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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the life St. Mary Magdalene.
Legends about Mary Magdalene and the Easter story abound. One tradition says that following the death and resurrection of Jesus, she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed, “Christ is risen!” The Emperor laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red. Hence the tradition of coloring Easter eggs was born.
Yes, generation after generation, the world’s imagination has been captured by the colorful, complex and often conflicting discoveries of the true Mary Magdalene. Beginning with the Bible, even the gospels seem to offer differing portraits. This continued through the medieval legends, to the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and Mary’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” to the novel of the “Last Temptation of Christ” and his marriage to Mary Magdalene, and finally Dan Brown’s mystery The Da Vinci Code.” All these writings seem to revel in the uncertainties of scriptures and who Mary really is. Indeed, there probably is no biblical character known for more false details and unproven facts than Mary Magdalene. So who do we remember when we celebrate her festival date?
The name Mary, from the Aramaic name Maryam or Miriam in Hebrew, was the single most common female name in Palestine. In fact, there are six different women named as Mary in the New Testament: Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; Mary of Bethany; Mary mother of James the younger; Mary mother of John Mark; and Mary of Rome. To distinguish one person with a common name from another, place names were used. Hence Mary Magdalene referring to Magdala, a town near Tiberias. The same was true for Jesus. His name was the Aramaic equivalent of Joshua. So he was called “Jesus of Nazareth.” Now to make the story more confusing, there are at least three Marys who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion and at the resurrection. Often, we read simply and “the other Mary.”
The most personal background we have about Mary Magdalene is recorded in St. Luke’s gospel, unfortunately directly preceded by the episode of a fallen woman of the city weeping, kissing his feet, and anointing Jesus with her perfume. In the following verses, Mary’s name is identified in a list of women who provided for Jesus and the disciples out of their resources. It also states that Mary Magdalene was freed from seven demons, but it is not clear exactly what kind of bondage she was freed from. The word demon could mean many things. Mental illness. Physical illness. Perhaps sexual immorality. We just don’t know.
Five centuries later, however, Pope Gregory I was completely certain of Mary Magdalene’s demons. Gregory was born to an aristocratic family and served as the prefect of the city of Rome. After his father’s death, he gave everything away and turned his palatial Roman home into a monastery, where he became a lowly monk. It was during the time of a great plague, and the previous pope, Pelagius II, himself died from the plague. When the pious Gregory was elected to succeed him, he at once emphasized the penitential forms of worship as a way of warding off the disease. But he wondered where would he find an example of true repentance? It had to be a character in scripture who had experienced a change of life and health.
So in 591 Pope Gregory preached a series of sermons on penitence focusing on Mary Magdalene. With complete disregard to the scripture, Gregory decided to weave all the conflicting details of the unknown fallen women in St. Luke’s 7th chapter, together with all the various Marys into one composite Mary Magdalene. Gregory then referred to Mary as the fallen women of the city. She whom St. Mark called the sinful woman, and whom St. John called Mary the sister of Martha, whom St. Luke believed to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected, all become one. And what were these seven devils? Why the seven deadly sins of course. The same Mary who had who anointed Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead in St. John’s gospel, was in Saint Gregory’s sermons, instead weeping for her forgiven sins, as she wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears and her uncovered hair. The composite Mary Magdalene was the perfect representative of the repentant life he longed for the church to embrace. Now as scripture’s most famous fallen woman, the “alabaster jar,” the emblem of her former trade and its sweet smelling perfume, was transformed by her act of contrition and penitence into a healing sign of forgiveness and redemption. This would be her unfortunate legacy for the next 1400 years. Is it any surprise that Anne Bancroft of The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson fame would play the role of Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth?
Even in death, there is confusion as to where Mary lived and is buried. In the Eastern tradition, Mary Magdalene travelled with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the beloved disciples John to Ephesus where she lived out her days and died, later to be interred in Constantinople. And in the Western Church tradition she departed Palestine on a rudderless ship guided by an angel to the south of France. There, it was said, after winning souls to Christ and destroying idols, Mary Magdalene retreated to a mountain cave, and ultimately died on July 22, her feast day. She is buried in southern France in the basilica of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.
The colorful legends regarding Mary Magdalene did not end with the Middle Ages. Pierre Plantard, a right-wing and anti-Semitic pretender to power in France after the Second World War, tried to provide evidence – in the form of faked parchments he deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale – that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had born a child. And he was descendent of that child. Plantard’s claims ultimately gave the appealing fiction necessary for The Da Vinci Code.
That is the fictional Mary Magdalene of literature and legend. But who is the real woman of scripture? Whatever story we read, or whatever movie we watch, one thing is clear. Mary Magdalene loved Jesus deeply and she held an important place in his life and ministry. She was after all present both at Jesus’ crucifixion and at his burial. She was one of the devoted women who came early in the morning to the empty tomb that first Easter Sunday morning. And according to St. John, the beloved disciples who was closest to Jesus, Mary Magdalene was the first one to actually see the resurrected Jesus. So what can we learn from her? Pastor Carla Powell suggests three things we can learn. Persistence, Sincerity and Enthusiasm.
First of all, from Mary Magdalene, we can learn persistence. When Mary arrived at Jesus’ tomb, she was stunned. The huge rock, which was supposed to seal the tomb, was gone. Assuming the body to be stolen, she immediately went to go get help. After the disciples came and saw it for themselves, they went back home. Only Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb. Somehow, she could not give up. She didn’t expect to see Jesus, but this persistent woman couldn’t pull herself away either.
Why is her witness so important? Sometimes we give up on God too quickly. We pray asking God to help, and when we don’t hear a positive answer immediately, we wonder why God has ignored our prayer. Or we make a Plan B and take things into our own hands, and move on quickly. Mary Magdalene persisted. She waited. She wanted to see Jesus even though it looked impossible, so she stayed.
Second, from Mary Magdalene, we can learn sincerity. Mary certainly didn’t feel entitled by her love for Jesus. Perhaps that is what has allowed her character and story of love to become the thing of legends. When a man whom she assumed to be the gardener asked her what she was looking for, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Mary truly believed that she could carry Jesus’ adult male body back to the tomb. She knew that if she found his body, she would find the strength to carry him.
At times, we tend to put on a good show. When someone dies, we often want everything to look good, so we cover up our real feelings. Rather than admitting that this is a tragic loss that nobody can really understand, we try to parade around acting like everything is fine. Yes, putting up a good show that everything happens for a reason- and we are in control. Mary Magdalene did not hide her frustration. She just opened her heart and said what she felt.
Finally, from Mary Magdalene, we can learn enthusiasm. Once she realized to whom she was speaking, once she recognized the gardener as her precious teacher “Rabboni”, once Jesus told her to go share the news of his resurrection, nothing could stop her from telling others. She became the voice of Easter. St. Augustine of Hippo first referred to Mary Magdalene as the “Apostle to the Apostles” because of her role in telling Jesus’ disciples about the empty tomb. She was the only one who was persistent and stayed at the tomb, and she was the only one sincerely sought Jesus’ return. And when she realized it was Jesus, she was so excited she could not keep her enthusiasm to herself. She had to tell everyone, “Jesus is risen.”
I wish that we could all imitate Mary’s enthusiasm for Jesus’ resurrection. But I am afraid we think that it is a story limited to Easter morning. But my friends, Mary’s message is more important than colored eggs. It is the message that changes the world.
Mary Magdalene holds a unique place in the history of Jesus. She was the first one to find the empty tomb on Easter and the only one, in the gospel of John, to meet Jesus face to face. Her witness teaches us about how to love Jesus, how to wait on Jesus persistently, and how to search for him sincerely, and then to tell others about him enthusiastically. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.