A number of years ago, I attended the patronal festival at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Oxford. It was a memorable occasion not least for the way that this Anglo-Catholic church encouraged the use of all the senses in worship. There were candle lights and the usual ‘bells and smells’. However, the aisles of the church were also covered with herbs, whose scent ‘filled the house’. This wasn’t just an exercise in the use of the senses, it was also intended to allude to Mary Magdalene’s presence in the Garden where Jesus was buried.
Mary is one of the most significant characters in the four Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. She wasn’t one of the twelve disciples, but she was certainly a disciple of Jesus. In the Middle Ages Mary gained the reputation of a reformed prostitute or in some way a ‘loose woman’. Despite their being no evidence for this in the Gospel stories, Mary is often associated with immorality and her relationship with Jesus the subject of speculation. However, we should also remember Mary as the first evangelist.
In Matthew’s, Mark’s and John’s stories about Jesus, Mary was the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus. John specifically tells us that it was Mary who told the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord”. Unfortunately the other disciples didn’t seem to have believed her because, as Luke tells us her, “words seemed to them like nonsense”
The Christian message – that Jesus is alive – has seemed like nonsense to many people ever since Mary first passed on to the [male] disciples the news that she had seen Jesus. John doesn’t tell us in his account what the disciples thought about what Mary had told them, but he does tell us that Thomas wouldn’t believe until he had seen Jesus for himself. Mary believed in Jesus because she had met him and I guess that this is how it works – faith comes from meeting Jesus. It was true for Mary and Thomas and it is true for us today.