Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
This Friday coming is the feast day, both in the Western and Eastern Church, of St. Mary Magdalene. It is a particularly poignant time for me, since it is the name-day of my firstborn daughter, Meredith (Mary Magdalene), who was the first of our family to be chrismated and received into Orthodoxy, years before the rest of us followed. This year, it is even more meaningful, since my first grand-daughter, nine-year-old Madeleine, will be chrismated and received over the weekend, along with her mother and five siblings (with the youngest being baptized).
Of all the women in the New Testament, St. Mary Magdalene is probably the most colorful. But from the pages of the New Testament alone, we do not learn much about her, nor of the other women of the early Church: even when it is clear from the brief notices of the gospels and epistles that some of these women were very significant! In Christian circles that pay attention only to the Bible and not also to Holy Tradition, the silence about the women is even more extreme: the glaring omission is the glory of the Theotokos, more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim. But even the very number of stories about women is diminished in Protestant circles, for many of them scarcely know the outlines of stories concerning Judith, Susannah, and Sarah the daughter-in-law of Tobit. These stories are found by them only in the collection known as “the Apocrypha.” For Orthodox, these are ‘Readable Books” to be studied with great profit.
Against this silence, there has been in our day a reaction, a demand that we reclaim the unnamed and uncelebrated women of the past. But this effort, because of its reactionary nature, has misfired. It has directed contemporary eyes only to the political realm, rather than calling us to a deep, inner and mysterious recollection of what God has done in our midst, as foreseen joyfully by the prophet Joel: “Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy”(Act 2:18)
Typically, the stories of godly women reveal the deep, inner and even counter-cultural life of the Church, as contrasted with its public, official witness. There was holy Mary, who treasured “all these things in her heart.” There was the unnamed Canaanite woman, who had the chutzpa to argue with Jesus, and received not only her heart’s desire, but the commendation that she had more faith than any of Israel. There was St. Mary of Bethany who sat at Jesus’ feet, delighting in the one thing necessary. And there was St. Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus had healed, who followed Jesus through every city and village, who tarried at the cross, who brought myrrh to the tomb, and to whom the risen Lord first appeared.
Our gospel reading for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene reminds us of these women, and their part in encouraging the Lord, with his apostles:
Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance. (Luke 8:1-3)
They are described, then, as patronesses of Jesus and the earliest disciples. And these women display a deep, tenacious, abiding and wise response to the Lord. Sometimes they are not even named, and they don’t make it onto the official list of those who defended the faith—for example, the list of apostles repeated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Their role is less flashy: they show forth the inner nature of God’s people, speaking INSIDE the Church to those who make up its body. It is the women who above all remind us that being a Christian is something that goes beyond adherence to doctrine—though doctrine is important! As Fr. Patrick Reardon puts it, with women like Mary, we have to do with “an ‘in house’ memory of the Church….” [Their experience] “can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.”
And so the evangelist John (John 20:18) tells us that “Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things to her.” Mary’s report is not just a story ABOUT Jesus, but knowledge of Him—it involves sight, sound and lively memory! The Psalmist likens this intimate knowledge to the trust of a young child for his or her mother:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore. (Psalm 131)
David, yearning for this rest, was a man “after God’s own heart.” But even he did not have, during his earthly life, the same potential that the Christian has for communion with the LORD, since the Son had not yet come into the world, and the Holy Spirit had not yet been given abundantly, making the faithful recipient himself or herself a source of living water. This interior knowledge of the Lord—deep within each of us, and deep within the Church as a single body—is what makes the Christian way so rich. We worship the Father and the Son by means of the Holy Spirit. We have been given a life in, and a knowledge of Christ– an inner conviction that matches the Church’s rational and doctrinal teaching.
After all, Mary’s life with Jesus began with his work inside her: he cast out from her seven demons, and then He took up residence where they had violently been usurping his place. John’s gospel, the spiritual gospel, tells us the most about this remarkable woman. I think that this is because the fourth gospel is set up to direct those who already belong to Jesus to move from a surface faith into the depth of what communion with God and with God’s people means. We find, from the get-go, that the signs, or miracles that Jesus performs, lead some who are following Him to a certain place of confidence. So, in his first miracle, the turning of water to wine at Cana, his disciples, we hear, “believed” in Him. But wine is not meant only to be observed—it is meant to be drunk and enjoyed. So the disciples have far more to receive from the Lord, a deeper place to go, than they first experience during Jesus’ time with them at Cana. As we travel with the disciples through the whole gospel of John, we are moved from one level of faith to another: at first, the trust is superficial, but it grows to something wholly solid, deep and unshakable. “My sheep,” says the Lord, “hear my voice.” Mary is clearly one of those sheep, moved by Jesus in her depths to come to a full understanding and faith. All four gospels tell us that she has followed the shepherd all the way to the cross, and that she returns on Easter Sunday to the sepulcher, unable to bear the separation.
There is a luminosity about her encounter that morning with Jesus, an evocative quality that calls to us, too. Perhaps we are intrigued that she comes to the garden-tomb while it is still dark, and that she sees the Light of Lights, the One who said, “let there be light!” Or perhaps we are challenged by his repeated questions issued to Mary, just as the first couple was called to answer questions from the Lord. In Eden, the questions were, “Adam, Where are you?” and “Woman, What is this that you have done?” But on Easter morning, the question is “Woman, why are you weeping?” She hears this first from the angels, and then from the lips of Jesus, whom she does not, at first, recognize. And then Jesus asks her the question of questions: “For Whom are you looking?”
Here on the resurrection morning, at the dawn of a new world, a new creation, the living One engages the one he loves with questions, inviting Mary into his council: “For Whom are you looking?” Mary, however, is intent upon her own program. Her question has been, where is the body? Mary is looking for only a relic; the risen One invites her to look for a person. Her grief prevents her from hearing Jesus’ question, and so he calls her by name. And as He names her, she knows Him. More than that, she knows who He is because her life is bound up with his. She was looking for a dead man, and is surprised by joy. She thought He was a mere gardener, a mere care-taker, when He is the source of all life. Here is something that she wasn’t consciously seeking, but which she desired in the deepest recesses of her heart: here is the One who makes all things, including herself, new.
Isn’t it the case that when we have a particularly illuminating moment with the Lord, we are tempted to cling to it, to hold it to ourselves privately? It is this way with Mary, as well. He calls her name: and she hears and sees. She belongs to Him, and she knows it. But, then, Jesus says to her: “Don’t cling to me; instead, go and tell my brothers, I am going to your Father and my Father, to your God and my God.” She becomes apostle-to-the-apostles, or “equal-to-the-apostles” in our Holy Tradition.
What Mary has learned, up close and personal, has implications for the entire family of God. As soon as she is named by the Lord, she is given the incredible job of being the apostle to the apostles. Even the leading disciples must listen to what she has seen and heard. It is as though Mary, in the garden, is a New Eve, freed by the risen Jesus to speak a “good word” to her brothers. Her very action proclaims that by the resurrection, Jesus has undone the “ancestral curse” that was enacted at Eden, that curse that caused a kind of ongoing discomfort, even enmity between Man and Woman. OUR ancient hymn of the resurrection speaks of this great joy:
When the women disciples of the Lord
learned from the angel the joyous message of the resurrection;
they cast away the ancestral curse
and elatedly told the apostles:
“Death is overthrown.
Christ God is risen,
granting the world great mercy.”
We are directed by Mary’s action to think along the lines that St. Paul does in his letter to the Romans, the first chapter. There Paul explains how it was lack of thankfulness to God that actually led to the primal breach between God and humanity, then between man and woman (as evidenced in homo-erotic behaviour), then within each one of us and between all of humanity. With Mary, these breaches have been healed—first, deep within her, as Jesus integrated her being and directed Mary to Himself, then he has healed the breach between herself and the apostles as Woman. She has been in their company for three years and now is happy to proclaim to them, with joy, the good news about Jesus. All this has happened because Jesus healed her, and called her by name! There is a new creation for her, a new intimacy between herself and those others whose name the Lord is calling.
I am sure that the disciples were astonished at the risen Jesus’ choice, to appear to Mary and the other women first, and to commission them to tell the news first. Here is a new mode of living, an interdependence, by which male and female, public leader and devout seer of the Lord, must come together to know the One who gives them life. All of God’s family, whether first or last, Jew or Gentile, leader or lay, male and female, is inter-dependent, beginning with this topsy-turvy morning of Easter, where a woman with an unsavory past is the first to see the Lord. “In the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (1 Cor. 11:11). Jesus called the apostles publically, but in that personal tryst in the garden, St. Mary Magdalene was made apostle-to-the-apostles.
And there is more to surprise us, too. It is our human way to assume that what is personal and awe-inspiring is for us alone. Mary, when called by name out of a state of grief, might have expected this. But she is not merely “Mary,” she is also “Woman,” and what has happened to her is to make its mark on the entire family of God. The great hesychasts of the past knew this as well. Consider, for example, St. Symeon the New Theologian, who did not conceal what God had shown him, but declared it to others who were seeking intimacy with the Lord. Humbly, and with great insight, he tells of his most intimate experiences with the Lord, and declares that such closeness to God is for every believer, not simply for the exceptional mystic.
Many Christians pray by shutting our eyes, shutting out the family with whom we are worshipping corporately, shutting out the world that God has entrusted to our care. But there is a tradition among us, also of praying corporately with our eyes open, focused on the icons of Christ around us, upon those around us who show forth the image of God. Though we put aside worldly care in the Eucharist, we also bring before the LORD the world in which we live—a world that God loves and has promised to transform, on the great day of resurrection. For we are being, together, says St. Paul, “changed from glory into glory”! What if, in the stories about St. Mary Magdalene, we learn that our personal meetings with the Lord are not for us alone, but have an effect on our brothers and sisters as well? Along with this commission from the Lord, this responsibility to the whole Church, we might expect some misunderstanding, some pain, some obstruction. For the disciples did not at first believe that St. Mary had seen anyone, just as the righteous Susanna was not believed, and just as the lament of the righteous Hannah was misunderstood, as she poured her heart out before the Lord. But the legacy of these women, and especially St. Mary Magdalene, has made its mark upon the ages. Her words about the risen Lord have reverberated down the halls of the centuries, a witness to the power of the Lord to overturn our silence, our divisions, even our death.
For St. Mary it did not matter so much that she was believed by others, but that darkness had been turned to light, and the Lord of life had conquered death. The reality of God’s action was enough for her—and in good time, her brothers would come to know it, too. Our sister Mary has a good deal to teach us: first, that our worth does not depend upon public notoriety; second, that the LORD calls us to a deep knowledge of Himself, an intimacy that goes beyond knowledge about; and finally, that an intimate and personal knowledge of the Lord is something that God gives to us for the good of our brothers and sisters, not for our own privilege.
These insights may not be startling to everybody, but they are challenging to me. May God give each of us a desire for Himself that eclipses our human desire to be recognized; may he increase in each of us a growing knowledge of his love so that we readily respond when he speaks our name; may he teach us that intimate communion with Him gives us a responsibility for each other but not identical roles. From the one to whom much has been given, much will be required.
With others standing before the Savior’s Cross,
Weeping and suffering with the Mother of God,
Glorious Mary Magdalene offered praises saying:
What is this strange wonder?
He chooses to suffer, Who upholds the whole creation!
Glory to Thy Power!