Homily given on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, July 22, 2012
Today is not only the 16th Sunday of the year, but it also happens to be the Feast of Mary Magdalene, the woman best known for a variety of false details and unproven claims about her life. Since the Middle Ages she has been identified as a former prostitute, but there is nothing in the NT to support that claim. People have tended to identify her with the sinful woman from the city who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. But again, this woman is unnamed and there is no reason to think it is Mary Magdalene. There are those in our own time who claim that she married Jesus, that they had children together, and that Mary was a gnostic who died in the south of France. Those who hold to this fictional tale have an axe to grind against the Catholic Church because they claim that it is the Church that has concealed the “truth” about Jesus’ real married life to a strong woman because there was from the start a conspiracy against women in the Church. Others try to make a claim that Mary was the author of John’s Gospel, that she is, in fact, “the beloved disciple” mentioned there. So, to sum it up, there are a lot of non-credible tales being told about and invented about this woman Mary of Magdala. So, then, what DO we know about her??
She wasn’t a prostitute, she didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet, she didn’t write a gospel. We assume she is from Magdala, but we can’t be certain. The most personal story about Mary Magdalene from the NT is from Luke Chapter 8. Mary Magdalene is identified in a list of women who provide for Jesus and the disciples out of their own resources. Mary Magdalene was freed from seven demons (according to the text), but it is not clear whether she suffered from mental illness, physical disease or anything else. All we know is that Mary was restored to health when she was freed and given new life in Jesus. We know nothing about her previous life.
We do know that Mary Magdalene loved Jesus deeply, and that she held an important place in his life and ministry. She was present both at Jesus’ crucifixion and at his burial. She was one of the devoted women who came early in the morning to the empty tomb that first Easter Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene was the first one to actually see the resurrected Jesus, according to John, and the one who ran to tell the others. This is why, in the Eastern Tradition, she is called “The Apostle to the Apostles” or “The Apostle of the Resurrection.” Though misunderstood for centuries, there are things she can teach us about being committed to Jesus.
First, she teaches us the importance of persistence: she was the first one to the tomb that morning. For three days after burial, the custom was to visit the tomb of a loved one. When Mary arrives at Jesus’ tomb, she is stunned because the stone that had sealed the opening is gone. She goes to find help right away, thinking that the body has been stolen. After the disciples come and see it for themselves, they return home. It is only Mary Magdalene who remains at the tomb, not wanting to leave, not wanting to give up. She wasn’t expecting to see Jesus, but neither could she seem to pull herself away.
Sometimes we give up on God rather quickly. We pray a quick prayer asking God to help when we are in crisis, and when we don’t get the answer we want in an hour or a day, we doubt God. We think God is ignoring us. Other times, we ask for guidance from God, or we ask God to help us resolve a situation, but then we rush in to just “fix it” ourselves. We move too quickly to take control if we think God isn’t moving at the appropriate speed. Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, is one who persists. She waits. She doesn’t allow external appearances distract her from doing what she knows is right. She wants to see Jesus even though it seems impossible, so she stays. She loved Jesus and she wasn’t going to leave him behind. Her persistence keeps her at the tomb.
The second thing she teaches us is authenticity. Mary does not pretend to be anything but genuine; she doesn’t try to put on an act for the sake of others. Her actions are in harmony with her heart. When a man whom she assumed was the gardener asked what she was looking for, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” She sincerely believes that she will be able to carry Jesus’ adult male body back to his tomb. She knows that if she finds his body, she will find the strength to carry him back, no matter how impossible it seems. Mary Magdalene is totally sincere when she offers to carry Jesus’ body back to the tomb where it belonged.
At times, you and I tend to put on a show, to say and do things we don’t really believe for the benefit of someone else. When someone dies, we want everything to be calm and superficial, so we find ways to cover up our feelings. Rather than admitting the tragedy and senselessness of death, we embrace condescending platitudes: “I guess God needed her more than you did,” or “He’s in a better place now,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead of humbling ourselves before the awesome Mystery of God and the illogical nature of suffering and death, we attempt to give answers to questions only God can answer. Mary Magdalene did not hide how she felt. She did not give explanations that she couldn’t know. She just opened her heart and expressed what she felt there. Mary just wanted the body of Jesus put back, she wanted the return of the one she loved. Mary Magdalene was completely sincere.
Third, we can learn enthusiasm from Mary Magdalene. Once she realized to whom she was speaking, once she recognized the gardener as her precious teacher (“Rabbouni”), once Jesus told her to go share the news of his resurrection, nothing could stop her from telling others. Mary Magdalene brought the news to the disciples: “You’ll never believe it, but I have seen the Lord!” Then she told them what she had seen and experienced. She was the only one to have stayed at the tomb, and she was the only one to have actually seen Jesus. Mary was so excited and enthusiastic, she couldn’t keep the news to herself. She was bursting to tell the incredible news.
Sometimes incredible, good news comes our way and we just want to share it with everyone we meet. We might be walking down the hall at school or riding in our car across town, and just want to stop and tell everyone our good news. Maybe it’s a vacation you just found out you’re going to take, or a film you saw last night, or a restaurant with the best food you’ve ever eaten. Maybe your sister’s cancer is in remission or your dad has survived his heart attack. Whatever it is, you are just overwhelmed with joy and the need to share the news. That’s the kind of enthusiasm that Mary Magdalene had about Jesus’ resurrection. Seeing Jesus, risen from the dead, was the best thing that would ever happen to her, and she knew it.
Mary Magdalene holds a unique place in the life of Jesus. She is the first one to find the empty tomb on Easter and the only one, in the gospel of John, to meet Jesus face to face. We can learn a lot from her, but especially, we can learn from her persistence in waiting for Jesus, her sincerity in searching for Jesus, and her enthusiasm in telling others about Jesus. Her witness to Christ is inspiring, and even though she’s gotten a bad reputation through the centuries, she still stands as a witness, she still teaches us how to love Jesus. Be persistent and wait, don’t rush to make decisions or to do anything. Search for the truth with sincerity even when it might be easier to put on a mask or pretend to know something you don’t know for certain. Be enthusiastic in spreading the news of the truth you find in your own life. The world is full of conflicting messages, contradictory stories about how God works in our world, and sometimes those with the most outstanding, personal evidence of God’s goodness are the most reluctant to speak about it. Speak up. Tell others. With Mary Magdalene, share the joys of your life experiences and watch your world be transformed in the light of the resurrection.