A Most Misunderstood Woman: Mary Magdalene
Recalling an Extraordinary Woman and Saint from the Gospels and her own (?) Writings
The Unity Community of Mount Pleasant, SC
March 8, 2015
As I was rattling my brain, and going over the many ideas I could develop for a sermon during Lent and the Easter season, I realized that there is a true and unheralded story that needs to be told… The story of Mary Magdelene is one that can fully occupy our imagination, but cannot be understood only as religious history, or as a dissenting theology, but through her words as they are attributed to her in the Canonical Gospels and in the Gnostic Gospels that will provide us with a timeless example of living out one’s spiritual values.
Given that March is Women’s History Month, and that There is a lot of erroneous conclusions about her, I feel its time to lift her up as a courageous and inspirational feminine role model for the spiritual life.
When one looks thoroughly at the Scriptures, Mary of Magdala is specifically mentioned only once outside of the Resurrection story… But even that conclusion is an open-ended one! You see, there are five Marys in the Christian Testaments, and some are clear cut, such as Mary the mother of Jesus, but there are stories where it is quite unclear which Mary is being spoken of, or even if the woman in the story was a Mary of any sort!
Many scholars will speculate that Mary of Magdala was the Mary in the Lukan story of Mary and Martha; We are unsure if she might have been the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and it is a loose conclusion that identifies her as a the woman that Jesus healed from having seven devils within her… however… We are reasonably certain that she was NOT the woman caught in adultery, although that sin and the effects of that papal branding of her as a prostitute and grievous sinner lasted some 12 hundred years!
In the Gospel accounts, we are given indications of her qualities and outlooks on life… however, these are incomplete. When added to the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, we are given a few more insightful and truly surprising clues to a misunderstood, yet faithful and devoted disciple.
(Technically, she could be named as an Apostle, as the difference between an apostle and being a disciple is someone who had a direct living relationship with Jesus and/or someone who had a historical encounter with the risen Christ… such as Paul…)
To begin with, and something to keep in mind during this Lenten season, is that while celebrated only once a year, that our lives can be filled with Good Fridays and with Easter mornings. I would advance the idea that we cannot have a complete understanding of Holy in our lives unless we understand the how Good Friday and Easter teach us about the necessary and complementary steps each of us takes, or instruct the life changing experiences each of us has to live through that will serve to deepen our awareness of God and Spirit in our lives.
One of the most searing critiques of the New Age Spirituality Movement can be expressed by the desire to avoid Good Friday and only celebrate Easter. Genuine spiritual maturity or depth does not come to us easily, quickly, or cheaply. While you can have pleasant, uplifting episodes, and warm feelings from exercises and meditations, those do not constitute genuine spiritual discovery or depth. When I read about the lives of the saints, East and West, often there is a struggle they have to overcome, a deep personal flaw, a struggle against injustice, or an ego-defying love. The women of the Gospel, and maybe Mary of Magdela in particular, had to confront their Good Friday directly-vividly, and to endure it with nobility, courage and grace. Her story is different because there is a quality of an intimate connection that was neither maternal nor was it sisterly. IF we are to accept what the Gnostic Gospels such as Philip seem to infer, or what the novelists like Nicholas Kasinstakis in his work, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Dan Brown with his Da Vinci Code and similar speculative works, are offered to us as tantalizing possibilities. IF they are proved or considered to be true, then Mary was not only a devoted disciple, she was Jesus’ wife or spouse. Because of this intimacy, her Good Friday was different than a maternal or sisterly loss would be. A simple way to explain this controversial point of view would be that it was her lesson is how to live with loss, and then as a widow, teach others his truth and to follow his wisdom, while keeping the bond of love alive that exists between them.
Maybe that impulse, that hope and that desire to see him again was the great driving motive behind why she was the first one at the tomb- Yes, it was an act of strong faith, but it was also an act of a strong love that attests to the heart centered understanding that they shared… It was a deep understanding that the Gnostic Gospels refer to as Mary knowing the secrets and hidden teachings that Jesus never shared with anyone else.
In this more inspirational yet expansive appreciation of Mary, we come to understand her as an example of a timeless sense of love and the courageous dedication because to continue to spread and to fulfill his teachings. By doing that, she immediately was branded as a rebel and by doing so, she upset the patriarchal traditions that became so ingrained in the Western Church. One of the reasons why she was held captive in obscurity was she broke the cultural barriers to women in religious leadership in order to testify to a timeless truth of God being alive within each of us… (Son of Man = holy child of Humankind, or as Unity teaches it, The Christ within….)
Like the strange fact that we have no real idea what Jesus looked like, the same is true of Mary… We have only the artistic renderings from pious artists to use as our subjective measure… Some of those historical renderings show us a woman who Jesus saves from the angry, judgmental crowd, or show us a picture of a woman after being healed of seven demons… Others refer to Mary more quietly and less dramatically to her only as a close disciple who listened fully, and comprehended deeply.
Because of the misanthropic patriarchy winning the ecclesial battle for prominence, the important contributions of women to the Gospel and to the formation of the Early church were largely erased. This willful deletion, however, do not stop the Gnostics from adding their additional pieces to the puzzle, even if the pieces they offered did not easily fit or contribute to what was already known… By in large, women began to recede from their leadership and early prominence… If fact, they not only were forced into the background, they began to take on a more sinister importance. The skeptical old monks looked at women as the problem… Because they represented desire, and so they were, at best, a distraction to a more pious and pristine life… Then we have layered on that dubious notion, the beliefs about Eve as the originator of sin, and thanks to the Pope Gregory in 591, we have Mary identified as a prostitute!
Of course, we have absolutely NO evidence that Mary was anything but a sincere student and maybe even a beloved disciple… It was a massive error of great consequence that has haunted women and Western spirituality ever since!
The latest, reliable scholarship that would be trustworthy depicts Mary, and the Gnostic Gospel attributed to her, as having a genuine case to be named an apostle, and thereby breaking down much of the old conclusions about the growth of the Christian church and women’s roles in its seeding and planting. In the Gospel of Mary she is seen having prominence, if not preeminence because she possesses knowledge that was kept from the other disciples, and that she was charged to share it with them during the early time period after Jesus’ ascension/disappearance….
When we add to this teaching, the historical fact of its origins, it has to be given a much larger standard of credence as the time period would be roughly parallel to the writing of the Gospel of John. Thomas is set a little earlier, scholars suggest that it was written during the time of Luke/Acts, and before John. From a historical evaluation, Thomas and Mary would have to be accepted as being more genuine because they were earlier than all the rest of the Gnostics… (See research by Karen King for a full and rich explanation)
So let us turn to what her story could reveal… That her message that we have been able to translate and study give us parts left unread by the conventional Christian and that have been largely ignored by mainline teachings… While we could go overt the texts that we have been given by orthodoxy, I would prefer to open your thought and inform your hearts by turning our attention to the search for greater wisdom and understanding that these Gnostic texts can offer us…. Unfortunately, what has been preserved for us is but a fraction of the whole book… We are missing substantial parts and can only hope more might be found, but realistically having to content ourselves that these fragments can still contribute to expanding our understanding of Jesus’ timeless wisdom…
(Pages 1 to 6 of the manuscript, containing chapters 1 – 3, are lost.
The extant text starts on page 7…)
. . . Will matter then be destroyed or not?
22) The Savior said, “All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots.
23) For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature alone.
24) He who has ears to hear, let him hear”.
All that exists, first exists in the realm of an image or an idea…, It takes shape or becomes physical because it follows its unique pattern for manifestation… And at its death or demise, returns to that original , radical or root image or idea… This is not merely a law of reincarnation, nor is it just the physics of energy that always is changing… What is being suggested here is that there is a return to the essence that holds its cosmic blueprint.
Everything that has been created has a design or a blueprint that maps out its essence, its construction of its reality.
25) Peter said to him, Since you have explained everything to us, tell us this also: What is the sin of the world?
26) The Savior said There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called sin.
27) That is why the Good came into your midst, to the essence of every nature in order to restore it to its root.
As it has been explained, here Jesus offers us a transformative statement about the nature of sin that has been totally by-passed or absurdly reduced to the idea that a mistake, a moral flaw is worthy of condemnation. It is also not a transgression that is socially defined or limited to tribal laws, or any relational expectations. The warning is one of dilution’s, and adulterating the quality of one’s motives, connections and ideals.
Following the current scholarship, Jesus teaches that sin is not a moral problem but a cosmological challenge to remain aligned, attuned, in sync and at one with the truth of one’s being. Such an intimacy or alignment seeks to have no gaps or dissonance between the person as the divine image and likeness and the how they function in the world is the ideal goal for our lives. To the degree that we allow for or create distance and dissonance between the divine fidei of who we are and the world’s temptations, distractions, and diseases will show what feelings and conditions that we will manifest… Separation is sin; and to the degree that we live out estranged and unconnected lives will indicate how close we are to God and to our divine image of divinity, our Christ within.
28) Then He continued and said, That is why you become sick and die, for you are deprived 29) He who has a mind to understand, let him understand.
30) Matter gave birth to a passion that has no equal, which proceeded from something contrary to nature. Then there arises a disturbance in its whole body.
31) That is why I said to you, Be of good courage, and if you are discouraged be encouraged in the presence of the different forms of nature.
32) He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
33) When the Blessed One had said this, He greeted them all, saying, Peace be with you. Receive my peace unto yourselves.
34) Beware that no one lead you astray saying Lo here or lo there! For the Son of Man is within you. 35) Follow after Him! 36) Those who seek Him will find Him. 37) Go then and preach the gospel of the Kingdom.
In sync with the teachings from John about false prophets, in Mary’s gospel we are given a warning about listening to any source- human , literary, or otherwise! We are to listen, instead, to our hearts… To our source of inner knowing such as our intuition as our most reliable guide. Because the Christ lives within each and every person, our instructions and our guidance comes from within our hearts, minds, and souls…
As you listen and become more confident in your knowing, then share this wisdom with others – teaching and encouraging them to go within for their most cherished and valued answers…
38) Do not lay down any rules beyond what I appointed you, and do not give a law like the lawgiver lest you be constrained by it.
39) When He said this He departed.
External rules, laws, obligations and structures are to be avoided as they can act to confine our potentials. Such legalisms can also preoccupy us and can be ways that lead us astray. With any pre-occupations with externals, we are draining our attention and energies away from the necessary focus and the needed energies/activities of soul development.
1) But they were grieved. They wept greatly, saying, How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare Him, how will they spare us?
2) Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you.
3) But rather, let us praise His greatness, for He has prepared us and made us into Men. 4) When Mary said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior.
5) Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. 6) Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them.
7) Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.
8) And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me,
9) Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the mind is there is the treasure.
10) I said to Him, Lord, how does he who sees the vision see it, through the soul or through the spirit?
11) The Savior answered and said, He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind that is between the two that is what sees the vision and it is […]
(pages 11 – 14 are missing from the manuscript)
Commentary and scholarship continues… If requested, more will be posted!