From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.
One of the most striking examples of penance ever witnessed, is this day proposed for our consideration: Mary, the sinner and penitent of Egypt, comes to animate us to persevere in our lenten exercises. Like Magdalene and Margaret of Cortona, she had sinned grievously; like them she repented, atoned for her guilt, and is now the associate of angels. Let us adore the omnipotence of our God, who thus changed a vessel of dishonour into one of honour; let us lovingly contemplate the riches of His mercy, and hope for our own participation in them. At the same time, let us remember that pardon is not granted save where there is repentance; and that repentance is not genuine, unless it produce an abiding spirit and deeds of penance. Mary of Egypt had the misfortune to lead a life of sin for seventeen years; but her penance lasted forty: and what kind of penance must hers have been, living alone in a desert, under a scorching sun, without the slightest human consolation, and amidst every sort of privation! The pledge of pardon—the holy Communion —which we received so soon after our sins, was not granted to Mary, till she had done penance for nearly half a century. That pledge of Jesus' forgiveness, which He has given us in the Sacrament of His love, and which was communicated to us so promptly, was withheld from this admirable penitent, so that she received it for the second time only at the moment when death was on the point of separating her soul from her body which was worn out by austerities! Let us humble ourselves at such a comparison; let us think with fear on this great truth—that God’s justice will require an exact account of all the graces He has heaped upon us; and with this thought, let us rouse ourselves to a determination to merit, by the sincerity of our repentance, a place near the humble penitent of the desert.
We take the lessons of the Office of St. Mary of Egypt from the ancient Roman-French breviaries:
Maria Ægyptia, duodecennis, tempore Justini imperatoris, relictis parentibus, Alexandriam venit, fuitque per annos septemdecim ea in civitate peccatrix. Cum autem Hierosolymam profecta, Calvariæ templum in festo Exaltationis sanctae Crucis ingredi tentasset, ter divinitus repulsa, in atrio coram imagine Deiparæ Virginia vovit pcenitentiam, si liceret sibi vivificum crucis lignum videre et adorare: moxque templum ingressa, vidit et adoravit.
Inde sumpto trium panum viatico, perceptaque Eucharistia in oratorio sancti Joannis ad ripam Jordanis, ultra flumen in vastissimam solitudinem recessit. Ibi, consumpto viatico detritisque vestibus, ignota permansit annis quadraginta septem, donec ad torrentem quemdam occurrit ei Zozimas presbyter, a quo obtinuit ut vespere in Cœna Domini, in adversam Jordania ripam afferret aibi Corpus et Sanguinem Domini, quorum participatione tot annoe caruerat.
Condicto die accessit ad eumdem locum Zozimas, quo et Maria signo crucis impresso super aquas ambulans pervenit; recitatoque Symbolo et Oratione Dominica, ut moris erat, divina dona suscepit; rursumque precata est Zozimam ut anno recurrente ad eumdem torrentem veniret. Qui cum eo accessisset, conspexit corpus ejus jacens in terra, in qua scripta hæc legit: Sepeli, Abba Zozima, miseræ Mariæ corpusculum; redde terræ quod suum est, et pulveri adjice pulverem; ora tamen Deum pro me: transeunte mense Pharmuthi, nocte salutiferæ Passionis, post divinæ et sacræ Cænæ communionem. Corpori ejus leo adveniens, effossa ungulis terra, paravit sepulchrum.
Mary of Egypt left her parents, when she was twelve years of age. It was during the reign of the emperor Justin. She entered Alexandria, and was a sinner in that city, for seventeen years. Having visited Jerusalem, and, if being the feast of the Exaltation of the holy Cross, having endeavoured to enter the church of Calvary, she felt herself thrice repelled by divine power. Standing under the portico, she made a vow before an image of the Virgin Mother of God, that if our Lord would grant her to see and venerate the life-giving wood of the cross, she would lead a life of penance. Immediately, she entered the church; she saw; she adored.
Then, taking three loaves as provision for her journey, and having received the Eucharist in St. John’s church on the banks of the Jordan, she withdrew into an immense wilderness, on the other side of the river. There, her provisions consumed, and her garments worn to tatters, she abode unknown to all, for forty-seven years, when she was discovered by the priest Zozimus. She asked him to bring to her, on the evening of Maundy Thursday, and on the other side of the Jordan, the Body and Blood of our Lord, which she had not received during all these years.
On the appointed day, Zozimus came to the place that had been agreed on; and Mary, having made the sign of the cross upon the waters, walked over them, and came to the priest. Having recited the Symbol and the Lord’s Prayer, as was the custom, she received the divine gifts. She again besought Zozimus that he would come to the same torrent, the following year. He did so, and found her body lying on the ground, on which were written these words: “Abbot Zozimus! bury the body of this wretched Mary. Give back to the earth what belongs to it, and add dust unto dust. Yet pray to God for me. This last day of the month of Pharmuthi, on the night of the saving Passion, after the Communion of the divine and sacred Supper.” A lion then came towards the place, and making a hole in the ground with his paws, he prepared a grave for her body.
In praise of our incomparable penitent, we offer to the reader the following beautiful sequence, taken from the ancient missals of Germany:
Ex Ægypto Pharaonis
In amplexum Salomonis
Nostri transit filia;
Ex abjecta fit electa,
Ex rugosa fit formosa,
Ex lebete phiala.
Stella marie huio illuxit,
Ad dilectum quam conduxit
Pacia nectens fædera;
Matre Dei mediante,
Peccatrici, Christo dante,
Sunt dimissa scelera.
Vitam ducene hæc carnalem,
Pervenit in Jerusalem,
Hinc excluso adultero
Maritatur Sponso vero
Dei templum introire
Dum laborat, mox redire
Necdum digna cogitur;
Ad cor suum revertitur,
Fletu culpa submergitur,
Fletu culpa teritur.
Locus desertus quæritur,
Mundus, caro vincitur,
Domus patris postponitur,
Vultus mentis componitur,
Decor camis spernitur.
Lætare filia Thanis,
Tuia ornata tympanis,
Lauda quondam sterilis,
Gaude, plaude, casta, munda,
Virtutum prole fœcunda,
Vitis meri fertilis.
Te dilexit noster risus,
Umbilicus est præcisus
Aquis lotam, pulchram totam
Te salivit, te condivit
Septem pannis involuta,
Intus tota delibuta
Croco rubene charitatis;
Bysso cincta castitatis,
Hinc hyacintho calciaris,
Dum superna contemplaris,
Cubile vernat floribus,
O Maria, gaude quia
Decoravit et amavit
Sic te Christi gratia,
Memor semper peccatorum,
Et cunctorum populorum,
Plaude nunc in gloria.
This daughter passes from the Egypt of Pharao
to the espousals with Jesus,
our true Solomon.
She that was abject, is made a chosen one;
she that was deformed, is made fair;
the vessel of dishonour is made one of honour.
The Star of the sea shone upon her,
and leading her to her beloved Son,
has knit the bond of peace.
The Mother of God interceded;
the sinner’s sins are pardoned.
She that led a carnal life,
came to Jerusalem,
to be espoused to the King of peace;
leaving her false lover,
she is united to the true Spouse,
honoured by the wonderful One.
She strives to enter the house of God,
but her unworthiness forbids it;
she is compelled to retire.
Then does she return to her own heart;
she weeps for her sins,
and her weeping blots them out.
She flees to the desert;
tramples on Leviathan;
conquers the world and the flesh;
forgets her father’s house:
neglects the beauty of the body,
that her spirit may be made comely.
Rejoice, O daughter of Egypt!
Thou, that once wast barren,
take up thy harp, and sing.
Exult and be joyful, for now thou art chaste and pure,
fruitful in virtue,
a vine that yields a precious fruit.
He that is our Joy hath loved thee;
the shame of thy disorders
is effaced by the merit of thy purity.
The wisdom of thy heavenly Spouse has given thee,
cleansed and all fair,
the incorruption of his grace.
Robed in the seven fold veil of his Spirit,
thou wast anointed with the oil of gladness.
The scarlet of charity,
the lily of chastity,
the girdle of modesty
—all were upon thee.
Thy feet were decked with violet,
for thy affections were changed
from earthly to heavenly things.
Thy vesture was of every richest hue,
and thy couch was decked with flowers,
sweeter than those of spring.
Rejoice, O Mary,
in that Christ so loved thee,
and beautified thee with grace.
Be mindful of us sinners;
pray for all mankind;
feast now in thy eternal glory!
Thou wilt sing for all eternity, O Mary, the mercies of the Lord, who changed thee from a sinner into so glorious a saint; we join thee in thy praises, and we give Him thanks for having shown us so evidently, in thy person, that a true penitent, whatever and how great soever may have been his sins, may not only avoid eternal torments, but merit everlasting bliss. How light must now appear to thee, O Mary, that forty years’ penance, the very thought of which terrifies us! How short a time, when compared with eternity! How insignificant its austerity, if we think of hell! And how rich must its reward seem to thee, now that thou art face to face with infinite Beauty! We, too, are sinners; dare we say that we are penitents? Aid our weakness, O Mary! Thou wast made known to the world at the close of thy hidden life, in order that Christians might learn from thee the grievousness of sin, of which they make so little account; the justice of God, of which they are so apt to form so false an idea; ¿md the goodness of that Father, whom they cease not to offend. Pray for us, O Mary, that we may profit by the instructions given to us so profusely during this holy season. Pray that our conversion may be complete; that we may leave our pride and our cowardice; that we may appreciate the grace of reconciliation with our Maker; and, lastly, that we may ever approach to the holy Table with compunction and love such as thou hadst, when, in thy last happy Communion, Jesus gave Himself to thee in His Sacrament, and then took thee to Himself in the kingdom of everlasting rest and joy.