Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt

Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff on Sunday, March 21, 2010

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent, the day we commemorate St. Mary Of Egypt.  Since we focus on her every year toward the end of Lent, I’m sure most of you are familiar with her story, but to summarize it briefly, Mary’s early life was decidedly un-saintly. She lost her virginity at the age of 12, and spent the next 17 years pursuing a life of sin, driven by lust and depravity.  The turning point came when she was in Jerusalem at the time of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, when a fragment of the cross of Christ was held up for all to venerate.  Out of curiosity she joined the crowds that were streaming toward the church, and pushed her way into the foyer with the others. But when she reached the door to enter the church, some mysterious force prevented her from going in.  She tried again, three or four more times, but each time she reached the door she could go no further. Finally, exhausted, she stood in a corner of the foyer, trying to figure out what was happening. Gradually she realized that it was the sinfulness of her own actions that prevented her from entering the church.

As she stood weeping at this realization, she noticed that there was an icon of the Theotokos on the wall near where she was standing. Looking into the eyes of the Mother of God she asked for her help.  She begged to be allowed to look on the life-giving cross, where the Virgin Mary’s son had died for her, and promising that she would renounce the world and its temptations, and go wherever the Theotokos led her.

Then she tried again and nothing kept her from entering the church.  After kneeling before the cross she returned to the icon and asked the Mother of God to lead her. Then she heard a voice saying “If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest.”  She obeyed, crossed the Jordan river and went into the desert, where she lived alone for the rest of her life.

So how do we know about her? Because there was a monk, Father Zosimas, who had become well known for his asceticism. Eventually he came to believe that he had probably attained perfection in asceticism; that there was nothing more anyone could teach him. Then he visited a monastery, where it was the custom that the monks spend all of Lent alone in the desert, not knowing how anyone else lived or fasted. When they all returned on Palm Sunday, no one would ask anyone else how he had succeeded in his Lenten fast.  Thus no one was tempted to impress anyone else; each one had to struggle only with himself, before God. 

So he went into the desert, and after twenty days, as he stopped for prayer, he saw a human being in the distance. It was Mary – old now, her skin blackened by the sun because long ago her clothes had worn out and fallen off. He tried to approach her but she avoided him, because of her nakedness, until he threw her his cloak. Then he begged her to tell him her story, and she reluctantly complied. He could tell, by the way she talked and things she knew about him, that she lived in close communion with God.

So what are we to make of Mary and Zosimas?  The church commemorates St. Mary of Egypt every year, as an example of repentance.   I have to admit, when I first heard about her, I didn’t like her very much. I thought she was too extreme – too extreme in her sinfulness, and too extreme in her repentance.  Why did she have to spend 47 years repenting, punishing herself for her sins? Why didn’t she just accept God’s forgiveness and get on with her life?  Well I’ve learned a little more about repentance in the ten years I’ve been Orthodox, and I know that so far I've just scratched the surface. I do not speak to you as an authority on the subject.  But I know now that repentance isn’t about guilt and punishment. And it’s not just saying you’re sorry and then moving on.

Repentance is about self-awareness.  In that moment before she prayed to the icon of the Theotokos, when she stood in the corner wondering why she couldn’t get in to the church, Mary became aware that she was a sinful person, and that it mattered. I’m sure up to that moment she had lived her life doing whatever she felt like doing, satisfying her own desires, and believing that it didn’t make any difference. But God in His mercy gave her the experience of seeing that her behavior did matter, and that it prevented her – literally! – from coming close to him.  That, I think, is the object of repentance – not to wipe the slate clean, not to hit the “reset” button, but to come closer to God.

The first step in coming closer to God, I think, is seeing ourselves as we really are. Not as we think others see us, not as we want others to see us; and not as our parents told us we would turn out, either. But as we really are, with all our pretenses and defenses stripped away. Self-awareness is seeing ourselves as God sees us.

While Mary’s sinfulness was glaringly obvious, Father Zosimas’s was hidden, at least from himself. He was an awesome ascetic, really good at it – and really proud of it. Comparing himself with others, he thought he had reached perfection, that no one could teach him anything more. It seems that he may have lost sight of the reason for asceticism – it wasn’t until he visited another monastery that he met monks who “burned with the love of God.”  And they very carefully avoided comparing themselves with others. Then when he met Saint Mary, he saw clearly how far from perfection he really was. 

So repentance starts with self-awareness.  Then it’s about recognizing the obstacles that keep us from coming closer to Him - not our specific sins, so much as our sinfulness; not the things we do, so much as the desires that make us do them. The Fathers boiled it down to a list of eight appetites or “passions” that drive us all: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, listlessness, despair, vainglory, and pride. Mary spent the first 17 years of her life in the desert subduing the appetites that she realized made her seek all those sexual encounters. The sexual sins were the symptoms, but she needed to treat the sickness that drove her to keep committing those sins. In order to make progress in repentance we need to recognize the appetites, or passions, that are driving us.

Repentance also involves recognizing that we can’t do it on our own.  Mary knew she couldn’t subdue her passions on her own, even with extreme asceticism; that’s why she begged for help from the Theotokos – first that day in the foyer of the church, and again each time she was overcome by lust, or hunger or thirst. Each time Mary was overwhelmed by temptation she would bring to mind the image of the Theotokos, remembering her promise and asking her help, and afterwards she would see a great light all around her and be filled with peace.   Instead of dwelling on the things she had done or wanted to do, she focused her attention on that image – single-mindedly, receptively, expectantly.  This is the essence of Christian meditation, isn’t it – being focused on the present moment, attentive to God, receptive.  And more and more she did experience that peace and rest that the Theotokos had promised she would find. She knew the Theotokos as her mediator and intercessor. And we have the same help available – from God, who loves us, and from the Theotokos and all the saints (including St. Mary herself), who pray for us and encourage us.

Mary’s example shows us that repentance begins with self-awareness, that it involves vigilantly resisting the characteristics in ourselves – the passions – that draw us away from God, and that God loves us so much that his help is always available.  As Father Zosimas saw, the result was that Mary grew closer and closer to God and became more and more like Him.

If she did, then we can too!