Holy Week: The Disappointment of Mary Magdalene
Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rode in to town and everyone's excitement and anticipation were at a fever pitch. However, in just a few short days, the hopeful high that Jesus would be Messiah came crashing down into the reality of his arrest and crucifixion. This week I'll be sharing three letters I've written from three different characters: Judas, Peter, and Mary Magdalene. Each person experienced great disappointment that first Holy Week. But each person responded wildly different.
The letters are written in a "Dear Abby" style, but written to a first century Galilean Advice Columnist named Ebenezer bar Jonah. Or, Ebby, if you will.
At the bottom of the letter is an audio version, read by Kate Christensen-Martin, if you prefer hearing the letter read/performed.
I hope you enjoy.
(I’m sorry, I just cannot bring myself to call you Ebby. Ebenezer is such a fine name and I daresay you should reclaim it as such).
Before I get to my primary concern for my letter, the cause for which I have paused this evening to put quill to parchment, allow me to address what I imagine is the camel in the room.
Yes, I am the Mary Magdalene. Her and I are one and the same. Presuming of course that my name precedes me, I pray you indulge me to clarify a few things.
The reports you may have heard that Jesus, son of Mary, exorcised seven demons out of me are slightly exaggerated.
The truth is, I have no idea how many demons there were, or if there were any demons at all. Maybe demon is the right word to describe it, and then again maybe not.
What I know is that before Jesus came in to my life I was a tormented woman, of that there should be no doubt or confusion. I was barely making it through some days, shadows closing upon me from all sides.
Being a woman of means I would try and claw my way out of the darkness by buying more clothes, perfumes, and wine. But whatever momentary comfort they brought me were soon replaced with a crash harder than the time before.
At times it sure felt like fear, shame, isolation, greed, lust, pride, and gluttony were creatures living within me, creatures that I fed with more and more of my self until there was but nothing left.
But then Jesus showed up. And it wasn’t instantaneous, as some of the reports suggest. I didn’t wake up, as it were, from a slumber and stretch my arms and legs before strutting about, freed from the nightmare.
No, it was slow. And at times painful.
But Jesus cared, and he walked with me through it all, and he never gave up on me.
My Dear Ebenezer, let me write that again: he never gave up on me.
Especially when I’d fall off the chariot and refuse to get out of bed in the morning. There he was, smiling.
When shame would rip me away from walking by his side through the villages (because, as you well know Dear Ebenezer, a woman had no place as a disciple of a Rabbi. But surely by now you’ve heard how Jesus never cared for such things like what place a man or woman should or shouldn’t be), but still Shame would slip in and tell me that I didn’t belong there, that I wasn’t good enough.
And she had a point, Shame did.
Most people recognized me wherever we went. The rich widow who could never find happiness and who insisted on tearing everyone down to her level.
I wasn’t well liked, that much is true.
Probably why it’s easier for people to accept that I had seven demons inside of me.
While I’m at it, though, I would like to clear something up. I am not, nor was I ever, a prostitute. Though trust me when i say that I cast no judgment upon those who are, for it is hardly ever their choice to be so. Yahweh knows my own shadows are far more a result of my own choosing than most prostitutes I know.
Be that as it may, I still feel the need to include this in my letter, in case you decide to print it. While I have been no saint for the past 10 years or so, and while I have kept company with more men than I care to remember, it simply is untrue that I am or ever was a prostitute.
Now… where was I…
Oh right, Shame.
Telling me I had no right to be by Jesus’ side.
But Jesus, oh sweet Jesus, he would have none of it. Every day for an entire year he would grab me by the arm, with a firm but loving grip, and place me right by his side. He didn’t say much about it, but he didn’t have to. Walking by me in public said it all.
So did Jesus cast out demons from me?
Yes. I suppose that he did.
But allow me now to press upon the reason for my correspondence.
You see, as one of his disciples for the past couple years, I too was firmly convinced that he was the Messiah. My husband, before he passed away, would talk well in to the night with his friends about the coming one day of a great Liberator.
“A Mighty King to crush the Romans,” he would say. “And a priest like Moses to restore the Temple,” his friends would chime in. “A prophet like Elijah to call the people back to Torah,” another would shout.
But I don’t know, Ebenezer.
I don’t know.
Don’t get me wrong, like I said, I was concretely confident that Jesus was who he said he was, the Messiah, the Christ, the unique Son of God. Of that I had little doubt.
But a King to crush the Romans? I saw a servant who crushed people’s fears… and healed their infirmaries.
A priest to restore the Temple? I saw a shepherd who restored people… to their families and communities.
A prophet to call people to Torah? I saw a man who called people to love… love our neighbors, our enemies, including the Romans.
Occasionally I would pick up on what I thought were hints that Jesus was going to be a Messiah unlike what most people expected.
For instance, it seems like yesterday that we were eating with some of our friends. You’ve likely heard them referred to as “tax collectors and sinners,” but that’s nonsense. We just called them “friends.”
We were eating and laughing and of course drinking, (John was a lightweight, you could hear him giggle from across the courtyard.) when out of nowhere a gang of Pharisees showed up. Most of the time this annoyed me and the other disciples, they were always going on about the same old things that quite frankly just seemed absurd to us. But Jesus was kind and gracious with them… except when he wasn’t. But that’s another story for another day.
This particular evening Jesus heard the Pharisees grumbling about us eating with “sinners,” this last word echoed across the street as they put all their emphasis on both “esses”.
Peter and I exchanged a look, rolled our eyes, and went back to our meal. But Jesus, after letting out a small sigh, as if to say, “here we go again,” put his cup down and motioned for the small group of men to come over.
Peter and I looked at each other again, now wondering which Jesus was about to come out. We were relieved when he stayed seated… Jesus always seemed to stand when he really got worked up.
What he said after that I’ll never forget. And perhaps you’ve heard the stories, dear Ebenezer. But he spoke of a widow who lost her coin, a shepherd who lost their sheep, and then finally a Father who lost his son.
It was this final story that hit home the hardest, and that was one of those moments where I wondered if our Messiah was not the Messiah our forefathers anticipated.
He told us a story about two sons. One who stayed with his Father and did everything he asked, and another who left home and lived a life of selfishness and greed.
As I recognized the demons of this younger brother I began to guess where Jesus was going. And sure enough he told everyone who would listen about how this Father ran to his son when his son began stumbling home, and how the Father wanted nothing to do with the son’s meager attempts at confessing his wayward ways. Instead the Father lavished the boy with compassion and mercy and love. Throwing a giant party in celebration of his son being home again.
And, oh mercy, I cannot do the story justice. Forgive me, for even as I write the tears come back to me in a flurry. But do promise me that one day you’ll hear or read the whole story.
My point is this: for those who were paying attention (and I believe my life of misery and fear and shame gave me particularly acute hearing on these matters), Jesus was telling us precisely the kind of Messiah he was planning on becoming.
And can I confess something? I, for one, am glad. Perhaps I’ve just never had the stomach for the fighting that it would take to “overthrow Rome,” as James and John would often say.
My heart soared at the idea of Jesus, my friend, Master, and Savior, leading our people with compassion, grace, kindness, and mercy.
But finally, Dear Ebenezer, I arrive at my point for this letter.
All my hopes for what could be, all my dreams for what I envisioned, they have all been smashed like those pathetic tables Jesus tossed in the Temple.
The jig is up. The game is over. There will be no Messiah of Mercy, for Jesus has been arrested and will surely be crucified tomorrow.
And my heart will be nailed to the tree right along with him.
Even now I can feel the demons begin to find chinks in my armor. Searching for cracks where they can resume their place in the crevices of my soul.
And I don’t have the strength to keep them at bay. That was Jesus’ job. One he did with an effortless joy.
There will be no Messiah of Mercy. No one to continue this message of grace and forgiveness.
Peter? I haven’t seen him since last night. James and John? All they wanted was to fight. Bartholomew? Philip? Thomas?
The future is so unclear.
Yet one thing, in all of this, remains more clear than the waters of Galilee in the spring. And this, at last, is the reason for my letter.
Though Jesus may not be the Messiah we’d all hoped for, nor a Messiah at all, I will still be there with him in the morning, at his side, just like I have been every day.
My Lord never left my side when I needed him the most. And coming daybreak there will be no Centurion in all the Empire who will keep me from being at his side.
Though they beat him, I’ll turn not away. Though they mock him, I’ll train my gaze upon him in hopes he catches my eye. Though they nail him to a cross and hang him in humiliation, I’ll be nearer than the crows who await to feast on his flesh.
I do not know what will happen in the days, weeks, years to come. But my friend is alone, hurting, and scared. And the one thing I CAN do is show up.
I hope you publish this letter, dear Ebenezer, in case there are any others out there like me.
Scared for what will come next, and sad that it won’t be what we had been hoping for for years… decades… centuries.
But may the power of love compel us to show up anyways. For, as my friend was fond of saying, “unbroken love causes fear to fade away.”
Hopeful on the Hillside