Saturday, July 21, 2007

Mary Magdalene

In the 1998 animated movie, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’, the hero is on the run, having been framed for the murder of carton executive Marvin Acme – his only friends a world-weary gumshoe detective by the name of Eddie Valiant, and a wife who, it seems, loves not wisely but too well – Jessica Rabbit the incurably flirtatious flame-haired femme fatale with the sort of gravity defying curves only a cartoon character can get away with assures her husband, ‘Roger, you’ve gotta believe me, I love you more than any woman has ever loved a rabbit’ – Jessica could be either part of the solution or part of the problem – protesting her loyalty to Roger, Jessica Rabbit coins that famous one-liner, ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way’.

Which pretty much sums up the dilemma for today’s heroine, the Jessica Rabbit of the Gospels, Mary of Magdala, depicted as a reformed prostitute ever since Pope Gregory the Great identified her without any particularly good reason as the unnamed sinful woman of Luke chapter seven who anoints Jesus feet and wipes them with her hair – this sexy, dangerously alluring version of Mary Magdalene is just the sort of reformed seductress that we come across, for example, in the Andrew Lloyd Webber production, Jesus Christ Superstar – a powerfully attractive icon of the Church’s long-held fear of female sexuality.  Unfortunately, it just isn’t true – like Jessica Rabbit, Mary has fallen victim to our imaginations - turns out she’s not bad, she’s just been drawn that way for the past 1400 years. 

Remarkably, given their tendency to contradict one another on just about everything else, all four gospels agree that that Mary, from the village of Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Gallilee, was amongst the women who stayed with the dying Jesus and arrived at his tomb three days later to anoint him with spices.  There seems in fact to have been quite a group of Marys – Mary of Magdala, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary the mother of James and John, and of course Mary the mother of Jesus who is with them at the foot of the cross but absent from the list on the Sunday morning – for Mark and Luke the women meet up with a mysterious young man in white - Matthew tells us they bump into an angel first and then encounter Jesus himself on the way back to tell the male disciples who had been busy hiding all this time – only in the fourth gospel do we find the story that we read this morning, this bitter-sweet, most intimate encounter of Mary Magdalene with her risen Lord who inexplicably she first fails to recognise, and then is forbidden to touch.

We really don’t know a lot about this Mary.  Of all the gospel writers, it’s only Luke who introduces us to her before her remarkable act of devotion on Good Friday – in chapter 8, Luke tells us that Mary, with some other women, travelled with Jesus and provided for the whole band of disciples out of their own resources.  Mary, Luke tells us, has been cured of what we would probably think of today as mental illness – Jesus has cast out no less than seven demons from her – in none of the gospel accounts, however, is there the slightest suggestion that Mary of Magdala was in any way notorious or sinful.  This brief mention in Luke’s gospel does however tell us two important things – firstly of all the women named in the gospels this Mary seems to be the only one not associated with a husband or a brother or son – the fact that she is named by associating her with the village she came from means that she is an independent woman, and the second thing this tells us for sure is that Mary is a woman of means.  Which makes her rather a rarity in first century Palestine, where women who lacked the protection of a man were amongst the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor without the means of earning an income.  This Mary is a property-owner.

An important disciple, then, who keeps the show on the road financially, Mary who unlike virtually all the male disciples stays to the bitter end and is there at the new beginning on Easter morning, the first to see the risen Jesus – Mary the ground zero of my resurrection belief and yours.

All of which makes it perhaps inevitable that Mary would become the pinup girl of the movement for feminist theologians everywhere, especially since 1969, when the Vatican rather quietly admitted that Pope Gregory had drawn her, like Jessica Rabbit, a bit too voluptuously.  Never mind that she doesn’t make the official list of twelve – Mary is the first to be commissioned by the risen Christ to tell the good news of the resurrection and in doing so she shakes up all our age-old assumptions about male leadership in the church.  Pope John Paul II, dismissing the women’s ordination movement on the basis that Christ had only appointed male apostles, inexplicably glosses over his own earlier and more accurate description of Mary Magdalene as the ‘apostle to the apostles’. 

Yet straight after this extraordinary commissioning, despite being the first to carry the good news of Jesus’ resurrection – despite the fourth Gospel’s hint of an especially close relationship between Jesus and Mary – immediately after she conveys the news to the male disciples who, the way Mark and Luke both tell the story, weren’t especially inclined to believe her - Mary disappears from sight.  This is the very last mention of Mary in the New Testament.  Even though, as St Paul makes very clear, women were prominent in the life of the early Church and the spread of the gospel, Mary of Magdala plays no further part.  And yet, as scholars of early Christian writings have discovered, this isn’t quite the last word.  Since the middle of the twentieth century, more and more ancient manuscripts have been discovered, writings that didn’t make the final editor’s cut and so didn’t end up in the Bible as we know it, but which add rather a lot to our understanding of the early Church.

One of these writings is the text known as the Gospel of Thomas, a list of sayings of Jesus that some scholars believe could date from as early as the middle of the first century – in other words this document could be as old as anything in the New Testament - and it’s in this manuscript that we start to get a hint of some rivalry between Mary and Jesus’ male disciples – for example, Peter asks Jesus to send Mary Magdalene away because, he says, ‘women are not worthy of life’.  In the Gnostic texts, manuscripts that date mostly from around the middle of the second century, we see a tradition that makes Mary Magdalene, not Peter, the most significant figure in the Jesus movement – painting a portrait of Mary as Jesus’ closest companion, as the one who, after her mysterious encounter with the risen Christ strengthens the male disciples and reveals secret wisdom to them.  It’s in these writings that we find references to Jesus kissing Mary of Magdala on the mouth – this of course is the tantalising hook on which Dan Brown hangs his speculation in The Da Vinci code of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene – even though elsewhere in the same manuscript Jesus also kisses the male disciples on the mouth, so evidently for the Gnostic writers the kiss is supposed to be a sign of a spiritual rather than a romantic relationship – more interesting perhaps is the general tendency of the Gnostic texts to interpret the resurrection as a spiritual and a visionary rather than a physical event – a tendency that is maybe also reflected in the fourth Gospel’s description of Mary’s resurrection experience of a transformed, untouchable and other-worldly Jesus.  Eventually the Gnostic version of Christianity gets suppressed – the tradition that sees Mary of Magdala as most important gets suppressed by the tradition that focuses on Peter and the male disciples - but the point is that argument about exactly what happened at the resurrection, exactly what it all means, is not just a modern phenomenon – the pity, I think, is that Christianity has this historical habit of squashing unorthodox ideas, because it’s just this sort of diversity and creative disagreement that enriches our tradition.

Of course, none of this gets us any closer to the historical Mary Magdalene.  Where it does take us is straight into the heart of the Christian gospel – which is Mary’s announcement of her life-changing encounter with the risen Christ.  And it’s here, at the centre, that we find, not black and white certainty, but controversy and mystery.  Right at the centre of our faith, where we most want something solid and definite to hold on to, we hear Jesus telling us to let go, just rest in the mystery and allow it to transform who we are.  Which maybe needs to bring us full-circle back to our original vision of Mary Magdalene as Jessica Rabbit – the disciple who takes the risk of loving, not cautiously but extravagantly, even foolishly.  The one certainty of resurrection faith.





Saturday, July 14, 2007

Pentecost 6

One of my many good ideas that never quite work out in practice is reading the newspaper.  I guess the original idea was to stay informed, keep up with current events and be able to have an intelligent opinion about the big issues – the reality for me, at any rate, is that I hardly ever actually manage to read very much of it.  I generally do a quick flip through, looking at the headlines and maybe reading the first few sentences of each article, though the one page I always read word for word is the Letters to the Editor which are generally pithy and to-the-point enough for me to get through in one sitting – is it just me, or does anyone else find that reading the daily crises and conflicts of the world – far from making you actually feel on top of things can actually make you feel helpless to do anything that makes any sort of difference?  That it’s all too much, the problems that just keep going round and round, the world leaders that seem to move in different orbits to the rest of us, the clash of ideologies that seems at the same time remote from our daily lives but close enough to feed our anxiety?

In our church life we call it mission – that catch-all word that sums up Christ’s commandment to us to actually make a difference in the world we live in - not a very ambitious agenda, is it?  Just renewing the planet, bringing hatred and injustice to an end, establishing God’s reign of love and peace.  Do you ever feel like it’s all too much?  Like you haven’t got a clue where you’re supposed to start?  That nothing you could do would really make any difference anyway?  That you’re not even sure whether it’s your job?

Today’s gospel reading is for anyone who has ever looked at the magnitude of the task and thought to themselves, ‘who, me?’

The first thing that jumps out at me from this reading, is the very specific number of disciples that get sent.  Seventy according to our translation of the Bible, though some old manuscripts say seventy two.  Which might just be a coincidence, but it happens to be the same number as the number of nations in the known world, according to the Book of Genesis.  Seventy in the Hebrew manuscripts, in the Greek manuscripts, seventy two.  So for the gospel writer to say that Jesus was sending seventy preachers, the hearers of that time would recognise the image of sending out to every nation.  In other words, the harvest Jesus is sending us into is a worldwide job.

Another reason the number is important is because it isn’t twelve.  In other words, it’s not just the important disciples who get sent, the ones that get named in the gospels, in fact, the twelve had their first taste of being sent out by themselves in chapter nine.  In today’s story it’s maybe the whole crowd of followers, at any rate, it’s a big number – coincidentally, seventy happens to be about the number we get here, at St Michael’s, on a really, really good Sunday.  So, if the scope of the mission is everywhere, the ones who are sent are all of us. 

This might be a bit scary.  In the old days, when we talked about mission I guess the mental image was of somewhere in deepest, darkest Africa, and missionaries would be people trained to speak the local language and pumped full of malaria pills, and everybody else’s job would be to raise some money to keep them over there.  Mission, in that way of thinking, was a job for specialists – and if we did think about mission in our own suburb then we might suppose that was the priest’s job, after all, he was the one with the theology training.  Except, the way Jesus tells it, it isn’t about training and it isn’t a job for specialists.  It’s too important and too big a job to be left to priests.  So, here’s the secret – it isn’t my job, it’s yours.  You’re the ones who are called by Jesus to be the labourers in the harvest field, you’re the ones, not me, who are called to gossip the message of God's love and goodness among those who need to hear it. You don't need special training to be able to love people and show to others the welcome and acceptance and mercy that God has shown you. 

Maybe the next most important thing to notice are the things Jesus says not to bring.  No purse, no bag, no sandals.  And I think the point about this is that Jesus expects missionaries not to be self-sufficient but to depend on the hospitality of the people they encounter along the way.  And no chatting on the way!  Clearly that isn’t meant to stop them proclaiming the gospel but it does mean, I think, that they’re not to get around in little groups, depending on each other for company.  One of the most practical instructions for doing Christian mission I ever heard about was – just make sure you spend more of your time with non-Christians than with Christians.  Then there are the instructions for how to enter a house and accept the hospitality of whoever is prepared to welcome you.  You might be forgiven for thinking Jesus’ instructions for missionaries don’t have much in the way of job security – the whole point, however, is that in the ancient Near East the unwritten rules of hospitality were very powerful – travellers literally could walk into a village and into the front part of larger houses at least, which were more or less public space.  The hospitality of a shared meal and a place to sleep would be repaid with news and gossip – in fact travellers filled a vital niche in the villages of Palestine as people who could link the locals to the world outside, and Jesus’ mission strategy relied on that.  Jesus’ ministry made hospitality central, especially the shared meal – responding in faith was about willingness to share a meal with those who you would previously have thought of as outsiders.  This was a powerful symbol of hope in the here and now.  Arriving in a new village, disciples would receive the hospitality of strangers and in turn offer the hospitality of good news, the radical new gospel of forgiveness, of inclusion and healing.

Well, you might be thinking, that’s not very helpful in the 21st century where you can’t knock on a stranger’s front door and expect a free meal.  But actually it is, because what it tells us is that the principle of mission is the same principle as the Incarnation itself.  When God wants human beings to know what God is like, then the only way for God to do that is to become human.  After a while, we begin to get the point, because Jesus lives the same life that we do, suffers and laughs, maybe eats and drinks too much, and lives a life of over-the-top compassion, refusing to stop loving indiscriminately - and after a while we begin to get the point that whatever else God is like, God first and foremost is like Jesus.  So that’s the first principle about the mission that Jesus sends us on – if we want people to know what God is like, then we have to show them in ourselves.  We have to eat with them, gossip with them, go where they are rather than expecting them to come where we are.  Jesus sends his disciples into the world that they know, and he does it by being flexible and adapting to the local culture.  Mission, in other words, isn’t something you do instead of getting a life, it is something that’s woven into the fabric of everyday life.

When you think about it, mission isn’t even about getting more people to come to church.  That would be nice, of course, but mission really is about sending the people we’ve got out of the church.  What happens in here is about being refreshed and energised, about recognising who we are and what we’re about, about encountering Christ in one another and in the meal we share.  And then, in the words of the liturgy, we’re told to leave because it’s out there, not in here, that we’re called to love and serve the Lord.  There is nothing in today’s gospel story to suggest that people from all the towns and villages of Galilee followed the disciples back to Jesus, but when they report back Jesus tells them that just by wandering around, offering and receiving hospitality, swapping travellers tales and telling everyone they met that in this encounter, this shared meal, God’s kingdom had touched them – that this is the stuff that knocks Satan off his perch.

It’s not rocket science, it’s nothing fancy, and don’t for goodness sake, take this stuff about treading on snakes and scorpions literally because it’s just a figure of speech.  But I know you get the point.  Live in the world as travellers, don’t carry a bagful of Bibles to beat people over the head with but wherever our journey takes you, whether it’s down to the local shops or across the world, offer and accept the hospitality of strangers,  



Pentecost 7

In the movie, Chocolat, Vianne, a half-Mayan chocolatier trying to settle amongst a suspicious group of locals in a French village in the xenophobic 1950s, tries to befriend an even more unwanted group of new arrivals, so-called river rats who arrive on a dilapidated barge.  The river rats are a disreputable-looking lot, floating vagrants who become the focus in this little village of fear and hostility.  Vianne, her chocolate shop only just beginning to turn a profit, is warned off by the river-rats themselves, ‘be careful’, they tell her – ‘if you make friends with us, you make enemies with the whole village’ – ‘oh well’, she says, ‘is that a promise?’

For those who haven’t seen it – Chocolat begins in Lent, when the villagers are resigning themselves to six weeks of rigid discipline and self-denial when Vianne, a gypsy-like free spirit, breezes into town and has the audacity to open up a chocolate shop.  Not just any chocolate, of course, Vianne’s aphrodisiac Mayan recipes add a little something, take away a few inhibitions and create an infectious outbreak of joy that even the village’s stony-faced mayor and self-appointed moral authority can’t quench.  The mayor’s program of religious ascetism is no match for Vianne’s pagan concoction of unconditional acceptance, skilful listening and chocolate to die for – one by one the villagers succumb to temptation and by film’s end on Easter morning the real miracle of new life is the transformation of the villagers themselves.  It’s a movie that, on one level, is about the breaking down of boundaries and prejudices that imprison people – on another level a must-see reflection on the tension between what religion is actually supposed to be about – and what it all too often is.

Which, I take it, is what Jesus is also on about in our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus finds himself into a conversation with a lawyer – by which Luke means a religious professional, someone skilled in arguing the finer points of the law of Moses – and the conversation they have is just the sort of typical question-and-answer game that Jewish rabbis loved to play with one another – a not-unfriendly verbal exchange along the lines of ‘in 20 words or less, sum up the first 5 books of the Bible’.  Mark’s gospel has a similar sort of encounter but there it’s Jesus who comes up with this two-part summary - in Luke’s version that we heard today, it’s his sparring partner.  Whoever it was who first thought of it, the point is that it’s inconveniently not at all Christian, but thoroughly Jewish, and in both Mark’s and Luke’s version of the story Jesus and the scribe are in full agreement.  In fact we see a very similar summary in the writings of rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries.  ‘What must I do to be saved?’ – and like the good Jewish rabbi that he was, Jesus directs his questioner straight back to the Jewish scriptures, the double-barrelled great commandment that we recite every week in the liturgy which is the great Jewish commandment of Deuteronomy 6.5, the Shema, and the radical message of Leviticus chapter 19, to love your neighbour as yourself.  This is the genius of Judaism, the understanding that it’s our relationship with God that forms the foundation for our relationships with other people; because God called us out of slavery as aliens in Egypt there is an indelible connection between God’s holiness and our holiness – and in this chapter of Leviticus the list of neighbours we’re commanded to love as ourselves includes widows, both the poor and the rich, and most remarkably of all, even resident aliens.  So far, so orthodox. 

But there is a problem, or at least for many religious communities there is a tension when we try to live out the double-barrelled commandment in practice.  Maybe that’s because in practice, it’s not so easy to put aside our own religious conditioning.  Where does your first loyalty lie?  If loving others falls into line behind loving God, then worshipping God in the ‘right’ way, observing the religious as well as the social and cultural rules of our faith as part of the duty we owe to God can lead us pretty easily into behaviour toward other people that is judgemental, excluding and not at all loving.  History, as well as current events, shows us that very clearly, that devout people trying to do what they think God requires have been a cause of a great deal of suffering – in Australia, that has led in recent years to a significant number of people rejecting all religion as part of the problem, not part of the solution.  This is the tension in the movie, Chocolatwhere hard and fast religiousity has created a situation where people are miserable, imprisoned by prejudice and missing out on life.  A more subtle tension is perhaps where we do try to take seriously the command to love those around us, even the different and the unattractive and the dangerous, but we do it self-consciously as a religious duty – ‘well, I’m not sure if I really like you, but I love you in Jesus’ – which leaves open the possibility that I don’t really love you at all, I’m just going through the motions to keep on good terms with God.  That’s an inauthentic way of living.  I have the feeling that at the bottom of the tension is the need, first and foremost, to hold together the whole structure of who we are as a community, as a religious group – the more different you are from us, the more you seem to threaten our own view of reality, the more anxious that makes us, and that makes it harder to reconcile loving you with loving God.

So, what really causes that tension is the image we have of God.  If we see God as an authoritarian figure, a sort of powerful controller of the universe who inspires worship tinged with a healthy dose of fear and trembling – then we’re also going to have an authoritarian view of our relationships with other people, and that actually isn’t consistent with genuine love.  But when we start to see the nature of God as being poured out in love for what God has created – that’s an anti-hierarchical picture of God, which means that loving other people becomes not a religious duty but an invitation to take part in God’s own life.  It becomes a natural extension of responding in love to the God who is poured out in love for us.

But I’m getting ahead of the action because the lawyer’s second question, I think, reflects that tension between the two halves of the great commandment.  Well, teacher, where’s all this going to stop?  You’ve got to have some clear boundaries, surely?  Who is and who isn’t my neighbour?  It’s a vexed question for this religious professional because right alongside the commandment in Leviticus to love the resident alien as yourself is the command to remain separate as God’s holy people.  How much mixing with undesirables and foreigners before we start muddying the waters, losing our God-given identity?  And so Jesus answers with a parable, the one we probably all love best of all Jesus’ stories, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It’s about basic humanity, isn’t it?  To Jewish listeners the failure of the priest and Levite to help the wounded man may well have been understandable on ritual grounds – touching blood – or even worse, the possibility that the man might be dead – would make them ritually unclean and unable to complete the religious observances.  So this goes right to the heart of the tension I was just talking about – when does our concern for correct religious observance lead us not toward people – and by extension, toward God – but in the opposite direction?  The fact that it’s the despised Samaritan who shows practical concern forces the lawyer to make the grudging admission that being a neighbour cuts across all our categories, that whether or not somebody is my neighbour simply depends on whether I recognise their need and their humanity.  Jesus here is being typically subversive, which is to say he subtly undermines the lawyer’s cultural and religious expectations to make a point about what God is like – if the God of Israel turns out to be like this disreputable Samaritan then what does it mean for us to be holy, as God is holy? 

This is a live issue for us, living as we do in a society that has become anxious and intolerant of religious and ethnic difference – so what’s the good news in this story?  I think it’s that God does draw us in, in spite of ourselves, and the way God does that is with a carrot, not a stick.  Like Vianne, who breaks through the villagers’ walls of self-righteous hostility not by arguing the point but by mixing mugs of hot chocolate and sitting down to listen – God works in us by getting us to notice what brings joy, what gives life and laughter, what creates connections where none existed. 

Listen.  A certain person is mugged and left on the footpath on the way to Carousel – for an hour or more well-dressed passers-by pretend not to notice because they assume he’s drunk and don’t want to get involved – eventually a young Muslim woman in a hijab stops and helps him up and gives him some money for a taxi.  How might that change things for us?