How the past is remembered, how power seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authority, how fallibility or vulnerability is reckoned with and exploited, how gender is equated (biblically) with morality — all of this shapes the story of a woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth in the first third of century, 2000 years ago, in Palestine.
I want to devote one Sunday to Mary Magdalene because it all happens with her. All the patriarchy we’ve been seeing, the agendas of the first three centuries after Jesus’ death as a new religion separated from Jesus’ Jewish faith and context to form Christianity, the fascinating/frustrating twists and branding that the male church of early Christianity used to minimize and deny the presence of a women in Jesus’ inner circle – all the gifts of what might have been if Jesus’ and Paul’s treatment of women as equals in life and ministry to God’s word had taken root – all of that can be seen in Mary of Magdala. And also, all that has been lost from recorded history. That interests me, too. Because we can’t know more than what was written down. We’ll circle around to that in a bit.
We begin in Luke, at the end of chapter 7:
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and
took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’
44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water to clean my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss of peace, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’
48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Soon afterwards, [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
A story of a woman anointing Jesus is told in each of the four gospels.
In Luke, it happens early in Jesus ministry. In the other gospels the anointing takes place in Bethany in the last week of Jesus’ life. In Luke, it was a woman in the city who was a sinner. In Matthew and Mark, an un-named woman showed up at a dinner held at Simon’s house, but Simon was a leper, not a pharisee. One couldn’t be both at the same time. Nothing is said to describe the woman except that she had an alabaster jar of costly, fragrant ointment with which she anointed Jesus’ head, not his feet. The male disciples reproached the woman for the waste – the money could have been given to the poor. In Luke, as we heard, she was sinful and Jesus was added to the reproach – not for failure of stewardship, but for allowing her intimate, inappropriate lavishing of the ointment and her tears and her hair on his feet. In John’ gospel, the anointing is in Bethany, during his final week, but takes place at the home of his close friends, Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead), and his sisters Mary and Martha. While Martha is serving them – the same word as ministering to them, Mary lavishes the nard on his feet and wipes them with her hair. Here again, it is wastefulness and concern for the poor that Judas (this time) aims at Mary.
So, one event (probably), remembered and told in three lightly different ways. The differences are important —- and a bit confusing, and easy to conflate into one story.
The two main differences are anointing his head or his feet (which we don’t really need to go into now), and the woman. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t give her a name, Luke is the only one to say she was sinful and the only one to whom Jesus offered forgiveness and healing. The other’s all did it for Jesus’ sake, to minister to him. The only name is Mary, specifically identified as Mary of Bethany.
In Luke, the next episode begins with Jesus leaving that place and traveling on, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. His twelve male disciples were with him, as were several women who had been healed of their infirmities and spirits – including Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. Luke names two others – Susanna and Johanna, and adds “many others, who provided for the men out of their resources.”
We don’t hear about Mary Magdalene again until the passion narrative. The women stand as witnesses to the crucifixion. It is much less dangerous for them to be there (invisible as women were) than it would have been for the male disciples – who had already fled the scene anyway. Each of the four gospels has a slightly different list of women who had followed him from Galilee; Mary Magdalene is the only one common to all and is listed first, indicating her relative importance among them.
She is witness to Jospeh of Arimathea placing Jesus’ body in the tomb, and she is present in each of the gospels in the pre-dawn light approaching the tomb. She is the first to witness the result of resurrection in each gospel – the empty tomb – along with other women or alone. The gospels vary at this point with what they see and what do. John’s gospel has extended the story with a tender meeting between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she
turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
So that’s what the gospels say about Mary Magdalene – not much. She is mentioned fourteen times between them, in eight of the fourteen passages she is named in a collection with other women.
And yet, in 591, Pope Gregory I, also known as St. Gregory the Great, launched a campaign to redefine the legacy of Mary Magdalene. Mary, he said, was the unnamed sinner woman with the alabaster jar who appears at Simon the Pharisee’s house to anoint Jesus’ feet: not only was Mary the sinner woman, but her greatest sin was lust. “It is clear,” he added, “that the woman previously used the ointment to perfume herself for forbidden acts.” In his depiction of her, Pope Gregory I interpreted Mary Magdalene’s seven demons as representing the seven deadly sins. This was around the same time he standardized the list of cardinal sins, so perhaps he thought this would be a good chance to offer a concrete example. Whatever his reasoning, no scripture supported any of Pope Gregory’s assumptions, but that didn’t matter. In two sermons, he laid the foundation for a version of Mary Magdalene that would overshadow everything else. Gregory was not the first man to try to diminish or alter the story of Mary’s relationship with Jesus, but his words sealed her fate for the next 1400 years.
It starts with the multiplicity of Marys. Mary the Magdalene is not the only one, of course, there is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany – the sister of Martha and Lazarus. There is Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary the wife of Clopas.
The various accounts of anointing didn’t help either: in one place it is the act of a loose-haired weeping sinner, in another of a modest stranger preparing Jesus for the tomb, and in yet another of a beloved friend named Mary.
And the side-by-side mention in Luke’s story of the woman with the bad name, the alabaster jar, the loose hair, the “many sins,” the kissing of feet, over time became associated with Mary Magdalene who appears in the sentences that follow – even though the two women have nothing to do with each other.
Out of these threads a new character was created for Mary Magdalene.
While some early Christians sought to downplay Mary’s influence, others sought to accentuate it. The Gospel of Mary, a text dating from the second century A.D. that surfaced in Egypt in 1896, placed Mary Magdalene above Jesus’s male disciples in knowledge and influence. She also featured prominently in the Gnostic Gospels, a group of texts believed to have been written by early Christians as far back as the second century A.D., but not discovered until 1945, near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
One of these texts, known as the Gospel of Philip, referred to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s companion and claimed that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. Most controversially, the text stated that Jesus used to kiss Mary “often on her ____.” Damage to the text left the last word unreadable.
It was not until the fourth century that the list of canonized books we now know as the New Testament was established. This amounted to a milestone on the road toward the church’s definition of itself precisely in opposition to Judaism. At the same time, the church was on the way toward understanding itself in opposition to women. Once the church began to enforce the “orthodoxy” of certain books of Scripture and the official creeds, the rejected texts were destroyed. But there was also a philosophical effort at work, as Christians, like their pagan contemporaries, tried to define the relationship between spirit and matter. Among Christians, that argument would focus on sexuality—and its battleground would be the tension between male and female. I talked about that last week.
Gregory the Great’s overly particular interest in the fallen woman’s past—what that oil had been used for, how that hair had been displayed—brought into the center of church piety an ideal of the virtue based on celibacy.
So, Mary of Magdala, who began as a faithful woman at Jesus’ side, became the model of a loose woman and of repentance. I had a difficult time finding an image that did not include a jar of nard, for example, or a woman scantily clad, shall we say. The artistic imagination – through the ages – completely bought into Gregory’s version, rather than the gospel’s.
So, what do we take away from this?
I began by saying we’d look at the fascinating/frustrating twists and branding that the male church of early Christianity used to minimize and deny the presence of a women in Jesus’ inner circle – and think of the gifts of what might have been if Jesus’ and Paul’s treatment of women as equals in life and ministry to God’s word had taken root. Mary Magdalene was a female disciple. She followed Jesus from the beginning and stayed loyal through the end. She was close to Jesus and then was “disappeared” by the church. We can only imagine what might have been different if her leadership – and that of the women Paul named – had been allowed to stand as equally inspired, valuable accounts of discipleship and service. But, because we can’t know more than what was kept, we have these introductions and the holes or gaps in scripture into which we may let holy imagination play. We can play the “What if, then what” game. How might it be different, and what is keeping us from making it different? If, in Jesus ministry and Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ meaning, all are one, all are equal, no longer divided or ranked or judged by gender or economic status or race… then what? If we take seriously what we read, and let go of the limitations imposed by tradition and culture, what might change? What might improve? How can that open, loving, welcoming, equalizing vision of Christianity
be raised in the often judgmental, toxic Christian image of our culture? In what ways do we each and together live it and share it?
There is a way in which these hints at faithful, powerful women whose stories we weren’t allowed to know are similar to the empty tomb. We are left peering in, wondering, imagining, fearful and joyful – knowing at some point that there’s nothing more to see there. And so we turn around and face the world knowing that emptiness, those gaps and rips in the story are meant to be filled with our lives.