Mary of Magdala – Br. Curtis Almquist
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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Thank you, Brother Curtis, you have given me a supportive biblical structure to help me assist clients and friends in times of grief and loss.
Thank you Br. Curtis for this. Mary Magdalene is my favorite apostel. She has undoubtedly blessed my life with hope,. knowing her through scripture rather than Pope Gregory’s and others accretions and distortions. Parts of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book The meaning of Mary Magdalene are worth reading as she untangles the two people and suggests who Mary Magdalene may have been to Jesus as well as He to her, without Dan Brown’s melodrama.I do love the lady and the other Mary who annionts his head and wipes it with her hair. It is the simplicity, the generosity, the whole heartedness of her action that appeals. Margo
To be given hope or to find hope in any form, at anytime is a gift
I love how you point out we have no record of Jesus visiting Magdala. In speculate that this Mary sought out Jesus even more the others that saw him as he traveled into their city. Thanks
In my 20s I was miraculously rescued from physical debilitating anxiety by a direct intervention of Gods’ Grace after I thought all hope was gone and I was planning to end my life. It was an amazing moment to be suddenly moved from constrictive fear to an immediate place of complete clarity and calmness ….only to realize I still needed to wake up everyday and face all the triggers that caused my anxieties in the first place. Yes, God made a way through it all and still does, one day at a time. I am so very thankful. I thought the greatest gift I was given was to be panic attack free. Looking back 40 years I am certain the best gift of my miracle was hope. Thank you for this reminder.
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Hope is a beautiful aspect of the feminine heart. Could Mary of Madgala be the reflection back within Jesus of the completion of God’s love. A resolution of the divinity of each of us male and female. Her tears for her Lord may have represented tears of joy what she knew and understood in her heart regardless of what labels society puts on us we are loved by God as human beings. Her independence was known to her all ready in her heart Jesus acknowledged it and her freedom to be as God knew her was no longer hidden. Thank you for Brother Curtis for this wonderful reflection that continues to be sparked in all of us
I am so struck by your words, “his real presence with us.” The only way that I am able to face some problem, even the future, is because I am aware of God’s presence in my life. Presence doesn’t necessarily make the problem go away, but it enables me to face the problem, live with it, and (as you point out) know that it will be OK in the long run. Presence helps to dispel fear. When we engage with people who are suffering, sometimes it is our presence that makes a difference–not what we say or not any advice we may give. Just presence. Presence is very powerful. I am profoundly grateful that I have known God’s presence in my life.
Thanks, Br. Curtis,
It is so amazing to me that the theme for the sermons come when I most need them. In a shade of darkness, hope rolls out in your sermon as a beam of light. I know, I see, I feel that “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid rock I stand; All other ground is sinking sand, All other ground is sinking sand.”
Oh, thank you for this. I am working some with 12-step spirituality, and hope is such an important theme. I plan to steal some of your ideas (properly credited, of course) for a service.
Br. Curtis, thank you for helping me face the loss of a sister due to the steady progression of her mental illness. My hope is that God surrounds her with his love. I am comforted with God’s enduring presence and compassion. Your earlier sermon on Courage/Encouragement is great consolation. With peace, Sandra
Beside the Divinci Code and recently unveiled references to Jesus´s wife, there is something deeply intriguing about Mary. You capture it: loss, sorrow and vulnerability followed by healing, hope and renewal. In our consumer society, we are focused on getting the goods delivered, self-sufficiency and denial of problems which don´t have immediate solutions. It doesn´t give us a window for that moment of letting go when we lose what´s not working to a vacuum, to nothing: the gut wrenching dilemma of not being able to continue on the same path not knowing anything else. Perhaps we may allow this in the most intimate of situations: child to parent, spouse to spouse. Yet it is precisely where we are called to be if we really want to change, and where we are called to serve others in that place as well. We are called to be healers and to heal as Jesus´ teachings focus on. Perhaps weeping like Mary at the tomb is a more meaningful way to change the world—starting with ourselves–than preaching like Paul.
Brother Almquist, this sermon, together with your sermons from 7/11/06 and 8/29/06 are powerful expressions of saving the past, present, and future of our lives and all within them by giving up the delusion and burden that we possess them, by giving all up to the presence of Christ in God. Thank you.
Thank you. Mary of Magdala is indescribably important to me, and you have expanded her for me. Thank you.
you were blessed to have that sort of an experience with a parent. I think that it shows in your sermons.
so many ways to describe God’s love for us and our’s for Him–and you have done it so well–thank you–this sermon could be made into a hymn or a poem. Every day we set out again to know God’s love, and that is a beautiful thing.
Thank you Br. Curtis. It has seemed that all hope was lost to me, but your insights and understandings have helped me see- again. I think I will keep this by my bed as a light when my nights become very long. Today I go in peace and I wish the same peace for you.
I’m also reminded of the brief period in the 50s-70s of a conversation in theological and pastoral circles called the “Theology of Hope.” There were a few conferences and books that came out of this effort to exegete hope in the post-WWII era, that (it has seemed to me) fed almost directly, later, to the small-church or “foyer” movement here and abroad; that informed at some levels the effort to include the arts more broadly into worship; and that was tied in some ways to the ‘barrios theology’ of the Brazilian churches and the restorative justice efforts of those like Tutu in Africa.
If faith is a mustard seed, then hope, it seems to me, may be one of those even tinier, “flecks-of-pepper” kind of seeds that I’m always afraid of losing when I open the packet…they could fall out and never get planted and I could never pick them all up again if they did…..
So I cup them carefully in my hands and plant and nurture them more attentively, perhaps.
Please share the origin of the lovely icon. We have an “Icon Writing Retreat” annually here in Central Florida, and I would love to share this one. These posts are a significant blessing; I am grateful for your prayers and your ministry.
This message makes me very happy.
Thanks for the phrase “the healing of hope.”
Thank you for this “word”, Curtis. It makes me realize that every time we pray we are making an act of hope. When we start the day asking that God direct us to the fulfilling of God’s purpose we have committed the day to hope, no matter how much the walk of the day ahead seems at first like a trudge.
Thank you for this “anchoring” sermon. I believe that Mary Magdelena was one of the great “saints” and I resent the church’s tendency to put all the Mary’s, except Mary, Mother of Jesus into one person. So, again thank you.