The Bible never says Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, only that she was the woman from whom Jesus drove out seven demons. At some point in the church’s history, she picked up the former profession. While it may not be historically correct, I prefer to think of Mary Magdalene this way. Why would I want her to be a prostitute? Because it gives us greater hope. If indeed she was a prostitute, then who better to symbolize the broken, sin-laden humanity which falls in love with Jesus Christ? Her sordid past makes her story all the sweeter. Every person with a checkered and broken past suddenly can relate to this saintly woman. Hope is given to the hopeless and knowledge that even the worst sinner can be touched by Christ’s love. People enslaved by sex-work or the sins of lust suddenly find themselves a powerful patron saint. She is the one who hears their cries as their cries were once hers.
When Mary Magdalene meets Jesus, she is under the control of demonic powers. She is twisted this way and that, completely miserable and lost to sin. A person like this seems hopeless indeed. Yet Jesus reaches into her life and delivers her, not only from the possession but from the life of selfishness and sin. By this one encounter, her life is set on the path of reformation. After multiple lovers could not satisfy her, she meets the One Lover. The love story of Mary Magdalene and Jesus portrays the love story of the human soul and God. In a former life, we were prostitutes. We have chased multiple lovers, going to and fro in search of something we could not name. Then an encounter with Jesus brightens our world. The sun rises and the darkness of our demons is cast away. The healing of demonic possessions or illnesses always carries a deeper reality in the Bible. It represents the state of our hearts prior to reformation. It represents Jesus’s healing hand on fallen humanity. Health of body is always tied to health of soul, this cannot be emphasized enough. We, like Mary Magdalene, groaned under our burden of sins, waiting deliverance.
Today’s Gospel reading re-visits Easter. We find ourselves at the empty tomb, saying “Where did you put him?” Sometimes in the course of daily life, it appears we have lost him. Like the Bride in the Song of Songs, we hastily go out into the streets, in search of the Beloved. We ask any passerby, “Have you seen he whom my heart loves?” (Song 3:3). Mary Magdalene didn’t ask for Jesus but rather for the “him”. Her relationship with Christ is so intimate she expects everyone else to know him too. And at the tomb she finds him as he never left! It is our soul that wavers and strays, still tempted by the former life.
It is no coincidence that the Gospel readings take us back to Easter. Mary’s first encounter with Jesus was a resurrection of sorts. She was dead to her sins and in her many demons but she drank from the fount of life. She is an echo of the prodigal son, who squandered his inheritance. A resurrection occurs when he returns to the father: “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24). Or as the lyrics of Amazing Grace proclaim: “I once was blind but now I see.” Easter is the time of renewal, a passing over from death to life. All that was dead has now blossomed. What is shriveled and blackened becomes green. This well describes the state of our hearts. So now Mary stands at the empty tomb, meets the Risen Lord and realizes everything has been made anew. Jesus takes Mary’s mortality to the grave and by resurrection promises her that she too will rise.
The lewdness of Mary Magdalene’s past should inspire us, whether it is fact or not. I think the Church has a strange sort of wisdom in legends like these. History is perhaps altered but to bring out a deeper truth. The spiritual lessons learned become more important than the facts. Mary’s encounter with Christ and her encounter with him again after the resurrection are tokens of hope. We were once dead but now we are alive!