Mary Magdalene

July 22, 2018

Helen Jacobi

Feast of St Mary Magdalene     Song of Solomon 3:1-4     John 20:1-18

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Who was she this woman who appears fleetingly on the pages of our gospels and then pours out her love and grief at the tomb?

Mary she is named, Mary of Magdala.

There are lots of Marys in our Bible – so just to be clear – she is not Mary, the mother of Jesus; she is not Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

 

There are also many unnamed women in the Bible with whom she has been conflated: she is not the unnamed woman, a “sinner” who washes Jesus” feet with her hair (Luke 7:36); nor is she the woman “caught in adultery” (John 8:3); and she is most definitely not a prostitute. 

 

At the beginning of the 7thcentury, Pope Gregory (590-604) merged Mary with these unnamed women and cemented the tradition of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. For centuries following, medieval art and writing contrasted Mary the mother of Jesus, the unattainable virgin, with Mary the whore, forgiven but ever penitent and submissive. These were the options for women in the church – virgin nuns; or penitent sinners. [1]But this was not how it was for Mary of Magdala.

 

Mary is named Magdalene for the place she was from. A town on the shores of Lake Galilee, a Jewish town under Roman occupation. A place of trade and commerce. Mary is not named as wife of, daughter of, sister of, like most women in the Bible. She stands alone, in her own right. 

 

Mary is mentioned 14 times in the gospels, which is a lot for one person. 

Whenever there is a list of women given, her name appears first. 

So in Mark we hear 

“There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mk 15:40-41)

 

Luke says that Mary has been healed of “seven demons” and then proceeds to remove her name from the lists the other gospel writers use. The equivalent passage from Luke reads:

“But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” (Luke 23:49). 

 So I think Luke was not such a fan of Mary Magdalene. 

Every character in our gospel stories is at the mercy of the writer’s pen and subsequent editors and copyists. Come on Luke, Mary was not an “acquaintance” of Jesus.

Even with this editing she remains on the pages of the gospels as a leader of women; a woman of some means, supporting herself and the disciples; a woman of courage, remaining at the cross and returning to the tomb. 

 

It is in John’s account that we see even more – she is a disciple, a companion, and someone who loved Jesus deeply. Despite the storytelling of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and many others, I do not think Mary was married to Jesus. Some people have argued that she was, it is certainly possible, but I think that diminishes her stature as much as making her a prostitute did. She did not need to be married to Jesus to have a place in his life. She was a disciple and a leader of the disciples.

 

In the poignant and beautiful scene at the tomb we see Mary’s love for Jesus. She is weeping at the loss of his body. She wants to care for the body, anoint it, see it properly buried. She searches for him like the woman from the Song of Solomon searching for her lover. “I will seek him whom my soul loves.” (3:2) She then turns around and sees him but in her grief she does not recognize him until he says her name. 

Mary. 

(Makes us think of the good shepherd (John 10) who calls the sheep by name and they recognize his voice.)

Mary responds to Jesus with the word “Rabbouni” (like Rabbi) which means teacher.

If he is her teacher then she is his student, his disciple. She has sat at his feet for instruction and learning, like Mary of Bethany. Learning at the feet of a rabbi was reserved for men in Jesus’ day; Martha of Bethany rebukes her sister for it; Jesus sides with Mary. Mary Magdelene was a disciple, and seeing Jesus at the tomb, she wants to go back to the way things were. She reaches out to touch Jesus, to take his hands, to be reassured. But unlike Thomas who is instructed to touch Jesus, Jesus says do not try to hold onto me, I am no longer your teacher as I was. Now you have a task, a vocation; it is to go to the others and tell them what has happened. You will be the apostle to the apostles, you are the one whom I chose to send.

 

Extraordinary really, to send a woman. A woman’s testimony was not allowed in a court; a woman’s word was not to be trusted. Luke says as much in his version “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Lk 24:10-11) She does though do as she is asked; she begins the work of the gospel, begins to share the good news “I have seen the Lord.”

 

We do not know what happens to Mary Magdalene after this; many legends have been woven, but the rest of the Bible remains silent – nothing in the Book of Acts, nothing in the letters of Paul. Plenty of other women are mentioned as leaders of the early church so women’s leadership continued.

 

There is another group of gospels though. Gospels that did not make the final cut when the Church Fathers came up with the definitive list of what was in and what was out of the New Testament. By the time Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, published his list in 367, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas have either been lost or ruled out. [2]

 

These gospels and other writings discovered between 1896 (gospel of Mary) and 1945 (Nag Hammadi texts) all mention Mary Magdalene. Discovered hidden amongst other ancient texts these writings show Mary Magdalene continuing as a leader and teacher in the early church. Her leadership is debated and challenged – in the Gospel of Mary we read

“Peter responded “Did he (Jesus) then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?” [3]

And her leadership is affirmed – in the Gospel of Philip we read 

“there were three women who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother, and her sister and the Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.” [4]

 

The recent movie Mary Magdalene [5] paints a picture of Mary Magdalene consistent with the Gospels of Mary and Philip as well as the biblical texts. She is portrayed as the leader of the women followers of Jesus and the resurrection scene is straight out of the gospel of Mary. The reviewers didn’t like the movie much but I did! 

 

Mary Magdalene is a saint for our time. She is a woman who despite best efforts could not be silenced. Her devotion and love of Jesus and her vocation to speak out is not silenced. In our world where we see daily the truth twisting and turning in the wind Mary stands with those who wish to  speak out, those who will not be silenced. 

Refugees in camps, mothers separated from children; the women of the #metoo movement; people silenced by poverty in our city.

Mary says to them and to us “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.” [6]

As the poet Rilke says 

he wished to make of her the lover

who needs no more to lean on her beloved,

as, swept away by joy in such enormous

storms, she mounts even beyond his voice. [7]

 

 

[1] Marina Warner Alone of All Her Sex - The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary 1976 p228

 

[2] commonly called the “gnostic” gospels, or the Nag Hammadi Library The Woman Jesus Loved – Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library Antti Marjanen 1996

 

[3] 10:5-6 Gospel of Mary Karen King p 17 

 

[4] p150 The Woman Jesus Loved – Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library Antti Marjanen 1996

 

[5] Garth Davis 2018 

 

[6] Gospel of Mary 5:4-8 Karen King 

 

[7] Rainer Maria Rilke, New Poems, Second Part, 1908, translation, Ann Conrad Lammers, 1998 Searching for Mary Magdalene Jane Lahr 2006 p150

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