Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mary of Magdala

Fr. Hoyos wrote a column recently about Mary Magdalene. I almost didn't recognize her except that I am familiar with how she is usually portrayed (wrongly) by the traditional Church. Fr. Hoyos' Mary Magdalene is not the woman I know.

I first met Mary Magdalene as the unrequited lover of Jesus Christ, Superstar (1970). Her theme song, "I don't know how to love him", became the anthem of my shy teenage heart that gazed longingly from afar but never felt worthy enough to love and be loved. I banged out my frustration in its piano chords, sang out my heartache in Mary's words:

I don't know how to love him.
What to do, how to move him....

He's a man. He's just a man.
And I've had so many men before,
In very many ways,
He's just one more...


I later realized that this Mary Magdalene was a myth. Dr. Elaine Pagels gave me a very different picture of Mary a few years later. By then I had changed from a lovesick teenager to a budding feminist and was ready to meet Mariamene e Mara (Mary the Master) -- leader of the Gnostic faction after Jesus' death and a perfect counterpoint to the patriarchal Church of Peter. I eagerly read The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and then went straight to the source -- the Nag Hammadi texts.

Mary had her own gospel and was no longer the unrequited lover. From the Gospel of Philip I learned that ". . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]." When The Da Vinci Code came out decades later, it neither shocked nor surprised me. It's really just fictional embroidery on a few scraps of ancient textual scholarship. Let's get a grip, folks! Were Jesus and Mary lovers? I don't know and, as Abbé Pierre wisely concluded, it doesn't matter.

Sr. Joan Chittister in her chapter on Mary in A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God (Orbis, 2000) goes to great lengths to correct Mary's image while sticking to the canonical scriptures. She argues that Mary cannot possibly be the anonymous sinful woman who anoints Jesus' feet at the end of Luke 7 because she is introduced by name in Luke 8:2 as one of the Galilean women who follow Jesus and the only detail we are given is that she had seven demons cast out of her. These women defied the customs of their time by publicly following Jesus and supporting his ministry with their resources.

Mary is then found -- again by name -- at the foot of the Cross (Mk. 15:40). She assists at Jesus' burial (Mk. 15:47 - 16:1) and is the first person to whom the resurrected Christ appears (Mk. 16:9-11). In John's gospel, Mary Magdalene actually converses with Jesus at the empty tomb and He commissions her to "go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am going to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God." (John 20:17). Sr. Joan calls her "the apostle to the apostles." "She was not simply a passive listener, a hanger-on. She was a philanthropist of vision, an advocate of godly revolution, a creator of social change. She was part and parcel of the public life of Jesus."

Recently while researching Mary of Magdala's portrayal in Eastern and Orthodox iconography, I discovered another dimension to her. I wanted to know why she is often painted holding a red egg. According to tradition, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Mary Magdalene used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by Emperor Tiberius. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed "Christ is risen!" Caesar laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red, and she continued proclaiming the Gospel to the entire imperial house. So Mary was not only a model disciple but a fearless evangelizer in her own right.

Because of the earlier Church misunderstanding, Mary Magdalene became the patron saint of prostitutes and she is also a good role model. No woman can ever live up to that impossible Catholic ideal of "Virgin Mother" but I can try to be like a woman who overcame the demons of her past to join in the work of a man she came to love and preach the good news of His Resurrection to the world.

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