St Mary Magdalene - 'The One whom my soul loves'

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Margaret Houston, 22 July 2012

Today is the feast of St Mary Magdalene.   In The Last Temptation of Christ, Mary is a reformed prostitute in love with Jesus.  He returns her feelings, but resists for the sake of his higher calling.  In The DaVinci Code, Mary and Jesus’s secret marriage is the backdrop to an exciting, if historically and theologically inaccurate, romp through the great libraries and museums of Europe.  And in the music video to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” the pop star portrays herself as a Mary-Magdalene-esque figure, in love with a dark-skinned, silent Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Mary passionately searches for Jesus’ body, so she may anoint it with oils and spices.  St John was a fantastic writer – her desperation and grief are palpable, the recognition of the Risen Lord an amazing third-act twist.  You feel her sorrow and her ecstasy, her overwhelming emotion.

But what is that emotion?  Is it romantic love? Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures would seem initially to support that idea.  Mary’s frantic searching and joyful recognition are mirrored in the Song of Solomon, an ancient love poem.  The narrator of the poem searches for “him whom my soul loves.” She passes the watchmen, as Mary does in the garden.  She finds the man she seeks, as Mary does in the garden.

But to call Mary Magdalene’s feelings for Jesus romantic is simplistic, and prevents a closer analysis of her character, and what she may have to teach us about our own relationships with God.

Mary Magdalene is one of the main female characters of the Gospels, apart from Martha (who may or may not be her sister) and Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Martha is the Delia Smith of the Gospels, forever cooking and serving and taking care of others.  And the Virgin Mary is Jesus’ mother.  If Mary Magdalene felt romantically towards Jesus, then the only women who had serious relationships with Jesus were either mother figures, cooks, or wannabe lovers.

This is the unspoken catch in many popular portrayals of women today.  In Slate magazine, Meghan O’Rourke, writing about modern romantic comedies, wrote “men ... ask themselves whom they want to be ... women, by contrast, are entirely concerned with pragmatic issues. We never see [women] pursue or express [their] own creative impulses, sense of humour, independent interests; their ... inner worlds are entirely functional, rather than playful and open.”

God does better than romantic comedies.  God’s relationship with all of us is with our entire selves – those existential questions of who we want to be, our creative impulses, senses of humour, independent interests.  A Gospel narrative in which women’s entire selfhood can be described as “wife, cook, mother, or reformed prostitute” does not take into account the breadth of Jesus’ relationships with women.

In 1947, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote an essay called “Are Women Human?”  In it, she wrote,
Perhaps it is no wonder that women were the first at the Cradle
and the last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this
Man ... a prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never
flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes
 about them, never treated them as ‘the women, God help us’ or
‘the ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness
and praised without condescension; who took their arguments
seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged
them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had
no axe to grind and no uneasy ... dignity to defend; who took them
as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no
act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its
pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from
the words or deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about
woman’s nature.

To Sayers’ list could be added the following:
• Jesus never used female ritual un-cleanliness as a metaphor for sin, unlike so many of the prophets.
• Jesus never used women’s sexuality against them.
• He never victim-blamed – never told a beaten or abused woman that she had done something to bring it on herself.

To reduce Mary Magdalene’s relationship with him to one of a prospective mistress is to treat her  as an earthly temptation that must be risen above so that he can achieve his great purpose in the world.  It is simplistic.

Nobody is entirely sure who Mary Magdalene was.  Women that may be Mary Magdalene flit in and out of the Gospels quite regularly.  She may or may not be the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  She may or may not be the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair.  In Luke, she is mentioned as someone out of whom Jesus cast seven demons.  And in all four gospels, she is among the first witnesses to the resurrection.

Perhaps her story went something like this. Mary Magdalene was a deeply troubled young woman.  Perhaps she had been a prostitute, perhaps a dancer or other deeply unrespectable profession.  Maybe her brother and sister tried to care for her, and found it too damaging to their family life, her actions too destructive.   Or perhaps her demons were more obvious; she may have had epileptic seizures, or schizophrenic delusions – many scholars believe these may have been what Jesus’ society, without our medical knowledge, called “demons.”  Perhaps people were scared of her, and crossed the road when they saw her.

Mary seems to have felt things very strongly.  This is something parents both love and fear in their children, because the world can be hard on such people.  Maybe as a child she’d been the one who cried over the dead dogs in the street.  Or maybe she grew deeply attached to the lambs and screamed when they were slaughtered.  Maybe life had just beaten her down so much that her demons were depression, anger, or bitterness.

But when she found Jesus, she encountered a love which accepted her, a love which understood her.  A love which transformed her.  To Jesus, her emotional impulses were neither silly nor hysterical, but an act of love.   Mary threw herself at Jesus’ feet and washed them with her hair because she recognised that here was safety and unconditional love.  Mary listened, with childlike curiosity, to Jesus, and she was praised.  Mary wept at the tomb and was rewarded with the first knowledge of the Risen Lord.  Mary was valued not just for her body but for her soul.  Her strong emotionality, her inner world, was loved and praised.

Who knows how much of this story is true.  She is frustratingly elusive for someone so well known.  But from the brief glimpses the Gospels do give us, this could be her story.  She is a woman who is not simply an accessory to the men in her life, but a strong-willed character of deep emotional devotion.

Certainly, the language of the Song of Solomon is romantic.  And Mary’s emotions in the garden are passionate as those of any lover.  And there is, perhaps, a romantic element to Jesus’ relationship with those who love him – after all, the Bible’s final image of our union is God is of a wedding.  But Mary Magdalene has  too often been reduced to “that prostitute who fancied Jesus,” reduced from her sainthood to her sexuality.

At the end of the Bible, we are told that all of humanity – men and women – are the Bride of Christ.  Not just women, but men, are asked to see themselves in the feminine imagery of God’s beloved Bride.   I think that in order to do that, first we must see the women of the Gospel not just as mothers, cooks and would-be wives, but as people, with their own journeys of faith.  And if we can see the women of the Bible this way, we must see it also of the women in church, and society at large, today.  Jesus did.  So must we.
Holland Park Benefice