Sermon on Mary Magdalene for Sunday 24th July from Rev’d Ian Tattum

A purely rhetorical question: What do you know about Mary Magdalene?

Some of you might immediately think of the story, so familiar from Easter, of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus after the Resurrection in the garden outside the tomb – when she initially mistakes him for the gardener. That is one of the great Easter stories we can read about in St John’s Gospel, and it has often been depicted in art – most famously, perhaps, by Titian. And usually, as in the well-known painting by Titian, the emphasis of the art is the moment when Jesus says ‘Do not touch me’, ‘Noli me tangere’ in the Latin Bible, which was the most respected translation in Western Europe when the bulk of the art telling the story was produced. Rembrandt, however, painted a version where the emphasis is on the moment of recognition: the point where Jesus calls her by name and she recognises his voice.

The contrast between these two pictures is a good way into a fairer appreciation of St Mary Magdalene’s importance as a real person, a Christian witness and disciple. It is a contrast between someone a bit suspect, a notorious ex-sinner perhaps still dangerous, who might be used to symbolise some kind of sexual threat to Christ (too earthbound) and a person who was one of the most important of the apostles – one who had known Jesus since the beginning of his mission in Galilee and who not only had the honour of being the first person to experience the Resurrection and report it to the world but also was one of the tiny group of women who witnessed the agony of Christ’s crucifixon while the male disciples ran away and hid somewhere!

Because of the dominance of the point of view that inspired Titian, we still have to work hard to shake off a case of mistaken identity that stops us seeing her more clearly, as did the early third-century theologian St Hippolytus of Rome, who called Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles.

If you want to know who the culprit was who transformed a founding female member of the Church into a reformed sinner and prostitute, it was the sixth-century pope, Gregory the Great, who said so in a sermon – sermons can be dangerous things! (Incidentally, he was the same Pope Gregory who sent the monk who became St Augustine of Canterbury on his mission to the English.) Gregory conflated a number of stories about other women – including the woman Jesus rescued from stoning and the woman, said by Luke to be ‘a great sinner’, who washed Jesus’ feet with ointment – with details about Mary Magdalene to create an archetypal woman in need of salvation.

Those who are feeling generous might see this as a misguided creative act of theological imagination shaped by cultural context, but it also helped to inspire centuries of Christian misogyny, which is still imbedded in the churches and is particularly visible in the USA at the moment. This fantasy Mary is very far removed from the one we first hear about in Chapter 8 of St Luke’s Gospel, whose significance is astonishing even there and whose backstory is not one of spectacular sinfulness at all, but psychological distress.

Here is the reference in full:

Jesus ‘journeyed through every city and village proclaiming and announcing the good tidings of the Kingdom of God, and the twelve along with him, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had come out, and Joanna, wife of Chuza the steward of Herod, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them from their own possessions.’

Here Mary is not a notorious sinner but a notorious sufferer, one who had found her life transformed by her encounter with Jesus; but she is also a notorious provider. The ideal that we later come across in the book of Acts, that in the early church the community of apostles and disciples shared wealth and property, seems to go back to within Jesus’ ministry itself – with Mary Magdalene and other women setting the example! The whole enterprise, this passage seems to indicate, was a collective one. It was focussed around Jesus’ message, and the better-known twelve male disciples were involved too, but Mary, Joanna and Susanna were prominent, not just as funders, but as participants in the whole mission.

The role of women in the early church has often been downplayed, of course. Noticing Mary Magdalene helps us to notice how much so. For instance, if you go to the last chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, you will find him greeting all his co-workers in spreading the Gospel, of whom a third are women, and one – Junia – he calls an ‘apostle’.

A little aside on this: In the early 1990’s I was one of the people who went around deaneries, debating the case for the ordination of women. A common argument against was that in some ancient manuscripts of Romans the name is Junias (a man’s name), so this wasn’t a woman at all. Other manuscripts in which she is ‘Julia’ were never brought up, oddly enough.

So, Mary Magdalene should be celebrated and remembered, not as the fantasy saint she was turned into but as the one she was.

For me, today, one of the most important things about her is that she displayed a steadfastness few of the male apostles could aspire to, which seems to have been born out of her own experience of suffering. When, even in the churches, it is sometimes suggested that faith is a way to immunise yourself against life, she never ran away and never turned her back on suffering. She didn’t seek riches or status but gave generously, with a liberality from a place of freedom. Hers was a life not of subservient duty but of faith-filled grace.

Rightly called the Apostle to the Apostles.

Sometime in the second century a Gospel of Mary Magdalene was written. It suggests that she was the one who, after Jesus’ death, inspired the male disciples to get over themselves, to stop cowering in a corner and get out there and live out and preach the Gospel.

From what Luke tells us I sense she did that all along.

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