Me and Mary Magdalene

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. (Mark 16:1)

I press my face against the pink, veined marble slab, smeared with a fragrant oil that lingers on my neck and hands.  As I push myself from the cold ground, a tension forms in my throat and my vision blurs, but I can’t explain why I’m crying.

Why do tears build above my lower lids, if I know that this rose-colored stone is not where Jesus’ body was washed and wrapped?  If I know that this black sepulcher, whose ashy walls rise into the shadows of the ancient church, is not its final resting place?

Wandering through the empty darkness, I find the chapel of Mary Magdalene situated next to the sepulcher, where a small group of priests, nuns, and brown-clad monks chant the Latin Mass.  The words are strange to my ear but the familiar intonation, which I haven’t heard in months, awakens the waters deep within the well of my chest and draws up buckets that slosh over my lap.  So I sit in Mary’s pews, crying, not wanting to leave the tomb.

And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave. (Matthew 27:61)

~~~

Days later, I wander through a garden, the purple light of dawn rising over the rock-hewn tomb, and the breeze gently tapping the trees’ leaves.  I’ve imagined this place countless times before—even the red flowers that pop through the dirt and the boulders resting on their sides.

The worshippers packed in rows for the sunrise Easter service are only apparitions that float away like mist, and their loud songs of praise are muffled by the quiet coos of doves resting in the twisted arms of olive trees.

Like the woman with dark hair and a red shawl who waited in this garden many years ago, I too sit alone, waiting for a friend to call my name.

And just like he promised, there he is.  On the stone steps, under the green branches that dip and bend.

He pulls me in, my face pressed into the crevice of his shoulder.  Into the white, woven linen that smells of the oil I spread across the pink marble.

I am drawn in, sown in tightly like the threads that rub against my cheek.  I wonder if this embrace has lasted for eternity, and then realize that eternity itself is this embrace.

When he steps away, and when the mist condenses into human forms once again, the scent of oil lingers in my hair.

I feel a flutter of white wings, splashing around in the waters of my chest.  The wind slips across my neck and drags a trail of clear water down my face.

I now realize why I cried in the dark church.  It’s because I, like Mary, desire to be close to Jesus.

And, I cry here, in the brightness of the sunrise, because I, like Mary, am so desired by God, and pulled into his warm embrace.

She turned around and saw Jesus there…[He] said to her, “Mary!” (John 20: 14, 16)

~~~

This piece describes my visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which are both considered potential sites for the Jesus’ burial and resurrection.  My experience in the garden was shaped by my favorite resurrection account in the Gospel of John, which was read at the sunrise Easter service I attended there.   

I would like to thank a Georgetown Jesuit who introduced me to this story, which has greatly shaped the way I approach my life with God.

Last Easter, which was coincidentally one year ago today, I wrote about Mary Magdalene as well.  That reflection, Praying with Mary Magdalene, is closely linked to this one.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
A pilgrim reverencing a stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that commemorates the washing of Jesus' body before burial in the sepulchre. The slab was only placed in the church within the last two centuries, to replace a 12th century one that was there previously.
A sculpture in the chapel of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus appears to Mary after the resurrection.
In the Garden Tomb at sunrise on Easter Sunday.
The red flowers that I'd always imagined in the Garden Tomb, without knowing they were actually there.

The Garden (“Peeling Oranges” Series)

One cold morning, I wait for the American neighbors next door, who share a cab with me to school.

A smoky mist rises up from their host mother’s garden, the night’s frost melting and crystalizing again in the air.  It curls around laundry polls and hovers above the lemon trees, full of pocked yellow bulbs even in winter.  The sun slips over the back wall and into my eyes, blurring my vision until all I see is light.  The threads of mist, the fallen lemon half-buried in the soil, the bird’s feather that floats to the ground—all of it is light.

I wonder if this is what Adam saw when God walked in the Garden.

Peeling Oranges

During my time in Jordan, I’ve taken many photographs, images that, when I look back at them years from now, will bring back the feelings I felt in those places and with those people.

When I look at this picture, for example, I’ll remember sitting in the cold, purple sand in Wadi Rum at sunset.  The rising rippled rock overhead reminded me of my smallness, and of God’s unimaginable greatness.  And this was a lesson I needed to be reminded of.  As I was sitting in the sand in Jordan, my first paid piece of writing was being published in the U.S., and I felt quite proud in what I had been able to do, what I had accomplished.  But in those large, looming mountains, God had carved AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam).  He was telling me, “You wrote through my power, and for my glory—the greater glory of my creation.” This photo will remind me of humility.

 

When I look at this photo I’ll remember walking the streets of downtown Amman, a crowded area filled with shops and stands, sweets and smoky rug shops.  I’ll remember a feeling described so well by Paulo Coehlo in his book, Aleph, which I began reading when I arrived in Jordan: This is exactly what I need to do right now: walk, walk, walk, breathe some fresh air, take a look at a city I’ve never visited before, and enjoy the feeling that it’s mine. This photo will remind me of the homey comfort I can find, even in new places.

But some of my most beautiful experiences here have not been caught on camera.  Photographing them would have taken away my ability to fully participate in the experience, and or would have caused others to become unnatural or nervous.

Still, I want to preserve these images and the bits of Truth that often accompanied them.  And I can do that best by writing them down.  Over the next few months, I’m going to collect these images and share them here, in a series called “Peeling Oranges.”

This title comes from one image during a cloudy afternoon last week. As I rounded the corner and turned into my neighborhood, I heard the chatter of young children playing in the street.

“Jordan!” One of them called—my 10-year-old host brother.

“Do you want a part of this orange?” I asked him in Arabic.  I pulled it out of my bag, hungry for a snack.

I split it among him and his friends, who hovered shyly against the wall.  I handed a slice to a boy with a pink, scarred hand, and to a little girl who chewed on the empty plastic cylinder of an oversized pixie-stick.

My fingers cold and covered in sticky juice, I peeled the orange and placed the rind on the crumbly sidewalk, the bright color of the skin contrasting sharply against the grayish brown of the cement.

We chatted for a bit, I asked their names, and scooped up the rind from the ground.  The encounter was short, and seemingly unimportant to those who may have been watching.  But sometime during those few moments—in my host brother’s joking, in the hesitant looks of the little ones, and the juice seeping between my fingers—something else was making itself known.

I had a feeling, an awareness, that this simple moment was important, even extraordinary, precisely because of its ordinariness.

It should be no surprise to me that God continues to reveal himself in the most ordinary ways.  It’s a concept that I think and write about a lot.  But each time, I’m still taken off guard.   Each time, the revelation seems at once familiar and new, comforting yet challenging.

More often during my first month in Jordan, I’ve been thrown off my feet not by picturesque views from mountain tops but by peeling oranges with children.

These brief, fleeting, ordinary moments, despite their power, can easily be lost. I don’t want these images—and the love I feel—to fade. And that’s why I write.

Easter Sunday: Praying with Mary Magdalene

"Mary Magdalene of the Tears" by Tanya Torres (2010)

In the purple light of the morning, sitting front of the empty, open tomb, Mary Magdalene weeps in the garden alone.  ‘How could they have taken my Lord? Who did this?’ She pushes herself up off the rock, wiping under her eyes with her red scarf and wrapping it more tightly around her.  Once again, she peers into the darkness of the cave and begins to climb in, knowing she won’t find her friend but hoping to sit in the place where he last rested.  The scent of myrrh and burial spices mix with the aroma of red flowers outside.

Jumping back, Mary sees two winged men in white, sitting on the platform where the body was laid.  Feeling a gentle hand grasp her elbow, she spins around to find another man behind her.

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’” (John 20:15)  She pleads frantically, wanting nothing more than to know the whereabouts of her teacher.

The man peers down, looks into her eyes, and when he says her name, she recognizes him as her friend, her savior. In a mix of laughter and sobs, the friends embrace, as the pinkness of dawn creeps across the grass and seeps into boulders’ cracks.

In the Gospel of John, from which this resurrection account is adapted, Mary’s prayer is simple.  She asks God, the gardener, about the whereabouts of Jesus’ body.  All she wants is to find and protect his body, in order to honor his life and work.

God answers Mary’s prayer, but not as she expects.  He doesn’t give her what she asks for, but something better.

He Qi's "He Is Risen"

Often our prayers are like Mary’s.  Though we ask for one thing, God surprises us with another.  This doesn’t mean that God isn’t answering our prayers.  Rather, God’s answers are better than ones we could ever imagine for ourselves.

After she meets the resurrected Jesus, Mary runs into the city to tell the apostles.  I imagine her running with a lightness in her chest, sniffing back happy tears, and praying a prayer like this one:

I asked God for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn to obey.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise
I asked for power, that I might have praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given real life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hope for;
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among, all men, most richly blessed.

–A prayer found in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier

Happy Easter!

Holy Thursday: Praying with Jesus

Today, Catholics move into the most prayerful and solemn time of the Church year—the Triduum, which is made up of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.  These days prepare us for the highest Christian holiday, Easter Sunday, which celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead after his crucifixion.

For each day of the Triduum, I will post a prayer that speaks to that day’s particular mood and the experiences of a Biblical character who plays an important role in the day’s events.

Ignatian prayer asks us to contemplate Scripture in a particular way, placing ourselves in the Biblical stories and using our imaginations to better understand the characters we encounter.  In that spirit, we will “pray along” with Jesus, Peter, the apostles, and Mary Magdalene during the next four days.

Today, we pray with Jesus.  In the three Synoptic Gospels, we get a moving account of what seems to be Jesus’ most agonizing time in prayer.  After his last supper with his apostles, Jesus brings them to the garden of Gethsemane so he can pray.  The Gospel of Mark tells us that, “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” (Mark 26: 39)

He Qis "Praying at Gethsemane"

Knowing his death is imminent, Jesus comes to prayer in utter sorrow, no doubt with many worries on his mind.  Not only does he think about the physical pain he will endure when killed (he is clearly aware of the common form of execution in first-century Roman-controlled Palestine—crucifixion), but he is also concerned for those he leaves behind—his mother, his apostles (who can’t even manage to stay awake when he asks), and the countless disciples whose lives are at risk because of their association with him.  Will the movement he began die out once he’s gone?  Has he left his followers for dead?  Will he be able to endure the pain and mockery he will face?  Countless thoughts occupy his mind, and focusing on God’s will is difficult.  Tears drip like blood from his eyes, and he begs God to take his cup—his God-given mission—from him.

To me, this is one of Jesus’ most human moments, and it gives me comfort about my own prayer life.  So often I come to prayer distracted or in worry, lacking a clear mind and an openness to the silence of God’s voice.   When I kneel down before the Blessed Sacrament in Dahlgren Chapel or the beautiful Jesus icon in Copley Crypt Chapel in Georgetown, thoughts about my next workout, a previous conversation with a friend, and the upcoming summer come to mind, and letting them go is sometimes hard.  Knowing that Jesus too had a difficult time in prayer makes me feel much better about my own prayer life.  Rather than leaving the chapel feeling guilty for not getting through the Daily Examen (a common Jesuit prayer) or for speeding through my Hail Marys, I can feel solace, conscious that Jesus too struggled when talking to God or reciting the Psalms.

The end of Jesus’ prayer also has something to teach us.  After questioning God and asking for the cup to be taken away, he submits to God, accepting his will.  Immediately after his prayer, he is betrayed by Judas and arrested.  But Jesus is calm throughout the next and last 24 hours of his life.  He is generous and kind despite the horrible treatment he receives.  To me, this signals that Jesus’ prayer was “successful,” if prayer can ever be considered successful.  He must have received some solace from God, despite his distractions and initial distrust.  Jesus worked though his troubled thoughts, persevered in his prayer, and ultimately came out stronger and with a clearer perspective.  We too must strive for the same.

When I was on a 3-day, silent Ignatian Retreat a few weekends back, I was exposed to the following prayer, which perfectly expresses the mixture of emotions that often accompany us in prayer.  Jesus may have uttered a similar prayer to his father in the garden.

It would be easier for me to pray if I were clear

O Eternal One, 

It would be easier for me to pray 

if I were clear 

and of a single mind and a pure heart;
if I could be done hiding from myself 

and from you, even in my prayers.
 
But, I am who I am, 

mixture of motives and excuses, 

blur of memories, 

quiver of hopes, 

knot of fear, 

tangle of confusion, 

and restless with love, 

for love.
 
I wander somewhere between

gratitude and grievance, 

wonder and routine,
high resolve and undone dreams, 

generous impulses and unpaid bills.
 
Come, find me, Lord. 

Be with me exactly as I am. 

Help me find me, Lord. 

Help me accept what I am, 

so I can begin to be yours.
 
Make of me something small enough to snuggle, 

young enough to question,
simple enough to giggle, 

old enough to forget, 

foolish enough to act for peace; 

skeptical enough to doubt 
the sufficiency of anything but you,
and attentive enough to listen 

as you call me out of the tomb of my timidity 

into the chancy glory of my possibilities 

and the power of your presence.

Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace

May this prayer help us when we struggle in our own Gethsemanes.