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Mary Magdalene - A portrait

I would like to paint a word picture of Mary Magdalene, whom we celebrate today.

I’ll start on 14th September 591. Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon assuming that “the woman who was a sinner” and who anointed Jesus’ feet was a prostitute and was Mary Magdalene. Gregory said, "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? ... It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the ointment to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts."

We can’t really blame the Pope because there are at least six Marys in the Gospels. It was a very fashionable name for girls in the time of Jesus because it was the name of King Herod’s wife. No wonder Pope Gregory was confused. He decided Mary was a great sinner and a great penitent.

There is a wonderful wooden statue by Donatello, made in 1550, which shows Mary as a repentant sinner. She is very thin, her body wasted away with sin and suffering. She is dressed in rags which hang lifelessly around her as a sign of humility and repentance. Her hair is lank and untidy, long and uncared for – repentant sinners have no pride. Her face is bony and anguished, streaked with tears and racked with pain. Her eyes are fixed, begging for mercy, and her hands are raised in prayer, her long, thin fingers touching each other lightly as if all her hopes now lie with Christ’s mercy.

It was not until 1969 that the Vatican sorted out the Marys and decided that Mary Magdalene was not the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, nor was she the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8, nor was she the same as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

When you actually read the four Gospels included in the New Testament there’s very little about Mary Magdalene. With a single exception in the Gospel of Luke, there is no mention of her in the Gospels before the crucifixion.

Luke writes: Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

From this we learn that Mary Magdalene was wealthy and independent because she gave financial support to Jesus. She had been cured by Jesus. Most people agree that the seven demons refer to some sort of mental illness, but in Donatello’s time, they were thought to be the seven deadly sins. The Bible doesn’t say. The important thing is that Mary was healed and chose to follow Jesus and support him.

Fifty years after Donatello’s statue, the great artist Caravaggio, painted a picture of the wealthy and influential Mary Magdalene. He showed her talking to Martha. Mary is dressed in luxurious clothing, with wonderful red sleeves where the artist was showing how clever he was at painting the folds of the material and the light and shade. Mary is a beautiful and young, her low cut bodice revealing smooth and perfect skin. Mary has her left hand on top of a large mirror, while with her right hand she holds a white flower up to her breast as if daring Martha to make the comparison between white flower and white skin.

This picture of a wealthy, intelligent and sexually attractive woman does not come from the Bible. There are many ancient writings, going back to the second and third century speak of her in this way. The Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas for example. Here she is described as being Jesus’ closest companion, whom he often used to kiss on the mouth. There’s nothing to say whether or not they were husband and wife, but Peter is described as being very jealous. Modern writers of books and makers of films are still fascinated by Mary Magdalene and her relationship to Jesus. There are stories of her marriage to Jesus and her life with him in India and if you go to Kashmir, they will show you Jesus’ tomb in the Kan Yar section of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.

But there is another old story that Mary Magdalene went to France. An unknown artist, working in the same century as Donatello and Caravaggio painted a picture of Mary Magdalene preaching to the people of France. I have included it on the cover of the pew bulletin. The artist has chosen to show Mary Magdalene as a mature woman. She is healthy, strong and utterly at ease with herself and the task of preaching. Her face is wise and comforting – she could be someone’s mother. Her face is familiar with life and death, with crucifixion, burial and resurrection. And around her there are men and women of every age, listening to her words and talking about the message she has brought them. The scene is outside, surrounded by flowers and trees and the glories of nature. It is perfectly natural for this middle-aged woman to be telling the wonders of God’s mercy to God’s beloved children.

Mary was a leader among the followers of Jesus. Whenever the apostles are named, the important ones come first, like “Peter and James and John”. It’s the same with the women, Luke says, “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them.”

Mary Magdalene is first among the women, even coming before Joanna, the wife of Chuza, who was King Herod’s steward.

And Mary Magdalene comes first at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection. She is the only one of Jesus’ followers who is named as a witness to three key events: Jesus' crucifixion, his burial, and the discovery of his tomb to be empty.

In Mark, Matthew, and John, Mary Magdalene is first witness to the Resurrection. John and Mark  both straightforwardly say that Jesus' first post-resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene alone. Because of this, she is known by the title, "Equal of the Apostles" or “The Apostle to the Apostles”.

The portrait of Mary Magdalene has been badly smudged over the years. However, the truth is that Mary Magdalene was a wealthy and independent woman who was cured by Jesus and became one of his most enthusiastic disciples. She followed his career with passion and love, faithfully remaining close to Jesus during the three days which changed the world – when Jesus was crucified, buried and raised to eternal life for our salvation.

Let us pray that her passion and faithfulness to Christ will be our inspiration. Amen

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