Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Fifth and Final Sunday of Great Lent--Commemoration of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt

I cannot believe that we have arrived at the fifth Sunday of Lent so soon. For awhile it seemed that Lent was proceeding as quickly as a snail, but the pace seems to have increased as of recent weeks. But, here we are, one week closer to the holiest of weeks. After the third Sunday of Lent when we venerate the Life-giving Cross of our Lord, this is my favorite Sunday in Lent. I have a particular affection towards St. Mary of Egypt and even in the weeks leading up to this one, her name and her story can often be heard in various chants and hymns such as in the Great Canon where several petitions are addressed to her that she would pray for us.

St. Mary of Egypt is the great icon of the life of repentance. Both Jesus and St. John the Forerunner preached repentance, St. Augustine wrote about it and many have practiced it and have run the course well, but none so famously or with such a depth of contrition as St. Mary. I don't need to get into the details of her life or her story (you can read St. Sophronius' Life of St. Mary for that). The reason that this particular Sunday resonates so much with me is that just as the third Sunday's commemoration of the Cross exists to give us strength when we start to lose heart, so this Sunday exists for us to put before our very eyes a person who lived the life of repentance so well. Even by our modern standards, her sins may have been great, but it doesn't matter. Her repentance proves definitively that neither greatness of sinning or transgression can separate us from the love and compassion of our God.

As Lent starts to wind down, we can more easily start to lose heart and patience that it is maybe Ok to lessen our preparation for our Lord's empty tomb at Pascha. Such is the work of the evil one. Satan will even use our fruits of repentance against us, to try to convince us that we have accomplished some sort of "bare minimum" of repentance and thus we can live as we please for the remainder of the time. Indeed, the evil one tried this very tactic with St. Mary and she resisted. A similar story is told about another prostitute who turned to the desert for her repentance. When the evil one could not persuade or trick her to go back to her previous way of life, he attempted to instill in her a sense of pride that Satan's wiles had been defeated. This woman, recognizing the devil's trick, said that it was not she who defeated Satan, but her Lord, Jesus Christ who had accomplished it. St. Zosimas, who brought the life giving mysteries to St. Mary of Egypt before her death and who buried her, though an excellent ascetic realized that he had become prideful in his asceticism to the point that he became despondent. But, meeting our mother Mary in the desert, he wept all the more for his own sins.

Our repentance is never wholly ours. We must make effort, to be sure, but without Christ, our repentance is always doomed to fail. It will be a mere temporary abstaining from the sins of the flesh, nothing more. Our Mother Mary not only gives us an example of true repentance but of how never to be distracted by the vainglory and pride that even successful repentance can bring. Because no matter how many sins we have committed and repented of, there are always more.

Through the intercessions of our Holy Mother Mary, may we continue through the rest of the Lent with fasting, both of the spirit and mind.

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