But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Hebrews 9: 11-14 (Epistle on the Fifth Sunday of Lent)
On the fifth Sunday of Lent, we commemorate Saint Mary of Egypt. Saint Mary lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, reposing in the year 522. She lived as a harlot for seventeen years, after running away from home at age 12. One day in Jerusalem, she wanted to go into the church to venerate the Holy Cross but was prevented from entering by an unseen force. She promised the Panagia that if she could be allowed to venerate the Cross, she would go wherever the Panagia directed her to go.
After this, she fled into the desert for forty-seven years where she lived as an ascetic. After forty-seven years, a priest named Zosimos came to meet her and offer her Holy Communion. He later became a saint. Saint Mary had such great repentance that she was able to walk on water.
The lesson of St. Mary of Egypt is that anyone can become a saint through repentance. Even though she lived many years of her life as a prostitute, her repentance earned her sainthood. As we make the final turn towards Holy Week this week, it is not too late to repent. In fact, it is never too late.
The Epistle read on the fifth Sunday of Lent sets the stage for Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The practice of Judaism required frequent sacrifices to God. These were sacrifices of animals. Blood was shed in order to make the sacrifice. Something (in this case an animal) had to die in order to make a sacrifice pleasing to God. The priest of the temple would enter the holy place to make the sacrifice of blood on behalf of the people in order for them to be purified.
Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross would change all that. Christ is the new high priest. He does not take the blood of goats and calves for sacrifice, but rather offers His own blood. It is not human beings offering the sacrifices of animals that they have raised that brings us to redemption. Rather it is the Son of God shedding His own blood that brings us to redemption. In Hebrews 9:13-14 we read, “for if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself with blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” In other words, if the blood of animals was used in the Jewish rites of purification, then we will be made even purer through the shedding of the blood of Christ. For unlike the animals, which have blemishes because they, like everything in the world, are not perfect, Christ offered Himself as the “Lamb of God,” who has no blemishes.
Ultimately works without faith are dead works. So a sacrifice that is not Christ ultimately is “dead” in the sense that it has to be repeated over and over again. The sacrifice of Christ is something that was done once and for all. It purifies us in our conscience. It is not a “dead” work to be repeated, but a grace to be continually received. The sacrifice of Christ allows us to serve the living God with a pure conscience and a greater sense of purpose.
As we travel the last few days of Great Lent and head towards Holy Week, we are bringing into focus the significance of the journey we are about to make. The Epistle lesson reminds us of the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice and how it not only changed the Jewish Temple but how it continues to change our lives. At the Divine Liturgy, we offer sacrifice without the shedding of blood. And Christ is given to all but is never exhausted. As we hear in one of the prayers of the Divine Liturgy, “The Lamb of God is apportioned and distributed; apportioned, but not divided; ever eaten, yet never consumed; but sanctifying those who partake.” (The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, 2015 translation, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)
Dwelling in the wilderness, you blotted out every image of the passions from your soul, having in their place instead printed on your soul the sublime Godlike form of the holy virtues. And you shone forth to such an extent that you were able to fly across the waters, O blessed one, and levitate above the ground when you raised your hands up to God in prayer. Now, O blessed Mother all-glorious Saint Mary, as you stand before the Mater with confidence, importunely pray for us. (From the praises, 5th Sunday of Lent, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Work on repentance today and every day. Partake of Christ in the Eucharist as often as you can!