22 July is the feast of Mary Magdalen (this year translated to Monday 23 July!), a saint whose following in the Middle Ages reached extraordinary proportions, but whose biblical example is worth re-thinking today. The true facts about Mary are hard to unravel.
Luke tells us that Jesus cast out ‘seven demons’ from her (Luke 8,2); and because this mention comes just after the story of an (anonymous) woman who poured ointment over Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair in a seemingly erotic fashion, tradition merged these two women and saw Magdalen as a reformed prostitute.
Thus in the rich medieval imagination she represented a sexualised type of womanhood, a counterpart to the purity of the Virgin Mary. As such, Magdalen’s erotic female beauty could be brought into the realm of accepted sanctity. Yet in the earliest strands of tradition Mary Magdalen was important for something quite different. If John’s gospel is correct (John 19,25 & 20,1-18), Mary was one of the few of his followers who stuck with Jesus during his crucifixion and again she was the first witness to Christ’s resurrection; while the men were still hiding in panic, or else simply uncomprehending, she had the eyes to see.
The position this gave her resulted in a number of written and oral traditions about her as a teacher and intimate of Christ – traditions that were rapidly side-lined as the subordination of women got the upper hand in the churches. Now, in an era of rapidly changing roles for women, it is worth asking the question anew: what characteristics of love and devotion, what acknowledgement of the need to be freed from our various ‘demons’, give us the eyes to see the risen Christ and the courage to proclaim him authoritatively, as Mary Magdalen did?
22 July 2018