Mary Magdalene

Today in the Church calendar we remember Mary Magdalene. 



From 1995-2005, I was vicar of a St Mary Magdalene Church in Holloway, London, so she is someone who was special to us. We had a significant and quite public struggle with our secular local authority, who wanted to rename our St Mary Magdalene primary school with some secular name when it became an all-through academy, but we prevailed! 

Mary, seemingly named after the town from which she came from, has been misrepresented. There is no justification from the biblical evidence for saying that she was a prostitute. Far from it. She is only mentioned by name twice: in Luke 8.1-3 and in all the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. There is no reason to identify her with the 'sinful' woman who anoints Jesus with her tears and wipes his feet with her hair (Luke 7.36-50), and even less so with Mary, the sister of Martha, who anoints Jesus with a precious perfume (John 12.1-8). The fact that she is included in Luke 8.1-3 in the list of women who support Jesus, suggests that she was a woman of some means. I read an article which argued that Mary Magdalene has, in popular culture, been turned into the exact opposite, the antithesis, of Mary the Mother of Jesus. But there is no justification for that. 

Mary was however MESSED UP. We're told that Jesus casts out seven spirits from her (Luke 8:2), and whatever that means it does say that he set her free from something that made her operate in self-destruct mode (because that seems to be what the demons seek to do), and which caused her deep distress. She was probably a moral mess as well, as are all of us. 
In Holloway, we were a pretty messed up church, which made Mary a particularly appropriate patron. But that what church is not pretty messed up? On one occasion a 14 year old came to where we were having coffee after the service and asked, 'Is this the church where the bad people go to?' I think that he was asking about Victory Outreach, a church who used our premises in the afternoon, and who had a particular ministry among drug addicts and prostitutes. Our church warden replied, 'Oh no. They meet in the afternoon!'  To which I added, not to be outdone, 'But we're fairly bad!' 

But as a consequence of Jesus casting out the demons, setting her free, she ADORED HIM (you can probably see where this is going!). She supports him and the disciples financially and practically as they travel. And after the crucifixion, she is there, at the first possible moment (on the morning after the Sabbath) to anoint his body. And when she thinks that someone has taken his body away, she is distraught. She stood powerless as they arrested him and crucified him, and now she cannot even honour the body of the man who set her free and gave her life.  

And Mary has become extremely important for the Church because she, along with the other 'myrrh bearing women', was the first witness of the RESURRECTION OF JESUS. Indeed she has a particularly unique encounter with Jesus (John 20.11-19), and becomes the first witness to the disciples about his resurrection. That is why she is often depicted in Eastern iconography as not only carrying a jar of myrrh, but also holding an egg - the symbol of resurrection. She goes to the disciples and says to them, 'I have seen the Lord'. 

And Mary says YES to Jesus. (I struggled to find an appropriate 'Y'!) 
But she does. She is a committed Jesus follower. She gives probably quite sacrificially to him - the oils she would have brought to honour his dead body would not have been cheap. She follows him enough to let him go when he asks her to. When she realises that the man who she is speaking to is the risen Jesus, it seems that she grabs onto him - as if her existence depends on his physical presence, and she is saying to him, 'You are never going to go away from me'. But Jesus says to her, 'Do not hold onto me'. She has to let go of the physical body of Jesus in order to meet him in a new, even more life changing way, when he goes to his Father in heaven and sends his Spirit to live in her and in all who call on him. And she does what he says. The risen Jesus asks her to pass on a message to his disciples, and whereas it appears that the other women are terrified when they encounter the risen Jesus on that first Easter morning, and remain silent out of fear, she does exactly what he asks of her. 

So I give thanks for Mary, for her witness to the grace and and forgiveness and love and power and resurrection of Jesus, for her example of devotion to Christ, and also for her fellowship in the communion of the saints.  

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