This painting by D. Werburg Welch helps us to understand something that is often overlooked when we think about Pentecost. Luke describes the apostles meeting together in the Upper Room and devoting themselves to prayer ‘together with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.’ That reminds us that the Resurrection brought about a change in the disciples’ grouping. For the first time, women begin to make an appearance not as a mere adjunct but as constituent members, so to say, of the nascent Church. Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles, announcing the fact of the Resurrection. Now we see women joining the men at prayer in a way that would have been almost unthinkable earlier. What is happening?
I think myself that what is happening is that the Church, born from the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the Cross, confirmed in faith by the Resurrection and Ascension, is now given her mission and identity by the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a universal mission, to both men and women, Jews and Greeks (gentiles); and it is at this moment that the Church truly becomes the Body of Christ, inseparable from her Head, one with Him because she is now drawn into the life of the Trinity. It is a new life that she lives, not just the old one changed in a few details.
D. Weburg’s painting shows us Mary robed in flame coloured garments, a sign that she was filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment she consented to be the Mother of God. Mary Magdalene is there, too, robed in white like the apostles; the Beloved Disciple alone wears darker clothing, a sign that we are all drawn into this mystery, not just a select few. An essential part of the artist’s perspective is that we are not mere spectators but part of the picture. We complete it, in an analogous way to that in which, in a much more important sense, the Holy Spirit completes us and the Church. There, surely, is something worth thinking about this Pentecost?
N.B. Please respect the copyright of Stanbrook Abbey regarding the illustration.
Additional Note 2015: In case you don’t make it to the comments section, the Beloved Disciple is wearing a dark tunic, i.e. everyday clothing, rather than the white festal garments of the other disciples. It is a sign that the Church is open to everyone. It is not just for a select few, untouched by the messiness of life.