On 22 July we commemorated Mary Magdalene. As there are so many Mary’s in the Gospels and so many conjectures about this Mary, she can cause confusion. I began the reflection with a series of questions which illicited very varied answers.
The readings were Psalm 42, 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 and John 20:1-2, 11-18.
Today we commemorate Mary Magdalene. I wonder how much you already know about her.
Let’s have a poll on some information we associate with her.
Mary was a prostitute. Yes or No?
It was Pope Gregory the Great in 591 who preached about Mary Magdalene and suggested she was the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. That woman was forgiven many sins. Gregory drew the conclusion that Mary Magdalene had previously used such perfume on herself as an enticement to her customers. There is no evidence in the Bible that Mary is that woman. Luke has reference to that event and to Mary Magdalene close together in his Gospel but doesn’t link them.
Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Yes or No?
I think we can blame Pope Gregory for this confusion also as he linked the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary of Bethany with that in Luke, although we have no evidence that these anointings were performed by the same woman. So once again there is no biblical evidence for this.
Mary Magdalene was the ‘beloved disciple’, wrote the fourth gospel, married Jesus and had his child. Yes or No?
This theory came from The Gospel of Mary in which the disciples confirm that Jesus loved Mary more than he loved the rest of the disciples. In the Gospel of Philip she is described as his partner or companion. If you look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper the person thought to be John looks quite feminine. This was built on by Dan Brown in ‘The Da Vinci Code’. However, there is no biblical support for the theory.
Poor Mary has had a lot of legends grow up around her name. We actually don’t know a great deal about her but we know some details from the Gospels. Mary’s name includes Magdalene which may indicate she came from the town of Magdala which was on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and was the area Jesus went to after he had fed the 5000.
Mary is introduced first in the Gospels as one of a group of women who followed Jesus and supported him from their own means. The detail is added that she had seven demons driven out of her. We have no idea if she was healed of physical, mental or spiritual illness but it seems that once healed Mary Magdalene became a faithful follower of Jesus. It would be unusual to see women wandering around the countryside which suggests that she and the others were not ordinary women, but courageous women who were prepared to flout social customs to do what they thought was right. Not many would also have their own money to dispose of as they wished.
The next time we hear of Mary Magdalene is at Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John put her there along with other women. Luke simply mentions women from Galilee standing there. Most of the disciples had fled in fear for their lives, but Mary and the other women stayed. It’s likely that as women they were less likely to be arrested as followers of Jesus. However, it still took courage to stand there and watch the one they loved dying such a horrible death.
Mary Magdalena stayed to the bitter end. She is listed by Mark and Matthew as watching as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took Jesus body and placed it in the tomb. She was with another Mary, the mother of James.
It makes sense that Mary Magdalene knew where the tomb was and so could go there early in the morning, as we are told by John. The Gospels list different combinations of women going to the tomb but Mary Magdalene is there. When Mary found the tomb empty she ran straight back to tell Peter and John, who then headed to take a look for themselves. Having checked things out for themselves, the disciples headed back home but Mary stayed crying outside the tomb. By staying there she had the opportunity to see the angels, who obviously hadn’t been there when the disciples looked in. Then, best of all, she saw Jesus though she didn’t recognise him at first, not until he called her name.
Mary Magdalene obviously wanted to cling on to Jesus as we are told that Jesus instructed her not to hold on to him. Instead she was to go and tell the disciples that Jesus was alive and would ascend to the Father. In that culture, a woman’s testimony was not considered reliable but it seems that the disciples listened to her. Jesus had a habit of flouting social convention. It is this carrying of the good news that earned Mary Magdalene the title of ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ as she was sent to the ‘sent ones’, the Apostles.
In the lists of women present at the crucifixion, burial and resurrection, Mary always comes first, which gives her the greatest prominence of all.
What can Mary’s life teach us today? We don’t know how she met Jesus in order to be cured. It might have been after the feeding of the five thousand. However, we know that once cured, she changed her life and followed Jesus. She would no doubt have had to accept disapproving looks from other people who thought she should be at home like women were expected to be, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred her. Like her, we who have had our lives turned around by meeting Jesus should expect never to be the same again. The way we live, the way we spend our time and our money, should be different. Others may not agree with us – they may even be actively against us – but that should not deter us from living as followers of Jesus. We can’t wander around the countryside, physically following Jesus, but we can still join in with what he’s doing in the world. He still teaches, heals and forgives through the ministry of his disciples, both in SL and in RL and we can be part of that.
Mary was brave also. She stayed at the crucifixion and didn’t run away, either to hide from the terrible pain of witnessing Jesus’ death or to hide from danger from the authorities. It’s very hard to watch someone else suffering and yet Jesus said that what we do for others we do for him. If we keep our courage and stay with those whom we know are having a difficult time, either through illness or other circumstances in life, we are doing as Mary did in standing at the foot of the cross. Many actually go into dangerous situations to be with those who struggle. I think of Canon Andrew White who leads the ministry of St George’s Church in Baghdad and has lost many of his congregation to kidnapping and violence.
Perhaps one other thing to note is Mary Magdalene’s willingness to share the Good News. She must have known that her testimony as a woman was not necessarily going to be believed. However, she knew whom she had seen and heard and was not prepared to keep quiet about it. We too have Good News to share. Some will listen, some won’t, but our responsibility is to share.
Changing our priorities, walking alongside those who are in pain, and bearing witness are all things we can learn to do from Mary Magdalene as a response to what Jesus has done for us.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor