Mary Magdalene – Journey to Life
Those of us who remember Jesus Christ Superstar will remember Mary Magdalene sitting at Jesus’ side while he sleeps, singing, “I don’t know how to love him… He’s a man, he’s just a man. And I’ve had so many men before in very many ways. He’s just one more.” Andrew Lloyd Webber portrays Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner, with long, loose hair, and provocative clothing.
So, if you bring up Mary Magdalene in conversation (though I don’t know how often that actually happens), my guess is that someone will say, “Oh yeah! She’s the prostitute.” And that seems to be common knowledge, but where that comes from, no one knows. If you look at all 4 gospels, nowhere is Mary Magdalene associated with any sexual impropriety, but rather is identified as a disciple, a model of faithfulness.
Another popular image of Mary Magdalene comes from Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, which stirred up a lot of controversy back in 2003. Brown’s storyline revolved around Mary Magdalene as the spouse of Jesus, representing the divine feminine in religion. He points to Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper and urges the reader to look more closely at the disciple to Jesus’ right. Is it a woman? If you remember when his book came out, you probably remember an awful lot of discussion about who Mary Magdalene really was.
Mary is also often mistakenly identified as the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well in chapter 4 of John’s gospel, or the woman caught in adultery of chapter 8. Perhaps it is Luke who is responsible for Mary’s identification as a prostitute. In Luke 7, he tells of a woman of the city who appears at Jesus’ feet. In gratitude for his forgiveness, she washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. In Luke’s gospel this woman is unnamed, but in the following chapter, Luke names women who accompany and provide for Jesus, among whom is Mary Magdalene. She is described as having had 7 demons who were cast out. However, nowhere in the New Testament is her demon possession ever linked with prostitution.
So… who is Mary Magdalene? All we really know about her is that she probably comes from Magdala, a small fishing village on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. She is identified by “Magdalene” to differentiate her from the plethora of other Mary’s that appear in the gospels – Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42; John 12:1-3), Mary, mother of James (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 24:10), and Mary of Cleopas (John 19:25). Mary must have been a popular name in the first century! No wonder we are confused about Mary Magdalene’s identity!
In John’s gospel, Mary first appears at the foot of the cross in 19:25:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
She alone goes to the tomb on Easter morning, and is the first person the risen Jesus appears to. She goes to the tomb expecting to encounter death. While he was still alive, Jesus had shared that he would be betrayed, arrested, and put to death, and would rise again in 3 days. But this must have seemed an impossible incident. So it must have never entered Mary’s mind that Jesus was alive! So when she arrives at the tomb and finds the body gone, she assumes there has been a grave robbery. She runs to Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple and tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him” (20:2).
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
A race to the tomb follows. Peter and the Beloved disciple both set out to see for themselves (see last week’s discussion of Peter). The Beloved Disciple believes, but what about Peter? Did he get it? Or is he still just as confused as Mary? Both disciples return to their homes. But Mary remains alone. We can picture her going up to strangers, questioning those in the garden as to Jesus’ whereabouts. She is weeping, overwhelmed by her grief and sorrow, and perhaps not able to see things clearly. She is encountered by 2 angels, and seems unperturbed. This seems unusual since elsewhere in the New Testament the appearance of angels brings great fear. The Greek word angelos, angel, may also be translated simply messenger, so perhaps they didn’t look unusual. Or could it be that her grief blinded her? Could grief cause her to forget Jesus’ words that he would die and rise again? Could grief cause her to frantically question anyone she can find about Jesus’ whereabouts? Could grief cause her confusion when she sees Jesus but can’t recognize him?
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
In her grief, Mary seems to be walking up to complete strangers asking them what they know about Jesus, if they have seen who took the body. This is quite a contrast to Peter who denies knowing Jesus the night of his arrest, and the disciples who we discover are holed up behind locked doors in fear. Maybe Mary is acting recklessly in her great sorrow, not thinking clearly. Or perhaps John is portraying her as the model of what it means to be a disciple, or even more fully, what it means to trust in God. That even in the midst of danger and confusion, we still seek the one who gives life and hope.
Don’t you think we would recognize Jesus if we had followed him, if we had known him, if he was right in front of us? Or would we? When we find ourselves in the midst of grief or confusion or utter pain, how often do we cry out that we don’t know where God is! And God’s people have cried out in pain for centuries. The psalms are filled with cries begging for God to reveal God’s presence in the midst of crisis. On the cross, Jesus’ own words in Mark’s gospel are right from Psalm 22:
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
How easy it is to miss Jesus’ presence when it’s right in front of us. Perhaps we are waiting for a huge epiphany, for God’s presence to come crashing into our lives with thunder and lightning and neon signs with arrows and the words, “This is God!” But more often than not Jesus comes quietly, simply, even intimately, in the presence of those around us, in a word or phrase that catches us, in friends or family members, or perhaps in the gardener at the cemetery.
Mary is frantic in her grief. We can easily picture her wringing her hands, weeping uncontrollably, not really “seeing” what is right in front of her. But all of a sudden she hears her name spoken by Jesus. And she understands!
It took hearing her name on Jesus’ lips. Do we hear our names called out by Jesus? In baptism, our name is intricately and lovingly woven together with Jesus. We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and our new name becomes Child of God.
But Mary still has more to learn. She reaches for Jesus. Jesus never says she can’t touch him, but that she can’t hold on to him. Gail O’Day points out that the Greek word for “hold” has connotations of physical holding, but also refers to a broader understanding. To hold onto something also implies controlling, owning, co-opting, defining, manipulating for one’s own ends. It’s an important lesson for all of us. We don’t control Jesus. We don’t keep him in our back pocket to pull out when we need him. We are not to use Jesus for our own means. Rather, we follow, we conform our lives to his. In other words, we serve, we give, and we love. We conform our lives to the washing of feet as our Servant King washed the feet of his disciples.
Jesus teaches her the lesson of resurrection reality, that he will no longer be present with her physically, but will now have a new presence, a new relationship with her and with all humanity through the Spirit.
Mary is the first resurrection disciple. And don’t dismiss the fact that the first resurrection witness, the first to receive her call from Jesus, is a woman. God breaks all human boundaries, including those of a patriarchal society that calls for women to remain silent and in the background. In John’s gospel, Mary is the first to proclaim the Good News of resurrection. And in so doing she becomes the model for all of us for what it means to be a disciple, to follow Jesus, and to trust in God’s life-giving grace.