The Meaning of Mary Magdalene
Why we should all care so much about her role.
In early 2019, an advance copy of a book landed on my desk. It was called Mary Magdalene Revealed. I remember its burnt red color and shiny gold title, along with my immediate ambivalence. I kept picking up the book to take it to the giveaway pile—and then I’d put it back down. I couldn’t bring myself to walk it out the door. Every day I tried to get it off my desk.
I had an aversion for anything with a religious scent. I grew up with a Jewish father and a self-titled recovering Catholic mother, who is polarized against the church. We went to Jewish services when a female Rabbi from San Francisco came to our Montana town, but the experience was largely cultural and centered around community and holiday traditions. I went to an Episcopalian boarding school when I was fifteen, where we started every morning in a beautiful, arc-shaped chapel—and I sang in the choir—but that was the extent of my exposure. Or so I thought. In college, I wrote my English thesis about Andrew Marvell’s poetry and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but even then, I didn’t recognize how religion was in me, informing some significant choices in my life. I certainly didn’t expect to write a book using the Seven Deadly Sins as a superstructure, or a book with even a glancing association with religion. And I definitely didn’t imagine that Mary Magdalene, who I had really never heard of, would hold up both ends of On Our Best Behavior.
So back to my introduction to Mary, which began with Mary Magdalene Revealed. I finally packed it for a flight and settled in to flip through it. Well, that book changed my life, and its author, Meggan Watterson, has become a good friend and teacher. For the uninitiated, Mary Magdalene is lightly in the New Testament as it stands today: She’s mentioned as the one from whom Jesus cast seven demons (Luke 8:2, Mark 16:9) and she and the other Mary’s (Mother Mary and Mary Salome) went to Jesus’s tomb after he was crucified (Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 15:40, Luke 23:49, John 19:25). When she returns the next day, she mistakes a (risen) Christ as the gardener, before calling him Rabboni and falling at his feet.
When she returns to the other apostles to tell them she has seen Christ and what he said, Peter rebuffs her as being a mere, lowly woman, as not worthy of being the first to apprehend the risen Christ, nor the appropriate vessel for Christ’s first teaching. This fact alone should have officially made her the first Apostle—instead, Peter assumed that honor. Besides her presence at the resurrection, Episcopalian priest Cynthia Bourgeault, in The Meaning of Mary Magdalene maintains that Mary was also the first apostle “because she gets the message. Of all the disciples, she is the only one who fully understands what Jesus is teaching and can reproduce it in her own life. Her position of leadership is earned and it is specifically validated by Jesus himself.” But it was not to be.
In Mary Magdalene’s gospel, she elaborates on Christ’s post-resurrection teaching. While it circulates, it is ultimately deemed heretical in the fourth century and cast out to be destroyed, only to be discovered for our study in an Egyptian market in 1896. Her gospel, left out of the canon as it was determined by the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, is profound in that Christ explains that God cannot be found “out there,” but inside each of us—that the Good, or God, is baked right in, inviolate. Christ also explains the forces/powers that he encounters on his descension and ascension back to source, and that there is no “sin,” only disconnection when we do things that are adulterous to our nature—i.e., outside of who we really our. In other gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi, The Magdalene is described as the one whom Jesus loves most of all, and the one he kisses on the mouth. Here’s Bourgeault:
“‘We know that he loved you more than all other women,’ says the apostle Peter in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and we have that passage from the Gospel of Phillip that has caused the rumor mill to fly: ‘for Jesus used to walk with her and kissed her frequently upon the mouth.’”
These passages have caused a lot of excitement and consternation (i.e. Davinci Code) about whether they were lovers. I don’t think this question is the most interesting thing about her, though I also don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that they were together sexually, or that Jesus would have had a fully human experience during his short life: Wasn’t that the point?
Here’s Bourgeault again, expounding on the culture of celibacy that was foisted on us in the centuries after Jesus lived and died—as I explain in the chapter on Lust in On Our Best Behavior, it was really Saint Augustine who who rallied so aggressively around Original Sin and it’s association with nakedness and lustfulness.
“It gives one a bit of a start to realize that for the better part of two millennia, Christian theology has been written, shaped, formulated, and handed down almost exclusively by celibates talking to other celibates. In that respect, it is extraordinarily monolithic. And from this exclusively celibate template emerges the only image of Christ our tradition has allowed us to entertain: of a celibate renunciate whose “Sinless” purity would necessarily entail sexual abstinence.
“Because it has been so thoroughly programmed into us that celibacy is the highest Christian way and that committed spousal love is a second-rate path or no path at all (“better to marry than to burn,” as Paul reluctantly allows), it is hardly surprising that our Western anthropology of human sexuality is abysmal. In the secular version relentlessly foisted upon us by contemporary culture, it’s all about pleasure, performance, gratification. In the bedrooms of the faithful, it’s still all too often about duty and shame: a begrudging debt to future generations which even when carefully managed is still tainted with carnal sin. Mention “erotic love” and people will immediately hear “sex,” then immediately thereafter, “dirty.” The idea that there could be anything holy about this kind of love is too alien to even consider. That’s simply the way our ears have been trained to hear it; we are all children of a cultural stream whose vision of human love has been shaped by the shadow side of celibate spirituality.”
Bourgeault has a lot to say about the “virginity” ascribed to Mother Mary and our gross misunderstanding there as well. For those who are curious, there’s a channeled text by Tom Kenyon called The Magdalene Manuscript, in which the Magdalene claims that like Mother Mary, she was in the cult of Isis and that she and Yeshua/Jesus did a Kundalini-like practice (which she describes) to charge his Ka body so that he could blaze trails of light during his trip down before he ascended back to source. It’s far out but quite fascinating.
Here are a few paragraphs:
“And the truth has to do with the Ka body itself—what we learned as Initiates to call the Etheric Double or Spiritual Twin—for the Ka body, when charged with enough energy and vitality, looks like the physical body. But unlike the physical body, the Ka body is not made of flesh, but of energy itself—energy and light.
“And so when Yeshua came to me after his resurrection, he was in his Ka, but it had not been stabilized yet, for he had not gone to the Father—meaning to the Great Spirit of his own soul. So before he could do this, he had to pass through the portal of death and travel through the underworld of his own being.
“He did this for two reasons, as I understand it. The first was, as a master soul, to do such a thing brings great power to the Ka. And the second reason was to cut a passage through death itself, so that others could follow and pass through the dark would more easily by following the trail of his light.”
After Jesus was crucified, it’s unclear what happened to Mary Magdalene—many people, including Meggan Watterson, believe she went to France—though it’s not unclear what happened to her reputation. In 590 AD, Pope Gregory I conflated Mary Magdalene with the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair, and turned that woman (and Mary) into a penitent prostitute. In this same Homily, he coins the idea of the Cardinal Vices, assigning what we now know as the Seven Deadly Sins to Mary, arguing that they must be the same thing as the Seven Demons that Jesus exorcised from her.
Here’s Pope Gregory: She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven demons were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven demons signify if not all the vices? … It is clear, brothers, that this woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.
Here’s Bourgeault expounding on the implications of this move:
That in a nutshell, is the “how” of it: the slippery slope along which we moved from Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles, to Mary Magdalene, penitent whore. The “why” of it is a bit more complicated. Karen King and other feminist scholars are inclined to see a deliberate plot here: In an emerging church hierarchy founded on the assumption of a male-only and celibate succession from the original apostles, Mary Magdalene’s apostolate was clearly an anomaly and threat. A means had to be devised to undercut her original authority and move from, as it were, apostalcy to apostasy. Luke handed them the raw materials on a silver platter.
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