Last year I vowed “never again.” As the guest preacher on a Palm Sunday service in a huge Episcopal cathedral in the pacific Northwest, I found myself sitting through-for probably the five hundredth time in my many decades as a church-going Christian-the long Passion narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, in which for the entire 20-minute rendition the word “love” is mentioned not even once, and Mary Magdalene remains voiceless and silent, even though all four Gospels report that she, uniquely among Jesus’s followers, was present with him throughout the entire Holy Week ordeal.
This year I am doing it differently. I have spent the entire Holy Week leading a meditation retreat in a small retreat center tucked away in central Minnesota, and as part of our Holy Week commemoration we have added a new liturgy- which rightfully should have been there all along. It re-enacts the loving anointing of Jesus, shortly before the crucifixion, by a woman whom tradition remembers as Mary Magdalene. I first witnessed a version of this ritual in France many years ago and brought it home with me (in a slightly revised format) to the states. This is the second Holy Week now that I have experienced through the launch pad of anointing, and I am more convinced than ever that without it, our understanding of what Jesus was up to in his Holy Week self-offering is incomplete--in fact, it is badly distorted.
This anointing ceremony, based on an episode recounted in all four Gospels, focuses on Mary Magdalene and rightfully restores her central place in the Holy Week mystery- a place explicitly accorded to her in the Gospels themselves but deliberately down-played (or eliminated altogether!) in traditional Holy Week liturgies. As historian Bruce Chilton observes, in the Gospel narratives, anointings bookend the entire Holy Week ordeal. It is through his anointing at the hands of Mary Magdalene that Jesus is sent forth to his death, sealed in the fragrance of love. And it is this same fragrance--borne in the same anointing oils, by the same set of loving hands--that awaits him in the garden on the morning of the Resurrection.
With the anointing ceremony repositioned as the opening act in the Holy Week drama, the entire shape of Holy Week shifts subtly but decisively. In this reconfiguration the meaning of anointing is itself transformed. It emerges as the sacramental seal upon all our human passages through those things which would appear to destroy or separate us, but in fact draws us more deeply toward the heart of divine love.
Thematically, this restoration of the central place of Mary Magdalene in the Holy Week cycle also shifts the emphasis away from the traditional liturgical presentation that Jesus died alone and abandoned, to the scripturally attested witness of Mary Magdalene’s loving accompaniment at every stage in his journey: crucifixion, entombment, resurrection. The theme shifts from abandonment (with its accompanying emotional stances of guilt and accusation) to sacrificial love: not a death imposed from the outside, to appease an angry God, but a course of action voluntarily chosen as the consummation of all that Jesus had lived and taught. This latter message-so difficult to tease out of the traditional Holy Week liturgies-accords much better both with the message of Jesus’s own teaching and with the ultimate meaning of the resurrection in its mystical unfolding: as an act of cosmic reconciliation through which “all heaven and earth are brought together in unity through Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10)
This shift of the emotional epicenter of Holy Week from blame and guilt to freely offered transfiguring love is a message that we all need to hear today in our bitterly divided churches and bitterly divided world. I believe that this is why Mary Magdalene’s voice is once again speaking so loud and clear in our own times. “Love has overcome; Love is victorious.” These beautiful words (written by Thomas Merton) capture the essence of the Easter message. And who better than a beloved to proclaim it?
Modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, Cynthia Bourgeault divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine, and a demanding schedule traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path. She is author of “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.”