04 August 2009

'Woman, Why Weepest Thou?'—St Mary Magdalene, Equal-to-the-Apostles

Today, 22 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Myrrh-bearer Mary Magdalene, Equal-to-the-Apostles. St Mary Magdalene has been a frequent subject of art and literature, but much of this, though interesting and often moving (I plan to do a post on some of it), is based on later Western tradition identifying her with the ‘sinful woman’—presumed to be a prostitute—of Luke 7:37-50, rather than the Saint of Orthodox Tradition. For the latter, I shall rely on the Gospels, as well as on the account—translated by Reader Isaac Lambertsen—from the Lives of Saints in the Menology of St Demetrius of Rostov (Holy Myrrh-Bearer Mary Magdalene: Life, Akathist, Liturgical Service, trans. Reader Isaac E. Lambertsen [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1999]).

St Mary—who, according to St Demetrius, ‘achieved particular renown in the Christian Church for her ardent, steadfast, self-denying love for the Lord Jesus Christ’ (p. 3)—was a native of the town of Magdala in Galilee (hence the epithet, ‘Magdalene’), and St Demetrius spends some time on the characteristics of Galileans and their rôle in the Gospels. He writes:

Galileans were fervent, responsive, impetuous, generous, honorable, valiant; they were ecstatically religious, loved to listen to teachings concerning the faith and God; they were open, industrious, poetic, and loved Hellenic philsophical education. And Mary Magdalene, who was healed by Christ the Savior, manifested in her life many of the beautiful distinguishing characteristics of the inhabitants of her native Galilee, who were the first Christians. (p. 4)

In his Gospel, St Luke the Physician includes St Mary among ‘certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities’, referring to her as ‘Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils’ (Luke 8:2; the next woman he mentions is St Joanna). St Demetrius teaches that she was possessed by these demons, ‘not because of her sins or those of her parents’, but ‘that the Lord Jesus Christ might show forth the working of the glory of God (cf. Jn 9:3)’ (p. 5). On the subject of her healing, he concludes:

. . . Mary ardently believed in His omnipotence, had recourse to His divine power, asked healing for herself, and, according to her faith, received that for which she asked: the tormenting power of the evil spirits departed from her, she was freed from her bondage to the demons, and her life was illumined by the divine radiance of her Redeemer, to Whom Mary Magdalene dedicated herself wholly, as a fervent, grateful Galilean. (p. 5)

St Luke also says of these women disciples that they ‘ministered unto Him of their substance’ (Luke 8:3), and names St Mary first of them, ‘because she set for others an example of such grateful service to the work of the God-man, or because she excelled all the rest in her diligence in this holy task’ (St Demetrius, p. 7).

When it came time for Christ to suffer, St Demetrius notes ‘the extraordinary steadfastness and unusual courage with which St Mary Magdalen regarded her Deliverer’, pointing out that she ‘showed herself to be more courageous and faithful than the apostles’ (p. 8). While the latter fled and hid themselves (Mt 26:56), St Peter even going so far as to publicly deny Him (Mt 26:69-75), St Mary stayed with Him and was present at the Crucifixion (Mt 27:56). St Demetrius observes that in her ‘tears of sympathy there shone for the Son of Man, as it were, a ray of light amid the dark kingdom of sin, and this light among the grateful women comforted the innocent Sufferer, for it bore witness to the fact that human nature was not yet utterly corrupted’ (p. 8). But this was not all:

Even after the death of her Healer, Mary Magdalen did not desert Him: she was present when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus transferred His body from the Cross to the grave, attended His burial, saw where they laid Christ (Mt 27:61; Mk 15:47), and when she left His buried body to render honor to the approaching feast of the Passover, in accordance with the law of God, Mary Magdalen’s ardent and grateful love proved for her a wellspring of consolation in the midst of her profound sorrow. Her love prompted a desire within her to show one last honor to her Savior, who had been degraded by the Jews. She purchased myrrh and spices to anoint the body of the buried Christ, and to accord Him, following Jewish custom, as much honor as possible.

This undertaking, which is the reason for which Mary Magdalen has come to be known as a myrrh-bearer, was fitting for her, since two of the evangelists again place her as first among several other women who followed her in doing likewise, and a third identifies only her as performing that noble deed (cf. Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Jn 20:1). (p. 9)

It was thus that St Mary became closely involved in the events immediately after Christ’s Resurrection. Now, the various Evangelists have slightly different accounts of the Myrrh-bearers’ visits to the tomb, accounts which are not easily harmonised (St Nicholas glosses all of these in the Prologue, while St Gregory Palamas works out an interesting harmony in his Homily on the Myrrh-bearers—The Homilies of St Gregory Palamas: Vol. 1, I-XXI, ed. Christopher Veniamin [South Canaan, PA: STS, 2002], pp. 225-236). But St Demetrius seems largely to concentrate on the account in St John’s Gospel, an account that focuses, appropriately, on St Mary Magdalene herself.

First, St Demetrius harmonises Mk 16:4—where we read merely that (the plural) ‘they looked’, and ‘they saw that the stone was rolled away’, meaning St Mary plus the other two listed in 16:1—and Jn 20:1—where we read, ‘The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre’—when he refers to St Mary Magdalene ‘outstripping the rest of the myrrh-bearers and drawing nigh to the cave of the tomb’ (p. 10). St Demetrius then takes up the account in St John's Gospel, according to which (Jn 20:2) she then went immediately to tell the other disciples, who investigated for themselves.

But when the apostles left, still confused, St Mary went back again and started weeping. Inside the tomb she saw two angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the slab where Christ had lain (Jn 20:12). The angels said, ‘Woman, why weepest thou?’, and Mary replied, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him!’ (Jn 20:13). But while she said this, Christ appeared behind her, and though she turned and saw Him, she mistook Him for the gardener. According to St John, our Lord said to St Mary, ‘Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?’, and she said, ‘Sir, if thou have borne Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away’ (Jn 20:15). Here is St Demetrius’s continuation of the story:

The Lord, moved by the height and power of her love, called her by her name, using the grace-filled voice with which Mary was already acquainted, saying: ‘Mary!’ (Jn 20:16).

Then Mary Magdalen heard the voice of her Savior, which she had known for so long, with the power of which He ha driven the horde of demons from her—that celestial voice which penetrated and enlivened every soul; that wondrous voice with which heavenly blessedness sweetened the souls of those who listened to Him. And Mary then sensed the closeness of the divine Teacher, in Whom were contained all her good, all her happiness; and an ineffable joy filled all of Mary’s soul. Overflowing with joy, she was unable to speak, and, turning again to the Lord, recognized Him with newly illumined sight. Crying out in ecstasy the single word ‘Master!’, she cast herself at the feet of Christ the Savior.

In her joyful transportment, Mary Magdalen was still not able to grasp and comprehend the full majesty of the resurrected Christ. And for this reason, the Lord, so as to illumine her thoughts and teach her of the transformation which His body had undergone during His resurrection, said meekly to her: ‘Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father’ (Jn 20:17).

Mary was ecstatically rendering worship to the humanity of her Savior and Teacher, but Christ, by forbidding her to touch Him, elevated and sanctified her thoughts, taught her a more reverent manner, and enabled her to understand that the time for a closer spiritual relationship with Him had come, when He would no longer be visible to the eyes of His disciples’ senses, and would ascend to God His Father in heaven. . . . Yet, that this news of His departure might not bring them into confusion and sorrow, the Lord commanded Mary Magdalen to tell His disciples that His Father, to Whom He was ascending, is also their Father, mercifully calling them His brethren at the same time: ‘Go to My brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God’ (Jn 20:17). (pp. 13-4)

At that, St Mary Magdalene went and proclaimed to the apostles that the Lord was risen, and it is for this reason that she is called ‘Equal to the Apostles’. St Demetrius writes:

Herein is the most splendid aspect of the entire marvellous ministry of Mary Magdalen to the Church of Christ. On the morning of the resurrection of Christ she was counted worthy to behold the risen Lord first of all His disciples, male or female, and was also first, at the Lord’s direct command, to be made a herald, a proclaimer of His resurrection to them. The apostles proclaimed the resurrection of Christ to the apostles themselves: she was an apostle to the apostles! (pp. 14-5)

Although the Apostles at first did not believe her, when there was added the testimony of the other Myrrh-bearers, and soon that of St Peter, gradually all of Christ’s disciples came to accept that He had risen indeed. As St Demetrius puts it:

The tiny handful of disciples of either sex who were sincerely devoted to Christ the Savior, of whom the most zealous was the holy myrrh-bearer Mary Magdalen, equal of the apostles, triumphed over whole kingdoms and their kings, and carried the divine teaching of Christ from one end of the earth to the other, repeating the victorious words of the first proclamation of the holy Mary Magdalen: ‘Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!’ (p. 17)

Although this is where the Scriptural accounts end, there are many stories about what became of St Mary Magdalene later that have been passed down by Christians from all over the Roman world. Here is the account presented by St Nicholas (Velimirović) in the Prologue (The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 94):

She travelled to Rome, went before Tiberias Caesar and presented him with a red egg, greeting him with the words: ‘Christ is risen!’ At the same time, she denounced Pilate to Caesar for his unjust condemnation of the Lord Jesus. Caesar listened to her, and moved Pilate from Jerusalem to Gaul, where this unjust judge died under imperial displeasure after a terrible illness. After that, she returned from Rome to Ephesus, to St John the Theologian, whom she helped in his task of preaching the Gospel. With great love for the risen Lord and with great zeal, she proclaimed the holy Gospel as a true apostle of Christ. She died peacefully in Ephesus and was buried, according to tradition, in the same cave in which the seven young men (see August 4th) had been in a charmed sleep for a hundred years. . . . St Magdalene’s relics were then taken to Constantinople [to the Monastery of St Lazarus]. . . .

There is a monastery of the Russian Church Abroad near the Garden of Gethsemane dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, as well as two English colleges (though they no longer observe the Orthodox calendar!), at both of which C.S. Lewis once taught: Magdalen College at Oxford and Magdalene College at Cambridge (both pronounced 'Maudlin'). It seems when he left the Oxford position for the Cambridge one, Lewis wrote, ‘It is nice to be still under the care of St Mary Magdalene: she must by now understand my constitution better than a stranger would, don't you think?’

I shall close with two pieces: the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Mary Magdalene in the Prologue, and the Doxastikon of Byzantius in Tone 8 from the aposticha at Vespers for the Feast of St Mary Magdalene (Lambertsen, p. 26):

Magdalene, in dark sorrow wrapped herself
Because of the bloody death of the Son of God.
Sorrow is to love, the most bitter sorrow,
It, in the world, has no comfort or companion,
To it, tears are comfort and pain its only companion,
To Saint Magdalene, in darkness the world became wrapped.
The weak creation of man, asked for light,
Without hope, in the dark Mary groped.
His tomb to her is light but behold, the tomb is empty!
Stolen she thought, naked and not anointed!
Bitterly she wept, to weeping never any end,
At that moment, a man's voice beside her, she heard:
Woman, why are you weeping, tell me: Whom do you seek?
Whom do I seek, you ask? To comfort me, do you wish!
But, if you took Him away, where did you place Him?
Tearful and melancholy, Jesus looked at her,
And with a sweet voice called her: Mary!
In Mary's heart, a light began to shine
O familiar voice, with sweetness unsurpassable,
The voice overly generous by life and power!
With that voice, the Lord healed the sick,
With that same voice, He resurrected the dead.
Life-creating voice, a miraculous voice!
Mary recoiled and turned around
Rabbi, she cried out at that moment the sun came out
A New Day dawned to Mary and to the world.

As a disciple who faithfully ministered to Christ God, Who in the excess of His compassion willingly assumed poverty, Mary Magdalene, when she beheld Him stretched out upon the Tree and enclosed in the sepulcher, cried aloud, shedding tears: ‘What strange sight is this, O Thou Who givest life to the dead? How is it that Thou art reckoned among the dead? What myrrh shall I bring to Thee Who hast removed from me the stench of the demons? What tears shall I shed for Thee Who hast wiped away the tears of our first mother?’ Yet, O King of all, Thou didst appear as a gardener, taking away the burning heat with the dew of Thy words, and didst say to her: ‘Go to My brethren and declare to them the joy of glad tidings; for I shall ascend to the Father, to My God and your God, that I may bestow great mercy upon the world!’


123 said...

I was surprised (ok, I wasn't) to read Met. Philip of the AOCA refer to St. Mary Magdalen as a repentant prostitute after the Western tradition in his defense of Bp Demetri and immediately before quoting Kahlil Gibran here:


Aaron Taylor said...

Yes, one is tempted to be surprised, right? But then one stops and thinks, and says, 'Yep.'

Unknown said...

As an inquirer quite ignorant of Church tradition, I was surprised that St Mary Magdalene was not the repentant prostitute. Perhaps you could do a follow up post on what the Church teaches of the prostitute and how they became conflated?