Apostle to the Apostles

Mary of Magdala has always received a raw deal from some members of the Church. Belittled as a former prostitute (there is no evidence for her ever having been one — in any case, why would that justify disparagement?), looked at slightly askance because of the seven demons Jesus cast out of her, and then put beyond the pale by her tears and clingy behaviour towards the Risen Christ (see today’s gospel, John 20. 11-18), Mary is everything some people find objectionable. She does not conform to the ideal of Pure Femininity on the one hand, nor Gracious Motherhood on the other. She is, in fact, extremely awkward, slipping between categories, acting in unexpected ways, and confronting us with the unpalatable fact that, like the Master she followed, Mary of Magdala is holy because she is truly herself. She looks at Jesus through her tears and he responds to the love he sees in her. She is called by name and entrusted with proclaiming the Good News to the disciples. It is one of the most beautiful and understated vocation narratives in the whole Bible, and it is a vocation that confers no status, no privilege, only mission — a mission that comes from that moment of communion between Jesus and Mary in the garden.

Mary’s role as apostle to the apostles is often played down, treated as a mere prelude to the important business of getting Peter and John to the empty tomb, but Matthew and Luke concur in naming women as the first witnesses to the Resurrection. It is worth thinking about what that means in the context of first-century Palestinian Jewish society. It was clearly odd enough and significant enough for the evangelists to record, and the Church has been wondering about it ever since. God’s ways are so often not our ways, and they puzzle us. In chapter 3 of the Rule, St Benedict urges the abbot to listen to the advice of all, especially the most junior brethren, because God often reveals what is better to the younger. God has a habit of springing surprises on us but we have to be open to them. We have a tendency to say that is not how it is meant to be. God does not speak through such people. God cannot speak through such people.

Today would be a good day for thinking about the people we barely notice, the ones to whom we don’t pay much attention or even positively dislike but who may have something to say that we should hear. It may not be a religious message as such (beware the self-appointed messengers of God!), but it could be something about ourselves or the world we live in or the values we aspire to that we have not really taken in. Today would also be a good day to spend a little more time in prayer, just being with God. Our mission, too, must proceed from communion with Him.

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14 thoughts on “Apostle to the Apostles”

  1. Particularly within non-conformist traditions, all the NT women (including Mary Magdalene) get a raw deal. yet they also did a great deal of servant apostolic ministry – particularly to our Lord as well as to the Apostles…

  2. There was a very interesting programme about Mary Magdalene on BBC 1 on Good Friday. Didn’t agree with all of it but it did give food for thought.

    The position of strong women in church has always caused problems I fear

  3. I think a lot of people miss the significance of the holy state – being authentic and truly one’s self. I am currently reading Sanford, J. A; 1989. The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings. New York: Harper Collins. Which very beautifully discusses exactly this point. The way in which Jesus approaches individuals in the Gospels and the way in which he interprets the society He lived in, suggests such a radical and uncomfortable inclusion and loving acceptance that I think it is sometimes too much of a challenge for people to take in. But really – what a stunning message – for Christ to make His first Risen appearance to Mary and the other women… No wonder men have been arguing about her ever since!!!!

  4. The Blessed Virgin is always my first recourse, but I love Mary of Magdala who saw so clearly society desperately needs to see now, what has eternal value and the simplicity of what is truly beautiful and meaningful. She gives me such hope and courage.

    (And how I would echo your warning about ‘self-appointed messengers from God’! I have lived long enough to see the punishing ramification of that over and over again.)

    Actually, Sr Catherine, I suspect ordinary worshippers, as opposed to the Fathers of the Church, love Mary of Magdala as they love St Peter and St Augustine. They are us.

    • Oh, I think the Fathers were more just to her than some later churchmen, but ‘St Mary Magadalene in her life of sin’ was rather a favourite with some nineteenth century preachers.

  5. ‘…a vocation that confers no status, no privilege, only mission — a mission that comes from that moment of communion’ Thank you for this. It gives me a lot to think about.

  6. Thank you for enhancing what I had already learned about Mary. The stories about her seem to have been deliberately chosen to portray her in a poor light and to downgrade the service she gave to Jesus during his life and death.

    It demonstrates the cultural prejudice that existed in those societies, which persists in some places even today against women in ministry or serving in leadership roles within Churches.

    Mary should be their inspiration that she was chosen as you describe for the special vocation to announce the resurrection to the disbelieving male disciples.

    Time for change of such a culture.

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