As a teenage girl who cried a lot, and often (rather overdramatically) felt misunderstood, Mary Magdalene seemed to be my patron saint. In all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, it is Mary who is weeping before, during, and after Jesus’ crucifixion. It is Mary who first learns that Jesus’ body is missing from the tomb, she to whom Jesus first appears, and she who is given the task of going to tell the others what happened.
And it is Mary Magdalene’s tale of the risen Lord that is doubted by all of the men at home post-crucifixion, doing who knows what. The deliverance of the good news of the resurrection — the best news! — fell flat. The words seemed to the men “an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24).
Mary had been a leading apostle, hanging with the boys and traveling with Jesus, and yet her identity as a woman placed her as second class in the insider’s circle.
Could a moody, bossy, precocious teenager find a better biblical character to turn to, when the world was not appreciating her and everyone seemed against her?
Mary was a woman (a saint!) who understood what it was like to be doubted, undervalued, and gossiped about. In a description from an article from Smithsonian Magazine in 2006, James Carroll wrote, “Her image was conscripted into one power struggle after another, and twisted accordingly.”
Mary’s story has represented sin and repentance, sexuality, and the humanity of Jesus. She has been used as support for women’s ordination, and to rail against women’s leadership. Revered as the patron saint of many people and practices, from hairdressers and to contemplative prayer, she still endures confusion over her place in the canon of Christianity.
If political and theological battles weren’t enough, a fascination with a potential marriage between Jesus and Mary has permeated society. This obsession culminated in the romantic subplot of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and the film set to debut in 2017 starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix.
In other words, the woman who preached the first Easter sermon is known more for a fictionalized relationship with the Christ than for the words of light and life she brought to the world. The woman who stood by the cross until Jesus took his last breath is characterized by sexual promiscuity — one that is nowhere within the recounting of her ministry and her faithfulness.
As a teenager filled with angst, I turned to stories of Mary Magdalene to remind me that gossip is just words, and that I have worth given to me by God — not by those who talked about me. But as I’ve grown, as a feminist and in my engagement with the tragedies of the world, I’ve re-discovered Mary Magdalene as one of the strongest teachers and preachers in the Bible. People didn’t listen to Mary or value her as much as the other disciples, then or now — but she is there, in the rooms, being a witness to the miracles.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber once described Mary Magdalene as “the patron saint of just showing up.” In a sermon preached after the mass shooting in an Aurora, Co., movie theater, Bolz-Weber told her congregation that if Mary was there that weekend, “she would show up and tell us that despite it all, despite the violence and fear, that it’s still always worth it to love God, and to love people, and always, always, it is worth it to sing alleluia.”
There seems to be an overabundance of violence and fear these days, but maybe the world has always been that way and I’m just now waking up to it. With 7,650 individuals (and counting) already killed by guns in the United States in 2016, and recent large scale attacks in major cities around the world, it is difficult to want to get up and walk the streets or ride a bus to work every day. It is scary. I’m scared. I don’t want to have to show up to share good news or help others or work for justice and peace, because some days God is missing from my view of the world events.
As a white woman, I recognize that my fear is different than that of black men, 140 of whom are no longer with us this year thanks to the injustice system that led to their deaths at the hands of police officers. As a Christian, I know that my religion does not make me a target in this country. As a citizen whose parents are citizens, my fear is not that the state will separate my family or that my parents will have slurs thrown at them on a daily basis. Yet even with all these privileges, I feel like God has disappeared and gone a bit of vacation, when another shooting becomes a hashtag and another year goes by without apologies for dropping the atom bombs.
Well, Mary Magdalene knew a little something about feeling like God was missing. Jesus was literally missing when she went looking for him! When God was missing, she did not go hide in her basement like I want to do many days. She stayed put. She showed up. Yes, she cried and probably felt lost and afraid — but she stayed put, and eventually Jesus found her.
This is what theologian and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes would call “the theology of somehow.” Somehow, Jesus came back and found Mary, and gave her the good news to spread.
Jesus made Mary a light in the darkness and told her to go share that hope, knowing full well that nobody would take her seriously as a woman. Somehow, Mary Magdalene became the first preacher of the resurrection. And despite being afraid and amazed, she did her best to preach it loudly.
As a teenager, I needed a saint I could turn to when the world seemed against me, and that saint was Mary Magdalene — the misappropriated and misunderstood.
These days, I need a saint to turn to when I am against the world and against God. Mary Magdalene is still showing up to bring me reminders of grace.