St Mary of Egypt, Central Russian Icon, 19th cen.
With the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt, we begin to turn our attention toward Jerusalem, and in particular, toward Golgotha. St Mary is indeed a paradigmatic pilgrim, although an extraordinary one. For she fell into extreme sin and yet went on to achieve extreme holiness. Her own journey from Egypt to Jerusalem gives us a vivid picture of a personal Pascha or “passover” from death to life.
Passover is indeed one of the neglected but crucial themes of Pascha; this theme is encapsulated in the name of Eastern Easter, since ‘Pascha’ itself comes from the Jewish word for Passover. The Passion and Resurrection of Christ have always been specifically understood as the fulfillment of the biblical Passover and Exodus. In this article we will embark on a pilgrimage with St Mary from the slavery of Egypt through the bitter waters of Marah to the sweetness of the Cross of Christ.
Throughout Holy Week, we go through the whole biblical narrative of how Joseph is sold into slavery, goes to Egypt, and despite all these setbacks gains the favor of Pharaoh; how he saves from famine the brothers who betrayed him and how the descendants of Israel settle in Egypt; how after so many generations, a new Pharaoh arises and begins oppressing the Hebrews; how Moses is called by God to liberate His people; how the Israelites pass through the Red Sea when they are pursued by Pharaoh’s hosts.
As epic as the story is, one realizes from reading it in its entirety that the Exodus and the Passover are never really completed. The interior Passover from death to life, from sin to salvation, from slavery to freedom is never fully accomplished until the advent of Jesus Christ. One of the striking moments where we notice this is at the bitter waters of Marah. But before we turn to this scene, let us also consider Mary’s bitter life ‘before Christ.’
St Mary came from Egypt, but she departed from her parents’ home and became a slave to sin in the cosmopolitan port city of Alexandria. There is no need to go into the details: she was a profligate harlot and probably an alcoholic. Her pilgrimage begins in an unlikely way. She boards a ship of pilgrims bound for Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and she candidly confesses to St Zosimas that she corrupted not a few souls along the way.
But when she arrives in Jerusalem and sees the pilgrims crowding into the church to venerate the Cross, she is deeply embittered. No matter how often she tries or how hard she pushes at the threshold of the church, she cannot enter. It is much like when a drug addict hits rock bottom. He has entered so deep into misery that it seems there could be nothing worse. But strangely enough, that is where the greatest transformation can happen. That is where, by God’s grace, the deepest resolve and the most radical turnaround can be brought about.
It is at this point that the Cross of Christ reorients all of Mary’s eros towards God. In the face of this aporia and impasse, utterly disoriented and at a loss, all she can think to do is to call upon her patron, the All-Pure Virgin Mary. We can take note of all the dynamics of desire playing out at this dramatic moment. Throughout her life of sin, Mary was voraciously and vainly attempting to satisfy her desires. But only when she sees the Cross does she encounter something that she desires but cannot obtain. It is something pure, awe-inspiring, and out of reach. It is not an object of desire that can be indulged in, but something Pure that calls for purity.
Paradoxically, God draws us to Himself precisely by eluding our grasp. In this way we are spurred on to ascend to Him with ever greater longing and deeper purification. The Church gives us several models for spiritual progress and ascent on this basis, not least of which is the Ladder of Divine Ascent. In the Life of St Mary, Zosimas and the other monks’ zealous quest for perfection remind us of this canonical paradigm of ascetical striving laid down by St John Climacus. But St Mary’s life raises the question: what do you do when you cannot even climb onto the first rung of the Ladder? When you have already entered the gaping maw of Hades? When you have been swept away into a life of perdition? While we ought to take seriously the responsibility of people who choose to lead such lives, we can also find unceasing reassurement in the example of St Mary of Egypt and the words of Christ: “When I am raised up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32).
Ladder of Divine Ascent, Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA
This brings us to the meaning of Mary’s name and to one of the crucial events in the Passover of the Jews from Egypt to the Promise Land. The name Mary (along with Miriam, Mariam, Mara, etc.) has always been understood to signify ‘bitterness’. Jewish commentators note that Moses’ sister was named Miriam because of the bitterness of slavery. The place where the Israelites encountered bitter water in the desert was called ‘Marah’. The Israelites stopped to quench their thirst by the springs there, only to be repulsed by the taste.
Any close reading of the Exodus story will make us realize that the more serious problem is the interior bitterness of the Israelites, who, accustomed to the conditions of slavery as they are, murmur against the God who liberated them. At this point, they prefer slavery to the strenuous journey to freedom. But God is patient with them and gives them refreshment in their embittered state. Then, as soon as Moses casts the wood into the waters, as he is commanded by God to do, they are made sweet. This wood, as all the hymnography for the Feast of the Exaltation of Cross indicates, is a type and symbol of the Cross.
The Cross plunges down into the heart of hell. It makes the bitter waters not only palatable, but pleasant to taste. When it is exalted, it raises up the whole world, and draws all people to the Lord of Glory crucified thereon. Once St Mary comes to her senses and promises the Virgin Mary to follow wherever she leads her, she goes to bathe herself in the Jordan river and then receives Holy Communion at the Church of St John the Baptist. A flood of sweetness washes over all the former bitterness of her life, from the freshness of the waters where Christ Himself was baptized to the sweet taste of His Body and Blood.
Ultimately we even learn that there is a good kind of bitterness. What is sweetest to the tongue of the repentant sinner is most bitter to Hell. As we hear from St. John Chrysostom at every Pascha, when Christ descended into death, “Hades was embittered.” By His Cross, upon which He “draws all people to himself”, he draws even those who are on the verge of being devoured alive by Hades. Confessing her last bout of sin before conversion, St Mary wonders in retrospect, “How the sea was able to bear my prodigality, how the earth kept from opening its mouth and casting me alive into Hades. But as is His wont, God was seeking my repentance; for He desires not the death of the sinner, but remains longsuffering, awaiting their return” (21).
Mary’s life attests to the possibility of sudden transformation from the bitter waters of Marah to the sweetness of the Cross: she enters into a state of measureless gratitude for the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is “given without measure” (Jn 3:34), unstintingly to those who desire it. All she desired before dying was one last Holy Communion. Upon receiving it from the hand of Zosimas she reposed the following day, on the day of the death of our Lord. Likewise, however often we sink back into old habits, we need never forget that taste. Moreover, let us be reminded that we have a tireless intercessor in St Mary, who will keep us from sinking beneath the waves, just as she herself learned to rise above them and even to walk upon them. We must keep on going back to that sweetness till we attain the final Pascha, that “fair and radiant triumphal feast.”