Exactly who was Mary Magdalene?
The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar
Sunday, 21st July 2019 at 6.30 PM
Exactly who was Mary Magdalene: a supermodel of saintliness, a poster girl for repentant sinners or, as Thomas Aquinas called her, an Apostle to the Apostles, Apostola Apostolorum. Not only was she the first to see the Risen Christ but she was sent –and the word apostle means ‘one who is sent’ – Mary Magdalene was sent to the twelve disciples carrying the most important message in human history, ‘I have seen the Lord.’ That is why Aquinas gave her the title of Apostle to the Apostles.
Just three years ago, Pope Francis acknowledged Mary Magdalene’s apostleship by changing the status of the day on which, for centuries, she has been commemorated. Her day, tomorrow, July 22, is no longer a mere memorial day, it is now a major festival confirming what history has known all along: Mary Magdalene is the supermodel of saintliness. The colourful tradition that has surrounded her has excited the interest of more poets, more artists, more musicians than any other woman in the Bible. Masaccio’s fifteenth century altarpiece, Pisa Crucifixion, is typical, contrasting as it does the subdued colouring of both the Virgin Mary and St John with Mary Magdalene’s flamboyant flourish in red. She is kneeling, her back to the onlooker, wholly absorbed in her grief. Her platinum hair zigzags down her back like crackles of electricity. The Virgin’s grief is contained, John’s is contemplative, but the Magdalene leads us in the most human of reactions: concentrated sorrow. She is pure energy, pure emotion, and pure expression although, according to the Church’s teaching down the centuries, she was anything but pure. Rather than a saintly supermodel, for centuries she has been a poster girl for penitents.
In this characterisation of Mary Magdalene, we see how she has been cast as the bad girl of Christian scriptures, her identity misappropriated to suit a particular narrative which focused on her sinfulness rather than her faithfulness. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great conflated the person of Mary Magdalene with the nameless sinner of Luke’s gospel who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. In his claim that she was a repentant prostitute, Gregory sought to demonstrate the acceptable face of penitence, to show the world that saying you are sorry is not only desirable, it is empowering. Unfortunately, the spin he gave to the story of Mary Magdalene left her a figure immersed in controversy and confusion.
In the history of art, the image of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner overshadowed the Mary Magdalene of the empty tomb. Medieval art became preoccupied with the Penitent Magdalene: for Titian, her striking beauty was now for God alone while Caravaggio captures the moment of her repentance, as she casts away pearls and jewels and weeps over the emptiness of her life. Even today, in the novel-cum-film, The Last Temptation of Christ, we have Mary Magdalene seducing Jesus; in The Da Vinci Code, there is the nonsensical claim that Mary Magdalene’s marriage to Jesus was ‘the greatest cover-up in human history’; and in the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar Mary Magdalene, the reformed sinner, confesses, in an unforgettable song, that she’s ‘had so many men before.’
The reality is more prosaic. We know little about the Magdalene, despite the fact that she is mentioned twelve times in the gospels, more than many of her male counterparts. Apparently, she had private means and, with others, provided Jesus with financial support. Then there is that description of her as the ‘Magdalene’: why Magdalene? Does it link to the town in which she grew up, or could it have been a nickname which Jesus gave her much like the nicknames he gave his closest disciples. He called Peter the ‘rock’, and James and John ‘sons of thunder’, and given the many Marys among his followers, the name Magdalene might have marked her out from the rest. The fact that magdala in Aramaic means ‘tower’, or ‘fortress’ has led some to conjecture that Mary the Magdalene might have been exceptionally tall or strong? When it comes to the Magdalene, it is all too easy to get drawn into speculation about her moral or physical character.
Instead, let us ask what we might learn from the Magdalene focusing on her faithfulness rather than her assumed sinfulness.
John records that ‘early, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark’ the Magdalene makes her way to the tomb. That expression, ‘while it was still dark’, is not simply a time check. As elsewhere in John’s gospel, we are invited to ask questions: ‘What might this mean?’ ‘What insight does John seek to convey by using this image of darkness?’
Could it be that darkness reflects the Magdalene’s state of mind? Spiritually and psychologically, she is in the dark, and emotionally she weeps – no, she wails in the dark.
You and I, we are living in dark times and, in the absence of light, may experience feelings of uncertainty, indecision, fear, and even panic. While the news headlines this morning featured the deepening international crisis over Iran and the intractability of Brexit negotiations, what about your own personal headlines around family or work or illness. When relationships are threatened or collapse, the future – my future, your future – may feel empty.
Perseverance is what marks the Magdalene as she walks in the dark, wrestling and weeping in the dark just as, at times, you and I have wrestled and wept in the dark. Pope Francis wrote about the Magdalene that her tears are a reminder that ‘sometimes in our lives, tears are the lenses we need to see Jesus’.
‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ask the two angels, a question repeated by the man the Magdalene takes to be the gardener.
To the angels, the Magdalene explains that ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’ and follows this up with the gardener: ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ The Magdalene had misread the situation just as sometimes we, too, can jump to the wrong conclusion and cause ourselves unnecessary pain.
It is at that moment light breaks through the darkness: Jesus speaks her name: ‘Mary’. What did the prophet Isaiah write? God says ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’; and that is a claim reiterated by the Good Shepherd who calls his own sheep by name: ‘Mary’.
No one speaks her name like Jesus does and as he speaks her name we begin to see her new courage. Outwardly, little has changed in Mary’s life. Pontius Pilate is still there. Caiaphas is still there. Reasons to be afraid are still there for the soldiers are still there. What has changed is that Jesus has spoken her name and his light has penetrated the darkness of the tomb: that place of death, that place where dreams die, that place where hopes are shattered, that place where loved ones are parted. At the tomb Jesus, raised from the dead, speaks the Magdalene’s name and in that moment of recognition, the Magdalene sees the triumph of good over evil, of life over death. The love of God will eventually overcome all opposition.
This evening, Jesus calls your name and mine. Leaving this Abbey in a few minutes, I doubt whether much will have changed out there in a world beset by political, social and environmental turmoil. The change needs to begin, to be sustained, within each one of us as we not only hear Jesus speak our name, but know that in speaking our name he instils in you and me a sure knowledge that no matter how impenetrable our darkness may seem, his is a light which no darkness can overwhelm.