Already we have reached the fifth week of the Great Lent, dear brethren. For the past several weeks the Church has been instructing us in the different aspects of spiritual life that we must develop within ourselves, in order for the Triumph of Orthodoxy to become an actual fact of our everyday life. On the second Sunday of Lent the Church taught us prayer, especially inner prayer as its most perfect example, uniting us in constant communion with the Lord God. The third Sunday was devoted to the bearing of the cross, which is necessary to each Christian who wishes to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who redeemed us and granted salvation to all of us through His sacrifice on the Cross. On the fourth Sunday we learned how to ascend the ladder of virtues, which led us straight into paradise and eternal life.
Now we have reached the most important stage of spiritual life – repentance. Repentance is the most important in the sense that it the very basic stage, the beginning of all spirituality. All our prayers, virtues, and Lenten endeavors are very well in their own right, but without repentance they have little value, they are in vain. And that is because without repentance we cannot come to a realization of our sins, of our spiritual shortcomings, and without realizing them we cannot rectify them by asking the Lord for forgiveness and receiving the remission of our sins.
We see the importance of repentance from the moment when Adam and Eve fell into sin by disobeying God’s commandment. We see how God called upon Adam to repent while he was still in the Garden of Eden: “Adam, where art thou?” But instead of repenting and realizing his sin, Adam began to justify himself. And from that time on, this self-justification continues throughout man’s entire existence on earth.
In the Orthodox Church repentance is one of the seven sacraments. Without repentance there is no salvation. We see this in the writings of the Holy Fathers, which were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself, when He came down to earth, said to His disciples: “I did not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance.” The Lord had no need to call the righteous, because their righteousness was based upon a foundation of humility, and through humility they clearly saw the sinfulness of their nature. Even such a notable desert-dweller as Anthony the Great, who by the end of his life reached an angelic state, used to say to his disciples with great humility and weeping over his sins: “I have not even begun to do anything for my salvation.”
Such is the humility of the righteous, while sinners, following in the footsteps of the fallen Adam, engage only in self-justification. How many times we have heard people say the following words: “While I’m still young, I’ll enjoy life to the full, and when I get old, then I shall begin to think of repentance.” But will it turn out that way? Are not such people deceiving themselves? What assurance do they have that they will live until tomorrow, not to mention old age? “As we live, so shall we die” – says popular wisdom.
Similarly the Lord calls each one of us to repentance, dear brethren. And we can see in our everyday life what unrepented sins lead to. Look at the horrors we see all around us: it is no longer only adults who commit murder, robbery, violence, etc., but even children.
It is now the fifth week of Great Lent. Have we begun to repent of our sins? Do we come to confession, do we take communion? Even if someone were to think that he is not yet ready, did not have time to prepare himself – do not wait, dear brethren! Next week we will be greeting our Saviour. With what kind of soul will we meet Him? With what kind of heart will we glorify Him, sing “hosannah” to Him? Perhaps someone may think that Lent is nearly over and that he will probably have no time left to repent? No, dear brethren! We must repent immediately, we must repent always, we must repent throughout our entire life. While we live on this earth, it will never be too late. The only time when it may be too late is when we die, when our soul leaves our body. Then it will truly be too late, and we will be totally unable to do anything for ourselves. Then, at best, perhaps someone will be left on earth who will pray for us, and at worst – we will remain in hell with our unshriven sins.
Dear brethren, it is not too late to realize our sins, to come to the Lord in penitence, to step upon the path of salvation. Let us heed the wondrous example of St. Mary of Egypt, let us heed the example of the wise thief, who repented at the very last hour of his life, and let us say to the Lord in the words of the humble publican: “Lord, have mercy upon us, sinners!” Amen.
Homily for the fifth Sunday of the Great Lent
Five weeks of the Great Lent have passed already, dear brethren. Only two weeks remain until the glorious Resurrection of Christ. And so this week the Church gives us both solace and a supreme example of penitence and fasting.
Yesterday we glorified the Holy Virgin. This was a spiritual consolation for us, as we were reminded that the Mother of God is always with us and never ceases to pray to the Lord for us. And today we are the given the ultimate example of penitence and fasting, as we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt.
Saint Mary of Egypt came from the city of Alexandria. In her youth she was renowned for her great beauty and her life of depravity. One time she saw a group of pilgrims from Alexandria preparing to embark for the Holy Land, for Jerusalem, in order to venerate the Holy Cross, and Mary decided that she, too, wanted to go along, but only to have a good time. And so she sailed together with the others. In her own words, she was surprised that the ship on which she sailed did not drown because of the debauchery which she created.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem she went with everyone else to church. All the others proceeded to enter the church, except for her. She just could not get in. At first she thought it was because of the crowd, because she was being pushed aside. However, when everyone else went in, while she alone remained outside and could not enter, she realized that some force was detaining her, was not letting her go in. She fell on her knees and cried. She realized that it was her sins that were not allowing her to enter the church.
Suddenly on the wall she saw an icon of the Holy Virgin. Falling down before the icon, Mary tearfully asked the Mother of God to help her. She then heard a mysterious voice inside her, instructing her to go to a priest and repent her sins, and then to go into the desert, cleanse her sinful life there, and never return.
Mary did as she was told and went into the desert, where she spent the first 17 years in a terrible battle with her passions, living in the desert a total of 47 years. At that time the end of her earthly existence drew near and so, by God’s providence, the holy elder Zosima came to the desert and saw Mary, who was no longer a sinner, but a saint.
Let us note, dear brethren, how everything is tied in this week. We see a young woman, a sinner, so beautiful in body and so hideous in soul. And how her soul woke up, as she turned for help to the Mother of God, Who continuously prays for everyone. We see the penitence that is necessary for the cleansing of sins. We see the fasting that is required for the taming of our flesh and the regeneration of our soul. We see the obedience which every Christian is called upon to fulfill. And all of it is tied into a single example of purification of the soul.
On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent we must carefully look into our souls. Have we turned to the Mother of God, and have we tried to earn Her protection as did Mary of Egypt? Have we repented our sins? Have we fulfilled our obedience of fasting and prayer?
For 17 years Mary of Egypt cleansed her sins by means of fasting. She, too, experienced extreme temptations from the evil spirits. But she patiently endured them all and only prayed to God to forgive her sins. Our fasting lasts only six weeks, plus one more week of the Lord’s Passion.
Let us emulate this great saint who is highly venerated in the Orthodox Church, so that we might merit the protection of the Mother of God, and so that the Lord might forgive us our sins. Then we, too, will be able to sing with a pure heart: “Thy Resurrection, O Christ Saviour, is sung by angels in heaven; may we, too, glorify Thee with a pure heart on earth.” Amen.