Mary Magdalene – the name Magdalene simply means that she came from Magdala, a village in Galilee. She is usually referred to as Mary Magdalene to distinguish her from all the other Marys in the Gospels – Mary the mother of Jesus; Mary of Bethany who had a sister Martha and a brother Lazarus; Mary the mother of James & Joseph (Mark 15.47, 16.1 & //s), Mary the wife of Clopas (John 19.25).
Mary of Magdala has a key role at three points in the Gospels – Galilee, Golgotha, and the empty tomb – and we are going to look at each of these.
There has been a popular legend that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, but there is no good basis for this. It depends on identifying an unnamed woman in another story in Luke’s Gospel (7.36-50), a woman who washes Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair, a woman who was a prostitute – it depends on identifying this unnamed woman with Mary Magdalene, and there is no good reason for doing this.
What we are told about Mary Magdalene is that she was someone “from whom seven demons had gone out” (Luke 8.2). It is hard to know what to make of this. It could well be a severe form of psychotic illness, perhaps a condition in which she heard voices in her head telling her to do things, a severe form of schizophrenia. We don’t know, but what we can infer is that Mary had suffered acute mental distress and had been healed. Her life had been transformed from one of pain and suffering to one that was healthy and hopeful..
Luke’s Gospel (8.1-3) tells us that as Jesus travelled around Galilee, “bringing the good news of the kingdom of God, the twelve were with him, as well as some women ...... who provided for them out of their resources”. In the short list of women who are named Mary Magdalene’s is the first name. The picture we have is of a party of about perhaps fifteen to twenty people : Jesus, the twelve disciples and a number of women who provided for them. Does this mean that some of the women were well off and would pay for food and other necessities ? or that they were ones who went to the market and bought the food, and probably cooked it and served it as well ? Probably both. Mary of Magdala, healed by Jesus, is deeply committed to sharing in Jesus’ mission, ready to accept the demands and discomforts of an itinerant life, because for her it is vital that people hear and respond to the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God. That is Mary of Magdala in Galilee.
(If any of you are thinking of the Gospel reading of two Sundays ago, of the disciples being sent out in twos, without food, or bag, or money in their belts (Mark 6.7-12), can I just say: That comes at a later stage.)
Mary of Magdala comes to Jerusalem in a large crowd from Galilee to celebrate the Passover, among them Jesus, the twelve disciples, the women who travelled with them, and many others. We know the story of Palm Sunday. They come full of hope, full of excitement, with a sense that something wonderful is going to happen, and Jesus is going to lead it.
Then five days later they hear the terrible news: Jesus has been arrested, condemned, and is being taken to be crucified. Mary comes, in a small group of women, to Golgotha. It is barve of them to come, the courage that comes from love. There is nothing they can do. The leader they love is dying a slow and agonising death. There is nothing they can do except to be there with him, where he can see them, so that he is not left to die alone, surrounded by hostile, jeering crowds. They stay with him, and they stay to the end, and when he is dead, and his body is taken down from the cross, they follow to the tomb to see where his body is laid.
When the Sabbath is over a little group of women came early, between cockcrow and dawn, to mourn and to anoint Jesus’ body with spices in the traditional way. But when they get to the tomb, a shock ........ bewilderment. The stone that covers the entrance to the tomb has been moved. Who can have done that ? Why would they want to do it ? They don’t go into the tomb but they can see that Jesus’ body is no longer there. The tomb is empty. Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter. Peter comes with the other disciple, and they see for themselves that the tomb is empty, so they go back to tell the others.
But Mary stays. Thoughts are spinning round in her head. Who has taken Jesus’ body ? Why have they done this ? And where is it ? Where is it now? She sees someone she does not recognise in the dim early morning light. But when she hears his voice saying “Mary”, she knows at once who it is.
Mary Magdalene – first to see that the tomb is empty; first to meet the risen Jesus; first witness to the resurrection. In that moment, when she recognises Jesus’ voice, hope is reborn. Like a tiny seed which grows into a great plant, that moment of recognition contains all the potential of this world and the world to come.
So today we honour Mary of Magdala, the faithful disciple who accompanied Jesus in his itinerant ministry around Galilee and shared all the discomforts that involved, who stayed with Jesus at Golgotha as he suffered and died, stayed with him to the bitter end, Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection.
God give you grace to follow His saints in faith and hope and love.