Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Story of the Easter Egg

The Eastern Church has preserved a very different portrait of Mary Magdalene than the ideas about her that predominated for centuries in the Western Church, where she has been conflated and confused with the nameless “woman of the city” who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears (among others). The Eastern Church remembers her as a cultured and intelligent woman, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant family from the seaport town of Magdala. This is what gave her the resources and influence to support Jesus in his ministry. Because Jesus appeared first to her in resurrected form, and commissioned her to go tell the rest of the disciples this amazing good news, she is honored with the title: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “First Apostle” – the word “apostle” meaning: “One who is sent.”

After the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the early Christian community, Mary Magdalene traveled with John to preach and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Her ability made her a leader in the early Community and gained her admission into the homes of many influential families. This was how she came to attend a banquet where the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, was present. During the meal, she talked of Jesus and told the story of his Resurrection. Tiberius scoffed: “No one rises from the dead!” He pointed at a platter of hard-boiled eggs on the table in front of them. “Why, a man could rise from the dead no more than these white eggs could turn red!”

Mary Magdalene reached out and picked up one of the eggs, which turned bright red in her hand – right before the eyes of the Emperor. This sign so astonished Tiberius that he asked her for more of the story. It is documented in the administrative accounts that survive from the Roman Empire that Pontius Pilate, known for years as a ruthless “hanging judge” maintained colonial power in Judea and Palestine by crucifying anyone who caused any kind of disturbance. And for years, that was fine with Rome. But at about the same time as the banquet story may have happened, Pilate was abruptly fired and recalled, because of the indiscriminate crucifixions he had been inflicting on the people of Jerusalem. What caused this sudden change of a long-standing policy?

Perhaps it really was the dinner conversation that Mary Magdalene had with the only man in the Empire who could have given the order to fire an Imperial Governor for punishing people too harshly. At any rate, this story is where the practice of dyeing Easter eggs bright colors is said to come from. In Orthodox churches, at the end of the Great Easter Liturgy, baskets of eggs, colored solid red, are blessed by the priests, and distributed by deacons to each person in the congregation as part of the Communion service. This is to remember Mary Magdalene and her part in the Resurrection story of Easter with these ancient symbols of Spring, rebirth and new life.

This icon of the “Apostle to the Apostles” by Robert Lentz depicts Mary Magdalene wearing the red robes that are the attribute of witnesses, “martyrs” of the Church. She holds an egg and points to it. The writing beneath reads: “Saint Mary Magdalene” in Syraic, a dialect of the language she spoke, along with Jesus. It was commissioned for the consecration of Barbara Harris, first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.

Written by Lisa Bellan-Boyer, St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011

Mary Magdalene icon by Robert Lentz, available from the online catalog of Trinity Stores.
 

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