Sometimes it is the very last frame of a movie that tells you what it has all been about. Such was the case in Helen Edmundson’s and Philippa Goslett’s Mary Magdalene. That frame reminded us that in 591 CE Pope Gregory I affixed the label of ‘prostitute’ to Mary; and in 2016 Pope Francis, redressing Gregory’s error, labelled her ‘Apostle of the Apostles’.
These two papal statements alongside each other indicate the struggle within the church about the leadership of women, and the sobering history of denigrating strong women when they are seen as a threat to patriarchal hegemony.
But as the movie suggests the story of the most prominent female disciple also invites questions about what is the good news, the gospel, of Jesus; and what does leadership look like in that good news community.
While I like various features of the Mary Magdalene movie – like the Jewishness of the context, the depiction of Judas, seeing Jesus smile… – it still promulgates the idea that the biblical accounts are of the genre of history, rather than a blend of genres for the purpose of expounding faith. In simplistic terms the gospels are more akin to historical novels.
Edmundson and Goslett reframe the accusation that Mary has been infested with ‘seven demons’ – seven being synonymous in this case with severity. Their reframing has Mary refusing to comply with the expectations of marriage, and her family seeing this as an abnormal ‘sickness’.
We know in the ancient world that ‘demons’ were often used as an explanatory device for illness, particularly illness that had no apparent cause – like mental illness. It is always easy to dismiss those perceived as different by saying they have a devil in them.
It is not impossible that counter-cultural, anti-patriarchal behaviour, like refusing to marry, could be blamed on demons. And we might remember the horrific European ‘witch’ hunts that lingered into the 18th century. However it is also possible, given the opposition to Mary’s leadership that would emerge, that the ‘seven demons’ were written back into the gospels to undercut her authority.
I find the movie’s portrayal of Jesus’ relationship with Mary attractive. Without the hints of sexual intimacy that other Jesus movies indulge in, Rabbi Jesus is more like a spiritual coach. “What do you fear in yourself? What do you long for?” he asks Mary. “To know God,” she responds. Jesus replies: “Do you have the courage to hear the song [of faith] and follow it?” [It is a very similar question to that of the cricket in the children’s talk this morning].
This first Jesus/Mary scene alerts us to the different understandings of leadership that are reflected in the movie. These differences in leadership are based on different understandings of the Kingdom of God.
Peter, maybe a little unfairly, is portrayed as representing the alternative to Mary. The Kingdom of God, in a Peter/patriarchal world, is something politically tangible. It is a movement of reform which needs leaders and recruits. It is led by the Messiah [Jesus]; and after Jesus’ death is a movement in waiting for the physical return of the Messiah. The Kingdom is something that is coming, and needs to be prepared for. It also therefore needs leaders who know about organization, governance, and recruitment. In reading the gospels today it is not difficult to find references to this understanding of the Kingdom of God.
Yet it is also not difficult in reading the gospels to find quite a different understanding of the Kingdom of God as a something that is already present, already within and among us. This understanding tells open-ended parables that tip our normative understandings of insiders/outsiders, holy/heathen, and right/wrong upside-down. This understanding encourages us to be guided by mercy; let go of anger, fear, and resentment; and relieve the suffering of others.
The Kingdom already present is a subversive movement. It’s like the botanical pest: the mustard weed. It is wind-blown, uncontrollable, and anarchic. It’s not like the tall cedars of Lebanon: physically strong and tall, towering over the land, offering the myth of surety and stability. Indeed in that little mustard parable two understandings of kingdom, and therefore of leadership, rub up against each other.
Leadership in the ‘Kingdom-already-present’ movement is more akin to that of a spiritual guide. It is about encouraging changed hearts, rather than building a Church. The ‘Kingdom-to-come’ movement is portrayed by Edmundson and Goslett as Peter going forth to build a Church, a Church which would be hierarchical and patriarchal in nature.
In the last 30 years Protestant liberal scholarship has consistently affirmed that:
apostles were both men and women;
those who were said to witness the resurrection (which included a number of women) were accorded special leadership status;
Mary Magdalene, along with Peter, Paul, and James [the brother of Jesus], was among the foremost leaders of the early movement; and
Mary Magdalene, more than any other leader in the emergent church, was subjected to a smear campaign.
According to the tradition of the East, Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman. During the years of Jesus’ ministry, she helped support him and his other disciples. She was his patron. She is repeatedly portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement. In the Gospel of John [a 2nd century work], the risen Jesus gives her special teaching and commissions her as an apostle to the apostles. When almost everyone else fled, the biblical texts say that she stayed with Jesus at the cross. On Easter morning the texts also record she was the first to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection [which was very significant in a time and culture that did not consider women reliable witnesses].
In some of the Nag Hammadi texts, Mary’s title ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’ is spelt out in more detail as she is lauded as an ideal disciple, teacher, and leader. The strength of this literary tradition makes it possible to suggest that historically Mary was a preeminent prophetic visionary and leader at least within one sector of the early Jesus movement.
Unlike the history her detractors promulgated, Mary did not end her days as a penitent hermit in a French cave. She travelled the Mediterranean preaching about Jesus. And like Peter, Paul, and James [the other preeminent leaders], she died a martyr.
This Eastern tradition about Mary Magdalene began to be ‘forgotten’ around the same time that certain male leaders in the Church, in asserting the dominance of their own gender, labelled Mary with the stigma of prostitute. They took Luke’s story of an anonymous ‘sinner’ anointing Jesus’ feet and gave her Mary’s identity. These male leaders also, ignoring the authentic Pauline letters, reduced the number of apostles to twelve and made apostleship a boys’ only club.
There is no question that there has been, and in many churches still ongoing, a ‘gender war’ regarding women’s leadership. I would suggest in part that this ‘war’ is driven by the differences between a patriarchal interpretation of Jesus’ coming Kingdom of God, with a hierarchical leadership model and expectations, and an egalitarian interpretation of Jesus’ Kingdom already among us, where everyone has immediate and equal access to God anywhere and anytime.
Another way of framing this difference in vision and leadership is around brokerage. Do you have to go through an approved theological/liturgical system, with ministers and church buildings, in order to experience the Divine? And, if leaders aren’t brokers (ecclesiastical ‘Fat Controllers’[i]), what is their role?
Jesus had nothing to say about himself, other than he had no permanent address, and no respect on his home patch. He did not ask his disciples to convert the world and establish a church. He did not believe the world was going to end immediately. Jesus apparently did not even call on people to repent, and he did not practice baptism. In short, very little of what we associate with traditional Christianity originated with him.[ii]
For Jesus the ‘Kingdom-already-present’ was a set of relationships between people, between people and God, and God and the world. It was a kingdom of nuisances and nobodies, of reversals and surprises, a kingdom of grace. And a leader was one who recognises it, and encourages it.
One of the legends about Mary Magdalene is that after the Ascension she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to the court of Tiberius Caesar because of her high social standing. After dissing Pilate, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead. To help explain his resurrection she picked up an egg from the dinner table. Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red. Which it promptly did! This is why red eggs have been exchanged at Easter for centuries in the Byzantine East.
I heard a story in Paris of villages settling conflict with eggs. When a dispute had lasted long enough for there to be significant damage to individuals and the community, the feuding parties would be invited to come to a meeting holding an egg. The eggs were then put together to form a nest. The idea was that the nest [read: community well-being] needed to be mended. The eggs represented fragility – they need to be carefully handled, just like people. And they represented, like other fertility symbols, the possibility of new hope - that a desire for the good of all might triumph over damaged egos and vested interests.
Let us pray:
Mary, apostle of the Church, brave holder of the egg, bring the insights of your healing touch to our divided world and church, that new life and hope may arise. Amen.
[i] This is a reference to the character in Thomas the Tank Engine.
[ii] P.41-42 Funk, Robert Honest To Jesus