The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today and then again in two weeks we are taking the option of transferring a lesser feast day from the middle of the week to a Sunday. We’re celebrating Mary Magdalene today, and, in two weeks, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Who was Mary Magdalene? Well, first we have to start with who she wasn’t, because the western church has defamed her character throughout its history. Through a misinterpretation of scripture, she has been said to be a sinner, a repentant prostitute, the beloved patron saint of all fallen women. This view came from a merging of two unrelated texts, and a liberal sprinkling of sexism.
Mary Magdalene, it is said in the gospels, had 7 demons cast out from her by Jesus, prior to becoming a disciple. Well, we all know that the chief sin of women is to tempt men, so obviously the 7 demons must have been of a sexual nature. Then there is that unnamed woman identified as a notorious sinner who shocks a proper dinner party of Pharisees by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair. Obviously she was a prostitute, because why else would a woman be notorious? And even though she was unnamed, obviously she was Mary Magdalene, because Mary had been cured of 7 sexual demons. Voila!
The here’s what the gospels actually tell us. Mary was from Magdala, a town on the shores of the Galilee. She was named as one of the women who always accompanied Jesus and supported him with her own money. Some speculate that since Magdala was a town that included rich fabric merchants, Mary could have been a successful businesswoman.
The 7 demons that Jesus cast out of her were probably illnesses, since, in those days, they understood chronic illness as demonic. If they had meant that her 7 demons were sins, the gospels would have had Jesus forgiving her, as he did for many sinners. So she was probably a very sick woman whom Jesus made well, and who then supported him financially from her substantial means.
Next, the gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, after all the male disciples had fled in fear for their lives. Then, she is one of those who was there when Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. Again, the cowardly male disciples were nowhere in sight.
All 4 gospels tell us that even after his burial, Mary would not abandon Jesus. Her love for him compelled her to hang around the tomb. In two of the gospels, including the story we heard as the gospel reading today, we are told that Mary Magdalene was alone when the risen Christ first appeared. We’re then told that she went and told the men what she had seen, and they did not believe her.
From this point on, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament.
However, she continues to appear significantly in Christian texts that did not make it into the canon of the New Testament, and were actively suppressed by the developing church. In Gnostic gospels, she is described as having a special, beloved relationship to Jesus, about which Peter is terribly jealous.
These texts also call her “the apostle to the apostles,” the one to whom Jesus imparted deep knowledge and who would then teach the other apostles the mysteries of the faith. Some scholars believe that because of this, Mary Magdalene was a leader in the early church, among other women, perhaps considered apostles before their role became institutionalized as bishops, and limited to men.
But this non-canonical tradition was stamped out by the church, along with other Christian minorities. Texts were burned, leaders were exiled or martyred, property was confiscated, and followers were excommunicated. Mary Magdalene, along with many other figures, teachers, and traditions, disappeared.
This is where fictional speculation begins, with books and movies like The Da Vinci Code. But we will never know precisely her relationship to Jesus. We will never know whether she, along with other women, ever preached, celebrated the Eucharist, or ordained clergy.
However, there are several things we do know. She was a faithful disciple, who became very close to Jesus after he healed her. She supported his movement financially. She had the courage to stay with Jesus at the cross and burial, despite the great danger of being associated with him. Most importantly, she was the first witness to the risen Christ, and to then go out and share the good news. Through it all, she persevered with determination and love for Jesus, in spite of the jealousy, cowardice, and skepticism of the male disciples.
What can we learn from Mary Magdalene’s story, other than the fact that the church, even the apostles, sometimes gets it wrong?
First, that our discipleship is strengthened by healing. Mary followed Jesus because he healed her. When we journey with God through a complete meltdown and come out the other side a new person, freer and stronger, we will never forget who helped bring us there. When we narrowly escape death and come out of surgery with a second chance in life, we know what Spirit has been at work to heal us.
We will, like Mary Magdalene, follow that Spirit with loyalty and perseverance for the rest of our lives. And part of our loyalty will be to give our money towards the spread of Jesus’ gracious kingdom, as Mary did.
Second, we learn from Mary that it is possible to remain with Jesus even at the cross, even at the tomb, when things are hopeless and seemingly buried forever. When someone we love dies, when we have been hated or exposed as a failure or a fraud, when our finance, our work identity, and our dreams crash to the ground, we can remain with Jesus. We don’t have to be a fair-weather friend to him. We can stay with him, even when we can’t see him offering any light at the end of the tunnel. It is enough, like Mary, to hunker down with him in the darkness, and wait together for the light. He will be our friend, even there.
Third, we can be a witness to the resurrection. Like Mary of Magdalene, we may have been in the dark garden of despair when Christ quietly appeared to us as light and new life. So don’t hide the light you’ve come to know under a basket. Tell others how it happens for you, how God renews you and helps you through. As it is often said, you are the only gospel that some people will ever read.
This, after all, is what it means to be an apostle, an evangelist, a bearer of good news. And this doesn’t mean that you try to convince anyone of anything. It simply means that you are one thirsty soul telling another where they, too, might find water.
There is a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church that shows Mary Magdalene holding a red egg. The image comes from a story that, later in life, Mary had the opportunity to witness to her faith before the Roman Emperor Tiberius. She happened to be carrying an egg at the time. Don’t ask me why.
When Mary spoke to Tiberius about Jesus rising from the dead, the Emperor laughed and replied “that is about as likely as that egg in your hand turning red.” Which it promptly did.
We stand before the world, holding out our life experience, for all to see. We even hold forth our faith. For people can tell if, in spite of our difficulties, we are people of hope, faith, abiding love, and courage. It’s as obvious as an egg.
As people who know from our own experience that God has the power to make all things new - just as surely as Mary Magdalene knew from her experience that Jesus healed her and rose from the dead to live in her - we can hold up that egg of our life, and show how red it has become.