On this 5th and last Sunday of Holy Great Lent, the Church puts forward the figure of St. Mary of Egypt as a prime example of sincere repentance. We know that the whole of Great Lent is focused on repentance, and we do so by fasting, kneeling, making prostrations, and enduring long Holy Services. Even with all of this, some may still have doubt in their hearts. Can I, who have committed grave sins, be forgiven by God? The life of St. Mary of Egypt answers this question.
As a teenager, Mary left her home for Alexandria. For 17 years, she lived an extremely immoral life. When she went to Jerusalem, she tried to enter the Church to venerate the Holy Cross of the Lord with the other pilgrims, but found that a force prevented her from doing so. Despite her repeated efforts, she was unable to go in, while the pilgrims went in easily. She was shocked by this, realizing that it was her sinful life that made her unworthy to venerate the Holy Cross. It was then that she made the decision to change her ways, seek forgiveness from God, and abandon her sinful life in heartfelt repentance. After tearfully pleading with the Virgin Mary to allow her to enter the Church, she was able to go in and venerate the Lord’s Cross. After that, she again begged the Virgin Mary to show her the path she should follow. St. Mary then heard a voice tell her: “Cross the Jordan River, and you will find rest.” She did so that day, crossing the Jordan and going into the desert east of the river. She spent the next 47 years living a life of fasting, unceasing prayer and enduring many temptations. Towards the end of her life, the Ascetic St. Zosimas met her in the wilderness, where he heard her story.
The entire life of St. Mary of Egypt was recorded by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Sophronius (634-638), and can be found online.
The struggles of St. Mary of Egypt help us understand the importance of true repentance.
Repentance is practical. It is not just expressed in emotions or words, but it is something that has to be done. Let us remember the sermon of St. John the Baptist: “Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). Change our lives. This is exactly what St. Mary did. Her new life was a complete break from her old life. Was it easy? No! She had strong temptations and suffered, but she was determined to overcome them. Let us take strength from her example, having made the effort and being sanctified by the Grace of God.
Repentance is firm. There should be no going back to our sins. Of course, under the harsh conditions of the wilderness, St. Mary would be tempted to return to an easy life of sin. This did not happen, as she was faithful for 47 whole years, until her last breath. And we, no matter what difficulties and temptations we may face in trying to live according to God’s will, can do the same with the assistance of Divine Grace.
Repentance is sacrificial. There is an inevitable element of sacrifice. We must be willing to give up something in our lives, be it comfort, material goods, or other desires that attract us. This is done in order to help us live our newfound life of heartfelt repentance closer to God. St. Mary sacrificed everything to experience this perfect repentance, as she had no home, clothes, food or any other necessities. Despite this, she lived for almost a half century! Of course, we are not expected to do everything she did, but we are called to imitate her spirit of sacrifice, which made her a Saint. Do not be tempted by thoughts of our health suffering from fasting on the Church appointed days, or that we will lose our dignity if we are the first ones to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged or hurt. It is not a sign of weakness to take the first step to restore broken relationships.
We see in the face of St. Mary the reward that God gives for those who sacrifice in a spirit of repentance and humility. God protected her in the wilderness, allowing her to survive all that time with nothing. With the sign of the Cross she was able to cross the Jordan River by walking on it. When she prayed, Divine light surrounded her. She even was able to tame wild beasts and be reconciled with them, as Adam was in Paradise before his disobedience. It is noteworthy that a lion came and dug her tomb, so that St. Zosimas could bury her.
Brothers and sisters, may the life and struggle of St. Mary of Egypt inspire us on the path of true repentance, and with her intercessions may the Lord empower and illuminate us for the rest of our lives. In this way, we can join her in His heavenly kingdom. Amen