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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Mary Magdalene

Today, July the twenty-second, is the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, if you are the sort of church that celebrates that sort of thing. Which we aren't, of course, but nevertheless I can't resist having a look at Mary Magdalene today, because she is such an intriguing person. We know very little about her for definite:

Firstly, that Jesus cast out seven demons from her, according to Luke chapter 8 verse 2, and Mark chapter 16 verse 9.

From then on, she appears in the lists of people who followed Jesus, and is one of the very few women mentioned by name all the time.

She was at the Cross, helping the Apostle John to support Jesus' mother Mary.

And, of course, she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and according to John's Gospel, she was actually the first person to see and to speak to the Risen Lord.

And that is basically all that we reliably know about her – all that the Bible tells us, at any rate.

But, of course, that's not the end of the story. Even the Bible isn't quite as clear as it might be, and some Christians believe that she is the woman described as a “sinner” who disrupts the banquet given by Simon the Leper, or Simon the Pharisee or whoever he was by emptying a vial of ointment over his feet – Jesus' feet, I mean, not Simon's – and wiping it away with her hair. Simon, you may recall, was furious, and Jesus said that the woman had done a lot more for him than he had – he hadn't offered him any water to wash his feet, or made him feel at all welcome.

Anyway, that woman is often identified with Mary Magdalene, although some say it is Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus. Some even say they are all three one and the same woman!

So if even the Bible isn't clear whether there are one, two or three women involved, you can imagine what the extra-Biblical traditions are like!

Nobody seems to know where she was born, or when. Arguably in Magdala, but there seem to have been a couple of places called that in Biblical times. However, one of them, Magdala Nunayya, was on the shores of Lake Galilee, so it might well have been there. But nobody knows for certain.

She wasn't called Mary, of course; that is an Anglicisation of her name. The name was Maryam or Miriam, which was very popular around then as it had royal family connections, rather like people in my generation calling their daughters Anne, or all the Dianas born in the 1980s or, perhaps, today, the Catherines. So she was really Maryam, not Mary – as, indeed, were all the biblical Marys.

They don't know where she died, either. One rather splendid legend has her, and the other two women called Mary, being shipwrecked in the Carmargue at the town now called Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, and she is thought to have died in that area. But then again, another legend has her accompanying Mary the mother of Jesus and the disciple John to Ephesus and dying there. Nobody knows.

And there are so many other legends and rumours and stories about her – even one that she was married to Jesus, or that she was “the beloved disciple”, and those parts of John's gospel where she and the beloved disciple appear in the same scene were hastily edited later when it became clear that a woman disciple being called “Beloved” Simply Would Not Do.

But whoever she was, and whatever she did or did not do, whether she was a former prostitute or a perfectly respectable woman who had become ill and Jesus had healed, it is clear that she did have some kind of special place in the group of people surrounding Jesus. And because she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and went to tell the other disciples about it, she has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles”. So what can we learn from her?

Well, the first thing we really know about her is that Jesus had healed her. She had allowed Jesus to heal her. Now, healing, of course, is as much about forgiveness and making whole as it is about curing physical symptoms. Mary allowed Jesus to make her whole.

This isn't something we find easy to do, is it? We are often quite comfortable in our discomfort, if that makes sense. If we allowed Jesus to heal us, to make us whole, whether in body, mind or spirit, we might have to do something in return. We might have to give up our comfortable lifestyles and actually go and do something!

What Mary did, of course, was to give up her lifestyle, whatever it might have been, and follow Jesus. We don't know whether she was a prostitute, as many have thought down the years, or whether she was a respectable woman, but whichever she was, she gave it all up to follow Jesus. She was the leader of the group of women who went around with Jesus and the disciples, and who made sure that everybody had something to eat, and everybody had a blanket to sleep under, or shelter if it was a rough night, or whatever. Mary gave up everything to follow Jesus.

Again, we quail at the thought of that, even though following Jesus may well mean staying exactly where we are, with our present job and our family.

But Mary didn't quail. She even accompanied Jesus to the foot of the Cross, and stood by him in his final hours. And then, early in the morning of the third day after he was killed, she goes to the tomb to finish off the embalming she hadn't been able to do during the Sabbath Day.

And we know what happened – how she found the tomb empty, and raced back to tell Peter and John about it, and how they came and looked and saw and realised something had happened and dashed off, leaving her weeping in the garden – and then the beloved voice saying “Mary!” and with a cry of joy, she flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.

She tells the rest of the disciples how she has seen Jesus. She is the first witness to the Resurrection, although you will note that St Paul leaves her out of his list of people who saw the Risen Lord. That was mostly because the word of a woman, in that day and age, was considered unreliable; women were not considered capable of rational judgement. At least Jesus was different!

So Mary allowed Jesus to heal her, she gave up everything and followed him, she went with him even to the foot of the Cross, even when most of the male disciples, except John, had run away, and she bore witness to the risen Christ.

The question is, of course, do we do any of these things? We don't find them comfortable things to do, do we? It was all very well for Mary, we say, she knew Jesus, she knew what he looked like and what he liked to eat, and so on.

But we don't have to do these things in our own strength. The Jesus who loved Mary Magdalene, in whatever way, he will come to us and fill us with His Holy Spirit and enable us, too, to be healed, to follow Him, even to the foot of the Cross, and to bear witness to His resurrection. The question is, are we going to let him? Amen.

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