The Feast of Mary of Magdala
John 20: 11-18
The Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
Today we celebrate the life of Mary of Magdala. If ever there were a feast day filled with landmines and sand traps for a preacher, this is it. There are so many images and stories swirling around the Mary of Magdala we meet today weeping outside the empty tomb. So many takes on her. So many cherished images.
Some say she was that penitent sinner who washed Jesus' feet with her tears; some say she was that woman caught in adultery; some say she was a second Eve.
There are those who see her sitting at Jesus' feet while Martha of Bethany busily fusses around the kitchen.
Pope Gregory the Great (or not so great if you ask me) saw her as a woman purged of seven sins--the seven mortal sins. You know the ones.
The back story to the ever so popular Robert Lentz icon of Mary Magdalene has her traveling to Rome, meeting with the emperor, failing to convince him of the truth of the resurrection, and then preaching throughout the Mediterranean world.
Even in our own day there are multiple and widely divergent claims about Mary of Magdala:
*A bumper sticker for magdalen.org reads "Celebrating the mysteries of the woman who
knew the all"
*Another online group portrays her as Jesus' "co-preacher, spiritual consort, and wife"
*There's even a comic book series that features her as mother to a powerful line of women warriors
that continues to our own day.1
It's enough to make me want to shout out, "Will the real Mary of Magdala please stand up and tell your story?"
But that's not likely to happen. So here I go-wading into the waters of historical reconstruction with some scriptural validation attached.
Mary the Magdalene lived in Magdala, a city on the shores of the Sea of Galilee--a city and a region that had witnessed decades of Roman oppression and cruelty--citizens enslaved, taxes imposed, land seized, families destroyed, and at least once a portion of the city's weak and the elderly killed to make a point.
So when I think of Mary of Magdala, I hear echoes of that old spiritual playing in my head: "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen. Nobody knows but you Lord."
At some point, Mary the Magdalene encountered Jesus--maybe when he preached from a boat anchored in the Sea of Galilee or maybe when he walked the shores of that sea recruiting disciples. Somewhere in Galilee, Mary of Magdala, weighed down by the burdens she carried was seen, known, loved, and healed by Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe not all at once -maybe it took days, weeks, months even for her to come to herself, for her to see herself, to know herself as beloved of God.
Is it any wonder she followed him? Is it any wonder she provided for him from what she had? Is it any wonder that she stayed with him at the cross? Any wonder that she stood weeping outside the empty tomb?
The one who saw her, the one who knew her, the one who loved her, the one who brought her to life was gone.
No wonder she stood there weeping--inconsolable, waves of sadness convulsing her shoulders, the weight of her loss almost pulling her down into the ground beneath her feet.
All that was holding her in place was gone--Jesus, the other disciples, her work, her very identity--all gone.
Like those disciples on the Emmaus Road she must have said to herself, "I had hoped. I had hoped...."
Aren't we, aren't you and I and those who share this planet with us (and even our planet itself) at that point.
That point of saying, "I had hoped...; we had hoped..."
*hoped that vaccinations would stem this tide of disease and death
*hoped that, as our prayerbook puts it, "divisions would cease"
*hoped that we could keep the ravages of climate change at bay as we worked to change our habits
*hoped that the nastiness that has marked so much of public life would ebb
*hoped that we could return to normal, to life as it had been before.....
Mary of Magdala does not remain looking into the abyss of that empty tomb. She does not stay stuck in her grief. She hopes against hope. She turns, she sees that gardener standing there, she interrogates him--"...tell me where you have laid him...."
And then she hears him say, "Mary". He sees her; he knows her; he loves her; he heals her; and he sends her out to do the work she was made to do and in so doing, he blesses her.
You and I and those who share this planet with us have all been through a lot. We live in challenging times. We all have our back stories and our baggage. We all need to be seen, to be known, to be loved, to be healed. We all need to be blessed.
Blessing. That's the promise Mary of Magdala's life proclaims.
Blessing. That's the work God calls us to.
So let us pray for just one thing--that we learn to bless as we've been blessed.
1Jodie Eichler-Levine, "Imagining Mary Magdalene: The Discourse of Hidden Wisdom in American Popular Culture", Postscripts, 7, 1 (2011) 1-25