Shrouded by church tradition and conspiracy theories, a woman walks through the gospels. For the most part she’s there on the fringes, her big moment appearing almost at the end of the story. Sadly, that moment is overshadowed in favour of other tales – she’s a prostitute, she’s Jesus’s wife, she’s the bearer of the Holy Bloodline. Issues of sexuality and theology and hidden history find a home in her story, with popes and potboilers looking to recast her within their own agendas.
But Mary Magdalene remains one of the most powerful figures in the gospels. She’s the first person to encounter the risen Jesus; maybe that’s because she was chosen for that role, maybe it’s because she was the only one to hang around long enough to meet him, but regardless, there she is – the person who got to tell Peter and John and all the others that Jesus was alive and death had been defeated. For someone who’s been cast as a character in so many other narratives, let’s not forget that, on the first Easter, she was the great storyteller.
So what do we know about Mary? Everyone immediately throws out the instant answer “She was a prostitute!”, but that wasn’t the case. We first meet her in Luke 8, where she’s one of a number of women healed by Jesus, and who are funding him as a result. There’s an enigmatic note stating that Jesus cast out seven demons from her, but we don’t get any further details.
Maybe that’s fair enough. I’ve written before about all the hidden stories within the gospels, and maybe this should be one of them. We don’t know exactly what Mary’s history was – she was conflated with a repentant prostitute in the medieval period, and that cemented her reputation as the stereotypical ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ – but should that matter? She was freed from oppression by the power of God, same as so many men and women before and since. Maybe God’s more interested in what happened after that moment of grace. The church has often fallen into that trap (the two main women in the gospels are identified as a virgin and a prostitute, when the truth, like reality, is more complicated); just ask Junia the Apostle.
We know that she financially supported Jesus, which implies a degree of self-sufficiency and independence. She recognised something important in Jesus’s ministry and was willing to put her money where her mouth was. Contrary to how women were often treated at the time, it doesn’t sound like she was dependent on men – the opposite seems to be the case. That’s worth keeping in mind.
From then on she’s silent until Easter. Here we see her as steadfast – she’s there at the cross and at the tomb, one of the few people to stay with Jesus throughout. Judas turns traitor, Peter pretends he’s never met Jesus, but Mary remains loyal. She’s an eyewitness to the crucifixion, to the pain and horrors of Good Friday, but also to the joy and glory of the resurrection.
This is the moment she’s best known for. Standing alone at the empty tomb, grief-stricken and disgusted that Jesus’s body has been moved or stolen, she weeps. And through those tears, Jesus appears.
Pause here. This isn’t the moment of revelation, not yet. This is the moment when, through grief and loss and pain and despair, hope starts to break through. Mary is someone who has suffered and yet, in the midst of that suffering, she is liberated. This isn’t just her story; Jesus seeks us out and finds us, often at our lowest ebb, often before we even know who he is.
Mary mistakes him for a gardener, but even in her error she’s insightful, maybe even inadvertently prophetic. The Bible starts in a garden, the relationship between God and man is ruptured in a garden, and here, in a garden, all this is restored. Maybe seeing Jesus as a gardener wasn’t a mistake.
Standing there in a garden, with Jesus as the New Adam, it would be tempting to see Mary as a new Eve, whatever that might entail. But that’s a loaded idea (thanks Dan Brown!) and a gendered one at that. Maybe Mary represents all of us, everyone who’s been pulled out of the jaws of hell, everyone who needs a rescuer. She’s the first one to see, in the flesh, that Jesus’s promise of hope and salvation is true, and she immediately goes to tell those who most need to hear this.
That’s who Mary is – not Jesus’s wife, not a penitent prostitute, but a witness, a follower, a storyteller, the Apostle to the Apostles. And in this she stands, not as a model of a particular view of women, but as an example for all of us. It’s time to rediscover this side of her story and to let it illuminate our own.