On this, your feast day, I’d like to write to you in a reflective, imaginative contemplation. You were such an important person in the life of the early Church, and such an intimate friend of Jesus, that I want to spend some time with you and get to know you better.
I find it helpful to start by remembering that you were from Magdala. Your coming from this prosperous town on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee gives me a good starting place. I imagine that since you are not named, as many of the other women are, in reference to a man, e.g., you weren’t called “Mary, wife of Jacob,” that you were never married. I’ll assume the reason for that was that you were a very wealthy woman, involved in the one of the two great businesses that Magdala was famous for - the preserving of fish and the building of ships. Perhaps your father had no sons and died an early death, leaving you to run a thriving business. It’s possible you never needed to be supported by a husband and so no marriage was arranged for you. I’d like to imagine that the man your father arranged for you either died or that he was unfaithful and abandoned you for what he perceived was a more “feminine” woman.
What we know about you from the gospels is that Jesus drove “seven demons” out of you and that you followed him, along with Mary his mother and the other women who were benefactresses for him and his followers. What demons possessed you, Mary? I really doubt that you were the sinful woman at Simon’s banquet in Luke’s gospel or the prostitute saved from stoning in John’s gospel. Medieval art too easily identified you with these women. It is clear from these stories that Jesus didn’t know these women and there is no reference to “seven demons” being driven out of them. Your struggle was not something sexual, Mary. I suspect the magnificent demons you struggled with had to do with your wealth and the fame and pride they brought you in Magdala. Riches, honors and pride are the biggest demons Jesus talks about, not the sexual sins.
I suspect you were an extraordinary woman in Magdala. I can picture you as a unique and powerful woman in that city of merchants and artisans. I’ll bet you had no peer. No woman had been tutored the way your father trained you. You were smart, clever and you understood people. You were successful and your accumulated wealth won you respect, perhaps fear, and maybe even a lot of artificial friends and workers. In a man’s world, you had become a leader. It was all in God’s plan for our salvation, Mary. You were prepared to meet and be transformed by Jesus. Your gifts would serve his mission well.
What was the encounter like? I suspect it was a trip Jesus made up the coast, just passing through Magdala. You were a prominent person in town and it would have been natural for you to want to meet this celebrity coming through town and making a stir. You weren’t a very religious Jew, but you were well educated and understood both the religious and political issues Jesus was stirring up. His message stirred up your heart as well. “If you want to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.” “It will be so hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven - a camel passing through the eye of a needle.” “When I was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison, you weren’t there.” “The rich man begged Father Abraham to let the poor beggar bring him a drop of water.” “You can’t serve two masters, God and money.” Seven horrible demons came pouring out of your heart, Mary, and your heart was so emptied to be open to receive him, to love him, to follow him.
Jesus needed you. Of course, your assets supported their travel and daily needs. But, you were there, an eye witness to his preaching and miracles. You were there for Mary, his mother, every step of the way. I can only imagine how much she loved you and was so thrilled that a woman of your gifts was following him. And you stayed by his side, even when his disciples fled. The Romans didn’t frighten you. And, your heart was on fire, as theirs never could be.
So on that third day, when you went to the tomb and found it empty, you were the one God ordained to be there to see the Risen One alive. And, you were the one chosen to be an apostle to the apostles. In those days, no one would choose a woman to be a witness in court. But, you were no ordinary woman. The disciples would believe you. You were different. Your testimony was credible and your grateful love was trustworthy.
After what you’d been freed from, you didn’t need great attention and recognition for being chosen to be the first witness to the Resurrection. I’m sure you played the role that you were allowed to play in the early Church. Perhaps you returned to Magdala and preached the faith there and no written record of your preaching remains. I can almost hear it. I’m sure it was all about Jesus and how freeing it is to let him love us.
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