Today is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the Gospel story James and John trying for a power grab.
But that’s not the only message for today, instead let’s look at a message that is often overlooked – a message of Renewal. In the Eastern Church this is known as the Sunday of Mary of Egypt, a remarkable woman for whom the Good News brought about a complete reversal in her life.
Mary was a prostitute. She started her life at the age of twelve, running away from home and finding her way to Alexandria where she took a job as a spinner and weaver, and having sex with any man whom she found interesting.
One year a group of young men told her they were headed for Jerusalem on a Lenten pilgrimage, she decided to go with them, seducing men along he way for the pleasure of it. When they arrived in Jerusalem her friends went into the church, but she found out she was not able to enter, something was stopping her at the entrance. She tried several times, but kept being turned back. After a while she gave up, sat down on the steps and began to cry. Eventually she made a promise to Mary to change her life if she would but allow her to enter, afterwards she left for the desert and began the ascetic life of a hermit, which she continued until the day she died. He only visitor was a priest named Zosima, to whom she related the story of her life and conversion. One day he came and found that she had died, after burying her he returned to the monastery and began teaching about Mary and her renewal at the feet of Jesus’ mother. The church proclaimed her a Saint, and has told her story this Sunday of Great Lent since nearly 522 AD.
So, how does this relate to today’s Gospel story of James and John? In the very beginning the reading goes:
Mark 10:33-34 (RSV) “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; 34 and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise.”
It is the promise of renewal, through the death and resurrection of Jesus life itself is changed. Prior to this Jesus had brought several people back from the grave, most recently his friend Lazarus who had been dead for four days. Now Jesus tells the Twelve that, without help from anyone, he will not only die, but will rise again after three days in the tomb. Not that he will be raised, but that he will rise. To us the difference is lost, both words are similar, but with a nuance that sometimes gets lost. To be raised means that someone else is doing the work, but to rise means that the person who died is doing all the work, doing it on their own. This was not lost among the Twelve, and is the reason James and John made their request, they realized that if Jesus had the power to rise, unassisted, that this was power they wanted in on. But they too realized the power of renewal after Jesus’ admonition of them, leading a life of service to the young church.
This week we are asked to seek our own renewal, to turn away from our pride, to seek a way to serve others and not ourselves. This is a good lesson for our times, especially as we, here in America, are going through a time of politicians running for office, especially for the highest office in the land. Are they running to serve, or to seek the power of the office (whatever that office may be)? And ourselves, in our lives, whether at home with our spouse and children, at work with our boss and coworkers, in our leisure activities, or in our social activities, do we seek to advance ourselves for the power and gain (monetary or adulation), or do we put helping others first, only accepting advancement when offered, and then used to further our ability to help others? If your life resembles the former more than the latter, perhaps it is time for your renewal?