This week we celebrate the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, a fascinating, yet mysterious woman who appears in the latter part of all four gospels. Though she is consistently mentioned, we really do not know all that much about her. There are traditions that hold that she was a reformed sinner, but then again, all of Jesus’ followers could go by that description. Some say she was the woman who wept at Jesus feet and then dried them with her hair, but there is little evidence to support that either. What we do know, however, is that she was with Jesus at the cross, she was one of three women reported in all four gospels to have been at the tomb, and seeing the tomb empty, she was the one who ran to tell the apostles. We also know that Jesus appeared to her on the morning of His resurrection. After that, all four gospel writers give us different stories as to what actually took place at the tomb. Mary Magdalene therefore, is a bit mysterious even in the part of her life in which we have the most evidence.
We know that Mary Magdalene was a devoted friend and follower of Jesus, but each of the gospels says something different about her role on resurrection morning. Matthew tells us that she and two other women saw an angel at the empty tomb and were instructed by him to go and tell the apostles what they had witnessed. On the way, they met Jesus and He told them to give the apostles the message that they should go to Galilee where they would see Him. Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene saw Jesus first and then went to tell the apostles who did not believe a word of her story! * Luke reports that she and the other two women saw the angel and then ran to tell the apostles who did not believe, except for Peter who did go to see the tomb. But Luke does not tell us that Mary Magdalene witnessed the risen Jesus at all. Finally, John’s gospel says that not only did Mary see the empty tomb, but that Peter and John believed her story, and after they left the tomb Jesus appeared to her, saying her name, assuring her that He was indeed risen.
Though there are conflicting details, however, it is the main events that are important. That some of the evangelists said the apostles did not believe immediately is not too much of a stretch because they were afraid, shaken by the events which had transpired and at the realization of their own momentary cowardice: they had abandoned Jesus in His hour of greatest need. Perhaps it was a bit threatening that this woman had been brave where they had ‘failed,’ or that they had a sense of guilt which was in part why they reacted unfavorably toward her news. Though Luke and John report that Peter believed very quickly, this may have been a nod to his leadership and that he had been chosen by Jesus as such. No matter what the reasons were, the fact remains that she held fast to her story even when the apostles did not believe her, and she was patient with them until they came to believe, too.
Like Mary Magdalene, there have probably been times when we have found it difficult to live the gospel message when others, including friends, have challenged our way of life. Sometimes even good people, consciously or unconsciously, judge those whose actions they find to be a threat. This should not come as a surprise because Jesus was clear in stating that ‘the path is narrow’ and the way of the gospel is not easy. (Matt 7:13) Just as Jesus was condemned for doing good and being compassionate while trying to free us from sin, so too will anyone who tries to live the gospel message be an object of scorn. Jesus warned the apostles many times that they would be treated as He was and so this holds true for anyone who follows Him today as well.
Of course, all of us make poor decisions sprinkled in with good ones throughout the course of our lives. And those who beg God to help them to do the right thing and who try to be faithful, like Mary Magdalene, will sometimes be the object of derision by those who are so busy looking at the ‘splinter in the eye of the other that they fail to see the beam in their own.’ (Paraphrase of Matt 7:3-5) The way of the gospel is a difficult path because it is tough to hold fast to what we know is right when the culture is strongly against what the Scriptures teach us. We can be unknowingly swayed inch by inch into a false belief such that what we once saw as clearly false now appears to be truth. The gospel way is not a holier-than-thou path either. Just as Mary Magdalene was a disciple bold enough to accompany Jesus to the cross when others would not, yet she was never haughty about it, we need to be humble in how we live the message. To live humbly means we recognize that our strength is in Jesus; our focus is on helping to build the Kingdom, so therefore it is not 'about me.' He will help us to live our faith, even when we feel confused or like we are barely hanging on. True humility is strong, not weak. To hold fast to our faith and to live it without apologizing for it is indeed bold; but the key is to hold to our faith, not our ego. Boldness is not self-righteousness. It is simply living the gospel as authentically as we are able.
Living as the gospels teach is bold and even counter-cultural at times. To live with mercy in the face of opposition is definitely bold. To be selfless when those around us are ‘preaching’ selfishness, to be merciful and forgiving when others claim retaliation and getting our due is the way, to be generous when we see others trying to get ahead by any means, to be peaceful when we are in the presence of hate or intolerance, to be faith-filled when things go wrong, to let go when it is easier to hold on, to be present to another rather than to pretend to have all the answers, and to love when it is easier to be indifferent: these are the ways of Jesus. And it is in imitating Him that we find freedom and eternal life. None of it is easy, but Jesus is with us every step of the way.
Being a follower of Jesus was never about taking the easy path and it was never about everything going our way. But we can take great hope in the knowledge that the narrow road, the one taken by Mary Magdalene, is the one which leads to eternal life. It leads to joy in knowing we are never alone and that we do not have to be perfect to travel His narrow way. If Jesus is with us, and He is, we can have joy even in the midst of challenge. This joy is what enabled Mary Magdalene to follow Jesus even though for the rest of time she is somehow erroneously remembered as a reformed prostitute or as one possessed and delivered by Jesus. None of that mattered to one who never gave up once she found her Lord. She never gave up on Him because He never gave up on her. And so it is with us: Jesus will never give up on us, no matter how imperfect our efforts.
There will always be people who do not understand our choices or beliefs. There was not one saint who was approved of by everyone who encountered them. Even Jesus, the sinless One, true God and true man, the One who came to free us from the power of sin and death, the compassionate, merciful One, was hated, opposed, and put to death. How can anyone hate Love? But some did and some still do. Therefore we need to stay firm in our conviction to follow Jesus. We need to hold fast to our mission as witnesses of the gospel, bringing the message to those who have not heard, and to live in love even if our actions are behind the scenes, like Mary Magdalene after the resurrection. We can find our strength as she did: in prayer, the sacraments, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can live without compromising our values or our faith by remembering that we choose to live the gospel because we love the Lord. It is about being present to others, living humbly, and relying on God to help us with that which can sometimes be difficult and confusing. Love never goes wrong if it is rooted in the gospels and in the discernment which comes through prayer. Let us be like St. Mary Magdalene, bold in our faith because of our love for Jesus.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Mary Magdalene that we may have the courage to live what we believe, especially when we feel challenged! May we be remembered for our mercy, compassion, and love for the Lord and therefore our love for our brothers and sisters! May we be humble in love, non-judgmental in our living, and peaceful in our relationships! May we always depend on the Father as the One who loves us unconditionally! May we rely on Jesus to help us live the gospel consistently! And may we trust in the Holy Spirit to help us discern rightly in difficult situations! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*Further, in Mark we hear that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were not believed by the apostles either. It seems the apostles needed to see to believe. In Mark’s version, Thomas is not the only doubter! (John has the story of Thomas doubting, to be clear.)
The icon at the beginning of the post is St. Mary Magdalene Equal to the Apostles by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/all-categories/product/76-st-mary-magdalen-equal-to-the-apostles
The next painting is Noli me Tangere by Giotto. The original is in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. It can be found at http://www.haverford.edu/religion/faculty/amcguire/imagesmm/giottonolisc.jpg
The following three photos are all mine. The first was taken near Golden, Colorado on the grounds of the Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini. The second photo was taken during a hike in Big Bend National Park in west Texas, and the third photo was taken in Cloudcroft, New Mexico while at the Solar Observatory there.
Heart Speaks to Heart