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Who Was Mary Magdalene? Apostle, Lover, Demon Possessed?

Who Was Mary Magdalene? Apostle, Lover, Demon Possessed?

Looking over the assigned readings for the Daily Office and the Eucharist for today, the Feast of Mary Magdalene, I found myself with an embarrassment of riches. She has been identified as an Apostle, a reformed prostitute, the woman from whom seven demons were exorcized, and conflated with Mary of Bethany and other women who had at one time or another anointed Jesus’ feet. As for the seven demons, if this even refers to her, it may be referring to sexual misconduct or mental health issues, or, in a purely theological frame, it may have referred to an amendment of life, turning from desire for wealth, status, power, or controlled by pride, anxiety, fear, or any number of sins, to a life devoted to God and belief in Jesus as the Christ. We don’t know. But here we are with an odd collection of official readings. What can we learn from them?

The Old Testament readings are about strong women, but also women who were unabashed warriors in their time.  The prophet Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, stands at the bank and dances and shouts with joy that the waters have closed in on Pharaoh’s charioteers and their horses, drowning them (Ex 15: 19-21). Judith, in sack cloth and ashes, prays to prepare to go to the tent of Holofernese, the commander of the invading Assyrian army, to charm him, and then slaughter him, cutting off his head, and bringing her trophy back to her city of Bethulia. (Jud 9: 1,11-14).

We also have the two accounts in which Mary Magdalene is a first witness to the Resurrection.  In Mark, she appears with a group of women, a nice nod to the sisterhood of disciples and family who followed Jesus and served his missionary community (Mk 15; 37–16: 7). But it is the account in John that always touches my heart. Not a witness of an empty tomb. But a heartbroken woman, torn by the execution of one whom she loves with all her heart and soul. Her Teacher, her Beloved, and let’s hold sexual speculation out of this, because what she is experiencing is a soul love that any two people can share. She went to the tomb, perhaps to do honor and fulfill ritual with spices for the body, but I think more to be there, to be with him, the way we save and finger old mementos to have something to touch when the beloved is gone. And she is wracked with grief. Peter goes to the tomb but leaves. She stays. Her beloved is gone, the tomb empty. She aches to touch the body, a caress, a last chance to grieve with one who is gone forever. But drawn back into the tomb, now she sees two others, angelic figures. And she questions them, not asking, “Who are you?” but frantically, “Where is he? What have you done with him?”  

If she had found that peace with passes understanding in his presence, now she is wrestling with the fear, uncertainty, lack of support, which might have been the brokenness named as those seven demons. She can’t see. She can’t hear. She is losing the life-giving joy of trust, faith. All those things which we in our lives wrestle with and pray about and confess and amend as we go through the traumas, great and small, in this vale of tears. 

And there is the Gardener. I have explored the meaning of Jesus as Gardener before, but now let’s just look at this through Mary’s eyes. She is blinded not only by her tears, but by her panic, her confusion. And she certainly wouldn’t have expected to see her beloved alive and standing outside of his tomb. Even in our lives, do we not often fail to recognize even our best friends, our family members, when they turn up in an unexpected place, or with different clothes or hair style?  She just can’t see him. Until he calls her name. That is where I end up in tears every time. Our Gardener, our Vine, our Shepherd knows our name, each of us. We will be called by our name in the fullness of time, but we are now called by our name, through the Spirit, and by those around us with whom we share our discipleship. This is the Mary Magdalene I know. Stripped of all the speculation about a secret marriage, about a disgraceful life, all of it. A woman in love, in loss, in grief, called by name, lifted up to life. But it isn’t all embraces and hugs and kisses. It is “don’t hold on to me because I am not yet ascended.” Oh, that must be Jesus, because he is again saying things that we don’t understand. But he gives her an assignment, a command. Go, act on my behalf. Tell my disciples (now hiding in a locked room) that you have seen me and what I have told you (Jn 20: 11-18). He makes her move. Makes her spread the word, a word of joy. He eases her pain. In his love he gives her new purpose.

We also have two readings from Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth. We are exhorted to be consoled by God the Father so that we may console others. And that we suffer as did Christ and learn endurance and consolation (2 Cor 1:3-7).  We now should see each other from Christ’s point of view, a new creation, one of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:14-18). And Mary surely is suffering, and will have to endure. And now she is comforted knowing that in Christ she can forgive the rough words of Peter and the rest, and perhaps the gossip of those other women, married women. In his love, they are bearable. We know the Twelve squabbled about pride of place. There is no reason to believe that the extended community of discipleship around Jesus was any less quarrelsome than our church families are today, and were in danger even more so between the time of his death and the revelation of his Resurrection, and of his Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Or any less quarrelsome than Paul’s church in Corinth well after those events. All of us have those seven demons in one way or another, and only in Christ can we turn away and repent those all too human tendencies to fear, hurt, distrust. In including these several readings for the Daily Office and Eucharist on Mary Magdalene’s feast day we are reminded to endure, and that God’s love will support us and console us. We all stand with Mary at Jesus’ tomb in deep need of that endurance and consolation. And to hear him call our name.

Perhaps from these six readings we can construct a truer picture of Mary than the one which we have had for so long. How is Mary represented by those two fierce women from the first readings? She certainly isn’t likely to gleefully praise God for drowning an army, nor is she likely to have decapitated anyone, even an enemy. Perhaps her strength was subverted by those demons, and Jesus showed her a different way to be strong, to endure, to spread his word. How is her appearance at the tomb different than the gathering of women with funerary spices? Hers is not only mourning and duty, but abiding love. Hers is always abiding love, the same abiding love which Jesus has for her. And for each of us.

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.



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