Today’s gospel is situated in a garden. There are many gardens in our lives: sometimes they are places of pleasure for our leisure hours, when we drink in sunshine and beauty, at other times, places for physical activity and closeness to the earth, places where we cry out our sorrows and losses taking comfort from the beauty of nature; places for family activity, for braais with friends, for renewing our spirits and warming our hearts. Take a moment to think of a garden wild or cultivated which is significant for you.
For Jesus, the garden of Gethsemane, was the place where he suffered and struggled to face his death, where his disciples slept while he sweated blood.
It was to a garden that his friends brought his body to be laid in a borrowed tomb. And it was in that garden that he arose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.
The gospel today tells us that Mary Magdalene came and stood weeping outside the tomb. Her love and grief impelled her to find his body in order to take it away. It was in that garden that she met Jesus without recognizing him, thinking him to be the gardener. It was the place where Jesus called Mary by name and told her not to hold on to him. He gave her a commission to go to his brothers and sisters and tell them that he had risen and would be ascending to his Father and our Father. Jesus made her the Apostle to the Apostles, a preacher to those who would preach.
It is no coincidence that Mary Magdalen is one of our Congregation’s most beloved saints and patrons. Our gospel proclaimed that Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples,’ I have seen the Lord’ and she gave them the message he had entrusted to her. She was a preacher and in her way, she was a pioneer, going on ahead, as indeed Dominican sisters were pioneers in journeying to the Eastern Cape 150 years ago and have continued to be to the present day.
It is not known if Mary Magdalene was in the minds of the six sisters who left Sion Hill in 1867 but undoubtedly her spirit and example went with them. Mothers Rose Whitty, and Thomas Kelly, Sisters Aloysius Cowley, Hyacinth Potter, Baptist Taaffe and Michael Morton were all volunteers and there was a finality fo them in knowing that they would never return to Ireland. In the garden, the rose has thorns as well as flowers; in life these sisters experienced joys as well as sorrows as do we all.
It was in Port Elizabeth that the founding sisters house began their mission to announce through their presence, the founding of schools, and the accompaniment of people , that they, like Mary Magdalen had ‘seen the Lord ‘. The garden of their endeavours was the vast and beautiful terrain from Port Elizabeth to Sunday’s River Valley.
Even though the sisters lived a largely enclosed life at the beginning and had to cope with many difficulties as they expanded their ministries, they held onto hope and had courage and belief in God and in their mission even when it seemed most under threat for lack of vocations and finance. And this has been the way down through the 150 years.
Just as Mary Magdalen responded to Jesus ‘s love, the sisters loved and were loved by the people of this area as witnessed by the outpouring of affection and memories in recent days.
What will we say about the mission in 2017, 150 years after the founding sisters arrived in Port Elizabeth? Is it still faithful to Jesus’words in the garden? Do not hold on to me but go to my brothers and sisters. …
Are we, each one of us present , faithful to Jesus’s command to go out and preach the gospel, share the good news.?
Through a long and carefully worked process, Trusts are being established in the Mission Area, and schools cared for into the future by dedicated and committed colleagues imbued with the spirit of St Dominic. Sisters, while no longer directly involved in schools are still proclaiming, by their presence , prayer and compassion that they have ‘seen the Lord. ‘
Sisters proclaim the Resurrection by their faith that the future is in God’s hands and that they meet whatever comes with joy and recognition that the Lord IS in the garden though he may not be immediately recognisable. Mary Magdalen and the founding sisters’ pioneering spirit is as essential today as it was in former times, especially when facing turmoil in the country and diminishment in the Congregation. We need now, more than ever, the tenacity and faith of Dominic who faced rejection and failure during his nine years in Fanjeaux before founding his Order of Preachers.
The first reading says: ‘therefore I prayed and understanding was given me; I called upon God and the spirit of wisdom came to me. ‘ How many times must the founding sisters and those who came after them have called on God for the wisdom to make right choices, not least when schools were razed to the ground or at a later stage, opened to all children in defiance of the law…a prophetic and pioneering action.
The celebration of 150 years of mission and ministry in the Eastern Cape gives a moment to give thanks for the past, to cherish and take pride in what has been and to say ‘yes’ as that other Mary, our Mother did, to all that is to come! We can take pride in the past, ask forgiveness for any failures of the Congregation and above all pray for this beautiful country and its people. Just as Jesus told Mary not to hold on to him, we will not cling to what is passed but will be ready, all of us ,with pioneering Dominican hearts to go to our brothers and sisters as we are asked to do in the second reading, announcing to them by our lives and example that’ we have seen the Lord.’
Sr. Elisabeth Healy OP