“For when first the soul escapes from the Egyptians, the power of God approaches to help and leads it to the truth. But the spiritual Pharaoh, the king of darkness of sin, when it knows that the soul is in revolt and is fleeing out of his kingdom, pursues the thoughts which he so long held in his power. For these belong to him. The deceitful one plans and hopes that the soul will return back to him. Having learned that the soul is for good fleeing from his tyranny, a more impudent action than the slaughter of the firstborn and the stealing of the thoughts, he chases after it because he fears that should the soul escape completely there would be found no one who would fulfill his will and do his work. He pursues it with afflictions and trials and invisible wars. There it is put to the test; there it is tried; there appears its love toward God who led it out of Egypt. For it is handed over to be put to the test and to be tried in many ways.St. Macarius the Great, Homily 47, Tracts 11-13. The English translation is from Maloney, George A. The fifty spiritual homilies and the Great letter. Paulist Press, 1992. 236-237
The soul sees the power of the enemy, seeking to pounce and kill it, and yet the enemy is unable. For between it and the Egyptian spirits stands the Lord. It looks before itself at a sea of bitterness and affliction or despair. It is powerless to retreat back, seeing the enemies ready, nor can it advance forward for the terror of death and the grievous and manifold afflictions surround it, making it look at death. Therefore, the soul despairs of itself, “having the sentence of death in itself” (2 Cor 1:9), because of the swarming multitude of evils around it.
When God sees the soul, overwhelmed by fear of death and the enemy, he helps and deals patiently with the soul and tests it to see whether it remains faithful, whether it has love for him. For God has planned such a road, leading to life (Mt 7:14), to be fraught with affliction and narrow escapes, in much testing and extremely bitter trials so that from there the soul may afterward reach the true land of the glory of the children of God. When, therefore, the soul gives up all opinion of itself and renounces itself, because of the overwhelming affliction and the death before its eyes, in that moment, with a strong hand and an uplifted arm, God splits through the power of darkness by the illumination of the Holy Spirit and the soul passes through as it avoids the fearful places and traverses the sea of darkness and of the all-consuming fire.”
This is a very fitting text for us to consider as we journey on in Great lent in earnest (for those of the Coptic Church we have just concluded the preparation week). Here St. Macarius compares the slavery in Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites to the slavery of sin the individual human being is released from in Christ. This is especially relevant to us as we commemorate the fasting of our Lord Jesus Christ in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and we think of Israel journeying away from Egypt and also into the desert. We now are to embark on our own journey out of the Egypt of our own sin and the things which enslave us. Where once we were in the slavery of the spiritual Pharoah, the devil, and our thoughts were subject to him, we are now free in Christ. Just a couple of chapters earlier St. Macarius had written about the captivity of the human being and the subjugation of his mind,
“Israel became the man who is slave to the true Pharaoh. And he set over him his supervisors and taskmasters, to do his evil works and to complete the construction of mortar and brick. And these spirits led him away from his heavenly wisdom and led him down to the material and to earthly and muddy evil works and to words and desires and thoughts that are vain. Having fallen from his proper height, man found himself in a kingdom of hatred toward humanity and there bitter rulers forced him to construct for them the wicked cities of sins.”As above, Tract 6.
Let us journey out of Egypt during this lenten season, let us go out into the desert that we may examine ourselves and the bonds that chain us in the mode of life which we know to be destructive. Let us do so bravely for we know God is with us in our struggle. In a very beautiful finish to the first passage from St. Macarius’ homily we see that sometimes the going does get tough. Sometimes we feel stuck, sometimes we even feel tormented by our thoughts and by the anxieties that come with daily life that lead us away from Him. Even this, God allows. When once we have renounced our high regard for ourselves and our belief that “I can do it” (of course to the exclusion of God in our lives), only then will we finally see the mighty hand of God in our lives. When we have finally learned to turn from ourselves and to Him then St. Macarius teaches, “God splits through the power of darkness by the illumination of the Holy Spirit and the soul passes through as it avoids the fearful places and traverses the sea of darkness and of the all-consuming fire.”
Let us take this lenten journey to turn from those things that chain us to Him Who offers freedom and Life and Light.