All four gospels give Mary Magdalene a unique place among Jesus’ followers. Probably from Magdala by the Sea of Galilee, she is described as having been healed by Jesus before accompanying him during his ministry. Along with other faithful women, she stayed beside the cross during the crucifixion and was among the first disciples to discover the empty tomb on Easter morning. She was privileged with the first appearance of the risen Lord, who sent her to take the good news of the resurrection to the other disciples. This commission earned her the title ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ in the early Church.
The Festival of Mary Magdalene is celebrated on 22 July, starting at Evening Prayer on the previous day.
John 20.1-2, 11-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Today the Church remembers Mary Magdalene. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Mary Magdalene is described as one of the women from Galilee who gave financial and domestic support to Jesus and his disciples. She is also described as having been present at Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. However, it is in John’s gospel that Mary Magdalene is given pride of place as the first witness of the resurrection and of the risen Christ himself.
Down the centuries a considerable mythology has grown up around the persona of Mary Magdalene, much of it negative. In fact, the gospels give little evidence of her character. It is only in Luke’s gospel that we read seven demons had gone out of her, and it is generally assumed that it was Jesus who had exorcised her. This reference is followed immediately by the account of Jesus’ feet being anointed by a sinful woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Rightly or wrongly, it has been assumed by many that the sinful woman was Mary Magdalene.
So, why does the Church remember this little known character from the gospel narrative?
The answer, I believe lies in today’s reading. It was Mary Magdalene, not one of the twelve, who found the empty tomb and first encountered the risen Christ. It was also to Mary Magdalene that something new was revealed. In the midst of the tears and the joy that must have overwhelmed Mary, Jesus gave her news of a new relationship between God, himself and the whole of humanity. Jesus said: Go to my brothers. Previously they had been his disciples, servants or friends. Jesus said: I am ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God and your God. Previously Jesus had spoken of the Father, the Father who sent me, or my Father.
To this faithful penitent the risen Christ revealed, in just a few words tucked into the shadow of the most amazing moment in human history, an invitation to us all. An invitation to become his brother or sister, a child of the same heavenly Father, the Father who is also the one true God.
I hope and pray that you are rushing to accept that invitation right now!