September 25, 2017

Catherine Sheehan: Did Mary Magdalene invent the Easter egg?


Catherine Sheehan interviewed on ABC Melbourne by Andy Bellairs. Source: ABC Radio Melbourne

In researching the history of Easter eggs, I came across a fascinating tradition within the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches that links Mary Magdalene with the invention of the Easter egg.

There are a couple of legends regarding Mary Magdalene and eggs, and slightly different versions of each one. One legend has it that on Easter Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint Christ’s body, she took with her a basket of hard-boiled eggs, perhaps as a repast to share with the women who accompanied her. When the risen Christ appeared to her the eggs in her basket turned bright red. Another version says the eggs changed into rainbow colours. If it is a true story, then these indeed would have been the first Easter eggs.

Yet, another tradition maintains that after the risen Christ had ascended into heaven, Mary Magdalene went to Rome and had an audience with the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar. It was the custom for those visiting the Emperor to take him a gift and Mary took an egg. She rebuked Caesar for the crucifixion of Jesus, carried out by his governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate, and she handed him the egg—a symbol of new life—saying, ‘Christ is risen!’

An icon of St Mary Magdalene depicting her long association with the red Easter egg of many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions. The icon was painted by Catherine Sheehan at the St Luke’s Icon School in Melbourne.

Caesar replied, ‘How could anyone rise from the dead? It is as impossible as it would be for that egg to change from white to red.’ According to the story, as he was saying these words the egg turned blood red.

It is believed that due to this meeting with Mary Magdalene, and her criticism of the Roman Empire for crucifying an innocent man, Caesar had Pontius Pilate removed as governor of Judea and sent to Gaul.

These legends of Mary Magdalene and red-coloured eggs produced the wonderful tradition in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches of painting eggs bright red at Easter time and presenting them as gifts to one another on Easter Sunday—a tradition that persists today.

There are also many beautiful icons painted in the Eastern Christian tradition depicting St Mary Magdalene holding a red egg.

Of course, we can’t ascertain the veracity of these traditional stories, and there is no mention of these incidents in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles. For those of us unfamiliar with this tradition, the linking of Mary Magdalene with eggs may at first seem odd. However, on further reflection it is actually quite appropriate.

The egg can be considered a symbol of the Resurrection, since it signifies new life. The hardness of the shell has been likened to the stone tomb in which Our Lord was laid after his death on the cross. According to the Gospels, Mary Magdalene was the first person on the scene at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning and the first person to see the risen Christ.

She is often referred to as ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’ since she ran to tell Peter and the other Apostles what she had seen and heard at the tomb. Mary Magdalene was the first to proclaim the Resurrection. She was quick to believe, while many of the other Apostles were slow to believe and took some convincing.

Mary Magdalene exhibited enormous love for Jesus Christ and faith in him, and perhaps that is why she was rewarded with being the first witness of the Resurrection.

Her great love for Jesus is evident throughout the Gospel accounts. Not only was she present at the foot of the cross during Christ’s crucifixion, she also stayed close to the place his body was laid after he was taken down from the cross.

In Matthew’s Gospel we are told Mary Magdalene was sitting outside the tomb when the stone was rolled across the door: ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre’ (Matthew 27:61). She and the ‘other Mary’, who was the mother of the Apostles James and John, returned to the tomb soon after dawn on Easter Sunday to anoint the body. There is a strong sense of Mary Magdalene wanting to remain close to Christ.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene remains outside the tomb after Peter and John have inspected the empty sepulchre. Seeing the burial cloths, Peter and John return home full of wonder but Mary remains outside the tomb weeping. There is a sense of her profound grief and her reluctance to leave the tomb, the last place she saw Christ.

When she sees two angels in white sitting inside the tomb and they ask her why she is weeping, her plaintive reply is, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ It is possible to imagine Mary’s tear-stained face and her voice full of grief, exhaustion, confusion and fear. She just wants to see the Lord again. After witnessing the agony and trauma of the cross, she has seen her Lord buried in a stone-cold tomb, and now his body is missing.

And then comes one of the most joyful and beautiful moments in the Gospel accounts. Mary sees a man whom she thinks is the gardener—a perfectly understandable mistake given that we are told the tomb was in a garden (John 19:41). The man repeats the question of the angels: ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?’

Again Mary replies in her sorrow, ‘Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ She cares for nothing but finding her Lord.

Then Jesus speaks one word, just one word that turns her sorrow to joy. He speaks her name. ‘Mary,’ he says, and immediately she knows it is he. Her eyes are opened, just as the eyes of the two disciples at Emmaus were opened at the breaking of the bread.

Who can imagine the deep and profound joy of Mary Magdalene at that moment? Her sorrow and grief turn into wonder, awe and joy in an instant.  Christ then asks her to go and give the good news to the other Apostles, making her the ‘Apostle to the Apostles’.

So this Easter as you crack open an egg, you may wish to reflect on Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb and her sorrow turning to joy as she encountered the risen Christ on that happy Easter morn. The stone-cold shell of the sepulchre is cracked open and life issues forth—love conquers death. Just when everything seemed lost, all is made new again.

May we all have the same faithful love of St Mary Magdalene for Jesus Christ.

This article originally appeared in Melbourne Catholic last year and can be viewed here.

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