Sunday, April 17, 2016: Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, Symeon the Holy Martyr & Bishop of Persia, Makarios, Bishop of Corinth, Agapetos of Rome
The epistle this morning ends with a call to make ourselves worthy of the mercy of God. We are told that Jesus has “purify[ied] your conscience from dead works” so that we are not only willing but able “to serve the living God.” The transformation of our conscience is contrasted with “the purification of the flesh.” While it’s tempting to denigrate or minimize the latter in favor of the former, I would be wrong to do so. Both in salvation history and in my own personal spiritual life, the process of salvation begins with the outward man and only slowly moves inward to the heart.
But I need to be careful.
The relationship between the salvation of the body and the salvation of the soul are not opposed to each other. Nor is their relationship with each other is linear. While subjectively, we begin with fostering bodily virtues, in fact given the intimate—and essential—connection of body and soul, physical and spiritual virtues grow up together or not at all.
Body and soul feel foreign to each other because of the disruptive consequences of Adam’s sin. The body wars against the soul, and the soul against the body (see Romans 7:23; Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11), because of sin. This lack of harmony between the material and spiritual aspects of human life is contrary to the original unity of human life as created by God. So by His death and resurrection poured out in sacraments, Christ first restores us to our original unity—not only in ourselves but also socially in the life of the Church—and then transfigures us.
This means that we no longer are trapped in dead work. We are freed from that freedom and life diminishing spiral that is our own sinfulness. Instead, we are able to serve the living God; we are able to that life in which we go “from glory to glory” growing ever more like our God and so become ever more who God has created us to be.
All this is to say that Christ makes it possible for us to love.
Turning to the Gospel we see both the terrible cost that was paid for our salvation—”the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him”—and the inability of the disciples to grasp the meaning of the gift that they, and we, are given. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. …Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” As Jesus’ response makes clear, not only James and John but all the disciples want to be “great men” who “lord it over” others. They want to be powerful and not merciful. This is why Jesus tells them “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all.”
But again, I need to be careful.
Far from being merely a matter of being nice (much less merely compliant), being the servant and the slave of all means imitating Jesus Who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Just as Jesus is faithful to the Father’s will, so too with me; I need to be obedient to God’s will for me.
And like Jesus, it is God’s will for me—and for each of us—to be sacraments of the Father’s mercy.
To be a sacrament of God’s mercy means first to renounce and resist the myriad ways in which I pursue power and control over the lives of others. We have no better example of this than the saint we commemorate today, St Mary of Egypt. Having repented of a life in which she sought to humiliate others, she instead wholeheartedly pursued Christ. The fruit of this was that she was able, at the end of her life, to be a source of mercy for Fr Zosimas. After burying the saint
…Zosimas returned to the monastery glorifying and blessing Christ our Lord. And on reaching the monastery he told all the brothers about everything, and all marvelled on hearing of God’s miracles. And with fear and love they kept the memory of the saint.
Like Mary of Egypt, we are called instead to help others find Christ and, in Christ, find themselves. It is our commitment to help others discern and fulfill God’s will for their lives is what keeps our mercy from becoming mere sentimentality. This means that I pray for you not because doing changes you but because it changes me. As I pray for you—at least if my prayer issincere—I come to see you as God sees you.
This means that I come to see you—as hopefully I come to see myself—in light of the wisdom found in Scripture, the fathers and the teaching of the Church. This might sound fearsome, or even judgmental—and certainly this can and has been deformed in these ways—but if undertaken in the humility that is commanded in the Gospel, it allows us to sees each other as we are seen by Jesus.
Look again at the Gospel. James—who will be a martyr for Christ (Acts 12:1-2)—and John—the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 19:26)—seem more than willing to exploit their relationship with Jesus. They do this not only for their own advantage but do so in a way that is detrimental to their brother disciples.
And yet, Jesus doesn’t shame them. Jesus doesn’t humiliate them or respond with angry words. Instead, He calmly and directly asks them if they have soberly considered the consequences of their request. Only then, when they have affirmed their willingness “to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” does He correct them.
Too often we equate mercy with correction. But think about the Gospel. Following the example of Jesus, the merciful person is the one who invites me to a take a moment of sober self-reflection. Amendment of life, to say nothing of faith, only comes as the fruit of this graced experience of self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
To be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful doesn’t mean I spend my time pointing out the moral or theological errors of others. This isn’t the example of Jesus in the Gospel. This isn’t the life-giving fruit of Christian discipleship but the poison of the Gentiles who would exercise authority over others.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we come now to the last Sunday of the Great Fast and look forward to Holy Week and Pascha, let us examine ourselves and root out anything within us alien or hostile to our vocation to be sacraments of God’s mercy for others. In doing this we not only become a blessing to others, we also secure our own salvation.