Congregation Day, Evening Prayer (21st July, 2012)
John 20: 11-18: In the text of today’s gospel for the feast of St. Mary Magdalen, I have hightlighted three words: weeping, turning around, announcing.
Weeping: John’s gospel often uses one person as representative of some aspect of the Christian life so Mary Magdalen’s story is our story too. First of all she weeps: she has lost the person most dear to her and she cannot resign herself to living without him; her focus is still on the dead body rather than on the living Christ. We have all experienced such moments; how hard it is to let go. (During a Retreat recently the preacher reminded us that where we are now in Church or in religious life, we don’t have to make an effort to let go because God is doing the job for us!) The encounter of Mary Magdalen with the gardener is a gentle call to that letting-go: “Why are you weeping?”
This is followed up by the question: “Whom are you looking for?” The understanding of Jesus which she has had up to this has to undergo a sea change if she is to encounter the Risen Christ; As Meister Eckhart would say: we need to go beyond God to God – beyond what we know of God already to a deeper realisation of God. And then Jesus called her by name, “Mary”. For all of us it is not enough to read and study the words of the gospel; we need to allow the Word spoken in each passage to speak to us personally; to call us by name.
Turning Around: It is only after his calling her by name that she turns around, as she gradually is converted to a new way of relating to him – but not straight away. By calling him Rabbouni (“my Teacher”) she is still relating to him as she did on the roads of Galilee – which is what the phrase “do not hold onto me” implies – she is touched to have him back again and hold onto him as he was. The Latin phrase, noli me tangere (“don’t cling to me”) in the past was interpreted as the risen Christ being too pure to be touched by Mary Magdalen, since she was understood as a prostitute ever since the time of St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. But nowhere in the gospels is Mary Magdalen spoken of as a prostitute. I once took part in a seminar entitled Mary Magdalen, Preacher not Prostitute. Some writers at present are again tending to conflate Mary Magdalen, Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus. But I would prefer to stay with the gospels which show Jesus relating to many women in different ways: Mary his mother, Mary and Martha of Bethany, the other Mary and Mary Magdalen – he would seem to have treated each individually, just as he did the male disciples.
Announcing: So to come back to the text, “do not hold onto me.” One recent writer translated it as “Dont just stand there, go and tell my brothers and sisters” – the call of Mary to announce – not just to the brothers (pace the letter of the Master General) because the Greek word that is used here – adelphoi – included women and men.
What she tells them is: “I have seen the Lord.” That is why Mary Magdalen is a patroness of the Order of Preachers – not just for her announcing, but for what she communicates in her preaching to her brothers and sisters: her experience of having “seen” the Lord. From her weeping and brokenness she has turned around and encountered Jesus in her life anew and out of that contemplation she has learnt how to reveal the risen Lord.
In the 50 years since Vatican II we have had our own share of sorrow and loss, but we have been turned around in our lives by the insights of the Council and we should not be afraid to bring to our sisters and brothers the great wisdom that we, like Mary Magdalen, have learnt from our encounters with the Risen Christ. As the Master of the Order has put it:
Dominican women, I believe – though it is really up to them to say it – bring to the holy preaching a unique experience in their relationship with Christ, a particular manner for studying the Word, a precise way to organize a chapter, a vulnerability regarding what brings life and what causes death in our world, a way to say God.
Céline Mangan, O.P.