Feast of Mary Magdalene - 9am and Eucharist

  • Preacher

    Canon Chancellor - Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford

  • Readings

    Song of Solomon 3.1-4 2 Corinthians 5.14-17 John 20.1-2,11-18

Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem are often shown the Garden Tomb where a huge round millstone sits beside a cave entrance, surrounded by a neatly kept garden where roses bloom and butterflies dance in the sunlight.

There is no evidence that this is where the body of Jesus was laid, but it fulfils the fantasy of all those Victorian paintings and of Christina Rossetti’s much loved poem,  “Morning has Broken”.

Perhaps we can indulge ourselves just for a moment with something like that fantasy, imagining the scene on that Resurrection morning, with the dew still on the grass and the birds just awakening.

Mary, carrying her jar of perfumed oils, tearfully on her way to anoint the body of her beloved friend and teacher. Her eyes are so blurred with tears that she does not at first see the figure in front of her, but he sees her, and calls her name.


At that moment she is fully seen and fully known, as only the Risen Lord can know any of us, and she knows herself to be fully loved. She is given a share in the resurrection life.  Jesus sees the reality of the woman in front of him. He sees her potential as a bearer of good news to others.

He sees Mary.

It is almost impossible to know how others saw this woman at the time, but we can be sure that we don’t see the reality of this woman any more.

She has become something else, a mythological figure, a Freudian archetype, a symbol.

She has become

"The Magdalen […] brought into existence

by the powerful undertow of misogyny in Christianity,

which associates women

with the dangers and degradations of the flesh”

(Marina Warner, Alone of all her sex, p 225).

It started slowly, as people conflated the stories of three or even four women, Mary of Magdala from whom seven demons were exorcised by Jesus,

Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair, an unknown woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and Mary, the first witness at the tomb.

Already you can see some themes of sensuality emerging, the repeated references to perfumed oil, the hair, the tears.

By the sixth century, all these events were associated with a single figure, and the demons from which she had been exorcised were identified as all seven deadly sins.

In a famous sermon Pope Gregory explained,

“It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.

What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.

She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears.

She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears.

She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord's feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer's feet.

For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself.

She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”

The typology is set in place and for the next fifteen hundred years Mary will be characterised by her sexuality and her penitence.  She will be painted and sculpted in various states of undress, she will wear the red silk of a whore, her name will be attached to hundreds of homes for unmarried mothers and rescued prostitutes.

In the twentieth century writers and film makers have taken the idea further and seen her as the temptress of Jesus himself, offering him the delights of a physical relationship, suggesting that Mary can only express her love for her teacher in the language of sexual desire.

It is not difficult to see how these ideas caught people’s imaginations and fed their fantasies, if we consider for a moment the first followers of Jesus.

If I ask you to imagine the disciples, the closest friends of Jesus, I wonder what image comes to mind?

If we were to look at images of the disciples, starting with the mosaics in Ravenna, where they are often depicted surrounding Jesus on the ceilings of churches, right up to recent films, what you are likely to see is a group of men, all of a similar age, similarly dressed, perhaps one or two with beards, so that you can tell them apart.

But, the followers of Jesus were not a monochrome group of men, they were a diverse and egalitarian community, which included women as well as men, Samaritans as well as Jews, the poor and the prosperous, the formerly blind and lame, and presumably people of all ages, though artists rarely show us that either.

This is the group to which Mary belonged.

Unusually, she is known not by her family relationships, but by the place from which she came – the bustling merchant town of Magdela on the shores of Lake Galilee.

It is hard to imagine what life could have been like for the women among the disciples.  An unmarried woman, travelling without the protection of a relative, was likely to attract unwanted and critical attention.

One can imagine that right from the start, people assumed that she was a prostitute, because they were the only women in the culture who were liberated from family ties and responsibilities.

But everything we know about Jesus tells us that this was a community of equals, where the women were taught alongside the men, where resources were shared, where there was no Jew or Greek, no male or female, but only participation in the life of Christ.

In the garden, in the Resurrection dawn, Mary heard her name and she saw Jesus, her teacher, now her risen Lord and God. And Jesus saw her and loved her, just as he would see and love her brothers, in the upper room, by the lake side, on the road to Emmaus.

In meeting Jesus they would each come to the realisation that they were truly loved and truly known, that they too had become a new creation, sharing in the resurrection life.

Whether Mary needed forgiveness for a colourful backstory of vice, or simply for her ordinary frailties and failings, we do not need to know.  What we can know is that in being known and named, she was also trusted to share the good news with her friends. Again, Jesus shows how the old law is turned upside down in the new Kingdom.

Neither Jewish nor Roman law would accept the uncorroborated evidence of a woman, but Jesus sends Mary to be the apostle to the apostles, the witness to the witnesses.

When we come to Jesus in prayer, whether during this service or during the week, may we also experience, with Mary, the joy of being known and named, the peace of being loved and forgiven, as we share in the resurrection life.