One year ago on this upcoming Friday, I sat in the grass with Jesus present in the Church behind me. Trying not to hopelessly squint into the setting sun, I shared my witness with a group of middle and high school students on the feast of Mary Magdalen. It was such a tender gift to join with the woman who was almost my Confirmation Saint, sharing the way Christ called us both to turn from grief and deep pain and instead run into the unfathomable joy of the Resurrection.
There’s so much that I could say in preparation for this beautiful feast. And what a glorious week honoring women in the Church! Yesterday was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, today is the Feast of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne, today’s Gospel is Mary and Martha, and Friday is the Feast of the Mary Magdalen, the Apostle to the Apostles.
But today, I just want to look at Mary Magdalen. Or rather, join the Church who asks in the Easter sequence, “Quid vidisti in via? What did you see upon the way?”
When we see pictures of Mary Magdalen, she’s weeping before the tomb, adoring the risen Christ, gazing at a flame as she holds a skull.1 We see Mary as a Saint, the hero whose love transcended Christ’s death, the audacious woman who charmed St. Therese.
We think of Mary as the woman who was possessed with seven demons and then became the apostle to the apostles. But what about Mary a week after Jesus set her free?
I have no idea what Mary Magdalen’s life looked like immediately following her exorcism and conversion. Maybe her virtue and authenticity was instantaneous. But often when Christ heals, He invites us on a continual journey along the path of grace. Every day, as she was assaulted with memories, either of her own sin or the sin of others, she had a choice to lift her eyes from the dust of her former brokenness and instead stare into the eyes of the One who knew everything and still loved her beyond her deepest dreams for love.
Perhaps every night she was tempted to replay the voices of the evil spirits that had lived inside her, to give in to their wickedness and lies once more. And every night she chose to recall the voice that had called her by name and that continued to call her name every day. Maybe she leaned her ear against her tent so she could overhear His laughter with John, His tenderness toward James.
There were undoubtedly moments when she fell, when she believed that lie that she was unlovable, when she began to listen to Satan again. And after her sin, she came before Him as she did on the first day that He saw her. She was crouched on her knees, hair sprawled across the ground, tears moistening the dirt. Jesus knelt down in front of her, placed His hand beneath her chin, and lifted up her head.
Jesus could lift up her head. But not even the God of the universe could force her eyes to look into His. This is Mary Magdalen’s choice: to look into Jesus’ eyes. It was that daily choice, that continuous glance, which helped to shape Easter Sunday.
That habitual choice and daily surrender gave her the strength to remain staring into His eyes as they filled with blood while walking to Calvary. She kept her eyes on Him as He hung on the Cross, experiencing His gaze as He croaked, “I thirst.” She kept looking at the rolled back eyes as His mother held His limp body.
Her life had no purpose outside of those eyes. There was no music other than His voice. And so she remained in front of a cold and gray tomb, because where else was she to go?
“Woman, why are you weeping?” He asked her in a veiled voice. This woman bent before a tomb did not know that in that moment, the Song of Songs was made incarnate through her anguish:
The watchmen came upon me,
as they made their rounds of the city:
Have you seen him whom my heart loves?2
His response to her question, her grief, was to speak her name.
That singular moment made all of the torture of the Passion worthwhile. That turn of the head, rekindling of life in her eyes, mouth agape in wonder and felicity, rendered heaven speechless for joy.
It all began with her choosing to return His gaze. This is what gave the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne the courage and joy to sing even as the guillotine silenced them one by one. This is the One Thing that Mary of Bethany possessed. This is the contemplation perfectly modeled by Our Lady of Mount Carmel, lover of the Silent Word.
This is why we have Adoration chapels all over the world. Regardless of the time, regardless of your emotions or lack thereof, regardless of your state of grace, Jesus Christ gazes through the lattice of a monstrance awaiting you, His Beloved. In Eucharistic Adoration, we are invited to become like Mary Magdalen, presenting ourselves as we truly are to the One who heals, loves, and renews.
When we walk into Adoration, we kneel on both knees and often press our head to the ground in contrite wonder. Then we lift up our head. In that moment, we can choose to keep our eyes downcast, staring into a tomb that is no longer ours to tend. Or we can take courage and stare into His eyes.
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo writes, “A glance is a spark.” In Song of Songs, the Bridegroom speaks to each soul, crying, “You have ravished my heart…with one glance of your eyes.” With this glance, we invite Christ into our brokenness and into our love, no matter how feeble it is.
And with the beauty of your glance, He can save the world.
1 – Cue Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid, which shows this picture. It’s in your head now and I’m not sorry.
2 – From our first reading on Friday: Song of Songs 3:1-4. On a different musical tangent, I’m pretty sure the musical Les Mis references this passage just before A Little Fall of Rain, when Marius sings, “Have you seen my beloved?” It may be a stretch, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. And now maybe you have A Little Fall of Rain stuck in your head instead of Part of Your World. You’re welcome.