History unjustly sullied her name without evidence, but Mary Magdalene emerges from the Gospel a faithful, courageous and noble woman, an apostle to the Apostles.
As an imprisoned priest, a communal celebration of the Easter Triduum is not available to me. My celebration of this week is for the most part limited to a private reading of the Roman Missal. Still, over the five-plus years that I have been writing for These Stone Walls, I have always agonized about Holy Week posts. I feel a special duty to contribute what little I can to the Church’s volume of reflection on the meaning of this week.
Though I have little in the way of resources beyond what is in my own mind, I feel an obligation in this of all weeks to “get it right,” and leave something a reader might return to. So I have focused in past Holy Week posts not so much on the meaning of the events of the Passion of the Christ, but on the characters central to those events. In so doing, I have developed a rather special kinship with some of them.
I hope readers will spend some time with them this week by revisiting my Holy Week tributes to “Simon of Cyrene, Compelled to Carry the Cross,” and “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.” I wrote a follow-up to that one in a subsequent Holy Week post entitled, “Pope Francis, the Pride of Mockery, and the Mockery of Pride.” Last year in Holy Week, I visited a haunting work of art fixed upon the wall of my prison cell in “Behold the Man, as Pilate Washes His Hands.”
Lifting these characters out of the lines of the Gospel into the light of my quest to know them has enhanced a sense of solidarity with them. This has never been truer than it is for the subject of this year’s TSW Holy Week post. Any believer whose reputation has been overshadowed by innuendos of a past, anyone who stands in possession of a truth that must be told, but is denied the social status to be believed will marvel at the faith and courage of Mary Magdalene.
HER DEMON HAUNTED WORLD
First, a word about language. You might note that I always use the Aramaic term, “Golgotha,” instead of the more familiar “Calvary” for the place where Jesus was crucified. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew. It became the language of the Middle East sometime after the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C., and was the language of Palestine at the time of Jesus. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and so did his disciples.
The Aramaic word, “Golgotha” means “place of the skull.” When the Roman Empire occupied Palestine in 63 B.C., it used that place for crucifixions. It isn’t certain whether that is the origin of the name “Golgotha” or whether the hill resembles a skull from some vantage point. The Gospels were written in Greek, so the Aramaic “Golgotha” was translated “Kranion,” Greek for “skull.” Then in the Fourth and early Fifth Century, Saint Jerome translated the Greek Gospels into Latin using the term, “Calvoriae Locus” for “Place of the Skull.” That’s how the name “Calvary” entered Christian thought.
Mary Magdalene is one of only two figures in the Gospel to have been present with Jesus during his public ministry, at the foot of the Cross at Golgotha, and in his resurrection appearances at and after the empty tomb. The sole other figure was John, the Beloved Disciple. Mary the Mother of Jesus was also present at the Cross, but there is no mention of her at the empty tomb. In the Gospel of Saint Luke, the Twelve were with Jesus during his public ministry…
“…also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Suzanna, and many others who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8: 1-2)
The presence of these women openly challenged Jewish customs and mores of the time which discouraged men from associating with women in public. Add to this the fact that these particular women “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” could have set the community abuzz with whispers at their presence with Jesus. In the Gospel of John (4:27), the Apostles came upon Jesus talking with a woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well, and they “marveled that he was talking with a woman.”
A revelation that seven demons had gone out of Mary Magdalene is in no way suppressed by the Gospel writer. On the contrary, it seems the basis of her undying fidelity to the Lord. The Gospel of Saint Mark adds that account in the most unlikely place – the one place where Mary’s credibility seems a necessity, the first Resurrection appearance:
“Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” (Mark 16: 9-11)
In all four of the Gospel accounts, it was Mary Magdalene who first discovered and announced the empty tomb, and in all four places the announcement sowed doubt, and even some propaganda. In the Gospel of Matthew (28:1-10), “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb….” There they were met by an angel who instructed them, “Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead and behold, he is going before you to Galilee.”
Then, in Saint Matthew’s account, Jesus appeared to them on the road and said, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” Put yourself in Mary Magdalene’s shoes. She, from whom he cast out seven demons; she, who watched him die a gruesome death, is to find Peter, tell this story, and expect to be believed?
Immediately after in the Gospel of Matthew, the Roman guards went to Caiaphas the High Priest with their own story of what they witnessed at the tomb. Like the thirty pieces of silver used to bribe Judas, Caiaphas paid the guards to spread an alternate story:
‘“Go report to Pilate that Jesus’ disciples came and stole his body while the guards slept…’ This story has been spread among the Jews even to this day.” (Matthew 28:11)
APOSTLE TO THE APOSTLES
It makes perfect sense. I, too, have seen “truth” reinvented when there is money involved. Remember that Mary Magdalene is a woman alone, with demons in her past, and she must convey her amazing account to men. So suspect is she as a source that even the early Church overlooked her witness. When Saint Paul related the Resurrection appearances to the Church at Corinth about twenty years later, he omitted Mary Magdalene entirely:
“He appeared to Cephas [the Greek name for Peter], then to the Twelve, then to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James then to all the Apostles. Then last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me, for I am the least of the Apostles.” (1 Cor. 15:5-9)
Saint Paul lists six appearances of Jesus during the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. One of those appearances “to more than 500” appears in none of the Gospel accounts. Saint Paul likely omitted the fact that it was Mary Magdalene from whom news of the Resurrection first arose, and to whom the Risen Christ first appeared, because at that time in that culture, women could not give sworn testimony.
And remember that there was another matter Mary Magdalene had to reconcile before conveying her news. It is the elephant in the upper room. She must not only tell her story to men, but to men who fled Golgotha while she remained. Among all in that room, only Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple John saw Christ die. Peter, their leader, denied knowing Jesus and remained below, listening to a cock crow.
I have imagined another version of Mary Magdalene’s empty tomb report to Peter. I imagined reading it between the lines, but of course it isn’t really there. Still, it’s the version that would have made the most human sense: Mary Magdalene burst into an upper room where the Apostles hid “for fear of the Jews.” She summoned the courage to look Peter in the eye.
Mary M.: “I have good news and not-so-good news.”
Peter: “What’s the good news?”
Mary M.: “The Lord has risen and I have seen him!”
Peter: “And the not-so-good good news?”
Mary M.: “He’s on his way here and he’d like a word with you about last Friday.”
Of course, nothing like that happened. The words of Jesus to Peter about “last Friday” correct his three-time denial with a three-time commission of the risen Christ to “feed my sheep.” The Gospel message is built upon values and principles that challenge all our basest instincts for retribution and justice. The Gospel presents God’s justice, not ours.
Of the four accounts of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection Appearances, the Gospel of John conveys perhaps the most painful, beautiful, and stunning portrait of Mary Magdalene, all written between the lines:
“Standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother, his mother’s sister [possibly Salome, mother of James and John], Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25)
Also standing there is John, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene becomes a witness to one of the most profound scenes of Sacred Scripture. Jesus addressed his mother from the Cross, “Woman, behold your son.” Is it a reference to himself or to the young man standing next to his mother? Is it both? Standing just feet away, the woman from whom he once cast out seven demons is fixated by what is taking place here. “Behold your Mother!” he says among his last words from the Cross, bestowing upon John – and all of us by extension – the gifts of grace and the care of his mother.
“WOMAN, WHY ARE YOU WEEPING?”
“From that point on, John took her into his home,” and we took her into the home of our hearts. Mary Magdalene could barely have dealt with this shattering scene as her Deliverer died before her eyes when, on the morning of the first day of the week, she stood weeping outside his empty tomb. “Woman, why are you weeping?” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote of this scene from the Gospel of John in his beautifully written book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press, 2011):
“Now he calls her by name: ‘Mary!’ Once again she has to turn, and now she joyfully recognizes the risen Lord whom she addresses as ‘Rabboni,’ meaning ‘teacher.’ She wants to touch him, to hold him, but the Lord says to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). This surprises us…. The earlier way of relating to the earthly Jesus is no longer possible.” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 285)
Hippolytus of Rome, a Third Century Father of the Church, called Mary Magdalene an “apostle to the Apostles.” Then in the Sixth Century, Pope Gregory the Great merged Mary Magdalene with the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (7:37), and with Mary of Bethany who anointed him in the Gospel of John (12:3). This set in motion any number of conspiracy theories and unfounded legends about Jesus and Mary Magdalene that had no basis in fact.
The revisionist history in popular books like The Da Vinci Code, and other novels by New Hampshire author Dan Brown, was contingent upon Mary Magdalene and these two other women being one and the same. The Gospel provides no evidence to support this, a fact the Church now accepts and promotes. This faithful and courageous woman at the Empty Tomb was rescued not only from her demons, but from the distortions of history.
“While up to the moment of Jesus’ death, the suffering Lord had been surrounded by nothing but mockery and cruelty, the Passion Narratives end on a conciliatory note, which leads into the burial and the Resurrection. The faithful women are there…. Gazing upon the Pierced One and suffering with him have now become a fount of purification. The transforming power of Jesus’ Passion has begun.” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 220)
Note from Father Gordon:
Last week’s announcement that the New Hampshire Prison is barring greeting cards in future mail is delayed until May 1. What follows is the memo from prison officials as posted:
“Effective May 1, 2015: All incoming correspondence shall utilize standard stock stationary. No greeting cards, post cards from particular locations or featuring any type of printed design, picture, or depiction or unusually thick stationary shall be utilized for the correspondence. Incoming correspondence shall be written in ink or pencil and shall not exhibit any drawings, stickers or other depictions.”
Editor’s Note: In 2015, we’ll need to replace our aging publishing equipment. In your kindness, please take a moment to read the details and share the link on your social media accounts. Thank you for such a strong kickoff!