Mary Magdalene

It is sometimes held that Mary Magdalene was the woman Luke tells about whom, to the righteous horror of Simon the Pharisee, Jesus let wash his feet and dry them with her hair despite her highly unsavory reputation, and about whom Jesus said, "I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven because she loved much" (Luke 7:47). It's a powerful story, and it would be nice to think that Mary Magdalene is the one it's about, but unfortunately there's no really good reason for doing so.

When Jesus was on the road with his disciples, he had a group of women with him whom he'd cast evil spirits out of once and who had not only joined up with him, but all chipped in to help meet expenses. One of them was Mary Magdalene, and in her case it was apparently not just one evil spirit that had been cast out but seven.Just what her problem had been, nobody says, but, helped along by the story in Luke, tradition has it that she'd been a whore. Maybe so. In any case, she seems to have teamed up with Jesus early in the game and to have stuck with him to the end. And beyond.

It's at the end that she comes into focus most clearly. She was one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified-she had more guts than most of them had-and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him in the tomb. But the time that you see her best is on that first Sunday morning after his death.

John is the one who gives the greatest detail, and according to him it was still dark when she went to the tomb to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and that, inside, it was empty as a drum. She ran back to wherever the disciples were hiding out to tell them, and Peter and one of the others returned with her to check out her story. They found out that it was true and that there was nothing there except some pieces of cloth the body had been wrapped in. They left then, but Mary stayed on outside the tomb someplace and started to cry. Two angels came and asked her what she was crying about, and she said, "Because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him" (John 20:13). She wasn't thinking in terms of anything miraculous, in other words; she was thinking simply that even in death they wouldn't let him be and somebody had stolen his body.

Then another person came up to her and asked the same questions. Why was she crying? What was she doing there? She decided it must be somebody in charge, like the gardener maybe, and she said if he was the one who had moved the body somewhere else, would he please tell her where it was so she could go there. Instead of answering her, he spoke her name-Mary-and then she recognized who he was, and though from that instant forward the whole course of human history was changed in so many profound and complex ways that it's impossible to imagine how it would have been different otherwise, for Mary Magdalene the only thing that had changed was that, for reasons she was in no state to consider, her old friend and teacher and strong right arm was alive again. "Rabboni!" she shouted and was about to throw her arms around him for sheer joy and astonishment when he stopped her.

"Noli me tangere," he said. "Touch me not. Don't hold on to me" (John 20:17),thus making her not only the first person in the world to have her heart stop beating for a second to find him alive again when she'd thought he was dead as a doornail, but the first person also to have her heart break a little to realize that he couldn't be touched anymore, wasn't there anymore as a hand to hold on to when the going got tough, a shoulder to weep on, because the life in him was no longer a life she could know by touching it, with her here and him there, but a life she could know only by living it: with her here-old tart and retread, old broken-heart and last, best friend-and with him here too, alive inside her life, to raise her up also out of the wreckage of all that was wrecked in her and dead.

In the meanwhile, he had much to do and far to go, he said, and so did she, and the first thing she did was go back to the disciples to report. "I have seen the Lord," she said, and whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist.

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words