For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
The First Witness
In all four accounts of the Gospel, the first person mentioned as a witness to the event of the Resurrection of Christ, the foundation of our Christian faith, is Mary Magdalene. There were other women, but she is the most consistently named and always the first.
As in other powerful moments during Holy Week, so at this moment of the Resurrection the Church of the East enters into the heart of one of the personalities of the Gospel and expresses herself through her. A few days earlier, we joined Peter at the precise moment when he had denied Christ the third time and had broken down and wept. The precise moment we join Mary Magdalene is also of high significance: it is not when she first saw the tomb empty when she was with the other women, but rather after she had run back to tell the apostles, returned to the tomb with them, waited until Peter and John had left, and was sitting there alone, in the coolness of the early morning. This, the quietest moment of the story, is the most marvelous and the one during which our hymn takes place.
The tenderness of Mary Magdalene’s sentiment is well expressed, and the entry into her psyche and her memory is powerful: Around the tomb, Mary cried “Have pity on me!” for she was remembering you who made her a dwelling of your love, instead of a dwelling of demons.
In the stillness around her, Mary recalled the goodness of the Lord who had saved her from demonic possession, one of the few actual facts recorded about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. This Jesus who had changed her life completely, who had taken her from misery and given her healing of body and soul, the one whom she followed thereafter, had been killed a few days before: She had bought spices to perfume your honorable body, in which the scent of our mortal race was perfumed.
Our author begins to move from historic and psychological analysis to a more poetic endeavor, comparing the spices Mary brought to disguise the scent of what she thought would be a decaying body to the graces poured out by the death of Christ. What is brought out by this image is the contrast between the human race in sin and the Body of Christ: we are the ones who are dead and rotting, and in need of the perfume of grace that comes from the Body of Christ, not the other way around.
The hymn ends in a remarkable display of delicacy. We know from the Gospel accounts that Mary then saw Christ himself, but confused him for a gardener. This image is utilized poetically by our author, while the actual event of the meeting is not referred to at all. It is almost as if it is too dramatic a meeting to be described. Mary Magdalene prays silently: “By your Resurrection, O Good Lord of the deceased, I beg you, O Tree of Live, who raised Adam who transgressed, O Fruit that our race did not want to taste, my Savior, may the dew of your mercies sprinkle me!”
The image of the gardener brings everything together – not simply the theological richness of the scene, but the very history of salvation. Adam sinned by tasting from the wrong tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The other tree, the tree of life, was left aside by Adam and, after his sin, guarded by an angel. The vegetation of the garden of Eden is brought to the forefront by our hymn, and Christ himself is named both the Tree of Life and the Fruit of Immortality that is eaten and which destroys death. Mary ends her prayer by a final natural image: because we are unworthy to approach the Tree of Life, we must be purified first by the dew of Christ’s mercies – dew, the water found on plants in the early morning, which both cleanses and nourishes.
Because our faith is not simply spiritualism, belief in some mystical philosophy, but is Incarnate, that is, tied to historical events and especially to a historical personage, Jesus Christ, the fact of the Resurrection is of highest importance. In fact, in 1 Corinthians, St. Paul states that if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain. Christianity, then, is not like Buddhism or Platonism or even Communism: it is not simply a set of ideas claiming to make sense of the universe. It is more than that, and its foundation is not any floating, sinuous idea. Its foundation is Christ himself, and his Resurrection; its foundation is the empty tomb, seen first by Mary Magdalene and witnessed by the disciples.
In light of this, the second segment of the Basilica Hymn of Easter, the greatest feast of the liturgical year, is an argument for the Resurrection. It is as if we are the jury looking at the evidence of what truly happened on that day, and the author is the lawyer defending the Christian faith: After your glorious Resurrection, an evil and deceitful people made centurions stand to guard your tomb. Woe to that unbelieving people! If they killed and buried, why were they standing guard? And if they were terrified of you, how did they dare crucify you? Indeed, your Resurrection on the third day has shamed your crucifiers, and gladdened your Church. Glory to you!
Though it happened to be the priests and elders of the Jewish people at the time of Christ who conspired to crucify him and who asked for Roman guards to be placed at the tomb, it is to any who do not believe that our author gives “woe.” That is, the point is not a nationality but a lack of faith.
The argument itself is based on the self-contradicting actions of the nonbelievers: having the audacity to crucify the Messiah, they fear his disciples may steal his body. One the one hand they are anxious enough to call on the help of the Roman army, on the other hand they are bold enough to put a man to death. But the end, the presence of the Roman soldiers became another piece of evidence for the Resurrection, for it makes it much more difficult to believe that the disciples could steal the body: Indeed, your Resurrection on the third day has shamed your crucifiers, and gladdened your Church. Glory to you!