Italian Baroque artist Giovanni Antonio Galli, 1625-1635
For the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22), the Catholic liturgy includes two seemingly unrelated scripture readings: One from the Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon) and a gospel reading from the Resurrection story in John.
This somewhat odd combination of readings holds a powerful message.The stimulus for including these scriptures in a Reflection comes from difficult but interesting recent book Disarming Beauty (Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom), by Julián Carrón, University of Notre Dame Press, 2017; chapter 16, "How Does a Presence Come to Be?". Carrón's book is a series of essays by this Spanish Catholic priest and theologian related to how Christians can convey the "message of Christ" in a positive and hopeful manner in today's diverse world. The first reading, perhaps of expectant waiting and yearning:
All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves;
I looked for him but did not find him.
I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
So I looked for him but did not find him.
The watchmen found me as they made their rounds in the city.
"Have you seen the one my heart loves?" (Song of Songs 3:1-3, NIV)
The gospel reading is one we might predict for a feast to celebrate Mary of Magdala: A portion of the Resurrection story from the Gospel of John:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb
and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple,
the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put
him!" (John 20:1-2, NIV)
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, "Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."
Jesus said to her, "Mary."
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means "Teacher").
Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-18, NIV)
Before going further, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting, nor, do I think are those preparing the Catholic liturgy, that the person in the Song of Songs searching for her heart's love is Mary Magdalene. But, it appears that combining these seemingly unrelated passages might give insight into her weeping in the garden. Perhaps the one searching in the Song of Songs echoes Mary's seeking Jesus at the tomb.
Mary's initial encounters with Jesus and the decision to follow her "Rabboni" had changed her life. He had become the Presence that gave her life meaning ... the love that her heart had long been seeking. Her conversion was not the result a theological insight, a system of ethics and beliefs, the adoption of a manual for living. It was a change of life brought about by her personal relationship with the living, incarnate Presence of the Word. That passion is revealed in her instant recognition of her heart's desire when Jesus in the garden says, "Mary!"
The psalm for this day honoring Mary Magdalene is Psalm 63, which begins, "You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water." (I'd encourage you to read the full psalm now.) The response after various sections when this psalm is read in the liturgy is a most meaningful one: "My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God."
The liturgy could have easily included also Psalm 42, a favorite of many, which begins, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?" (Psalm 42: 1-2, NIV) (See Resources below for a popular praise/hymn based on this psalm.)
Many reading this Reflection may be able to identify with this longing for someone, or something, to make life meaningful and then finding it in the living and ongoing Presence of Jesus, God incarnate. And, finding it more and more and in different ways throughout the years of life.
Others in the gospels had been seeking for such a Presence and found it in Jesus. Zacchaeus, a scorned tax-collector climbed a tree to get a glimpse of this man Jesus. And then words of Jesus changed his life forever: "And Jesus looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today'." Jesus did not scold this despised tax-collector; he had dinner with him. Soon after Jesus' baptism, Andrew and another trailed after Jesus. Jesus turned around and said, "What do you want?" They said, "... where are you staying?" "Come," Jesus said, "and you will see." And they formed a relationship with Jesus ... and their lives were changed. They had found their hearts' desire. (See John 1:35-39)
And Mary Magdalene, after once again finding her heart's desire in the garden, what did she do? Did she go off and mediate and "treasure these things in her heart?" No, "Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: 'I have seen the Lord!' And she told them that he had said these things to her." (John 20:11-18, NIV) She told her story. She shared the ever-living Presence of the one her heart loves.
I believe that like Mary Magdalene searching for one who could bring meaning to her confused life — or like the one searching in the Song of Songs for "the one my heart desires" — most people are searching for something or someone that will give their life meaning. Football's Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh used a different word for finding this "something;" when he return from pro football to again coach at Stanford University, Walsh said, "This is my bliss! I am following my bliss."Walsh had learned of "My Bliss" by reading The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. "if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be." After Campbell talked of follow your bliss in an interview with Bill Moyers in 1987, the term became a catchphrase used by many.Finding one's bliss is not the same as finding life's meaning in the Presence of Christ, but the example might describe the way Christ's Presence satisfies this search for meaning.
Many search for this something that will bring meaning by chasing down various avenues. Some may think they found it in a satisfying and meaningful job; some search for it in intimate sexual adventure; others through accumulating comforts and wealth. Many search for it through doing good deeds and serving others. But, we are aware, through the stories of these searchers, that often this quest is a dead end, or what seems the "answer" or bliss is short-lived, and one starts searching in another direction. Mary found what she was searching for in the living Presence of Jesus. Zacchaeus found it in this same Jesus ... he no longer needed to climb a tree to search. Andrew responded to Jesus' invitation, "Come, and you will see," by following, and he found what he had been looking for — he had found his bliss.
For many of us who consider ourselves Christians, we probably have some sense that we have found the answer to the question, "Who Is It You Are Looking For?" It is this Presence of Christ in our lives. This may be hard to describe or explain, but we know it. And like Mary after hearing Jesus speak her name and running off to tell the others, we know that we should be telling others ... and we want to tell others. We want to share what is our bliss. But, how do we do this? What do we share?
I plan to write a full Reflection on this "what and how do we share?" topic; but for now, I'd like to share one thought that evolves from this Reflection's stories of two searching for the one my heart loves. I don't think it's the quoting of scripture we share, or pointing out to others that they are on a wrong road. I think what we have to share is very basic ... we have ourselves to share. We have our own story of finding the one my heart loves.
In his recent book, Disarming Beauty, Spanish Catholic priest and theologian Julián Carrón describes
a characteristic of Christians who live with this sense of the Presence of Christ: They have an aura of
Gladness.Julián Carrón, op. cit., pp. 226-227.
In this same passage (referring to the work of Fr. Luigi Giussani) Carrón goes on to say that sadness is not a contradiction of gladness, but is a transitory
condition of the journey of life. And even our own wickedness doesn't take gladness away. He concludes with, "Gladness
is like a cactus flower, that in a plant full of thorns generates something beautiful." This gladness reflects
a sense of living with a certainty of meaning. Although perhaps vague and unexplainable, the Glad one trusts there is meaning in
their life. I've often thought that the word "Joy" conveys this same sense. Joy or gladness is
not necessarily happiness or some happy-go-lucky attitude. Nor is it something that
makes fun of or ignores the sad and tough reality of the world and of our lives. No, Joy allows us to fully accept reality
as it is ... and to live our fullest in this real world. I'm not sure what the opposite of Joy or Gladness is, but I know it
is not sadness. The Glad one knows that sadness does come and that it is real. I think, perhaps, the opposite is something
is like a cactus flower, that in a plant full of thorns generates something beautiful."
Fr. Luigi Giussani
(Founder of Communion & Liberation) like despair or hopelessness. A despair that none of this makes sense. That our life has no redeeming purpose. (Maybe you can think of your own words that describe this Joy ... and words that convey its opposite.)
I think it's this gladness or joy that we can share with others. Maybe we even do that without talking about it. We have probably seen this Joy in others. The way they look at life. The way they deal with sadness. The way they look at others. I need to ask this question of myself: When others look at me, do they see anything of Joy? When I am around others, do they feel a bit lifted up? Or do I drag people down?
Finally, if we do want to share the reason for this gladness or joy with others, how do we do it? The story of Jesus and Zacchaeus might point the way. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree, he said, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately!" But, Jesus didn't then say something like, "I need to talk to you about your sinful life," or "Let me quote scripture to you that will make you see the light." No, he said (and I can imagine with a laugh or smile), "I must stay at your house today! The Pharisees thought Zacchaeus needed moral correction. But Jesus puts his trust in a relationship. To the scandal of the Pharisees, Jesus simply wants to have dinner with Zacchaeus! Of course, Jesus knew the tax-collector's sins and imperfections, but he showed that he loved him. He wanted to break bread with him.
Our faith is built not on dogma or a moral system, but on a living relationship with Christ. If we are to bring others to this liberating relationship, we must begin with a simple relationship. Not a going-through-the-motions relationship or one based on converting the other, but on true companionship, forming friendships, and honest sharing. "I want to have dinner with you!"
"Who Is It You Are Looking For?" ... "Have you seen the one my heart loves?"