Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,
GREAT LENT: The Thirty Third Day
The Great Canon of St. Andrew is chanted on the first four days of Great Lent. But it is prescribed to be chanted in its entirety on the Fifth Thursday of Great Lent also. Since the Canon has about 260 troparia, each to be accompanied by bows (prostrations in monasteries!), that is more than a bit challenging.
During the Canon chanted on the Fifth Thursday, the Life of St. Mary of Egypt is also prescribed to be read in its entirety. This Life was written by St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the 7th c.
Yesterday evening, I selected the fourth part of the Canon to be chanted and then broke up the Life of St. Mary of Egypt into three parts, read after the third, sixth, and ninth odes of the Canon. St. Mary of Egypt is a living icon of repentance, and her entire life is a startling revelation of the mercy and grace of God that forgives all sin that is genuinely repented of.
In his book Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains the return to the Great Canon of St. Andrew in the fifth week in the following manner:
If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a "summary" of repentance and its fulfillment. If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our lenten effort: how much of all this has truly been made ours? How far have we come along the path of this repentance?
The beautifully written and compunctionate Life of St. Mary of Egypt is meant to edify those who hear it in faith. As Panagiotis Nellas writes:
The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read, so that the intellect and will of the believer may be detached from love of the world and, following in the footsteps of the saint, may be guided into the heart of the desert, into the heart of the mystery of repentance. (Deification in Christ, p. 164)
Yet, there is even a deeper purpose behind reading this Life in a liturgical setting. Panagiotis Nellas further writes:
Thus the liturgical reading of the Life of St. Mary makes the saint present in the assembly of the faithful in a sacramental manner, so that she can accompany them and struggle with them in the contest of repentance of prayer. For this reason, at the end of each canticle of the Great Canon there are two troparia in which the faithful address themselves to her:
God Whom you loved and for Whom you longed, Whose path you followed, O Mother, found you. Pray, therefore, that we may be freed from sin and adversity. (Ibid, p. 167)
Hearing St. Mary's wonderful Life in this setting then brought to life one of the refrains at the end of many of the Canon's odes, of "O Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, pray unto God for us." Her life is the very flesh and blood embodiment of the Canon's entire purpose: to lead sinners to repentance. Thus, with God "all things are possible."
I will try and bring out other aspects of her Life in Sunday's homily.
You may read the complete 'Life of St Mary of Egypt' here.