I thank my father for my friendship with Mary Magdalene.
I was a young woman when, after a brief illness, my father died of cancer. It was the first time I’d lost a loved one. I was devastated.
My gnawing grief for my darling Dad made me interpret well-meaning words of sympathy as hollow pious platitudes. God seemed nowhere to be found. I felt nothing of God’s comfort. Unbelievably naïve, I had expected God to shield me from normal human grief because I was a person of faith – I was a nun for heaven’s sake!
Many months after Dad’s death I went on a weekend retreat and the wise old monk who guided me suggested I read Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel and spend time with Mary Magdalene in the garden on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection.
The story is well-known and well-loved. A grieving Mary goes to the tomb. The body of Jesus is not there. Still weeping, she encounters a mysterious figure whom she mistakes for the gardener. He calls her by name. She re-discovers her Beloved. He tells her not to cling onto him but to go and tell the good news of his resurrection to his disciples. “I have seen the Lord,” she rejoices.
Something shifted in me as I spent time with Mary. Somehow, inchoately, I felt God calling me by name. Somehow God was present in my emptiness. Like Mary, I couldn’t cling onto a former idea of God. I had to, in Anthony de Mello’s words, “empty out my teacup God”. I had to find a new, more adult image of God. Instead of a Mr Fix-it God who did not honour my grieving humanity, I found a more mysterious God, a presence in emptiness, a bright darkness, a God who grieved with me.
I was grateful to Mary Magdalene but still didn’t really know her.
Years earlier I had seen Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, The King of Kings, where Mary Magdalene first appears as a bejewelled, breast-plated courtesan driving a chariot drawn by – what else but (?) – five plumed zebras! She is hurrying to meet her lover, Judas Iscariot, who she hears has become ‘distracted’ by some carpenter turned preacher.
I laughed at Cecil B. DeMille’s fertile imagination but still accepted uncritically the Christian tradition’s stereotype of Mary as the infamous scarlet woman who turned her life around upon meeting Jesus.
Scripture study over the years has led me to discover who Mary Magdalene is and who she is not. The more the real Mary Magdalene is allowed to ‘stand up’, the more significance she has for me, not only as a friend, but also as an icon of what women’s role in the Church is and could be.
Scripture scholars agree that there is not a shred of evidence that Mary was a prostitute. There are at least six or seven different Marys in the Scriptures and they get marvellously muddled.
Each Gospel writer portrays Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection and the first to announce this publicly. The definition of an apostle is one who has encountered the risen Lord and proclaims that Good News. In the earliest Christian tradition, Mary is therefore rightly celebrated, not as prostitute but as “Apostle to the Apostles”.
Mary was chosen for this special role because, I believe, she stood with Jesus in his suffering. Unlike the male disciples who, apart from the Beloved Disciple, fled or drew a weapon in the garden or denied Jesus, Mary endured the brutal horror of Jesus’ crucifixion.
She does not flee. She does not fight. She does not flinch. Like so many women after her, she gives practical expression to her faith in Jesus. She sits opposite the tomb till dark and then early the next morning comes to the tomb with spices to anoint the body.
We know that female community leaders and spiritual guides were not uncommon in the early Church. But as soon as the Christian community became part of the establishment, women became more marginalised. Patriarchy minimilised them.
Within a few centuries, Mary the “Apostle to the Apostles” was forgotten and Mary the former prostitute became entrenched in official Church teaching and in popular imagination.
As Mary Magdalene’s star waned, the other Mary, Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, shone. The two Marys demonstrate the Church’s tendency to either put women on a pedestal or relegate them and discount the legacy of their spiritual leadership.
Mary of Nazareth is firmly on the pedestal. Dressed in virginal blue, she retains her spirituality but is stripped of her sexuality.
Mary of Magdala, the relegated one, retains her sexuality but has been stripped of her spiritual influence. Her name, Magdalene, continues to be mythically associated with female sinfulness. She continues to be ignored as “Apostle to the Apostles”.
The institutional Church has an abject record of recognising women’s spiritual leadership. In the Catholic liturgical calendar there are about 200 feast days for holy men and women, and only one in five – 20 per cent – are women, and a quarter of those 20 per cent belong to Mary, the mother of God. The greater majority of the remaining women are either virgins or religious – hardly the profile of the majority of women in the Church!
We have yet to balance spirituality and sexuality in the Church especially in regard to women. Women’s leadership and spiritual influence will be compromised until we do.
Pope John Paul II loved putting women on a pedestal. He spoke often about women’s “feminine genius”, but preferred that they remain in the private sphere of kitchen or cloister.
However, there are positive signs with Pope Francis, who said in an address for International Women’s Day, that “a world where women are marginalised is a sterile world”.
“Women have the capacity to see otherwise,” he said. They “ask questions that men never think of”. Of course they do! Their experience is different. Their perspective and insight is different.
Women have tended to start from their own experience of God, rather than theory about God. This is what Mary Magdalene does. “I have seen the Lord”, she says, and tells the other disciples what her Beloved said to her.
Repeatedly Pope Francis has said that the Church needs women’s wisdom and contribution in all spheres of Church life including decision-making. The critical issue, however, is how to break the nexus between decision-making and ordination. Pope Francis acknowledged this in his first major document Evangelii Gaudium, but worryingly, has not as yet made any significant structural moves to rectify the situation.
For me, Mary Magdalene represents all the unrecognised but spiritually significant women and men in the Church. She invites me to enter Jesus’ suffering and not shirk. She calls me to encounter the Risen One in my prayer. She challenges me to be a Good News person who proclaims fiercely and boldly not herself, but the One whom she has seen, the One who sends her. She has much to teach us about God’s inclusive, incredible love for the relegated, the disparaged and dispossessed.
Mary Magdalene proclaims Jesus as Good News. She is Good News. She certainly is good news in my life. As we celebrate her feast on July 22, may she be so in yours.
* Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.