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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent

The days are approaching when the Holy Church remembers the saving sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is why this Sunday we have read the passage from the Gospel, in which the Lord foretells His future sufferings to the disciples: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and 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 after three days he will rise” (Mk. 10:33-34).

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent

The Lord tells the disciples about His future trials and describes His humiliation, torment and death in detail. He voluntarily accepts drinking this bitter cup of suffering for the world, showing immeasurable love and longsuffering for the sake of our salvation. The whole earthly life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, from infancy to death on the cross and Resurrection, is a wonderful, loving service to the salvation of the human race. As He Himself said, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).

The Lord suffered for our sins, suffered because otherwise our salvation could not be accomplished; He suffered so that we know the way of salvation, to which we must strive with all our might. He, sinless, voluntarily took our sins upon Himself, that is, He took all the responsibility for us and the punishment that we should have endured as sinners. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29), says the Gospel, and the apostle adds about the Saviour: “who was delivered for our transgressions” (Rom. 4:25).

The thought that the Son of God suffered precisely for each of us, for our sins, fills the heart with gratitude and compassion for the Divine Sufferer and with the hatred for sins, if we understand that our sins, which we often do not notice and forget, cost the Son of God His blood and death.

The days of the suffering of our Saviour are approaching – the days in which His last sacrifice for the sins of the world was made, ending on the Cross, on which He exclaimed: “It is finished!” His pure Body and honourable Blood give us purification and renewal, revitalize our souls, serve our salvation.

Why was it necessary for the Son of God to suffer for our sins? Could the Almighty and Wise God find another way to our salvation instead of the suffering and death of His Only Begotten Son? Could the Merciful and Human-loving God simply forgive us and have mercy or save us with just the teaching, the commandments, the fear of future torment, the promise of the paradise, but at the same time without offering the sacrifice of the Son on the Cross?

Saint Athanasius the Great answers this, saying, “One must look at what is useful for people, and not at what is possible for God; of course, God could have saved man with one word of His own; but then only the power of God would be visible, and man himself would remain the same, and, with new temptations to sin, he, as already familiar with sin, would sin again, and God should again forgive him every time, and so on to infinity “.

Indeed, what kind of salvation would it be, if God Himself would keep His laws, but man would remain unclean from sin? No, for our sins the Saviour had to walk the way of the cross, which served us as the example of salvation, and sacrifice Himself in order to cleanse and heal our soul and conscience, which is ill with sin, which had moved away from God. The apostle says about this, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).

Therefore, only the blood of Jesus Christ as the blood of the Immaculate Sacrifice could reconcile us with God. This was done, and therefore the apostle said: “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6).

The above quoted words of St. Athanasius the Great: “One must look at what is useful for people, and not at what is possible for God” – are very consonant with today’s Gospel reading, which describes how Christ ascended to Ierosalim to be crucified, but His disciples James and John, children of Zebedee, thought that He was going to ascend the throne, that is, to become the king of the Jews. And so they, showing their ambition, send their mother to the Lord with a request for them to participate in this ascension, and then approach Him themselves, saying: we want that at the time when You will be the King of Israel, we will sit beside You – one on your right, and the other on the left hand, so that we can also be participants in Your Kingdom – “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk. 10:37).

Christ answers His disciples and relatives James and John: “You do not know what you are asking”, that is, you don’t know what you want. They asked not that what should be asked, for Jesus Christ came to serve people in the work of salvation: “My kingship is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). They asked the One who ascends to Jerusalem in order to die, and not to reign, to be crucified on the Cross, and not to sit on the throne, to be crowned with a crown of thorns, and not with a royal crown: this is not glory and honour, but suffering and humiliation: “They will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him” (Mk. 10:33).

The apostles, who not so long ago said: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you” (Mt. 19:27), are now looking for honours and ranks; they ask it from the One whom the people unsuccessfully wanted to make their King, Who will be soon condemned to death.

We see that Christ does not give honours for kinship and friendship, but only according to dignity, and in His Kingdom there will be the one who has toiled, who has suffered, who has walked His way of the cross.

We resort to God, hoping that He can do what we need, for “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power” (Psalm 147:5). As the All-Wise, He knows what we need – “your Father knows what you need” (Mt. 6:8). As the All-Merciful, He wants to do for us everything necessary for our salvation, and in this “generous and merciful is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in mercy” (Psalm 103:8). Yet, some often turn to the paths that do not lead us to God. Thus, when they are ill, they can turn to the so-called healers, that is, psychics and sorcerers, for healing, instead of turning with faith to God, who, in His omnipotence, heals the sick and raises the dead; and about divination and sorcery, the apostle said, “while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). Therefore, in troubles and illnesses it behoves us Christians, without embarking on the path of the devil’s magic, to turn to God with prayer, hope and faith – “Trust in him, and he will act” (Psalm 36), for He is omnipotent, all-wise and all-good.

But, when we turn to the Lord, what should we pray for? To this John Chrysostom answers: “Ask for what is good for you, the one who asks, and what befits for Him, the giver,” that is, ask for things that are useful for the salvation of the soul and appropriate for God. But the difficulty lies in the fact that sometimes we do not know, as Apostle Paul says, what is useful for us and what we need to ask God for, “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8:26).

The Apostle says: ““All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor. 6:12). By this, he convinces us not to consider helpful everything that seems helpful to our limited mind. We must pray that God send us the grace of the Holy Spirit, instructing us what it is really proper to pray for, Lord, hear my prayer, inspire my prayer in Thy truth (Psalm 142), the psalmist David asks the Lord. The apostle says that God gives such a gift to those who pray: the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with an unspeakable sigh (Rom. 8:26).

We must pray that God send us the grace of the Holy Spirit, instructing us on what is really proper to pray for, “O Lord, listen to my prayer; give ear to my petition in your truth” (Psalm 143:1), psalmist David asks the Lord. The apostle also says that God gives such a gift to those who pray, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

The reason that we do not know exactly what is helpful for us is that human will is unstable by nature and easily changes: now it wants one thing, then another. Our will is often corrupted and blind; sometimes it sees the bad as good, often it does not distinguish helpful from harmful, virtue from sin. In the penitent troparions, which we read after kathismas, there are the following words: “You created me blameless, and I took my own will and was all defiled. You, O Lord, gave will to man, but don’t give it to me. I am man by nature, but by my disposition I am worse than animals … Let me obey Your will, so that I am cleansed from sins.”

Our desires and tastes are different and capricious, we want to do many things in our own way; how many heads, so many minds. If God wanted to fulfil the desires of each of us, the world would turn into a chaos. God created man later than all His creations, and man, seeing what had already been created, must be content with the fact that God created everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and not demand from God the fulfilment of his desires.

Saint John Chrysostom justly said, “Not knowing many things that are useful for us, we ask that which are useless.” Thus, someone asks health from God, but, perhaps, over time, this will increase his sins. People ask for wealth, but maybe it will be the reason of perishing. They ask for glory, but the more we rise, the lower and more painful we can fall. So, our desire is often erroneous, and only the will of God steadily strives for good and for our salvation. We can only submit to His will, desire what God wants, and say in our prayers: “Our Father … Your will be done”, or pray, like St. Peter the Studite, addressing the Mother of God: “Do not allow my will to be done, for it is improper, but let the will of your Son and my God be in me.” Having surrendered ourselves into the hands of God in sickness, sorrow, need and deprivation, we will surrender ourselves to the all-wise and all-good Father, Who knows what is useful and necessary for us. He knows what is best for us in this world: to be sick or healthy, rich or poor, wise or uneducated, to rise to great honours or remain in an inconspicuous, modest position, to have children or be childless, to be loved or hated by everyone, to live long or die soon… Sometimes we do not know what is good for us, but God knows it, so let us trust Him, saying: “Not as I want, but as You … may Your will be done.” So, in all our needs let us turn only to God, asking only what is pleasing to Him, and, therefore, is helpful for us, otherwise the words of Christ will be addressed to us: “You do not know what you are asking.”

So let us pray that what is pleasing to God happens, but let us say this prayer with great trembling and fear, since we are in sins. Let us hear what God says through the mouth of Prophet Isaiah: “When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15). The Prophet speaks of our sinful impurity, of the blood of the fleshly defilement. God himself speaks of this: “Wash yourselves and become clean” (Is. 1:16).

Our purification takes place through confession, repentance and weeping for sins. If we cry out to a priest in confession, and through him to God, “I have  sinned,” – if we shed tears, then by this we will be cleansed, washed and forgiven. Saint John Chrysostom speaks of this renewal: “Oh great love of humankind, oh immeasurable goodness! God completely justifies a sinner after he confesses his sins and makes a promise for the future.” We just need to not waste this time postponing confession, especially now, when we are approaching the end of Great Lent, when we ascend to Jerusalem together with Christ, when we approach the holy days of Christ’s passion. And if we are cleansed and washed from sins in repentance, then God will undoubtedly grant us forgiveness and all the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven, as it happened in the life of venerable Mary of Egypt, whose memory we honour today.

In the row of Lenten weeks, today the Holy Church is commemorating venerable Mary of Egypt. The Orthodox Church gives her a special honour, celebrating her days a few times during a year. Only recently, last Wednesday, was the “Mary’s Standing” service performed, at which we read her Life, together with the penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This canon is the repentant cry of the soul, in which we see the edifying story of a human stumbling against the stone of sins and temptations, we hear words about the struggle with passions, a desperate human call to God for help and the reciprocal gift of His strength and love. The penitential canon calls on us to find the strength to escape from the captivity of passions and temptations, and to turn our lives into thanksgiving to God. We must remember, as Apostle Paul says, that everything is possible for us in the Lord Jesus Christ who strengthens us, that the power of God is made perfect in weakness. But not in that lazy, helpless, sterile weakness, but in another weakness that is born when we strive with all the strength of our soul to do good deeds, to live according to the commandments of the Gospel, to ascend the Ladder of virtues. But, not relying on our weak strength, knowing our cowardice, laziness and despondency, we must surrender ourselves obediently and meekly into the hands of God, doing only His will, hoping that only His power will accomplish what we dream about, going to salvation… Then the power of the Lord reinforces our weakness, like the wind fills a drooping weak sail, and brings us, like a ship to a dock, into the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, everything is possible in the Lord who strengthens us, and the power of God is made perfect in weakness.

About Saint Mary of Egypt, we can briefly say that she, a resident of Alexandria, from her young age led a vicious life, full of passions, seduction and destruction. Not realizing her sinfulness, for in her life there was nothing to do with the purity and love of God, she audaciously wanted to enter the church of God in order to venerate the life-giving Cross of the Lord. But when she approached the gates of the church, some unknown force stopped her and threw her back. This repeated a few times. Then conscience began to speak in her, she was horrified, feeling all her sinfulness, and, seeing the icon of the Mother of God in the vestibule of the church, fell before Her with bitter tears of repentance, asking for intercession, help and mercy, promising to change her sinful life from now on and dedicate her repentance and prayer to the Mother of God and Her Divine Son. She begged the Most Holy Virgin to be her Guarantor and Mentor for salvation. And a miracle happened, as it is sung in the psalm, “The Lord heard the voice of my weeping” (Ps. 6:9): Mary was allowed to enter the church and venerated the holy Cross. The next day she received the communion of the Holy Mysteries and left the world forever, going into the wilderness. There she spent 47 years until the end of her life, in the indescribable feat of complete loneliness, enduring severe suffering – hunger, thirst, nakedness, heat and cold. But the hardest tests for her were demonic temptations and torments from thoughts – the memory of the passions of her former sinful life. In the desert, she ate only meager plants and at the same time prayed and repented day and night, shedding tears, praying under the scorching heat and in the deadly cold, having no shelter or clothing. Her passionate prayer to God reached such strength that during her prayer she was lifted up from the earth into the air. Having withdrawn from the world and exhausted her flesh, she turned her life into a semblance of the life of a fleshless being, living only by the spirit of God, which revived in her through repentance.

What can we learn from the life of this venerable mother? Mary of Egypt showed us the image of great repentance and patience in the struggle with passions, the image of prayer and hope for God’s help. Mary’s sins were grave, but her deeds of cleansing in fasting and prayer were as great. In her repentance, she was consistent to the end: she conquered sin in herself with the help of God by feat, she corrected her life, fulfilling the promise given to the Mother of God.

We also need to learn how to straighten our lives according to the commandments of God courageously and consistently. How often we cannot keep our faith firm, do not have a heartfelt prayer of repentance and hope in the will of God. When we do not achieve the desired perfection, we sometimes cowardly blame the circumstances and everyone around us for this. Instead of entering into a struggle with our sinful habits, of forcing our way to God with longing and hope, we show spiritual weakness and feebleness, obeying the spirit of the times, justifying ourselves by the fact that today such feats as Mary of Egypt and other saints performed are impossible.

Indeed, today it is difficult to leave the world, to retire to the desert; it is not possible for everyone and not necessary for everyone. However, we can wear out our flesh in a way that is reasonable and attainable, that is, moderate food, more work, less entertainment and sleep, more frequent praying during day and night. By this we will wear out our sinful flesh, mortify our passions. In order to retire from the world, living in the world, as Saint Andrew of Crete instructs us in his canon, let us turn our souls into the wilderness, abandoning the customs of the world, checking every thought and every step according to the Gospel, renouncing worldly attachments. Then we will live like in the wilderness even among the customs of the world, fenced off from it by the wall of fasting and prayer.

Mary of Egypt was a fornicatress, but the fornication that she overcame does not consist only in bodily sin and the defilement of her flesh. Fornication also consists in the fact that a person errs, departs from God, and deviates from the direct path to Him. Fornication in a broad sense, as the Holy Scriptures interprets it, is idolatry, attachment to the visible world, disbelief or little faith. Fornication also consists in the fact that we do not give our soul, heart and will to the most important thing, that is, pure and holy love for God and people, but scatter our will, directing it in all directions, serving worldly idols and our carnal desires. In this fornication, the integrity of our personality is divided, our soul, which is called to love our neighbour and one God with all thought, with all being, grows shallow.

Are we not susceptible to this disease of fornication, when at times our will fluctuates, our mind is divided, thoughts scatter, prayer is fruitless? How often our life is like the waves of the sea, which hit the cliffs, rise high and fall back into the depths of the sea without reaching anything.

If we are in such a state, then we should be seized with trembling and horror, as it happened with Mary of Egypt. We need to turn to God for help, asking Him for mercy and forgiveness.

Perhaps, such feats of repentance that Mary of Egypt showed are beyond our strength,  and we can only marvel at the great steadfastness of the saint during 47 years of her life in the wilderness. If we only could spend not 47 years of life, but at least each of the 40 days of Great Lent and 7 days of the Passion Week, as we should, in repentance and prayer! This would be a great blessing for us and a pledge of our future victories.

Let us, like venerable Mary of Egypt, gradually move away from fornication and other sins, directing all our will to God, overcoming our weakness with His help. And when, perhaps, we begin to weaken in the struggle with passions, let us ask venerable Mary, who has the audacity to intercede for us, sinners, before the throne of God: Venerable Mother Mary, pray to God for us! Let the example of the strength of her spirit be a model of repentance for us and strengthen us on the path of salvation!