Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Saint Mary Magdalene

Today is the feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene, a well-known figure in anyone's reading of the Bible, though perhaps not as well known as you might think.

Modern scholarship now rejects the idea that she was a former prostitute, which made its way into the story somewhere along the way though it is never stated in the New Testament. There is also some confusion about whether she is the "sinful woman" with the costly jar of perfume in Luke 7:36-38 (the page at the first link above attempts to sort it out, though without much success). In art, however, she is often depicted with the jar, as in this painting by Caravaggio (1596), which also includes a discarded strand of pearls to signify her former life as a prostitute. She deserves some new art.

In most accounts she was possessed by seven demons who were cast out by Jesus, and she then became one of his followers. Most importantly, she was the first witness to the resurrection, sometimes called the apostle to the apostles.

Mary Magdalene, to whom
Jesus Christ vouchsafed to appear!
Newly risen from the tomb,
Would he first be seen by her?
Her by sin and doubt possessed,
Till the Word her woes expelled;
Quenched the fear within her breast,
All her suffering sorrows healed.

Yes, to her the Savior came,
First his welcome voice she hears:
Jesus calls her by her name,
Thus the weeping woman cheers,
Who can now presume to fear?
Who despair of grace to see?
Jesus, wilt thou not appear,
Show thyself alive to me?

Highly favored soul! To her
Farther still his grace extends,
Making her the messenger,
Sends her to his sorr'wing friends;
Tidings of their living Lord
First in her report they hear:
She must spread the Gospel word,
Ere to them he will appear.

Charles Wesley, 1746; alt.
Edwin Flood, 1845

I can think of at least three modern hymns (all under copyright) that explore this aspect of Mary Magdalene's story:

The first one ever (Linda Wilberger Egan)
A woman in a world of men (Brian Wren)
Woman, weeping in the garden (Dan Damon)

So it seems like a new idea, but here's Charles Wesley, more than 250 years ago, writing a hymn about it. I doubt this text appears in any hymnal published in the last 100 years or more. Some ideas seem to go underground for a while but they come back as "modern." Also, for purely practical reasons, there are a lot of Easter hymns out there that "have to" be sung every year, so this part of the story seems less important to include for some people (good reason for her feast day to be outside the Easter season).

Poking around for today's entry I came upon a story I hadn't heard before that continues the story of Mary as Gospel bearer. From Wikipedia:

One tradition concerning Mary Magdalene says that following the death and resurrection of Jesus, she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by Emperor Tiberius. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed "Christ is risen!" Caesar laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red, and she continued proclaiming the Gospel to the entire imperial house.

This is apparently why some traditions only produce red-colored Easter eggs, though I don't remember the rector telling this story when they passed out red eggs this year.

***UPDATE***  This hymn with words and music together is now posted to be shared on Facebook.  Go to "Conjubilant W. Song" and click on "Photos" then "Albums" -- it's in the Downloadable Hymns album.


meveld@chartermi.net said...

Can you tell me where I can find sheet music or mp3s of the modern songs mentioned in this post?
The first one ever (Linda Wilberger Egan)
A woman in a world of men (Brian Wren)
Woman, weeping in the garden (Dan Damon)

C.W.S. said...

The Brian Wren and Dan Damon hymns can be seen at the Hope Publishing Company website if you go to the home page:

and select the "Online Hymnody" link which will take you to a search page where you can enter the titles and authors.

I did not find the full Egan text online, which is not surprising since it is still under copyright (Hope Publishing just happens to be very generous with their material) but there is an article about her and her hymn here:

if you have access to either of these books, it was published in the Episcopal Hymnal (1982) and the Methodist Hymnal (1989).

June Butler said...

Lovely lyrics. I'm pleased that Mary Magdalene's reputation is being restored.