Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Out of Egypt

Of late, we have been reading and hearing narratives from the book of Exodus at daily Mass.

One of my consistent themes here – and in life – is that our daily Catholic spirituality begins with some concrete tie to the daily prayer of the Church. Not necessarily to go whole hog and prayer the enter Breviary and go to Mass every day, but to make sure that the beginnings of daily prayer are rooted in some aspect of the Church’s prayer: some iteration of morning prayer perhaps or even just the Mass readings.

We do not know how to pray as we ought says Paul. But, he follows, that the Spirit fills in the gaps. And since the Spirit works through the Church – as Jesus promised – it makes sense to let the Spirit fill in the gaps through the prayer of that same Church.

(That’s the theme of this book)

It runs in reverse as well. The way in which tradition has used Scripture shapes our understanding of God’s Word. It’s all of a complicated, layered, rich piece.

So, for example, if you’re going to daily Mass or even using the daily Mass readings as a source of prayer and reflection every day, over the past week, you’ve been reading and praying with the story of God’s people bound in slavery in Egypt, and God’s action in pulling Moses forward as their leader, and then taking them out of slavery. Which might just orient you in a particular way. Say you’re having problems, feeling confined and bound in some way – by sin, habits, a situation – you might bring that situation to prayer, centering yourself and your own feelings. When we do this, we often end up in a self-pitying circle of sulking and even helplessness. But when we center our reflection with the greater Tradition as given to us in this moment, in the Church’s life of prayer, it all takes on a slightly different shape. We might see possibility where we before saw nothing. We might see ourselves in community, where we once saw ourselves alone. Most importantly, we might finally see hints of God’s presence where before saw just silence.

And then, perhaps our memory will take us back to other times we’ve heard this narrative. Today’s narrative, specifically, of God’s people being led through the Red Sea. When have I heard that before? Around Easter isn’t it? The Easter Vigil? It’s in the blessing of holy water at Easter, right? Which then links what I’m reading today and any bondage I’m feeling in my own life with resurrection, life, hope and baptism – the graces of which I’ve been given.

And now I have a different context for considering who I am, what I’m here for, and how to understand my problems and limitations. In that context, I’m not alone, and in that context, I’m led away from solipsistic isolation and to connection, even across space and time.

That’s the assumption and framing behind my Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories – the stories arranged in the way one would most commonly hear them during the course of the Catholic liturgical year – on Sundays. So the past week’s readings are most commonly associated with Lent and even more so Easter – the crossing of the Red Sea (today’s first reading) being one of the readings for the Easter Vigil. I give you the first and last pages so you can see the approach – ending each entry with a turn back to the place of this narrative in the Church’s and the Christian’s life, as well as a question and a prayer.

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 1

Chapter 3

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?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school!

Monday

Those of you who’ve been around know that I often do a “digest” of what I’m reading, watching, cooking, etc. It’s just a way for me to exercise the writing muscles and share cultural nuggets that might not merit a space of their own.

So let’s digest, even though Monday is quickly waning. I actually started this blog post about three five hours ago, but was interrupted (nicely) by a phone calls from one two of the adult kids and then stress about the weather, with the youngest driving himself and two friends to boxing boot camp through storms.

Monday

But I guess they made it okay….because now I just got a text that they finished with boxing and are hiking in a local mountain park….

Writing: Lots of blog posts last week. Click back for those. Look for more Mary Magdalene this week, and if you like, grab a free ebook about her here.

I’m waiting on a contract for a new book. Should be getting it today or tomorrow. (Update: It’s tomorrow then, I guess….)

And…that’s it. Between people coming and going and someone having his wisdom teeth removed today, and that same person needing to register for college classes on the same day he was having the procedure (it was too late to reschedule the appointment to anything before December by the time we figured that out)…yes, there was stress around here today.

Reading: As I mentioned in the previous post, Trans by Helen Joyce, and I will take a run through Irreversible Damage tonight.

Then I have a couple of novels waiting: The Vixen by Francine Prose and Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson.

It’s been rainy here so my usual magazine reading has been minimized. Yes, I’m somewhat a creature of habit. It’s just my favorite thing, if I can’t be at a beach – to sit out back in the sun with my magazines. As I pointed out here.

Listening: The usual piano repertoire from the practice room. A lot of Mendelssohn these days. As well as the usual practice for Mass. (That’s him playing in the loft)

Watching: All right, since last we spoke about such things:

Sweet Smell of Success. Wow, this one surprised me. Come for the sharp-tongued dark view of show biz and the news…stay for the…..maybe-incestuous Burt Lancaster obsession with his sister?

Not what I expected. I’d been wanting to watch this one for a long time, since sharp-tongued dark views of anything are my jam, but I ended up just a bit disappointed. So many chunks and aspects of it were brilliant, but because of that particular subplot, I couldn’t embrace it fully. It’s not that it’s an unimaginable thing or something that would render a piece of art unwatchable for me – it’s just that I didn’t want that in this movie. I didn’t want family drama of any kind – I wanted showbiz types and hack journalists tearing each other apart and eating each other for lunch at Sardi’s. Is that so much to ask?

There was, of course, a lot to like about it – the dialogue is sharp (Clifford Odets, so what do you expect), James Wong Howe’s cinematography – incomparable – and the New York City location work – gorgeous, gritty and immersive.

And then, well, there’s Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco. Widely seen – even by Curtis himself – as his finest performance, and justifiably so. I’ve always been a fan, anyway, and he really brings it here, embodying anxiety, determination and pretty-faced (“Eyelashes”) dissembling, often in the background, just as he observes what’s transpiring in front of him and contemplating how to exploit it. Never resting, even internally, and you can just see it. He was by far the best part of the movie.

But I ended up just disliking that central conflict related to Lancaster’s sister so much that it affected my take on the entire film.

Oh my word.

I will say that the added attraction of watching this movie in my house was that Kid #4 owns a pair of glasses that look…a lot like Lancaster’s. So every time Lancaster came on screen, Kid #4 would ceremoniously don his glasses, which was entertaining.

By the way, here’s a great 2010 Vanity Fair article on the making of the movie. Just lots of juicy stuff about what a terror Lancaster was, the travails of Clifford Odets and, of course, the backstory of Walter Winchell and the impact these columnists had back in the day. I suppose, in the end, that’s what I was expecting – we see J.J. Hunsecker’s power wielded in Lancaster’s steely presence, in his holding court at 21, but I think I was looking for more drama related to that power – to see rises and falls as J.J. flicks these microorganisms up and down the ladder as he pleases.

The matter of the director. The Sweet Smell of Success was based on a novella by former press man Ernest Lehman, who was brought on by Lancaster’s production company to direct – a move widely understood later to have happened just because they wanted the property, and promising Lehman the role ensured it. He was released after a week, replaced by Alexander Mackendrick, the Scotsman who had (news to me) directed The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob. Which was probably not a bad choice, since Lehman had zero directing experience. But, irony! Lehman went on to be a hugely successful screenwriter. So there you go.

Last night: A Hard Days’ Night. We were thinking about Apocalypse Now, but I just flicked this on and we kept watching. I had seen it a couple of times before, but my viewing companion had not, and so that gave ample opportunity for the always-welcomed teachable moment in which I pointed out to him how much of modern cultural expression, from music videos to Tik Tok, began here.

It also really highlights the delightful personalities and characters of John, Paul, George and Ringo – utterly charming – and casts a startling spotlight on teenage fandom. Starting with Sinatra, moving on to Elvis, reaching some sort of peak with the Beatles – screaming and crying – and continuing, I’d suggest, to all of today’s obsessions, lived out online and in cosplay of all sorts.

Cooking: People are never here and when they are here, they are recovering from oral surgery. So what am I going to do?

I did make stew on Sunday – it’s been super rainy the past week, so I felt justified in setting aside my it’s summer so I don’t cook stews or soups conviction. Also, it gave the one who didn’t have his wisdom teeth removed something substantive to eat while the other sipped milkshakes and soup.

It was also my birthday a few days ago, and so on that occasion, we tried out a new place in town – the Little London Kitchen – it began as a food truck run out of a real double decker bus, and persisting through Covid, eventually opening a storefront restaurant – excellent food and wonderful atmosphere. We’ll be back!

Interested in more of my movie takes and what we watch? Here’s 2020’s year in review.

Over the weekend, I read Trans by Helen Joyce. I wasn’t planning to read it because I thought – well, I’ve been immersed in these issues for a while and there’s probably little new in it to me. But then all the mess with the American Bookseller’s Association came down last week – in which including a sample of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage was met with weeping and gnashing of teeth by bookseller recipients and followed by an abject apology for the “violence” by the ABA, I decided to go ahead and spend some money to support these purveyors of violence.

And no, there’s not a ton new to me in the book, but it’s good to run through it presented in a cohesive manner, so here’s the thing – if this is an issue you’re in the least interested in or – especially – if you are involved in an organization or institution that is confronting these issues – including the Church – it’s an excellent book to read and pass on to others. Joyce – a writer for the Economist– goes through the history of this movement from the early 20th century to the present, and most importantly explains how the thinking about this matter has changed, accelerated greatly in recent years, from an idealistic conviction that by doing surgeries a man could “become” a woman to the current iteration – that “gender identity” is an almost spiritual reality unrelated to material reality of the body, and that if a person with male genitalia wants to be called and treated as a woman, society and the legal system must treat him as such.

Pretty crazy.

And as I keep saying – if you’re going to deal with these issues, you must understand this – that gender self-identity is the goal of this movement.

She touches on it all – the history, the wealth pushing this, the focus on children – all of it. It’s a good primer.

A few quotes then some comments:

Take, for example, an article for Therapy Route, an American website, by Mx Van Levy, a non-binary therapist, entitled ‘Why the term transition is transphobic’. The reason presented is that the word ‘transition’ is ‘based on the idea that gender looks a certain way and that people need to change from looking/sounding/acting/and more, a certain way for their identity to be respected . . . The reality is, we are who we are, and our outside appearance does not change who we are on the inside . . . The term transition implies that we were one gender and are now another. But that is not the case. We are and always have been our gender . . . changing how we look on the outside is not a transition.’

In this, as in much else, the activists do not by any means speak for all trans people. But it is the activists’ version of the ideology that is in the ascendant, and that is being codified into laws.

And that’s what I keep telling you. This is not a niche issue. When local, state and federal jurisdictions declare, under pressure and lobbying, that one’s self-declared gender identity trumps biological sex in access to accommodations, and your daughter’s school, in an effort to just avoid lawsuits, declares all restrooms and changing rooms unisex …..you’ll see.

Democrat-controlled states and cities, however, continued to write self-ID into laws and regulations, both in schools and elsewhere. To give a typical example, an anti-discrimination law passed in New York City in 2019 defines sex as ‘a combination of chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, facial hair, vocal pitch, development of breasts, gender identity, and other characteristics’. When these do not align, it says, ‘gender identity is the primary determinant of a person’s sex.’

Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are……

This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans people’s subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion….

But mainstream transactivism does none of this. It works largely towards two ends: ensuring that male people can access female spaces; and removing barriers to cross-sex hormones and surgeries, even in childhood. These are not the needs of people on low incomes at risk of poor health. They are the desires of rich, powerful males who want to be classed as women. Everything I have written about – the harm to children’s bodies; the loss of women’s privacy; the destruction of women’s sports; and the perversion of language – is collateral damage.

One business sector, in particular, has benefited from transactivism: health care. Helping gender-dysphoric people feel comfortable in their bodies makes no one much money; turning them into lifelong patients is highly profitable.

Now a couple of comments:

First, Joyce makes the decision to use preferred-gender pronouns in this book, which I suppose I understand. The book will be controversial and cancel-able enough without Joyce being accused of murdering trans people by using their dead pronouns or whatever.

Secondly, on matters of more substance.

Joyce’s understanding of the foundation and motivation behind the trans movement reflects, of course, her own worldview. How can it be any different? But as such, it’s lacking a certain philosophical weight. That is, an honest confrontation with the changes in sexuality in general over the past century – most specifically the development and universal use of artificial contraception – the stripping of function from the reproductive system, which leaves us – human beings – in a performative space and not much more.

She inches close at times, but still is pretty far away:

Someone who rarely engages with nature or exerts themselves physically will be predisposed towards body-denialism. And if you spend a lot of time playing computer games, you will have become accustomed to identifying with avatars who can be altered on a whim…

Absolutely. But there’s more, isn’t there?

As I wrote – gee, two years ago tomorrow (odd) in a post:

Right before I wrote all those posts in February, I read this obscure sociological study of an early 20th century Quebec community called St. Denis. I wrote about it here, and had intended to bounce some gender stuff off what I read there, but it slipped on by, and here we are.

So as I read about this community, which, like most traditional communities, there were some sex-related roles and functions – most related to childbearing, child-care and general strength –  and many duties shared across both sexes – running farms, homes and businesses – I contemplated how the question of figuring out if you were male or female would fly in that culture.

Hahahaha.

Just, maybe, look down? Bien sur?

Oh, sure, there are always edges and odd places where people who don’t feel quite right, who can’t feel as if they fit – live and breathe and struggle. Sure. Always and everywhere. But in general, the question is not fraught. Why? Because you can’t strip your body of its natural reproductive functions, and while people certainly were normal and did what they could and what they believed was licit to engage their sexuality without conceiving (or confessed when they tripped up) – you can see that in a community where people have to work dawn to dusk in order to survive, where much of that work is physical, where people are always having babies and those babies need care, including nourishment from female breasts, where physical strength and endurance is needed for all sorts of work that sustains the community –

there’s no time or space for someone to stare at the moon and think….wow…I feel so girlish this evening. I do think I might have a Lady-Brain in this boy body I was assigned at birth.

So – part one. Affluence, privilege and procreation-free sexuality.

Finally:

What Joyce – and other feminist thinkers opposing the trans movement – are unable to confront is the relationship of this nonsense, on a deep level, to abortion.

Because of course, opposing transactivism is about continually bringing out the facts of material, biological reality and emphasizing the point that no matter what you think or desire – you are who you are. A castrated man with breast implants and an electrolysized face is still a man. Our opinions and desires don’t determine reality.

And nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s race or ethnicity. Nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s age. Nor do our opinions change the reality of the rights due to a human being, no matter what age, and no matter where they reside – outside the womb – or deep inside.

So there’s a certain amount of frantic flailing that runs, as an undercurrent, in the work of anti-transactivists. It’s almost as if they can’t understand how this is happening – when from another perspective, it’s very clear: in culture in which sexuality has become performative and preborn human beings are treated as diseased organs, well yes – it becomes quite possible to enshrine, in law, the notion that whatever you think you are – you just are.

EPSON MFP image

From the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

Her feast is coming up on Thursday.

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, but free this week.

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.

Not many people may be looking to DVC as anything but an artifact on the remainder table any more (we can hope), but as is always the case with these, er, teachable moments – it remains a teachable moment. How do we understand the Gospels? How do we understand the complexity of tradition?  Mary Magdalene is a good way to enter into those discussions.

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?

MORE

Part 2 – Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Part 3 – Mary Magdalene and the Gnostics – Past and Present 

Celebrated in most of the rest of the world on July 14, but here in the US on July 18 – today!

A fascinating figure – mercenary, gambler…and then…

AtonementOnline: St. Camillus de Lellis

Painting Source and analysis

When you live in a landscape framed and defined by Scripture, the great Tradition and the lives of the saints, stories like those of St. Camillus de Lellis become no longer shocking.  You see how God’s grace and power reaches into every corner of human life, into the corners of life of every kind of human person, and you can so very easily understand that you, too, have a place, that this Word is very near to you. 

Living in the flesh – as Paul calls it – meaning, the worldly world, the material world of just things and people without reference to the One who loved us into existence and in Whose Image we are – you don’t get this. You look out and you see winners and losers, successes and failures, the talented and the schlubs, and you know who matters in that world and who doesn’t, who might as well just give up.

And maybe, you can’t help but suspect, you’re in that latter group.

And you shrug and watch that purposeful, meaningful world climb past, regretful and maybe even envious, and perhaps even hopeless and a little bit lonely. There they go, doing important things. 

But that’s not real. That’s not The Real. Living in the Real World – God’s world – you know this. It’s so near to you, it’s in your mouth and in your heart.  Sure, you may struggle with some of it, wondering and wandering, but if your primary reference point is this crazy Word of God filled with the small and weak plucked out for greatness and the sinners starting over and the dead blinking in the light –  and then day after day meeting his small, weak, sinful once-dead saints living those same stories again and again…

…life looks different, and you can live it in a different way.

From the Loyola Kids Book of Saints. 

A bit more available for your perusal here. 

Some of the Loyola Kids titles available through my bookstore, here. 

Participation

I have countless new readers these days, thanks to various links. I want to make clear that I have been thinking and writing about these issues – the changes and turmoil that have followed the Second Vatican Council – for years. Yes, we can say decades now. And just know, I take the long view. My degrees are in history, and history and literature are my interests, the way I take to understand these matters. So, yes, the long view.

I want to highlight a couple of links, and then republish an older post. I don’t feel badly about doing so because it was almost ten years ago, so there you go.

First, an essay I wrote for Church Life Journal reflecting on these matters through the prism of the novels of David Lodge – as well as my own personal experience.

Secondly, a post I published in 2008, a few months after Summorum Pontificum. I called it “Necessary Conversations” – and I think it’s still worth reading, not for what I wrote, but for what readers wrote. The center of a post was an image of a TLM, and I asked readers to just share what they saw when they looked at the image.

I think the comments are worth reading – people offering what they saw, in a safe space, as it were. Reverence? Distance? A musuem? Love?

My favorite, one that I think about often is and reflected on in a subsequent blog post is:

I see a man offering a sacrifice. The man has a cross on his back.

I also wrote a short story reflecting on a bit of this, a story that might annoy some, but here you go.

Finally this:

I ran across the following in my parents’ stash. Two books. Music books.

They belonged to Eva Langlois Desjardins, my great-aunt, who raised my mother.  She and her husband, Louis Desjardins, a dentist, had no children of their own, but took in my mother, her brother, and their mother – Eva’s sister – Marie Langlois Bergeron, after my mother’s father, Joseph, died in a car accident when my mother was six years old. Not too long after that, my grandmother had a nervous breakdown – I eventually learned she had attempted suicide – and moved to a rest home in Lewiston, where she lived for the next forty years or so.  So my mother always thought of Eva and Louis in parental terms. Anyway.

The lived in a small town in southern Maine.

Eva was one of the parish organists.  Louis played the violin and sang baritone.

Eva, like all of that generation preceding my mother, was born in Quebec of a middle class family.  She was educated through high school – a convent school, I believe. Not boarding, but run by a religious order of some sort.  So, that’s what she had, along with music lessons, I presume: a high school education.

She was the organist, as I said, in the parish in that small town. The music books I found are filled with notes for both her, the organist, and her husband, a singer and violinist. This was a Francophone parish, where my mother attended the parish school.  The parish which we attended, decades later,  on Sundays during our annual month-long visits.

Of course by the time I got there, and was sentient – the late 60’s and 70’s – things had changed.

I actually remember those Masses pretty vividly.  They made a big impact on me, and the impact was all about the music. I’ve never forgotten that music accompanying those Masses in the mid-70’s.

A tape recording of Glory and Praise piped through the loudspeakers.

And not a soul singing along.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who lived through and had awareness of the changes brought by the Council.  Some were heartbroken – I remember in particular one man who had converted right before Vatican II and expressed feeling as if he had been lied to and betrayed when the changes hit.  Others were elated and welcomed the changes that came.  Another older friend has expressed to me his experience of finding the religious experiences of his pre-Vatican II childhood and young adulthood dry and lifeless, and the vernacular liturgy and other changes, including for him, involvement in the Catholic charismatic movement, bringing a good kind of transformation – a deep connection to Christ and the Church, which he had not felt before. Life-saving, as he put it.

This post isn’t about rehashing all of that.

It’s just about these artifacts and memories. About a woman with a high school education and her well-worn and marked-up book of chant technique in Latin and French. It’s about a bit of an exercise in imaginative memory, as I wonder what Eva and Louis thought about as they sat there in the pews of their parish after the changes – for they did, indeed live through them – having been informed that for the sake of full and active participation of the faithful, their services were no longer needed, contemplating and remembering as the strains of a tinny recording of Sing to the Mountains wafted through a silent church.

Reax

Most of the episcopal statements I’ve seen so far have been…status quo.

The official statement from the USCCB is here. It strikes me as a verbal sort of head desk gesture. As in “Well, that happened. Thnx.”

Two other (out of many) of note.

Christopher Altieri at CWR.

The fact of the matter is that the law Pope Francis promulgated on Friday is cumbersome and unwieldy. It will require bishops to dedicate time and energy – sometimes enormous quantities of both – to a thankless project for which they didn’t really ask, and from which they cannot expect any measure of good will.

Most laity in most parishes don’t care either way, while the faithful who are devoted to the older forms of worship are highly motivated.

Now, they have their dander piqued.

The bishops of the world know it, and as they measure the potential gains against certain losses, may well decide that a new Inquisition to rid the Church of false conversos is not worth the effort.

The blog of an Atlanta Archdiocesan priest:

The Pope desires through this motu proprio to foster unity. It would be an understatement to say that is likely not going to be the result. And it might just reignite the always simmering liturgy wars in a time of religious decline in the West, with other urgent and pressing needs — evangelization, making disciples and retention of membership for one, and the fall out from the abuse crisis, the ongoing drama of financial scandals at high levels in the Church, residential school scandals in our neighbor to the north, and the seeming inability of the hierarchy in some places (Poland) to learn from the mistakes of Bishops elsewhere, among others. 

Points highlighted, naturally, because I agree with them.

This is one more hassle for a bishop and diocesan staff. Not what many of them are looking for.

Secondly – consider the big picture. The really big picture.

As I have observed many times before, one of the negative outcomes of the Second Vatican Council was to turn the Church inward – ironic, since the whole purpose of the Council was to look outward, to enable the Church to engage more effectively with the world, a world so desperately in need of Christ. But by taking the stance that the primary road to better evangelization was to make substantive changes in Church practice, the Council pointed the way to decades of infighting and obsession with process and structure and, as always happens, power.

And so here we are again.

I’m not a “don’t stress the details” person – long-time readers know this. This is important stuff. But this move from Rome is off-putting, not just because of the poor historical and theological foundations and the impact on those directly involved, but because, well – is this really a problem?

Rome, of course, has the right and obligation to guide and yes, even restrict. That’s the back-and-forth, complicated, to be sure, but real – between what emerges from the breadth and depth of the Body and its head. It’s how popular devotions and saints’ causes develop, rise, and are approved or disapproved. Just a couple of months ago, Rome issued requirements for the leadership of “new movements,” with the intention, it seems, of reframing leadership functions in ways that they are not so dependent on – and subject to the dangers of – individual personalities.

So no, it is not inconsistent at all with Catholic practice to take things to the top and obey what comes from the top. I mean, of course not.

But nor is it inconsistent with Catholic practice to push, pull and question.

And so this is a legitimate question to pose – why this, why now, and how does it build up the Church for its fundamental purpose, which is to bring Christ into a hurting world in desperate need of His love and mercy?

Previous post on this issue.

Post 3 – Participation.

Today is their memorial.

Their story is told in my Loyola Kids Book of Saints.

amy-welborn

Their story from the website of the Carmelites of Great Britain.

Now, here’s something interesting. There have been a couple of filmed versions of this story based in some sense on Bernanos’ play (and Le Fort’s book). Here’s a website comparing them – the 1960 version starring Jeanne Moreau (!) and a more sober 1984 version made for television. Below is a clip of the execution scene and it is quite effective and moving, showing mostly the crowd reactions and transitioning rather slowly to the sisters.

And then a clip of the Salve Regina from the Met’s production of Poulenc’s opera.

The bookshelf

These bookshelves have been around, been in my son’s room for a while. But it was only today that we stacked them in this way. Before this, they’d been side by side, but today was the day to do the post-Rocky rearranging, so here they are.

And just like that – a la Carrie Bradshaw – I remembered my parents’ pantry closet.

For that’s where these shelves lived for years – in the pantry closet in the Knoxville house. They were on the right, and they held my mother’s cookbooks, and they were stacked just like that.

There were a lot of them, those cookbooks. I only kept a few, and almost all of those I’ve now passed on to my daughter. My mother’s recipe file book fell apart and I kept the back cover, and now it’s Art.

I lived in that house for a few years, and I came back to it for more as an adult. I’d walk in the door by the kitchen, and there was the pantry right in front. Brooms, mops, plastic bags – and these shelves and those cookbooks.

They moved into the house in 1973. I’m 61 today. You do the math. Please. You do it.

Here’s the thing. You might expect what follows to be all about what was beautiful and loving and how grieved I am that it’s gone.

But, no.

It was hard, and my parents were miserable individually and together, and therefore I was damaged and often miserable, too.

Those yellow shelves?

I don’t know what they mean.

Except miseries that I would not carry and knew that I had a responsibility to not inflict on others.

But here are those shelves, yes? I did carry them. Of all the stuff in my parents’ home that I could have taken or could have left behind, I did, indeed, keep those yellow shelves.

We are who we are, and we can’t deny it. These are our fathers, these are our mothers, this is us.

But we’re not fated. We have a choice – what will we do with what we are?

What will we carry?

What will we do with those bookshelves?

Where will we put them?

What will we use them for?

How, exactly, will they fit into our lives?

What will go?

What will stay?

And what will we pass on?

%d bloggers like this: