Feast of Mary Magdalene
Throughout the gospels, Jesus comes again and again with a simple message: do not be afraid. Sometimes he says this himself, and sometimes he sends a messenger. At his conception, the angel said to the Virgin Mary, “Do not be afraid.”1 At his birth, the angels announced to the shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.”2 When Jesus first called Peter, John, and James from their fishing boat, he reassured them, saying, “Do not be afraid.”3 At the Transfiguration, when the same three disciples fell over in terror on the mountaintop, Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid.”4 This is, no doubt, meant as a sweet comfort. But it is also a teaching, and a command. Christ even goes so far as to fundamentally juxtapose fear and faith: “Do not fear, only believe.”5
Today is the feast of Mary Magdalene. This is the woman Christian tradition has identified as an apostle for at least 1800 years, with the specific title “Apostle to the Apostles” emerging over 1,000 years ago. The first witness of the Resurrection, she has been revered as a central figure in the emergence of the faith by Christians everywhere, through all generations.
If Mary is so fundamentally important to the growth of Christian faith, it is important to ask what faith this is. If we look to Christ’s repeated words, faith is very deeply associated with making a choice; specifically, to reject fear. And this is precisely why Mary Magdalene stands out. She is not only the Apostle to the Apostles; she is the Apostle to the Fearful.
When Mary first realizes she is speaking with none other than her risen Lord, Jesus immediately tells her not to hold onto him. Rather, he sends her away, instructing her to go to the twelve and tell them the Good News. Here is the primary act of personal faith, of personal casting out fear, that Mary displays. To cling, to grab too tightly, is not love. It is fear. Fear that the one you love may leave, fear that unless you possess and control the object of your love you will enter into loneliness and despair, fear that a lack of immediate, easy access means that love has died. So Mary does not cling. “Do not fear, only believe.”
But this is not merely a command to let go; it is a command to go out. It is an instruction to go into a world of religious chaos and political instability, all the while insisting on joy. It is an instruction to go to the twelve, who are, in fear after the death of their Lord and collapse of their religious movement, hiding indoors. It is an instruction to remind these men what their Christian faith has always been, what it has always asked of them: “Do not fear, only believe.”
For a long while, the Western Christian theological tradition identified Mary Magdalene with a repentant prostitute. This is not justified by scripture. But this identification with a seemingly lowly station corresponds with a medieval flourishing of devotion to the saint. In a religious atmosphere where penitence was so central to the understanding of the Christian faith, here, too, Mary leads the way. In the medieval imagination, at least, she rejected the fear that leads to sin and death and embraced the way of faith, the way of Christ. “Do not fear, only believe.”
Surely, then, Mary Magdalene is a saint of casting out fear, and of choosing faith. Her testimony to the twelve is a testimony that rings true today. We too, often find ourselves living in a world where truth and love seem to have been vanquished. We too, feel the strong urge to hide indoors, to wait out the storm. We too, are often confused, hurt, left with our own bitter tears or stunned and fearful silence. But look. Mary Magdalene approaches; the darkness of fear retreats from each step. Closer and closer she draws. One hand reaches out to us; the other gestures in the direction from which she came. And on her lips, in a voice of calm joy, Mary says, “I have seen the Lord. Do not fear, only believe.”
- Luke 1:30 NRSV
- Luke 2:10 NRSV
- Luke 5:10 NRSV
- Matthew 17:7 NRSV
- Mark 5:36 NRSV
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