Tomorrow, I will join millions of Christians around the world in celebrating the resurrection of Christ and the saving of humanity. But as I stood in services for Holy Thursday this week, I thought instead of the women in Christ’s life who have been ignored, misrepresented, and used in the politics that infused the rise and spread of Christianity.
When I think of the saying "a lie makes its way halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its shoes on," I think of Mary Magdalene. It all started with a man who wanted to make Mary Magdalene out to be more than she really was – a humble servant of Jesus’ and arguably the "apostle to the apostles". That man was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in 591, did something that I think of as truly miraculous – he merged several different women into one.
Pope Gregory gives a sermon in which he carelessly combines Mary Magdalene with the woman of the seven demons (a sinner who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair), and then that of Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus with nard. It’s not long afterwards that Mary Magdalene takes on even more personalities – that of Mary of Egypt (a prostitute from the fourth century who converted to Christianity and lived the rest of her days in a cave) and in some traditions even the woman who committed adultery and was sentenced to be stoned, when Jesus famously says "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." (While we’re on the topic of made-up stories, this incident is widely accepted among biblical scholars as never having happened – the story was added centuries later to one of the Gospels that ended up making it into the New Testament as we now know it).
It’s disheartening, really, to see the life of a woman like Mary Magdalene so egregiously misrepresented for the Church’s political purposes. And don’t be fooled – the reshaping of Mary’s image was intentional. As the Christian Church rose in the first 15 centuries to a prominent place of leadership and power, women were summarily pushed away, cast as manipulative, scheming, witches out to destroy the Church. So instead of celebrating Mary’s role as one of the first leaders of the Church and an apostle who spread the word of Jesus, she was instead cast as a symbol – the embodiment of the love of Christ that is so great, it can redeem a prostitute.
This idea of Mary as the repentant whore who became a lover of Christ functions within the Church as a nod to the patriarchal hierarchy, one that celebrates obedience to male authority and sexual control over the feminine. As a repentant sinner, Mary”s femininity is restored to its proper place – a femininity that does not exert itself sexually and is submissive to domination by the male power structure. Indeed, one of the most recognized depictions of Mary Magdalene portrays her groveling at the feet of Christ. Most other popular depictions show Mary in a sexual pose, half or completely naked, in a state of barely controlled eroticism. It is only her desperate faith and supplication to Jesus that keeps her sexuality in check.
It’s not until 1967 that the Catholic Church gently corrects this misconception. Of course, its hard to roll back centuries of cultural obsession with the virgins and whores of the BIble. Hollywood does us no favors by continuing to perpetuate this image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.
But the truth is that many Gospels celebrate the role of Mary Magdalene as the most-loved of the followers of Christ. Even in the "final" version of the Bible, Mary has small but crucial roles in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. For example, after his death, Jesus appears first to Mary, in a vision in which he tells her to go spread the word of his Resurrection amongst the apostles. It should be noted that in many Gospels, the followers of Christ were doubtful of her claim that Jesus came to her, unwilling to believe that he chose to appear first and foremost to a woman (scandalous!). Some religious scholars have even proposed that Mary was the "Beloved Disciple," the author of the fourth Gospel. The fact that Mary plays such important roles in the BIble, but is mentioned so infrequently, speaks to the patriarchal leanings of early Christian leaders who sought to downplay her role in Jesus’ life and death.