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Today, I want to share with you about one of the characters in this resurrection series, and it’s Mary Magdalene. I have preached about Mary Magdalene before and I wonder what you remember or know of this character?
*Question 1 (Word Cloud)
What do you remember or know of Mary Magdalene?
*Some important points you may have heard about Mary Magdalene are:
1. She was known as the Apostle to the Apostles.
She not only became one of Jesus’ most devoted disciple, she was the first to see Jesus after the resurrection and chosen to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the other disciples. Her name was mentioned first and foremost in all four gospels that the early Church gave her the title “Apostle to the Apostles”.
2. How she and the other women disciples stayed by Jesus throughout the crucifixion, death, burial and were the first ones at the tomb after the Sabbath.
3. We explored how women were treated during Jesus’ time and how his radical treatment and uplifting of them may have been the reason why they risked everything to follow him, even if it meant losing their lives.
*Today we’re going to do a more intimate study of Mary Magdalene and through her story, I hope we learn some lessons about what living a resurrected life means.
Mary of Magdala
Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name twelve times in the canonical gospels, more than most of the apostles and more than any other woman in the Gospels, other than Jesus’ family. Her presence is felt even more because in every list that connects Mary to the gospel narrative, her name is usually first – a strong indication of her importance in her relationship with Jesus. The way in which the gospel accounts distinguishes Mary Magdalene from the other “Marys” of Jesus’ biographies, is by the mention of where she was born. Like Jesus, who is often referred to in the gospels as Jesus of Nazareth, Mary is referred to as Mary of Magdala or Mary Magdalene.
Magdala, is recorded as the birthplace of Mary, and was a thriving coastal city in the Galilee region. This community was involved in the dyeing of textiles, which contributed to its wealth. This also explains how Mary Magdalene was able to contribute financially to Jesus’ ministry.
We also know that Mary Magdalene was wrongly called a prostitute. For the first five centuries after Jesus’ resurrection, no writer misinterpreted Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Rather she was seen as a leading disciple and apostle of the church. It is only at the end of the sixth century that Pope Gregory I confuses the sinful woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 and identifies her as a repentant prostitute. It may have been a genuine mistake but for over a millennium, Mary of Magdala was misidentified as the woman with the alabaster jar who was called a “sinner” and who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:36–50). The way that religious leadership continued to perpetuate this misidentification would have contributed to the suppression of women’s leadership in the church in those early centuries.
What we do know about Mary Magdalene is that she was the woman who was closest to Jesus. She was “possessed by seven demons” and Jesus healed her (Luke 8:2). This has parallels to the demon possessed man at the tombs in the Gerasenes that I preached about a few weeks ago. We talked about how Jesus healed him and he begged to go with Jesus, and Jesus commanded him to stay and tell the people of his hometown what Jesus did for him. Like Mary Magdalene, he was also an apostle in his own way because many in the Ten Towns heard what he had to say, saw the transformation in him and the next time Jesus arrived in their region, they all came to Jesus bringing their sick. And because of this man’s message and witness, many were healed.
Just like the demon possessed man of the Gerasenes, Mary Magdalene was a woman who Jesus healed and set free. After her healing, she becomes a devoted disciple of Jesus. We understand like the twelve disciples, Mary lets go of the life she knew, leaves the district of Magdala, and becomes a devoted follower of Jesus. Moving to different cities and towns with him, Mary is one of the women who provided resources for the ministerial work of Jesus and the twelve disciples.
She was there throughout Jesus’ cruxificion, death, burial and was the first to meet the risen Christ. She showed up even when things got difficult and dangerous. She didn’t seem to have much concern for her own safety or survival. It felt like she was willing to risk it all for love. The fact that she immediately went to embrace Jesus is a testament to the closeness of their relationship, the mutual regard and affection they must have shared. When Jesus said to her “Don’t cling to me” (John 20:17), he was indicating that the time for physical closeness was in the past. Mary’s love had to release the finite in order to reach a more expansive, spiritual dimension.
In fact, Mary Magdalene’s closeness with Jesus has led to speculations that perhaps there was more to their relationship. Some books, musicals and movies have hinted or blatantly claimed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have had a romantic relationship. Let me pause and ask you:
*Question 2 (Multiple choice)
Have you ever heard that Mary Magdalene and Jesus might have had a romantic relationship?
1. Yes, from a book.
2. Yes, from a musical.
3. Yes, from a movie.
4. No, not at all.
I think there are various reasons why people wonder if there was a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Firstly, we live in a culture that thrives on the notion and fantasy of romance. We love the idea of falling in love. *But more importantly, I think we can sense that whether romantic or not, what Mary Magdalene did when she consistently showed up for Jesus, without regard for her own safety and survival is definitely fueled by a deep deep love.
Cynthia Bourgeault in her book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, said:
*“I do intend to open the emotionally charged question of a possible love relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and my conclusion is that such a relationship most likely did exist and is in fact at the heart of the Christian transformational path – one might even say, its long-missing key. But the kind of relationship I have in mind is not the sentimentalized melodrama our culture commonly holds up as love, *but a spiritual love so refined and luminous as to be virtually unknown in the West today. And I’m entering these shark-infested waters precisely for the sake of this love: because its healing and generative energy is desperately needed right now to heal the deep psychic wounds of Christianity.”
Bourgeault’s conviction is that Christianity must understand and champion a path of “conscious love.” And through understanding the love between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, we can grow in the way we love.
She explains that “All four gospels insist that when all the other disciples are fleeing, Mary Magdalene stands firm. She does not run; she does not betray or lie about her commitment; she witnesses. Hers is clearly a demonstration of either the deepest human love or the highest spiritual understanding of what Jesus was teaching, perhaps both.”
*Conscious Love is knowing when to show up and when to let go.
Whether it is our parents or children, friends or partners, or our siblings in faith, or strangers in need, love is firstly knowing when to show up.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber once described Mary Magdalene as “the patron saint of just showing up.” She said, “The greatest spiritual practice isn’t praying the hours or living in intentional poverty although these are beautiful in their own way. The greatest spiritual practice is showing up. * Showing up means being present to what is real, what is actually happening. She doesn’t necessarily know what to say or what to do or even what to think…but none of that is nearly as important as the fact that she just showed up. She showed up at the cross where her beloved Rabboni Jesus became the victim of violence and terror. She looked on as the man who had set her free from her own darkness bore the evil and the violence of the whole world upon himself and yet still she showed up.”
* To be disciples like Mary Magdalene is to show up. As a resurrected people, it means we show up to bear witness to one another’s pain and suffering — often we can’t offer a solution or take away the pain. The greatest thing we can do for one another is to bear witness to each other’s lives. That can be incredibly difficult sometimes but it can often be the most loving thing we can do.
To show up also means we are a people who stand at the cross and stand in the midst of evil and violence and even if we are uncertain, we are still unafraid to be present to all of it. We are unafraid to name the dark demons of evil and to call it what it is.
To live a resurrected life and show up also means to pay attention and hear the still small voice of Christ calling our names in the midst of chaos, uncertainty and loss.
*That’s what Jesus did when Mary was at the tomb despairing over the loss of Jesus’ body. As she broke into tears, Jesus appeared and asked: “Why are you crying?” But Mary could not recognize the voice. Thinking that he was the gardener, she pleaded with him to tell him where he might have carried away the body of Jesus, saying, “and I will get him”—I will carry him (John 20:15). She did not consider how she would do it. These are words of a determined woman. Whatever it took, she’d find the body and carry it back.
Was Mary so blinded by her tears that she could not recognize Jesus? Not likely. The Gospels record other instances when the resurrected Jesus was not recognized until he chose to make himself recognizable, such as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who only recognized Jesus through the breaking of bread. For Mary, the voice of the “gardener” suddenly sounded familiar when Jesus called her by name. She recognized his reassuring voice. And that was the beginning of a new thing! But before we go into the new thing, I would like to ask you:
*Question 3 (Open)
What does showing up look like to you?
Mary Magdalene showed up by bearing witness to Jesus’ suffering, paying attention and recognizing Jesus’ voice calling her name. And this is what happened:
Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her. (John 20:17-18)
Mary, reluctant to accept the new reality of Jesus, attempts to hold on to him, in order to keep him in the same place he occupied in her life: Rabbi, friend, and companion. We are very aware of Mary’s fear – a paralyzing reluctance to embrace change. We can all identify with that fear – the fear of the unknown, the fear of uncertainty, the fear of the unfamiliar, the fear of change.
Yet, without change there can be no transformation.
Question 4 (Open)
What happens in our lives when we refuse to let go of something or someone we know we should?
Why did Jesus ask Mary to let go? Jesus encourages Mary to let go, so that he can transform (move across an old form to a new form) and so can she. When Mary releases Jesus, he ascends to God and Mary graduates to a new spiritual level – that of the first apostle of Jesus, the Christ. She receives and accepts the magnificent kingdom assignment of taking out the good news of the resurrection to a waiting world.
*In John 16:7, Jesus told the disciples, “I assure you that it is better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Companion won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send the Holy Spirit to you.” Mary Magdalene and the rest of the disciples had to learn to let go of what was familiar, let go of their fear of change in order for a new transformation to happen.
Jesus’ clear message to his beloved Mary Magdalene in their first post-resurrection encounter is not that she suppress, deny, or destroy her human love for him. He just says to her “Do not cling to me/Do no hold on to me” (John 20:17). He is saying “Don’t hold on to the past, what you think you need or deserve. We are all heading for something much bigger and much better, Mary.” *This is the spiritual art of detachment, which is the opposite of what our capitalistic worldview teaches us — clinging and possessing are not just the norm but even the goal. Even love must be released and allowed to become something new. Otherwise we are trapped.
*Richard Rohr says, “Great love is both very attached (“passionate”) and yet very detached at the same time. It is love but not addiction. When we have all things in Christ, we do not have to protect any one thing. The True Self can love and let go. The separate, small self cannot do this…We only have to look around at all the struggling relationships in our own lives to see that it’s true. When we love exclusively from our small selves, we operate in a way that is mechanical and instrumental, which we now sometimes call codependent. We return again and again to the patterns of interaction we know. This is not always bad, but it is surely limited. *Great love—loving from our Whole Selves connected to the Source of all love—offers us so much more.”
Like the leaf that falls to the ground, our journey towards spiritual maturation is often a painful process. It often hurts, it often confuses us, and it often seems like the most frightening thing we will ever do. However, the change permits the tree to experience new life in the spring. Our lives, if we allow it, mimic the same cyclical process. The spiritual practice of letting go allows us, like Mary Magdalene, to become a new creation in Christ Jesus: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he [she] is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold all things become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Question 5 (Word Cloud)
What do you need to let go of in your life?
*“The story of the Resurrection is also the story of human love at its best…When all else fails—even faith and hope—love comes through intact. Mary Magdalene’s relentless pursuit of her Beloved exemplifies the spiritual quest for deeper union with God…Mary teaches us that love never fails—even when hope fails. It sustained her through the dark night of Holy Saturday into the dawn of Easter. Even as Mary clings to Christ, she also learns to let go. The ecstasy of her reunion with the Beloved was not meant to be for her alone to enjoy. He called her to go into the world and bear witness to the Resurrection: “I have seen the Lord!” From Mary, we begin to understand why love is the greatest theological virtue (1 Cor. 13:13). From her, too, we learn that however much we relish mountain-top experiences of intimacy with God, we must also descend to bring the Good News of the living Christ to a dying world.”
Simon Chan, Love That Will Not Let Go
*Living a resurrected life means allowing God to love us, and through us to love the world.
Question 6 (Word Cloud)
How will you allow God to love you this week?
“The Risen Lord is indeed risen. Present, intimate, creative, ‘closer than your own heartbeat,’ accessed through your vulnerability, your capacity for intimacy. The imaginal realm is real, and through it you will never be separated from anyone or anything you have ever loved, for love is the ground in which you live and move and have your being. This is the message that Mary Magdalene has perennially to bring. This is the message we most need to hear.”
– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity
[ Download sermon discussion questions for self-study or group discussion click here ]