Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Feast of the Magdalene
21 July 2019
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Today we are celebrating the feast day for Mary Magdalene, who has been everyone’s favourite disciple and saint at various times in history and especially in recent times.
From Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1970s to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in the early 2000s and the movie, Mary Magdalene, released last year and now available on DVD, there has been a surge of interest in this distinctive character among the first followers of Jesus.
Bad press for the Magdalene
History has not been kind to Mary.
Or—to be more precise—the church has not been kind to Mary.
She was overlooked and pushed aside as early as the time of Paul, never being included among the apostles let alone as one of the pillars of the early Jesus movement.
She was written out of the story by the second and third-century church leaders (all males, of course). In some cases, texts with her name were changed to substitute a more pliable woman into the storyline.
Then Pope Gregory I (590–604) determined that she had been a sex-worker before Jesus rescued her from a life of shame, except that in the Pope’s eyes the shame never quite got removed.
Some of the confusion around Mary is even seen in the hymns we are singing at the Cathedral today!
At least three different women seem to have been combined to create the common picture of Mary as a sex worker who was never quite redeemed from her life of sin:
- The anonymous ‘sinful woman’ who anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36–50)
- The wealthy female disciple from whom seven demons had been driven out (Luke 8:1–3)
- Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who is also remembered as anointing Jesus with oil a few days before his death (John 12:1–8)
Searching for the historical Magdalene
There are a few points to note, but I shall just mention them very briefly:
Mary was not from a village called “Magdala” and is never described that way in the Gospels.
Mary probably joined the Jesus movement after being healed of some kind of mental illness.
Mary is always listed first among the women, just as Peter is listed first among the men.
Mary was one of several wealthy women who funded the Jesus movement.
Mary travelled around the countryside with Jesus and the male disciples.
Mary was among the group of women who accompanied Jesus on his trip to Jerusalem.
Mary must have been at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane even though the gospels do not mention her.
Mary stayed by Jesus as he died, while the men ran away.
Mary came to the tomb early on Easter Day to complete the burial process.
Mary was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after Easter.
Mary was sent by Jesus to tell the guys that he was alive after all.
Mary was probably not the wife of Jesus but seems to have been a close and intimate female friend—perhaps rather like Clare of Assisi and St Francis
Mary was given a nickname by Jesus, just like the other three (men) from the inner circle. They were called ‘Rocky’ (Simon/Peter) and ‘Sons of Thunder’ (James and John). Her nickname was Migdal, the Magdalene: ‘Tower’.
Wisdom from the Tower
That is one very impressive CV!
Mary’s story is the story of so many women in the church over the past 2000 years.
Drawn to faith. Touched by Jesus. Supporting the mission and encouraging other people. Pushed aside by the men. Written out of the story. Overlooked. Slut shamed if they dare to speak up.
We can do better, and the Magdalene offers us a better path of discipleship.
That is the path into which we baptise Kai this morning.
We pray that he will grow to become both a follower of Jesus and a brave soul like Mary the Magdalene, the Tower.
The church needs people of passion and wisdom if the legacy of Jesus and Mary is not to be lost in our generation.
As his sponsors, Kai’s parents and godparents have a huge job ahead of them.
Hang tight with the community of Jesus people, take the wisdom of Jesus into your heart, and let the feistiness of the Magdalene rise up from your gut.