This year Mary Magdalene has been thrown into the spotlight with a Channel 4 documentary, and a new film taken from her perspective entitled Mary Magdalene.
There are many myths surrounding Mary Magdalene, it was claimed that she was a prostitute, and even more far fetched as written in the Da Vinci code that she was Jesus’ wife. Gregory the Great in 591 theorised that the unknown woman washing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and her hair was Mary Magdalene. This theory is totally unfounded but cemented her reputation as an immoral woman.
It is worth knowing that the Eastern Orthodox Christians have never depicted her as a prostitute and thankfully Biblical scholars today have moved on from referring to her as such.
The rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene’s reputation however has taken centuries. It was only in 2016 that Pope Francis established the 22nd of July as a major feast day to celebrate Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle.
Mary Magdalene has now been granted the same status as the rest of the early apostles by the Roman Catholics. In doing this Pope Francis has made a statement that men and women are of equal value as disciples a move which the Catholic Church would find hard to step back from.
There is a distinction between disciples and apostles. The twelve were all disciples, all who follow Christ are disciples, including ourselves. The Apostles as well as being disciples were also eye witnesses of the resurrected Christ.
Mary was the first to speak to the resurrected Christ and the first to testify to the other disciples who then became apostles. As such Mary has also become known as the Apostle to the Apostles.
Apart from a unfounded bad reputation what do we know about Mary?
We are first introduced to Mary Magdalene in Luke 8:1-3:
“Soon afterwards he 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.”
Scholars concur that Mary was from Magdala a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is significant as not many people were described with the name of their home town this conveys her status as an important person in the Gospels.
The passage states that she had seven demons cast out of her. Jesus would have found Mary in a state of great suffering. She was not herself.
Jesus through his love and compassion would have looked beyond her pain and hurt to see her potential and took time to draw alongside her, heal her and then count her amongst his close friends.
Mary helped practically with Jesus’ ministry. In verse three we discover that Mary is a financial supporter of Jesus. No husband, father or brother is mentioned and commentators have concluded that she was a woman with independent means, perhaps a business woman, or woman who had inherited. She chose to give of her own resources, because she trusted and believed in Jesus.
Mary became a key follower of Jesus, she is one of the few women mentioned alongside the twelve disciples, learning directly from Jesus as he taught and went about his ministry. Not only this but she become the leader of the female disciples such as Joanna.
Mary went on to became one of the first significant leaders in the early church and bore witness alongside the other apostles. By leading the women disciples she is now seen to be the equal of Peter. It was a segregated society so men would have led and baptised men. And women would have led and baptised women.
Traditional art has a lot to answer for as it cemented Mary’s reputation as an immoral person. Often she’s portrayed with too much flesh on show and generally with red hair. She is often in a penitential position as though she is still seeking forgiveness for her past wrongs and she has not moved on.
In fairness to the artists Mary was often portrayed so that we could imagine ourselves in her place. A little like the prodigal son Mary was traditionally used in art as a reminder that no matter who we are Jesus loves us and will forgive us. She shows us that we too can embark on a relationship with God.
Today’s artwork is much better and modern images show her looking directly at us, unashamed, dressed respectably and even ready to offer us a blessing. Not someone to be pitied but respected.
Mary Magdalene was the most faithful of all the disciples. When all the men had fled even Peter, Mary remained with some of the women. She was there throughout Jesus’ crucifixion. She stayed by the cross for those three hours in solidarity as Jesus died. It may be her eyewitness account that the Gospel writers used. Unlike the other disciples Mary remained despite the risk of being arrested and killed. She followed the procession to see Jesus buried at the tomb and she was the first to return to anoint Jesus’ body. As the first witness Mary is traditionally known as the first Apostle, not Peter.
I find it hard to read the Gospel passage we heard without feeling a pang. Mary’s pain is so raw when she returns to the tomb. She loved Jesus so much and cannot reconcile her grief. Her world as she knows it has come to an end.
Imagine her there by the empty tomb.
When the angels ask why she is weeping she responds ’They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’
She might have been angry as well as distraught. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to think that a person you love has been removed from a peaceful rest by strangers for an unknown reason.
It is only when her name is called that she recognises Jesus. It puts me in mind of the passage from Isaiah chapter 43 verse 1 used in our baptism services.
“I have called you by name and made you my own.”
She responds with ‘Rabbouni!’ meaning, master and teacher. Mary not only recognises who Jesus is but she recognises Jesus in relation to herself. Her identity is tied up in Jesus.
It came as a complete shock when Justin Welby discovered that his father was not Gavin Welby a Jewish whisky salesman, but Sir Anthony Montague Browne. Welby’s response was calm and measured given the circumstances. “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
Similarly Mary by rooting her identity in Jesus was able to be courageous. Firstly at the cross and then when Jesus tells her to go and bear witness to the other disciples. Mary obeys immediately, trusting Jesus implicitly.
Sadly the myths surrounding Mary have been used to disempower women throughout many generations, in the church. We are still working through some of the ramifications in churches and society more broadly today.
There is a strange sense of irony that the film Mary Magdalene was produced by The Weinstein Company, the company went bankrupt following numerous allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The witness of many actors triggered the global #MeToo movement and sexual harassment in the workplace has come under the spotlight.
Speaking out always takes courage and Mary had that in abundance. Mary lived in a culture where women were not listened to let alone used as witnesses.
Despite this Mary told her story and enough people believed her faithful witness which made her instrumental to the start of the Christian movement.
In our own lives as Christians we have opportunity after opportunity to share our own stories of faith and the good news story of the Gospel. I wonder how many lives can be transformed through our Christian witness of actions and words by sharing the good news we know.
I tell you, among those born of woman, there is no one greater than John.
This is Jesus’s endorsement of John the Baptist, prophet, whose horrific death was the subject of our gospel reading.
John and Jesus were related and their lives became intertwined while they were still in their mothers’ wombs. When Mary received the news of her pregnancy, her first response was a very natural fear – she was young, unmarried, bewildered. Her second response was the extraordinary proclamation which we know as the Magnificat – a song of praise to the God who will bring down the mighty from their seats, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich, empty, away. Her third response was to visit Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was also pregnant, in very different circumstances. She was barren and she was apparently past childbearing age. Zechariah, her husband, didn’t receive his wife’s news with abandoned delight but Elizabeth was overwhelmed, almost ecstatic with happiness . When Mary arrived Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry – Blessed are you among women…….. as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.
It’s not surprising that with two redoubtable mothers like Mary and Elizabeth, these two young men should be confident, forthright and secure. Luke’s gospel says that [John] grew strong in spirit and lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly in Israel. Jesus’s childhood is sketched in the gospels but he too began his ministry after a period in the wilderness.
They were both charismatic, attracting large followings. Both adopted unconventional lifestyles. Jesus lived the life of an itinerant preacher, remarking wryly that whereas foxes had lairs and the birds had nests, he had nowhere to lay his head. John wore camel skins and lived off a diet of locusts and wild honey. Whenever he emerged from the desert, crowds flocked to hear him. Sometimes Jesus was almost besieged, forced to escape the multitude by preaching from the waters of a lake.
Both had a vocation ‘to speak truth to power’.
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