One of the most severe cases of mistaken identity of all time belongs to Mary Magdalene whose feast day we celebrate today. After almost 20 centuries of notoriety, scriptural scholarship has finally recognized that there is no basis for her reputation as “a harlot” or a great sinner. On the contrary, we now recognize her as “Apostle to the Apostles” who first announced the Resurrection of Jesus to the disciples. She is the only person who is noted in all four gospels as having been present at the crucifixion and who remained at the tomb of Jesus. This day always reminds me of the danger of gossip and of the lure of sensationalism in stories told of famous people. We have only to look in the grocery store checkout lines to see lurid photos (often cobbled together and “photo-shopped”) that match rumored headlines about movie stars and are frequently untrue.
More than a reminder of right thinking, however, this feast is about relationship and the fidelity that springs from great love. Jesus defied convention in his day by having women in his company of disciples. Closest in relationship to him, as we now intuit especially from the stories of his death and resurrection, was Mary. Today’s gospel is my favorite of those scenes as John places Mary in a garden by the tomb, mistaking Jesus for the gardener. (JN 20:11-18) It is when he says her name that she recognizes him, an indication both that he is somehow changed and also that his tone implies deep love between them. Her second recognition is of the change in him, manifested in what is often called his “resurrection body” – the enlightened state that signifies a shift in relationship for them as well. This new expansiveness reminds me of the Annunciation where Mary hears that she is to be the mother of Jesus. She had always been, we believe, faithful to God in her young life but now God asks more of her. At the moment in the garden when Jesus says to Magdalene, “Do not cling to me for I have not yet ascended,” this Mary accedes to her new role (not an easy one!) of announcing to the “brothers” what she has been told.
It is often the case that we are asked in the course of our lives to go beyond what we thought our lives were about to become more in service to God. Although sometimes a small thing, it may instead be a dramatic event that calls us to respond to what we could not have imagined that will change our lives forever. Both Marys provide examples of the need to practice willingness in order to be ready to respond with great love and surrender when the moment calls us forward. May it be so for all of us.