4 Mary Magdalene

23 March, 7:30pm: Mary Magdalene

Paul Whiteley opened with a couple of questions:

I would like, if I may to begin with some questions for you?

What word, phrases come to mind whenever you think of Mary Magdalene?

What is your own understanding of her and where do you think this comes from?

When I was at theological college, at the beginning of year 3, we had two weeks that was defined as ‘Self -directed Learning.’ During this period as well as spending time on our dissertation, we all had to choose a character from the Bible, research that person, who they were, their significance within the Christian story, their relationship to Jesus etc. We then had to present the person to the whole group with a 35, minute presentation.

I chose Mary Magdalene, largely because I had recently watched a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in London, (Student rate ticket!) and was impacted by the song ‘I don’t know how to love him’. Also, how she was being portrayed.

I was first to present to the year group my understanding of Mary Magdalene as I did, I noticed a number in the group drew an intake of breath. As we were unable to share with others who we had chosen it soon became clear there were 4 different presentations of Mary Magdalene. Each one bringing something different. Just when you think you have understood the person someone has the capacity to bring another perspective drawn from the Bible, Tradition, Art, legend, literature.

So, your own picture of Mary Magdalene, what is it you see? actually I’m not really sure? A follower of Jesus? A woman of substantial means? A prostitute or peddler of sexual favours? A repentant, penitent? A witness to the Crucifixion? A witness to the resurrection and female apostle to the apostles? A thankful woman healed of her demons?

Mary Magdalene is one of the most intriguing characters of the New Testament and one of the most faithful who was with Jesus right to the end. She was there at the most important events of the Christian story, crucifixion, burial, resurrection. She was with Jesus in Galilee when he preached the Kingdom of God and healed the sick.

When the Romans nailed Jesus to the cross, was abandoned by his disciples and cried out ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ Mary Magdalene was there. When it was Finished, Mary Magdalene followed as they carried his body to the tomb and she watched the stone rolled in place and on the third day Mary Magdalene went to find the tomb empty.

‘Mary’ said the voice, and she turned and saw that it was Jesus, ‘Rabbouni’ using that familiar Aramaic word for, Master, teacher. She reached out to touch him ('Show image') ‘Noli Me Tangere by Fra Angelico.

Mary Magdalene passionately followed Jesus message to the disciples, his apostle to the apostles; witness to the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name only 14 times in the Bible and only in the 4 gospels, never in Acts or anywhere else in the New Testament. I don’t want to stretch into Frances’ talk next week, however compare this with Mary the Mother of Jesus, she hardly figures at all 7 times. Yes, it is argued that the gospels repeat themselves, telling and re-telling their stories meaning Mary Magdalene may only appear on 4 distinct occasions. But each of these is crucial!

She is the only person close to Jesus at the critical moments that define his purpose, that describe his fate, and that will give rise to something new. She helps support his work and ministry, is fearless and appears to be a woman of vision.

However, she has also been portrayed as someone who was a whore, or prostitute. From as early as 591 it was pope Gregory the Great who in his homily described Mary Magdalene as a whore. This seems quite surprising as the passage was taken from Luke Chapter 7 and speaks about an unnamed woman entering a house where Jesus was, a woman described as a sinner, who bathed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, and anointed his feet. One whose sins were forgiven and was sent away in peace.

Interestingly in 1969 Pope Paul V1 made some changes to the Latin mass. Up until this date the reading for 22nd July feast day was Luke 7. However, this was changed to John chapter 20. Here a woman identified as Mary Magdalene commands attention, not by her sins but by her witness to the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene nevertheless made a significant impact in musical theatre and film in the way she was portrayed. That song ‘I don’t know how to love him’ about her passion for Jesus. Film after film focuses on Mary the whore. In ‘The last temptation of Christ’ Mary Magdalene is the woman taken into adultery in John 8 but is defended from stoning by Jesus. Her repentance is the driving theme in the film. ‘The passion of Christ.’ What about Dan Brown and his book ‘The Da Vinci Code’? He stretches the Mary Magdalene and her character even further.

Any thinking about Mary Magdalene must begin with her name. The original Greek of the gospels would mean she would have been Mary Magdalene. When travelling around she is described as Mary, called Magdalene. Later at the resurrection the original GK of Luke describes her as ‘The Magdalene Mary.’ Matthew, Mark & John, the GK is Mary the Magdalene. There is an assumption that Mary Magdalene means Mary from Magdala.

A place that has been described as ‘A miserable Village.’ With a name associated with ‘Tower.’ ‘Magdai.’ In Aramaic. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word ‘Migdal’

Mary has been described as the Tower, the Watchtower, the lighthouse, beacon, visionary.

One of the interesting features about Mary Magdalene and the other women is how they were providing for Jesus and his disciples out of their resources. This is quite surprising considering that there were few economic activities open to Jewish women in Palestine, and little opportunity for women to lead independent lives. The Old Testament does, however, mention some exceptional cases. Deborah who in early history as far back as 12th Century served as a judge and a military commander in the battle of the Canaanites and other women who were prophets.

Mary Magdalene is purported to have been tormented by seven devils. It is not the word devils that makes Mary Magdalene the worst afflicted. The word for devils in the original GK of Luke is ‘Daimonia.’ Which different editions of the Bible translate as devils or demons but the meaning is the same.

The other women suffer from evil spirits, ‘Pneumaton’ in the GK, which is simply another way of saying demon/devil. All the women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and the rest suffer from evil spirits. What distinguishes Mary Magdalene’s affliction is the number 7. In the numerologies of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia and in ancient Hebrew the number 7 symbolized totality or completion. In Genesis, God made the heaven and earth and rested on the seventh day when creation was complete. Revelation, speaks of 7 Churches, 7 Stars, 7 Angels, 7 Spirits of God, 7 Seals, 7 Trumpets, 7 Thunders, 7 Heads, 7 Plagues, 7 Cups, 7 Mountains, 7 Kings etc. Again, expressing completeness or totality. Mary Magdalene’s possession had been complete, she had been totally possessed.

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others are afflicted as though all of them are tormented by a shared spiritual condition. There have over the years been various theories put forward. Someone who what now may be called a hysterical type of personality whose rapid swings of mood and clinging nature would have been difficult to cope with. Simply labelling the condition in our analytical and objective way ‘hysterical’ may just be a modern way of talking about demons, a way of keeping both the problem and person at a distance.

Jesus, however, appears to fill the gaps in her personality, piecing the fragments together and producing order out of chaos. He healed her of her infirmities and evil Spirits and with Jesus she could be herself. She could lead a useful and fulfilled life.

It is true, that over the centuries Mary Magdalene has become muddled with other biblical women. There were many Mary’s including; Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany, Mary, mother of James the less, Mary, the mother of Clopas. For me, Mary Magdalene is the most enigmatic and mysterious, somehow having that ability to draw us much more deeply into the Jesus story.

Mary Magdalene was the first to witness the resurrection as she ran and told the disciples. She is the patron Saint of all who hear the word of God and keep it, not keep it to themselves but share it out from a full heart and bring forth fruit.

Reflecting on my own limited understanding of Mary Magdalene, it seems to me that no matter how penitent, or lovestruck she might be portrayed as being. Her story speaks of a commitment to draw on a deeper strength, wisdom and experience to be able to endure life on the road or at the coal face! To stand with and with-stand the Journey through life with Jesus.

Yes, there are no doubt many conflicting reports about Mary Magdalene, as there are with matters of faith. We explore tradition, history, Art, the Bible and they differ, sometimes painting half- truths of the bigger picture that we try to paint.

Information shared from a particular perspective, with particular point of view, for a particular purpose. But to this head knowledge, what about adding something of the voice of Mary a voice of heart-felt experience.

In his book ‘Worship through the seasons Nick Fawcett has developed a resource of readings and reflections for services in Lent, Holy week and Easter. Here is a reflection adapted from Meditation of Mary Magdalene on page 98*.

(READER) “I have seen the Lord!”

You won’t listen, I can tell you that now.

You’ve always been suspicious, right from the start.

Mark my words-I know what you’ll say

‘Making it all up!’

Not that I can blame you; I know how tongues wag,

How easy it is to criticise.

Maybe I should have stayed away,

Kept my distance.

But there was something about him. I loved him.

Not like that. But deeply, with all that I am, all that I have,

In a way I’ve never known love before.

I know it is hard to accept, Hard to forgive what used to be.

And I can understand that- I’m finding it hard to forgive you for ignoring him when he needed you most.

‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

He knows. We fail him. All unworthy. None perfect.

Suddenly He was no longer there.

I thought I’d struggle on alone.

No one really understands.

But I was wrong. He came to me.

His voice, I heard a familiar voice.

But it couldn’t be?

It had to be the gardener.

Anyone else but him. Not him.

You’ll do the same again, I’m sure.

Tell me I’ve got it wrong,

That I’m overwrought.

That its’ nonsense Believing in him.

I tell you again, you won’t listen.

But then, I’m used to that.

Does it really matter, what you know of me?

For he knows me.


And he calls me.

Mary Magdalene.

And accepts me.

Mary the tower.

For I have seen the Lord.

Have you?

Period of Silence

Heavenly Father as Mary Magdalene was the first to greet your risen Son and carried the news of his triumph over death to his disciples. Strengthen each of us in our daily lives that we may be faithful witnesses to the gospel in the World. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

* Nick Fawcett Collections on Eden

Copyright: Our speaker has been asked to check what permissions are needed, if any, to reproduce the above extract (30/3)