Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, 2017.
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Let us ask a basic question: Who is Mary Magdalene? There is much that might be said about who she is; and in truth much already has been said, particularly if you have paid attention to popular books and movies of the last thirty years, because a person named “Mary Magdalene” has often been a major character in such works. Yet popular culture has pushed this to an extreme, has it not? As is often the case with the human condition, we tend to take things to their extremes before finally pulling back. The Church’s mechanism for such pulling back is often Holy Scripture, and making sure that our understanding about the faith accords with it.
And so, who is Mary Magdalene, this woman weeping outside the tomb? The three most important things to say about her is that, one, she is here weeping, as if we might weep when our life feels completely lost, confused, and hopeless; two, that she is a Saint, and three, before she was a Saint, she was a sinner. And because she is both, we can safely look to her as we do all the Saints: as the primary and best interpreters of Scripture, because Saints embody a lived-out Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why she is a Saint has everything to do with why she was a sinner. She was a sinner because we are told clearly by Saint Luke in the eighth chapter of his Gospel that she is a woman from whom seven demons had gone out. “Seven” both in ancient culture as well as the Church is a symbol of perfection—think of the seven days of creation, the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, the seven Sacraments, the seven Capital (or Deadly) sins, and a whole lot more. In both sacred and profane senses, “seven” connotes complete, total, comprehensive. So for Mary Magdalene to have been possessed by seven demons meant she was not merely a garden-variety sinner, but a perfect sinner, or a total example of how not to live.
While Luke or any one other biblical writer does not provide any further unambiguous detail about Mary Magdalene’s biography (besides that she was a person of some financial means, as she is said to have financially supported Jesus’ ministry), some basic theology can fill out the picture to some extent. If she was full of demons, she was full of sinful activity. The root sin, of which all other sin is variation, is Pride. Pride puts oneself above God, or one’s desire for other things above desire for God. In the theological sense, as for example described by the prophetic writers such as Isaiah, to love and desire other things above God and instead of God is to commit idolatry, and furthermore, to commit idolatry is to in effect commit adultery against God. The children of Israel in the Old Testament regularly prostituted themselves, theologically speaking, to other gods and their selfish desires, and time and time again we see God castigating them for it, calling them out as having abandoned Him; and yet time and time again, God calling them by their name as His beloved, and from his boundless love, forgetting their sinfulness in the face of their love and adoration of Him.
This is the biblical pattern of the People of God’s relationship with their Creator, and this pattern is replicated and consummated in Mary Magdalene. Yes, she is a Saint, but she is a Saint because of she turned to God perfectly and completely with all the passion, emotion, and embodiment that she formerly gave perfectly and completely to idols, whatever those might have been. And so the Church has always celebrated her and, in a sense, celebrated her origins in perfect sinfulness—not to celebrate the sinfulness in itself, but to celebrate what God can do by his grace. If God’s infectious love can turn the perfect sinner into a perfected Saint, then who of us cannot be saved? Who of us cannot by His grace and love overcome our most deep-rooted sinful habits, the irresistible temptations we face and against which, falter time and time again?
But how, you might ask, does God do this?
He does it by His word. “And Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’” What a moment of unspeakable glory this was! Jesus only spoke a word, and Mary was healed. All of the confusion she felt was made clear by this word of speaking by God. All the anxiety and fear she felt not knowing where her Lord was—and modern psychology tells us that when people who are wounded are confronted by severe confusion or disorientation, there is the possibility of regression despite whatever healing and progress might have been made, a “sliding back”; in other words, this moment of confusion might have brought back all seven of the old demons for Mary—the anxiety and fear was transformed into security and love by this word of speaking by God. In saying her name, Jesus said, “Let there be light,” and there was light; Mary’s heart, her whole being, lit aflame with love for Jesus.
In the words of Saint Paul, Mary was now fully in Christ, and because of that, she was a new creation. All the old in her passed away, and the new had come. She was still passionate, emotional, and embodied, but now her formerly sinful desires were rightly ordered to God, rightly ordered to her Maker, her Lover, her Keeper. With what passion, charisma, and presence must she have proclaimed to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” For this, her whole journey from perfect sinner to perfected apostle to the apostles, she is venerated and celebrated as a Saint—an example for all time.
Saint Mary Magdalene, restored to health of body and mind and first witness of the resurrection, pray for us. Amen.