22 July, Friday, Feast of St Mary Magdalene
2 Cor 5:14-17 A life urged on and sustained by the love of God.
Jn 20:1-2, 11-18. Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ, at the empty tomb.
Sermon for St Mary Magdalene
(by Jane Williams). In recent years St Mary Magdalene must have become one of the best known characters of the early church. Yet even before Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code she seems to have been a woman around whom myths and legends have gathered. These include that she was descended from a noble family, that she was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, that she married Jesus and had his child, that she was a high priestess in a Roman temple at Magdala, that after the crucifixion and resurrection she went to France, or went to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus. Not all of these can be true, so what do we know of the real Mary Magdalene?
In the New Testament she is introduced as “Mary who is called Magdalene.” This most likely means that she was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of lake Galilee, near Tiberias. We don’t know anything about her family background, but if she was one of the women who travelled with Jesus and supported him financially (Lk 8:2), she must have had some sort of independent income. According to both Mark and Luke, Mary had had seven demons driven out of her by Christ. She was present at the crucifixion, the burial and of course, as we heard in today’s Gospel, the resurrection of Christ.
In popular opinion, several key scenes seem to be missing from that little summary. Wasn’t Mary Magdalene the woman caught in adultery, and didn’t she pour ointment over Jesus’s feet and wipe it all up with her hair? The fact is, we don’t know the name of the woman caught in adultery. The Mary who poured ontiment over Jesus’s feet in John’s gospel was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus and the story of the anointing of Jesus’s feet in Luke’s gospel doesn’t name the woman. It may have been Mary Magdalene we just don’t know.
So it would seem that the Mary Magdalene that most people think they know didn’t exist. So, how would you feel if Mary Magdalene were to walk through the door when we’re having coffee later on? Would you accept that you know nothing about her and try to find out more? Or would you have in the back of your mind all those impressions about her, thinking they might be true, for they say there is no smoke without fire? Would your judgement be based on the real person, or on the Magdalene created by gossip and rumour. If we’re honest, I suspect the answer would be the latter, for many tend to make judgements first and find out the facts later. The writer of Isaiah recognised this when prophecying of the coming Messiah, who would rise above this weakness: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
If as Christians we are supposed to follow Christ, to try and become more like him, then we have to be conscious of our temptation to pre-judge people, to listen to gossip – and we need to try and counteract that weakness in ourselves. We all carry our own prejudices based on who we are, what we have experienced and where we are in life.
As someone who suffered in her mental health (“seven demons”) Mary Magdalene had probably had to put up with a large amount of negative responses from people. Who would want to go near that mad woman? Parents would warn their children to avoid her in case they too got possessed, like her. Yet Jesus reached out to her in kindness, reached out to the real Mary, the woman behind the one that people saw because of the tales that had been told about that strange, mad woman who lived in Magdala. To this Mary responds by devoting the rest of her life to following Jesus and supporting his ministry, no matter what it might cost, financially or emotionally.
Now, we are not Christ and we can’t go around healing people in a few minutes and earning their undying love and gratitude. So what CAN we do? We can reach out to people, and as we won’t often get instant results, this involves great patience. People with mental and emotional problems often struggle with relationships, maybe because they have been so badly hurt before that they would rather not take the risk of letting people get close and then get hurt again, or people can feel so overwhelmed by what is going on inside their own minds that they don’t have the emotional strength to deal with other people. So, we risk getting involved in a relationship that may seem demanding and one sided, that may leave us feeling hurt.
Those last few days in Jerusalem and especially those hours at Golgotha, watching the one who had healed her suffer and being powerless to stop it, must have been torture for Mary. Yet maybe her presence there was a comfort to Jesus. And when Jesus was resurrected, Mary became the “apostle to the apostles”, the first to witness to the resurrection. When Mary met Jesus it was a life changing moment, one that would take her down an at times difficult road from mad woman of Magdala to respected Church leader. How many Mary’s are there in our community around us, who are waiting for someone to help them out of the dark place they in are and into new life, and how many of us are prepared to show them the way and support them along it?
In the second century a gospel was written in her name. The fact that the name of Mary Magdalene is used in this way shows that she must have been an important figure and leader in the early church.
Traditions about Mary Magdalene, after the Resurrection
There are two distinct legends that speak of Mary’s life after Our Lord ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. The Eastern tradition maintains that she went to Rome, and then to Ephesus with Our Lady, where she died. Her relics were taken to Constantinople in the 9th c., to be translated later to Rome and France.
The Roman tradition is that, in A.D. 48, she — along with SS. Martha and Lazarus — were seized by the Jews of Palestine who put them on a rickety boat without any oars and cast them away into the stormy sea. They made their way to France, and once there, settled in and converted all of Provence. Mary is said to have retired to a cave in a hill in La Sainte-Baume to live a life of penance for thirty years. When she was dying, the angels are said to have carried her to the Oratory of St Maximinus in Aix where she received Viaticum and died.
St Mary Magdalene is the patroness of penitents, reformed prostitutes, perfumers, hairdressers, and apothecaries. In paintings she is usually depicted in a posture of penance or an attitude of reflection, anointing Our Lord’s feet, at the Foot of the Cross or before a Crucifix, at the empty tomb, meeting the risen Christ (often with the words “Noli me tangere” — “Touch Me not” — in the painting), being fed Viaticum at death, or carried by angels after her death. She is symbolized by her alabaster jar; a skull symbolizing penance and acting as a memento mori; a mirror; long, unveiled hair (often red); tears and red robes.
First Reading: 2 Cor 5:14-17.
The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Gospel: Jn 20:1-2, 11-18.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Alternatively: The Readings of the Day
Exod 20:1ff. The Ten Commandments, given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Matt 13:18ff. Jesus offers a detailed explanation of the parable of the sower.
Fundamentals of Religion
No code can be more fundamental than the Ten Commandments. The quality of life is explained by the soil and the environment, and by such essential virtues as perseverance, fidelity and thoughtfulness, a scale of values that puts money and worldly things in a lower place. Then Jeremiah calls for strong family spirit that unites people in sincerity, in God.
These basic virtues are so ingrained in human nature that it hardly seems necessary to make them the object of a new, stupendous revelation on Mount Sinai, wrapped in fire, clouds and earthquakes, as described in yesterday’s reading from Exodus 19. Almost every legal code throughout the world condemns stealing, killing, adultery and blasphemy. In fact, more honour seems to be accorded parents and ancestors in some eastern cultures where Christianity is not the dominant religion. Probably too, the explanation of the parable of the sower comes from the ancient wisdom of farmers and others close to the soil.
It is a healthy exercise to realize the earthy roots and universal appeal of biblical religion, just as salubrious as physical exercise and manual labour. Biblical religion does not centre on visions and miracles, or secret rules and mystifying ceremonies. As we read earlier from Micah, we must “do justice and love goodness, and walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8). Isaiah’s call is just as down to earth, “Cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim; redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow” (Isa 1:16).
Any religious system that denies common sense or requires superhuman heroism on a daily basis runs counter to a basic quality of biblical religion. Long before the Word of God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, God’s word had implanted itself in the earthly setting and human history of the people Israel. They were strongly knit together and possessed an exceptionally firm tribal loyalty. This tribal bond dictated many of the customs and practices of the people, as we find in such chapters as Leviticus 25, Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 24-25, detailing the obligations of kinship. They hope for an eventual reunion of all Israel and Judah, under a single shepherd endowed with the human virtues of prudence and wisdom.
But alongside the earthy setting of biblical religion, no world religion stresses the mercy of God as much as the Bible; no set of commandments looks after resident aliens as the Bible does. If it foresees a reunion of Israel and Judah, it also reaches out to include other nations. The parables of Jesus challenge us to be generous in sharing our possessions. There is an overall generosity about the Bible which makes Israel the centre of God’s hopes for the world.
First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Gospel: Matthew 13:18-23
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”