PROPER OF THE SEASON
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
SAINT MARY OF EGYPT
(Heb. 9:11-14; Mk. 10:32-451)
Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther
Today’s epistle reading brings us again to the idea of Jesus as priest of the New Covenant. ‘But now Christ has come, as the high priest of all the blessings which were to come.’ This emphasizes that here and now Jesus is present.
‘He has passed through the greater, the more perfect tent, which is better than the one made by men’s hands because it is not of this created order…’
We see the entry into a place of worship. The Temple in Jerusalem had a tent within it, and this recalls the fact of the long journey in faith made by the Jewish people until they reached the promised land. So the idea of their fulfilment in Jesus after long historical pilgrimage is included. And we are meant to see that Jesus has gone into the heavenly Temple. ‘and he has entered the sanctuary once and for all, taking with him not the blood of goats and bull calves, but his own blood, having won an eternal redemption for us.’ There is a further echo – of the Day of Atonement. The writer wants us to see that Jesus has entered the sanctuary and won eternal redemption in the sense of paying the purchase money for a captive and delivering that person again to freedom.
‘The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer are sprinkled on those who have incurred defilement and they restore the holiness of their outward lives; how much more effectively the blood of Christ, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to God through the eternal Spirit, can purify our inner self from dead actions so that we do our service to the living God.’
These pictures are from the Day of Atonement, but they refer to the sacrifices for bodily uncleanness. The point is that Jesus is both priest and victim, the one who offers and the one who is offered; the one who receives and the one who is received (to echo the second prayer of the faithful in the Divine Liturgy); and Jesus is perfect more than any other sacrifice could be.
The gospel reading makes a decisive change in the movement to Great Week. For the first time in St Mark’s gospel, Jerusalem – where Jesus’ opponents held power – is indicated as the end of the journey. Jesus is accepting his function as Messiah, as priest and leader at risk of death for the sake of the community. Jesus puts matters plainly.
‘… the Son of Man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the pagans, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again.’
But the disciples ignore the picture. James and John both ask Jesus: ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’ Even these close observers of Jesus have failed to understand him. They think the whole purpose of going to Jerusalem is to gain political power. ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?’ The seekers of glory reply ‘We can.’ Jesus tells them that they will indeed know these things, ‘but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.’
Jesus knows that they will all be baptized by – submerged in – the calamity of his crucifixion. But just as he accepts this, so he wants the disciples to understand that his acceptance is general: what God wants, not what the Son of Man may want (Mark 14: 36). If his Father gives a place of honour to this follower or that, it is his by his gift and not by any right of claim that this may happen.
The other ten disciples protest at the self-seeking of James and John. Jesus makes clear that in his community of followers this must not happen.
‘No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
The ordinariness of being Son of Man and the completeness of a priesthood like Melchizedek’s are here united. Jesus says in effect, ‘If you want to follow me, you not only have to prepare for humiliation and death but for powerlessness.’ Giving up to the extent of being defenceless is an image of terminal illness and death. The mystery of our death is given meaning by the mystery of Jesus’ death; and this lies ahead in Great Week.
These two readings may not seem to be very closely related to Mary of Egypt. But they are extremely suitable in fact. Mary was a prostitute of 5th Century Alexandria – a city so immoral that people fled from it to become monks in the Western desert. Mary is supposed to have gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to have been prevented by a spiritual force from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; after which she retreated to the desert beyond the river Jordan to live in repentance for her long career of sin. It is said that she lived there for 47 years, until she met a priest Zosimus, who gave her communion and then returned a year later to find that she had died.
We see in this story that it is never too late to repent; and that the most deliberate sinner may be surprised to discover the fact of God. Prevented from entering the great church, Mary changes her life. Perhaps some serious difficulty in a wrong path of life has blocked us from time to time, and this can be for us the refusal of entry to the place of Christ’s death and resurrection. But repentance changes everything, and like James and John we discover eventually that the places given to us are those which belong to God and not to our ambition. We accept what is our Cross, we repent; and we then live.
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
Sunday, 13 April 2003.
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