Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mary Magdalen, Icon of Ministry

another meditation on the life of St. Mary Magdalen, which has been forwarded into my inbox five times in the last four days. One of the forwards credits it to "BenetVision", a Benedictine apostolate in Pennsylvania, which means that the author may be Sister Joan of Erie......

For want of a better word, it is at least interesting that one of the strongest women in the Christian Scripture is caught in an aura of confusion. What people think they know about her has for centuries overshadowed who she really is. What people expect to see when they look at her, in other words, is what keeps her from being fully seen for what she was in herself then, and what she means to us today.

To clear up the situation at the outset: Mary Magdalene is not "the repentant woman" of Scripture. She was not "the woman of the city who was a sinner." The evidence is clear: The same evangelist, Luke, introduces both figures, one in chapter 7 of his gospel, the other one immediately afterwards in chapter 8. For the first woman, the one "who was a sinner," he gives no name and no identification at all. She is simply a woman of the streets, a prostitute probably, who breaks into a male enclave to show them that she is not interested in them at all. She is intent only on the One among them who allows her to be a person rather than a thing.

In the chapter that follows the description of this incident though, in chapter 8, Luke is very specific. In this chapter, Luke is talking about the women disciples of Jesus. The woman introduced in these verses is Mary from the town of Magdala in the Galilee, or Mejdel as it is known today, and she is anything but a woman of the streets. She is important enough to be identified --- an uncommon thing for women in male documents to begin with --- and she is mentioned fourteen times. She is mentioned more times, in other words, than any other woman in the New Testament except Mary the mother of Jesus. The woman with the issue of blood, the Syrophoenician woman, the woman of the town, the woman who was bent over, the woman taken in adultery, not even the woman at the well is named. But Mary of Magdala is. And with good reason.

The confusion between the two women, the sinner and the disciple, is an early medieval one attributed to Gregory the Great but repudiated, at least in part, even then. Only in the Latin church was the misidentification widespread. The Greek church, on the other hand, following Origen in his treatment of the two figures in Scripture, never collapsed their identity. In the West, however, the teaching of Gregory was buttressed by the renditions of artists who repeatedly put Mary Magdalene into the role of the repentant sinner and the error was seldom, if ever, officially corrected.

In the popular mind, then, Mary Magdalene became the New Testament Eve whose sin had been forgiven but whose character was forever cast in question. As a result of the error, her strength and special calling have been regularly eclipsed. We are inclined to miss, therefore, the prominence given her by Jesus and so the prominence given to women in general, perhaps, in the New Dispensation.

But Scripture is very clear. Mary Magdalene is a new kind of woman completely. Mary Magdalene is the woman who becomes the first woman minister. Mary Magdalene is the woman who risks her status in both synagogue and society for the sake of her faith in a Jesus who had confounded both of them. Mary Magdalene is the witness who recognizes Jesus in his earliest moments and stays with him to the end. Mary Magdalene is a leader among the women and a person to be reckoned with by the men. Mary Magdalene is the woman who becomes companion and friend to Jesus and who stands beside him all the way to the cross, next to his mother and next to John, the other one "whom Jesus loved." Mary Magdalene is the woman who is sent to be the disciple of the Resurrection to the disciples who had missed it. Mary Magdalene is, indeed, "the apostle to the apostles."

Most tragic of all, perhaps, is that Mary Magdalene, even in the face of such data, is yet the icon of all women clearly called by Jesus to proclaim his resurrection but whose message is ignored. She stands abject in the midst of those who will not listen to the experiences of a woman and recognize in them a challenge to their own spiritual life. Indeed, Mary Magdalene is the woman who sees the Lord and summons others to see him, too. She is a strong woman who did what she had to do to become what she knew she was called to be, in the face of culture, in the face of tradition, in the face of downright scorn.

The situation was not an easy one. It took courage; it took faith; it took a sense of call.

Orthodox Judaism was very clear about the role of women in society. They were to confine themselves to the home or the synagogue except for the sake of domestic duty; they were to be invisible in the public presence of men; they were never to give testimony in a court of law. In public matters, in social relationships and in the professional world they were usually absent, at most ancillary. Mary of Magdala was a sign of contradiction in all three situations.

Scripture says that Mary Magdalene was cured by Jesus of "seven demons," a nervous ailment, perhaps, or epilepsy, diseases that were commonly attributed by ancient societies to demonic possession. She was healed by Jesus, in other words, of an inner weakness, of a kind of personal debility, of an inability to function in a balanced and credible way. Thanks to her faith in Jesus Mary Magdalene becomes strong.

The problem is that when the demons go, they all go. The demon of female fragility goes and the demon of invisibility goes and demon of low self-esteem goes and the demon of fear goes, too. The transformation is a total one. Not only does she become physically hale but she becomes spiritually strong and socially secure at the same time. Mary Magdalene comes face to face with the vision of Jesus and, thanks to him, becomes a new person.

The point is not that Mary Magdalene became a social misfit; the point is that Jesus himself called her to an entirely new role.

Her presentation in Scripture is a compelling one: She is called by name, identified by place, and described as a leader of a number of women who supported the work of Jesus "out of their own resources." (Luke, chapter 8) She not only "followed Jesus," in public, despite the public prescriptions against it; she made the ministry possible. She saw the truth and determined to set it free. 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.

Then, after drawing her profile with broad, bold lines, Scripture focuses in on the central reality of Mary Magdalene's ministry: she stayed with him to the end, she witnessed to him in public and she became the messenger of the resurrection, when his great, brave, bold male disciples, those who called themselves the apostles, were hiding someplace in the city in a locked up room.

It is a woman, it is Mary Magdalene, who contends with every system and prevails.

When the others run away from the crucifixion, when the crowds who had welcomed him to Jerusalem within the week had trickled away from the site of the cross, afraid of the authority of the Romans and the disapproval of the high priests as well, it is Mary Magdalene and John who stay with Mary the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross while the death of this rebel brings a brilliant three years to a slow and inglorious end.

It is Mary Magdalene who goes with other women to the tomb to do the customary anointing of the corpse when all the others around him had disassociated themselves from his life, his work, his vision.

She serves to the very end. She witnesses to the last moment. She stands up to face the system when there is no applause and there is no strong support for the movement and there is no protection from its enemies.

Finally, it is Mary Magdalene, the evangelist John details, to whom Jesus appears first after the resurrection. It is Mary Magdalene who is instructed to proclaim the Easter message to the others. It is Mary Magdalene whom Jesus commissions to "tell Peter and the others that I have gone before them into Galilee." It is Mary Magdalene who sees the Risen Christ.

And then, the Scripture says pathetically, "But Peter and John and the others did not believe her and they went to the tomb to see for themselves."

It is 2000 years later and little or nothing has changed. The voice of women proclaiming the presence of Christ goes largely unconfirmed. The call of women to minister goes largely unnoted. The commission of women to the church goes largely disdained.

Mary Magdalene is, no doubt about it, an important icon for the twenty-first century.

She calls women to listen for the call of the Christ over the call of the church.

She calls men to listen for the call of the Christ in the messages of women.

She calls women to courage and men to humility.

She calls all of us to faith and fortitude, to unity and universalism, to a Christianity that rises above sexism, a religion that transcends the idolatry of maleness and a commitment to the things of God that surmounts every obstacle and surpasses every system.

Mary Magdalene is a shining light of hope, a disciple of Christ, a model of the wholeness of life, in a world whose name is despair and in a church whose vision is yet, still, even now, partial.


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