On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we focus on the life of St. Mary of Egypt. St. Mary was born in Egypt, left home at the age of 12, and spent the next 17 years taking advantage of men for her own physical pleasure. Not until she was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (for all the wrong reasons, but God works even through our wrong choices) did she begin to question the path she was taking. It was when she was unable to enter the church to venerate the Holy Cross that she realized something was wrong. The Theotokos herself helped Mary to understand the severity of her sins, and she repented. She repented so completely that she spent the rest of her days in the desert, fighting against her own fleshly desires and sins. God was with her there in the desert, and he showed His presence to her by providing for her needs and helping her to learn the scriptures and the ways of the Church even without another human there to teach her about them. This allowed Mary to grow more and more holy.
A holy monk, Zosimas, was the lone person she saw, and she did not see him until 47 years after she fled to the desert. They had only two encounters, both of which encouraged each of them. Zosimas was able to learn of Mary’s story, and Mary was able to receive Holy Communion at the hand of Zosimas right before she died. Each of these two people longed for holiness in their own life, and both were humbled by the other’s presence on their journey.
This humility is an interesting contrast to Mark 10:32-45, the Gospel reading for this Sunday. This Gospel reading reminds us of the squabbling disciples, who are fighting for greatness in this passage. It is interesting that the Church has chosen to offer us the opportunity to study the life of St. Mary, who fought her pride and humbled herself in the desert for most of her life; and then contrast it with the disciples’ desire to sit at Christ’s right hand in His kingdom. It is as though the Church is saying to each of us, “Here are two approaches to life in the Kingdom of God. Who will you choose to be like?” We all know who we should emulate, but repenting and humbling ourselves as completely as St. Mary did is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Yet here is her life, offered to us as we approach the end of Great Lent, encouraging us to continue to fight the good fight as she did; to abstain from our passions so completely that we learn from Christ Himself and find ourselves humbled when we are in the presence of even the humblest of fellow humans.
Holiness is not limited to those with a perfect background. Although God can certainly work in and through those who have always lived holy lives (as did Abba Zosimas), He also brings healing and holiness to those of us who repent completely and turn our focus away from the things of this earth and completely on Him (as He did in the life of St. Mary of Egypt). Glory to God who embraces us as we struggle and meets us in that place!
In you the image was preserved with exactness, O Mother;
For taking up your cross, you did follow Christ,
And by your deeds you did teach us to overlook the flesh, for it passes away,
but to attend to the soul since it is immortal.
Wherefore, O righteous Mary, your spirit rejoices with the Angels.
St. Mary of Egypt, please intercede for our salvation!