We stand together today before the Lord in our infirmities. Where are we to seek healing? This Gospel reading and also the life of St Mary of Egypt provide the answer: in repentance. What is repentance? Repentance, confession: it is the judgment of ourselves before the face of God. This self-judgment restores us in the harmony between wisdom and the heart, turned to face the Lord, and establishes the force of will which can manage our internal enemies—our sins and our shortcomings.
Leading us into the sixth week of Great Lent, the Church speaks the words of the Lord: “There is no sin of mankind which overcomes Divine mercy but unrepented sin,” and confirms this with the Gospel account of the rebirth of the sinful woman and the example of the life of Mary of Egypt.
It was with duplicity, out of curiosity, that the Pharisee Simon invited Jesus Christ to visit him. This is obvious, since he did not observe the customary rules of hospitality, which would oblige the host to greet his guest with a kiss, wash his feet and make him comfortable. During the feast, the doors of the house to the east were not closed, every passerby could enter the house and stay to watch the participants of the feast. And so during this meal, a woman renowned for her sinfulness entered Simon’s house, which was abhorrent to him as the owner of the house. Holding a vessel of expensive myrrh, she approached the One Whom her soul sought, and she stood behind Christ.
Hearing his teachings, she pondered her own great fall, her shameful way of life. And she began to weep. Her tears fell on the bare feet of Christ, towards which she bowed her head lower and lower in an effort to hide her shame. The Pharisee would have leaped back in horror at the mere touch of a woman such as this, he would bathe himself in “the seven waters” from the impurity that touched him. The woman felt inside that Christ would not behave in such a way, she sensed that it is mercy that is a property of sinlessness, not condemnation and self-aggrandizement.
Having heard the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all ye weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” she approached Him, and, sinking to her knees, wiped the feet of Christ with her long hair, which she moistened with her tears, covered them in kisses, and finally, anointing them with expensive aromatic myrrh. This was the expression of a plea for mercy on the part of this woman with the humbled heart.
Her appearance, the tears streaming in abundance, the precious myrrh she brought as a gift, cannot but evoke pity and sympathy in the coldest of hearts. But it did not move the heart of the host, the Pharisee, a man of external, false righteousness. “Oh, but if Jesus were a prophet, He would know what sort of woman this is, and He would push her away with disdain,” thought Simon the Pharisee.
Knowing the man’s heart and his thoughts, Christ rebuked Simon. “Seest thou this woman,” pointing to the recently sinful woman, meekly sitting on the floor, “I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.”
And then, turning not to Simon but to the poor sinner, the Savior said to her with authority: “Thy sins are forgiven… Thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace.” And peace and joy reigned in her soul. The great sinner was emancipated from servitude to sin, embarked on the path of purity and holiness.
Such, my dear brothers and sisters, is the fruit of repentance, the fruit of accepting in one’s heart
and one’s mind the Word of God, through contact with Christ.
These words are confirmed by the clear example of the life of Mary of Egypt. One cannot but notice the two opposites in her life: to wit, the depth of her sinful fall and the height of her spiritual loftiness, this grace-filled ascent. At the age of 12, the young Mary left the home of her parents to Alexandria, and spent many, many disgraceful years there. One day, a wave of believers, of pilgrims, heading to the Holy City of Jerusalem to celebrate the Elevation of the Cross of the Lord, inspired Mary to join them, where she intended to continue her shameful way of life.
So she followed the stream of pilgrims to the Church of the Sepulcher of the Lord. But despite her greatest efforts and all her strength, she simply could not enter the church. An unseen force did not let her step past the threshold of the temple. Lifting her gaze, Mary saw the icon of the Mother of God, the Most-Pure Virgin, hanging over the church doors. She turned her gaze into her own soul and saw that she was fallen and did not dare to enter the church. Standing to one side, Mary lifted up prayers of repentance through the Most-Holy Virgin to God, vowing to change.
After this prayer, easily entering the church, she fell underneath the Cross of the Lord, she prayed, kissed the Life-Giving Cross, emerged from the church and headed towards the Jordan River. Cleansing herself in the waters, Mary went to the Church of John the Baptist, partook of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, and went out into the wilderness, where she spent some forty years, the remainder of her years, in fasting and prayer. “As the sun she shines revealed as a guide to all who have sinned.” Her life was spent in peace and joy in the love of God for mankind.
Such, my friends, is the power of true repentance: it levels our sins and can elevate the repentant sinner towards perfection. May the Lord help us by the prayers of St Mary of Egypt. Amen.