On the Fifth Sunday of Lent the Orthodox Church commemorates our Righteous mother, Mary of Egypt because it is never too late to repent.
Although her feast day (1 April) is the day of her repose, it is also commemorated today because she is a model of repentance. This year because of Pascha falling early, her name day and her Lenten holiday are not far apart.
Saint Mary was born in Egypt. She left her parents at the age of twelve to go to Alexandria, where she spent the next seventeen years living on charity, doing some linen-weaving, but basically lived her life as a whore.
One day, seeing a crowd of Libyans and Egyptians moving towards the port, she followed them and set sail with them for Jerusalem, offering her body to pay her fare. When they
arrived in the Holy City, she followed the crowd that was thronging towards the Church of the Resurrection, it being the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th) or Agia Stavrou (my grandfather’s birthday).
When she reached the threshold of the church though, an invisible force prevented her entering in spite of repeated efforts on her part, although the other pilgrims were able to go in without hindrance. Left alone in a corner of the narthex, she began to realize that it was the impurity of her life that was preventing her approaching the holy Wood. She burst into tears and smote her breast and, seeing an icon of the Mother of God, made to her:
“O Sovereign Lady, who didst bear God in the flesh, I know that I should not dare to look upon thine icon, thou who are pure in soul and body, because, debauched as I am, I must fill thee with disgust. But, as the God born of thee became man in order to call sinners to repentance, come to my aid! “
And of course the Holy Mother, freed Mary from her invisible chains and let her enter the
Church. She fell prostrate before the Holy Wood and then heard “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.” Mary immediately did so and arrived one evening at the Church of Saint John the Baptist. After having washed in the river, she received Communion in the Holy Mysteries, ate half of one of the loaves, she had received from one of the pilgrims and went to sleep on the riverbank.
The next morning, she crossed the river and lived from then, in the desert remaining there for forty-seven years without ever encountering either another human being or animal.
At the end of her many years, a holy elder Zosimas (April 4), who, following the tradition instituted by Saint Euthymios, (January 20th celebration and my cousin’s name sake) had gone into the desert across the Jordan for the Great Fast., Zosimas saw a human form with a body blackened by the sun and with hair white as bleached linen to its shoulders. He ran after this apparition which fled while begging him for a blessing.
As he neared, Mary called Zosimas by name, though of course she had never seen him and told him that she was a woman and asked him to throw her his cloak that she might cover her nakedness. He did, and after receiving Holy Communion Mary said: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” (Luke 2:29).
She then told Zosimas (Greek for Wisdom and Light) to return in a year. Of course the Saint did, and found her stretched out on the desert floor, with an inscription written by her figure next to her reposed body:
“Abba Zosimas, bury the body of the humble Mary; give what is of dust to dust, for after having prayed for me, I died on the first day of April, the very night of the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, having partaken in the Holy Eucharist.”
The Holy Fathers have placed the celebration of her memory at the end of the Great Fast as an encouragement for all who have neglected their salvation, proclaiming that repentance can bring them back to God even at the eleventh hour.
You can hear her hymn here. The Orthodox church has no instrumental music; like in Ancient Greece, it is all choral.