North Canton, OH - The Lenten Vespers on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, was held at the St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in North Canton, Ohio for the clergy of the Cleveland Deanery (II group). Clergy serving were V. Rev. Stavrophor Janko Rajlich, the Dean of the Cleveland Deanery, V. Rev. Stavrophor Zvonimir Kotorcevich, V. Rev. Dragomir Tuba, Rev. Milovan Katanic, Rev. Dragan Goronji and Protodeacon Milan Medakovic.
Protodeacon Milan delivered the following homily:
Reverend Fathers and my dear brothers and sisters in Christ today brings us to the last week of Great Lent or Velikog Posta before we enter the Great and Holy Week. My question is what have you done this Great Lent? Most of us will answer this question with the following:
I have fasted.
I have gone to confession.
I have attended church more often.
I have received Holy Communion.
Now I ask you to remember the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, ….I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess…The publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:11-13)
The Slavonic word post that we often translate as lent or fasting has another aspect to its meaning. That aspect is of duty. In Great Lent we are performing our Christian Duty. There are many externals to this duty. They are nothing more than tools for us to reach our real Christian Duty which is repentance. Our Lord at the beginning of His public ministry reminds us that this is our goal when He said “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
What is the true meaning of repentance? Repentance is a translation of the Greek word metanoia. This Greek word’s meaning is the changing of one’s mind; the changing of the way a person thinks. The Holy Fathers remind us that all sin is born in thought. Thus, if we change our thought process we change the way we live our lives.
When we look at sin we often try to lessen its meaning in our lives. We divide it into degrees; major or minor. We often hear people say I haven’t killed anyone or robbed anyone; I am basically a good person; I just have some defects of character; I’m only human; God will surely look the other way because of the good things that I do.
This understanding is very far from the truth. Sin is sin. Sin blocks us or binds us from having a true relationship, communion, with God. Sin keeps God from acting in our daily lives.
Sin can be described as a thread that goes around us to bind us. A thread does not have a lot of strength so it can be easily broken by repentence. However, the more we sin without repentance that thread becomes like a rope that binds us making it very difficult for us to repent.
Repentance may also be described as a “spiritual experience” or “spiritual awakening.” The Elders of the Optina Monastery in Russia tell us that “repentance is the foundation of our salvation” and that “years are not needed for true repentance, and not days, but only an instant.”
When we come to repentance and look at our sins we will see many things. If we look at the roots of our sins we should see that they are rooted in our self-will. We will see that all of the sinful actions that we have taken are based in selfish, centered acts or fear.
The Church gives us an image of repentance on this the fifth Sunday of Great Lent in Saint Mary of Egypt. Saint Mary is often described as a prostitute. However in reality as she describes, recounts and confesses her life to Abba Zosimas she states that refused payment because she was so consumed with her own pleasure. In seeking to satisfy herself she went to Jerusalem. There she tried to enter a church to see Christ’s Life-Creating Cross. Some force would not let her enter. After numerous attempts to enter she sees herself as God sees her. She sees that she is nothing without God. This brings her to repentance. She prostrates herself and begins to beat her breast as the publican saying God be merciful to me a sinner. God accepts her repentance and allows her to enter the church to venerate His Holy Cross. She then departs from the church, crosses the Jordan into the desert and spends the remainder of her life in prayer and fasting; breaking the bonds that kept her from God. As she does this she enters into a constant communion with God.
There are things that we can learn from Saint Mary. These are that there is nothing that is so terrible that we cannot repent from it. The longer we hold on to sins, especially those we keep as secrets, the sicker we become spiritually. God is loves us and wants us to come to Him if we make the effort through repentance. Once we exercise honesty about our sins we can become willing to do something about them. Through honesty, willingness and God’s grace we can take the action of acknowledging all our sins before God sharing them with His priest so that we can change our minds and become spiritually well. In becoming spiritually well we see that the externals of prayer, fasting, church attendance, confession and communion all have a deeper spiritual meaning. We will want to do these things because they bring us closer to God.
Some of us when we come to repentance have difficulty in breaking the bonds of our sins because we are very comfortable with them. It becomes difficult for us to change and use the spiritual tools that the Church gives us because it is much easier to fall back into old behaviors. Old behaviors that are comfortable. We must be ever watchful over our lives to recognize that this falling back is occurring so that we can re-break the bond of sin before it gains the same hold on us as it did before we repented. What matters is the sincerity of our desire to change. Saint Nektary of Optina says “The details of the confession are not important, but the compunction of the heart. ‘The Lord sees the heart’.”
My prayer for each of you as we come to the end of Great Lent is that you will truly be able to come to repentance that brings you into continual communion with God. I ask the Lord that you are able to watch your thoughts because they become your words and actions, that you are able to watch your words and actions because they become your character, and that you watch your character because it is your destiny.
Through the prayers of our holy mother Mary of Egypt, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us and save us. Amen