Mary Magdalene occupies an odd place in Christendom. Tradition identifies her as the woman of unsavory reputation who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She’s also been labeled an adulterer and a prostitute, a woman of low character, an outcast among her peers and even among Jesus’ own followers. She has become the embodiment of the “sinful” woman. None of this comes from the Bible, but for some reason, she’s acquired a less than saintly reputation. When little girls in Sunday school say they want to be like one of the women of the Bible, she probably isn’t named too often.
Well, I want to be like Mary Magdalene.
What do we really know about this woman? We know she was from Magdala (a town near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus called his first disciples), and that she followed Jesus to Jerusalem, along with many other women. We know that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. We know she watched Jesus die, that she witnessed his burial, and that she was among the first both to hear the news of his resurrection and to see him alive. Beyond that, the Bible doesn’t talk about her. Luke is the only writer who even mentions her name before the crucifixion. In literary terms, she seems like an afterthought. The two other Marys in the gospels – Jesus’ mother and the sister of Martha and Lazarus – get a lot more character development. It seems odd that she’s the one to whom Jesus first revealed himself after he rose from the dead.
Actually, we do know a little more about Mary than just what I listed above. Though she’s rarely mentioned, three things in the gospel accounts stand out about her. First, she not only followed Jesus, but ministered to him. That implies she spent time with Jesus in a personal setting, probably when he was hungry and tired. Secondly, she went to the Eleven immediately after seeing Jesus alive. That she knew where to find them when they were hiding out for two days means that either she had been hiding with them, or she was at least close enough to the group to be privy to their secrets. Third, she called him “Rabboni.” The Hebrew word “rabbi” means “teacher” or “master”; it designates position, like saying “Professor So-and-so.” “Rabboni” means “my great master”; it is a term of the highest respect, used of second-generation disciples to refer to their teacher. It’s personal, familiar.
I look at all that and I realize that Mary wasn’t a groupie; she was a member of the band. She listened to the sermons, observed the miraculous signs, and even, perhaps, was present during the Last Supper. In short, she basically lived the same life of discipleship the Twelve did – leaving behind whatever home and family she had to follow the Teacher, her Teacher.
When Jesus was arrested, everyone with him fled. Peter followed at a safe distance for a while, buts at the crucifixion we see only John and some of the women – Mary among them. The other disciples were hiding from the Jews lest they also be arrested and put to death – and I can’t really blame them for that. But Mary didn’t hide. She didn’t care who knew she was a follower of Jesus, or what it would cost her. And when the rest of the disciples continued to hide over the next few days, she and a handful of other women ventured out to anoint Jesus’ body. They had to know it was risky to approach the guarded tomb of an enemy of their religion’s leaders, but they went anyway.
I want to be like Mary Magdalene.
Peter was the guy who never hesitated to make bold declarations of loyalty and faith. James and John were hoping for power and authority. Thomas was the guy who asked questions, always trying to figure things out. Meanwhile, there was Mary, working quietly in the background. If she said anything profound or provocative or probing, we don’t know it, probably because nobody paid attention. By all accounts, she just wasn’t important. She’s not counted among the disciples or even named among the crowds. We don’t even get to read the story of her exorcism.
All Jesus’ disciples gave up everything they had to follow him. In return twelve of them (the Eleven plus Matthias) are remembered as saints, as men of legendary faith and tremendous miraculous power. Mary Magdalene is remembered as a slut (a reputation she may not have even earned). And she had the audacity to call Jesus “Rabboni,” a title we only see twice in all Scripture.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” [. . .]
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
(John 20:1-2, 11-18 NIV)
Every time I read this passage, I have to stop when I read of Jesus calling Mary’s name. Somehow, that one word transports me back in time and it’s like I’m there in Mary’s place. I can hear the depth and richness of Jesus’ voice, the gentleness and yet the power as he says the word that cuts straight to her heart. I can feel how her heart must have swelled, the tears that sprang to her eyes, as realization dawned and she turned to fix her eyes on the face she thought she’d never see again. “Rabboni!” my heart cries with her.
I want to be like Mary Magdalene because she was the first to see Jesus alive, the first to know the true joy and power of the gospel, the first human to share the news of the resurrection. I want to be like Mary because she called Jesus her Great Master, boldly claiming the role of a disciple although Jesus’ own followers never acknowledged her as such. I want to be like Mary because she wasn’t afraid to be seen with Jesus when nearly everyone else was. But most of all, I want to be like Mary because Jesus called her by name, and she recognized him – and seeing him for the first time, she ran to him, clung to him, so much that he had to tell her to let go. I want to be like Mary because she loved Jesus more than anything else in the world – more than home, more than power, more than security, more than decency. Reading her story ignites in me a longing to see Jesus as she did, to know him as she did, to hear him call my name and run to him with reckless abandon.
Several years ago I wrote a poem that came out of a prayer and some jumbled thoughts about Easter. A good friend of mine, Gregg Hart, put the poem to music, and a very talented singer, Aleena Korell, recorded it with him a few years after that. I think it ties into this blog pretty well as it mentions Mary, so if you want you can listen to it here. I think it sums up my thoughts on the matter.
I wish everyone a Happy Easter. Christ has died – Christ is risen – Christ will come again!