Tuesday 21 July 2020

St Mary Magdalene - Seek, Find, Tell

Reflection during Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 21st July 2020, the Eve of the Feastday of St Mary Magdalene.

St Mary Magdalene, whose feast day falls tomorrow, plays a central role in Jesus’s ministry.
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.

Luke tells us that she was one of several women who supported Jesus during his ministry in Galilee, after being cured of 7 demons. 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 don’t know what her illness was, but perhaps 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 the first Easter Sunday she went to the sepulchre with sweet spices to anoint Jesus’s body, and saw that the stone had been rolled back. She ran back to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. She returned to the tomb, weeping, and saw a vision of angels. And she said to them They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

Turning around, she was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. She didn’t recognise him at once. 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.
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 Acts tells us.

Many traditions and stories grew up about Mary Magdalene over the years.
Hundreds of years after her death, 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, who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with perfume. Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon about it in 591. But there is absolutely nothing in scripture to support this.

Quite unfairly, Mary Magdalene came to be seen as a prostitute who repented of her sins. There are many beautiful pictures of her, traditionally with long red hair immodestly worn down over her shoulders - other female saints have dark hair kept under a scarf. And her name was used for institutions for “fallen women”, including the notorious Magdalen Laundries here in Ireland.

The Eastern Churches are quite sure Mary Magdalene is different to the other two. In their tradition she retired to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus and died there.

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 to land near Arles. After converting Provence, she lived a life of penance in a cave for 30 years until her death, when angels carried her to her burial place in the oratory of St Maxime at Aix. The monks of V├ęzelay in Burgundy competed for years with the monks of St Maxime as to who had her real relics. They embellished their stories as they relieved pious pilgrims of their money.

To do the real woman justice, we must chisel away the later legendary incrustations, and get back to the simplicity of what we read in the gospels.
We should remember and celebrate Mary Magdalene, 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. She was literally the Apostle to the Apostles. Let us put ourselves for a moment in her shoes that first Easter morning.

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, so she couldn’t let him go without the proper rituals of mourning.

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.

Then Jesus called her by name. Jesus found her - only then did she find him.

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”, and she did as he asked. She must have felt an overwhelming joy, when she announced to the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’.

What Mary Magdalene teaches us can be summed up in three words: Seek, Find, Tell.

If we seek God, we shall find him - but only when he calls us by name. And then we are compelled to repeat his message to others.

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