Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Holy Week’ Category

A final chapter from Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies (full text available here for .99).  I have skipped a few – this is chapter 10, which describes the role of Mary Magdalene in the lives of late medieval and counter-reformation mystics and spiritual writers.

For excerpts from other  chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

MARY AND THE MYSTICS

The heart of the Christian life is prayer, and throughout our history Mary Magdalene has often been found in that heart, pointing the way to Christ. Like any saint, Christians have looked to her as a model, and have prayed for her intercession.

In this chapter, we’ll look at some important figures in the Christian spiritual tradition, mostly women, and how they have been inspired and nourished by the example of Mary Magdalene. Some found parallels between their lives and hers. Others found strength in her identity as a repentant sinner, or in the model of solitary con-templation offered by the legends they knew. The lives of all of these prayerful people help us see the tremendous positive power the figure of Mary Magdalene has held in the lives of many Christians.

Like a Sister

Margery Kempe is one of the more vivid figures to emerge from the medieval period, partly because she left extensive autobiographical writings (dictated to a priest), but also because her experiences are so extreme to the point that today we might indeed diagnose her as mentally ill.

She was an Englishwoman, born in the late thirteenth century, married, and the mother of fourteen children. She eventually convinced her husband to live with her as a brother, and from that point embarked on a number of pilgrimages — to the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Norway, and Germany. Her Book of Margery Kempe is an invaluable record of the period in general, and of religious life and sensibilities in particular.

The Book records visionary experiences, most of which involve Margery, who refers to herself as “said creature,” in the midst of a biblical scene, observing and interacting with the other participants, often weeping copiously. Her visions reflect a knowledge of some of the medieval religious plays featuring Mary Magdalene, as well as a work called Meditations on the Life of Christ, a very popular devotional believed to have been written by St. Bonaventure, but now ascribed to a figure known as “Pseudo-Bonaventure.”

Margery joins Mary Magdalene and others at the cross. She mourns with them. For ten years, on every Good Friday, she weeps for five or six hours. After the Resurrection, she displaces Mary Magdalene, and converses with Christ herself, receiving his assurance that if Mary Magdalene could be forgiven of her sins, so should Margery. She, along with the Virgin, expresses sorrow at the imminent physical departure of Jesus, and is comforted by him.

Margery draws strength from Mary Magdalene, then, as a model of a sinner who loved Christ and was devoted to him. The imagery she offers, of herself mourning over the dead Christ, kissing his feet and caring for his body, is evocative of spiritual writing and art of the period in which Mary Magdalene is playing that same role:

[Jesus to Margery Kempe:] “Also, daughter, I know . . . how you call Mary Magdalene into your soul to welcome me for, daugh-ter,I know well enough what you are thinking.You think that she is the worthiest, in your soul, and you trust most in her prayers next to my mother, and so you may indeed, daughter, for she is a very great mediator to me for you in the bliss of heaven.” (Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 86, in Medieval Writings on Female Spiritualityedited by Elizabeth Spearing [Penguin Books, 2002], p. 251)

The Second Mary Magdalene

Similar comfort was found by St. Margaret Cortona (1247-1297), who is actually called the “Second Mary Magdalene.” She was born in Tuscany, and as a young adult woman she became lovers with a nobleman, bore him a child, and lived with him for nine years. The man File:Giovanni Lanfranco - Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona - WGA12453.jpgwas murdered, at which point Margaret took her child and fled, first to her family’s home, where she was rejected, and then to a Franciscan friary. Her subsequent life as a Franciscan tertiary was marked by continued battles with temptations of the flesh (she is a patron saint of those battling temptation), repentance, and service to the poor.

Obviously, her past life led to her identification with the popular memory of St. Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner — and like Margery Kempe, Margaret found solace in Mary’s penitent life. The following was related by one of her early biographers:

“Shortly before her death, she had a vision of St. Mary Magdalene, ‘most faithful of Christ’s apostles, clothed in a robe as it were of silver, and crowned with a crown of precious gems, and surrounded by the holy angels.’ And whilst she was in this ecstasy Christ spoke to Margaret, saying:‘My Eternal Father said of Me to the Baptist:This is My beloved Son;so do I say to thee of Magdalene:This is my beloved daughter.’ On
another occasion we are told that ‘she was taken in spirit to the feet of Christ, which she washed with her tears as did Magdalene of old;and as she wiped His feet she desired greatly to behold His face,and prayed to the Lord to grant her this favor.’ Thus to the end we see she was the same; and yet the difference.” (
Saints for Sinners, by Alban Goodier, S.J. [Ignatius Press, 1993], p. 46)

Bathed in Blood

St. Catherine of Siena is one of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, and considering the competition, that is saying quite a bit.

Born in 1347, the youngest of twenty-five children, Catherine was intensely devout, but uninterested in taking the usual route for young women like herself, which would have been joining a reli-gious community. She became associated with the Dominicans — whose patron was Mary Magdalene, remember — as a tertiary, but operated with a startling degree of independence for a woman of her era. We remember her today for her letters, her spiritual writ-ings (dictated to her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua), and her determination to play a role in reforming the papacy, at that time in exile in Avignon, France, and corrupted by luxury.

Catherine saw Mary Magdalene as a second mother, having dedicated herself to her in a special way upon the death in child-birth of her sister, Bonaventura, an incident that seems to have been an important motivator in Catherine’s spiritual life. When Bonaventura died, Catherine envisioned herself at the feet of Christ, with Mary Magdalene, begging for mercy. Her biographer noted Catherine “doing everything she could to imitate her to obtain forgiveness” (quoted in Haskins, p. 179). Blessed Raymond summarizes Catherine’s devotion in the following passage:

“‘Sweetest daughter, for your greater comfort I give you Mary Magdalen for your mother.Turn to her in absolute confidence; I entrust her with a special care of you.’ The virgin gratefully accepted this offer. . . . From that moment the virgin felt entirely at one with the Magdalen and always referred to her as her mother.” (Quoted in Jansen, p. 303)

In terms of her personal spirituality, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as a model of repentance and faithfulness, never leaving Jesus at the cross. Nor, she determined, would she, faithfully persevering in fidelity despite the extraordinary risks she faced in confronting the most powerful figure of the day — the pope — with evidence of his own sins.

[Catherine of Siena on Mary Magdalene, the “loving disciple”:] “Wracked with love, she runs and embraces the cross.There is no doubt that to see her master, she becomes inundated with blood.” (Quoted in Haskins, p. 188)

St.Teresa of Ávila

The sixteenth century was a period of conflict and reform for the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, there was only one Christian Church in the West, but by the end there were scores of different churches and movements emanating from the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church, faced with the consequences of, in part, its own weakness and corruption, responded to the Reformation with its own inner purification, commonly called the Counter-Reformation, or the Catholic Reformation. The Council of Trent, meeting over several years mid-century, standardized prayer and liturgical texts, mandated seminary training for priests, and confidently restated traditional Catholic teaching on justification, Scripture, Tradition, and the life of the Church.

Change doesn’t come only from the top, though. When a reforming spirit is in the Catholic air, inevitably groups rise up to meet the challenge and undertake the work. It happened, for example, in the thirteenth century with the rise of the mendicant orders.

Some argue it is happening today with the rising popularity of groups like Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, and the Neo-Catechumenal Way.

The sixteenth century was no different. It was the era that saw the establishment of the Jesuits, who evangelized with vigor and focus, under the direct supervision of the pope. It was also the era that saw the reformation of many religious orders. One of the most important leaders on this score was St. Teresa of Ávila, who worked tirelessly to reform the Carmelites in Spain.

Not that she started out life as a reformer. Teresa entered religious life at an early age, but did not pursue holiness with much vigor. Many convents in that period had devolved to essentially groups of well-off women dwelling together, living only nominally religious lives.

Teresa lived this way until her forties, when illness prompted a change of heart. In the wake of her conversion, Teresa was inspired to reform existing houses of her order and establish new ones that would be expressions of a sacrificial road to holiness. Teresa was also a great mystic and teacher of prayer. Her works — including her Life, the Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle — are still widely read today.

In these works, we see the influence of Mary Magdalene on Teresa, primarily, as she has been for the other women we’ve looked at, as a model of fidelity and repentance:

“I had a very great devotion to the glorious Magdalene,and very frequently used to think of her conversion — especially when I went to Communion. As I knew for certain that our Lord was then within me, I used to place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be despised. I did not know what I was saying; only He did great things for me, in that He was pleased I should shed those tears,seeing that I so soon forgot that impression. I used to recommend myself to that glorious saint,that she might obtain my pardon.” (Life, 9:2)

The story of Mary Magdalene’s contemplative years in the wilderness and her association with the quiet, listening Mary (in contrast to the busy Martha) also Teresa_de_Jesúsappealed to Teresa, unsurprisingly:

“Let us, then, pray Him always to show His mercy upon us, with a submissive spirit,yet trusting in the goodness of God. And now that the soul is permitted to sit at the feet of Christ, let it con-trive not to quit its place, but keep it anyhow. Let it follow the example of the Magdalene; and when it shall be strong enough, God will lead it into the wilderness.” (Life, 21:9)

Asceticism, an important part of Teresa’s spirituality (although never to extremes, she firmly taught), was understood by her and others in this period as a means of penance for one’s own sins, as well as the sins of others. Here, again, Mary Magdalene was a model:

“Indeed the body suffers much while alive, for whatever work it does, the soul has energy for far greater tasks and goads it on to more, for all it can perform appears as nothing.This must be the reason of the severe penances performed by many of the saints, especially the glorious Magdalene, who had always spent her life in luxury.This caused the zeal felt by our Father Elias for the honor of God, and the desires of St. Dominic and St. Fran-cis to draw souls to praise the Almighty. I assure you that, for-getful of themselves, they must have passed through no small trials.” (Interior Castle, 4:16)

Teresa, like many other women, saw in Mary Magdalene a model for faithful discipleship through difficulty, an ideal penitent, and an inspiring contemplative.

Practical Advice

During this same era, another kind of Catholic reformer was working in another part of Europe. St. Francis de Sales — a gifted writer, preacher, and spiritual director — was the bishop of Geneva, although throughout most of his career, because of the Calvinist control of that city, he could not openly lead his flock. He wrote, unusually for this period, specifically for the laity, very aware of the particular challenges of living in the world.

His Introduction to the Devout Life is a lovely, practical, and charming classic, and it is still indispensable. His letters of spiritual direction, many of them written to his close friend and fellow reformer St. Jane Frances de Chantal, are carefully crafted to answer the specific needs of their recipients. In one of his letters of spiritual direction, written to one Rose Bourgeois, an abbess who, much like Teresa of Ávila, was attempting to reform her own life and that of her convent in a way more faithful to the demands of the Gospel, Francis draws on the image of the contemplative Magdalene in a lovely way:

“Dear daughter,what a good way of praying,and what a fine way of staying in God’s presence: doing what He wants and accept-ing what pleases Him! It seems to me that Mary Magdalene was a statue in her niche when,without saying a word,without mov-ing, and perhaps even without looking at Him, she sat at our Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying.When He spoke, she listened; whenever He paused, she stopped listening; but always, she was right there.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal [Paulist Press, 1988], p. 152)

Silent Witness

Mary Magdalene’s place in medieval and early modern Catholic spirituality was firm and clear. Her example encouraged Christians to see their own sins clearly and honestly, and hopefully approach the Lord for forgiveness. Her faithfulness to Jesus, an important part of the Passion narratives in the Gospels, was an accessible expression of fidelity. Her identity as a contemplative, fueled by the legend of her time in the wilderness, as well as her identification with Mary, sister of Martha, provided a model for women who sought to pursue a life of deep prayer, singularly devoted to Christ.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways did these medieval spiritual writers find Mary Magdalene inspiring?
  1. How did they respond to her identity as “Apostle to the Apos-tles,” within the context of their times?
  2. Does the image of Mary Magdalene inspire you in similar ways?

Read Full Post »

And here we go with chapter 4 of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.  This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

(Why do this? Because her feast is Sunday – July 22.)

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader  epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

For the entire book, available for Kindle for .99 – here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

Read Full Post »

As I mentioned yesterday, this week, in anticipation of the July 22 feast,  I’ll be posting excerpts from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, published by OSV a few years ago under another title, but now available, published by moi, via Amazon Kindle for .99.

Chapter 2:

‘WHY ARE YOU WEEPING?’

Luke is the only evangelist to mention Mary Magdalene before the Passion narratives, but once those events are set in motion, Mary is a constant presence in all of the Gospels, without exception. For the first few centuries of Christian life, it is her role in these narratives that inspired the most interest and produced the earliest ways of describing Mary Magdalene: “Myrrh-bearer” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

At the Cross

In both Matthew (27:55) and Mark (15:40-41), Mary Magdalene is named first in the list of women watching Jesus’ execution.

Luke doesn’t name the women at the cross, but he does identify them as those who had “followed him from Galilee.” John also mentions her presence (19:25), but his account highlights the presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ words commending her to John’s care.

After Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross, Mary and the other women are still there. Matthew (27:61) and Mark (15:47) both specifically mention her as seeing where Jesus’ body was laid, and Luke again refers to the “women . . . from Galilee” (23:55), whose identity we are expected to understand from Luke’s early mention of their names in chapter 8.

Finally, as the Sabbath passes and the first day of the week dawns, the women still remain, and the Twelve are still nowhere in sight. Matthew describes Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (not the mother of Jesus, but probably the Mary, mother of James and Joseph, whom he had mentioned in 27:56) coming to “see” the tomb. Mark and Luke get more specific, saying that the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. John, interestingly enough, in chapter 20, ignores any other women, and focuses on Mary Magdalene. She comes to see the tomb, finds the stone moved and the tomb empty, and runs to tell Peter.

At least one early critic of Christianity seized on Mary Magdalene’s witness as discrediting. As quoted by the Christian writer Origen,the second-century philosopher Celsus called her a “half-frantic woman” (Contra Celsus, Book II: 59), thereby calling into doubt the truth of her testimony of the empty tomb.

What is striking about John’s account is that even though Peter and others do indeed run to the tomb at Mary’s news and see it empty, that is all they see. They return, and after they have gone away, Mary remains, alone at the tomb, weeping. It is at this point that, finally, the risen Jesus appears.

Of course, Jesus appears to Mary and other women in the Synoptic Gospels as well. In Matthew (chapter 28), an angel first gives them the news that Jesus has risen from the dead. The women then depart to tell the Twelve, and on the way they meet Jesus, they worship him, and he instructs them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.

In Mark (chapter 16), they meet the angel first as well, and receive the same message as Matthew describes, and are, unlike the joy described by Matthew, “afraid.” (Fear and lack of understanding on the part of disciples is a strong theme in Mark’s Gospel, by the way.)

Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen

Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen Jesus described. Manuscripts of a century later do contain the rest of the Gospel as we know it, continuing the story, emphasizing Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, and identifying her as the one from whom he had exorcised seven demons. She sees him, she reports to the others, and they don’t believe it. Jesus then appears to “two of them” (perhaps an allusion to the encounter on the road to Emmaus we read about in Luke 24) who then, again, report the news to the Twelve who, again, do not believe it. Finally, Jesus appears to the disciples when they are at table, and as is normal in the Gospel of Mark, their faithlessness is remarked upon.

Some modern scholars suggest that Mark 16:8 is the “real” ending of this Gospel, which would mean that it contains no Resurrection account. Others, including the Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, a preeminent scholar of the New Testament, argue that when one looks at Mark as a whole, it is obviously building up to the Resurrection,including prophecies from Jesus himself. Wright theorizes that the original ending was perhaps lost (the ends of scrolls were particularly susceptible to damage), and that what we have now is an attempt by a later editor to patch up that lost ending, but not in a way inconsistent with Mark’s intentions.

The theme of disbelief also runs through Luke. Interestingly enough, this Gospel doesn’t recount an encounter between the women (who are finally again specifically identified) and Jesus, but only the appearance of “two men” in “dazzling apparel,” who remind them of Jesus’ prophecies of his death and resurrection. The women, no longer afraid, go to the apostles, who, of course, dismiss their tale as idle chatter.

What’s clear in these Synoptic Gospels is, first, the strong sense of historical truth about the accounts. Rationalist skeptics would like to dismiss the Resurrection as a fabrication, but if it is, then the storytellers did a terrible job, didn’t they?

After all, if you were creating a myth that would be the origins of your new religion, would you write something in which the central characters — the first leaders of this same religion — were so filled with fear and doubt that they appeared weak?

If you were making up the story of the Resurrection from scratch, you would, as a person living in the first century, in the Roman Empire, and presumably as a Jew, only be able to think about this resurrection business in the terms and concepts available to you. And, as N. T. Wright has so ably demonstrated in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003), even the first-century Jewish world, which did believe in a resurrection of the body, saw it in completely different terms — that it would eventually happen to everyone, at once, at the end of time (Wright, pp. 200-206).

And in general, when you read over the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels, you are immersed in an account in which people are afraid, confused, in awe, and eventually profoundly overjoyed. There is a veil drawn over the core event — the Resurrection itself is never described because, of course, none of the witnesses saw it.

They saw the empty tomb, and they saw the risen Jesus. A clever fabricator and mythmaker would not have woven his account with such nuance, and would probably have offered a direct account of the event itself, perhaps even with a clear explanation of what it all meant. But that’s not what we read, and somehow, ironically, all of the confusion and human frailty is powerful evidence for the truth of the account.

Most importantly for us, a first-century mythmaker would not have featured women as the initial witnesses of these formative events. It is inaccurate to say that first-century Jews did not accept women as reliable witnesses at all. There was, of course, no unified system of law within Judaism, and what was practiced was dependent upon which rabbi’s interpretation of the Law was used. Some rabbis did, indeed, hold the opinion that women were not reliable witnesses, but others disagreed and counted a woman’s witness equal to a man’s.

However, the fact that a woman’s reliability as a witness was disputed, unclear, and not consistently accepted, would, it seems, discourage a fabricator from using women as his source of information that the tomb was indeed empty. It certainly wouldn’t be the first choice to come to mind if your aim was to present a story that was easily credible, would it?

“[And] so that the apostles [the women] did not doubt the angels,Christ himself appeared to them,so that the women are Christ’s apostles and compensate through their obedience for the sin of the first Eve. . . . Eve has become apostle. . . . So that the women did not appear liars but bringers of truth, Christ appeared to the [male] apostles and said to them: It is truly I who appeared to these women and who desired to send them to you as apostles.” (Hippolytus, third century, quoted in Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, by Susan Haskins [Berkley, 1997], pp. 62-63)

496px-noli_me_tangere_-_poussin_-_museo_del_prado

Noli Me Tangere

John’s account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance to Mary in chapter 20 adds more detail than the Synoptics. She comes to the tomb while it is still dark — recall how John’s Gospel begins, with the wonderful hymn describing the Word bringing light into the darkness — and she sees that it is empty, and then runs to get the disciples. Peter and another disciple come to the tomb, see it for themselves, but leave, since, as John says, they didn’t yet understand “the scripture” — perhaps the Hebrew Scriptures as they would be later understood by Christians.

Mary stays, though, weeping ( John 20:11). She peers into the tomb (the level of detail in this account is fascinating) and sees two “angels in white” who ask her why she is crying. She says, sadly, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” ( John 20:13). She then turns and sees another figure; we are told it’s Jesus, but she doesn’t know until he speaks her name ( John 20:16)

One of the more well-known moments in this account comes in John 20:17, when Jesus says to Mary, in the famous Latin rendering of the words, “Noli me tangere,” which has commonly been translated, “Do not touch me.”This, however, is not the most accurate translation — either in Latin or English — of the Greek, which really means something like, “Do not cling to me” or “Do not retain me.”

So, no, Jesus is not engaging in misogynistic behavior here. Nor is he (as some modern commentators suggest) alluding to a supposed former intimate relationship between him and Mary. This is not about touching; it is about understanding who Jesus is and what his mission is. After all, Thomas is invited to touch the wounds of Jesus in John 20:27. No, Jesus tells Mary to let go of him, to look beyond the moment, to the future. After all, his very next words direct her to go to the apostles and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” ( John 20:17). Knowing Jesus for who he is, we cannot stand still. We have to move, get out, and share the marvelous news that in Jesus the barriers between humanity and God are dissolved.

Which, of course, Mary Magdalene does. All of the evangelists agree that she was the first to announce this Good News to the apostles, who, more often than not, responded with skepticism.

But such is the way it has always been. God always chooses the least in the world’s eyes, the unexpected and the despised, to do his most important work. To see this event only through the prism of politics, and to be inspired by it to think only about gender roles and such, is to be willfully blinded to the greater reality: Jesus lives, Jesus saves, and as we are touched by this truth, we are, at the same time, called to go out and share it.

Mary of the Bible

Mary Magdalene’s future in Christian spirituality and iconography is rich, evocative, and even confusing, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters. But it all begins here, with powerful simplicity and themes that will resonate through the centuries.

Mary Magdalene, healed of possession, responds to Jesus with a life of faithful discipleship. As spiritual writers and theologians will point out, she’s like the Bride in the Song of Songs. She’s like the Church itself, called by Christ out of bondage to the evils that pervade our world, giving ourselves over to him in gratitude, waiting with hope by the tomb, even when all seems lost, and rewarded, in a small, grace-filled moment, when, in the midst of darkness, we hear him call our name.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What does Mary’s desire to hold on to Jesus symbolize to you? How do you experience this in your own life?
  2. Why is Mary referred to as “Apostle to the Apostles?”
  3. What can Mary’s fidelity teach you about your own relationship to Jesus?

Read Full Post »

Her feast is on a Sunday this year, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t learn more about St. Mary Magdalene. So, as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I’m going to offer a daily excerpt from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, now available as an e-book for .99.

Remember, that the book was written in the context of the Da Vinci Code fever, so I pay particular attention to the gnostic writings that Brown and others whose work he used depended on for their claims.

So. Chapter 1:

Before the legends, myths, and speculation, and even before the best-selling novels, there was something else: the Gospels.

The figure of Mary Magdalene has inspired a wealth of art, devotion, and charitable works throughout Christian history, but if we want to really understand her, we have to open the Gospels, because all we really know for sure is right there.

The evidence seems, at first glance, frustratingly slim: an introduction in Luke, and then Mary’s presence at the cross and at the empty tomb mentioned in all four amy-welborn-book2Gospels. Not much to go on, it seems.

But in the context, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears. After all, no one besides Jesus is described in any detail in the Gospels, and even the portrait of Jesus, as evocative as it is, omits details that we moderns are programmed to think are important. Perhaps, given the context, the Gospels tell us more about Mary Magdalene than we think.

Trustworthy?

Before we actually meet the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of exactly what the Gospels are and how to read them.

The word “Gospel” means, of course, “good news,” or evangel in Greek, which is why we call the writers of the Gospels evangelists. The four Gospels in the New Testament have been accepted as the most authoritative and accurate writings on Jesus’ life since the early second century. Even today, scholars who study early  Christianity, whether they are believers or not, know that when studying Jesus and the early Christian movement, the Gospels and other New Testament writings are the place to begin.

Sometimes in my speaking on this issue, I have fielded questions about the reliability of the Gospels. A questioner will say something like, “Well, they were written so long after the events, how can we trust them to tell the truth?”

In addition, even those of us who have received some sort of religious education might have been taught, implicitly, to be skeptical of the Gospels. We’re reminded, right off, that the Gospels are not history or biography, and that they tell us far more about the community that produced them than about Jesus himself.

In short, all of this gets distilled into the conviction that when it comes to early Christianity, all documents and texts are of equal value in telling us about Jesus. You can’t pick the best according to historical reliability, so you pick the one with the “story” that means the most to you. So, if the Gospel of Mark displeases you, you can go ahead and create your Jesus from what you read in the Gospelof Philip or the Pistis Sophia.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. As we will see in more detail when we get to the Gnostic writings, there is simply no comparison between the four canonical Gospels and other writ-ings. The canonical Gospels were not written that distant from the events described — forty or fifty years — and were written in an oral culture that took great care to preserve what it heard with care; the community’s history depended on it. When you actually read the Gospels, you see comments here and there from the evangel-ists themselves about what they were trying to do, and part of that involved, according to their own admission, being as accurate as possible (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

No, the Gospels are not straight history or biography in the contemporary sense. They are testaments of faith. But they are testaments of faith rooted in what really happened. The evangelists, and by extension, the early Christians, were not about making up stories for which they would later, oddly, give their lives. They were not cleverly presenting their inner psychological transformations in the form of concrete stories. They were witnesses to the amazing action of God in history, through Jesus. amy-welborn-book3They are testimonies of faith, yes, but faith rooted in the realities of God’s movement in the world.

It’s also good to listen to modern Gospel critics carefully. More often than not, those who disdain the Gospels are quick to claim some other text as “gospel,” as the source of truth. Their choice of what to believe usually has far less to do with historical reliability than it does with other factors.

So, no, not all historical texts are equally reliable. When it comes to Jesus and the events of the mid-first century, the canonical Gospels are really the only place to begin.

Now, on to Mary Magdalene.

Magdala

Luke introduces us to Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his Gospel:

 

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preach-ing and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,and Joanna,the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:1-3)

So here she is: a woman from whom Jesus had driven seven demons, joined with other women, also healed by Jesus, who had left their lives behind to follow him.

Mary is mentioned first in this list, as she is in every list of female disciples, in every Gospel, similar to the way that in lists of the twelve apostles Peter’s name always comes first. The precise reason for Mary’s consistent preeminence is impossible to determine, but we can guess that it might have much to do with her important role related to the Resurrection, as well as to recognition of her faithfulness to Jesus.

These women “provided for them out of their means.” This might mean one of two things, or both: that the women assisted Jesus and his disciples by preparing meals and so on, or that they supported them financially. The second explanation is supported by the presence of Joanna, the wife of a member of Herod’s court, on the list. Perhaps some of these women were, indeed, wealthy enough to give Jesus’ ministry a financial base. (Some legends about Mary have played off of this, as we will see later, suggesting that she was quite wealthy and actually owned the town of Magdala.)

What stands out about Mary is that she’s identified, not by her relationship to a man, as most women would be at that time, but to a town. This indicates that Mary wasn’t married, and perhaps even that she had outlived her father and other male relatives: she was a single woman, able to give support to Jesus out of gratitude for what he had done for her.

Magdala was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about four miles north of the major city of Tiberias. Today, it is a village with a few hundred inhabitants, some abandoned archaeological digs, and only the most inconspicuous memorials to its most well-known inhabitant.

“Magdala” is derived from the Hebrew Migdal, which means “fortress” or “tower.” It was also called “Tarichea,” which means “salted fish,” a name which reveals the town’s primary industry during the first century, the salting and pickling of fish. Excavations led by Franciscans in the 1970s revealed a structure that some think was a synagogue (others a springhouse), as well as a couple of large villas and, from later centuries, what might be a Byzan-tine monastery. Magdala is described by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, as having forty thousand inhabitants, six thou-sand of whom were killed in one of the battles during the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), but most modern historians believe those numbers are far too high.

Jewish tradition suggests that Magdala was ultimately destroyed as a punishment for prostitution, and another strain holds that in ancient times Job’s daughters died there. Pilgrim accounts from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries report the existence of a church in Magdala, supposedly built in the fourth century by St. Helena, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem.

By the seventeenth century, pilgrims reported nothing but ruins at Magdala.

Possessed

Mary — like Peter, Andrew, and the other apostles — walked away from life as she knew it, abandoned everything to follow Jesus. Why?

“. . . from whom seven demons had gone out.”

Exorcism is an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that many of us either forget about or ignore, but the Gospels make clear how important it is: Mark, in fact, describes an exorcism as Jesus’ first mighty deed, in the midst of his preaching (1:25). Some modern com-mentators might declare that what the ancients referred to as pos-session was nothing more than mental illness, but there is really no reason to assume that is true. The “demons,” or unclean or evil spirits, we see mentioned sixty-three times in the Gospels were understood as forces that indeed possessed people, inhabiting them, bringing on what we would describe as mental problems, emotional disturbances, and even physical illness. The symptoms, however, were, to the ancient mind, only that: symptoms. The deeper problem was the alienation from the rest of the human family and from God produced by this mysterious force of evil.

In the world in which Jesus lived, seven was a number that symbolized completion, from the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3) to the seven seals on God’s book in Revelation (5:1) and the seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the same vision (5:6). Mary’s possession by seven demons (also explicitly mentioned in Mark 16:9) indicates to us that her possession was serious and overwhelming — total, in fact. She was wholly in the grip of these evil spirits, and Jesus freed her — totally.

So of course, she left everything and followed him.

It’s worth noting now, even though we’ll discuss it more later, that nowhere in the New Testament is the condition of possession synonymous with sinfulness. The “sinners” in the Gospels — the tax collectors, those who cannot or will not observe the Law, the prostitutes — are clearly distinguished from those possessed. Some Christian thinkers have linked Mary Magdalene to various sinful, unnamed women in the Gospels because of her identification as formerly possessed. There may be reasons, indeed, to link Mary to these women, but possession is not one of them, because the conditions — possession and sinfulness — are not the same thing in the minds of the evangelists.

Disciple

The evangelists used the texts, memories, and oral traditions they had at hand to communicate the Good News about Jesus. Because they were human beings, their writing and editing bears the stamp of their unique concerns and interests. Just as you and a spouse might tell the same story, emphasizing different aspects of it to make different points — perhaps you want to tell the story of your missed flight as a warning about being organized and prepared, and he wants to tell it as a way to highlight the need to go with the flow — the evangelists shaped the fundamental story of Jesus in accord with what struck them as the most significant points of his life and ministry, what their audiences most needed to hear.

In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, Luke has finished introducing Jesus, and is ready to really help his audience understand what being a disciple means. He begins by describing who is following Jesus — the Twelve and the women — and then offers a general description of what Jesus’ ministry is about. Jesus then tells his first parable (the parable of the sower and the seeds, which is the first parable Jesus relates in all of the Gospels), then quickly calms a storm, performs another dramatic exorcism, raises a little girl back to life, and in the midst of it tells his followers, firmly, that his blood relations are not his family, but rather those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

So that’s the context of the introduction of Mary Magdalene and the other women — not just to set the stage, to complete the cast of characters, because Luke, like all of the other evangelists, didn’t have vellum to spare to do such a thing. Every word he wrote had a purpose, and it was very focused — here, to set before us, in quick, strong strokes, what this kingdom of God was all about. What do we learn from the presence of the women?

First, we learn that women are present, period. Women were not chattel slaves in first-century Judaism, by any means, but neither were they often, if ever, seen leaving their ordinary lives to follow a rabbi. In fact, scholar Ben Witherington describes this conduct as “scandalous” in the cultural context (Women in the Ministry of Jesus [Cambridge University Press, 1984]):

“We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them.Though a woman might be taught certain negative precepts of the Law out of necessity,this did not mean they would be taught rabbinic explanations of Torah. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.” (Witherington, p. 117)

And not just any women, either. As we noted earlier, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons. In this culture, those possessed were ostracized — one man Jesus exorcised is described as living in a cemetery (Luke 8:27). Mary Magdalene, formerly at the margins of society, has been transformed by Jesus and is now welcomed as a disciple. The barriers of class, too, are broken, Luke hints, with the presence of Joanna, the wife of a per-son of stature. In God’s kingdom, Luke makes clear, the world we know is being turned upside down.

Just as every phrase and scene in the Gospels is carefully chosen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so are the parts of the Gospel related. We meet Mary Magdalene here, but we will not see her again for many chapters — until the Passion narrative begins. But when we do encounter her — again, with the other women — here’s what she will be doing: she will be standing near the cross, she will then be preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and later she will see and witness to the empty tomb, and encounter the risen Jesus.

Mary will be serving, still. She serves, watches, and waits, the only remaining link between Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his Passion, and the Resurrection. She is introduced as a grateful, faithful dis-ciple, and that she will remain, a witness to the life Jesus brings.

 

Already, there’s a sort of mystery: what were these demons? What exactly happened to Mary? The evangelists don’t tell us, perhaps because they and Mary herself knew that life with Jesus is not about looking back into the past, but rather rejoicing in God’s power to transform our lives in the present.

 

Questions for Reflection

 

  1. What do we know about Mary Magdalene’s life from the Gospels?
  1. What does her presence in Jesus’ ministry tell you about the kingdom of God that Jesus preached?
  2.   How has God acted in your life with power? How do you respond to that? How would you like to respond?

 

Read Full Post »

— 1 —

We’re back! Life has slipped and tumbled back into the normal paradigm: school, sort-of-homeschooling (Hey, there was a lot  of learning that happened in Mexico, wasn’t there?), work, music….etc.

— 2 —

Here’s a post I pulled together with links to all the entries on the trip to Mexico, with some thoughts on safety and links to our accommodations. It’s called I went to Mexico and didn’t die

—3–

This coming Sunday is, of course, Divine Mercy Sunday. St. Faustina is in the Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. Here’s a page:

amy-welborn12

–4–

In case you didn’t know it (er…I didn’t) – the Feast of the Annunciation is being celebrated on Monday – (because the actual date fell on Palm Sunday)  You can download a free pdf of my Mary and the Christian Life at this page (scroll down a bit). If you want to spring .99 for a Kindle e-reader copy, go here. 

And hey – with First Communion/Confirmation/Mother’s Day/Graduation season coming up – check out my books for gifts! 

–5 —

From Atlas Obscura – I’d never heard of this – it sounds similar to our local Ave Maria Grotto. The grace in the found object. 

Brother Bronislaus Luszcz, a native of Poland, spent 23 years building this collection of large grottos. He used local Missouri tiff rock to create beautiful statues and mosaics freckled with found and donated objects like seashells and costume jewelry. He began the work in 1937, though the seeds of his endeavor were planted long before.

While Brother Bronislaus was growing up in Poland, he would watch as pilgrims trekked through his home village on their way to a shrine for the Virgin Mary. The memory of the pilgrims lingered in his mind even after he moved to the United States and inspired him to begin constructing his own shrine. 

–6–

In an era in which the only movies that seem to make it to the screen are remakes and comic book-based…you read a tale like this and you wonder…why not this story? Wouldn’t this be a fantastic movie – or even television series? Let’s do lunch and make it happen!

She zoomed over forlorn dusty roads, responding to the beckoning call of new adventures. The airborne sensation and the freedom of the road ensured that she climbed on her trusty Harley-Davidson time and time again. Long before the hashtag #CarefreeBlackGirl was coined, Bessie Stringfield was living her life freely on her own terms—riding her motorcycle across the United States solo.

Born in 1911, Stringfield got her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout, while she was still in her teens and taught herself how to ride it. As chronicled in the 1993 book Hear Me Roar: Women, Motorcycles and the Rapture of the Road by Stringfield’s protégé and eventual biographer Ann Ferrar, at the age of 19, young Stringfield flipped a penny onto a map of the US then ventured out on her bike alone. Interstate highways didn’t yet exist at the time, but the rough, unpaved roads didn’t deter her. In 1930, she became the first Black woman to ride a motorcycle in every one of the connected 48 states—a solo cross-country ride she undertook eight times during her lifetime. But not even that satisfied her wanderlust. Eventually, she went abroad to Haiti, Brazil, and parts of Europe.

And you just wonder….how many other stories are there?

And the answer…one for every person. 

At least. 

–7–

It’s Easter Season! Below are related excerpts from our favorite vintage 7th grade Catholic textbook, part of the Christ-Life Series in Religion . The first is about the season in general, the second about next Sunday (before it became Divine Mercy Sunday, of course).

What I like about these – and why I share them with you – is that they challenge the assumption that before Vatican II, Catholicism offered nothing but legalistic rules-based externals to its adherents, particularly the young. Obviously not so

I also appreciate the assumption of maturity and spiritual responsibility. Remember, this is a 7th grade textbook, which means it was for twelve and thirteen-year olds at most. A child reading this was encouraged to think of him or herself, not as a customer to be placated or attracted, but as a member of the Body of Christ – a full member who can experience deep joy, peace and has a mission.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

Read Full Post »

Tuesday morning here – the high schooler stumbled off to school at the usual time, but I’m letting the homeschooler sleep in. He has boxing this afternoon, and our main priority this week is reinvigorating the piano fingers that didn’t get exercised all last week – so he can rest. Plenty of learning happened last week, after all.

Let’s finish up Holy Saturday.

The taxi driver got us back to Puebla around 5, I think. I walked around a bit by myself while the boys chilled in the room, with the plan being to regroup around 7, then walk the city, peeking into  churches in which the Easter Vigil was ongoing, and eating here and there. We’d go to Mass from beginning to end in the morning – they would be happening every hour on the hour almost all day at the Cathedral.

First, a general comment. I really was not expecting commerce as usual to be the case – but it was, and that continued to Sunday. In Cholula, I’d asked a souvenir shop owner if shops would be open on Easter, and she nodded vigorously. “Oh yes,” she said, “It’s a very good day for us.”

So on Holy Saturday night, Puebla was bustling from end to end – just like a typical Saturday night, I’d imagine, and perhaps even more so, considering it was vacation.

The churches I looked in on this round of walking were still being set up and cleaned – in many of them the statues were still veiled, which was even the case when we looked in during Vigil Masses – is there a moment during the Vigil in which they are unveiled? I don’t know.

So below are some photos of that walk – notice that in one church, white balloons are a design feature. All I could imagine when I saw that were the inevitable sounds of popping during the coming Vigil….

Also go to this Instagram post for a video of a lovely light aria performance in a courtyard. (Click on the arrows superimposed on the first photo to see the rest in the post, if you are viewing it on a computer.)

 

Return to the room, pick up the boys walk some more. The younger one satisfied his curiosity about Mexican street corn – he liked about five bites of it and then that was enough. Logically speaking, I know that since mayonnaise is mostly oil, therefore it is fat and not radically distinct rom butter – still, I don’t care. The notion of corn slathered in mayonnaise is just gross. He’d had the cup version at a festival here and liked it, and really wanted to try the cob version – as I said, It was good for a few bites, then enough.

Every church we looked in during a Vigil Mass was full. (In case you are wondering about the propriety and awkwardness of just “looking in” during Mass – remember that these are all traditionally constructed churches fronting on busy streets. During Mass, the doors are flung wide open, and people do wander in and out constantly. A metaphor for faith in the midst of the world.)

Below are some photos. Go back to that Instagram post for video, which includes a  bit of recording of music.

Oh, and there was a weird light show on the Cathedral facade that we couldn’t make head or tail of.

Remember that I wrote that on Palm Sunday, the churches don’t just hand out palms – you bring your own, and most have been purchased at the church door from families selling, not just plain palms, but woven standards and even crucifixes they’ve constructed from palms. It’s the same with Easter Vigil candles – you bring your own, and there are people selling them at every church door. They’re not little taper candles with paper disc protectors – they’re pillar candles, some in glass, some not, and they’re all decorated in imitation of the Paschal candle. People who use candles that aren’t in glass supply their own holders, and most off what I saw were simple good sized plastic or Styrofoam bowls.

Also – there are no “worship aides” in Mexico, it seems. At least in none of the dozen or so churches I saw Masses and Good Friday happening in. Some people had their own published missals with them, but there was nothing in the pews or handed out. All music was sung without written copies. In the Cathedral there was a bit of solo and choir-only stuff that happened, but for most of it, the whole congregation sang from memory.

We returned to the room, and later, I set out by myself back to the Cathedral where the vigil would not be starting until 11. I had no intention of staying for the entire liturgy, but I wanted to see what they did with the fire and hear the Exsultet.

They didn’t do the fire outdoors (which they did in all the other churches we’d seen) – there is a huge courtyard and I don’t know why they couldn’t have built some awesome fire out there – it would be better than the silly light show – but they didn’t. Because of the awkwardness of the interior (remember it’s got this big organ/choir area in the middle of the Cathedral, with a few seats in between it and the altar and more to the side and behind) – I couldn’t really see what the fire was like, but I’m guessing it was just in the aisle in between choir and sanctuary. The Exsultet was magnificently sung, and guess what – even though it wasn’t in Latin, singing it in Spanish is just as smooth.

There’s video at this Instagram post. 

Read Full Post »

We are home now – first stop Chick-fil-A, second stop washing machine, third stop Zaxby’s.

Home.

It’s still a miracle, really. Will I ever stop feeling the wonder at being in Mexico City at breakfast time, then home in time for lunch? I doubt it, and I don’t want to. It is a wonder, I’m grateful for it even as I feel a sense of unease at the sense of obligation it brings. Previous generations had it so hard and produced such beautiful, truthful things. I have it so easy, I have so much more time…what am I doing with it?

A question that weighs especially heavily after experiencing the highs – and in a more limited way – the lows – of a country like Mexico.

So, back to Saturday morning.

It did not begin well. Montezuma got me, and I can’t figure out where we met. Nothing but bottled water touched my lips. I didn’t have any fruits or vegetables that might have been washed in the preceding days. The only thing I can figure out is that Friday morning, we had breakfast and I had juevos awash in mole – I didn’t eat it all (they just drown things in mole sauce (why???), and to my palate it’s definitely overkill) – but I think that the little bit I did consume might have been it. Perhaps the mole had been reconstituted with local water and not heated at a high enough temperature to Kill Things. I don’t know. I do know it was miserable for a few hours there.

It took the morning for me to (mostly) recover. I sent the boys out a couple of times to wander, buy churros – whatever – just go. And they kept coming back like fifteen minutes later. Why are you here?

I took solace in the fact that if I, indeed, couldn’t get going at all that the Puebla centro is safe and interesting enough that they could, if seriously threatened, spend the whole day out there themselves, without me. (they’re almost 17 and 13, remember). There was a movie theater, too, if things got desperate.

But by about 11:30, I was confident enough of my system that I decided that our original Saturday plan could happen, albeit later than planned: Cholula.

Cholula is a neighboring town, but really, driving there, it seems more like a suburb. It’s six or seven miles away, but there’s no empty space between the two. The reason for going is this: what they think is probably the biggest pyramid, by volume, in the world.

Except you can’t see it!

For it’s under a hill and on top of the hill sits a church.

You can read about the pyramid here – in case you don’t know the reasons the MesoAmericans, particularly in central Mexico, could build their pyramids to such a great size is that they periodically enlarged them by building over them every few decades.

So, we Ubered it over there, startled by the immensity of the church-topped hill right there, with the town spread out around it. The driver let us out at a plaza lined with food and gift stalls, filled with visitors (it was Saturday, remember!) and in the middle of which were voladores, ready to take flight.

IMG_20180331_121004.jpg

What are voladores?

 The ritual ceremony of the Voladores (‘flying men’) is a fertility dance performed by several ethnic groups in Mexico and Central America, especially the Totonac people in the eastern state of Veracruz, to express respect for and harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds. During the ceremony, four young men climb a wooden pole eighteen to forty metres high, freshly cut from the forest with the forgiveness of the mountain god. A fifth man, the Caporal, stands on a platform atop the pole, takes up his flute and small drum and plays songs dedicated to the sun, the four winds and each of the cardinal directions. After this invocation, the others fling themselves off the platform ‘into the void’. Tied to the platform with long ropes, they hang from it as it spins, twirling to mimic the motions of flight and gradually lowering themselves to the ground.

It was interesting to see, although I don’t think “fling” describes the actions I saw. More like, “sit suspended and slowly start spinning while your hat-holding companions work the crowd below.”

I’m not going to recreate the next hour or so of activity step by step. Just know it involved: Seeing a huge line to enter the tunnel that’s been excavated through the pyramid. Getting the very clever idea that since we knew there was a museum associated with the pyramid, we’d avoid the line, get tickets for the experience at the museum and do that first. Getting ice cream. Going to the wrong museum. Going to the right museum, but being told we had to buy tickets at the tunnel entrance. Senora. Gracias. Waiting in line for thirty minutes (me sitting on a bench next to a rotating series of old Mexican men and women) to buy said tickets. Going through the tunnel.  Coming out the other side. Climbing up the hill to Our Lady of Remedies. Praying for just that. Very convenient. Climbing down and, knowing that we were on the complete opposite of the museum, saying, “forget it,” and heading into town instead.

With Mom fighting cramps every time her body changed position, it seemed. Which, you know, when you’re walking around, happens a lot.  Which explains why “forget it” is not exactly what she said in her head when understanding where the museum was in relation to where she ended up.

In all seriousness, it is an amazing sight, even though it’s a hill – for you know that under the hill lies an enormous pyramid and there you are on top of it with Our Lady of Remedies. The church is a lovely bright yellow, and it really does dominate the landscape of the town. In fact, as we left Puebla on Sunday, our bus drove on the highway several kilometers north – and I could see it from there.

Incidentally, Our Lady of Remedies, along with many other churches in the Puebla state, especially in and around Cholula, were heavily damaged in last fall’s earthquake. We saw a great deal of evidence of that – turrets and other features piled beside walls and so on.

 

What absorbed me most, though, was  the families. It’s not as if it were the first time  – in Mexico, that’s what you see most of – families, and most of the time, it’s multi-generational. Grandparents, parents, and children climbing the hill up to the church, waiting in line to enter the church, sharing a picnic, gathered at the top of the pyramid, under the shadow of Our Lady of Remedies. Little ones slung their buzzing, clacking toys around and wept at their dropped paletas, parents bounced babies in slings and grandparents, their stature usually about halfway between their children’s and grandchildren’s,  pointed out the features in the town spread out below and the volcanoes in the distance.

Deciding that our time in the two Archeology museums in Mexico City had probably been enough, we wandered into Cholula – as is the case with all Mexican towns, blocks of brightly painted buildings lined the streets and this being Holy Saturday, it was hopping. We did a bit of souvenir shopping, then found the Zocalo where we settled in for some lunch at a stand, then shopped a bit more – there was an extensive book section under the tent, and I bought several easy versions of classics in Spanish – probably 3rd-5th grade – the Iliad, The Invisible Man and a collection of Poe stories. We’ll see how serious our burgeoning MesoAmerican naturalist/scholar really is about learning Spanish, won’t we?

I then followed the lead of this blogger, found a taxi, and asked him if he would take us to two churches on the outskirts off Cholula and then back to Puebla – he agreed ($300 pesos was his price – about $15).

The churches?

First, St. María Tonantzintla. I got up at 4:30 am, and I’m tired, so I’ll let the other blogger fill you in:

Santa María Tonantzintla was constructed in the 17th century as a church for the local indigenous people. As was typical in Mexico, the local people incorporated many of their own beliefs into their religious symbols. This fusion produces a style which some refer to as “indigenous baroque”.

The church has a yellow body, but is nicely set off with red tile. The front ornamentation is rather simple, with figures of St. Peter, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary enclosed in niches along the front. The overall look is very pleasant.

It’s the inside where things get more interesting. A riot of figures cover every surface. The impact is stunning, your eyes are drawn over and over the surfaces, examining the many details. You can see children, birds, angels, flowers, and many other symbols. All are painstakingly crafted from plaster, then carefully painted or gilded.

I’ll go further than he does about the exterior – it’s not just “pleasant” – it’s distinctive and singular. The interior is as he describes it, and, as he continues – you aren’t allowed to take photographs inside. The people sell photographs and postcards and even a small book, and really, why not support them in their dedication to their own parish?

 

Our Cathedral rector traveled to this church a few years ago and snapped some interior photos after celebrating Mass – enjoy! 

Just a mile away is San Francisco Apatapec, fascinating and even startling because it’s so different than the first church – yes, the commonalities in structure indicate a proximity in construction, but instead of red tile, the second church is adorned with Talavera tile. I was a little restricted in photography because they had set up a tent that reached from the front door to the courtyard opening – I couldn’t get a good long view but I think you get the sense of it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

 

 

Aren’t they amazing?

And note – these are not located in the midst of grand cities or wealthy neighborhoods. What surrounds them may not be squalor, but it’s not a gated community either. It’s hardscrabble small town Mexico.

And of course, we were popping in on Holy Saturday afternoon, remember. Both churches were busy with preparation – people were dusting, scouring, trimming and arranging flowers. So here you have it: Beautiful – no, stunning – churches that are not imposed on or extracted from the sufferings of the poor by authoritarian hierarchs, but stand tall, rather, as expressions of the people’s love and worship of God, exploding with hope and trust in the Beauty that waits for them.

As I said…flight was at 7 am, which meant a 4:30 am wake-up. Thank goodness we were in an airport hotel. I might still be in Mexico City if it were otherwise. I’ll post on the rest of Saturday tomorrow. On Tuesday. Got it?

I’ll violate my general aversion to putting video on the blog (because you can’t resize them)  by sticking this one of the voladeros here:

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: