Went to Mass this morning and had a little epiphany. I have, with rare exceptions, accepted the Communion of Saints as a doctrine of the faith, not as a “felt reality”. I pray to the saints because the Church recommends it, not because I live a life of emotive mystical communion with them, sensing their presence in the room with me or having apparitions. With rare exceptions (albeit powerful ones) it just has not been something God has vouchsafed to me. The (for want of a better word) chumminess and familiarity some Catholics have, to my envy, had with their patron saint or guardian angel is just not part of my experience or makeup.
And that’s fine. God is the potter and we are the clay. If he’d wanted me to be Padre Pio he’d have given me the gifts for that. He’s given me the ones I have and I’m cool with that.
But now and then, he does a sweet thing and pulls back the veil a bit. He did it this morning at Mass.
Today is the newly-minted Feast (no longer Memorial) of St. Mary Magdalene. The readings really hit me. They start, curiously, not with the law or the prophets but with the most passionate and erotic piece of love poetry in Scripture, the Song of Songs. The Song was probably, in its literal sense, a nuptial ode written for the wedding of a Davidic King. It is very frankly erotic and is meant to celebrate the joys of marriage. I have often wondered how it wound up in the canon of Scripture and assume some combination of divine Providence making sure the Spirit-inspired poem was preserved–as well as Davidic royal clout saying to the Temple scribes, “I like this. Let’s keep it and read it!” (It’s good to be king.)
What is interesting is that the very earliest exegeses of the Song from both Christian and Jewish scribes immediately allegorize it. Jewish rabbis see in it an extended image of the relationship between God and the Virgin Daughter of Zion. Christian exegetes immediately see in it the relationship between Christ the Bridegroom (who is, after all, the ultimate Davidic King) and his bride the Church.
Moderns assume this is because the exegetes are prudes and are trying to tone things down. But in fact, the exegetes are drawing on deep wells in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. For the prophets really do spend a huge amount of time transposing that form of love called eros into an image of the divine love that is agape. It’s like turning a song in a minor into the same tune in a major key. Ezekiel will tell a whole parable about how God found Israel, cleaned her up like Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle and espoused her to himself–and how she betrayed him. Hosea’s whole complaint is that Israel was God’s faithless wife.
And in the New Testament the theme continues. Jesus does his archetypal sign at a wedding and John announces him as the Bridegroom (as does Jesus himself). The Church is born from the pierced side of Jesus just like Eve and John’s Revelation climaxes with the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
So the exegetes of the Song aren’t imagining things: marriage really is an image of Christ and the Church, and a participation in that reality (which is why it is a sacrament). Eros, so far from being “dirty”, points us to agape and the life of grace. (See The Four Loves for more on this.)
Anyway, the reading from the Song of Song is all about the Beloved’s intense longing for her Lover:
Upon my bed by night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
“I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him, but found him not.
The watchmen found me,
as they went about in the city.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I had brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me. (So 3:1–4).
I could picture this woman, full of longing indistinguishable from hunger. Not the desire for mere sex (a shadow of what her heart really sought), nor even for mere eros and the need to “get a man” as one sees in some desperate souls. It was a deeper desire than that, but one that *looks* like eros to culture that knows only eros as the definition of love.
This is somebody full of longing for her heart’s desire, for the meaning of her life, for a Love she could imagine abandoning eros and all lesser loves to attain. I resonate with that deeply. It’s the reason C.S. Lewis made an immediate conquest of me: because that longing–what he called Joy or Desire or the appetite for Heaven–has haunted me all my life too. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee” was Augustine’s description of it.
I thought, “How profound of the Church to see Mary Magdalene in that woman of the Song!” And how it illumines everything about who she was and what she wanted. Da Vinci Code enthusiasts and people who imaging Mary was Christ’s lover are like people who dramatically announce the shocking truth that Shakespeare’s plays are actually nothing more the black marks on white paper. They have eyes, but they do not see.
Did Mary Magdalene love Jesus with a burning passion very few of us attain? Absolutely. But that passion was not eros. Eros wasn’t big enough to contain the love and desire she had for Jesus. It may have started that way (who knows?). But by the time we find her weeping at the tomb, all that has been burned away. “Have you seen him whom my *soul* loves?” is the the question she is asking at the tomb. And when she recognizes him she calls him not “Husband” but “Rabboni” or teacher. He is “Lord”, not “boyfriend” and she would have it no other way. Eros, whatever it may have been at one point for her, has faded into a sign and the sign has helped to find agape, the love of God. She will not tarry on the road. She would be at Jerusalem.
And she is not merely satisfied. Her longing is not merely sated. It is overflowing into joy. She can’t sit still. She can shut up or retreat into mystical contemplation. She has to go and tell everybody. The longing and the divine reply to that longing gives birth to the very first Christian missionary: the Apostle to the Apostles.
I like this woman. I like you, Mary Magdalene. You feel like a friend. You feel like you know what it’s like.
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us. Pray for me.