the women of holy week: mary magdalene

When I recently spoke on this subject, someone asked me, How many Marys were there?

I didn’t know off the top of my head, but I looked it up so I’ll never forget it. There were at least six Marys who followed Jesus.

The leader of these was Mary Magdalene.

Was Mary (Miriam) such a common name at the time, or was the name Mary used in Scripture as a sort of title – a signifier?

We don’t know for sure.

We do know that Mary of Magdala is distinguished from the others through the use of the name Magdalene, which seems to be an identification with her hometown of Magdala, a fishing village off the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

Mary Magdalene is important.

I remember my childhood priest pointing out that we understand Mary Magdalene’s importance immediately because she is not defined through her relationship to a man (she is not “the wife of…” or “the sister of…”)

She is given her own name.

According to the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus cleansed Mary of seven demons, after which she became a devoted disciple.

The first obvious question – what were the demons?

Again, we don’t know.

Physical ailments? Psychological burdens? Mental illnesses?

Or when Jesus freed her of the seven demons, was he actually clearing her seven chakras thus preparing her for enlightenment?

Whatever the demons were, I imagine the freedom and joy Mary felt once Jesus had cleansed her of them was tremendous.

We know it was life-changing.

What would make you drop everything and follow a teacher, leaving your past behind, sitting at his feet in devotion?

The fact that he saw everything about you and healed all of your wounds, I imagine.

If you’ve ever watched a movie about Jesus, you’ve probably seen Mary Magdalene portrayed as a prostitute. (When I close my eyes and think of her, I almost always see Yvonne Elliman.)

The truth is, Mary Magdalene is not identified in the Gospels as a prostitute or a sinner.

It’s just misogyny that leads us to believe that about her.

Well, misogyny and Pope Gregory the Great.

In 597 he delivered a homily on Luke’s gospel in which he conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, and suggested that this Mary was the same woman who wept at Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, and that one of the seven demons Jesus excised from her was sexual immorality.

After all, women are interchangeable. Why have three when you could have one?

The idea of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute caught on and was perpetuated in medieval art and literature, which often portrayed Mary as a weeping and penitent. In fact, that’s where we get the word maudlin, meaning “weak and sentimental.”

This idea is in no way based in truth.

In 1969, the Vatican formally restated the Gospels’ distinction between Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman of Luke 7, although few have seemed to pay attention.

Personally, I’m not convinced this initial confusion was a mistake. It has been after all, a popular idea, and I suspect was a deliberate attempt to discredit and marginalize a woman who the Eastern Orthodox Church refers to as Equal to the Apostles.

Gospel accounts vary, but all four identify Mary Magdalene as among the first witnesses of the empty tomb.

She and a group of women rise early the morning, three days after Jesus has died, to anoint the body with spices and perfumes. When they arrive at the tomb, they are met by divine messengers guarding the entrance, who declare that Jesus has risen from the dead, just as he said he would. The women immediately leave the tomb behind and, “with fear and great joy,” (Matthew 28:8) run to tell the other disciples.

Luke notes that on their way, they remember what Jesus had taught them about resurrection.
This is significant.

This is one of those places when you must pause, look up from the page, and take a deep breath.

This statement is confirmation that these women were present for some of Christ’s most important revelations and that they took these teachings to heart.

The women weren’t hovering around the edges of Jesus’ ministry.

The women were in the inner circle.

But surely we aren’t surprised that when the women arrive at the home where the disciples have gathered, the men do not believe what they have to say.

Women are not even considered reliable witnesses in court at the time, so their proclamation of the good news was dismissed.

Women are easily deceived, right?

A few of the men, however, are curious enough to take a look at the tomb, and so, according to John’s account, Mary returns with Peter and another disciple to the place where she encountered the messengers. The men see for themselves an empty grave. However, John 20:9 notes, “they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”

Still the men do not understand, but the women do.

The men return to report what they have seen to the rest of the disciples, leaving Mary behind.

John writes that she now stands outside the tomb, crying.

Angels appear and ask her what was wrong.

“They have taken my Lord away,” she tells them, “and I don’t know where they have put him”

The angels are then joined by a mysterious man who Mary presumes to be the gardener. He, too, asks why she was crying.

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him,” she begs.

Only when he calls her by her name does she recognize the man as Jesus.

She knows him as her teacher, her rabbi.

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus urges as she falls before his feet, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

And so again, Mary Magdalene runs to the house where the disciples are staying and tells them she has seen the risen Christ face-to-face.

“I have seen the Lord!” she declares.

I have seen the Lord.

Mary Magdalene was the Apostle to the Apostles, the first evangelist, the first to proclaim the good news of the Resurrection.

It baffles me there are still those in the church who deny women ordination, who don’t believe women should preach or speak in church.

Jesus Christ himself told Mary Magdalene, a woman, to preach.

Shouldn’t that be good enough for anyone?

I believe it is Nadia Bolz-Weber who calls Mary Magdalene, the Patron Saint of Showing Up.

I love that.

You may have guessed, I am not in the camp that believes Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus. I am not ready to take the story of an important woman and define her once again through her relationship to a man, and I am not ready to say that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene and was close to her and shared teachings with her because there was a sexual relationship between them.

I believe Jesus loved and respected Mary Magdalene because she was a student who understood and embodied his teachings.

I believe Mary Magdalene could see. She understood.