Mary Magdalene 2018
Today we celebrate one of, if not the most important woman in the New Testament. Having this church dedicated to her, and celebrating her every year, as well as on Easter Day of course, gives us a special relationship with someone who has become more and more interesting as the years go by. More or less consigned to oblivion in a haze of misinformation and scandal in the past, Mary Magdalene has recently had a movie made about her, and in recent years authors such as Dan Brown have given her all sorts of special meaning, status and mythology, such that it is now almost mainstream to talk about her as though she might well have been Jesus’ wife. Such an anachronism is of course a swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction, because as everyone knows, when you peer into the dark well of history, what you see is a reflection of your own face. History does not ‘exist’ as such, it is rather the process of examining the past, and the person doing the examining can never be impartial, non-existent, unbiased or transparent. Which is not to say we cannot study or take an interest in history - far from it - we should and we must - but history - linguistically and actually - is made up of stories, and all stories are told by someone, to someone else. Be it a bedtime story, a gospel narrative, a parable or an account of a Brexit vote, the teller is part of the story - the storyteller is always a character themselves. And so is the reader or listener.
So we must not forget this when we think, or speak about our girl - Mary of Magdala. Who was, in fact called Miriam anyway.
We first meet her in Luke. Chapter 8 reports:
“Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”
From then on, she appears in the lists of people who followed Jesus, and is one of the very few women mentioned by name all the time. This is quite surprising because the position of women in Hebrew society in Jesus’ day usually depended on the nearest male relative - father, husband or brother. Women were not allowed to testify in court. In effect, this categorized them with Gentiles, minors, deaf-mutes and “undesirables”, among whom were also counted shepherds, by the way.
Customarily, even a woman of stature could not engage in commerce and would rarely be seen outside her home. Only a woman in dire economic straits, who was forced to become the family breadwinner, could engage in her own small trade. If she was ever in the streets, she had to be heavily veiled and was prohibited from conversing with men. The rabbinical tradition of the day declared: “It is the way of a woman to stay at home and it is the way of a man to go out into the marketplace”. The same approach is still kept in many Islamic societies today, and you don’t need me to remind you how controversial this is nowadays. Some people find this liberating, others, oppressive.
But that was how it was. So it is certainly surprising that she is named in the gospels, and holds any place at all in the roll of honour of Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus did not feel bound by all these rules and actively machinated against them. He was interested in the weak, the powerless - women and children - the poor. He wanted to open up our relationship with God, rather than with hard and fast tradition. So Jesus broke taboos. He offered his teachings freely to anyone who would listen - women and men. He actually speaks to women in public: The ‘woman at the well’ is perhaps the best known of these. The Syrio-Phoenician woman, the Canaanite woman, the mother of James and John, and the girl he touched to raise back to life and the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, to mention just a few. Even the disciples were shocked.
To some extent, Luke’s is the feminist gospel, in which he shows us Jesus publicly associating with women. Some were women of high standing in society, some were women of ill repute; and some even had been possessed by demons. One of these was Mary Magdalene, who in great thankfulness stayed with him until the moment he died. She returned to his grave as soon as possible afterwards and was rewarded for posterity by being the first person to whom our Lord - and her Lord - appeared after his resurrection.
And this is the key to, and the reason why, we know about her at all. She was the first witness to the Resurrection - the first person to see and to speak to the Risen Lord. And the truth of this improbable fact is never disputed - Mary Magdalene was a real person. All four Gospels name her at the tomb.
But as the growing Christian church became more paternalistic, theologians in later centuries consciously tried to downplay her role as an influential follower of Jesus. It’s not that they doubted her reliability, but rather wanted to downplay her influence. Just as today, when a leader of a large country across the water wants to take credit for something, one of the ways to do it is to discredit those whose claim to fame might get in the way. So while Luke put Mary Magdalene in pole position, the early church sent her into the pits. She became identified with the “sinful woman” in Luke 7 whom Jesus forgives as she anoints his feet, as well as the woman “taken in adultery” whom Jesus saved from stoning in John 8. In the sixth century Pope Gregory preached about her as a model penitent.
But it is only the Western - that is Roman - church which has ever said that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. The Eastern church has always honoured her as an apostle, noting her as the “apostle to the apostles,” based on the account of the Gospel of John where Jesus calls her by name and tells her to give the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.
So if the Bible seems confused about whether there is one Mary, or two or three, there are so many other legends and rumours and stories about her – which have brought us to the place where some people will take it as received wisdom that she was married to Jesus and they had children. There is of course, no solid evidence for any such thing. Maybe she was Jesus’ wife or lover - we will, and can, never know. It is a question we cannot ask of history, because our own influence on the answer will make it unreliable. The people who believe and say she was Jesus’ wife want her to have been Jesus’ wife. And those who cannot stomach the idea will always deny it.
We don’t even know for sure where she was born and where she died. Debate rages about where Magdala actually was. But whoever she was, and whatever she did or did not do, whether she was a former prostitute or a perfectly respectable woman who had become ill and Jesus had healed, it is clear that she had a special place in the group of people surrounding him. And because she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and went to tell the other disciples about it, she is known as “The Apostle to the Apostles”. Who she was - her history, as it were is far less important than what can we learn from her.
For sure, she loved Jesus. She followed him and the disciples as one of the group of women that provided the logistics for the mission. According to one source, she was well off. We know that she was healed of something by Jesus. This means, at least, that she allowed Jesus to make her whole. She openly submitted herself to the wholeness and healing that Jesus offered. That means that she had faith: strong faith, faith that hung on, even to Calvary. As Jesus hung on the Cross, she hung on to him - and everyone else fled. So it is perhaps not so surprising that after that she would make the perilous journey to the garden early on the first day of the week, to anoint his body properly.
Faith - courage - tenacity and love: These are wonderful qualities to celebrate. Faith, hope and love, even. In faith, hope and love, Mary turned around in the service of the Master. The Greeks even have a tradition, celebrated on the wall of the church of St Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, that after the resurrection Mary went to see Pontius Pilate, and using an egg as a visual aid, helped him convert to became a disciple himself. So Mary is an example, not only of mission to the disciples - ‘come and see, I have seen the Lord’ - but also to the gentiles - to those outside Judaism, for whom Christ, radically, also died and rose again. So, Mary Magdalene - the tart with a heart? - or Miriam the Missionary, called by Christ to be an apostle, in whose footsteps every single one of us walks, like her, assured of Christ’s forgiveness, healing and love.
She is an example to us all, and on this day especially, we the people who bear her name in our church, we thank God for her, now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/07/18