We don’t know when or where Jesus met Mary of Magdala. We do know that she and a number of other women followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.[iii]She was apparently a wealthy woman; however we know nothing of her family or her vocation.[iv]Neither do we understand Mary’s condition when she first met Jesus, other than she had been very unwell: “seven demons had gone out of her.”[v] In Jesus’ day, “demon possession” was a catch-all distinction, and could mean some form of physical, or mental, or spiritual, or moral “dis-ease,” or a combination. The reference to the “seven demons” might emphasize either the seriousness of her condition, or its recurrent nature.[vi] In any event, she was a person in great need, and a person who came to have an equally-great devotion to Jesus. We meet her in this Gospel lesson, weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
Why? She is asked by the angels why is she weeping? She responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord.” What is behind her tears? What was her grief about? It’s not completely clear, so we can only conjecture about Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Three things come to my mind:
First, in her relationship to Jesus, Mary had experienced significant healing. Whatever all had been wrong with her life, she had experienced a restoration and a redemption of her past. Florida Scott-Maxwell says, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.”[vii]And that had happened! Mary was fierce with reality. In her encounter with Jesus, Mary had become real and whole, 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.” The traditional symbol for hope is an anchor.[viii] 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, from a sense that you are neither sinking nor drifting in life but being held steadfast. That’sthe anchoring of hope, the “abiding hope” she now had for her life and for her future… Except that Jesus had been killed, and a part of her had died with him.[ix] And so she weeps.
Secondly, we can conjecture how Mary’s healing had happened. The context was love. The great Harvard-trained psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, said after a life-time of practice: “It is unlove that makes people unwell, and it is love, and love alone, that can make them well again.”[x]Mary loved Jesus, and she knew that Jesus loved her. Jesus knewMary. I’m not alluding to some kind of explicitly sexual melodrama. Not at all. 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, about those “seven demons.” Jesus knew Mary. Or, more importantly, Mary knew that Jesus knew her, knew all about her: knew her needs, her desires, probably her history. And he loved her very personally. 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 personally, all of what has made us who we are. This is not unconditional love; this is conditional love: our personally experiencing love given the conditions that have formed and deformed our lives. This was Mary’s experience of Jesus: really being known by Jesus, and loved deeply.
And thirdly: back to this picture of Mary at Jesus’ tomb, weeping. Mary experiences Jesus alive again, resurrected, and yet Jesus tells her that he will be leaving for a second time. (We call this his ascension.) 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 – as it were – but he will still be really present to her.
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!”[xi] 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 no longer residing in Galilee. Now he would be God Immanuel – God with her, God with us – all the time.
There is a legend about Mary of Magdala that, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mary somehow gained admission to a banquet hosted by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. When she met the emperor, curiously 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. From then 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. What we witness in her is someone born again, with a whole new life. Mary of Magdala was one of the few persons named in the Gospels as being present at Jesus’ crucifixion. And it was she who was the very first to witness Jesus’ resurrection. She went off to find the cowering band of disciples with this amazing news. Because of this witness, Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, called her “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Blessed Mary of Magdala, whom we remember today.[xii]
[i]Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham (2017), p. 89.
[ii]Six New Testament saints are named Mary: Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; Mary, mother of James and Joses; (Mary) Salome, the mother of James and Joseph the sons of Zebedee; Mary of Clopas; and Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who were Jesus’ close friends.
[iii]See Matthew 27:55 and Luke 8:2-3.
[iv]We read in Luke 8:1-3: “The twelve were with [Jesus], and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.”[
[vii]The Measure of My Days, by Florida Scott-Maxwell (1883-1979).
[ix]1 Corinthians 13:13
[x]Karl Augustus Menninger (1893-1990) was a Harvard-trained American psychiatrist and a member of the famous Menninger family of psychiatrists and the Menninger Clinic in Kansas.
[xi]Mark 16:9; John 20:17-18
[xii]Saint Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa.
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