Published on 23 Jul 2012
St. Mary Magdalene (transferred) – July 22, 2012
The Rev. Chris Dierkes
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon
Today we remember Mary Magdalene–the original “Madge” as I like to call her. Mary Magdalene has become a figure of enormous interest and huge polarization in the last decade or so. I did a quick Amazon search of books about Mary Magdalene–reading through that list she goes from being a bad girl gone good one minute to being Jesus’ baby mama the next, to then being an incarnation of the Goddess according to yet others.
Let’s see if we can dispel some of this fog and get a clearer view of Mary Magdalene.
And the first thing we need to dispel is the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. She wasn’t.
The 8th chapter of the Gospel of Luke reads, “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, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.”
Ok, so we start there. Now demons in this context can mean all kinds of things. It doesn’t necessarily mean she was crazy. It just means experienced a healing. Notice no mention there of prostitution.
The image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute comes from a 6th century sermon by Pope Gregory. It’s not in any of the Gospels. Gregory combined the story of Mary Magdalene with the story of ‘the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears’ in Luke’s gospel. Now it’s worth noting that story says the woman is a sinner. It doesn’t say her sin is of a sexual nature–it just says sinner–though interestingly everybody seems to immediately go to sexual sin. Not sure that would ever happen for a dude, but there it is.
So Gregory combines the sinful woman with Mary Magdalene – though as I said there is no legitimate reason in the text that he should do so. Pope Gregory went so far as to speculate that Mary Magdalene got the ointment to perfume Jesus’ because she had to use it in her work as a member of the ahem “oldest profession.” I will simply note, without comment, that these are the words of a male celibate – take from that what you will.
Anyway, in 1969, even the Roman Catholic Church rejected this conflation of various characters by separating out their readings in the Missal. And yet in contemporary films we still have the depiction of Mary Magdalene the repentant prostitute – think Jesus Christ Superstar or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
Even worse, sometimes Magdalene is then further conflated with the unnamed woman in John’s Gospel caught in adultery who the crowd wants to stone to death. The famous: ‘The one without sin, cast the first stone’ story. This is depicted in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ for instance. So not only was Mary Magdalene a prostitute but also an adulterer.
All I can to say that is: paging Dr. Freud.
All of this is totally false. Please remove all of that nonsense from your minds.
Having done so, let’s get some more grounding.
Mary Magdalene is uniquely mentioned as having been at the foot of the cross (Mark), seeing where the crucified body of Jesus is buried (Matthew), and discovering the empty tomb (John). She also is, according to John as we heard in our gospel reading this morning, the first witness to the resurrection as well. None of that has to do with sex, but rather with love, care, and true discipleship.
The Eastern Orthodox Church interestingly never understood Mary in light of prostitution. In the Eastern church Mary has always been known as the ‘apostle to the apostles’–for she is sent by Christ to tell the Twelve about the Resurrection. But even this title, while definitely better, isn’t quite right yet. She’s not an apostle to the apostles; she’s an apostle full stop.
Apostle means witness to the Resurrection, sent to live out and proclaim the gospel. That’s precisely what Mary Magdalene did. And just to clarify, The Twelve, who were all men, are a subset of the wider body of apostles, which included both men and women. St. Paul, for example, is an Apostle but not one of the Twelve. Actually Paul says there were 500 plus brothers and sisters who were apostles. Mary Magdalene is in this category–an apostle but not a member of The Twelve. But she wasn’t the secretary or gopher for the Twelve either. She wasn’t fetching their lattes.
If we go back to that original quotation from Luke: “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, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.”
Jesus traveled around with women, as a Rabbi. And some of the women–maybe even Mary Magdalene–could have been single. And they were actual participants and leaders in the movement. This was totally radical in his day and arguably still even in our own.
And this inevitably brings up for people the $64,000 question: was Jesus married? And more specifically in our day-were Mary Magdalene and Jesus married?
The Gospels never say Jesus was married; they never say he wasn’t married either. The focus of the Gospels is to describe Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Everything that goes into the gospels is to help unfold the meaning of the earliest confession of Christianity: Jesus Christ is Lord. They don’t waste time on things that they feel are a distraction from that central point. So for example the Gospels never tell us how tall Jesus was. Or what he looked like. Or whether or not he was married. Actually The Gospels don’t mention Jesus’ sexual orientation for that matter.
I think that’s worth our consideration–it seems to me our society is way too obsessed about sex and the Gospels really aren’t. I believe this lack of sexual obsession is actually quite reflective of Jesus’ own teaching–there are a number of stories that make clear that Jesus is not super concerned with sexual indiscretion as such. He spends much more time castigating people for things like hypocrisy, being deceitful, misusing power, idolatry, and cruelty.
So the easy answer is we don’t really know about Jesus’ marital status. Anyone who claims to have proof, secret or otherwise, that Jesus was married or wasn’t is selling a false bill of goods. The anecdotal evidence I think suggests Jesus probably wasn’t married. He probably was celibate, but that’s simply a guess. And, again I would say, the Gospels, on this point, think it’s just really not that big a deal, married or not. Who cares really? Even if Jesus was a celibate, that doesn’t mean that celibacy is an inherently more spiritual or superior mode of existence.
What I do think the Gospels point to is a very close bond between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But why does a close bond between a man and a woman (who aren’t biologically related) immediately have to have sexual implications? A man and a woman can’t be friends? A man and a woman can’t be intimate, close, loving without having to be sexually connected?
I’m treading on some thin ice, here, so let me be clear. I’m not saying sex is sinful or evil. Sex within trusting, loving, committed relationships is actually a sacrament–a sign of God’s loving presence–in our church. I’m just raising the question of why we immediately need to go there when it comes to a close bond between a woman and a man. Why? What does that say about us?
To not put too fine a point on it…The Gospels also indicate that Jesus had a special, close bond with Peter, James, and John. Learning that, do people immediately then jump to the conclusion that Jesus was gay for Peter, James, and John? Or they were gay for Jesus? I think not. Then why do that with Mary Magdalene?
My own view is that all this hype about Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ bride is still far too influenced by the view of Mary as a reformed prostitute. It’s the pendulum having swung too far in the other direction. That view is still too focused on her sexuality as constituting the core element of Magdalene’s being. Sexuality is certainly an important part of our being but it’s not the only one. Magdalene as Jesus’ bride is for me the flip side of having this kind of lurid imagination about Magdalene as a prostitute. Sex is either treated as completely dirty (and yet fascinating) or somehow completely and utterly spiritual. The reality of course is somewhere between those two. Sex is not damnation nor is it our salvation.
What Mary Magdalene points to instead is courageous discipleship and deep devotion to Christ. The same thing that is asked of any of us.
I personally like the idea from the scholar Bruce Chilton in his book on Mary Magdalene. He suggests that Mary, as one who was healed by Jesus, would have been a strong advocate and practicioner of the healing ministry within Jesus’ kingdom of God movement. Healing is a sign and expression of the kingdom of God. Chilton believes Magdalene may very well have been a strong proponent of the use of healing oils (anointment).
The word Messiah (or Christ) in fact means anointed (with oil). Anointing is a sign of that the age to come–the messianic age of justice and peace–is already breaking through in our own day.
Anointing with oil is a sacrament that has too often been neglected, but it’s slowly starting to make a comeback in our church. Confirmation, Healing of the Sick, Baptism all have anointing. In this Cathedral church we have healing prayers during Eucharist in a little bit–with anointing available. We have the same on the Thursday noon hour Eucharist. We have a Healing Touch ministry. This congregation is blessed with many individuals from the healing world.
Anointing also an empowerment symbol. It is a transformation seen in Mary Magdalene’s own life: she is healed and then is empowered to remain courageously with Christ through violence and death into new life. She is a witness, a teacher in her own right not because she had to be Jesus’ main squeeze in order to gain such a standing but because she was gifted by grace to do so.
My sense is this is much more where Mary Magdalene’s spirit resides, where we can learn from her as a healer, a soul friend, an apostle, a mystic, and a saint.
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