In today's Gospel, Jesus is invited to eat in the house of Simon the Pharisee. As soon as He enters, a woman begins to wash his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with precious oil from an alabaster box. Observing all this, the Pharisee thinks to himself that if this man Jesus were truly a prophet, He would surely have known that this woman was a sinner. Our Lord, of course, fully understood what manner of woman this was, and He responds to the Pharisee's unspoken thoughts, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." What Simon failed to understand is that Christ came into this world not to save the righteous, but rather that the sinner might repent (turn again) and be saved.
Today we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, whose life exemplifies the power of repentance and the infinite grace and mercy of God. Indeed, though our sins be as numerous as the sands of the sea, there is no reason to despair. The boundless love of God is fully capable of transforming even the most hardened sinner into a saint. From the age of twelve, St. Mary voluntarily gave herself over to a totally dissolute and sinful way of life. Having surrendered her soul into bondage to the passion of self-love, she devoted her entire existence to the satisfaction of her fleshly desires.
In this senseless pursuit of carnal pleasures and delights, however, she was essentially little different than most of us. For while we may be careful to avoid such gross and obvious sins as fornication and adultery, we nevertheless bow down in worship before the idol of our false ego, striving in every possible way to avoid the pain and sorrow we are sure to encounter along that straight and narrow path that alone leads to salvation.
The way of life St. Mary had chosen was, of course, a distortion of the image of God and a denial of the law of love revealed by our Lord through His death on the Cross. And so it is only appropriate that she should have come to repentance and a true knowledge of herself when she sought to venerate the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and was unable to enter the church due to an invisible force. It was only when she had humbled herself before the icon of the Theotokos and promised from the depth of her heart to renounce her sinful passions that the gates of repentance were at last opened unto her.
Only then was it granted to her to cross the Jordan and thus to enter into the bleak and barren wilderness of self-denial, while striving from the depths of her heart that she might in the end prove worthy of eternal salvation. Now it could rightly be said that simply crossing the Jordan was in and of itself a great and exalted feat (if only you and could do the same!), this decisive turning point was for St. Mary but the beginning of a 17-year relentless struggle to overcome those passionate desires that continued to rage within her.
This is the same ascetic struggle unto the shedding of blood, the same spiritual warfare, to which all Orthodox Christians have been called, and it is never easy. Nor is it possible to be saved simply confessing, as many Protestants believe, that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. The saints achieved salvation through abundant tears and ceaseless struggle, while we seek to avoid at all costs that violence against our sinful, fallen natures through which the Kingdom is taken by storm. May God have mercy on our sinful souls, and grant us His grace that we may at least make a good beginning in the ascetic struggle of genuine repentance upon the path of salvation.