Saint Mary Magdalene, Apostle


Since the publication of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, in 1993, interest in and speculation about Mary Magdalene have surged. At the neighborhood branch library I visited this week, I found six works of fiction about Mary Magdalene written in the last five years, and another five books with themes related to the Da Vinci code, such as Mary Magdalene: Bride in Exile. So to begin talking about Mary Magdalene, it seems helpful to look closely at what we do and do not know about her from the brief biblical accounts. Mary Magdalene is described in all four gospels as a woman who follows Jesus through his ministry in Galilee to Jerusalem, through his crucifixion and resurrection. We read a few weeks ago this brief passage beginning the 8th chapter of Luke: He went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. So we know that Mary was healed by Jesus during his ministry in Galilee. Some scholars thing that demon possession is a way bible texts describe mental illness. Whether that is the case, or whether Jesus performed an exorcism which freed Mary of evil spirits, it is clear that Jesus delivered Mary from an existence of suffering into a life of new hope and new faith. So Mary gave that life back to Jesus, following him and caring for him and his disciples. Given the roles of women which are common in both ancient and modern times, I always imagine Mary and Joanna and Susanna cooking and washing clothes, and generally taking care of the practical aspects of life for a wandering teacher. Yet I also imagine that Jesus did not treat his women followers as servants, or devalue their work. Time after time the stories in which Jesus encounters women – the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, his friends Mary and Martha of Bethany - Jesus sees past cultural roles and assumptions and addresses them as fully human. After all, one thing we know of Mary Magdalene (the Da Vinci code aside) is that she had the audacity to be identified as neither a wife nor a mother, but simply as herself. Mary Magdalene is also one of the women who stays with Jesus through his death and resurrection. Indeed, it is only the women who remain faithful through his arrest, trial and crucifixion; as Jesus predicts, the 12 disciples flee. The women remain to witness his death and burial. They return after the Sabbath day of rest with herbs to care for Jesus’ body, and so are the first witnesses to the resurrection. The number and names of the women present vary in the four gospels, but Mary Magdalene is always named as one who is present at the empty tomb. After the resurrection accounts, Mary Magdalene is not named again in the bible. In an article called “The Red-Haired Saint,” published in the Christian Century over a decade before the Da Vinci code, James Baker wrote: Mary Magdalene was perhaps the single most important person in the events of crucifixion and resurrection and thus to the birth of Christianity. Yet she is not mentioned again – not in Acts, not in the various epistles, not in earliest [tales of the martyrs] – and that is doubtless why in succeeding generations readers, hungry for a more detailed picture of this woman rumored from the first to have been something special to Jesus, have given her the characteristics and experiences of other Marys and unnamed biblical women. “ The lack of details about the life of Mary Magdalene allowed church fathers to create a background for her by identifying here with various other women in the gospel stories. Some claimed she was the woman caught in adultery; others said she was the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel. From there, the tradition developed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Centuries of Christian art depict her as a pentitent. Over and over she is painted with long red hair, worn unbound, symbolizing her promiscuous past. The Eastern (orthodox) churches have been more faithful to the biblical story of Mary Magdalene. They depict her in icons as the “myrrhbearer”  -- carrying a jar of herbs to prepare Jesus’ body for proper burial. But they, too, filled in her past with tradition – I read in that very contemporary source, Wikipedia, that In the East, there is a tradition that Mary Magdalene led so chaste a life that the devil thought she might be the one who was to bear Christ into the world, and for that reason he sent the seven demons to trouble her. It is the Eastern church which tells the story that Mary Magdalene eventually came to witness before Emperor Tiberius Caesar himself. She held an egg as a symbol of new life, and proclaimed that Christ was risen from the dead. Ceasar replied that a man could no more rise from death than the egg in her hand could turn red – at which point the egg immediately turned red. The story is one origin of the tradition of coloring Easter eggs, and in the Orthodox church all eggs are traditionally colored red. Mary Magdalene is honored in the East as one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus, and is known by the title ‘Equal of the Apostles.’ So where does all this story – bible and tradition and legend – bring us? Back to Mary Magdalene, standing at the tomb, gazing at her beloved Jesus. Beloved not because she was his wife or his lover – but because he was her Lord. Beloved because he healed her. Beloved because he invited her to move from living death into new life, filled with possibility.  A few weeks ago we celebrated the feast of St. John the Baptist. He is a similar figure – presented with some enticing detail, filling a crucial role in the story of Jesus, and then disappearing into the background. And I can’t help but think that that is how John and Mary would have wanted it. Because the purpose each found in life was to point beyond themselves – to Jesus. John prepared the way for Jesus to begin his ministry, inviting all who heard him to get ready for the coming Messiah. Mary followed that Messiah – cared for his needs, listened to his teaching. And then she too was given the role of preparing others for Jesus – preparing them to receive their Lord who had risen from the dead. Both told the story of God’s promises fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Both knew that what was important was not their stories, but the way their stories related to the one Story of God’s saving love, offered in the person of Jesus. Although neither her contemporaries nor centuries of Christians after her would recognize her role, Mary Magdalene is indeed one of the apostles – a messenger who carried her witness to the resurrection of Jesus to the 12 disciples and beyond. She is a witness whose simple words, “I have seen the Lord!” pave the way for all who would witness to Christ in their lives. Her story – being healed by Christ, journeying with Christ, and encountering the Risen Christ in her moment of darkness – is a story other Christians through the centuries have recognized as our own. And perhaps it is that, as much as the colorful legends that have always surrounded her, that has made her a beloved saint. Thanks be to God for the witness of Mary Magdalene and all the faithful women who have witnessed to generations that Christ is alive. Amen Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe

Painting: Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys. "Mary Magdalene". Ca. 1860.

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