It’s surprising what you notice as you go round Woodstock on the annual Good Friday Walk of Witness. This year, as we entered the Parish Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, I looked up and noticed for the first time the little statue above the entrance. It depicts a woman holding something in her hand, presumably Mary Magdalene holding an alabaster jar of ointment reminding us of the unnamed woman described in Luke chapter seven as a sinner who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them with the ointment. But why imagine that she was Mary Magdalene who is named fourteen times in the gospels and never described as a sinner?
Some have claimed that she was really Mary the sister of Martha, who as John tells us, anointed Jesus in the home they shared with their brother Lazarus (John 12: 1-8). But that Mary came from Bethany near Jerusalem, while Mary Magdalene came from Magdala, about eighty miles away on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Yet others have thought that she was the woman referred to in Matthew (26: 6-12) and Mark (14: 3-9), who anointed Jesus in the last week of his life in the home of Simon the leper at Bethany. But again, the woman is not named and is not described as a sinner. It seems that there was more than one woman, who out of love for Jesus, chose to anoint him. What is certain is that none of these women is described as being Mary Magdalene.
So where did the belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute come from? It goes back to the year 591, when Pope Gregory delivered a homily in which he identified her not only with the unnamed woman who was a sinner, but also with Mary of Bethany. He said “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected. And what did those seven devils signify if not all the seven sins? It is clear ... that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” At a stroke, Mary became the penitent prostitute devoted to Jesus, something the Eastern Orthodox Church has never believed and which in 1969 the Roman Catholic Church declared to be an error. That still doesn’t prevent her from being the ex-prostitute in Jesus Christ Superstar who sings “I don’t know how to love him” or in The Da Vinci Code, the wife of Jesus and the mother of his children.
So what can we say about her?
- She was one of a group of women, presumably wealthy, who followed Jesus as he went through cities and villages with his disciples proclaiming the kingdom of God, and “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8: 1-3).
- Thankful for what Jesus had done for her, she became a devoted disciple who followed him all the way from Galilee to the cross, where in all four gospels she is with the group of women who watched Jesus die.
- Accompanied by another Mary, she watched as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus down from the cross and followed them to the tomb where they laid him.
- She subsequently returned to the tomb to be near his body and to weep.
- She was the first to find the empty tomb and was the first to whom the risen Christ appeared.
- She was the first to tell the good news to the apostles.
To sum up, she had a devotion to Jesus, not so much perhaps to his teaching, as to him personally. She is an example of generosity, faithfulness and courage, all inspired by a love for her Lord. Her real title is not “the penitent prostitute” but, given that she told the apostles the good news of the resurrection, a better one is what she was sometimes called in the early centuries of the church “the apostle to the apostles”. That may have something to say in the current debate about women bishops, but I refrain from commenting ...
Philip is a retired Methodist minister and worships at our church in Woodstock.