In honor of this month of fabulous women saints... and of JohnieB's birthday, July 23. (Happy birthday, JohnieB. JB is a frequent visitor to this blog.) Mary of Magdala's feast is on July 22, but this year, because the 22d was on a Sunday, the Church transferred it to July 23. Which is all well and good, since we got to hear about Mary and Martha in Sunday's Gospel, but don't you think Mary Mag deserves a major feast?
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A sermon preached at a special liturgy for the Feast of St. Mary of Magdala, Thursday, July 22, 2004, All Saints’ Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), Berkeley, California.
The Rev. Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller, Dean of the Chapel at CDSP, was the presider.
Note: The Gospel was John 20:11-18; earlier in the liturgy, we read a passage from a non-canonical gospel, the Gospel of Mary.
Mary of Magdala. First witness to the Risen Christ –in all four Gospels. Apostle to the Apostles, as she is known in Catholic tradition. Equal to the Apostles, as she is still called in the Eastern Churches. Faithful to the end in times of betrayal, public torture, and death, and preacher and builder of new beginnings, not just for herself but for a whole community.
And then ... there is Mary of Magdala, or as she has more often been called, Mary Magdalen, in centuries of Western art and religious re-telling. Luscious, sensuous sinner –sexual sinner of course– saved by Jesus and then repentant, penitent, sorrowful, almost disembodied and nearly hidden devotee-at-a-distance.
And even more importantly, why do we need this feast? Why do we need to remember? Why indeed do we honor Mary of Magdala?
Many of you are probably wondering what in the world that first reading was, and perhaps why we didn’t really go all out and read something from The Da Vinci Code. True confessions: I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code yet. It’s also gotten mixed reviews at best from the biblical scholars, though I gather it’s a riveting read. Some very smart church staff, both clergy and lay, and a publisher or two, have taken advantage of the public interest in the book and created spin-off adult education programs and study sessions to explore some of the questions it raises.
What I have read, and what you heard a little piece of, is a second-century document, one of those non-canonical gospels about which we hear much more these days than we used to, lost for fifteen hundred years until papyrus fragments resurfaced in discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries. Most recently it comes to us thanks to the careful scholarship of Harvard professor Karen King. It is called, appropriately enough, “The Gospel according to Mary.”
Now, we don’t need this 2d century document to tell us that Mary of Magdala was one of the most important disciples and apostles. In the four gospels that are officially part of our canon –our approved-by-the-Church biblical books– there she is. The four gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John come to us from four very different early Christian communities and even more strands of early Christian traditions, brought together in these four accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. Yet in every single one of them, Mary of Magdala is recorded as the first witness to the Resurrection –and as one who goes forth to speak, yea even to preach, the good news to Jesus’ other close friends. This in itself is remarkable, since women of that time and place were not permitted to be legal witnesses of anything. So the chances are good that Mary really was both an actual person and the faithful friend, receiver and preacher of good news that the gospels say she was.
What the Gospel of Mary does show is yet another witness to both Mary’s importance in the early church and the resistance with which she met because of her gender.
It is yet another early witness to the strength of her relationship with Jesus, to her wisdom and courage, and to the controversies and disagreements with which the church has been plagued, it seems, ever since there has been a church – in fact, since before there was a church. “Indeed, these teachings are strange ideas.”... “Are we to turn around and listen to her?” ... “If the Savior considered her to be worthy, who are you to disregard her? For he knew her completely and loved her steadfastly.”
What is not in the Gospel of Mary, of course, and what is not in the Gospel of John either, or in any of the other three canonical gospels, is any account of Mary’s being a fallen woman, a sexual sinner, or a prostitute.
For this –and I am abridging a very long story into a few sentences– we can thank the third and fourth centuries, Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, and years and decades and centuries of our own --Christians’ own-- promulgation and acceptance of a “romanticizing, allegorizing, mythologizing” of Mary into the epitome of both unredeemed sensuality and ascetic spirituality, bolstered by images which, though exquisitely beautiful, are often what one writer has called “little more than pious pornography.”
Mary, a Jewish woman from the commercial town of Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, had been, the gospel of Luke tells us, healed by Jesus of an illness referred to as “seven demons” –something we would probably identify today as either epilepsy or some other neurological disorder, or as mental illness. She experienced this healing in body and soul, and, thus freed, made the decision to follow Jesus and become a leader in the early community of Jesus people, known not by whose mother or sister or wife she was, but by her own name, and the name of the town from which she came.
We do not know what her age was when she joined Jesus and his other friends, whether her face was smooth or wrinkled, or whether she still bore traces of the illness from which Jesus had caused her to recover. We do know that Mary [Miriam, Mariam] was a common woman’s name in the time of Jesus. This combined with the closeness to one another in the Gospel of Luke of (on the one hand) the story of the unnamed woman who was a sinner and anointed Jesus’ feet and wept and (on the other hand) the naming of Mary of Magdala and the other women who ministered to and with Jesus -- and with the way women live in the imagination of men, and sometimes of other women. All this and more led to the persistent image of Mary as fallen woman who repents rather than disciple who proclaims.
This has begun to change. But even some of the recent scholarship and rediscovery is problematic: “She’s not a prostitute! She’s the top disciple!” Both of these are true. Mary was not a prostitute. She was indeed the first witness to the ultimate Good News. But the way that we well-meaning revisionists describe this can fall into the same pitfall as did the paintings of the bare-breasted harlot or statues of the emaciated penitent of centuries past.
She’s the top disciple; she’s not a prostitute. In other words, she’s not a bad girl! She’s really one of the good girlsl! This kind of thinking is part of our problem. It keeps pitting the good girls against the bad girls, as we still see done today in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places.
This attitude ignores the fact that prostitution is not a sin but very often the only way that economically poor women have been able to support themselves.
It ignores the fact that women really can be, and are, spiritual AND sexual AND smart and gifted for ministry. All at once.
It also ignores the fact that pitting the good girls against the bad girls is not something Jesus ever, ever did. One thing that is abundantly clear is that he spent time with, and taught, and had dinner with, all kinds of women – “respectable” ones like Mary of Magdala and Mary his mother and Joanna and Salome and Mary the mother of James and John, and yes, a goodly number of prostitutes, whose names unfortunately are lost to us, doubtless because good Christians have felt that the names of bad girls are not worth remembering.
In fact, Jesus’ message was and is of a divine hospitality so great that in the eyes of God –and we see this in the life and ministry of Jesus and yes, in his death and resurrection too– there does not exist the kind of separation we tend to make between the good girls and the bad girls, the good boys and the bad boys.
So we remember. Today we teach the story, or stories, of Mary and we let her teach us.
Besides setting the record straight, we have some things to learn from this first among disciples, this apostle to the apostles, this bearer of good news.
Mary’s feast reminds us that we are called to live our lives consciously as Easter people: people who know that we preach Christ crucified, and who know equally that the Resurrection is real, and who live accordingly, and in whose lives it shows.
Think about it: It is very hard to face suffering and evil and death. We know that the women, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women stayed by the cross, witnessing. By that time they were not really able to “do” anything. Sometimes we can and must resist evil actively and sometimes there is only presence, only witness, especially in the face of death; but witness is, contrary to popular belief, not nothing. And that is what Mary and her companions did.
But it is harder still to enter into joy. Think how hard it is to let go of your sadness, of your grief, of your resentment. To sing “Alleluia” and let it rip.
Today we honor one of our earliest and greatest saints, Mary, friend of Jesus, bearer in body and word of the Good News of resurrection; Mary, who experienced healing and witnessed death, and had to go through, as we all do, the sorrowful search for the living among the dead, the disbelief and the transformation.
This feast gives all of us a huge challenge: the challenge of living in resurrection mode. Now, every day, all the time. To live with that constancy and inner peace which Mary exhibits in our first reading today. To live as one who has understood, as Mary finally does in our second reading, that we have moved into a new relationship with Christ and with our world.
How many of us really, truly believe that change, real change, deep change, transformation into a new creation, is possible? How many of us believe it when we look at the morning paper or the television news? How many of us believe it when we look at the church? How many of us believe it when we look at ourselves?
It is this message of transformation that Mary of Magdala bears. She is the reminder. She goes before us, and she accompanies us, first among the cloud of witnesses who are not far away, but who are close at hand, walking by our side.
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Collect for Mary of Magdala / Resurrection of Christ
by Janet Morley
O unfamiliar God,
we seek you in the places
you have already left.
and fail to see you
even when you stand before us.
Grant us so to recognize your strangeness
that we need not cling to our familiar grief,
but may be freed to proclaim resurrection
in the name of Christ, Amen.