Homily at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in Lewisburg, PA, for the Vespers for the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
Gardening before Vespers on our mission land in rural northern Appalachia.
In America historically, Lady Liberty was cited as a kind of icon of the nation, symbolized in the Statute of Liberty in New York harbor, and at times on U.S. currency.
A Statue of Liberty replica on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, an hour south of our mission.
But to Orthodox Christians, we know that we must dedicate this American land to the Most Holy Mother of God, the Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, of whom Lady Liberty can only at best be seen as an obscurely related type. Our Lady points us to liberty, in voluntary service to universal truth, in the person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our Lady of Triumph, also called Our Lady of Unachieved Victory, and most familiarly the Icon of the Theotokos of Port Arthur; she is crowned to honor her as Queen in the wake of the loss of the last Orthodox monarch of Russia. We chant the Akathist of this Icon once a month at our mission, seeking intercession from Our Lady for our evangelizing of central Pennsylvania. The original name of our mission, Holy Protection, relates to the image of the protecting veil of our Lady here; our current patron, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, was devoted to Our Lady, and associated with the Kursk Root icon of the Mother of God (he is pictured on our new mission icon below, holding the icon of Our Lady, which was commissioned by our Rector, Fr. George Sharonoff).
Let us, planted originally as the Mission of the Holy Protection of the Mother of God in 2015, with God’s grace unworthily dedicate our mission land to be a garden of the Theotokos. She points us to her Son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, as our Directress, the holiest of all the saints. Under her patronage, may our mission land bloom forth for future generations, until our Lord comes again, with gardens, with berry patches, perennial flower beds, orchards, a pumpkin patch, beehives, a chicken yard, as we are planning, along with space for festivals and outdoor events, our already dedicated Orthodox cemetery, and most of all with a temple for worship, blossoming forth as the center of our community for generations to come, God willing. So with God’s grace we hope unworthily to nurture the kind of faith-based traditional community that Orthodox writer Rod Dreher calls for in his books The Benedict Option and Live not by Lies. Glory to God!
When we talk about our Lady the most Holy Theotokos, we also at this time of year during Great Lent, prelude to the spring of Resurrection, note the life and icon and inspiration of another Mary, St. Mary of Egypt. That wonderful saint is a model for us in America and in our mission’s evangelism work. Why was she given the honor by our Lord’s Church of being commemorated on the Sunday before Palm Sunday? She is not part of the Gospel narratives. She was a great sinner. But she was a great penitent, helped by the intercession of the Mother of God. The other, greater Mary so to speak, the Virgin Mary, undergirds and overlies the life of St. Mary of Egypt, and ultimately this Sunday points to her pointing to her Son in the upcoming Holy Week.
St. Mary of Egypt was 12 when she left home and began her life of licentiousness. She lived this way for 17 years. So that means she was 29 years old on the fateful day when God enlightened her and she left for the desert. According to her recounting to Zosimas the first time they met…she had lived in the desert for 47 years/ That would have made her 76 when she first met Zosimas. Add to that another year for when Zosimas brings her communion, and that means that she was 77 when she died. And her body was preserved unharmed, undecayed for a year until Zosimas came to bury her. We hear in her ancient life during Lent of her early encounter at age 29 with our Lady the Most Holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary.
“My native land, holy father, was Egypt,” St. Mary of Egypt told Father Zosimas. “Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery. for about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain — here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.
That is how I lived. Then one summer I saw a large crowd of Lybians and Egyptians running towards the sea. I asked one of them, `Where are these men hurrying to?’ He replied, `They are all going to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross, which takes place in a few days.’ I said to him, `Will they take me with them if I wish to go?’ `No one will hinder you if you have money to pay for the journey and for food.’ And I said to him, `To tell you truth, I have no money, neither have I food. But I shall go with them and shall go aboard. And they shall feed me, whether they want to or not. I have a body — they shall take it instead of pay for the journey.’ I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to have more lovers who could satisfy my passion. I told you, Abba Zosimas, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words.”
Zosimas, weeping, replied to her: “Speak on for God’s sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.”
And, resuming her story, she went on: “That youth, on hearing my shameless words, laughed and went off. While I, throwing away my spinning wheel, ran off towards the sea in the direction which everyone seemed to be taking. and, seeing some young men standing on the shore, about ten or more of them, full of vigour and alert in their movements, I decided that they would do for my purpose (it seemed that some of them were waiting for more travellers whilst others had gone ashore). Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’
I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once.
How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him. At last we arrived in Jerusalem. I spent the days before the festival in the town, living the save kind of life, perhaps even worse. I was not content with the youths I had seduced at sea and who had helped be to get to Jerusalem; many others — citizens of the town and foreigners — I also seduced.
The holy day of the Exaltation of the Cross dawned while I was still flying about — hunting for youths. At daybreak I saw that everyone was hurrying to the church, so I ran with the rest. When the hour for the holy elevation approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I ad at last squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the temple, from which the lifegiving Tree of the Cross was being shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented by 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 my 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 ikon 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, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honour or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy ikon, O ever-virgin, who didst 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 an 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 wilt lead me.’
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 lifegiving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. The 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 fulfil 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.
So the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Lady with Her son our God resulted in a changed life for St. Mary of Egypt, whose faithful penitence in the Desert then gave us such a blessed example for Lent, and for the joyful sorrow of Lenten asceticism for all of us, whether laity or monastic.
As we dedicate our mission land as the garden of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, as a type of Paradise around the Temple of her Son our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, perhaps our prayer for “this land” in the Divine Liturgy may take on an extra deep meaning. Let us remember the final words of the last Christian leader to leave the Soviet Union at the very end of the Russian Civil War, from the Far East, with exiles into China. General Diterichs in fall 1922, temporary head of a pocket of free Christian Russia in the east awaiting the return of a Christian monarch, when departing under the force of the atheistic communist regime into exile, said: ‘I believe that Russia will return to the Russia of Christ, the Russia of the Anointed of God, but I believe that we were unworthy of this mercy from the Supreme Creator.” May God give us the grace, faith, penitence, strength, wisdom, and health to help prepare the soil of this American land for the spread of the Orthodox Gospel, especially in our region, from our garden of the Theotokos, our Church home in the country, embracing through our Lady’s help the rule of our King of Kings, and Emperor of Emperors. Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy us and our mission, and save us. Amen.
Icon of the Theotokos Enthroned, showing her crowned, which re-appeared at the time of the Russian Revolution.