Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (22 July)
(Judges 4:4-10 / Ps 42:1-7 / 2 Cor 5:14–20a / John 20:11-18)
Collect of Saint Mary Magdalene
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that, by your grace, we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Preface for All Saints’
For in the multitude of your saints, you have surrounded us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we, rejoicing in their fellowship, may run with patience the race that is set before us, and, together with them, may receive the unfolding crown of glory.
Imagine trying to tell the story of Israel with no mention of women: no strong and influential Matriarchs like Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Leah; no Miriam to lead Israel out of Egypt alongside Moses and Aaron; no Rahab to shelter and protect the spies at Jericho; no Deborah to judge and deliver Israel from Jabin and no Jael to drive a tent peg through Sisera’s skull; no Naomi and no Ruth to demonstrate familial faithfulness; no Hannah to pray for a son and then to devote that son to God; no Bathsheba to advocate for her son Solomon’s reign; no widow of Zarephath to tend Elijah and no Shunammite woman to show Elisha hospitality; no Esther to risk her own life to protect her people from genocide.
Imagine trying to tell the Gospel with no mention of women: no Elizabeth to birth the forerunner of our Lord and to prophetically greet our Lord’s mother; no Virgin Mary to offer up in her body our human nature for the incarnation of the Logos; no Martha of Bethany to cook for and serve Jesus and his disciples, to offer hospitality and a place for our Lord to lay his head; no Mary of Bethany to choose the better part and sit at our Lord’s feet; no woman with an issue of blood; no woman taken in adultery; no sinful women to anoint Jesus’ head and feet; no widow at Nain to witness resurrection — to receive her only son back from the dead; no woman at the well to introduce Jesus to the Samaritans; no Syro-Phoenician woman and no daughter.
Imagine trying to tell the story of the Church with no mention of women: no Sapphira to serve as cautionary tale along with her lying husband Ananias; no Hellenist widows to complain about an unfair distribution of food in the Jerusalem Church, complaint which led to the formation of the diaconate and to the first Christian martyrdom; no Lydia, the first Christian convert in Europe; no Priscilla to teach Apollos, to serve alongside Paul and to be his representative; no Lois and Eunice to raise a godly Timothy; no Phoebe to serve the Church; no Chloe to host a church and to report to Paul the problems in Corinth.
I’m neither proposing a uniquely feminist reading of Scripture nor promoting a feminist theology by pointing this out. I am merely noting that the story of humanity — God’s story of humanity — and the story of redemption are not exclusively patriarchal; they are the stories of men and women together.
From the very beginning it was so, male and female together:
Genesis 1:26–28 (ESV): 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In the fall it was so, male and female together:
Genesis 3:6–7 (ESV): 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
In the calling of Israel — the beginning of redemption — it was so, male and female together:
Genesis 12:1–5 (ESV): 12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.
And so it goes throughout redemption history, throughout the Gospel, male and female together. So, it is not surprising that the entourage that surrounded Jesus, that traveled with him, that looked to him as rabbi and perhaps more, included women:
Luke 8:1–3 (ESV): 8 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.
It is here that we encounter one of the most prominent women in the Gospels: Mary Magdalene. Mary, through no fault of her own, is a polarizing figure, alternately idolized by feminists and Gnostics and misunderstood and marginalized by traditionalists. The Gnostics — ancient and modern — portray Mary as the disciple whom Jesus loved, some going so far as to suggest — insist? — that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married and had a child and that the Church has tried to suppress this history in some grand conspiracy. That notion lies at the heart of one of Dan Brown’s bestsellers, The DaVinci Code; it’s a popular myth and one that seems impossible to finally put to rest. After all, who doesn’t like a good conspiracy theory?
But, the traditionalists haven’t dealt much better with Mary, either. Following an exegetical error by Pope Gregory I in 591, many traditionalists identify Mary as the sinful woman in Luke 7 who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with costly ointment. They typically portray her as a prostitute. That, too, has entered popular culture; it showed up in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar when Mary Magdalene sang I Don’t Know How To Love Him, as she had so many men before. This, too, is a popular myth and one that is likely to linger. But there simply is no reason to believe, no scriptural evidence, that this sinful woman was Mary Magdalene.
So, what do we know with confidence about Mary? Her name indicates that she had a connection to the town of Magdala: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, though we don’t know precisely what that connection was — birthplace or adult residence? — or even exactly where the town was. We know that Mary had been demonized by seven demons and had been exorcised by Jesus. While we tend to associate demonic oppression or possession with personal evil — only evil people are demonized we think — that wasn’t necessarily the popular understanding in Jesus’ time; people — “innocent” people — were possessed through no fault of their own. Demons were seen as malign spirits who abused and tormented people. So, again, there is no reason to take Mary’s possession as evidence of a sinful life; it was simply a spiritual malady from which Jesus delivered her. Apparently, at least episodically, Mary, along with some other women of means whom Jesus had healed, accompanied Jesus and the Twelve and funded his ministry out of their means.
If this were all we knew about Mary Magdalene, she would have passed into history as a mere footnote to the Gospel. It is at the “end” of the story — at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — that Mary comes to the fore.
The Twelve do not shine in the crucifixion account; all deserted Jesus and hid except for John. It is the women who show exceptional faithfulness in this moment:
John 19:25 (ESV): 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
And, after Jesus’ death, two of these women accompanied Joseph of Arimathea for the hasty burial of the body:
Mark 15:46–47 (ESV): 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
The details of what happened next are a bit muddled, though the general outline is clear. After the Sabbath had ended, the women returned to the tomb to conduct a proper burial. This is where Mary Magdalene comes to the fore.
She arrives before dawn only to discover that the stone is rolled away from the tomb and Jesus’ body is missing. She runs to tell this to Peter and John, apparently returns to the tomb with them, and remains there once they had left. And then it happens:
John 20:11–18 (ESV): 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrection. Was that a reward for past faithfulness and love, or was it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time? I’m not sure the two reasons are entirely different; it was her faithfulness and love that put her in the right place at the right time. No matter that everyone else went his own way, Mary stayed close to Jesus, even in death. And she saw death conquered.
Mary has a unique — and well-deserved title — that comes from this account. The risen Lord tells her to go to his brothers — to the Twelve — and to announce his victory and his coming ascension to the Father. Jesus calls Mary to be the Apostle to the Apostles — that is her title in the Church — to be the very first person to bear the Gospel message.
After this, Mary slips into the shadows of history. Stories and theories abound, but I don’t want to give these any credence, not least because they detract and distract from the truth we are given.
So, what are we to make of Saint Mary Magdalene? As I said earlier, this is no feminist manifesto, but it is a challenge to the exclusively patriarchal telling of the Gospel we too often encounter, and it is a challenge to the Church. The truth is — a truth this story reminds us of — the truth is exactly what St. Paul wrote:
Galatians 3:27–29 (ESV): 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
The Gospel cannot be told without male and female because the Gospel is for both male and female without distinction.
Here’s the simple but profound truth about Mary Magdalene. She was lost and hopeless and helpless before her encounter with Christ. He saved her. In gratitude she became devoted to him, followed him as his disciple, and gave of her resources to his ministry. She stood at the cross. She witnessed the resurrected Lord. And she bore the Gospel message: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In that brief summary of her life, she is revealed as a paradigm, as an icon for all of us. We were lost — hopeless and helpless — before our encounter with Christ. He saved us. Like Mary, in our gratitude we should devote ourselves to him, follow him as his disciples, give our resources — our lives — to him. We must take our place at the cross and even bear the cross of Christ ourselves if we are to witness the resurrection of the Lord. And then, we are to take the good news to the world: Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.