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.
Jerusalem: Good Friday, and the first day of Passover.
Just before midnight, beneath a full moon and the shadow of the Western Wall, pigeons and crumpled prayers snuggle between cracks in bricks. I sit nearly alone in the women’s section, except for a few Jewish ladies whose covered heads rest against the wall, their eyes pinched shut. After blessing myself with the sign of the cross to conclude my own prayer, I run my hand along the cold stone, breathing in the silence that echoed through Jesus’ tomb and swept through the blood-smeared doorframes of anxious Hebrews along the Nile.
(My spring break spent in Jerusalem and Galilee provided me with many images that I hope to share through my Peeling Oranges series.)
Outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, I sulk in a mix of frustration and guilt, wanting to participate in the centuries-old traditions and services that originated in this city. On Palm Sunday, why can’t I find the leafy branches that laid across these stone roads two-thousand years ago? Why can’t I find a Catholic Mass in this city of churches?
Momentarily distracted from my anxiety as I pass a group of young Palestinian children climbing on rocks, I wave as they yell, “Photo, photo!”
Discovering that I speak Arabic, they clamber down the ruins to shout out their names and ask mine. The four girls pose for a photo, as the boy, Muhammad, stands shyly to the side. In the clearest, highest Arabic I’ve ever heard, a girl with hair as blonde and eyes as blue as mine asks who my Arabic teacher is, and a girl with freckles on her forehead wonders if I pray. I receive hugs and kisses on my cheek as I leave, waving goodbye to catch up with my friends.
But the blonde girl runs after me, calling, “Are you married?!” I laugh at her question, which to her seems so important and to me so trivial. After another round of embraces from the group, tears nearly slip down my cheek, where the coldness of their kisses lingers on my skin.
Once again, God is reminding me that it’s his people, not simply his traditions and rituals, where he can most easily found. He has answered my prayer in a way I didn’t expect, substituting palms and incense with kisses and laughter.
Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiest holiday in the Islamic calendar. It is similar to Christians’ Easter celebrations, in that it is the most important holiday of the year, yet the worldwide festivities and preparations are less extensive than those during the month of Ramadan (which is similar to Christmastime in terms of the scope of celebration.) However, in Mecca, where over two million Muslims have traveled on pilgrimage, or hajj, the celebrations and rituals could not be grander, as I expect is also true in Jerusalem during Easter.
Eid al-Adha celebrates the sacrifice Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to make when God asked him to slaughter his son (Ismaeel/Ishmael). The story is quite similar to the Christian one, but with notable changes that speak to the differences between the two faiths. In the Bible, the story focuses solely on Abraham, and his willingness to give up his son in order to serve God. We never hear from Isaac, who, at least in my mind, is likely scared and confused. In the Islamic story, the focus too is on Ibrahim, but we also hear from Ismaeel, who is about to be killed. Understanding what his father is about to do, Ishmael welcomes the action, telling his father to kill him if that is God’s will. Luckily, in the end, both boys survive thanks to a ram caught in the bushes sent by God, who is pleased by his followers’ faithfulness.
When I first heard the Islamic version of the story, I was struck by the emphasis on Ismaeel and his willingness to submit to the will of God. His faithful trust in God’s plan is emblematic of the attitude that I’ve witnessed in so many of my Muslim friends and teachers. So often I hear the phrase, “In ‘sha Allah” muttered by my friends in the place where Christians might say, “hopefully.” The Arabic phrase translates to “God willing,” and is used when discussing anything that may happen in the future. My friends work hard to detach themselves from their own wishes and instead try to accept whatever God places in their way. This core quality is even expressed in the name “Islam,” which means “submission to God,” and “Muslim,” literally means “the one who submits.”
A few weeks ago, I participated in the Muslim Students Association annual Fast-a-thon, an event in which Georgetown students fasted in solidarity with their Muslim friends and classmates in order to raise money and awareness for a cause. We fasted from sunrise to sunset, without food or water, as if it were the month of Ramadan (which took place earlier in the year.) At the iftaar meal at the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to give a reflection on fasting and sacrifice in Islam. The following is what shared:
“Hi, my name is Jordan Denari. I’m a member of the Muslim Students Association; I live in the Muslim Interest Living Community on campus; and I’m a Catholic. A lot of people have asked me if I’m converting to Islam, which is not surprising given my involvement. But no, I’m not converting.
However, learning about Islam here on campus has been crucial to my religious growth and has in many ways brought me back to my Catholicism. Through my attendance at and participation in MSA events, I’ve seen the beauty in Islam, which helped me to find the beauty in my own faith, which I had been unable to see for a long time.
Last year’s Fast-a-thon is really where all of that learning began. Two of the biggest things I noticed about fasting in Islam—as I hope you’ve also noticed—are the emphases on sacrifice and community. Fasting from food, drink, and negative thoughts all day for a month is clearly a sacrifice, especially when compared to the less intense forms of fasting I’m familiar with in Catholicism. To my surprise, I quickly realized that Muslims were excited to fast, not only because their sacrifice was giving glory to God, but also because of the sense of community at the iftaar dinners, where Muslims gather together every night to celebrate their daily sacrifices.
I was struck by the power of these themes, and wondered why I wasn’t seeing them in my own faith. That encouraged me to take a closer look at Catholicism and find those themes—sacrifice and community—that are so prevalent in Islam. Through a lot of exploration last year, I found those things, but it was only while reflecting for this talk that I was able to see how similarly these themes intersect in Catholicism as they do in Islam.
That intersection is found in the Eucharist, the communion meal that occurs during Mass, in which we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice. As Catholics, we too are called to sacrifice as Jesus did by serving the marginalized in our communities in order to bring God’s goodness into the world. Every week, when we gather as a community for the Eucharist, we are celebrating the sacrifices we live out every day in our own way. We may not be sacrificing food or water, but we are sacrificing our own time, our own goals, to follow the will of God. In that way, the Eucharist is very much like the iftaar meal we are sharing in tonight. At both meals we join in community to celebrate the sacrifices we make for God.
Finding this intersection point in the Eucharist makes the communion ritual that much more meaningful for me.
Last year’s Fast-a-thon was for me the unconscious beginning of a process of religious learning here at Georgetown. I hope all of you make this meal a conscious start to your own growth. I encourage you, whether you adhere to a specific faith or not, whether you believe in God or not, to take advantage of the opportunities you have here to learn from people of other faiths. It not only fosters inter-religious and cultural understanding, but it also has the potential to increase your understanding of yourself and God.
I want to thank the Muslim community on campus for its support and for bringing us here tonight. And especially, for helping me become a better Catholic.”
While Muslims today are slaughtering animals in remembrance of Abraham and Ishmael’s sacrifice, I am reminded of the Church’s own ritual slaughtering—the Eucharist—in which Jesus is offered up as a sacrificial animal, so that we, like Isaac and Ishmael, can be spared. Unlike my Muslim brothers and sisters, I don’t have to wait another year to engage in my faith’s sacrificial ritual. Fortunately, I just have to wait until Sunday.