St. Mary of Magdala the Apostle to the Apostles

As our Easter celebrations continue, the readings for this coming Sunday quickly move our attention to the story of Thomas.  Poor old doubting Thomas.  It’s the same every year.  Thomas’ doubts greet the faithful on “low Sunday”.  But before you let Thomas’ doubts capture Easter’s hope, consider exploring the resurrection of Mary.  Perhaps my not-so-long-ago encounter with a visiting New Testament scholar will entice you to follow Mary out of her tomb and beyond the streets to her place at the head of the fledgling community that became the church: 

He just said it for the third time! “Harlots!” He keeps calling them “harlots”, while I rack my brains to come up with one harlot. Then he points to the text and his charges become clearer, he says, “she is a “prostitute!”

My carefully reigned in anger is unleashed. “Where?  Where?  Where? Show me where it says this woman is a prostitute!”

As he refers to the Gospel text and insists that, “It is there, right there in the text”,

I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to wipe the bemused expression from his face. I want to rub his nose in the damned text. Instead, I begin the uneasy process of reigning in my anger. I slow my speech, I try to erase the tremor from my voice and I ask him to, “Show me, show me where it says this woman is a prostitute.”

He consults his text and says, “a woman in the city who was a sinner.”

“A sinner not a prostitute.”  I respond.

He insists, “Yes a prostitute.”

“Where?” I ask.

Again he insists, “A woman who was a sinner.”

I demanded to know, “Where does it say she was a prostitute?”

He insists, “The author means that she was a prostitute.”

I lose control, “How do you know?  What words does the author use to say that his woman was a prostitute? Show me in the text where it says she was a prostitute?”

He still doesn’t get it, “What do you mean? It is clear that this woman was a prostitute.”

Once again I push, “Show me.  Show me where?”

He continues to say, “She was a woman from the city who was a sinner.”

I know that the text says that, so I implore him to tell me, “The Greek… What does the Greek say?”

He replies, “amartolos”.

I push, “Does that mean prostitute?” We both know that it does not.

He replies, “Sinner. But the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute.”

Still pushing I ask him to “Show me.  Show me how the narrative says this woman was a prostitute. Show me where it says her sins were sexual.             Show me where it says so in the narrative.”

He says, “It’s clear.”

Clearly we disagree, so I try again, “Clear to you.  Show me. Show me!”

As he fumbles through the pages, I offer him a way out, “Okay.  Even if I concede the point that her sins were sexual, show me where it says that these sexual sins were nothing more than lust or adultery, show me where it says that she was a prostitute.  Show me!”

He couldn’t show me.  It’s simply not there.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it ever say in Greek or in English that Mary of Magdala is a prostitute.  But over and over again scholars, theologians, popes, preachers, and dramatists, have continued to cast Mary of Magdala as a prostitute.  

In the years that have transpired since than day in seminary, when a visiting New Testament scholar insisted that “the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute,” I’ve delighted in being able to participate in the phenomenon of Mary’s resurrection as the first Apostle.

I’ve gobbled up all the many books that have recently been written about the woman commonly known as Mary Magdalene. Some of them have been great scholarly texts like Jane Schaberg’s tome entitled “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene.” While others have been little more than a salacious romp like Dan Brown’s:  The Davinci Code. But whether its scholarly speculation on the nature of Mary’s leadership in the Early Church or scandalous speculation on her sexual exploits with none other than Jesus himself, what these books hold in common is their ability to touch an insatiable curiosity about this enigmatic biblical character whose feminine attributes have ruffled the cassocks of those patriarchs of the priestly persuasion for centuries.

The recent resurrection of Mary has offered up portraits of a character whose historical roots go all the way back to a relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. And that relationship situates Mary at Jesus’ right hand. Now you’d think that someone whom all four gospels declare to be so very close to Jesus, ought to be someone your hear about in the church all the time.  You’d think that someone who the gospels record as having supported Jesus fledgling ministry out of her own resources, someone who if the gospels are to be believed, followed Jesus all the way to the cross and to whom the risen Christ first appeared and who is the first to be sent by Christ to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, you’d think that such a someone would be heralded down through the centuries, from pulpit to pulpit across the length and breadth of Christendom as the First Apostle. For indeed the literal definition of apostle is “one who is sent”. And if the gospels are to be believed,  Mary was sent by none other than the Risen Christ, so you’d think she would be honored by the very church that professes to follow Christ.  

But there’s just something about Mary….  that has made priests and preachers down through the centuries abhor her.  That the historical evidence clearly points to Mary’s role as a leader, perhaps the foremost leader of the first, fledgling followers of Jesus Christ, has not seemed to help Mary’s case. Indeed, it may be that her leadership position as the Apostle to the Apostles, the first witness to the resurrection and the first to proclaim that Christ is alive, is the very thing that set the proverbial cat among the priestly pigeons.

Now I know that there are those who would say that the swirling conspiracy theories that abound around any discussion of Mary are little more than the rumblings of ill-advised detractors who seek to undermine the teaching authority of the church.  But the evidence is clear that dear old Pope Gregory the Great, whether it was by accident or design actually misrepresented the Scriptures when he pontificated in a way that only popes can, about a woman’s sexuality. That this particular woman happened to be a close confidant of the one his holiness Pope Gregory called, “Lord and Saviour” did not save her from falling (pardon the pun) falling prey to his holiness’s foibles as he confused Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery and made the perilously, presumptuous leap from adultery to prostitution.  And low and behold for 14 centuries after Gregory’s not so great condemnation, Mary has remained relegated to the ranks of those whose bodies are bought and sold for the sake of those who care little for the female gender. And despite biblical and historical evidence to the contrary, Mary has been denied the titles that befit her rank.

But if you want to believe that it is merely a coincidence that the denial of Mary’s rank coincides with the church’s adamant denial down through the centuries that women could ever hope to enter the ranks of the priesthood, well I’m sure that God will forgive you, I’m just not sure Mary or her sisters will.

So what do the scriptures tell us about the disciple whom Jesus loved?             Well for starters Mary was a woman whom Jesus healed.  The gospel according to Luke tells us that:

“With Jesus went the twelve, as well as some women he had healed of evil spirits and sickness;  Mary of Magdala, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; Suzanna; and many other women who were contributing to the support of Jesus and the Twelve with their own funds.”

Evil spirits and sickness; 7 demons, no mention of sex.  No mention of prostitution. Now I don’t know about you, but if a prostitute showed up at your church tongues would be wagging.  And whoever wrote the gospel of Luke was more than capable of passing on a sexual tidbit or two. In fact just before he tells us about the women who support Jesus’ ministry, the writers tells the tale of a woman caught in adultery. But the writer never mentions that Mary was a prostitute.

Now there are some who insist that Gregory the not so great was simply confused by this story and so we should understand that it was an easy mistake to make. But to accept this is to accept that adultery and prostitution are the same thing. Now I get that popes are not well versed in matters of sex, but sadly that’s never stopped them from pontificating.

What irks me more is that a 20th Century New Testament scholar, who ought to know better, could suggest that adultery and prostitution are the same thing or indeed that one woman is the same as the next.

Okay, I’ll admit that I have an ax to grind. Many women do. But can you blame us?

Gentlemen.  I know that I have the rare privilege of serving in ministry with the most enlightened generation of men any woman has had the privilege of serving. You guys are great! So, please don’t hear this as some sort of angry tirade against men. Because sadly, the attitudes that have confined Mary to walking the streets at night are not confined to men. The entire church culture is steeped in antiquated attitudes that will take all of us, women and men together, decades to recover from.

But recover we will.  We will recover the witness of St Mary of Magdala, whose dedicated faith in Jesus, helped her to follow Jesus, despite the fact that all of the Twelve Disciples abandoned him, Mary stayed and followed Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross and beyond. Even in her grief, while the disciples remained locked behind closed doors because they were afraid, Mary ventured out to perform with her ointments ready, not knowing how she would be able to roll the stone away, only knowing that they could not fail to do what she thought would be the last loving act for her beloved Jesus.

It is long past time for the church to celebrate the resurrection of Mary of Magdala, the Apostle to the Apostles. 

Mary faithfully ventured forth, not knowing how; only knowing that she must.  And it was Mary who recognized in the face of someone she thought was just a gardener; Mary recognized the face of Christ. In Mary Magdalene we see a woman whose love of Jesus pushed her to keep going in the face of torment and death. It was Mary’s love of Jesus that sent her into the garden alone. Even though she though that her beloved Jesus was dead and gone, her love helped push her forward and she discovered that everything old has been made new through love.

So, looking back to Mary, I wonder what it would take for us to proclaim, “I have seen Christ”?  Where can we find God in our lives and thereby find new life, new hope, new love?  Where can we find what Mary found; Mary who when she found this new thing, was able to go on to found a community of followers of Christ who endured despite the odds against them.  A community who although their writings were suppressed by the powers that be, they could not be kept silent. A community whose gospel lay buried for centuries, and whose restoration preserves the traditions if not the words of Mary who encourages us down through the centuries with these words:

“Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be troubled. For Christ’s grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise Christ’s greatness, for Christ has joined us together and made us true human beings.”(Gospel of Mary and no I won’t supply the exact reference, in the hope that you might just read the entire Gospel)

Mary saw the risen Christ in the face of a gardener. Were can we find the face of Christ? Can we begin to see the face of Christ in the human beings that surround us?  Perhaps when we begin to share Mary’s faith that the risen Christ can bee seen, we will begin to see the ace of Christ in those around us; in face of the stranger we meet on the road, in the face of the homeless man as we sit and share a meal with them, in the face of a child we reach out to lift up out of poverty, in face the woman upon whose shoulders we stand, in the face of our opponent as together we struggle for understanding, in the face of our enemy as we work for peace, in the face of our tormentors as we strive for justice, in the face of the sick as we seek healing, and in the face of the poor as we offer aid.

When we can look into the face of those we meet and see the face of Christ then perhaps we can follow in the footsteps of Mary and all the world will know by our love, that we too follow Christ.

St. Mary of Magdala, the first Apostle, the Apostle to the Apostle, the one in whom the Risen Christ entrusted the good news of eternal life.

May the power of Mary’s witness inspire you to see the face of Christ in the world.