The Advent season has wrapped within it, some of our church’s most beautiful traditions. The nostalgia of driving to a warmly lit church on a cold, dark evening, as Holden Evening Prayer’s meditative tones fill the sanctuary, Advent is something that fills my heart with wonder as we share in this time of Holy Anticipation, looking ahead to the arrival of the Christ at month’s end.
The celebration of tradition, especially in this time of preparation for Christ’s coming into the world, is good and meaningful for us as Christians, however a part of the Advent season is also an attentiveness for the arrival of the divine into the world, an arrival that two-thousand-years-ago defied all expectation for what the coming of the Messiah would be. Tradition is a beautiful thing, but like the Pharisees and Herod, it can also blind us to seeing the new and usually unconventional means by which God speaks to us here on Earth. Because the history of Scripture is also that of patriarchy and empire, we often forget or outright ignore the diversity upon which Christ built the church, which is why, during these next few weeks, we will be meditating on the ways three of scripture’s women brought incredible life, and in the case of tonight’s focus, the Christian faith itself, into the world.
Mary Magdalene is a name rarely mentioned outside of Holy Week; in fact, only passing mention is made of her throughout the Gospels, in which scholars now increasingly agree that the Mary who anoints Jesus’ with nard, another, who sits listening to him while her sister Martha prepares the meal, and a third, who visits the tomb early Easter morning are, in fact, one and the same disciple. Mary’s life is beautiful one, fraught with brokenness and holiness, a real humanity and a genuine desire to follow Christ and lead in his ministry, but also one that has been often misunderstood over the ages. The most important of those misunderstandings being that: it’s now generally understood that she was likely never a prostitute (though her ministry would be no less significant if she was). However, multiple Gospels do note that she was possessed by seven demons, and that Christ had cast them out. This language though, is layered with meaning and symbolism. Demonic possession was a common explanation for physical and psychological ailment in Jesus’ day, and the number seven in scripture heavily implies symbolism of fullness or entirety. You can therefore make a solid claim that Mary had fallen completely away from God as a result of mental or physical trauma, and that Jesus was able to bring peace to her body and mind. How incredible is it then, to think of the possibility that Mary Magdalene, rather than a sex worker possessed by demons, was instead a non-neurotypical (that is, someone who struggles with their own mental health), a non-neurotypical woman playing a leading role in the church. Her presence in Christ’s ministry is deeply inspiring, and makes a profound commentary on the diversity of leaders God calls to the church.
This realization is made most impactful during the death and resurrection, where Mary Magdalene is mentioned most clearly by the Gospel writers. In these most-solemn moments of Christ’s ministry, as he hangs from the cross, where do we find his followers? Peter has denied him, and like most of the other apostles has fled in fear deserting their teacher. Yet we find Mary and the other women with him at Golgotha, mourning but remaining at Jesus’ side as the life leaves his body. And it is here that we find the most incredible piece of Mary’s story, one we know well: her role in the resurrection story. On Easter, we see her fear and confusion as she finds the empty tomb, and even as her announcement of the risen Christ is dismissed by the men to be an idle tale, Mary Magdalene gives birth to our faith. To quote Reverend Lenny Duncan, “From the time when [Mary] left the empty tomb to the time she told the men cowering in fear that she’d witnessed the resurrected Jesus, she was the entire Christian message and the only one who knew the stunning truth: Jesus Christ of Nazareth was alive. For perhaps hours, she was literally the mother church.”
Mary Magdalene was a woman of devotion and conviction, she dwelled in Christ’s presence while he lived on Earth, and after he had left it, she remembered what He had told her sister Martha, went out into the world with resilience of faith, and began to build the body of this church. Advent is a time to celebrate the ways we can prepare for Christ’s arrival into this world, and a time to nourish that body as it grows in strength and power. I look with such awe and humility at Mary’s ministry, and believe we have much to aspire to in following her footsteps. Though we live in an age that so often feels full of brokenness, it’s comforting to know that the disciples too struggled with the brokenness in themselves and this world. And that ultimately this Advent, rather than a season of sadness, is truly a time of anticipation and hope for the celebration to come.
In patient expectation, and devoted action while we wait,