22 July 2016

When the Stone is Rolled Away: FEAST of Saint Mary Magdalene

Probably everyone is aware by now that today's commemoration of Saint Mary Magdalene is indeed a FEAST. I heard a great homily on this from my pastor last Sunday --- it was on both the raising of Mary Magdalene's liturgical celebration from a memorial to an actual feast and Francis' move to create a commission to look into the historical facts regarding the ordination of women as deacons in the church. Change comes slowly in the Catholic Church --- though sometimes it swallows up the Gospel (or significant elements of the Gospel) pretty quickly as it did with last Sunday's story of Jesus' treating Mary of Bethany as a full disciple sitting at his feet just as males (and ONLY males) did. As we know, that story, read without sensitivity to historical context, was tamed to make it say that contemplative life was the greater good or calling than active or ministerial life; still, once the stone has been rolled away as it is in today's Gospel we may find the Spirit of God is irrepressible in bringing (or at least seeking to bring) about miracles.

One sign the stone is being rolled away by Pope Francis is the raising of Mary Magdalene's day to a Feast. For the entire history of the Church Mary M has been known as "Apostle to the Apostles" but mainly this has been taken in an honorific but essentially toothless way with little bite and less power to influence theology or the role of women in the Church. But raising the Magdalene's day to the level of a Feast changes all that. This is because the Feast comes with new prayers -- powerful statements of who Mary was and is for the Church, theological statements with far-reaching implications about Jesus' choices and general practice regarding women (especially calling for a careful reading of other stories of his interactions with them), a critical look at the way the early church esteemed and ministered WITH women --- especially as indicated in the authentic writings of Paul, and the unique primacy of Mary Magdalene over the rest of the Apostles, including even Peter, as a source of faith, witness, and evangelism.

The Church's longstanding and cherished rule in all of this is Lex Orandi, lex credendi, literally, "the law (or norm) of prayer is the law (norm) of belief", but more adequately, "As we pray, so we believe." And what is true as we examine the new readings and prayers associated with today's Feast is that the way we pray with, with regard to, and to God through the presence of Mary Magdalene has indeed changed with wide-ranging implications as noted above. The Church Fathers have written well and I wanted to look briefly at a couple of the texts they have given us for the day's Mass, namely the opening prayer and the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer.

 The Opening Prayer Reads: [[O God, whose Only Begotten Son entrusted Mary Magdalene before all others with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection, grant, we pray, that through her intercession and example we may proclaim the living Christ and come to see him reigning in your glory. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
R. Amen.

What is striking to me here is the very clear affirmation that Mary was commissioned (entrusted) by Christ with the greatest act of evangelization anyone can undertake, namely, the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus' Resurrection from the dead. This is a matter of being summoned to and charged with a direct and undisputed act of preaching the one reality upon which is based everything else Christians say and do. It is the primal witness of faith and the ground of all of our teaching. It is what allows Paul to say quite bluntly, if this is false, if Jesus is not raised from the dead, then Christians are the greatest fools of all. It is this kerygma Mary is given to proclaim. Moreover there is a primacy here. Mary Magdalene is not simply first among equals --- though to be thought of in such a way among Apostles and the successors of Apostles in the Roman Catholic Church is a mighty thing by itself --- but she was entrusted (commissioned) with this charge "before all others". There is a primacy here and the nature of that, it seems to me, especially when viewed in the context of Jesus' clearly counter cultrual treatment of women, is not merely temporal; it has the potential to change the way the Church has viewed the role of women in ministry perhaps including ordained (diaconal) ministry. The Preface is as striking. It reads (in both Latin and English):

 Praefatio: De apostolorum apostola

Vere dignum et iustum est, requum et salutare, nos te, Pater omni potens, cuius non minor est misericordia quam potéstas, in omnibus prredicare per Christum Dominum nostrum. Qui in horto maniféstus apparuit Marire Magdalénre, quippe quae eum diléxerat vivéntem, in cruce viderat moriéntem, quresierat in sepulcro iacéntem, ac prima adoraverat a mortuis resurgéntem, et eam apostolatus officio coram apostolis honoravit ut bonum novre vitre nuntium ad mundi fines perveniret. Unde et nos, Domine, cum Angelis et Sanctis univérsis tibi confitémur, in exsultatione dicéntes: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth ...

Preface of the Apostle of the Apostles

It is truly right and just,
our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
whose mercy is no less than His power,
to preach the Gospel to everyone, through Christ, our Lord.
In the garden He appeared to Mary Magdalene
who loved him in life, who witnessed his death on the cross,
who sought him as he lay in the tomb,

who was the first to adore him when he rose from the dead, and whose apostolic duty [office, charge, commission] was honored by the apostles, so that the good news of life might reach the ends of the earth.
And so Lord, with all the Angels and Saints,
we, too, give you thanks, as in exultation we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts. . . (Working Translation by Thomas Rosica CSB)

Once again we see two things especially in the Preface: 1) the use of the term Apostle (or apostolic duty [office or charge]) used in a strong sense rather than in some weak and merely honorific sense --- this is, after all, the Preface of the Apostle of the Apostles!!! (note how this translation brings Mary right INTO the collegio of Apostles in a way "to" may not; here she is definitely first among equals)--- and 2) a priority or kind of primacy in evangelization which the apostles themselves honored. In the preface there is a stronger sense of Mary being first among equals than in the prayer I think, but the lines stressing that Mary adored Jesus in life, witnessed his death on a cross --- something which was entirely unacceptable in ordinary society and from which the male disciples fled in terror --- and sought him in the dangerous and ritually unacceptable place as the rest of his disciples huddled in a room still terrified and completely dispirited, these lines make the following reference to "apostolic duty" --- which Mary also carried out in the face of general disbelief --- and thus, to Mary's temporal (but not merely temporal) primacy over the other apostles all the stronger.

Do Not Cling to Me: Another Sign the Stone has been Rolled Away

Part of today's gospel is the enigmatic challenge to Mary's address of Jesus as "Rabbouni" or Rabbi -- teacher. In response Jesus says, "Do not cling to me!" He then reminds Mary he has yet to ascend to his Father and her Father, his God and her God. What is going on here? Mary honors Jesus with a title of respect and great love and Jesus rebuffs and reproves her! The answer I think is that Mary identifies Jesus very specifically with Judaism and even with a specific role within Judaism. But Jesus can no longer be identified with such a narrow context. He is the Risen Christ and will soon be the ascended One whose presence, whose universality, will be established and freshly mediated in all sorts of unexpected and new ways. To be ascended is not to be absent but to be present as God is present --- a kind of omnipresence or ever-presence we must learn to perceive and trustingly embrace. This too is a critical part of Mary's commission or officio; she is called to proclaim this as well --- the eschatological or cosmic reality in and through which the Gospel of God's presence is opened to all the world.

Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, who is already aware that he is difficult to recognize as the Risen Christ, not to cling to old images, old certainties, narrow ways of perceiving and understanding him. He reminds her he will be present and known in new ways; he tells her not to cling to the ones she is relatively comfortable with. And he makes her, literally and truly, Apostle of and to the Apostles with a world-shattering kerygma or proclamation whose astonishing Catholicity goes beyond anything they could have imagined.

And so it is with us and with the Church herself. On this new Feast Day we must understand the stone has been rolled away and the Risen and Ascended Christ may be present in ways we never expected, ways which challenge our intellectual certainties and theologically comfortable ways of seeing and knowing. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, as we pray so we believe. What a potentially explosive and ultimately uncontrollable rule beating at the heart of the Church's life and tradition!! The stone has been rolled away and over time our new and normative liturgical prayer will be "unpacked"  by teachers and theologians and pastoral ministers of all sorts while the truth contained there will be expressed, honored, and embodied in ever-new ways by the entire Body of Christ --- if only we take Jesus' admonition seriously and cease clinging to him in ways which actually limit the power and reach of the Gospel in our world.

Like the original Apostles we are called to honor Mary Magdalene's apostleship so that the "good news of life [can] reach the ends of the earth." We pray on this Feast of St Mary Magdalene that that may really be so.