Today, July 22, is one of my favourite feasts in the church calendar — Mary Magdalene. Deep connections and affection well up for this courageous woman of Christ, the first witness to the resurrection, the one commissioned by the risen Lord himself to “Go and tell.”
This “Apostle to the Apostles” has played a big role in my ability to embrace the priestly calling God placed in my heart some 25 years ago. Mary rushed alongside me as I struggled with the tension between the intimate new beckoning God was forging in the depth of my very being and the Roman Catholic prohibition for me to claim that same calling. It was she who made me realize that it was the risen Christ calling me, it was she who helped me echo the cry from her heart and recognize it as my own: “I have seen the Lord!” Rarely have I experienced such an intimate connection with a Biblical figure besides Jesus himself.
It is Mary’s bold witness that validated my calling as coming from God through Jesus. It is she who helped me to trust Christ’s summons in my heart to “go and tell.” It was she who held my trembling fearful heart as I allowed the priestly calling to mold and grow my inner landscape into a fertile field for God’s service at the heart of a Church tradition that both nurtured and inspired, dismissed and feared this calling in a woman. I owe Mary Magdalene a tremendous debt of gratitude and honour for her unbidden yet loving and generous gifts of guidance and strength, of courage and vision.
Given this personal and enduring friendship with Mary Magdalene, I fully endorse that she is regarded as a guiding light, an inspiration and role model for all women who feel a divine call to full priestly ministry, a call that Rome continues to resist and even deny. My heart is in full solidarity with these women, even as I am now preparing to fulfill this call in the Anglican tradition (which btw considers itself a full part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ). But as I am now standing in a different ecclesial place, I am beginning to see different things and beginning to see the same things in a different light.
I have to ask the obvious: Why is it so painful to move to another expression of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? A rhetorical question maybe, for I know the reason well; I lived it intensely for many years. The Roman Catholic Church is my ancestral and spiritual home; how can I possibly “turn my back” on this holy Mother Church? Somehow leaving the home of our childhood seems obvious and expected. We consider it normal and healthy to leave our parental home in order to stand on our own two feet and find our own path. However, now that I have moved to the Anglican expression of Gospel discipleship I am making a surprising discovery: I have not left my ecclesial home, “home” went with me. Just as the lessons of my upbringing continue to guide me in adulthood, so the best of Roman Catholicism continues to animate life in my new ecclesial home.
By the way, just as our upbringing bestows on us both blessings and curses, so does our ecclesial upbringing. Part of growing up, cleaning up and waking up is to exorcise and heal all that binds us in negative and hurtful ways. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to make the denominational move: I wanted to take as little unresolved negative baggage with me as possible, and worked hard to purify the motives for the move.
Blending the best Roman Catholic spiritual attributes with the Anglican gifts and blessings, new configurations are now growing in my spirit, leading to deeper insights and richer expressions of ministry and service. Would this have been possible had I remained safely (even though painfully) at “home”? Sometimes, no often, it takes leaving home in order to discover a bigger, wider and better home.
Which brings me to the next question. In the past 50 years the Christian family as a whole has been on a momentous ecumenical journey. We used to kill each other in the name of the Prince of Peace! It’s therefore momentous that we have now moved into the joyful recognition of the risen Christ in one another, animating and guiding each tradition according to its calling and charism. We have been echoing Mary Magdalene’s startling exclamation: we have seen the Lord in one another.
This remarkable achievement is truly cause for great rejoicing, especially in this 500th year since the conflicts of the 16th century splintered the Body of Christ in the west into countless fragments. And we are certainly celebrating this year, from small ecumenical study groups in rural communities right up to Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Orthodox patriarchs.
But in the euphoria of celebration, we also need to continue asking: what are the practical spiritual and ecclesial implications of the significant strides we have been making towards Christian Unity? What is the Christian Unity we seek? If it is not uniformity, as most will agree, then how does the abiding diversity of our ecclesial understandings and practices challenge our understanding of Church as encompassing more than one tradition? And if we truly honour other traditions for the unique gifts and practices they share in the Body of Christ, do all need to embrace similar practices? Do all, and Rome in particular, need to ordain women? Now I know that even asking this question will not go over well with RC advocates for women’s ordination. Nevertheless the question deserves attention. Notwithstanding the very valid critiques of ecclesial patriarchy and clericalism in the RC Church, I cannot help but wonder. Is the new thing God is working out in our ecumenical journey that we grow our ecclesial vision so large, that moving to another tradition will no longer feel like betraying and leaving “Holy Mother Church” because “Holy Mother Church” really includes all traditions who profess Christ Jesus as Lord and Saviour?
Mary stood at the tomb weeping in grief and loss. “They” had taken away her Lord and she didn’t know where “they” had laid him. She grieved deeply for what was now over and gone, what was now no longer possible, or so she thought. The One who had healed and transformed her life, the one who had fed her soul was gone, forever. Now what? I felt a similar desperation when I first realized God was calling me to priestly ministry. In fact, two Marys rushed to my side in that painful moment. That visceral reality-check caused two burning questions, each connected with each Mary, to spring from my heart in fear and trembling: “How can this be?” (Luke 1: 34) and “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20:13).
The two Marys and I have traveled a long journey together. We’ve grown a deep and abiding friendship. Each Mary modeled how to give my fiat to God. Their witness, each in her own way, have guided and sustained and inspired my trembling heart. Now with great joy and deep satisfaction, I serve two rural parishes as an Anglican deacon, preparing for ordination to the priesthood in four months. I have come a long ways.
Today I salute you, Mary Magdalene. You have fed my courage to give my yes to the summons of the risen Jesus: “Go and tell.” My tears of pain and grief have turned into tears of joy and fullness. You, Mary, are still my trustworthy partner in mission and ministry, as I lead God’s people in worship and preach each Sunday with your passion, courage and conviction: “I have seen the Lord!”
For another article on Mary Magdalene, click here.
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