In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Today we commemorate the memory of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt. At this point in the Great Fast, we’re very often tempted by the demons to lessen our efforts, to make some concessions to the desires of the flesh. We’re tempted by thoughts of, “what are we doing, anyway? Are we actually accomplishing anything by all this fasting and spiritual struggle?” The life of St. Mary of Egypt shows us what it takes to overcome the sins and temptations in our lives. She shows us what that battle-to overcome the assaults of the demons and the desires of our sinful flesh-will be like. Just like last week, where we heard St. John of the Ladder teaching us about the operation of the passions and the virtues, this week we have set before us a living example of a Saint who overcame great passions and temptation and now stands before the Throne of the Lord of Glory interceding for our strengthening and salvation.

The life of St. Mary shows us how easily our temptations can gain control over us. She was so given to her life of sin that she lived by begging, she lived on the streets, she wasn’t even able to properly care for herself. All of her time was spent seeking after the sin of her choosing. She lost herself—she was totally consumed by her desires, and she became something that would later shock even her. She laments to the Abbot Zosimos how many people she led astray by her life of sin. Not only was her own life practically destroyed (before her conversion to Christ), but the lives of others were affected in a very sinful and negative way. There’s no telling how many of the men that she seduced were later plagued by the same temptations of the flesh that St. Mary had so been given to. And Christ warns us multiple times of the punishments that await us if we cause the temptation and fall of our brother. Perhaps we don’t find ourselves in a place where our life is totally dictated by our sin. But if we hold up our lives to the Gospel, to the measure of Christ, we can quickly see that our sins do control us—we fail to live according to the Gospel because of our sins.

Then we reach the great moment of tension and conversion in the life of St. Mary of Egypt. She wants to go into the Church in Jerusalem, but she’s held, as if by an invisible army, outside the thresh hold of the Temple of God. We see this same truth taught throughout all of the Scriptures, all of the lives and writings of the Saints, but it doesn’t strike us as deeply, perhaps, as this one scene in the life of St. Mary. She has been totally alienated from God by her sin. Sin separates us from God, not only in theory, but as we see in the life of St. Mary, that separation is existential, there’s a real chasm created between us and God by our sin. A chasm that’s very difficult for us to cross, because it requires our repentance, our willingness to give up anything that separates us from Christ. Now, many sinners, many of us even, probably would have walked away from that Temple, and made up some explanation for why we couldn’t get into the Church, and continued with our life of sin. But God knew that something in St. Mary was ready for change. And as she stood there, perplexed by her inability to enter the Holy Church, although difficult, she says, she began to understand why she couldn’t go into the Temple. Her life of sin was keeping her from God. She couldn’t even approach God because of the depth of her sin, her love of sin, and her unrepentant heart. Her fervent desire becomes entering the Temple of God.

St. Mary is finally able to enter the Church by coming to a state of true repentance. She resolves to never again defile her body, to renounce the world and the ways of the world, and to go wherever God will lead her. That’s a profound change of heart. That’s true repentance, a repentance that we see born out through the rest of her life. A repentance that overcomes all sin and temptation, and is her salvation. We see an image of what our lives are supposed to be in this repentance of St. Mary of Egypt. St. Isaac the Syrian says, “This life was given to you for repentance, waste it not in vain pursuits.” What St. Mary realized, and what we struggle to see, is that the only thing in life that matters is God. In the end, nothing else matters—not our homes, or our cars, our jobs, our businesses, our entertainments, our will, our desires. All that matters is God, and where He would have us go, and what He would have us to do. Anything else should go; if it keeps us from fulfilling the will of God for our lives, its something we’re called to get rid of.

It’s not easy, it’s a true struggle to let go and give our lives to Christ, but God promises “My grace is sufficient for thee.” St. Mary teaches us one more thing about overcoming sins and temptations, related to the difficulty of the struggle. After she leaves the world to live alone with God in the desert, in her life, we read:

“Believe me…seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting…[my] mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much…the mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had learned once…and how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me on to fornication [which had formerly been the passion ruling every aspect of her life]…a fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces…and thus I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers.”

Everything reminded her of her life of sin, the physical pleasure that life gave her, and she was constantly tempted to return to her life of sin. Even after her profound change of heart, her repentance, her act of total faith to follow God into the desert, she struggle for 17 years with the passions that had dominated her life before Christ. 17 years. (This seems incredibly long to us, but it’s mentioned in her life because to only struggle 17 years is considered a short struggle in the lives of the Saints!)
The life of St. Mary shows us that overcoming passions and temptations is a long and difficult process, even for those who have no other desire than to please Christ. It takes a great struggle to put off the old man and be clothed in the new. But God gave her the grace in every step of the way. He was always there with her, supporting her, holding her hand, and guiding her to the Heavenly Kingdom. The life of St. Mary gives us a lot to think about as we come to the final two weeks of the Great Fast. If we truly desire Christ, her story will make us reflect on the lives we’re living, to hold myself up to the measure of man, which is Christ, and ask ourselves—And am I living my love for Christ every day of my life in every aspect of being? Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!