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The Apostle to the Apostles: In Defence of Mary Magdalene

It was still dark when she came to the tomb. We can imagine the knot of grief in her stomach as she walked along.

Perhaps she woke that morning after a difficult night's sleep and had that second of being awake and not remembering the loss; but then it all came back, and she dragged herself out of bed, dressed, and headed for the grave.

We go to graves in a way because it reminds us of the permanence of death. Graves and memorials are built of solid objects like stone and metal. They contrast with the flowers we bring to them, that like us fade and perish.

Mary Magdalene was clearly expecting nothing less than the solidity and permanence of the stone across Jesus's tomb.

She had been there when he had taught about the resurrection of the dead, and when he had even said that he would, after three days, rise. But so much of his teaching was parable and metaphor, and stories that were half jokes, that she hadn't really heard it. And, though the men may have dismissed her as an easily-led female, she was no gullible woman.

She was a woman with a past, and meeting with Jesus had changed her life. It wasn't the past you are probably thinking of when you hear the name "Mary Magdalene." Sad to say, she is one of the most libelled women in history. The legend of her as a prostitute arose because there are so many Marys, and a few other unnamed women, in the gospels, and it was sort of convenient to draw a composite of them. Ah, Mary Magdalene - the repentant sex worker, the one who was in love with Jesus, at least a bit - she must have been.

Pope Gregory I kicked this rumour off in a sermon he gave in about 591 AD, and it gathered steam throughout the Middle Ages. It was always an excuse for painters to add a rather sexy dimension to a holy picture - to have a half-disrobed woman clutching at the foot of the cross, with her wild hair falling about her shoulders, and her gaze on the dying Christ suggestive of more than holy devotion.

This is how she has been portrayed in our times on stage and screen, from Jesus Christ Superstar to The Last Temptation of Christ to The Passion of the Christ.

What we do know about her is that she had been possessed by seven demons, and that Jesus had cast them out. What this means in our terms, we can't be sure: only that she had been the victim of forces beyond her control, and these had ruined her life. Meeting Jesus had changed all that.

Don't get me wrong: there were, it seems, among Jesus's entourage ex-prostitutes and fallen ladies - women who were victims of the male gaze. But this woman, Mary Magdalene, should be famous not for being looked upon, but for what she sees. And she sees two things.

The first of these is that the stone has been rolled away, and that the tomb is empty. Clearly, this was an unpleasant surprise. She wasn't like a kid on Easter morning, who has been told: if you get up really early and go down stairs, there'll be a big surprise for you! She didn't wake up early to get the best seat as a witness to what was about happen.

The grave is open, and her first reaction is anger, which turns to shock and further grief. "They've taken the Lord out of the tomb," she tells Peter. They. Her first thought on hearing the hollow echo of the tomb is not to think of a miracle, but to human skulduggery. If the body's gone, it can't have run on its own legs.

But there's something strange, that Peter and the other disciple see. The linen wrappings of the body are lying there, and the cloth that had been around Jesus's head rolled up rather tidily in its own spot. What an odd thing for grave robbers to do? Why unwrap the body, if you are going to steal it away? Surely it would be easier to carry if the limbs were wrapped in tight?

But as the men are puzzling over these things, another scene is unfolding outside, in the garden. Mary is weeping; and as she weeps, she bends over to look inside the tomb - perhaps to gaze again at its sorrowful and stony emptiness.

And yet what she sees there is instead an angelic vision: two dazzling angels sitting where Jesus had been laid. They ask her: why are you weeping? And she says what she said to Peter - they've taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

But at that moment she turns, and instead, in her confusion, meets a man she thinks is the gardener.

People have debated this case of mistaken identity: how could she have missed Jesus? But I think once again this is evidence of what a sensible and reliable witness Mary Magdalene is. Even in her grief, she is not given to wishful thinking. She does not inhabit a world in which she thinks dead people walk around in gardens.

But: it is him. It is her Lord. He says to her "Mary!" and she says to him "Teacher!" - but we know at this stage that she has reached to touch him, to embrace him, to grasp his once-dead but now alive flesh in her arms, as if to say: is it really you? Or am I dreaming?

You cannot touch your dreams; and Mary must have told this story many, many times in the days, weeks, years after this Sunday morning in all its three dimensions: remembering as she did so not just that first, mistaken sight of the risen Jesus but also that first touch of him. He was not simply alive in her heart, or in her imagination, but as she reported it, alive with all the solid weight of atoms, in finally a form she recognised when she wiped away her tears.

And so, she did what she could not restrain herself from doing: she went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord", and she told them what he had said to her. They themselves would not encounter Jesus until that evening: and so for a whole day, Mary Magdalene, and perhaps some of the other women mention in the other accounts but not here, were the only witnesses to the risen Lord.

She was, it turned out, "the apostle to the apostles." This is the title given to her in Christian history, since a writer called Hippolytus from about 200 AD. This woman - and not only a woman, but one with a history of being afflicted and tormented - is the one through whom the rest of the Christian church gazes on the risen Lord. It is through those eyes, blurred somewhat with tears, that we see Jesus alive. It is through her hands that we touch his walking feet, and feel the warmth of his living flesh.

She is our first, surprising witness. She's unlikely as a witness, but being unlikely makes her reliable. As a woman of her times, she wouldn't have been trusted in a court of law - which means that no hoaxer would ever think of putting her in this position. You'd think, if the story were made up, that the presence of Mary Magdalene would be eclipsed: that her honour of being the first at the tomb, and the first to see Jesus would be taken away from her by the embarrassed men, who thought that they should be the heroes in this story.

But, like her, with her, we gaze upon the extraordinary truth: that Jesus, the one who was crucified, is now risen from the dead. He's not an illusion, or a noble memory, sadly lost. He's not the wishful thinking of a delirious, half-mad woman. He's alive: and with that the fortress of death has been destroyed.

With her, like her, we reach out to touch the one who will ascend to the side of the Father in heaven - to her Father and our Father, to her God and our God.

Our task though is not to celebrate Mary Magdalene, but rather to remember what she attaches us to. She is the first link in the chain of witnesses that leads from the risen Lord to us. Through this thin, but unbroken fibre we can see the face of glory itself.

A fishing line may be very slender indeed; and yet, by grasping hold of it, we can catch a very large fish. Mary Magdalene is, in many ways, not much. The disciples surely prayed that it hadn't been her. And yet, grasp hold of her tear-stained testimony; because at the other end of it we will find the immense presence, the sheer reality, of Jesus, who once was dead, but now has risen. Michael Jensen is rector of St. Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, and author of My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? Reposted with permission. Article first appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.

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