I want to open this up by saying that I do not have any formal training in theology or Christian history. So what I am going to share with you is purely speculation, and isn’t grounded in anything that would qualify as “reliable.” It’s basically stuff I’ve picked up on.
Church of the Apostles is a place that leaves room for God to move and speak through everybody. This is a risky practice. And one that allows me a certain amount of influence, even though, like I said, I lack formal training and any real qualifications. At least on paper. But here we are. That is my disclaimer. So thanks in advance for listening.
If the Gospel reading from today sounded familiar to you, it’s because it’s the reading we hear every year at the Easter service. I myself have heard it and read it countless times. I have always been comforted by the fact that Mary Magdalene was the one Jesus first appeared to after his rising. It falls under the list of other comforting Jesus moments in which he looks favorably on women. Those moments help me to retain at least an ounce of pride in my faith, they help build a case that Christianity isn’t all terrible despite what many have made of it. But that’s really all it has ever been to me. A box to check under “times Jesus wasn’t a jerk.”
In preparing for this feast, however, Mary’s role in this story has become so much more to me. My mind is blown at how naive I have been to her significance in the life of Jesus, and as a holy woman of God. This is, of course, paired with less clarity around who Mary of Magdalene as a historical figure is, and confusion around the motives of the Gospels. I blame the man for that. And I mean that literally.
Now I’m not saying that Hillary Clinton is a saint, but my eyes have been opened to the realization that we will never understand her true character because of the cloud of lies and deception that has been created to surround her, especially as she rose closer and closer to the presidency, to the seat of power. Of course we never can understand a public figure’s true character, but most of the time we don’t question it without good reason. But for, or rather against, Hillary, there is a strategy to spread such an abundance of lies and rumors, some of which might even be linked to something factual, so as to make it impossible not only to detect facts from falsities, but to keep our own perceptions from being influenced.
This, I believe, is what has happened to St. Mary Magdalene. I believe it’s happened to lots of women, (and even some men with an unpopular agenda. Say, for instance, Jesus.)
I tried to look to the Gospel passages that referred to St. Mary in hopes of getting a clearer image of who she was and what she meant to Jesus, and what her significance might be for Christians, and particularly Christian women, today. What I found was kind of a mess.
Let me explain with this example:
The art on the screen (above) is from a painting that Lacey and I saw at the “Accademia” in Florence. It is done by an artist we only know as “the Magdalene Master.” It was completed somewhere around 1280 and is titled “Mary Magdalene with Eight Scenes of Her Life.” I am not sure why, of all the incredible pieces of art we saw not only at the Accademia, but in all of our stops in Italy, this piece has stuck with me. I love how powerfully and prominently she is statured. I love that she is clothed only with her hair. At the time I encountered the piece, I didn’t have an affinity for Mary Magdalene by any means, but still … she stuck with me.
This painting represents the most commonly believed stories of Mary Magdalene of its time, and even of centuries later. The problem, though, is that some of the images depicted are now believed to be of a different Mary. It is a matter of some debate that Mary Magdalene is the same Mary-with-the-long-hair that anointed Jesus. More on that later…
Lets start with the top left of this image – the first scene portraying an incident from the 7th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus had been invited to eat in the home of a religious leader and, while there, an unnamed repentant sinful woman approached him. The passage reads:
“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”
Okay, I’ve got a lot to unpack here…
This is the Mary Magdalene the church wanted everyone to know about: a sinner. And her sin? Well, no where in the Gospel does it actually tell us – but lets just say it was sexual. Yes, that’s it. She was a prostitute. Mary Magdalene was a whore. Sex is bad. Women are the devil. Lets use this to legitimize our claim that priests should be celibate. And men. That goes without saying.
It’s interesting that this is the most common understanding of Mary Magdalene – A repentant sinner. Especially when we consider that this specific passage from Luke 7 doesn’t even mention her by name, only as “a woman.” Nor does it name her particular sin. But we all have a subliminal perception that her sin is sex. But the more interesting part of this whole Luke scenario is that in the following chapter, Mary is mentioned by name.
Luke 8:1-3 reads:
“Soon afterwards Jesus 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.”
What facts can we gain about St. Mary from this passage? That seven demons had gone out of her, whatever that means. Oh, and that she and her lady friends bankrolled Jesus and his disciples excursion around the Mediterranean. Must be nice, guys!
These passages are just one single chapter apart in the same Gospel, and yet, we don’t think of Mary, of Joanna, of Susanna as significant characters in the life of Christ. But we do think of Mary as a prostitute. A crazy, demon-possessed one, at that. This is the cloud of lies and deception I referred to earlier. Created to detract us from understanding who she really was, and the significant and supporting role she played in the life of Christ. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest who wrote a book on this subject, makes a bold claim: “In an emerging church hierarchy founded on the assumption of a male-only and celibate succession from the original apostles, Mary Magdalene’s apostolate was clearly an anomoly and a threat.” (1)
This has given me a lot to consider. Including questioning the motives of the Gospels. Even wondering what other Gospels are out there, like that of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, and what truth they might hold for us. I was exposed to these so-called Gospels in college and I remember dismissing them because they didn’t “sound like” the stories of Jesus I knew in the canonical Gospels. They are structured differently and speak of God differently. I thought, surely they cannot be “real”. It is only now occurring to me – what if the Gospels we are familiar with, that we hold as sacred, were chosen because they told the story of Jesus in ways a particular party of people, of men, wanted them to be told. I think they are “real” and true, because it is what I know. And it is what I know because someone, at some point in history, decided it was what they wanted me to know. While this possibility is disturbing, to say the least, I also find it immensely liberating. It further reinforces that God is so much more than what we see at the surface. I could spend years exploring the person of Mary Magdalene and would find more to be amazed and inspired by. Even in its injustice to women, I am able to see the injustice, to name it, and call BS. As the United Church of Christ says, God is still speaking!
I’ll share about one more scene from this piece of art, and then I’ll try and wrap this thing up. The image on the top right, of Lazarus raised from the dead – the Mary in this scene is actually Mary of Bethany. It is from the 11th chapter of John. Mary B., we read
“took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Mary B. does this because, as I have mentioned in a previous reverb, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is his own death-sentence. It is how he gets found out. Mary B. knows this, and therefore anoints him to prepare him for burial.
It is widely believed that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are two different Mary’s. This, of course, contradicts the historical teaching that the woman in the upper left image is Mary Magdalene, however, because that woman is thought to be the same one who anointed Jesus, again, after the raising of Lazarus. Like I said, it’s messy. And God only knows what to make of it.
One interesting thing I did read about all of this, though, was a reminder that the name “Christ,” as we know, is not Jesus’ last name, but instead means the anointed one. This implies, of course, that Jesus is anointed. And while Jesus’ followers would have liked his anointing to proclaim him as Messiah from the line of David, “the fact is that he became ‘the Anointed One’ at the hands of an unidentifiable woman.” So the church can create all the controversy around this woman that it wishes. It can obscure her identity and cause the church, for centuries, to play a game of who’s who. But the fact remains – this Mary or that one, is the one Jesus has chosen for his anointing, to prepare him for death, and to witness the resurrection and be the first to proclaim that very good news.
I’d like to close with some thoughts specific to today’s scene in the Gospel of John. The one that inspired Thomas Aquinas to name St. Mary Magdalene the “apostle to the apostles.” The one that, without which, we would have no Christianity.
During the time the tomb was found empty, but Jesus had not yet appeared, John’s gospel tells us specifically that “the disciples returned to their homes.” They essentially, got hungry, or bored, or simply gave up. Mary, however, stood weeping outside the tomb.
Mary’s weeping, and of course the weeping of many women, is used against her. It deems her unstable. Hysterical, even, like that’s a bad thing. But it is in her staying and her weeping that Jesus appears to her. And it is then that Jesus commissions her to go tell the other disciples that he has conquered death. This, too, is our commission. To experience life. To sit with it, whether weeping or crying. It is in those spaces that God is revealed to us. And the way life and relationships work is that we share those revelations, that wisdom, with others.
And so Mary goes and she shares this good news, that she has seen the Lord. Given the significance of this Easter story, it is curious that Mary Magdalene, who was specifically given the first apostolic charge by Jesus himself to announce the news of his resurrection, what our entire faith hinders upon, was not included among the apostles. (Not to mention it is also curious as to why, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out once again, Paul, who was not at the Last Supper and never met Jesus in his earthly life, was named an apostle.)
It is believed that Mary Magdalene spent the later part of her life in the desert, as a mystic. I’m sure it was lovely. But I wonder just how many other women have been driven out, intimidated, or simply unable to find a place of leadership among the patriarchy. And I wonder how long it will take us to recover their legacies, and if it will make any difference.
It was only last year, 2016 in fact, that Pope Francis elevated the celebration of St. Mary Magdalen from simply a “memorial” to a “feast day,” saying:
“Therefore it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman has the same grade of feast given to the celebration of the apostles in the General Roman Calendar, and shines a light on the special mission of this woman, who is an example and model for every woman in the Church.”
Well, this ain’t nothing. It certainly isn’t an apology, but it ain’t nothing.
A while ago I was reading a friend’s reflections on her travels through the Holy Land, she wrote a book about it, and in that book she shares about her time in Magdala, Mary’s namesake. Her reflection, like the painting in Florence, stuck with me. She reflects:
“I thought about Mary Magdalene, and all Christian history has tried to make of her. Prostitute, secret wife, distracting temptation: all lies, of course, none holding up under any biblical scrutiny. I wonder if she knew how far she would be dragged from the shores of truth, how much her deep devotion to Jesus would cause her to endure.” (2)
I don’t know if Mary knew at the time. And if she did, would she take it all back? We can only speculate, of course. But COTA is a place where we can speculate sincerely, and I think that’s something.