In the history of our Orthodox Church, and especially in the Lives of the Saints, we find lots of wonderful conversion stories. In those pages and in the sacred texts from the services we hear about hundreds of men and women whose evil lives were completely transformed, transfigured, by the grace of God upon their repentance. How about David’s repentance after his sin with Bathsheba, or the repentance of Manasseh? How about the Holy Apostle Matthew the former corrupt tax collector, or Zacchaeus the other one? How about St. Paul the former persecutor of the Church, or St. Moses the Black, former thief and murderer? How about St. Constantine the Great or Vladimir? Or who can forget Ss. Thais and Pelagia, the repentant harlots, redeemed, transformed into virtuous Christians, lovers of the Lord, living in complete submission and obedience to the will of God.
By the power of the All Holy Spirit, these one-time pagan rulers, persecutors, tax collectors, harlots, thieves, and murderers, are included our list of saints. They stand right next to those other holy ones who lived virtuously even from their mother's womb, like Enoch and Elijah, or like Samuel and Jeremiah, St. John the Forerunner, our own St. Nicholas, or St. Seraphim of Sarov. This truth bears witness as to why the Church exists, to why our Lord established the Church in the world. The Church, with her Gifts and Sacraments, is God's ultimate means for transforming people's lives. From darkness to light, from earth to heaven, from sickness to health, the Church's main purpose is to heal, sanctify, and save everybody. Even the worst, most depraved person, is loved by God and has value in His sight. He came to earth for just such people. He died on the Cross for just such people. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, says Christ, but the sick. I didn't come to save the righteous, says Christ, but the sinners.
Many of the saints of the Church, then, come right out of the ranks of us sinners. On this Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church remembers and honors one such sinner turned saint: Mary of Egypt. Her life is extraordinary. St. Mary was an individual who represents the strongest possible example of the immoral, fallen world. She is a woman whose powerful conversion from a life of utter hedonistic carnality to a life of holiness and purity has always been admired and appreciated by Orthodox people. For this reason she has two celebrations during the course of the year: April 1st ( the day of her repose,) and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, today. 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. We did this service last Wednesday evening, and the video is, I believe, still available on the Parish Facebook page. I recommend watching it, or, look up her life online and prepare to be astonished if you’ve never heard it or read it before!
Three aspects of St. Mary of Egypt 's life stand out and are worth noting. First, Mary's complete immersion in her sins made her cognizant of just how serious her spiritual state was as soon as the Holy Spirit touched her heart. She had no further to fall, and could only look up! Second, God's full-force attempt to transform Mary's life made her abundantly aware of just how much God loved her creating an equally abundant desire to follow Christ and to serve Him. Third, and most relevant to us right now, was Mary’s 49 years without receiving Holy Communion. Now we know from her Life that the monks from Abba Zosima’s monastery went without the Holy Eucharist for most of Great Lent. That has been the case for most of you as well this Lent. I’m so sorry about that! For the monks it was by their own choice, or rather, out of holy obedience that they went into the desert for 40 days without communion. For Mary it was the same choice and the same holy obedience to her Directress, the Mother of God, to go into that desert and there to be without the Holy Mysteries not for 40 days but for 49 years! But don’t make the mistake of thinking she didn’t really care about it. God forbid! Remember what she asked of Abba Zosimas:
“And 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 lifegiving 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 lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”
In her obedience, Mary was deprived of the Sacraments, and perhaps this is what gave her a deeper appreciation, a deeper longing, and a deeper love for them. And perhaps this is what we all can take away from this period of exile caused by the pandemic. And yes, Mary was deprived, but in the end, God did not abandon His angel in the desert, and restored the Eucharist to her at precisely the moment she needed it. I’m going to end with the words of the repentant King David, who encourages us in Psalm 144/145 with this:
“The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thine hands, and fillest every living thing with good gifts. The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works. The Lord is near to all that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. He will perform the desire of them that fear him: and he will hear their supplication, and save them” (Psalm 144/145: 15-19 LXX). Amen.