This is the lightly edited version of the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for Easter Sunday.
Reading: John 20:1-18
We have come today to the last of the four characters I want to look at for Holy Week and Easter this year. I have chosen Mary Magdalene for today both because she features prominently in our Gospel reading and because she was the first witness of our Lord’s resurrection. Mary Magdalene, however, is probably the most difficult of the four characters to talk about, not because of what the Gospels do – or don’t – say about her, but because of the common distortions to her image. These distortions make it harder to understand her as a person.
The first reference to Mary Magdalene in the four Gospels occurs in St Luke’s Gospel. It is worth quoting in full:
‘Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.’ (Luke 8:1-3)
This is not only the first reference to Mary Magdalene, it is the only reference to her until we get to the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion. Mary herself would, of course, have been known to many of the first readers of the Gospels. Firstly, she would have been known personally to some of them. The characters in the Gospels didn’t cease to exist after Jesus’ death and resurrection apart, that is, from Judas who hanged himself. They would have been members of church communities, and people would have known them. Secondly, others would have known about her from the stories they had heard about our Lord’s death and resurrection. Notice that I say stories about our Lord’s death and resurrection. The Gospels’ concern is with Mary Magdalene’s part in the story of Jesus, and it is her relationship to him that is the key, as we shall see, for understanding her.
But first we need to bring Mary Magdalene’s image into focus and deal with the various distortions to it. St Luke, in the passage I have just quoted, is describing a preaching tour of Jesus through the cities and villages of Galilee. On this tour, his closest disciples, known as the Twelve, are with him as well as, St Luke tells us ‘women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities’. These women ‘provided for them out of their resources’. This may mean that Mary Magdalene was from a wealthy background, rich people get ill and possessed as well much as anyone else, but it may denote other types of service as well. As with other background details in the story of Jesus, we are not told because that was not what the Gospel writers were interested in, and initially in the history of the Church much of the background to the story would already be known to the first audiences of the Gospel stories.
That Mary Magdalene had been severely disturbed is clear, and we are meant to understand that it was Jesus who healed her and the two other named women, Joanna and Susanna. Also clear is that Mary Magdalene travelled with Jesus and that the journey took her eventually to Jerusalem, where she is one of those who watch Jesus being crucified Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49; John 19:25). The Gospels also list her as one of the women who first visit the tomb where Jesus was buried and find it empty (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:2). After finding the tomb empty, the women we are told all report back to the apostles, who go to the tomb and also find it empty just as the women have reported. St John then alone has this account of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene.
So far so good. The problem is, however, that, after this, understanding Mary becomes difficult because of how what we know of her is distorted by those who wish to use her image for their own purposes. In the same way that the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels had to have seven demons cast out of her, there are seven distorted images that each need to be banished if Mary is to be presented to us clearly today and we are to hear what she would say to us.
1. Mary the Name
The distortion begins with her name itself. The demon of historical inaccuracy brings with it all the other demons of distortion, and we can see the distortion beginning even with the speculation about Mary’s name. At first it seems harmless enough, but it opens the way for more harmful distortions to come.
As we have seen, Mary was one of the most popular girl’s names at the time. To distinguish her from all the other Marys at the time, and the many who appear in the Gospels, she was known as Mary Magdalene. Magdalene refers to Magdala, which was a busy fishing village, six miles south of Capernaum. Magdala means ‘tower’ in Hebrew and it most likely got its name from the geography of the area.
Recently there have been significant discoveries and excavations at the site of ancient Magdala. It is now one of the most exciting archaeological sites in Galilee, and not one, but two synagogues have been discovered there. Some of us have been following the virtual Pilgrimage for Lent led by a member of a wonderful church community there, known simply as Magdala.
This you would think is all straightforward enough, but recently there have been, what are best described as ‘sentimental speculations’ that Mary was called Magdalene not simply or so much because of where she came from, but because of her own ‘towering faith’ in Jesus. Magdala being seen as referring to her faith rather than the place. It’s good sermon stuff, and, at first sight, harmless enough, but once we have started to leave historical accuracy behind in favour of our own imaginings, it is hard to stop, and we see how it can take a more harmful turn in the next distorted image.
2. Mary the Prostitute
Historically, the most popular image of Mary Magdalene has been that of a prostitute, and this image of her still persists in popular culture. It would not matter if Mary had been a prostitute. Jesus welcomed and forgave prostitutes, as he welcomed and forgave all types of sinners. It just happens not to be true. Belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute was the result of a confusion and conflation of characters that, ironically, a Pope is partly responsible for. Mary Magdalene came to be identified with Mary of Bethany, whom we thought about for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and the ‘sinful woman’ of Luke chapter 7 (Luke 7:36-50). Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) himself made this identification in a sermon, although it is one that was already around at the time. Pope Gregory, however, in confirming it, gave authority to it.
The image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute stuck, and it is still with us. People love this image of Mary Magdalene, and it is deeply rooted in popular culture. It is an image that has been the basis for paintings, books, films, and even musicals. ‘I’ve had so many men before’, the character of Mary Magdalene sings in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and that’s how people often identify her.
It is, however, a false identification. Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany are two different people, and neither of them is the sinful woman of Luke chapter 7.
3. Mary the Submissive Woman
As well as the image of her as a prostitute, who not only has demons cast out of her by Jesus but is also forgiven by him, the next image sees Mary Magdalene as having gone on to become a kind of female groupie on the road with Jesus.
Those of a more traditional type of faith would not, of course, describe her like that, but, in their portrayal of her, she certainly doesn’t appear as an independent person in her own right. In the best versions of this particular distorted image, she is depicted looking after Jesus and offering support to him and to his male disciples. More sinisterly, those who take this approach often use image of Mary Magdalene and others like it to argue that women should submit to men and take a role in society that is subordinate to men. A recent book by a woman on the Catholic understanding of the role and place of women argues just that. It is called tellingly, ‘Ask Your Husband’.
While it is true that the women did minister to Jesus’ needs, this image is also used to imply there are limits to the sort of ministry that women should allowed to perform today. Specifically, it is an image that has been used in the past to justify women not ordaining women or allowing them to preach.
The question of what role women should have in ministry is one that the Church has different views on. Anglicans, for example ordain women as priests; Roman Catholics don’t. The fact, however, that Mary Magdalene took a supporting role to Jesus, as opposed to being one of the Twelve, doesn’t offer support one way or another to views on women’s ministry today. Jesus himself was with us as one who serves. As we saw on Maundy Thursday, washing his disciples’ feet was one of the last things Jesus did before his arrest (John 13:1-11). We are all called to serve. The question of how women are to serve today is not answered by how Mary Magdalene served Jesus and the apostles during Jesus’ ministry.
4. Mary the Wife of Jesus
A twist on Mary the Prostitute image is that of Mary the girlfriend or wife of Jesus. This has become popular in recent years thanks not least to works of fiction such as the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Brown suggested in the book that Mary and Jesus were married and that Mary had given birth to his child. Fearing for the safety of her child, she had fled with her child to France. In some versions of Mary the Wife of Jesus, the wedding at Cana of Galilee was the marriage of Jesus and Mary. This particular demon can have a field day with this distortion, and people are attracted to the image and the story that accompanies it because who doesn’t love a good romance?
But it is romantic fiction. Dan Brown tried to argue that while he was writing fiction, it was fiction all based on fact. Sadly, if you tell people a lie often enough, they will come to believe it, and we know whom Jesus himself described as the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44). It is perhaps, then, little wonder that this particular lie is so popular.
There is, of course, no reason theologically why Jesus shouldn’t have been married, and every reason to suppose he found women attractive, and they him. Jesus was fully human and, if sexuality is part of being human, Jesus must also have been a sexual person. Believers may get nervous at this sort of talk, but probably this is simply because we have a deficient understanding of the incarnation and what it means. The incarnation really does mean Jesus becoming like us in every respect (Hebrews 2:17; 4:15).
But while there is no theological reason why Jesus could not have been married, there is no evidence that he was. It is just pure fantasy, and a dangerous fantasy, because it takes our minds off the story of Jesus and what he came to do, and domesticates it, turning it into a story of romantic fiction. But, again, it is just that: fiction.
5. Mary the Apostle
Exorcising the demons that have given us the different images I have described, although not easy is, nevertheless possible simply by looking at the evidence for them or rather the lack of it! But there are now new distorted images that are, if anything, even more difficult to get rid of, even if they are no more historically based than before. So far, these different images of Mary that I have named, all, in their different ways, have Mary as being dependent on and subject to men. But that is no longer the spirit of our age. So, it is perhaps not surprising that the nature of the distortions of Mary’s image should have changed to make her image conform to that of the world we now live in.
One of the most popular images of Mary Magdalene in the Church at the moment is that of Mary the Apostle. It was St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century who described Mary as the ‘apostle to the apostles’, even if he didn’t mean by that phrase what more modern users of it mean by it. Ironically, it is another more recent Pope who has given support to this image. Pope Francis elevated the memory of Mary Magdalene to the status of a Feast on July 22, 2016 in order to stress her importance, affirming in the process her title as an apostle.
People now find this image of Mary Magdalene an attractive one because, again, it is one we want to believe in. It is an image of Mary that has been seized upon to justify women’s ordination and to argue for the elevation of women to positions of leadership in the Church. But again, the image itself says more about us and the age we live in than it does about Mary Magdalene herself.
In the same way that it is wrong to use the submissive image of Mary as a justification for restricting women’s ministry, so too it is wrong to use her image to justify removing all restrictions on it. Those who want to use this image of Mary Magdalene to promote their view of women’s ministry claim that Jesus valued men and women equally, which he did, and that he commissioned both men and women to be apostles, which he didn’t. The Risen Jesus in our Gospel reading told Mary Magdalene to go and tell the disciples what he had said to her, and this shows trust. He did not tell her to go and preach the Gospel. She is not even called a disciple in the Gospels, however legitimate we may feel it is to describe her as such.
6. Mary the Assertive Feminist
In the same way that the image of Mary the Submissive Woman builds on the image of Mary the Prostitute, so too this image of Mary the Assertive Feminist builds on that of Mary the Apostle. For many, Mary has become a feminist icon. They see her as strong, independent, confident, and able to hold her own as an equal to the men. Feminists in the Church find inspiration in this image for their attacks on traditional understandings and approaches to women. They look to her for support in dismantling what they see as patriarchal structures in society and the Church.
In the same way that those who are attracted to the image of Mary the Prostitute are not bothered by a lack of historical evidence, so too those attracted to Mary as an Assertive Feminist are not too bothered either. Mary was doubtless strong, but she certainly does not fit the image of someone who broke free from the limitations that a patriarchal society places on women or even that of someone who would want to. What would that even look like in the first century? Quite how we get from someone providing for the men out of her resources to being a feminist icon is, however, perhaps a question for another day.
The fact remains that as much as we may not like it, the society Jesus lived in was patriarchal. And as much as we may today want to change social structures and free society from patriarchy, we should not do so by changing the image of Mary to fit our own modern-day prejudices and beliefs.
7. Mary the Saint for Today
And so, we come to the ultimate exaltation of Mary Magdalene. Now no longer the female prostitute, submissively following Christ, not even simply a disciple equal to the other disciples. The image of Mary for today is not just as the ‘apostle to the apostles’, in the sense that she was the one who took the message of Christ’s resurrection to the apostles, but the ‘apostle of the apostles’, in the sense that she is the standout apostle among the apostles! To quote from one reputable website:
‘Her status as an apostle, in the years after Jesus’ death, rivalled even that of Peter.’
No evidence is given for such a breath-taking assertion, but who needs evidence when it’s what you want to hear? Mary has become what one British newspaper described as the figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era (Independent, April 2019).
It has been quite a journey for someone whose image for many years was that of a previously possessed prostitute who provided for Jesus. But whether the image is that of repentant prostitute or divinely appointed apostle, they are distortions that hide rather than reveal the Mary of the Gospels.
What is clear is that at different times these different images have made Mary Magdalene attractive to different people for different reasons. We find ourselves irresistibly drawn to her or, more accurately, to the image we have of her. It will need another sermon on another day to explore the reasons for this.
Having attempted to banish the distorted images, which prevent us seeing St Mary Magdalene as she is, I want to offer three words that I think describe her as she is presented to us in the Gospels, and so allow Mary Magdalene herself to speak to us about our relationship with the Lord.
Something that Mary Magdalene shares with the Blessed Virgin Mary, who we looked at on Good Friday, is that she is faithful. Sadly, today the two women are seen to be in contradiction to one another. The website I have just quoted also says this:
‘Christians may worship the Blessed Virgin, but it is Magdalene with whom they identify.’
For many, Mary Magdalene is the complete opposite to the Blessed Virgin Mary. While the Blessed Virgin Mary is commonly portrayed as submissive and sexless, Mary Magdalene is seen as strong and sexy. Of course, a generation obsessed with sex is going to prefer a woman it can portray in its own image to one who seems to sit in judgement on it.
The truth is that both women are being misrepresented by many who claim them for them own. Mary Magdalene submitted herself to the will of God no less than the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the sexuality of either woman is of no interest to the New Testament writers, not because it is unimportant, but because they had other more pressing concerns and saw in both women, not models of sexuality, but models of faith.
Again, as we saw on Good Friday, the Blessed Virgin Mary willingly heard the Word of God and kept it. Mary Magdalene did exactly the same. Both women experienced both joy and pain as a consequence. Both were united in faith as together they watched as the one they loved and served die an agonisingly painful death, and both were rewarded by our Lord for their faith and commitment. The Blessed Virgin Mary, by being given to the Church as its mother, and Mary Magdalene by being given the privilege of being the first to witness and announce the resurrection.
Both women are a precious gift to the Church and models of faith. They both give us an example and a challenge. An example of acceptance and submission, which perhaps men more than women need to see and learn from, and a challenge to us all to turn away from the constant search for self-fulfilment that our own age is so desperate to pursue, and instead to devote ourselves to the service of him who gave his own life for others.
We would expect someone who had been so severely disturbed as Mary Magdalene had been to be devoted to the one who healed her. In whatever way we understand demon possession today, what Mary was suffering from before Jesus freed her was obviously extremely serious. On being healed by Jesus, she became part of a group of women who were deeply attached to Jesus and who, within the confines of the society of their day, sought to support him and those closest to him in his work. To do this meant travelling with him and being with him in Jerusalem for the last days of his life.
They watched him die, which in itself must have been a distressing and deeply disturbing ordeal. Mary Magdalene was not the only woman there at the crucifixion, nor is it true to say that there were no men present. Yet again, as we saw on Good Friday, the Beloved Disciple was there with the Blessed Virgin Mary. What is true is that the women weren’t there primarily because of what Jesus taught, or because of what they hoped he would do, or even simply out of a desire to be obedient to God’s word, but because of what he meant to them. Their commitment wasn’t to a political or religious ideology or code of ethics, but to Jesus himself.
The women continued to show their devotion to Jesus after his death. They were not the only ones to do so, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were the first (John 19:38-41), but the women did so without hesitation or reservation, and, in doing so, they demonstrated their personal devotion to him.
It is, I think, fair to say that it is still the case that women are more open and consistent in their commitment to Jesus. I realize that this is a sensitive and controversial subject, and that anything said can easily be misunderstood or cause offence. However, it has certainly been my own experience that it is often women who keep the Church going and who are willing to perform tasks which are important, but which the men are often unwilling to do. Women, in turn, have often found in Jesus a person they can relate and respond to. It was true during Jesus’ ministry, and it seems to have been true historically. In the second century, for example, a pagan philosopher called Celsus made the accusation that Church’s message was only attractive to ‘the foolish, dishonourable, and stupid, only slaves, women and little children” (Cels. 3.44). It seems always to have been the case that women have been disproportionately attracted to the Church.
In the mystical tradition of the Church, which puts a strong emphasis on the presence of God and entering a relationship with him, women are especially represented. The four women doctors of the Church are all mystics: St Catherine of Siena, St Hildegard von Bingen, St Teresa of Avila, and St Therese of Lisieux. They each expressed a devotion to Jesus that also characterized Mary Magdalene in her relationship to Jesus.
St Mary Magdalene challenges both women and men to a similar devotion to Jesus.
Which brings me to my final point, and here it gets dangerous. Dangerous, that is, because of the risk of being misunderstood. It is, however, a risk worth taking because it is risk that St John himself takes in Gospel our reading.
Mary Magdalene has been to the tomb with the other women as it is described in the first three Gospels and referred to in the fourth. They have told the men of their experience there and how they have found the tomb empty. The disciples all rush to the tomb to see what the women are talking about. St John describes the Beloved Disciple looking into the tomb and Peter going in. They both see the linen wrappings lying there and the tomb empty.
No-one knows what to make of it despite what the angels have said to the women. Two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus later express their confusion:
‘Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there …’ (Luke 24:22-23)
We should not blame them for being confused. All this is outside their experience and unlike anything they have ever come across before. St John writes simply that that they did not understand the scripture. I can’t imagine we would have been any wiser.
After the disciples have all left and gone to their homes, Mary Magdalene remains alone in the garden. She stands outside the empty tomb weeping. As she weeps, she looks into the tomb still weeping and sees two angels where Jesus’ body has been lying. They ask her:
‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ (John 20:13)
Her reply expresses her deep, personal sense of loss:
‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ (John 20:13)
She turns and see the One she is looking for, but, in her distress, she mistakes him for the gardener. Jesus asks her:
‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ (John 20:15)
She asks him if he is responsible for taking him away and asks him where they have laid him. Jesus’ reply is incredibly powerful. He simply speaks her name:
‘Mary!’ (John 20:16)
She turns to him and recognizes him. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep, and who now calls them each by name. Jesus said:
‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)
Mary must have thrown her arms around him in joy, for Jesus tells her not to hold on to him, but instead she is to go to his ‘brothers’ and tell them he is ascending to his Father and their Father, to his God and their God.
Mary Magdalene understands his meaning. She goes, not to his physical brothers, but to his disciples, to those who ‘hear the Word of God and keep it’. This is the first time Jesus has called the disciples his ‘brothers’. In the Upper Room at the Last Supper, he had called them ‘friends’ (John 15:14-15), now, however, as we saw on Good Friday, they are family.
We too are invited to join the family, but before we can, we must meet its head. He must call us by name, and we must hear and respond in faith. Not intellectual faith, not even simply obedient faith, but with a personal faith. This is about relationship.
In the Gospels, it is the women who seem to understand this the most, and especially the three Marys: Mary, the Mother of our Lord, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene. But this is not only an experience for women; women may lead the way but, as the Beloved Disciple shows, we are all invited, women and men, into an intimate relationship with the Risen Lord, a relationship he has made possible by his death for us and his blood shed for us.
We may be looking for a cause to be committed to, a philosophy or creed to believe in, or a club to belong to, but what we are offered is a person to know and to love.
Today, it is Mary Magdalene with the demons of distortion cast from her who shows us what such a relationship looks like. It is not about power and position, but a person. It’s about the One who died for us, but who is alive and who calls us by name as he called Mary. Today, Mary, the Mary who saw the risen Lord in the garden, announces to us as she announced to the disciples:
‘I have seen the Lord!’ (John 20:18)
May we rejoice at her words and announce it to others.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, alleluia.