They were called Magdalene Houses, after the woman who was friends with Jesus. From the 18th to the 20th centuries, they offered refuge to single women who had become pregnant: a safe place to bear a child, screened from the inquisitive eyes of the neighbors. “Refuge,” that is, because they earned a reputation as hard places which made a travesty of Christian love by perverting it into a a grudging offer of the least that could be done. Places where cold discipline was meted out by hard-faced caretakers, people who believed it was their duty to punish these women for their transgressions — as if being pregnant in a patriarchal society, cast off by your family and by your friends, was not punishment enough.
But when Jesus encountered Mary Magdalene, he saved her, not by discipline, but by love. The story in Scripture gets confused, largely because there are too many Marys. There’s Mary the Mother of God, and Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene, and the woman who visits Jesus and washes his feet with her tears, the one believed to be a sinner. Over time, the legends became commingled, and Mary Magdalene got confused with the last one, the sinner, and she became, in our stories, a prostitute. What’s known in Scripture is that she had been possessed by seven demons, and Jesus cast them out. And then she followed Jesus.
And one more thing: she was the first witness to the Resurrection, the only person who saw Jesus at the tomb. She had wakened long before dawn and made her way to the garden in which the body of Jesus had been laid. But when she got there, she found the stone rolled away from the tomb and tomb itself empty, save for the winding cloths in which the body of Jesus had been wrapped. And when the other disciples went home, amazed, Mary stood there and wept, until she heard a voice calling her name, “Mary!” And she thought he was the gardener until he called her name again, and she saw that it was Jesus, whom she had not thought to see again in this life.
But why was she there, in the cold before dawn? Perhaps because, of all the people she’d known in her life, Jesus was the one who had not condemned her. He had seen her struggle, and quietly, gently, effectively, set her free. No words of recrimination. No reminders of her failure. Just the gift of new life, held out like a flower of spring.
And she held out her hand and took it, closed it in her heart and lived such a life that two thousand years later, we honor her each year on the twenty-second day of July. She is named Apostle to the Apostles, and is a patron saint of sinners. That means she is the patron saint of all of us, not because of her failings, but because she allowed Jesus to love her, with the same love he holds out to you and to me.
If you remember nothing else today, remember this: Love wins.
It always wins.