From being unknown to being knownm

The Feast of Mary Magdalene – 2019
John 20:1:18
Marian Free

God of boundless love whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

In the 7th century, Pope Gregory the First made the assertion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. He came to this conclusion by conflating Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet before his death. In turn, Mary of Bethany was confused with the unnamed ‘sinful’ woman of Luke who interrupted a dinner party in order to anoint Jesus’ head. The problem (apart from the fact that there is no reason to think that these three women are one and the same) is, that even if Magdalene could be proven to be the ‘sinful’ woman who anointed Jesus, we are not provided with a single clue that would allow us to draw a conclusion about the nature of that woman’s sin. There is nothing in our gospels, except perhaps the suggestion that Mary was a woman of independent means, to suggest that she was a prostitute. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, it has been almost impossible for Magdalene to shake that image and for centuries Mary has been depicted as a prostitute in art and in commentaries.

Indeed, our biblical evidence for Mary Magdalene is scarce. That said, she is mentioned by name on twelve occasions which is more times than any of the apostles are mentioned! She presumably came from Magdala and, according to Luke, she was one of the three women who provided for Jesus out of their own resources (8:2-3) and one from whom seven demons had gone out (cf Mark16:9). All four gospels agree that Magdalene was one of the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Day and that with them she was commissioned to tell the disciples (who were men) that Jesus had risen. In John’s gospel, Mary’s role is even more significant. She goes to the tomb alone, and it is to Mary, and only Mary, that Jesus speaks and commissions. Mary’s place in the gospels then, and especially her position in the Gospel of John, implies that (whatever her demons may have been) she had a leadership role in the early community.

This view is supported by the position that Mary is given in the non-canonical writings – the most tantalising of which is the Gospel of Philip. In these books Mary’s closeness to Jesus is a cause of tension with other disciples – in particular with Peter. We read: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

And the companion of the [Lord was?] Mary Magdalene. [He?] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [mouth?]. The rest of the disciples said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”

Here and elsewhere we are told that Mary is not only given information that is given to no other disciple, but that she is particularly intimate with Jesus. The closeness of the relationship between Mary and Jesus (both in the non-canonical writings and in today’s gospel reading) has led some scholars to speculate that Mary and Jesus were married. They suggest that the wedding at Cana was in fact the celebration of the marriage between Jesus and Mary. Why else, they ask, would Mary the mother of Jesus, take such an interest in the catering and presume to have authority to instruct the servants? (No one – even today – would presume to give orders to another person’s staff and a woman in the first century had no authority, let alone in the home of someone else.)

Magdalen’s role as the apostle to the apostles in John’s gospel and her significant place in the synoptic gospels, along with the references to Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip and elsewhere combine to suggest that Mary had a significant leadership role in the early community and a closeness to Jesus not extended to anyone else. It would have been easy for the gospel writers to exclude her from the story or to downplay her part in the resurrection appearances. By the time the gospels were being written the place of women in the Christian community was being substantially diminished (but that is a story for another day). The gospel writers could have easily named members of the twelve disciples as the first to see Jesus and as those who were commissioned to tell the others of the resurrection. That Mary retains this role in the gospels suggests that her position within the community and her contribution to the life of the community was such that the memory of her was still strong and that any attempt to write her out of the story would have been met with resistance.

Of course, we will never be able to properly separate fact from fiction or speculation from evidence, but there are some things that we can say with some certainty. Mary, who was possessed by seven demons, was set free. Having been set free, she not only followed Jesus, but she supported him financially. Alone, or in the company of others, Mary went to the tomb on Easter Day, and alone, or as one of three, she was instructed to proclaim the resurrection to the disciples. She journeyed from darkness to light, from exclusion to inclusion, from being unknown to being fully known, from being held captive to demons to being captivated by Jesus’ love and from being no one, to being the bearer of the good news.

Being in relationship with Jesus is life-changing. We too are brought from darkness to light, from the outside to the inside, from isolation to relationship, from captivity to freedom and ignorance to proclaimers of the gospel.

Faith is both a privilege and a responsibility. We are called into a relationship and sent out to share the good news.

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