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Homily for 4/17/05 - Lent 5 - St Mary of Egypt

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  • David Moser
    Luke 7:36-50 This is the last Sunday of Great lent, we are entering into the final days before we begin to observe the events of Holy Week which lead up to the
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 21, 2005
      Luke 7:36-50

      This is the last Sunday of Great lent, we are entering into the final days
      before we begin to observe the events of Holy Week which lead up to the
      Crucifixion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and beyond that to the Great
      and glorious Resurrection of our Lord, the feast of Pascha. As a theme for
      this final week we are given the life of St Mary of Egypt - for in her are
      exemplified the qualities of repentance and asceticism which we have been
      practicing this whole lenten season.

      St Mary, in her early life, was completely enslaved to her passions and her
      desire for the pleasures of the flesh. She speaks of how nothing would
      distract her or prevent her from pursuing those pleasures. Even as she
      embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with those who wished to venerate
      the Holy and Lifegiving Cross of our Lord, her only thought was for the
      exercise of her depraved desire and passion-loving life. It was only a
      miracle, bodily preventing her from entering the Church of the Holy Cross
      where the True Cross was brought out for veneration, by which God finally
      got her attention. Once her attention was turned to God, she could see her
      captivity to her passions and her sinfulness and in seeing this she was
      moved to repent.

      At this point it is helpful to attend more closely to the actions of St Mary
      for although she was a great sinner, as soon as the resolution to repent was
      born in her, she acted on it without allowing herself even to stop and give
      a second thought. She knew that if she stopped in her repentance even for
      an instant that her old passionate enslavement would pull her back to her
      life of depravity and sin. I am reminded of a time when I took skydiving
      lessons. The preparation for the first solo jump was intense; we rehearsed
      every movement by which we would check our equipment, stand in the door of
      the plane, and then at the command of the jumpmaster release the plane and
      so parachute to the ground. Over and over again we rehearsed this up until
      the moment of the takeoff when the whole class boarded the small plane.
      Then during the take off and ascent of the plane we rehearsed in our minds
      again and again each step until it was time to make the jump. Then all the
      things we rehearsed were done for real and there was no time to think, only
      to check the gear, get into position, listen for the count and the command
      to jump and to let go. Once over the threshold and out of the plane, there
      was a brief moment to think about what had happened, how I had jumped out of
      a perfectly good airplane. If I had stopped to think ahead of time (instead
      of rehearse, rehearse, rehearse) I might not have taken that final step -
      but as it was I didn't stop and so took my first dive.

      St Mary didn't stop to think about her resolution to change her life and
      repent of her sins, she didn't contemplate all the implications of her
      action, she didn't stop at all, but rather pushed forward until she had
      crossed the threshold, until she was committed to her life of ascetic labor
      in repentance for her sins. It is this single minded and immediate follow
      through on the desire to repent that is important, for we too, when we see
      our lives, make similar resolutions - to repent, to change our lives, to do
      things differently. But too often we delay - until tomorrow, until next
      week, until next year, until finally we have delayed so much that there is
      nothing left of the original resolve to repent but regret that we didn't do
      it and a handful of excuses justifying our own failure. We learn from St
      Mary that when God gives to us the urge to do something to the benefit of
      our soul - then we should act decisively, without delay, without giving
      ourselves a chance to make excuses. "Strike while the iron is hot" goes the
      saying - and so it is with our spiritual lives, as soon as the desire for
      good is born in us, it is up to us to act.

      But St Mary's struggle did not end there. She told the elder Zosima that
      for seventeen years she continued to struggle against her passions, that she
      burned with the desire for food and drink and worldly song, that she burned
      with lustful desires and only the severe limitations imposed by her remote
      and desert life prevented her from falling again into sin and giving in to
      those passions. St Mary describes this time of her life with these words:
      "For the first seventeen years in this wilderness I struggled with my
      deranged passions as though with fierce beasts." So strong were these
      passionate desires that they seemed to her to be like wild animals which she
      needed to overcome and tame.

      Most of us face this same struggle - we have one or two or three or more
      passions that run rampant in our lives like wild beasts. We seem to have no
      control over them and whenever they spring up, we fall seemingly helpless
      into their clutches. This could be any temptation - selfishness, greed,
      gluttony, anger, lust, drunkenness, vanity or any other passion. We each
      struggle with our own particular passions and sometimes it seems we gain
      control, and other times it seems as though nothing we do is effective to
      prevent our fall. This "on again, off again" kind of temptation and
      resistance is exactly the same kind of thing that experimental psychologists
      do with laboratory mice to induce a condition of "learned helplessness".
      This is exactly the purpose of the demonic powers in such a strategy - to
      try and teach us that we are helpless against these strong passions and
      therefore we can only give in to them - better sooner than later. The
      secret that they do not reveal to us is that if we remain steadfast in our
      struggle, not giving in to "helplessness" or despair, each struggle to
      resist that temptation and that passion leaves us a little stronger than
      before and attracts the grace of God so that in the end, if we continue to
      struggle, if we continue to push, we will, with God's help, prevail.

      St Mary struggled without pause, without despair, without giving up - for 17
      years with these passions. (Most of us give up if we have to struggle with
      a temptation for more than 17 minutes .) We can learn from her the
      necessity and indeed the power of constancy, of patience, and perseverance.
      This is the second lesson that we learn from St Mary - no matter how
      powerful the passion, no matter how much control it seems to have over us,
      no matter how helpless we might think we are - with God's help and with
      persistent struggle against the passion it will be overcome. St Mary was
      driven by her passion of lust and love of pleasure - but with God's help she
      struggled with that single passion for 17 years until finally it was
      overcome and the grace of God overshadowed her. As she herself described:
      "When I had sufficiently cried and beat my breasts, it was then that I saw a
      light encompassing me on all sides and a certain miraculous peace filled
      me." This encompassing light and miraculous peace is the grace of God
      which is attracted to those who struggle, who repent, and who resist the
      passions. When that grace overshadows us then the things of this earth,
      this body, this life grow dim and we see only Jesus Christ and our love for
      Him blossoms.

      In the Gospel we heard our Lord's words that those who are forgiven much
      also love much. All of us are sinners, all of us have fallen short of the
      glory of God, all of us have much in our lives that must be forgiven.
      During the Great Fast, more than at any other time, we all become aware of
      this sinfulness in our lives. When we place this sinfulness in the hands of
      God, when we struggle against it with our whole strength and seek refuge in
      Him when our strength fails, when we beg forgiveness and are cleansed of our
      sins, then the result is that our love of God grows and is increased. At
      one time when I spoke with another priest about my own sins in confession
      and told him that I could not seem to get this particular sin under control,
      he told me that it was because I did not love God sufficiently. His
      direction to me was to increase my love of God so that it would then
      overpower this temptation and drive it from my soul. How then do we
      increase our love of God? First by asking Him to grant us His love for if
      we ask any good thing from Him, He will freely give it to us. Then, second,
      by turning more often to Him for forgiveness, knowing that he who is
      forgiven much, loves much.

      St Mary of Egypt was forgiven much and so she loved much. Her great love of
      God enabled her to struggle against the wild beast of her own passions and
      to emerge victorious by God's grace. Her great love of God continued to
      push her forward so that not only was she able to overcome sin and resist
      temptation, but she was able to acquire many virtues as well. Because of
      her love of God, she acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit and became like
      God, participating in His life, having sacrificed her own.

      Today and for this last week of lent we have this encouragement from St Mary
      of Egypt - to act instantly, without delay, on every good and God pleasing
      desire that enters our heart and second to persist without despair or
      hopelessness in our struggle against those passions and desires that try to
      soil us and drag us away from the embrace of God. Let us take this
      encouragement into the end of the fast and renew our efforts, making the
      last week the same as the first - a week of great struggle, a week of hope
      that God will continue to shower His grace upon us and that with His help we
      can overcome the worldly and sinful passions and desires that plague us and
      pull us away from Him. Increase your love for God - confess your sins,
      humble yourself and seek forgiveness and God will grant to you absolution of
      your sins. Having been forgiven much, you will also then learn to love much
      so that your love for God will stand against the trials and temptations and
      passions that assail you. Humble yourself before God, seek His forgiveness
      that you might also receive from Him the love of God.
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