The very first witness to the resurrection – an isolated woman with a troubled past

Peter Seal, 22 July 2018

2 Corinthians 5: 14–17; John 20: 1–2, 11–18

Her name was Mary. Down the years and across the centuries she’s gained a reputation. In Christian art, particularly, Mary is portrayed as a prostitute. This is probably unfounded and thereby unfair; and I don’t think it’s very helpful.

There’s such a strong human temptation to label and box people. We often find it helpful to do this. It somehow makes life simpler. But life isn’t simple; and Mary of Magdala reminds us of that, both from what we do know, and what we don’t know about her.

In Luke chapter 8: 1–3 we read that .Jesus ‘went journeying from town to town and village to village, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him were the Twelve and a number of women who had been set free from evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, known as Mary of Magdala; from whom seven demons had come out, Joanna, the wife of Chuza a steward of Herod’s, Susanna, and many others. These women provided for them out of their own resources.’

What we learn from this Bible text is that Mary came from the town of Magdala. There is a place today called Magdala, 120 miles north of Jerusalem on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

It’s interesting that she’s named after the place she came from. This is probably because she was unmarried. (Some scholars have suggested that it could be that the tradition of her being a prostitute derives from this; but that feels hugely unfair.)

It’s even more interesting that Mary and the other women provided for Jesus and the 12 apostles from their own resources. This feels strange in such a patriarchal society. But how humbling for us men, today, to realise that it was the women who had the necessary material resources for daily sustenance and living; and that it was they who supported the men. Christian art might be the richer and more profound if this Bible insight had been preserved in shape and colour. I find myself wondering what colour you would use to paint money.

Mary and the other women provided for Jesus and the 12 apostles from their own resources … how humbling for us men, today.

And then this text gives us a picture of what Jesus was doing as he went from town to town and village to village. He was ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God’. We can, I believe, deduce from this that it was Jesus who cast seven demons out of Mary. Why else would she have joined this group?

Talk of demons is not normal for us, whereas it was in those days. To attribute something to a demon was one of the ways people tried to make sense of what they did not understand. It sounds as though Mary wasn’t very well. Today we might say she was mentally unwell. Perhaps she was clinically depressed, or psychotic and suffering from illusions? We can imagine that her condition had lasted for a while; we would say it was chronic rather than acute. Her illness had almost certainly isolated her, and it’s highly likely that she was lonely.

And then – we don’t know where or when – she met the man Jesus. He had a bit of a reputation as a healer, and he was an engaging preacher. What he said, and the way he said it, made sense. We know that he had a special concern for people like Mary, who were on the edge of society. In a crowd he could spot those who were shy, hesitant or fearful … in other words, those who needed him the most. He had a way of cutting through the chatter and patterns of behaviour that masked the real issues.

It was this man, the Lord Jesus, who had changed Mary’s life. We’re told that she was now part of a group of women, including Joanna and Susanna, who were with Jesus. We can imagine them travelling with the Twelve as they went from town to town and village to village.

We now need to fast-forward in our minds through the rest of Jesus’ time in Galilee, during which he continued ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom’. And we come to the foot of the cross. John writes, in chapter 19: 25, ‘Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene’. Luke again tells us, ‘The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.’ This last detail is important, and it brings us to the climax of the story of Mary that we get from Holy Scripture.

Mary of Magdala had seen her beloved Lord cruelly tortured. She had bought and prepared expensive spices for the burial rites, which had not been possible because of the rush to inter the body before the Sabbath. Now all she hoped for – and she hoped for it passionately – was to have the body and remove it from danger. As a woman, she knew what to do for a dead body. That was women’s work, because men would not make themselves ritually unclean by touching a dead body; they let the women do that.

All her longing was expressed in those words: ‘They have taken away my Lord’. She had been violated, deprived of her responsibility to handle his broken body and wipe away his blood: the right to express her love.

We’re now embraced by the majestic prose of John in chapter 20 of his gospel. The passage read today, as on Easter Sunday, lifts us to a place that is sublime beyond description. If religious art has been wrong in portraying Mary as a prostitute, then now we see her painted in her rightful hue.

But art cannot really capture sound, and it’s sound that has the clue. It’s the intonation – the sound of just two spoken words – that leads you and me, and everyone who believes, into the new life of resurrection. Mary, the one with a troubled past, the one who at this moment stands for all humanity in its brokenness and great need, is there in the presence of her risen Lord. The two words reveal to her, and to us, the beginning of the new life that we call resurrection.

It’s the intonation – the sound of just two spoken words – that leads you and me, and everyone who believes, into the new life of resurrection.

I can only speak these two words as I personally am given to speak them. I urge you to read this passage aloud for yourselves and see how you make them sound. Here goes: Jesus says ‘Mary!’, and she says ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means ‘teacher’).

Mary wants to embrace Jesus, to give him a hug. Nothing in the world would seem more natural. And surely Jesus wanted to hug her to. But we’re no longer in the world as Mary, and Jesus, had known it. A new world has already begun, a world of a new and different order – a world that embodies the good news of the kingdom, which Jesus has spent his life proclaiming, is now here. Jesus draws everything together as he says, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father’. And then he adds, ‘Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”’.

Mary, the broken one, is afforded the highest honour that any human being could ever be given. She becomes the very first witness to the resurrection.

‘Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.’ In our way, in this our day, we are witnesses, and we need the right words to be able to say that we too have ‘seen the Lord’. And we’re called to tell the story of how Jesus changes our lives.