Magdalene’s recovery

The church’s first evangelist joins an elite group of saints

by Ken Sehested

        Hillary Clinton’s election this week as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee surely knocks another hole in the “glass ceiling” obstructing women’s full inclusion into the human enterprise. [1]

        It should go without saying that the struggle for gender justice is far from over; but every advance should be permitted its celebration—even for those who, like me, maintain profound concerns about Clinton’s entanglement with Wall Street’s domination of our economy along with her militarized foreign policy instincts.

Right: "Mary of Magdala" from Dina Cormick's "Heroic Women" series.

        Let me suggest, though, that an event last week will have longer-term implications for greater mutuality between women and men.

        I did not know until recently that the Roman Catholic Church (in common with the various Orthodox communions) centuries ago set 22 July as remembrance day for St. Mary Magdalene. Just weeks ago, on 10 June in another of Pope Francis’ bold moves, Magdalene’s remembrance day was upgraded from a “memorial” to a “feast” day on the Catholic liturgical calendar. [2]

        This modification may not sound like much to those of us in low-brow communions; but the elevation is actually quite significant in its context and will, very likely, open doors beyond as well. [3]

        Only one other female saint’s remembrance day is considered feast-worthy. That would be Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose “annunciation” in Luke 2 is anything but mild-mannered.

        Moreover, Francis’ declaration, made via a decree from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, [4] puts Mary Magdalene’s memory on par with that of the Apostles. [5] In fact, the Vatican announcement retrieves from history the title of Apostolorum apostola (Apostle of the Apostles) because she was the prima testis (first witness of the Lord’s resurrection), designations first named by Hippolytus in the second century CE and confirmed by “Doctor of the Church” Thomas Acquinas in the 13th century.

        To put it in a different light, Mary Magdalene (aka Mary of Magdala, per her identification as a resident of Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee) was the Christian community’s first evangelist, since it was she to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared, instructing her to “go tell the others.”

Left: Sculped relief by Margaret Beaudette of Mary Magdalene proclaiming "The First Easter Homily"

        For 14 centuries, Magdalene’s reputation [6] in Roman Catholic teaching has been curiously scurrilous. In the long history of popular artistic imaging, she is often portrayed partially naked or at least as a seductive temptress—a kind of sexualized repentant, a voluptuous prostitute who became a follower of Jesus after he cast “seven demons” out of her. [7]

        It was Pope Gregory the Great in 591 who first conflated the identities of Magdalene with Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42), the sister of Martha and Lazarus, along with the unnamed “sinner” with the alabaster jar and long hair in Luke’s Gospel (7:36-50). [8] From that time until 1969, as part of the Vatican II reforms, Catholic teaching identified Magdalene with the “sinful, sensual woman weeping at Jesus’ feet, wiping up her tears with long and tangled hair” who was both “needy and subordinate.” [9]

        Nevertheless, she is named in the Gospels 12 times, more often than most of the Apostles.

        There are a number of theories as to why this prurience frames Mary Magdalene’s memory. One is because the early Christian Gnostic movement, denounced as heretical, gave her such a prestigious role.

        Another explanation might be envy, over the fact that the Gospel accounts feature a female with such prominence, outshining the male Apostles, refusing to abandon Jesus in his crucifixion and is first to meet the resurrected Christ. The submissive harlot became a foil for the church’s championing of submissive women.

        A third explanation involves purity motivations of an increasingly male-dominated church, which preferred to highlight the Virgin Mary over Magdalene’s invented association with prostitution. [10]

        “The problem, or danger, from the Church’s point of view,” writes Michael Haag, “is that Mary Magdalene had encountered the divine when she discovered the tomb was empty; in other words, she had a direct and personal encounter” and thereby “bypassed the workings, the function, the purpose of the Church.” [11]

        Even more so than this week’s electoral history, together these two Marys—Magdalene as the first evangelist, along with the Blessed Mother’s magnificat predicting the downfall of the mighty—align in a strategic deconstruction of any and every sort of submission other than to the Beloved’s presence, purpose, and promise.

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[1] “May [Hilllary Clinton’s] candidacy send a message to women everywhere that the glass ceiling that has held so many of them down is being broken, and that a new day is dawning, not only for women, but for all people everywhere.” From Tony Campolo’s prayer at the Democratic National Convention following Clinton’s securing the party’s nomination, 26 July 2016.

[2] See Elizabeth A. Elliott, “Mary Magdalene gets her feast,” National Catholic Reporter.

[3] The Catholic reform group FutureChurch already organizes 200-300 Magdala Day celebrations around the world.

[4] See the full text of the decree.

[5] For more background on the history of the changing story of the church’s appropriation of Mary of Magdala’s story, see “Who framed Mary Magdalene?” by Heidi Schlumpf, US Catholic.

[6] “The whole history of western civilization is epitomized in the cult of Mary Magdalene. . . .  How the past is remembered, how sexual desire is domesticated, how men and women negotiate their separate impulses; how power inevitably seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted; how fallibility is reckoned with, and how sweet devotion can be made to serve violent domination—all these cultural questions helped shape the story of the woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth.” James Carroll, “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” Smithsonian Magazine.

Right: "Mary Magdalene, Our Lady of Flowers" by Tanya Torres.

[7] The novelist Dan Brown, in his The Da Vinci Code mystery novel, portrays Magdalene as Jesus’ secret wife. In 2012 Harvard church historian Karen King claimed a recently discovered ancient papyrus proved that Jesus was married. Just recently Dr. King admitted the document was likely a forgery.

[8] A legend in the Eastern church's tradition (which never associated Magdalene with sexual sin) has Mary of Magdala traveling to Rome and appearing before the court of Emperor Tiberius. When she tells Tiberius about Jesus’ death and Resurrection, he challenges her story, saying no one could rise from the dead any more than an egg in a dish on the table could turn red. With that, according to the legend, Mary picked up an egg, and it turned bright red in her hand. To this day, icons of Mary Magdalene often depict her holding an egg, and Eastern Christians still color their Easter eggs a bright red.
            Orthodox icons of Magdalene often depict her holding a container of myrrh used to anoint bodies of the dead.

[9] Joyce Hollyday, Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us, p. 229.

[10] Three pieces of music about Mary Magdalene have made their way into pop culture in recent years, though each is written from the discredited view of Mary Magdalene as “penitent prostitute.”
       • “The Ballad of Mary Magdalen,” Cry, Cry, Cry (Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky & Dar Williams)
       • “Legendary Mary of Magdala,” Othar Winish
       • “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” from the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Mario Piperno, Riccardo Ferri, Mauro Picotto, and Andrea Remondini

[11] Author of The Quest for Mary Magdalene, in an interview with Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service, 21 July 2016.

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