St Mary Magdalene 26 July 2015 All Saints
All Saints we are – so let us remind ourselves of one of the saints from just last week-one of the most important and fascinating not just within the Christian tradition but in our wider culture. For instance, recall ‘I don’t know how to love him’ from Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ, Superstar or Michelle Roberts The Wild Girl or Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code … all of which I will ignore this morning as we re-think some features of the Christian tradition – within the four Gospels in particular.
To begin with – think of her context: Magdala, one of those fishing villages from which Jesus of Nazareth drew some of his disciples. What is it in her story which takes her from her home and which made her, together with Mary the mother of Jesus, one of only two women to have the Creed said or sung on their feast day? She lived in territory then as now under occupation and long-standing conflict. In such times and places it could be trust in divine mercy and resurrection as its visible expression of divine vindication which sustained those faithful to God in the most appalling circumstances. Think back a century and a half to the time of the Maccabean martyrs—the family of the Maccabees having taken up arms to purify their land from the corruptions of their day-a conflict which led to the Roman occupation of Mary of Magdala’s time. At the death of the men of her family – seven sons in just one day, their mother, filled with courage exhorted them (2 M 7, 22-23) by proclaiming: ‘I cannot tell how you came into my womb, for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of everyone of you. But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also by his own mercy give you breath and life again, as you now regard not your own selves for his law’s sake.’ With that example in mind, let me suggest that from a very shaky start, Mary Magdalene turned into something like the mother of the Maccabean martyrs , for of the different ‘ Mary’s named in the gospels, she is the only one consistently named as being present near the Crucified One, so we might just hazard a guess that she might have been there and stayed throughout the horrors of it by the same sort of faith in God.
But let us first see how her picture may be said to emerge in the Gospels. The place to start is probably the astonishing story at the end of chapter 7 of Luke, with Jesus out to dinner, a woman unaccompanied, unannounced, uninvited (and from the point of view of the host, thoroughly unwelcome) – this woman somehow gets into the dining area of the house, stands behind Jesus where he reclines to eat, weeps all over his feet- perhaps feet in desperate need of attention- and wipes them with her hair – perhaps unbound, perhaps bound up as a sort of towel. Then she soothes them with an expensive ointment, for she brings it in an alabaster jar. The host is scandalised,, as well he might be, and uses the occasion to think ill of Jesus, who spots that he is doing so, and gives him a stinging rebuke on the woman’s behalf. The text reads as though she already knew him and he her,- hence her overwhelming gratitude and her trust in Jesus’ capacity to reassure her of God’s forgiveness for her sins – whatever they were, and we do not know what they were. Being labelled as a ‘sinner’ does not necessarily mean that she was the prostitute of later imagination engaged with this scene. If, however, she was a prostitute, we might bear in mind that she may have had starving children to feed, like many another in different times and circumstances – including our own. She is unnamed, but has been given a name because of what follows in the text- where we find a list of women, with her name first, a group healed of ‘evil spirits and diseases’ and now accompanying the disciples with Jesus. After all, footloose preachers need places to rest up, clean up, eat, attend to sore feet and minor injuries. Is Mary, named first of the group, the same as the woman who wept over his feet in the previous passage?
If you were an Orthodox Christian you would think not. The Orthodox never recall her as a penitent, nor do they identify her with one or more of the other ‘Marys’ of the Gospels. Apart from July 22 they honour her as one of the bearers of myrrh two weeks after their celebration of Easter. The western church has taken a different view because of sermons preached by Pope Gregory 1 at the turn of the sixth/seventh century. Identifying one Mary with another or with an unnamed woman helps to build up a good story and she becomes a model of penitence and the receipt of forgiveness. One can readily appreciate her as one who had discerned how the boundless mercy of God could transform a life- and at that she was a saint for men as well as women. And she became a source of inspiration of a quite unexpected kind which we can see if we reflect on another perplexing incident further on in Luke 10 where Martha is as critical of Jesus and Mary’s relationship to him as his host had been on a previous occasion. Martha’s abode may well have been one of the stopping-off places so much needed by Jesus and his companions, and Martha herself may well have exemplified all the virtues of the woman praised in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs, that is, one whose price is above rubies for the way she runs her household and the family businesses. On this occasion Mary is simply not aligning herself with Martha and her responsibilities, but is ‘sitting out’ we may say – sitting at Jesus’ feet like any other (probably male) disciple. Jesus maddeningly approves of what she is doing- no comfort to Martha. With this incident in mind we may discern a reason for the Oxford and Cambridge colleges bearing her name, providing of course that there are enough ‘Marthas’ around to make life possible for those inspired by Mary on this occasion.
So far, we can see why on the one hand Mary was honoured as a disciple, and on the other, why later ages might set up Magdalen homes or institutions for what were thought to be problematic girls and women, not to mention her role as patron saint of perfumers and hairdressers! The latter of course derives from yet another Gospel incident in Mt 26, Jesus given hospitality yet again, when an unnamed woman (one of those giving him hospitality?) comes into pour precious oil/ointment on his head, thereby making him literally an ‘anointed one’ , a ‘Christos’, the Christos, perhaps, but of a profoundly troubling kind. Is this what Judas betrayed? That Jesus has been identified as an anointed leader – prophet or king maybe? In any event, this time, it is grumbling disciples who find her action thoroughly inappropriate – why not, after all, sell the oil and give the proceeds to the poor? It must have been precious indeed. I venture to think that the relationship between Jesus and this woman is so sensitive and perceptive that what Jesus commends in her action is indeed what she perhaps has already begun to fear even before he is clear about it, that is, that if he continues to speak and behave as he does, his death is inevitable. Does he commend her action because she has made it possible for he himself to realise what it is she foresees? To say that she has anticipated the anointing not of his head so much as his body for burial is a terrifying prospect his disciples will reject if they can, and they do indeed abandon him when they themselves are threatened. Mary/the unnamed woman does indeed become the one whom Jesus praised by saying that what she has done for him will be retold wherever the gospel is preached, so why not add her into the story of Mary of Magdala, devoted and faithful to the bitter end? Except that there was more to say.
There are other gospel passages to which we might give our attention if we had time, not least the puzzling narrative in John 11, the raising of Lazarus, Mary of Magdala so to speak having moved to Bethany. The most important, however, is undoubtedly the encounter with the risen Christ in the garden (see John 21- an anticipation of Paradise?) the inspiration for so much painting and poetry in meditation on the scene. For the encounter turns her into the messenger of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples, hence her titles of ‘equal to the apostles’ and ‘apostle to the apostles’ in church tradition- not that that has counted for a great deal in relation to women’s capacity to preach or proclaim the resurrection down through the centuries! That apart, beyond the Gospels a tradition developed which had Lazarus, Martha and Mary becoming the evangelists of southern France, Mary indeed portrayed with three halos – one of which is as a preacher. Visit Vézelay, for example and you will find the tradition alive and well there!
So that, in outline, assembles some reminders I hope of some features of the story of Mary of Magdala, who needs to be freed of some later grossly distorting and silly representations of elements of the traditions about her. Better to recall her as at least an exemplar of courage, fidelity, acute sensitivity to others, not least perhaps, to Christ himself, and confidence in God’s power to overcome and transform the worst in our world – a confidence as much needed in our time as in hers.
Professor Ann Loades