Marie-Elsa Bragg

Article for The Church Times on Mary Magdalene, Easter 2013

Throughout Holy Week the presence of Mary Magdalene, drawn from all four gospels, guides me as she is near Jesus while he walks the Via Dolorosa. I am with her as she stands with the other women at the foot of the cross, hears his last words, watches Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down from the cross and carry him to the tomb where a heavy stone is drawn over the entrance. And I follow her as she returns to a home somewhere to observe Shabbos before returning early the morning after Shabbos to anoint the body with sacred oils as was her tradition.
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I am always aware that to walk with her still includes the need to sweep her mistaken identity aside. To remember how she may have been seen as a strong figure for the first few hundred years but since Pope Gregory’s Homily in 591 AD she was clearly merged with Mary the prostitute and Mary of Bethany, even though they are separate in the text. From then on Mary Magdalene has been the example of a redeemed prostitute. Beautiful paintings in the renaissance of her naked with only long hair to cover her, again the influence of another Mary, Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute from around 400AD.
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As I ask who she really was, I am aware that this question is one women have been through alongside her. We ask who we are when we are oppressed or falsely categorised and we ask again once freed from oppression and mistaken identity. A subject still vigorously discussed today in books such as Naomi Woolf’s Beauty Myth and Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls. When I was a teenager, before I found out that there was no mention of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute in the gospels I always admired the strength which she showed in her ability to stand as a known redeemed sinner and yet remain central to the teachings of Christ. Especially as she stood in isolation without a male equivalent seen to have strayed in sexual abuse or prostitution who was then redeemed. When I discovered her story was fabricated and came instead from our history of difficulties with women, I was for a moment sad to lose my image of her unique strength. But the sadness of what we have done to women over the ages has its own weight and like her, I decided not to run away and I looked deeper into who she was to find support and discover how she stayed at the centre of the gospels when times were so hard for women.
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Mary Magdalene was certainly a woman who served Christ with honour. She was regularly named first when there was a group of women and so was conceivably a leader. Many scholars have wondered if she was one of the women mentioned in Acts who financially supported Jesus and the disciples, possibly a widow. If this were the case, she would have had an extraordinary pioneering spirit to live as a single woman and equal disciple of Christ, travelling the country, sitting at the feet of Jesus alongside Mary the sister of Lazarus and the other disciples, listening to his teaching. If that was her life then I have often wondered what social opposition she weathered and how she kept strong whilst living a life she knew to be true but one the society around her were not yet able to accept.
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Of course the Gnostic Gospels have made me consider her place in the group and we have all seen the public fervour from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, based loosely on the Gospel of Mary and Philip. People clearly relieved to find a way of seeing Mary as central to the teachings and arguing that if she was Jesus’ wife, then sexuality has a much needed redeemed and sacred place in our lives. With the idea of Mary Magdalene as wife, people have inferred that Jesus would have only married an equal who he truly loved. Mary therefore would have been wise and played an important role in Christ’s life and the work after his death. Over time, I have come to respect the questioning we do with different and sometimes small evidence and see it as a reaction to the false identity she was given for so long. A much needed freedom of investigation but one that does not need to end on the note of identity alone.
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The more I have looked into the texts we do have, the more I am convinced that we don’t need her to have an identity of wife or indeed provider to see she was central. Whatever her position was with Jesus and within the group, she was certainly a pioneer following a Rabbi who brought radical new spiritual teachings. But more importantly, the gospel is not devoid of information on her. Far from it. She had been silenced and we do not have records of her speeches or conversations with Jesus, though there must have been many, but over the years I have come to see extraordinary strength in her actions. Her consistent presence, which seems to be all to easily overlooked. Indeed the very fact that she is noted in the Gospels at such key times in the life death and resurrection of Christ adds a weight and truth to her character. Even though the texts were written years after the event in a culture where a woman’s word was not taken in Law unless supported by two men, when it would have been easier for proselytising if the first to see Christ was a man, there she is. So central to the true message that she had to be written in.
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From what we know, her ability to have such loyalty must have come with wisdom born from experience. We know she was healed by Jesus from 7 demons which is hard to understand in modern times, but may have been a type of break down. e speculate again that perhaps her husband died, maybe she lost him and children, perhaps she fell having made mistakes, being harmed or abused, or whilst trying to individuate in a difficult world.
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Whatever it was, she was someone who had been through inner darkness and come out the other side. And we know that she stayed at the cross no matter how hard to watch and that there is no record of her betraying Christ after his death as others did. We also know she had the courage and skills to face death as she returned early after Shabbos with sacred oils, unafraid to anoint Jesus’ dead body. And again she stayed in the dangerous situation at the tomb after she saw it was empty.
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Mother Emily Ayckbowm, who founded the Sisters of the Community of the Church in 1870 described Mary at the empty tomb as not able to ‘tear herself away from the sacred spot.’ A strength of devotion many including Mother Emily have needed as guidance whilst they set up schools and orphanages in deprived areas.She is a consistent and courageous guide in dark times.
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Mary was also often seen in a group of women, clearly being part of a community. I have often wondered what that final Shabbos was like. How supportive their community was and how they managed to continue their rituals and prayers through dusk into the night. What the prayers and rituals they used throughout what we now call Holy Saturday. Indeed I wonder if they kept to the full traditional liturgy or if they had developed something different with the new teachings Jesus brought. But the very fact that Mary turned up early the next morning with sacred oils to anoint Jesus’ body shows she still observed some of the traditional rituals. That coupled with her Sabbath observance and the fact that in every gospel she or she along with other women are talked to by angels in white at the tomb without becoming maddened suggest that she lived a devotional life supported by a very grounded spiritual practice. A resource much needed for a soulful life and for the integration of such profound spiritual experience.
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When Mary was outside the tomb at first she didn’t recognise the man she thought was the gardener and I have often asked why Jesus called her by name. He didn’t do that with Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus. He didn’t do that when he later appeared to all the disciples. Why did he call her straight away, and how extraordinary that this simple action woke her to the truth. Here I find the opposite to what she has endured through history. Rather than being merged with other women, she is asked to see Christ called as an individuated woman. Centuries of her identity veiled in one way or another and there, by the tomb the first appearance Christ chooses is to call Mary by her name.
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I imagine she felt like falling at his feet, but she was asked not to touch him and I can’t help but hear the words Jesus later spoke to Thomas who needed to see and touch Jesus’ wounds to make sure he was Christ: ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ Mary did not stop to look for his wounds or need to touch them for proof. She would clearly have only embraced him in full belief. And Jesus must have seen her as a woman of strong enough faith to know she didn’t need to. And then he affirmed a true vocation within her and called her to serve him and spread the news. A commission which has often earn her the title of ‘Disciple to the disciples.’
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For me, too walk with Mary Magdalene through the Gospels is to walk with someone with a true vocation. She is in the centre of the community and the message. Her consistent presence throughout, though often silent, is strong and loving even in the darkest of times. This, to my mind, is why she has weathered the difficult history we have, while we discern how to be equal women and men serving together. And this is what makes her an invaluable mentor and guide in our much needed review of what it is to stand together, women and men, both sacred in the eyes of God, both capable of falling and both capable of serving together with faith and integrity in the future.
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