Go Back to the Gospels — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Go Back to the Gospels

Mary Magdalene

Go Back to the Gospels
Monday, July 20, 2020

Today, Cynthia Bourgeault, a member of the CAC’s teaching faculty, shares an epiphany she had about the significance of Mary Magdalene’s presence at the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

I was spending Holy Week 2005 on a “working retreat” with the Fraternités monastiques de Jérusalem, the innovative young monastic order in residence at the basilica in Vézelay [France]. This mixed community of men and women monks is well known for the imagination and beauty of its liturgy, and toward the end of the Good Friday liturgy I witnessed an unusual ceremony that changed forever how I understood my Christianity.

The liturgy was long and intricate, performed with meticulous reverence by the brothers and sisters. . . . As sunset fell, one of the monks began to read in French the burial narrative from the Gospel of Matthew. . . . I allowed the sonorous French to float by my ears while I drifted in and out, catching what I could. . . . Out of the haze of words came “et Mary Magdalene et l’autre Marie restaient debout en face du tombeau . . .”

That’s when I did my double take. Mary Magdalene was there? That was in the scripture? Why hadn’t I ever noticed it before?

Thinking that maybe my French had failed me, I went back to my room that evening, took out my Bible, and looked it up. But yes, right there in Matthew 27:61 it read: “And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.”

Suddenly the whole picture changed for me. I’d thought I knew the tradition well. As an Episcopal priest I’d presided over many Good Friday liturgies, and as a choral musician, I’d sung my share of Bach Passions. I’d thought I knew the plot backward and forward. How could this key point have escaped my attention? No wonder Mary Magdalene came so unerringly to the tomb on Easter morning; she’d stood by in silent, unflinching vigil the whole time Jesus was being laid to rest there. Maybe she never left . . . Since that moment I have literally not heard the Passion story in the same way. It inspired me to go back to the gospels and actually read the story in a new way. . . .

Like myself, a great many Christians have absorbed most of what they know about Mary Magdalene through the dual filters of tradition and the liturgy, which inevitably direct our attention toward certain aspects of the story at the expense of others.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Shambhala Publications: 2010), 5‒6.

Image credit: Mary Magdalene with Jesus the Christ (middle panel of the triptych The Succession of Mary Magdalene) (detail), Janet McKenzie, 2009, Collection of Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Illinois. Used with permission of the artist. www.janetmckenzie.com
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Mary Magdalene is the icon and archetype of love itself—needed, given, received, and passed on—and Jesus’ appearance to her first and alone is the clear affirmation of the wonderful and astounding message that we do not need to be perfect to be the beloved of Jesus and God. —Richard Rohr
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