Melkite Greek Catholic Church
WHEN WE THINK OF THE PEOPLE who appear in the Gospels we think first of all of Christ and His Mother, then perhaps of John the Forerunner and the apostles. But there is another figure who is more prominent both in the Gospels and in the life of the Church than even some of the apostles – St Mary Magdalene whom the Eastern Churches call the “equal-to-the- apostles.”

Mary Magdalene in the Gospels

The Scriptures have little to say about Mary; this has not prevented speculations and often erroneous conclusions to be made from the early centuries up to our own day. The Gospels tell us that:

a) According to her name she was from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. Because she was known by her hometown rather than by the name of her husband, father or son, it is assumed she was unmarried.

b) She was one of the Lord’s traveling companions. “He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance” (Luke 8:1-3).

From this passage some have deduced that Mary was well-to-do. The Gospel text does not necessarily imply that Mary was one of those who provided for Jesus from their own resources. That phrase may only refer to the unnamed “others.”

The Gospels do not describe Mary’s healing and many have speculated about it. Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604), for example, equated these demons with the spiritual assaults within us: “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the passions?” He thus put his seal on the opinion that Mary was a great sinner, even a prostitute.

This idea came from a mistaken reading of the passage from Luke quoted above. The passage before it tells of an unnamed “woman in the city who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37) who washed Jesus feet with her tears. Commentators connected these two passages, believing they were about the same woman, which the Gospel itself does not imply.

c) Mary was one of the women who stayed near Jesus at the cross when His chosen disciples all ran away: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

d) Most importantly, as all four Gospels relate, she was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to alert the apostles to the news of the resurrection: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him’” (John 20:1, 2).

As Luke tells it, Mary Magdalene was there with Joanna and Mary (the mother of James) when “…behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’” And they remembered His words. Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest… And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:4-11).

Reflecting on the Resurrection Gospels, Gregory the Great thought it fitting that “because in Paradise a woman offered death to a man, at the tomb a woman announced life to men” (49th Homily on the Gospels). Doing the same, the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus, called Mary Magdalene the “apostle to the apostles.” This title became common in the West during the centuries that followed.

Mary and the Red Eggs

As was common in the second and third centuries, there were Christian attempts to tell the stories of what happened to the New Testament figures after the events described in the Scriptures. In several of these stories Mary Magdalene is said to have traveled to Rome and shared her witness to Christ with the first believers there.

While in Rome she is said to have attended a dinner at which Emperor Tiberius (ad 14-37) was present. When she spoke about Christ’s resurrection, according to one version of this story, Tiberius laughed, saying that a man rising from the dead was no more possible than these eggs turning red before our eyes. The eggs did, in fact, turn red and Eastern Christians have been blessing red eggs on Pascha ever since.

Modestos, patriarch of Jerusalem (630-634) wrote, in his On the Myrrhbearers, that Mary Magdalene returned to Jerusalem, where she lived with Theotokos until her dormition. After the death of the Theotokos, Mary Magdalene went to Ephesus where she spent the rest of her life. Her tomb outside the city was described by Gregory of Tours (538-594) in his De Miraculis. Gregory had not seen the tomb himself, but was recounting the testimony of an unnamed “Syrian traveler.” Her holy relics were transferred in the ninth century to Constantinople, and placed in the monastery Church of Saint Lazarus. In the era of the Crusader campaigns they were taken to Italy and placed at Rome under the altar of the Lateran Cathedral. Her incorrupt hand is preserved in the Simonopetra Monastery on Mt Athos.

According to a later Western tradition Mary Magdalene had gone to the south of France where she was said to have spent her last years alone in the wilderness, fasting and engaging in acts of penitential self-discipline to atone for the “sins” of her early life. Her relics are supposedly kept in Provage, near Marseilles. This tradition is clearly based on the erroneous identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7, described above.

Mis-directions in the Story of Mary

Besides Mary Magdalene and the Theotokos the Gospels also mention other Marys: Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha), and Mary the mother of James. This led to a confusion in the West between Mary Magdalen (identified as the sinner of Luke 7) and these other Marys. This identification, which had never been accepted in the East, was finally rejected in the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar.

In the first centuries after Christ several groups developed their own “gospels” weaving the story of Jesus with their own teachings. Several of these, from gnostic sources, were discovered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In several of them Mary Magdalen is depicted as Jesus’ favorite companion, making the apostles jealous. These works gave rise to modern pseudo-historical attempts to say that Mary was Jesus’ wife or mistress.
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF CONTROVERSIAL passages in the New Testament. One of them is read at the Divine Liturgy on the sixth Saturday after Pentecost. We hear the Lord tell His followers, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).

A Special Audience

The first thing we should note it that in Matthew’s Gospel these words are not addressed to all Jesus’ followers but to the Twelve whom He was sending out to the surrounding towns and villages to proclaim the Kingdom of God. In time, as we know, they would bring this Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, the first of countless men and women who would leave everything for distant lands in the service of the Gospel. He warned them what to expect in their mission and consoled them that God will be with them, “But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you” (vv. 17-20). What the Lord Jesus seems to be doing in v. 37 is revising the Ten Commandments for His disciples – hardly something an ordinary rabbi would dream of doing! In fact, Matthew is presenting Jesus as more than a rabbi or even as a prophet but as the One who is entitled to edit the Law because He is the one who originally gave the Law to Moses. As He restated the commandments about killing and adultery (“You have heard it said… but I say to you…”), so here He puts the commandment to honor one’s parents in a new light, for His closest followers. Blood relationships are not as important as the union they would have with God in Christ.

The Family in Society

We all learned the first part of the command to honor parents when we were children. We may never have heard the remainder of this precept which roots it in the social order of Israel. The fullest form of the commandment found in the Torah is this: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord  your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). Keeping this commandment was seen as essential to the well-being of the people of Israel. Parenthood in our society is colored by images of the nuclear family and the sentiment of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In the ancient world – and in some traditional societies even today – the family existed more for social than sentimental purposes: for the preservation of the clan or race rather than for domestic bliss. People married in order to have children so that their family or nation could continue. Survival of the race or family was dependent on the strength of the next generation and so the greatest responsibility of the present generation is to produce sons and daughters. This is why, in the psalm which we still sing at the mystery of Crowning, a family’s blessedness is described in terms of childbearing: “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalms 128:3-4). In our society the decision to have children is viewed purely as a matter of personal choice with no reference to any wider interest. In Israel this was not the case. If a couple did not have children it was thought a curse, and their relatives and neighbors would revile them – they were failing their people in a most fundamental way. Thus, when the childless Elizabeth had conceived John the Baptist in her old age she cried, “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people” (Luke 1:25).

A New Community

The new community Christ was establishing did not depend on giving birth to children as the means of perpetuating it. The Church would be built on something else. Two incidents in the Gospels show us what Christ considered as the basis of His new people. In both He presents a new alternative to blood relationships as the determining characteristic of His people. The first scene is found in Matthew. “While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.  Then one said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.’ But He answered and said to the one who told Him, ‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:46-50). At that time James and the Lord’s other relatives were not among His disciples. That changed when the risen Christ appeared to James (c.f., 1 Corinthians 15:7). Several family members would become leaders of the fledgling Church. Another incident is recorded in Luke. “And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!’ But He said, ‘More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 11:27-28). While physical descent from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made a person a member of the people of Israel, this would not be the case in the Church. It was now hearing God’s word and doing His will, rather than any physical relationship, which would make a person part of Christ’s new family. As St Paul would write, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).

The Witness of the Martyrs

The stories of the early martyrs show that the first Christians took the Lord’s teaching seriously. Christ’s teaching about the value of blood relationships took root in the early Church. One’s clan, tribe or race was not as important as the kingdom of God. Early martyrs such as St Barbara and St Christina refused their fathers’ demands that they renounce their new-found Christian faith. Their fathers had them beaten and, when that did not change their minds, handed them over to the authorities. In the case of St Barbara, her own father was her executioner, fulfilling Christ’s warning, “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.  And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:21-22). In other cases Christian family members encouraged their relatives to stand firm against their persecutors. The wife and mother of St James the Persian and the mother of Meliton, one of the forty holy martyrs of Sebaste are remembered for the way they supported their suffering loved ones, confident that he who endures to the end will be saved.
THE NINTH CHAPTER of St Matthew’s Gospel records several miracles in succession: the healing of a paralytic, of the ruler’s daughter, of a woman with a flow of blood, two blind men and a mute man. Only in the case of the two blind men do we find that the Lord Jesus “…sternly warned them, saying, ‘See that no one knows it’” (Matthew 9:30). Why did the Lord want these two to keep quiet while not demanding that the paralytic and the others do the same? The key seems to be in the way the blind men approached Jesus. Unlike the others healed in this chapter, the blind men called out to Him, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” (v. 27) They accorded Him the messianic title “son of David.” But was Jesus ready to be acclaimed as Messiah at this stage of His life?

What Kind of Messiah?

Many Jewish people at the time of Christ were looking for the Messiah, God’s “Anointed One”. Most looked for a royal warrior – another David – who would drive out the Romans from the Holy Land and restore the power of Israel in the region. This political Messiah would usher in a period of prosperity and power for the people of Israel. Others in that period thought that the Messiah would restore the old priestly line and the temple rites used before the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. He would be a priestly Messiah, renewing the temple and restoring the original spirit of its liturgy. The Lord Jesus had a very different view of His role. He was not to be an earthly king; He never urged political dissention or encouraged revolt against Roman rule. As He was to tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). Neither did the Lord Jesus attempt to restore the usages of Solomon’s temple. He would fulfill the entire Old Covenant in Himself, becoming the new temple, the house of God on earth. It was with this in mind that the Lord told the Jews on driving away the money-changers, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said” (John 2:19-22).

The “Messianic Secret”

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, biblical commentators began using the term “Messianic secret” to describe Jesus’ reluctance to be described as Messiah. Had Jesus allowed this to happen while not fulfilling His hearers’ expectations, He would have made it impossible for anyone to come to believe in Him. He would have given them the right word, but the wrong idea. He might also have come to the attention of the religious and political authorities before He had developed followers nurtured to any degree with His vision of the Kingdom of God. Rather we see Jesus beginning a long process of choosing disciples and allowing them to discover for themselves that He was God’s Anointed. Jesus never claimed the title of Messiah for Himself and only hinted at it among those most committed to the Kingdom of God. Thus we are told: “…when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me’” (Matthew 11:2-6) Jesus leaves John and his followers to draw their own conclusions. When two of John’s disciples went after Jesus, He turned and asked “What do you seek?” The tongue-tied Andrew could only say, “Where are you staying?” But after spending the day with Jesus, Andrew would tell his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). The Gospels record the disciples’ slow process of learning what the Lord Jesus’ mission actually was. At times they seemed no more attuned to Jesus’ teaching than were the crowds. When Jesus taught the importance of inner purity rather than the ritual purity of “clean” and “unclean” foods, the disciples found it hard to accept. “Are you thus without understanding also?” Jesus replied (Mark 7:18). While the Gospels show how gradually the disciples grew to appreciate Jesus as the Messiah, they also note that others had no hesitation in proclaiming His true identity. The demons, as bodiless powers, understood from the start just who Jesus was. The spirit Jesus expelled in Capernaum affirmed, “I know who You are – the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The Gergasene demoniacs protested, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, Son of God?” (Matthew 8:29). Jesus silenced them all and “…did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ” (Luke 4:41).

Neither Power Nor Glory

The disciples found it hard to think of God’s kingdom except it terms of power. When the Lord began preparing His disciples to see that the Messiah must suffer, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Matthew 16:22-23). Later in Jesus’ ministry – despite several previous warnings that the Messiah must suffer – the Lord reiterated His teaching (Lk 9:44-48): “‘Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men.’ But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying. Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a little child and set him by Him, and said to them, ‘Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great’” Despite all this, when Samaritans refuse to allow Jesus entry into their village, the disciples’ reaction still shows their lack of understanding. They had yet to comprehend the ways of God’s kingdom. “And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them’” (Luke 9:54-56). Even the experience of the resurrection was not sufficient to turn the disciples from their pursuit of power. When they were all gathered in Jerusalem with the risen Christ, the Book of Acts relates, “… they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’” (Acts 1:6-8). It would only be by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that the first Church came to understand the real mission of the Messiah.
THERE ARE SUPPORT GROUPS FOR EVERYTHING today. People gather in schools, hospitals and churches for a variety of purposes. Some groups exist to enable discussion of sensitive personal matters: physical illnesses, behavioral issues or family issues (e.g. domestic violence, sexual abuse, abortion, miscarriages, divorce, bereavement, single parenting, etc). Other groups focus on the needs of returning veterans, ideas for homeschoolers, job seekers – in short, for anything for which people and their families feel the need of help. Such groups may be facilitated by professionals who do not share the problem of the members (such as social workers, psychologists, or members of the clergy) or by volunteers who have personal experience in the subject of the group’s focus. In a sense there have always been support groups without the name. Even the two blind man of St Matthew’s Gospel can be called a “support group” for one another. They are seen traveling together following the Lord Jesus who had performed wonders of healing in Capernaum. In traditional societies the extended family generally served as the ultimate support group. People depended on their extended families as patterns and role models for the children and for young families. This worked well in ordinary circumstances; however people who did not or could not live by its norms because of their physical, emotional or moral conditions were often ostracized. Lepers come first to mind, of course, but there were others recorded in the Gospels: the demoniacs who lived among the tombs and the Samaritan woman who could only draw water at noonday, when everyone else had gone home. Our era has provided for situations such as theirs – and this is a great blessing for us – but the groups in our secular society do not meet all our needs.

The Church, an Extended Family

The model Church community is also an extended family, meant to be a support group in which people assist those in greater need. As St Paul emphasized, “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me’ ” (Romans 15:1-3). The “strong” and the “weak” here refers to the maturity of a person’s faith. Paul saw “the weak” as those who had scruples about failing to observe the Law of Moses or about eating food offered to idols. He urges “the strong” to be sensitive to the feelings of their weaker brethren and not to dismiss their concerns haughtily or inconsiderately. Under our present conditions, there are several groups who might be considered “the weak” and who should not be ignored by the Church. The parish as the extended family of faith is extremely important for helping these persons make and deepen their commitment to the Lord. The first such group is the young: children, adolescents and young adults. Canadian Orthodox Archbishop Lev Puhalo sums up their needs: “It is very important, therefore, that our parishes strive to be loving, joyous, Christ-centered extended families. Our children should always feel an atmosphere of warmth, love and joy in our churches. They should sense that they are loved, wanted, understood and highly valued. They should feel comfortable and at home in church. We should take great care to develop such an atmosphere and develop as many family activities around the church and the extended family of the parish as possible. Our church schools should be vital and take a central place in our planning.” At a very early age young people absorb the consumerist way of life espoused by the media and endorsed by the “valueless” education of secular schools. Christian parents are hard pressed to communicate a Biblical lifestyle without appearing moralistic or al least “uncool.” They need the support of an extended family. The values, concepts and ethos evident in our extended family units penetrate and help shape our young. They absorb ideas, ways of thinking and their world-view from the environment which they are most exposed to. The young need a deeper immersion into the extended family of the parish than has been the custom in recent years. Furthermore, since peer pressures are great for pre-teens and teens, the peer influence of an extended parish family can be vital in helping to offset the peer pressures in public schools and neighborhoods. This demands sacrifice on the part of the church – to make room in its structures and planning for the young. It also demands sacrifices on the part of parents – to make time for involving their children in their church’s ministry to the young. But as St. Paul noted in the text quoted above, such sacrifices are made in imitation of Christ who “did not please Himself” but identifies with the weak and lowly (us).

Those Seeking to Live Our Church’s Life

Another group needing the support of the parish extended family consists of those who want more from the Church for their spiritual lives. Many of those who leave the Church say that they did so because they “were not being fed.” Some parishes gear their activities to the social set. They reduce their liturgical life to suit those who may be there under a sense of obligation rather than out of love. They all but abandon the Church’s calendar, transferring even the greatest feasts to Sunday instead of working to build attendance at their proper observances. Parish leaders need to identify those in their midst who are seeking more spiritual activity from their church and take steps to provide it.

Personal Spiritual Growth

Most people in support groups which deal with addictive personality disorders (alcoholism, drug, gambling or pornography addiction) are encouraged to employ the Twelve Steps to extricate themselves from their addiction. These programs promote reintegration into society through regularly attending meetings, committed participation in a particular group, relating to a sponsor, and employing the Twelve Steps in daily life. All these steps are in fact based on the life of the Church – regular assembly, spiritual fellowship, and relating to an elder. The Twelve Steps themselves are based on spiritual principles drawn from the ascetic Fathers of the Church – humility, obedience, repentance and love. In origin they were applied to dealing with our sinful condition. While people can apply these principles to deal with any kind of transgression or spiritual infirmity, by and large we do not do so. Confessors might do well to employ these “support group” techniques to help people deal with their inclinations to “bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking” (Ephesians 4:31) and any other passion stemming from our fallen nature.

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