Saints seem to be a bit of a theme, which isn’t really intentional, but I so much enjoyed thinking about Mary Magdalene that I thought a few people might like to see the results. Any very desperate preachers, feel free.
On the evidence of today’s gospel, Jesus would have failed a pastoral studies course at theological college. He comes to Mary Magdalene, weeping at the double desolation of Jesus’s death, and now the apparent desecration of his tomb. ‘Why are you weeping?’ – as if he didn’t know. How could she not weep?
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of Mary Magdalene: ‘From early times she has been identified with the woman who was a sinner, who anointed Christ’s feet in Simon’s house and with Mary, the sister of Martha, who also anointed him’ – but as with so many things about here, there’s no real evidence that she was the same person. Luke does name her as one from whom Jesus had thrown out seven demons, but that doesn’t give any reason to assume she was particularly sinful. So she is the patron saint of penitents and perfumers, but she might equally claim to be patron saint of the victims of slander.
What we do know is that Mary Magdalene was healed by Jesus and was one of the women who followed him. We know that she was one of the few who stayed at the cross – and that she came on the morning of the resurrection – out of a love which could not let go of Jesus. When Jesus does allow Mary to recognise him, calling him by name, his next response is ‘do not hold onto me’. It doesn’t bring him back up to a pass mark in pastoral studies.
So what is going on? Why does Jesus treat Mary Magdalene like this? Maybe it becomes a bit clearer when we look again at what Mary Magdalene says to Jesus. She says ‘rabbouni’ – and the Greek gospel writer then helpfully translates it, as ‘teacher’. But that isn’t exactly what it means. Rabbi means teacher – rabbouni means ‘my teacher’, ‘my rabbi’. It’s that small difference which I think gives us the key to this passage, and to Jesus’ apparently unloving response to Mary Magdalene’s devotion.
That little addition, that ‘my’, may also explain the long tradition of associating Mary Magdalene with the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. They are the two of very few moments in the gospel when there is a sense of emotional closeness – at least on the part of the woman (or women) in relating to Jesus. They are tied together because they represent something both beautiful and powerful, and also dangerous – the power of love.
Our other two readings today bring out that theme – the Song of Songs, a great love poem between man and woman which the Church was embarrassed about for centuries. I was very encouraged in my last few years in the parish to find marriage couples choosing readings from the Song of Songs for weddings – much more appropriate, and much more passionate, than Paul’s lovely hymn of divine love in I Corinthians 13. In case you weren’t concentrating the first time, here it is again:
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.*
2 ‘I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
I sought him, but found him not.
3 The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
4 Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
You have to work really hard to make that spiritual – it’s as passionate as any other love poem in any generation. The suggestion we are given by the lectionaries is that it was that powerful, dangerous love which Mary Magdalene felt, a love which led her to not not just to follow Jesus but to possess him – for him to be ‘my rabbi’, not anyone else’s. As we have seen, it’s far more than is in the gospel texts – but at the risk of slandering her some more, I think that is what Mary Magdalene signifies for me. She is both a saint to follow, and an example of the dangers of following too close.
Would that many of us had even a hundredth of her passion. There are few of us to whom Jesu might say ‘do not cling on to me!’ much more likely that he’s asking us to follow a bit closer – in the words of the prayer of St Richard of Chichester, to see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly. Our lives, and the life of the church, would be utterly different if we all – myself included – had the same commitment to Christ that would follow him wherever he led, whether to glory or dishonour, to the cross and to death – commitment that was still strong even when all her hopes seemed ruined in the death of the ones she thought was the Messiah.
So we turn to Paul – ‘For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.’ Mary Magdalene was urged on by the love of the Christ who had died, so she was the first to discover the Christ whom death could not defeat, the risen Lord.
But that changed everything. As Paul goes on to say ‘From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;* even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way’. That, maybe was why Jesus was so apparently hard on Mary Magdalene. The love which led her to the garden was her devotion to the human Jesus, but in the resurrection the full mystery of the incarnation is revealed. Jesus remains fully human, but with a humanity transfigured by the revelation of his divinity. And that revelation means that Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus cannot be possessive – in fact it must become the opposite. The Mary who wishes to cling on must become ‘the apostle to the apostles’ – the one who is sent by Jesus to begin the proclamation of the good news of the resurrection.
So on this feast day of Mary Magdalene we have a double calling: to come closer to Christ, to let our emotions become involved in our faith, to become passionate again – or maybe for the first time – about this Jesus who calls us out of our old and sinful lives and into the glory of the kingdom of God. And then – not to hold that passion to ourselves, but to let it set us on fire with love for the world Jesus came to save – in all its brokenness and sinfulness, to go out with the good news of the resurrection, and live the love of God for the salvation of the world.