Mary of Magdala, First Witness to Resurrection

Mary Magdala Community

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D.

Let’s begin with reviewing familiar territory, familiar that is to our Mary of Magdala Community.  The passage from the Gospel of John, the first Gospel Reading for today’s liturgy, is the story known to every Christian who ever studied the New Testament.  Mary of Magdala experiences the risen Jesus and becomes the first witness to resurrection.  Her great love causes her to want to embrace him but he prevents her saying something about not having ascended to God.  As the first one to witness she goes to tell the others, setting a course of action by some of those others that involved running to the tomb, seeing discarded burial cloths and believing although they did not believe Mary in the first place.

When I put my literalist cap on and think that what we find in the Gospels is the story of that first day of Resurrection then I consider the stories of the rest of the day.  In the evening, as we read in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the disciples return from the road to Emmaus to tell their story but they are first told by the others, “He has appeared to Simon.”  Now, think on this – within the course of one day, in less than one day, Mary had already been dismissed!

Thirty or so years later, as we read in the 15th chapter of the 1st letter to the Corinthians, Paul passes along what has been told him of the first witnesses to Resurrection.  And who, in Paul’s retelling, was the first one to see the Teacher?  He writes, “he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve…. Last of all he was seen by me.”  My reading of this adjustment to history has more to do with seeing Paul attempting to establish his credentials as an Apostle rather than crediting the first witness to resurrection.  And ever since, as we know, Mary continued to be dismissed and called much worse.  All this to create one particular beginning story that never told the whole story.

This is why I so appreciate the second Gospel passage for our liturgy today.  The Gospel of Mary is an ancient manuscript; scholars believe it was written in the 2nd century.  It reveals interactions between the Apostles that are hidden away from the official canon of the New Testament writings.  It shows Peter and Andrew attacking Mary, and Matthew coming to her defense.  And when that was done they went about teaching and preaching about the New Way.

I love that final line of this passage.  “After he (Matthew) had said these things, they started going out to teach and to preach.”  Do you notice that no one said, “We must be united in what we are to say.”  Apparently, the teaching and the preaching was based on each one who was a witness to the Resurrection telling her and his own story.

It’s passages like this that confirm my view that the Bible is a secondary resource for our faith.  The primary resource is our own experience in faith, who is God and how is God making Godself known in the experiences of my life.  What we get in the New Testament is testimony of the “winners” who demanded a set way of teaching and preaching, which explains why Mary, with her first experience of the resurrected Jesus, was dismissed and not identified in Paul’s account of it all 30 years after the fact.

I invite you to consider your own experience of resurrection, of the presence of life, of coming to your own knowledge of the whole Christ.  It’s entirely likely you will be led by the Spirit to grow more deeply in faith when you allow this experience to inform that faith.

Here’s what I mean.  Earlier this month I returned to the part-time job that I had just started when covid struck, and then I left the job.  The job is inserting ads into the weekly shoppers that are everywhere in southeast Wisconsin.  It’s 18 hours/wk of a relatively mindless task, leaving the rest of my mind to prepare upcoming homilies or to plan our trip to Rome and central Italy.  As one of my coworkers said on the first day of my return, “Where else can you get paid to daydream?”

My experience of resurrection on the job is co-workers seeing to it that I get the job done right.  Co-workers who welcome me into the band of picking up ads and sliding them into the shoppers.   I’m here to tell you that, generally speaking, after many years of working with Boards of nonprofit organizations, with people who reside in corner offices and with the professional class you just don’t find a better class of people, generally speaking, anywhere else than on the shop floor.  I find myself comparing notes with Jacques Loew, the French worker-priest who worked on the docks of Marseille, France, in the years following World War I and did that work with his fellow laborers as his full-time priestly ministry.

As I invite you to consider personal experiences of the Christ-life which are the gifts that make you a witness to resurrection, consider also that the whole Christ is about signs of resurrection in social institutions and systems.  And here’s what I mean about that.

For how long were we fed a particular teaching by the institutional church about family both as a set of personal and interpersonal relationships and as an institution.  I think the term used was the family as “domestic church” as if the church was the real family and the rest of us were just mere “wannabes.”  We were led to believe that the Church had all the right things to say about and to enforce the ideal of family life.  They backed it up with Bible teachings and idealized the home life of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as the Holy Family.

Isn’t it clear by now that here we have yet another example of putting the cart before the horse?  Real family is what humans form out of love for real persons.  And what family, at times of family gatherings and big meals of celebration, categorizes family members between those who are worthy to eat the meal and those who must sit on the couch and just observe?  Real families don’t do that.  But some Churches do exactly that to their divorced and remarried members.  Such institutions refuse to bless the family union of members of the LGBTQ+ community.  As if celibate males who, by definition, have no other person with whom they form love and family are the ones “in the know.”  Let’s be clear that the institution of family does not need to be told who is and who isn’t family by those who take over the idea of family and redefine it for their own purposes.  The whole Christ is embedded within each family, however that family is formed and with whomever it is formed.

Here’s another example of the Resurrected Christ and social justice.  I like to think that the institution of free assembly of citizens is also evidence of the whole Christ who is alive among us.  Remember when the crowd came out at night to arrest Jesus?  He asked, “Am I a criminal that you come after me armed with swords and clubs?  When I was with you day after day in the temple you never raised a hand against me.” (Luke 22:52b-53)

The fact that all three synoptic Gospels include this confrontation between Jesus and the temple authorities, it seems to me, is an example of the denial of free assembly – a basic right of justice – which citizens are entitled to.  In her book, Creating Capabilities, Martha Nussbaum includes this right of assembly as a fundamental capability that must be awarded to free citizens for the growth and development of a free society.

What we know as witnesses to the resurrection of the whole Christ is that Jesus was denied his right to freely assemble.  He suffered what so many prophets and outspoken critics of repressive governments and churches have experienced.  His right to free assembly was not directly confronted, rather the repressor chooses to come in the night and remove the thorny person who is a discomfort.  This is no different than the young people in Chile during the repression of Pinochet.  They were captured in the night and many, as reliable accounts have reported, were flown out over the ocean and thrown out of the planes to drown.

Be a witness to resurrection.  Appreciate and love the call you receive personally to live out your experience of the Christ of New Life.  Acknowledge and act against the injustice of depriving free expression and speech.  Can we see that witnesses to Resurrection do what they can to stop the extreme restrictions on voting rights, the citizen’s ultimate right to assemble, that are being enacted by state legislatures throughout this country?

We have accepted the model of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles, First Witness to Resurrection.  Like Mary we will not be dismissed, denied, denigrated, or deprived.

Litany of the Women at the Tomb

Mary of Magdala, our Patron, Apostle to the Apostles.              Pray for us.

Mary, mother of James.          Pray for us

Joanna, Salome, bringing oil for the body of Jesus.         Pray for us

All Apostles, Evangelists, Prophets, Teachers,

Witnesses to Resurrection.           Pray for us


A Prayer   (JR)

Holy Redeemer Christ, you chose Mary of Magdala to be your first witness to Resurrection, so that she would preach the message as Apostle to the Apostles.  By her guidance and her leadership we also accompany You in your love especially for those who suffer from illnesses of the mind, body, and spirit.  May we have the courage of Mary as she rose above confrontations with other Apostles to speak your Truth.

All Holy One, be the light on our path to transform this world which is in such need of equality, justice and peace.  We pray in the glory of your Name.  Amen.







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