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Mary Magdalene – Saint for today Song of Solomon; 3.1-4 Luke 7:36 - 8:3

The da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has been a very popular book and spawned the film of the same name based on it. I have seen the latter but not read the former! However, the fact that the novel has appealed to so many in our society is of interest in itself. I agree with the sentiments of a local clergyman who said that it is a cracking good read, but if you really believe any of it, you want your head looking at! Whilst the book’s claims to fact may or should be discounted, its appeal to the popular imagination needs to be taken account of, explored, explained.

Why does it appeal?
One explanation why the book appeals to so many is that based on the attraction of conspiracy theory. In the absence of a belief in God in so many people, something else needs to be a focus for complaint about the evils of this world. To be able to point the finger at conspiracies supposedly planned and executed by powerful institutions, the Church included, gives us a sense of satisfaction.

The particular conspiracy in The da Vinci Code that drives the story is that revolving around Mary Magdalene. She is supposed to have married Christ, they are supposed to have descendents and the Roman Catholic Church, especially some more secretive organisations or structures within it, are supposed to be trying to keep this hidden. Leonardi da Vinci is supposed to have encoded this secret in his painting of the Last Supper – hence the book’s title!

There are a number of things that can be challenged about Dan Brown’s theories, but that would distract us from the main thrust of our considerations on this occasion. What is it about Mary Magdalene that appeals so much to our modern culture? To put it another way, what is Mary Magdalene saying to us today that we are prepared or interested in hearing, that means something to us?
Two Marys
There are several Marys in the NT, but two are prominent in the biblical material as well as in the consciousness of the Church: Mary the Virgin, the Mother of our Lord, and Mary known as Magdalene, because she is thought to have come from Magdala, a town near the Sea of Galilee. In the past the Virgin has been a figure of popular devotion, a sympathetic focus for Christian devotion, and, because of this prominence, also a focus for dissent, disagreement and Protestant reaction.

But I wonder whether Mary Magdalene is now beginning to take her place in the popular imagination? Maybe the Virgin Mary is too pure, too otherworldly, too remote for many modern people to feel they can relate to her. We turn to the Magdala because (to use a contemporary expression which may be open to a variety of interpretation) we find her sexier.

What do I mean by that? What I mean is that the Magdala, rather than the Virgin, seems more sympathetic to us in a post-Freudian even post-Kinseyan world. This is a world where our sense of who we are is a combination of acknowledging the sexual nature of our being human, where the idealisation of life and vitality is seen in terms of desire, and where the relation of male and female is so much more complex, between the genders and also within each individual. Whether it is simply because there is a deeply psychological way of looking at ourselves, or because many suffer from a kind of angst that is sexual, or simply because as a society we are more open to talking of such things, Mary Magdalene appeals to us because she seems so much more human than the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mary Magdalene’s Identity
The Gospel accounts of the woman called Mary Magdalene do not make all the connections that popular imagination makes between her and a woman that appears in other gospel scenes. Strictly speaking Mary Magdalene was someone who was healed by Jesus. This same Mary stayed with Jesus both providing for his needs when he was alive and then watching at the foot of the cross. She was also the same Mary who went to the tomb early on Easter Day, encountered Jesus, and was sent by him to convey the joyful news of the Resurrection to the other followers of Jesus. Hence she is given the epithet “Apostle to the Apostles”.

A Physical Mary
It is this Mary’s very physicality that I think appeals to us. She follows Jesus, helping to provide for him during his itinerant ministry. Her provision is described as service. I imagine that would mean feeding the group as they travelled with Jesus and possibly even mending their clothes. She stays watching at the foot of the cross with the other women. Finally she goes to the tomb to embalm him and when she encounters Jesus alive, she attempts to lay hold of those same feet which she watched and cared for so much in Jesus’ life.

The Virgin Mary’s relationship to Jesus is physical, too, as she bore him and brought him up. But the maternal care of a son has a different quality to the tender, even intimate physical care that Mary Magdalene may have shown Jesus. I am not trying to imply, like Dan Brown, that there was an inappropriately intimate or genital relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Bible is quite clear that even though Jesus was like us in every way, he was completely without sin. However, Mary’s consciousness of sin (whatever it was), her overflowing gratitude and love for Jesus because of what he did for her, and her unstinting care and attention to his needs are remarkable. She is one of the disciples (followers) relating to Jesus in response to his call, rather than being his mother and connected to him in a different way. We feel we can sit alongside her rather than look up to her in the way that we might with the Virgin Mary.

Apostle to the Apostles
Contemporary culture may be fascinated with Mary Magdalene, and since she is a Christian saint, and lends her name to our church, we can rejoice in that. However, it is possible that this popular engagement with Mary Magdalene gets stuck with her at this point and fails to see her true significance. Popular interest stays, as it were, with her as she stoops, tearfully, trying to clasp the feet of the risen Lord who has just called her tenderly by name.

The scene did not end there but moved on. Mary was amongst the women who supported Jesus’ ongoing ministry. In the Easter garden Mary did not need to clasp Jesus’ feet any longer. Her role was to proclaim the risen Lord, first to the dubious and fearful male disciples, and then to all who would listen to her witness. Her significance is in serving the Lord but now her service is to that of bearing witness to him risen again. If we are to truly identify with her, then it is our role, too, to serve our Lord and witness to him, risen again and going on before us.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Almighty God,
whose Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of mind and body
and called her to be a witness of his resurrection:
for give our sins and heal us by your grace,
that we may serve you in the power of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,