Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. It is the last Sunday before the beginning of Great and Holy Week, and it is dedicated to the saint, Mary of Egypt, who is perhaps one of the greatest sinners in the history of the saints of the Church. St. Mary was known as—I don’t want to use the word “prostitute” necessarily, because her life was much more depraved than that.
She left her parents at twelve years old and moved to Alexandria, where the story of her life does not say that she was a prostitute, that she was forced into a life of sleeping with different people living in extreme immorality because she needed to, because she was forced into it for money, as for many women it happened in those days, and still happens today, but rather that she enjoyed this lifestyle, she relished it, she explored all the different types of acts that one should not explore, and she was known in that region as somebody who would sleep around with different people, would get drunk, would do a whole bunch of different things that would be considered an immoral life.
From twelve years old, she lived this life for 17 whole years, and then when she had gotten older, she had heard that there was going to be a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from Alexandria, and she was interested. She was intrigued by it. She said, “I’ve never been there before; I might as well go and see.” There was at least a seed of faith within her. So she boarded a ship that left from Alexandria and went to Israel, and even as the story of her life goes and we read it in the books, she even slept with the sailors so she could pay for her passage across the ocean and even when she entered the holy city, the holiest place on earth, where all the sites and all the places were where Christ preached and where he was crucified and resurrected, she continued to live this life of porneia, of sexual immorality.
On the day where the group that she was with decided to go and visit the Holy Sepulcher, that is, the church that is built on top of the place where Christ was crucified, Golgotha, and also on the place where he was entombed and resurrected, as she approached the gates or the doors of the church, something, an unseen force, prevented her from entering, and she did not know what this was, but as hard as she tried to enter the doors—and for some of you who have been there this summer with us, you know that these are wonderful arched doorways entering into the Holy Sepulcher—she could not pass by while everybody else would enter.
This affected her greatly. She realized that there was something wrong, and there was some kind of spiritual force not allowing her to enter—maybe it was the Virgin Mary, maybe it was God, maybe it was her own conscience—and she turned away and she went back to the place where she was staying, and she fell on her knees and she prayed to the Virgin Mary. She promised the Virgin Mary; she said, “If you will allow me to enter this church so that I may venerate the holy places and venerate the wood of the holy Cross”—because it was the feast day, September 14—“then I will promise and I will vow to change my life.”
So she returned the next day to the church, and the Virgin Mary also kept her promise and let her enter the church. She entered freely, without any hindrance, and she went and she worshiped the holy Cross. After that, she left the church immediately, and she went out into the wilderness on her own, past the River Jordan, and spent the next 47 years in the desert alone, eating very little, fasting greatly, and repenting for her sins. This may seem a little extreme to us.
After 47 years, in that area there was a priest-monk named St. Zosimos, who is also commemorated today, who stumbled upon St. Mary who was praying, and he asked her who she was, and she sat down and told him her whole story, a type of confession. She asked him, humbly, “Father, whenever you return, could you please bring me Holy Communion. I have been alone out here for 47 years.” So St. Zosimos, after approximately a year, he came back, and he found her in the exact same spot, and he gave her Holy Communion, and he promised he would come back a year later, and so on and so on, so that he could commune her and give her a little bit of company. After he communed her, he left, and a year later he came back to the same spot that she was, and he found that she had passed away, and beside her body, she had written in the ground. She had said, “Fr. Zosimos, thank you for coming and hearing my confession and communing me. Know that on the day I received Holy Communion, I passed away; the Lord called me to him. Please bury my body here where I spent 47 years in prayer.”
So this is a very extreme example of extreme repentance, moving from an extreme life of sin to an extreme life of holiness. Many of us sometimes can identify with it, and some of us may not identify with it. Many of us think that we’re pretty good people and that there’s nothing in us that really makes us akin to St. Mary of Egypt, but why is she commemorated on this day, the last Sunday of Lent? The reason why the Fathers have decided this is because they know, and they knew it about themselves and they know it about you and they know it about me, that we have great difficulty in our spiritual lives. We are saturated by the physical world, by the worldliness of our lives here. We are, to a certain degree, brainwashed by it, by the media and by television and by the movies, by just the society that we live in. So there is so much more influence of the worldly life on us than there is on the spiritual life.
This is why St. Mary and most of the saints retreated from the world and went out into the desert, away from all those negative influences. Because they knew this, they know that we as people have difficulty, especially in the Great Fast. We start out really strong. We’re really enthusiastic. We say we’re going to do this year perfectly: we’re going to fast perfectly; we’re going to do all the right things. Then what happens is after a couple of days or after a couple of weeks in Lent, we fall. We make a mistake. We eat something we’re not supposed to eat. We say something we’re not supposed to say, and because we’re a little bit of egotists, our ego tells us, “You can do this, you can be perfect.” That is a delusion, because none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes, and that’s okay.
After, when we fall, our ego takes a hit, and so we begin to feel sorry for ourselves, and we say, “Oh, I was going to do this perfectly, and I can’t do that now. What’s the point? I’ve already ruined this perfect track record, this perfect Lent.” So many times we give up, just from one mistake or two mistakes. We give up. We don’t get back on the horse. We don’t keep trying again. We just let it go. We give up, and we continue the rest of the fast without fasting, without praying, without attending the sacraments. In fact, we stay away from the Church more and more because we feel ashamed to go and see our brothers and sisters, the Christians, whom we feel are better than [we are].
And then comes the great feasts of Holy Week and of Pascha, and we come to a few of the services, or maybe we only come to the Holy Resurrection night, and we get the phōs, and then we run away, and we know deep down that this year could’ve been different [from] other years, as we’ve vowed the year before and the year before that. And we know that perhaps I could have experienced something more. Perhaps I could have learned something more. Perhaps this Pascha could have ended up more than what it ended up being.
I think the message from the life of St. Mary today is that it doesn’t matter how late we start. It doesn’t matter how difficult we think the journey is. It doesn’t matter how we feel about ourselves, if we think we’re failures or if we think we’re successful. It is never too late to change, to turn around, to take a new path. It doesn’t matter if some of us have fasted, and, as St. John Chrysostom says, in his catechetical sermon on the night of the Resurrection: it doesn’t matter if you fasted from the first day or if you started fasting on the day before Pascha. The point is that it’s the struggle that is important. It’s that decision to change.
But I think that there is a second lesson that we can draw from the feast day today, one that is not written by the Fathers of the Church, but my personal opinion. I think that, really, the great fear that we have as people is of change. We live our lives in a certain way. We get accustomed to it; we get used to the types of lives that we live. And when we read stories like the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, we see that for one person to truly achieve holiness, for one person to truly repent for what they’ve done—she took 47 years to do it, to repent for 17 years of sinfulness—when we hear these things it seems like a daunting, insurmountable task, and sometimes we give up before we even try, because we know deep down—most of us know—that to truly achieve holiness, theosis as the Fathers of the Church called it, one cannot only dedicate a small portion of their life to the faith, to their spirituality. Sundays are not enough, but we have to truly dedicate our whole being, everything we are, physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—we have to dedicate everything to God, everything to the Church, everything to our fellow man.
Most of us—and I struggle with this every day as well, even though I am a priest—we have difficulty trying to do that, or even believing that we can do that. We don’t even want to change, because we feel that it’s just too difficult. It’s so scary for us that instead of taking the chance and beginning that long, long, arduous journey, we stay home. We stay away from the community. We maybe sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that there is no God, that all these things are just a show, and slowly we come to feel a little more comfortable, and we don’t read the lives of the saints because those remind us what we should be doing and are not doing. We definitely do not read the holy Scripture, because, again, it’s a reminder of who we are supposed to be and that we’re not. So we stay away, and we slip lower and lower and lower or, I would say, further away from the life of God.
This is why, when we live in this way, when great feast days like Pascha come around, they don’t mean a whole lot to us. But this is why the Church exists, and this is why the saints exist. This is why Christ came: to constantly remind us that it is not only possible, but many people have done it. Not only that, but we have help. We have one another. We have our priest, we have our bishops, we have the tradition of our Church, we have the holy sacraments, we have Christ himself, to keep us on that path, to help turn us away from the negative path.
St. Mary, we read about her, and she had a spiritual experience; she had a miracle happen to her. The Virgin Mary spoke to her directly. She was not allowed to enter the church; that helped her change her life. We claim that there are no miracles today and that these things do not happen to us, but perhaps these events are happening to us, but we are so desensitized to them that we don’t even realize that they’re happening, so we continue to go on the way we think we should live rather than the way that we should live.
So during Lent, now, St. Mary calls us to repentance and calls us to change. If we haven’t done anything up to this point, that’s okay. We can start now, even the last two weeks that we have before Pascha. It’s enough. And then maybe next year it’s a little more. This is the great gift that God gives us of his great mercy, of his compassion, of his love. It doesn’t matter who we are and what we’ve done. We can always be forgiven, and it is never, ever too late. Amen.