The Fifth Sunday of Lent normally commemorates St Mary of Egypt, once a harlot in sixth century Alexandria, but by the grace of God, one of our most endearing and enduring saints. This year, however, this date of her commemoration coincides with the date of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, and the brilliance of the light shining from this latter event will eclipse everything else this Sunday, with all seasonal liturgical material devoted to the Annunciation, with its cosmic and salvific importance.
Nevertheless, we should not by any means ignore this wonderful Alexandrian saint, even for one year. Her story reminds us how our God in His boundless love for mankind reaches out to us in ways that are often unexpected and life-changing, while at the same time it offers us hope that even the most wanton sinner can find salvation and even dazzling holiness through sincere repentance and asceticism.
From the Prologue of Ochrid by St. Nikolai (Velimirovic)
The biography of this wonderful saint was written by St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Once, during Great Lent, a certain priest-monk (hieromonk), the Elder Zosimas, withdrew into the wilderness beyond the Jordan, a twenty-day trek. Suddenly, he caught sight of a human being with a withered and naked body, whose hair was as white as snow, and who fled from Zosimas’s sight. The elder ran for a long while, until this person stopped at a brook and cried out: “Abba Zosimas, forgive me for the sake of the Lord. I cannot face you, for I am a naked woman.” Zosimus then threw his outer garment to her, which she wrapped around herself, and then she showed herself to him.
The elder was frightened upon hearing his name spoken from the mouth of this woman whom he did not know. Following his prolonged insistence, the woman related her life’s story. She was born in Egypt, and at the age of twelve began to live a life of debauchery in Alexandria, where she spent seventeen years in this perverted way of life. Driven by the adulterous flame of the flesh, she one day boarded a boat which was sailing for Jerusalem.
Arriving at the Holy City, she wanted to enter the church in order to venerate the Honorable Cross, but some invisible force restrained her, preventing her from entering the church. In great fear, she gazed upon the icon of the All-holy Mother of God in the narthex (vestibule) and prayed that she be allowed to enter the church to venerate the Honorable Cross, all the while confessing her sinfulness and uncleanness, and promising that she would go wherever the All-pure One would direct her.
She was then permitted to enter the church. Having venerated the Cross, she went back to the narthex and, before the icon, gave thanks to the Mother of God. At that very moment she heard a voice saying: “If you cross over Jordan you will find true peace!” Immediately she purchased three loaves of bread and started out for the Jordan, arriving there that same evening. The next day she received Holy Communion in the Monastery of St. John and crossed over the Jordan River.
She remained in the wilderness for forty-eight years in great torment and fear, struggling with passionate thoughts as though with wild beasts. She ate vegetation. After she finished her narrative, when she stood for prayer, Zosimas saw her levitate in the air. She begged him to bring her Holy Communion the following year on the shore of the Jordan, where she would then come to receive it. The following year Zosimas arrived with Holy Communion on the shore of the Jordan in the evening. He wondered how the saint would cross the Jordan. Then, in the light of the moon, he saw her approach the river, make the sign of the Cross over it and walk upon the water as though upon dry land.
After Zosimas communed her, she begged him to come the following year to the same brook where they had first met. Zosimas came and discovered her lifeless body on that spot. Above her head in the sand was written: “Abba Zosimas, bury the body of the humble Mary on this site; render dust to dust. I died on April 1, the same night of the saving suffering of Christ, after having received Communion of the Divine Mysteries.”
From this inscription Zosimas first learned her name and the other and awesome miracle. that the previous year, when she received Holy Communion, she arrived that same night at this brook, which took him twenty days to reach. Thus, Zosimas buried the body of this wonderful saint, Mary of Egypt.
When he returned to the monastery, Zosimas related the entire story of her life and the miracles which he had personally witnessed. Thus the Lord knows how to glorify penitent sinners.
St. Mary is also commemorated on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent. The Church holds her up as an example to the faithful during these days of the Fast as a model of repentance. She reposed in about the year 530 A.D.
Hymn of Praise
A wonderful penitent, self-tormentor,
Mary hid herself from the face of men.
Yes, O sinful me,
By passion darkened.
Passions are beasts which eat at our heart;
Like serpents they secretly weave in us a nest.
Yes, O sinful me,
By passion consumed!
In order to save sinners, Thou didst suffer, O Christ,
Do Thou now not loathe me, the impure one!
Hearken to the cry of Mary,
The most-sinful of all!
The Lord showed compassion, He healed Mary;
Her darkened soul He whitened as snow.
Thanks be to Thee, O All-good One,
O Lord most dear!
Thou didst cleanse an impure vessel and gild it with gold;
Thou didst fill it to overflowing with Thy grace.
This is true mercy.
To Thee, O God, be glory!
And Mary became radiant with the Spirit,
Girded by strength as an angel of God,
By Thy power, O Christ,
By Thy mercy, Most-pure!
What is this fragrance in the awesome wilderness,
Like beautiful incense in a temple coffer?
Mary breathes it,
She exudes sanctity!
Why is it that much is said and written about the sufferings of holy men and holy women? Because the saints alone are considered victors. Can anyone be a victor without conflict, pain and suffering? In ordinary earthly combat, no one can be considered victorious or heroic who has not been in combat, endured much or suffered greatly. The more so in spiritual combat, where the truth is known, and where self-boasting not only does not help at all but, indeed, hinders it.
He who does not engage in combat for the sake of Christ, either with the world, with the devil or with one’s self, how can he be counted among the soldiers of Christ? How then is it with Christ’s fellow victors?
St. Mary spoke about her savage spiritual combat to Elder Zosimas:
For the first seventeen years in this wilderness, I struggled with my deranged lusts as though with fierce beasts. I desired to eat meat and fish, which I had in abundance in Egypt. I also desired to drink wine, and here I did not have even water to drink. I desired to hear lustful songs. I cried and beat my breast.
I prayed to the All-pure Mother of God to banish such thoughts from me. When I had sufficiently wept and beat my breast, it was then that I saw a light encompassing me on all sides, and a certain miraculous peace filled me.
About the Author
- Saint Nikolaj Velimirović (Николај Велимировић, 1880-1956) was bishop of Žiča in Serbia and the author of many Orthodox books. His most widely-known work is the Prologue from Ohrid. On December 14, 1944 he was sent to Dachau, together with Serbian Patriarch Gavrilo, where he suffered both imprisonment and torture. After the War he left Communist Yugoslavia and immigrated as a refugee to the United States in 1946 where he taught at several Orthodox Christian seminaries. He died on March 18, 1956.