In the month of July, we are blessed with a number of Major Saint’s days – St. Thomas, St. James and St. Mary Magdalene.  I thought for this month I would offer some thoughts on the last one in my list, Mary, who often gets a poor review!

 

St. Mary Magdalene

 

The reading set for Mary Magdalene: John 20:1-2, 11-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. [2] So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

[11] But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; [12] and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. [13] They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." [14] When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. [15] Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." [16] Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). [17] Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' " [18] Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

July 22nd is the Patronal Festival, the feast day of the patron saint, Mary Magdalene.

 

It's relatively unusual to find a church dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, for the majority of English Churches are dedicated to male saints or to Mary the Virgin. That might be because there are far more male saints than female saints, or it might be because from time to time the Church has felt a little embarrassed by Mary Magdalene.

 

A church in Fakenham had once been dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, but at some point in its history it had been re-dedicated to Ss Peter and Paul, which was a much safer bet in a paternalistic age. It did, however, have one particularly nice touch. It had a little side aisle chapel given by a Fakenham couple on the occasion of their Golden Wedding, which was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of prostitutes!

 

Mary Magdalene was traditionally thought of as a "sinner", which in the New Testament is a euphemism for prostitute. But there's no actual evidence of that. She was traditionally associated with the woman taken in adultery in St John's gospel (John 8:3), but that woman isn't named, so we don't know whether or not she was Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene may have been the woman who anointed Jesus with oil, which was a pretty extravagant gesture, or she may have been the woman who washed his feet with her tears and wiped them on her hair, which was certainly a sensual act. Both of those events happened at a dinner party. She may have been the sister of Martha, the one who clung to the words of Jesus and refused to help with the housework, but Mary and Martha lived at Bethany which is just outside Jerusalem, and Mary Magdalene is thought to have come from the tiny village of Magdala, which is just a step away from Capernaum where Peter lived, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is miles away from Jerusalem.

 

She's certainly named in Mark's gospel and in Luke's gospel as a woman who was healed of seven devils, but who knows what that might mean? That she had a violent temper? That she was mentally ill? That she'd been attacked by others? We just don't know. Tradition however, does credit Mary Magdalene as a person of great love. And this is picked up in the rock opera, "Jesus Christ, Superstar" which portrays her as the disciple closest to Jesus, the one whom he loved and who loved him and who was able to soothe him and calm him.

 

Interestingly, Barbara Thiering an Australian theologian, in her book "Jesus of the Apocalypse", claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that they had children. She also claims that Jesus didn't actually die on the cross, but that a powerful drug was given to him when the sponge was held to his lips and that his unconscious, but still living, body was taken down from the cross. He and Mary Magdalene and their family then went abroad and needless to say, lived happily ever after. You can make of that what you will, but perhaps it serves to show that Mary Magdalene was probably an important figure even within the close-knit band of apostles.

 

Mary Ellen Ashcroft, a Professor of English in America, has recognised the importance of Mary Magdalene by writing "The Magdalene Gospel". It's a fictitious gospel, answering the question, "What if women had written the gospels?" and it contains the stories of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus and the other women who devoted their lives to Jesus but whose stories have never been heard. That's fiction, but there are some things we know for sure about Mary Magdalene. She really comes into her own in the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection. All four gospels agree that she was present at the crucifixion, one of that small knot of women who waited at the foot of the cross, and all four gospels agree that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection.

 

Even when the crucifixion was over, when Jesus was dead and buried, Mary still couldn't leave him. She haunted the graveyard, she hung around until dawn broke and she was able to approach the grave. She was crying of course, and must have been in a state of deep shock and distress, because she expressed no surprise that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. Neither did she express any surprise when she looked into the tomb and saw not a body, but two young men dressed in white. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" It must have been very obvious why she was weeping and who she was seeking, but Mary doesn't seem to notice this and answers them directly, "Because they have taken away my Lord and I don't know where they've laid him." She doesn't wait for any response from the young men who play no further part in the story, but goes out immediately and sees the "gardener". He repeats the question in exactly the same words, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" But this time she doesn't answer directly. It's almost as if there's a spark of anger in her reply, as if she's tired of playing games. She says, "Look. If you've removed his body just tell me where it is and I'll go there." But Jesus says, "Mary!" and she knows immediately who it is.

 

And immediately she's a different person. Her tears dry up. Her depth of sadness is transformed to the heights of elation. She doesn't even need to stay with Jesus now she knows he's alive, but is happy to run off to tell the disciples that she's met him. She doesn't much care whether they believe her or not, for their opinion of her no longer matters. She doesn't concern herself with the possible consequences of the action Jesus has asked her to take, she simply obeys him without further thought. Now she's met the risen Christ, she's a new person. She's different inside; something in her has changed.

 

In her own way, Mary too was crucified. She chose crucifixion when she chose to stand on that hillside at the foot of the cross, watching as Jesus died in agony. That took huge courage. To bring it into our own range of vision, just for a moment imagine yourself standing watching as your spouse is executed. Who could do that? But because she was willing to suffer her own crucifixion instead of running away and because she saw it through to the end, Mary too reached resurrection. She met the risen Christ and her life was completely transformed.

 

Jesus said, "If you want to be my disciple, you must take up your cross daily and follow me." And this, really, is what the Christian life is all about. Mary Magdalene, a woman of immense courage, knew that and followed her Lord wherever that might lead. Any of us who, like Mary Magdalene, also do that by facing our own crucifixion whatever it may be, will meet the risen Christ. And anyone who meets the risen Christ for themselves will find their own resurrection and, like Mary Magdalene, a completely transformed life.

St. Mary Magdalene

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