St MARY MAGDALENE
A Sermon preached at Fordingbridge and Breamore Churches on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, July 22nd, 2018, by Canon Gary Philbrick.
Ps. 42:1-7, II Corinthians 5:14-17, John 20: 1-2, 11-18
Lord God, take my words and speak through them,
take our minds and think through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
St Mary Magdalene is a really significant figure in the New Testament. At twelve mentions in the four Gospels, she occurs more often than most of the Disciples.
So, let’s start with what we do know about Mary Magdalene, before moving on to what we don’t know.
The most likely reason for her name, Mary Magdalene, which distinguishes her from the many other Marys in the Gospels, is that she came from the fishing town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about three miles North of what was then the brand new City of Tiberias, founded by the Herod Antipas, who is mentioned in the Gospels, and named in honour of the Roman Emperor, Tiberias. So Magdala was part of the very Romanised section of Israel, although that doesn’t mean that Mary herself was part of the Roman community.
Her first mention – and this is really important for the later part of our story – her first mention is at the beginning of Luke, chapter 8: ‘Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources’ [Luke 8:1-3].
So, she was part of that group of at least reasonably wealthy women who travelled with Jesus and his Disciples, and who supported him in his ministry. And, apparently, this group of women had been cured of various illnesses, both physical and mental. In Mary’s case, we are told that ‘seven demons had gone out’ of her – a detail that is also mentioned in the so-called ‘Longer Ending’ of Mark, a later addition to the rather abrupt ending of Mark 16.
This introduction of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 is quite early on in Jesus’ ministry, so it appears that Mary and the other women supported Jesus for quite a while.
And all four Gospels are agreed that Mary Magdalene was there at the time of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, although the four Gospels have slightly different accounts of what happened. In Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, just after Jesus has breathed his last, and the centurion has said, ‘Truly, this man was God’s Son’, we are told, in similar words to those we’ve heard from Luke’s Gospel: ‘There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem’ [Mk 15:40-41]. Those verses give a fascinating insight into Jesus’ ministry to women, in contrast to much of what the Gospels say about his ministry to men.
Matthew, in chapter 27, repeats Mark’s words, although, apart from Mary Magdalene, he names the women slightly differently [Matt 27:55-6].
But, after Jesus has been buried in the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, Matthew adds, ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb’ [V. 61].
Interestingly, Luke, who is very sympathetic to women, doesn’t mention Mary by name at the crucifixion, but simply refers twice to ‘the women who had followed him from Galilee’ [Lk 23:49, 55]. And John, like Mark and Matthew, names Mary Magdalene as one of those ‘standing near the cross of Jesus’ [Jn 19:25]. So we have good evidence that Mary was present for the Crucifixion, and probably the burial, of Jesus on the first Good Friday.
At the Resurrection, all four Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was among those who came to the tomb early on the Sunday morning. In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the women are sometimes described as bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body, but in all of them it is the women who discover that the stone has been rolled away, and that the tomb is empty [Matt 28:1, Mk 16:1ff., Lk 24:1ff, esp. v. 10]. We’ve become so used to this, but the fact that it was women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection, in a society where women’s testimony in courts of law was considered of very dubious reliability, is really significant.
But it is in John’s Gospel, in the passage set at the Gospel Reading for today, that the most significant encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus takes place [Jn 20:1-2, 11-18]. Mary finds the tomb empty, runs to fetch Peter and ‘the Disciple whom Jesus loved’, usually thought of as John, and then is in the Garden by the empty tomb, when she sees whom she thinks is the gardener, but we know is Jesus, and she discovers that fact when he addresses her by her name. His words to her, ‘Do not hold on to me’ [V. 17], are often known by their Latin translation, ‘Noli me tangere’, and this scene has given rise to a whole series of paintings, both in the Western and Eastern traditions of art, such as the second of the icons on the hymn sheet you have.
St Mary Magdalene is clearly a really significant figure in the New Testament.
But I just want to pause for a moment to reflect on what the Gospel’s don’t say.
If you can remember as far back as the beginning of this sermon, we heard how Mary Magdalene was introduced in Luke, chapter 8, along with the other ‘some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities’ [Lk 8:1-3]. But at the end of Luke 7 [36-50] there is a really important story about Jesus being invited to a meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and a woman, known to be a sinner, comes in and washes Jesus’ feet with her hair – it’s worth reading, as it’s a very moving story.
But what the Luke doesn’t say is that this woman was Mary Magdalene. And, as we’ve heard, he introduces her in chapter 8 in a very different way.
John’s Gospel has a similar story in chapter 12, where it is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints Jesus feet with expensive pure nard, leading to an interesting dispute with Judas about the poor.
And yet, by the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great, in a sermon on the story at the end of Luke 7, remarks, ‘This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner and John calls Mary, I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were cast out’ [Patrologia Latina 76:1239]. This comment has had a very unfortunate effect on Mary’s reputation, and she has been assumed to have been a prostitute, and portrayed as such in in lots of different ways – think of the song in ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’, or Dan Brown’s book, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, with its supposition that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, and had children – for which, although it’s a cracking good story, there is no historical evidence at all. And just in the common imagination of who Mary Magdalene is. He was a very naughty Pope to say such a thing about her!
There is a tradition, reflected in the icon of Mary you have on the sheet, where she is holding an egg, that she became a leader in the Early Church, and preached, amongst others, to the Emperor Nero. She is said to been the first to have used an egg as a symbol of the Resurrection, as we still do at Easter today. As with so many other women in Scriptures, we simply don’t have the evidence to know clearly – we know that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was around in the Early Church, but very little is said of her in the Acts of the Apostles or the other New Testament writings, and it’s the same with Mary Magdalene.
What we do have in the Gospels is a picture of Mary as a faithful disciple, a supporter of Jesus, both financially and by her presence in Galilee and Jerusalem, a part of a group of well-of women who had been attracted by Jesus’ message, and stayed with him through the trauma of the Crucifixion, and were witnesses to his Resurrection.
What might we learn from her story?
Faithfulness in discipleship; following Jesus through thin and thick – we often have to go through the ‘thin’ in life, before we get to the ‘thick’; the importance of financial support for the mission of the Church.
And, above all, as we reflect on the encounter between Mary and Jesus in today’s Gospel, the importance of looking for Jesus in the unexpected places – in the gardener, in the person we bump into in the street, in the member of our family whom we find most difficult. If we are able to look and to listen through our tears and frustrations, we will hear Jesus calling our name, as he did in that one word he said in the garden on the first Easter Day – ‘Mary!’
Jesus calls each of us by name, and when he calls our name, it is with love, as it was with Mary. So often, we are so preoccupied with our own lack of worth, and poor image of ourselves, that we miss the gentle, loving call of Jesus on our lives when we most need it. As we hear in the Book of Isaiah, ‘I have called you by your name, you are mine’ [Is 43:1].
We’ll keep a few moments of quiet to reflect on what we have heard of Mary Magdalene’s story and significance, and, if you wish, to look at the two icons on the hymn sheet – in the silence we might reflect on how we are called by our names, and we are loved by Jesus.
And then, after a pause, I’ll read a poem by Ann Lewin, whom some of you have met, and who wrote the book we used for our lent Course this year.[Silence.]
Known by Name
Who were you, Mary
From whom devils were cast out?
Did you disturb respectability
By washing his feet with tears,
An uninvited guest;
Or in embarrassing extravagance
Pour precious ointment on his head?
Were you notorious in your day,
Or a woman in the crowd from Magdala,
Who found new purpose
Being set free to love,
And used your gifts
In faithful ministry?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps, like all of us,
You were a mixture:
Damaged and healed;
Longing to be loved,
And struggling to relate;
Passionate and reserved
By turns, working out
The important moment
Was when you heard your name,
And answered and were sent,
No longer clinging to what kept you safe,
Strong in the power of the risen Lord,
To witness to new life.
[Ann Lewin, Watching for the Kingfisher, p.68]