July and August see the celebration of two remarkable and contrasting women. They rejoice to share the same name, but there the similarities end.
As the Olympics began last month we kept the feast of Mary Magdalene. She was one from whom seven devils were cast, who stood at the cross weeping, who may have poured ointment over Jesus feet before his passion. On the first Easter morning she went again to anoint the body of the Lord, and she meets him in the garden.
She is sometimes seen as a foil to the other Mary, Jesus’ mother (whose feast we keep on 15 August). One so controlled and sinless, the other so emotional and impulsive. Down the centuries, Mary the mother of the Lord has been seen as an emblem of obedience, responsibility, acceptance and motherhood. While the other Mary, Mary Magdalene, is seen as an emblem of commitment, passion, warmth, and conversion.
Both Marys come into their own during the few hours of Jesus Passion and Crucifixion. For in most Gospels we see them united in their helpless grief, but also united in remaining close to their suffering friend and son. In those narratives of Jesus’ final hours both of them are seen among those who remain with him till the end, and by implication stay close to him as his body is taken to his tomb. What follows after sees Mary, his mother, as an invisible witness, since no Gospel mentions her again in their descriptions of Jesus resurrection appearances. But Mary Magdalene comes into her own on that first Easter morning. She returns to the tomb early and discovers it empty. Weeping at this final loss she meets one whom she supposes to be the gardener. Once she is spoken to she recognises her Lord. He tells her to run and tell his disciples of all she had seen. For what occurred on that first Easter Morning the Eastern Church places her as equal to the Apostles. In fact while they ran away she stayed, at the cross and at the tomb. Indeed she is more of a disciple and an apostle than most of them.
Both women underwent great change in their relationship to Jesus of Nazareth. From being the centre and origin of his life, his mother had to accept a place of less influence and significance as he grew. Mary Magdalene was also forced to change. When finally she recognises him she wants to hold him and touch what she has known. And then the one who had allowed every untouchable and criminal and sick person to touch Him, said, “Do not hold me”
Both women, naturally, must have wanted to hold on to what they knew. Both knew him as son or friend. They were called ultimately to know him as Lord. Both must have told what they had seen, at the beginning and ending of his life. From that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene was no longer a servant and hanger on in that group of men, she was their equal.
At this time of the Olympics and the Paralympics, Mary Magdalene is an icon not just because she ran to tell the others, but because she knew that she needed to run with perseverance the race that was set before her. Mary, the Lord’s mother, like us all, had a different and unique calling but she too has a message for us, and for all people. With the grace of Jesus, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit we can forget what lies behind, and strive for what lies ahead. We can, like them, strive forward on our race in life; using all the capacities we have been given. Whether we run or fall, win or lose, we can not only run our own race, but like the two Marys, help those who are running theirs. With them we can all go for gold.