Mary Magdalene is a critical person in the life, relationships and ministry of Jesus, a constant presence for him through to his death and resurrection. She is mentioned in all four Gospels as being present at Jesus’ crucifixion, but only Luke discussed her role in Jesus’ life and ministry, listing her among ‘some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities’. (Luke 8:1-3)
Perhaps because of Mary Magdalene’s clear importance in the New Testament, the Gospels and to Jesus, and the inherent radical challenge this posed to men as counter cultural behaviour, both publicly and privately before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection, early male church leaders and followers sought to diminish her influence and importance by portraying her as a sinner, and specifically a prostitute.
Even after the early morning visit to the tomb, the disciples did not listen to her or the other women in Luke, Matthew and John’s Gospels.
Prostitution is one of the ‘sins’ about which all others can feel virtuous because its feeding the narrative of women as promiscuous, as tempters and reinvigorates the creation story which blames Eve for the sins of the world. Sexual offences by women attract the most hate in our cultural and social ‘othering’ of women. Men use prostitutes, their demand and blame of temptation creates the sin; but its women who bear the public shame. We remember the story of the woman caught in adultery and I’m not sure where the man was; but Jesus reminded us all to think about our own sin before blaming others.
In casting Mary as the original repentant whore, early church leaders had conflated her with other women in the bible including an unnamed woman identified in Luke as a sinner, who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair and puts ointment on them (Luke 7:37-28); as well as another Mary, Mary of Bethany, who also appears in Luke. As a forgiven prostitute, she could safely be acknowledged as a sign of God’s generous love and forgiveness, but in our culture, she always carried a label of sinner. This ‘othering’ of those whom our culture wants to deny, is what we do for example, with racism and with vulnerable people, where some supposed difference is made sinful in justification and the individuals become the ‘other’. As women, alongside Mary Magdalene, we are one sin away from contempt and rejection.
In 591 AD Pope Gregory the Great included this misinformation, which we would probably call defamation today, in a sermon. Mary was reimagined as a prostitute to prevent her being seen as a leader and it became ‘fact’. It took until 1969, for the Church to admit the Bible texts do not support this interpretation of Mary, and she is today considered a saint, by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran Churches.
So Mary is someone special. Her discipleship and love of Jesus are compelling. She is present in key moments in his ministry and death and resurrection. There is recent scholarship which suggests Magdalene is possibly a nickname, as there is no place known in the ancient world with this name. Just as Peter was known as ‘the rock’, Magdalene means ‘tower’ and this name runs alongside the references to Peter as the rock.
Nowadays, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and many of the women in the bible, are being made more visible through current academic research and the uncovering work being applied to them. This work informs us about the role and status of women in the home, the workplace and society both in Jesus’ day and in our lives today. We can see women more clearly, created in the image of God, honoured by Jesus, with all their gifts and contributions in God’s kingdom.
I saw a map last week showing a significant proportion of the world where women continue to be made invisible. The Middle East has citizens who are followers of all three Abrahamic traditions and in the birthplace of these three faiths, we see the ongoing erasure of women from public life and from the world.
The power which faithful men assume over women because of their religious interpretation encompasses every aspect of women’s lives: their bodies, minds and spirits. From having to cover their hair and their bodies, through to restrictions in accessing education, employment, physical independence as adults, the right to choose a life partner, restrictions on travelling alone and having access to money, the list seems endless. The possibility of oppression it creates for women is comprehensive. As a western woman, I acknowledge as best I can, that cultures and traditions are different, but I also see such behaviour actively imposed in our own culture in a multitude of ways today. It is within this context I see the life and contribution of Mary Magdalene and other biblical women, to our faith and our lives as being critically important and essentially restoring us to community in God with the rest of humanity.
Our interpretation of the Bible has influenced the lens through which the world sees women even where secularization is increasing because the Bible has been the foundation of so many cultural and religious practices in the past. The stories we tell of women and girls in the Bible, how we translate that into the way we see them as physical beings or as controllable, owned objects and chattels is still a live issue. The restrictions placed on them in their public and private life, and all our practices today, in law, welfare, employment, education, and sex, can add to this weight of discrimination. It is only with enormous commitment and hard work from men and women, do we see how faith in God can also roll such cultural limitations back and find new ways to celebrate all of God’s creation justly.
In Mary we have a woman who stayed with Jesus through to the end, as he died on the cross. Mary saw him placed in the tomb on the eve of the Sabbath and she watched the stone rolled in front of the entrance. She observed the Sabbath, and, depending on which Gospel you read, she came with others and on her own, to see where Jesus was laid and to mourn his death.
Grief overwhelms and loss shapes the way we see other people and our surroundings. Small wonder Mary was bewildered by the angels in the open tomb as God spoke to her, and then as she turns from them, she finds Jesus standing behind her, and her weary, grieving mind thinks it’s the gardener. I hope in the intervening days between his death and resurrection, that Mary imagined Jesus’ resurrection as he spoke about it; her hope for such a miracle fighting her grief, while exhaustion and fear was blocking any joy. However, her response to Jesus speaking her name was telling!
We are each called by God, by name, by the One who knows us before we were born and knit in our mother’s womb, who knows the length of our days, and who abides with us in our lives. Just like a parent knows the cry of their child, so too, does God know us. When Jesus said, ‘Mary’, she immediately knew who he was. No more doubt.
As Mary journeys to this point with God without ever giving up, it is no wonder Jesus sends her to spread the good news to his disciples. As the Apostle to the Apostles, she speaks across millennia to each of us, women and men, announcing ‘I have seen the Lord’. She tells us all what Jesus said to her and her words echo the Lord’s as we too are sent.
Whoever we are and wherever we are, the message is the same: Jesus is risen. Mary’s leadership and role in the church is real, enduring, a reassurance and non-negotiable to all who seek the good news, for men and women. Welcome to God’s kingdom.
The Lord be with you.