These days image is influential, especially as we grow more visual than
verbal in our culture. To be topical, the image of Severus Snape in the
Harry Potter sagas is a complex one. Is he a goody or a baddy? Is he to
be trusted or not? Does he serve Voldemort or is he a double agent? I
won’t spoil the story, but perhaps the final episode reveals where
his ultimate loyalties lie!
I want to explore 3 images or perceptions of Mary Magdalene, and then
try and think how it might apply to the Church’s encounter with
the contemporary world and its concerns.
but mistaken image of her is that of the fallen woman restored. It is
a sensationalised image of her, especially when one considers that she
is described in the Bible as one who had 7 demons. She may not have been
a woman of the street, although undoubtedly there were many such in the
occupied Roman provinces. But because of her spiritual or mental disease,
she was thus possibly an outcaste, and as such would have fitted well
with Jesus’ other followers whom he often healed or called to leave
a former life behind. Exorcism is seen in the gospels as integral to Jesus’
mission to renew Israel or to bring salvation to the world, whether or
not we accept the demon possessed construct put on sufferers. Those who
were cleansed and restored followed Jesus, like his other disciples, forming
the new Israel.
There are certainly demons that trouble modern society: corruption, economic
disease and mass violence. The phone hacking scandals reveal the depths
of corruption lying in various establishments in the UK. Avarice certainly
lies somewhere near the heart of the economic disease that started as
sub-prime lending and now threatens the economic well-being of whole nations.
Then there is the demon of violence: whether it is the lone gunman shooting
indiscriminately, either because he is mad or bad or both; or many working
in some co-operative of revenge. None of us are untouched by such things,
therefore none of us may look down on Mary Magdalene. All of us look to
Christ to cleanse our demons and having been cleansed, we are called to
work for the renewal of all God’s people.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition does not identify MM with M of Bethany.
It never regards her as having been a sinner but rather virtuous all her
life, even before she met & followed Jesus. Thus she is never celebrated
as a penitent. Indeed the Orthodox view of her is that she was so chaste,
that devil believed she would bear Jesus and so sent 7 demons to trouble
her. This tradition recognises the scriptural description of her as being
witness to the resurrection and sent to tell the other disciples. Her
iconography depicts her bearing ointment, not because she might have anointed
Jesus’ feet but because she brought spices to anoint the body of
Jesus in tomb. She is hence known as a myrrhbearer (those who attended
the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus). She has a special place
in Orthodox. Liturgy (eg 2nd Sunday after Easter). She is believed to
have retired to Ephesus with BVM where she died. Thus the title myrrhbearer
connects to her care for Jesus during his earthly ministry. She looked
after his needs both in life and death.
Mary’s example of attending to Jesus is something for us to follow.
Famine relief deals with the symptoms whilst fair trade and debt cancellation
help alleviate some of the causes of world hunger. Many support the hospice
movement which is one of attending to the dying in a particular way. As
such we can all be myrrhbearers in the name of Christ.
Many of you know that I am interested in interreligious relations. I am
also a member of WATCH, a movement that supports the ordination of women.
I want to combine both of those in the third image of Mary Magdalene:
that of her being the equal of men. Within Christianity she is given the
title “Apostle to the Apostles” which may be enough in itself.
But I was interested to learn that much is written about her from within
the Baha’i faith. Abdul Baha (son of the founder) makes many references
to Mary Magdalene:
“channel of confirmation” to Jesus’ disciples
“heroine who re-established the faith of the apostles” the
“light of nearness in his kingdom”. Baha’is believe
she is the supreme example of complete equality of men & women in
God’s sight. The Baha’i faith is a relatively new religion
founded by Baha’ullah in the 19th C. It recognises the unfolding
of revelation through many prophets including Jesus, but also Abraham,
Buddha and Mohammed. It is monotheistic and has perhaps 6 million followers
in 200 countries world wide. We may take issue with their synthesis of
the prophetic voice of distinct religions but we do well to at least be
open to what other religions have to say about central figures in Christianity.
By way of application I think we can honour Mary Magdalene by our commitment
to equality, generally and in the Church. Many are rejoicing that the
CofE is now voting, diocese by diocese, in favour of women bishops. There
are those who are strongly opposed because of deeply held convictions,
but the vast majority inside and out of the Church wonder why it has taken
us so long to get there. I wonder if it is time to take MM’s “Apostle
to the Apostles” as the governing criterion. Perhaps the supreme
qualification for roles in the Church is not leadership, authority or
even ordination but witness. MM was witness and that witness arises from
personal encounter with Christ, encounter that is rooted in faithfulness
to and service of Christ.
© Rev Paul Smith