The lectionary readings for today can be found here on the USCCB website.
Sgs 3:1-4b, 2 Cor 5:14-17, Ps 63, Jn 20: 1-2, 11-18
The Feast of Mary Magdalene is a feast day for victims of patriarchy and state violence. It is the feast day for women whose stories have not been believed by men. It is the feast day for women whose bodies have been objectified by the male gaze, whose legacies have been distorted to serve the interests of powerful men. It is the feast day for women who stand in solidarity to witness the trauma of state violence and who grieve the loss of incarcerated, tortured, or disappeared friends. It is also an invitation to remember how we are each invited, in our own way, to be faithful friends of Jesus, and to use our voices to share his good news.
Today’s gospel raises challenging questions about the role of women in the early church and in 2021. The motifs that emerge in the lectionary’s construction of thematic coherence between Song of Songs (longing for the one I love), 2nd Corinthians (old things have passed away), Psalm 63 (my soul is thirsting for you), reflect the longstanding tradition of associating Mary of Magdala with the repentant sinner, a prostitute. Artists through the ages have filled museums with images of Mary of Magdala that testify to the male gaze, objectifying her as a beautiful seductress. What happens when we recover the gospel’s depiction of Mary? How might she speak to us today? I propose we think about Mary Magdalene’s fidelity, voice, and friendship with Jesus as the three most central aspects of her Christian witness. Mary lived in a time when women were identified by where they lived or the names of their children. Magdala is a town in Galilee. So we know that Mary was a woman living under the Roman empire’s domination. While we do not have extensive details about her life, she likely experienced vulnerabilities because of her gender and religion. Perhaps also because of her class (although some early legends talk about her as a woman of property, so this is disputed). Keeping some intersectional framing in mind will enable us to hear the full challenge of her story for us today.
She “shows up.” Mary of Magdala teaches us about faithfulness. She was a follower of Jesus, among those who traveled with him as he preached the good news. It changed her life. And even when things got difficult, she kept showing up. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes, in Abounding in Kindness, 68: “Feminist biblical interpretation highlights Jesus’s attitude toward women, his outreach toward women in need, his inclusive table community, the influence of women upon him, the witness of his women disciples. These disciples, key among them Mary of Magdala, provide the moving point of continuity in the gospel story. Having accompanied him as disciples around Galilee, they followed him when he set his face toward Jerusalem and were present at all the important events of his last days. They kept faith with him even to the bitter end. It is simply not true to say, as many do, that all of Jesus’s disciples abandoned him during the crucifixion. The circle of women disciples kept vigil by the cross as a sacrament of God’s own seemingly absent fidelity.” (For textual references in other gospels, see Mk 15: 40-47 and Lk 23: 49-56, 24:10-11).
A key takeaway for us is that Mary of Magdala’s fidelity centered on Jesus. She reminds us to be faithful by keeping our focus on Jesus. We are not called to fidelity to human institutions, or to those in the clerical caste. We are called to be faithful to God. One way to live this out is to “show up” in times of trouble for those most in need, as Mary and her companions did. (For more on fidelity to God, see Sandra Scheiders, Prophets in their Own Country, 23-24).
Mary of Magdala is venerated as the “apostle to the apostles.” She told the good news to the rest of the group (In John’s gospel, Mary went and announced to the disciples “I have seen the Lord,” and then reported what he told her. See also Lk 24: 10-11). She used her voice. Do women in the church today learn to trust their own voices? Do they have opportunities to speak, to share, to witness, to preach? While in the West, many so-called Church “fathers” were rewriting her story to focus on her deviant sexuality, her story was told in a more empowering way in the East. We are told that, while holding an egg in her hand, the emperor Tiberius rejected Mary’s faith in the Risen Christ, saying a man was as likely to have risen from the dead as the egg in her hand was to turn red. And behold, the egg turned red in her hand. This legend supported the symbol of the Easter egg as a tomb. In this legend, Mary again uses her voice to share her faith. But let us not forget two lasting ironies with regard to voice: first, the other disciples “did not believe her” thinking her story foolish (Lk 24:11); and second, women today continue to be forbidden from preaching in Catholic liturgical spaces. Theologian Susan Ross explains: “Women’s very real lack of power in the church today stands as an indictment of the power structures as they exist… Any discussion of the empowerment of women must be juxtaposed with our lack of political and symbolic power and the failure of the leadership of the church to rectify this scandal” (quoted in Johnson, 310).
Today’s gospel reveals the friendship between Jesus and Mary of Magdala. This friendship is rooted in mutual care and concern, honesty, and support. What starts out as grief and confusion. She is weeping… “Woman, why are you weeping?”.. turns into recognition and rejoicing. Mary’s story reminds us of the friendship of Jesus. But friendship preceded the story too. And in a significant way, the friendship of the women gathered at the foot of the cross enabled them to witness that trauma together and to seek meaning and life beyond it. Mary of Magdala’s friendship with Salome and Mary the mother of James the younger, was characterized as solidarity in suffering, and this can continue to speak to us today when we think about how women come together to support one another in times of difficulty and trauma, including after the unimaginable loss of a child or friend to state violence, terrorism, or war. Mary of Magdala was a friend to Mary of Nazareth in a time of loss, when it seemed that all the institutions around her were conspiring to make her son a victim. Their testimony of his innocence was ignored. They were powerless to stop the bloodshed. All they could do was witness, together, and share each other’s pain. Francine Cardman writes, in “Liberating Compassion: Spirituality for a New Millenium: ”
“Compassion engenders hope by reminding us that victims do not have to stand alone. To stand together in suffering is already to resist it.”
By standing together in their suffering, Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala and the other women show us what it means to witness. In calling them saints today, we claim them as “allies in the struggle for equal participation in church and society” today (Johnson, 281).
“Go to my brothers and tell them.”
The gospel lives on in us today. Will we listen to women? Will we believe women? Will we trust women? Will we stand in solidarity with suffering people? Will we show up even when it is hard for us? Will we hold each other in grief, amplify each other’s voices, listen for Jesus to call our name?
St. Mary of Magdala, Pray for Us.