John 20:1-2, 11-18
Modern Scripture scholarship has exposed a remarkably false tradition about Mary of Magdala. For many centuries Mary has been confused with the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’ feet in the home of the Pharisee (Luke 7) and was assumed to have been a prostitute. In fact, Mary is named in the Gospel of Luke in Chapter 8 as the woman from whom Jesus drove seven demons. Knowing today that all kinds of illnesses were ascribed to demonic possession, it is possible that Mary of Magdala was a woman with a very serious illness (mental or physical) who was healed by Jesus. Mary is attested to in all four of the Gospels as one of the women who supported the itinerant preaching of Jesus out of her personal wealth, and like Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was greatly honored in the early Church. She has been called the Apostle to the apostles (first witness to the witnesses) based on the text from John’s Gospel that identifies her as the first person to whom Jesus revealed himself after the Resurrection.
Today’s Liturgy invites us to enter into the spiritual journey that may well have characterized Mary’s mysticism of gratitude. The poetry of the Song of Songs describes the lover who has been drawn to the beloved, but who must search for him in prayer (“on my bed”) and then in service and suffering “(through the streets”) and in the wisdom of the tradition (“watchmen”).
The Gospel invites us into one of those moments so beloved and so valued in the Christian Tradition as to be expressed in art, in song, various stories – the moment of recognition. We enter the story with Mary grieving deeply from Jesus’ cruel death. She has gone to the tomb with prepared spices to cleanse his body according to the law of Moses – those last dear acts of love that will be the only measure of comfort that can be drawn from this entirely tragic loss.
Now it is confusion that the text tells us of – the great confusion that the body “has been taken” by someone – yet another indignity to the man she has loved with all her heart since he healed her and gave her human dignity again.
She looks into the cave of the tomb and sees two figures standing there and there is a third who approaches her where she stands at the entrance to the tomb – these must be gardeners, or those who have stolen the body, which she politely offers to rescue and take to a safe place. Even in her grief she is careful to not stir up further trouble.
Then the one standing behind her calls her name. Simply that . . . she hears the tones, the timbre, and above all the inflection that only He ever gave her name. An instant of shocked recognition and she turns to grasp him, to hold him safe from harm – but he gently says “No, don’t hold on to me [yet] I haven’t finished my mission. I have to go the Father.” It’s as if Jesus tells her He must finish His work of salvation and then they can cling to one another forever.
Thus the mystical path for Mary is covered in mere moments from the intensity of her suffering of loss, to recognition of the new reality which she now participates in, and a mission for her – “go tell the others” what you have witnessed (the period of illumination and apostolic activity) and finally there is time for the union of minds and hearts that other mystics describe so poetically. The the word for today brings us full circle into the great JOY of belonging first, last, and fully to Jesus Christ. All other loves find their energy and fulfillment in this foundational love.
“In the shadow of your wings I shout for joy. My soul clings fast to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8b-9 from today’s Mass.
By Eileen Burke-Sullivan