Strong woman, strong verbs

This essay first appeared in the July 15 edition of the Springfield State Journal-Register in the Beliefs Column, to which Sister Beth Murphy is a regular contributor.

Two years ago, Pope Francis acknowledged the privileged place Mary of Magdala holds for Catholics by elevating the liturgical celebration of her life from a memorial to a feast. It was a wonderful moment for women, and in a special way for all Dominicans, members of the Order of Preachers, because we acknowledge Mary as the first preacher of the Resurrection. Unfortunately, this year her feast day, July 22, is a Sunday, so she’s temporarily off the liturgical calendar. In her honor, here’s an exploration of some strong verbs associated with this strong woman.

The verbs associated with Mary’s response to her resurrection encounter with Jesus in the Gospel of John (20:11-18) reveals the power of this strong apostolic woman. Mary stayed. She wept. She bent and looked. Then she turned and announced.

Stayed. The Greek word used by John implies someone who is steadfast and does not waiver. John writes that the other disciples, Peter and John, returned home when they saw Jesus missing from the tomb. Mary, unswayed by the challenge, stayed.

She planted her feet, and wept. She mourned fully, completely, without shame. The gospel writer says, in one translation, Mary “bent over into the tomb.” Anyone who has ever grieved deeply understands being bent double in grief. That is where we find Mary in those painful moments when she believes “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.”

Here, John beautifully weaves together the strong verbs of Mary’s actions, wrapping one into the other as he moves us through her story. The verb used for bent also implies looking. It implies that one stoops in order to see, and understand—or stand under—the thing you behold. It’s a fierce verb. It expresses Mary’s tenacity, commitment, and desire to remain with the pain she experiences in order to understand its meaning. This difficult moment of bending, looking, and standing in the suffering requires great strength and implies great love.

Then Mary turns, twice. First, she turns from the empty tomb. When the angels tell her “He is not here” she knows there is nothing more for her in that place. As she turns from the tomb she finds herself facing the garden—in John the symbol of the New Creation, mirroring the Garden of Eden in which humanity rejected its destiny of wholeness. Mary’s turning toward the garden signals her “yes” to the New Creation, the wholeness of life belonging to those who live in Resurrection faith.

Next, Mary sees Jesus and mistakes him for the gardener. (Though he is, in a real sense, The Gardener!) She turns purposefully toward him when she hears him call her by name. Her one word response—“Rabbouni!”—bears the entire weight of her love, grief, joy, and amazement—and her commitment to follow the Christ.

Her reorientation to resurrected life now complete, the Risen One commissions Mary to announce. Jesus commands “go to my brothers and tell them….” John says she “went and announced”—using a feminine form of the verb that appears nowhere else in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures.

Scripture scholars are coming to consensus that, based on the textual evidence in this passage from John’s gospel, Mary is, in every sense of the word, an apostle of Jesus. Perhaps someday her feast will be celebrated on par with the male apostles, as a solemnity. Then, regardless of the day of the week, her strong verbs of faith will ring out in our churches every year.

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