Who the hell is Mary Magdalene? James was the brother of Jesus, the head of the church in Jerusalem, but he is nowhere to be found on Easter morning. Paul was the founder of all the Gentile churches across the Mediterranean, but Easter morning found him still busy persecuting anyone who wasn’t Jewish enough. And Peter was the head of the churches in Rome and Antioch, the first pope, designated by Jesus – according to Matthew – as the rock on which the Church would be built. He was there. Stumbling around and missing the point, as usual. But Mary the Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, was there.
We all know that Scripture has been tampered with, right? Each writer has an agenda and then their work is edited and redacted, each hand, whether intentionally or not, shaping what we think we know about the beginnings of our faith. As Scripture was being written in the later years of the first century and into the second, there was a lot at stake for what would become the Christian Church. Who will we say we are? Who gets to decide? Who is in charge?
Conflicts are recorded explicitly between Paul and Peter and James, their struggles to define what it meant to be Christian and how that would emerge from Judaism and how they would survive in the Roman Empire. And how they would spread the Good News. The Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – support, for the most part, the primacy of the Twelve and Peter, ultimately, chief among them. Though they are not always presented well, they are at least present. By the time Scripture was fully realized, Peter and Paul were the last ones standing.
Then there’s the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John. John has always been an outlier. Although it has been the source of much of Christian theology, it is also dismissed as a spiritual Gospel, somewhat abstract and heady. But the Gospel of John preserves the Beloved Community, the legacy of Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple. Our text this Easter morning shows more than any other who they were.
We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene and most of what we think we know is wrong. She’s not a prostitute. That was invented out of whole cloth in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great, the inheritor of Peter’s Church. Because women in the Church are not thought to have any significance, he simply combines several Marys and several unnamed women into a composite character that is a dirty temptress, a sinner made clean by Jesus. But if Gregory the Great can pull stuff out of his you-know-where, then certainly Scott the Mediocre can be allowed a little speculative history based on some things we do know.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the Gospels as present at the crucifixion or the empty tomb or both. She is also mentioned in Luke 8 among a group of women who are said to support Jesus’ ministry, which suggests that she may have had some resources. Luke 8 also tells us that she had been possessed by seven demons, though the story of her exorcism is not provided. One presumes it was Jesus who freed her and, though he usually told those who were freed of demons to return home, she continued to travel with them.
An exorcism is an intimate thing, I assume. I have not performed such a thing myself, but we all have demons that vex us, the powers and principalities of this world that constrain us, that tell us we are unloved and unworthy, that place an identity on us that is not ours to carry. That lie to us about who we are in God. I’ve been privileged to have people come out to me, to finally know who they truly are and trust me to bear witness to it. That is a bond that will remain our whole lives. Perhaps that’s what it was like for Mary Magdalene, to finally be herself again.
If she had resources to support Jesus’ ministry, her family must have been well off. Magdala was a thriving town in Jesus’ time. It was a fish processing center on the Sea of Galilee, so it generated a lot of taxes for the Roman government and the locals were enriched in parallel. It has the oldest synagogue in Galilee, suggesting that there were both the money and the people to support it. It also has several mikvahs, baths for ritual purification.
The interesting thing about those baths is that most people would have used the nearby shores of Galilee for ritual purification. The mikvahs were instead fed by an underground water system constructed specifically for the purpose. Again, this takes money, but it also means someone wanted something different than the lake, something more like what was found in Jerusalem for purification before entering the temple, the holiest site in all of Israel.
In the synagogue of Magdala, there is a stone, like a small table, from which the Torah would be read. It is unlike anything found in any other synagogue in ancient Israel. It appears to be a small model of the Jerusalem Temple made before the Temple was destroyed. That is, it was an image of the Temple, not made by someone who had been in the Temple. A representation of the Holy of Holies in a home away from home.
It turns out that Magdala was a hotbed of rebellion in the Second Temple Period. As persecution escalated in Jerusalem, many of the elite priestly class relocated to Magdala. Magdala was destroyed in the year 67, as the Roman Empire’s weariness of the Jewish resistance ultimately ended in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Mary Magdalene grew up steeped in resistance. She meets this man, Jesus, who gives her peace of mind, who helps her discover who she really is. Not the obedient daughter of a wealthy fishmonger or boat builder, but a young woman conscious of the occupation and exploitation of her people. So she commits herself to this man, to support him and follow him. To feed the people and heal the people and free the people. His people and her people for her God and his God.
When a person is mentioned by name in the Bible, it usually means that person was significant in the community that generated the text. The fact that she is mentioned in all the Gospels suggests that Mary Magdalene was integral to the mission not ancillary to it. She has been called the Apostle to the Apostles, the primary witness to the mission and message of Jesus, to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps the one to whom the other apostles should defer. But that is not what happened. The men who ultimately took charge didn’t want a Magdalene church.
Yet, they couldn’t erase her completely. This suggests that she was too important, too well known, too loved and revered to erase. It might also suggest that she continued to live and was active well into the time of the writing of what became Scripture. They couldn’t cut her out because she was right there looking over their shoulders. It took another five hundred years for Gregory the Great to malign her into insignificance! But the author of John knew that, without Mary Magdalene, the story of the resurrection would remain untold.
Mary is there. Mary discovers that the body is missing, the first to know that something is afoot. She immediately runs to tell the disciples. Simon Peter and the disciple that Jesus loved ran to the tomb to see what was going on.
“The disciple that Jesus loved” is also known as the Beloved Disciple, or “BD,” in the scholarly literature. It is likely that this was a real person, again, memorialized in Scripture because he or she is known to the Johannine community. But the author of John does something interesting with this character. BD becomes a cypher, a stand-in for anyone who sees and believes, anyone who knows what it means to love and be loved in God.
Peter and BD are in a foot race to get back to the tomb. BD wins, getting there first, but he looks in and stands on the threshold. Peter gets there second and – this is so Peter – pushes his way past BD into the tomb. Peter sees that the body is missing – but he does not believe. That’s the end of the moment for Peter. He doesn’t get it. Then BD enters, sees, and believes. That is, in Johannine terms, Peter does not know, but the Beloved Disciple knows Jesus and God fully and fully understands what has happened.
Peter never gets it and his church doesn’t, either. For John, to know is to love. Believing is beloving. The Johannine Church is known as the Beloved Community, a community in which, not only do people take care of one another as in the community depicted in Acts, but where they understand themselves to be bound together in love. It’s not just material, it’s intimate. They are in Jesus as Jesus is in God. That is, they are not bound together solely by necessity, but united in God. They are one. Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple get this.
Unlike the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene is not a cypher; she is a three-dimensional character. She is the character and this is the story through which we see the process of uniting with God. This models what it means to become part of the Beloved Community.
After Simon and BD verify that the body is missing, they go back home. Mary Magdalene, like Peter, does not yet understand what has happened. Her grief overcomes her, so she stays, weeping, outside the tomb. She decides to take one last look, perhaps hoping that there is some mistake, that this has all been imagined. When she does, she sees two angels, looming over the place where the body had been, recalling the image of the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat where God appears in the Holy of Holies.
The angels ask, “Why are you weeping?” She responds, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.” There are a couple of ironies here, which the author of John uses to play with what we know and don’t know, what characters know and don’t know.
First, as in real estate, so the Gospel of John: location, location, location. One of the primary concerns for John, witnessed in the chosen vocabulary, is where people are from and where they are going and where they are coming to and whether they are here or there, away or with us. When she says “they have taken my Lord away,” it is referencing what Jesus has already told them, that he is going away. But there’s another side to that. In 14.28, Jesus told them – apparently reminding them that he has told them before – “You have heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’” That is, in going away, he is coming back; in going to be with God, he is becoming eternally and intimately present with them.
He continues in verse 28, saying, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going.” If she loved him – in Johannine language, if she truly knew him and knew who he was and knew where he was from – she would not grieve the loss of the body because she would know what that really meant – that he has both gone to God and returned to the community as the community. He even gives her a heads-up in verse 29 by saying, “And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” But she doesn’t. She is so grief-stricken that she forgets what he told her, which, for John, means that she forgets who he is and, therefore, who she is in him. She forgets what she discovered long ago when she was released from demonic control. She forgets who she is in the love of God.
Then, the second irony. This is obscured by the language in translation, but she initially tells the angels that “they have taken my Lord away.” When Jesus approaches her and asks her, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” (Notice he says “who,” not “what,” as if he knows exactly what she is about.) But she doesn’t recognize him and responds, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” But both “Sir” and “Lord” are the same word, kurios, an honorific and not necessarily a title. We know who she’s talking to and her language suggests that she knows who she’s talking to, but she doesn’t.
Then Jesus calls her by name, “Mary!” And she turns to him. Notice that she already turned toward him. In verse 14, she turned around to see him standing there, so this is a different kind of turning. She turns toward him and snaps out of her stupor. She turns to him spiritually and once again knows him and knows herself. As John 10.3 tells us, “He calls his own sheep by name.” And in 10.4: “the sheep follow him because they know his voice. She remembers who he is and remembers what this is all about.
This next part is a little complicated and has been used in misogynist readings to diminish Mary Magdalene’s significance. Jesus tells her not to hold onto him or in some translations not to touch him. Then he suggests that he is in the process of ascending, so we are left with the impression that her dirty lady-hands will mess it up. But the Johannine scholar Sandra Schneiders suggests something different.
Rather than a prohibition on her action, he is trying to redirect the object of her desire. The “not” is connected to “me” and not to “touch.” That is, “Not me should you touch.” She prefers the translation of “touch” rather than “hold on to” because it is more like an emotional or intimate touch, like being touched by someone’s kindness, so it suggests that her desire is for this embodied, personal Jesus, to keep him around in the way she has always known. Then, when he speaks of ascending, Schneiders suggests that this makes more sense as a question: “Am I not ascended?” So he has gone back to where he came from, to his divine home, but, as we have seen, this also means he has returned in a different form.
This is a new kind of intimacy, a new kind of belonging. When he says, “Am I not ascended to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God?” this phrase is a formula. It could be for a wedding or for an adoption. It is the joining of a person to a new family. It’s no accident that they are in a garden and she thinks he is the gardener. They are a new Adam and Eve, birthing a new people of God in the Beloved Community. And all of those who are united in love are called children of God, just as was promised in John 1.12.
Therefore, she needs to find his presence, not in the embodied, personal Jesus, but in the community that is one with God in love because Jesus is always, eternally, intimately present in the Beloved Community through the Holy Spirit. Thus, her task is to go and tell the others what she now knows.
This is her primacy as the original apostle. She goes and announces – angelion – to the disciples what she has seen. This is the Johannine Gospel, the style of evangelism of the Beloved Community. It’s not judgmental, but invitational. People describe what they have seen and invite others to “come and see.” They trust in the signs of God’s presence, that if you see the way that they love one another, you will know who they are. You will know that they are children of God. And you will want to be known in that same way.
Imagine what kind of church would have developed if the Johannine Church had prevailed. Imagine what the legacy of love of the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene might have wrought. What have we lost by giving primacy to the toxic masculinity of Peter?
During Lent, we’ve been studying the Enneagram and one of the things that came up is the way that our relationship with our parents might influence the development of our defense systems, our preferred pattern of coping mechanisms. In this framework, there are two figures that influence us: the nurturer and the protector. I wonder how institutions develop in relation to their founders, the mythology of our spiritual parentage, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Over the long history of the construction of Scripture, we have moved away from any ideas of God as nurturer and toward God as protector. We have chosen power over provision. Force over family. Bravado over belonging. Victory over vulnerability I wonder who we would be if we understood ourselves as the children of Mary Magdalene, our church founded in the belonging of family and community rather than on the cold, hard rock.
But I also wonder what it would be like if we didn’t gender those roles. The truth is, there are many who nurture us and many who protect us and sometimes it’s the same people. When Jesus speaks of God as a mother hen sheltering her chicks under her wing, that is a protector and a nurturer. If Mary did grow up steeped in the resistance and walked with Jesus precisely for that reason, she may have understood herself as a protector of her people. Perhaps the demons she threw off as a young woman were the demons of patriarchal expectation. Perhaps she moved from the death of being a proper young lady to the life of a revolutionary.
When Jesus died, she thought that life was over. And it was. The life she had known, the life she lived for years was done. She wanted to stay in that tomb. She sought a dead Jesus rather than looking for a living Christ. She might as well be dead herself. And she was. We all are. Until we turn around, turn toward God and hear God speaking our name. We are touched by God in the kindness and love of others. We feel God’s presence in the Beloved Community. Most importantly, we make God present to others in our own expressions of love and kindness and our seeking after justice.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in Scripture because she continued to be an essential part of the Beloved Community. I have to believe she continued Jesus’ work, guiding others, making sure that everyone knew what it meant to be loved, that everyone had the opportunity to find out who they were in God, to be freed of the demons that assailed them. She showed everyone who weeps how to turn. Because she experienced the resurrection, the movement from death to life – more than once – she knew who Jesus was. She testified to what she had seen, so that we might believe, so that we, too, might move from death to life.
This essay is absolutely beautiful, inspirational and heart touching. With all of my heart I thank-you for speaking for Mary and love, the nurturers and community.