Today we celebrate the life and witness of Mary Magdalene and of the life and witness of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine as we continue to celebrate our 125 years of love, prayer and service in the Canadian Church.
What do we know of Mary of Magdala? From the record in the scriptures we know that she was a woman of independent means who came from town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. She was healed of seven demons by Jesus and afterwards followed him, and like several other women, supported him out of her own resources. She was there, like the other disciples, throughout most of Jesus’ ministry. She stood with Jesus at the foot of the cross with Mary his mother and John the beloved, when all the other disciples had fled for fear of their own lives.
We also know that on Easter morning she went to the tomb to grieve a close friend. And as she wept, Jesus appeared to her as the resurrected Christ. He chose her to go and tell the other disciples that she had seen him. It was this commission that caused the early church to name her Apostle to the Apostles.
In the gospel reading we just heard it is clear that Mary and Jesus had a close relationship. Not a marital relationship as author Dan Brown would have it in his popular novel Angels and Demons, but intimate none the less and we get a bit of the flavour of that intimacy in their exchange in this gospel passage.
Mary had gone to the tomb before daybreak and found the stone rolled away. She stood outside weeping, perhaps in shock that the stone had been rolled away, but also certainly with a heart full of grief. Then she stooped to look inside. She is startled by two angels who are sitting where the body of Jesus would have lain. They asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
She turned away and saw someone through her tears and grief whom she took to be the gardener. She asked him where they had taken the body of Jesus. He calls her by name, “Mary,” and she instantly recognizes him and responds, “Rabbouni,” that is, “Teacher.” She has responded as a disciple of Jesus, as who learns from their master.
She must have reached out to touch him because he tells her not to touch him, to not hold onto him. There are a number of renaissance paintings that depict this subject – Noli me tangere, that is, do not touch me. In some she is reaching out to him and he reaches out to her but also is slightly turned away from her as if he is showing that he may not linger because he has not yet ascended to the Father. Then he commissions her to go and tell the others that he is risen.
What we don’t find in the scriptures is any specific reference to Mary of Magdala as a prostitute. The Eastern churches have always remembered her as Apostle to the Apostles. But since about the 4th century the Western church has portrayed her as a fallen woman, a prostitute, a sinner whose sexual promiscuity denies her dignity and serves to eliminate her reputation. She is portrayed as an outcast wanton woman who came to Jesus for healing and forgiveness.
Mary is instead a woman of independent means who clearly loved Jesus. Some misconceptions about her probably arose because of her healing from the seven demons which we have come to assume to be sexual sins. They were more likely to be emotional or mental afflictions often attributed to evil spirits or demons in Jesus’ time, not necessarily associated with sinfulness at all. The number seven symbolized that she either had a chronic illness like depression or that her affliction was very severe.
Mary Magdalene who first appears in Luke chapter 8, has been confused with other unnamed women in the Gospels – specifically the unnamed sinner mentioned in chapter seven of Luke who washed Jesus feet with her tears. The same reference is found in Mark Chapter 14 where a woman anointed Jesus feet with costly ointment from an alabaster jar. But these are unnamed women, Mary is named and identified with the city she was from.
It has also been suggested that Mary was named a prostitute to keep other women from claiming their authority or from exercising leadership in the church. Mary had Christ’s special commission and blessing so was seen as a possible threat to the established order.
When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, the Christian community was caught up in a cultural conflict. Until that time worship had been hidden, because it was illegal, in the homes of the believers where women’s leadership had been accepted. Now, as the sanctioned and official religion of the state, worship moved into public sphere and its leadership needed to conform to the norms of Roman society and government which meant male leadership in the church.
So there was a change in perception in the Western Church in how Mary of Magdala was seen as Apostle to the Apostles, a leader in the church, into a prostitute, a woman of ill repute, one who could be more easily discredited. She was turned into a woman who was in need of repentance and penitence who could now model the hidden silent life for women. Gone was the model of women leadership in the church.
Well I can really resonate with Mary of Magdala in my own life. I’ve been put down and discriminated against. I’ve been called a “bitch” when I’ve shown my anger and passion over a subject when my male counterpart would have been called strong and assertive in the same situation!
These days we have different picture of Mary of Magdala from what we are used to hearing. A strong woman. Someone whom Jesus restored to health in body and mind by casting out seven demons. A woman who witnessed Jesus throughout his ministry and provided for him and the other disciples out of her own resources. She was with him through his death and resurrection. And she was the first one Jesus appeared to as the resurrected Christ and he commissioned her to become the Apostle to the Apostles.
In the epistle we read that “in Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” We can count on everything old in our lives having passed away, all our sins, former bad habits, the things we did when we were younger we wish we hadn’t and wish we could forget. But there are things in our culture and society which also must be made new. Everything must pass away from our former life in Christ Jesus and become new so that like Mary we can be free to carry the good news of Christ Jesus throughout the world.
What can we take from a different understanding of who Mary of Magdala is? We can be thankful that women’s leadership has been more accepted in the some parts of the Anglican Communion and in other denominations. But more still needs to be done. We can also be thankful that there are other clear models of women’s leadership in the Canadian Church such as the Sisters in the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD). We have been blessed by so many strong women in SSJD throughout our 125 year history.
SSJD was pioneering in women’s healthcare setting up the country’s first surgical hospital for women in 1885 in Toronto. We have had other work specifically with women in the past including work with women in Edmonton and young unmarried mothers. We’ve also had Sisters who have used their gifts of creativity in writing and so we’ve got our inclusive language psalter & daily office binder. There is a continuing history of advocacy and work for the equality and inclusion of women by the Sisters in the SSJD.
Several days ago we heard the presiding celebrant preach on the 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon. I was struck as he spoke that there was a Sister in chapel who hadn’t been born when the moon landing happened. Some women today are growing up in a world where there is more equality and less discrimination against them because of our efforts. I belonged to a woman’s group when I was in high school. I worked in a non-traditional job to pave the way for others. Along with another woman classmate we were hired as the first women in the Ministry of Natural Resources in Dryden in forestry. We worked hard because we had to prove ourselves. The next year I was partnered with another classmate, a male colleague who had to ask me to slow down because I went too fast for him to keep up! I’ve lived through some things to make it possible for those who come after me.
A renewed understanding of Mary Magdalene as Apostle to the Apostles, as a model for women’s leadership, also leads us to prayer and advocacy for those women and girls throughout the world who are still put down, kept uneducated, abused, maligned, discriminated against. We must address false systems and cultures that exclude the leadership of women because it is pervasive and insidious. In the culture of the First Nations peoples in Canada, although formerly mostly a matriarchal society, and although there are still about 1/5th of the over 600 chiefs who are women, there are none running in the election for National Chief at present. We must continue to hold up women for leadership and strive for equality with men in our own country.
May there be a time when women will not know the inequality, discrimination, and maligned reputations like Mary Magdalene and many of us have had to live through and fight against for the sake of those who will come after us. Pray and look for opportunities to uphold women’s leadership in your own lives and give thanks today for Mary Magdalene who loved our Lord and became the Apostle to the Apostles. Amen.
Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD
July 22, 2009
- Mary Magdalene: A Case of Mistaken Identity - This article by Lalor Cadley Ferrari provides background information about Mary Magdalene's mistaken reputation as a prostitute. http://www.smp.org/voices/resources/
- Mary of Magdala– Apostle to the Apostles: Resources for celebrating women’s leadership in the church. http://www.futurechurch.org/marym/