“Mary Magdalene” Saves My Lent

I didn’t feel good about my Lent this year – until Holy Week. I don’t know why, but my heart just wasn’t in it till then. However, beginning on what used to be called Holy Week’s “Spy Wednesday,” a whole series of events unfolded that returned me to the spirit that should have characterized the previous 40 days. Its highlight was experiencing an extraordinary film that I want to recommend here. It’s called simply “Mary Magdalene.” It raises questions about women’s leadership in today’s Catholic Church.

What I did just before seeing the film prepared me. It began on Wednesday when I watched an Italian production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The next night brought a brief celebration of Maundy Thursday at our new non- denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church. The following morning, I took part in a two hour “way of the cross” through the town of nearby Darien. Immediately afterwards, came a “Tre Ore” observance at the town’s Episcopal Church. The recollection of Jesus’ three-hours on the cross was marked by long periods of silence broken by seven sermons delivered by ministers from a whole variety of area churches. (At times the latter seemed like a sermon slam, with the clear winner the entry delivered jointly in dialog by our own two pastors from Talmadge Hill.)

Then on Holy Saturday, Peggy and I took in “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Australian, Garth Davis. For me, it was Holy Week’s capstone. To begin with, Joaquin Phoenix embodied the best Jesus-representation that I’ve seen so far. It was understated, believable, sensitive, compassionate, and challenging. Phoenix’s mien and demeanor reminded me of the Jesus forensic archeologists have estimated looked like this:

But it is Mary Magdalene (played by an unglamorous, but beautiful Rooney Mara) who supplies the eyes through which viewers finally see the peasant from Galilee. She’s a midwife, we learn. Far from the one defined as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, she rejects intimate relationships with men. “I’m not made for marriage,” Mary explains to the shock of her scandalized father, brothers and suitor. “Then, what are you made for?” they demand. All of them join together and nearly drown her as they attempt to exorcise the demons responsible for her refusal to submit to marital patriarchy.

Nevertheless, Mary persists and eventually tags along with those following Jesus – the only woman among the band of men called apostles. She herself is baptized by Jesus. She also pays closer and more perceptive attention to Jesus’ words than the others. She even gently corrects her male companions, suggesting that their interpretation of the Kingdom of God entailing violent revolution might be mistaken. Peter’s comment about such impertinence is “You weaken us.” But in the end, Mary quietly retorts, “I will not be silenced.”

Soon Jesus commissions Magdalene to baptize women.  As a result, they end up following the Master in droves. From then on, we see Mary habitually walking next to Jesus as he treks across Palestine’s barren landscape from Galilee through Cana and Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. At the last supper, after washing Jesus’ feet, she sits at his right hand. Clearly, she’s in charge and a leader of men nonpareil.

At one point in the journey to the Holy City, Mary unmistakably demonstrates her unique leadership. She implicitly reminds viewers of the words John the Evangelist attributes to Jesus, “The one who believes in me, the works that I do shall (s)he do also; and greater works than these shall (s)he do . . . (JN 14:12) For after witnessing Jesus restore a dead man to life, Mary herself emulates the healer’s ritual and restores to life a score of people left for dead by the brutal Roman occupation forces. None of the males among Jesus’ followers even dares such close imitation of Christ.

Then there is Magdalene’s relationship with a young smiling, cheerful, and very sympathetic Judas. He came to follow Jesus after his wife and child had been brutally killed by the Romans. So, he hears Jesus’ words about God’s Kingdom as a promise that Jesus will inspire and lead a retributive rebellion against Rome. But after Jesus’ participation in a direct-action demonstration in Jerusalem’s temple, Judas appears worried that Jesus is losing resolve and direction. So, in an evident effort to force Jesus’ hand, the apostle cooperates in Jesus’ arrest and collects the reward on his head. Judas fully expects that his teacher’s plight will mobilize his followers to the uprising Judas confidently anticipates. When that doesn’t happen, Judas is filled with despair. He returns home. The next we know, he’s hanging from the lintel of his hovel’s doorway.

Of course, there is no uprising. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. Afterwards, his limp body is placed in the lap of his mother. He’s then buried. While the other apostles flee, distancing themselves from the corpse, Magdalene faithfully sleeps on the ground outside the tomb. In the morning, she’s awakened by Jesus’ voice. He’s clothed in martyr’s white. Without uttering a word, she quietly sits on the ground next to him, convinced that he has come back to life.

So, she returns to the site of the last supper and tells Peter and the others her good news. They refuse to believe her. It’s at this point that Mary says those words, “I will not be silenced.”

According to Pope Francis, that refusal and her bringing of Good News to the apostolic leadership has merited for her the title of “apostle of apostles.” She is more important than any of them.

As you can see, I’m grateful to “Mary Magdalene” for salvaging my Lent. However, her story makes me wonder about the absence of female leadership in Francis’ church.

How about you? See the film and decide for yourself.

Palm Sunday Homily: Parish Renewal Inspired by Pope Francis

J.C. Superstar

Holy Week begins today with Palm Sunday.  Fittingly, last evening my wife and I listened again (as we do every year) to Webber and Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  (You can listen to the 1970 version here; last year we attended the actual play.) The familiar score and story always have me tearing from the overture on.

Of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a brilliant musical that captures the final events in Jesus’ life.  As in today’s liturgical readings, the play takes us from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his cleansing of the city’s Temple, his betrayal by Judas, his trials before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod. It finishes with his death on the cross and a reprise of Judas’ questions about Jesus’ place in history and among the world’s other spiritual geniuses.

Through it all we agonize with Judas about accepting blood money and with Mary Magdalene about her unrequited love. We shake our heads at Jesus’ uncomprehending, self-interested and cowardly disciples. We’re amazed at the fickleness of the crowd and by Jesus’ compassion, indecision, fear of death, and forgiveness of his executioners.

The rock musical score is haunting. The lyrics are hip and inspiring. I find it amazing that the story though repeated so often retains the power to move its audiences. I feel grateful to Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for their audacity in making the tale so accessible and meaningful to contemporaries.

Similar feelings have been evoked last year by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” That too was on my mind as I listened to “Jesus Christ Superstar” this year. That’s because during this year’s Lent, members of my parish community have been studying (for the second year in a row) the pope’s publication.

Through it, I think Pope Francis is calling us to do something like what Webber and Rice have done – make Jesus and the church once again relevant to a world that has long since dismissed them as quaint and detached from daily life.

As we’ve studied “The Joy of the Gospel,” all of us have marveled at Francis’ own courage, boldness and audacity. Almost from the beginning, our group has asked each other, “But what should we do in this parish in response to the pope’s general directions?” That same question surfaced last Lent, when I put forth a proposal published here.

Then it was well-received, but there was virtually no follow-through. Virtually nothing has changed in our church as a result of the pope’s exhortation. For us it’s still a question of “business as usual.” And our numbers of aging parishioners are dwindling as a result.

This year, things are different. Pope Francis’ planned visit to the United States next September has inspired our parish Peace and Social Justice Committee to reformulate the proposal in a way that honors his visit. And this time the formulation has legs. We’re actually might implement it.

Here’s a shortened summary of our revised plan (all parenthetical references are to sections in Francis’ exhortation) :

 “The Joy of the Gospel:” St. Clare Moving Forward

A Proposal for Parish Renewal Guided by the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation

Rationale: The visit of Pope Francis to the United States provides St. Clare Parish with a unique opportunity to highlight and appropriate the pope’s directions for church renewal offered in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG). Those directions called on the church to embark on a new chapter in its history and a new path, where things cannot be left as they presently are (25). Pope Francis urged Catholics to adopt new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74), along with new customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules, and language (27). Parishes were instructed to act boldly, and without inhibition or fear (33), in implementing processes of reform (30) adapted to particular churches (82).

With the above empowering directives and guidelines in mind, the Parish Peace and Social Justice Committee suggests adoption of the following plan towards beginning implementation of the renewal processes suggested by JG:

  • In preparation for the pope’s visit to the United States (September 22-27, 2015), the parish will be invited to read his forthcoming encyclical which is expected to be published this June. (Reading the encyclical is intended as a vehicle for revisiting and applying the pope’s vision found in “The Joy of the Gospel.”)
  • Copies of the encyclical will be purchased for each member of the parish over the age of 16 who wishes to receive a copy.
  • CCD teachers will be encouraged to develop study guides for younger children.
  • The encyclical will be discussed on the two Sundays preceding the pope’s visit, viz., September 13th and 20th.
  • To maximize participation and to experiment with on-going adult education (or “Sunday School”) discussions will be held from 9:00 to 10:00 on those Sundays and also on October 4th (see below).
  • Sunday School sessions will be followed by a half hour for coffee and snacks in the Friendship Hall and then by Mass in the church at 10:30.
  • On those days, (to highlight the unity of our parish) the 10:30 Mass will be the only Mass at St. Clare’s (“inconveniencing” everyone.) The 10:30 celebration will be bi-lingual incorporating both the Anglo and Hispanic communities and concelebrated by Fr. Michael and Padre Eulices (the clerical leader of our parish’s Hispanic community).
  • On Sunday, September 27th, there will be a viewing of the pope’s addresses to the U.S. Congress (9/24), and to the United Nations (9/25), as well as his homily delivered at the papal Mass concluding his U.S. visit.
  • The viewing of the pope’s addresses will take place in the parish Friendship Hall at 6:00 p.m. and will be preceded or accompanied by a special spaghetti dinner..
  • On their return from attendance at the papal visit, members of the St. Clare delegation will give formal reports during the “Sunday School” session of October 4th.

Follow Up

Following these events, an ad hoc committee (including the pastor) will review the entire experience outlined above.  It will formulate a strategic plan for the parish for later discussion. The plan will address issues such as:

  • Improved community outreach.
  • Closer relations between the Anglo and Hispanic communities.
  • Specifically how to better integrate the Saturday night and Sunday morning communities.
  • Prospects for institutionalizing adult education “Sunday School.”
  • Ways of improving Sunday liturgies taking advantage of the unique resources in our parish.
  • Revising the St. Clare Mission Statement to make its expression more inclusive.
  • Expanding roles for women (103, 104).
  • Specific plans for drawing young people back into the worshipping community.

So what do you think? Are we in tune with Jesus, Pope Francis, and Webber & Rice? Is this pointing the way to Easter Resurrection? What else might we do?

Discussion follows.