A bit of history as to how and why St Mary of Egypt became the focus of one of the Sundays of Great Lent. As is well known, the themes of the Sundays of Great Lent changed through the centuries and earlier biblical themes were replaced by monastic figures as monasticism began to dominate the church after the restoration of the icons. As the Byzantine Empire disappeared, monastic rubrics and practice became the church norm in the 14th Century and beyond.
“The Fifth Sunday in Lent was formerly dedicated to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and later, probably by the end of the fourteenth century, assigned to St. Mary of Egypt (5th century). A model of repentance, St. Mary’s commemoration was moved from 1 April, which would often fall in the Lenten period, during which time the celebration of the saints was forbidden (Canon 51, Council of Laodicea, 4th cent.).” (Footnote, The Homilies, p. 554)
The story of Mary of Egypt was a popular one in monastic circles and she was upheld as a true hero of the monks – a model of the monastic life. Her feast day, April 1, often fell during Great Lent. The 4th Century Church had forbidden the celebration for saints on the week days of Great Lent as inconsistent with the more solemn nature of the fast. The 14th Century solution of the monastics was to move her feast to the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, ensuring it would be celebrated every year without breaking the ancient canon forbidding the celebration of saints on the weekdays of Great Lent. Commemorating Mary of Egypt on a Lenten Sunday occurred during a time in which the traditional biblical themes for the Sundays of Great Lent (the Prodigal Son, the Publican and the Pharisee and Last Judgment) were displaced and moved into what we now call the pre-Lenten period. It is a sign that liturgical practice – the rubrics and typikon – have always been undergoing change. There is no reason to think that what we are doing now is the way Great Lent must always be kept. The liturgical practice has changed through history and can be changed to better suit the contemporary pastoral ministry of the Church.
Commemorating Mary of Egypt annually during Lent enabled the monks to reaffirm certain themes important to them and to honor a Christian woman who exemplified to them the Christian life.
The story of the Desert Fathers and Mothers begins with the Bible itself. They based their lives on a distinct theology of the desert found on the pages of the Old and New Testaments. For example, the Old Testament speaks of Moses, who went up on a mountain forty days and forty nights to receive God’s revelation of the covenant (Ex. 24:18). The children of Israel later wandered in the wilderness for forty years under Moses “to humble and test you [Israel] in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deut. 8:2). Later prophets such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) lived in the desert as they warned the Israelites to forsake their worship of false gods. On the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), the high priest laid the sins of Israel on the head of a scapegoat and sent it into the wilderness as a sign of repentance and God’s forgiveness. (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 199-205)
The desert fathers and mothers reinforced certain themes which the monks felt need to be brought into the forefront of the minds of others monks.
Above all else, theirs was a life that sought God, and God alone. That is why they declared a virtual war on the inner adversaries that hid secretly in their hearts, and they were watchful of their stealth attacks (Prov. 4:23). They concentrated their energies on the source of their problems, the inner person—its selfish orientation, dark impulses, sexual preoccupations, greed, lust, anger, unforgiveness, hatred, and other “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19 – 21 NRSV). (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 284-88)