Mary Magdalene: Patron Saint of Showing Up
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 20:11-18
The victors write history. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase before. I might make it a little more specific, though. What we really mean is that the people who overpower, subdue, capture, and kill other people, usually through violence, are usually the people who get to dictate the official story about what happened. And that story usually serves to justify and codify the power of the “victors.”
We’re seeing it today. Across the country, people in power are doing all they can to purge the brutal story of genocide of indigenous people here in these United States, the cruel story of slavery in these United States, and all the ways those legacies have shaped who we are as a country today. 150 years ago, the story was that indigenous people were uncivilized savages—to justify their eradication. Our original constitution dictated that people who were enslaved counted as ⅗ of a person in terms of congressional representation. People in power shape the narrative to preserve power. The story told becomes the truth, even if it’s not fact.
This is why so many of us think that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker. Which is not stated in any sort of way in our scriptures or even in any of the non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary, where she’s mentioned. A lot of us think that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker because in the sixth century, Pope Gregory I said she was in his Easter sermon. He conflated Mary Magdalene with the “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, and the story took off. Mary Magdalene became this alluring, beautiful woman who was either maybe a little too close to Jesus or who submitted to Jesus, trading in her sinful life to become a dedicated follower.
I can’t get inside the head of a sixth century pope, but I do know that the early Church wasn’t exactly comfortable with women in leadership. In fact, up until fairly recently the Church has tended to slot women into three different categories: the nurturing mother exemplified by Mary the mother of Jesus, the promiscuous woman exemplified by Mary Magdalene, or the mystics like Julian of Norwich or Joan of Arc who were often characterized as hysterical—faithful but not sound of mind. Too emotional.
Let’s be real: this still happens.
No woman is just a mother or just a sexual object. Not every woman’s faith is expressed purely emotionally. But when women have defied these categories, as Mary Magdalene did, the storytellers, the writers of history like Pope Gregory I, slotted them into one anyhow.
I prefer Mary Magdalene as she appears in the scriptures, the Mary Magdalene that theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber describes as the patron saint of…just showing up.
That’s what Mary Magdalene does throughout the gospels. She shows up. For herself. For her community. For her friend. For her savior.
She’s all over the four gospels, but chronologically she’s first mentioned as having been healed of seven demons. I don’t really know what that means, but what I do know is that she was sick in some way—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—we don’t know, and she sought help. She sought healing. She showed up for herself, advocated for what she needed, and she got it.
Because she asked for healing, and because she received that healing, she was able to show up in an even bigger way. She was able to show up for a community she believed in. We’re told in Luke that Mary Magdalene, along with several other women, provided financial support for Jesus’ ministry. Yes, even Jesus needed to fundraise, to get pledges, to do his work. Because Mary Magdalene ended up in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, the implication is that she started following Jesus on his travels. Became a disciple, we might say. Even if she’s not counted among the twelve.
Speaking of crucifixion, guess who was at the foot of the cross as Jesus was dying. Not Peter who had betrayed Jesus three times that very same day. No, it was Mary Magdalene along with the other women who loved and followed Jesus. At the height of his suffering, Mary Magdalene showed up. Even though there was nothing she could do except be present, to sit with Jesus in his suffering. To suffer alongside him.
Then, in the depth of her sorrow and devastation, she showed up again. This time at the tomb of Jesus. She arrived before dawn, perhaps to tend to his body. Perhaps to say one last goodbye. And she finds that the stone has been rolled away. When she sees his body isn’t there, she runs to get Peter and another disciple. And while those two disciples were in the tomb looking for Jesus, guess who appeared to Mary Magdalene while she waited outside. The risen Jesus chooses Mary Magdalene calls her by name.
In showing up over and over and over again, Mary Magdalene becomes the messenger of resurrection. The apostle to the apostles. The midwife of a new way of believing, a new way of being. The disciple that our Church relegated to the background.
I think sometimes we wonder where God has gone when we find ourselves in the depth of suffering, in the midst of what seems to be unbearable pain. Maybe I should speak for myself. I know my prayer in those moments is often, “God, where the hell are you?”
In those moments, I sometimes forget that God doesn’t show up by swooping in and making all the problems disappear. God shows up through the people who show up. Through the Mary Magdalenes of the world who lend a hand when I’m struggling. Bring me food, give me a ride, take care of the little things I may not be able to do for myself when things are hard. Or who simply sit with me when I’m devastated, not looking away from my suffering but bearing witness to it. Helping me to know that I’m not alone. Who show me my own strength and gently call me to advocate for my own needs, my own healing.
That is the legacy of St. Mary Magdalene. She shows us how to show up for each other. How to be the Body of Christ for one another. She helps us to know that God is all around us, even in our darkest moments, a messenger of resurrection.