The Seventh Woman: Mary Magdalene’s story
My name is Mary. I come from, Magdala on the shores of the sea of Galilee. Until Herod Antipas built Tiberias, Magdala was the biggest and richest city for miles around. My father used to love to say he was farmer, and he was of sorts. If you count strolling around his three vineyard and two olive groves issuing orders to the slaves and sending his hundred sheep out with their shepherds as farming.
I used to love watching the shepherd boys calling their sheep in the morning. The boys would come in the first light of dawn, ten or so of them, and stand outside the pen and call and call. The sheep would come flocking out, jostling around their shepherds, recognising their voices and ready for the day’s journey to find grass.
Then one day, when I woke up, the world felt different. I felt different. I felt hazy and distant, as though a veil had settled over my mind. I would walk for miles and miles restless and ill at ease.
They told me I had evil spirits in me, though even that I couldn’t take in, I just wanted to be alone far away from the noise and the clamour of people around me.
Once when I’d been out walking of my restlessness, I met a man sitting on the shores of the lake talking to a large crowd of people. Something took over me. I knew I was talking, shouting and shaking, though I’d no idea what I was saying and then, all of a sudden, I felt a wave of peace wash over me, the veil lifted and I was myself again. The man – Jesus they said his name was – smiled at me and signalled to the people around him that I should sit at his feet, like a real disciple. I held back for a moment – it wasn’t seemly for a woman – but he signalled again and I couldn’t resist so I sat and I listened and listened with the whole of my being.
He was talking about being the good shepherd and calling his sheep and them knowing his voice and following him. I smiled at that bit, I knew how true it that was. But then he’d talk about knowing the sheep by name and calling their names, I chuckled to myself – he’d clearly never been around sheep much. I mean who in their right mind gives a sheep a name? It was a nice idea though and from that moment on I followed him, me and a number of other women like Susannah and Joanna and a handful of Marys.
So I was there when they killed him, we women clinging together in horror as the unthinkable happened before our very eyes. We watched where they buried him, hastily because the sun had begun to dip below the horizon announcing the start of the Sabbath day. We sat together that day, barely moving or speaking. The shock had rendered us senseless.
Then, as the sun dipped again, marking the end of the Sabbath I sprang to life. We had to do something. We’d agreed between us that we would return to anoint his body for burial. My first thought was the others – the male disciples. Anointing a man’s body after death was a man’s job, perhaps they would like to know where he was laid?
I found out where they were staying and hurried round.
‘Who is it’ an anxious voice shouted in response to my frantic knocking.
‘Mary from Magdala’ I answered.
The door opened a crack.
‘What are you doing here? They might find us.’ James’ anxious face peered out
‘Who’ I asked bemused.
‘The Romans. They always kill the followers after the leader’.
I pushed my way in but soon saw there was little hope in it. The terror in the room was tangible. Peter sat in the corner, rocking and weeping. ‘He’s been like that ever since Thursday evening.’ James said sadly, ‘we can’t get a word out of him’.
I returned home disheartened, my mind spinning. How on earth was I going to find myrrh and aloes enough to anoint his body in a city I didn’t live in? When I got back, I told the others what had happened ‘I wish I’d kept my nard now,’ said Susannah wretchedly, ‘I had no idea we’d need it so soon’.
‘Sweet girl’, Jesus’ mother said from across the room, stirring herself from her grief ridden stupor, ‘you honoured him in life, no gift is greater than that. We will find the spices we need.’
She was right we did. We spread out across the city, begging, borrowing and buying what we could.
In the early morning, when we met together and compared our haul we had, we thought, just about enough. We went, carrying large water jars between us to bathe his poor battered body before anointing it.
By the time we got near the place where the tomb was, the sun had just risen, casting it’s eerie early morning shadows over the whole area. We’d been talking, as we went, about how we’d move the stone that they’d rolled across the entrance.
‘That’s funny’ Salome said as we approached, ‘the way the shadows fall make it look as though the stone has gone.’ We looked, all of us straining to see through the early morning light.
‘That’s because it has’ said James’ mother. Our footsteps faltered but then started again, we couldn’t bear to see what had happened now but also we couldn’t bear not to see. We peeped in through the entrance and there, right in the tomb sitting as comfortable as you like
was a young man, his robe gleaming white.
‘Don’t be alarmed’ he said. Salome let out a sound, halfway between a laugh and a scream. ‘He is not here, he’s been raised. Go tell the disciples – especially Peter – tell them that he’s going ahead of them to Galilee’.
We turned and ran, we ran and ran and ran, dropping the water and the carefully gathered spices as we went, never pausing for breath until we reached the safety of our rented room.
In the end I did tell Peter and the other disciple. I broke into his weeping with the news of another disaster. Now on top of everything they’d taken his body as well. The shock of it was enough to jolt him from his misery and they ran back with me.
After they’d left I stood outside the tomb for a while, my eyes blinded with tears, wondering whether I could salvage some of the ointment we’d dropped in our terror a few hours earlier. I leant against the entrance and let my grief and my weariness take hold of me. After a while I felt the overwhelming urge to look in the tomb one more time, so I bent and looked in. The young man had been joined now with someone else and they were sitting at either end of the ledge.
‘Why are you crying they asked?’
I’d opened my mouth to answer, when a voice behind me as the same question,
‘Why are you crying?
A tumble of words burst out of me, when I told people about this later I tidied up my words into a coherent, comprehensible sentence but the reality is I babbled on a tide of tears and snot about ‘my lord’ and ‘his body’ and ‘it was gone’ and ‘I didn’t know where’ and ‘did he know’ and ‘I didn’t know what to do’.
He waited quietly for my gibbering to fade away and then he said just one word, ‘Mary’.
The Good Shepherd had called my name and I knew his voice with every fibre of my being. Later people would ask us, those of us who’d met the risen Christ, what he said that made us believe it was really him. Thomas would tell his story of Jesus’ wounds and of being asked to put his hands in them. Peter would tell his story of Jesus asking if he loved him and then they’d look at me, Mary met him first, they’d say. What did he say to you? They’d ask. ‘Mary’ I’d tell them. They’d look a bit disappointed – but I wasn’t, not for a moment.