Holy Week through the Eyes of Mary Magdalene

Elizabeth Kotelly

Holy Week through the Eyes of Mary Magdalene

At no other time in the liturgical calendar of the year does Holy Mother Church hold up to us a more sacred celebration, or moments worthy of our rapt attention and sincere offering: welcome to Holy Week.  These days form a succession of individual events strung together that, when considered in their entirety, constitute the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The week commences formally with Palm Sunday, where Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Here He encounters praise and eventually ignominy. His journey to the Cross will involve every possible form of abasement prior to His Resurrection on the third day. 

The glaring instances of Christ’s suffering rightfully draw our attention; but sometimes we are so immersed in the literal events that we miss obscure yet critical aspects of His salvific mission. I argue that one lens through which we may pray and move through the week is that of the nuptial significance of Christ’s sacrifice. The spousal overture of Holy Week flies in the face of our sensibilities, which tell us that love is mutually exclusive with suffering. But when we keep before us the love of Christ for His Church, who is His Bride, and the length and depths to which He goes to win Her for Himself, we live Holy Week transformed: sons and daughters still, but with a renewed sense of our foundational and ultimate identity. Let’s journey through some of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection and examine how bridal themes imbue and magnify His sacrifice. 

Before Jesus enters Jerusalem, He visits His friends at Bethany where Mary anoints His feet with precious aromatic nard. Judas’ reaction sometimes reflects our own, does it not? What a waste… or Couldn’t the Church focus of something more practical, more pragmatic? Mary cues us to the reality that the Church is well precisely in the measure that She holds no measures, counts no costs, and stakes all on Him.  

The only other place sacred scripture references the same aromatic nard Mary uses occurs in the Song of Songs where the bride’s spikenard gives forth its fragrance and her bridegroom refers to her as fragrance itself (Sg 1:12, 4:12).  This illuminates us to the spousal reality of what is about to unfold during Holy Week: the bride, signified by Mary, has spent herself, her fragrance on the Lord, signifying to Him her readiness to be “won,” as it were, on the Cross.  Her precious offering is, like, His, credited as void and wasteful. She has begun to share in His appearance already, even prior to His crucifixion.  

The anointing at Bethany is thus a prelude to Holy Week, for it offers us a latent glimpse at the depths of love and totality the Lord intends for each of us, no matter where we find ourselves or what our state in life is. When Mary resurfaces later in the Gospel account, we will see her at first distraught, for the one to whom she has given her life has left and taken with Him her offering…  in the Eastern tradition, the Church celebrates what is known as the “Bridegroom Matins” from Palm Sunday through Holy Wednesday. These times of prayer commemorate Jesus’ final teachings with the apostles and evoke both a call for watchfulness as well as an acute emphasis on sinfulness.  

Scripture does not mention Magdalen’s whereabouts during Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, but one wonders whether a woman who exhausted such precious nard on the Lord would not also follow Him thereafter. Her absence at the Last Supper indicates not a lack of love on her part, but acquiescence to the sacred and exclusive moment in which Jesus establishes the Eucharist and the priesthood. The beauty of the Mass has its foundation in this moment; the Last Supper has its foundation in the first of those suppers during Exodus. While all of Israel partook or could partake in the flesh of the lamb, the actual sacrificial reality was reserved for the priest, and this boundary remains today.  

Our contemporary culture often scoffs at any mention of exclusivity, decrying the restriction that this places on self-expression. But the limits placed, in this case, on who offers and slays the victim and whomever else consumes it, assist in defining the reality of who we are and who we are not.  It is good to know ourselves and where we are meant to be in God’s Church. Magdalene was not a priest, but she was a witness and a follower in a way that none of the apostles were. Blessed is she for being who the Lord made her to be. Those first apostles experienced a moment of deep intimacy and configuration to the Lord during that Last Supper that was not meant for the others; through that sacred space we continue to enjoy the fruits of the Eucharistic sacrifice today, made possible by the continuation of the magisterial priesthood.  

Perhaps the Lord is asking you this Holy Thursday to reverence the unique and sacred reality of the priesthood with a renewed sense of awe and gratitude; perhaps He is asking you to reflect upon the personal invitations He has given you and only you this Lenten season, and whether you have allowed Him to fashion you into a man or woman more after His own Heart. 

The Passion of Our Lord moves as a crescendo in salvation history, and, almost as soon as the Last Supper concludes, Jesus heads in haste to the garden. He has already commanded His apostles to offer this sacrifice in memory of Him: can He now offer it Himself? Remember that the Lord is not merely instituting a replacement for the Jewish feast, He is instituting the marriage covenant with His people that will fulfill Israel and transform Her into His Bride forever. God loves gardens: He began creation with Eden; He refers to Israel continuously as a vineyard; He now finds Himself in a garden of sorrows, Gethsemane.  

Why, when garden imagery had always evoked themes of idyllic harmony and ideal relationship, would God go to one to suffer the pangs of betrayal? Perhaps the original sins of our parents, Adam and Eve, which ruined the paradisical Eden, needed a fitting redress in a similar garden? The lush place of intimacy which became one unto sin, would once again run with the sins of men against God one final time before God’s redemptive return on Easter Sunday. Furthermore, Eve’s “no” is again overturned with Christ’s “yes” to the Father in Gethsemane. 

What are the sinful places of your past—those secret or forgotten gardens—that God is asking you to revisit this Holy Week? What do you need to face headlong with Him?  

Throughout salvation history God intended that the Garden both symbolize and foreshadow union and relationship with Himself. He begins the process of reestablishing such a reality in Gethsemane, just as He does in the garden that is your soul.  At the end of the Song of Songs, the bridegroom refers to his bride as a garden: her literal person has become the place and residence of his delight and joy.  Jesus desires that for you, too.  And this course of suffering He has undertaken for you is how He will accomplish your redemption. 

In iconography the image of Jesus Christ the Bridegroom depicts Him adorned in the purple red mantle of a Roman solider; crowned with thorns as an inverted trope of His kingly status; He holds a reed in fulfillment of the scriptures and no doubt in place of a scepter.  The soldiers have eerily bound His sacred hands in reminder of His sentence; this, too, evokes images of Isaac bound as Abraham’s offering or the sacrificial lamb bound and led meekly to slaughter. Unlike an ordinarily lamb, Jesus is free. How can a bound Man be free? He willingly undergoes the test and desires to do the will of His Father in heaven.  

When God asks difficult things of you, do you feel like He or they are impinging upon your freedom? Here we see a bound Bridegroom who is free. He has to be free because real love and sacrifice always entails a free act of the will. Is God asking you to revisit any conditions you may have placed on love this Lenten season?  

We know which of His followers are free as well as those who aren’t: neither the women who follow Him nor John the apostle maintain the mysterious conflict present in the hearts of the other apostles and so remain—and can remain—with Him at the foot of the Cross. One of the strangest paradoxes in the Passion happens when Jesus cries out to the Father, "My God, my God, why are you forsaken me" while in the presence of His Mother who perfectly followed and never forsook Him. The Father invites the Blessed Mother as well as the other Marys and John into a harrowing participation in Jesus’ suffering: they, too, now feel the pangs of abandonment towards Christ that mirrors Christ’s pangs of abandonment towards the Father. They are “abandoned” even when they chose to follow.  

How can this be?   

Has there been a time in your life when you followed Christ only to experience abandonment? Did you think He had forgotten you?  

How can this be?

In John 14 Jesus remarks to his apostles how His Father’s house has many dwelling places and that He is going there to prepare a place for them.  Jesus must depart so that He can prepare for the promised wedding banquet and our entrance into it. His leaving strikes as total loss and senselessness to our reason: death always does; but what if He hadn’t left?  No Bridegroom in the Father’s House means no wedding banquet and eternal union with God in heaven. Just as He indicated in the silence of His death on the cross to the disciples as His feet, one of the most extraordinary displays of trust He asks of us is to remain in His love even when all seems lost and forlorn. The Cross is not the end, even when “it is finished.” Somehow Mary held this reality in Her love. Can we do the same?  

The Catholic faith is a synthesis of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and somewhere amidst these lies Holy Saturday. In music the silence between notes forms and shapes harmony. With Holy Week, it is as though Jesus has just exhaled His whole Person on the Cross and now prior to the great inhale that will culminate in the Resurrection, there rests this silence. Silence allows for a fuller hearing and a greater spaciousness with which to receive Him when He comes again. Love nurtures space—it allows the other to be himself and shows him to himself. When Jesus dies, we see infinite space; we see that we cannot live without Him; we see that we are nothing without Him. Has God given you the gift of space this Lenten season, and have you stewarded it well by letting it be open for Him and His purposes?  

Imagine now how Mary Magdalene might have pursued her Lord who by all accounts was gone; she seeks Him because her soul has this massive chasm from what has been lost while still maintaining that deafening hum of devotion.  Is it possible to have devotion for someone who is “no longer?” Her faith and love are like the dove returning to Moses with an olive branch when no land is in sight; it reveals that there must be a living object of this devotion.  She is not wrong when she mistakes Him for the gardener; He has come to His vineyard garden. She sought Him, but she is the one who is found by Him when He says her name, Mary. Somehow the name Mary has become the new, at last. She—a symbol of the Church—is bride and garden altogether.  

And yet… “not yet.”  

It is one of those moments where it seems like everything has concluded, but our senses can’t detect the horizon of fullness that God has in mind—far greater and more complete than we could imagine.  Easter reminds us that this encounter with the living God is one of many in a succession of “waits” unto enteral life and the wedding banquet.  

Even the apostles struggle to place the definitiveness of the resurrection… there is almost a what now, Lord? You’ve done the impossible and there still appears to be more in store… kind of reflex in their cadence. They, for instance, return to their pastime of fishing after numerous encounters with the living God. How many of us have returned to our former ways after the Lenten season, stretched and challenged but not experiencing the transformation for which we hoped, for which we prayed?  

Are we desiring that Easter be an end or a beginning? Are we willing to be sent again, and again, and again as was Mary—unto heaven?  

How, then, to not let this season go to waste?  

Commit to wasting yourself as did Mary at Christ’s feet: let yourself be sent; let yourself be sent again; leave all and do not turn back, for your God has come to take you unto Himself this day and all the days of your life unto eternity.