Mary Magdalene’s Ministry

April 18, 2017

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Preached by The Rt Rev’d Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester using I Sam 3:1-10; Rev1:5-8; Lk 7:36-50 at the Chrism Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, 13 April 2017

By this Thursday in Jesus’ ministry the disciples have been on the road for three years. I wonder if they’re exhausted? This Passover week could just have been too much. Jesus hasn’t stopped: from his amazing entry into Jerusalem, like a conquering hero, to the teaching and healing ministry in the Temple. When would it end? What about a break? Ever felt like that?!

Of course, Jesus does stop. Later that Thursday evening will be a time of solemn reflection when he shares the meaning of his ministry in a new covenant meal whose full significance will only come later. Jesus uses meals as times to reflect and reveal who he is. They are also part of his rhythm of recovery and refreshment. The meal at Simon’s house is another example. Ken Bailey describes this passage as ‘One of the truly wondrous stories in the Gospel of Luke’.[1]

The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is often identified, especially in Western art, as Mary Magdalene (but not in John’s Gospel). Luke doesn’t actually tell us that this is Mary, but if we accept this (Western) tradition of interpretation, we note that Mary Magdalene is identified in three other incidents: she had seven demons cast out of her; she was at the crucifixion; and she saw the risen Lord. Later I’ll be a bit speculative and suggest we reflect on the significance of the three oils through these stories in Mary’s life. But I start with the passage, exploring how Mary shares in Jesus’ ministry.

As Jesus enters Simon’s house Mary stands in the shadows, hoping to hear more from Jesus and ready to respond with her special thank-offering. She’s there because she has already received forgiveness. Yet as she sees Jesus being humiliated she changes her plan. She intervenes and does what Simon should have done: she welcomes Jesus properly, washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and then anointing him with refreshing perfume – her thank-offering.

Mary had entered the room as a forgiven women who wanted to show her thanks. She is drawn into doing that in a way that breaks social norms. A woman with unfastened hair who touched a man in public was behaving in a knowingly shocking way. Yet her cultural infringements were a compensation for Simon’s cultural insults. He had deliberately intended to humiliate Jesus; Mary intended to celebrate the forgiveness she’d received. Her unfastened hair is her public pledge to Jesus, but, more than this, Mary offers to Jesus what she might have offered to God at the Temple. She recognises in him the gift of God’s forgiveness and so makes her thank-offering to him.

Bonhoeffer says that Mary is thereby ‘drawn into the Messianic suffering of God in Christ’: she enters into his rejection and reveals the power of his forgiveness. Through her act others begin to ask, “he forgives sins like God, who is this?” But just as Mary shares in Jesus’ ministry she also shows us the basis for the ministry Jesus has shared with each one of us: the only basis is knowing how deep is God’s forgiveness of us. Mary offers us a pattern of ministry: her response is our response. We offer ourselves because of the love and forgiveness we have been shown.

So, let’s say that the notorious sinner mentioned in the story is indeed Mary. If this is Mary of Magdala, the one from whom seven demons have been cast out, she would fully understand the depth of God’s forgiveness. We use the Oil of Baptism to mark entry into Jesus’ death and resurrection: our deliverance from darkness and our birth into Jesus’ new life. So this oil is also used in the ministry of deliverance, which was part of the ancient church’s baptismal rite and is still vestigial in our liturgy today. The ministry of deliverance is growing in this Diocese.

Second, Mary was at the cross, as Jesus suffered and died. She is one of the few disciples who follow Jesus to this point. The Oil of Healing and anointing for death is our symbol for marking the healing presence of God, and his comforting presence in death. Jesus has entered into this reality of our human life, and Mary is the disciple who witnessed this and anointed Jesus’ body.

Lastly, Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Lord and was commissioned as ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’. It is this special calling, this charism, which now shapes Mary’s vocation, and results in her being recognised as an essential character in the Gospels. We use the Oil of Chrism to mark the call to deeper discipleship in confirmation, the vocation to priesthood and episcopacy, and in the crowning of the monarch. This is the Holy Spirit’s seal on our standing in Christ and our calling to offer ourselves to God, to walk in the Spirit and live for others.

May we use these oils to share in the ministry of Jesus, as Mary did, knowing and sharing his deep forgiving love with others. Amen

[1] See Kenneth E. Bailey: ‘The Woman in the House of Simon the Pharisee’ in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels London: SPCK, 2008, ch.18.