Mary of Magdala,
There you are adorning our museum and cathedral walls – red dress, long bright orange hair, a colorful and dramatic figure – portrayed visually as a lusty woman with wild eyes looking toward the heavens. You’ve carried our collective Christian cultural projections for a long time. We’ve referred to you as the “Fallen Eve,” “the Redeemed Whore,” “the Repentant Woman.” Sadly, there have been moments in Christian history when you’ve been named the representative of stereotypical sinful woman, and have been made to carry negative connotations of sexuality as sinful.
Today contemporary biblical scholarship underscores how falsely we have portrayed you – we failed you in labeling you the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed Jesus in the house of Simon, the leper of Bethany. When did we decide that the penitent prostitute should be you when there were no Scriptural references to your being there? Whose purpose did this serve? And with what communal effect?
What made us insert you there and then downplay the Magdalene of today’s gospel, in which you emerge as “apostle to the apostles?” How did we come to misrepresent you so? And what have we missed in the process?
Your story parallels that of many Biblical women, a story comprised of fragments and torn pieces, and in your case, pieces that have been distorted, some covered from view.
Mary of Magdala, did we think that calling you a redeemed harlot and presenting you a repentant woman was a better way of dealing with your provocative presence on our biblical pages? Did this make you a more manageable figure for us, more controllable in terms of your influence?
Was it easier to fashion you as a penitent prostitute than to deal with the profound depth of your relationship with Jesus, that gave rise to your exemplary leadership? It’s time to take another look.
When I walk with the Johannine community’s telling of today’s appearance story, I meet you Mary at the tomb. You stand in the Judean dust, mourning deeply your companion. You are alone. None of the others are there. I’m not sure I’d be there. Staying present to feelings of loss and confusion and pain when stretched to breaking point is not my strong suit.
On a purely pragmatic note, weren’t you putting yourself in a place of significant jeopardy in going to anoint Jesus’ body after his death? This doesn’t seem to faze you as you stand there by the tomb. Imprudent? Your emotions running away with you? No. You are being true and clearsighted.
You think it’s the gardener wanting to know who you are looking for, and you speak your word and intent to him with directness – no denial, no swearing you hadn’t known him. Youask to claim the body, exercising the societal right reserved for those next of kin. You’re not next of kin. A bit bold? No. True.
Then, down low, in the depths of yourself, you unexpectedly hear your name called by the one who has guided you in a way of life – “Mary” …a direct, and intimate personal address. I’ve known that kind of address from God all right, but the intimacy of the personal call often scares me into pulling away. You don’t flee though; rather you turn face to face, and receive the moment, experiencing the risen Christ in full. And you respond “Rabboni!”— beloved teacher.
In this intimate exchange, there are no interruptions, no modifiers, qualifiers, no intensifiers, no secondary details or theologizing – just holy, simply encounter. This piece of text in John doesn’t come out of any common stock of biblical tradition—it has a commanding individuality to it.
You chose a personal and possessive grammatical form in your response to Jesus – “rabboni” – my beloved teacher. Very familiar and informal. Presumptuous? No, true.
Your first reaction is to embrace in this moment and you do – certainly not in keeping with Jewish codes of proper behavior for a woman. Shameful? No. True.
Finally, you hear in the very nearness of Christ’s presence the urging not to cling to this moment alone, but to move on to Galilee, to the place of ministry, for further relational encounters with the Risen One. And you go. Crazy? No. True, utterly true.
You announce to the others that Christ lives, that you have encountered the Risen One. Is it the unusualness of your message or the power of your person that convinces them? I suspect the latter. Your words and movements exude an authority, a leadership born of a steady love.
On this day in the liturgical calendar, we celebrate you, re-membering the integrity of your person. It is your truthfulness, Mary, that speaks volumes. May it guide us when we stand looking painfully into life’s voids where it appears that God is dead and not to be found. And may it be yourstory that steadies us, as we hear our names called, precisely in such places of confusion, loss, and pain, and are tempted to run away. Be present with us, that your mature and steadfast spirit may accompany us, as we receive the invitation of the risen One to move on to Galilee to the place of ministry, of loving accompaniment of others.
Mary of Magdala, stay present, that the blessing of your life will continue in us, women and men alike, who long to love and lead in ways both wide and deep, and yestrue, utterly true.
Dr. Colleen M. Griffith is Professor of the Practice of Theology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry where she serves as Faculty Director of Spirituality Studies for the M.A. program. the dual degrees, and the Post-Master’s Program in Spiritual Formation. She holds her doctorate in Theology from Harvard Divinity School, where she worked under the direction of historical theologian Margaret Miles. Dr. Griffith’s research and writing interests include historical and contemporary spirituality, Christian theologies of the body, method in practical theology, and exploration of the relationship between doctrine and spiritual practice.
Dr. Griffith’s publication PROPHETIC WITNESS: CATHOLIC WOMEN’S STRATEGIES FOR REFORM, published by Crossroad, received a first place award by the Catholic Press Association in June of 2010. She served as the guest editor for the Spring, 2009 C21 Resources issue titled “Catholic Spirituality in Practice” which has had an unprecedented print request of 200,000 copies. This publication moved to book form as an edited anthology with Thomas H. Groome, and it is now it its second printing.