First, I want to say “thanks” to Kim for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. It’s a privilege to be here and to share these thoughts with you. I hope that God will bless our time together this morning.
So I started doing some research about Mary Magdalene on a whim…Kim had asked me to do a Song from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, that many of you are probably familiar with, as part of this Sunday, which was originally to focus on Mary Magdalene, and the notorious Salome, who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter…I am not sure how Kim was going to connect the two, but I’m not even going to try. And we’ll do the song another day. It occurred to me that I had never really read, in a focused way, all the passages in the bible that relate to Mary Magdalene. Despite the fact that, other than Mary the Mother of Jesus, she is the most often mentioned woman in the New Testament, there are only 12 passages in the Gospels that refer to her. That surprised me, since I thought I knew so much about her, having grown up Catholic and all. I started to read more, and discovered that in fact, Mary Magdalene is probably one of the most mysterious characters in the history of the Church…and there are many myths surrounding her.
So, let’s do a little Myth Busters. This is the audience participation portion of our sermon… Let’s test out our knowledge of the historical Mary Magdalene…
Truth or Myth: Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? (show of hands for truth, myth) Myth. In truth there is nothing in the bible that indicates that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Before I explain the origins of that myth, let me tell what we do know about her, based on the accounts in the bible.
Mary is listed as one of a few women who traveled with Jesus and the 12 disciples during his ministry. What we think of as her last name – Magdalene – is probably an indication that she was from Magdala, a prosperous fishing town on the Sea of Galilee. In those times, women were known most commonly by their husband’s name. The fact that we know Mary by her hometown means that she was most likely unmarried, according to scholars. As an unmarried woman, she would have had no children. It’s also likely that she was somewhat wealthy – the bible makes reference to the fact that these women “provided for Him (meaning Jesus) out of their means”. So, Mary Magdalene was most likely a single woman, with no children, from the town of Magdala, who helped provide financial support for Jesus and the disciples during His ministry. I bet she did a few dishes and the laundry, too, but that’s not in the bible.
Getting back to the question of whether she was a prostitute – or more specifically, why so many of us think she WAS a prostitute. The origins of that myth came from Pope Gregory, who, in 591 AD, delivered a sermon in which he stated that Mary Magdalene and “the woman with the alabaster jar” (you know, in Luke, the woman of ill repute who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment, then wipes them with her hair) were the same person. In point of fact, the woman with the alabaster jar is unnamed. But Gregory’s assertion that they were the same woman stuck, and the idea that Mary Magdalene was a “repentant prostitute” was picked up as a theme in art and literature through the centuries, right down to Jesus Christ Superstar. We could spend a lot of time talking about various theories to explain just WHY Gregory made this assertion in the first place, but that’s a whole different sermon.
Back to Mythbusters. And slightly more controversial. Truth or Myth…Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married? (Hands) Ok….are you ready? Myth. Most mainstream scholars agree that it was highly unlikely that Jesus was married to anyone at all. Mary was almost certainly in Jesus’ inner circle, and there are several early Christian texts that indicate that she had a significant role in the establishment of the Church after Jesus’ death. But even those texts contain no clear reference to Mary Magdalene as anything other than a committed follower of Jesus.
One more: Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a baby. Again, myth. With apologies to all you conspiracy theorists out there, there really is no historical evidence to support the idea that Jesus has human descendants, at least those related by blood. In a way, he can claim all of us as his descendants. So why do diapers?
There are obviously a lot of disagreements about who Mary Magdalene was and what role she played in Jesus’ ministry and the early church. And if you really want to get frustrated, try figuring out where she is buried. There are at least three churches that claim to be her final resting place. Clearly, everybody wants a piece of her story.
But there are a few details that are remarkably consistent, between the four gospel accounts in the New Testament. Mary Magdalene was present at Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and she was one of the first, if not the first to discover his resurrection. She was present for the events that define Christianity, and in a way, she can be thought of as the “first” apostle, since, in most accounts, she was the first one to bring the “good news” that Jesus had been resurrected. Probably without realizing it, Mary Magdalene became the most important witness in the history of human-kind.
The crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus are really the middle of Mary Magdalene’s story. Before these events took place, she was traveling with Jesus, as I noted earlier. We don’t know the details of how she came to follow Jesus, except that Luke’s gospel says that Jesus cast ”Seven Demons” out of her. Seven is a number that signifies that her affliction was “severe”. Poet Marie Howe wrote the following poem, which engages in some speculation about the nature of Mary Magdalene’s Seven Demons in a more contemporary context. I’ll read it for you now:
MAGDALENE–THE SEVEN DEVILS
by Marie Howe
The first was that I was very busy. The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
The third — I worried. The fourth – envy, disguised as compassion. The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid, The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The mosquito too – its face. And the ant – its bifurcated body.
Ok the first was that I was so busy. The second that I might make the wrong choice, because I had decided to take that plane that day, that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early and, I shouldn’t have wanted that. The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street the house would blow up. The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing.
The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living
The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.
The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that was alive and I couldn’t stand it,
I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word – cheesecloth – to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside everyone else that entered me when I breathed in
No. That was the first one.
The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened? How had our lives gotten like this?
The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it – distinct, separate from me in a bowl or on a plate.
Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.
The second was that the laundry was never finally done.
The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did. And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was love? Someone using you as a co-ordinate to situate himself on earth.
The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong to anyone.
The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.
The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.
The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying. The sound she made — the gurgling sound — so loud we had to speak louder to hear each other over it.
And that I couldn’t stop hearing it–years later – grocery shopping, crossing the street –
No, not the sound – it was her body’s hunger finally evident.–what our mother had hidden all her life.
For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots, the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.
The underneath —that was the first devil. It was always with me. And that I didn’t think you— if I told you – would understand any of this –
Do you ever have days that feel like that? Like you’ll never get to the end of the list? I totally do… And sometimes, I get to the end of those days and realize that I have not really paid attention to almost anything that was happening…ignoring people on conference calls because the e-mails were too pressing, or missing the point of a conversation in the name of multi-tasking. And then I realize that Jesus Christ himself could have come right into my office and I wouldn’t have noticed. I couldn’t have been a witness to anything…because in order to be a witness, you have to be present, in the physical and intentional sense.
Maybe Mary Magdalene’s Seven Demons were nothing more than the daily distractions of working, cleaning and living. Just like ours. Whatever demons Mary had, Jesus removed them, and that removal not only made it possible for her to follow Him, it probably inspired her to do it as well. The release of the Seven demons started the process of preparing Mary to be a witness, by making it possible for her to be present, not only for those critical events, but also for the day to day needs of Jesus and his disciples in the days leading up to the first Holy Week.
There’s a story by an author whose name I can’t remember (I was probably distracted when I heard it) called the Precious Present. As far as I remember, the story is about a little boy who learns from an old man about the precious present, a gift so valuable that anyone who has it is guaranteed happiness. The little boy asks where he can find it, and the story spans several years as the boy grows into a man, still searching for the precious present. In the end, the boy realizes, once the old man is gone, that the precious present wasn’t a gift in the way he expected…the precious present is whatever “now” you are in, and it’s precious. We sure don’t treat it that way, do we?
Elaine Martin recently referred me to a book called The Practice of the Presence of God, a series of interviews with and letters by a 17th century monk named Brother Lawrence. He was converted at the age of 18. Here’s how Brother Lawrence’s conversion was related to a neighboring vicar: “That in the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of GOD, which has never since been effaced from his soul. That this view had perfectly set him loose from the world, and kindled in him such a love for GOD, that he could not tell whether it had increased during the more than 40 years he had lived since.”
How about that? A conversion experience inspired by a tree branch! I’ve thought about what that moment may have felt like for Brother Lawrence. I imagine it was like one of those times when everything closes in; distractions shut down; and we are left with only the moment and its emotions.
I had one of those moments recently – on the first day of school. My son Ben is a senior in high school this year. In his high school, on the first day of school, all the senior boys wear Hawaiian shirts to school. So here’s my 6’2” son, all showered and ready for school in his Hawaiian shirt at 6:45 am…I took a picture and realized that this is the last “first day of school” I’ll have with him. And I was so full of pride and amazement at the young man he is becoming. For a moment, I was completely caught up in it. Then Ben looks at me and says, “Don’t cry, mom!”
Now, in the grand scheme of things, this little moment was just that…little. It wasn’t like when Ben or his sister, Maggie were born. Or when Don and I got married. And it’s not like remembering where you were when 9/11 happened, or the Challenger disaster. Those things are momentous, sometimes life-changing, and it’s hard not to be present in those times. For Mary Magdalene, the events in the middle of her story were like that – big. No distractions. But what about after Jesus was gone? We don’t really know – she’s not mentioned in the New Testament outside the four gospels. But it’s reasonable to assume that she was part of the continuation of Jesus’ ministry. She probably went back to the day to day routine of laundry, and cooking, and providing. How would she have kept the seven demons from returning? And how can we keep ours at bay?
There may be something to more to learn from Brother Lawrence, who offered the following assertion to his vicar-neighbor: “That we should establish ourselves in a sense of GOD’S Presence, by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries. That we should feed and nourish our souls with high notions of GOD; which would yield us great joy in being devoted to Him”
A lot easier said than done. Especially with our grocery lists and our laundry and our i-phones and our DVRs to distract us. But every once in a while, there’s an opportunity to open a crack in our reality, to let God in…look into the eyes of someone you love, watch silly children dance, notice a soon-to-bloom tree branch. And God is there. Amazing.
I think that the secret to Practicing the Presence of God lies not in the big moments, but in the little ones. That Jesus wasn’t only preparing Mary Magdalene to be a witness at His crucifixion, burial and resurrection; he was preparing her (and the rest of the apostles) for “ordinary time”. And God offers us the same gift; not just a guarantee that He will be with us at the big times, but that He wants to be with us in the little moments. That He is ALWAYS there, waiting for us to step away from distractions, to realize and relearn that He is with us here and now, in this Precious Present.
In the name of our God, who redeems us, sustains us and hopes for our wholeness.