The Revd Canon Dr Emma Percy reflects on the power of Mary Magdalene’s ministry and corrects some misconceptions about the woman who first met the risen Christ.
The 22nd of July is the feast of Mary Magdalene. The gospels tell us that Mary was prominent in the community that accompanied Jesus. She was a woman healed by Jesus; part of a group of women from the region of Galilee who resourced the itinerant preaching ministry. With other women disciples, she witnessed the crucifixion. On the first Easter, she encountered the empty tomb and met the risen Christ.
Remembering Mary is complex because over the centuries she has been muddled with other gospel women. It was Gregory the Great in the Sixth Century who began to identify Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute. He took the story of the unnamed sinful woman who washes Jesus feet in Luke’s gospel and claimed this was Mary. Over time Mary came to be identified with this woman, the unnamed woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel and the separate character of Mary of Bethany.
Mary Magdalene the prostitute saved by Jesus became a standard part of the tradition. She became a woman who was beautiful, sensual, penitent; the original scarlet woman. We have seen her portrayed as someone in love with Jesus and even in some accounts married to Jesus. All of this strayed a long way from the woman we find in the pages of the gospel.
There is nothing in those accounts to suggest that Mary was a prostitute or that she had an immoral or sinful past. We do know that she was healed of seven demons. These most likely refer to a mental health condition or something as common, but debilitating, as frequent migraines. Aside from that, we know little about her background, just her independence. Most women in the bible are known as the daughter/wife/sister of a man because that was how women were recognised in the society of the day. Mary is not connected to any male relative.
She is always referred to as Mary Magdala. Many assume that this is a reference to her place of residence or business but there is some uncertainty of exactly where Magdala was. Professor Joan Taylor, from Kings College, suggest that this may have been the nickname Jesus gave her. She suggests that this was something Jesus did to close members of the community. We know that Simon was always referred to as Simon Peter, that is Simon Rock. Jesus made a play of the dependability and importance of Simon his rock. He referred to James and John as the sons of thunder, perhaps for their passion, temper or energy.
Magdala means tower. Prof Taylor suggests this may have been Jesus nickname for her. Mary the tower. Perhaps this points to her as someone of vision who could see far, also someone rooted and stable; a safe place. It is good for us to reclaim this idea of Mary Magdalene. Friend and disciple of Jesus, someone he felt supported by. No scarlet woman but a woman of substance, independence, vision and faith.
The Revd Canon Dr Emma Percy is Bowles Lecturer at St Nicolas’ Church, Abingdon, and welfare dean and chaplain at Trinity College, Oxford. The reflection above is reproduced with permission of the editors of The Window, the Abingdon parish magazine.
Emma has also written a poem entitled Mary Magdala:
Mary Magdalen, the tower.
Not the sinner beloved of artists;
(plenty of flesh tones and crimson for the scarlet woman)
but, a woman of vision, a tower of strength.
A woman healed, we know not of what or when,
but of something that had blighted you,
limited your opportunities,
bounded your choices.
A woman called – committed,
following where Jesus lead.
Giving what you could;
resourcing the work of the kingdom.
Witness of Christ’s life,
Witness of Christ’s death,
Witness of Christ’s resurrection.
Wise apostolic foremother,
pray for us who come after seeking the same Christ,
that we may be healed and hallowed,
giving of our resources,
witnesses of Christ’s spirit,
workers for the kingdom,
women of faithfulness.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven
who like you Christ’s praises sing.