Mary Magdalene: Looking for Something in White
Country singer Lori Morgan recorded "Something in Red" in 1991. It was a song about the changes in a woman's life. Courtship, marriage, childbirth, and life were reflected by her looking for a certain colored dress. Well Mary Magdalene is still looking for something in white.
More often than not this saint is dressed in red. From Gregory the Great on, Mary Magdalene was identified with the open sinner in Luke 7. This is the woman who brought a very expensive alabaster flask of anointment to anoint Jesus' feet. She was overcome with tears out of love for the forgiveness of sins she had received from him and ended up crying all over His feet. She then impulsively let down her hair to dry Jesus' feet. Letting down your hair in public was considered forward, scandalous, risque.
Now Scripture doesn't give the name of the woman in Luke 7. The Eastern Church doesn't identify her with Mary Magdalene, but the Western Church, from which we descend, often does. To such an extent does this happen, that the symbol for St. Mary Magdalene is an ointment jar.
The woman in Luke 7 is called by Scripture an open sinner. She was some kind of public sinner. But it has more to do with the fallenness of men than women that her sin is usually thought of as sexual.as if that were the only or the most popular sin for women. Even when Mary Magdalene is not identified with the sinful woman of Luke 7, she is still regarded as a former sexual sinner. I use to think it was only as far back as the 70s musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" that she was considered a prostitute. In it she sings Jesus is "just a man/ And I've had so many/ Men before" But it really goes back to Gregory the Great in 591 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Magdalene). Though regarding this Mary as a prostitute is libelous, it did produce one good thing in her name. Since the 12th century houses for fallen women have been called Magdalene Houses.
When it comes to what Mary's problem was, the Scripture only says that Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Mark 16:9). I would think 7 demons would leave a mark, a scar, but in art and in many people's mind this woman is still considered bedeviled. I don't think that's fair. It's like picturing Zacchaeus as still cheating people; Bartimaeus as needing glasses; or Lazarus as half-dead. Yes, even though Mary Magdalene is not looking for something in red that is what she is most frequently dressed in.
But not today. Notice we have white on the altar. Remember for the Nativity of John the Baptist we used the historical "red" for John and not the white the new lectionary called for? Remember we said that they switched to white because although John did shed his blood in confessing Christ, the altar color was white because John's birth was being celebrated? What about Mary? She's not martyred in the Bible; what traditions we have all record her dying a natural death. Only her reputation is martyred. Yet here we are with white. I think it's fitting and I'll tell you why.
We know from Luke 8 she was an early supporter of Jesus. She is listed as one of the women who financed Jesus' ministry from out of her own means. Mary came from Magdala a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. This city was famous for dyes and the manufacture of woolen textiles. Eighty are mentioned. It was also known for supplying the doves and pigeons used by the poor for purification in the Temple. Magdala was a very wealthy city. It was one of 3 cities whose contributions came to Jerusalem by wagon (Life & Times, I, 571). Mary could have been a wealthy merchant. Her devils could have been greed, power, stealing, etc. rather than anything of a sexual nature.
We also know Mary was last at the cross and first at the tomb. The Catholic Encyclopedia won't give this Mary that latter honor. It says that "she is the first witness of His Resurrection--excepting always His [Jesus] Mother, to whom He must needs have appeared first, though the New Testament is silent on this point" (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09761a.htm). Nope the Bible says Mary Magdalene was first, and though other Mary's did come only our Mary would not leave till the mystery of the empty tomb was solved. And this is where our Mary shines. When she thinks Jesus is the gardener she says, "Tell me where you have put Him, and I will get Him."
We know that Mary Magdalene personally witnessed the burial of Jesus. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was buried in accordance with the burial practices of the Jews with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. This means the wrapped up Jesus would have weighed over 200 pounds and this woman says: "You tell me where you've placed Him and I will go all by myself and bring him back." You know what her symbol should be? Muscles.
Muscles that we know Mary was willing to use would be a more fitting than an ointment jar that we don't know she did use. And let us clothe her in something in white because she did know how to love Jesus rightly. This is a play on the song "Jesus Christ Superstar" has Mary Magdalene singing: "I Don't Know How to Love Him." O yes she did, and we could learn something from this woman in white.
While all but one of the apostles was hiding for fear of Jews, our Mary stayed at the cross. She saw it all. She saw the suffering, sighing, bleeding, and dying. She heard Jesus cry, "My God, My God why have you forsaken Me?" She saw the water and blood come from His pierced side. Even more importantly she heard what Jesus said while nailed to the cross: "Father forgive them." She heard what Jesus said to the thief on the cross. "Today you'll be with Me in paradise." And she heard Jesus commend His Spirit to His heavenly Father.
How could these things be? Being nailed brutally and unjustly to a cross, Jesus still speaks of forgiveness? Dying alone and forsaken by God He can still say He will be in paradise today? And though no answer came back to His painful question to God except darkened sun and quaking earth, Jesus can still commend His Spirit to a heavenly Father not a generic God.
Now I can't tell you this all came together for Mary at the cross because you know she went on Easter morning to bury a dead Jesus. It didn't come together for her till after she saw the risen Jesus, but then it came together in a rush; then it came together for her as it had better for you. If Jesus can forgive the sins of those pounding nails into Him, then He must be willing and able to forgive your sins for which those nails are being pounded. If Jesus can assure a thief being executed for his crimes "Today you will be with Me in paradise," then there is no death that you could face that would somehow eclipse the power of Jesus to bring you to Himself. If Jesus can commend Himself to His Father on the cross, then the Father is done forsaking Him for your sins. Then the Father will not forsake you for yours.
Not only did Mary see the Gospel of the innocent Jesus suffering for her sins and hear the preaching of it to sinners like herself, she alone heard the preaching at the empty tomb from the risen Jesus. First lets set the stage. My mother had a painting of Mary at the tomb before Jesus finds her. She is collapsed on the ground. Her disheveled hair covers her face. You can't see her crying but the artist makes the whole picture weep.
You know why? Because as Paul says, "If Jesus be not be raised from the dead we of all men are most miserable." If Jesus is not raised from the grave then He's still dead. The only reason He died was to pay for your sins. If He's still dead, that means He's still paying. It also means the demons the Lord cast out of you be they unbelief, greed, pride, worry, or sexual sins can come back anytime they want to. If Jesus be not risen, He's not stronger than Death or the one who has the power of Death the Devil. So weep with Mary. Put her in red, brown, or black, and put her there for good.
But Jesus is raised, and Mary heard the first preaching of the Gospel. Remember this Mary had been one of the few to watch Jesus go through the hell of the crucifixion. Then she was up at the crack of dawn to go to the tomb. There was only one apostle in sight on Friday; there's none now. She knew how they all had forsaken Jesus. She knew what abject cowards they were. She also knew that all of them had been invited to the last Passover and more importantly the first Lord's Supper. Neither she nor Jesus' own mother was invited to either.
And what does the risen Jesus say to her, "Go to My brothers and tell them I'm returning to My Father and yours; My God and yours." Can you believe it? Mary did, and without a trace of jealousy. Maybe jealousy was one of the demons Jesus casted out of her. The forgiveness of sins that Jesus won on the cross had the power to declare apostate, cowardly apostles brothers! Mary went and proclaimed the Gospel to those who surely didn't deserve it. She was the first one to proclaim the Gospel, and she was sent to the ones who would be entrusted to carry that Gospel into all of the world.
Clothe this woman in white. If any woman had a reason to be disgusted with the men around her, it was Mary Magdalene. If any woman could think that Jesus was overlooking her talents, abilities, and contribution to His ministry, it was this Mary. If Jesus had done this to any of the apostles, I think they would have stalked away from the ministry. My proof for this is the several times the apostles argued with each other over who was the greatest. Even in the upper room, though they were all invited to the Lord's Supper, they still fought over who was the greatest.
Not our Mary. She was content with the forgiveness of her sins. She was content to be delivered from her devils. She was content to share the forgiveness with men who didn't deserve it because she knew she didn't either. Like the woman in Luke 7, Mary did know how to love Jesus and she loved Him much because she knew she was forgiven much. So put this woman in white. White for the holiness of Jesus that covers her sins; white for the eternal life she has; white for the holy example she is to men who aren't worthy of her and to women who walk in her shoes. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Mary Magdalene (20120722); John 20: 1-2, 10-18