5th Sunday of Lent - St Mary of Egypt
On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate a woman who has become an example and hero of repentance for Orthodox Christians, St Mary of Egypt.
We read her life this week at the Matins service on Wednesday evening. For those that were not able to hear it, I’ll briefly summarize her life… St Mary lived in the latter half of the 4th century and was known throughout Alexandria as a notorious prostitute. One year, she joined a large group of people on board a ship heading to Jerusalem. Most of the passengers were pilgrims making their way to the Holy Land in preparation for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Mary’s purposes for boarding the ship and being in the proximity of so many people were far less honorable. Having arrived, she persisted in her sinful ways and even joined the throngs of people heading toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the day of the feast. However, when she attempted to enter the threshold of the church, she was prevented from entering by some invisible force. She tried several times to cross the threshold of the church but was repelled by this force each time. This striking manifestation of her unworthiness due to her sins struck deep into the heart of St Mary and she retired into a corner of the courtyard where she wept bitter tears. She realized her shame and sin and pleaded with the Most Holy Mother of God that if she would be permitted to enter into the church to venerate the precious wood of the Holy Cross, she would spend the rest of her life in repentance and service to God. She approached the threshold again and, this time, was able to enter without any hindrance at all. She venerated the Holy Cross and, afterwards, retired into the desert to work out her salvation.
St Mary lived alone and in obscurity for nearly fifty years as a hermit in the wilds of the desert. Only the Lord knows of her prayers and tears and struggles throughout this time. At the end of her life, a priestmonk by the name of Zosimas happened upon St Mary and learned of her life. St Zosimas was blessed to bring her the sacraments of our Lord’s Body and Blood. When St Zosimas returned to meet her a year later, he discovered the body of St Mary, who had reposed shortly after receiving Holy Communion a year before.
The life of St Mary of Egypt fills us with awe at the depths of her repentance and also at the depths of the love of God. St Mary, who lived her early life in utter depravity, repented thoroughly and was granted such grace that she walked upon the waters of the Jordan River and had the gift of insight – perceiving the revelations of God.
We should take heart that no matter what sins we may have committed, no matter what troubles we may get ourselves into… though we turn our back on God, He never, never turns His back on us! What is required is repentance… a turning around from darkness toward Light. As the Psalms confirm: ‘A contrite and humbled heart, God will not despise.’
Sometimes we may become so frustrated in our sins, we wonder: How is it that God can still love us?
Well, for one thing, God is unchanging. Love is intrinsic to His Being and emanates within Him and from Him. With God, love is a given… both an intrinsic fact of Who He is and an eternal offering and sending forth of His Grace.
Secondly, and this is very important for us to understand, God sees us for who we really are, who He created us to be.
We need to clarify something in our perception of ourselves. There are two extremes that are deadly to a proper understanding of who we are. On the one hand, there is the pervasive modern conception that we are number one. Each person regards himself as the center of the universe. This is, of course, a completely unchristian way of thinking and it leads to an over-inflated ego and completely self-serving ways of life. Unfortunately, our world is filled with this mentality… and it is killing us.
On the other hand, we have the extreme of thinking ourselves to be utterly wretched and worthless. This is a danger for many Orthodox Christians – and there are many prayers and writings that can enflame and enforce such a point of view if we do not understand them properly.
There is a fine line here and we have to be careful… In our sins and in our brokenness, we are indeed wretched and pitiable. Our attachment and attraction to selfishness and sin is a very bad state indeed and it will kill us. In this condition we are wretched and foul… it is true.
Then why did Christ come to redeem us? What does God see in us that He would suffer for us? Listen to the Apostle Paul: ‘For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
Brothers and sisters in Christ… do you see this distinction? We must not identify ourselves with our sin. When we read the prayers of our wretchedness, we are acknowledging our captivity to sin… but we must never give way to despondency or despair and we must never wholly identify ourselves with this fallen state. God has created us for something better and we must have a determined hope and trust in the healing and redeeming grace of Christ our God.
Self-loathing is unchristian and is a backhanded form of pride because it shows we’re trusting in ourselves. We must loath our sins. But we must retain a vibrant and active hope in the transforming work of Christ. God sees the icon within us. He suffered and was buried and rose again to restore this icon within us. We must never be iconoclasts – smashing or trampling upon this precious icon, the image of God within our hearts. We should value it as a most precious gift from our Lord and we should live our lives in great care and concern to never defile this image.
The life of St Mary of Egypt is presented to us as an inspiration of the miraculous power of the cooperative work of the repentance of a child of God and the redeeming grace of our heavenly Father.
In these remaining days of the Great Fast, let us recognize the sorry state that we are in. Let us also recognize that the true tragedy of sin is that it separates us from the ever present love of God. Let us take the example of St Mary of Egypt and repent… turning away from our sinfulness and reaching out in hope to God. And let us remember, with gratitude and love, that God sees us and knows us better than we know ourselves, and that God did not give up on us, so we must never give up as well.
Jesus Christ has conquered death and sin. His victory has been won. Let us align ourselves to Christ’s victory and cling to it!