|Photo courtesy of New York Magazine|
For those who took part in the Women’s March today, January 21, 2017.
“But now this one word hath my sense restored,
Lightened my mind, and quickened my heart,
And in my soul a living spirit poured,
Yea, with sweet comfort strengthened every part:
For well this word a spirit dead may rise,
Which only word made Heaven, World, and Seas.”
“Marie Magdalens—Lamentation #6”
On a starless night, a woman and child huddled in the front of a battered wooden boat as it was propelled by the waves toward the beachhead. Water, cold and bracing, sloshed over the bow and pooled around their sandaled feet. Dark and shadowy men met them and pulled the craft up onto the sand and hands extended to help the woman and child disembark on the black-shrouded coast of Gaul. “I am Mary of Magdala,” the women whispered. “I am Mary of Magdala, and I come bearing the blood of Jesus Christ, our savior,” She wrapped her arm around the small child and pulled him close to her. “This is the sang raal, the blood of our Lord.” They made their way up the beach and into the trees. It would be light soon, and they had many miles to travel to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is a story of Mary Magdalene, as the West names her, and her arrival in Gaul bearing the child of Jesus, her lover or possibly husband, the literal blood of Christ, the Holy Grail. Is any of it true? Some of it, may be, or none of it. This is how fact becomes history becomes legend becomes mythology. All it takes is a little imagination. In the realm of narrative, characters become who we need them to be, and facts can be conveniently manipulated for the sake of plot and theme.
This version of the story is not accepted by scholars. It is Da Vinci Code nonsense, but it is entertaining. Her fanciful narrative also highlights a truth: Mary of Magdala has been reinvented several times over the centuries to fit the prevailing culture of the time. This imaginative reworking of her story leaves us wondering about her true identity. She is who we need her to be, and that has clouded her historical presence in the narrative of divinity, the life of Jesus Christ.
There is a tradition and narrative that comes from the New Testament Gospels regarding the Magdalene’s life. How much of that is true and how much is open to interpretation? Her name is significant—Mary, there are multiple Marys—because we are not certain if she is an amalgamation of several women in the Bible or is each Mary a different person, as Mary was a common name. The Gnostic sources tell a far richer story of the Magdalene, but how much of those works can we take as valid? Is she a feminist icon? How is she portrayed in art down through the ages? Again, we get a variety of personas in painting and sculpture. Do these works give us a clear vision of this singular woman, one of the chief apostles, in fact, the apostle of the apostles, a rival to Peter? And after a thorough analysis, what are we left with in the story of Mary of Magdala? Who is she?
Mary of Magdala first appears in the Gospel of Luke 8:2-3: “Accompanying him [Jesus] were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.” There are a number of unique aspects in this passage. One, as the notes in the Bible explain, it is rare to find mention of women in such a prominent position within Jesus’ followers given the patriarchal attitudes of the time in first century Palestine. Two, it is clear that the women, at least in part, were subsidizing Jesus’ ministry by providing “for them out of their resources.” What exactly did these women provide?
Biblical critics often point to Luke 7:37-38, the story of the sinful woman, as the first mention of Mary Magdalene, but these two women are not the same. The sinful woman who is pardoned for her sins and then bathes Jesus’ feet with ointment is moved to tears of gratitude for the forgiveness. Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out of her—seven demons representing the seven sins. She goes on to prove herself worthy of healing others, especially those who are possessed in other biblical stories. What is also clear here is that she is not a prostitute. That assertion, says Birgit Breninger, is directly from the Middle Ages and Church Fathers such as Saint Augustine and Tertullian who needed to link the Magdalene to Original Sin caused by the first woman, Eve. They needed Mary Magdalene to be more “religiously authentic” as the “penitent prostitute” to remind women of the weakness of their sex, especially in regard to sexual matters.
Bruce Chilton writes that “Luke does not present Mary as the wealthy, elegant seductress of medieval legend and modern fantasy.” What we must remember is that the Magdalene arrived possessed by seven demons; much of her property had been lost or stolen as she followed Jesus’ entourage across the region. “Revisionist readings, like medieval legends, can divert and refresh our imaginations, but they also show us how much the Western religious imagination still wants a rich and powerful Mary to protect the poor, defenseless Jesus,” Chilton writes. Mary Magdalene distinguishes herself as a true apostle; her worth comes through her witness of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not from the proceeds of a life of prostitution or from a wealthy family from which she fled when the demons came.
Matthew’s Gospel has Mary Magdalene with Jesus’ mother, Mary, witnessing the crucifixion. They remain behind after others have left “facing the tomb” (27:61). It is of utmost importance to note that the Eleven are not present—the men fled and are in hiding. It is the women, significantly Mary Magdalene, who remained in Jesus’ hour of need. This, of course, sets up the Magdalene as the prime witness to Jesus’ resurrection when she finds the empty tomb. Mark also has Mary Magdalene and other women watching from the distance in 15:40. In this account, the women observe what is happening and where Jesus’ body is laid to rest so they can return to anoint it properly after the Sabbath. John moves the women closer to the action, to the foot of the cross. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary of Magdala” (19:25). There are a number of Mary figures in each account and in other literature, but the consistent figures always present are Mary, Christ’s mother, and Mary Magdalene. This consistency, Edward A. Mangan argues, comes from the need for “historical witnesses.” This is “to show that the story of the Resurrection is not based on a fable but on strict historical truth.” What adds to the veracity of these accounts is that the patriarchal society of the first century would most definitely not want Mary Magdalene, a woman, as witness to the resurrection. If she appears in all four Gospels, her presence cannot be disputed. She can be depicted as a whore with her hair down and flowing all around her as she sobs for her Christ; she can wear the bright colors, namely red, in the art of the Renaissance; she can be seen crying and throwing her hands in the air with hysterical grief, but she was there and all but one disciple were not.
John writes it is Mary Magdalene who discovers the empty tomb, but unlike in the other Gospels, she runs to Simon Peter to tell him. This shifts the narrative back to the men but this is not consistent with the other narratives. In fact, it may indicate what Claudia Setzer describes as “the embarrassment over women’s essential place in the resurrection story…within the Christian community.” However, Mary Magdalene stays at the tomb and later experiences a direct encounter with Jesus. In disguise, he asks her why she is weeping, and she, believing him to be the gardener, begs for the return of Christ’s body. Jesus then calls her name and she responds, recognizing him now, “Rabbouni,” teacher, and immediately falls at his feet but he tells her not to touch him yet (John 20:11-18). “Noli me tangere,” he tells her, “stop holding on to me,” because he has not yet returned to his father. According to Barbara Baert, “no other utterance by Christ has been the subject of so much discussion by the first Church Fathers.” There are several theories why Jesus does not want her to touch him. Baert writes that the admonishment “is an explicit statement of the transformation of the belief in Christ as a human being into the belief in Christ as God.” The touching is for the human Christ, but one cannot touch the divine entity he has now become after his death and resurrection. Baert takes this idea from the work of Augustine. She goes on to borrow from Ambrose of Milan as well: “Mary Magdalene was prohibited from touching Christ because, at that moment, she lacked the capacity to grasp Christ in his risen and divine form.” Ambrose “compares the Mary of John 20 with Eve: if the first sin was committed by a woman, the first person to see the Risen Christ will also be a women.” So in the congruent patriarchal views of this Church Father, Mary Magdalene is making up for Eve causing the downfall of humanity. Baert brings in Hippolytus of Rome who “proposed a more women-friendly meaning of the Noli me tangere…Mary is the apostola apostolorum, sent by Christ himself to redeem Eve’s sin. Mary Magdalene is Ecclesia, the proclaimer of salvation, or the New Eve.” She “is also the woman who is elected to receive an insight into the incarnation, the cycle of salvation and the divine aura.”
Luke’s version of the resurrection contains several interesting elements. The women, Mary Magdalene among them, enter the tomb at daybreak only to find it empty. They are not sure what to do next when “two men in dazzling garments” appear to them (24:1-4). Of course, the women are deeply afraid but the men ask a strange question coupled with an even more disturbing statement: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and crucified, and rise on the third day.” (24:5-7) Evidently, this sounded plausible to the women and they returned to the now eleven apostles and told them what they had seen. Peter does not believe them and returns to the tomb to see for himself.
Matthew constructs a rather violent scene witnessed by Mary Magdalene and another Mary (it is not clear which Mary this is). There is an earthquake with the angel of the Lord descending from heaven. It is this angel who rolls back the stone in cinematic fashion. Matthew says “His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow.” (28:1-3) Like Luke’s account, Matthew’s also contains figures in brilliantly white garments. Even the guards in Matthew are shaking in fear, but to the women, the angel instructs them not to be afraid. He actually invites them into the tomb to see where Jesus’ body had only recently been laid. As in the other accounts, the women are told to go and tell the apostles, but here, Matthew differs on one major point. Jesus actually appears to them as they are making their way back to the apostles. He tells them again not to be afraid and to report what they have seen to Jesus’ “brothers.” (28:10)
Mark’s Gospel offers a lengthy account that has similarities with the other texts. In his version, Mary Magdalene is accompanied by Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, the disciple. This is not the Salome who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter. The women find the stone, again, rolled away from the mouth of the tomb, and just inside there is a man, young, in a white robe. “Do not be amazed,” the man tells them. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him.” (16:1-6) The strange figure tells them, as in the other accounts, to go report back to the apostles, but in this narrative, the women are too frightened to tell their story, so they tell no one. An alternate ending is tagged on to Mark’s Gospel here. In the parallel narrative, it is told from Jesus’ point of view as he first comes to Mary Magdalene and she in turn goes to the apostles who do not believe her story. Jesus also appears to two other disciples on the road, but the apostles do not believe them either. It is not until Jesus appears to all of them gathered for a meal and chastises them for not believing. Then they accept that Jesus walks among them. The newly resurrected figure sends them out into the world with a clear mission:
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature…These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents [with their hands], and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (16:9-18)
Although Mary Magdalene’s story and person are reconstituted over the centuries to reflect what Church Fathers needed her to be, or to illustrate some moral rectitude, it is clear in the Gospel accounts that she is the witness not only to Jesus’ death on the cross, but to his resurrection, one of the most important narratives in Christianity. This cannot be altered or denigrated; this is as close as we can come to a historical certainty. Of all the things Mary Magdalene might have been, she is most definitely the witness to a man rising from the dead and walking among the living. We have a plethora of sources to validate this.
The Gnostic Gospels offer a much fuller and more imaginative account of just who Mary Magdalene was. These texts were discovered in the mid-20th century at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. According to Robin Griffith-Jones in her book, Beloved Disciple, Thomas in his Gospel tries to refute John’s assertion that women understood Jesus better than men. Thomas quotes Simon Peter saying to the disciples, “Let Mary go out from among us, because women are not worthy of life.” Jesus retorts that he will make her male because every woman “who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These words, on both sides, are bold and confrontational. Why does Thomas see women as expendable? It seems more than just patriarchy; it is clearly misogyny. And what does Jesus mean that Mary Magdalene will be made male? In a backhanded way, his words are misogynistic as well; women cannot be admitted to heaven as women? Notice that Jesus does not contradict Peter in his words, or Thomas for writing them down. However, there could be something richer and more modern here. Is Jesus arguing that gender is fluid, that the ultimate destination of humanity is an end where sex does not matter: men must become more like women and women like men, and once this androgynous perfection is in place, only then can the human being enter heaven? It is tempting to read into this as an assertion of gender fluidity completely absent from the New Testament texts. And in the center of it is Mary Magdalene, a woman who leads the disciples like a man and can more than hold her own in a patriarchal society.
It is in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary that the Magdalene comes into her own in a way much more fully realized than the New Testament accounts. Clearly, she is more than just another disciple to Jesus. Previous Gospels, such as Philip’s, even characterize the relationship between the Magdalene and Jesus in terms of a marriage bed. He is seen kissing her on the mouth. If there is something more here, it is a sacred marriage.
In Mary’s Gospel, it is Peter who must ask Mary for information from the Christ. As quoted by Griffith-Jones, “Peter said to Mary Magdalene, ‘Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember—which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them.’” Peter is turning to a woman to teach the others what Jesus has told her. This is extraordinary in the patriarchal times of the first century. Peter may question her authority, or send her out because she is expendable, but she is vindicated by this scene in her Gospel.
However, the most stunning moment is yet to come. The disciples were deeply afraid of persecution, or even being put to death for preaching the word of Christ. They hid in dark rooms and kept out of sight, trying to maintain a low profile. It is Mary Magdalen who must rally their courage and flagging spirits. In one scene from her Gospel, she rises and embraces each disciple. “Do not weep and do not grieve,” she tells them, “nor be irresolute, for his grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us into humans.” At her words, the fear dissipated among these men and they began to plan their teaching and eventual re-entry into the world. It is a startling, triumphant moment for a woman once possessed of seven demons and left bereft to wander the countryside. Griffith-Jones stresses that Mary Magdalene was an “ideal believer and spokesperson for Jesus himself,” and she fulfilled this role as a woman. It is an evocation of the “true convergence of the female soul and the Son of the Human One.”
Ann McGuire broadens out the Gnostic version of Mary Magdalene in her chapter in Women and Christian Origins. She tells us that the Magdalene fills a number of roles in the texts. In many of these characterizations, she is the lone woman in a room full of men, and she is teaching them how to be a follower of Christ. She is clearly special to Jesus and has a special relationship to him that the male disciples do not have. The Gospel of Mary pushes front and center the leadership and authority of women in the early Church. When the disciples are weeping in dark rooms and despairing of ever seeing the light, it is Mary Magdalene who rallies them and tells them not to weep because even though Jesus is gone, he is still with them. “Here, Mary shows herself to be an unwavering leader who understands that the disciples must turn toward their nongendered nature as anthropoi [human beings] in order to gain salvation.”
If Mary Magdalene was a leader among the apostles, a witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection, how did she become the repentant prostitute, the suffering sinner, the example for Christians that even the most sinful among them could be saved through the glory of Jesus Christ? How did she become a feminist icon in a new age? To understand this transformation, we must look to history and those who attacked her and reconstituted her starting in the second millennium.
The most virulent critic of Mary Magdalene and Christianity was Celsus, a Greek philosopher living in the second century. Most of his writing survives in rebuttal by Origen. The two did battle over many issues related to the developing Christian world. Because Origen quoted Celsus at length, we can access much of his diatribe. He describes the resurrection episode with Mary Magdalene and other women as witnesses as a moment “created by ‘hysterical women’ who [were] deluded by sorcery.” He questions “whether anyone who really died ever rose again with the same body?” He calls the whole event as “dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking,” a “hallucination” and a “cock-and-bull story.” Hysteria has long been a charge leveled at women through the ages. It has bled into the sciences with women having hysterectomies—the uterus and ovaries removed due to cysts or tumors. MacDonald tells us that “Celsus’ labelling of a woman with a talent for the invention of religious belief as ‘hysterical’ reflects a well-attested sentiment in the Roman Empire that women were inclined toward excesses in matters of religion.” It also appears that Roman men found them excessively emotional.
Celsus argues that Jesus was not the Lord and Savior as Christians tried to tell the world, but the son of a common woman, an adulteress. The child grows to become a magician, a sorcerer. As for Jesus’ parentage, his father, according to Celsus, was a Roman soldier named Panthera.
When he attacks Mary Magdalene, he does so with vicious abandon. He challenges the very notion of resurrection, mainly because it is the central event of the developing Christianity. MacDonald writes “Celsus’ focus upon the role of Mary Magdalene may reflect second-century controversy about the importance of this woman in Jesus’ circle and about the implication of this importance for leadership by women.” Celsus was against Christianity, but it did not take long for Church Fathers, popes, and other figureheads within the Church to take up this attack on Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene becoming the repentant prostitute was a direct result of the Catholic hierarchy in the Middle Ages needing a sinner who is redeemed as an example for Christians that one could repent one’s ways and find a place in the heavenly firmament no matter how grave the sin. Because of the confusion of Marys in scripture, there was an ongoing discussion about just which Mary was being referred to in different sections of the New Testament. Pope Gregory the Great presented a case in his Homily 33 that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman of Luke 7:37-38, even though she does not appear by name until after this point in the timeline. It was a connection that would be difficult to sever going forward. Often, the Magdalene would be referred to as the woman who bathed Christ’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, descriptive language from the sinful woman verses. Gregory writes that “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary [Magdalene] from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark [16:9]. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?” Mary Magdalene, through no fault of her own, became the repentant prostitute that most Catholics and Christians think they know. Gregory went on to say that:
“It is clear that in the past Mary Magdalene, intent on forbidden acts, had applied the ointment to herself, to perfume her flesh. So what she had used on herself, to her shame, she was now offering to God, to her praise. Everything about her that she had used for pleasure, all this she now offered up as a sacrifice. She offered to God every service in her penitence which she had disdained to give God her guilt.”
Down through the ages, Mary Magdalene has been the leader of men, the eleven disciples, and was known as the beloved disciple as well as the apostle to the apostles. She appears in every Gospel account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In medieval times, she became the sinner, the one who gave hope to Christians carrying the weight of sin on their backs. If they truly repented, they too could find the kingdom of God like Saint Mary of Magdala. In her sin, though, she became the fallen woman, the prostitute, revered both for her penitential weeping and her sexual energy, as we see in some of the art depicting her image. In the 20th century, Mary Magdalene would again be reinvented for a new audience, the proponents of a movement known as modern feminism. Writers and researchers in feminist theology would make her a religious role model for a new age.
Feminist theologians accuse the patriarchal hierarchy of the Church of forgetfulness when it comes to Mary Magdalene. Regardless of which incarnation one attaches to, through every remaking of her remarkable character, she has played a vital role in the development of Christianity. She was a leader of the early Church, as much as Peter was. So, as Kieran Scott notes, the first goal of this new interest in the Magdalene is to recover the shared memory of her as a vital woman of Christian history. The story of women in the Church has not been done well, says Scott, and we would do well to remember that women were some of Jesus’ closest companions and disciples.
It is also necessary to understand that rehabilitating the image of Mary Magdalene and revising previous imaginings of her means reclaiming the female body. This reclamation has its roots in the biblical passages at the resurrection where the Magdalene discovers Jesus in his divine glory. This means truly recognizing the imago dei of every person, male and female, and that those designations may no longer have weight in our gender-fluid modernity. Because she was open to her life experiences as a disciple of Christ, the message is clear that the modern Church must reimagine her place in society and in culture. Feminist theologians demand that the Church not just recognize, but celebrate gender and promote inclusion. Mary Magdalene, according to Scott, was very good at sensing “the sacred in the secular and the divine in the details of our ordinary, everyday lives.” In this, she is a role model.
Feminist theologians have been crucial to the re-emergence of women in the history of the Church as more than second-class citizens serving the more important males as they built the faith. Chilton calls this a demonstration of the way “history is flexible, a work of inferential imagination.” In terms of literary analysis, the text is fluid. Different interpretations result in metamorphosing societies and cultures, and Scripture can stand the test of time through re-interpreting and re-evaluating themes and ideas in new ages. The Church is people, and people are multi-varied. The Church is amorphous not in its structure—the pope and his bishops remain in the hierarchy—but in the people who fill the pews and collection boxes. Every great religion must be incomplete because human evolution and development are always works-in-progress. So there is room for a revision of women and their role in the Church. Mary Magdalene offers a living example of that in the way she has survived as a Catholic heroine through multiple incarnations. She fills a traditional and a symbolic position. She is witness and activist; saint and sinner; woman and lover to Christ. No one person should be the final word on history or its characters. Heroes and saints do something that few mere mortals can do: they give a unique piece of themselves to those who admire them. Mary Magdalene can be the strong leader, able to bear witness and her own grief at the dying of Christ on the cross, and be there to tell the news when he rises to walk the earth again.
Care must be taken, however, to understand and develop counter-arguments to the forces that would reduce someone like Mary Magdalene, or indeed, any woman or “other,” to a bit player or bystander. For example, many fundamentalist Christians see the need for what they call family values within their faith. Yet, although Jesus traveled with his own “family” of disciples, he asked these same disciples to give up their families to follow him. These kinds of incongruences must be examined and studied. In another part of New Testament Scripture, Saint Paul has strong words about the role of women. Here, too, the culture in which his words played out must be considered. The role Paul advocates for women may be part of his culture, but it is not a part of 21st century beliefs about gender roles.
It is significant that even though Mary Magdalene plays a prominent role in every Gospel account of Christ’s death and resurrection, in Mark’s Gospel, he has the habit of presenting women without names. They are mere faces in the crowd. They wait on the men and serve them. Trying to erase women from the early Church picture, or at the very least, make them stand-ins for their sex, simply cannot happen. One, biblical exegetes know to look to the culture of the time to understand this effacement. Two, other texts and Gospels do use names and descriptors so history can be checked and verified. It is a grave error to ruin a reputation, as medieval scholars did to the Magdalene, to diminish her to a bit player. In this case, they used a time-worn trick of making a good woman, a devoted disciple, into a whore. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is proclaimed a virgin. And there, in the two Marys, we have the classic misogynistic and patriarchal pairing: virgin and whore. People are real and much more layered than that insulting simplicity.
There are ways to view Mary Magdalene and determine how a particular culture values and personifies her. Art conveys characterization. In the Middle Ages, we see a number of pieces that have Magdalene characters. In many cases, she wears red and her long hair is long. There are numerous images of her washing the feet of Jesus with her tears and drying them with her hair, again pointing to the confusion with the sinful woman of Luke 7:37-38. She is nearly always the beata peccatrix, or blessed sinner, says Vassiliki A. Foskolou. It is even clear the transition from one incarnation to another. “Though the cult of the composite saint had considerable success in the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it was in Italy from the thirteenth century onward that the aspect of the repentant sinner was particularly emphasized.” The composite saint refers to the combination of the Magdalene with other Marys as featured in the New Testament while the repentant sinner is the imagination of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute who is begging forgiveness for her transgressions.
In several depictions, her physical appearance contains clues to her incarnation. She might be pictured with a scroll with words indicating her penance and salvation. Often there are scenes surrounding her in miniature that depict moments from her life as a disciple, such as at the crucifixion or the tomb after Christ’s resurrection. She stands at the foot of the cross with her hands in the air in a gesture of supplication or extreme duress. The Italian artists were very good at imagining the intensity of her grief in these moments. She is a saint of sorrow and witness. Her accoutrements reveal her persona; in some, she is carrying a vase or vessel of ointment with which she will anoint Christ as the sinful woman. In others she is a myrrophore bearing the fragrant oil in a Sinai Crusader icon. These depictions are often part of the Byzantine period of art when the Magdalene is often portrayed as the chief mourner and supporter of Mary the mother of Jesus. In these paintings, she is a figure of much strength and much sorrow, helping men bring Jesus down from the cross.
One final place do we find a characterization of Mary Magdalene: the lore of saints. These sources contain hagiographic descriptions that are noted for their reverence to the subject person and the liberal use of purple prose to describe her. Here are a few examples from Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, O.P. in his book, Mary Magdalene, as translated by H.L. Binsse. He characterizes her family as Sadducean “with a country house on the shores of Lake Genesareth in Galilee and a town residence at the gates of Jerusalem.” Definitely, his Magdalene is a Town &Country girl. He goes on to describe her in somewhat prurient detail: “At the age of thirteen or fourteen, already radiantly beautiful and completely developed, as women are at that young age in those lands, her mind sharp like the minds of all the daughters of her race, saucy and sensual…” If we can ignore Bruckberger’s salacious drooling and how he knows she was “completely developed,” it is clear that he is definitely imagining her in a new incarnation. All of it is unsupportable hogwash that says more about his interests than trying to create an accurate biography of the woman we know as the Magdalene. Later, he admits that he does not know what young Mary fantasized about: “Can we know the dreams of a young girl when she feels gushing within her a sap so torrid that it could set fire to the world?” Still later, Bruckberger summons the literary ecstasy of a romance novelist:
“For any observer of the human heart…it is impossible that Mary Magdalene was not in love with Christ. He cured this woman of a serious and perhaps horrible illness; he freed her from bondage to seven devils; he publicly accepted her act of homage; he no less publicly took up her defense and humiliated her enemies; he was handsome, young, eloquent, courageous, and beset by danger, having something intangible, strange, and holy not possessed by other men.”
Who knew the biblical story of the ministry of Jesus Christ could be such a bodice ripper?
So back to that mythological and magical journey to Gaul in the cover of night with the living, breathing Holy Grail tucked under the cloak of his fierce and determined mother. Who is Mary Magdalene, and has the truth of her been lost to history? There are many arguments in a number of sources, reputable and otherwise, that she did not have a child with Jesus, and instead, accompanied his mother and others to Ephesus where she lived out her life in service to others and died there. This story belongs primarily to the churches in the East while the West clings to the hope that she brought the blood of the cross to a new continent and died there in what is now France. Lots of earth has been displaced looking for her bones and relics. A barren skull in a nun’s headpiece is said to be the “Head relic of Mary Magdalene” and is from a crypt in Saint-Maximin in the south of France. When it was found, a piece of skin was still attached to the forehead. For Mary Magdalene hunters, this area is Ground Zero in the great relic hunt.
But Mary herself remains an enigma. She is the woman we want her to be, down through history across a swath of documents and decrees and papal bulls. In the end, we know she existed because there is far too much documentation to dispute the fact of her life. In the fires of patriarchy and misogyny, if a man could have erased her presence in history’s timeline, he would have. A woman, the patriarchs grumble, should never be the only witness to the greatest moment in divine revelation, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If one listens closely, he or she can hear a thousand men—apostles, disciples, followers, popes, priests, and scholars—demanding to know why? Why a woman? But she is there, standing in sorrow at the foot of the cross, Jesus’ blood spotting her tunic, dripping on her outstretched arms. And there she is again, as the sun breaks over the mountain to illuminate the cave of darkness where her Christ has been placed in the vestibule of death, her bottle of fragrant oils clutched to her chest, full of fear and trepidation and grace.
In every incarnation, in every persona, in every characterization, in every act, in every fiber of her body, every nuance of her soul, it is she, Mary Magdalene, witness and teacher, leader of men and women. Mary of Magdala, lover of Christ, saint, and a woman.
Works cited in this essay:
Baert, Barbara. “The Gaze in the Garden: body and embodiment in ‘Nolo me tangere.’” Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art Vol. 58, Body and Embodiment In Netherlandish Art (2007-2008): 14-39. Accessed November 19, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24707927
Breninger, Birgit. Feminist Perspectives on Cultural and Religious Identities: Rewriting Mary Magdalene, Mother Ireland and Cu Chulainn of Ulster. Frankfurt, DE: Peter Lang GmbH, 2012. ProQuest ebrary accessed November 23, 2016.
Bruckberger, O.P. Raymond-Leopold. Mary Magdalene. Translated by H.L. Binsse. New York: Pantheon, 1953.
Chilton, Bruce. Mary Magdalene: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Eggen, William. “Mary Magdalene’s Touch in a Family Church.” New Blackfriars Vol. 78 No. 920 (October, 1997): 429-438. Accessed on November 19, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43250380
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