Tomorrow is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. I have had a deep love for Mary for many years, finding her a strong, fierce, and loving woman. Interestingly, the gospels never once refer to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, yet this is the common understanding that many people have who have not studied her. Mary was described as being possessed by seven demons, which Jesus cast out of her to heal her. After this healing, Mary followed Jesus as one of his disciples. Since the bible only names men as the inner circle of apostles, we don’t know for sure that Mary Magdalene was within this inner circle, but it is my fond belief that she and several other women were. Mary Magdalene was one of the few of the closest followers of Jesus to wait with him at the foot of the cross – John being the only of the male apostles who witnessed the crucifixion – and was the first person to whom the risen Jesus showed himself, giving her the title Apostle to the Apostles.
I was surprised and pleased when I read through the lectionary readings and collect for Mary’s feast day. I found the collect for the day to be absolutely beautiful.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I love the prayer that we pray in this collect: Mercifully grant that we may be healed from all our infirmities. In the time of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, a possession by demons was the understanding of many kinds of mental and physical illness. Mary may have suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or many other illnesses… but Jesus brought her back to health of body and of mind. This prayer reminds us that all our infirmities does not mean merely limitations of our physical bodies. Our infirmities could include emotional distress, mental illness or disability, or even hurts to our very spirit and soul. The dis-ease a person suffers from could be that she has chosen to distance herself from God, and is suffering as a result. Often it can take a great shock to bring one back into God’s arms, where one can be comforted and loved and healed by the God who yearns to bring us all to wholeness.
In my experience, I have noticed that I tend to resist God’s healing. I have all kinds of little resistances. In my twenty-first century mind, I note that all those healings in the bible were great, but God just doesn’t work that way today. I will do things that I know to be unhealthy to gratify some short-term impulse. I will say that yes, I have this mental hang-up or that emotional struggle, but those are mine to work through, and God isn’t going to take on the work I need to do. I’ll read a prayer like this and think yes, we’ll be healed of all our infirmities… when we die and are brought into God’s arms in heaven. But there are a couple of dangerous things lurking beneath these, and pride isn’t necessarily the smallest. Another assumption here is that God can’t heal my brokenness, my infirmties; there is an assumption that God can’t or won’t restore me to health in body and mind, as Jesus did for Mary Magdalene. It seems crazy – to a twenty-first century American who has a basic understanding of science and how the body and mind work – to give serious thought to the idea that not only can God reach down and heal someone completely, but that God will and maybe even does. It seems absurd… and yet, I believe those stories in the bible, so why should I disbelieve that it could happen here and now? Could the only reason I don’t find myself healed be that I am not allowing God the opportunity to heal me?
Mary Magdalene said yes to God in a way that reminds me of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her yes was to the angel, bearing word from God that God would plant a child within her, to be the savior of her people. Mary Magdalene’s yes to Jesus was an expression of complete faith in his healing, faith in his vision and message, faith that he is the living water, the living word, the bread of life. She believed to the core of her being, as did Judith in the Old Testament reading – that Jesus was the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope. And as a result of this full and living faith, Mary became the new creation that Paul discusses in the letter to the Corinthians, and her yes was to a completely new life: in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! I note that exclamation point – this new life is exciting, is wonderful, is full of delight and awe and joy. It may have been just as scary to Mary Magdalene to relinquish her control and pride to Jesus as it is for me, but when she allowed him to heal her, she found a wonderful, awe-some new life… a bit like the new life of Jesus that she was given a glimpse of in the gospel reading.
So I am thinking now about how I might honor St. Mary Magdalene tomorrow, on her feast day. I will certainly pray that beautiful collect, and I will try to spend some time reflecting on the infirmities that I am holding onto, the ones that I haven’t allowed God to heal, and why I might feel threatened by the changes that healing might bring. Thinking about Mary with the disciples and with Jesus, walking all over the countryside, I imagine that they must have sung a lot as they traveled… walking songs, campfire songs, prayers sung for the night and for the morning. So I will sing tomorrow, too, and probably light a candle to carry my voice to her where she rests now, in God’s kingdom, in God’s arms, surrounded by the living water, the divine light, the choruses of the entire communion of saints.