July 22

St. Mary Magdalene

St. Mary Magdalene has sparked interest, even controversy from the beginning of Christianity. The Gospels tell of a remarkable woman who had a leadership position. She was also blessed with a unique role in Christian witness. She was the first to see and witness to the Risen Lord.

Optional First Reading: Song of Songs 3:1-4

1 By night on my bed,
I sought him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but I didn't find him.
2 I will get up now, and go about the city;
in the streets and in the squares I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but I didn't find him.
3 The watchmen who go about the city found me;
"Have you seen him whom my soul loves?"
4 I had scarcely passed from them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go,
until I had brought him into my mother's house,
into the room of her who conceived me.

World English Bible

Modern scholars divide the Song of Songs (Songs of Solomon) into as many as 31 separate poems. 3:1-5 represents one of the monologue songs. This poem was about a woman's search for the man she loved. She desired him in her bed (3:1) and sought him in the streets and markets of Jerusalem (3:2), even to the extent that she quizzed the wall guard (watchmen, 3:3). When the woman found her love, she persuaded him to go to her house and meet with her mother (3:4). These events might seem unusual for a male dominated, gender segregated society, but there was some flexibility in gender roles. Within some limits, a girl could pursue a young man, if the girl was betrothed to the man in question. While the patriarch of the family arranged the marriage of his daughters, actual negotiations were conducted between the matriarchs and their female kin. Normally, the patriarch would rubber stamp the decision. So, females did have influence with the patriarch of their clan. No wonder the woman took her love to her mother. She wanted to influence her father (the patriarch) through her mother.

Nevertheless, the language in these songs was blunt. In order to justify the inclusion of the Song of Songs (Solomon), the text has been given an allegorical interpretation. Such an interpretation predates the foundation of the Church. In this view, the woman represented one's spirit; her desires represented spiritual yearning and search. Her beloved was God. The woman's home was the heart where one could commune with the divine.

Top of the page

Optional First Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

14 For the love of CHRIST binds us together, having judged this, that ONE died on behalf of all, then all died. 15 HE died on behalf of all, so that the living (ones) might no longer live for themselves, but for the ONE dying and having been raised on their behalf.

16 So, from now (on) we do not know (something or someone) according to the flesh. Even if we had known CHRIST in the flesh, we no longer know HIM, however. 17 So, if someone is in CHRIST, (he is) a new creation. The ancient (things) have passed away; Look! it has become new.

5:14 "For the love of CHRIST binds us together, having judged this..." This phrase can be translated in different ways, depending on the force of the participle "having judged." Is this phrase equal to the verb "draw or bind together?" In this sense, the power of Christ's love brings Christians together one in spirit (drawn together) and one in faith (having judged or decided on 2 Cor. 14b-15). Or, does the phrase modify the verb, so that the love of Christ is a judgment (the reality of Christ's self-giving death acquits Christians of guilt)?

5:17b "The ancient (things) have passed away." In the time of Paul, many pagans saw the world as eternal and unchanging. Certainly, all people at the time lived in a static culture that considered change as suspect. The Christian faith, however, was new on the scene. Paul saw the faith as a preview to the activity of God in the world. The new outlook would logically lead to a belief in a new world order, a new creation.

Christians have different spiritualities, depending upon their focus. Some concentrate on God-entering-the-world ("Incarnation theology" where the birth of Christ raised the dignity of creation itself). Others consider the death of Jesus ("expiation theology" where the death of the Lord led to the forgiveness of a sin-filled humanity). A third group sees salvation in terms of the Resurrection (Eastern Orthodox theologies view salvation as a door to a life beyond death without the baggage of judgment). These spiritualities differ in their emphasis on the key event in the life of Christ and are marked by their outlook: current worth of all (Incarnation), guilt-to-forgiveness (Expiation), or hope in an afterlife.

The importance of the events (and their theologies) depend upon the importance placed on their sequence. Incarnation theology will trump the other two if the believer assumes the flow of time (birth to death of Christ). However, faith has a retrospective nature; we tend to see the important events in the life of Christ from the nearest (resurrection) to the farthest (Incarnation). Such an outlook answers the question: "Why do we believe in Christ?" We believe because we experience the Risen Christ.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul assumed both outlooks. In 5:14-15, he argued from the crucifixion to the resurrection, but, in 5:16-17, he argued from the vantage point of the resurrection backward. At first, he saw that as Christ died for others, we all died (notice the past tense of the verb); obviously, Paul considered the purpose of life for the Christian was to live for the One who died for all. The Christian who "died in Christ" (i.e., baptized), whether physically alive or dead, waited for the Second Coming, as if they were in the grave with Christ. For Paul, this was the only way one could escape judgment (implicitly, only the dead cannot be judged, only the living).

However, to know the self-giving nature of Christ's death meant to know the Risen Christ. This was Paul's point in 15:16. And, if one intimately knew the Risen Christ by faith, he or she was changed by that relationship (and by God's Spirit). That person has already received the benefits of the resurrection in the gift of eternal life. He or she is a "new creation."

In the retrospect of faith, we can run our logic forwards, then backwards in time. Our reason and imaginations allow us to do so. We can see the importance of Christ's birth through the lens of his Resurrection. We can also see that we live in a world tinged by sin and its aftereffects. The present situation may give us pause, but our life in Christ gives us hope. The world might deserve some condemnation by a power much higher than we possess, but faith allows us to see the world through the loving eyes of God.

Top of the page

Gospel:  John 20:1-2, 11-18

1 After the Sabbath, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb in the morning still being dark and she saw the stone having been lifted away from the tomb. 2 She ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved and said to them, "They lifted the Lord away from the tomb and we do not know where they put him!"

11 Mary stood (just) outside of the tomb crying. Then, as she was crying, she stooped down into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white sitting (there), one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been laid. 13 Those (two) said to her, "Woman, why are you crying?" (She) said to them, "They took away my LORD and I do not know where they have laid HIM." 14 Having said these (things), she turned around and saw JESUS standing (there), but did not know that (he) was JESUS. 15 JESUS said to her, "Woman, why are you crying? Whom do you seek?" That (one), thinking that (HE) was the gardener, said to HIM, "SIR, if you carried HIM away, tell me where you have laid HIM, so I can take HIM away." 16 JESUS said to her, "Mary." Having turned, that (one) said to HIM in Hebrew, "RABBONI," which means "TEACHER." 17 JESUS said to her, "Do not touch (and cling to) ME, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to MY brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to MY Father and your Father, MY God and your God.'" 18 Mary Magdalene went (back), announcing to the disciples, "I have seen the LORD!" and these (things) that HE said to her.

The person of Mary from Magdala stood prominently in the Easter narrative. In all of the gospels, Mary (along with other women) went to anoint the body of the deceased Jesus. In all the gospels, she witnessed the empty tomb and saw the angels who carried the Good News at the tomb. In Matthew 28:9-10 and John 20:14-17, Mary encountered the Risen Lord in the area of the tomb. Her witness, the word of a woman, sparked the faith of others, especially the Apostles. This is why she is known as the "Apostle to the Apostles."

Unlike the other gospels, Mary Magdalene reacted to the sight of the empty tomb by running to the Apostles first. When she had related her concerns, Peter and the "beloved" disciple returned to the tomb to confirm her story. The empty tomb was enough for the beloved to believe the Good News (John 20:8). But, in 20:11, the narrative shifted to Mary alone. Even when she saw the two angels, she continued to grieve. The reaction of the heavenly messengers and the Lord was not the Good News, but a simple question: Why do you weep? Obviously, she sought the body of the Lord to fulfill the burial rites. To her surprise, she found more than just his body. Jesus addressed Mary by her first name, a sign of intimacy. She responded with a title, one of respect (and possibly a pet name) in the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic. (Is this one of those details that makes the story ring true in a historical sense?) With the announcement of Ascension, Jesus told Mary to announce the Good News to his disciples.

Mary Magdalene did have a leadership position among the women and in the community of early followers (see Luke 8:1-3 who listed Mary as the one freed from seven demons and first among the rich women who implicitly helped to finance the ministry of Jesus). She was also the first witness to the resurrection. For these reasons, this woman holds a primary place in Christianity.

Put yourself in Mary's shoes. How does her experience give you insight into your faith?