Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer of Saints: Mary Magdalene

When we were expecting a child, my wife and I came up with a list of 20 names—some from the dictionary of saints, and others from our heads. We finally settled on Madeline, which is the Anglicized form of the French version of “Magdalene” (though we kept the French spelling). Her feast day is this coming this Tuesday, July 22nd, so I thought we'd talk about her in this summer of saints.

She has always been a popular saint, with many churches and institutions named after her. C.S. Lewis taught at Magdalene College in Oxford (though if you’re in Oxford, you’ll have to ask for “Maudlin College.” It took me about a day and a half to figure that one out.) Contrary to what you may have heard, she was not Jesus’ girlfriend (or wife), and it's very unlikely that was she a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene is introduced in the gospel story in Luke 8:1-3. Jesus “went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out . . . and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” 

She was a rich woman from the town of Magdala, near the Sea of Galilee. She was known as the Magdalene because of her very common first name and she is noted to have funded Jesus’ ministry and travels in Galilee.

In the Middle Ages, she was often misidentified with the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, the context indicating a repentant prostitute. She was also confused with Mary of Bethany, which seems even more odd. Why would one person be described as from both Magdala and Bethany.

The real Magdalene was exorcised and healed by the Savior, changing her life forever. She remained a devoted follower and close to him through the end, being one of those few at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb. Both John and Mark’s gospels say that she was the first to see the risen Lord.

Some of the earliest traditions and commentaries seem to suggest that instead of being possessed by seven demons (possession is predicated upon a surrendering of the will), she was obsessed—or harassed—by seven demons. The Eastern fathers insist that she was a holy and devout person even before her deliverance and conversion.

Just imagine that for a moment, being harassed by demons. Seven malevolent spirits have made it their life’s work to ruin yours—to take away your happiness, your health, your well-being, your peace of mind, your sanity, your self-determination. She was under the constant attack of darkness until she was set free by the light of the world.

Aside from this brief introduction of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, all the other references to her in the gospels come at the end of Jesus’ ministry. When the world turned dark for Jesus, she was there for him. She, with his mother and with John, stayed with Christ through his trail when all the others among the Twelve ran away and deserted him.

When he was being whipped, she was there. When he was mocked as a king with a robe and a crown of thorns, she was there. When he was carrying his cross, she was there. When his hands and feet and side were pierced and bled, she was there. When he breathed his last, she was there. When they laid him in the stone tomb, she was there. She wept as he bled and her heart broke with his.

To be like Mary Magdalene is to be there for Jesus has he has been there for us. In the Eastern Church, she is given the title of Holy Myrrh-Bearer because she came to the tomb carrying spices for Jesus’ burial. She was there to support her Lord’s work with a final gift, but when she arrived, found much more than she expected.

The door was already rolled away and Jesus was not there. Fearing it was one last act of sacrilege, she went and told the apostles. Peter and John came running to inspect the tomb. And it was not yet clear exactly what had happened. When they left, Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping.

Then two angels ask her why she is weeping. She says because “someone took away the body my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she turns around and bumps into what she thinks is the gardener who asks her the same question. She gives the same answer. The joyfulness of the moment simply will not allow her tears to persist. Both angels and the risen Lord intervene to cheer her up.

When Jesus calls her by name, she looks up and recognizes him. Jesus tells us her that this is not the time to embrace, but to go tell others. Apostle literally means “one who is sent.” In this sense, she has been called “Equal to the Apostles” or as St Augustine put it, “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

Usually this title is identified with those twelve patriarchs of a renewed Israel,but sometimes we see it used in this informal sense. Paul and Barnabas were the “Apostles to the Gentiles.” Cyril and Methodius were the “Apostles to the Slavs.” Patrick was the “Apostle to the Irish.” James Lloyd Breck was the “Apostle to the Wilderness.”

This is the only case I know of where someone is called an apostle because they are sent to bear witness to the risen Lord not to the outside world, but to the church herself. Jesus said, “Go tell my brethren . . .”

To be like Mary Magdalene is encourage fellow believers with the truth of the gospel: Jesus is risen from the dead; he is now alive, and he is there for you. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. Mary Magdalene, the holy Myrrh-bearer and "Apostle to the Apostles."

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