Fifth Sunday of Lent – St Mary of Egypt
One of the great treasures that we have during great lent is the reading of the life of St Mary of Egypt. In the liturgical cycle, on the fifth week of lent during service of the reading of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, it is prescribed to read St Mary's life split in two parts.. There are many things very striking about her life. Every year as I hear her life something new seems to stick out. This year is no different.
The first thing that struck out to me is when St. Mary speaks about her sin of fornication. She speaks to St. Zosima about how she lived a life of debauchery, seducing innocents to do unseemly acts. This grave sin of hers was the factor which prevented her from entering the Church where the Life-Giving Cross of Christ was present. It was only until she asked forgiveness and prayed to the Mother of God that she was allowed in the Church. I would like to read the prayer that she said which led to her true repentance: "Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy icon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. Rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners an for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me". This profound transformation she had was due to finally seeing the impurity of her sin and how it brought a separation from God.
So, what is so striking about this part of St. Mary's life? As I listened to it this year, I put myself in the shoes of someone who had no religious upbringing. I would say that a person who does not have any Christian moral teachings, would hear the life of St. Mary, they would be puzzled why her acts of fornication are looked with such disdain. In fact, the modern response would probably be trying to justify that what St. Mary was doing was in fact normal and should be celebrated. I can say with certainty that this twist of transforming sin into being viewed as normal is surely planted by the father of lies, the devil. In fact, what a strange time we live in… where most people live like St. Mary was and yet they do not find contrition in their hearts.
So, we can see that repentance begins when one acknowledges sin. This was the way that St. Mary was able to overcome her sin when she had come face to face with the True God and could only realize that her fornication and sinful life were what was preventing her from entering the Church. Similarly, God sends tribulations to people living here on the earth in order to bring them to a realization of what they are doing is wrong. And yet people still justify themselves and still try to indulge in sin without turning towards God. This is what leads people away from God, the fact that they CHOOSE the pleasures of this world over God.
St. Mary had that choice. When she came to the church and could not enter, she could have said: "What kind of God would prevent me to enter this building? Isn't God love? Why doesn't he love me the way I am? I don't want to have anything to do with this God!" And yet this is the typical response hear today when hardships are sent in order to correct one’s life and to bring them to change their way of life. This justification of sin is what pushes people further and further away from God.
So, as we come to this final Sunday of Lent, since next Sunday is considered a feast day, let us keep in our hearts the humility of St. Mary. St Mary, in order to free herself of her sinful struggles, did humble herself, came to a realization of her sins, and worked for over 47 years in order to wage war against sin in the desert. Through her struggle and effort, she was able to cleanse herself and become united to Christ. She was able to survive without food or water and even performed mighty miracles. Let us then be edified by the following words of St. John Maximovich when he speaks of the works we have to do in order to be saved by God: "Now the Church consists of both her earthly and heavenly parts, for the Son of God came to earth and became man that He might lead man into heaven and make him once again a citizen of Paradise, returning to him his original state of sinlessness and wholeness and uniting him unto Himself. This is accomplished by the action of Divine grace granted through the Church, but man’s effort is also required. God saves His fallen creature by His own love for him, but man’s love for his Creator is also necessary; without it he cannot by saved. Striving towards God and cleaving unto the Lord by its humble love, the human soul obtains power to cleanse itself from sin and to strengthen itself for the struggle to complete victory over sin."
Let us therefore in these final days before Christ's saving passion come to a realization of our sins, and summon strength to be able to cleanse ourselves from all the filth of this world, through the prayers of our Holy Mother Mary