Mary of Magdala is, shall we say, a complicated person. This is not the Mary, Mother of Jesus. Nor is this the Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus. This is Mary of Magdala, the agricultural, ship-building, trading center of Magdala, northeast of Jerusalem. Magdala was a hot spot commercially and socially, and it had a wild and wicked sort of reputation. We don’t know when or where Jesus met Mary of Magdala. (The Scriptures don’t record his ever having even visited Magdala.) We know nothing of her family or upbringing. Neither do we understand Mary’s condition when she first met Jesus. There really is no substantiated reason for assuming that this Mary of Magdala had been a harlot… other than the fact that she has been distinguished, down through the years, by her “last name” Magdala. Magdala was that sort of place… and the fact that so much energy has been spent down through the centuries to “clean up” her reputation maybe means that she did have a colorful past. We don’t know for sure.
What we do know for sure, from Luke’s gospel, is that “seven demons had gone out of her” (Luke 8:2). Demon possession, though, was associated at that time with both physical and moral or spiritual sickness; Luke’s reference to “seven demons” might just be emphasizing either the seriousness of her former condition (Luke 8:30) or the recurrent nature of it (Luke 11:26). In any event, we know her to be a person with great need and a person who came to have an equally-great devotion to Jesus. And we meet her in tonight’s Gospel lesson, weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
At Jesus tomb, she is weeping. She is asked, “Why are you weeping?” She responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord.” Wouldn’t it have been helpful if someone else, maybe a bystander, had then asked her, “By the way, and who was this Lord to you?” “What is your relationship to him?” “Why has he been so important to you?” “What is behind your tears?” She seems not to be asked any of those other questions, and so we can only conjecture about Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Three things come to my mind.
First, that in her relationship to Jesus, Mary had experienced the healing of her hope. Whatever it all was that had been wrong with her life, there had been more than just a restoration. There had been an enlargement in her life. Her life had been put into some new kind of focus or context. There was a salvaging of the past and present, but also a salvaging of the future. Mary had obviously suffered in her former life, she had been bound up by something, from which is has now been set free. Yet I would feel quite sure that her suffering was not completely ended once she met up with Jesus. Suffering doesn’t just go away; suffering seems to be a part of life. But whatever suffering she continued to know in life since having met Jesus, her suffering had been put in some new perspective, I would say. Maybe that her suffering was not for naught. That there was some pattern of meaning being woven into the tangled warp of her life. She had been given hope.
Hope is a sense that though you can’t even imagine the future, that it’s going to “come round right,” that it’s going to be okay and you’re going to be okay, and that “all will be well.” That’s hope. The traditional symbol for hope is an anchor. An anchor doesn’t ground you. An anchor just holds you steady amidst the storms of life. Hope is an anchor. Hope is a sense that you will be able to face the unknown storms of the future because you’ve found your moorings in the past. It’s some sure sense of your not sinking, not just drifting in life but of being kept afloat, of being held steady. That’s hope. And that is the first thing which comes to mind in Mary’s relationship to Jesus: there had been a healing of hope within her. She had been given the gift of hope through her relationship with Jesus. The future will be okay.
The second thing which comes to mind is the context in which that healing had happened. The context was love. Mary loved Jesus and she knew that Jesus loved her and that he knew her. Jesus knew Mary. I’m not alluding to anything explicitly sexual here. I’m not aluding here to any Divinci Code melodrama. I’m just saying that Jesus knew what we don’t know about Mary: who she was and how she was and why she was what she was in her past. Jesus knew Mary. Or, more importantly, Mary knew that Jesus knew her, knew all about her. Knew her needs, her desires, maybe knew her reputation. And he loved her very personally, very specifically. And so for us. God’s love for us is channeled through Jesus, who has come to love us, and who is able to love us and who does love us quite particularly, all of what makes us who we are. And that was Mary’s experience of Jesus: of really being known by Jesus, and loved deeply.
And then, thirdly: back to this picture of Mary at Jesus’ tomb, weeping. Why was she weeping? I suspect that her tears flow much the same as our tears when we are faced with loss: the loss of beloved person by death or withdrawal or relocation; loss when something we had longed and hoped for will not happen, or something that we dreaded will happen: feelings of abandonment, despair, confusion, anger. I suspect that when we are faced with loss, our tears come from a common pool. Mary is faced with loss. And then Mary experiences Jesus alive again, resurrected, yet he tells her that he is leaving for a second time. And what’s so paradoxical is that Mary departs from this fleeting encounter with Jesus leaping for joy. Somehow she knows that even though Jesus will leave her (again), he will continue to be present to her, in a new was. Jesus will be stepping back in the picture, but that he’ll still be there.
Do you remember, back to your own childhood, when you were learning to bicycle and were ready to drop the training wheels. In my mind’s eye I can still see my father there with me as I sat on my two-wheeler bike for the first time. He balanced me and set me off. My father had the sense that I could do it… and, as it turns out, I could. My father was not really out of the picture, he had simply stepped back, in this context, so I could get on. My father would be “there” for me in new ways. Maybe that is the sense that Mary had when she went skipping away from Jesus, no longer tearful but beaming, shouting, “I have seen the Lord!” He was not stepping out of the picture again; he was simply going to step back. Maybe it was a sense like in photography when the photographer needs to step back to be able to get more in the picture. Perhaps that’s the sense Mary had here, in her ecstasy: that Jesus would in some paradoxical way be more present in more ways to her by his not residing any longer in neighboring Galilee. Now he would be God Immanuel – God with us all, all the time.
And then one last thing which has the solace almost of a fairy tale. We know that Mary was healed by Jesus from some great malaise. And yet her healing was not her independence. She continued to follow Jesus, certainly out of devotion, but also, I suspect, out of need. She continued to have needs, even at the time of Jesus’ death, certainly as she stood there weeping at his tomb. The other word of consolation to Mary, and to us, which we hear in Jesus’ words about his ascension – his stepping back – is that it’s not going to all be taken care of in this life. There is something more. And Jesus is preparing it for us and us for it in the life to come. All of that stuff that isn’t right yet in us and in those whom we love will be satisfied and healed, but most likely it won’t all happen in this life. And in the meantime, sometimes a very mean time, we continue to come back to Jesus, like this morning here at this altar, to be reminded of his real presence with us, and his provision to meet our immediate and ongoing needs.
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