Adapted from a Sermon preached at Old South Church, Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:33-41
Mary Magdalene. Mention her name and you might remember that she was present at the empty tomb on Easter morning. But, it’s also likely, and perhaps even more likely, that you will know Mary Magdalene as the Great Sinner, the prostitute whom—for reasons we cannot comprehend— Jesus befriended and healed. In art, literature, among preachers, priests and ministers, she is the broken, sinful woman. Sure, Jesus was friends with her and she was the one to announce the big news of the resurrection, yet for almost all of Christian history she has been relegated to the corner of sexual impropriety, the woman with the demons who needed to be healed, almost as if she is simply “that woman,” who ought only to be considered as a unimportant conduit of news on that first Easter morning, the one who brought the news to those who were the truly significant ones who would gather and compel the Jesus movement.
Mary has her corner, has been put in her place. And, to really drive home the inconsequential nature of her relationship with Jesus, she has been lumped together with all manner of other women in the Gospel stories. Is she the one who anointed Jesus—on the head or the feet, maybe, I don’t know? Is she the one who was caught trying to learn from Jesus, sitting at his feet?
Who knows? And, do we need to care?
For so long, Mary Magdalene and other women in the Gospels have been lumped together, and then put aside, as if they don’t really matter, or to the extent that they do, they are all simply great sinners who, for any number of unknown reasons, required healing that only Jesus could offer.
We probably have Pope Gregory the Great to blame for the determined and stubbornly lingering notion that Mary Magdalene, an unnamed woman in Luke and Mary of Bethany are all the same person, as the Pope pronounced them so in a homily he gave in Rome in in the late 500s.
This lumping together may not seem all that big of a deal to at least some of you. But, just take a moment and think: what if we lumped all twelve disciples together, as if they all shared the same personality and characteristics? What if all of Christian history treated Peter and Judas as if they were the same person?
Of course we wouldn’t. The women deserve the same treatment.
Mary Magdalene is a clearly distinct and distinctive person. She is named in the Gospels many times. The only woman named more frequently is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is distinct not only from the other women, but from the other prominent disciples. She is her own person. In the Gospels, she is given no designation. She is not a wife, a sister, or a mother. She is simply herself, Mary of Magdala.
And, while it’s clear that she experienced some sort of healing in her relationship with Jesus, as we learn from Luke and the “seven demons” having been sent out. The “seven demons,” we should be clear, is not a euphemism for prostitution. It is much more likely that Mary suffered from some sort of mental illness and in some way or another, she was healed of that, either completely or in such a way as to make the infirmity manageable.
So, what is it that we should know about Mary of Magdala?
Mary was a leader in the community of followers that Jesus gathered and, as Augustine described her, “The Holy Spirit made Mary Magdalene the apostle of the apostles” as she shared the news of the resurrection on that first Easter morning—something about which all four of the Gospels agree. She was also a leader in the movement that came together after the crucifixion and the resurrection.
According to the book The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Mary Magdalene was the woman who stood closest to Jesus. While some would put Mary, Jesus’s mother in that place, that’s simply not the case. In Mark, Jesus’s mother seems to regard her son as a frivolous character whom she really would like to have taken in hand. [Mark 3:21] The early church found it a source of great grief that Mary, Jesus’s mother thought so little of the Jesus movement, that it wasn’t until after the crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus’s mother began to understand more fully what Jesus was all about.
The woman who stood by Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, the woman who stood by him through that last horrible week, the woman who offered sensitivity for and understanding of Jesus’s ministry was Mary Magdalene.
We’ll learn still more about Mary Magdalene in a few weeks, when we get to “Part 2.” For today, I would offer a few questions/thoughts for you to consider and reflect on, wonder about and take into your week:
- What would the Church universal, what would the world, be like if the Church had recognized the significance of Mary Magdalene throughout the history of Christianity? What would the Church, and the world, be like if Mary then stood as an example of the inclusion of women in the leadership of the Church? What would that be like? What would be different? I doubt the Church would be completely free of scandal, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the most disturbing of the Church’s scandals would have been so horrific if women shared in the leadership.
- What sort of culture would we live in if women experienced more equality and inclusion in leadership, beginning with the Church? Over the past couple of days, I’ve been reading a deeply disturbing true crime story that involves a doctor preying upon the women in a small community, a community in which women, through the teachings of the dominant church in that town, had learned to be submissive and not ever to question the judgment of men. It’s heartbreaking to listen to the stories of the women, one after another, sometimes women in the same family, talk about not knowing who to talk to, questioning themselves on what they must have done to invite the doctor to take advantage of them during routine medical visits, and some young women thinking at first that this was simply how visits to the doctor went. This didn’t happen a long, long time. In happened in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The doctor had a long stretch of practicing in this town where the women had been taught that, through God’s will and design, that they were to be silent, that they were in all situations and circumstances to defer to the authority of men.
- And, looking at things from a more positive perspective, we have a powerful story of the hope and healing that can come from relationship with Jesus and that through relationship with Jesus, both women and men may serve as disciples, apostles, leaders. Now, we don’t know all of the details. We don’t know exactly what happened. But, we do know that what happened to Mary of Magdala was powerful and life-changing, and not just for her. Those in that community knew that Mary had experienced a healing that transformed her, and in that transformation, she found a place of significant, strength and blessing in the gathering of those around Jesus and with Jesus himself. We see Mary as trusted friend and confidante, one that stood by Jesus and with Jesus even to the crucifixion, even when the male disciples hid away, for fear they might be next.
Mary offers a significant model for us for our own relationship with Jesus, and for what that relationship can do. Mary offers a roadmap of sorts, to women and men, that relationship with Jesus can bring transformative healing. It’s too bad her example hasn’t been taken seriously by the Church, which itself could use healing and transformation.