Sun-baked thoughts of Mermaids and The Magdalen

As I sat by the shore, warm sand underfoot, cool waves misting before me, my mind started to wander to the blue horizon.  Perhaps it was a recent game of pirate-themed, mini-golf that led to thoughts of mermaids in the sea…mermaids with long and beautiful hair.  Thoughts of long and beautiful hair led to thoughts of Mary Magdalene – who’s feast day was celebrated last month.

The story of Mary Magdalene has always disturbed me a little.  I have always gotten hung-up on the fact that she dried Jesus’ feet with her hair.  It seems so impractical.  Why not take a nice, clean, linen cloth? Much more absorbent.  Why the hair?

So, as I sat on the beach, I resolved to sit with the story of Mary Magdalene and try to get beyond the hair.  I decided to employ the Ignatian practice of imagining myself in the Gospel scene so as to try to understand more about what it really is that we are to learn from this story.

I imagined myself there with the apostles who had just eaten dinner with Jesus.  They were wary of this woman who had come into the home. She was known, after all, as having been completely sinful (having seven sins – seven representing completeness in Judaic tradition).  They did not want Jesus’ name to be tarnished by any association with this sinful woman.

So, as she approached Jesus, the apostles tried to stop her.  Jesus, however, held them back and allowed her to approach.  How interesting it must have been to be with Jesus, and maybe a little frustrating for his disciples too – he was always breaking with tradition and doing the unexpected!

She was a beautiful woman with a shapely figure and long, dark locks of hair.  She approached Jesus and brought before him the two things that she may have put treasure in – her beautiful hair and her perfume. Overcome by emotion, her tears fell onto his feet.  She dried his feet with that very part of herself that may have brought her pride and may have also caused temptation. And he allowed her to bring those two things that may have caused her to sin, to his feet, and he allowed her to give them to him.

When she entered the home, he already knew everything about her.  He knew her struggles. He didn’t shy away. Instead, he allowed this woman, who had previously been forced to live on the periphery, this woman who dared to approach him, to touch his Holy feet.

When Judas berated her for “wasting” her expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, Jesus came to her defense.  Why?  Because he knew that her intention was pure.  Judas’ was not.  He wanted to steal the money from the sale of the perfume.  She wanted to give Jesus all that she had.  She was operating out of love, Judas was not.

So we see in Mary of Magdalene an offering of the whole self – the good, bad, and the ugly- a suspice offering.  The required precondition of this offering being that she overcome her own feelings of shame and abandon her pride and sinfulness and trust completely and confidently in Christ.

And Jesus loved her for this.  He did not judge – as did the disciples around him – who were still learning. He accepted her offering and offered her His love and a new life without stigma in return. A life without fear.  A life of peace.

The story of Mary Magdalene is a story of love and of relationship.  Mary’s is a brave love – a love brave enough to approach Christ himself, painfully aware of her own sinful state. And, hers is a confident love – a love confident in the redeeming love of her savior.

And, it is a story of a God who desires to live in relationship with each individual person – not a nebulous relationship – but a real, life-giving relationship.  Ours is an approachable God who cares to receive our offerings of self and reciprocates with a love greater than we could imagine. A God who offers a redeeming love that restores dignity to the brokenness of each individual person.  A God who offers a beautiful relationship that makes those who enter into it, like Mary Magdalene, become – healthy, strong, and truly free. And, it is a love that brings unspeakable joy and peace.

Pope Francis speaks eloquently to this relationship in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness that never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew (Evangelii Gaudium 3).”

The story of Mary Magdalene does not end here though.  At the resurrection, it was not the apostles, but Mary Magdalene who first saw the Risen Christ. It was she, who was entrusted with the duty of going out and telling the apostles that Christ had risen. Healed by Jesus – brought to wholeness – and perhaps chosen because she had known great brokenness herself, it was this woman, that Christ first chose to spread the good news to broken humankind.

Pope Francis reminds us that when we accept the gift of Christ’s transforming love, we too will be called to go out and share this love. “Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others.  As it expands, goodness takes root and develops.  If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good (Evangelii Gaudium 9).”

Through the person of Mary Magdalene, we are invited to relationship with Christ. And through her example, we are called to announce the Good News to every periphery, to approach those liminal situations and to draw upon our healed-woundedness to connect with the Mary Magdalene’s of today. We are called to connect with those in situations that make us uncomfortable –  to let go of fear and to approach in love. We are called to extend that hand, to offer the ear, the touch, the love, that heals.

(Click hyperlink below to listen)

https://www.google.com/#q=youtube+beautiful+beautiful+francesca+battistelli

“Beautiful, Beautiful” – Francesca Battistelli

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Walking between Worlds at Christmas

One week ago today, I was driving along and reflecting on my day when one of my favorite Christmas songs came on the radio, “Love came down at Christmas. Love all lovely, Love Divine.”

It felt as if I had walked between many worlds on this particular day.  In fact, I walk between worlds most days but at no time are the contrasts more apparent then at Christmas.  Stark contrasts.

I had just finished picking up hundreds of gifts at a parish that had been donated to newly arrived refugees.

I stopped by a store to pick up the last two gifts on my list.   I watched families, many likely undocumented, grab their bit of the American dream – maybe a toy for each child if someone was generous enough to give a tip at the “under-the-table” job.

In another store, I catch a glimpse of a supreme court justice.

I navigate my way through gatherings of Washington’s elite – lawmakers, diplomats, professionals – the “powerbrokers” of the Free World and I walk among those having no countries at all, fleeing war-torn lands, having not ten cents to their name.

A refugee arrives in my office with a 20” x 20” plastic bag of all of her belongings. A neighbor puts 8 garbage bags of extra belongings on the curb to donate.

Dirty, dingy apartments; pristine urban lofts and suburban “McMansions.

I see a woman walking with her family. Her husband clutching tightly to a small bag which might hold two small gifts for the two young children. The mother breaks a small branch with berries off at the request of her young son. He gives the branch to her. Her haggard face brightens.

I see SUV’s full of bags. People heavy laden with gifts.  Faces worn with the burden.

Such contrasts.  Painful contrasts.  But similarities too.

There are so many kinds of poverty – not just financial.  The most affluent people can also be the most poverty-stricken.  There is the poverty of age, the poverty of physical illness, the poverty of mental illness, the poverty of addiction, the poverty of loneliness, the poverty of rejection, the poverty of fear, the poverty of abuse, the poverty of homelessness, the poverty of loss of homeland, the poverty of the unwed mother, the poverty of the exhausted mother, the poverty of the exhausted executive, and the list goes on.

Poverty is universal and it always involves division.

Jesuits often speak of working toward the realization of the “Kingdom of God on earth.”  I used to wonder exactly what this meant.  What would it be like?  How could this ever happen when there are such great divides between peoples?

In my job, I spend a lot of time working to “bridge the gap” between worlds by helping  families from different “worlds” understand each other.  I’m particularly interested in those moments where we cross those barriers, reach over the fence, and touch “the other.”

At this time of year especially, I often witness abundant giving to meet overwhelming needs. But the significance of this giving is more than just financial.  Sometimes in this space, I have seen the reach over the divide, the touch, glimpses of “the Kingdom of God on earth.”

When we encounter “the other” and work toward understanding him we are working toward peace.  Pope Francis said in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi addess:

“True peace – we know this well – is not a balance of opposing forces. It is not a lovely “façade” which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment, but making peace is an art, starting from God’s gift, from the grace which he has given us in Jesus Christ.”

In his Christmas homily at Midnight Mass, Pope Francis reflected on “the mystery of walking and seeing: “Walking,” he said, “brings to mind the whole of salvation history, beginning with Abraham, our father in faith. From that time on, our identity as believers has been that of a people making its pilgrim way towards the promised land.” 

It is in this space, where we walk between worlds, encounter “the other,” and reach out to “the other,” that we find the vibrant and vital truth of God’s love for all of His children.  In this place, there is no division and all come together in His love.

But we cannot cross the barriers of all these different “worlds” without a bridge.

Pope Francis continued his Christmas homily:

“Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.

The shepherds were the first to see this “tent”, to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast.

We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake.
You are immense, and you made yourself small;
you are rich and you made yourself poor;
you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.”

In his prayer, Pope Francis highlights the divides that Jesus bridges.  Jesus is love incarnate.  Jesus is the love that breaks down all barriers, unifies all divides, and erases all contradictions.  He is the bridge.

Pope Francis urges us to live lives of encounter with “the other” because it is here that we are granted the grace to see as Christ sees each of us, through the eyes of love.  When we come to begin to see as He sees us – beautiful individuals created in His image, all loved boundlessly, with no divisions of human construct, all beckoned by peace and called with great joy to one table – we begin to realize the Kingdom of God here on earth.