18 April 2012

Epictetus on not fearing want

Does God so neglect his own creatures, his servants, his witnesses, whom alone he uses as examples to the uninstructed, to prove that he both is, and governs the universe well, and does not neglect the affairs of men, and that no evil befalls a good man either in life or in death?

Yes; but what if he does not provide food?

Why, what else but that as a good general he has sounded the recall? I obey, I follow, lauding my commander, and singing hymns of praise about his deeds. For I came into the world when it so pleased him, and I leave it again at his pleasure, and while I live this was my function--to sing hymns of praise unto God, to myself and to others, be it to one or to many.

01 April 2012

Homily for Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” That’s the question Christ posed to James and John, all eager to sit next to him in his glory. They answered yes, but they didn’t know what they were saying. James would be martyred just a few years after the resurrection. John would be sent into exile and suffer many things before he reposed.

You see, to be worthy of sharing in Christ’s glory, we must first share in his suffering. There’s really no other way. No suffering, no glory. The New Testament makes it plain, again and again. In our text, Christ speaks of suffering in terms of sharing his baptism and his cup. When we receive the holy mysteries, we are embracing everything about Christ—especially his sufferings. As St. Paul says in Romans, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Sometimes that suffering comes unsought. James didn’t try to get martyred; John didn’t seek to be exiled. They were faithful to Christ, and that’s enough to get into trouble.

Other times we embrace suffering for Christ’s sake. That’s what we’ve been doing this Lententide—learning to say “no” to ourselves in matters of prayer, alms and fasting. “No” isn’t a bad word, it’s a good word, it’s a life-changing, life-saving word. But “no” is never an easy word.

So how’s it going for you, this Lententide? Are you winning victories against the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh? Or are you feeling beaten down, discouraged and downright cranky? “Are you able to drink Christ’s cup, and receive his baptism?” For me, it’s been a real struggle.

That’s why our holy fathers were so wise to place the story of St. Mary of Egypt right at this point in our Lenten journey. She lived a loose life, selling herself not just for food, but for pleasure. When she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and wasn’t able to, she was convicted of her sin. She came to repentance, and faith, and so was able to enter and receive the Holy Mysteries. Then, fortified by that food, she journeyed into the desert to fight against her passions for forty eight years.

We sometimes act like St. Mary and the other saints were different from us…that they were able to drink Christ’s cup, and receive his baptism. But St. Mary herself confessed to Fr. Zosima that for seventeen years she fought against the old passions and desires. And she wasn’t able, in herself, to win.

She herself told Fr. Zosima, “But when such desires entered me I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the ikon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.”

Are you able? Am I? In a word, no! But neither were the saints. They learned from experience to call on God and his Mother in their weakness…and by the intercession of the Theotokos, God answered their prayers. He joined their sufferings with Christ’s sufferings. And through those sufferings—Christ’s sufferings, in which they joined—they entered his glory.

We must stop thinking of ourselves as separate from Christ. When we cut ourselves off from him, we wither and fail. But the whole point of everything in church is that we are joined with him. We were buried with him through baptism into death; he gives us to share his own body and blood, and so becomes one flesh with us. We are joined to Christ. Only in this way, beloved, will we ever be able to drink his cup, or share his baptism.

So don’t be discouraged. Take our mother Mary of Egypt as an image of repentance. Receive Christ as he comes to you in the mysteries. And he will give you grace to drink his cup, and share his baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.