Mary of Egypt is one of the most revered saints in Eastern Christianity. She is commemorated on the Fifth Sunday of Lent and on April 1, the date of her death. Her intercession is sought on the first Wednesday and Thursday of Lent when the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Greek is read in four parts during the compline service. The Vita, written by St. Sophronius is read in two parts on the fifth Thursday of Lent as part of the Great Canon. Mary lived a dissolute life until an invisible force kept her from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Only when she realized her sinfulness was the reason she could not enter the Church was she then allowed to enter. Mary spent the last years of her life in the Palestinian desert living on herbs. She was entirely exposed to the elements as the clothing she went into the desert with disintegrated completely over the years. Her only human contact during that time was with the monk St. Zosimas (feast day April 4) who brought her Communion at the end of her life.
Mary’s death occurred in either 344 or 421 A.D. as the Vita specifically states she died on April 1, that also happened to be the evening of Good Friday. The latter would be a better date given the liturgical practices demonstrated in this book, but later interpolations by editors can’t be ruled out. The text of the Vita used in this article is from the Publicans Prayer Book, Sophia Press 2020.
While the life of Mary of Egypt is a shining example of redemption, this article focuses on the liturgical practices in the book, many of which continue until this day. The first is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the pivotal date in Mary’s life. This feast day is celebrated on September 14 and commemorates the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena on that day in 326 and a victory in battle of the Emperor Heraclius over the Perians in 628. Heraclius recovered the True Cross, which had been lost in a previous battle to the Persians in 614. The feast itself goes back to 335, when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated on September 13, and the Holy Cross was brought out for the faithful to venerate. This date is still considered a Presestive day of the Exaltation of the Cross, as the Feast of the Dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The date of the dedication of the Church was chosen to overshadow a celebration of the dedication of pagan temple to Jupiter, the king of the gods, in Rome. It was during this veneration Mary was stopped from entering the Church.
The Lenten calendar described in the Vita is also easily recognizable today. The monks of Zosimas’ monastery left the monastery for the desert after the ceremony of mutual forgiveness on Forgiveness Sunday. Eastern Christian Lent begins with vespers on Forgiveness Sunday, three days before Ash Wednesday. The ceremony of forgiveness, including bowing to the priest or the head of the community, is still practiced. The monks returned to the monastery for Palm Sunday. Modern Eastern Christians will recognize this period as the time of the Great Fast, which today ends on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, known as Lazarus Saturday. (Eastern Christian Lent does not include Holy Week, which is considered a separate, even more penitential season.) Of course, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are specifically mentioned in the Vita as well.
Zosimas and the other members of his monastery prayed the Divine Office (the Hours). The text states “They chanted unceasingly, stood all night at vigil…and psalms always (were) on their lips.” It is not hard to recognize this as a reference to the Divine Office which has the psalms as its centerpiece and the long monastic offices of the midnight vigil and matins. The connection is made even more explicitly later in the text which relates Zosimas when in the desert would stop and pray at the fixed hours of the Divine Office. The Divine Office consists of eight periods of prayer during the day and night. The text refers to the Sixth Hour prayer, a shorter part of the Office recited at noon each day. As the monks leave for the desert on Forgiveness Sunday, they chant Psalm 26 (in the Byzantine reckoning of course). This is the very first Psalm in the Service of the Twelve Psalms, a substitute for the Divine Office prayed by individual monks in their cell if they missed portions of the Hours during the day. John Cassian, a contemporary wrote twelve psalms were already being recited at various times of the day in monasteries in Egypt.
Sophronius, the author of the Vita, was very careful to show Mary and Zosimas were orthodox in their faith. This excluded them from being members of the Arian or any other heterodox group. The very first paragraph of the text states Zosimos was “…orthodox from the outset…”. In the second part of the Vita, Mary asked to pray the NIcene Creed, providing irrefutable proof she too was orthodox in her belief. Both Mary and Zosimos prayed facing the East, the traditional orientation for Eastern Christian prayer. Mary “…implores (Zosimos) by the Incarnation of the Word of God…), prays before an icon of the Theotokos and is devoted to the Theotokos, three additional signs she holds orthodox beliefs. Mary holds to the Holy Mysteries (sacraments). She was baptized and received Holy Communion at the end of her life. This is still the prescribed sacrament at the time of death. Finally, Zosimas asks Mary to pray for the Church and for the Empire. Modern readers will recognize the petitions for the Church and civil authorities recited during the litanies of the Divine Liturgy.
Another article in this series covers the literary devices used in the Vita.