Posted: Sunday 22nd July 2018
St Mary Magdalene
22nd July 2018
I’m very pleased that the Church calendar which gave us the opportunity to celebrate the lives of two of the greatest male Saints two weeks ago – Peter and Paul, this week gives us an opportunity to celebrate one of the most important female Saints- Mary Magdalene. But mention her to many people and you will get the response- “was the one who was a prostitute?”. To which the answer is “well, probably not” and, in fact, the considered opinion now is generally “no”.
But not wanting to lead you astray and keen to get my sources right I turned to volume three of my Butler’s lives of the Saints, that most authoritative encyclopaedia of Holy people, hopeful that there the whole ‘was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?’ question would be knocked on the head…
St Mary Magdalen, the illustrious penitent woman was by her perfect conversion and encouraging example a model of penitence to all succeeding ages. She is called the Sinner, to express her pre-eminence in guilt. This epithet seems to imply that she led a lewd and disorderly life. The scandal of her debaucheries had rendered her infamous throughout the whole city. Galilee seems to have been the chief theatre of her disorders (which) took their rise from small beginnings- for no one becomes so proficient in vice all at once.
Okay, so no mention of prostitution but we get the picture!
Mary Magdalen clearly had quite a past, and though countless writers like Butler, have written about how shameful that past was no one is really sure what it entailed. Was she the women caught in the act of adultery in John chapter 8?… we don’t know. She was almost certainly the woman who anointed Jesus with oil and wiped his feet with her hair in Luke chapter 7 and named Mary in a similar incident in John 12. We know she had a history of some complexity and a colourful reputation because she is identified as the one from whom seven kinds of demons had been exorcised (Luke 8:2). But her whole story is neither confined to her past and neither was her past to dictate her future. In her encounter with Jesus she, like so many others, found that she was able to move on from her past, and put it behind her. In her encounter with Jesus she knew herself to be forgiven and so was able to start again, not simply to repeat the past but to live newly in the present.
There are several encounters with Jesus that could have been the turning point for her. The moment when she anointed his feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair at the house of Simon the Pharisee, Butler describes like this…
Our Lord’s bowels yearned over her spiritual miseries and he spread upon her soul a beam of his divine light which penetrated her understanding of her heart so effectually that…. she saw the abominable filth and miseries in which she was plunged, she was filled with confusion and horror at them and conceived the most sincere detestation of her ingratitude and baseness.
Ok, we may find the language a bit florid and melodramatic but Mary Magdalene, at the feet of Jesus becomes a female version of the prodigal son. He, you will recall, when his wastefulness brought him to his senses recognised his sinfulness and returned to his father and, by doing so, was described as if he had ‘come back from the dead’. In the same way Mary, in the face of the forgiving love of Christ, is overwhelmed with remorse for her past sinfulness- whatever that past sinfulness was- and begins a whole new lease of life.
And it was her love for Jesus – her response to his forgiveness and the new life he gave her- that kept her faithful to him: standing nearby him as he hung on the cross and sending her to his tomb in the darkness of both grief and the night, as today’s gospel reading began.
In that reading we heard Jesus’ warning to Mary not to cling to him, perhaps a reminder to us that at times we too must be prepared to let go even of the best of our present, if we are to move into a new and even better future. And who, I wonder, could have foreseen Mary Magdalen’s future? Certainly not those who would have hurled abuse at her in her past, probably not even the other close companions of Jesus whose company she then joined and definitely not herself. And yet she was to become the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection, the one who would be commissioned by our Lord to tell Peter, John and the rest that He was risen from the dead. The Apostle to the Apostles. Who could have imagined such a future role for someone with such a past.
So, is Mary’s story just one of someone with a difficult past who turned out to have an astonishing future? I believe it’s more than that. Her transformation is not down to personal willpower, finding a good therapist, winning the lottery or luck. The transition in her life came about through knowing the love of Jesus Christ. Mary’s past became, in her encounter with Jesus, not just history but forgiven history, a past from which she was freed and which was truly put behind her. Her past was not forgotten but, more importantly forgiven. And receiving that forgiveness opened up the gateway of her future.
There’s no evidence that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute, but every bit of evidence that to Jesus it wouldn’t have mattered if she was. But how interesting that Butler, the 18th century biographer of the Saints, could weave such a colourful and imaginative picture of her ‘obvious’ sinfulness from a few verses of scripture that refer to her past life, and yet in his commentary, skip so lightly over the climactic verse where Jesus extraordinarily makes her the ‘apostle to the apostles’ and tells her to tell the male apostles that he is risen from the dead. What a shame that his reflection and study of her life hadn’t led him to understand this great commission and its Christ-given implication for the place of women in the life and leadership of the church.
But maybe Butler has just fallen into the all too common trap of wallowing or revelling in the past rather than receiving the gift of the present for the future.
We Christians should be the first, but sadly too often are the last, to be freed and not be held captive by the past, to allow the past to become part of our history and experience the new creation that ‘in Christ’ is open to us. We have done this with Mary Magdalene (wasn’t she a prostitute?), we’ve done it too with Thomas (insisting on calling the him Doubting Thomas, even though he proclaimed ‘My Lord and My God’ and died because of his rock-certain faith); we do it with our neighbours (you know, the one that had the affair with so-and-so) we do it with ourselves (I don’t have the qualifications, I’ve never been able to do this or that, I’m not good enough… ) and we do it sometimes unquestioningly with the church (we always used to do it like this or that ) and we do this too when we think we can’t stop grieving for the loss of a loved one and are afraid to live ourselves . Of course, there’s comfort and re-assurance in the familiar, but how comforting really is it when we continually hark back to grief or loss, to the negative, to past failings, shortcomings or limitations of others or ourselves? One of the speakers at an event here the other week which explored the history of Christianity and HIV, was from group called Positive Catholics, a title that connects cleverly and playfully to people’s HIV status. He joked that whilst ‘Positive Catholics’ was a new group, negative Catholics had been around for years, and there are some in every church.
Perhaps Mary Magdalene is one of those saints who can inspire us all to be positive Christians; people who, rather than cling to what is negative or are constrained by their histories, look instead to the future in hope and confidence, trusting in the forgiving loving power of Christ. Yes, Mary went to the tomb while it was still dark…. But light dawned and it has for us all.
As we had the beautiful poetry of the Song of Songs as our first reading, with its echoes of Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter Day, I’m going to end with another poem. This one a sonnet by Malcome Guite- Easter Dawn.
He blesses every love which weeps and grieves
And now he blesses hers who stood and wept
And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s
Last touching place, but watched as low light crept
Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs
A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.
She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,
Or recognise the Gardener standing there.
She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,
Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light
That brightens as she chokes out her reply
‘They took my love away, my day is night’
And then she hears her name, she hears Love say
The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.