The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene, Alexander Ivanov, c. 1835
St. Mary Magdalene (or Magdala) was born some time around the birth of Jesus Christ in the first century A.D., possibly in the small city of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mary Magdalene appears by name many times in the Gospels, she is known as the Apostle to the Apostles, and is remembered for working with Jesus and staying with him during his crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and beyond. She died in either Sainte-Maximin-la-Sante-Baume in Provence, France, or Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, on an unrecorded date.
She is honored in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Lutheran, and other Protestant Churches, as well as in the Bahá’i Faith. Her feast day is July 22 and is celebrated in the Western tradition with Madeleine cookies and in the Eastern tradition with red-dyed eggs.
We have two main sources of historical documents on the life of St. Mary Magdalene -- the New Testament Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels. The following is a combined narrative from the New Testament Gospels and then an introduction and some passages from the Gnostic Gospels.
Before beginning, let’s clear up a rumor or saintly stereotype – St. Mary Magdalene was NOT a prostitute. The medieval Church patriarchy tried to sell that one based on the interpretation of some passages with much innuendo and by combining her character with another unnamed character.
Alternatively, some scholars believe that John’s Gospel split Mary Magdalene’s characteristics into several women including Mary and Martha of Bethany to diffuse her importance to Jesus.
However, most believe that Mary and Martha of Bethany were real people who, along with their brother Lazareth, provided Jesus with much needed friendship and a home of rest, refuge, and restoration.
Also, because the actions of the woman in the next passage don’t fit her quiet nature, many do not believe her to be Mary of Bethany. So she is either a random unnamed woman with an alabaster jar, or she is Mary Magdalene:
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came in with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone: why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you will always have the poor with you, and can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body before its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
This could be the first time Jesus met Mary Magdalene and they began their journey together. Perhaps he saw that she was on to something in anointing.
Anointing with holy oil remains a significant part of catholic worship today especially during healing services and unctions. (St. Joan of Arc gave up her whole everything for the sake of the Holy Anointing of Charles VII as King of France.)
Here's the first passage in which she is named:
Here's the first passage in which she is named:
Soon afterwards he went on through the cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for him out of their resources.
Mary Magdalene probably had some long-term illness or mental/emotional issues that were literally or symbolically caused by seven demons. Just to be clear, “seven demons” does not translate to “prostitution” in any language.
Now, let’s say Mary Magdalene was a sinner before Jesus healed her. Perhaps her sin was that she did not honor her mother and father by agreeing to an arranged marriage. Perhaps she took her dowry and left home to follow the one of whom she heard spreading so much goodness.
She’s named next at the Crucifixion:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing besides her, he said to his mother, “Women, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour, the disciple took her into his home.
According to the literary norms of his times, the author doesn’t name himself, but it’s understood that “the disciple whom he loved” is John. It could be argued; however, that Mary Magdalene was the “disciple whom he loved” and in whose care Jesus placed his mother. Historians have shown that John's Gospel was edited shortly after his death. Perhaps the above paragraph was tweaked and history rewritten.
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this he breathed his last.
When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent. And when all the crowds who had gathered there for the spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.
But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Whether Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross or watching from a distance, she was there. The male disciples were hiding in valid fear of arrest. Except, according to the above and a bit illogically, for John.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
The above sentence is left out of the Good Friday liturgy in many churches. Nevertheless, it’s significant that Mary Magdalene was there with Jesus’ body at the tomb. Her love for him overpowered her grief and gave her the strength to do those tasks a beloved does for her Love.
She either remained there keeping watch or she left and returned after the Sabbath. Then:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the wrapping but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
Then the disciples returned to their homes.
John 20: 1-10
The disciples spend a lot of time standing around and shrugging. Literary device, I know, I know. When it’s explained to them, it’s explained to us. But still.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
When Jesus said her name, she recognized him and the entirety of the miracle of his being alive and standing before her. When he said her name, perhaps she heard also -- I see you. I hear you. I love you, too.
And whether she embraced him fully as one human with another, or dropped to her knees to cling to his feet to worship him, his response was the same:
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he said these things to her.
John 20: 17-18
It’s this passage that particularly shows that Mary Magdalene was the Apostle to the Apostles. Her Risen Lord gave her the mission that she would fully become.
Of course, the disciples didn’t believe her until Jesus showed up and made them apostles:
When it was evening on that day, the first of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace is with you as the Father has sent me. So I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
To truly understand St. Mary Magdalene, we have to study her spiritual relationship with Jesus. Dearworthy readers, it was not an easy task for me to research for the next section because this stuff is simply difficult to understand. But it IS understandable. And it’s worth the effort.
In the words of Robert Hunter, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” This is one of those times. Ready? Let’s do it!
Now we move on to the metaphysics of Christianity, a realm or place of being beyond the New Testament and our contemporary world. Referred to as Heaven on Earth, God Within, and other names, it’s the state of being one achieves when one sacrifices or empties one of self for the sake of God or one's Love.
Jesus alluded to this plane of existence in the Gospel of Mark when a scribe asked him which commandment is the most important:
Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other;’ and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
In my post about St. Mark, we learned that the Gospel of Mark was most likely written as a how-to manual for apostles including important stories of Jesus’ life, his messages, and why they should be shared. In Mark 4:3-9, Jesus told the Parable of the Sower and ended with the phrase: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Before Mark wrote Jesus’ explanation of this particular parable, he wrote Jesus’ stated purpose for the telling of parables:
When he was alone, those who were with him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand,
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
By using a verse from Scripture, Jesus explains that not everyone has the ability or desire to understand beyond their five senses.
After Jesus explained the Parable of the Sower, in Mark 13:20:
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
In other words, how carefully we listen to (or read) Jesus’ message is directly proportional to how much we’ll benefit from the message. And if we don’t give any consideration to the message, not only will we not benefit from the message, we’ll lose what we’ve already learned by closing ourselves off. For example, when we cover our ears and sing, “la, la, la, la,” we become annoying and people walk away from us.
Many times, though, even when we are listening (or reading) as carefully as we can, we still don’t get it, or we don’t get all of it. I advise patience, baby steps, and perseverance. Also, of course, I understand that some of my dearworthy readers already know all about the next bit due to your own studies and readings. It's new to me. Although, I remember having heard whispers of it here and there throughout my life. Okay, enough tee-up:
In 1896, a scroll was discovered at an archaeological site in Cairo. It was a Coptic Egyptian translation of a Greek manuscript written some time around 150 A.D. Titled the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she is the honorary author of this Gnostic or Near Eastern Gospel written on her behalf in the style of a spiritual conversation.
In 1945, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip were discovered in a large urn in a desert cave near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These scrolls have been dated from some time around 480 A.D., and are most likely material that was edited out of the official New Testament Canon.
These writings were left out of the Canon, not only because they are evidence of the strong leadership role that Mary Magdalene shared with her beloved teacher, Jesus, but because they are difficult to understand as they take place in the metaphysical plane well beyond our five senses.
Yet, this type of Holy Wisdom thinking has not been hidden away all the time these particular scrolls were stored away in history. In fact, it’s been flourishing in other traditions, teachings, and philosophies for eons. (See Sources and Recommendations below for titles of other Holy Wisdom writings.)
For now, let’s look into the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the content of which is repeated in different ways in The Gospels of Thomas and Philip, much like the New Testament Gospels tell the same story in different ways. This spiritual conversation appears to have taken place between the Resurrection and the Ascension, within the upper room but beyond the upper room, metaphysically speaking.
Accounting for the missing pages in the original manuscript and sticking to some key parts, we start somewhat in the middle:
Then Peter asked Jesus, “Since you have explained everything to us, tell us one more thing. What is sin of this world?
The Savior replied:
“Sin as such does not exist. You only bring it into manifestation when you act in ways that are adulterous in nature. It is for this very reason that the Good has come among you pursuing its own essence within nature in order to reunite everything to origin.
Those with ears let them hear this:
Peace be with you, May my peace reside within you. Guard carefully that no one misleads you saying, ‘Look, he is here,’ or ‘He’s over there.’ For the Son of humanity already exists within you. Follow him, for those who seek him there will find him. Go forth, now, and proclaim the Good News concerning the Kingdom. Beyond what I have already given you, do not lay down any further rules nor issue laws as the Lawgiver, least you too be dominated by them.”
Having said this, he departed.
Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Dialogue 1
His students grieved and mourned greatly saying:
How are we to go into the rest of the world proclaiming the Good News about the Son of Humanity’s Realm? If they did not spare him, how will they ever leave us alone?
Mary arose, then, embracing them all and began to address them as her brothers and sisters saying:
Do not weep and grieve nor let your hearts remain in doubt, for his grace will be with all of you, sustaining and protecting you. Rather, let us give praise to his greatness which has prepared us so that we might become fully human.
Peter said, “Sister, we know that the Savior greatly loved you above all other women, so tell us what you remember of his words that we ourselves do not know or perhaps have never heard.”
And she began to express these things to them:
“I saw the Master in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I see you now in a vision.’
And he answered me. ‘You are blessed, Mary, since the sight of me does not disturb you. For where the heart is, there is the treasure.’”
Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Dialogue 2
Mary Magdalene had reached a new level of relationship between herself and God and her beloved teacher on earth. It’s a unique combined role for her, similar to the unique combined role of the Blessed Virgin Mary as mother of the Son of God -- unique for them, but a level not unattainable to us.
We have within us the ability to become one with a fellow human being that we love deeply, as well as becoming one with God. We do this by emptying or sacrificing our self and filling our self with the other. Seems I have heard that before in a variety of ways. Here’s one:
To be with you, once more, to be with you,
with our bodies close together
let the world go by, like the clouds a’streamin’
to lay me down, one last time, to lay me down.
That's just another of the myriad of ways to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love your neighbor as if you give up your self for him/her. Your neighbor being your Love for whom you sacrifice or "lay down" your everything. Loving God above all else can be attained individually or in combination with your human Love or soul mate.
Mary speaking now from the combined soul of Jesus and herself said:
What has bound me has been slain. What encompassed me has been vanquished. Desire has reached its end, and I am freed from Ignorance. I left one world behind with the aid of another, and now as Image I have been freed from the analog. I am liberated from the chains of forgetfulness which have existed in time. From this moment onward, I go forward into the season of the Great Age, the Aeon, and there, where time rests in stillness in the Eternity of time, I will repose in silence.”
And having said this Mary fell silent since it was to this point that the Savior had brought her.
Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Dialogue 3
Even in the spirit realm where this conversation took place, some refused to understand:
Andrew’s response was to say to the rest of the brothers:
“Say what you will about all that she has said to us, I for one do not believe that the Savior said such things to her, for they are strange and appear to differ from the rest of his teachings.”
After consideration, Peter’s response was similar:
“Would the Savior speak these things to a woman in private without openly sharing them so that we too might hear? Should we listen to her at all, and did he choose her over us because she is more worthy than we are?”
Then Mary began to weep, saying to Peter:
“My brother, what are you thinking? Do you imagine that I have made these things up myself with my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?”
Speaking to Peter, Levi also answered him:
“You have always been quick to anger, Peter, and now you are questioning her exactly that same manner, treating this woman as if she was an enemy. If the Savior considered her worthy, who are you to reject her? He knew her completely and loved her faithfully.
We should be ashamed of ourselves! As he taught us, we should be clothed instead with the cloak of True Humanity, and following his command announce Good News without burdening it further with rules or laws he himself did not give us.”
After Levi had said this, they too departed and began to teach, proclaiming the Good News.
Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Dialogue 4
Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that after Pentecost, Mary Magdalene traveled with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostle John to Ephesus, Turkey, where she preached for many years and later died. In the western tradition, many believe that Mary Magdalene traveled by boat to France where she preached for many years and later died.
Although I lean more towards the authenticity of the Ephesus story, I can get behind the idea that Mary Magdalene’s spiritual presence is strong near her basilica in Provence, France, simply because pilgrims and believers draw her presence to the site.
(This is a similar effect that occurs at replicas of shrines. Many healing miracles have occurred at replicas of the Grotto of Lourdes around the world and not just at the particular site where St. Bernadette experienced visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.)
Whether or not St. Mary Magdalene had a physical relationship with Jesus, it’s clear that He loved her and she loved Him above all others and more than her self.
When we achieve that deep connection with our Loves on earth, it cannot be broken even through death. And when we achieve that deep connection with God, the Holy Spirit flows through us, and we become one with God, a unique human being through whom God does Good.
Hmmmm, that sounds a lot like a saint:
They lived not only in ages past,
there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school,
or in lanes, or at sea, in church,
or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
Lesbia Scott, Episcopal Hymnal, Number 293
Sometimes when I focus on the life of a saint, I end up giving pointers on how to emulate the saints in our journey towards God but forget to add the most important part:
God is always and forever journeying toward us. When Jesus sacrificed Himself for us on the Cross, He met us much more than halfway. He gave up His self (and since time has no meaning in the metaphysical realm, He continues to do so) for us – every stinking one of us. We ARE worthy. We are God's Love.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Collect, Holy Women, Holy Men
Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ workmate. She provided needed funds to pay for food, but she did not prepare meals. Nor is there mention of any food she may have eaten in the Gospels.
So in honor of the ears which hear our Lord, let’s make:
FRESH, local, organic, corn-on-the-cob, one or two per person
1. Place a large pot of water on the stove over high heat. Bring to a boil.
2. Husk the corn, pull off the threads, cut out any blemishes, and invite the corn worms to move along.
3. Carefully drop the corn into the boiling water.
4. Cover the pot for five minutes.
5. Turn off heat. Wait for five minutes.
6. Serve with optional butter and optional salt of the earth.
7. Because it’s difficult to speak while eating corn-on-the-cob, take the opportunity to listen.
HOLY BIBLE: THE NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION
THE MEANING OF MARY MAGDALENE: DISCOVERING THE WOMAN AT THE HEART OF CHRISTIANITY by Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault
HOLY WOMEN, HOLY MEN: CELEBRATING THE SAINTS
STARS IN A DARK WORLD: STORIES OF THE SAINTS AND HOLY DAYS OF THE LITURGY by Fr. John-Julian, OJN
ALL SAINTS: DAILY REFLECTIONS ON SAINTS, PROPHETS, AND WITNESSES FOR OUR TIME by Robert Ellsberg
BUTLER’S LIVES OF THE SAINTS, CONCISE, MODERNIZED EDITION edited by Bernard Bangley
BRIGHTEST AND BEST: A COMPANION TO THE LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS by Sam Portaro
Aside from THE MEANING OF MARY MAGDALENE: DISCOVERING THE WOMAN AT THE HEART OF CHRISTIANITY by Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault which was a source for this post and contains a lot more valuable information which I didn’t touch upon, I also recommend the following works on Holy Wisdom:
Other titles by Rev. Cynthia Bougheault
THE GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALA by Karen King
THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels
MERE CHRISTIANITY by St. C.S. (Jack) Lewis - In this work, St. Jack has a way of baby stepping a path from disbelief all the way to Holy Wisdom using concrete examples from England during the post WWII years. It may be dated and ever so slightly foreign, but it’s easy on the ol’ noggin and I highly recommend it.
GODSPELL: A MUSICAL BASED UPON THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW – It includes song lyrics from the Episcopal Hymnal as well as songs of Holy Wisdom with lyrics adapted by philosophers, Socrates and Jean Paul Sartre.
THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown and the movie version starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou – I regret that I allowed some patriarchal pompiety to dissuade me from reading this novel and watching the movie. It’s a work of fiction that touches upon the Gnostic Gospels, as well as the idea that Mary Magdalene and Jesus left French descendants or something. Key word - fiction. Now I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the novel first and then the movie!
And since many Christians regularly practice Buddhism, I also recommend the works of Richard Bach, author of JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL.
Any dearworthy readers have other recommendations? Please add them to the Comments. Thanks!