Mary Magdalene shows us the way home, that in Jesus we have our life and healing, that God has come to grace us and the world; she also models for us that we are sent from home to tell others.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle; texts: John 20:1-2, 11-18; Psalm 73:23-28
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I have to admit, I really like Mary Magdalene. While the Gospels freely share many failings and much mental density found in the twelve male disciples, Mary comes off without a scratch. In fact, she’s one of the most admirable characters in the Gospels. All four Gospels agree that she was at the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning, though they differ about which other women went with her. Matthew, Mark, and John all say Mary Magdalene was also at the cross, and saw Jesus buried. Apart from these references surrounding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, there is one other mention of Mary Magdalene. Luke, in chapter 8, lists her as one of Jesus’ female disciples, along with Joanna and Susanna. And in every list of the women disciples save one, Mary Magdalene is listed first. Any way you look at it, Mary Magdalene is a prominent, important disciple.
At least if you stick to the Holy Scriptures. Once legend and even Church leaders got through with her, her reputation was less than stellar. I was walking through the alley behind the church a couple weeks ago, coming back with someone from a lunch meeting at Midtown Global Market, and we were stopped by a visitor to one of our back alley neighbors. He saw my collar and had a number of religious questions that he decided he’d avail himself of my presence to get off his chest. At one point he said, “And what about Mary Magdalene? She was a prostitute, right?” I tried to explain that wasn’t the case, but he would have none of it. He was convinced. Given that our celebration of her feast day was coming up, I was already thinking about her, but his persistence got under my skin.
It’s the standard problem with Mary post-Scriptures. It’s not just the prostitute misinterpretation. There’s also the legend that she and Jesus had a marital relationship, even children, which was given all sorts of attention in the past years thanks to Dan Brown’s incredibly badly researched book The Da Vinci Code (which admittedly was a fun read, but the scholarship was horrid). There’s a lot of misinformation on this apostle, this faithful disciple, and if you admire the person the Scriptures describe, it can be irritating. But it also points to a problem that’s been stewing for the past weeks in our Gospel readings, the problem of how witnesses to Jesus are received in the world.
This is important for us to know, given that’s our call as well. But let’s start by clearing some things up about Jesus’ good friend Mary Magdalene.
As I said, there are some details in Scripture about Mary. But there’s a great deal of legend. It’s pretty much worthless.
First, let’s address the prostitute question. The connection of Mary Magdalene with a prostitute was first made by Pope Gregory the Great in 591 in a sermon. He doesn’t have any more scriptural support than we can find today. He confuses Mary of Bethany, who John tells us used a precious ointment on Jesus’ feet the week of his suffering, with the unnamed prostitute who comes to Jesus while he’s at a Pharisee’s house, earlier in his ministry, and washes his feet with her tears and with ointment, and he claims that both were Mary Magdalene. Since then it’s become a common belief about Mary Magdalene, almost universal, that she was a reformed prostitute.
While it’s absolutely true that Jesus welcomed prostitutes, and in fact we know that all sinners were welcomed by Jesus to become new people, there’s no basis in Scripture for calling Mary a prostitute. It’s simply sloppy, bad Scriptural work.
That story Pope Gregory referenced is at the end of Luke 7. Then at the beginning of Luke 8 we find that list I mentioned where Luke names the women disciples, including Mary Magdalene. There’s no reason in the text to assume she’s the unnamed woman of the previous chapter, any more than any of the other women on the list, and Luke specifically says that her healing from Jesus was that he drove out seven demons. There is literally no reason to call her a prostitute.
And the other speculation over the centuries, fueled by those recent popular books, is that Mary and Jesus had an intimate and physical relationship. On this the Bible is silent. Everything said about Mary Magdalene in Scripture points to her as an important disciple, and as one close to Jesus. As to whether they had more than that, or even married, as some legends have said, would be simply speculation and made up. This isn’t to say it would be bad if it were true or anything – just that it’s strictly speculative, as much as if we debated the color of the robes Jesus wore.
But what is said in Scripture about Mary Magdalene is huge. That’s what we want to know.
First, she is acknowledged by the Gospels and the Church as the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles. Whoever else was at that tomb, Mary Magdalene went there. And because she didn’t leave, because she had no idea what to do except stay, she was the first to see her risen Lord. And then she went and told the other disciples. And in a culture which didn’t accept the testimony of women in court because they were thought unreliable, for the early Church to base its formative story on the witness of a woman must have been detrimental to their preaching. Yet it’s in all four Gospels, and that suggests she had a prominence in the early Church perhaps even more than most of the apostles.
Second, she was a disciple of Jesus and a woman and that’s important. (As it is that he had other women disciples, too.) Rabbis did not typically have women disciples, particularly wandering rabbis. Women weren’t expected to learn the things about the faith that men were, to study Hebrew, and so on. And it is certain that women who wandered with groups of men would not be considered respectable. Yet Jesus has these women disciples, and clearly an important relationship with Mary. They’re treated by Jesus as equal to men. And Mary is foremost among them.
And third, what Luke says her ailment really was, demon possession, tells us a great deal about what Jesus meant to her. Jesus literally gave her life. He took her mind, torn about, broken, filled with pain, and restored her to her right mind. Think of any mental illness we know today, let alone demon possession, and imagine the joy of having your own thoughts back, of being alive again. It would be like resurrection.
But Jesus also gave her something more. He gave her a home, a family. Possessed people were shunned, outcast, sent away from their families. They were torn from all the ties that gave them life and joy. When Jesus restored Mary, he gave her both home and family with him. We know this because she’s still there at the end. It’s the only place for her to be.
And she gives us this gift: that we, too, can see our home in Jesus.
That’s the most powerful part of Mary Magdalene’s story, that Jesus becomes her home, her life. And her witness to us is that is our gift from our Lord, too.
St. Augustine famously put it this way: “Our hearts are restless, till they find their rest in thee.” Restless until they find home. For Mary, the healing that she found in the Son of God brought her home, gave her life when she didn’t have it. And in running to tell the others, to tell us, she’s inviting us to the same.
Like Mary, we have healing of mind and heart from Jesus, and Jesus is our true home. The more any of us reflect on the reality of the grace and forgiveness we receive from God, the more we inevitably recognize Mary’s attitude toward Jesus and her need to be near him. As the psalmist today sang, “It is good to be near God.” When we pray, read Scripture, worship, gather with other believers, we are given a palpable sense of home, a sense which deepens the more that all those things center around the undying love of God for the world.
But Mary’s experience teaches us a harder thing today. She also shows us that we don’t get to stay at home.
You notice that Jesus says to Mary after they greet each other, “Do not hold on to me . . . but go and tell my brothers.” She wants to cling to him, and why not? He’s her beloved Lord and Master, he gave her life when she had none, and now when she thought him dead, his body stolen, she sees him alive in front of her. He calls her by name, “Mary,” and she knows him. I’m sure she’d rather have stayed by his side for the rest of his life.
But that’s not possible, not on this Easter morning, and not for the rest of her life. She becomes an apostle in that moment, one who is sent to tell the Good News. She can’t stay with Jesus, because she needs to go and tell others. And as far as we know, that’s her role for the rest of her life.
For we who are baptized, it’s also our role, our call. We can’t just stay here in the comfort of God’s love. We’re sent out to get others home. But as we consider what that means for us, we should also notice the cost to Mary over the centuries, and to other women so called.
All the disciples of Jesus were told they would face persecution for witnessing, and as far as we can tell, most of them did. Many died. But half of all who eventually followed Jesus were discredited and disowned by the Church itself for nearly two millennia.
The early evidence is that both women and men were leaders in the early Church, co-workers, ministers according to Paul. Surely Mary the apostle was among them. But by the end of the 1st century the evidence shows that women were gradually removed from leadership in the Church. Statements were made, policies established which tried to claim that only men could truly serve as leaders. Efforts were made to claim that since the twelve were men, that settled the matter.
The only conclusion that makes sense is that human nature and conflict with culture won out. Not only would it have been detrimental in a patriarchal culture to keep claiming the first witnesses of the resurrection were women, having women in leadership would have been so counter-cultural in places that it would have met great resistance.
The Church didn’t edit the Gospels to get the women witnesses out. I suppose we can give the second century some credit for that. But women as ordained leaders, pastors, bishops, missionaries, were non-existent a century after Mary Magdalene became the first apostle. And it took nearly 1900 years to undo that damage.
So the question I have, which I suppose can’t be answered, is this: was this attitude toward women behind the way Mary eventually was treated by the Church? If you’re interested in keeping women out of the priesthood, if you identify women and sexuality as the root of original sin, if you think women must not be teachers of the Church, and you’ve got the persistent Scriptural witness that at least Mary Magdalene, not to mention Phoebe and Junia and others from the New Testament, was a prominent leader, maybe you try to bring her down a peg.
Make her a prostitute, diminish her luster, treat her as a fallen woman. We’ll never know, but since the sixth century she has been the poster child for “fallen” women instead of a model for disciples everywhere. Whatever the intent, the actual reality is pretty clear.
And that seems like something we should be aware of. We might not face persecution and death. But we might still be discredited, disrespected, treated as out of our minds, for standing for the Gospel in our world and lives, for trying to make a difference. People might not want to hear what we have to say, accept what we are trying to do. Even before the later centuries, Mary was discounted on Easter Sunday by the male disciples. They thought she was just imagining things as a woman. We’ve all seen it today. If you can’t prove someone wrong, just slander them. Treat them as outsiders. If you say it enough times it must be true.
So from Mary we find a couple warnings. First, a warning that as we are sent out it might not go well for us. But as a Church she also stands as a warning that we not discredit and discount those who witness to Jesus among us who are different from us, or whom the culture doesn’t approve. That we do not become part of the attack on disciples of Christ that the world is making.
But the wonder is that in spite of all that has been said, Mary Magdalene still shines through Scripture and becomes a model for us.
She’s a model for us of finding home in our Lord, and having the courage to leave that home and be sent out to tell the world the good news. It may not be easy for us. It may mean embarrassment, ridicule. It may mean that people won’t want to be with us or hear us. It may mean a struggle with our culture, our society.
But when you’ve found your real home, what does it matter? When the Lord and Savior of the universe claims you and loves you and calls you by name, what does what anyone else says about you matter? And when he sends us out to bring others home, how can we hold back, knowing what we know, knowing what Mary knew? That’s what Mary’s joyful discipleship teaches us. Even though we are sent out on the road to serve our Lord, we do not go alone. We are always at home, always at Jesus’ side. And through us, even more will find this joy.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.