As we celebrate the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene today, I think I can safely say we Anglicans have a range of understandings about saints. My mother, not an Anglican, was unclear on the concept. “Catholics,” she told me, “pray to statues.”
I, for my part, was sure there was something about the saint thing. As I grew older and experienced the death of relatives and friends, the idea that people who have died can help us bridge the worlds seems less and less unlikely. I don’t know how it works, but it doesn’t seem entirely implausible. Most of us don’t hesitate to ask our friends to pray for us. Why not ask the saints?
And yes, it can also be our joy to join with the larger church in celebrating and observing their feasts during the year. This is part of the ongoing life of the church. A living tradition.… And who we recognize as saints … as members of this holy company … does grow and change in history.
Just over a year ago, the Catholic Church elevated Mary Magdalene’s observance from a Memorial to a Major Feast (see note 1) …the same rank as the Feasts of the twelve Apostles. She is now recognized, as she has always been in Orthodoxy, as not only the Myrrh Bearer but also the Apostle to the Apostles.
The progressive Jesuit James Martin flagged her significance on Facebook yesterday (though it seems to have disappeared this morning…. he had gotten some pushback and also been accused of posting while he was on vacation… am I channeling Rachel Maddow ?…)
“Between the time she met the Risen Christ and [the moment she] announced the Good News to the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the church on earth. For she alone understood the Paschal Mystery. Any discussion of women in the church must proceed from this fact.” (note 2)
All four of the gospels say Mary Magdalene witnessed the resurrection. Three of them name her as present at the Crucifixion also, and in both Matthew and Mark she is named first among the women who stayed and watched.
Today, we celebrate her as the Apostle to the Apostles… but you might wonder, wasn’t she also a fallen woman? Where did that bad girl go?
Well, she wasn’t actually there in the Gospels. The Mary of Magdala mentioned by Luke and by Mark is described as having been cured of 7 demons—Jesus cured a number of other people from demons in the course of his ministry, and they were certainly in great distress, but they are not described as being wicked, but SICK—and afterwards, Luke says, with other women of means, she accompanied Jesus in and beyond Galilee providing for him.
Rosemary Radford Reuther explains what happened to her story (note 3)
For the first five centuries no writer misinterpreted Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Rather she was seen as a leading disciple and image of the church. It is only at the end of the sixth century that Pope Gregory I confuses the sinful woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 and identifies her as a repentant prostitute, whose former sinfulness is contrasted with that of the Virgin Mary.
This view was “officially corrected” at the time of Vatican II but a half century later, the old story persists, for better or for worse… in hymns and prayers, and in devotions still alive today.
Consider the name of Montreal’s own Auberge Madeleine, which provides housing for homeless or itinerant women and helps them transition to more stable living situations—founded by a consortium led by our own Social Service Society.
Countless fabulous paintings hang in churches and museums around the world, and the National Gallery in London still offers this anachronistic information on its web site. You’ll probably find it familiar:
Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of perfumers and is associated with prostitutes.
She was present at Christ’s Crucifixion and burial. She is also associated with the sinful woman who repented and anointed Christ’s feet with perfumed oil (Luke 7:36-9). She is often held to be the same person as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. She is characterised as the penitent whore and as a paragon of contemplation. Her attribute is the pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s feet, as is told in the Gospels. She is usually shown wearing red. (note 4)
In fact, neither of the two anointings given by women to Jesus while he was ALIVE were actually assigned in the Gospels to Mary of Magdala. In Luke, the woman who was a sinner has no name at all. In the other three Gospels, the anointing takes place in Bethany directly before Jesus’ Passion. In John, Mary of Bethany is named as the one who brings the ointment and Judas as the critic who accuses her of wasting money.
It’s easy to see how these Marys became confused. We know, too, from other early sources that Magdalene’s strong witness and, indeed, her presence became something of a threat to leadership in the early church. We know that the text was heavily revised. Sometimes women’s names disappeared. And the opportunity to introduce “alternate facts” must have been a huge temptation.
I suspect that it [the desire to tweak the commentary in the case of the anointings] has something to do with feet. Ever since Ruth uncovered Boaz’ feet on the threshing floor, or her descendant King David was given a young virgin to warm his feet in his old age, women messing with men’s feet has carried a strong sexual connotation.
Mary’s story acquired a lot of this baggage over the ages…She was painted lusciously and, I daresay, lasciviously by generations of artists who took up the theme of the “repentant Magdalene” (note 5)… They delighted their patrons… generally rich men including powerful clergy… by showing her discarding her beautiful jewels and sometimes even casting off her silk garments, exhorted and supported by the demurely clad Christ-follower Mary.
The artists perpetuated and encouraged the confusion between Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany – the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Never mind that in THEIR story, where the names and personalities of the two sisters are remarkably consistent, Martha is anything but demure, and Mary is a prototype of contemplative love.
No, Jesus wasn’t the gardener. And Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute.
But you know, I’m not sure this so-called “error” was entirely UN-fortunate. During the ages when the institutional church controlled access to forgiveness for everyone, when God and Jesus might have seemed out of reach for people who were struggling in life, when even the Virgin Mary may have felt imaginatively distant, the Magdalene, as she was understood, proved that no one was beyond God’s merciful love. Her example inspired deep and lasting devotion. Her story continued to be Good News for many people.
And because she was seen early on as a “type” or representation of the Church itself—witness the words of today’s introit (note 6) her personification of the call to repent remains poignant.
Her status as an Apostle may have been eclipsed in the West, but her Gospel message was inextinguishable.
Given the centuries during which there was plenty of time to erode the virtue and efface the public memory of so many women, it’s the more significant that we still have today an account of Mary Magdalene that is more than robust—it is luminous and inspiring.
Her story had staying power, and this is fitting, because she had staying power too.
Speaking of stories with staying power…. I want to note that today we are honouring The Reverend Deacon Robert Coolidge for 50 years service since his ordination… Bob has been a steadfast supporter of Katrina’s Dream, a foundation established in memory of The Reverend Katrina Swanson— a member of the group known as the “Philadelphia eleven” irregularly ordained as the first woman priests in the US Episcopal Church. Katrina’s Dream lobbies and works for the full inclusion of women in church and society, including the passage of a new Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S.
So it’s particularly appropriate to honour him today, as we celebrate the Feast of Mary Magdalene.
Today, she once more takes her rightful place among the Apostles—so many of whom revealed their own humanity by turning away from the stark scariness of Jesus’ death.
Of course it was scary, and more than scary. Everything they believed in had disappeared. The Magdalene stands like the church itself at the door between life and death and eternal life.
Her capacity to stay with “not knowing” is heroic. It’s a lesson for today, when we crave only answers and only certainty. Because sometimes, “not knowing” provides room into which amazing new knowledge can come. Sometimes, it really pays off!
Let’s thank God for her example, and for God’s presence with us here today.
The lections for today are: Judith 9:1, 11-14; Psalm 42:1-7; 2 Corinthians 5:14-18; John 20:1-3, 11-18.
(1) Elizabeth A. Elliott, “Mary Magdalene gets her feast,” in the National Catholic Reporter, June 10, 2016. https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/mary-magdalene-gets-her-feast
(2) A tweet by James Martin from July 22, 2015, contains the same text: https://twitter.com/jamesmartinsj/status/623835390584168448?lang=en
His essay “Who Was Mary of Magdala?” in America, July 22, 2011, contains more scholarly references on the history of “the most misunderstood of all saints.” https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/who-was-mary-magdala
A more vigorous 2006 review of this argument by James Carroll (citing references to ancient sources):
(3) Reuther is quoted by Elliot, see note 1.
(5) See Cagnacci’s “Repentent Magdalene” http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/past/2016/cagnacci. There’s also a group of images with (trigger warning) indecorous commentary here https://brainblizzarding.wordpress.com/2016/07/
(6) Translation of “Lauda mater Ecclesia”: Praise Mother Church; praise the clemency of Christ who purges the seven vices by sevenfold grace. She runs sick to the doctor bearing a pot of perfume and from malignant illness the word of the physician cures her. She sees Jesus rising victorious from the grave and earns that first joy which burns brighter than the rest.
For further reading:
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins
Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, by Susan Haskins
Mary Magdalene: Truth and Myth, by Susan Haskins
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, by Karen L. King.
The Gospel of Mary (text online) http://gnosis.org/library/marygosp.htm
Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority
Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament
Cynthia Bougeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity
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