Living the Resurrection: Mary Magdalene

This morning we come the end of our series on Living the Resurrection. I hope that you have been blessed by interacting with the stories of each of these people: Moses with the resurrection of his identity, Ruth the resurrection of her circumstances, and  Paul with the resurrection of his life’s purpose. And now we come to the final person in our series with the Apostle Saint Mary Magdalene. Now that I have your attention, we can investigate the life of this very misunderstood but important person in the life of Jesus and his followers.

Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene, has shown up in extra-biblical texts, sermons, books, television, films, and musicals from the first century through today. She has been beatified, canonized, vilified, and generally dragged through the mud. She is seen by some as a champion of women’s rights and is given the title ‘apostle to the apostles.’ In the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches, she is considered the patron saint of apothecaries, contemplative life, converts, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, people ridiculed for their piety, perfumeries, pharmacists, reformed prostitutes, sexual temptation, tanners, and women. With all that in mind, I plan to tell her story and look at how she was impacted as the first witness to the resurrection and the resurrection of her heart.

Most of what people know and think of Mary Magdalene can be found in a sermon and two books. The sermon, offered by Pope Gregory I in 591, said that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the repentant sinner in Luke 7 are all the same person. This misidentification, one that scholars now generally agree was a misidentification, made Mary Magdalene a prostitute in the eyes of the church. The problem with this is these are three different people and the woman in Luke 7 is a sinner not a prostitute. First, the fact that Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus, is identified as being of Bethany which means she was not of Magdala. Names that had your town of origin were specific in those days so she could not have been from Bethany and Magdala. These are two different people. Second, the woman in Luke 7, someone completely different is not identified. The writer of Luke tried to be careful with names and dates and where people had names, he used them. If the woman in Luke 7 had been Mary Magdalene, the writer would have said as much. She was well known to the disciples and would have been easily identified. Finally, the woman in Luke 7 is identified as a sinner not a prostitute. The word used is hamartilos meaning simply one who has missed the mark. People have conjectured that she was a prostitute from what they see as a sensual act in touching Jesus’ feet with her hands and hair but the point of the story is about her lavish and humble worship of Jesus not some hypersexualized display. She could have been a labeled a sinner for anything from walking too far on the Sabbath to speaking with a man in public.

The other two things contributing to Mary Magdalene’s modern reputation are the two books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. Whether or not Dan Brown plagiarized Holy Blood, Holy Grail or not is a matter for us to debate today but both books promote some bad scholarship and assumptions on the idea of Mary Magdalene as Jesus wife. Whether Jesus was or was not married, whether the Catholic Church covered it up, we simply do not have the proper evidence to definitively say one way or the other. It makes a lovely conspiracy theory and a great fictional story, but it really doesn’t hold water when you look at the actual documentation and fragments we have available. The closest verse that could make a case comes from the Gospel of Philip and says that Jesus was the companion of Mary and that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. It also has a broken fragment that says Jesus used to kiss her on her and then a blank space. So, there is no real proof here. This is all speculation and poor scholarship for the purpose of entertainment and book sales. Dan Brown writes good fiction and in this case it’s just that, fiction.

So, what do we know about Mary and how does that speak to the idea of her heart’s resurrection? One, she was from the seaside village of Magdala on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. She was, according to Luke 8:1-3, healed of seven demons, or to say it another way, completely healed of possession. Some scholars think this may have been another way of saying she had been suffering from mental illness. She was independently wealthy whether from family money or that of a husband. According to the writer of Luke’s gospel, Mary Magdalene used her wealth to support Jesus and the disciples financially.

Most importantly, she was present, according to all four gospels, at Jesus resurrection. In the Gospel of Matthew, she holds a vigil over Jesus grave with “the other Mary”. In the Gospel of Mark, she was witness to the crucifixion and later, is going to the tomb to embalm Jesus with spices along with Mary the mother of James and Salome. The writer of Luke records her bringing burial spices with Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women. John’s gospel also shows her at the crucifixion with Jesus mother, sister, and a woman named Mary the wife of Clopas. When the morning of the resurrection comes around, the gospel writer offers no explanation as to why she is there, but it is the one gospel where she speaks with the risen Jesus, only recognizing him after he calls her name. Though the men come later, it is always Mary who is at the tomb to see the tomb empty and hear the good news as to why. She is the apostle to the apostles, the one sent first to tell the good news of resurrection.

Like much of scripture, this can get reduced to details about something written about in the past or theological points to be debated. But I would like for you to imagine yourself for a moment as Mary Magdalene. I’d like for you to think about what it must have been like to be completely delivered from possession or mental illness whichever you prefer. Imagine the incredible weight lifted, the relief of being able to return to a normal life. I’d like for you to imagine being so grateful, so overjoyed that you hear with a willing heart the message of Jesus under whose ministry you were delivered. You not only come to believe in the message you believe in the man and his mission, so much so that you begin to put considerable financial resources into helping them. Not only that, but you become one of many who follow Jesus across the Galilean landscape, proclaiming his message of the Kingdom and learning at his feet. You follow him no matter what, even in the end, to the foot of his cross, where Jesus is executed by Roman authorities. Think of the journey she has been on from desperation to healing to discipleship to dread to heartbreak. Think of yourself sitting in a home in Jerusalem on Saturday, knowing you cannot honor the rabbi by caring for his deceased body; no ritual cleaning, no anointing of spices, nothing. You simply sit there, dazed, shocked, helpless. You are nothing less than completely heart broken. After everything you have experienced, everything you’ve seem, you can do nothing but sit there in the pain.

Morning comes and you wander toward the tomb. Feeling nothing but the numbing cold in the air and your heart, you take one heavy step after another toward the rock wall that hold the body of the rabbi. Your hope is gone. Your strength is gone. You are running on nothing more than sheer determination to honor the rabbi. But something is different when you get to the tomb, something out of place. It’s then that you see: the stone, the giant gravestone blocking the tomb’s entrance is rolled aside.

You run back to the place where the others are staying and breathlessly tell them what you have seen, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” You run back, terror stricken at the thought of this desecration, thinking of the dishonor done. Peter and the beloved disciple get to the tomb ahead of you and go in. You stand outside, bending over to look inside the tomb, a trickle of tears turning to wracking sobs. And then, angels, messengers from God alight on the slab of stone where the body was laid. They speak to her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

Why am I crying? Why am I crying?! Rage becomes the undercurrent to your grief as you cry/scream the words at the angels, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”

You feel a presence behind you, and you turn to see a man. “Woman,” he asks you, “why are you crying?” This again? You ask where the man has carried the body of Jesus away but there is something strange about this man, something familiar. You don’t realize what it is until he looks into your eyes and says, “Mary.”

That voice. That voice, his voice. That’s him, that’s his voice. You start shaking and reach out to grab his sleeves, “Rabbouni?” Hope returns and the heart that was broken begins to mend.

Mary Magdalene, no matter how you might choose to see her through the lens of popular culture, was a devoted disciple of Jesus who experienced all the profound heartache of loosing her friend and spiritual teacher and all the joy of knowing he was resurrected. In the same way, when we embrace the Way of Jesus, we too are embracing healing of heartaches, the restoration of our true selves and our being. We are experiencing, as she did, the resurrection of our hearts from a broken way of living to a resurrected way of living.

Is your heart a resurrected heart?

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