Thoughts on that “Other” Mary: Mary of Egypt

The Scripture Readings for Sunday, April 13, 2008: Today’s commemorated feasts and saints… FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT — Tone 5. St. Mary of Egypt. Hieromartyr Artemon, Presbyter, of Laodicea in Syria (303). Martyr Crescens, of Myra in Lycia. Woman Martyr Thomais, of Alexandria (5th c.).

Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more? Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little. Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

(Luke 7:36-50)

At the risk of identify myself as ever so “post-modern,” there is in the Christian tradition a certain irony surrounding the name “Mary.” Let me explain.

Looking backwards to the Old Testament, we encounter Miriam, the older sister of Moses. It is Miriam who placed the infant Moses in the basket and floating him down the river to be found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a prince of Egypt. And it is Miriam who, at the request of Pharaoh’s daughter, arranges for Moses’ own mother to be his wet nurse. Later when they are all adults and newly liberated from slavery, it is Miriam who leads the Hebrew woman in song:

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them:

“Sing to the LORD,

For He has triumphed gloriously!

The horse and its rider

He has thrown into the sea!” (Ex 15:20-21)

Biblical, the first “Mary” of salvation history is a warrior, one who even as a child uses the resources at hand to fight against the oppression of her people. And she does so unapologetically.

Another “Mary,” is Mary of Bethany the sister of Martha. It is she who, according to the words of Jesus, “has chosen the better part.” (See Lk 10:41) After being careful to not denigrate the service of either women, in his sermon on this section of the Gospel, St Cyril of Jerusalem tells us that “let those who open to them their house, meet them cheerfully, and with alacrity, and as their fellows: and not so much as those who give, but as those who receive: as those who gain, and not as those who expend.” He continues by saying that, those who practice hospitality

profit doubly; for in the first place they enjoy the instruction of those whom they hospitably entertain: and secondly, they also win the reward of hospitality. Every way therefore they are profited. When however they receive the brethren into their house, let them not be distracted with much service. Let them not seek anything beyond their means, or more than sufficient. For everywhere and in everything excess is injurious. For often it produces hesitation in those who otherwise would be glad to receive strangers, and causes but few [houses] to be found fit for the purpose: while it proves a cause of annoyance to those who are entertained. For the rich in this world delight in costly banquets; and in many kinds of viands, prepared curiously often with sauces and flavors; a mere sufficiency is utterly scorned, while that which is extravagant is praised, and a profusion beyond all satiety is admired, and crowned with words of flattery. The drinkings and revellings are excessive; and the draining of cups, and courses of wines, the means of intoxication and gluttony. But when holy men are assembled at the house of one who fears God, let the table be plain and temperate, the viands simple, and free from superfluities: but little to eat, and that meager and scant: and a limited sufficiency of drink. In everything a small supply of such necessaries as will allay the bodily appetite with simple fare. So must men receive strangers. So too Abraham by the oak at Mamre, received those three men, and won as the reward of his carefulness, the promise of his beloved son Isaac. So Lot in Sodom honored the angels, and for so doing, was not destroyed by fire with the rest; nor became the prey of the inextinguishable flame.

Very great therefore is the virtue of hospitality, and especially worthy of the saints: let us therefore also practice it, for so will the heavenly Teacher lodge and rest in our hearts, even Christ; by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Ghost, forever and ever, Amen.

For the saint, the service of Martha, the contemplation of Mary, are not opposed but meant to work together (synergia). It is Mary who keeps Martha from being overwhelmed, but it is Martha that allows Mary to receive a double blessing of instruction and of offering hospitality.

There is Mary Magdalene, one of the band of women who ministered to Jesus and the woman out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. (Luke 8:2-3) It is this Mary, together with the other women and Joseph of Arimathea who will prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Come that first Sunday after the crucifixion it is to this Mary, distraught and mourning that Jesus appears. It is this Mary who is the apostle to the apostles, who announces to the Apostles the joyful message of the resurrection.

And of course, there is the most holy Theotokos and ever Virgin Mary who will give birth to Christ our Lord.

All of these Mary are in the background when on the fifth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate St Mary of Egypt. This former prostitute who becomes a desert dwelling ascetic is in her own way a reflection of the other women named Mary that came before her. Warrior, Contemplative, Hospitable, Handmaiden of Christ, and the one in whom Christ the Word comes to dwell.

Reading the story of her life in Lenten Synaxarion, I am struck by the fact that it begins not with her manifold sins, but on the pride of Zosimas the monk who

a certain Palestinian monastery on the outskirts of Caesarea. Having dwelt at the monastery since his childhood, he lived there in asceticism until he reached the age of fifty-three. Then he was disturbed by the thought that he had attained perfection, and needed no one to instruct him. “Is there a monk anywhere who can show me some form of asceticism that I have not attained? Is there anyone who has surpassed me in spiritual sobriety and deeds?”

As the story unfolds, Zosimas is lead to a monastery where it is the practice for the brothers to spend the Great Fast alone in the desert returning only to the monastery on Palm Sunday. While in the desert Zosimas meets Mary and learns of her life. In quick order he also learns that Mary is not only an ascetic, but a clairvoyant and miracle worker. When he asks her blessing she at first refuses, but then, out of obedience, relents.

And then she relates the story of her life.

Beginning in Egypt we hear briefly of her life of sin. Then we hear of her journey to Jerusalem and of her conversion to Christ.

She tells Zosimas of her life in the desert. The first 17 years are life of constant struggle: “But from that time until the present day, the power of God has guarded my sinful soul and humble body. I was fed and clothed by the all-powerful word of God, since man does not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from the mouth of God (Dt 8:3, Mt.4:4, Luke 4:4), and those who have put off the old man (Col 3:9) have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks (Job 24:8, Heb 11:38). When I remember from what evil and from what sins the Lord delivered me, I have imperishible food for salvation.” And from “that time until the present day” when she meets Zosimas is a period of 30 years. For 47 years after her conversion (at about 30 years of age) Mary lives as an ascetic in the desert.

During this time she sees no one, she has no books to read. She is taught simply, directly, by the Holy Spirit Who enlivens the Word of God in her heart.

Eventually the monk must leave, but before he does Mary asks him to return to her the next year on Holy Thursday and to bring her Holy Communion. A year passes and Zosmias returns to Mary. Like Moses, Mary parts the Jordan for Zosmias to cross over to her and give her Holy Communion.

A year later the monk returns again to the desert to speak with Mary but when he finds her she is dead. Preparing her body for burial he discovers a note written by the saint. In the note she tells him that she died soon after receiving Holy Communion. And so the monk, with the help of a friendly lion, digs a grave for Mary and returns to the monastery to tell the story of her life.

Like the other Mary’s of the Old and New Testament, Mary of Egypt calls in to question our vision of what it means to be not only a Christian, but also a woman and thus a man. But where contemporary anthropological visions tend to be reductionist and subversive, the life of St Mary of Egypt is different; it points beyond itself and directs us to fix our gaze on ourselves but on the Kingdom of God. It is in this way that the life of Mary of Egypt, along with those other Mary’s who precede her in salvation history, reveals itself to be truly radical and revolutionary.

What this “other” Mary challenges is not simply social and culture structures of power, but the human hearts out of which those structures grow. She is a woman of great obedience who has learned to love much because she was forgiven much. It is easy to look at her life, and the life of the woman in the Gospel read on the Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast and think, “Well, I’m not that bad.” And, in one sense, I’m not.

But in another sense, and here is the great surprise of this “other” Mary, how much of the sin in her life was made possible by those who weren’t all that bad? And as I think about this other Mary, I begin to wonder how was it that Jesus was crucified except through the passive collusion of those of us who weren’t all that bad? Looking back at the Mary’s who proceed Mary of Egypt, which of these women didn’t suffer at the hands of those who weren’t all that bad, whose sins weren’t all that serious, and who were respected by their contemporaries?

There is something helpful about the extreme example for my spiritual life. Whether it is an extreme in virtue or vice, reflecting on the extreme can help me see myself a bit more clearly. I am not a great sinner, but neither am I a great saint. I tend to want to be respectable in my vices and my virtues. And whatever else one might say about Mary of Egypt and the other Mary’s of salvation history, they challenge me in my respectability.

In the final analysis the challenge the issue is this: Will I accept responsibility before Christ for my own life and actions? Or will I rather flee into a “respectability” grounded in fear and my own secret lack of thankfulness of God for the gift of my own life?

Like the other Mary’s, Mary of Egypt accepted the gift of her own life and allowed nothing to stand in the way of her obedience to what God called her to do with that gift. Can I do any less.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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