Presiding in celebration of a Saint for the first time today, so needed to come up with some reflections on St. Mary Magdalene:
Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.
The woman we remember today has had so much imposed upon her since she was first captured for posterity in the pages of scripture that it is difficult to untangle the things that we really know of her, from the the things that have been assumed, conflated with others; impressions and fables captured in art and in literature, both learned and less so. I make no pretence to be doing anything other than adding to the layers of uses to which her character, her actions and her faith have been put, but I do so because her story is one that brings us within touching distance of Jesus, a fact that I think lies at the heart of her universal appeal to both the Christian and secular imagination down the centuries.
We can be pretty sure that this Mary was an independent woman from the lakeside town of Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee. Why independent? Well because in scripture she takes her name from the place, rather than from her nearest male relative (Hebblethwaite, p116-7) as is otherwise the case in the Gospel’s and context of the time. The myth of her sinful past may well rest on the absence of these reassuring family ties, and, the layer of assumption that her closest relationship with a man appears to have been with Jesus (Hebblethwaite, p116-7), has no doubt contributed to more romantic notions than scripture actually provides evidence for.
We can be pretty sure that despite the red dress of so many artistic impressions of this woman, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. Too long has her story been conflated with those of the sinner who touches Jesus in Luke 7:39 (who was not necessarily a woman of easy virtue herself, if our modern understanding of language is accurate), and Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus in John 12 whose character has likewise been prostituted (Hebblethwaite, p119).
Scripture does testify, more than once, to the fact that Mary of Magdala had mental health issues when she first encountered Jesus, for her seven demons are referred to in Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 (Hebblethwaite, p120). The number seven probably only suggests the severity of her illness, not its nature and cause, which have themselves become a rich source for the imagination of more modern writers and theologians, wanting to encourage a more positive pastoral attitude to mental health care through the example of Jesus’ ministry to her. And yet scripture gives us no detail of this healing encounter with our Lord, perhaps because as some have suggested it took place over the months and years of their friendship during Jesus’ travels, rather than in one single, miraculous encounter (Hebblethwaite, p120).
Our chief evidence for the action, character and ministry of Mary Magdalene is in the scripture that forms our Gospel on this her Feast Day. Here, is a woman who (possibly with others) wanted to give the body of the crucified teacher the reverence it was due, to fill the void which being witness to his murder had created in her life. But the emptiness she initially encounters is even greater than anticipated, as she reaches a tomb devoid of the healing (John 20:1) that a graveside watch can bring.
As was the case at the crucifixion, once the initial encounter with the confusion of Christ’s resurrection is made, the men who perhaps she hoped might support her in their shared perplexity, vanish. So she weeps alone with a grief that soaks through the layers of her life as well as her clothes. It has been said that ‘maybe you can only see angels through tears’ (Wright, p146) and I know that’s been true for me: Mary seems suddenly devoid of hope because all she thought she understood has been taken away, but the presence of angels creates the questioning that cuts through her desolation.
Possibly the most consistent point of reflection through all the layers of Magdalene myths is the scriptural evidence that it is not only angels she sees, but the risen Lord himself whom she finally encounters and recognises by the use of her name: Mary….. As she reaches out to cling to the one that brought her healing, she comes up against another stage in that very process, one that does not rebuff, but invites her to re-enter the independent life with which she first encountered Jesus, but now without the luggage of illness with which she had previously been encumbered. As the Apostle to the Apostles (Wright, p147), sent to share the good news of the reality of the resurrected Christ with those who had run too soon to witness it themselves, Mary of Magdala finally receives the freedom (inspired by Mann, p55) that comes with true healing and renewed purpose.
I wonder how much the layers of people’s suppositions about our histories and our characters weigh upon our lives? People think they know something about us when they glimpse a few simple facts that might include our marital status (past or present), a bereavement or an illness.
Likewise, we may grudgingly recognise that in the light of the snapshots we see of others’ lives week by week, whether in their homes, the shops or in the national headlines, we impose our own layers of conjecture as to how they understand themselves, their spiritual journeys and their encounters with God.
Like Mary Magdalene, what we need to encounter for ourselves is not only the healing that comes from being a follower of Christ – happy to stay on the road with him week by week and willing to stand at the cross of his suffering with others – but also to encounter the emptiness of those places and relationships where initially he seems absent. We have to trust Jesus to reveal himself to others, not only in those places where we except him, like here in a much-beloved church, but in the places where perhaps we have given up looking for him.
On finding the place where they expected to find Jesus, many have run away, because they were looking for someone who had died. The freedom of the resurrection, the hope that Mary of Magdala was the first understand, was that sometimes it is only when we stop and sit with weeping with our broken expectations, that we encounter the living Christ. Only in that encounter, wherever or in whoever it is formed, will we know not only freedom, but the purpose to which Jesus is sending us back into the world in which he calls us to live day by day.
The books I’ve used as resources and inspiration are Rachel Mann’s “The Risen Dust – Poems and stories of passion and resurrection”, Margaret Hebblethwaite’s “Six New Gospels – New Testament Women Tell Their Stories” and Tom Wright’s “John for Everyone – Part 2”