Go And Tell The Others'

By Katherine M. Lehman

       In winter of 1989, I went on a "fam tour" sponsored by the College of Preachers, in cooperation with Israeli tourism, designed to familiarize clergy with the Holy Land and encourage us to lead future tours. We were whizzing along the Sea of Galilee, having left the ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum, where much fuss had been made over the efforts through the centuries to locate, unearth, and preserve the alleged home of Peter's mother. The bus driver, our tour guide, gestured casually out the window toward a heap of rocks, which had been cordoned off by a plastic tape, marking it as an archeological site. He said we were passing the ruins of Migdal, also known as Magdala. A person from Magdala is a Magdalene, as a person from Nazareth is a Nazarene. We were bypassing the village of Mary Magdalene!

       Of the fifty of us on that bus, three were women. We jumped from our seats and raced to the rear of the bus, straining to see the rockpile through the back window as it diminished in the distance. The men wondered what on earth we were doing. It had not occurred to the planners of the tour that the site would have been of any interest, although we had stopped at rockpiles every bit as modest, which commemorated men less prominent in scripture, their traces becoming more prominent in legendary embellishment throughout the history of interpretation.We hurried back up the aisle and asked the driver if we could turn back and stop, just briefly, to get out and stand there. But, no, we were on a fixed schedule. The incident was a vivid reminder of the selectivity which has been employed in the history of interpretation. Someone had decided that which might have been Peter's mother's house was more important rubble to dig and visit than what had certainly been Mary Magdalene's village.

       Despite the centrality of the Magdalene in the gospel narratives, subsequent interpretors instead developed a conflated version of her as a fallen woman. The inaccurate reading combines the Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery and the sinner of the streets who anointed Jesus' feet although there is no scriptural reason for the misindentification. Luke tells us that Mary of Magdala suffered from demon possession, that Jesus healed her of the infirmity, and that she then followed him as a disciple and supported his work. Furthermore, the gospels agree that she was present at the crucifixion and resurrection, unlike many of the others, which grants her witness a scriptural primacy unemphasized in later tradition. John's account makes Magdalene the first apostle, the one who was sent by the risen Christ as bearer of the resurrection news. She delivered the gospel to the disciples, as she had been told (John 20:17-18).

       The resurrection witness of Mary Magdalene, is not a model for women only, any more than examples of obedience by faithful male disciples pertain to men only. Neither has the history of the misinterpretation of the Magdalene been perpetrated upon women only. The witness of the whole church has been diminished by the misrepresentatation of Mary Magdalene as the fallen woman. Her character has been invested with the rejected aspects of human sensuality and sexuality common to the culture of the church through the ages yet inaccurate to the scriptural record. All of us suffer a diminishment of our full humanity as a result.

       Magdalene was presented by preachers and teachers as an example of the ravages of sinful living and as a dramatic penitent. The history of art treating Mary Magdalene is a fascinating chronicle of the misinterpretation, with a precious few depictions of her scriptural primacy. She is often depicted in various states of undress with flowing red hair. There is a fourteenth century depiction of her repentance being demonstrated by cutting her hair (Livre de la Passion, Vatican City). This distortion in the history of interpretation is thoroughly documented in Susan Haskins' research (Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, Harcourt Brace).

The witness of the whole church has been diminished by the misrepresentation of Mary Magdalene as the fallen woman

       Despite her presentation as a fallen woman, Magdalene has enjoyed popularity with common folk through the ages, which Haskins illustrates by amusing evidence. She cites records of medieval litigation over what amount to franchise disputes, fought by ecclesiastical entrepreneurs in Provence for the "tourodollars" of pilgrims seeking to pay homage to Magdalene's earthly relics. What is of significance here is not the sordid exploitation of bags of bones as objects of popular credulity, but rather the quest of so many pilgrims devoted to the figure of the Magdalene, as we were on the bus at Migdal. How is it that Mary Magdalene inspires devotion? Despite the repeated misinterpretation of her place in the scriptural record, Mary Magdalene remains dear to the hearts of Christian folk, who granted her primacy in their piety, long before ordinary Christians could read the scripture in their own language and catch the inaccuracy of her traditional rendering. Nor is this popularity limited to medieval times. Lay faithful today still find Mary Magdalene's story moving, as attested to by the popularity of her icon in Grace Cathedral, for example. What is so compelling about her story?

       A traditional theory has been that popular devotion gravitates toward the Magdalene because her story is sensational, the populace being as lost in the flesh as she was. This theory arises out of the ages when monasticism was in its heyday, when celibate theologians conflated the scriptural references and perpetrated the misidentification as they developed the material for teaching purposes. A careful reading of scripture clears up the confusion, but few had access, nor could all monks and clergy read, nor were they unbiased if they did. Later art work in glass, stone, and paint continued the misinterpretation vividly.

       This is an example of "pelvic theology" at its worst, the preoccupation of church leaders through the ages with issues of unresolved sexuality, in which others are seen as evil tempters. Think of Eve's bad press, contrasted to Adam's, for the same infraction. Think of Bathsheba's reputation down through the ages, contrasted to David's. There has been disproportionate focus upon the fallibility of the women characters, and Magdalene is a later example. In part, the discrepancy resulted from cultural sexism, but an additional bias derived from a monastic tradition which placed a high value on celibacy and, thereby, tended to demonize women as objects of illicit desire. Although misogyny has been politically correct throughout church history, it was not unusual for priests and monks to keep common law wives, a practice still in existence in quiet backwaters of the "celibate" clergy today. This is to say that it was the leaders, the literate, who misinterpreted the figure of the Magdalene, and the common folk were fed the party line.

Our bodies are our organs of worship.

       Whereas I can imagine salacious interest prompting the misinterpretation of Mary Magdalene, I can't imagine it motivating pilgrims intent upon venerating her memory! I suspect ordinary Christian folk, called to live in the family, the clan, the village, the marketplace, the trade and craft guilds, the universities, the cities, the squalor and clamor and close quarters of human civilization, needed a worldly example, someone who traveled the way of redemption through the chaos and corruption, with about the same odds against making it, someone at a social and political disadvantage, a counter-cultural role model running contrary to an impossible ecclesiastical ideal. While the establishment needed a scapegoat, the ordinary folk needed someone with juice! That's how Mary Magdalene has been handed down to us, a bit tarnished, which makes her more credible, more like the rest of us. My sense is that we have loved the misinterpretation we were fed because we perceived a passionate person who, by trial and error, found the object of her true desire in Jesus the Christ.

       Think of how the history of misinterpretation has hijacked and embalmed Mary of Nazareth, turning her into a gnostic chimera, too holy to be born like the rest of us, as disembodied as she could get and still have a servicable womb to bear an incarnate God, finally kidnapped from the world of flesh and blood altogether. Gratitude for Mary's embodied compassion resurfaced later in the hearts of peasants, like Juan Diego, who knew the earthiness of their own village lives, so similar to what Mary experienced in Nazareth. It was Juan Diego's vision of La Virgin de Guadalupe that returned Mary to human scale in the Americas. Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala have been the shadow sides of one another, the split projection of woman as madonna or temptress, by ecclesiastics who couldnÕt relate to garden variety women of faith. Those who live among ordinary women of faith in every age have credited both Marys as real life examples of disciples who just happen to be female. Women and men have looked to Mary Magdalene much as they have looked to Simon Peter, both represented in scripture as flawed and redeemed, hopeful examples for those of us who know ourselves to be a bit tarnished too.

       Walter Wink has written a masterwork on the principalities and powers of this world, in which he talks about demon possession as a social disease, those possessed being the ones who carry the demonized aspects of a culture and its prejudices. His view is like the bumper stickers that say, "Racism is a social disease," and "Sexism is a social disease," a play on the euphemism for venereal disease. The racism and sexism of scriptural misinterpretation are also manifestations of social disease. I like to speculate and name the seven demons excorcised from Mary Magdalene, from my own experience of sexism, hypothesizing about which ones Jesus sent packing, ignoring the prevailing caste system of his day, which would have considered her unclean, to be avoided, not to be helped.

       I imagine these demons fleeing. One was self-loathing, for being non-male. One was denial of her own body, most offensive in that regard, abnormal, an equipment failure. One was the insinuation of promiscuity, due to her singleness. One was the implication of licentiousness, due to the company she kept, travelling with men. Two others were the familiar resorts of the disadvantaged to dissimulation and manipulation, pretending and conniving to best their "betters" in a system stacked against them. And the worst, the archdemon, was her denial of her own hope, disbelieving that she could ever meet anyone who would see her as a human being, free of stereotypical distortion, and created a wonder in the image of God for great purpose.

       I also imagine that, to keep hordes of other demons from rushing in to take their places, she was immediately filled by the Spirit with the gifts of self-acceptance and self-love, the will to include herself in human society, to honor the autonomy she was given, to respect her own freedom, to refuse to treat others as they treated her, and, the principal spirit, to accept the love of God in Christ Jesus. In other words, God gave Mary Magdalene the charism to become a "practicing woman," (a delightful phrase coined by the Rev. Stu Schlegel). The inclusive language way to talk about Luke's story is to say that God gave her the grace to become a practicing human being, which is precisely the gift we are all given in the gospel, despite the particular demons which have been routed from any one of us. Our redemption is to become more fully the human beings God intended us to be, liberated from the strictures of social bias, cultural prejudice, religious distortion, family expectations and personal limits. God wants something more for all of us.

       The joke's on us, as usual. God uses for good what was ill conceived. Some meant the Magdalene to represent what was evil among womankind, a warning to men and a reminder to keep women in place. Luke meant her to represent an example of discipleship. Folk through the ages got the right message by grace. A good disciple is a repentant and devoted one, warts and all! The history of misinterpretation was also used for good, for it has provided the chronicle of our collective prohibitions and inhibitions. Like hotblooded Peter in the devotion of folk piety, Magdalene has carried the common and graceful experience of the redemption of our passion, the gradual clarification of an embodied ardor in search of its true desire, which is the ecstasy of the mystics. Their impassioned devotional writings were even more inaccessible than the scriptures were for many centuries. They are wildly popular just now, even beyond Christian readership. That ardor is the best evangelist for its true desire. Folk come to know it is sacred and follow it to its source in the love of God.

       It is a universal experience to idolize a parent, friend, heart throb, romance, lover, spouse, boss, celebrity, or (s)hero, only to find, sooner or later, that they have feet of clay. In other words, they're only human. We have all been disappointed when our special someones let us down, simply by having the nerve to be themselves. Gradually it ocurs to us that we might have misplaced our desire for perfection. Over years, what we mean by perfection, and where we hope to find it, is refined by trial and error, an arduous spiritual journey, which is built into human nature and the world as they are. You've got to get your hands dirty and pick yourself up a few times, feeling rather foolish, to be redeemed this way, rather than being spared the need for redemption and assumed into heaven to bypass the lack of decorum. This human longing for perfection and communion with another is the very impulse which carries us on the great quest of life itself, wooing us from lesser gods of all sorts, the idols of our own devising, and slowly coaxing us into the arms of our destination in GOD!

       I have listened with gratitude to Bill Moyers' PBS series on language. Coleman Barks, a poet and professor, was reading his translation of the Persian poet, Rumi's, work to English speakers. He said that Rumi had written this. "If you want to know the power that raised Jesus from the dead, kiss me on the lips." I love that! At the same time, something in me recoils from it, too aware of a sad history of sexual exploitation wearing the guise of the grand passion. We are in the process of recovering the best meaning of this remarkable line. This poetry is about God's grand passion, not our feeble passions, which are being caught up and refined, leaving one tiny nugget of pure gold, our life in God through Christ.

       The point is this. Our bodies, shaped by God out of humus, the dust and ash of Eden, our bodies are our organs of worship. That's the power of the passion which renders all other passions subsidiary blessings at best, worthless distractions at worst. That's all. The end of our seeking is to return to the rich topsoil of Eden, to wiggle our toes in sensory delight, and know ourselves again for the first time, remembering that we were made to be moist and green, to bear ripe and juicy fruit, that to be holy we must be whole, creatures with skin, bone, blood, tempers, desires, prodigals all in need of refinement on the way home, becoming lovers of the One who is most right and partners in our own recreation.

       Because the figure of Mary Magdalene was used to carry the weight of the collective perversions and diversions of that roundabout journey so far, she has also been priveleged to carry the reinterpretation and reappropriation of our embodied ardor for Christ as well. Many who have revisited the texts and the tradition in the light of their gospel experiences have come to venerate her story as prefiguring their own.

Kitty Lehman, rector of St. Bede's Episcopal Church, Menlo Park, California, is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree in religion and the arts from Church Divinity School of the Pacific. She was director of The Magdalene Project which commisioned the icon of Mary Magdalene for Grace Cathedral. The icon is in honor of Barbara Harris, the first woman to be named a bishop in the American Episcopal Church.



God's Friends Main Index       |     Contents Volume 7 No. 2 |     St. Gregory's Main Page

Updated April 8, 2002 by Todd Fincannon <webmaster@godsfriends.org>   | Homepage is www.godsfriends.org