On the Sunday after our arrival, we set out after church toward Magdala, the hometown of one Mary Magdalene. It was an excavation uncovered only a few years ago, ruins of the city unearthed after all this time. I stepped out into the dust of an old, forgotten town and tried to imagine what it was like when she was there. I saw the remaining stones of the synagogue young Mary would have frequented, and I tried to imagine her there as a child. Was she precocious? Did she squirm or whisper or daydream? Or did she sit as still as the stones around her, enraptured by the idea of a coming Savior?
We don’t know when this happened or how old she was when it did, but Scripture tells us that Mary suffered from demon possession. Though it doesn’t give us the details of how the affliction manifested itself in her, there has never been a case of “mild” demon possession. I let my imagination fill in the gaps of Mary’s story as I walked through what remained of her city. She must have looked atrocious. Fierce. Out of control. She was a prisoner in her own skin. Trapped like a frightened animal caught in a cage. Isolated and oppressed with no hope of escape.
We don’t know much about her family or her community, but I have to wonder about how they treated her in her illness. Did they see her as a threat? As a liability? As an embarrassment? Was she kept behind closed doors or sent far away?
Walking around the ruins of that city, I wondered what her first encounter with Jesus was like. Had she heard the whispers about Him? Had the demons inside her become more violent and demonstrative because they sensed their time in her body was nearing an end? Did she long to get close, or did she try to hide her infirmities?
I don’t know how they came to be face-to-face. I don’t know if she met Him on the road or heard Him in the synagogue or hosted Him in her family’s home. Wherever it was though, Jesus stepped right into the middle of her sickness, her hopelessness, her loneliness, and commanded the storm inside her to be still. At the sound of His voice, the demons fled. And for the first time since the siege had begun on her body and mind, Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Reeling with her newfound freedom, she lifted her face and locked eyes with her Savior.
Not just the Savior she’d heard of all her life. The One who was coming for the salvation of her people, for the entire human race. Oh, it was Him alright. That same Savior who was the promised Messiah from the big picture prophecies. But I wonder if in that moment, looking into His compassionate countenance, she realized that He was also the Savior who had come for her specifically. For Mary of Magdala. He was the Savior who had come to set her free.
This wasn’t the first time I’d thought of Mary Magdalene on this trip. In last week’s blog, I mentioned my moments at The Garden Tomb on the first day, but I didn’t tell you that while I was there, her shadow slipped in and sat beside me on that bench in the shade. I thought of how terrified she must have been in those moments alone outside the tomb. I wondered if she slept a wink that first night after her Savior and friend drew His last breath. I imagined she tossed and turned with fear. While the other disciples cowered behind locked doors and slammed shutters fearing political repercussions for their associations with Jesus, Mary might have been terrorized by even more gruesome prospects. Who could think of Roman capture or religious scorn when the memory of an enemy far greater and more oppressive lingered at the door of her mind. I wondered if she turned over unthinkable questions as she grieved. Would the demons return to reclaim what Jesus had set free? Now that He was gone, was she no longer safe? Would the peace she had known since her liberation be coming to an end?
Sitting there on a wooden bench listening to the Gospel presentation, I went in my mind to the scene in John 20. Mary stands in the garden weeping. The body of her Savior has been stolen, and the wounds of her grief, still raw from the past three days, are ripped wide open.
“…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’
He called her by name, and in that instant, she knew it was Him. He was alive, and she was safe. The ghosts and shadows of old demons disappeared in the light of His presence, at the sound of His voice.
I’ve talked about this before, but it still grips me with such power when I think of it. Jesus knows our names. He is simultaneously the Savior of the whole, nameless world, and the Savior of each one of us specifically. Individually. Personally. He is the God who stepped into humanity’s collective mess, and He is the God who steps into my mess. And because I know the whole story, I don’t cry at the tomb for same reason Mary did in John 20.
My tears spill down my cheeks out of overwhelming gratitude.
Gratitude for broken chains.
For debts paid.
For life when I deserved death.
For a personal Savior who looked on me with compassion and called out my name.
And sitting there with the memory of Mary Magdalene close by, I heard Him call it again. Take a moment, and be still, friend. Sit with us here, and listen closely.
Don’t you hear Him calling yours?