25 Jun 2018 • From the Clergy
On July 22nd the Church celebrates the Feast of Mary Magdalene, possibly one of the best-known figures of the New Testament; but what, in fact, do we really know about her?
Also known as Mary of Magdala, and probably from the town of that name, by the Sea of Galilee, Mary Magdalene has become famous as the prototype of the reformed prostitute and a principal witness of the resurrection. Portrayed by several classical artists in various stages of undress, she has become a somewhat notorious figure, presented by some as the lover of Christ and even as the wife he married after “coming to” in the tomb and escaping to lead a full and natural life. Leaving aside these later myths, the first part of this claim to fame is also very insecure.
Mary has been identified by some as the unnamed woman, described by Luke, who having learned that Jesus was eating in the house of a Pharisee, went there, washing and drying his feet with her tears and hair and anointing them with ointment. Although there is no reliable evidence to identify this woman with Mary Magdalene, the tradition of doing so has existed from at least as far back as the sixth century.
What is more certain, is that Christ cured Mary of certain evil spirits and illnesses and she then followed him during the rest of his ministry. She was one of the women who remained faithful to him throughout his final days and was there watching at the foot of the cross.
Such was her love for him, that Mary wanted to continue tending to Christ’s needs in death and thus it was Mary who first encountered the risen Lord on Easter Day, being then sent by him to take the good news of the resurrection to the other disciples. This commission earned her the title of “Apostle to the Apostles” in the early church.
Whatever had gone before, however she came to Christ, the account of the resurrection given in John’s gospel, leaves us in no doubt concerning Mary’s status as a highly valued disciple.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all include Mary Magdalene in a group of two or more women who discover the empty tomb on Easter morning. John has her going to the tomb alone and finding the stone has been moved, running back to the disciples. Peter and “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved” visit the tomb and then returned home, leaving the weeping Mary alone at the tomb. It was there, in the midst of her grief and despair, that she encountered Jesus in that simple but dramatic moment when he said one word to her: “Mary!” That single utterance changed not only Mary’s life but the entire course of human history. From that moment, Mary knew that her Lord had indeed risen from the dead; she passed the news to the disciples who in turn spread the gospel throughout the world.
There is, of course, nothing new in this calling, by God, to an individual, and His use of their name. In the Book of Exodus, Moses hears the Lord calling him from within the burning bush; in 1 Samuel 3, the young Samuel hears God calling him and in Isaiah 43 are recorded the beautiful words of God’s assurance: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Later, in chapter 49, come the words “I have written your name on the palms of my hands.” (NIRV). Although within their original context, these words apply to Zion, they can equally well be applied to each one of us. Just as Jesus spoke her name, lovingly, comfortingly, to Mary on that first Easter morning, so he speaks our names, lovingly and comfortingly, whenever we are facing difficulties or heart-break. We are all precious in the eyes of God, who carries us gently in his arms and in the palms of his hands. The most well-known expression of this great care is almost certainly the poem “Footprints.”
To return to Mary, there are other important lessons we can learn from her story and example. Firstly, having been healed, she devoted herself completely to Jesus, following and serving him. We have been given so much by Jesus, how whole-hearted is our following of, and service for, him?
Mary recognised the voice of Christ and responded obediently and joyfully to the command he gave her. At a time when women were of little importance and their witness deemed worthless, Mary was prepared to risk ridicule as she spoke out about the Resurrection and her meeting with Jesus. How open are we to recognise and respond to His call to us? Are we prepared to stand our ground and share the Good News about Jesus with others in the face of those who mock and scoff at us?
Like Mary Magdalene, we can all come to Jesus for healing and restoration, sure of a loving welcome from Him, regardless of what our past may have been. Like her, we can all hear him speak our name and give us ways in which we are called to serve him. Whether or not our response to that call is also like Mary’s, is for us to decide but as you read this, or on the feast day of Mary Magdalene, July 22nd, I invite you to turn to the collect for that day and pray:
whose Son restored Mary Magdalene
to health of mind and body
and called her to be a witness to his resurrection;
forgive us our sins, we beseech thee,
and heal us by thy grace,
that we may serve thee in the power of his risen life;
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.