The Bible tells us that Mary Magdalene announced the resurrection to the Apostles. One tradition reports that she traveled to Rome to tell the Emperor Tiberius that Jesus had risen.
Mary presented an egg to the emperor as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Tiberius replied, “That man no more rose from the dead than that egg is red.” Whereupon the egg turned red—the first dyed Easter egg.
Mary also apparently sailed to France, where she proclaimed the Gospel, then lived as a hermit until her death. (Presumably on July 22.) They preserve her remains in a Gothic basilica outside Marseille.
Three years ago Pope Francis raised today’s commemoration from the rank of Memorial to Feast. Christians have commemorated Mary Magdalene on July 22 since time immemorial. During the Middle Ages her feast day was a holy day of obligation in England.
Anyway, today’s feast gives us a little extra Easter, in July. Mary’s beloved Lord rose from the dead, to give us life. Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, now and forever.
As we know, beginning with Abraham, the Lord had established an alliance with His chosen people, according to which they could purify themselves of selfishness and worldliness and await the coming of the Messiah in peace. But the leaders of ancient Israel let themselves get distracted by other, relatively trivial things, just like pagans. So only the quiet, prayerful ‘remnant’ persevered in the alliance: Israelites who, no matter what happened, always come back to the Lord in prayer.
Lord Jesus’ little parable about the vintner with two sons draws us into the heart of the question: who exactly counts as a true Israelite? Spoken words and other exterior signs do not, in and of themselves, indicate anything. As one of the Fathers of the Church put it, in explaining this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is not in words but in deeds.”
The picture the Lord paints in the Parable of the Two Sons is exceedingly homey, utterly middle-class. The sons of big-time vineyard owners could work or not work, as it suited their whims. But the salt of the earth, small-time vintners needed the labor of their children in order to keep the operation viable.
The parable gets even more homey once the action starts. What parent hasn’t had this experience? “Dear child of mine, would you please work in my vineyard today/clean up your room this afternoon/pick up your little sister on your way home from basketball practice/[fill in any other perfectly reasonable request aimed at keeping the household going]?” only to be met with a petulant, irrational, “No! Can’t you see I’m an adolescent in a bad mood! Don’t talk to me about your chores when I am desperately trying to figure out the meaning of life by stewing in my own immature juices!”
But then: this same fleetingly difficult child actually does wind up picking up his or her little sister, because he/she figured out that honest co-operation leads to greater happiness than endless self-centered brooding does.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, little Mr. or Mrs. Perfect Goodytwoshoes says all the right things and yet remains trapped inside his or her little perfectionist narcissistic world.
Now, we Christians enjoy the great benefit of knowing precisely Who the Messiah is, what He is like, what work He willed to accomplish while on earth, and how all His teachings can help us live right. This gives us a huge advantage over even the holiest of the ancient Israelites, all of whom had to live in a state of uncertainty on these matters.
We know that humbly co-operating with Jesus Christ in the work of helping souls attain salvation—we know that this offers the greatest happiness available to us mortals in this life. So let’s get over all of our petulant little moody fits, so that we can spend the time we have on earth laboring in Christ’s good vineyard.
I promised a superior translation of Boris Pasternak’s “Mary Magdalene.” I present those parts of the poem that benefit from a better rendition in English…
As soon as night falls, my tempter is beside me
He is the debt I pay to my past
Memories of debauchery
Come and suck at my feet
Memories of myself, a salve to men’s whims,
A fool, out of my mind,
To whom the street was shelter.
A few moments remain,
Then comes the silence of the tomb.
Having reached the end of the world
I break my life before you
Like an alabaster box.
Oh, where would I be now,
My teacher and my savior,
If eternity did not await me
At the table, at night,
Like a new client
Caught in the net of my craft?
But, tell me, what is the meaning of sin,
Of death, hell, fire and brimstone,
When before the eyes of all
I have grown one with you in my boundless sorrow
As the graft grows one with the tree?
And perhaps, Jesus, holding your feet on my knees,
I am learning to embrace
The square shaft of the cross,
Losing consciousness as I strain your body to me
Preparing you for burial.
The columns of the guards will re-form
And the horsemen will ride away.
Like a windspout in a storm, the cross above my head
Will strain towards the sky.
And I will fall at its feet,
Silent and dazed, biting my lips.
Your arms will spread out to the ends of the cross
To embrace too many.
For whom in all the world
Is your embrace so wide,
For whom so much torment,
So much power?
In all the world
Are there so many souls?
So many lives?
So many villages, rivers and woods?
Mary Magdalen by Boris Pasternak (translation by his sister Lydia Pasternak Slater)
As soon as night descends, we meet.
Remorse my memories releases.
The demons of the past compete,
And draw and tear my heart to pieces,
Sin, vice and madness and deceit,
When I was slave of men’s caprices
And when my dwelling was the street.
The deathly silence is not far;
A few more moments only matter,
Which the Inevitable bar.
But at the edge, before they scatter,
In front of Thee my life I shatter,
As though an alabaster jar.
O what might not have been my fate
By now, my Teacher and my Savior,
Did not eternity await
Me at the table, as a late
New victim of my past behavior!
But what can sin now mean to me,
And death, and hell, and sulphur burning,
When, like a graft onto a tree,
I have-for everyone to see-
Grown into being part of Thee
In my immeasurable yearning?
When pressed against my knees I place
Thy precious feet, and weep, despairing,
Perhaps I’m learning to embrace
The cross’s rough four-sided face;
And, fainting, all my being sways
Towards Thee, Thy burial preparing.
People clean their homes before the feast.
Stepping from the bustle of the street
I go down before Thee on my knees
And anoint with myrrh Thy holy feet.
Groping round, I cannot find the shoes
For the tears that well up with my sighs.
My impatient tresses, breaking loose,
Like a pall hang thick before my eyes.
I take up Thy feet onto my lap,
Wash them clean with hot tears from my eyes,
In my hair Thy precious feet I wrap,
And my string of pearls around them tie.
I now see the future in detail,
As if it were stopped in flight by Thee.
Like a raving sibyl, I could tell
What will happen, how it will all be.
In the temple, veils will fall tomorrow,
We shall form a frightened group apart,
And the earth will shake-perhaps from sorrow
And from pity for my tortured heart.
Troops will then reform and march away
To the thud of hoofs and heavy tread,
And the cross will reach towards the sky
Like a water-spout above our heads.
By the cross, I’ll fall down on the ground,
I shall bite my lips till I draw blood.
On the cross, your arms will be spread out–
Wide enough to hug the whole wide world.
Who’s this for, this glory and this strife?
Who’s this for, this torment and this might?
Are there enough souls on earth, and lives?
Are there enough cities, dales and heights?
But three days–such days and nights will pass–
They will fill me with such crushing dread
That I’ll see the joyous truth, at last:
I shall know Christ will rise from the dead.
Mary Magdalene is one of Pasternak’s “Zhivago Poems,” that is, the poem is included in the novel as the work of the fictional hero.
I read Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago because Thomas Merton thoroughly recommends it in his book Disputed Questions. Many people love the picturesque movie version of Dr. Zhivago, with Omar Sharif. If you want to continue to love the movie, don’t read the novel. The movie becomes laughable once you’ve read the six hundred pages of prose-poetry that Hollywood managed to turn into a lugubrious comic book.
Prose poetry like Lara’s description of the love she shared with her Yura (the doctor of the title), as she reflects after his death:
They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet. Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the wide expanses they saw on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, took more delight in their love than they themselves did.
Ah, that was just what had united them and had made them so akin! Never, never, even in their moments of richest and wildest happiness, were they unaware of a sublime joy in the total design of the universe, a feeling that they themselves were a part of that whole, an element in the beauty of the cosmos.
This unity with the whole was the breath of life to them. And the elevation of man above the rest of nature, the modern coddling and worshiping of man, never appealed to them. A social system based on such a false premise, as well as its political application, struck them as pathetically amateurish and made no sense to them.
Much more to come re: Pasternak and Zhivago, dear reader. In fact, I want to offer you a different translation of Mary Magdalene, which I can’t dig up just now, but which I think is actually better than his sister’s translation–which, to my mind, sacrifices too much for the sake of retaining the rhyme scheme. Just wanted to share this much with you in honor of our parish’s patron today.
Wasn’t as hot the first Easter morning as today. But that doesn’t mean that Mary Magdalen’s huffing and puffing to the tomb of Christ involved only easy-going comfort for her. We can imagine that she underwent some strife and strain in order to arrive. She probably endured no less strife and strain than the ancient Israelites did, when they made their way across the desert, following Moses to the Promised Land. But Mary never grumbled hopelessly like they did.
Mary Magdalen suffered discomfort. She suffered anguish, too, when she found Christ’s body missing. But Mary had something which the ancient complainers didn’t have. She was personally in love with God. She was in love with Jesus Christ–not in some unworthy, prurient way; not with a marrying kind of love. Her loved burned all the more because the Lord’s celibacy shone before her like a wall of brass.
Mary knew the wall of brass would never come down. But she had found in Christ the very love that had eluded her through her earlier life. Namely, a love that saw her fully, beautiful as she was, but asked for nothing. Nothing, that is, other than seeing her truly be herself, seeing her come into her own. Lord Jesus loved Mary that way. And, in return, Mary was grateful–probably more grateful than any woman ever has been, for Christ’s pure love.
So Mary didn’t complain when she encountered her difficulties. She didn’t panic, either. She just kept looking. Where is He? Where have you laid Him, o gardener?
Mary’s perseverance, of course, found its reward. But the reward she received teaches us exactly what her type of devotion can expect, in this pilgrim life. Hopefully, we aspire to have her kind of loving devotion. So let’s reckon with the reward we can expect.
“Stop holding on to me.” No comfort in this world.
“Go to my brothers.” You have work to do.
If we love the Lord like St. Mary Magdalen–which means loving the one Who truly loves us for who we are, loves us with no self-interest of His own, but just because He appreciates how beautiful we can become–if we let Him love us like that, then we won’t really want any comfort in this earthly life anyway. We will long only for the reward of seeing God in the next life. For the time being, we will strain and strive to do His will. His divine gaze upon us, seeing us become all He made us to be: that will be comfort enough for us.
Today, we behold how Mary’s sister Martha answered the Lord with a confession of the Catholic faith, just like St. Peter had done.
When the Lord Jesus led the Apostles on a little retreat to the mountains north of Galilee, He asked them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’
Peter spoke for the group and replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
Then, when the Lord traveled south to the suburbs of Jerusalem to raise His friend Lazarus from the dead, he asked Martha, ‘Do you believe?’ And she replied, ‘Yes, Lord. I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God.’
So the Memorials of these two holy sisters resound like questions posed to us right here and now. Who do we say that Jesus is? Do we believe that He rose from the dead? Do we believe that He will raise our mortal bodies also? Do we believe that He will come again in glory?
Yes, we do. But we do not have the heroic faith of the Apostles, or of the women who made it possible for the Apostles to be Apostles. We let our faith get clouded over by nonsense sometimes. So we add, ‘Yes, Lord, we believe. But help Thou our unbelief.’
We Christians have kept the memorial of St. Mary Magdalen on July 22 for at least 13 hundred years.
Perhaps she died on July 22. Or maybe she arrived at Ephesus on July 22–during the summer after Pentecost–to announce to the people of Asia Minor what she had announced to the Apostles, namely that Christ lives.
Imagine living through the summer after the first Pentecost. The first summer after the Redemption of the human race. The first summer of the Age of Grace.
That summer, when it got really, really hot, everyone could look at each other and say, ‘You know what? Now that the Lord Jesus has conquered the devil, this oppressive summer heat does not necessarily have to be a foretaste of what life after death will be like!’
A lot of people saw the Lord Jesus after He rose from the dead. St. Paul lists some of them:
He was raised on the third day and appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared to me. (First Corinthians 15)
All of the people who saw Christ after His resurrection were certainly overjoyed. All of them were filled with zeal for the kingdom of God and hope for eternal life.
We owe these eyewitnesses everything: Our faith is based on their testimony. Our goal is to follow in their footsteps.
Here is a question:
Of all the people who saw the Lord after He rose from the dead—who was it who deserved to be the first to see Him?
Of course, anyone who saw Him was not about to complain and say, ‘Gosh, this is great to see Christ risen from the dead, but why did I have to wait until now? Why did so-and-so get to see Him before me?’
No—no one complained about the order in which He appeared to people. It didn’t matter if you were the first or fifth or five-hundredth to see Him. All that mattered was being an eyewitness of the Lord’s triumph over sin and death.