At the end of the fifth week of Great Lent, and very particularly on the fifth Sunday, the Orthodox Church has all of its members and faithful Christians contemplating a very beloved and well-known person in Christian history for ancient Christians, and that is a woman named Mary of Egypt. On the matins of the Thursday of the fifth week, there is a penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete that is read. That particular service, which is a long type of penitential vigil, is often called in Orthodox popular piety “the vigil of Mary of Egypt.” It’s kind of an identification with Mary. In Slavonic, it’s called Marii bodrstvovaniye, the standing with Mary in penance before God. Indeed, in that canon, with all the penitential verses, there are verses that ask Mary of Egypt to intercede for us, to pray for us, as part of the penitential canon. St. Andrew of Crete, the author, is also asked, but particularly Mary of Egypt.
On this Sunday, it’s again kind of a paradox in Orthodox worship, because the focus is now all on Christ. You have that great celebration of the Theotokos with the Akathist on Saturday, and then you enter into the Lord’s Day, and you hear the gospel about Christ going up to Jerusalem and entering into his glory through his suffering. Then even on that Sunday also in the epistle reading, we’ll hear again about how Christ enters into the holy of holies in heaven, not of creation, the sanctuary of God, securing for us an eternal redemption, and that he’s led to offer his blood on the cross through the eternal Holy Spirit where he offers himself without blemish to God and we are encouraged to purify our consciences from dead works in order to serve the living God.
So we are focusing on Christ, but then, with that, you have this whole Sunday when on the one hand you have these marvelous hymns about the resurrection and the victory of Christ on that Sunday, and then you hear even more about this Mary of Egypt. And it’s a kind of a juxtaposition. It’s almost as if the Holy Spirit and God Almighty wants us to keep these two things together. As we focus on Christ and his victory and go up with him to Jerusalem, then we know that this is for everyone and that it is for the worst of sinners. Nobody is excluded, and you can never forget that when you think of Mary of Egypt.
Who was this Mary? It’s interesting that on that Thursday matins with that canon the entire Life of Mary of Egypt is read in church, particularly monasteries. Sometimes parishes will do this. Sometimes at the meal, like after the lenten service on Wednesday, everyone will sit in quiet and read and listen to the reading of the Life of Mary of Egypt, which is such a touching Life.
The story is simple and straightforward. Mary, when she was still a teenager, she was a sex addict. She’s sometimes called in popular piety, when people are a little bit misinformed, they call her a harlot, but she wasn’t a harlot. She herself says she was not a harlot. Why? Because she didn’t do it for money; she didn’t do it for pay. In fact, that line about her, it actually comes even from the Bible; it comes from the prophets, especially Ezekiel and Jeremiah, but Ezekiel, where the Lord says about Israel: You’re worse than a prostitute; you’re worse than a harlot when you go after the false gods and the idols, because you’re not even doing it for money. At least a prostitute is working. They need money. Maybe they have children to take care of or something.
But Mary was not a harlot; she was simply a nymphomaniac. She was a sex addict, and she loved to have sex with men and as many as possible and so on. It said that she acted that way for 17 years. She obviously did take money; she was making money for it, but she says it wasn’t just for money. She was a compulsive addict for sex.
And then it says that she heard that some folks were going from Egypt to Jerusalem to see the Holy Sepulcher where Christ died. And it says he wished to ride on a boat with them to go across the sea, and she made her passage by having sex with the sailors. Then it says she got there and she was going to enter the Holy Sepulcher, but there was an icon of the Theotokos, Mother of God, there, this Mother of God, and the Mother of God is connected to Mary. They’re both named Mary. It’s interesting that the penitential service remembering Mary goes right together with that marvelous service of the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos. They’re put in juxtaposition to each other.
But in any case, Mary wants to go into the church, and there’s this icon of the Mother of God that doesn’t let her in. She can’t go in. She can’t get in there. Then according to the story, the Mother of God lets her in when she repents, and then it says that she repented of her life. She had a conversion. She gave herself to God. Then it says that she went and repented of her sins and was washed again in healing by the waters of God’s mercy and healing and purification, that she had holy Communion: she ate the broken body and the spilled blood of Christ.
And then it says she went out into the desert, and it says that she lived out there until she died, repenting of her sin. And it says that she had nothing out there. She just ate what she could scrape up. She had a robe that fell off her back, and she went through 17 years of torture. Some folks think that parallels the 17 years when she was addicted to sex and was acting out. But it says that after 17 years a kind of peace and joy and light came upon her and that she became radiant with the glory and the grace of God.
Then, to tell the story very shortly, a monk named Zosima would go out into the desert with the others to spend the Great Lent, the Great Lenten season; that was their practice in the monastery, and they wouldn’t come back until Palm Sunday. It says that he went out there, and he saw her, running around like a wild animal, naked, burnt by the sun and emaciated. He thought she was like an angel. I won’t ruin the story by trying to retell it, but he speaks to her, and they talk and he finds out who she is. Then she says to him, “Come back next year and bring holy Communion to me.” Bring holy Communion: he’s a priest.
So he goes back to his monastery, and the whole year he remembers that, and then Lent comes again and he goes out there with the Holy Gifts of the consecrated bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, and it says that he communes her. He communes her—radiant, glorious, splendid. And then, of course, she dies. She dies. She’s buried, I believe, by an animal, if I’m not mistaken. I can’t remember that part exactly. But in any case, she has her holy Communion. She fulfilled her life of repentance, and became totally beautiful, totally glorious, totally deified, totally filled with the light of God, and then she enters into his kingdom.
Orthodox Christians in this ancient tradition are called to contemplate that Mary, to remember her. And what’s the point? What’s the point? Oh, there are probably so many, and maybe the points are different for every single person who hears that story, but there’s two points that are for sure. One is that, no matter how sinful we are, the Lord God Almighty forgives us. The other point is that repentance is not just an emotion. It’s not just some kind of magical act. When we repent, we have to purge out of ourselves all of the garbage and filth and slime that’s in us. We have to go through a purgation process before we can be illumined and deified. All that is evil in us has to go: it’s got to be scrubbed away; it’s got to be cut out by the word of God that’s a two-edged sword that cuts the bones and marrows, the sinews, as it says in [the] letter to the Hebrews, the heart of people.
Penance is a work. It is a work. It’s made possible by faith and grace, but it is the result of faith and grace. We know God, we believe in him, we accept his grace, and then that grace purifies us, but it’s not automatic. I can’t resist saying—maybe I shouldn’t on the radio—about how one of my friends would say, “We believe in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth; and the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ; and the Holy Spirit. We don’t believe in the Magician, the Mechanic, and the Fairy Godmother.” God is not a fairy godmother. He’s not a magician. He’s not a mechanic. There has to be a synergia between us and God. We have to accept that grace that cleanses us, that heals us, that power, and it’s got to happen, and it takes time. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes perseverance to the end. How often Jesus said, “Those who persevere to the end will be saved.” He says, “In hypomone, in patient endurance you will win your life,” and that repentance is a process; it’s not a momentary act.
Yes, Mary had her conversion experience. Yes, she knew the grace and the love of God at that moment, at that Holy Sepulcher. Yes, she knew that she was saved when she was allowed to enter and to venerate the tomb of Christ and receive the precious gifts of his broken body and spilled blood for the forgiveness of her sins, for the healing of her soul and her body and her passions and emotions and for the attaining of everlasting life. Yeah, that moment took place, and there are many such moments often in people’s lives. But then there is the result of that moment: the ongoing life in conformity to that moment. That’s what we see also in Mary of Egypt.
When I was the dean of St. Vladimir’s and the pastor of the chapel, and of course I was there for 30-some years, I always loved that fifth week of Lent. We had a practice at the seminary chapel that was, for me, at least, incredibly significant and marvelous. This is what it was: We would have those penitential services: the Presanctified on Wednesday with all those prostrations and those 24 additional penitential hymns—“O Lord, before I perish utterly, before I perish to the end, do thou save me, O Lord.” We would sing that canon of Andrew with Mary and keep that vigil on that Thursday. Honestly, we cut it down a bit. We were not monks and monastics there; we had our schedule to live, but we did it. We did it, yes. And then we sang the entire Akathist Hymn the next day, with all that marvelous celebration and veneration of the Theotokos with everything we could possibly think of put into our mouth to celebration the incarnation of the Son of God through her.
And when we sang that Akathist Hymn, we had a quite large icon of the Theotokos, Mother of God, with the Child, and we had it set in the middle of the church, and it was surrounded by flowers. It was decorated by beautiful flowers, and we would stand in front of that icon of the Theotokos, Mary, Mother of God. The deacons would be incensing and the whole church would be singing this marvelous Akathistos Hymn with all those wonderful words. Then we would celebration the Incarnation and Mary on that Saturday in the morning.
And then, on Saturday evening when we would come for the vespers and the matins and the Divine Liturgy of the fifth Sunday of Lent, in that same frame of flowers, on that same stand, the same analoy, in the middle of our same church, would be another icon: an icon of another Mary. Because we would remove the icon of the Theotokos and Child, and in that very same frame of flowers, on that very same stand, in the middle of our very same chapel, we would see Mary of Egypt. What a contrast that was! What an amazing thing it was, that on Saturday we’re glorifying and venerating the incarnation of the Son of God through the All-pure Virgin, of whom is more holy? The most holiest of mere human beings, Christ’s mother, Mary, holding in her arms the Holy One of God, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the world. Holiness! Holiness like you cannot imagine! was in that icon in those flowers and in those songs.
And then in the same building, on the same stand, in the same flowers—was Mary of Egypt. And our icon showed her emaciated, sun-burnt, her hair frizzly white, and her face totally beautiful, and even similar to the face of the Theotokos in the iconography. Totally beautiful. And we knew that a nymphomaniac, sexually addicted harlot and even-worse-than-a-harlot human enters the same radiance and the same glory as the Mother of Christ and of all believers. Like Mary, she herself became more honorable than cherubim, more glorious than seraphim, because in Christ everyone who’s saved has that particular glory. We all are enthroned with Christ over all the angels—the twelve apostles sit on twelve thrones, judging the angels, it says in Scripture. We really are deified and enter into the glory of God. That is why Christ was born of a Virgin, and that’s why we venerate his mother so magnificently.
But on this day we know that the worst, the lowliest, the filthiest, the most addicted, the most impassioned, the most possessed, by faith and grace through that same Christ, by the intercessions of his mother and all the saints, can enter into that same glory. And Mary of Egypt tells us that. She shows us that. And then she begins herself to intercede for us poor sinners. Maybe some of us listening are sex-addicted ourselves and nymphos and whatever, controlled and on computers, looking at porno and whatever—but there’s hope for us. There’s hope for us. Mary of Egypt proves there’s hope for us.
But it’s not magic, it’s not mechanical; God is not a fairy godmother. There must be faith, grace accepted and lived out, and that purgation that leads to illumination that leads to glorification, leads to deification—can be ours. If it can be Mary of Egypt’s, then it can be ours. And how wonderful it was to go to church on Saturday of the fifth week and stand in front of that flower-decorated icon of the Theotokos and Child, and to come back again that same night and the next day and to see, in that same place, Mary of Egypt.