St Mary Magdalene (July 22)
Martha and Mary illustrates the same truth. The incident concentrates on the quality of welcome offered to Jesus. Mary was remembered for having chosen the better part because she sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him speaking. The greatest gift that we can offer another is a truly attentive ear. To listen properly we must empty ourselves of every personal concern, we must abandon ourselves to the other. Jesus recognised this generosity in Mary as she sat at his feet. Martha, who fretted and worried about so many things, made her own concerns the focus of her attention. "Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do all the serving by myself'?"
However we understand prayer, it is not primarily about our own agenda. Like Martha, we worry and fret about many things. In prayer we seek the discipline to forget ourselves, to listen, to allow God to become the sole focus of our attention. We must be prepared for silence, because silence affords the other the opportunity to speak. So many wild speculations have attached themselves to Mary Magdalene, that it is necessary to rehearse the more sober, if still dramatic, accounts of her in the Gospels.
In Luke 8:2 she is introduced as one of "certain women", whom Jesus had freed from evil spirits and sicknesses: "Mary who is called Magdalene" had had seven devils cast out of her. These women "ministered to Jesus with the means they had".
In Mark 15:40, as in Matthew 27:55, Mary Magdalene re-appears among the women who had come from Galilee to Jerusalem, and witnessed the crucifixion "from afar". Subsequently she is present when Joseph of Arimathaea buries Jesus in the tomb in the rock.
Most notably, she is the first witness of the Resurrection. The Gospel accounts differ in detail, with St John providing the most dramatic version.
On the first Easter morning, while it is still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, and finds the stone moved away from the door. She runs to Peter and John, crying out: "They have carried the Lord away from the tomb, and we cannot tell where they have taken him."
The two Apostles discover the empty tomb. and return home; Mary, though, stays behind and looks into the cave. Two angels ask why she is crying. "Because they have carried away my Lord," she repeats, "and I cannot tell where they have taken him". As she says this, she turns around and sees Jesus standing there, "without knowing that it was Jesus"; indeed when he talks to her, she supposes he must be the gardener.
There follows the overwhelming simplicity of John 20:16: "Jesus said to her `Mary'. And she turned and said to him `Rabboni' (which is the Hebrew for Master)." Beside this exchange, of what concern are scholars' arguments about whether Mary Magadalene was identical with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, or whether it was she who anointed Jesus's feet with costly ointments?
Gregory the Great, pope from 590-612, answered both questions in the affirmative. He also, without producing any evidence, described Mary Magdalene as peccatrix, or sinful woman though not, as the heated medieval imagination would have it, meretrix, or prostitute.
There is further matter for controversy in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (c 150), which depicts Mary Magdalen as Jesus's favourite disciple. Mother uncanonical text, the Gospel of St Philip (c 200) relates that Jesus and Mary were "companions" and that he used to kiss her.
The Fathers of the Church were scathing about such apocrypha. At least, though, they were spared the still more extreme (and vastly lucrative) concoctions of Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.