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April 6, 2014

Saint Mary of Egypt as a Model for our Lives

St. Mary of Egypt (Feast Day - April 1 and Fifth Sunday of Great Lent)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

The mystery of death is a fact that has always preoccupied man. Many texts have been written and several interpretations have been given by various religions, as well as thinkers and philosophers on this issue. One thing is certain, as it has been aptly said, that death is the greatest democrat. And this is because it makes no discrimination and before it we are all equal. In one hymn of the Funeral Service this truth is highlighted: "Which indeed is he that is king? Or which is soldier? Which is the wealthy, which the needy? Which the righteous, or which the sinner?"

Death has always brought awe and terror. The ancient philosophers regarded death as something fearful. Aristotle would say: "Death is the most fearful thing of all." In Christianity we have another approach. The saints do not fear it, but consider it a gain. "For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Apostle Paul). And they see it as such, because with death the good things of the kingdom of God and life are not interrupted, which are tasted beforehand in this life, but they will enjoy them in a more perfect way.

Death, which is not a creation of God but is the result of sin, was abolished by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. "Christ, by Your Resurrection You vanquished Hades and abolished death" (Praises, Sunday Matins in the Fourth Tone). And those who experience the life in Christ conquer it and transcend it beyond the limits of their personal life.

For us Orthodox Christians the Resurrection is the most bright festival. We celebrate it, we chant it, but we also sing about it in every tone. All the romaic songs exuded out of the soul of our people that lived this tradition, which is why they speak even of a love for death. This is because authentic love is a sacrifice and a cross, or in other words death, but at the same time a transcendence of death - true life.

To taste this life we must go through the experience of true repentance, through grief and weeping for our falls and sins. The venerable Mary of Egypt by her repentance managed to escape the unnatural life of sin and then transcend this nature and reach what is beyond nature. Her life is known to us. She was a prostitute in Alexandria and lured many into sin. At one time she was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Honorable Cross and out of curiosity wanted to enter the church. Yet when she approached the entrance, she was unable to enter, as if there was an invisible wall that prevented her. She tried many times, but it was impossible. As she saw others pass by her and enter, then her mind was enlightened and she understood. She begged the Panagia to allow her to enter, at the same time promising that she will change her life. Indeed she kept her promise and went to the desert of Jordan where she lived with many privations and much temperance. For seventeen years she had lived in sin, and for seventeen years she was afflicted by the devil and the rebellion of the flesh. Then this war stopped and she began to climb spiritually. Having arrived at apathy her face began to shine. Saint Zosimas, who went to commune her towards the end of her life, was stunned by the sight. He saw a face that was bright and angelic. He saw a person who experienced the victory over death and her personal resurrection.

Authentic repentance, which is associated with the effort to be released from the passions, is a cross. According to Orthodox teaching, there are three crosses. The first is the various incidents of life, such as temptations and tribulations. The second is the struggle for the transformation of the passions. And the third is the vision of God, which is a taste of real life.

The true celebration of Pascha, therefore, is not possible by external means or events, which are also needed, but it is primarily the intensity of the inner life and true repentance. Great Lent, which precedes this, helps us a lot. Besides, this is its purpose. With solemn services, fasting and its entire atmosphere it enhances the effort for a stronger spiritual life, for more prayer, for the crucifixion of the flesh, that is, the fleshly mind and the purification of the passions. "Let us purify our senses and we shall behold Christ, radiant with the inaccessible light of the Resurrection, and we shall clearly hear Him saying 'Rejoice' to us while we sing to Him the hymn of victory."

The word "Pascha" is a Hebrew word and means "crossing". The Israelites celebrated the wondrous crossing of the Red Sea. Orthodox Christians, the new Israel of Grace, celebrate the crossing "from death to life". Hopefully the victorious paean "Christ is Risen" will be our personal experience.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΟΣΙΑ ΜΑΡΙΑ Η ΑΙΓΥΠΤΙΑ", April 1999. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.