Patronal Festival 2021: St Mary Magdalene
St Mary Magdalene is our patron saint: but why do we have patron saints and what do they do for us?
The custom goes all the way back to the fourth century -1600 years! Churches were named after a local martyr, like St Alban. Sometime a church possessed the relics of a saint and so they were named after that saint. And sometimes they were named after a saint who was considered especially powerful as an intercessor, someone like the Blessed Virgin Mary or St Peter, who would pray for the people of a church that was named in their honor.
St Mary Magdalene was a particularly popular choice in the middle ages because she is such a spectacular example of a damaged person who became a saint.[As the Anglican theologian Alison Milbank has said], that is why she holds out hope to everyone.
The tradition is that her bones were taken to the south of France after her death and from there, to Vezelay in Burgundy when a Saracen invasion threatened her original resting place. The basilica of St Mary Magdalene at Vezelay was built in the twelfth century and is one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Perhaps we should go there on pilgrimage together one day. We could see what is to be claimed one of her ribs.
Whatever you think of the medieval veneration of the saints, I believe that the key reasons why Mary Magdalene mattered to medieval Christians are equally important to us today.
Those reasons are: first, her closeness to our Lord, and secondly her closeness to suffering.
We know from St Luke’s Gospel that Christ expelled seven demons from her. The number seven here marks the severity of her illness. It was believed then that sickness was an invasion by the spirits of the dead, which was to be attacked by death itself. And Mary’s gratitude for that life saving rescue was shown in her becoming one of a group of women disciples who followed Jesus and ministered to Him out of their resources. Like Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward, she is not named for her husband or her son and so she must have been a widow and probably one with some property. She ministered to Jesus which means she gave Him money, she supported Him, and she’s named not by family ties but by where she comes from – Magdala – a fishing port on the shore of the sea of Galilee not far from Herod’s newly built city of Tiberias.
Only a widow usually had such freedom of movement, which meant Mary Magdalene could follow Jesus all the way to the cross, and beyond. A reading from the Song of Songs for her feast day emphasizes her closeness to Jesus and her sense of dereliction when he died. I sought him but I did not find him. I called him but he did not answer.
I have given you a picture today, which is a detail from a lovely charcoal drawing by Michael Cook. One side show Mary in her utter sadness. She is garlanded with thorns as if she had unwound the crown of thorns only to rewind it about herself. Even the tears from her downcast eyes have the shape of pricking needles. She is locked in desolation with her hands almost caressing the painful prickles. This is the Mary who cannot imagine hope even when she has seen the empty tomb, even when she’s heard the voice of the angels. They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him. All she can think about is the physical closeness. Even the body of her Master has been torn from her so there is no beloved body to wash and prepare for burial in a last act of devotion.
I see this picture also as an image that expresses Mary’s earlier sickness, the seven demons of death. Whatever her original condition may have been she represents for me here in this drawing so many people, especially young people that I have known and worked with, who are similarly locked away in pain, unreachable, unable to imagine any life beyond the circle of their own agony. From primary school children to students we have a generation who are suffering from mental illness like none other before them from a variety of toxic triggers, and now too conditions during the pandemic.
Mary is like the sleeping beauty who slept in a castle around which an impenetrable thorn hedge grew which no one could hack through. Depression and anxiety are illnesses that mimic that tale to which can be added an agonized self-consciousness about one’s own passivity and inability to live. The worst comes when someone accepts that black load of guilt as reality, and in touching its depths, confirms one’s own self-hatred, clutching the thorns.
From all that I imagine Christ rescuing her so that the load is shifted, the demons expelled, and she lives. How truly dangerous was it then when she saw this savior die? She was filled with shame. Her newfound confidence in the goodness of the world was ruined. And yet like a wise doctor of the spirit Jesus appears to her to guide her to a new and more radical form of life.
So if you turn the card over you see the other half of the image showing that Christ was close to her all the time with one hand raised tenderly in blessing while the other is ready with a gardener’s secateurs to sever the hold of the thorns on her body. Noli me tangere is the title of the drawing, from the words about not holding on to me spoken by Jesus in that garden resurrection scene. Do not cling to me He said. Here the words refer not just to Jesus but to Mary. She says, “Do not touch me.” She has become untouchable in her embrace of distress. Jesus stands ready to cut away all that prevents Mary from really living.
She must, however, experience a further resurrection. The one she greets as rabbi and knew as her personal savior and her friend has risen to new life. Even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view we no longer know him in that way, as St Paul says. Everything has become new. Mary has to learn that the loss of the familiar rabbi, the loss of that touch, will actually become gain, that He is ascending to her father as well as His own, and that she is called to what the poet Christina Rossetti called, “a better resurrection”, urged on by the love of Christ.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
And Jesus does rise in Mary. Because she becomes someone who has been called the apostle to the apostles. As she tells them the good news she finds her closeness to Jesus in a new way by sharing in His life of self-giving.
As Rossetti concludes:
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
On this, our patronal festival, St Mary’s day, we can all follow the one whom our soul loves, whether we are those at the beginning of a search for meaning in our lives, or those for whom it is our life’s fruition. This Eucharist is our encounter, where we receive the Risen Christ, His risen Life, and become, not just close, but united to Him. And as He becomes part of us, so we become part of Him, melted and remoulded as a cup, to give life as well as to receive it, or to use another image associated with Mary the myrrh bearer, a jar opened to share its fragrance.
We may not suffer from mental illness, though many mature and older people do as well, but we can all become like sleeping beauties, hugging our own pain and our own bitterness. So we all need to look to Mary Magdalene, to ask for the prayers of Mary Magdalene, truly our patron and intercessor, as one who suffered so much and knows what it is to be closed off in a thorny thicket of despair. Let us pray for this church, for ourselves and for all the suffering young people of this borough and this city and this nation, that they may come to know the freedom and new life of One Who felt abandonment and desolation on the cross and yet Who lives to welcome us to life that is inexhaustible, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Mary’s Lord, to Whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all glory and praise, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr James Lawson, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 25/07/2021