Mary Magdalene

Magdala was a town of almost forty-thousand.  It was a town of white pigeons hatched from three hundred shops, birds for sacrifice that sometimes escaped to roost in eves and on rooftops and descend in flocks on a piece of dropped fish.  Magdala was a town of fish.  Mary watched the fishermen heave them from the sea in shaking nets and deposit them in the midgals, the little stone towers in which layer upon layer of fish flopped and died.

Mary hated the arrogant purity of the pigeons.  They were supposed to be without blemish, but light itself blemished them, catching out the iridescent colors in the fibers of a wing.  The same colors she saw on the enamel of the seashells she picked up on the shore.  But seashells never claimed that they were clean.  Seashells were allies of fish, whose scales caught those colors also, the oily blues and greens that looked like bruises turned to water.

Mary left Magdala like she always did.  One moment she was squatting beside the boats, a small, disquieting figure with her long face and chewed over lips.  The next moment she was gone.  The fishermen shrugged.  She was unclean.  She belonged to no one.  No Jew would touch her, and no Greek either, unless he was insane, unless he heard her babbling out the voices of her seven demons and found it, somehow, exciting.  Who could know.  Since Herod Antipas had built the city of Tiberias, with its pagan gods and Roman baths, many unclean things came down the road.

It was summer.  The hot winds had already come and killed the blue and red anemones.  The plain of Gennesaret had turned gray, dead with too much light.  Mary carried this seer landscape within her, even though the land had rebounded, even though figs and olives hung on green trees.  The memory of the dead ground was like a veil that the demons had settled over her.  A long veil that fell past her face and then blew outward, draping the landscape.  She laughed at it as she walked, held up her hands to shake it, tried to bite it.  People ran away from her, except for a group of children who followed, daring each other to run up to her and try to step on her shadow.  They were called away by their fathers, who told them that she was unclean.  Everything she saw had too much light.  Not gentle light, but imposed light, light that denied the colors that it touched.

She came to Capernaum without noticing it, without noticing the huts on the outskirts, the goats and sheep that spread across the road.  She didn’t even notice the others who were like her.  Bedraggled, slouching shapes.  Women and children.  A man, tied to a litter, was carried past her.  A wan girl fell to the ground and shook against the dirt.  Mary’s demons didn’t leap to see the demons within these others.  Her demons lay still, and that is what she noticed.  And because they were still, she suddenly noticed the town around her, the small basalt houses, the returning smell of fish.  But no pigeons.  The bleating of goats, but something more.  Something the demons had blinded her to.  Small glittering pebbles in the road.  The fleece of a passing sheep, its dirty gray nap, the small resilient curls of its wool.  She saw the exact lines in the weave of the shepherd’s cloak.  She saw a surprising number of faces, too many for a town this size.  Too many people, and yet her demons lay silent.  Cowed.

She remembered why she had left Magdala and walked through the orchards.  She remembered a name.  They said that a man had been lowered to him through the roof of a house.  She turned to study the roofs.  She kept turning, her eyes seeking, unaware of the circumference of her steps.  A body brushed past her, then another.  She was borne along, still turning, her eyes trying to take in every angle of roof, looking for a pile of masonry, a slab of broken stone.

The crowd slowed.  There were others before them, and there was nothing they could do but stop.  The sun beat down on them.  Mary lowered her eyes from the roofs and looked at the coarse grain of a nearby man’s cheek, the varying colors in a nearby girl’s hair.  She wanted her veil back.  She wanted these details to be bleached and neutered by light.  But the demons were not only quiet, they were crawling away.  She hissed at them, trying to get them back.  A woman standing next to her began singing in a high, soft voice.

She didn’t see him that night.  She let the crowd move past her and stood alone in the growing cold of the darkening street.  Someone gave her bread, which surprised her.  It was in her hand and the man was moving away before she could see his face.  She ate it, and then thought how easy it would be to do what she had always done.  She hunched her shoulders, drew her face down and stared out, darkly, from under her brows.  She chewed her lips.  No one noticed.

She saw him the next day.  She shuffled into the house where he was staying, one in a line of many others, but he looked at her and saw her.  “Seven demons,” he said.  She stopped and stared at him.  “They’re gone now,” he said, “but it isn’t enough.”


“Your house has been swept clean, but they’ll only find that more inviting when they come back.”


“You need something else.  Something else has to happen.  A singing breath entered Adam.”


“A singing breath entered Adam.  Let me breathe on you.”

But really, he was already breathing on her.  As he spoke the whole room became breath.

It is not enough to merely lose our demons.  We must experience resurrection, be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Joy.  Joy is at the root of it.  The great carved places inside of Mary were filled with joy.

She followed him up the mountain and sat in the diminishing evening light with the other disciples.  They were silent for a long while, listening to the voices from the lower slopes, the people who had come out the cities to see him.  At last he spoke.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Every word he spoke terrified her.  He spoke of light and she knew that light, but she also knew that she had been Mary the Skulker, Mary the Unclean, and she feared for the light inside of her.  In the dusk, as his voice continued and the profiles of the seated disciples became blurred with shadow, she feared that there was something in the world that could take her joy from her.

He wasn’t speaking to her alone, but she knew that he meant her to hear him.  His face turned towards her and she lifted her head to look at him in the semi-gloom.  She clutched her knees to her chest.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.”

“Lord,” she mumbled in her rough voice.  “Lord, I pray for my seven demons.”  And she felt surprising pity for them.  They were wandering over the plain of Gennesaret, looking for a home.  They were shaking the long black veil out to cover the trees, insisting on the insulting light that had no interest in the sheen of green olive skins.  They would be despised beside the fishing boats, and pecked about by holy pigeons.  She began to laugh, but not maliciously.  She began to laugh because she knew, in her pity for them, that she was free of them.  They could never pity themselves.

And when he told her and the other disciples not to worry about their lives, she laughed again.  She had never worried about her life.  The demons had never allowed her fine clothes, or the taste of good food.  And now that they had left her she was a lilly of the field, a bird of the air, trained by desolation not to care for vanities and suddenly given into the keeping of God.

As they walked towards Jerusalem, she noticed patterns on the ground.  The scuffed over prints of many feet, the calligraphy of mule droppings.  There were grasshoppers in the grain fields.  She paid attention to the way the husks of wheat rasped against her fingers when she picked them.  There was a slow design to the way the disciples walked.  Matthew held his slight wrists at his side and swayed them back and forth like the beads of an abacus.  Philip pushed his face slightly forward.  Joanna, dressed in plain clothes that she’d bought to be plain in, was still aware of her neck’s length and softness.  Her hands still gestured to show their beauty.  “We are so small,” Mary thought.  “Every one of us.  We are like heads of grain, or ripe olives, or the rain.  And God knows every hair on our heads.”  She thought of God’s attentiveness.  She thought of her mother, who surely hadn’t remembered every loaf of bread she’d shaped with her hands, and her father, who couldn’t have remembered each net he’d woven.  She looked at the sky, and it was as if it was speaking to her.  She knew the sense of the words, but not their phrasing.  God was in His creation, complete.  Human beings might create, but no one created like God.

Jesus began to say that he would suffer when they got to Jerusalem.  Mary was not afraid.  When Peter argued, and when the Sons of Thunder tried to settle their place in the hierarchy, she walked calmly beside them.  She measured her stride to Jesus’ own.  She would have taken his hand if she could.  Would have stood on her toes so that she could whisper in his ear, “I know what it’s like.  There is a great hollowness, but then there’s breath.”  Wherever they buried him, she’d go there to wait.  No one should be alone in that hollowness.  She’d wait beside his body until he rose.

But when they came to arrest him she ran like the others.  She hadn’t expected the soldiers or the jeering priests.  She hadn’t expected this evil to be accomplished by men.  Maybe she had never known that men could be evil like this.  The veil of her demons had protected her.  It had turned the details of each day to chaff, had allowed the words and touch of men to blow away.  She watched a soldier strike him and she wanted her veil back.  She crept away.  Maybe the other disciples hid together.  She wandered away from the city, alone.

She moved across scarred ground, the seared slopes of the land around Jerusalem, and she tried not to look at anything.  She wanted her eyes to fill with blank light that would deny the russet stone, the green scrub.  She muttered to herself.  “Unclean!  Unclean!”  But these words had no meaning.  She wanted them to chisel her flesh, to create places for the demons to return to.  But they were dull words, and she saw the world despite them, the white hairs of a donkey’s muzzle, the slim arms of the boy who waited, so patiently, for the animal to drink.  The vision that Jesus had given her wouldn’t leave her.  It drew her back to the city.  It is impossible for us to ignore our resurrections.

She learned of his sentencing and was there at his death.  She stood beside Joanna and the other women.  She watched his mother, and was curious to know if the light could subsist even now, if she could see its varying shades settle across Mary’s anguished face.  She turned to watch him as he died on the cross, and felt the smallest touch of his breath reach her.  Was it possible that God was creating even now?  She studied him and saw an iridescent sheen, his sweat laid across the bruises of his skin.  A fish, a shell, a bird of sacrifice.  But it wasn’t her who was sacrificing him.  It was the men standing near the cross, the soldiers and the priests.  How could God, who was aware of each husk of grain, each movement of her breath, demand the death of living things?  She looked at the soldiers and the priests, and she said what he said.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The women wept, but she remained quiet, watching with lifted gaze.  When they took him down there was a commotion, argument over his body, the flashing of coins that moved from hand to hand.  Somebody’s servants were carrying him away.  The women gasped with consternation.  They followed, walking quickly, pushing through the crowds, afraid of losing sight of him.  Mary was swept along with them, her legs moving briskly, her eyes looking everywhere.  She felt anger, and it was the first time that she remembered feeling anger.  Her demons had kept her from being aware of other people, but now she saw that other people were blind, indifferent, lost within the empty light of their many errands.  She wanted to grip them, to hold them to her and breathe on them.  She remembered the young man who had come to Jesus in his clean robes and oiled hair, his slaves standing a little way off, and who had gone away weeping, and she remembered Jesus’ sorrow, and understood that now that he had left them she could finally see with his clear eyes.

They laid him in a tomb and she sat beside it until sundown.  Sabbath, and the other women bade her come away.  She couldn’t tell them how little it mattered, how no one could convince her that she was unclean even if she spent the night resting with the dead.  She went with them out of pity for them.  They needed her peace.  And as they spent the long day in a dusty room, she tried to send her peace out to them, so that it could rest on them.  She prayed for each, staring at every face, at Joanna, and Peter, and James, and Mark, and Mary, Jesus’ mother.  And on the morning after the sabbath, she arose and went to the grave.

Can we be surprised by resurrection when each of us has known it?  When, at some moment in our lives, we each have noticed the depth of light, familiar objects suddenly suffused with intricacies, with shapes and patterns we never knew were there?  Can we be surprised by resurrection when we have felt the breath of grace arrive at unexpected moments, when we’ve done nothing to bring it and don’t deserve it, and yet its there?  When we feel it enter into us and blow past the filaments of chatter, of every day life to show us something waiting beneath the world’s skin?

We have all known little deaths.  The ends of relationships, of eras of our lives, of long-held dreams that we’ve finally put to rest.  Or stranger, more subtle deaths.  Incisions made in our souls to remove some tumor of doubt or anger.  The exorcism of some preference for self-destruction that we’ve clung to because we’ve been afraid of what redemption might demand of us.

And yet we are all here.  Resurrected at some moment or another, brought together to witness and celebrate the one resurrection with Mary and the other disciples.  We are here because we know that, despite death and doubt, despite our desires to hide with our familiar demons, God’s favor is life, and joy cometh in the morning.

She met him in the garden.  She was weeping because the resurrection had already happened when she arrived, because the tomb was empty and there were two men there.  Or maybe his body had simply been moved, and she didn’t know where to go to witness the resurrection, to feel the breath of God, as she had felt it when he healed her and cast out her seven demons.  When she saw him, she thought that he was a gardener.  But she should have known, from the way that the morning light cast a shadow on the tomb’s wall behind him, a round shadow that circled his head, a halo, that this was her risen Lord.  From then on she saw that halo everywhere, appearing on the walls behind the apostles as they ate and spoke and healed.  Surrounding the heads of the people as they gathered together and prayed.  She saw it on new converts as the apostles went out from Jerusalem, and the light spread, and the world’s cold, pitiable demons fled to wander in the barren places.  The world was haloed with new light.  Our world is haloed with new light.  May it help us see and understand and love.

2 thoughts on “Mary Magdalene

  1. Thank you Karl. I remember my first Maundy service and I went up to the microphone and compared myself to Mary. I was so lost and unclean. Who would want me sitting beside them in THEIR Church?

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