Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.
Earlier this year our Holy Father Pope Francis elevated the memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene to a feast, an honor ordinarily bestowed on apostles and major saints. You can be sure conservatives and liberals within and without the Church will have plenty of opinions about the significance of the Pope's decision.
"The Magdalene" has been a fascinating woman throughout our history as artists, authors, composers and film makers speculated about her exact relationship with Jesus. With Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics , the woman in Jesus Christ Superstar sings "I don't know how to love him." while Jesus sleeps in her bed. As popular as that musical and song were, I remember no protests about that scene. Many people assume she was his wife.
The editors who chose the first readings of today's feast must have considered this irresolvable controversy as they offered a choice of Song of Songs 3:1-4b or 2 Corinthians 5:14-17. The latter, which I preferred to lead this reflection, invites a tamer, safer reflection about Jesus and Mary Magdalene:
...from now on we regard no one according to the flesh....
My current favorite philosopher, the Scotsman John Macmurray, considered three levels of being: the mechanical, organic and personal. Mechanical concerns the physical sciences from astronomy and geology to hydraulics and systems analysis. A government, business or army wants to operate with machine-like efficiency. Organic considers life in its many forms, according to the flesh. It is sensitive to time and season and changing circumstances. Life forms interact with the environment, absorbing and adapting it to fit their needs. Sexuality appears on the organic level; it concerns the "decision" to embrace rapid evolution with its cost of death. (Some lower forms of life are asexual and may live for billions of years.) Only human beings are capable of personal existence, but it comes with a price.
We know ourselves as creatures in time, with a past, present and future. We realize our decisions are both consequential and irrevocable.
Accepting the pleasure of sexuality we recognize the unavoidable curse of death.
The human person cannot regard other human beings as (mechanical) things to be used; nor be satisfied with (organic/animal) pleasures. Those who attempt to live simply on the organic level, consuming and manipulating others, suffer unbearable loneliness.
We need others and not just to satisfy our physical desires.
Within Macmurray's line of thought, Jesus is the Person who calls us to personhood through his acceptance of death. Embracing him we embrace death, for he has told us to "take up your cross and follow me." Paradoxically, the cross seems to be a bottomless well of self-abandonment in which we find simultaneously the ecstasy of, and longing for, communion. Jesus would never use or abuse the opportunity Mary Magdalene may have offered him. Rather he regarded no one according to the flesh. In today's gospel, even as she embraces the Risen Man in an ecstasy of joy, he must say "Stop holding on to me...." Although he has been crucified, buried and raised from the dead, their relationship is not essentially changed because it was from the beginning that of one person to another. Our organic, animal nature is subject to death; our personal nature, apparently, is not. However, unlike the material and organic natures, there is a tragedy involved on this third plane of existence: not every human being attains personhood. At least, we cannot assume they do. Some people apparently never discover that other human beings have feelings, sensibilities and needs unlike their own. They regard other people as objects and animals, as obstacles or allies, to be used for their own purposes. Saint Paul said of them, "Their gods are their stomachs."Their fate, it seems, is to be reabsorbed into the dirt of the earth along with every other plant and animal. Finally, just as Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene to announce his resurrection to his disciples, a personal relationship necessarily invites others to personhood. The married couple has children; the religious community invites new members; the Church evangelizes, and so forth. That invitation must go out to the ends of the Earth. This Gospel cannot be contained.