Christians celebrate many of the heroes of the faith. Their stories encourage us to live as faithful Christians. They help us see how Christians in other ages lived through difficult times or how God’s grace gives them the strength to live with extraordinary faithfulness. This month, on July 22nd, many in the Christian church celebrate the story of Mary Magdalene, an example of faith and God’s healing.
We don’t know a lot about Mary. There are quite a few Mary’s in the Bible. The name, Mary, derives from Miriam, Moses’ sister. It was one of the most popular names for women in Israel at the time. The New Testament describes several different Mary. Here’s a list:
The Bible differentiates this Mary from the others by the town from which she came, Magdala. This article describes what the town was like. The name meant, “tower” or “castle,” and it was a thriving town about three miles away from Capernaum. The city was relatively rich, and it was a hub of fishing and perhaps textiles. The city’s success leads some to speculate that Mary Magdalene was relatively wealthy, giving her the chance to serve and follow Jesus.
If we follow Jesus’ story in chronological order, the first time Mary Magdalene shows up is in Luke 8.
“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”
That’s not a lot to go on, is it? We know that Mary had been possessed by seven demons. We can assume, then, that Jesus cast them out and brought her to her right mind. You can imagine why Mary was so loyal to Jesus. She was among the women who served Jesus and provided for him.
Mary is an important character in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. She was one of the women who stayed with Jesus through his trial, and she was at the foot of the cross when Jesus died. She also followed when they took down Jesus’ body and buried him in the tomb.
Mary appears most prominently in the first encounter with Jesus after the resurrection. She was one of the women who came to the tomb early in the morning on the first day. In the Gospel of John, she sees the stone rolled away, and then she races off to tell Peter. Peter and John race to the tomb, and they see that Jesus was gone.
Mary, however, stays outside the tomb weeping. She looks into the tomb, and she sees two angels sitting where Jesus had been laid. The angels ask her why she’s weeping, and she replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
She turns around, and she sees Jesus, though she doesn’t recognize that it’s him. She assumes that it was the gardener, so she asks, ““Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus responds by saying her name, and she finally recognizes him.
Mary appears in each of the other resurrection stories, and she is one of the first to tell Jesus’ disciples about the resurrection. As the first witness, she became the apostles to the Apostles. God sent her to the Apostles to give them the good news.
There are a lot of misinformation about Mary in the church’s tradition. For some reason, many Christians associated Mary Magdalene with the woman in Luke 7:37, where it says, “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment.”
Tradition claims, then, that Mary was a terrible woman, perhaps a prostitute. They claim all sorts of terrible things about her. Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he says that the seven demons were the seven vices. Many people like the description of Mary as a prostitute, because it shows the power of God’s forgiveness. That, however, is not what Holy Scripture tells us about her.
Mary Magdalene is also a major figure in the Gnostic gospels. In many of these, Mary is the most beloved of Jesus’ followers. Jesus shows her special affection, and she has special insight into the faith. In these fake gospels, Jesus chooses Mary Magdalene over the rest of them, and it upsets Peter. These “gospels” were, of course, false. They were written centuries after the resurrection, and they don’t match up with the testimonies that we have received from the Apostles.
Mary has an interesting story. She was possessed by seven demons, and Jesus cast them out. She followed Jesus faithfully, and she provided for his needs from her own means. More importantly, however, she stayed with Jesus even when everyone else fled. She stayed with Jesus while he was on the cross, and she came to the tomb after he had been buried.
Mary’s example can show us a great deal. Her faithfulness to Christ can lead us to be faithful, too. She risked much to stay with Jesus during his crucifixion. She faithfully followed wherever Jesus went no matter what, and she was willing to be seen with him, even when all his disciples had run away.
So, when we celebrate Mary Magdalene’s day, we celebrate the story of a woman who received grace and healing from Jesus. We remember someone who followed him faithfully, too. Mary was one of the great heroes of the faith, and we can learn much from her.
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