Yesterday was the feast day of Mary of Magdala. This enigmatic woman at the heart of the Gospel stories has intrigues me. The church owes her a huge debt of gratitude, probably more than we will ever know. She was the Apostle to the Apostles, the first to witness the resurrected Christ.
Luke portrays Mary as a wealthy woman who helped support Jesus and his disciples as they traveled about the countryside. When did Jesus and Mary meet, and what was the nature of their interaction? I don’t like to imagine them married, because that would diminish Mary’s importance as an apostle in her own right. The Gospel of Thomas has a passage in which Jesus tells the other disciples that he will make Mary “male”. It’s a strange exchange. I wonder if it means that Jesus wants his followers, us by extension, and Mary herself, to free ourselves of the stereotypes surrounding Mary that would diminish her intellectual and spiritual understandings in our eyes?
When did she leave the other disciples, and what were the feelings between them at her parting? Was she accepted and revered in the group?
One post-resurrection story places her in the court of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, where an egg she was holding became red in affirmation of her statement to the monarch that Jesus had risen from the dead. If true, she must have been wealthy indeed – or at least highly influential – to have been granted audience. And one wonders what else she might have done while she was in Rome? Did Paul follow her there, placing his own brand on a church she had actually already started?
On the other hand, there is a tradition that she remained with the disciples in Palestine until after James was killed. She was in a small group that was arrested and put out to sea in a boat with no oars or rudder. In this version of the tale, the disciples arrive in the south of France and proceed to evangelize the region of Provence. There is an ancient cave there in which Mary is said to have spent the last 30 years of her life. Is this a more accurate account? It seems in keeping with the Mary I have constructed in my imagination from the few fragments of her story we have.
But really, all those questions aside, I only really wonder one thing. I wonder what that moment in the garden after she had discovered the empty tomb was like for Mary. When she was so profoundly despairing, what was it like to turn and find herself face to face with her Lord? Why did she not recognize him? Or rather, what transformation occurred within her so that she didrecognize him?
For me, the transformative moments when my entire reality shifted and I recognized God are very few. For instance, there was the moment when I realized that faith is not a matter of the intellect but rather a conviction of the heart. It isn’t something that can be willed; it’s something a person already knows but needs to recognize within herself.
I imagine Mary to be a great teacher and evangelist. I imagine that people who had encounters with her would have told those stories to their children and grandchildren for generations. It is a great loss that these stories have disappeared.
All that is left to us is to find and live out our own stories of authentic and ever changing relationship with Christ. These are what we all really need: tales of the wisdom of earnest souls living beyond stereotypes and seeking the truth in love.