Joy of All Who Sorrow

Fifth Sunday of Great Lent / St. Mary of Egypt

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

Gospel: Mark 10:32-45 (§47); Luke 7:36-50 (§33)

Dear father, brothers and sisters!

So, we come at last to this Fifth Sunday of Great Lent. This time next week, we will be with our Saviour as He makes His Triumphant and Humble entrance into Jerusalem, the place where in five days time, He will be Arrested, Stripped, Flogged, and Crucified. On this Sunday we hear two Gospel readings one from St Mark’s Gospel and the other from St Luke. In both readings though we hear again something of the wondrous reversal of the Gospel, which turns both the Jewish Law and worldly logic – the way of the Gentiles – upside down in what I often call, this topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom of God. And escorting us into this world of radical reversals, and graced transformation is St Mary of Egypt, the filthy and shameless harlot of Alexandria turned clairvoyant hesychast and wonderworking ascetic. This year, I would like to focus upon our second Gospel reading, on the anointing of our Lord by the sinful woman, the reading appointed for St Mary of Egypt, and will try to summarise the homily of St Cyril of Alexandria on this passage.

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.

St Cyril starts his homily ecstatically –

All ye people, clap your hands and praise God with the voice of thanksgiving’ … And what is the cause of the festival? It is that the Saviour hath newly constructed for us a way of salvation, untrodden by then of old time. For the law, which the all-wise Moses ordained, was for the reproof of sin, and the condemnation of offences, but it justified absolutely no one … But our Lord Jesus Christ, having removed the curse of the law, and proved the commandment which condemns to be powerless and inoperative, became our merciful High Priest … For He justifies the wicked by faith, and sets free those held captive by their sins.

Although we encounter many nameless Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels who have these brief, critical exchanges with our Lord, in this particular exchange our Pharisee has a name – Simon. We can imagine that Simon the Pharisee, in inviting our Lord, most probably did not invite Him for the best of motives, but rather, as so many of the Pharisees did to test Him, to try Him, to judge Him by the Law. Like so many of those other nameless Scribes, Pharisees and Lawyers before and after Him, Simon had no idea that it was the Divine Author of the Law Himself Who was the One they were blasphemously judging.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

And then, almost out of nowhere, we are suddenly introduced to this nameless woman who we know nothing about, other than that she was a terrible and notorious sinner. The exact nature of her sins is not recounted in the Gospel, but by tradition this woman was a harlot and adulteress –

Thus a woman, who beforetime had been lewd, and guilty of sensuality, a sin difficult to wash away, missed not the path of salvation; for she fled for refuge to Him Who knoweth how to save, and is able to raise from the depths of impurity.

What is also so beautiful and so moving about this scene is that it is entirely wordless. This woman makes no defence of herself, she doesn’t seek to somehow convince Christ that she had been in any way justified, that she had not intended to sin, or perhaps blame her sins on circumstances, poverty or someone else. No. This this nameless, sinful woman says nothing at all, and instead she acts, she demonstrates her repentance and contrition in this most beautiful, heartfelt, and personal act of repentance. Whereas Simon the Pharisee was very knowledgeable about the Law, but blind to the Author of the Law, this sinful woman, who maybe did not know very much about the Prophets or the Law, was still able to recognize God, the Author of the Law, her Saviour, when He came in the Flesh, and knew that He could heal her, that He could cleanse her of her impurity and guilt.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Again we are returned back to that other Pharisee that we heard about at the very beginning of our Lenten journey, who looked down his brother the Publican. In his pride and deluded self-righteousness Simon the Pharisee could not see the humility and the beauty of the sinful woman’s heartfelt and simple act of repentance. Instead, in his madness He condemns Christ and the nameless woman. Of course our Saviour – the One who was greater than all of the Prophets – knew exactly who it was who touched Him, indeed He could see her heart clearly. Yet as St Cyril reminds us that it was the Prophets themselves who looked forward to the coming of the One who – as God – would save people from their sins, such as the Prophet Ezekiel who said – ‘And I will be to you a God, and I will save you from all your uncleanness’.

St Cyril, in his homily, underlines that ironically, it is Simon’s deluded sense of his own righteousness, and his own distance from sin and sinfulness, which confirms just how sick, just how sinful he really is.

The Pharisee therefore was boastful, and utterly without understanding. For it was his duty rather to regulate his own life, and earnestly to adorn it by all virtuous pursuits; and not to pass sentence upon the infirm and condemn others.

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

I don’t know about you, but when we come across these seemingly endless succession of Pharisees and Scribes madly and blasphemously criticizing our Lord again and again in the Gospels, I can feel myself becoming angry and enraged in defence of my Lord. Yet, look again, brothers and sisters, at our Lord’s limitless patience and meekness, and how much love he has even for us who are just as self-deluded, just as proud as Simon. Without castigating him or blaming him, our Lord rather seeks to gently teach him, and to open up how the Strictures of the Law is fulfilled in the Mercy of the Gospel and poses this most simple parable.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

And after teaching him with such gentleness and kindness, he then helps Simon to see how rather than being worse than him, this nameless, sinful, desolate woman, has outshone him, and is in fact above and beyond him in her exorbitant love, hospitality and devotion. Here we see the radical reversal of the Kingdom of God in full flow as it emerges that the last is first, the humble are exalted. The one who sins against God the most is paradoxically also the one who – through their repentance – loves God the most, as they know how much they are in need of Him.

Christ’s gifts therefore raise men to a hope long looked for, and to a most dear joy. The woman who was guilty of many impurities, and deserving of blame for the most disgraceful deeds, was justified, that we also may have confidence that Christ certainly will have mercy upon us, when He sees us hastening to Him, and endeavouring to escape from the pitfalls of wickedness.

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Who is this? Who can this be who forgives men their sins – again as that prophesy of Ezekiel said – this is God Incarnate – God in the Flesh – come to redeem us from our sins, to trample on death and reopen the way to Paradise. As the Prophet says – And I will be to you a God, and I will save you from all your uncleanness’.  

What is wondrous about this final scene is that, in the midst of all these people at dinner, a wondrous miracle is wrought which only our Lord can see. Whilst Simon and probably most of the other diners just see the same woman of disrepute who has the audacity to come into the presence of righteous people, our Lord is the one who indeed sees a disreputable sinner enter the house, but through her repentance, this woman’s heart has been completely changed, and in front of them all she is not longer a filthy wretch, but a pure lamb, with a fleece white as snow.

This nameless harlot and adulteress who everyone knew to ‘be a sinner’ was the very last person anyone would expect to be given any spiritual regard, let alone being positively set up as an example after the shameless and shocking life she has led. Yet, just as St Mary of Egypt showed, it was exactly through her clear-sighted awareness of just how foul and fallen her sinful life had become that inspired her to demonstrate such profound and heart-felt contrition and such holy tears. Both St Mary and this nameless woman in the Gospel, used their past sinfulness not to despair but rather to intensify and catalyse the depth of their repentance, and the depth of their gratitude and love for our Merciful Lord. And out of such unlikely beginnings, out of such darkness and disfigurement what spiritual beauty and nobility of soul God brings forth to life. The harlot of Egypt becomes an angel in the desert, and the nameless adulteress in the Gospel becomes a model of holiness.  

In this we can see the real transformative miracle of the Gospel, where no one is written off, no one is condemned as pass the pale of Divine Mercy or incapable of becoming a vessel of God’s grace of having their Divine Beauty restored. Where the darkened, filthy hearts of Harlots and adulterers can become virgin white once more, not through entering some kind of time machine, but, through true, real repentance and the healing, deifying energies of God.

Let us use the exalted wondrous life of St Mary of Egypt together with our beautiful second Gospel reading, to remind ourselves that there is no depth of sin that we can reach which cannot be transformed and transfigured by the Mercy and Love of God. There is no disfigurement of our souls that cannot be restored and made beautiful once more. Remembering the nameless woman in our Gospel reading today, let each of us recall the shameful and numberless sins that we have wantonly and flagrantly committed against the Lord, how we have stained the Baptismal robes our Saviour first gave us ‘white as snow’. Let this awareness of our failings enable us to mystically come to our Saviour today, our Merciful Physician, and after pouring on the alabaster of ointment onto His sacred head, let us wash His most-pure feet with our tears and dry them with our own hair.