Feasts of St. Mary Magdalene and St. James

I wrote this post for our parish blog (Church of the Apostles, KC). You can read it here…and all is the other fabulous posts and sermons!

One of my favorite words to describe my theological work with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer is “juxtaposition.” Perhaps it is the influence of Alexander Schmemann and Gordon Lathrop—both liturgical theologians and both of whom highly value this concept—but the concept for juxtaposition is very simple: what happens when you put x next to y? An example or two might be helpful here. For liturgy, what does it mean when the Confession is prayed within the Prayers of the People as opposed to the opening liturgy during penitential seasons? Or, for Bible reading, why did the lectionary writers include that Gospel passage alongside this story from the Old Testament? The individual items have their own meaning, but their significance is altered and enhanced when placed nearer something else.

This week is no exception as we have not one, but two, feast days to celebrate: Monday was the Feast of Mary Magdalene and today (Thursday) is the Feast of St. James. Rather than trying to write two separate posts within the same blog entry, I think it is beneficial to look at both feast days simultaneously, in juxtaposed harmony, you might say. So, allow me to ask the question which we will seek to answer below: “What happens when you put James next to Mary?”

In Context

In Mary and James, we have two apostles with intimate firsthand experiential knowledge of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. According to John 20, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection. In a time and place where the account of a woman was always inferior to the testimony of a man, Jesus appeared first to Mary in the Garden. She had trekked to the tomb only to find it empty and while understandably upset, she is comforted by two angels before turning to see Jesus…only she thinks he is the gardener!  

Side note: We could get off on a serious tangent here, but how amazing is it that the resurrection took place in a garden and that Jesus, the new/second Adam, was first mistaken as a gardener…because He is! He is the Divine Gardener, the one with whom we are invited to walk in the cool of the day while He tends creation and invites us to participate with Him…but that is another post for another time.

Upon recognizing Jesus and embracing Him joyfully, Mary runs to the disciples to announce the resurrection. The first proclamation of resurrection, the first encounter with the risen Lord, is from Mary, an apostle.

Similarly, James, the brother of John, was with Jesus during some of the most pivotal moments of His earthly ministry. Apart from being “one of the twelve,” James was also part of the smaller trio with Peter and John. Too often, it feels, James is the forgotten member of the three, even the lesser “son of thunder” because Peter is such a huge presence in the gospels and John was the beloved disciple. We almost skip over the fact that James was the first disciple martyred for his faith.

James was there, atop Mount Tabor, as Jesus was transfigured and appeared alongside Moses and Elijah. He heard Jesus talking about His impending death; he heard Peter suggest that they build tents atop the mountain and stay there; he heard Jesus respond and tell them that they must go back down…and then he watched as Jesus set His face like flint toward Jerusalem and began the arduous journey toward the cross. James was a witness to all of these things, including the arrival of Mary with the proclamation of the resurrection, and he gave his life in defense of Jesus.

Mary and James Juxtaposed

So, what happens when we read Mary and James next to each other? At first glance it may seem like there is no connection: One was a disciple, and the other was a woman; one was part of the intimate inner circle of three while the other was at one point possessed by demons; one gave his life for Jesus while the other encountered new life bursting forth into the world in the Garden.

However, if we are really diligent and honest, the similarities between the two are overwhelmingly obvious. Mary Magdalene and James are tied together by one common thread: apostolic witness. Both James and Mary were transformed by Jesus, both of them were changed forever by their interactions with Him both before and after His death and rising. James encountered the overwhelming and awesome glory of Christ while atop Mount Tabor, and Mary experienced the same glory when she found out that she was talking to Jesus and not the gardener.

They were both sent out from those high, holy places as apostles and witnesses. We might celebrate Mary’s restoration of body and mind on her feast day, remembering how she was once afflicted and is no more, but her feast day is really a moment to cherish and remember her as the one who ran forth to declare the good news of resurrection. She did not stay in the Garden with Jesus…she went, and she announced, and she lived a life transformed based on this gospel joy.

The Feast of St James may be a time to commemorate his martyrdom, but it is the events which led to His death upon which we ought to reflect. James was not killed in a vacuum; we have to move backward from Herod’s decision to kill James in Acts 11 all the way until we get to a seaside scene when Jesus calls out to two brothers while fishing, and they drop their nets to come and follow Him. James followed Jesus from that seaside, through the Transfiguration, unto Jesus’ death and resurrection, and ultimately his own.

Mary and James provide for us two tangible, living pictures as to what it means to be disciples of Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom. Neither stayed put when they had the chance; both opted to go forth and proclaim the Good News; and both devoted their lives (and deaths) to the proclamation of the Risen Lord.

 
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