The Tears of the Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length. 

When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.

When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.

*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Easter Tuesday 2017

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Today’s gospel, John 20.11-18, is shocking in its intensity. Early in the morning Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ in a garden. As always in these Resurrection narratives, there is something about his appearance that prevents immediate recognition; and in any case, Mary is weeping. But she sees more clearly through her tears than many a disciple who turns the cold gaze of reason upon him. Her heart has been washed clean by love, and it is that purity of heart which enables her to recognize her Lord.

Monastic tradition honours the gift of tears. Indeed, praying for compunction of heart is a very necessary part of every novitiate — and it does not end there. Until we realise the enormity of our sinfulness and the wonderful forgiveness of God, we are apt to be harsh in our judgement of others and resistant to grace. There is a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears in the Sarum Missal, which looks back to the experience of the Israelites in the desert:

O Almighty and most merciful God, who caused a fountain of living water to spring forth from a rock for your people in their thirst; draw tears of compunction from our stony hearts that we may weep over our sins, and, by your mercy, deserve to obtain pardon for the same. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is also another, more elaborate one, by St Augustine; but no words are really necessary. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is all that is required, and Mary Magdalene shows us how richly and warmly the prayer of humble love and faith is answered.

Fra Angelico has captured the moment of blissful meeting between Jesus and Mary — in a garden, in springtime, with only the dark entrance to the tomb to remind us of what went before. Our own meeting with the Risen Christ may be just as unexpected. Let us make sure we are ready for it, for to be surprised by grace is also to be surprised by joy; and like Mary Magdalene, we are not to keep that joy and grace to ourselves but to proclaim it: to be, like her, an apostle of the Resurrection.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail