Mary and Tom
In the time after Easter we hear about two of the most important saints in the Church: Mary Magdalene and Thomas. They both give us great hope and for very different reasons.
If we did a survey today of what words we associate with the name Mary Magdalene, chances are “prostitute” would be at the top of the list. The Christian tradition has not been very kind to Mary or her memory. She should sue for defamation. There is nothing in the New Testament about her being a woman in prostitution. Unfortunately, there are other women in the Gospels who have ‘a bad reputation in the town’ or weep at Jesus feet and wipe their tears away with their hair, or are caught in the ‘very act of adultery’ or pour oil over Jesus’ head. These women are not Mary of Magdala.
The first we hear of Mary Magdalene is that she has seven demons cast out of her by Jesus. We’re not told what these demons are, but given what people wrongly thought at the time, they could have been a tummy complaint, acne, or a twitch! There is nothing in the text to suggest that they were sexual demons.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” didn’t do Mary Magdalene’s saucy notoriety any favors by giving her character the song of the show: “I don’t know how to love him.” Curiously some brides have wanted this song sung at their weddings over the years, to which I reply “If you don’t know how to love him, you shouldn’t be here!”
And think of the rest of the song’s chorus:
“And I’ve had so many men before,
in very many ways
he’s just one more.”
I don’t think that’s what we want to say at a Nuptial Mass!
The most important thing we know about Mary Magdalene is that she is the first to experience the Risen Christ and is the first Christian missionary, the apostle to the Apostles. One detail in John’s Gospel is especially poignant. We are told that Mary encountered the Risen Christ while weeping outside Jesus’ tomb. She felt a double loss on that first Easter Sunday. Not only was she grieving for the loss of the one whom she had seen tortured to death, but she also wept for what she thought was the ultimate insult inflicted on Him – the desecration of his grave and the stealing of his corpse.
Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of all those of us who have ever stood at tombs and wept. And she shows us that in the midst of any grief Christ comes to us and calls by name.
Because of Mary’s tears and even more because of her evangelization, we believe that there is not a human being who has died who is not known to God by name. God makes no distinction between the rich or poor, whether we are from a developing or developed country, whether we are Christian, Muslim, or Atheist; we are all called by name to share in his life according to the grace which has enabled us to do so. God knows not only our name; he knows our heart, our history, and our selves.
Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that there is no longer an exclusive God, but his God and Father is now Mary’s God and Father. And maybe that’s a good place to start. All people of faith and good will, whether they realize it or not, and some in vastly different cultural ways, seek and serve the same God.
The other thing that is repeatedly said about Mary Magdalene is that she is among the first ‘witnesses’ to the Resurrection. For us the word ‘witness’ usually means that we attest to the truth of events from personal experience and knowledge. The power of personal witness can hardly be exaggerated. And the same is true of Christian faith. It might be attractive to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world as a good idea or as an engaging concept. But the best witnesses have first-hand access to the truth. They don’t believe in the idea of the Resurrection, but have had a personal encounter with the Risen Christ themselves, and are bold enough to proclaim and live it.
This may be why in the early Church the word for witness and the word for martyr were one and the same. Anyone who was brave enough to publicly witness to the Resurrection at that time, potentially ended up giving his or her life for it. In fact this is one of the two most compelling arguments for the reality of the Resurrection. Within a generation after Jesus’ death, people all over the Mediterranean world, most of whom had never seen Jesus, reported that they too had encountered the presence of the Risen Christ – that Jesus of Nazareth was not dead, but alive to them too. The other compelling reason that is difficult to counter is that these same people not only believed in the Resurrection, but also were prepared to put their lives on the line for the person they had encountered.
And nothing has changed. This Easter we are called to be witnesses to Jesus, raised from the dead, and alive to us here and now. This is no head-trip, for in our own way we are meant to put our bodies on the line for it. Like Mary Magdalene, our witness to life and forgiveness in Christ will have its costs in a world that is all too often given over to dealing in death, in all its forms, and addicted to revenge and retribution. So, too, we will have to pay a price for how we live and whom we challenge.
Maybe this is why we are also given Thomas as a role model. The gospel story about doubting Thomas has to be one of the most misunderstood episodes in the New Testament. If you’re like me, for years we have been consoled by Thomas doubting that Jesus had been raised from the dead. We have been told that Thomas doubted Jesus. But let’s read the story very carefully. It’s not Jesus Thomas doubts, it’s the disciples. In fact when Jesus appears to them a week later, Thomas has the opportunity to share in the experience of the Risen Lord and like the others he immediately confesses Easter faith.
There are three elements in this story that should give us great comfort. The first is that Thomas does not doubt Jesus but doubts the early Church, and not just in regard to a minor issue of discipline or procedure. He doubts the central Christian message: that God raised Jesus from the dead. Some of us, too, at various times in our lives, can have doubts about all sorts of things in our faith. There are very few Catholics who get through life without asking some serious questions of God, about Jesus, the Spirit, and the Church. These questions are good in themselves. They are necessary for a mature, adult faith. What we need to ensure is that we sincerely want answers to the questions we ask and not just use them to justify our wandering away from our faith. Thomas is the patron Saint of all of us who sometimes struggle to believe what everyone else in the church seems to accept. And he is also the patron saint of those of us who seek the courage and patience to wait for the answers.
The second consoling fact to this story concerns the earliest Church. Even though they are filled with the presence of the Risen Lord and though Thomas refuses to believe their witness, they remain faithful to him in his doubts. We know this because he is still with them a week later. They didn’t expel him from the group or excommunicate him, they held on to him in the hope that he would experience the Lord for himself.
Sadly for us, today, there are some who argue that Catholics who struggle with their faith should “shape up or ship out.” While every group has its boundaries and there are limits from which people can dissent, we could take the earliest Church as our model and stay faithful to our doubters and help them come to see the transforming truth that has changed our lives.
The story of doubting Thomas was written for people like us who do not have access to the historical Jesus. The birth of the Church is an ongoing act of God’s re-creation in every generation. It takes time, and people will be at different stages at different moments.
The third element of the story, even with its mystical details, counters a magical notion of what the resurrection is about. Jesus bears the marks of his torture and death. His glorified body, though different, is connected to how the disciples knew and loved him. They can recognize him through his words and his wounds. The earliest Christian community focused strongly on the wounds of the Risen Lord for two reasons: to affirm the fact that Christ, now raised from the dead was the same person who had lived with them; and also to make sense of the physical wounds being inflicted on them for Christ’s sake.
It seems, however, that words and wounds still make a claim on us today. We carry within us the death of the Lord. We all have our wounds. And we also know that, for many of us, it precisely when we are wounded most deeply by life, that our doubts in the presence of God can be greatest. The story of Thomas tells us that Christ takes our fears, doubts and disbelief and transforms them into a powerful Christian witness which can sustain us even in our struggle with life and faith. When we see this happening, when we see God taking into his hands the part of us we consider most unlovable and using it for good, then we want to cry out with the psalmist, “This is the work of the Lord, a marvel in our eyes.”
Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What Are We Hoping For? Reflections on Lent and Easter. Paulist Press. 2015. CLICK HERE
Go to Galilee and wait for me there
At the Easter Vigil we enjoy listening to one of the most ancient and important hymns in the Church’s tradition: the Exsultet, literarily, Rejoice! In the early Church the deacon would have known the Exultet off by heart. The honor of singing it was handed down from one generation to the next.
There are several images in The Exultet that help us name our joy: freedom from slavery; an end to fear; the triumph of life over death; and God’s utter fidelity to his son, Jesus. The Exultet sings that God has not done this because we have earned or deserved it, but simply because He loves us. It is good to dwell on this last point for a moment. We have never done anything that can earn God’s saving love. It is a completely unearned, unmerited and undeserved gift, given to us in Jesus Christ. Our response to this gift is how we conduct our daily Christian lives disclosing to others by our justice and joy that we have found the best way to announce that life can be found where others only see death.
The Easter Vigil is the holiest of nights because it seals the family covenant between God and us. We are co-heirs with Jesus, sons and daughters of God. Is it any wonder, then, that heaven and earth are called to explode with joy?
As Christians, Easter joy is meant to mark our lives - though if some of us are truly joyful we should start by telling our faces about it! Not that we can, or should, walk around perpetually smiling. Christian joy is more profound than that. It’s about facing up to the most difficult and tragic moments in our lives, knowing that we don’t have to be afraid; that God’s faithful love will out in the end.
Pope Francis has consistently taught that Easter joy should mark our lives. “The Christian message is called the ‘Gospel,’ that is, ‘the good news,’ an announcement of joy for all people; the Church is not a refuge for sad people, the Church is a house of joy.” On another occasion the Holy Father said, “…if we keep this joy to ourselves it will make us sick in the end, our hearts will grow old and wrinkled and our faces will no longer transmit that great joy - only nostalgia and melancholy, which is not healthy… [They]…have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life.”
We all know this is easier said than done. Take for example one of the oldest Easter stories in the Gospels. The women are told twice to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where they will meet Jesus for themselves. The women do as they are asked and the disciples make the trip. I’ve always wondered about Galilee. What a desolate journey that must have been for them. Believing the extraordinary story of Mary Magdalene and her companions, the disciples set out in fear of their lives, and in the hope of seeing Jesus raised from the dead. There were no reassurances from anyone’s previous experience. No guidebooks or instructions about what to look for at the end. Not even a promise from Jesus himself. Just an instruction, “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead. And indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’”
Galilee does not have to be a place for us. It’s a situation, a frame of mind, or a choice we make. Let me tell you what I mean. Of all the spiritual directors I have ever had in my life one of the most insightful was going blind. A diocesan priest, Fr Ray Crowley, had a genetic disease that was causing him to slowly and very surely lose his eyesight. While the doctors could stall the progress of the disease, he was told that there was nothing that could be done for him in the long term. What would any of us do if we knew we were eventually going to go blind?
After speaking to Ray about my own spiritual journey for several months, one day I plucked up the courage to ask him how he could be so calm in the face of his imminent and total visual impairment. He looked at me and said, “You know in the Gospels where the disciples are sent to Galilee to meet the Risen Lord, well, I think I am being ask to go to blindness and there I will meet the risen Lord in a totally different way.” What faith! No wonder he was a spiritual director and I wasn’t. His profound wisdom and insight stays with me to his day.
Our particular Galilee could be the desolate journey of physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual pain. It could be dashed promises, broken relationships, or unrealized hopes. Whatever it is, Easter night promises us that Christ is not only there when we arrive, he has gone ahead of us, to that desolate place, so that we might have loving arms in which to fall at journey’s end.
The idea that the Easter journey is about new sight and insight is a rich one too. On Good Friday, when we always hear John’s Passion proclaimed we hear three great questions:
In John’s Passion the answers run:
We come to the joy of the Easter Vigil because we seek Jesus of Nazareth whose love has arrested us. We want to follow his way in our own discipleship whatever path and complex destination upon which we may have to embark.
I like the fact that the third question of John’s Passion is to Peter. Although Peter wanted to remain faithful to Jesus, fear got the better of him. Most of us can be empathetic to his plight. Faced with a choice between cutting and running and possible death, how many of us would choose death? And because actions always speak louder than words, every time we compromise the goodness of God within us, or work to undermine another person’s rights to dignity and life, we join Peter around that fire denying that we are Christ’s disciple. But the hapless, fickle and impulsive Peter found his way to Galilee and that’s where his discipleship began to come into its own. Some of us need a while for the Risen Christ’s call to settle and mature, and some space upon which to reflect on the choices that have bought us to this moment. Then we can see what choices might see greater days ahead.
If we feel apprehensive, then this Easter allows Christ to arrest us with his peace. If we stand accused of destructive behavior, allow Christ to covert our hearts and change our lives. If we deny Christ by what we say or how we live, let’s decide today to be as faithful to him as he is to us. Apprehension, accusation, and denial were not the last words in Jesus’ life and they are not meant to be so in our lives either.
The first Easter Vigil shows us in their place a joyful call even to unknown places with unexpected results can end in new life, and fresh starts.
With the whole Church we can make Mary Magdalene’s invitation to the disciples our own. This Easter let’s go to Galilee, wherever and whatever it might be, and find the Lord there. Then, we can explode with joy and ‘Sing Christ Risen.’
Richard Leonard is a Jesuit priest. He has degrees in arts and education, as well as a Master’s degree in theology. Fr Richard did graduate studies at the London Film School and has a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University; has been a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film & Television at UCLA and a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He directed the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 22 years. He has served on juries at the Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Warsaw, Hong Kong, Montreal, Brisbane and Melbourne International Film Festivals and he has lectured on faith and culture all over the world. He has been published in America Magazine, Eureka Street, US Catholic, is regular columnist with The London Tablet and is a regular guest on ABC Radio.
He is the author of ten books, among the titles are:
Where the Hell is God?
What does it all mean? A guide to being more faithful, hopeful and loving
His most recent book is Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments.
Richard’s next book The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom, will be released in early 2021.