Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

St Mary Magdalene
July 25, 2010, 2:49 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 22nd July 2010

There are, it seems to me, at least two Mary Magdalenes: the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, and the legendary Mary (or perhaps one should say, various legendary Maries down the ages, to the Mary who now seems to be a poster-girl for the feminist movement).

To start with the Mary of the Gospels, Mark mentions her as one of three women who watched the crucifixion from afar, the others being Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. The two Marys also saw where Jesus was buried. All three women went with spices to the tomb, and all three saw a young man in white who told them that Jesus was risen, and instructed them to go and tell Peter. They run off, but at this point (scholars say) the original text of Mark breaks off. However, an addition says that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, “from whom he had cast out seven demons,” and she tells the Apostles, who do not believe her.

Matthew has much the same, but he continues the story after the break in Mark. As they ran off, Jesus met them “and said, ‘Hail!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.’”

In speaking of the women at the cross, both Mark and Matthew note that they had followed Jesus in Galilee, and ministered to him. Luke includes a short note about this in the Galilean ministry. Mary Magdalene was one of several women who had been healed of infirmities. Mary had had seven demons cast out, as the addition to Mark notes: in context, probably a reference to some kind of mental illness. These women seem to have been well-off, since they provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their means, perhaps by offering hospitality in their homes.  In speaking of the crucifixion, Luke does not give the names of the attendant women, but Mary Magdalene goes with Mary the mother of James and several others to the tomb. They tell the Apostles what they had been told by “two men in dazzling apparel.” The Apostles do not believe them, although Peter goes to the tomb and finds it empty, with the linen cloths nearby, and he goes away puzzled.

It is only John who has any colour to his accounts of Mary. She stands by the cross with the mother of Jesus, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas (presumably the same as the mother of James and Joses, who would have been our Lord’s cousins). On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it empty (the other women are only implied by John). She runs to tell Peter and John, who run in turn to investigate. Peter sees the empty tomb and the cloths, and departs. Mary waits, and has her famous encounter with the risen Lord, falling at his feet just as Matthew records of the two women he refers to. Mary then returns to all the Apostles, and gives her message. Nothing is said by John about how they received it.

That is the Gospel Mary; but from early times ingenious commentators have tried to flesh out the picture. She has been identified with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus in the house of the Pharisee- but Luke who tells this story never suggests that the woman was Mary. She has been identified with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who also (in John’s Gospel) anointed Jesus, but in quite a different context. These unfounded identifications lie at the root of a medieval legend that Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus (and one or two other worthies) sailed from Palestine to France, where she lived in a cave and was fed by angels. Fantastic and unhistorical, yes- but no more so than the modern legend that she was married to our Lord, and all the other nonsense of the Da Vinci Code. Somehow, the world needs to glamorise in order to make important. Mary has to be a notorious sinner, or the first Apostle, or Mrs Christ. God does not need to glamorise his servants. From the Gospel record, the real Mary may have been a fairly well-to-do middle-aged woman, who may have been married, who suffered from nervous or mental difficulties from which Jesus healed her. She stood by the cross with the other two middle-aged Marys, and was among the first to discover the empty tomb and see the risen Lord. Why should that make her less significant than the fictional Mary? God takes very ordinary people, even middle-aged ladies, and entrusts them with the extraordinary mission of telling the world that God is alive, and loves them.


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