“Woman, why are you weeping?”
Thursday, 22 July 2021 – Feast of Mary Magdalene
Today is the feast of St Mary Magdalene, one of the earliest disciples of Jesus and one about whom there is probably the greatest misunderstanding of all the figures in the New Testament.
It has been variously claimed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute before meeting Jesus; that she was the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair at Bethany; that she was married to Jesus; and that she was the figure to the right of Jesus in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper.
None of these has any truth in it. Some of the confusion may have been caused by Pope Gregory the Great, who assumed that she was the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume at Bethany. And, because it was stated in the gospels, she was the one “from whom seven devils had been cast out” that she must have been a prostitute.
The real Mary came from a village called Magdala on the lakeside in Galilee, which no longer exists. We know that she was among the earliest followers of Jesus and that “seven demons had been cast out of her” (Mark 16:9) but little more. She was among the women who travelled with Jesus from Galilee; she is present at the crucifixion and very prominent during the resurrection story. And that’s about it from a factual point of view.
But of course, we do know is that she was a dedicated and loyal follower of Jesus. She became, against all the odds, the first witness to the resurrection. This is unusual because it was assumed that women were not trustworthy witnesses, and her evidence would not have been taken as believable. It is, paradoxically, a strong indicator that the resurrection story is true because anyone making up this story would know that it would not be credible to a Jewish audience.
This beautiful, understated story in today’s gospel is well known. Mary comes to the tomb, in John’s account, alone to anoint the body. She is coming to anoint the corpse of Jesus. When she finds the tomb empty, she runs to Peter and John to tell them, thinking that the tomb has been robbed. They both rush to the tomb and find it empty but go no further. Mary stays at the tomb, weeping, and then turns around when she sees someone approaching. It is Jesus, but she thinks he is the gardener. When she asks him where he has put the body of Jesus, he utters her name “Mary” in a way that only she would know, and she is flooded with relief and joy. And then she goes and tells the disciples what she has seen and heard. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Questions: How do I react to the story of Mary Magdalene? How would I have reacted if I had been her? Can I feel what she must have felt, despair and sadness at his death and then extraordinary joy at his resurrection? What would that mean for my life? What does it mean that Jesus appears to someone like this in such an ordinary, simple and humble way without any fanfare? How would Jesus call me if I were there at the tomb? What would he say?