MARY OF EGYPT SUNDAY 2019
One well-known abbot, many years ago, told me that all Orthodox Christians are converts. It’s true. When we were baptized, most of us were infants. Our parents and godparents spoke for us, believed for us. When we grew older, our parents brought us to Church, and later on perhaps even dragged us to Church. But there comes a time in the life of every young person, or even every older person too, when they must choose Christ for themselves. Mom and Dad can no longer believe “for us.” Our godparents can no longer speak “for us.” Our voice is now our own. Our heart is now our own. Our choices are now our own. Those of us who embraced faith in Christ and the Orthodox Church as adults understand this perfectly. But essentially everyone must at some point choose Christ, choose to believe in Him, choose to love Him, choose to serve Him. And that, my friends, is what “conversion” is all about! Believe it or not, we are all converts, and the choice of conversion is one that we must refresh each and every day. St Herman of Alaska asks us: Do you “love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always remember Him, do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments? For our good, for our happiness, at least, let us make a vow that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will.” Choosing Christ each and every day, each and every hour, and each and every minute, this is the ongoing podvig of conversion.
In the history of our Orthodox Church, and especially in the Lives of the Saints, we find lots of wonderful conversion stories. In those sacred pages and inspiring services we hear about hundreds of men, women, and even children whose evil lives were completely transformed, transfigured, by the grace of God. How about the Holy Apostle Matthew the formerly rapacious tax collector, or Mary Magdalene, out of whom seven demons were expelled? How about St. Paul the former persecutor of the Church, or St. Moses the Black, former thief and murderer? Or who can forget Ss. Taisia and Pelagia, the repentant harlots, redeemed and transformed into pure and righteous women, lovers of God, living in complete submission and obedience to His will?
On this Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church remembers and honors one such sinner turned saint: Mary of Egypt. Her life is extraordinary, shocking in some ways, and inspiring. St. Mary is a woman whose powerful conversion from a life of utter hedonistic carnality to a life of holiness and purity has been admired and appreciated by Orthodox believers for 1,500 years. For this reason she has two celebrations on the church calendar: April 1st ( the day of her repose,) and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent. Additionally, the Triodion calls for her Life to be read for Matins of the Thursday of the 5th Week of the Fast, in connection with the chanting of the complete Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.
There are two aspects of St. Mary of Egypt 's life that I would like to note. First, Mary's complete immersion in her sins made her cognizant of just how serious her spiritual state was as soon as she allowed the Mother of God to shed a little light in her soul. She had no further to fall, and could only look up! Her deep and remarkable repentance brought about great grace and many spiritual gifts: a.) A complete knowledge of the Bible even though she didn’t own one, and had never been in church long enough to become acquainted with it. b.) She was given super-human strength to endure the harsh desert climate, starvation, thirst, exposure. c.) She was given the gift of clairvoyance so that she not only knew everything about Zosimas, but she also knew the future. These gifts from God enabled her to prepare herself and hieromonk Zosimas for the second notable aspect of Mary’s life, her deep desire for Holy Communion. She said to Zosimas: “at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the life-giving Gifts. For, since the time I communed in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the life-giving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord had His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”
Did you ever notice in St. Mary’s life the profound connection between her repentance and her reception of Holy Communion? It’s a huge factor in the story! Her repentance, her ascesis, her deprivations for more than 47 years in the desert were all leading up to that one precious and amazing moment, that one miraculous moment when she received the Holy Mysteries. Why? Because as soon as she received and sent St. Zosimas away, she died. This was the focus and the fulfillment of her life.
Brothers and Sisters, you know, don’t you, that for many centuries people went to Communion only very infrequently? Maybe two or three times a year: once on Holy Thursday, once on their name day, maybe one other time. The reason that the Holy Church has us read her story and meditate on her life at this time is because, traditionally, this is the time when we would be preparing ourselves to receive Holy Communion on Holy Thursday, “at the very hour when Our Lord had His disciples partake of His Divine Supper” as St. Mary said. Maybe this story is a reminder to us about how serious we need to be when it comes to receiving Holy Communion, and why we should “thirst for it with irrepressible love and longing.” Perhaps, too, this story wants to remind us about how important the Liturgy of Holy Thursday is in the life of the church and in the history of the church, and why we should make every effort to receive the Eucharist at that time.
Dear ones, the Church today lifts up St. Mary of Egypt as a beautiful example of repentance, conversion, and a life focused on the Eucharist. In her earthly life we witness two extremes: First, her nakedness as a revelation of her fallenness, her debauchery and her shamelessness. Second, her nakedness as a revelation of her new life, as a new Creature in Christ, turning the desert into Paradise, and living like Adam and Eve before the Fall. Amen.