Mary Magdalene, the Mother of Female Mystics


An interlude between reflections on the Book of Signs (Jn 1-11) and the Book of Glory (Jn 13-21): A reflection on Mary Magdalene for her feast day…

For years, I have been drawn to the spirituality of female mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Teresa of Avila. And today is the feast day of one who might be considered the mother of all female mystics: Mary Magdalene. I have not given her too much thought over the years probably because of all the hype associated with her. Books like Holy Blood Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code tantalizingly suggest that she was married to Jesus and bore his child, whom she brought to France. Their supposed daughter Sarah carried on the royal blood of Christ, which was the true Holy Grail (sang real being mistaken for san greal), and gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty. All of this pseudo-history about the Magdalene (and there is much more) certainly tickles the imagination, but I don’t think Mary needs all of this extra-biblical hullabaloo to demand our attention.

The New Testament clearly sees her as the first woman apostle if not the first apostle altogether, depending on how we define the term. She was the first to encounter the Risen Christ, who sends her (apostello) to the disciples to share her Easter experience, making her the “Apostle to the Apostles.” Curiously, she does not show up at all in the Book of Acts or in any of Paul’s Epistles, which makes many wonder if the early male leaders of the church were suppressing her witness and apostolic authority.

Demon-possessed Prostitute?

Over the centuries, church leaders continued to downplay her apostolic status and underscore her role as a penitent prostitute, while also upholding the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the ideal woman for females to emulate. Clearly, genophobia (the fear of sex) has haunted the church for centuries and the recent surge of interest in the Magdalene might be calling us to at least start questioning some of our assumptions.[1]

Pope Gregory the Great contributed to the church’s genophobia by conflating Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50. The truth is that Mary Magdalene is never once called a prostitute in the New Testament. According to Luke 8:2, she had been exorcised of seven demons, but this does not necessarily refer to the seven deadly sins and her lust-filled past, as Pope Gregory suggests. Instead, according to Jean-Yves Leloup, this means she has “done her psychological work,” that hard but necessary inner work that most of us need to do, at one point or another in our lives. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which traces Mary’s progress through seven demonic voices of accusation, would certainly support this interpretation.[2]

Magdalenic Anointing

Although I hesitate to conflate characters in the New Testament the way Pope Gregory did, New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton pushes me to see that Mary of Bethany (who anoints Jesus’ feet in John 12 and who is not identified as a prostitute) may be the same literary character as Mary Magdalene (who does not show up officially as “Mary Magdalene” in John until verse 19:25, at the foot of the cross.) Chilton entertains this possibility because he argues that Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have shared a common ministry of ritual anointing. Furthermore, he implies that Jesus learned about this Hellenistic and Jewish shamanic tradition of anointing from Mary herself. Jesus’ anointing of a blind man with an ointment made from his own saliva (in Mark 7:33 and John 9:6) is “a record of the magical dimensions of his practice,” according to Chilton.[3] So associating Mary Magdalene with the Mary of Bethany makes sense in light of this shared ministry of anointing.

As Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, Jesus points out that “she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). According to our earliest Gospel, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb of Jesus with spices “so that [she] might anoint him” (Mark 16:1). So when Mary Magdalene shows up at the tomb in the Fourth Gospel, asking the “gardener” for Jesus’ body, we can assume she wants to anoint him then too. Episcopal priest and contemplative author Cynthia Borgeault points out that the Passion of Christ is therefore framed “around these two parallel anointings—at Bethany and in the garden of the resurrection.”[4]

Love as Strong as Death

The Gospel reading for the feast day of Mary Magdalene recounts Mary’s recognition of Jesus in the garden, early in the morning, while it was still dark. This text oozes with nuptial references, recalling the encounter between the first man and woman in the garden of creation (Gen 2) as well as passages from Song of Songs that link the garden with sex and spices: “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice…eat, friends, drink and be drunk with love” (5:1). In fact, the Song of Songs should be read as the soundtrack to this garden scene. We can easily imagine Mary Magdalene saying, “All night I lay on my bed; I searched for the one my heart loves. I searched for him. I will arise now and go about the city, among its streets and squares I will search. I will search for the one my heart loves…for love is as strong as death, its fire a mighty flame. Waters cannot quench love; Rivers cannot quench it, waters cannot wash it away.”[5] With all of this passion welling up within her, we can also imagine Mary wanting to completely merge with Jesus when she recognizes him as the gardener. However, Jesus tells her not to do the one thing that her whole being is screaming to do. He says to her, “Do not touch me.”

Touch Me Here

Although translations often interpret Jesus’ words as “Do not cling to me,” suggesting that Mary Magdalene can’t stop hugging Jesus, the Greek verb is hapto, which clearly means “touch.” So why does Jesus tell Mary not to touch him? The explanation Jesus offers for his prohibition is slightly esoteric, as Jesus is wont to be in John. However, I hear an answer to this question in Jesus’ following commission to Mary to “Go to my brothers” (20:17). Jesus is telling Mary that if she wants to touch his body she is now invited to do so among the community of believers, which, after Easter, is understood to be the Body of Christ. Sandra Schneiders writes, “The fundamental sign, the ur-sacrament, of the really present Jesus is the ecclesial community itself, which is now the Body of Christ, the New Temple raised up in the world.”[6] This is why it makes sense for Jesus to invite Thomas to rummage through his flesh in verse 20:27 because he is among the community of disciples, surrounded by the Body of Christ.

I think the Gospel of John is communicating something similar to what Katharine Jefferts Schori tried to communicate when she said, “The great Western heresy –is that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God…that individualist focus is a form of idolatry.”[7] Although Bishop Schori may have been using hyperbole a little too recklessly, I appreciate her point, especially as someone who grew up in the Evangelical tradition, which may overstress the personal relationship above the communal relationship with Christ.

A personal relationship with Christ is immensely important, but if we want to delve deep into the Body of Christ we are invited to do so within the community. We are invited to encounter the face of Christ among those with whom we serve and worship. We are invited to experience the Body of Christ sensually in the Eucharist when we taste and swallow Christ’s flesh and yes, his bodily fluids. And we are invited to continue in the Magdalene-inspired ministry of anointing one another, to revivify the sacrament of extreme unction. We are invited to believe not only in the healing power of anointing but also in its power to help us see Christ (the “Anointed One”) in each other. And we are invited to participate in what Caryll Houselander calls the “Christing of the world” as we offer the healing and holy power of Magdalenic anointing to a world that is sick and in pain.

This mother of female mystics arouses the followers of Christ today to reevaluate the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, to recover the ancient healing power of sacramental anointing and to direct and release our overflowing love for Jesus onto the living Body of the Risen Christ, that is the Church. Ultimately, this mystic seems to suggest that the goal of all visionary experiences, no matter how sexy or spicy they may be, is to bring us deeper into love with each other as we are blessed and anointed by the Christ who surrounds us in the beloved community.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


[1] I will admit that I am repelled by the possibility of Jesus and Mary having a child together, but I think it’s helpful to ask myself why I am so repelled. Why is it so difficult to imagine Jesus as a sexual being? as sexually active?

[2] Jean-Yves Leloup, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Rochester VT: Inner Traditions, 2002), 106-9

[3] Bruce Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography (New York: Doubleday / Image, 2005), 63.

[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), 208.

[5] Song of Songs 3:1-4 and 8:6-7. Cynthia Bourgeault placed these words in the mouth of Mary Magdalene in a libretto she wrote. Borgueault, 209.

[6] Sandra M. Schneiders, Jesus Risen in Our Midst: Essays on the Resurrection of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013) 58.

[7], accessed July 22, 2014.

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