Thoughts on St Mary of Magdala

When St Mary of Magdala came to the burial chamber of Christ, it was just morning but in her soul there was darkness. A wretched, soul draining darkness.

The narrative is so briefly written, and the momentum is set towards the reunion between her and her Lord, that the anguish of her tears is easily passed over and then consumed by subsequent events. But within those tears is a wealth of insight into the spiritual life of us all.

St Mary had been a woman in great trouble for at least part of her life. The woman who had been forgiven much had come to love much, but the person that needed that forgiveness was the same one who came into the garden that first Easter morning. Whatever had plagued her - adultery, prostitution perhaps, but certainly seven demons - she had been a woman in torment when Jesus stumbled across her.

In Luke we are told of an incident where a woman comes and wipes Jesus feet with her hair (Luke7:38f). In John we are told that Mary was 'the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair' (Jn.11:12). According to Luke's account of what had happened, Jesus says to his host at the time "I tell you that her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven her, because she has shown such great love." Luke 7:47. Certainly the Mary we see in John loved Jesus very much indeed, as evidenced in the raising of Lazarus when it is seeing her tears that galvanise Jesus to raise her brother from the dead. She is the one who calls him Lord, but when she hears he has arrived waits to be summoned, and her confrontation shows her wrestling with Jesus letting her down, a struggle Martha has articulated in words. In Luke she is identified with one of the woman who travelled with Jesus and supported him, and distinguished as the one 'from whom seven demons had gone out, but also as the woman who sits at Jesus' feet intently listening to him while letting her sister Martha, who had been the one to invite him to her house, prepare for the guests.

So we have various snippets in Luke and John, while the other two Gospels confirm her place at the Crucifixion and the tomb.

Luke's picture gives  us the incident of Mary sitting at Jesus' feet. He uses the same expression about the man delivered of legions of demons which were subsequently expelled into a herd of pigs, so this tangentially supports the association of severe demon possession (the number seven can simply mean an awful lot of, as in how many times Christ tells us to forgive, seventy times seven). After deliverance the previously possessed become true, devoted disciples listening attentively to the  'rabbuni' or 'Master', as Mary addresses Jesus at the meeting at the Garden tomb.

Whether this possession in Mary's case involved adultery, or insatiable sexual desire, is a matter of conjecture, but the woman who wiped Jesus' hair, whom John identifies as Mary, is described in Luke as a person 'who had a bad name in the town', someone who people such as the host knew 'what sort of person she was'. The insinuation is that this is a matter of sexual impropriety, of wantoness, of a person of ill repute - the emphasis is on some sort of moral loose behaviour than on pity or wariness for someone under the dominion of 'seven' demons. Whatever her sins Jesus acknowleges that her sins are 'many', but that itself is the reason that having received such great forgiveness she has responded to him with such tender and dedicated love. That she anoints his feet again recalls her sitting at Jesus' feet as did the delivered man from Gasara: a position of liberated humility, completely free from distractions and choosing the 'one thing necessary'.

That her 'reputation' meant she was a prostitute is pure conjecture and folk lore, but there is certainly a matter of public disapproval, of a woman whose reputation was severely compromised, and which was due to great sinfulness, to the point that her approach to Jesus is scandalous.

Jesus was unlike anyone else she had ever known. He had given her mercy, forgiveness, deliverance, acceptance. He not only delivered her of her demons, he restored her to her family, and comes and visits her, eating in her home and welcoming her into the group of women who provided for him, notable women such as the wife of Herod's steward among them. He had literally given her back her life, her dignity. She experienced complete and totally redeeming love, and in return her heart exploded with love.

We can only imagine what it must therefore have been like for her standing at the foot of the Cross, where she seems to have managed to hold herself together alongside our Blessed Mother and St John. However, at the tomb, when it seemed even his corpse had been stolen, it was all too much. She was alone, vulnerable, in a world which was still thinking more of her past then who she truly had become. Her acceptance, her place in society had crashed into tiny, scattered fragments, and who knew how long the disciples would allow her to remain with them, her reputation touching on their's a time when they too found themselves suspects and outcasts? But above all it must surely have been the sense of injustice and helplessness in the face of it to one whom she truly, deeply loved. We saw her grief at her brother's death, how keenly she felt that and the failure of Jesus to heal him.  Now it seemed Jesus had abandoned her, that he had gone and she did not know where on earth to find him.

Mary must now face the darkness, her own demons dance around her once more, tempting her to despair, to give in to them once more and let them return, worse than before. How can she resist? Yet, in those dark moments, she does because she simply cannot stop loving Jesus even it tears her heart to pieces. Still, despite all she has seen, her desire for Him is so intense, so pure, so complete, she can do nothing but seek him and with that desire of her heart, that true, pure, humble desire, she banishes the demons once and for all.

Only then can Jesus make himself known, because her desire is then so purified that she can accept Him as He is, Risen. She doesn't show the slightest hesitation, not even a blink of disbelief, just sheer joy.


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