fearful but overjoyed

In the time between Mary Magdalene seeing the Risen Christ and telling the disciples, she was the church on earth. Fr. James Martin, SJ

She’s my confirmation saint, because when she went out and told the men they didn’t believe her. Kaya Oakes

All Saints Day, I know, is meant to be about the many non-canonized saints, the many anonymous souls in heaven, the ones we get to discover when we get there. I love it. It’s my favorite holiday and it ain’t even close. It’s so me: commemorate ALL THE SAINTS! It’s great. It’s a good reminder that when it feels like all the stories we tell about our faith blend into each other (I mean, really, some days it feels like all I see when I try to find female Christian role models are indistinguishable martyrs and monastics), there are countless untold stories, and ours must one day be among them. How good is that, how necessary and how real.

And yet…one of the things I love dearly about All Saints Day is how it brings out the individual litany of each member of the faithful. My friends are tweeting about their faves—the badass St. Denis, the new-to-me Ven. Andrew Borello, the joyous name-saints of Clare, Bede, and Mary Magdalene—and it’s like a window into everyone’s intimate spiritual families. I love this about All Saints Day, because for all the fundamentals of the faith that my Christian friends and I share, we relate to it in such diverse and personal ways.

The saints made and kept me Christian, they always have. I love, love, love this part of our faith. And there are a lot of saints whose stories, and meaning to me, I could share with you. I’m sure over time I will. But there’s one saint I’ve been feeling a lot lately, the one at the top of this post. Mary Magdalene has shown up at many poignant moments in my life. I happened to spend her feast day in my favorite church on earth, Barcelona’s Maria del Mar, in 2010; of all the paintings in London’s National Gallery and Madrid’s el Prado, both times I was struck by paintings of Mary Magdalene and spent the longest time with them; and the single sentence that most motivated me to stay Christian by becoming Orthodox during college was uttered in her honor. But she’s never been a saint I immediately think of as a favorite or a friend. Just someone who comes up from time to time in the background to encourage and enlighten, before stepping away on other business.

She’s back these days, this founder of the Church. In a time when I most feel the need to get “back to basics,” to revisit why it is I love this faith at all, to strip away the culture and the history and just get close to the gospel that came before the rest of it, she’s the best guide I could ask for. She didn’t care that the gospel would make her look crazy. She went and made of all disciples. We have her to thank for our faith, this woman who couldn’t help but preach.

I mean, goals.

I have a bad habit of ignoring homilies. Not just when a priest finds preaching particularly challenging, or when I find their preaching particularly challenging—just generally, I find them to be an uncompelling interruption into the liturgy. But one of the few homilies that really made an impact on me was given at an Easter morning Mass at my childhood parish, sometime perhaps in middle school. The priest fixed on one phrase in particular in the gospel of resurrection: “fearful but overjoyed.”

That’s how it says Mary Magdalene, and the other women at the tomb, felt. “Fearful but overjoyed.” He went on to unpack this—they had every reason to be fearful. Everything they knew about the way the world worked had just turned upside down. There were two things that were always supposed to win: death and the Romans. Can you imagine being the only people in the world who knew that was no longer the case? And being women on top of that? It’s urgent everybody know—and it’s scary to think what will happen to me if and when they don’t believe me!

And still they managed joy. They couldn’t help it. All that fear and anxiety didn’t go away, it just got outweighed by the good news spilling off their tongues.

That’s what all the saints did. They were every bit as fearful as we are—of social pressure, of personal consequences, of changing their way of life, of challenges much scarier than we have to face—but they were so overjoyed that they couldn’t help themselves. I think that’s what we’ll find when we get to meet the great heavenly host. So many of us just tripped over ourselves into heaven, like Peter running excitedly on water. Let’s get lost in the joy a little bit.

Happy feast of All Saints! Mary Magdalene, and all saints, pray for us.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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