Mary of Magdala is “a complicated person.” This is not Mary, Mother of Jesus. Nor is this 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 Jesus’ 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 she has been distinguished, down through the years, by her association with the town of 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 may mean she did have a colorful past. We don’t know for sure.
What we do know, from Luke’s gospel, is that “seven demons had gone out of her.” In that day, the label “demon possession” could mean some strain of physical, or moral, or spiritual sickness, or a combination. Luke’s reference to the “seven demons” might emphasize either the seriousness of her condition or its recurrent nature. In any event, she was a person with great need and a person who came to have an equally-great devotion to Jesus. We meet her in this evening’s Gospel lesson, weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
She is asked, “Why?” “Why is she weeping?” (So we know, it was actually Jesus who asks her this question… but she doesn’t know that yet.) She responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord.” Yes, but what is behind her tears? What was her grief about? It’s not clear, 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 all had been wrong with her life, she had experienced a restoration, a redemption of the past, which gave her hope for the future. Hope for the future is borne out of our past, and Mary, miraculously, had been able to reclaim her past.
Hope is a sense that, though you cannot see the future, you know you’re going to be okay, that “all will be well.” That’s hope, a spiritual gift. The traditional symbol for hope is an anchor. An anchor does not ground you. An anchor just holds you steady amidst the storms of life, so that you won’t be dashed against the rocks. Hope is an anchor. Hope comes from finding your moorings in the past, and from a sense that you are neither sinking nor drifting in life but being held steadfast. That’s the anchoring of hope, the “abiding hope” she now had for her life and her future.
The second is how the healing had happened. The context was love. Only love heals. Mary loved Jesus and she knew that Jesus loved her. Jesus knew Mary. I’m not alluding to anything explicitly sexual here. I’m not hinting 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, those “seven demons.” 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. This was Mary’s experience of Jesus: of really being known by Jesus, and loved deeply.
And thirdly: back to this picture of Mary at Jesus’ tomb, weeping. Then Mary experiences Jesus alive again, resurrected, and yet he tells her that he is leaving for a second time. What’s so paradoxical is that Mary departs from this fleeting encounter with Jesus, and she is 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 way. Jesus will be stepping back in the picture, but that he’ll still be there.
Do you remember, back to your early childhood, when you were learning to ride a bicycle and were ready to drop the training wheels? I can still remember my father there with me as I sat on my two-wheeler bike for the first time. He balanced me, set me off, and then stepped back. My father had the sense that I could do it… and, as it turns out, I could. 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. 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 the time.
The icon you see depicts Mary of Magdala holding an egg, an ancient symbol for new life. One legend has it that, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mary somehow gained admission to a banquet hosted by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. When she met the emperor, she held a plain white egg in her hand and exclaimed, “Jesus is risen!” The Emperor laughed heartily, and said that Jesus’ rising from the dead was as likely as that egg in her hand turning red. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand did just that: turned a bright red, and from there on she had a captive audience. There’s so much legend surrounding Mary of Magdala. What we do know for sure is of her abiding, fearless friendship with Jesus, and what we witness in her is like someone born again, with a whole new life. It was she who was the very first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, and who went to find the cowering band of disciples with this amazing news. For this, St. Augustine, in the fourth century, called her “ the Apostle to the Apostles.” Blessed Mary of Magdala, whom we remember today.
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