When we think of the Easter events, the name of Mary Magdalene is right up there with Herod & Pilate, Peter & John, Judas and Joseph of Arimathea. Mostly we remember that Mary was there at the tomb on the resurrection morning and was the first person to see and talk to the risen Jesus. Obviously, we’re going to talk about that this morning as part of seeing the Easter events through Mary’s eyes. First, though, we need to understand who she was, what motivated her, how she came to be one of Jesus’ followers and what that meant to her.
The first time we come across Mary Magdalene, is much earlier. Luke introduces her to us in chapter 8 of his gospel. This is immediately before Jesus tells the parable of the Sower; we haven’t yet had the calming of the storm, the sending out of the twelve disciples on mission, the feeding of the five thousand, the transfiguration. Here’s what we read:
Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8.1-3)
Mary’s name, “Magdalene”, was probably a reference to the town she came from; in the same way that Jesus was called “Jesus of Nazareth” or “the Nazarene”. Magdala was a village on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.
This passage helps us to understand where, at least in part, the money came for the, admittedly small, financial needs of Jesus and the disciples. They had all left their full time jobs – Jesus as a carpenter; Matthew as a tax collector; Peter, James and John as fishermen; and so on. They may initially have had some savings that they used but they didn’t have big overheads; no donkeys of their own to feed, apparently (they borrowed one on Palm Sunday). Nevertheless, they had to eat, wash and replace worn out clothes etc.
Luke doesn’t really tell us much about who these women were except for Mary and Joanna. Joanna’s husband had a responsible, and presumably well-paid, job as Herod’s steward. Maybe the others were reasonably well-off, too. What Luke does tell us is that Jesus had healed all of them: either of a disease, or of an evil spirit.
We should note that, whereas we often think of evil spirits as influencing people to do wicked things, the biblical picture is very different. Mostly we find that evil spirits are associated with illness and particularly mental illness: a man who was mute (Matt 9); another who was mute and blind Matt 12); the boy who had seizures and would fall into the fire or into deep water (Matt 17); the man who was tormented in his mind and lived amongst the tombs (Luke 8).
Jesus practice, and his command to the disciples, was to heal the sick and cast out demons. Often, although clearly not always, the two go together. Not that everyone who is sick needs a demon cast out, but rather that people who are demon-possessed, mostly manifest symptoms of illness – either physical or mental.
And so we find that Mary Magdalene had been set free from not one but seven demons, quite early on in Jesus’ ministry. That probably means that previously she had been affected by a serious physical or mental illness caused by those demons. Meeting Jesus and being healed by him would therefore have transformed her life. And so we find her amongst the wider group of disciples, helping support the group out of her resources as a way of expressing her gratitude for what Jesus has done.
And that’s all we read about Mary until the morning of the resurrection.
Now, maybe at the back of your mind there is a thought saying, “Wait a minute: wasn’t Mary Magdalene a reformed prostitute? Didn’t she wash Jesus’ feet, or something?”
The simple answer to that is, “No, she wasn’t, and no, she didn’t”. All four gospels tell us of a woman who anointed Jesus’ feet but there are good reasons to show that there were two separate instances. The other three writers refer to an occasion in Bethany, during Easter week, when a woman (John says in was Mary, Lazarus’s sister) anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. The comments there are to do with the material cost of her sacrifice. Luke’s story is different. It’s a different place, a different time, it’s tears not perfume, and the comments are concerned with love and forgiveness. The woman is described as being immoral but seeking forgiveness – which she receives. If it had been Mary Magdalene, Luke would clearly have said so, because he records the incident in chapter 7 and immediately goes on in chapter 8 to describe Mary Magdalene in a quite different way.
That the first woman was Mary, that she had been a prostitute (or at least had “had many men before”) is an urban myth. It has been spread globally by the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” and by its hit song “I don’t know how to love him”. Also, to some extent, by Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”. But it is no more than that: a myth. There is no Biblical basis for it at all. On the contrary. Luke knew, and had interviewed the eyewitnesses to the events (probably including both of these women) as he prepared his narrative. And he doesn’t even suggest that they were one and the same.
What we can see from this first introduction to Mary Magdalene, and to the other women, was that Jesus freely included women and accepted their help. They were as much a part of the preaching tour in Luke 8 as anyone – given the heavy cultural restrictions. Jesus overturned these restriction in welcoming women, addressing them directly, discussing finer points of theology with them… Think of the Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter who was demon possessed. Jesus tested her with, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’ ‘Lord,’ she replied, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he told her, ‘For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’ (Mark 7.27-29)
And now we come to Mary’s part in the Easter story itself. She has no doubt followed Jesus everywhere the larger group of disciples was able to go. She has therefore been part of the group of women disciples for nearly three years. And then Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified. Mary was there at the cross:
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19.25)
Mark’s gospel tells us that she was one of perhaps just two women who followed Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus as they took Jesus’ body down from the cross and carried it to a tomb. This explains why she and the other Mary were able to go to the tomb on the morning of the day after the Sabbath. They knew where it was.
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”’ (Mark 16.1-7)
Remember, we saw a few weeks ago that “Mary the mother of James” is in fact Jesus’ mother (James was one of his brothers and this is the way she is often described, perhaps as a way of not putting too much spotlight on her).
How does Mary Magdalene see Easter morning? Well, she and the others were expecting to find Jesus’ body. In this respect they were no different from the men. Jesus had told them again and again that he would rise from the dead, but they hadn’t really grasped it. Jesus was someone they loved. He was the person who had saved Mary from the clutches of the evil one (a couple of verses further on, Mark reminds us that this was the Mary from whom Jesus had driven seven demons). He had transformed her life and she had seen him perform so many miracles and teach so much about God his father… and yet she had seen him crucified. And now he was dead and in a tomb. She was coming to give him the last bit of support that she could.
It’s worth pointing out that on the one hand Mary was brave and strong in her love and devotion to Jesus. Only she and one or two other women had gone right up to the wall, following Jesus despite the danger right up to the end – and now beyond. And yet on the other hand, she and the others still recognised that there were limitations on them – physical limitations. Presumably the two men (Joseph & Nicodemus) had been capable of rolling the stone into place across the entrance to the tomb, but they knew that even three women wouldn’t be able to move it away again.
We all have limitations because of who we are, and we should recognise it. But nevertheless, like Mary, we should look to God to take over and do what we can’t. Mary didn’t need to move the stone – God had already sorted that! We, too, should do all we can – right up to the wall – and then trust God to take us further.
Mark, Luke and John – despite it showing them up as doubters – tell us that when the women ran to share the news of the resurrection with the rest of the disciples i.e. the men, they were not believed:
It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. (Luke 24.10-11)
Why do we men find it so hard to learn from women?! Jesus never faced opposition from women, only from men. It was only men who hated him. Often, it was a question of their fear of losing their power and authority to him – not that he wanted it! Not much has changed. If a man comes to faith, his wife and children tend to come to faith, too. If a woman starts following Jesus, her husband and sons will often dig their heels in and resist. Can we not learn from Mary, here? Women and men are equal in God’s sight – he reveals himself to us all, if we will allow him to – if we will be in the place we should be. The men should have been at the tomb, too!
Do women seem to receive more prophetic words and pictures in our church? Perhaps that’s because they put themselves into the place where they can receive them, are more ready to speak out what they think they are hearing, even if they’re not sure. Are we men too hesitant, not wanting to risk making a mistake?
Both Matthew and John recount that Jesus himself did appear to the women at the tomb. Only John gives us the details, and it is Mary Magdalene who speaks with her Lord.
[Mary] turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).
17 Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20.14-18)
Remember what’s already happened. Mary has discovered the stone rolled away; she’s seen the soldiers lying unconscious; a young man dressed in white has told her not to be afraid, that Jesus has risen and that she should tell the others. But she hasn’t really grasped it. Maybe she wants to believe it, but can’t quite. Her emotions are probably completely overcome: sometimes our emotions get it right and our mind won’t accept it; at other times our mind is fully aware of the new facts but our emotions won’t come into line. If you’ve been at the birth of a baby, you might know what I mean: your mind knows exactly what’s just happened, it’s been preparing for it for months! But you find yourself in tears, unable to react calmly or even to believe in your heart that this beautiful baby in your arms is actually yours now.
And so Mary lingers, in tears; and mistakes Jesus for a stranger. Until the moment he says her name.
I think that’s it. That’s what Jesus wants to show us about Easter through Mary Magdalene’s eyes: maybe the most important thing God wants you to know about Easter is that Jesus is the one who has saved you and is transforming your life, and he is speaking your name to you.
Listen to what he wants to say to you!