Sermon preached on July 22, 2012, the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: John 20:11-18, Luke 8:1-3
Let me tell you my purpose this morning. It is as much teaching as preaching. We do not usually celebrate the Feast Days of the saints on Sundays, except for our two patron saints, but I want to take advantage of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene falling on a Sunday this year, to talk about her place in the Gospel witness, which, I believe is a very important one, one long overlooked.
First a short, supplemental Gospel reading: Luke 8:1-3
Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Most Christians recognize the name Mary Magdalene. What is the first word that comes to your mind when you hear Mary Magdalene’s name? Go ahead, call it out.
It terms of what we have heard in church over the years, it has only been the resurrection stories, where, in each of the four gospels, Mary is a primary witness, that we have heard. We have never heard the little tidbit from Luke I just read, not until the Revised Common Lectionary came into use six years ago. That means in the past Mary’s story got lost in the Easter story and there was not an opportunity to flesh out just who this woman was, and so popular perception reigned free.
The notion that Mary was a prostitute, and that, therefore, her story is primarily one of repentance from sexual sin, is not biblical. It’s origin is easy to trace several hundred years later, in the teaching of Pope Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great, who died in 604.
Like everyone else who reads the Gospels, Gregory was confused by all the different Marys. There are at least five different Mary’s in the four Gospels. Why so many? It is simply because Mary was a very popular name in Jesus’ day. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the name is actually Mariam, an important name in the story of Israel, Aaron’s sister, who led the women of Israel in song after the escape through the Red Sea, and who was said to be a prophetess. It was an honor to be named after her.
I wonder if there was not some quiet subversion among Hebrew women as well in giving their daughters this name. Mariam is a strong character, and her name comes from the Hebrew word for “rebellion.”
Well, there were all these Marys. Gregory decided to simplify things and he declared that at least Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) were the same person, and, furthermore, she was also the same person who was the sinful woman who had anointed Jesus’ feet directly prior to the first naming of Mary Magdalene in Luke’s Gospel.
One last detail, Gregory also taught that it was obvious that the woman’s sin was prostitution, even though the text does not say so, and, with the snap of the Papal fingers, Mary Magdalene the prostitute was born into history.
Let’s be clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that the sinful woman in Luke 7 is Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 and there is absolutely no evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, or that repentance was her motivation for following Jesus.
The evidence is that healing was her motivation. What the story says is that Mary Magdalene was part of a group of women who traveled with Jesus who had all been healed of evil spirits or infirmities. It appears that Mary may have been their leader, since she is listed first. And the story in Luke says that seven demons had come out of her (this detail also appears in Mark, but not in Matthew or John).
What does it mean that seven demons came out of her? Truth to tell, we do not know. Many things we know now to be issues of either physical or mental health were considered to be possession by demons in Jesus’ day. It could have been epilepsy. It could have been depression or some form of schizophrenia. We don’t know. We can guess that it was something severe, given the detail of seven demons. What that means that Mary Magdalene had reason to be grateful, deeply, deeply, grateful.
And this certainly shows up in the crucifixion and resurrection stories, doesn’t it? Mary’s gratitude has clearly deepened into the longing described by the writer of psalm 42.
As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God.
Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus has become one of life and death. It is as basic as the water that all creatures need for life.
The other thing that has happened to Mary Magdalene over the centuries is that this deep relationship with Jesus has been sexualized, just as she herself was sexualized by the label of prostitute. Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, we are told, and even had children.
There is a Gnostic gospel, the “Gospel of Philip” that says that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ favorite and that he used to kiss her often.” That’s all it says. It was written in the 3rd century, 200 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
A thousand years later, in the 13th century, a heretical group known as the Cathars taught, among other things, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. 700 years after that, a man named Dan Brown would develop this into the basis for his best-selling book, the DaVinci Code.
The best thing to remember about the DaVinci Code is that it is a novel, a work of fiction. It is fiction that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.
It is also a terrible distraction from what Mary Magdalene actually has to teach us. Here is what I think she has to teach us, and why I have come to consider her an unnamed patron of this congregation.
1. Mary Magdalene teaches us that the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed and brought into being is as much a place for women as it is for men. She was clearly a disciple and clearly an apostle, the Orthodox call her “Apostle to the Apostles.”
2. Mary Magdalene teaches us that gratitude is the appropriate fuel for discipleship. Gratitude, and not repentance. In order to get to gratitude we often have to go through repentance. But if we want to be doers of the word and not just hearers, we must be grateful.
3. Mary Magdalene teaches us that assuming things about other people is not the way of Jesus. I think sometimes we let ourselves off the hook of Jesus’ command not to judge others, by a softer sense of making assumptions. The history of Mary Magdalene asks us to cut through the bull: judgment is judgment is judgment. Assume not about others and they are much less likely to assume about you.
4. Mary teaches us that our call to proclaim the good news by word and deed is much simpler than we tend to think. Mary says to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” That is to say, “I just had an experience I need to talk to you about.” Evangelism, as I have been saying over and over again the last year, is not about selling doctrine, it is not about selling the church, it is not about selling anything. It is about telling a story, your story.
I am happy to have St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene as our patron saints. They each in their own way add richness to our story. They both bring with them an honored past—flawed but with much that remains inspiring. But I believe Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of our future, one in which we continue to defy the assumptions made by the many labels that are applied to us both as individuals and as a community, and one in which we become a community of storytellers, who like Mary Magdalene, run from the mystery of empty tombs and proclaim, “I have seen Jesus.”