This past spring, a mom from the preschool came back into the church after dropping off her child. In the corner of our parking lot, she had found a woman bent over and crying. Bringing her into the church office, the mother said that the woman was in pain from a broken tooth. The woman was obviously in a lot of pain and had sores on her face and her hands.
She said that she had been in so much pain she wasn’t able to work. When we asked what she did, she looked at us and said, “I’m a working girl.” She waited for the judgment we didn’t have time to give because we were trying to figure out how to help her. The mom offered to drive her over to Safeway for some Orajel (pain killer) and some food. In the meantime, I made calls to find some help. I tried the Mary Magdalene center, but got no answer.
I called LSSA and received the names of some dentists who might do low-cost or pro-bono work. However, we concluded that the entire situation might be better if we could get the woman to go to the emergency room and perhaps receive care, food, and contact with a social worker. I did not think we would end her professional career that day, but I hoped we might offer some light.
Eventually, the mom came back to the church alone and very upset. After receiving the medication to make her tooth stop hurting, the woman wanted to go back to work. She was worried about the people who had her things and to whom she owed money. It was tough to console the mom who returned, who had been so hopeful that we would be able to save the woman. She cried to me, “How could she want to go back?”
Because she does not know anything different right now, I said, but you helped her see a little something different today. And that will stay in her mind. It is hard to watch people who really want to help feel rejected and confused, but it happens in the work of reaching out to people in a broken world.
I kept thinking about both those women this week when I was pondering Mary Magdalene in my heart- the bruised “working girl” and the very clean-cut preschool mom. As most of you know, I have a personal crusade to make it known far and wide that in the gospel accounts, Mary Magdalene is NOT (NOT!) a working girl (prostitute). In church history, she’s often been conflated with Mary of Bethany and the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. While this did narrow down the number of characters in the Scripture, making it easier to keep everyone untangled, it gave Mary Magdalene a reputation she didn’t earn and threw into the shadows the one she did.
In Luke 8, Mary (called Magdalene) has seven demons cast out of her by Jesus and then she, with several other women, begin to follow him as disciples. There is no mention of what the demons were. Presumably, like other demons encountered in Scripture, they are afflictions that prevent her functioning in society. They could be things like depression or anxiety, things we might recognize as psychological. They could be physical ailments- bleeding, epilepsy, screaming fits. They could be Satan trying to prevent her from becoming the instrument of God that she’s about to become.
Nevertheless, she is freed from these demons and follows Jesus. Imagine what that was like for her. She had been invisible to society and now, suddenly, she was seen and known by the eyes of God in Jesus. She was restored, not only to wholeness, but to companionship, to community, to communion. Her body is whole because the body of Jesus, the body of God, came near and brought her consolation and healing.
After her exorcism, we next see Mary Magdalene at the tomb. And she’s there in all the gospel accounts. She will not abandon the body that brought her own self back to life. Sometimes she’s with other women, sometimes she’s the first one there. I occasionally wonder if she ever left after Good Friday- after they laid him in the tomb. Maybe she never went home, but lingered in the shadows, in fitful waking and sleeping and sobbing, until Easter morning.
This is the story that people need to know about Mary Magdalene. That she encountered the risen Christ and that she, she, carried the good news of resurrection to the other apostles- who were hiding in fear. That Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors are facts that we can get from other stories and other characters. We do not need that good news from Mary Magdalene.
What we need from her is the tower of faith that stood in grief by the tomb. The pillar of strength that recognized the face of her teacher, her rabbouni! The urging of the Spirit that hurried her feet over packed roads, singing, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” The truth people need to hear about the story of Mary of Magdala is not an exaggerated claim about what she might have been, but the bare facts of who she was- the Apostle to the Apostles, the first post- Easter evangelist, the foundation of the church because of the story she carried.
If we elevate her too much, we risk her seeming too saintly, too out of reach. Yet, with Mary Magdalene, I do not think that will happen. When the other apostles seem uncertain or bombastic, unfaithful or confused, the eyes of the church turn to Mary Magdalene- who had real, physical experiences of healing, forgiveness, and hope.
A working girl on Spenard doesn’t need to know, yet, that Jesus was a friend to prostitutes. She needs to know that the people who claim to follow Jesus are. People who are struggling, looking for hope, lingering because change does not seem possible need to know that the people who claim to follow Jesus are on their side. And in as much as we help anyone, we should never be doing it because it is what we think Jesus would want us to do. We should be doing because of what we know has been done for us through Jesus. And how did we come to know of this grace, this Easter hope, this work of forgiveness?
Through the words of the first preacher, Mary Magdalene- who dared to follow Jesus, who dared to stay at the foot of the cross, who was prepared to honor the body of her Lord fallen- but met that body risen. Her story needs no embellishment or conflation, but it is powerful through the test of time. And if we dare to be like her, to trust in the healing that we have received and to seek the risen Christ, our story will stand as well.
People want to know God’s history, and how will they hear it unless someone speaks it to them? People long to know that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, cannot, will not overcome it.
With Mary Magdalene, like Mary Magdalene, I tell you, “Christ is risen.”
He is risen indeed.