At the feast of Mary Magdalene at Christ Chapel this Easter season I wrestled once again with how to portray and proclaim Mary of Magdala, apostle to the apostles, amid the multiple conflicting portraits of her in the early church and contemporary culture. Witness to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, Mary is commissioned by Jesus to tell his sisters and brothers that he is ascending to “my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Her authority has been undermined by traditions that draw her as a prostitute, as lover, or wife of Jesus. (I recommend the work of Jane Schaberg and Melanie Johnson Debaufre on Mary of Magdala.
Today I consider the possibility that her authority may be intensified, rather than discredited, by the tradition of Mary as the exorcised one:
“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Luke 8:1-3.
Mary is the emptied one, who had been swept out and scoured, made a house where God’s presence would dwell.
Might her experience of having been possessed by evil spirits have made her able to recognize and endure the vision of divine power she saw and heard in the garden?
There is another person remembered in the gospels, also occupied by demons, who too had the gift of preaching and evangelism: the man in the country of the Gerasenes who used to live in the tombs naked and bruise himself with stones (Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39). Like Mary, he was healed by Jesus and followed and proclaimed the good news to his people. Both in the story of Mary and the account of his exorcism, the demons get counted – they get a number – his “legion,” hers “seven.”
What if exorcism of demons, rather than being a black mark against you, might be a qualification for evangelism?
What demons have prepared you to hear Jesus when he calls your name?
What demons having crashed around and run amok, then left you silent and still, what demons have made you ready to follow and gave the courage to speak?
I think of depression, episodic or chronic, the heaviness and disquietness of soul, that brings you to the knees of God to be lifted up.
I think of betrayal, by a parent, by a spouse, by a friend.
I think of devastating loss – “tears have been my food day and night.”
I think of colossal messing up, effing up. The wreckage. When you do it.
I think of sin.
You can give these demons names for yourself. You can enumerate them from one to seven to legion. You can describe their damage. And you can identify the gratitude, the overwhelming thankfulness, when power, mightier power, hurricanes through the house, consigns them to the desert, drowns them in the deep, deep sea.
What demons qualify you for evangelism?
How does exorcism enable you to know resurrection?
What capacity lets you say, “I have seen the Lord”?
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge (@cbkittredge) is the Dean & President of Seminary of the Southwest. She believes that historical and literary study of scripture in its ancient context can inform and nourish the imagination for faithful preaching and teaching. Professor Kittredge, a contributor to The New Oxford Annotated Bible and the Women’s Bible Commentary, is the author of Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John and Community and Authority: The Rhetoric of Obedience in the Pauline Tradition. She co-edited The Bible in the Public Square: Reading the Signs of the Times and Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.