Friday, July 22, 2016

After the Demonic Possession: the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

On July 22, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute with the reading for her feast day: John 20:1-2, 11-18.

There are many approaches to Mary Magdalene.  Some people focus on her notorious past, while a variety scholars remind us that she might have been painted with the brush of prostitution to discredit her.  I often find my mind returning to her demon possession.  Was she mentally ill?  What does the idea of demon possession have to say to modern people?

I am thinking metaphorically, not literally.  I do not believe in demonic possession, at least not in the ways depicted by modern popular culture.  But I have seen so many varieties of demons who drive us that I can't dismiss the idea by saying it's all mental illness.

One traditional approach to Mary Magdalene is to see her as one of the many healed by Jesus.  She's not the only one with demons flushed away, but she is the most famous.

I wonder if she missed the demons, once Jesus cleaned them out of her. As anyone who has wrestled with modern demons knows, our demons are comfortable, which is why it’s often hard to let them go. I imagine Mary Magdalene, in the quiet of the night, having trouble sleeping, missing the hiss of the demon who told her she wasn’t good enough.

It’s strange company, the demons that we keep inside us, but it’s often better than the loneliness of no company.

I think of Mary Magdalene, as I imagine her: always ready to let go of the annoying demon of feminine expectations, but who wishes she could summon back the demon of compulsiveness. I imagine her finding it hard to get anything done without that devil driving her ever onward.

As I think of the Easter morning story, I wonder if we’re seeing a vestige of Mary Magdalene’s possessed personality. What drove her to the tomb? I understand the ancient customs surrounding the care of dead bodies, and I understand the laws regarding dead bodies and the Sabbath. But in one Gospel, it’s only Mary who is so deeply concerned about the body of Jesus. What drives her to the tomb?

In Mary’s reaction to the man she assumes is the gardener, I recognize my own demon of anxiety. I watch her ask a perfect stranger about the body of Jesus. I watch her throw all caution and decorum away, so desperate is she to complete this task, as if completing the task will restore the world to right order.

Many of us suffer in the grip of these demons of anxiety, these beliefs that somehow, through our manic quest for control, we can keep the world from spinning into chaos. We might argue for the benefits of medication, and indeed, if it’s a matter of brain chemicals that are out of balance, we would be right.

But all too often, something else is at the root of our modern possession. Maybe we haven’t stopped to grieve our losses, as Mary needs to do in the garden. Maybe it’s the fear of loss that is coming to all our lives. Maybe it’s that insistent hiss from both inside and out that says that we will never be enough: good enough, clean enough, accomplished enough, nice enough, attractive enough, loved enough.

The Easter message comes to cast out these demons again and again. Christ reminds us that he’s here, always waiting, always watching, always ready for us. Even if we don’t recognize him, Jesus will not cast us away. It is the voice of Jesus that can silence all of our demons and help us to be at peace. Christ’s voice calls us to what’s important in our lives.

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