Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
Christ is in our midst! He was and is and ever shall be. Ο Χριστός έν τώ μέσω ημών. Και ήν και έστι και έσται.
A PRAYER OF REPENTANCE BY SAINT MARY OF EGYPT TO THE THEOTOKOS
"O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how will I know, that it is no honor or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy icon, O Ever-Virgin, who does keep thy body and soul in purity, rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His Holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou will lead me."
On March 31st Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church commemorates, honors and entreats the holy intercessions of the following Saints, Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics and Teachers of Our Holy Orthodox Christian faith: Saint Blaise of Amorion; St. Akakios the Confessors, Bishop of Melitene; St. Hypatios, Bishop of Gangra; St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow and Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to the Americas; Saint Johah, Metropolitan of Kiev; St. Avdas, Bishop, Benjamin the deacon of Persia, and Ormisdes the Confessor; Holy Martyr Menander; St. Stephen the Wonder-worker; St. Hypatius, Abbot of Rufinus; St. Hypatius the Healer of the Kiev Caves; St. Apollonius, ascetic of the Thebaid; St. Joseph the Righteous, the Handsome.
On April 1st is the holy Feast-day of Saint Mary of Egypt.
+By the holy intercessions of Your Saints and Holy Martyrs, O Christ Our God have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
TODAY'S SACRED SCRIPTURAL READINGS ARE THE FOLLOWING:
Holy Epistle Lesson: Hebrews 9:17
Holy Gospel Lesson: St. Luke 1:39-49, 56)
FOR YOUR PERSONAL REFLECTION AND CONTEMPLATION
"In time of sorrow do not seek comfort from people. Most people are not experienced in affairs of salvation and are poor advisors. Make the Lord your only helpmate, and tutor, and from Him alone ask help. The man to whom the Lord sends afflictions is blessed a hundredfold, because it is afflictions that cure the souls. In enduring sorrows, a Christian is likened to Jesus Christ, Who suffered for us. We should consider sorrows a gift from the Lord and a sign of His care for our salvation" [St. Innocent of Alaska].
THE LIFE OF SAINT MARY OF EGYPT
Orthodox Christianity records many accounts of conversion experiences. Throughout her long history the Church has commemorated thousands of men and women Saints whose former unethical and undesirable lifestyles were transformed into a wholesome Christian existence of submission and obedience to the will of God.
By God's grace, the one-time rulers, persecutors, tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and murderers, today make up our canon of Saints. Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you the tax collectors and harlots enter the Kingdom of God before you" (St. Matthew 21:31). This is the reality to why our Lord established the Church within the world. The Church is God's ultimate vehicle for transforming people's lives. The Church's main purpose is to heal, sanctify, and save all believers.
"In Orthodox theology, the Church is properly called the "redeemed community" of Christ Jesus, a union of sinners constantly struggling and growing toward God's eternal Kingdom, of which the Church offers only a glimpse. To suggest that the Church exists only for the holy and worthy is to undermine its whole nature, if not ridicule Christ, Who came into the world to save sinners and establish the Church to continue this ministry of conversion and salvation."
The Saints of the Church then come right out of the ranks of us sinners. On this Fifth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, the Church remembers and honors one such sinner turned Saint: Mary of Egypt. Her life is extraordinary. Saint Mary was an individual who represented a cross section of the immoral, fallen world of her day, a woman whose powerful conversion experience from a life of prodigality to a life of holiness and purity has been the focus of much admiration among Orthodox Christians.
"My native land, holy father, was Egypt. Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria." That is how Saint Mary of Egypt begins telling her story to Abba Zosimas. She lived on her own for seventeen years as a loathsome prostitute. So enveloped was the young Mary on her sexual sins that many times out of desperation, she sought out clients for herself without requesting any payment in return. Her fellow citizens looked on her lowliness as a harlot and treated her with the utmost disrespect. Mary in turn resented her accusers, living in seclusion, and realizing that she was willfully throwing her life away. "Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life".
Until one day...
A group of Christians gathered to embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the solemn feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. Driven by curiosity, Mary tagged along with the group. When the Alexandrian Christians arrived in Jerusalem, they headed immediately for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christendom's most sacred shrine, built over the place where our Lord was crucified and the tomb from which He rose.
"When the hour for the holy Elevation of the Cross approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I had at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the church, from which the Life-Giving Cross was beings shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone else passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented my entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman's weakness, I again began to work by way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again I stood in the porch.
Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be pushed, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the Life-Giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God. And turning to her my bodily and spiritual eyes I said:
'O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word...' (continued above).
"Thus I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying. And I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the temple. And no one seemed to thwart me, no one hindered my entering the church. I was possessed with trembling, and was almost in delirium. Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before -- as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me -- I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the Life-Giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshiped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. Then I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of god, I addressed to her such words as these:
'O Loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men, Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfill my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!' And at these words I heard a voice from on high: 'If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest!' Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: 'O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!' With these words I left the porch of the church and set off on my journey. As I was leaving the church a stranger glanced at me and gave me three coins, saying: 'Sister, take these.' And taking the money, I bought three loaves and took them with me on my journey, as a blessed gift. I asked the person who sold the bread: 'Which is the way to the Jordan?' I was directed to the city gate which led that way...
Mary crossed the Jordan River, and entered the desert, where she lived in all piety, humility and poverty for 47 years. For almost half a century, Mary engaged herself in strenuous fasts and prayed to God unceasingly, repenting over her former life and praising the God whose mercy and compassion back in Jerusalem made her aware of the seriousness of her spiritual condition and saved her.
There was a certain Elder (Geronda) in one of the monasteries of Palestine, a priest of the holy life and speech, who from childhood had been brought up in monastic ways and customs. This Elder's name was Zosimas. He had been through the whole course of the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his tutors as regard spiritual labours. He was so renowned for his spiritual life that many came to him from neighboring monasteries and some even from afar. Father Zosimas used to relate how, as soon as he was taken from his mother's breast, he was handed over to the monastery where he went through his training as an ascetic till he reached the age of 53. After that, he began to be tormented with the thought that he was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to himself mentally, "Is there a monk on earth who can bed of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?"
Thu though the Elder, when suddenly an Angel appeared to him and said:
"Zosimas, valiantly have you struggled, as far as this is within the power of man, valiantly have you gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have already accomplished. That you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned Patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan."
Zosimas did as he was told. He left the monastery in which he had lived from childhood, and went to the River Jordan.
There was a rule in that monastery which was the reason why God brought Zosimas there. At the beginning of the Great and Holy Fast [on Forgiveness Sunday] the priest celebrated the Holy Liturgy and all partook of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ. After the Liturgy they went to the refectory and would eat a little Lenten food.
Then all gathered in church, and after praying earnestly with prostrations, the elders kissed one another and asked forgiveness. And each made a prostration to the Abbot and asked his blessing and prayers for the struggle that lay before them. After this, the gates of the monastery were thrown open, and chanting, "The Lord is my light and my Savior; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm26:1) and the rest of that psalm, all went out into the desert and crossed the River Jordan. Each took with him as much as he could or wanted in the way of food, according to the needs of his body: one would take a little bread, another some figs, another dates or wheat soaked in water. And some nothing but their own body covered with rags and fed when nature forced them to it on the plants that grew in the desert.
Zosimas did the same as all. And he went far, far into the desert with a secret hope of finding some father who might be living there and who might be able to satisfy his thirst and longing. He used to break his journey at fixed hours of the day to rest a little, to chant psalms standing and to pray on bent knee.
It was there that he came upon Saint Mary and began to learn about her life and of her spiritual struggle, repentance and asceticism.
Mary asked Father Zosimas:
"Why have you come, man of God, to me who am so sinful? Why do you wish to see a woman naked and devoid of every virtue? Though I know one thing-- the Grace of the Holy Spirit has brought you to render me a service in time. Tell me, father, how are the Christian people living? And the kings? How is the Church guided?"
Father Zosimas asked Mary:
"How many years have gone by since you began to live in the desert?"
"Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think, since I left the holy city."
"Can it be that you did not need food and clothing?"
"After finishing the three loaves of bread I had, of which I spoke, for 17 years I have fed on herbs an all that can be found in the desert. The clothes I had when I crossed the Jordan became torn and worn out. I suffered greatly from the cold and greatly from extreme heat...
"I beg of you, holy father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our God and Savior, tell no one what you have heard, until God delivers me of this earth. And now depart in peace and again next year you shall see me, and I you, if God will preserve us in His great mercy. But for God's sake, do as I ask you. Next year during Lent do not cross the Jordan, as is your tradition in the monastery."
"Remain, Abba (Father), in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be able to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the Life-Giving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the Life-Giving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. Therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the Life-Giving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper. Tell John the Abbot of the monastery where you live. Look to yourself and to your brothers, for there is much that needs correction. Only do not say this now, but when God guides you. Pray for me!"
With these words she vanished in the depths of the desert.
For the whole year he kept silent, not daring to tell anyone of what he had seen. But in his prayer to God was to give him another chance of seeing the ascetic's dear face. When at length the first Sunday of the Great Fast came, all went out into the desert with the customary prayers and the singing of the psalms. Only Zosimas was held back by illness -- he lay in a fever. And then he remembered what the Saint had said to him:"and even if you wish to depart, you will not be able to do so."
Many days passed and at last recovering from his illness he remained in the monastery. When the day of the Last Supper dawned, he did as he had been ordered. Placing some of the Most Pure Body and Blood into a small chalice and putting some figs and dates and lentils in water into a small basket, he departed for the desert and reached the banks of the Jordan and sat down to wait for the Saint. He waited for a long while and then began to doubt. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he began to pray:
"Grant me O Lord, to behold that which Thou has allowed me to behold once. Do not let me depart in vain, being the burden of my sins."
And then another thought struck him:
"And what if she does come? There is no boat; how will she cross the Jordan to come to me who am so unworthy?"
And as he was pondering thus he saw the holy woman appear and stand on the other sided of the river. Zosimas got up rejoicing and glorifying and thanking God. And again the thought came to him that she could not cross the Jordan. Then he saw that she made the sign of the Cross over the waters of the Jordan (and the night was a moonlight one, as he related afterwards) and then she at once stepped on to the waters and began walking across the surface towards him. And when he wanted to prostrate himself, she cried to him while still walking on the water:
"What are you doing, Abba, you are a priest and carrying the divine Gifts!"
He obeyed her and on reaching the shore she said to the elder: "Bless, father, bless me!"
"Truly God did not lie when He promised that when we purify ourselves we shall be like Him. Glory to Thee, Christ Our God, Who has shown me through this thy slave how far away I stand from perfection."
Here the woman asked him to say the Creed and our Father. He began, she finished the prayer and according to the custom of that time gave him the kiss of peace. Having partaken of the Holy Mysteries, she raised her hands to heaven and sighed with tears in her eyes, exclaiming:
"Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to Thy word; for my eyes have seen they salvation."
Then she said to the elder:
"Forgive me. Abba, for asking you, but fulfill another wish of mine. Go now to the monastery and let God's grace guard you. Next year come again to the same place where I first met you. Come for God's sake, for you shall again see me, for such is the will of God."
Touching the Saint's feet and asking for her prayers for the Church, the kingdom and himself, he let her depart with tears, while he went off sighing and sorrowful, for he could not hope to vanquish the invincible. Meanwhile she again made the sign of the Cross over the River Jordan, and stepped on to the waters and crossed over as before. And the elder returned filled with joy and terror, accusing himself of not having asked the Saint for her name. But he decided to do so next year.
And when the year had passed, he again went into the desert, he reached the same spot but could see no sign of anyone. So raising his eyes to heaven as before, he prayed:
"Show me, O Lord, Thy pure treasure, which Thou has concealed in the desert. Show me, I pray Thee, the Angel in the flesh, of which the world is not worthy."
Then on the opposite bank of the river, her face turned towards the rising sun, he saw the Saint lying dead. Her hands were closed according to custom and her face was turned to the East. Running up he shed tears over the Saint's feet and kissed them, not daring to touch anything else.
For a long time he wept. Then reciting the appointed psalms, he said the burial prayers and thought to himself: "Must I bury the body of a Saint? Or will this be contrary to her wishes?" And then he saw words traced on the ground by her head: "Abba Zosimas, bury on this spot the body a of humble Mary. Return to dust that which is dust and pray to the Lord for me, who departed in the Month of Fermoutin of Egypt, called April by the Romans, on the first day, on the very night of Our Lord's Passion, after having partaken of the Divine Mysteries." [Saint Mary died in 522 A.D.]
Reading this the elder was glad to know the Saint's name. Then Zosimas thought: "It is time to do as she wished. But how am I to dig a grave with nothing in my hands?"
And then he saw nearby a small piece of wood left by some traveler in the desert. Picking it up he began to dig the ground. But the earth was hard and dry and did not yield to the efforts of the elder. He grew tired and covered with sweat. As he sighed from the depths of his soul and lifting up his eyes he saw a lion standing at the Saint's body and licking her feet. At the sight of the lion he trembled with fear, especially when he called to mind Mary's words that she had never seen wild beasts in the desert. But guarding himself with the sign of the Cross, the thought came to him that the power of the one lying there would protect him and keep him unharmed. Meanwhile the lion drew nearer to him, expressing affection by every movement.
Zosimas said to the lion: "The Great One ordered that her body was to be buried. But I am old and have not the strength to dig the grave (for I have no spade and it would take too long to go and get one), so can you carry out the work with your claws? Then we can commit to the earth the mortal temple of the Saint."
While he was still speaking the lion with his front paws began to dig a hole deep enough to bury her body.
Again the elder washed the feet of the Saint with his tears and calling on her to pray for all, covered the body with earth in the presence of the lion. Then both departed. And on reaching the monastery he told all the brothers about everything, and marveled on hearing of God's miracles. And with fear and love they kept the memory of the Saint.
But I (adds Sophronius) as soon as I heard it, wrote it down. Perhaps someone else, better informed, has already written the life of the Saint, but as far as I could, I have recorded everything, putting truth above all else. May God Who works amazing miracles and generously bestows gifts on those who turn to Him with faith, reward those who seek light for themselves in this story, who hear, read and are zealous to write it, and may He grant them the lot of blessed Mary together with all who at different times have pleased God by their pious thoughts and labours.
And let us also give glory to God, the Eternal King, that He may grant us too His mercy in the day of judgment for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom belongs all glory, honor, dominion and adoration with the Eternal Father and the Most Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant God