In the Orthodox Church there are four main fasts in the yearly cycle. Yes there are lesser fasts like Wednesday and Friday, but the four main fast periods are thus by the Gregorian calendars:
1. Great Lent forty days before Christ’s Resurrection (some say Easter). Dates change every year called a “moveable fast.”
2. Apostle’s of Sts. Peter and Paul Lent starts Monday after All Saints Sunday and concludes July 12.
3. Dormition or falling asleep of the Mother-of-God (Theotokos). Fast starts August 14 and concludes August 28, a two week fast.
4. Phillips Lent (some call it Advent) November 28 to January 06 is also a forty day fast.
During the Great Fast each of the five Sundays is designated to some Saint or some special event.
1st Sunday: Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrated since 842 AD proclaiming victory over the iconoclasts of those who were against icons and other heresies.
2nd Sunday: Celebration in memory of St. Gregory Palamos, Archbishop of Thessalonika.
3rd Sunday: Celebrating and reverencing the Cross.
4th Sunday: In memory of St. John the Climacus.
5th Sunday: Commemorating St. Mary of Egypt.
6th Sunday: Is Palm SUNDAY and the week following is Resurrection of Christ.
Today being the Fifth Sunday of Lent we will stop for a moment to learn the story of the woman who is celebrated each year on this Fast Sunday. Yes there are many Saints and each one led a different life but all dedicated their life sooner or later to God. The story of St. Mary is really a story of repentance, humility and love. St. Mary was born in Egypt. In her young and youthful years she ran away from home to Alexandria when she was twelve years of age and turned her life into disgrace, dishonor and passions of the body. She lived about seventeen years in this life and learned to spin flax and from this she made her living.
One day she saw a number of young men going to sail to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Veneration of the Precious and Life Giving Cross. Mary thought this was a chance to go to Jerusalem hopefully finding more new young men with whom she could spend her time in seducing them. As people were walking to the church she joined them and came to the Church, but a mysterious indivisible force would not let her into the church. Everyone was entering the church but some unforeseen power would not let her in. Three times she tried to enter but to no avail. She noticed an icon of the Virgin Mary above the door and then she started to weep and pray to Her asking Her to let her enter the church and she would then do as Theotokos would ask. She tried again to enter the church and she entered and prayed with the people.
Mary left the church and as she was fleeing away someone stopped her and gave her three loafs of bread on which she survived for years and then she lived on herbs and wild fruit. The wild animals of the dessert tormented her and her bodily passions which she fought for nearly twenty years. Having overcome the temptations she lived as a hermit spending her time in prayer. The Virgin Mary would appear to her and give her strength to carry on her life.
Forty-seven years she lived in the wilderness of the dessert having not seen one human being all those years until one day a monk by the name of Zosimas coming through the desert met her. Mary having never seen Zosimas knew who he was. She had no clothing, so she turned around and Zosimas gave her his cloak and gave her the Holy Sacrement of Christ’s Body and Blood. There she revealed to him her story and begged him not to tell it to anyone. As Zosimas was leaving she asked him to bring her the Holy Communion again next year and he promised that God willing he will come back in a year’s time.
As the year passed Zosimas went back into the wilderness to fulfill the promise. When he arrived he found that Mary had died and beside her written in the sand was the message that she had died the day after Zosimos left a year ago. She asked him to bury her. Zosimas started to dig the grave, but soon was overtired when a lion came along. Zosimas fearing for his life moved some distance from the beast, but the lion began to dig where Zosimas was digging. Zosimas seeing what was happening lost fear of the beast and together they dug the grave and buried Mary. Zosimas returned back to the monastery and told the story of Mary of Egypt. With God’s help Mary had spent her life in the wilderness in prayer and humility, having received Sainthood and being remembered each year on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Mary died in 344 AD in Palestine.