Today we celebrate the feast of arguably one of the most important, beloved, and intriguing woman in Christianity. She has captivated our devotion and our imaginations for centuries. She was one of only a few to remain with Jesus at the foot of the Cross, and the first to either learn of the Resurrection or to actually see Jesus in his risen body. She was the first to witness the beginning of a new dawn, the transformation of creation, the defeat of death, and the assurance of eternal life. And in the process, she too was transformed.
Most of us associate Mary Magdalene with two other women we read about in the gospels: Mary of Bethany the sister of Martha and Lazarus and with the repentant woman we read about in Lukeâ€™s Gospel who washes Jesusâ€™ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them with perfume.
The reason we make these associations is because in the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great proclaimed that they were all the same person. This was not challenged for centuries until the Second Vatican Council in 1969 after
years of research and debate, and today, most scholars believe they are in fact three separate women.
That being said, it is hard to separate the three having been told for such a long time that they are the same woman.
It is also hard to now make any conclusive judgments about exactly who Mary Magdalene was.
But we do know for sure that she was from Magdala, a small town on the Sea of Galilee, and because she is referred to as Mary Magdalene, she probably was not married, otherwise she would have taken her husbandâ€™s name.
We also know that her first encounter with Jesus involved healing. We read in Lukeâ€™s Gospel that Jesus healed her of 7 demons and we understand that to mean that she was healed of various physical and/or mental disabilities (Luke 8:2) and that after this healing, she spent the rest of her life following Jesus, probably a financial patron to the Jesus movement as well.
But we know Mary best at the foot of the Cross and at the empty tomb. Each of the four gospels has Mary next to Jesus at the crucifixion. Try to imagine the sadness Mary must have felt underneath the Cross; her eyes bloodshot and face red from crying, her chest tight, her stomach nauseous, her breath quick always on the brink of hyperventilating; maybe she was even covered in blood.
Try to imagine the despair Mary must have felt as she went to bury Jesus and anoint his dead body: thinking that nothing matters anymore; that maybe everything had been in vain; isolated, lonely, and afraid; abandoned by her friends as most of Jesusâ€™ followers scattered amid the chaos of the crucifixion.
But each of the gospels also puts Mary as the first witness of the Resurrection. Just think of the shock and joy Mary must have felt, the adrenaline surging through her body,
the overwhelming feeling of utter elation, of new possibilities, of renewed purpose, of hope!
I wonder if she felt herself literally transforming, the words of Jesus ringing in her earsâ€¦ â€śWhy are you weeping? I have overcome death, I wonâ€™t leave you ever again.â€ť
We have so many reasons to celebrate this faithful, strong, courageous â€śapostle to the apostlesâ€ť as she is often called.
Mary points us to Jesus, both to the sorrow of the Cross, and to the joy of the Resurrection. We celebrated John the Baptist last Sunday and what did he do? He pointed us towards Jesus. That is what all the apostles, all the saints, and our Christian communities doâ€”they point us towards Jesus.
Maryâ€™s life is the life of a true follower of Jesus: drawn to Jesus; healed by Jesus; transformed by Jesus; a determined follower of Jesus; next to Jesus at the foot of the Cross; transformed by his Resurrection; witness to the destruction of death and the beginning of new and everlasting life.
We are like Mary because we are followers of Jesus.
And we are called to point others towards Jesus too by the way we live. â€śBy this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one anotherâ€ť (John 13:35).
It is difficult to be a Christian where Jesus is hated, condemned, and crucified. When hope is lost and we seem to be alone and hated by the world for being a follower of Jesus. Many of the disciples did run away when confronted with the Cross, when it was difficult to be a follower of Jesus. But Mary didnâ€™t run away. She stayed when it was hard to stay. And she was transformed in the process.
At the foot of the Cross, Mary didnâ€™t know that Jesus would rise three days later. She didnâ€™t have that hope to hold onto. But when we are at the foot of the Cross, we do know that Jesus rose from the dead, we do know that death is not the end. We are people of the Resurrection and this sustains us each and every day. We are held up with the constant assurance, promise, and hope that death is not the last word. This gives us the courage to be faithful and steadfast like Mary. Just like Mary, Jesus heals us of our demons, whatever they might be. Just like Mary, Jesus transforms us from death into new life.
We will most likely continue to speculate and imagine for centuries to come who exactly Mary Magdalene was. But this we know, that wherever we find her, there she is pointing us towards Cross and Resurrection, towards Christ the new dawn, towards Christ our hope, our joy, our new life. Amen.