‘In the early morning,’ ‘before the sun had risen,’ ‘while it was still dark’: these phrases capture something of the mystery of the Resurrection. In the half-light only the eyes of faith see clearly. Is it any wonder, then, that St Mary Magdalene is the ‘apostle to the apostles’, that, through eyes washed clean with tears, she saw the Lord? Throughout Holy Week our attention has been focused on the terrible duel between good and evil and on those who surround Jesus with menace or sheer misunderstanding: Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, Peter. It has been a very male business, but now the women edge into the picture. They stood by the Cross, they anointed Jesus’ dead body and now they proclaim the Resurrection. Peter’s momentary failure will be forgiven; the disciples will be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit; and all our own sin and failure will be swallowed up by the empty tomb. Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!
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.
Today’s gospel about the meeting between Mary Magdelene and the Risen Christ has always been a favourite of mine. I love the fact that the meeting takes place in a garden, and that Mary is weeping unashamedly. She mistakes the person she sees for a gardener, but once she hears the Lord’s voice her tears enable her to see more clearly than any other. She sees with the eye of a heart washed clean by love. That is what purity means and what the gift of tears bestows. There is a beautiful prayer in the Sarum Missal for the gift of tears, as well as a longer, more ornate one by St Augustine; but no words are really necessary. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is all that is required.
I have been taking a little holiday from blogging for all kinds of reasons, not least that I had nothing to say that others were not saying better, but today’s feast of St Mary Magdalene and the allegations made against Mgr Battista Ricca have made me think about public reputation and I’ve decided to share my thoughts, such as they are, on this blog.
Most of us don’t have to worry about our public reputation. We are so obscure that, beyond our immediate family, only a handful of friends and acquaintances have any opinion on the matter. Those who have had their characters blackened by others are more sensitive on the subject. They know how unfounded rumours are transmuted into facts, and long after they thought all was ‘done and dusted’, the untruths continue to shape the narrative of their lives. St Mary Magdalene, for example, is often misidentified as a notorious sinner. Down the ages she has been portrayed as a whore and worse. We are told that Jesus cast out seven demons from her (which is morally neutral at the least), but beyond that, everything we read about her in the gospels is positive. She dearly loved the Lord and saw him more clearly through her tears than any of her un-weepy brethren. To her was entrusted the first news of the Resurrection. So, why, then, is she often spoken of in slighting terms? I think it has something to do with that misidentification I spoke of earlier. Although long regarded as a misreading of the text, something of the mud has stuck. If she was not a notorious sinner, she was too ‘womanly’, too ’emotional’. I suspect myself that she was quite steely when need be, and she remains part of the gospel narrative because the evangelists simply couldn’t write her out of the story. She is too important for us who come after; and the attempts of some to downplay her importance merely underlines her significance for believers.
Now take the case of Mgr Battista Ricca. When I read Sandro Magister’s original article, my heart sank. My first reaction was to believe everything he wrote and to become angry. Another priest who does not live chastely and brings the whole Church into disrepute! But then I began to think rather than just react. Who was providing the information and why? It might be true, it might be false, but why was it emerging now; who would profit by it, and who would lose by it? Put like that, the whole thing became much more complex, involving as it does the pope’s attempts to reform the Vatican Bank and the rumours of corruption and vested interests at the highest levels of the Curia. The most measured article on the subject I have yet read is to be found here. The author makes several important points, but one of the most important will pass many people by: the right to a good name. We do not yet know whether Mgr Ricca is guilty of any of the things alleged against him. If he is, words fail me. If he is not, those who have made the accusations have gravely injured him.
Perhaps we all need to take more care in what we say and write about others. It is a short step from the suppressio veri to the suggestio falsi. That does not mean we should naively believe that all allegations of misconduct against someone are false, or that we should not take seriously warnings and advices we are given. On the contrary, we should weigh them and heed them. But we also need to cultivate a certain generosity of mind, a fairness and decency which refuses to make assumptions that are injurious to others. St Mary Magdalene’s reputation has suffered through many centuries because someone somewhere first thought about her meanly, then expressed that meanness of thought in words. May she pray for us, that we never do likewise.
Mary of Magdala has always received a raw deal from some members of the Church. Belittled as a former prostitute (there is no evidence for her ever having been one — in any case, why would that justify disparagement?), looked at slightly askance because of the seven demons Jesus cast out of her, and then put beyond the pale by her tears and clingy behaviour towards the Risen Christ (see today’s gospel, John 20. 11-18), Mary is everything some people find objectionable. She does not conform to the ideal of Pure Femininity on the one hand, nor Gracious Motherhood on the other. She is, in fact, extremely awkward, slipping between categories, acting in unexpected ways, and confronting us with the unpalatable fact that, like the Master she followed, Mary of Magdala is holy because she is truly herself. She looks at Jesus through her tears and he responds to the love he sees in her. She is called by name and entrusted with proclaiming the Good News to the disciples. It is one of the most beautiful and understated vocation narratives in the whole Bible, and it is a vocation that confers no status, no privilege, only mission — a mission that comes from that moment of communion between Jesus and Mary in the garden.
Mary’s role as apostle to the apostles is often played down, treated as a mere prelude to the important business of getting Peter and John to the empty tomb, but Matthew and Luke concur in naming women as the first witnesses to the Resurrection. It is worth thinking about what that means in the context of first-century Palestinian Jewish society. It was clearly odd enough and significant enough for the evangelists to record, and the Church has been wondering about it ever since. God’s ways are so often not our ways, and they puzzle us. In chapter 3 of the Rule, St Benedict urges the abbot to listen to the advice of all, especially the most junior brethren, because God often reveals what is better to the younger. God has a habit of springing surprises on us but we have to be open to them. We have a tendency to say that is not how it is meant to be. God does not speak through such people. God cannot speak through such people.
Today would be a good day for thinking about the people we barely notice, the ones to whom we don’t pay much attention or even positively dislike but who may have something to say that we should hear. It may not be a religious message as such (beware the self-appointed messengers of God!), but it could be something about ourselves or the world we live in or the values we aspire to that we have not really taken in. Today would also be a good day to spend a little more time in prayer, just being with God. Our mission, too, must proceed from communion with Him.
Friend of Jesus and apostle to the apostles, Mary Magadalene has nevertheless suffered centuries of opprobrium as a ‘scarlet woman’. No doubt it suited some to identify the seven demons cast out of her as demons of lust, but really there is no justification for doing so. Our only biblical source — Luke — barely mentions her before telling us about her role at Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the Middle Ages we find legends which detail her activity as a leader of the early Church and portray her as ending her life as a hermit in the wilderness, where she was clad only in her long hair. She was indeed a mulier fortis, an admirable model for women today.
There is a photo of Pedro de Mena’s image of Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifix, 1664, which is now in the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregori, Valladolid, here (many thanks to Dr Southworth for providing the link). It is not only great art but also one of the most moving depictions of Mary Magdalene that I know. However, here is a link you may also enjoy, to a modern web-based ‘Book of Hours’ by Jan Richardson, The Hours of Mary Magdalene. It makes use of many of the Magdalene legends and will make you think (I hope).