There is a saying, or question that is: what is the difference between a sinner and a saint? The answer: a saint knows he or she is a sinner but a sinner thinks he or she is a saint. Throughout the Sundays of Triodion and Great Lent, there is only one which the Church celebrates an historic person who went from sinner to saint. On the 1st Sunday of Triodion we hear about the Publican and on the Sunday after that, the Prodigal Son but both are characters of a parable from the Gospel and not historic people.
However, on the 5th Sunday of Lent the Church commemorates St. Mary of Egypt. She also is commemorated on April 1st. It is not exact when Mary lived but it is believed to be somewhere around the 4th or 5th Century.
Mary was a harlot from a young age of twelve years old and many times did not even request money for her deeds, simply wanting to satisfy her lustful passions. One day she decided to travel to Jerusalem to venerate the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. This was around the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September. Even while in the Holy City of Jerusalem and while the Feast was being celebrated, she was soliciting prostitution. When she decided to enter the Church, there was a force preventing her from entering and then she saw an icon of the Theotokos.
Mary beseeched the Theotokos to permit her to enter the Church, promising Her that she would repent and change her lifestyle. She wanted to behold the Life-Giving Cross. Mary was then permitted to enter the Church to venerate the Holy Cross and heard a voice from above, instructing her to go beyond the Jordan where she will find her salvation. Mary went on to live in the wilderness for forty-seven years.
Years later, there was a monk by the name of Zosimas who found Mary in the wilderness one day. One year, he returned back to see Mary on Holy Thursday to give her Holy Communion and was told by her to return a year later. Mary actually crossed the Jordan by walking on the water in order to receive Holy Communion from Abba Zosimas. When he returned a year later to see Mary, he found her dead and instead found a note with instructions for her burial. After reading the note, he knew for the first time her name was Mary.
The Church reserves the last Sunday of Great Lent to commemorate a woman who in her early life lived a sinful life. Nevertheless, she repented for her sins and lived the rest of her life as an ascetic. St. Mary of Egypt is an example for all of us, since we are all sinners. Does it mean we are called to live in the wilderness as an ascetic? Although some may be called to do so, that certainly is not everyone’s calling. Just like with Mary, God will provide a way, a plan for us to enter His Kingdom.
Mary initially wanted to enter the Church to venerate the Holy Cross but it was not God’s will. He wanted to first see her repent for her sins, to have a μετανόηση (a change of mind). It was not enough just to confess her sins but to have a change of lifestyle, a path of repentance. The rich man asked Jesus: Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life (Mk 10:17-25)? Jesus responded: one thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross and follow me. The rich man was not willing to do that, to pick up his cross which in his case was to forsake his riches.
Yet, Mary did the opposite; she chose that good part, which will not be taken from her (Lk 10:41). She picked up her cross by living the rest of her life in prayer and repentance. She had a choice, she could of just forsaken her interest in entering the Church and venerating the Cross and returned back to her sinful life. Yet, this was not to be; God had a better plan for her and she abided. The Saint was permitted to venerate the Cross by agreeing to take up her own cross which was to spend the rest of her life in the wilderness.
As we hear in the festal stichera of the vespers last evening: Your prolonged polluted state with all your prior defilements like a wall prevented you from beholding the august holy sites of Christ. Then your mind went to God, when a prick of conscience and awareness of what you had done had their effect on you, to a higher lifestyle converting you. For gazing at the icon of ever-blessed Mary the Maid of God, you condemned your every transgression in the past, all-lauded one, and then with confidence you adored the all-precious Cross of Christ.
When we truly submit to God’s will, He will provide both barrier and access to certain choices, like He did with Mary when she went to Jerusalem. When God prevents us from doing something it is for our benefit, the same way when He strengthens us to do something. He wants to save us; He does not want us to fall away from Him. It is up to us, just like it was for Mary, to hear the Lord calling us and to identify the plan He has for us which will lead to salvation. We might not realize the benefit at first, but with faith, in time it will be realized. For Mary, it was living in the wilderness for forty-seven years. For us it may be something different, but each person will have their unique plan for salvation.
It is fitting that we commemorate such a great Saint on this Sunday, as we close the final week of Lent. We see a transformation from sinner to saint in the person of Mary of Egypt, from a dire state of sinfulness to a sanctified state, from being prohibited to enter the Church, to being able to walk on water. Christ told us Himself: those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Lk 5: 31-32).
As we prepare to enter Holy Week, we look to St. Mary of Egypt, knowing our redemption is at hand. Several days from now, Christ will be led to His passion and be crucified to redeem all, especially the repentant sinner. We pray for St. Mary’s intercessions before the Lord to help us in our lives, for us to realize our own sinfulness and to have μετavόηση, to turn toward God and adhere to His plan for our salvation.
In you, O Mother, is preserved undistorted what was made in the image of God; for taking up the cross, you followed Christ and by example taught, that we should overlook the flesh, since it passes away, and instead look after the soul, since it is immortal. And therefore, O devout Mary, your spirit rejoices with the angels. (Festal Apolytikion)
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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BONUS: Y2AM has released a brand new ministry training course. And check out this week's "Be the Bee" below for more on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent: