Today is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. So often mentioned and so often misunderstood. The first lesson is from Judith (9:1,11-14), the prayer she makes just before she goes and beheads Holofernes. A marvelous act of espionage and assassination, but not exactly Mary. The gospel is from Mary’s encounter with the Gardener who calls her name, and she knows him (Jn 20:11-18). The first to witness the Resurrection. But she can’t hold him, for he has not ascended. And the remaining apostles, who are hiding, locked up in their room, don’t exactly greet her with joy and thanksgiving. Who believes a woman? A crazy lady, previously possessed? Non-canonically she is identified as a prostitute, as Jesus’ secret wife, mother of Jesus’ child. A quick scriptural word search for her yields a list of citations as one of the women who witness to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, but often omit the ones with Martha and Lazarus, the family with whom Jesus apparently spent quiet personal time. That Lazarus, whom he loved and brought back from the dead. What do we really know about Mary except that she is mentioned often in all the gospels? We do know she was wealthy enough to support the ministry of Jesus. Magdala was a port town on the Sea of Galilee, known not only for the fishing industry, but glass and metal production. Mary might well have supported Jesus with the earnings from her business interests. And she was his disciple.
She has a pivotal role in a number of Gnostic Christian writings, many from the Nag Hammadi cache, including the Dialogue of the Savior, the Pistis Sophia, and the Gospels of Thomas, Phillip and Mary. It is from these documents that we find implications of her sexual intimacy with Jesus. We can assume whatever we will, but what is important is that that she loved and honored him and was loyal to him even to the Cross and the Tomb. While not canonical, these documents present an interesting side to this woman, and the importance in which she was held in the first four centuries of Christianity.
What makes looking at her biography so difficult is her popularity. The same story often appears in all four gospels, but in different ways. Of the many canonical narratives in which she is named, some stand out for me: her exorcism, the times she and her brother and sister spend with Jesus, her encounter with the Gardner about which I wrote for the April 2, 2018 Speaking to the Soul, and the woman who poured the perfumed oil on the Lord.
Let’s start with the exorcism. We are told Mary traveled with Jesus and the Twelve and that she was the one from whom seven demons had been driven out (Lk 8:1-2). However this follows the narrative of the woman who anointed Jesus (Lk 7:36-50), a woman whose sins are forgiven, and is used as an example to the Pharisee of devotion and the gratitude for much forgiven. Mary? The other three gospels (Mk 26:7-13, Mk 14:3-9, Jn 12:1-8) put the incident in Bethany, the hometown of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but only John states that it was Mary who anointed him. A tweak here and there. A slightly different lesson taught. But always a woman who shows her devotion and love by anointing Jesus, for his death, for gratitude. Always a women with abiding love for her Lord.
The Raising of Lazarus is found only in John. Although informed of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus delays, and when told that Lazarus had died, he says that he is glad he had not traveled sooner so that God’s Glory could be revealed. And so Jesus and his disciples start on the long journey to Bethany. It is Martha who comes to greet him and witnesses her total belief in Jesus’ ability to raise him. Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord (Jn 11:25-27).”
This time it is Martha who proclaims the faith, unlike that sad scene where Martha is left with the dishes while Mary sits and listens to her teacher. Even so, Martha backtracks on her faith, warning Jesus of the smell of a four day old corpse. It is probably theologically worth noting that Jesus does not implore his Father to restore Lazarus, whom he loves, before the tears of Mary and of the crowd move him to compassion. Jesus wept. He does not enter into the miracle with the declaration that he is the resurrection and the life. He is engaged, touched, not a powerful magician come to save the day. Later, days before the Passion, he returned to Bethany to share table fellowship, when Mary anointed him with expensive oil and Judas took offence at the expense and went to betray him. The entanglement of these three family members and Jesus is complex and very human. The dialogue feels real, like something overheard on a train or in the street. And it does tell us something about Mary. She has community with her family. Her love for Jesus and his for her is undoubted. But Martha and Lazarus were disciples, too.
Poor Mary, so human, so in love, so misunderstood throughout the ages. It is too simple to turn this into a story of first century misogyny. How are we like Mary of Magdala, sister, disciple, even Apostle, lover of her Lord? Piously we can claim or reach for that degree of love and devotion, but there is a human story here which we also might share. How have we been misunderstood? Falsely accused? Called names for our behavior or choices? Even competing with a sister or brother for parental attention? And disregarded by someone in power, like Peter? We call her the Apostle to the Apostles. But she was always going to be an outsider, beloved by Jesus, but not one of the twelve. That must have hurt. Haven’t we been hurt by exclusion, lies? And what about those demons? Was she really mentally ill, or was it, too, the result of being accused, lied about, which can damage us to the point of acting crazy? Maybe she did like sex a lot, and not being married, had a fling or two. People are fragile. We hurt each other, even good people hurting good people, because we don’t understand them, and don’t care to try. Jesus understood and cared enough to try, to heal, to develop a true friendship with her and her family, the support she would need when he was gone. That may be a lesson for us more important than prurient curiosity or enthralling bestsellers about her relationship with Jesus. Mary is caught in a moment in history that ended in tears before it ended in Glory. Perhaps our lives are too.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.