A HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE GREAT FAST
About the Lessons Regarding Repentance Taught by the Life of Saint Mary of Egypt
Brothers and sisters,
Today is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, when we commemorate the wonderful exemplar of repentance, Saint Mary of Egypt. Who among us does not know the Life of this remarkable woman? We know it well, as it is read in full every year at Matins on Wednesday of the fifth week of the Fast, when the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete is also read in its entirety. Therefore, I will not repeat what is familiar to almost everyone present, but limit myself to explaining the chief lessons taught by Saint Mary’s extremely edifying Life.
The first of these lessons is that repentance is always possible for everyone. No matter how grievous or numerous our faults, no matter how long we have served a particular passion, no matter how deeply a particular sin may have sunk its roots into our heart, we still retain the ability to come to ourself and turn to God, seeking His mercy. For seventeen years, for the whole time she was a young woman, Mary was a slave of carnal pleasure and a total stranger to repentance. It seemed she had lost all sense of shame, that she had banished all fear of God from her heart, and that she had completely silenced the voice of her conscience. Nevertheless, this debauched soul did turn to repentance, and to what repentance did she turn! How, then, can anyone pretend that we cannot devote ourself daily to the task of repentance? If our sins are less than hers, this only means that it is easier for us to turn ourself around than it was for her. Yet, she had merely to enter the narthex of the Church of the Resurrection with the others for a feast (and that simply out of curiosity) and fail to push her way into the packed nave, and she immediately put the blame for her failure on her sins. Another person naturally might have ascribed to the thickness of the crowd such failure to enter, but Mary straightway concluded that it was a divine force blocking her, on account of her wicked life. Without delay, Mary turned once and for all to repentance. She looked up at the icon of the Queen of heaven in the narthex, begged the All-Pure One to stand surety for her sincerity, and was granted freedom to enter the temple. How, then, can we doubt that, if only we fervently appeal to her, the Most Holy Theotokos will enable our ardent, continual repentance and stand surety for our sincerity, whatever our faults?
The second lesson that the Life of Saint Mary teaches is that it is insufficient merely to acknowledge our sin and feel contrition for it, and that it is not enough even to call down help from heaven and vow to change our ways. According to the divinely inspired psalmist David, we must not only make our vows: we must pay them to the Lord. That is, we must enter into combat with our passions and do our honest best to vanquish them. Beseeching God’s help, we must strive to eradicate them, or at least to bridle them. We must try to please the Lord by doing whatever runs counter to our passions (especially the chief among them); and we must be willing both to endure with gratitude to God the involuntary troubles and sufferings that beset us, and to inflict upon ourself voluntary sufferings that mortify our thoughts, feelings, flesh, and will. For it is by godly suffering that the suffering of the passions is eradicated. When, after seventeen years of a sinful life, Saint Mary repented and made her vow, she quickly retired into the desert and there, for another seventeen years, put to death the desires and thoughts that sought to drag her back onto the path to perdition. According to her own words, Mary fought with her passions as with wild beasts, until finally she emerged victorious. Even after that she continued to exercise herself in the most extreme asceticism and ceaseless prayer. As a result, she was elevated from the earth when she prayed and was granted the ability to walk on water. God of course does not demand from everyone such a severe life as Saint Mary led; nonetheless, such a life reminds us that we must not go too easy on ourself, lest our repentance turn out to be a sham. For as we know all too well, today we feel contrition for our sin, and tomorrow we repeat it. Today we promise to renounce our passion, and tomorrow, at the first little temptation, we return to it as the dog to his vomit, without offering the temptation the least resistance, because we love to coddle ourself.
From this, dear brothers and sisters, we must understand that acknowledgment of our responsibility for our sins, sorrow for them, compunction, and promises to reform ourself: these are merely the seeds of repentance. We must not spare ourself, but be willing to labor in tending for long hours under the hot sun of prayer, standing; making prostrations; fasting; attending vigils; and performing other pious labors, so that the seeds sprout and eventually produce the fruit of spiritual reformation. Otherwise, what is the benefit?
Every person who commits himself to repentance must bear in mind the words of the Lord’s Forerunner, who was also Saint Mary’s forerunner in the desert of Jordan: Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.
Finally, the third lesson the Life of Saint Mary teaches is that, as we strive to repent and reform ourself, we must make good use of the mighty aids the Lord has provided us; namely, the Holy Mysteries of Confession and Communion. For decades, Saint Mary led the blessed life of an anchoress in the desert, pleasing God. She was completely transfigured, attained the heights of sanctity, and became equal to the angels. Nevertheless, she never ceased to feel the weight of her past temptations or the need to confess her sins. When Providence guided the holy priestmonk Zosimas to her, she not only revealed everything that she had done before setting out for the wilderness, but told him all that she had suffered in the desert from her passions and recollections, prior to attaining utter passionlessness. Having received remission of sins from the venerable Zosimas, she begged him to return the next year with the reserved Gifts, and when he did so, she communed with the utmost reverence and contrition.
If such a great saint, who lived in solitude and exercised herself in strictest self-mortification, and who attained such sanctity, regarded it as imperative that she confess and partake of the Body and Blood of the Master, then how much more necessary is it for us wretched sinners to confess and commune with much fear and compunction! Moreover, we must never forget that it was our Master Christ Himself Who said regarding the pastors of the Church, Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained, and Who also said, Unless ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.
And so, dear Christians, as we think upon the Life of our venerable Mother Mary of Egypt on this final Sunday of Great Lent, let us not forget the three chief lessons which it teaches. Let us keep these lessons in mind, meditate seriously upon them, and, most importantly, struggle as very best we can to live in accordance with them, by the prayers of Saint Mary and of the immaculate Virgin Mary, the Queen of heaven and earth, and the surety of our salvation. Amen.
 Ps. 75:10
 Prov. 26:11; II Pet. 2:22
 Matt. 3:8
 John 20:23
 John 6:53