MARY MAGDALENE WITNESS
TO THE RESURRECTION
Last Monday I went to the induction of a new vicar in a local village.
As I had arrived in good time there was still plenty of space and I was
just wondering where to sit when a retired gentleman came up to me and
said, “I think I know you from somewhere!” It turned out that
he and his wife were members of the church in Birmingham where I was first
a curate 25 years ago. They had recognised me before I them! We then spent
the time before the service started catching up with old times.
There is a common thread to the resurrection stories in the gospels. Jesus
is not instantly recognised. Think of the Emmaus Road story, or Jesus’
appearance at the lakeside. I might be forgiven for failing to recognise
someone I’d not seen for almost 25 years, but you would have thought
the disciples would have recognised Jesus instantly as it was only a few
days since they had seen him alive. But perhaps the words of 2 Corinthians
helps to explain the difference: even though we once knew Christ from
a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. There was something
different about Jesus after his resurrection: he was not instantly recognisable.
Perhaps he could only be seen through the eyes of faith and that kind
of perception did not always comes straight away.
Who was Mary Magdalene?
It might be helpful just to pause and talk about who Mary Magdalene was.
According to official Anglican information all four gospels give Mary
is given a unique place among Jesus’ followers. Her “surname”
denotes that she was from a community by the Sea of Galilee. Having been
healed by Jesus she then accompanies him along with other women, including
his mother, during his ministry. She stayed beside the cross along with
other women and the young John, when the other disciples had fled in fright.
She saw where his body was laid and then was the first disciple to discover
the empty tomb on Easter morning. She was then the first to see the risen
Jesus who sent her to take the good news of his resurrection to the other
disciples. This commission earned her the title “Apostle to the
Apostles” in the early Church. These are the things which we can
clearly draw from scripture about her. However, we may be aware of other
things believed about Mary’s character that are more in the popular
imagination than based solidly on scripture. There are two other women
in the gospels who are sometimes confused with Mary Magdalene: an unnamed
woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and often presumed to be a woman
of suspect morals; and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
St John’s gospel does connect Mary of Bethany with the woman who
anointed Jesus’ feet, but it doesn’t say that this is also
It is very appealing
to roll all three characters into one and popular culture does just that
as in the films The Last Temptation of Christ, (Martin Scorsese) or Mel
Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, or in the rock opera Jesus Christ
Superstar. All we can say is that St John’s gospel doesn’t
explicitly connect them all as one Mary and nor is it apparently important
to him. Mary was a popular name and there are many Marys in Jesus’
life. As for the legend, popularised in The Da Vinci Code, that Mary Magdalene
was Jesus’ wife and they had children together, all we can say is
that does not fit with either scripture or the Church’s tradition.
It is also part of the conspiracy theory that the Catholic Church has
deliberately suppressed any evidence for Jesus and Mary having been married.
That is a complete distraction from our faith!
Caring for Jesus
What is important in the gospels is what they tell us of Mary’s
relationship with Jesus. Only Luke introduces her at an early stage, saying
that she was one from who Jesus cast out seven demons and who was one
of the women who followed him about providing for him from their own means.
She really comes into her own at the end. She is the only one of all the
followers who is witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Others witnessed these things, but not all three together. The important
points we can draw out are that she cared for Jesus and was witness to
his resurrection. These things are connected, as well. We can imagine
that she cared about what Jesus’ needed on a practical level: cooking
for him and the other disciples; perhaps doing their washing; maybe generally
fussing over their welfare. She accompanies the band on their last pilgrimage
together to Jerusalem. She is around when things take a terrible turn
for the worse and when she cannot do any more, faithfully watches at the
foot of the cross. So we can imagine, once she had helped to take him
down from the cross and saw where he was buried, that she wanted to care
for the dead body as much as possible. There were rituals of cleansing
and embalming normal to the Jewish burial rites, but these had to be interrupted
by the Sabbath ban on any work. Jesus was hastily laid to rest until he
could be given the proper attention as soon as the Sabbath was over. That’s
why Mary Magdalene and some of the others went as soon as they could to
the tomb at daybreak on the Sunday – as soon as the Sabbath was
Searching for the body
John takes up the story, explaining how upset Mary was when they discovered
the body was missing from the opened tomb. If she couldn’t have
a living Jesus to look after, she at least wanted to show his dead body
some respectful and tender care. Now even that is prevented by his body
having gone missing. No wonder she is completely distraught! We may think
that the questions of the angels and of the supposed gardener are insensitive:
“Woman, why are you weeping?” but they are part of the narrative:
they help to reveal what was going on in Mary’s feelings. It would
be quite logical for Mary to suppose that this extra pair of legs that
appear at the entrance to the tomb belong to the gardener, arriving early
in the cool of the morning, to do his work. She has a straw to clutch
at: perhaps he has taken the body somewhere else and can tell her where.
All it takes is for her to hear her own name being said by a familiar
voice in a particular way and the transformation begins to take place
Do not hold on to me
Recognition does not happen straight away, it is only when she hears her
name that she realises who it is standing before her. Then her natural
instinct is to want to lay hold of him. She longed to care for the body,
but now there is a living being to grasp hold of. In a modern culture
she’d give him a bear hug. Perhaps in her culture she fell to cling
on to his feet. So why does Jesus say, “Do not hold on to me!”?
Is Jesus being insensitive? Does he not want her to contaminate him? The
word is not just that for “touch” – as in, “Don’t
touch me!” The word has more the idea of fastening onto, clasping
hold of, as if she would never let him out of her sight again. Going back
to that phrase in 2 Corinthians: she is now not to know Christ from a
human point of view even though she once did. Now she is to relate to
him in a new kind of way. She is to be a new creation, everything old
has passed away and she is to relate to him as witness to the resurrection.
She is to show her devotion not by caring for a physical body, but to
tell first the other disciples, and then the world, that she has seen
the Lord. That is why she has earned the title: “Apostle to the
Apostles” – the one sent to tell those who would in turn be
sent to spread the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection.
This is to be the way for us, if we are to live up Mary Magdalene’s
name and to be faithful followers of Christ. At a meeting the other week
a number of us listened to a Humanist explaining his point of view. He
said that religion was not based on scientific proof and therefore he
could not accept it. However, this is to be a misunderstanding of faith.
We base our belief on the witness of the apostles, including Mary Magdalene.
We don’t believe blindly because there is enough evidence of the
resurrection. The evidence does not mount to scientific proof. It is more
the weight of evidence such as that used in a court of law or in history,
pointing to the highest likelihood of something being true. We too, may
show our devotion to Christ by bearing witness to his resurrection. We
too have heard him calling our own name and know that he is working a
transformation in us.
© Rev Paul Smith