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In Remembrance of Her. Chapter One from The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

In Remembrance of Her

Chapter One from The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

When we come to think of it, there is not a single text in Holy Scripture that states that the woman who anointed Jesus and who, according to a widely accepted tradition, was Mary the Magdalene, actually came from Magdala, or whether the name-giving was for other reasons. Nor do we find any text that says unequivocally that a woman called Mary the Magdalene entered the house where Jesus was a guest at table on that awful occasion which preceded his execution on the cross. Therefore the question why people hold that it was she who anointed our Lord has been endlessly fascinating me and many other people. Why is the person with the alabaster jar in three of the gospels an unidentified woman and why does John’s gospel so emphatically state twice, that it was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointed the Lord?

And another question, why did people give one Mary this surname?

Because the odds are very much against the possibility that two women did exactly the same stunning thing in the short period of Jesus´ ministry I will start my account with what I perceive as a very strong statement by John, a clarion-call almost: "It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair." (John 11:1-2).

I travelled with Mary of Bethany along the normal tracts of a woman born near the Holy City of Jerusalem in that particular day and age. A day and age, in which both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth made their appearance as described in the four gospels What I appreciated to begin with was that Jesus allowed Mary of Bethany to be his disciple and become his friend. Later I began to see that Mary of Bethany and Mary the Magdalene may well have been one and the same woman. That view would in no way diminish her significance. The faith and devotion of Mary the Magdalene were likewise of great importance to the ministry of our Lord. Let me explain myself.

In Eastern as well as in Western liturgy and also in the Ethiopian Church, Mary Magdalene has been held in high esteem as a woman of great faith and a person of stature. There are numerous paintings and statues as well as liturgical prayers, chapels and churches all over the world, notably so in the south of France, where the natives claim that she resided in her later years. I started a collection of pictures, photographs, postcards, what have you, from which I also learned about Mary.

Maybe it is just as well to make an observation on art before we go on. It is the firm belief of art historian Eddy van den Brink that whoever has not learned to look at art will miss a great deal of Church History . He points out that in the world of art of between 200 and 1200 the question about the identity of the two Maries did not even arise. There is just a carving or sculpture of Mary, the sister of Martha, when there is enough space on the sarcophagi, where the scenes of the resurrection of Lazarus or of Jesus himself are shown. It is only in much later years that the woman of the anointing is portrayed. It would strike the observer of all this that in that later period in the language of art it is sometimes her body that is emphasised rather than her spirit. Moreover, her body language, if one may say so, is more that of a sinner than of a saint. Mary is not wearing the traditional veil and she is draped in her own hair, her clothing being rather scant.

However, there are also quite different paintings, showing a dignified person, chastely dressed, portrayed as one who is instructing the apostles, giving out a sermon to the faithful in general, contemplating or reading.

The Church went along with the popular tradition, or at least did not think fit to change it, that the name of the woman who anointed the Lord was Mary Magdalene. Until the Second Vatican Council she was given the honour of a Creed on her feast day, i. e. all the congregation would be invited to profess their own faith in God, in his Son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. That surely must be evidence of the high respect she was held in, for the Creed was a badge of honour normally awarded only to Jesus Christ, to his Mother, to the Apostles and Evangelists and last of all to the Fathers and the great Teachers of the Church. Obviously she was neither the first nor the second, but a case could be made for some of the other titles. Indeed, she was an apostle (which means a witness), since she was the one who brought the tidings of the resurrection to the fearful disciples and is even now in Church language more often than not referred to as an apostle to the apostles. Was she a great Teacher or an Evangelist? The apocryphal texts discovered in Nag Hamadi without doubt point in that direction. However, I will stick to the gospel stories only.

After the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical ceremony of an added Creed in the Mass of her feast day has been discontinued. What could be the reason? Is she no longer of great importance to the Church? Or have we forgotten that in the gospels of both Matthew and Mark Jesus insists that wherever the gospel is preached the story of this woman’s deeds must be made known in her memory, making it clear that what she did belongs very much to the essence of the gospel?

I have always been baffled by apparent inconsistencies in the treatment Mary Magdalene received by those who made up the liturgy for her feast day until the Second Vatican Council. A penitent sinner, a converted prostitute, with the badge of honour of the Creed and with the liturgical colour white of the virgins? The collect refers to her as the sister of Lazarus, Mary of Bethany, who, it is to be remembered, showed such insight and great faith in Jesus that he allowed her to sit at his feet as a disciple with the other disciples. But then again, in the gospel of her feast she is an unidentified woman known in the city as a sinner.

Obviously we have a muddle here. It brings to mind more inconsistencies, namely those at the fountainhead of the knowledge we gather from the New Testament, the wording of the canonical gospels. The deafening silence of Luke in The Acts of the Apostles, where Mary Magdalen is concerned. The dissenting way St. Paul enumerates those to whom the Risen Lord appeared. Altogether a kind of implosion of the role of women in the gospels.

What does the Church in her teachings make of this commandment of the Lord? Are we not playing down her radiant example of total commitment to Jesus, even in the face of death? Is that fair? The faithful all over the world begin to appreciate Mary Magdalen´s importance in the New Testament as soon as their own faith and their own knowledge and understanding of Holy Scripture grow in strength and in depth.

Is the Church not disregarding the wish of Jesus to tell the story of her great works in remembrance of her?

I am, of course, well aware that Luke’s own treatment of Magdalen and the women with her must have given rise to the inconsistency of the feast-day texts, but that does not answer my questions.

© Theresia Saers

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