Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” – John 20:18
Who was Mary Magdalene? A prostitute? A woman once possessed by the devil? Jesus’s lover? Jesus’s wife? “The apostle to the apostles”? “The thirteenth disciple”?
I would say just one of those descriptions is good. (Feel like guessing which one?)
Whatever, two thousand years of Christian history have thrown up all these portraits of Mary: which just goes to show how obsessed people can be with improving (supposedly) on what the Bible actually says.
So… what does the Bible say?
The short answer is: very little. Her name suggests that she came from the town of Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She was numbered among Jesus’s inner circle, along with the twelve disciples and “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” (Luke 8:2) who supported Jesus and the twelve financially.
We are told there also that “seven demons had come out of her” – but what lies behind that tantalising scrap of information we can only guess. (Given that the Bible chooses not to tell us, let’s be warned not to guess; who are we to shove our noses into things the Spirit has kept from us?)
She figures prominently in the events of Jesus’s suffering and death – she stands with other women before the cross, and, supremely, she is a witness to the events of the first Easter morning.
And that’s just about it.
Her reputation as a prostitute arose because somebody decided to identify her with the unnamed “sinful woman” of Luke 7:36-50 who anointed Jesus at the meal table, and the story caught on. There is no evidence for this, nor for the suggestion that there was any kind of romance between her and Jesus. (Keep these things in mind next time you come across a tacky “unputdownable” novel or a sensational “must-see” film.)
So… Mary was a loyal supporter of Jesus, who had had some kind of troubling spiritual affliction which he healed. That sums it up.
But there is a wonderful detail we shouldn’t miss: Mary was the first person in history to be able to utter the words “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). She was the first witness to the resurrection…
The early part of John 20 is pretty breathless stuff – everyone seems to be running.
Mary, first, probably along with the other women mentioned in the other Gospels, comes in the dark of early morning and finds that the tomb of Jesus is open. She runs to tell the disciples. So Simon Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” (probably John the son of Zebedee) run to the tomb, with Mary bringing up the rear.
John outruns Peter, but hesitates to enter the tomb until Peter catches up with him. But when he does go inside… “he saw and believed”. (Can you picture his face in that electrifying moment?) The two of them head off back to where they are staying, no doubt walking now, but no doubt also wracking their brains to take in just what has happened.
Mary lingers, no doubt in a state of shock, fear and total confusion: what is going on!
She gets into conversation with the gardener and – well, read it for yourself in John 20:11-18. The gardener (who, of course, isn’t the gardener) speaks her name: “Mary”. And her world is changed for ever.
And then?… I picture Peter and John sitting with the other disciples in their lodgings: John – the first believer! – is quivering with excitement and trying to convince Peter, and the rest, of the astounding truth: Jesus has risen from the dead. Peter is sceptically shaking his head.
The door bursts open. Everyone looks up. Mary has run like the wind. Her face is bright red; her hair is all over the place; and she is panting so hard that she can hardly get her words out. But when she finally does, there is a moment of utter, awe-struck, pin-drop silence: “I have seen the Lord!”
What a moment! Oh, what a moment!
To Mary Magdalene fell the privilege, the honour, of being the first person to bear witness to the resurrection. Not to Peter, James or John or any of the men. (Who says God has a down on women?) Which means – going back to our question at the beginning – that she is truly “the apostle to the apostles”, for the word “apostle” simply means “someone sent with a message”.
What can I say? We cannot make Mary’s claim, “I have seen the Lord”. But we can claim to know him, and seek to love and follow him. So let us too do what Mary did – be apostles, if not to the apostles, then to our unbelieving world. How can we keep this staggering, life-changing, world-changing message to ourselves?
Lord God, thank you for those brave and dedicated women who were with Jesus and the twelve in the early days, and especially for Mary Magdalene, the “apostle to the apostles”. Please grip me afresh with the wonder of what happened that first Easter Day, and help me also to be an apostle to those whom I meet. Amen.