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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!

Fallen Woman Restored
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.

A popular 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.

Myrrh Bearer
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.

Equal of men
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.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith