Mary Magdalene was one of a group of women who were followers of Jesus and who'd dedicated themselves to serving him. As someone said on Radio 4’s In Our Time programme recently, that doesn't mean they made his packed lunch or washed his socks. Jesus himself is the servant of those who serve, and his followers are called to be like him, to serve not only him but their neighbours, all who need our help. Being his servants means, then, that the women helped him with his mission.
So Jesus had a core group of male disciples in leadership roles but also a group of determined women on his team as well, who were ready to go to his Cross and his tomb. And this prominent role for women was replicated in the early church, where women are often identified by Paul as leaders and team members.
Mary seems to have been particularly close to Jesus. She's the only person he ever speaks to in the Gospels just by saying her name. It happens in the garden on the first Easter Day and it's a moment of great tenderness and feeling. We shouldn't read any more into it than that, whatever Dan Brown might say, but it's clear that Mary felt she had a duty of care for Jesus, especially after his death. She took charge of the rituals for embalming and preparing his body for the afterlife.
Luke embellishes Mark's description of Mary Magdalene by adding that Jesus had exorcised seven demons from her. What can Luke mean? Had Jesus healed her from a dark depression, perhaps, that seemed particularly oppressive and hard to dispel? Or did she have a chequered past of some kind which still haunted her until Jesus lifted the burden from her shoulders?
Whatever these demons were, it suggests that there's room for everyone, sinners and saints, on Jesus' team. In this way Mary Magdalene became an important symbol of hope. However many personal demons we may be fighting, and however chequered our past might be, we can still become servants of Jesus. More than that, someone like Mary who has found themselves in a really bad place or in inner torment, can go on to love Jesus more than anyone else.
In all the different acounts she emerges as the most important of his female disciples. Her name, Magdalene, means 'female tower' in Aramaic, so intriguingly - although Mary could just be named after a village with a tower in it, like Tower Hamlets or Castleton today, Jesus turns out to have a close male lieutenant called Peter the Rock, two close friends - James and John - called The sons of Thunder, a friend called Thomas the Twin, and a close female lieutenant called Mary the Tower. Women weren't normally named after the place they came from, so it does seem likely that Tower was her nickname and she's certainly the only woman in the Gospels who isn't defined in relation to a man. She's important in her own right, a tower of strength perhaps.
On Easter Day Mary found an empty tomb instead of Jesus' body and so became the first witness to his resurrection. She calls the risen Jesus, My Master or My Teacher, and the tradition preserves the actual Aramaic word she uses, Rabouni, so it was obviously considered to be a very important moment in the Easter story.
Mary's first commission from the risen Jesus was to go and proclaim the good news about his Resurrection to his other disciples, but they didn't believe her. Perhaps they didn't see her as a reliable witness, but the Gospel writers believed her and put her testimony centre stage.
As the Early Church developed and became institutionalised, some people began to feel they were being pushed to the margins by an increasingly dominant male hierarchy of bishops and leaders. They worked hard to put Mary back in the limelight again by describing her as Jesus' closest companion, a teacher and example for his male disciples, whom they saw as the flawed role models for the bishops who were now starting to oppress them. In the stories which they circulated, his male disciples ask Jesus why they can't be as close to him as Mary is, and he tells them it's because they need to become more like her, which for the people putting together these stories means becoming more open to new interpretations of the truth. The conversations they recount are pure invention, but the same emphasis on Mary as the truth-teller - teaching and guiding the other disbelieving disciples - is already present in our Gospels.
Mary at the tomb of Jesus with her jar of ointment was very soon conflated with two episodes earlier in the life of Jesus when a woman anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. Was there actually more than one anointing, as would appear to be the case if we take the Gospel stories at face value? In other words, did women make a habit of doing this, or did one woman copycat another, or has one story been retold in different versions? In one of the accounts the woman is called Mary and is clearly one of Jesus' closest followers, so it's almost irresistible to surmise that she is perhaps the same person as Mary Magdalene. But Mary Magdalene is just a woman who wanted to go on serving Jesus by anointing his body after death. She doesn't need to be identified with one of the women who anointed his feet. Her example to us is important in its own right. We don't need to expand it by introducing elements from other people's stories.
One thing about which all the traditions surrounding Mary Magdalene can agree is that she's an important symbol of love and devotion to Jesus, fearless in her loyalty even when his closest male friends abandoned him. If the female lover in the Song of Songs, who goes about Jerusalem at night searching for her lost male lover, is compared to Mary seeking the body of Jesus before dawn on Easter Day, then a whole lot of Bible verses from the Old Testament can suddenly be used to describe the depth of her love. In this way Mary becomes an ever more striking example of love for God. In art works she's often depicted wearing a red cloak, then the colour of true love.
For some reason French people got so keen on Mary as a symbol for the perfect disciple that they even started the legend that she had gone as an apostle to France and preached the Gospel in Provence, and her shrine there became an important place of pilgrimage. Although the legend was entirely invented, and although the idea of women preachers and leaders was very uncomfortable in the Middle Ages, it doesn't let go of the Gospel insight that Mary was an apostle and a preacher.
Only in more modern times did people let go of that idea and come to see Mary as just another woman follower of Jesus. In paintings on the walls of churches, which congregations gazed at during the Latin mass, Mary the Mother of Jesus was often depicted holding her hands in prayer like a nun, whereas Mary Magdalene was often depicted holding up her hand in the characteristic gesture of a preacher.
Interestingly the legend said that she was one of 72 persecuted Palestinian Christians who had been put into a leaky little boat and cast adrift on the Mediterranean, just like so many modern refugees. Like them she had to survive hunger and the threat of drowning before she reached safety.
So, apart from that striking detail, what does the story of Mary Magdalene have to say to us? One modern take on Mary is a painting called Mary and Me, where the artist appears to be looking at a painting of Mary in a portrait gallery, but when you look carefully you see that she's gazing into a mirror at herself. It's a reminder that whenever we read about the disciples in the Gospels we're supposed to identify with them and put ourselves in their shoes and ask how we can follow Jesus like them. In particular, of course, she's an important role model for women in the Church.
I think Mary reminds us that we have to be ready to do our bit for Jesus. It's not enough merely to listen to Jesus or to admire his life and death. We're called to follow him all the way to the Cross and to seek new life in him, stronger even than death. We're challenged to work for him, to do things for him and to speak on his behalf, and it's great to have such a wonderful female example of how we can become a true disciple and follower of Jesus.
Mary also reminds us that we have to love Jesus, but not in a clingy way. We can't hold onto him and love him for our own sake alone. Our love must always turn us outwards to focus on others. It can't even be love for the Church or our fellow disciples. It must be mission oriented, reaching out to those who haven't yet met Jesus in any profound sense.
Finally Mary reminds us that it's good to get close to Jesus, in prayer, in meditation, in Bible study, in poetry and song, so that we can love him completely, as Mary did, and know his will for us.