I read and reread the Vatican’s announcement looking for the real reason Pope Francis raised the celebration of the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene to the dignity of a liturgical Feast, putting it on par with the celebrations of the male apostles.
In the news releases and news stories covering the event, I found language that at times both reverent and trite, at other times it sounded oddly official but meaningless, at least to me – a non-Catholic and someone whose world isn’t steeped in liturgies and papal decrees.
In a letter released with the announcement penned by Archbishop Arthur Roche, he noted: “Therefore it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman has the same grade of feast given to the celebration of the apostles in the General Roman Calendar, and shines a light on the special mission of this woman, who is an example and model for every woman in the Church.”
Every woman? Maybe every person.
Another story explained that in the modern Church calendar, saints may be commemorated with a memorial (optional or obligatory), feast, or solemnity. A solemnity holds the highest rank among Church celebrations, and there are 24 in the annual liturgical calendar, including Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or Corpus Christi.
That sounded impressive and yet.
In some mystical way, perhaps following some unknown and long forgotten ancient rite of passage, a woman has been moved, decreed, to a place that is in many ways is equal to or above the men.
Something profound has happened in the Universe and I have to wonder if St. Peter is out there somewhere and again questioning “Why all the fuss over this woman?” as he did in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
And I have to smile.
Would Mary have wanted this recognition? Perhaps not. Did she deserve it? Yes, a thousand times over.
Because at the end of the day the truth is simple: without Mary Magdalene there would be no Easter.
Oh, sure the Easter story would have been told, and it would have been a fascinating story of a man who was crucified, died, was buried and came to life again. A story that would have most likely become a legend, bordering on the status of fable or myth. After all the Romans had Attis and the Persians Mithra— born of virgins, sacrificed and rose again--god-men and saviors worshiped by many of that time.
The Easter story would be an equally good story to be certain, but one built upon other tellings of the day, accounts of those who followed the procession, those who watched from afar the three men hanging from crosses, stories gathered from different people, different times, and different views. And there is where the story could have ended. The rest of it--the tomb, the stone rolled away, the body gone-would surely have been reduced to little more than a fairytale, retold and most certainly embellished through the ages.
But because of Mary Magdalene, we have a true story. She was the eyewitness to it all. The only eyewitness and her account of what happened has stood the test of time and survived against the impossible. While all else of her has been systematically erased, clouded, conflated, her account of the Easter story remains.
Mary followed him to the hill. At the point where the angry crowds would have fallen back and where the disciples vanished and were hiding in fear, she continued. She and a handful of women, ever faithful, ever present, refused to leave.
As she watched Jesus lifted up on the cross, witnessed his transition, would not his words from the last supper have echoed in her mind? “This is my blood…”
Standing there at the foot of the cross, a hands length away, close enough to touch his body, close enough to smell his pain, was she not participating in the first communion?
She heard his last words, watched him take his last breath. She watched as his arms were unlashed and his body taken down from the cross. She saw his lifeless body.
She followed the men who carried the body to the tomb. She didn’t ‘hear’ about him being buried. She was there. She watched as the body was laid inside and saw the stone moved over the opening.
And then she stayed throughout the night, a dangerous vigil, but one required of this disciple.
Leaving for the precious burial ointments, she returns. In most versions, the other women have joined her, in another Peter and the disciples see the empty tomb and leave. They all marvel that the stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. The linens folded.
Yet it is the Magdalene who searches for him.
Mary who first spoke to him, weeping and pleading for help, blinded by her grief.
Mary who first heard his voice and who first recognized him.
Mary Magdalene’s name was the first name spoken by him.
I’ve mused often about why, upon hearing her name, she didn’t respond with his: Jeshua! or some other endearing term. But no, she responds with Rabouni and at that moment the man’s identity is made clear for all ages. Teacher!
It was the Magdalene who first reached for him, to touch him and was given the great commission to go “unto my brethren and say to them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.”
My God and your God. The same God for all, Mary and the brethren.
And Mary obeyed. She ran to the disciples and said: “I have seen the Lord.”
In those word she gave us the Easter story. In those words she became the “Apostle to the Apostles” as noted by philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas during the late 1200's for it was Mary Magdalene who announced to them the Resurrection and they, in turn, announced it to the whole world.
For the woman who was unwavering in her truth, the woman who was much loved, it is more than fitting that in this year of 2016, a day in her honor is made official.