I often feel rather sorry for St. Mary Magdalene. No, not in her eternal joy in heaven as one of God’s Elect, but rather for what we have done (and keep doing) with her.
After successfully shucking the false conflation of the Magdalene with the Woman Taken in Adultery (John 8: 1-11) via the woman described as a “sinner” (Luke 7:50), many moderns almost immediately fell victim to the prejudices of our own era (with special thanks to the imagination and profit-drive of Dan Brown) and were conned (or conned ourselves) into seeing her has Jesus’ wife. It seems that we in the West have a hard time seeing St. Mary Magdalene outside of sexual relationships.
To this is added the plethora of modern studies, books, classes, lectures, and sermons which build upon what evidence there is in the Bible about St. Mary, often turning her into a sort of first-century CEO or Power-Broker. This, too, seems suspiciously like the projection of our own era’s obsessions rather than entering into Scripture’s message about God through Mary’s witness.
The Collect for this Feast expresses well what the Sacred Scriptures want us to know about the Magdalene: she was healed by Christ of a serious case of spiritual oppression (the “seven demons”) and she was the first witness of Christ’s resurrection. These two points stand out as enormously significant for her and for us.
Mary is a sign of the objective and personal reality of healing in the Christian faith. No matter how we want to describe it (using spiritual, medical, or experiential terminology), Christians have always been given healing by their Lord. For some it is sudden and instantly recognizable (exorcism and so-called “miraculous” healings). For others, it is a long, slow, drawn-out process of the healing of our wills…with all that follows from this. There is no sin, no state of illness or alienation God cannot overcome in the vastness of his love: that love was made flesh in Christ. The point is that Christ heals, and those who experience healing in Christ in whatever form it takes respond with a loyalty and love that puts them near him for the rest of life.
This nearness to Christ was evident in Mary Magdalene’s life: she stayed by him from her healing through his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. In fact, she was unique in the degree to which she stayed faithful to her friend, teacher, and healer.
Because of this, she experienced the risen Christ in a more personal, more emotionally-profound manner (as described in John 20) than anyone else in the Gospel. This, in itself, is a solemn reminder that only those who have come to love Christ personally, as One with whom they have a holy relationship beyond mere intellectualism (in whatever way that may be) are able to experience the beauty and power of the Resurrection as a mystery of God’s love and victory. Such persons join St. Mary Magdalene in becoming messengers—apostles— of the Gospel to the world.
And this second point (Mary as witness to the Resurrection) brings us back to the first (divine healing): it is a gift from God, not a result of human investigation or effort. We receive from God what God gives, and that alone.
Faith is not a bargain with God: it is a relationship initiated by God and to which we respond. If we are interested in becoming a saint (one of God’s holy ones, in permanent relationship with the Trinity), then we will join St. Mary Magdalene in giving the cream of our life (time, talent, treasure, will) to God. If not, we will likely simply make up stories about this most blessed woman, focusing on the wrong things that suit our diminished love, rather than the vastness of what God has done—and continues to do—in the lives of his people.
Pray for us, St. Mary Magdalene! (And pray that God heal our misuse of your witness...)
Collect of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.