Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Looking in the mirror, self image, and Mary Magdalene (my favourite saint!)

2 Corinthians 5:14-17
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Luke 8:1-3
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

The Mirror
What do you see when you look in the mirror?  I suspect that the answer you give will depend on your perspective.  So let’s go back one stage and ask, if you are standing next to a friend, in front of a mirror, what do you see when you look at them instead of at yourself?  That answer is relatively easy.  What you see is a mirror image of that person, with left and right reversed from how you normally see them in real life, and with their three dimensionality reduced to just two dimensions, the flatness of the mirror.  So with your friend what you see is simply your friend, the person that you know and like.

But now cast your eyes back across to yourself and what do you see?  Now everything changes because your self-image impinges hugely on the image standing before you.  People who have suffered from anorexia and are very thin will usually see someone fat and unlovable, often to the great frustration of those who love them.  People who have been mistreated by others will often see someone who is ugly and unworthy of love.  And for some who have been through severe mistreatment they may even go so far as to take down all the mirrors in the house, or refuse to ever look at themselves in the mirror. 

To a scientist a mirror image is a straightforward reflection but to a person their image in the mirror is anything but straightforward.  It is complex and complicated, shaped almost entirely based on their self-image which is itself shaped on the interactions that we have had with other people. 

And of course the self-image might be mistaken in a different way.  A person can preen in front of a mirror, believing themselves to be entirely beautiful and lovable because their inherent narcissism has blinded them to their true image.  This is the kind of lying-to-self that can be found behind an old man thinking himself somehow to be still uber-attractive to a twenty year old woman.  It is the same kind of self-deception as someone who see themselves as worthless and therefore ugly when they look in the mirror, only now it’s reversed.  But the same thing is still going on, that the narcissist somehow believes they are attractive to everyone and is just as unable to see their true self, and just as unable to accept who they really are, as the person who believes themselves to be unlovable.

All of this, believe it or not, leads us to my favourite saint, Mary Magdalene.  We actually know very little about her, but we can infer a great deal from that information.  In the above reading she is introduced as the woman from whom seven demons had been cast out by Jesus, and near the end of John’s Gospel she is the first person that Jesus reveals himself to after his resurrection.  Those two incidents cover a myriad of possibilities. She also shows up in other ancient writings suggesting that she developed a deep friendship with Jesus and went on to be a leader in the early church.  It has also been suggested that she may even have been a contemporary of Jesus’s mother.  From all of this we can infer that when she had first met Jesus she had been a very troubled woman.  She seems to have been subject to some kind of spiritual oppression although what the meaning of the ‘seven demons’ is can be difficult to fathom.  Whichever way we look at it, it seems likely to me that Mary would have been someone who would have been, if she looked in the mirror, deeply unhappy at what she saw.

So what, then, did Jesus see when he looked at her?  I believe he saw a world of possibilities.  I believe he saw who Mary could become, not who Mary currently was.  Jesus sees people differently.  He sees potential. He can see past the difficulties, the mistakes and the blind alleys, and can see the true self that’s hidden there.  And then he acts, and he goes on acting, in order to bring out the possibilities that he sees. What happens next is up to the person he is looking at.  Mary Magdalene she responded positively.  She allowed herself to be made spiritually clean.  She allowed herself to begin to become the person that Jesus could see.  That went to the extent that by the time of his resurrection Jesus felt that he could trust her as being the person to whom he would reveal himself first, believing that she was now ready to be able to go to the remaining disciples with the message, ‘I have seen the Lord.’

This seems to me to be what St. Paul is referring to when he says in his second letter to the Corinthian church that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.  The old has gone and everything has been made new.  That’s how it was for Mary.  The old person who was deeply troubled, perhaps unsure of herself, and probably someone who wouldn’t want to look in a mirror, allowed herself to be seen by Jesus and dared to hope that she could be the person that he saw rather than the one that she saw in the mirror, and so the transformation began.

And that’s what happens when a new creation looks in the mirror.  Slowly and gradually they begin to see not themselves, but to see what Jesus sees.  It can be a long process, and sometimes we have to accept that seeing ourselves as Jesus sees us can be a humbling experience because it might just be that we’re not as desirable a person as we think we are.

But nevertheless we can still be seen by him; we can still be transformed, and we can still be made new.  That’s what happened to Mary Magdalene.

So the questions this leaves us with are, who do you see when you look in the mirror, and what do you think Christ sees when he looks at you?  Because if you wish to be transformed into a new creation, then the first step is praying that we can see ourselves as he sees us, and seeing the vision for what we can become. 

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