Written by Jennifer Ristine
After 15 months of giving tours in Magdala, the motto “Crossroads of Jewish and Christian History” slides off my tongue without a second thought about its significance. But recently the motto came alive for me during prayer. Praying with an Old Testament love song, The Song of Songs, conjured up images of a New Testament story of a Jewish woman’s encounter with Jesus. It is the story of Mary Magdalene. The mosaic chapel of Jesus setting her free of possession by 7 demons flashed into my mind.
But I was surprised at the passage that touchingly conveyed the mosaic image:
Scarcely had I passed them
when I found the one my heart loves.
I held him and would not let him go
till I had brought him to my mother’s house,
to the room of the one who conceived me (NIV, Song of Songs 3:4)
The Song of Songs reveals a dialogue between the Lover and his beloved, leading to a consummating union between the two. The Lover, interpreted as the Lord, has professed the beauty of his beloved. The beloved is often seen as the People of God wandering in exile due to their sinful state, yet in the hope of arriving to the Promised Land. The beloved has also been interpreted in a spiritual sense as each soul in search of the intimate union with God to which we are all called. But I asked myself, why would the Lover profess the beauty of one that is stained by sin? The answer came in that passage.
When the beloved seeks and finds her Lover, God, she holds onto him, not wanting to let Him go. She brings Him into her mother’s house to the place where she was conceived. This return to the place of conception caught my attention. It speaks of returning to the place of origin. Conception is considered the fruit of the union of love between man and woman. And, if sadly this was not the case, it is nonetheless the moment of creation by which God the Father’s love creates. To take one’s lover to the place of conception is to return in memory to an original identity and the reason for one’s existence…LOVE.
Let us return to our original identity. God created humanity to be an image of Himself, an image of the unfathomable depths of love that exist between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Triune God. We were born of love and are called to image this love. To remember this identity, to return to the truth of self, frees us to more fully live according to our great calling.
Yet, human experience as well as revelation point to the human person’s disfigured image. How difficult it is to truly love. Without a doubt, there’s a need to “restore” the original image God created. And this is made possible by the Ultimate Lover, Jesus, the Redeemer, through the Holy Spirit. Hope remains. Beauty can be restored. This brings us to the story of Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene, a woman possessed of 7 demons, certainly does not conjure up a picture of beauty. This possession of evil spirits is starkly represented in the Duc In Altum mosaic in Magdala with one large snake and 6 little black devils hideously creeping out from behind her back. Yet Jesus looks upon Mary Magdalene and sees her beauty. He sees her original beauty, as God sees and knows the original beauty with which He created humanity. And he sees the new beauty he will bestow upon her as he sets her free of the 7 demons. Furthermore, he sees my original beauty and the beauty he wishes to bestow upon me. Likely the disfigured original beauty will be purified in fire, burnt to ashes, yet restored more brilliantly than even before.
Firmly established in this truth I rejoice two times over with words from both the Old and New Testaments: “I praise the Lord for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and I am now a new creation in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:17). My heart echoes the beloved’s sentiments in the Song of Songs (2:10-11) who hears her lover speak,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come.”
Yes, the Old has passed, the New has come. Yet, we are all the more beautiful precisely because of the two.