Sunday 22 July 2007

Year C, Trinity 7, St Mary Magdalene - Seek, Find, Tell!

1. Introduction

  • Today we are celebrating St Mary Magdalene, because her feast day falls tomorrow, July 23rd.
  • In the Gospel stories, Mary plays a central role in Jesus’s ministry; she was there when he was crucified and buried; and as we heard in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, she was the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection. Over the 2 millennia since then, she has also attracted an extraordinary number of imaginative stories and legends. Mostly frankly unbelievable hokum!
  • So what I want to do today is to review what we are told of her in the NT, to look at some of the traditions and stories, and then to ponder what we might learn from her today.

2. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four Gospels. What do they say about her?

  • Her name tells us that she came from Magdala, now called Migdal, then a small fishing village on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, a little over 15 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth. Galilee is a very small place, much like Tipperary!
  • Luke tells us that she was one of several women who supported Jesus during his ministry in Galilee, either with money or in kind, after being healed of evil spirits and infirmities. In fact we are told she had been cured of 7 demons. Now in those days all kinds of psychiatric illness were blamed on evil spirits. I think she must have been in great distress when she encountered Jesus, to need so many demons to be exorcised! We’re not given any description of her illness, but I wonder whether she experienced psychotic hallucinations or something like that.
  • Mary was one of the women who accompanied Jesus on his last trip to Jerusalem. All 4 Gospels tell us she was one of those who watched and waited as Jesus was crucified, and we are told that she was close by when he was put in the tomb prepared for Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb was sealed with a stone on Good Friday evening.
  • In the early morning of Easter Sunday she was one of those who went to the sepulchre with sweet spices to anoint Jesus’s body, and saw that the stone had been rolled back.
  1. It was she who ran back to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. She returned to the tomb, and weeping saw the vision of angels, and said ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’. Very poignant!
  2. Turning around, she was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. She didn’t recognise him at once, though she knew him so well. She thought he was the gardener, even when he spoke to her. It was only when he called her by name, ‘Mary!’, that she knew who he was, and responded ‘Rabbouni’, meaning teacher in Hebrew.
  3. And then she went to tell the disciples what she had experienced: ‘I have seen the Lord’.

That’s all we hear of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, though no doubt she was one of the women who joined the Apostles in the upper room after Jesus’s ascension, as we are told in Acts.

3. Let’s turn to some of the traditions and stories that have grown up about her over the years.

  • Quite early on, leaders of the Western Church identified Mary Magdalene as the same person as John’s Mary of Bethany, and Luke’s woman who was a sinner. St Hippolytus of Rome did so in the C3rd, and Pope Gregory preached a sermon about it in 591. Luke’s sinner anointed Jesus and dried his feet with her hair; John says Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, did the same. It’s quite reasonable to assume they are the same person. But surely Mary Magdalene has to be someone else? She came from Magdala in Galilee, not Bethany in Judea, after all.
  • The Eastern Churches are quite sure Mary Magdalen is different to the other two. In their tradition Mary Magdalene retired to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus and died there. This is supported by Gregory bishop of Tours in France in the C6th.
  • But in Provence a quite different tradition arose in the late middle ages. Mary Magdalene is supposed to have travelled with her brother Lazarus across the Mediterranean in a frail boat without rudder or mast and landed at a place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. After converting the whole of Provence, she retired to a cave near Marseille called La-Sainte-Baume and lived a life of penance for 30 years. On her death, angels carried her to her burial place in the oratory of St Maxime at Aix. The monks of Vézelay in Burgundy competed for years with the monks of St Maxime as to who had her real relics. They embellished the stories as they relieved pious pilgrims of their money.
  • No doubt because she was identified with Luke’s sinner, Mary Magdalene came to be seen as a prostitute who repented of her sins. She became the much loved Penitent Magdalene. There are many beautiful depictions of her, traditionally with long red hair immodestly worn down over her shoulders, weeping at the crucifixion. Other women saints, not such scarlet sinners, have dark hair kept under a scarf. This image has persisted right up to the present day, for instance in Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ and Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. She was made the patron of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge; both pronounced ‘Maudlin’, as in weepy penitent. And her name was used for institutions for “fallen women”, including the notorious Magdalen Laundries here in Ireland. We should reflect on that: to our shame the last one didn’t close until 1996.
  • And then we have the Da Vinci Code. Many of you will have read the novel, one of a number of books in the last 25 years that claim Mary Magdalene was really Jesus’s wife. Church leaders from the early fathers to the present Vatican are supposed to have conspired to suppress and hide the truth. The authors have recovered it, of course, by fanciful interpretations of early Gnostic writings, the Grail legends, and such like. No doubt the authors felt that they would sell more books by feeding religious controversy. But not a scrap of decent evidence! What complete tosh - and I think dangerous tosh: I fear that gullible people believe it, and are being relieved of their silver once again by the unscrupulous.

4. To do the real woman justice, I think we have to chisel away the later legendary incrustations on Mary Magdalene’s story, and get back to the simplicities of what we read in the gospels.

  • We should remember and celebrate her, because as well as being a close friend of Jesus and supporting his ministry, she walked with him on the road to Calvary. She watched as he was cruelly murdered on the cross, she was there when he was laid out in the tomb, and she was the first person to experience his resurrection.
  • She was also the first person to carry the message of the resurrection, when she rushed to tell the news to the disciples. The word apostle comes from the Greek ἀπόστολος which means ‘one sent forth’, used of a messenger or envoy. So Mary Magdalene is often, and quite properly, called the Apostle to the Apostles. She is a really important figure in the development of our faith.
  • Let us put ourselves for a moment in Mary’s shoes that first Easter morning.
  1. She was a seeker after God’s Kingdom. Jesus was her teacher. She believed he was showing her the way to the Kingdom. But he had been arrested, subjected to a show trial, and cruelly crucified. It must have seemed that all she hoped and prayed for had been dashed. Yet she loved him, and she couldn’t let him go without the proper rituals of mourning, the decencies of death. When she found the tomb apparently desecrated and the body gone, she must have felt she was living a nightmare. But she didn’t give up; she kept on seeking. She asked the person she thought was the gardener where the body had been taken to.
  2. Then Jesus called her by name. Jesus found her; only then did she find him. Perhaps she didn’t recognise Jesus at first because she was blinded by her tears. Or perhaps she encountered the risen Christ in a vision, a kind of hallucination. Whichever it was, it changed everything.
  3. She heard Jesus say ‘go to my brothers and say to them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’. I feel sure she felt she had no option; she just had to do as he asked. So she went to the disciples to tell them ‘I have seen the Lord’.
  • I think one thing we can all learn from Mary Magdalene can be summed up in three words: Seek, Find, Tell. If we seek God, we shall find him – after he has found us - and we will be compelled to tell others about it.
  • The good compilers of the lectionary recognised this theme of seeking and finding in Mary’s story, which is why they set for her feast day the beautiful readings from the Song of Solomon and Psalm 42 which we heard earlier.

Let us pray that in these times, when Christ’s body the church is being crucified yet again by scandals and by schism, we can try to model ourselves on Mary; not to give up, but to keep on seeking, seeking Jesus, who will in the darkest moments find us, call us by name, and send us out to tell the world about it.

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