Today is the fifth and final Sunday of Great Lent. In a few short days Holy Week will begin. There is one more week remaining in the Great Fast, one more week in which to prepare ourselves to meet the awesome and saving events of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.
All throughout Lent, the Church has provided us with a roadmap for our spiritual journey. We began the Fast with Forgiveness Sunday; but actually this is really a nickname, and strictly speaking in the Church that Sunday is called the Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise. All of us who are born into this world, rich and poor, rulers and servants, believers and unbelievers alike, are deeply homesick. Like Moses, we are strangers in a strange land. But we are homesick for a place where we have never been, for a Paradise that we have never seen, and so all too often we become confused. We feel that we are meant to find our place in this world. We feel lost, and we think that there must be something wrong with us, or that there must be something missing: if only I could find the right job, or the right clothes, or the right car, or the right lover, then everything would be all right. We are deeply lonely people, and we cannot bear this loneliness; we try anything we can find to numb the pain.
But the Church tells us, at the very beginning of the Fast, that we all experience this homesickness because this world really isn’t our home. The Church tells us that, actually, we desperately need this feeling of homesickness, because if we never feel homesick then we will never decide to go home. That’s why on the three Sundays leading up to Lent, we sing with compunction the beautiful psalm “By the waters of Babylon,” in which is the line: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.” This is a Hebraic expression which means: “If I forget Jerusalem, if I forget the City of God, then let everything that I choose instead of it be totally destroyed; let every effort that I make for any other goal in life be an utter failure.”
There is nothing which this world can offer us that will fill the emptiness of our hearts. And it is in this sense that we must understand the commandments of God. The Apostle tells us that “His commandments are not grievous.” This is because the commandments of God are not arbitrary. They are not some sort of cosmic test. They are not given simply to make us jump through hoops, to prove our love for God by giving up all the things that are fun and pleasant and exciting in life. Rather they are given to us, quite simply, to show us how to be happy. They warn us against the things which we imagine will bring us fulfillment and peace and pleasure, but which actually turn out to bring us only emptiness and anxiety and misery.
This is the meaning of our exile. We were not expelled from Paradise because God wanted to get even with us for breaking His law. We were expelled from Paradise into this world in order to have the freedom to choose which world we want. When our ancestors ate the fruit, we were announcing that we wanted to become gods on our own, in our own way, without God. So He simply let us try. We are free to try, futile as it is, to make our home here. We are free to try frantically to turn it into the Paradise that we rejected. But when we grow tired of feeding swine and perishing from hunger, we are also free to return to the Father’s house.
And so by means of the commemoration of this expulsion the Church spurs us on to make the great journey home, to set out like Abraham from the land of our birth and to make our way, “by faith and not by sight,” to the Promised Land.
But now we are reaching the end of the time specially set aside for this journey, the end of the Forty Day Fast. And just as the Church set a signpost for us at the outset of the Lenten journey, so too She has set another signpost for us here at the conclusion. What is this other signpost? The life of our holy mother Mary of Egypt, commemorated today on the final Sunday of Great Lent.
Our task during Great Lent, and our task during all our earthly life, is to become saints. But inevitably, five weeks into the Fast, if we have been paying any attention to ourselves at all, it has become abundantly clear that we are very, very far from being saints. I will never forget the words I heard from the deacon of the parish where I was a catechumen: “If we ever get to the end of Great Lent and think that we’ve done it right, that means that we’ve done it wrong.” And so, strangely enough, it turns out that in order to become victors over sin, we first need to lose. We need to really and truly discover for ourselves, not intellectually or rationally, but in our heart of hearts, that we really, really are not good people.
Our entire modern civilization is founded on the denial of this really quite simple and undeniable fact. We hear our world practically screaming at us from all sides: “you’re perfect just the way that you are!” But you know, most of us don’t really believe it, not deep down. Because we know that it isn’t true. We’re afraid to admit it, because we think that nobody will love us if they find out what we are really like. But St. Mary discovered this truth about herself, even though all her life she had wallowed in the worst kind of depravity with never a care or passing thought of shame. In her own words: “With great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me.”
And as soon as she made this discovery—and this is the really important part of the story—she immediately ran to the Mother of God, and her entire life changed. A lifetime of filth and depravity was blotted out by a few short words spoken to the Mother of God with her whole heart. And then, all of a sudden, what had a few short minutes ago been a totally wasted and empty life became transformed into St. Mary’s path to heaven.
This is the first thing the Church is telling us about our Lenten journey, about our earthly life, about our time of exile and pilgrimage. It’s not about how many virtues we have acquired, it’s not about how many of the rules we have kept, it’s not even about how many of our sins we have gotten rid of. It’s about seeing who we really are. It’s about seeing who we really are without Christ and the Theotokos and the saints. And it’s about gathering the courage to run to them anyway. To not behave like Adam and Eve, who hid from God when they saw their nakedness. That was the real Fall, that was the real cause of all the human tragedy that has played out since. If they had run back to God as to a loving Father, everything would have been all right.
But what happened to St. Mary after this great event of her conversion? Was she immediately transfigured beyond all recognition? Well, in a sense yes, because she never want back to her former way of life. But in a sense no, because she spent seventeen years in the desert battling with the same evil thoughts and desires and temptations that she had given herself over to during her life in the world.
And this is the second great lesson that the Church is giving us today on the Sunday of St. Mary. That no matter what we do, no matter how sincerely we repent, we still must endure patiently the sins and passions that we have amassed during our life on earth. They won’t disappear magically or quickly, and the fact that we still struggle with the same things day after day, week after week, year after year, does not mean that we are spiritual failures, it does not mean that we’re only wasting our time, and above all it does not mean that God has abandoned us or rejected us. Indeed, as the Optina Elders taught, it often happens that God allows our sins and our passions to continue, precisely in order to save us. In order to humble us. Because humility and pain of heart over our shortcomings can take the place of every other virtue, but without them even the greatest virtues become simply the playthings of our pride.
What was it that made St. Mary different from us? What made her into such a wondrous saint? And as we look back on our Lenten struggle, and as we look forward to Holy Week and Pascha, what is there left for us to do?
What did St. Mary say herself about her life of repentance in the desert?
“I live here clinging to my God Who saves all who turn to Him from faintheartedness and storms.”
This is all that the Lord asks from us. This is the only thing that can make us into saints. To cling to our God who saves all who turn to Him from faintheartedness and storms.
If we think that we’ve done Lent right, it means that we’ve done it wrong. But the Holy Fathers tell us that the person who sees their sins is greater than the person who sees angels. Because it is only by seeing this truth, as St. Mary did, that our eyes will be opened to see that far greater truth, the truth that, in the words of one father of the Pskov Caves monastery, the Church teaches us all the time at every single Divine service:
“May Christ our true God, through the intercessions of His Most Pure Mother and of all the saints, have mercy on us and save us, for He is good, and the lover of mankind.”