“To have faith in Jesus Christ means not only to stand aloof from the delights in this life, but also to endure patiently every temptation and test that brings upon us distress, affliction and misfortune-for as long as God wishes and until He comes to us. We sing with the psalmist, therefore, ‘With patience I waited patiently for the Lord, and He was attentive unto me.’”
-Saint Symeon the New Theologian
On this the fifth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate our righteous Mother, Mary of Egypt. As we read in the matins service, 'her spirit carried off, the flesh deadened long ago, conceal O earth the mortified bones of Mary.' May we, dear brothers and sisters, be granted by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the grace to live a life as virtuously as Saint Mary of Egpt, may our lives lead always to repentance and turning away from the passions and worldy cares, keeping Christ in our hearts, dwelling in the fount of His light and life.
This morning, as we remember this blessed and holy Saint of Orthodoxy, who battled as a true and faithful servant of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary, while in this world, fought valiantly in the trenches against the demonic and evil forces opposed to the Truth.
Mary hailed from Egypt and lived during the 6thcentury under the reign of the great Emperor Justinian I. Her biography was recorded in Greek by Saint Sophronios of Jerusalem, who presided as patriarch from the years 634 to 638.
For a few moments, let us reflect upon this great Saint, Mary of Egypt. There was a certain elder who dwelled in one of the monasteries of Palestine, this elder was a priest of holy life, speech and conduct and from his earliest days was brought up in the monastic ways and customs. In this way this elder continued and although having attained a life apart from sin, the elder prayed fervently to God to bring a righteous and holy spiritual father who would impart to him a higher degree of ascetic discipline. This holy priest named Zosimas, was guided by and angel to depart his monastery and go to the monastery by the Jordan. Immediately Zosimas went and with the blessing of the Abbot was accepted into the brotherhood there. Many of the fathers of this monastery were proficient in both action and contemplation of God, aflame in the spirit, working always for our Lord. According to the synaxarion, the brotherhood together chanted incessantly, stood in prayer all the night, and work was always at their hands and psalms on their lips. They gave no care to the concerns and temporal things of this world, but rather to a life with God. Zosimas was greatly edified and prepared for this struggle that lay before him.
On one day prior to the commencement of the Great and Holy Fast, Zosimas and all the Fathers convened in the monastery chapel for prayers, afterwards each took enough provisions to head to the desert and there live in great ascetic feat, in prayer and fasting. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart,’ we read in Proverbs 3, ‘And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.’ In this way Zosimas took off for the Lenten fast, and there encountered a woman, with skin darkened by years in the sun, and hair white as wool. She was crying out to the priest to pray for her. Immediately Zosimas, recognized the holiness of this woman and fell to the ground beseeching her to bless him—there, both lay prostrate before one another asking for one another’s prayers. As they continued, Mary implored Zosimas to pray for her unceasingly, so that she may find mercy on the day of judgment. The elder began to weep, and Mary began to offer her story. Mary, originally from Egpyt, renounced her home and parents, and like the Prodigal, squandered all. She lived a life apart from Christ, drowning in the vile condition of lustful sins. In fact, Mary was so much engrossed in the sin of lust, that she would refuse money for her activities, all to quench her insatiable appetite for this irrepressible passion for wallowing in filth. One day she heard of a boat heading to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. Curious to find new lands to fulfill her sickness and bring others into sinful living, Mary joined the boat to the Holy Land. On the way, she brought many well-intentioned pilgrims into sin.
As the hour of the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross neared, Mary was seeking to enter the temple where all these pilgrims were going. As the others entered the church, Mary was restrained and kept out, but not by any person, rather by a force beyond understanding. Mary, dejected and exhausted by trying to enter, sat alone in the courtyard and seeing an icon of the Virgin Mary, immediately recognized why she had been barred from admittance.
In her prayer to the blessed Panaghia, Mary offered, ‘The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and I stood weeping when I saw above me your icon, most holy Theotokos.’
In this moment, Mary fled from her sinful past, and lived her remaining days in repentance, fasting and prayer in the desert completely devoid of the comforts of this world, utterly devoted to her God, crying out to her merciful God day and night. Such an example to us is Mary, the hymn of the Paraklesis comes to mind, ‘From the years of my youth many passions combat me, but you who are my Savior assist me and save me.’
The sacred hymnology of this mornings matins explains this life of Mary, while in the desert.
“With baited hook of the flesh and through lust of the eye she took many men prisoner, and by means of short lived sensual pleasure she made them food for the devil; but now she herself has been taken prisoner in all truth, by the divine grace of the Holy Cross, and she has been brought as a sweet spiritual offering to Christ.”
For 47 years Mary contended in the spiritual arena while dwelling always in the desert, warring against the passions, throwing herself to the ground and wetting it with her tears of repentance and contrition, the matins continuing, we chant, “Strengthened by the might of Christ, O Mother, you have more easily endured your sufferings in the wilderness, and with the streams of God-given tears, you have quenched the impure thoughts that came to you, o greatest of ascetics and glory of the saints.”
The demons tremble at the strength of her endurance, and marvelous in manner she puts them to shame. Mary would repose in the desert, and Zosimas, having first brought her the Holy Gifts, would, with the assistance of a lion, bury her holy relics on the banks of the Jordan, where she lived a pure and holy life, washed from sin.
May we too endure all for His sake, and wait patiently upon our sweet Jesus, fleeing from the temporal and dwelling rather in the eternal light of salvation. Through the prayers and intercessions of the holy Saint of God Mary of Egypt, Christ our God, wash us of all sin and impurity, make us too servants worthy of your goodness, always and forever, amen.