Our Best Response to COVID? Mimic Mary Magdalene and the other Myrrhbearers

“Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week.” I’ve always valued the special character of a Sunday. Time to worship, rest, recoup, visit, chill. It doesn’t happen often, but this week the Sundays bookmarking its start and finish have each been dedicated to a feast day honoring the Myrrhbearers.

MaryMagdaleneSusannaandJoanna by Mary McKenzie Nativity Project
Mary Magdalene with Joanna and Susanna (The Succession of Mary Magdalene)  Triptych, First Panel, Janet McKenzie

Last Sunday Eastern rite Christians who follow Western calculations for the Paschal cycle celebrated Myrrhbearers Sunday, often also called the Sunday of the Ointment Bearing Women. And today, Orthodox Christians celebrate the very same feast day (the week’s “delay” being attributable to Eastern calculations for the annual celebration of the Paschal season). Since I am an Orthodox Christian married to an Eastern Rite Catholic priest, I’ve enjoyed two opportunities to celebrate in real time this year a day that honors the Myrrhbearers.

It’s been a joy. And a relief.

Throughout the world Christians of all denominations spent this week confined to our homes, unable to worship in our accustomed ways. We longed to be physically present in our churches, in our spiritual communities, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, a Trinitarian community. At our deepest level, we need to belong to a community. In Christian traditions with Eucharistic liturgies, that longing is intensified by the desire to again share the mystical supper with the brothers and sisters of our own communities.

Staying away feels like true deprivation. Solitary pastors fill our screens, celebrating services in empty churches, and it feels forlorn and wrong. In fact, it is wrong, from a spiritual perspective. We’re viewers, no longer participants. And our occupation with earthly concerns distracts us from that reality. Community worship restores our solitary souls to the dynamic of communion in which they were meant to exist. So there was no better place to focus this week’s meditations on the Myrrhbearers than St. Mary Magdalene, who can teach us moderns quite a bit about faith and absence.

Maria Magdalena, Alfred Stevens, 1877

Mary Magdalene has fascinated the imaginations of artists throughout the ages, because much lore surrounds her story. Miscast popularly as a women of loose morals, as a sinner, as the unnamed woman who wept at Christ’s feet and wiped her tears from them with her hair, Mary Magdalene is a compelling dramatic figure – from a human perspective. But if she was once that troubled woman – and that’s a big if (and a topic for another day)– she was so, so much more.  She was a leader, a strong woman, an independent thinker. Brave. Loving.  But most telling for us in COVID times, she prepared herself at Christ’s death for his coming absence, and continued to believe in Him as Lord and God.

Consider in chronological order the scriptural passages in which her name appears, and the import of her place among the disciples and the esteem with which she must have been regarded will become apparent. It can be easy to forget that Mary Magdalene was honored by God to be the very first disciple, in fact the very first believer in Christ – man or woman – to whom the risen Christ appeared, and she was among the small group of women given the privilege of announcing the Good News of the Resurrection to the Apostles and other disciples hidden in the Upper Room.

Here’s a quick rundown of Scriptural references to this Saint:

  • Mary Magdalene suffered an illness/condition (referred to as “seven demons”) that only God could cure.
  • She is almost invariably the first named of the woman disciples in any scriptural list, and always included in such lists, which attests to her prominence and leadership among the women. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the Gospels – more than any Apostle or other disciple.
  • Her suffering led to her faith in Jesus as Lord and God, and her faith led to her participation in Jesus’ ministry. She provided financial support for Jesus and his disciples as they travelled through Galilee and other regions.
  • She was apparently always close by to the Lord. All four Gospels, while focusing on different details of the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection, place Saint Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Near the foot of the cross, she and other women disciples “watched from a distance”, and she stood vigil nearby with Jesus’ mother and her sister. It was only when evening approached that Joseph of Arimathea appeared.
  • She was present and watched as Joseph of Arimathea took down Christ’s body, laid it in a tomb, and had the stone rolled in front or the entrance.  She remained at the tomb when Joseph departed.
  • At dawn on Easter Sunday, she went to the tomb. Varying accounts (presumably reflecting the she made more than one visit to the tomb that morning) say she went alone, or with “the other Mary”, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and with other unnamed women disciples. We refer to these women as the Myrrhbearers.
  • She returned to the tomb after having discovered that the stone had been rolled away and Jesus’ body was not there, and running to tell the Apostles.  Simon Peter and another (whom Jesus loved) returned to the tomb with her, but didn’t understand that Christ had risen.
  • She lingered at the tomb after the Apostles left and, all alone, had her famous encounter with an angel, and then with the risen Lord.  She had cried over the loss of the divine body – she never gave up caring for Him. When He spoke her name she knew who spoke, immediately. “No lo me tangere” – do not touch me, Jesus said, and “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  And she did so. Along with Joanna and other unnamed women, she told the Eleven and others of the encounter with two angels who announced the Resurrection – but the men considered the news “idle tales” (KJV).

What does this outline reveal to us? Mary Magdalene had an unwavering faith. She proved it, returning to the tomb alone to ponder all that had happened, to try to make sense of it, to be at the center of the controversy – she couldn’t stay away. As we don’t want to stay away today. We don’t want to shelter in place. We want things to return to “normal.” We want to pray the way we always have. We want to be comfortable.

But once the risen Christ called her name, Mary Magdalene began the journey we all face today – to learn to speak to the risen Lord despite his physical absence. She did that armed with a monumental faith in His divinity.  And my realization that she did so made this “Myrrhbearers Week” so worthwhile. While I don’t pretend to myself that I have the faith Mary Magdalene had, I realize that I can nevertheless follow her example by drawing upon the depth of faith I do have, to try to draw nearer to God through my own efforts.

Modern Christians have many ways of deepening their spirituality. There is so much good advice available to us through our pastors, scholars, authors, musicians, and our Christian brothers and sisters.  Additionally, there are well settled Christian traditions that we may discover, or rediscover. I’ve spent some time this week thinking about two of them.

Pious Eastern Christians attempt to pray habitually, with automaticity, a particular prayer in an effort to draw near and stay near to God. The “Jesus Prayer” is meant to help us internalize our relationship to God with each utterance, and so to make Him present with us always –

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Much has been written about the practice of repeating this prayer from a “top of mind” perspective throughout the day – and this coming week, while many of us have time on our hands, is a good time try to explore some of the commentary, and try it.

Some Western Christians have a different practice of prayer meant to overcome the pangs of separation from God that they feel when the Eucharist is not available to them.  It’s called a “Spiritual Communion”, and if prayed with sincerity can draw us nearer to God and suppress our preoccupation with the worship we are “missing”.  Roman Catholic Christians pray it this way:

“My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.”

The concept of a spiritual communion with God – of any kind – is in reality a life-saver.  Saving our eternal life. None of us, COVID or not, can rest at night with the knowledge that the day just ended wasn’t our last.  For me, the fruit of Myrrhbearers Week 2020 is going to be one less book, one less Netflix, quite a few less Facebook surfs, and many more repetitions of the Jesus Prayer.


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