Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Readings on the Memorial of St. Mary Magdalene

The Church is wise: this is a truth I am reminded of frequently, through various ways. One of these ways is through her selection of Scriptures for the Mass. One of the greatest reforms of the Mass during Vatican II, in my mind, is the ability of the Liturgy of the Word to now draw on all of the Scriptures, not only the Epistles, and to draw on more texts throughout its cycle. The Church has picked these readings carefully so that the Gospel often coheres with the other Scriptures immensely well, particularly on Sundays and solemnities.

The particular incident lately that reminded me of the Church's wisdom in her Scripture selection is the selection of readings for the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, July 22. The readings for this day in the Proper of Saints are Sgs 3:1-4b (or 2 Cor 5:14-17, though the former is the one I discuss in this post), Ps 63:2,3-4,5-6,8-9, and Jn 20:1-2,11-18. The first reading is a selection from the Song of Songs in which the Bride searches for her beloved, yet cannot find him; after she runs into some watchmen, though, she finally finds her beloved. The response for the psalm is "My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God," a proper sentiment for this reading. The Gospel is the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday.

Typology is a fascinating technique of Scripture study in which, by the plan of God, persons and events described in the Old Testament are seen to be prefigurements of those in the New Testament. Two common examples are Adam being seen as a type of Christ (as Paul mentions) and the Flood being seen as a type of Baptism (as the Letter to the Hebrews discusses). (A sidenote: a "type" is that which prefigures; an "antitype" is that which is prefigured.)

In these readings (as the Church most likely intended), I see Mary Magdalene as an antitype of the Bride in the Song of Songs. In even more specific detail, I see the Bride's search for her Bridegroom as the type of Mary Magdalene's search for Jesus' body. Mary Magdalene is already seen as a follower of Christ in Lk 8:2, where she is among the women who accompanies Jesus during His ministry. Since the call to be a follower of Christ is the call to love Him, He is, at least in some sense, the beloved of her soul, as the Bride in Song of Songs often refers to her Bridegroom. Yet the really striking typology comes in the specific incidents selected for the day's readings.

The first reading is the lament of a Bride's fruitless search for her beloved:

"I will rise then and go about the city;
in the streets and the crossings I will seek
Him whom my heart loves.

I sought him but I did not find him."

In the Gospel, Mary Magdalene searches for Christ's body but cannot find it:

"On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, 'They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they put him.'"

In both incidents, the women run into others:

"The watchmen came upon me."

Like the Bride, Mary Magdalene found watchmen:

"Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there."

Though angels are technically messengers (the word "angel" comes from the Greek word for "messenger"), they can also be seen as "watchmen," watching for the arrival of Christ's apostles and disciples. (Another antitype could be seen in that, in Matthew's account, Mt 28:1-10, there are actually guards ("watchmen") at the tomb when Mary Magdalene, and later the angel, arrives.)

The last point is what really shocked me with the typology. The end of the first reading is the following:

"The watchmen came upon me,
I had hardly left them

when I found him whom my heart loves."

In the Gospel, when the angels ask Mary why she is weeping, she responds by saying someone has taken her Lord, and she does not know where she is. The next words, right after she speaks to the angels, are these:

"When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there."

This was a detail I had never noticed before. I always assumed Mary Magdalene walked a little down a path before she ran into Jesus in the guise of a gardener. Instead, it is immediately after she speaks to the angels. She literally turns around, and she is face-to-face with the risen Lord. It is hard to do a job of having "hardly left" someone better than by turning around. It is with this detail that the typology in these readings clicked, and I saw the Church's immense wisdom in selecting these Scriptures.

In conclusion, I urge you to be more conscious of the Church's wisdom in her selection of Mass readings. She put great care into showing how the Old Testament is not null and void, but instead it is enlivened in the New Testament. As St. Augustine said (though I am paraphrasing), "The New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is unveiled in the New." Keep watch of this truth as you listen to and pray with the readings at Mass. I think it will help you gain more of a sense of the cohesion of God's plan and of the Catholic faith.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

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