Saint Mary of Magdala
Mary Magdalene is an enigmatic figure in Christian tradition. This morning I want to quickly go over what we do know, could know and don’t know about her. Then see if we can paint a portrait of the type of woman she was. We will be revisiting her on Easter Sunday so it won’t be entirely comprehensive this morning and perhaps will be a bit unsatisfying to be limited by a pre-crucifixion portrait. Most of the really interesting stuff comes after Easter because suddenly she finds a voice—even then only in John’s Gospel.
The Gospel of Luke says seven demons had gone out of her, and the longer ending of Mark says Jesus had cast seven demons out of her.
She is also one of the last to see Jesus die on the cross but the first to see him arisen.
So here’s some of what we do know:
- She did have 7 demons cast out of her. Whether we interpret this as actual demons or madness, whichever it was, her release from it would have been astonishing and the source of profound gratitude.
- She had no home obligations and had wealth to support Jesus.
- She is usually mentioned as past of a list of named women and other women followers. The fact that she comes first in these lists implies a leadership position.
- Her importance is reinforced by the fact she is mentioned in all four of the Gospels.
- She was faithful to the end—watching close by as Jesus was tried, crucified and buried. She would have witnessed the traditional disciples abandoning Jesus, she would likely have seen Peter’s threefold denial by the fireside.
- Then she disappears from view.
Luke doesn’t mention her in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s almost pointed how she isn’t even a contender for the replacement of Judas when they cast lots. Was she a scandal to Luke?
There is no evidence to even suggest she was the prostitute who poured perfume on Jesus feet, or the woman caught in adultery as has traditionally been held. It was Pope Gregory that is first recorded as articulating this tradition in the 5th century. Incidentally, he is the same one who formalised Ash Wednesday ritual.
Ideas that go beyond the gospel presentations come from two main sources that are outside the accepted books of the bible—the Gospel of Phillip (Nag Hammadi finding in 1945) and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene found in 1896.
The discussion around whether she was Jesus’ wife is far more fascinating that Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code would have us believe. But without hijacking this sermon, it is never stated anywhere that this is the case. Any evidence to suggest a sexual relationship is inferred—in a couple of points with a reasonable amount of force. It’s a complicated discussion so for the sake of moving forward here, what we know from the Gospels and the extra-canonical books is that she and Jesus had a deep relationship.
This is not unusual or outlandish. We see that Jesus had chosen twelve men. Three were more special than the others — Peter, James and John. John became known as the “one whom Jesus loved”. Jesus had a really good friend in Lazarus.
The fact that there was a discussion among the disciples about who would become the most important implies to me that a pecking order was developing.
Let me then say this, and this may or may not be comforting to you, but I think it’s an important pondering.
Jesus had different relationship experiences and expectations with different people. He wasn’t equally close to all, and he wasn’t making close friends through all his miracles.
Thousands of people encountered Jesus through his ministry. Yet twelve remained the number. The other disciples, which includes Mary Magdalene would have hovered around a number—say fifty or so—mainly because not everyone had the means to wander with Jesus. It appears that Mary did.
Where did we get the idea that Jesus would become our constant ‘best friend’, that we would have equal experience of relationship with Jesus? Some were close, some were far away, some experienced him frequently and he got close with them, some didn’t but followed anyway because they saw goodness in him regardless of proximity.
It’s not likely for instance that Jesus saw many of the characters in his story after their first encounter. Faith required an understanding that there was proximity in relationship to Christ, closeness was not a right. God’s love and care is not precluded from this either. God still numbers the hairs on our heads, knits us together in the womb and all the other word pictures that describe God’s intimate knowledge of us. But that is likely a very one way street.
It surprises me that we might approach God in the same manner of Moses, when we live our lives like we do. Perhaps when we live like the prophets we can approach God like the prophets, but until then, the relationship is not measured by closeness, but by our response to God’s voice.
This is all to say that when I’m told “I don’t feel very close to God,” I want to say, “that’s ok and normal and yes, it’s even appropriate!”
We are the crowd who have glimpsed the Christ. And that is enough. That is enough. The life of faith is not about dopamine rush. There will be times, but it’s about change of character through honest hard graft—and those moments of goodness that penetrate our world and experience are awesome.
But back to Mary, who had the privilege of being part of the disciples and could follow and support them.
Jesus in a very real sense was her messiah. He had completely changed her life.
As she stood in the shadows cast by firelight that night, wrapped up and warm and waiting with a veil covering her face so she wouldn’t be identified.
She was watching an inconceivable set of events unfolding. What had just taken place in the garden a few hours earlier? One moment, Jesus was eating and drinking with his friends, He was a little morose perhaps, but Jesus did seem to walk around as though he was carrying the weight of the world. They had cut the meal short to go for a walk in the garden. These were always quiet and intimate times as though the veil that separated this world from the other was pulled to one side. It was as though God was walking with Jesus in those moments, in the cool of the evening breeze when it was hot day. And somehow, this night, the tranquility of the garden was broken by a serpent’s tongue again. The rabble came and Judas kissed Jesus and strongmen came and arrested Jesus. It was so confusing.
Judas stood back from the crowd with a look of shock on his face—a look that was way more authentic that what she saw in his eyes the kiss. Meanwhile, Peter has got a sword out, the clumsy oaf goes for the neck but ends up cutting off an ear. That got everyone rarked up. The mob started to fight with the disciples and while the moon was breaking through the clouds she saw Jesus bend down toward the ground and pick up the ear.
Holding it high he took control. “Enough!” he said and after a bit everyone stopped. He then placed the ear back on the servant’s head where it remained as if nothing had happened. “Take me with you” he said, “I’m ready.” Everyone picked themselves up, regrouped. Disciples on one side and the mob on the other. The mob turned and led Jesus away.
Judas had disappeared.
Peter was stunned, actually they all were. It was a few more hours before they realised that what Jesus had been talking about before was happening. It wasn’t a parable or riddle, it wasn’t in the distant future, it was now. He’d been talking about it for ages. Now it was a reality.
So she followed the mob at a distance and waited by the fire at the high priest’s house. Peter came along was approached by three people who asked if he was one of the disciples. He denied it, and again, and again. A rooster crowed. Peter broke down in tears and ran into the night. Typical self-indulgent prick. Jesus was just over there and saw the whole thing too.
Each moment that passed built the stock of anxiety in her. Jesus went inside for a while and came out. They took him to the roman palace. She followed. Again another wait. It was daylight, and a crowd was forming. Oh right, the day they release someone from prison. Later, Jesus is brought on the podium along with another guy who looked like a nasty piece of work. Pilate presents the option of who to release to the crowd, her heart lifts, this is a no-brainer. She starts shouting Jesus and is slapped in the face by someone in the crowd. Still smarting she shouted Jesus, but the crowd had already been turned to ask for Barabbas. The bad boy of the town. Whenever she shouted Jesus, she was smacked in the head and she became silent, defaulting to how she responded to the beatings she received when she was possessed by demons. An outcast, untouchable and unimportant. A tragic interference in people’s lives. And she worked her way to the back of the crowd.
And waited some more. After a while she heard the screams of a man being whipped on the other side of the wall. The jeers and taunts of the soldiers, and the occasional slapping sound of flesh meeting flesh followed by painful grunts and audible winces. Later she saw him being led out of the palace courtyard, bloodied and unrecognisable from the swollen face and dried blood from where thorns had been pressed into his scalp.
Her heart splintered into a thousand pieces as she saw what he was having to do.
He was carrying a cross along the road to the place outside the city where they crucify people.
As he stumbled under the weight and the crowd lined the streets in silence punctuated by the occasional spitting sound, or the wooden beam hitting the ground when Jesus lost his footing.
For what seemed like hours, she followed him to the place of death, the occasional whiff of rancid flesh from used crosses at the scene was largely ignored by her numbed disbelief. There was still silence as Jesus was spread on the cross beam, had nails hammered through his wrists to fix him to it before it was yanked roughly up by ropes and slotted into the vertical.
Even Jesus was silent, too emotionally spent and throat too dry to make a sound. The voice that had commanded the demons to flee in terror had been all but silenced by sheer force of will by humankind. Jesus was a shadow of himself. She didn’t recognise him anymore. But she stayed.
What did she see that day as the one who cast demons out of her withered on the cross?
“Jesus I don’t understand this. I don’t recognise you!”
The Christ subdued by the very forces she knew all too well but had been released from?
“Jesus I don’t recognise you!”
What was her response as her saviour’s life was extinguished?
“Jesus, I don’t sense you anymore, connect with you anymore. I don’t even know you anymore.
…But I will stay.”
And while the men had abandoned the Christ, Mary Magdalene stood, in disbelief I’m sure, but still stood with other women including Jesus’ mother, resolute as comfort for their friend and teacher.
“…But I will stay.”