The opening of today’s reading from the Gospel of John depicts Mary Magdalene on the cusp of an encounter with the Risen Christ. “But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white.”
In this moment of bending down and looking into the tomb she thought was empty, Mary provides an everlasting model for those of us seeking the Risen Christ throughout Easter and throughout our lives. Where Jesus’ tomb had been a place of death, it is now a place of resurrection. Where Mary’s tears had symbolized her grief, they now contain her joy.
This amazing moment came on a morning when Mary was vulnerable and traumatized. I cannot imagine what Mary must have been feeling there, alone – but I can only guess that seeing Jesus alive again would have been the last thing on her mind.
When I feel vulnerable, my world feels very small. In grief and pain, it is difficult to “think outside the box” or to think about the “big picture.” In fact, it is difficult to think at all. Many of us are living now from this place of smallness in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. We are currently facing dangers that have fundamentally altered the patterns of our Church life and our society – along with many other woes that can cause us to despair.
The Good News is that none of the woes of the world can separate us from God’s love. As Jesus told the disciples, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (John 16:22)
I hope that this Easter week brings you such joy.
And if you still have grief, I invite you to trust that it’s okay, and that God can work within that grief. We can take courage from the example of Mary Magdalene, whose own tears opened the portal between life and death. From Mary’s story and from my own story, I have faith that God can work directly within our sorrow – opening new possibilities when we had thought all the doors closed.
I believe this is where God is most fully present in our lives – in the spaces where we feel lost, abandoned, and confused. In this way, I am hopeful that this Easter season will help all of us to encounter Christ in truly new and unimagined ways.
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This week is National Vocations Awareness Week. When I tell my vocation story, I usually describe my vocation as a response to the great love that God has shown me throughout my life. I talk about what a joy it has been to fall in love with Christ and to give my whole life to him in a specific way in religious life. And that is absolutely true and beautiful. But if I’m being honest, it’s only part of the story.
I am a novice with the Daughters of St. Paul, a congregation of women religious dedicated to evangelization through the media. Shortly before I entered the convent, I was plagued with a series of doubts regarding my vocation. I had discerned that God was calling me to enter religious life, but suddenly the vocation seemed too big for me.
One time in particular, I went to my spiritual director deeply concerned that I had misrepresented myself to the sisters. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a normal 21-year-old. I’d watched The Office more times than I’d care to admit, had a newly acquired taste for craft beer, and had only kicked my swearing habit a few months before. As I prepared to move to the convent and begin my formation, I was worried that the sisters might be shocked to find out that I was still pretty far from being holy.
“What makes you think that you haven’t been honest with the sisters?” my spiritual director asked me.
“Whenever I visit the convent, I find myself acting like a much better person than I actually am. They’re going to find out the truth once they start living with me,” I explained.
“Well,” he began chuckling, “Your vocation is the very thing that is going to make you into the best person you can be. That means you’re not there yet. But look, it’s already making you holier!”
It can be tempting to think that we need to get our life in order before we respond to God’s call. We want to be perfect before we think that God can work through us. But friends, that day will never come on this side of heaven. And besides, that just isn’t God’s modus operandi.
When we look at who God decides to call, it is never the person whom we would choose. Peter denied Jesus three times. Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out from her. Paul, whom my congregation is named after, literally persecuted Christians. God is not afraid of our weaknesses or our wounds. In fact, it is often the very things that we view as obstacles to his grace that make us into powerful witnesses to his grace!
The truth is, I’m not worthy of being called to be a religious sister. But no one is really worthy of this calling. That’s the beauty of a religious vocation and of the Christian life as a whole: it’s not about us and what we can do for God. It’s about God and what he wants to do in us.
Every sacrifice that I’ve made in these past three years, every mistake, every time I have had to ask forgiveness or forgiven someone has served to make me into the person God wants me to be. So has every hour of Adoration, every Spirit-filled conversation, and every birthday that we’ve celebrated in community. There are these kinds of moments in every vocation where God uses something that seems strangely normal to bring us ever closer to himself.
Vocation is a totally free gift that God has given to us. We could never earn or deserve it. It requires a response, but it begins with the fact that he has first loved us and desires to give us abundant life. That’s the truth about religious vocation— praise God for that.
Henri Nouwen said “Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”
On December 27, the Church celebrated the feast of St. John the Apostle - referred to in the Gospel of John as the beloved disciple. A few short days ago, we also celebrated the great and holy feast of Christmas: the turning point in history. On that night in Bethlehem, when God became a little baby, He made it possible for us to truly become “the beloved.”
St. John shows us that to truly love and become “the beloved,” we must stick by each other even through suffering. It was John, along with Our Lady and Mary Magdalene, who remained with Our Lord until His final moments at Calvary.
St. John’s Gospel not only gives us one of the most profound recollections of the crucifixion, but it also reminds us that we love others “because He first loved us.” As Christians, everything in our lives must first flow from a lived relationship with Love incarnate, Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this Christmas season. This relationship with Christ enables us to know what St. John knew: Jesus makes all things new, all burdens light.
Before we can believe the truth of being beloved, I have found that we often believe a lot of lies. Our world and culture - not to mention the Evil One - tell us that we aren’t good enough, that we are unworthy of love. But to truly love and be loved is to live in the truth of who God says we are and the truth of who He calls us to be.
The truth of our identity is that we are beloved sons and daughters, called to stay close to the manger AND the cross and commissioned to share the Good News that we are called to love because He first loved us.
Today as we are still reveling in the shadow of Christ’s manger in Bethlehem, let’s ask Our Lord, Our Lady, and St. John to fill us with the greatest truth of our existence: our identity as beloved.
Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene. Many of us probably remember Mary Magdalene as one of the women who remained at the feet of Jesus throughout his suffering and death on the cross. Or, we might remember her as the first person to witness his Resurrection. Both roles are very important to consider as we examine the readings from today and their importance in recognizing God’s presence in our lives.
Today’s Gospel from John focuses on Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb of Jesus. She arrives, finds it empty, and weeps. When confronted by Jesus, she can only say, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Mary Magdalene is blinded by her grief, her own human failings, because in that moment, she believed her struggles were greater than God himself. She has forgotten Christ’s promise that he will rebuild this temple in three days (Cf, Jn 2:19). She, who sat at the feet of Jesus as he suffered on the cross, does not recognize that Christ is standing in front of her. We often go through life like Mary Magdalene, blinded by our everyday fears and hardships, but her life and her actions give us an example to follow. Though blinded by her own human failings, she learned to have faith and trust in the constant presence of the mercy and love of Christ.
Christ says to her, “But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” With these words Christ proves to Mary Magdalene and to us that by his death and resurrection he has given mankind the ability to develop a personal relationship with God. Even after his death, he is calling Mary Magdalene and the disciples to more, to recognize that through his suffering on the cross he has transcended death and opened the gates of heaven to us. He calls us to renew our faith in him, “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” He calls us into his arms, to know him, to love him, and serve him.
This Gospel scene with Mary Magdalene reminds us that we are often blind to Christ’s presence in our lives. We sometimes forget just how significant his death on the cross actually was, we forget that he laid down his life so that we could overcome our daily struggle with sin and that we might one day be one with the Lord in heaven. This is a hard message to remember especially in these recent months in which a plane carrying 295 innocent people was shot down and people are being killed all around the world in the Ukraine, Israel, and Africa. Many of us feel lost and unable to help against this senseless violence and yet Mary Magdalene gives us the answer. That answer is Christ. He is always here for us. He is always present. We might not be able to see him at all times, for we are often blinded by our human failings, our pride, and our worldly desires, and yet Christ remains present to us. We have, like Mary Magdalene, to just open our eyes and trust in the Lord. We have to offer ourselves up as he did in the only way we know how, in imitating the life of Christ every day, first and foremost through prayer. By answering his call to know him, to love him, and to serve him we give ourselves completely to him just as Mary Magdalene did.
St. Theresa of Avila gives us a simple prayer to remember the continuous presence of Christ in our lives, we but only have to look for him:
Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things, whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.
Nicholas Shields is a current District Deputy for the Washington, D.C. Knights of Columbus and a recent graduate of The Catholic University of America.