“Put women back into Holy Week”

Episcopal priest, writer and “modern mystic” Cynthia Bourgeault had an epiphany last year on Palm Sunday. She noticed that nowhere in the gospel account of Passion read that day did the word “love” appear. And that Mary Magdalene remained voiceless throughout the entire reading in spite of the fact that she and other women remained with Jesus throughout his ordeal.

And she promised herself that she’d be sure to not let that happen again. Bourgault writes of what is changed in a guest blog article on the Washington Post website:

“This year I am doing it differently. I have spent the entire Holy Week leading a meditation retreat in a small retreat center tucked away in central Minnesota, and as part of our Holy Week commemoration we have added a new liturgy- which rightfully should have been there all along. It re-enacts the loving anointing of Jesus, shortly before the crucifixion, by a woman whom tradition remembers as Mary Magdalene. I first witnessed a version of this ritual in France many years ago and brought it home with me (in a slightly revised format) to the states. This is the second Holy Week now that I have experienced through the launch pad of anointing, and I am more convinced than ever that without it, our understanding of what Jesus was up to in his Holy Week self-offering is incomplete–in fact, it is badly distorted.

[…]With the anointing ceremony repositioned as the opening act in the Holy Week drama, the entire shape of Holy Week shifts subtly but decisively. In this reconfiguration the meaning of anointing is itself transformed. It emerges as the sacramental seal upon all our human passages through those things which would appear to destroy or separate us, but in fact draws us more deeply toward the heart of divine love.

Thematically, this restoration of the central place of Mary Magdalene in the Holy Week cycle also shifts the emphasis away from the traditional liturgical presentation that Jesus died alone and abandoned, to the scripturally attested witness of Mary Magdalene’s loving accompaniment at every stage in his journey: crucifixion, entombment, resurrection. The theme shifts from abandonment (with its accompanying emotional stances of guilt and accusation) to sacrificial love: not a death imposed from the outside, to appease an angry God, but a course of action voluntarily chosen as the consummation of all that Jesus had lived and taught. This latter message-so difficult to tease out of the traditional Holy Week liturgies-accords much better both with the message of Jesus’s own teaching and with the ultimate meaning of the resurrection in its mystical unfolding: as an act of cosmic reconciliation through which “all heaven and earth are brought together in unity through Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10)

This shift of the emotional epicenter of Holy Week from blame and guilt to freely offered transfiguring love is a message that we all need to hear today in our bitterly divided churches and bitterly divided world. I believe that this is why Mary Magdalene’s voice is once again speaking so loud and clear in our own times. “Love has overcome; Love is victorious.” These beautiful words (written by Thomas Merton) capture the essence of the Easter message. And who better than a beloved to proclaim it?”

A powerful reminder that there are many ways to approach the events of Holy Week. And that voices that have been marginalized often have the most powerful correctives to the common and current understanding.

(The traditional Hymn of Kassiani by Kassia, a famous woman hymnist of the 9th century, which commemorates the anointing is sung on Holy Tuesday in many Eastern Orthodox Churches.)

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