Conscious as I am that the same building is the place of worship for a parish community, I feel connected to something bigger than my own known experience because of its diocesan heartland association. I was there for the presentation of the second Magdalene Award that followed the Mass.
For most of my formative adolescent into adult years, I listened intently to the stories I heard about Mary Magdalene at Mass and in my religion lessons. For me, Mary was the penitent sinner, Mary the woman who wasted the oil to soothe the feet of Jesus and who dried his feet with her hair, Mary the prostitute. The fact that these stories were wrong never occurred to me, and as I struggled with finding who I was and what I was called to in a family of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, it was Mary the forgiven sinner with whom I most easily identified. If there was hope for her, there was definitely hope for me!
After I had been a mother for many years I had a conversation with one of my priestly brothers who referred me to the references to Mary Magdalene in the gospels. I had never looked there before. I should have! I had done some study but none that involved the specifics of the valiant woman, Mary Magdalene. So I went to the gospels! Wow!
Mary is mentioned in each of the four gospels:
The woman out of whom seven devils had been cast (Luke 8:1-3)
Present during the Crucifixion (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56, John 19:25)
Her presence after the Resurrection (John 20:1, John 20: 18, Luke 24).
I remember feeling ashamed of my ignorance and angry because of the lack of information I had received during my education and beyond. Paradoxically though, I felt empowered, liberated, energised and inspired by learning what I had been led to learn by my brother! And then along came the “imagine ifs” ‒ imagine if Mary Magdalene had been taught as the faithful zealot who stood at the foot of the Cross, beside the Stabat Mater, weeping but stoic in her enduring strength, love and courage! Imagine if Mary Magdalene had been taught and preached as the first witness to the Resurrection with the same fidelity and sense of drama that Thomas had been preached, not only during the years of my formation but before ‒ and indeed beyond into the lives of my children and grandchildren!
As a child, tending towards the love of the dramatic, I used to envisage the scene: Thomas, on being told of the Resurrection, states with conviction that until he can put his fingers into the marks of the nails and his hands into the wound made by the spear in his side, he will not believe. And all Jesus had to do was appear and provide him with the opportunity which elicited his truly beautiful response, “My Lord and my God”. What a scene! What faith! There is no doubt about that.
Parallel to that is Mary’s meeting with Jesus in the garden (John 20:11-18). Desolate, she weeps outside the empty tomb. When challenged about why she is there, she explains and then without fear, she challenges the person she believes is the gardener, to tell her what he has done with the body. All Jesus does is to say her name and in that naming, she immediately recognises him and cries, “Rabboni”! All that was necessary for her to believe was the sound of his voice calling her by name!
The presentation of the Magdalene Award brought all this back to me and as I write this, it gives me a new thought. What if the inclusion of both the above accounts was an attempt to present the balance between the feminine and the masculine; the balance needed between the head (Thomas) and the heart (Mary); the balance between the zeal of passionate belief and the dispassionate gift of rational thought (Thomas)? These are generalisations of course, but for me they highlight the disempowering imbalance between the feminine and the masculine in the institution into which I was baptised, chosen for me by my parents because of their faith and their love, embraced by me in my youth and within which my own children were raised ‒ and within which I now struggle to find my place.
Would that preached and lived balance over nearly three centuries of “institution” have allowed the scurrilous and disgraceful things of our past to flourish in the silence of furtiveness and fear?
Below are the first lines of each verse of the hymn, “Mary, woman of the promise”. It was sung at Mass on Sunday and speaks to me of Mary, the Stabat Mater and Mary Magdalene, woman of Valour:
Mary, woman of the promise
Mary, song of Holy wisdom
Mary, morning star of Justice
Mary, model of compassion
Mary, woman of the Gospel.