Mary Magdalene Day
In marketing campaigns it is most likely a good thing to get a celebrity endorsement. Many top sportspeople or actors can earn millions from a good deal for a particular product. It is odd that in the gospels when it comes to trying to convince people about the most important part of the Christian faith, namely the good news of Easter, the writers identify the key people as those who in terms of their society would be the most marginalised.
The main witnesses to the resurrection are women and in John’s account, we are told of the faithful discipleship of Mary Magdalene. A counter cultural move in what was a patriarchal society.
In life it is very important to listen and to and be aware of those on the margins. I think one of the things that strikes me about the ministry of Jesus is that he is aware of those who on the edges and might easily be missed.
A few weeks ago we heard the story of the woman with the haemorrhage who approaches Jesus by stealth and does her level best to remain anonymous. There are other examples: Zachaeus hiding in the tree, the poor widow by the treasury in the Jerusalem temple and in John the Samaritan widow by the well.
Jesus made a point of speaking about responding to the needs of the “least of these” or those that are homeless, hungry and in prison. He lived by how he taught. He saw those on the edges; those who were looked down upon and also those who believed they had no importance or even any particular value. His manifesto was captured by the prophet Isaiah: Jesus came to preach good news to the poor and set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
This has always struck me as significant. It is possible that at some point in our lives we have felt anonymous and can think that no-one would really notice if we here or not here. That can be a dangerous slippery slope as such thoughts can develop into thoughts of depression and negativity.
There is by contrast something intrinsic in the Christian message that the church should be a safe place, where we all have a place and a value.
Early in the tradition of the church this point is made in the stories of the resurrection. We are used to thinking that the first followers of Jesus were men, but all the Gospels are able to show that Jesus had followers who were woman and some of them play a vitally important part in his story.
The first witnesses of the resurrection are women and the first evangelists were woman as they tell the disciples what has happened. It is the men in the story who do not believe what they tell them and think that they are hysterical. The chief witness to what has happened is Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned in all four of the Gospels and in John’s account she is also present at the crucifixion.
Mary was a key follower of Jesus, and intimate witness to some of the most important events in his life, but has been wrongly recast in popular tradition as a “fallen woman” and “prostitute.”
A good example of recent Mary “let not make the facts spoil a good story,” is the Da Vinci Code.
This works on the assumption that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their descendants are with us today.
There are a two contrasting medieval interpretations of Mary: After travelling to Jerusalem she ended up on a rudderless ship and guided by an angel, she landed in southern France. She was a respected evangelist and eventually retreated to a mountain cave where she levitated when she said her prayers and ultimately died on July 22nd.
Another legend has it that, unattached as she was, Mary became Jesus’ lover. That was a claim asserted by the Cathars, Christians who became the objects of an internal Crusade declared by Pope Innocent III.
His zealous executioners destroyed the entire city of Beziers for the insult to Mary Magdalene, carrying out the genocide on her feast day in 1209.
There is a story that the invading army were facing a problem of how to tell apart faithful Catholics from the heretics and an Abbot suggested “kill them all as God will know who are his own.” Yet the idea lost none of its appeal; later Martin Luther embraced the Cathar view of Jesus’ liaison with Mary Magdalene.
So given the issues of projection and story telling what can be said about her. She was as mentioned a witness to the crucifixion and the resurrection. In John’s account she is the first witness and Jesus speaks her name. It is highly likely that before she started following Jesus she would have been a marginal figure.
Luke tells us that before she joined Jesus is that she had previously been possessed by “seven devils.” The “seven devils” which suggests that she suffered from some form of mental illness or turmoil; whatever it meant she was someone who was healed by Jesus.
She was also someone who understood what was going to happen to Jesus when he entered into the city of Jerusalem. Jesus had told his followers that he would be rejected and they chose not to dwell on his words, but Mary listened and understood. She has also been identified with the woman who anointed Jesus near the end of his life and the disciples were angry with her. Her actions show that she was anointing his body for burial. Yet he tells them: “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has will be spoken of in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).
Yet, possibly most significantly she is present on that first Easter morning and she recognises that the mysterious gardener is in fact Jesus.
The Gospel writers may have been taking a risk as it might be that a marginalised figure is the least likely to be believed.
Yet, I think that they were being faithful witnesses to what actually happened and it is a reminder to the church that we need to listen and be attentive to those whose voices might be missed.
It is also an encouragement to all of us to remember that our experiences of faith and God are really important.
It is easy to say “I’m not clever enough,” or “no-one will take me seriously,” and I’m sure Mary knew the risks when she said to the disciples “I have seen the Lord.”
When you voice something deep inside there is always a risk that it might not be taken seriously or even ridiculed.
The good news is that it is a risk that is worth taking, as we all have a God given worth and potential.