By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
One of the great titles bestowed by the church upon Mary Magdalene is “the apostle to the apostles.” According to the Gospel of John, Mary, still sorrowful on “the first day of the week” (John 20:1), is the privileged recipient of the first Easter message that Jesus’ body no longer rests in the tomb. After racing to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, she then encounters Jesus, mistakes him for the gardener, and then reveals to the apostles that she has seen the Lord of life.
The sequence of the Easter liturgy channels us into the story at this point. In a stunningly beautiful hymn, we embrace the opportunity to interrogate Mary Magdalene: Dic nobis Maria: quid vidisti in via? (Tell us, Mary: what have you seen on the way?) In the words of the hymn, she announces to us that to-this-day-stupendous novelty of Jesus’ triumph over death: “I saw the tomb of the living Christ, and the glory of the one who has risen.” The hymn puts on Mary’s lips the beautiful and breathless phrase, “Christ my hope has risen, and he precedes his friends to Galilee,” but then joins her profession of joy with our liturgical voices: “We know that Christ has been raised truly from the dead!”
The cornerstone of our Christian faith, namely that Christ has triumphed over death and granted us access to eternal life with the Father, rests on the testimony of such disciples as Mary Magdalene. Their authority as credible eyewitnesses to Jesus’ entire ministry, and especially his resurrection, is the historical and theological hook on which we place our profession of faith in Christ who was crucified, died, and was buried, yet rose from the dead.
The testimony of disciples such as Peter and John hinges fundamentally on their claims to have seen the risen Jesus.
The end of Luke and the early chapters of Acts of the Apostles are littered with statements such as “Of these things we are witnesses” when detailing the truth of their Gospel that Jesus is the Christ, the author of life who has conquered death (see Luke 1:2; 24:48; Acts 1:8; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39).
When dealing with eyewitness testimony in any situation, there is always a person attached to that testimony, a face connected with the words or events witnessed.
A criminal case, for example, often stands or falls on the trustworthiness of a single person who claims to have witnessed a murder. When considering the reality of Christ’s resurrection, it is sobering to note that God has entrusted His revelation to a chain of weak human beings who bear witness to the truth that totally upended their lives.
Mary Magdalene, a prostitute according to church tradition, sowed the initial seeds of resurrected faith in the hearts of the apostles on that first Easter Sunday, and that message reached the Evangelists, who recorded it for all future generations.
Even more sobering is the thought that someone may equate the Gospel with your face, or might have no other experience of Jesus than the example of your deeds and words. Yet that is how God mediates the Gospel message. That thought can be terrifying indeed, but it should inspire us to pray for the same fearless zeal that prompted illiterate Galileans (Acts 4:12!) to voyage “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) proclaiming the victory of Christ over death. The missionary adventures of most of the apostles, of course, brought them to their own Calvary, in the form of brutal martyrdoms. That was to be expected: after all, the Greek word for “witness” used in the New Testament is martyr. Therein lies an excellent examination of conscience: What is the content of the Gospel you preach? What sort of martyr are you?
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.