Today on the church calendar we remember the first of the apostles, that is the first person to see the risen Christ. That is Mary Magdalene, who is known as the apostle to the apostles.
Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest friends. Scripture tells us that he healed her from demons which had tormented her. In response, she became his disciple, following wherever he went. Every gospel puts her at the foot of the cross, watching Jesus as he died, while all the male disciples hid in fear for their lives. All four gospels also put her at the empty tomb on Easter morning. In John’s gospel Jesus appears to her and asks why she is weeping. Mistaking him for the gardener she replies, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” It is not until Jesus calls her by name that she realizes to whom she is speaking.
It is no accident that it was women at the foot of the cross and at the tomb. And no accident that women were the first to learn of the resurrection. In the culture of those days women could not testify in legal matters because they were not considered reliable witnesses. Those “unreliable witnesses” were chosen by God to witness the resurrected Jesus, and to testify to the hiding men what they had seen.
Maybe because of the power and privilege that God gave Mary Magdalene, the male-run church for centuries disparaged her, portraying her as a prostitute, although nothing in scripture depicts her that way. It’s a familiar story to many women who have offended male sensibilities by being too “uppity.”
Several years ago I was asked to lead a retreat on the theme of relationships between Biblical women. One of the sessions was on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. They are mentioned together at the foot of the cross in John’s gospel. I had to rely on my imagination to write about their relationship. You might enjoy that reflection, which I’ve pasted below.
Today I give thanks for a God who chooses unlikely messengers to bring good news to the world.
At the Foot of the Cross
“Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” John 19:25
She is a small figure standing alone and unnoticed in the crowd. A strange festiveness is in the air – families with children, people selling food and hawking other wares, laughing and talking, catching up with friends and neighbors.
Mary doesn’t understand it. She has never been to an execution before. She has always been appalled at the public spectacle of it all. Her stomach turns at the thought of watching another human being in agony, suffering for hours until finally dying.
She can’t imagine why anyone would voluntarily come and not only watch, but enjoy this cruel horror.
And yet she is here. Not because she wants to be, but because she can’t not be.
Her beloved son, her first born, bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh, the greatest joy in her life, is there before her, hanging on a cross between two common criminals.
Her boy Jesus, the gentlest, kindest, most loving soul she has ever known, is dying before her eyes.
How did it come to this?
She remembers as if it were yesterday, even though it was more than three decades ago, the appearance of the angel before her, with the strange and wondrous news that God had chosen her to bear God’s son.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said, although she truly was terrified. Terrified of what her fiancé, Joseph, would do. Terrified of the scandal and gossip, terrified that her reputation, and that of her family, would be ruined forever.
She could have said no. All logic said she should. But instead she swallowed her fear and responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
“Let it be with me according to your word.” How many ties had she prayed those words over the years? More than she can count.
Being the mother of Jesus, the bearer of God into the world, is a life she has cherished, but it has not been easy.
Sometimes it has been perplexing – like when those scruffy shepherds appeared in the stable just hours after Jesus was born, praising God and asking to see the savior.
Just as odd was the visit of the men on camels, saying that a star had led them right to the manger. She still has the gifts they brought tucked away in the house in Nazareth.
Sometimes it has been frightening – like when they heard the news that Herod had ordered the deaths of all baby boys in an attempt to kill her son. She still has nightmares about their flight to Egypt, and the innocent children who were slaughtered.
Sometimes it has been exasperating – like when the 12-year-old Jesus disappeared for three days on their journey to Jerusalem. She and Joseph were scared to death, and both relieved and angry when they finally found him in the Temple. Like a typical adolescent, Jesus was not impressed or concerned about their worry.
But mostly those early years were joyful – watching her son grown and learn and play like all the other children around them. Jesus blended right in with them, even though she always knew he was special.
But she must confess that the last three years have been difficult. The day that Jesus told her he was going to be baptized by his cousin John, she knew that things were changing, that somehow her beloved son was being pulled away from her.
She was right. After the baptism he disappeared for 40 days. He was vague about where he had been and what had happened during that time, but whatever it was had changed him.
He left Nazareth and began traveling throughout the region, teaching and preaching. Word began to spread about him – that he had the gift of healing. Soon she heard that men were leaving behind their entire lives to follow him, just to be close to him.
In those days all of Nazareth was proud and excited that one of their own was becoming so well known. She remembers the day he came back to their local synagogue to teach. People were amazed at how well he spoke, how insightful he was, by his assurance and authority. She was so proud sitting there listening to him.
And then, in a flash, it changed. He said God also loved people who were not Jews, and instantly people were furious. They chased her son out of the synagogue, throwing stones at him. He was lucky to escape alive.
After that day life changed for her, too. Every time she went to the market she could feel eyes on her and hear whispers behind her back. She was no longer respected or honored as Jesus’ mother.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t still proud of him. He never came back to Nazareth, but she kept up with where he was and what he was doing. At times she would go to another town to hear him preach. Sometimes he was too busy to even talk to her, but it comforted her just to lay eyes on him from afar.
It amazed her to watch this child who came out of her womb become a man with such insight, such charisma, such strength, and yet such tenderness and gentleness.
How was it that her flesh and blood could heal blindness and leprosy, cast out demons, even raise the dead? She had spent many nights pondering these things in her heart.
But Lord, how she also worried about him. She knew that he had enemies as well as friends. And the enemies were people with power and authority, people who could make things very difficult for her son. Sometimes she has secretly wished he could put aside being the son of God and just come back to Nazareth and be her boy.
And she has wondered if he were lonely. Sure, there were all those men with him all the time. But she wondered if he had someone who truly understood him, who loved him above all else.
She’s heard maybe that he does. There’s a woman she has heard about, named Mary like her, from the port town of Magdala. She is supposedly one of the women he healed. And she has been traveling with him ever since.
She has heard rumors about this other Mary – that she was a prostitute, that Jesus should have nothing to do with her. But she doesn’t believe them. It comforts her to imagine that her son has a trusted and intimate friend, someone with whom he can share his joys and fears and doubts.
A voice rouses her from her memories. It is Jesus. Her son moans, then cries out, “I thirst.”
And suddenly she remembers the words of an old man, Simeon, who greeted her when she and Joseph presented the baby Jesus in the Temple.
“These eyes of mine have seen the savior,” he said as he gazed upon the sleeping child.
Then those old eyes had looked directly into hers. “A sword will pierce your heart,” he said sadly.
The old man was right. Her heart and soul are being torn in two.
She looks away from her son for a moment and sees another face, the face of a woman who seems to be in as much grief as she is.
* * *
Mary Magdalene cannot take her eyes off of Jesus on the cross. She can see the blood running down his hands and feet. There is even blood on his face from the crown of thorns that someone cruelly smashed onto his head.
How much longer can he stand this? Sometimes it takes days for a person to die on the cross. She prays that Jesus will not have to suffer that long, although she cannot even begin to think about his death.
What will she do without him?
Mary Magdalene has tried to forget about her life before Jesus. It was miserable, tormented by demons. All her life she was teased and ridiculed. She didn’t know what it was to have a friend.
She will never forget the first time she saw him. There was a crowd gathered outside the synagogue. Usually she avoided crowds, but this time she felt herself drawn to the assembly.
She heard him before she saw him. What a distinctive voice – so strong, and yet so tender. It drew her even closer, until she could see him.
She was transfixed. It has been a bad day, the demons especially loud and strong, but one look at Jesus and she was still.
Then he began healing. Person after person presented themselves to him. He touched them, spoke to them, and they were healed – they could see, they could hear, they could walk.
Did she dare try? Almost against her will she found herself moving closer and closer until she was right in front of him. Most of the crowd was gone now.
Jesus looked directly into her eyes, and amazingly she didn’t flinch or turn away, but looked back at him. She had spent a lifetime avoiding people’s stares, but this was different.
He didn’t ask her what was wrong. He simply put his hands on her head, and closed his eyes for a moment as if he were in deep prayer. When he opened them he looked different – somehow sterner and stronger.
Then in a commanding voice he shouted, “Be gone from the woman, you unclean spirits!”
Immediately she felt different – lighter, freer, whole.
Since that day she has traveled with him, soaking up everything he has to say, learning everything she could about him and his God.
She is not the only woman who follows him, but she has become his closest companion. It has made the others jealous – not the women, but the men.
She knows the rumors they have spread about her. At first it bothered her, but soon she realized that Jesus knew the truth and that was all that mattered. He understood her completely.
And in return, she understands him, too, in a way that even his inner circle of male disciples does not.
Where are the men now? They fled as soon as the soldiers appeared to arrest Jesus. Yes, they are in danger, too – probably more than the women, because who pays attention to women.
But even if her life were in danger, there is no way that she could leave. All she can do is stand witness, hoping that he can see her, that he knows that she is there.
Standing here at the foot of the cross she is lonelier, sadder, and more frightened than she has ever been in her life.
She hears Jesus cry out in pain, then ask for something to drink.
She turns her head for a moment, and notices another woman whose face is etched in grief and pain. She doesn’t know her, but somehow she looks familiar.
Wait a minute. Those eyes, the shape of her face. She has seen them before. They are the same eyes, the same face as Jesus, who must surely be her son.
“Mary?” she calls.
The woman turns and looks at her, tears streaming down her face.
Mary Magdalene moves toward the older woman. They embrace without saying a word, then turn together to watch the man who means the world to both of them, the man whose love they share.
Jesus grimaces, then looks and sees his mother and beloved friend standing together, holding one another.
His face softens. He looks almost at peace.
“It is finished,” he says, then breathes his last.