Today, the 5th Sunday of Lent, we Orthodox Christians remembered St. Mary of Egypt. If there had been an award for Most Notorious Sinner, Mary just might have won. She was the epitome of the loose woman, the one the Book of Proverbs spends so many early verses warning young (and presumably also old) men about. Mary didn’t slink around trying to hide her sins the way many Christians do, who thereby earn the label of hypocrite. No, Mary sinned boldly, with enthusiasm, without thought or care for any implications. She loved pleasure. She loved the passions, and embraced them in an ongoing wild orgy of self-centeredness.
Mary was converted dramatically to Christ. She went from a woman trying desperately to seduce the Christian men with whom she was traveling to Jerusalem to suddenly seeing, understanding, realizing her sin for what it was, what it was doing to herself and others, and then fathoming what repentance was and what it would mean for her.
In response, Mary went to the desert. She went to the desert to repent, to fast and to pray. She was in the desert for years. She died fasting, praying and repenting.
It says a lot about the Orthodox Church that St. Mary is not just remembered, but given such a prominent place in our annual Lenten fast and in our spiritual preparation for Holy Week. At our best, we make room for great sinners like Mary, because each one of us is also a great sinner. At our best, we refuse to judge our neighbor, but instead direct our energies towards remembering our own sins, failures and shortcomings. We don’t sweep sin under the rug because of the scandal it might cause. Rather we have a way to deal with it. We go to confession. We own what we’ve done and who we are. We listen to wise counsel, and we kneel before the presence of Christ and confess and receive Christ’s forgiveness.
I spent decades looking for just such a safe place. It wasn’t that I was in denial. I knew from my youth that I was a great sinner and that I was struggling with serious issues. But everywhere I turned I saw people dealing with ‘sinners’ as if they were some contagion. People who were caught ‘in sin’ were disgraced, dismissed, removed, or, my favorite, sent off for ‘counseling,’ which of course meant they were never coming back. Sin was such a scandal, especially sexual sin. Such treatment had a chilling effect. It almost never reduced the number of sinners or the incidence of sin. Instead people became very good at putting on a pious front and finding ways to do what they did so that they would never get caught. The reason I know this is because I talked to a lot of men in the churches that I pastored. I tried to be a safe place where men could come and talk and know that they would not be judged or outed. And while I would never betray a confidence, I can say that men, at least, almost universally it seemed to me, were struggling profoundly with temptations and sins, and there was no place to go with their struggle. So they kept quiet and struggled silently. In our churches, we prided ourselves on having preserved the gospel and being the place where we could experience the grace of God through faith in Christ. But in reality our churches were not hospitals where sinners could experience grace and receive the medicine of repentance. Instead we were too often ministries of condemnation. I could confess losing my temper in a difficult traffic situation – that was a tolerable sin; but was there any space to confess a pornography addiction, or that my marriage was not what it seemed? Nope.
We Orthodox certainly have our share of hypocrites, our share of nominal ‘Christians’ whose claim to the Church is based on ethnicity but not on spirituality. But we have made a long-standing decision to make room for the Marys of Egypt who show up in our Narthex looking for something and perhaps not even knowing what. That choice, to welcome Mary, means I was welcomed, too. It means that every single sinner that shows up at an Orthodox Church – and there are a lot of us – we are welcome, too. (I know there are terrible exceptions where we treat new comers as if they don’t exist or worse. Those Churches obviously have issues, too.) We sinners need not slink around afraid that someone might throw us out of the house or out of the Church if they ever found out what I was really struggling with. No, we own our sin, our brokenness, our anger, our hypocrisy, our enslavement to one or more or all of the passions. Because that’s the only way we will ever see Christ, and receive from Him the medicine for our souls. Isn’t that what this Christianity is supposed to be about?
So many people around me claim to have been ‘saved,’ but I wonder if that is even possible because most people around me believe they have actually never done anything that would require the services of a Savior. So much of what is said in church is just religious rhetoric that means very little. The reason I say that is that so much Christianity seems to make so little difference in people’s lives, in how they treat each other, in how they manage their recourses, in whether they are self-oriented in what they choose to do and say, or whether they are Christ-centered in what they choose to do and say. And I think people are aware enough of the politics that poison most churches to create doubt as to whether these so-called church leaders have any knowledge of Christ at all.
It’s worth asking – is your church, is my church a safe place to be a sinner? And by sinner, I mean a person who is grappling with the consequences of who they are and what they have done and trying to find their way out of brokenness and back to wholeness. If you can answer yes, then fall on your knees right now in gratitude to God for bringing you home. For this is the essence of the Kingdom of God that Christ is establishing in our midst. But if I can only answer no, then realize that however excellent the theology, however exciting the ‘worship’, however fantastic the preaching, however popular the church, Christ is not there. And if Christ is not there, I may find many things, but I won’t find the one thing needful, the only One who can heal my soul.
During Orthros this morning, about two thirds through, after we had sung Psalm 50 (51) and venerated the Gospel book, we chanted this:
Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life, for early in the morning my spirit hastens to Your holy temple, bringing the temple of my body all defiled. But as one compassionate, cleanse me, I pray, by Your loving-kindness and mercy.
Guide me in the paths of salvation, O Theotokos [mother of God], for I have befouled my soul with shameful sins and I heedlessly squandered all of my life’s resources. By your intercession deliver me from every uncleanness.
When I ponder in my wretchedness on the many terrible things that I have done, I tremble for that fearful day, the Day of Judgment. But trusting in the mercy of your compassion, like David I cry to You, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy.’
As we chanted these three verses, I remembered my own journey. My own struggle with sin has been long and great. And places and people that I thought were safe turned out not to be. And I have lost much. But I am grateful that, like Mary, I have finally found a safe place. And that safe place is Christ and the other great sinners who are in fact His people.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all of the saints, and the prayers of St. Mary of Egypt, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.