Maudlin Preaching

Should joy characterize our Christian lives and evangelical efforts? The knee-jerk swiftness with which we all reply to this soft-headed question shows that we’ve come to accept the crucial importance of a happy, joyful witness to Jesus Christ. We’ve learned the evangelical power of a smile, of laughter, which can dispel the (strangely resilient) notion that to be Christian is to be a sourpuss moralist, with stuffy pieties and an anti-human puritanism.  

That particular lesson has been learned, or if it hasn’t, spend an afternoon with the Holy Father’s Evangelii Gaudium. Now, what about the place of tears, of weeping in our preaching?

I remember being startled, in paging through some Dominican book or other, by the sight of “St. Mary Magdalene, O.P.” As the “apostle to the apostles,” a sort of proto-preacher, today’s saint is honored by Dominicans as a patroness of the Order of Preachers. A key scene in John’s Gospel provides a marvelous image of preaching à la Magdalene, especially in its illustration of the part tears have to play in our preaching of the joyous Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In John’s narration of Easter morning, it’s Mary Magdalene who brings the news of an empty tomb to the disciples. Mary’s proto-preaching propels people to the tomb of Christ, to an encounter with the Resurrection. Preaching à la Magdalene means drawing people into the experience of being tombside on Easter, to the proximity and complex emotional reality of that saving event.

After Peter and John leave the tomb, Mary stays, weeping. In contrast to the disciples, who saw the empty tomb, believed, and then headed home, Mary’s reaction is to stand, wait, and weep. Mary Magdalene shows how patience and grief are compatible, or better, flow from her love for the Lord. Far from a sign of hopelessness, Mary’s weeping points to the love that holds her there, patiently waiting, looking for her Lord.

Jesus’s reaction to her mourning is striking. His question, “Why are you weeping?” is not a rejection of her grief. In fact, Mary’s weeping is over his absence. It’s a cry de profundis of a heart’s longing for her savior. In Mary’s own life, we recall, Jesus had been absent—as when she was possessed by no less than seven demons. That was an absence not understood until he entered her life. But Jesus’s death introduces a new absence: the loss of a beloved, of her Savior and Lord. Jesus’s presence made possible, paradoxically, the experience of a new sort of absence. She knows the abyssal loneliness of a life without Christ.

Jesus does not reject Mary’s grief. Like the gardener Mary mistakes him for, he “dresses” and channels her grief, giving it the force and direction to irrigate other hearts, left to dry, harden, and crack under the heavy heat and pressure of pain, loss, sin. In short, he makes her weeping a source of her preaching of his Resurrection.

We have stories of St. Dominic’s nocturnal prayers, during which the friars could hear him weeping and crying out: “What will become of sinners?” This question on Dominic’s lips could as easily have been on Mary Magdalene’s that morning. If the Lord is absent, we are left with vanities, emptiness. Mary Magdalene’s stand by the tomb is her cry to the Lord, “What will become of us, if you are no longer with us?”

Today our capacity for grief is put in question by the sheer amount and amplitude of the evils that afflict our world. Terror attacks drain and diminish our abilities to respond, to mourn, and we stare, horrified but too often dry-eyed, at the blank face of evil. In such darkness, Jesus’s words ring out through the horrors of his via crucis: “Weep for yourselves and for your children.” Weep for the absence of the Lord of Life from the lives of his children. What will become of sinners? We have the audacity to hope, by God’s mercy, that salvation is possible and attainable. We are indeed an Easter people, and it’s for this reason that we’re unafraid to stand, weeping in joyful hope.

May all our preaching of the Good News be, in some measure, maudlin.

Image: Colijn de Coter, The Mourning Mary Magdalene

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Br. Paul Clarke entered the Order of Preachers in 2013. He is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he studied philosophy. On DominicanFriars.org