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This coming Sunday, as the fifth Sunday in Lent, commemorates St. Mary of Egypt. Her story is read, along with the Great Canon of St. Andrew on the fifth Thursday of Lent. Personally, I love the fact that her name is Mary, which invites us to compare her with the Theotokos. One is a virgin, the other a prostitute; yet, both say Yes to God and as a result each is now a beloved saint within the Orthodox Church. It is St. Mary of Egypt’s life that we kept in mind as we discussed the Epistle Reading (Hebrews 9:11-14) and Gospel Reading (Mark 10:32-45) for this coming Sunday.

We spent most of our time on the Epistle. As we discussed this pericope from Hebrews, it quickly became clear that we needed to understand the Temple sacrificial cult of ancient Judaism:

  • The architecture of the Tabernacle (the mobile tent structure where the Ark of the Covenant was kept prior to the Temple) and the Temple (the permanent place of the Ark built by Solomon) is very similar to Orthodox Churches. The Narthex is the place where people would come with their sacrifices. The Law proscribes various sacrifices (liquid, grain and animal) for various needs and offenses (see the Book of Leviticus). The priests would then take these sacrifices into the Nave (where only priests where allowed to go). In the middle of the Nave was a sacrificial fire (at the time of Jesus, this was huge — the Temple complex occupied about 35 acres). Behind the Iconostasis, where the altar is would have been the Holy of Holies (where the Ark of the Covenant was). No one was allowed to go into this space except for one person (the high priest) and only one day a year.
  • This day was Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) when two goats would be offered to God for all the sins of the people of the previous year and a bull for the priest (see Leviticus 16). One of the goats (the scapegoat) would have all the sins placed on its head and then led out into the wilderness (presumably for the demon “Azazel” to consume them). The other goat and the bull would be slaughtered and their blood would be sprinkled on various parts of the Tabernacle/Temple.
  • St. Paul is therefore comparing the efficacy of these sacrifices with the sacrifice of Christ. If the Temple blood sacrifices effectively wiped away the sins of the people for one year, how much more effective is Christ’s sacrifice — the blood of God incarnate? Since God is infinite, so must His sacrifice be. Thus, His sacrifice is once and for all.

There are a couple of interesting implications from all of this:

  • The space where Christians worship is the same space that was reserved only for priests. This is because we are now the royal priesthood (1Pet 2:9).
  • The sacrifice that we make during worship for ourselves and for the people is ourselves. Note the prayer at the end of both the Small and Great Litanies: “let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God”.

Some of us were offended by the whole concept of sacrificing animals to God — was such a thing necessary? Remember that St. Paul tells us that the worship of the Temple was a shadow of the heavenly worship (Heb 8:5). These things were done to prepare us for the coming of Christ. Without the sacrificial cult of the Temple, we can’t truly understand Christ’s sacrifice.

We continued to speak about sacrifice as we moved on to the Gospel Reading:

  • Christ explicitly tells again that He will be killed when the chief priests hand Him over to the Gentiles. This will be the last Sunday of Lent, therefore we are preparing for the realities of Holy Week where we will see Christ crucified.
  • Thus, the cup that Christ will drink and the baptism that He will receive are His suffering and death.
  • This sacrificial love is the model of Christian leadership. A true leader is willing to be a servant (διάκονος) and a slave (δοῦλος).
  • We briefly touched upon the reality that those who demand that women should be ordained as clergy grossly misunderstand the role of the priest and the bishop. This demand understands the clergy as those who rule over the Gentiles and lord it over people — they see the priesthood in terms of power. As we see in this pericope, the Christian leadership model is not based on power, it is based on service. In addition, Orthodox Christianity already ordains women — baptism and chrismation is an ordination to the laity, a.k.a. the royal priesthood. Remember, the proper title for those men who we call priests is really presbyter (which literally means elder, not priest).

Finally, we tried to tie all this to St. Mary of Egypt. She offered herself as a sacrifice to God by wandering the desert for 47 years and in the end had one of the most holy men of her age (St. Zosimas) bow in respect to her — she received the honor due to a priest.