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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