The Readings for the Feast of St Mary Magdalen
Monday in the 16th week Tempus per Annum (C1)
Si qua ergo in Christo nova creatura, vetera transierunt : ecce facta sunt omnia nova.
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.
When Franco Zeffirelli cast Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalen in his 1977 made-for-television epic, Jesus of Nazareth did he purposefully pick her in part because of her performance, ten years earlier, as the famous seductress, Mrs Robinson from The Graduate?
A blessed feast! This question is important – and only seemingly unrelated to the readings.
Although it drives modern Biblical Scholars batty and upsets more than a few non-Christian political agendas, the Church holds to a tradition that merges this woman (of whom the Evangelists say only that Jesus cast out from her 7 devils) with another woman who has no name in the Gospels who was a prostitute. Mary’s story becomes one of change, of freedom from the past. In picking Bancroft – who complained that Mrs Robinson overshadowed all her work – Zeffirelli seems to have knowingly picked a “woman with a past” as an icon of redemption even in the eyes of his TV viewers.
This is important for us, in this age of Twitter Shaming and the Right to be Forgotten.
An artist whose work I admire “broke” on to the internet earlier this year. He doesn’t draw well, to be honest, but he has this amazing grasp of our culture’s contents and can explain them dryly and with just enough humor to make us see them in a new way: interactions like birthday parties and feeding pets become eye-opening teaching moments as the reader sees things through different eyes. This artist was enjoying a rocket-fast rise to prominence when someone discovered a tweet from the distant past (2010?) where he made a rather weak comment that could be construed, if one squinted the right way, as pro-life. Instantly seen as being out of sync with the “modern” world and her morals, the cool kids of the internet began to trash him loudly and fiercely.
No one is politically pure enough on either the left or the right to survive this atmosphere, really. One must be constantly scrubbing one’s past to white-wash it, make sure it’s in sync with today’s version of you.
A Christian, however, cannot do this: Mary Magdalen’s life is powerful because of her backstory. She is called the “apostle to the apostles” by the same Church that names her a former prostitute. Both parts of her life are needed for the story to make sense. This person has risen to far different heights than you might have imagined if you knew her “back then”. Our modern culture wants to take away her “away back when”.
We live in a culture of “self-invention”. When I was a kid our culture idolized the egotism of the “self-made man” because we imagined that to be the height of success. Frank Sinatra’s My Way is a benchmark of this culture. While egotistical, Frank was, at least, self-reflective. He had a few regrets, but too few to mention. Tellingly, while celebrating a life where he refused to confess any wrongs, he sang that a man is nothing if he only speaks the words of one who kneels.
As we came into this century, however, we developed a culture personal instantaneity. I exist as I manifest myself to you now, without history, without backstory. I’ve been surprised at how few jobs any more require actually checking references. While some positions still require a background check, a person who was only a part-time contractor at one company can claim to have been a manager there and get hired as a manager at another. This is not a new problem: near the end of the last century, it became impossible to explain why a former employee was a former employee without risking a lawsuit. So when calling for a reference one knew that one was only going to hear good things – one had to read between the lines or ask very creative questions to trick the HR person on the end of the line to tell the truth: “Would you hire them again?” becomes
Yes or no: If they were to contact you to ask if you would welcome them to a new position would you be quick to think of any reason why you want to say “no” even if you were to ultimately say “yes”?
There was a past, there, somewhere
. But not any more. We deny the history we have lived, we deny the story arc of our lives.
God has been working from before we were born, from even before we were conceived to bring the whole universal dance to just where it is now. You’re a part of that and your backstory as well. Your entire future dance is predicated on all that went before. To deny that is to deny the power of God. To deny that is to deny the Resurrection: Jesus had to live before he could die. He had to die to rise again.
I was born with the name William Earl Bailey. If you’re old enough to remember the song, Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey you may have some grasp of why I changed my name to something, to anything else. There are other reasons, but the first thing my Grandfather said was, “Tired of having people sing to him?” However, my past is just as close as my Facebook and many of my oldest friends as well as my family all still say, “Bill”. My past is right as close as it’s always been. There’s no way to escape it.
Mary Magdalen’s past stays with her.
That seems to be exactly why God uses her to announce the Resurrection: that’s why she is the Apostle to the Apostles. God will use any willing servant to hand to do anything that God wants. Mary’s status as a Fallen Woman raised to Apostle is the earthly parallel to fallen Adam and Eve raised from the depths of Hell. Jesus is not only raising all the dead to life, but he harrows the deepest pits of our cultures to raise us all up.
At the court the day my name-change was granted, the only question the Judge asked was, “Are you changing this name to avoid any legal or financial claims from your past?” I left the courtroom with my past intact. He could have added, “religious, familial, social, and sexual” to the list I would have agreed just the same. I am a man with a past: sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and that’s just the religious part of my journey. I would be a bad choice for a priest, to be honest – a scandal waiting to happen. But God has something for me, for all of us with a past.
If we offer ourselves fully, God will use us in his Kingdom. God can’t use “Huw Richardson” without also using “Bill Bailey”. God will use the full offering not in spite of the past but because of the past. Like Zeffirelli using Mrs Robinson to flavor his Magdalen, God will use his servants to do things for which their entire past has prepared them for God was with us even before we knew it, even before we knew the “new us” we would become.
Today’s feast says there is grace before us – and there is grace behind us. It’s not that we were not sinning back then, but rather God’s grace will take any sacrifice made and transubstantiate it into Life. God will give each of us a Gospel to proclaim to the Church and to the World.
Christ is RISEN! Look at what he has done! Christ is RISEN!