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Who Is Mary Magdalene?

June 16, 2024 Sermon – “Who Is Mary Magdalene?”

By Rev. Elizabeth Denham Thompson

For Community UCC Boulder

Father’s Day & Divine Feminine theme


Scripture: John 11: 1-5; and John 12: 1-8

(Reconstructed by Elizabeth Schrader from early copies of Scripture, before they were “corrected”, and the NRSV)

(11: 1-5) There was a certain sick man, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary his sister. Now this was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. Therefore, Mary sent to him, saying, “Lord, behold, the one you love is sick.” But when Jesus heard he said to her, “the sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Lazarus and his sister.

(12: 1-8) Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Mary served and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone, She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


Sermon:

I’ve always had a certain affinity for strong female characters. I’m realizing this more in hindsight than in actual time. As a child one of my favorite figurines in my parents’ home was a late 1800’s china figurine of a woman, slightly demure, in a blue gown, cradling a small Bible, but with a purpose for her life. She was entitled “Evangeline” – bearer of good news. And now Evangeline stands on my living room bookcase today, and I am still delighted by her.


Later I was at a professional pastoral counseling conference where several artists had brought their work to display. One brought a collection of what she called “Wise Women Dolls” that were made from various materials – cloth, molded papier mâché, buttons, and other found objects. Each had a poem, quote, or scripture related to her identity. My heart was captured by one who was made from all natural materials – a leather shawl, wood & pinecones necklace, feather skirt, wild Spanish moss hair, and fur wrapped at her feet. Mounted on a block of purple wood, she strode with a lopsided smile carrying a walking stick with a pearl of great wisdom. Her scripture was from Revelation 12:14 “but the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” She was calling out to me and I had to have her! She inspires my ministry even today … to accompany people in their wilderness experiences, providing nourishment and guidance for whatever time is needed. She is my wild, resolute, and wise “Eagle Lady”.


And then, several years ago I saw this portrait of Mary Magdalene, by the Chinese artist He Qi (ho-chee) combining vivid colors with soft pastels, almost Picasso cubist in nature, yet incorporating images from ancient Chinese theater bringing the characters and struggles to life. In this piece he employed women who were keeping the ancient art of Chinese silk embroidery alive and tasked them to basically cover over the picture with shimmering embroidery needlework turning it into a living portrait. This is what is hanging on the wall. If you move from side to side, the colors glimmer as the light changes, with single strands of colors interwoven to highlight the lively image. It takes about a month for a woman to hand-dye the silk into a myriad of colors and then embroider them strand by strand.


I love this portrait because the focus is on Mary Magdalene. Behind her there are two faces that seem to be wearing Chinese masks. One depicts the jealousy and greed of Judas (his left cheek carries the picture of a Chinese coin), and one depicts someone who supports her – maybe her brother Lazarus (the one highlighted with white and red). The two faces are looking at Mary (not at us, nor at Jesus). The foot that angles into the portrait is of Jesus, waiting for the anointing that is to come, yet he is pointing to her.


Mary Magdalene is the only one looking directly at us. Her eyes are not averted, nor is she frightened, crying, anxious or apologetic. She is strong, bold, calm, and clear. Her look tells us she is centered, at peace, and determined. In her hands is the jar of ointment ready to anoint Jesus. Her hair fans out, ready to wipe his feet. She is looking at us, inviting us, even daring us, to join the story, but it is a story in which she is in charge.


These art women are role models and spiritual guides for me.


This summer we have been invited by Rev. Nicole, to explore aspects of the Divine Feminine, to uncover who is Mary Magdalene including a gospel written in her name, and to experiment with what it would look like to embody that in our world today.


Yet it is important to me to understand how these female perspectives, although connected, are really very different and at times contradictory from each other. I want to make sure that we don’t inadvertently blend all of this together as though it’s a lovely feminine smoothie. So briefly I want to make a couple of points.


First, the Divine Feminine is a line of theology that looks at canonical Christian scripture, Hebrew scripture and commentaries to tease out and highlight the feminine aspects of God that have been dismissed or downplayed. It is a way of bringing the feminine aspects of God to the fore, so that we get a glimpse of the compassionate, bold, and grace-filled feminine characteristics of God. This is not to exclude male imagery, or any of the other scriptural images for God. I am clear that I am preaching this sermon on Father’s Day after all!


The reality is that we all have aspects, of all of this, in who we are. Hopefully we have learned, although some are still learning, we are all in varying ways non-binary. If we can see God as more than male, more than female, and delight in a God who is a three-some in relationship with each other, blending, highlighting, strengthening, and loving through the relationships, then we can see ourselves and the world as much more complex and life-giving in all its forms. So, to repeat, the Divine Feminine is a theology focused on incorporating the feminine aspects into our understanding of who God is, of how God operates in the world, and helps women see themselves in who God is in Her fullness.


But that is very different from the Gospel of Mary. In Karen King’s book which we will be studying, The Gospel of Mary shows us a strong female believer, who was recognized and heralded by Jesus. Mary was “loved above the other disciples” by Jesus. But after giving her teachings, she is questioned about her authority, in a direct conflict with Peter “the Rock”. He doesn’t like the idea that a woman might have more knowledge of Jesus’s teachings than he or the other male disciples have, even if it is Mary Magdalene (Mary “the Tower”). Finally, Andrew rebukes Peter as once again “hot-headed” and supports Mary’s place in leadership and her teachings, going out with her to preach the gospel.


My second point is to observe that nowhere in the Gospel of Mary is there any discussion about or affirmation of the female characteristics of God. Mary Magdalene is not a feminist theologian or teacher promoting feminine attributes of God. As a matter of fact, Mary is teaching that gender doesn’t matter because the body is what falls away when the mind is focused on “the Good”. The very reason why she can be a leader is because it doesn’t matter that’s she’s in a female body, any more than Peter being in a male body should therefore elevate him. It is her mind, not her body, that sees God, i.e. “the Good”, the real heart of God.


This is a bit startling to realize. In today’s world, we are leaning into women’s ways of knowing as unique gifts to leadership and community, we lean into the body as giving us critical information that the rational mind has ignored, and we believe the body gives us insight into who we are and how we operate in the world.


It is important that we don’t conflate the Divine Feminine theology with the Gospel of Mary and its teachings. The Gospel of Mary argues against the body – male or female – as providing a conduit for insight. Mary does not discuss the feminine characteristics of God at all. The female body is not something that can help us understand the world, rather the body whether male or female, is irrelevant. Mary’s insight and wisdom and authority does not come because her female body or female experiences provide her with a different way of hearing Jesus’ teachings. She is not arguing that because God has female characteristics, then women are equal or even have enhanced abilities to see and preach about God. Instead, it is because Mary dismisses her body that Mary says she is able to focus and take in fully with her mind what Jesus is teaching about “the Good”, and thus can direct others to the Spiritual treasures found there.


I am grateful we have discovered and are respecting the authenticity of the Gospel of Mary and what it can teach us, but we need to be careful to not portray its teachings as highlighting the feminine side of God, or that it encourages women’s ways of knowing as a methodology for gaining insight and clarity of vision. Indeed, Mary would see those as problematic, unreliable, and part of the lower nature to be avoided.


So, what do we make of Mary Magdalene? Who is she really? We know she is a key witness and preacher, and she is portrayed that way in the canonical scriptures, as well as in the Gospel of Mary, and elsewhere. Despite years of male hierarchy in the church, and various attempts in the Western traditions to obfuscate Mary Magdalene’s importance, she retains a singular status as the disciple who was last at the cross and first at the tomb.


When I was ordained in 1991, over 30 years ago, my father who was a Baptist minister preached my ordination sermon, actively supporting my call to ministry. Dad chose as the scripture John 20: 11-18, when Mary Magdalene meets Jesus post-resurrection in the garden near the tomb but doesn’t recognize him. Dad talked about how ministry works – that we often don’t recognize God in our everyday lives, and especially in the difficult moments of our lives. But it is in the personal interactions, in the saying of someone’s name, in the presence of being together, that brings recognition, connection, healing and wholeness.


Dad went on to say that ministry, however, is more than that as well. We desire to linger in the “aha” moments, and our egos like being the center of someone else’s attention. But for others to become who they are meant to be, we must challenge them “not to hold on” so they can become ministers in their own right. Dad’s message was that Mary Magdalene became the first preacher of the good news - the first “Evangeline” if you will - not just because she was a faithful disciple who was last at the cross and first at the tomb, but because Jesus would not let her cling to him in that “aha” moment, instead directing her to go tell others, to preach what she knew and had witnessed. This interaction between Mary Magdalene and Jesus became a template for me for effective ministry in the world. This call felt like it was embodied by the “Eagle Lady” striding forth to give and receive nurture from those in the wilderness.


My father also loved biblical archeology. He remembered when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered and was fascinated by what they could bring to our understanding of scripture and the early church. He would periodically weave into his sermons alternate early writings that differed from the traditional canon of Scripture. If he were alive today he would be delving into the scholarship of the problematic scribal renderings of Mary Magdalene vs. Mary the sister of Lazarus vs. the Mary and Martha not related to Lazarus, versus various other Marys.


Elizabeth Schrader, now Polczer (who is Asst. Professor of New Testament at Villanova University), and one of the resources that Rev. Nicole suggested, has done extensive research on the manuscripts of John from various scribes and how the name Maria, has been changed to Martha, in several versions basically for unknown reasons. (MAR_A: in Greek changing the iota to a theta, so change one letter and it’s a different name entirely) Other biblical scholars noted the discrepancies for years, but Schrader was the first to really question what may have been happening. She concludes the discrepancies were done somewhat deliberately over time. She speculates that especially for the later church fathers, if Mary Magdalene could be downgraded in status somewhat, by changing her to a Martha in some passages, or creating different story lines, or conflating her with a different Mary entirely, then the through line of power and authority in the church that belongs to the woman disciple Mary Magdalene would also be downgraded.


When you look at our scripture readings this morning, it is a compilation that Schrader put together from different but actual manuscripts, that together tell the new/old story of Mary Magdalene, placing her as the central confessor, anointer, and preacher of Christ. If you compare it to the rendering in say, the NRSV, then in the NRSV Martha’s name has been added, and what was a single woman and a single sister, has now become two.


A lingering question then is what does “Magdalene” means – is it a geographical place and if so, where? Is it a nickname, is it an attribute as to her character? According to Schrader and Joan Taylor (Professor of Christian Origins at Kings College in London) - the geographical reference is becoming more problematic and is beginning to be ruled out, despite some claims otherwise. In Aramaic, Magdal means “tower”, and is similar to the Hebrew, Migdal, also meaning “tower”. So it could be that Mary was a physically tall woman, and so earned a nickname as “the tower”. But in the Shepherd of Hermas writings from the early second century, “tower” was used as an image for the church. Even St. Jerome in 412 CE, referenced Mary as a tower of faith, a tower of righteousness, who “deserved to see the risen Christ first before the apostles.”


So if we put all of this together, then the portrait that emerges is of Mary Magdalene, “Mary the Tower”, who is the sister of Lazarus (but not related to a Martha), who is from Bethany (not a village on the Sea of Galilea possibly called Magdala), who was present and active in key moments in the life of Jesus, and was a leader in the early church.


In an April 2022 podcast, Schrader describes “Mary the Tower” as a Christological believer, confessor, and anointer, who is a faithful witness to Christ’s death, and unafraid to come alone to Christ’s tomb even while it was still dark, becoming the first witness to Christ’s resurrection. Directed by Jesus to go and tell others, Mary Magdalene is the first Apostle to the Apostles, and continued to be a strong leader in the early Christian church. Mary Magdalene is the only disciple who did all of those things, so is unique among the disciples.


Mary Magdalene may not explicitly call out the feminine attributes of God, or be a feminist advocate, or promote the experience known by women through their bodies, but she does in fact embody a strong female witness who is a representative of God who calls us all to connect with the Holy “Good” in ways that supersede our apparent differences.


I want you to see the Mary in this portrait. To me she holds the spirit of Evangeline and of Eagle Lady in her eyes. This is the Mary who may not have used her body for insight per se, but used her physical body as well as her mind to serve as a disciple of Jesus, to confess knowing who he really was, to anoint Jesus’s body and wipe his feet with her hair, bearing witness and preaching “the Good”, i.e. the Good News, the Gospel, and serving as a leader in the church.


I want you to see how this Mary has blessed all of us of whatever gender, by encouraging us to not be bound by the physical or the misunderstandings that would keep us from being our full spiritual selves. And on this Father’s Day, I remember my own father and am grateful that he not only saw and appreciated the defiant and faithful spirit of Mary Magdalene, but saw a version of this Mary in me when he blessed me.


May we all be so bold and compassionate.



Reflection Questions:

When has someone called you by name in a way that was healing and connective?

Who has looked directly at you, challenging you to become more than you thought you could be?



References:


Elizabeth Schrader, “Future Church’s Women Erased Series: Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of John”, recorded 08.25.2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b3Y3cJ0Ic8


Elizabeth Schrader and Joan Taylor, “Future Church’s Women Erased: the ‘Magdalene’ Mystery” podcast, recorded 4.28.2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1JvTr_H1_0


Elizabeth Schrader Polczer, “Time of the Feminine Ep. 80: Suppression of Mary Magdalene”, podcast 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Syh2KNE45ns


Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Published 2003 by Polebridge Press, P. O. Box 6144, Santa Rosa, CA 95406.


Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female. 1984 The Crossroad Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Ave., NY, NY 10017



Picture of Mary Magdalene portrait:

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