Mary Magdalene, the Mother of Female Mystics

For years, I have been drawn to the spirituality of female mystics like the German Hildegard of Bingen, the English mystics Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and the Spanish Teresa of Avila. And today is the feast day of one who might be considered the mother of all female mystics: Mary Magdalene.  I honestly had not given her too much thought throughout my studies probably because of all the hype associated with her. Books like Holy Blood Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code tantalizingly suggest that she married 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 – royal blood – being mistaken for san greal – holy grail), 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 these extra-biblical accretions to demand our attention.

The New Testament clearly sees her as the first woman apostle if not the first apostle altogether, depending on how one might define the term. She was the first to encounter the Risen Christ, who then 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.

Over the centuries, church leaders continued to downplay her apostolic status and emphasize her identity as a penitent prostitute, while also upholding the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the ideal woman for females to emulate. 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 church fathers like Pope Gregory suggest. Instead, according to theologian 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 stages of spiritual purification, would certainly support this interpretation.[1] So Mary Magdalene was not a demon-possessed prostitute; but rather a psychologically mature Apostle to the Apostles.

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 the Song of Songs that link the garden with sensuality 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, Sandra Schneiders suggests that 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.”[2] With all of this passion welling up within her, we can also imagine Mary wanting to embrace Jesus when she recognizes him in the garden. 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.”

Although translations often interpret Jesus’s 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 and confusing, as Jesus is wont to be in John’s Gospel. However, I hear an answer to this question in Jesus’s 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.”[3] This is why it makes sense for Jesus to invite Thomas to examine his flesh in chapter 20 (verse 20:27) because he is among the community of disciples, surrounded by the Body of Christ.

The Gospel of John is communicating something similar to what former presiding bishop 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.”[4] 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 ingest Christ’s flesh. In fact, we are invited to touch the Body of Christ through all the seven sacraments, which use the earthly elements of water, wine, bread and bodies as vessels and conduits for divine encounter. One of the seven sacraments of the church may even have roots in the ministry of Mary Magdalene herself; and that is the sacrament of unction; that is, of holy anointing.

Ever since the sixth century, church fathers have understood Mary of Bethany (who anoints Jesus’s feet in John 12) as 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.) New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton follows in this tradition and argues that Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have shared a common ministry of ritual anointing. Furthermore, he suggests that Jesus learned about this Hellenistic and Jewish shamanic tradition of anointing from Mary herself. We have a record of Jesus engaging in this practice of anointing when he makes an ointment from his own saliva and then anoints and heals a blind man (in Mark 7:33 and John 9:6).[5] When Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’s 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 (Mark), 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’s 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.”[6] So the ministry of Mary Magdalene invites us to continue in the ministry of anointing one another, to revivify the sacrament of unction. She invites 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 inspires us all to direct and release our overflowing love for Jesus onto the living Body of the Risen Christ, that is the Church. And one way she invites us to do this is by recovering the ancient healing power of sacramental anointing, this ancient ritual that marked the ministry of Mary Magdalene and the healing ministry of Christ. Ultimately, this mother of mystics seems to suggest that the goal of all visionary experiences is to bring us deeper into love with each other as we are blessed and anointed by the Christ who continues to surround us and touch us whenever we gather as the beloved community. Amen.

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

[2] 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.

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

[4] http://www.startribune.com/templates/Print_This_Story?sid=50579302, accessed July 22, 2014.

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

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

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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