Eastertide: Mary Magdalene

Between the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ there are 40 days, in which there were a number of encounters between Jesus and his followers. These who were left in his wake had various responses to his rising and personal interaction with him. Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, the Emmaus Road travellers; each captures something of their relationship with Jesus while he walked with them. Over the next few Sundays we will consider who they were in the story, and what they have to say to us today, starting with Mary Magdalene.

For the three years that Jesus travelled the region preaching, teaching and healing, Mary was there. As a woman in this time of history this was counter-cultural. She would have had to leave her family (the watchful eye of her Father), break with protocol and risk being ostracized because of it. Yet something within her gave her the courage to do so. It is said that she travelled with the disciples, both men and women, and that she was one who provided for Jesus financially. She is introduced in Luke 8, and then again in John 20.  

Mary, along with other disciples was a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus, and according to John she was waiting at the tomb on Easter Sunday, the first to see him in his risen state, and the first to speak to him. In this discourse Jesus tells her to ‘go and tell the others that I have risen, as I said I would, and to wait for him in Galilee.’ 

Fear, trembling, joy and bewilderment are the words used to describe her response to this encounter. Those used to describe the disciples’ individual encounters and their response to the delivery of her message were, fear, trembling claiming, ‘she speaks words of nonsense’. This fear caused them to flee the scene.

Perhaps Mary’s actual belief in the words that Jesus had spoken that he would rise on the third day rewarded her with this unique gift of meeting. Perhaps it was because of the risk that she would take to break free from the restrictions that her culture placed on her. Or perhaps it was an act of pure love and devotion, one that transformed her and readied her for this experience enabling her to stay and wait for the fulfillment of Jesus words.

From this point she disappears from the text. 

Over the next 1400 years Mary Magdalene became known in Ecclesial circles as ‘Mary from whom seven demons were cast out’,1 ‘the sinful woman who anointed Jesus with an alabaster jar of perfume,’2 and ‘Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus & Martha.’3 She slid from “Apostle to the Apostles'“ to “Penitent Whore” and her credibility as the first witness to the risen Christ was undercut.

Was there a plot, a deliberate manoeuvre by the ecclesial powers of the day to relegate woman to support roles in the Church, and - more dangerously - to remove the feminine presence from the office of Leadership? This woman who had sacrificed and loved so much was forever known for her ‘sins or issues’ rather than for the goodness that resided within. Author Cynthia Borgeault suggests that we have had “ecclesial stardust” thrown over the whole picture, putting Mary in the background as the supporting act.

How often do we identify and define each other, (or ourselves) based on our past? What is it about human nature that loves to ‘dig up the dirt’ on someone else? Can we recognise and remember people for the goodness that lies within  as opposed to the sin? And can we allow, even encourage people to become all they were created to be, accepting and embracing all despite our perceived bias and world view. 

This, I believe is one of the invitations to us all, as we consider the trajectory of the life of Mary Magdalene. She who had the ability to hold Christ in full view despite the obstacles (stones) that were in her way. She listened, heard, trusted and waited and was rewarded for her faith, and her love for Jesus.

Jesus said, ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’ and ‘A new commandment I give to you, Love one another’

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.4

Mary’s is a story of love. And love is the path of transformation.

Linda Burson Swift

1Luke 8 v 2

2Luke 7

3John 11

41 Corinthians 12