The stone below my feet, worn smooth from centuries of foot-traffic, reflected little ambient light and as I passed through the courtyard I entered a narrow road, normally frenetic with merchants and tourists and pilgrims and people buying various goods, but now dark and lined with closed metal doors. It’s like entering a cave, the buzz of a few small fluorescent lights, one of which is the sign to a hostel (seen in the photo above) the only light upon my path.
In the shadows, movement. Cats jumping at my approach, rifling through garbage or on the hunt. It is at this moment that two things pop into my mind:
First, I wonder how scared my mother would be if she knew what I was doing. Walking before dawn by myself through the streets of Jerusalem. The shadowy cats make me think about thieves and bandits and the words of the proverbial Solomon who wrote of “a young man without sense,” walking these very streets “in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness” and how he is ensnared by folly (see Proverbs 7).
Secondly, it dawns on me that I am walking a similar path to that of Saint Mary of Magdala, because—like her—I am making a pre-dawn trek to visit Jesus’ tomb. And—like her—I will find that it is empty and I will return to my friends and colleagues with that good news in mind.
It was this realization that changed my relationship with Saint Mary.
In the Church of the Resurrection (or, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as it is often known) is a chapel, just to the left of the Aedicule—the name for the “church within the church” that commemorates the Tomb of Jesus—on the north side, is the Franciscan Chapel of Saint Mary Magdalene, which is meant to mark the garden area where Mary encounters the risen Jesus (as told in John’s gospel). Being in that place and having walked that walk, I felt a sort of spiritual kinship with that blessed woman from the village of Magdala. To cite the over-used idiom, I had walked a mile (or so) in her shoes.*
What Mary does on that first Easter day is a complete summation of Christian witness. She experienced Jesus, risen, and proclaimed that good news to the world. All of us Christians owe an enormous debt to her, because her example sets in motion the entire Jesus Movement as we know it today.
Of course, by that time I’d long accepted that it was “okay” for women to be ordained. I’d been at a church with a woman priest for three years, after which I’d come to seminary where some of my dearest friends and most-admired clergy happened to be women. The ship of my personal acceptance of this had long sailed. But the folly, as I already said, was made ever-the-more apparent in Jerusalem. I mean, my own call to ordination was only possible because of Mary’s walk that morning.
In Luke’s gospel, as with all the other gospels, “the women” were the first to arrive at Jesus’ tomb, for the purpose of anointing His body. Luke 24:10 explicitly names Mary Magdalene as among these women. After they discover that Jesus is risen, Mary and her companions return to the upper room where the other disciples are in hiding. In a turn that any hack stand-up comedian would’ve seen coming, Peter and the other dudes didn’t believe them, “these words seem[ing] to them an idle tale.”**
So they go and see. At the same time, two other disciples are journeying to the village of Emmaus and, unbeknownst to them, wind up walking with Jesus—who winds up revealing Himself to them at dinner, sending them in a rush back to Jerusalem to give their report to the rest of the disciples.
This brings us back to the upper room, where Mary and the other disciples—women and men—are gathered and sharing their stories. And then Jesus appears in their midst, talks with them, opens their minds to understand His presence in the scriptures, and then begins to commission them: “You are witnesses of these things.”***
After that, He leads them to the Mount of Olives, and gives what we often call The Great Commission:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”****
Later, these same disciples are again in the upper room when the Holy Spirit bursts into the room during the feast of Pentecost, setting their heads aflame in spiritual fire, and beginning what we today would call “the Church.”
Now, again, Mary of Magdala (as well as other women) are present for all of this, standing alongside Peter, James, John, the various Simons, Alphaeus’ kid, the Judas who’s always called “no, not that one,”‡ all of the disciples. Ones that we’ve written icons about and named churches after and all of that. All of these people are called “witnesses.” Which becomes an essential aspect for leadership in The Church (just look at Saint Peter’s words in Acts 1:21-22).
Which means that Mary is numbered among the witnesses. She’s clearly an early apostolic figure and intended to be so (she’s at least important enough to be named by the evangelists). God, in holy sovereignty, chose this woman to be the first voice to declare the resurrection.
She was the first to ever give that Easter acclamation: “Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Allelua!”
Mary is very important. Her answering the call of Jesus, being an instrument of God’s work, made her a crucial person in the world’s salvation narrative. Her gospel proclamation, made it possible for all of us to hear the good news of Jesus risen!
What’s sad is that our popular culture tends to see her in fairly sexist terms. Either she’s the prostitute who anoints Jesus’ feet, or the prostitute caught in adultery. That, or she’s confused with Saint Mary of Bethany. Even worse, she’s turned into Jesus’ wife.
I’m reminded of the strong words written by Gerard Loughlin, in his book Telling God’s Story. Speaking of John Shelby Spong, he writes:
“Spong marries Mary Magdalene to Jesus. This speculation is said to reverse the calumny of the early Church, which quickly developed the need to remove ‘the flesh and blood woman who was at Jesus’s side in life and in death, and to replace her with a sexless woman, the virgin mother’ [Loughlin is here quoting Spong’s book Born of a Woman—CB]. Rather than having Mary Magdalene a disciple in her own right—a woman who chooses to follow Jesus as much as the men have done, and who follows him more faithfully—Spong makes her a sexual chattel; part of the group that follows the band rather than part of the band itself.” He goes on to say “[H]e makes up a story about a woman who followed Jesus because she was married to him, rather than the story we have about a woman who chose to follow Jesus because she loved him as a disciple.”
In referring to another Spong misinterpretion‡‡, Loughlin wryly observes: “Spong rewrites the story[…] inserting a man where no man was previously to be found.”‡‡‡
A lot of Christians and scholars think that they’re being edgy, or subversive, or enlightened when they openly talk about Jesus being married to Mary of Magdala—all the while being completely ignorant of how this robs her of her agency as a woman.
It’s time we move passed that.
She’s the “Apostle to the Apostles.” The “Proto-Evangelion.” The first one to tell us that Christ is risen.
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 for ever. Amen. (BCP 242)
You may have noticed that I call her “Mary of Magdala” in a few places. If that’s unfamiliar, let me explain. “Magdalene” is not her surname, it means that she is a person from Magdala, a Jewish village in Roman Era Judea/Palestine.
* As an aside, this idiom is often said to be “Cherokee” in origin. A lot of things are given a “Cherokee” back-story (just ask around your family and you’ll likely find someone who claims an ancestor as married to a “Cherokee princess.” Cherokees don’t have princesses and they also don’t have miles). A version of the saying I’ve heard refers to walking “two moons in someone else’s moccasins” and it might be of First Nations origin (either Cherokee or other). But the saying seems to be common in most languages and having a long history, which suggests that the notion is a generally human notion and has inspired perhaps thousands of parallel versions of the saying all over the world.
** Luke 24:11 NRSV
*** Luke 24:48
**** Acts 1:8; the “Great Commission” is found in various forms in Mark, Matthew, as well as in Acts.
‡ Seriously. Just check out John 14:22. Other gospels seem to call him Thaddeus instead. Given the history, I’d probably do the same.
‡‡ He’s writing of John Shelby Spong’s bizarre insistence that the Blessed Virgin Mary was raped by a Roman soldier, who was the “real” father of Jesus.
‡‡‡ All of these quotes come from Telling God’s Story, pp. 120-123