Mary Magdalene continues to capture the popular imagination in ways she could never have imagined. Thanks to a recent best-selling novel (and now a much-heralded movie) and other works of fiction (some of which are labeled "theology"), Magdalene is now thought by many to have been married to Jesus, thus leaving the entire Church — the "bride of Christ" — jilted at the bookstores, if not at the altar.
Poor Mary has always been the subject of speculation, pious and otherwise. Devout souls have latched onto the legend that Magdalene was a prostitute before her encounter with Christ, perhaps because it makes her conversion all the more dramatic. About her troubled past, we know only what Mark and Luke have reported, that out of her "seven devils were gone forth," presumably at the command of Jesus. Whatever else it may mean, anyone inhabited by "seven devils" is rather thoroughly in the grip of evil. And her deliverance from such seemingly hopeless bondage no doubt left Mary Magdalene with overwhelming love and gratitude for the One who had rescued her.
All four of the Gospels name her among the witnesses to the Crucifixion. There was, of course, nothing she could do there to prevent the death or ease the torment of her Savior. She could only expose herself to the obvious danger of being seen as one of his followers. And yet she followed Him, to the cross and to the tomb.
She came to the tomb early on the first day of the week, John tells us, "while it was yet dark." She came, apparently, with no hope, no expectation of finding Jesus alive. The sight of the empty tomb only deepened her distress. This account of Magdalene, Frank Sheed once wrote, sums up the plight of today’s Christians, beset by scholarly skeptics and "dissenting" theologians at war with the Christ of the Gospels: "They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have put him."
"Woman, why do you weep? Whom do you seek?" When the first of the disciples began to follow him, Jesus asked, "What do you seek?" (John 1:38) Here he asks not what, but "Whom?" Mary is not now looking for deliverance, but for the deliverer. She is seeking not something, but Someone, not for what He could do for her, but what she, in her weakness and her sorrow, could do for her crucified Savior.
So far was she from expecting the Resurrection that when she first saw the risen Christ, she thought he was the gardener: "Sir, if you have taken him from here, tell me where you have put him and I will take him away." One wonders how Mary expected to carry off, by herself, the body of the condemned "King of the Jews." It is doubtful that such a practical consideration, or the potential danger of even making such a request, had entered her troubled and sorrow-filled mind.
"Mary." The disciples on the way to Emmaus would recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Mary knew him when she heard him speak her name. ("I have called thee by thy name. Thou art mine." Isaiah 43:1) He spoke and her sorrow burst into joy: "Rabboni!"
"Do not cling to me. For I have not yet ascended to my Father." Her joy must be contained, for His mission was not yet complete. Nor was hers. It was not enough for her to have discovered the risen Christ. She would have the honor of being the first to spread the Good News to the rest of the "family."
"But go to my brethren and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God."
Magdalene has shown generations of believers how thin the line is between faith and despair. Job, in the midst of all his suffering could still say, "I know that my Redeemer lives." Magdalene, in her dark night of the soul, was certain her Redeemer was quite dead. Yet she went to the tomb anyway, still faithful to "Jesus, who was crucified."
Mark also testifies that the risen Christ "appeared first to Mary Magdalene out of whom he had cast seven devils." But devils, Jesus warned, have a way of returning with reinforcements to souls still empty of faith. We may yet wonder if that is how Mary fell into the grip of seven of them. We might wonder even more, and with a healthy concern for our own souls, what might have become of Mary Magdalene if she had not gone in tears to the tomb that Easter morning, but had, "while it was yet dark," succumbed to the demon of despair. Perhaps the answer can be found in the last words our Lord spoke to the women taken in adultery, whom Hollywood and other elements of the popular culture have often identified with Magdalene: "Go and sin no more."
Or we might recall, at the end of our own Lenten journey, the words spoken by her Master as an unnamed sinner (again some think she was Magdalene) anointed the feet of Jesus with her tears at the home of Simon the Pharisee. (Luke 7: 37—50)
"Thy faith has saved thee. Go in peace."
This article originally appeared in the April 13 issue of The Wanderer.
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.