Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalen and the inner life she nurtured like a master gardener, full of love and steadfast dedication.
A necklace, tyet, or knot of red carnelian, symbol of the blood of Isis who brought her beloved Osiris back from death, was once used by the Egyptian priests to ensure the resurrection of the pharaoh. Using similar symbolism, St. Mary Magdalen is often depicted holding the red egg of resurrection. Harkening to the immensely ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the egg appears in the rubrics for the deification of the body:
“Verily I say unto thee, I am the Plant which cometh forth from Nu, and my mother is Nut. Hail, my creator, I am he who hath no power to walk, the Great Knot who dwelleth in Yesterday. The might of my strength is within my hand, I am not known [by thee], but I am he who knoweth thee. I cannot be held in the hand, but I am he who can hold thee in his hand. Hail, O Egg! Hail, O Egg!”
You have no doubt seen pictures of St. Mary Magdalen sitting or reclining in her room, brooding over the death of Jesus. There are scores of paintings depicting a penitential westernized Mary, often scantily clothed with red hair and mellow dramatic eyes, gazing wistfully at a skull, a crucifix or heavenward. And yet these popular images do not do full justice to the strong, spiritual teacher who appears in the gospels and folk legends, and whose feast is celebrated on July 22nd.
The words of Jesus, taken from the controversial Gospel of the Beloved Companion, give eloquent testimony to the true nature of Miriam, the woman who holds the carnelian egg:
“I tell you this: when all have abandoned me, only she shall stand beside me like a tower. A tower built on a high hill and fortified cannot fall, nor can it be hidden. From this day forth, she shall be known as Migdalah, for she shall be as a tower to my flock and the time will soon come when her tower shall stand alone by mine.”
Rather than being a weak and feeble penitent at her dressing table, the Mary of both the canonical and gnostic gospels is the person who asks the right questions when the other apostles were too busy with preconceived notions and conditioned thought. Mary is the woman who stands tall and full of life even after the death of Jesus, which is quite a bit more than can be said for St. Peter, who fled the scene and denied ever knowing Jesus. Mary was the first of Christ’s followers to visit his tomb and, according to some accounts; she was the first to see that he had risen. Mary is the woman who, according to legend, travelled across the Mediterranean to live out her life as a healer and a teacher in the hills of Provence outside Marseille. (Click here for more resources on the history and legend surrounding St. Mary.)
It is interesting to note that Mary’s greatest virtue given not once, but twice in the Gospel of the Beloved Companion, relates to her steadfast dedication. Here is another example:
“My Master spoke thus to me: He said ‘Miryam, blessed are you who came into being before coming into being, and whose eyes are set upon the kingdom, who from the beginning has understood and followed my teachings. Only from the truth I tell you, there is a great tree within you that does not change, summer or winter, and its leaves do not fall. Whosoever listens to y words and ascends to its crown will not taste death, but know the truth of eternal life.’”If we sit quietly enough with the mysterious and powerful essence of Mary of Magdala, we can almost see her long hair and bronzed arms outstretched with love for the sick and poor to whom she gave indefatigable care. We can imagine this mystical mother gathering herbs and making ointments for the dispossessed who followed her to the rocky hermitage at Sainte Baume. If we are very quiet, our ears can hear Mary’s voice speaking words not only of hope and charity, but of transformation and love, that highest wonderwork of her Beloved. Mary is the personification of steadfast dedication, and the most worthy spiritual focus of our liturgical celebration today.