us that only by seeing ourselves clearly, by embracing our weakness, embracing our mortality, and embracing our need for Christ can we ensure that we will have any spot in His Kingdom, even if it isn’t at His right or left.
And trust me, to find ourselves in His Kingdom is exactly what we want (what we really, really want).
Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.
For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.
For more on repentance, check out this episode of Be the Bee:
For more on whether we actually try to live like the saints, or just talk about them, check out this episode of Be the Bee: