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.