Early in the morning He came again to the temple; all the people came to Him, and He sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do You say about her?” This they said to test Him, that they might have some charge to bring against Him. Jesus bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask Him, He stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more He bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before Him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

John 8:2-11

The story of St. Mary of Egypt is such a profound one that in addition to being commemorated on April 1 of each year, the fifth Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to her. St. Mary of Egypt lived during the late fifth and early sixth centuries, passing away in the year 522. She ran away from home at age twelve and for seventeen years lived as a prostitute. Once she met a group of young men who said they were on their way to visit Jerusalem and to venerate the Holy Cross of Christ. She decided to tag along and spent the time on the boat trying to seduce the men. It seems that this young woman lacked any sense of morality or conscience. When they reached Jerusalem, she tried to enter into the temple with the group and three times was held back by an unseen force. Standing outside the church, she saw an icon of the Theotokos. This was her moment of conversion and it was pretty dramatic. For the first time in her life, she uttered a prayer, promising that if she could see the true cross, she would repent of all of her passions and go wherever the Theotokos would lead her.

She was led out into the desert where she lived for forty-seven years, subsisting off of a scarce amount of food and repenting of all she had done. This was not easy. She was often tempted, she lived alone, and found comfort in the blessings of the Theotokos and the saints who she asked to intercede for her. After forty-seven years, a priest named Zosimos had a vision which led him into the desert to find a woman who had done a great repentance. He found her and asked her to tell him of her story. She asked Zosimos to meet her one year later at the Jordan River on Holy Thursday.

The following year, Zosimos went to the river and saw Mary standing on the other side. She offered a prayer and then walked on the water to cross the river, where Zosimos offered her the sacrament of Holy Communion for the first time. She asked him to return to the place they had met the year before exactly one year later. When he did, he found that Mary had passed away. Her remains had not decayed. There was a note next to her saying that she had died immediately after receiving Holy Communion.

Much of the life of St. Mary is recounted in the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which is sung during Great Lent and which we have been quoting at the bottom of each of these messages. (Much of the preceding information was taken from https://Orthodoxwiki.org/Mary_of_Egypt)

Although this story is amazing, it is one we easily pass over. We all commit sins, perhaps not to the degree that St. Mary of Egypt was sinning. However, the thought of fleeing to the desert in solitude for forty-seven years seems too difficult and impractical. Perhaps we find it difficult to hold Mary up as an example because of this. There are practical ways to be inspired by her story. First, has there been a single specific moment of conversion, where you decided to go all in on Christianity? For some of us, this has happened in dramatic fashion. And for some of us it hasn’t. For some of us, it happens a little bit at a time. There might be some specific moments where we decide to take big steps forward in our faith. And for some of us, it really hasn’t happened yet. We are present, but we are still on the fringes when it comes to real commitment. Some of us are still continually gnawed at by our passions and temptations. We are fighting but are tempted to just give in. Some of us have taken a break, we are just consumed with the passions, and aren’t really trying at all.

Wherever you find yourself today, reflect not only on the story of St. Mary of Egypt, but also on the Gospel passage about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. I love that Jesus did not condemn the woman. He didn’t even chastise her. He simply told her to go her way and sin no more, to just stop what she was doing wrong. Just stop, and to go her way and sin no more. He didn’t lead her to the desert and say, “Stay here for forty-seven years and think about what you did.” He basically told her to go about her life, but to do it with purpose, to stop doing wrong and to start doing right.

Repentance doesn’t need to be as dramatic as the repentance of St. Mary of Egypt. Her story is valuable because it shows how the grace of God can shine on anyone, even someone who lived as a prostitute for seventeen years—which, by the way, is a pretty long time. She who was once barred from the temple, ended up walking on water. Repentance is a choice, and it is a choice we can make at any time. Whatever situation we’re in, whatever sin we’ve done, there is always an opportunity to come back to God. That’s why this unit is entitled “Out of the Depths I Have Cried: Reflections on Hope and Redemption.” Because when we are in the depths of sin, we need to know that we can still be redeemed in the eyes of God, and this comes through repentance.

One other note, and that is Jesus was so right when He said to those who wanted to stone the woman “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) None of us is perfect. Yet we, as a society, delight in the downfall of others. We now have a “cancel culture,” that just eliminates people who say or do the wrong thing, depending on what that thing is. God would be justified in cancelling all of us because of our sins. We shouldn’t be so quick to cancel each other.

Repentance is a choice. It is a choice to see our faults and shortcomings and to turn to God in those moments, not in a temporary way, but in a way that makes cleaning them up permanent. We may not have moments as dramatic as the conversion of St. Mary of Egypt, but a Christian life has moments where we make the choice for God and against sin, when we come to the place where the woman was who had committed adultery, where we choose to go and fight temptation. None of us is capable of going and sinning no more. But we are capable of understanding sin, and choosing to fight against what we are tempted to do. And yes, it is possible even to stop certain sins with repentance.

Have mercy on me, O God. Have mercy on me.
David once composed a hymn, depicting the action he had done; and he condemned it, crying “Have mercy on me, for against You only have I sinned, O God of all. Cleanse me.”
(Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode Seven, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

We don’t need a dramatic experience or opportunity to repent. Repenting, reorienting towards God, is a choice we should be making on a daily basis.


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here: https://amzn.to/3nVPY5M


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