Today is the feast day for Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles. Who is this Mary? Many stories have been fabricated about her over the years while her real truth is conveniently ignored by many. Let’s take a look at Mary’s story. Because there’s scant information contained in the New Testament about her, we must piece together her story.
- From Mary’s name we can infer she was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
- Two gospel accounts tell us Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary. We don’t know what these demons might have been that imprisoned her, but Mary was healed, liberated and set free by Jesus. Can you imagine how her life was transformed? After the casting out, she understands her call as a leader and disciple and lives into both.
- We might infer she was a woman of means — Mary is included among the women who followed and provided for Jesus and his disciples.
- And to have had some financial wealth, we might also infer Mary was not necessarily a young woman, but rather someone who had wealth because she was widowed or divorced. We really don’t know her age.
- Mary was with Jesus at the foot of the cross where she witnessed his death. Mary remained with Jesus, through his death and after death. Mary who was so deeply grateful for the freedom Christ had given her. The men denied, betrayed and abandoned Jesus, but Mary and the other women remained faithful and strong. When the male disciples go hiding in a locked room, it’s Mary who remains with Jesus.
- Mary understood the Jewish obligations for women — she and other women bought spices to anoint the body and, in John’s account, we have Mary coming to the tomb in the early morning, probably before dawn, to anoint the body on the third day, which, according to Jewish custom, was when the soul departed the body.
- Mary wept when she reached the tomb and found only the grave clothes and no body.
- Then Mary encounters the risen Jesus. When Jesus speaks her name, Mary understands this is no gardener but rather the resurrected Jesus. Jesus then sends Mary to tell the disciples the good news. She is the first one to declare Christ risen! Mary is the first evangelist.
That is Mary’s story. Yet many myths about Mary have evolved over time, maligning Mary and her call as well as her devotion to Jesus.
- At least since the time of Pope Gregory the Great, in the year 591, Mary has been labeled a prostitute or harlot. She’s been identified as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil in Simon’s house. There’s no evidence of that either.
- Mary Magdalene’s story has also been mixed up with the story of Mary of Bethany (of “Mary and Martha” fame), this despite the fact that their very names, with geographical distinctions, make it clear there are two different women: Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany.
- Some even believed Mary was married to Jesus — Dan Brown brought that myth to life in The DaVinci Code, for example — yet there’s no historical proof of this.
Isn’t it curious that stories are manufactured about Mary Magdalene and her truth is ignored?
Mary’s story affirms voice of women
From a more positive perspective, many have used Mary Magdalene’s story to affirm the voice of women in the church. Today Mary Magdalene becomes an icon for those seeking full inclusion of women in leadership. She is an icon who urges women to understand the transforming love of God in Jesus Christ, to listen to God’s call. She’s an icon who stirs up courage in women, an example of leadership and discipleship for men and women alike.
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Remember, it is Mary Magdalene who was the first person called by Jesus to preach the good news. In calling for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, Sister Joan Chittister has written that “Mary Magdalene is a shining light of hope, a disciple of Christ, a model of the wholeness of life, in a world whose name is despair and in a church whose vision is yet, still, even now, partial.”
We Lutherans honor Mary’s truth through our International Women Leaders program, supporting women around the globe as they respond to God’s call in their lives. To deny women’s calls and relegate women to second class citizenship is to conveniently ignore Mary’s truth.
We honor Mary’s truth when we stand with the Lutheran World Federation Council as it speaks out against the recent action of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latvia prohibiting women’s ordination. To prohibit women’s ordination is to conveniently ignore Mary’s truth.
We honor Mary’s truth when all women in our church are respected for their ministries, with the altar guild, the Sunday school, the funeral lunches, the service to those in need. We honor Mary’s truth when all positions throughout the church are equally available to those who are ordained, women and men alike.
To do otherwise is to conveniently ignore Mary’s truth.
Beyond Mary’s example of women in leadership, Mary Magdalene offers another example to us all. Mary is the devoted disciple who sticks with Jesus, who shows up when everyone else finds any number of reasons to be somewhere else.
Mary stands up to the evil and violence that was Jesus’ death on the cross. To be like Mary is to stand up to the evil and violence that is in our neighborhoods.
The grieving Mary shows up at the tomb and weeps. To be like Mary is to grieve and weep when our sisters and brothers are killed in a nightclub in Orlando or when a driver is killed by a police officer in a routine traffic stop or when police officers are gunned down at a peaceful protest.
Mary hears her name and recognizes the risen Christ. Jesus called our names in our baptisms and we know the risen Christ, we know Jesus in this bread and this wine, and we know Jesus in our neighbors. Over the noise of evil and violence and political vitriol in our world, we hear Jesus continuing to call our names, calling us to wholeness, to leadership, to discipleship.
There are times when, like Mary, we don’t know where Jesus is. Was Jesus in Orlando? In Baton Rouge? In Falcon Heights? In Dallas?
When the evil and violence strike, many cry out, “where is God in all of this?” But like Mary, we are reminded time and time again, Sunday after Sunday, that death does not have the final word, that Jesus is alive and that we are witnesses to his resurrection.
Jesus is present in all the places around this world where evil and violence attempt to take over and rule. Jesus is present in you and me as we respond to that evil and violence, when we go out and tell the good news, when we renounce patriarchy and racism, when we seek justice, when we bring those who are marginalized into community, yes, when we love.
That is Mary’s truth.
Linda Post Bushkofsky is executive director of Women of the ELCA. She delivered this sermon at the ELCA’s mid-week chapel service in 2016.
Painting by Cappellone di San Nicola, Basilica di San Nicola da Tolentino, Tolentino, Italy, in public domain