16 July 2017

Lavinia Fontana’s “Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene”. Source: wga.hu

     Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what He told her (John 20: 18).

     This week, the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, otherwise known as the “apostle to the Apostles.” She is the patroness of the Order of Preachers, or the Dominicans, because she is the first one to bring the good news of the Resurrection to the Apostles even though she was unsure of what this event truly meant at first.

     Mary Magdalene is, therefore, a saint who can teach us much as we progress on our own spiritual pilgrimage toward the resurrected Christ, and indeed, toward our own resurrection through Him. Mary went to the tomb very early in the morning (see John 20: 1) when it was still dark. The darkness that St. John includes on the day of the Resurrection refers to the faith that was lacking among His Apostles even though Jesus had prophesied three times that He would die and rise again. Fortunately for them—and for us—this darkness of their minds and hearts did not have the last word! God is always stronger in dispelling whatever shadows pervade our life as long as we remain open to His grace.

     St. John goes on to include Mary Magdalene’s confusion regarding the heavy stone that was moved with no body present in the tomb anymore. She failed to understand immediately what had happened because she sought a purely natural explanation to these perplexing events. How could the body of Jesus, after all, be stolen if the cloths were rolled up in a separate place with the cloth covering His head still retaining its shape like a helmet? We can understand how this caused great confusion, and in her case, Mary remained at the tomb weeping and overcome with tremendous grief. We see how natural explanations are not enough to answer the questions and mysteries of life. Something more is required. Faith is a supernatural gift from God, and in order to appreciate this gift, two essential elements must also be present: Jesus’ call to each of us and our willing response to Him.

     Jesus came to Mary and asked why she was crying (John 20: 15). However, Mary Magdalene failed at first to recognize her Friend and thought that He was a gardener instead. Only after Jesus called her by name did Mary recognize the identity of her Lord. Jesus fulfilled what He had taught earlier: His sheep follow Him because they recognize the voice of the Shepherd (John 10: 4). When Jesus called Mary by name, her eyes were opened, and she moved beyond grief as now her mourning was turned into dancing, as it were (see Jeremiah 31: 13).

     Herein lies a crucial message for each of us as Jesus’ disciples today. We cannot follow Christ unless we hear His voice. Moreover, our life of faith not only entails listening to Him, but it also involves following the Good Shepherd wherever He leads us. We know that our lives will be filled with dark valleys at times and grief (Psalm 23: 4). How do we handle life’s situations in these instances? A purely natural explanation leaves us wanting. On the one hand, a life devoid of faith in the true God leaves us with only an emptiness that can never be satisfied because merely natural explanations fail to take into account our spiritual life in God. On the other hand, following Jesus’ voice does not necessarily provide us in this life with answers we often want to have immediately provided by God, such as why do innocent people have to endure tragedies and suffering if God is all-powerful? Faith and trust in Jesus are what we are asked to live each day instead of demanding from God all the answers, explanations, and desires that we want.  This lesson is perhaps the hardest one to learn and to live over our lifetime! There are no easy answers often in life, and there are no quick-fixes. Faith cannot be reduced to superstitious, magical solutions.

     After Mary Magdalene then recognized Jesus, He told her to stop holding onto Him, to stop clinging to Him (John 20: 17). Rather than holding onto His feet and clinging to Him in the usual manner of honor and worship, Mary’s relationship with Jesus was now different; it would never be the same way again because Jesus’ Resurrection is about transformation into new life and not going back to old ways. Now, Mary received from Jesus her mandate to go to the Eleven and announce that He had, in fact, risen from the tomb! Mary had a mission after hearing the voice of the Shepherd. She then obediently fulfilled that command to the disciples. What was their reaction? They did not believe her: “Later, as the Eleven were at table, He appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw Him after He had been raised” (Mark 16: 14).

     Our own relationship with Jesus is mirrored in the life of Mary Magdalene. We often want to cling to what is familiar and known. It goes without saying that people often do not like change because of its unknown aspects. However, especially in the spiritual life, we cannot stay static. New life means that we cannot hold onto only with what we are familiar. Jesus is the one who invites us to greater trust in Him daily, and never more so than when we bring our daily struggles, crosses, and difficulties to Him asking God to use them for our greater sanctification within His own Sacred Heart. 

     Mary Magdalene continued in her life fulfilling Jesus’ command to tell people that He had risen from the tomb. She was successful in many instances, but she also was met with rejection many times. Yet, her faith was not measured by the mere number of her successes. Her faith, trust, and hope were rooted in her love for the Divine Gardener, as it were, who she knew was the one who cultivates His life within our own whenever the soil of our soul is rich in His grace. May we follow in Mary Magdalene’s path by announcing the same message that she received that first Easter morning by our manner of life today.         

     May you have a most blessed and holy week!

     Fr. Shawn William Cutler

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