29 - Fifth Sunday of Lent, St Mary of Egypt, April 1, 2012

On this, the fifth Sunday of Great, we honor the memory of St Mary of Egypt. This year is perhaps especially blessed because it so happens that she died on this very day, April 1, in the year 522 A.D.

I enjoy telling the beautiful story of St Mary of Egypt on this Sunday; although I tell only a short version of it. The full story was written down by St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, in the 7th century, about 100 years after the death of St Mary of Egypt, as he heard it from the monks of the monastery by the River Jordan. There is where the elder hieromonk, Zosima, had lived as a monk until he died at the age of 100. St Zosima was the one blessed to see and converse with St Mary. In effect, he heard her life confession, then he communed her on her last day and buried her body as she had instructed him to do.

“The elder Zosima had gone off at one time during the Great Fast on a 20 days walk into the wilderness across the Jordan. He suddenly caught sight of a human being with a withered and naked body and with hair as white as snow, who fled in its nakedness from Zosima’s sight. The elder ran after the figure until the figure stopped at a stream and called out, “Fr. Zosima, forgive me for the Lord’s sake. I cannot turn around to you, for I am a naked woman.” Then Zosima threw her his outer cloak and she wrapped herself in it and turned around to him. The elder was amazed at hearing his name from the lips of this unknown woman. After considerable pressure on his part, she told him the story of her life.

She had been born in Egypt and had lived as a prostitute in Alexandria from the age of twelve, spending 17 years in this way of life. Urged by the lustful fire of the flesh, she one day boarded a ship that was sailing for Jerusalem, loaded with pilgrims headed for Jerusalem to venerate the Precious Cross. Arriving at the Holy City, she attempted to go into one of the churches to venerate the Precious Cross, but some unseen power prevented her from entering. In great fear, she turned to an icon of the Theotokos that was in the entrance and begged her to let her go in and venerate the Cross, confessing her sin and impurity and promising that she would then go wherever the Most Pure One led her. She was then allowed to enter the church. After venerating the Cross, she went out again to the entrance and, standing in front of the icon, thanked the Mother of God. Then she heard a voice saying, ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace.’ As Mary of Egypt headed for the city gate that led out to the Jordan, a stranger gave her three coins, with which she bought three loaves of bread. (These three loaves of bread would sustain her for the next several years.) She set off for the Jordan, arriving there the same evening. She received Holy Communion the following morning in the monastery of St John the Baptist, and then crossed the river. She spent the next 48 years in the wilderness feeding only on plants, in the greatest torments, in terror, in struggles with passionate thoughts like gigantic beasts. The intensity of these struggles was terrible, often bringing her to total exhaustion and near the point of death.

After telling the elder Zosima her story, he implored her to pray for him. She protested, since she was a sinful woman and he a priest whose prayers she needed. But as an obedience, she stood to offer prayer for him and Zosima saw her lifted up in the air. She begged him to bring her Holy Communion the next year on the bank of the Jordan, and she would come to receive it. The following year, Zosima came with the Holy Gifts to the bank of the Jordan in the evening. St Mary appeared on the opposite bank. Zosima stood in amazement as he saw her cross the river. He saw her coming in the moonlight and, arriving on the opposite shore of the river, she made the sign of the Cross over the river. She then walked across it as though it were dry land. When she had received Holy Communion, she begged him to come again the following year to the same stream by which they had first met. The next year, Zosima went and found her dead body there on that spot. Above her head in the sand was written: ‘Abba Zosima, bury in this place the body of the humble Mary. Give dust to dust. I passed away on April 1, on the very night of Christ’s Passion, after Communion of the Divine Mysteries.’ For the first time, Zosima learned her name and also the awe-inspiring marvel that she had arrived at that stream the previous year on the night of the same day on which she had received Holy Communion – a place that he had taken 20 days to reach. And thus Zosima, with the help of a lion who appeared, buried the body of this wonderful saint, Mary of Egypt, in the hardened ground of the desert. When he returned to the monastery, he recounted the whole story of her life and the wonders to which he had been an eyewitness. Thus the Lord glorifies repentant sinners. She entered into rest in about the year 522.”

Among the many lessons we can take from the story of St Mary of Egypt is how great is the mercy of the Lord and His Holy Mother. They are calling everyone to salvation, even those as debauched as Mary of Egypt. And if we repent, they will not only save us, but even sanctify us, make us holy, and deify us, make us one with God so that we become one of the saints in whom God loves to rest.

We can take another fundamental principle that St Mary of Egypt’s story dramatically illustrates from a homily of St Gregory Palamas (Homily 13 – for the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent): self-indulgence, living a life devoted to worldly pleasures, is the way that leads to misery and death. The Church’s way of fasting and renunciation – i.e., dying to oneself in union with Christ and for the sake of Christ – is the way that leads to life eternal in the joy and love of God.

The fast of the Church brings the light of grace; it proclaims the Good News of the Cross and the saving Day of Resurrection because the fast of the Church is the flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the Cross.

Again, we see that the Christian Faith is not a school of thought, a code of ethics, or a “belief system”. It is the life of God that is uncreated, divine, eternal. The resurrection of Christ was bodily. The whole of human nature, body as well as soul and mind was raised from the dead and restored to life in the Holy Spirit of God. The salvation that we receive from Christ, therefore, is of the body as well as of soul and mind, as the story of St Mary of Egypt so beautifully bears witness. Such is the power of the Cross given to us in the fast of the Church.

The Christian Faith, therefore, is not believing only. It is believing that is expressed in doing. This doing embraces our whole being, body, soul and mind. We take up our cross, the fast of the Church, as Christ commands in order to die to ourselves, to the world, to its fleeting pleasures and to its worldly mind in order to be raised up in the Holy Spirit of God to live the life of God in Christ. The reality which the Christian Faith proclaims is not of this world; so also the doing of the Christian Faith is not of this world. We do not work to accommodate ourselves to the world or make ourselves attractive to the world. The world has rejected God for the sake of its own life that ends in death. We reject the world for the sake of the death of Christ that gives life to those who repent.

This beautiful story of St Mary of Egypt is given to us on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, when we are drawing near to Great and Holy Week. For those who have observed the Fast, the story of St Mary of Egypt serves to renew our resolve to keep the Fast for the sake of Christ. For those who have not observed the Fast, the story of St Mary of Egypt serves to encourage us to take up our cross even now, in the time that remains before Holy Pascha, that we might even yet die to ourselves for the sake of Christ and live in the joy of His Holy Resurrection, for Christ Our Savior desires that all should be saved, and He gives liberally to those who have labored from the beginning and even to those who have labored from the last hour. Amen.