Dying and Rising : Christ Means “Annointed” (Richard Rohr)

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun. —Mark 16:1‑2

Continuing Cynthia Bourgeault’s reflections, drawn from her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene:

[Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus] provides a powerful ritual access point to Christianity’s own deepest transformative wisdom. To begin with, it makes it virtually impossible to experience the Paschal Mystery in any other way than as an act of redemptive love. When Mary Magdalene is returned to her traditional role as the anointer of Jesus, a very important symmetry is also restored. We see that Jesus’s passage through death is framed on either side by her parallel acts of anointing. At Bethany she sends him forth to the cross wearing the unction of her love. And on Easter morning he awakens to that same fragrance of love as she arrives at the tomb with her spices and perfumes, expecting to anoint his body for death. He has been held in love throughout his entire passage.

As Bruce Chilton succinctly summarizes: “She connects his death and Resurrection.” [1] And she accomplishes this precisely by bracketing the entire experience in the parallel rituals of anointing. In so doing, Chilton adds, “Mary Magdalene established the place of anointing as the central ritual in Christianity, recollecting Jesus’s death and pointing forward to his resurrection.”

But what is it that she is actually pointing forward to? What is this Paschal journey from a wisdom standpoint? In the common understanding, Christianity has tended to view the resurrection as Jesus’s triumph over physical death. But for Christians in the wisdom tradition (who include among their ranks the very earliest witnesses to the resurrection) its meaning lies in something far deeper than merely the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus’s real purpose in this sacrifice was to wager his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life. . . . Thus, the real domain of the Paschal Mystery is not dying but dying-to-self. It serves as the archetype for all of our personal experiences of dying and rising to new life along the pathway of kenotic transformation, reminding us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive.

Within the context of the resurrection, then, anointing becomes the ritual most closely associated with the passage from death of self to fullness of life, from egoic alienation to “union on a higher plane.” As such, it conveys the very essence of Christianity’s transformative wisdom.

And its gatekeeper is Mary Magdalene.

Christ Means “Anointed”

Cynthia Bourgeault has spent years studying Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest apostles, often conflated with a prostitute. Cynthia reclaims Magdalene’s significance as Jesus’ beloved companion and a model of authentic love.

Christ is not Jesus’s last name—an obvious but so-often overlooked truism. It means “the anointed one.” And however much his followers may have wished for the ceremonial anointing that would have proclaimed him the Davidic Messiah, the fact is that he became “the Anointed One” at the hands of an unidentified woman who appeared out of nowhere at a private dinner bearing a jar of precious perfume and sealed him with the unction of her love. . . .

I believe that the traditional memory of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s anointer . . . holds the key to . . . understanding . . . the Passion as an act of substituted love. It also . . . offers a powerful ritual access point to the Christian pathway toward singleness and “restoration to fullness of being.” If we are fully to avail ourselves of Mary Magdalene’s wisdom presence today, it will be, I believe, primarily through recovering a wisdom relationship with the ritual of anointing—that is, coming to understand it . . . as an act of conscious love marking the passageway into both physical and spiritual wholeness.

Her passion has transformed her into one of the initiated ones. And in The Cloud of Unknowing, the author recognizes this same quality of passion as the key element that not only frees Mary from her sins but catapults her into unitive consciousness and a state of continuous beatific communion:

When our Lord spoke to Mary as a representative of all sinners who are called to the contemplative life and said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” it was not only because of her great sorrow, nor because of her remembering her sins, nor even because of the meekness with which she regarded her sinfulness. Why then? It was surely because she loved much.

. . . Even though she may not have felt a deep and strong sorrow for her sins . . . she languished more for lack of love than for any remembrance of her sins. . . .

A Hidden Wholeness (Richard Rohr)

At the more mature stages of life, we are even able to allow the painful and the formerly excluded parts to belong to a slowly growing and unified field. This shows itself as a foundational compassion, especially toward all things different from us and those many people who don’t fit society’s standards. If you have forgiven yourself for being imperfect, you can now do it for everybody else too. If you have not forgiven yourself, I am afraid you will likely pass on your sadness, absurdity, judgment, and futility to others. What comes around goes around.

Many who are judgmental and unforgiving seem to have missed out on the joy and clarity of the first childhood simplicity, perhaps avoided the suffering of the mid-life complexity, and thus lost the great freedom and magnanimity of the second naïveté as well. We need to hold together all of the stages of life, and for some strange, wonderful reason, it all becomes quite “simple” as we approach our later years. The great irony is that we must go through a lot of complexity and disorder (another word for necessary suffering) to return to the second simplicity. We must go through the pain of disorder to grow up and switch our loyalties from self to God. Most people just try to maintain their initial “order” at all costs, even if it is killing them.

As we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites. They do not cancel one another out; neither do goodness and badness. There is now room for everything to belong. A radical, almost nonsensical “okayness” characterizes the mature believer, which is why they are often called “holy fools.” We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore. What is, is gradually okay. What is, is the greatest of teachers. At the bottom of all reality is always a deep goodness, or what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness.” [1]

Richard Rohr: Mystical Belonging

Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, for example, defines mysticism as “the experience of limitless belonging” that can be felt by everyone, whether in nature or in parenthood, in community or in love. I think his conception of mysticism pairs well with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s. A scholar of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, Kushner defines a mystic as “anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”

Individuation (Richard Rohr)

Just what are those inner imperatives that rise to support us and challenge us in the journey of the second half of life? Perhaps Jung’s most compelling contribution is the idea of individuation, that is, the lifelong project of becoming more nearly the whole person we were meant to be—what [God] intended, not the parents, or the tribe, or, especially, the easily intimidated or inflated ego.

While revering the mystery of others, our individuation summons each of us to stand in the presence of our own mystery, and become more fully responsible for who we are in this journey we call our life. So often the idea of individuation has been confused with self-indulgence or mere individualism, but what individuation more often asks of us is the surrender of the ego’s agenda of security and emotional reinforcement, in favor of humbling service to the soul’s intent. . . .

The agenda of the first half of life is predominantly . . . framed as “How can I enter this world, separate from my parents, create relationships, career, social identity?” Or put another way: “What does the world ask of me, and what resources can I muster to meet its demands?” But in the second half of life . . . the agenda shifts to reframing our personal experience in the larger order of things, and the questions change. “What does the soul ask of me?” “What does it mean that I am here?” “Who am I apart from my roles, apart from my history?” . . . If the agenda of the first half of life is social, meeting the demands and expectations our milieu asks of us, then the questions of the second half of life are spiritual, addressing the larger issue of meaning.

The psychology of the first half of life is driven by the fantasy of acquisitiongaining ego strength to deal with separation, separating from the overt domination of parents, acquiring a standing in the world. . . . But then the second half of life asks of us, and ultimately demands, relinquishment—relinquishment of identification with property, roles, status, provisional identities—and the embrace of other, inwardly confirmed values.

In Need of Guidance (Richard Rohr)

After he retired, my father cried in my arms and said, “I don’t know who I am now. I don’t know who I am. . . . Pray with me, pray with me.” Here I was a grown-up man, a priest, supposed to be strong for my father. I didn’t know how to do it. I guess I said the appropriate priestly words. But I didn’t know how to guide him into the second half of life, and he was begging for a guide.

The church wasn’t much of a guide in such things. The common sermon was on the evil of abortion. My mom in her 70s would come home and say, “Why does the priest keep telling us the same thing? I can’t have babies anymore!” That’s what happens when the Church doesn’t grow up or support its growing members. We focus on something that’s quantifiable and seemingly clear and has no subtlety to it. It’s mostly black and white thinking, usually about individual body-based sins. We know who the sinners are, and we know who the saints are, and we don’t have to struggle with the mixed blessing that every human being is. We’re all mixed blessings and partly sinners, and we always will be. But this wisdom only comes later, when we’ve learned to listen to the different voices that guide us in the second half of life.

These deeper voices will sound like risk, trust, surrender, uncommon sense, destiny, love. They will be the voices of an intimate stranger, a voice that’s from somewhere else, and yet it’s my deepest self at the same time. It’s the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah slowly but surely learned to hear (see 1 Kings 19:11-13).

Collective Evolution (Richard Rohr)

The success of God’s plan for creation depends on [our] conscious and creative activity to keep the divine plan evolving and developing in the direction God wants for creation.

In the past, no one even imagined that there was some great divine evolutionary plan for creation in which humans were meant to participate as co-creators during their lives on Earth. For centuries, many Christians saw their earthly days as merely a behavioral test for entry into heaven; Earth served merely as their classroom where they prepared for their final exam and hoped to graduate into heaven. . . .

For Teilhard, in contrast, the Christ Project is why God created the evolving universe in the first place. . . . It took the revelations of Jesus Christ plus twenty centuries of theological reflection and centuries of scientific discoveries to tie things all together to begin to identify the grand divine project and the evolutionary law governing it.

The plan is not only that each human being would be “saved” individually, but also that we humans, working together as one family, would consciously cooperate in the creative work of this Universal Being. We are invited to be an integral part of that project. Some participate in it consciously and creatively. Many others, like research scientists and people in the helping professions, cooperate in it, too, even though they may be unaware of the Christ Project by name. . . .