April 5, 2009

Why Is St. Mary of Egypt Remembered During Lent?

By John Sanidopoulos

Each of the Sundays of Great Lent has its own special theme in the Orthodox Church. 

The First Sunday of Great Lent we celebrate the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" since it was on this day in 843 A.D. that the final great heresy against the person of Christ, that of Iconoclasm, was eradicated and the Orthodox Faith became the standard by which mankind could achieve salvation and union with God. 

The Second Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas and serves as another triumph of the Orthodox Faith, this time against the heresy of Barlaam the Calabrian who taught that mankind cannot partake of glorification in this life. St. Gregory Palamas defended the true Orthodox Faith at this time and taught the biblical and patristic method of glorification that through prayer, virtue and ascetical living man can indeed participate in God's glory in both this life as well as the next. 

The Third Sunday of Great Lent falls in the middle of Great Lent and on this day we hold up the Cross of Christ for veneration to remind believers to continue to fight the good fight against the passions through vigilance, prayer and fasting, remembering the words of the Savior: "He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10:38). 

Having established ourselves in the Orthodox Faith the first two Sundays of Great Lent and having begun our path along the narrow road of salvation on the third Sunday of Great Lent, we now come to the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent which is dedicated to St. John of the Ladder. St. John wrote a spiritual text titled Ladder of Divine Ascent which is read daily in Orthodox monasteries during the entire lenten period because of its high esteem through the centuries as the surest and most inspiring guide through which Orthodox Christians can learn to purify their hearts and become vessels of the Holy Spirit by grace. 

The Fifth Sunday of Great Lent marks the final Sunday before Holy Week begins and this day is set aside for St. Mary of Egypt. St. Mary of Egypt is commemorated during Great Lent for a few reasons: 

First, she is the example par excellence of Christian repentance, who turned away from a life of harlotry to live a repentant life of extreme asceticism and prayer for the love of Christ in the desert beyond the Jordan River. Great Lent itself is a season of repentance and during the final leg of the weary fast she is held up as an example to persevere. Second, the life of St. Mary reveals that she was discovered by St. Zosimas the priest during his isolation period which fell during the period of Great Lent. Because so much of her story takes place during Great Lent, and we are also told she received her last communion on Holy Thursday and died the same day, that the Church found it fitting to hold a special commemoration for the greatest of repentant sinners. Lastly, we are told that from the day St. Mary entered the Jordanian desert up until she was discovered by St. Zosimas, 47 years had passed. The number "47" is significant for the lenten season since all Christians are encouraged to emulate the life of St. Mary during this time through extra efforts in our prayers and fasting which last 40 days for the Great Lenten period and another 7 days during Holy Week. It's as if the Holy Fathers are asking us: "If St. Mary of Egypt could live such a lifestyle for 47 years, can't we all at least try to do so for a mere 47 days?" The Synaxarion for this day seems to say the same thing: "The memory of this Saint is celebrated on April 1, where her life is recorded. Since the end of the holy Forty Days is drawing nigh, it has been appointed for this day also, so that if we think it hard to practice a little abstinence forty days, we might be roused by the heroism of her who fasted in the wilderness forty-seven years; and also that the great loving-kindness of God, and His readiness to receive the repentant, might be demonstrated in very deed."