By the Rev. Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade
Mary Magdalene is the most famous of the women in the Gospels after another Mary. She also is one of the most misunderstood of all the devoted followers of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels. Perhaps because of the emphasis on Mary of Nazareth’s virginity when she accepted God’s call to bear His son, the “other” Mary, “of the town of Magdala,” became associated with just the opposite; she became known as a fallen, “scarlet” woman of the streets who nevertheless was not beyond the Lord’s forgiveness. But the Biblical record in Luke 8:1-3 does not suggest that at all.
Far from being a harlot or a courtesan, Mary, along with many others, usually men, was plagued by demons when she met Jesus. He cast seven demons out of her and then she, along with other women, joined the larger group of disciples and followed him. There is no mention of her having ever had a husband, but she was one of the women of “means” who generously supported him and his other disciples from their private funds. In all four Gospels she is among the first witnesses of the resurrection and she is the first to actually speak with the risen Lord in Matthew and John. Indeed, she is given the commission to spread the good news to the other disciples, earning the title “Apostola apostolorum” (Apostle to the Apostles).
Unfortunately Mary Magdalene has often been confused with other women in the Gospels. She was been identified with the anonymous woman of the streets who enters Simon the Pharisee’s house and anoints Jesus’ feet as she weeps (Luke 7) or another anonymous woman in the house of Simon the Leper who anoints his head with expensive ointment (Matthew 26; Mark 14). She is also sometimes even identified with Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus (never mind that she could not have been from two different places), because that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with precious ointment the week before his Passion (John 12). The story of the anonymous woman who was taken in adultery sometimes gets attributed to Mary Magdalene as well (John 8). As a result, her seven demons got attributed to sexual sins in the Christian imagination.
We usually explain that what is meant by a person “possessed by a demon” in Gospel stories is severe mental illness, thus transforming demonic possession into diagnoses from modern psychiatry such as schizophrenia, paranoia, epilepsy, bi-polar disorder, and so forth. That is helpful to most of us as we encounter Jesus in the Gospels as an exorcist and a healer of physical diseases with which we are more familiar. “Satan and all his works” and “the spiritual forces of wickedness which corrupt and destroy the children of God” are in our Baptismal renunciations, to be sure, but we tend to explain them as archaic, purely symbolic, ways of talking about aspects of the human condition that could be explained by science or philosophy. But there are afflictions that are otherwise inexplicable, scientifically or philosophically, and which are demonic in their ability to arrive without obvious cause and ruin our lives.
My suggestion is that instead of assuming that the demons that afflicted Mary were the traditional, confused, and unsubstantiated sins of sexual promiscuity or prostitution, it might be plausible, if equally unsubstantiated, to think of her being possessed by demons well-known to people in every age and culture: alcohol, in all its various forms. The old epithet, “Demon rum” comes to mind. For those who are alcoholics and for their families, rum and all its siblings are truly “demons” which take over the minds, consciences, and very lives of those they possess. There is no rhyme or reason for why one person is thus possessed while his or her sisters or brothers, who have shared the same family and upbringing, are not.
In the Bible there are many words in praise of wine as a gift of God to “make the heart glad” as the Proverbs put it, or advice to use it as a digestive aid (1 Tim 5:23). But some people who partake in excess find the demonic instead of the gladsome; they find that something beyond their will power has gained control over them and is destroying them and ruining the lives of those around them. Where can they turn for deliverance? Can they find a story in the Bible that speaks to their plight? What of the traditional saints of the Church that are considered special patrons for those with various afflictions?
Typically, the title, “Patron Saint of Alcoholics,” is given to Monica of Hippo, mother of St. Augustine, because of her son’s account of her love of wine when she was still a girl. When she was sent to fill the wine jugs for dinner she started tippling a bit, and then a bit more, until finally an old servant rebuked her as a wine-bibber and she was able to stop.
In modern times, the Roman Church has also named an Irishman, the Venerable Matt Talbot (1856 – 1925), as patron of alcoholics, because a sudden experience of God’s grace delivered him from a life of drunkenness. Actually, his story will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever been involved with Alcoholics Anonymous; it can be summarized in the first three steps of the Twelve Steps of AA, which was founded in 1935 by Bill W. and Bob S. in Akron, Ohio:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
We may not know of Bill or Bob and AA, or of St. Monica or Matt Talbot, but we all know who Mary Magdalene is. Her story is part of Sacred Scripture for every follower of Christ in every place and time. This Mary, the one from the town of Magdala, had seven demons which afflicted her until she made the decision to turn her will over to the care of Jesus of Nazareth. She then became his devoted follower, benefactress, and the first messenger of his resurrection. We’ll never know exactly what Mary’s seven demons were, but many Christians who are afflicted by “demon rum” in its myriad forms could perhaps take courage from her story and find hope and deliverance by following her example and asking for her intercession.
The Rev. Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade is a retired priest of the Diocese of Louisiana