By Sr. Sue, SSJD.
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.
Today we keep the feast of Mary Magdalene. I signed up to give this homily because I have always been interested by the dichotomy between the popular notions (popular within the church as well as in secular society) of Mary as this young, beautiful, seductive fallen woman, who managed to attract even sin-less Jesus and what the Gospels actually say about her. (The Gospels say that Jesus cast out 7 demons from her; that she along with a number of other women travelled with Jesus and the other disciples and supported them financially; that she waited with other women, looking on from distance at the crucifixion; that she was the first to see the resurrected Christ).
This interest turned to a kind of fascination during my forty day retreat at Loyola House as I prayed the conversion of the Magdalene and had a vision of her that completely disagreed with the “popular” version. The image I was granted of Mary was a middle-aged woman, not unattractive but certainly not gorgeous and sexy; a widow who had inherited property from her late husband and, when not suffering the attentions of demons, looked after that property and looked after her family; a woman who suffered from demonic possession and was saved from that possession by Jesus.
How does that fit with the Gospel accounts? Well – we know she suffered demonic possession and was cured. Luke tells us that (8.1-3). Luke also tells us that Mary travelled with the disciples and other women, including Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza and a woman named Susanna, as well as many others “who provided for them out of their resources.” That tells me that Mary had property of her own (resources) and that she was considered fit company for upper-class women married to men of political and social importance. This is the only information the Gospels give us prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. In those accounts, in all the Gospels, Mary Magdalene waits with other women, all followers of Jesus, at a distance from the cross (at the foot of the cross, according to John); she waits out the Sabbath and goes to Jesus’ grave to prepare his body; and she is first to receive the news of his resurrection from the angel, first to take word back to the disciples, and first to see and speak with the risen Christ.
Why am I telling you this? You already know what the Gospels say – we hear the passages of the crucifixion and resurrection several times a year, and over and over again during the Easter season. You already know that the “popular” stories about Mary Magdalene are no longer considered doctrine by the western church (and never have been by the Eastern church). What’s the point?
Well, what is the point of revering (not worshipping – revering) Mary Magdalene? What is the point of revering any of the saints? For myself, I don’t believe that I need any of the saints to act as intercessor between me and Jesus, or me and God. I suppose I am a good Protestant in believing that I have no need of an intermediary, be it the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Mary Magdalene or any of the saints, in order to connect with God. But not needing a saint as an intermediary doesn’t mean that the saints are not useful or important. I believe that saints can provide models for my relationship with God, with Creator, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. They can also provide me with a better understanding of such relationships, and a better understanding of God.
And how does our understanding, our admiration, our reverence for Mary Magdalene help us to connect to God? What do we know about this woman? How does she speak to us? What does she say to us?
As we’ve already seen, she had resources which she was willing to spend on Jesus’ ministry, so she was a woman of some wealth. She was at liberty to leave her home, husband, sons, etc, to follow Jesus, so she had some freedom. We can interpret this as some have, that as a sinner and prostitute she was freed from many of the strictures of society, simply because she was unworthy of them. We could also interpret this as meaning that she was of a sufficient age, wealth, and position in her family and her society that she could take time and risk disgrace to follow our Lord. She was found in the company of women of some status: Joanna the wife of Chuza comes to mind. Class-consciousness was far greater in the ancient world than it is in our own. We might believe that the followers of Jesus, like Jesus himself, were blind to the social divisions of their time, which forbade a woman of good repute to have any connection with a woman of bad repute. Or we might believe that Mary Magdalene was not a former prostitute, and had a sufficiently high position in society that the wife of one of Herod’s officials would consider her good company.
What else do we know? She had courage. She was generous. She had known adversity, being possessed by 7 demons. She was grateful for her healing and expressed that gratitude by picking up and leaving her old life behind to follow and support her healer.
And we know something else – something that may seem obvious, but that I think is too seldom stated outright.
Mary Magdalene was a friend of Jesus. Jesus considered her his friend. He not only healed her, he accepted her company in his travels, and he thought so much of her that is was she, Mary Magdalene, to whom he first revealed himself in the Resurrection. It might have Peter, or John, or his mother Mary; it might have been James and John or Thomas. It might have been any or all of the disciples. But it wasn’t. It was Mary Magdalene.
One of the Apocryphal writings of the early church presents Peter at odds with Mary, jealous of her; jealous of her, of her wisdom, of her intelligence, of her influence on and friendship with Jesus. It makes sense, in a kind of twisted way, that the men who thought they were better than women, wiser than women, more important than women, should spread salacious stories about a woman who was clearly just as good as a man, if not in their eyes, then in the eyes of their (and our) Lord and Saviour.
And perhaps that is the most important thing we can take from the story of Mary Magdalene – the understanding that, of all the men who ever lived on the earth, there was one man – there IS one man – who believes completely in the equality of women, in the importance of women, in the friendship of women: the man who healed Mary, who respected Mary, who regarded Mary as his friend – our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.