Which Mary in the Garden?

One of the bits of Christian tradition that I always find interesting is the interaction and really competition that has gone on between stories and attributes of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. There has been a lot more competition than the average Christian today would guess and most of it has been the Blessed Virgin Mary’s accumulation of Mary Magdalene’s story. In my great grandparents village, Castelventrano Sicily, they hold an Aurora procession at first light on Easter morning.

Aurora procession in Castelvetrano, Sicily
Aurora procession in Castelvetrano, Sicily

The novelty of this procession is that it celebrates a meeting between the risen Christ and his mother on Easter morning. In this village, the Virgin Mary has drawn in Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Christ in the garden. Over the years reading on Marian folklore and traditions, I know that this village is not the only place where this migration between Marys has occurred. There seems to be an assumption that Christ must have visited his mother before he would visit anyone else. This is all extra-biblical tradition because the bible has no hint of a meeting between Christ and his mother on Easter or the days immediately following. In fact the Virgin Mary isn’t mentioned again until Pentecost where she is among the apostles and other close followers in the upper room.

Much of this has to do with social attitudes toward motherhood than anything else. Sicily has a convoluted attitude toward motherhood. On the one hand, it has been a male dominated society. On the other, mothers rule the home and make up a social web that underpins society. It is also a society with several thousand years of focus on divine mothers. Recall that Sicily is Persephone’s island and her mother Demeter was the primary goddess in pre-Christian times. The spring festitval is the time of Persephone and Demeter, when Persephone returns to earth from Hades bringing new life, and as goddess of grain- the bread of life. It would be tempting to see a link between the Risen Lord meeting his mother on Easter morning and Peresephone meeting her mother Demeter on her annual spring return from Hades, but that would not be true. The Aurora festival was introduced to western Sicily in c. 1660 by Discalced Carmelites of Santa Terea. It is unclear if they originated the meeting with the Madonna or if it was originally the holy women. What is sure is that Sicily has embraced this particular varient of tradition and the entire island has a very strong devotion to the Madonna.

Addendum: Jon Sweeney tracks down a source for this tradition to Caxton’s Golden Legend.

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