If we think about it, each of us has an Easter story. Mine goes back to the death of my father.
Dad died when I was a young nun. It was my first experience of the death of someone I deeply loved. Where once the word “loss” seemed a somewhat evasive euphemism, it was now acutely apt. I felt empty and fell into an abyss of grief, a grief that had begun eighteen months earlier, the day Dad was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He was 57.
People were kind; sympathy and support were generous and heartfelt. Yet when people spoke to me of God, faith and heaven I felt affronted. Many ‘holy’ words seemed vacuous and trite to me given that I felt nothing of the presence, let alone the comfort, of God. God was nowhere to be found.
The ‘unfairness’ of this bewildered me. Wasn’t I a nun and a person of faith? Hadn’t I given my life to God, for God’s sake? Shouldn’t I at least expect a modicum of divine comfort?
Months later I decided to make a weekend retreat at a monastery under the wise guidance of an elderly Benedictine monk. He listened to my grief and wasn’t embarrassed by my tears. He simply invited me to reflect on the story in John’s gospel of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning.
Mary comes to remember and honour a loved one and, like me, she encounters emptiness. She weeps. Mary turns from the empty tomb and wanders in turmoil and anguish until Jesus, initially mistaken for a gardener, calls her by name.
As I read the words from this familiar Gospel scene, I had an inchoate sense of myself being called by name. I had a sense of some kind of presence within my confusion and emptiness. It wasn’t a warm, fuzzy experience, and even then I didn’t really have a strong sense of the presence of God. But there was a knowing, as real as it was delicate and deep, that somehow God was with me, calling me, loving me within my emptiness. And I was greatly comforted.
Not surprisingly, Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene has become my favourite Easter story and like any classic text it continues to contain a surfeit of meaning for me in new times and new situations.
Years later when studying John’s gospel as part of a theology degree I chose to do my scriptural exegesis on this passage for my major assessment.
The words “noli me tangere” “do not cling to me” came to the fore. Mary had wanted to cling to the idea of who Jesus was for her before his resurrection. When Dad died I had wanted to cling to him and naïvely to a God who would shield me from human grief.
Theological giant, Karl Rahner is unapologetically forthright:
The God of earthly security, the God of salvation from life’s disappointments, the God of life insurance, the God who takes care so that children never cry and that justice marches upon the earth, the God who transforms earth’s laments, the God who doesn’t let human love end up in disappointment – that God doesn’t exist.
Sobering but true. God never demeans our humanity by circumventing it.
I had to let go of my ‘lesser’ God. I had to grow up a little in my faith and, in the words of Rahner’s fellow Jesuit, Anthony de Mello, I had to “empty out [my] teacup God.” Instead of concentrating on loss and emptiness, I had to search for a sense of the presence of my father’s spirit with and within me. With the help of the post-Easter Jesus and Mary Magdalene I began to experience the truth of John Chrysostom’s words written sixteen centuries earlier: “He whom we love and lose is no longer where he was. He is now wherever we are.”
Mary Magdalene has become a companion and a hero. But history has not been kind to her and it is hard for the real Mary to shine through. She is often portrayed as the “good time girl” come good. Yet there is no scriptural justification whatsoever for asserting that Mary was a reformed prostitute. Nor is there any evidence to support the claim of Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame, that Mary and Jesus were lovers, married, had a child, and for a time lived, not in Memphis (!) but somewhere in the Middle East.
If we accept the orthodox definition of an apostle as one who encounters the risen Jesus and announces this Good News to the community, what we have in John’s Easter gospel of Mary Magdalene is the story of the first Apostle. She is truly, as Hippolytus second century Bishop of Rome names her, the Apostle to the Apostles.
This Easter, with Mary Magdalene as guide and mentor, I pray that I may once again hear a voice offering love and life in the empty tombs of my life. I pray that this may be so for you.
Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is a writer, adult educator and facilitator. She describes herself as “a fairly Good Samaritan”.