A few years ago, my wife and I were lucky enough to have a wonderful high school exchange student from China who went by the American name, “Harry.” And because of Harry, I paid more attention to news from China than I would have, which is the only reason I knew about Wuhan and the virus before January 21st the date of the first reported patient with COVID 19 here in the States. But once it hit the U.S., I started paying serious attention. After that first U.S. case, things went from bad to worse at warp speed. A second page story turned into a global pandemic; every few days there was something that made me say, “Oh, you’re kidding.”
The NCAA cancelled March Madness. (I live in Indiana; that’s heresy!) Even churches started social distancing: instead of hugging and shaking hands, we just waved at each other. On Easter Sunday, our sanctuary was empty except for a bunch of pre-ordered lilies and me, the fellowship hour was a complete bust. And now, someone I know and respect has died from the disease; and many of the people I love are living in fear.
How could all that happen in just a few months?
If you’ve been equally broadsided by all this, then we may have just the slightest inkling of how the end of Holy Week felt for the followers of Jesus.
Some who had only heard him once or twice, or enjoyed watching him confront religious leaders about their hypocrisy, were sad to see it (“I liked Jesus; too bad about what happened to him.”) But others were completely devastated, their lives turned upside down. This man had come to mean everything to them, and now, in just a few (not months, but) days, he was gone. There was no one for whom that was more true than the main character of our Bible story today: Mary of Magdala.
We’re going to hear from her in a minute, but first, let me say some things about who she is NOT. She’s not the prostitute Jesus saved from being stoned. She’s not the woman from the city who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. She’s not Martha’s sister (Mary of Magdala loved Jesus, learned from him, but she was hardly the kind of person to sit quietly at his feet). She was a powerful woman of independent means, who just happened to have a very common name.
There are seven different Mary’s mentioned in the Gospels, so no wonder there’s a lot of confusion. The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar perpetuated the prostitute myth; and in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, Mary doesn’t work the red light district, she’s Jesus’ wife! Well, it IS a little odd that a Jewish rabbi like Jesus would have been single, but a wife is not the kind of detail the Gospels would have left out. Jesus changed Mary of Magdala’s life, not by marrying her – but (according to Luke 8) by healing her of seven demons, by forgiving her, …by saving her.
That gets us to a topic more important than who Mary is not: who she is. I’ve used scripture, Biblical scholarship, tradition and my own imagination to let her answer that question herself. This is the voice of my friend, Olivia Murray, playing one possible version of Mary.
Mary: My name is Mary of Magdala, though you probably know me as Mary Magdalene. My first name is in honor of my Grandmother Mary. She was a wonderful lady: dependable, honest, fair, faithful, and true: everything I was not. The 2nd part of my name stems from the custom of referring to people by the place where they grew up – very necessary since, in our day, one-in-every-six Jewish girls was named “Miriam,” usually shortened to “Mary.”
The region of Galilee is known for political unrest, banditry, and tax revolts. The people of Jerusalem – actually of all Judea – make fun of our accents and consider us uneducated country bumpkins whose Judaism is suspect. Well, it IS true that many Galileans are poor and uneducated, but my town is among the exceptions.
Magdala is a small community not far from Cana on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee. Many of our people are quite prosperous thanks to agriculture, fishing, and ship building. My family was one of the richest of all: we made a fortune building fishing boats and selling dried fish to the countless merchants who came to Magdala for trade.
My parents and grandparents were hard working, loving, intelligent and faithful people-of-the-covenant. Looking back, I’d say the only thing they did wrong was: spoil me. They gave me their brains, but not their passion for hard, honest labor. They gave me good looks, but not their goodness. When I was 17, mother and father arranged a marriage for me to my second cousin, James. He was rich, older by 25 years, and so much taken with me that he saw threats in every man I flirted with, which – I’m sorry to say – was pretty much every man. James challenged one of them to a fight he had no chance of winning and ended up dead. My parents died a few years after that, and since my only sibling was a brother who didn’t live beyond infancy, I inherited everything. Between my husband’s estate and theirs, I was suddenly the richest person in Magdala. …But I was also the most miserable.
I began experiencing periodic seizures. Plus – every two weeks or so – I would have a hemorrhage that my otherwise worthless doctors assured me meant I would never bear children. Worse than that (though I wouldn’t have said it at the time), I carried what I now call “seven demons”: guilt (because I had not been the daughter and wife I should have been), bitterness, vanity coupled (oddly) with low self-esteem, depression, self-pity, and a sense of entitlement that left me furious when the world didn’t give me everything I wanted.
One day, a servant named Timothy returned from a trip to Capernaum, and told me about a new rabbi: an amazing teacher, a worker of miracles. Supposedly, this man healed people of their diseases and cast out their demons.
It’s only about ten miles to Capernaum, and I’d recently had my weekly seizure and two-week hemorrhage, so I thought, “Why not?”
When Timothy and I got to Capernaum, it wasn’t hard to find the Rabbi—everyone was talking about him! His name was Jesus of Nazareth. Hundreds of people crowded around him pleading for a cure and a word of hope. When we came upon him, he was telling one of my ship building competitors, “If you would be whole: go, sell all you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) This man was almost as wealthy as I was, and it stunned me to think “wholeness” might require giving up riches to help the poor. Even so, I bulled my way in, ready to order Jesus to heal me. …But his eyes stopped me.
I’m used to men looking at me with greed or lust, but not tenderness, not love. Jesus smiled, laid his hands on my shoulders, prayed to God, and then said, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.”
As he moved on, I felt lighter than I had in years. My servant asked, “Mistress, are you healed?” I grinned like an idiot and said, “Yes. Yes, I think so!” Then I fell to the ground and had another seizure.
When I recovered, Timothy asked, “I thought you said you were healed?” And I answered, “My demons are gone. I can live with a seizure now and then.”
We returned to Magdala.
Over the next few months, I had a couple of seizures, but they were mild. The hemorrhages never returned, and I continued to feel spiritually …lighter! Eventually, I told Timothy I was making him steward of my estate because I wanted to learn more about this new rabbi.
The next time I caught up with Jesus, he was telling a large crowd, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Do not judge others. Love God and your neighbor; love even your enemy! And quit worrying about what you’re to eat and what you are to wear. Instead, seek first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 5-7)
Oh, he was so compelling! I went to him afterward and offered to make a huge contribution to his campaign. He told me he didn’t need my money, but if I followed him, he would show me lots of people who could use my help. My first thought was, “That sounds expensive.” But then I realized: Jesus had just invited me to be one of his followers! I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but in my part of the world, rabbis NEVER have women followers. Most Jewish men think it’s a waste of time to educate women. My own father, progressive as he was, used to recite a famous Jewish prayer: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.” I flinched every time I heard him pray it, but that was the world we grew up in.
Jesus, though, was truly different.
I joined a group of women who followed him. Several of us were rich. It took the inner circle of twelve male disciples a long time to accept us. But it helped that we stepped in with money when needed, and even more that we asked intelligent questions and did our part with the various chores of nomadic life. Most of all it helped that Jesus accepted us and welcomed our participation. We were proud to join the men as part of the cheering crowd who welcomed him to Jerusalem.
I hope all this helps you understand why I was so devastated when, instead of crowning him, the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem crucified him.
It was so horrible. I got as near as I could and leaned on the cross, crying. His blood dripped down on my shaking hands. My heart broke. How could people hate Him? Peter and most of the others were nowhere to be seen, but Jesus’ mother was there. We held each other and wept. When Jesus died, I vaguely remember the centurion standing next to us saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54)
After that, everything was a blur. There was no time to properly prepare his body since Sabbath was almost upon us, so we put him in a tomb as quickly as we could.
But early on the morning after Sabbath, I stumbled to the cemetery, still crying, unaware – really – of who else was with me. I fell once. I thought it was another seizure, but people told me later there’d been an earthquake. When I got up, I saw the rock in front of the tomb had been moved.
I looked in and his body was gone!
Some men asked me why I was crying. I thought it was the stupidest question I’d ever heard. “Are you really surprised someone’s crying in a cemetery? Besides, his body is gone!”
When I turned away there was yet another man who asked me the same question. My anger vanished; I simply begged him to tell me where Jesus’ body was. Surely he’d know if he worked in the burial ground. He said just one word in response, and with it my world turned upside down.
He said “Mary,” and it was his voice!
Then, oh, then came awe, and astonishment, and surging tumultuous joy! I fell at the feet of the one who had healed me in more ways than I can name, the man who – no, the Savior who – had made …me …whole!
The Gospels mention Mary’s name 12 times. They tell us she was the first to come upon the empty tomb, the first to meet Jesus after his resurrection, and the first to tell the disciples that he had conquered death. That’s why Mary Magdalene is known in many Christian traditions as “the apostle to the apostles.”
Our Lord’s treatment of her is one reason we know – as Paul put it – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female: …all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) And Mary’s courage in going to the tomb; then telling what she found there, is one reason we even know His story. May we all be as quick to share the Good News. Amen.
With that, it’s time to prepare for offering and communion. To do that, please join in a hymn that is based on today’s passage: “In the Garden.”