Mary Magdalene, Frederick Sandys, 1859, Delaware Art Museum
Today the church commemorates Mary Magdalene.
As a New Testament figure in the art and imagination of the Christian world, Mary Magdalene ranks behind Jesus, Mary his mother, and John the Baptist. Legends of Mary Magdalene abound through the Christian centuries, some of them conflated from the several women of the same name. There are up to seven women with the name Mary in the New Testament. Magdalene (from the village of Magdala on the sea of Galilea) must have been the leader of a group of women who accompanied Jesus.
In church teaching and in the life of the corporate church, Mary has been set aside. This is a simplified way of putting the matter: John the Baptist represents the ascetic, prophetic, legalistic side of Christian teaching. Church people, Lutheran church people included, like the moralistic, righteous and self-righteous John the Baptist. They (we) like what he said and we find it easy to accept or reject him. Fundamentalists and atheists, who are like opposite sides of the same literalist coin, think of the Christian faith in absolute terms.
Mary Magdalene represents the earthly, sensuous, emotional, ambiguous, committed part of Christian experience. According to the gospel record she is faithful to Jesus and is around even when events are painful and confusing. She makes mistakes, but she is unfailingly present.
Just as I tell you that Protestant Christians need to reclaim Mary the Mother of Jesus, the wider Christian Church needs Mary Magdalene as well, as much as it needs the Blessed Mother. When things don’t go as expected, we will find Mary Magdalene there beside us. It may take hundreds of years to bring her back. I’m praying it won’t take that long.