The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

My sincere thanks to Jennifer Campaniolo at Shambhala Publishing for sending me a copy of The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity.

First let me start out by saying, that this was not quite what I expected. I assumed it would be a scholarly biography of one of Christianity’s most enigmatic women. It certainly is that. But I expected it to be along the lines of a general work using the accepted tools of hermeneutics in examining the texts of the Gospel accounts of the New Testament.

That it was not quite, though it certainly examined all the pertinent texts thoroughly. However, much of Cynthia Bourgeault’s work delves into the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” of Mary, Thomas, Peter and Philip.  These were more or less known to the powers that decided the canon, but were omitted largely because they spoke of a more transcendent and ephemeral Jesus and his teachings. They were “gnostic” and heretical, having lost the battle to the growing “orthodoxy” of the Roman Church.

Rev. Bourgeault crafts with great care and precision her hypothesis that Jesus and Mary were “soul mates,” certainly lovers, although she doesn’t claim they were physical lovers, although she finds no reason why they may not have been.

She finds in Jesus a Nazarite, much like John the Baptist, but one who gave up the ascetic life, the life of denial, to move to the path of “singleness” where kenotic love became the center of his being. This self-giving or self-emptying attitude was one that he taught Mary and it is what allowed them to transcend his death on the cross. Their unitive love, whether physical or celibate, enabled them to reach the fullness of being human. It is this towards what his teachings point.

It is this message that Jesus sought to teach his disciples. It is what Mary learned, making her the foremost of all the disciples.

It is Bourgeault’s contention that the Gospel of John in the canon is perhaps the most clear about understanding Jesus truest teaching. She argues that the Mary of Bethany is in fact Mary Magdalene, or at least created to expouse upon some of her qualities. She would claim that many of the Marys in the Gospel accounts, or I should say many of the women (the woman at the well for instance) are also created composites of Magdalene qualities.

The reason why the Magdalene is so “hidden” in this way is simply because it became increasingly impossible for a patriarchial and male dominated church to accept that a woman had been the closed companion of Christ. It was unseemly to a church that slowly but surely hide sex behind a heavy door, and made chastity the only possible “pure” expression of “the Way.”

If you have ever read the gnostics, as I have, you undoubtedly were quite puzzled. They read more like Eastern mystical works. We are unfamiliar with the words and their meanings.

Cynthia Bourgeault, with patience and deep care, unravels the intracacies of these passages, explaining their meaning, joining them to the Semitic eastern mysticism of the time of Jesus. She has devoted more than forty years to Mary, and has traveled to parts of France where there is a very old tradition of the Magdalene’s later years there and the mystical veils that surround her.

It will, no doubt be hard for a first time reader, to digest all this “new thinking” about this mysterious woman that we know so little about, yet are still so utterly fascinated with. Bourgeault is both Episcopal priest and part-time hermit. She has studied with many who have lived their lives in these traditions of mysticism. So, her claims are not to be dismissed easily, yet, they remain, reasonable conclusions based on often quite slim evidence.

Even if you are not prepared to “buy” all the conclusions, you will I promise you come away with a vision of both Mary and Jesus that are profoundly different than before. As never before, they become fully human to us, who so desperately need human models to emulate. Bourgeault brings the scriptures alive, and quite frankly, through her interpretation, once difficult or puzzling passages suddenly ring with clarity.

All the Gospels recall Mary as the first to receive the “good news” of the resurrection. Her voice, since stifled, was so powerful to the infant church that this truth could not be denied. Although each writer in some way minimized her importance, she could not be denied her place in the narratives. It is she, Bourgeault contends, who was the source of the “annointing” ministry that she may well have shared with Jesus, and which comes down to us today as a sacrament.

What I came away with, is a deeper appreciation of Mary Magdalene. I have for some time considered her to be an ignored apostle, but I believe now she was much more than that. She was the only one who truly “got it.” As such, she does so much for us as women in the church. She restores us to our rightful place, as integral to the church. She gives us something that a virgin mother never can. She gives us a model of real humanness, fully expressed, fully embodied.

I can’t wait to read more of Bourgeault’s work. I believe she has much to teach me about my journey. After reading this book, I believe you will feel the same way.

In the Hands of an Angry God?

Yesterday I was reading blogs, and came across a gem from Christian at Sharp Iron. His post is entitled, Mel Gibson in the Hands of an Angry God. Some of the insights Christian offers were profound and helpful in my ever ongoing quest to understand the mind and motivation of the fundamentalist.

I’ll be summarizing some of his points and expanding upon them, but please do go read his post. It is well worth your time.

Christian has that unique position of having traveled from the far right evangelical to the more moderate middle. He speaks with first hand experience of what it means to be of the “born again” genre. Born again seems to refer in the fundamentalist mind, to one who has surrendered to Christ. And that seems to mean one who has publicly admitted that they belief that Christ is savior, come to earth to die for our sins and through our faith in him, guarantees our eternal life.

Christian ponders how this coincides with who Jesus was as prophet, healer, and revisionist Jew. And he offers, I submit, an excellent rationale for how conservative Christians reconstruct Jesus to fit into their already extant worldview.

He in effect claims that they fail in the born again transformation, merely carrying their inborn anger at “the way things are” over into their new faith. God becomes the avenger of all that they dislike, and Jesus, as he puts it, will return with  wrath upon “those who have it coming.”

In this he provides I believe a big answer to why fundamentalists are the way they are.

Let me explain. First lets look at the concept of being “born again.” Although the Right Wing Christian believes born again refers to “acceptance of Jesus as personal savior” it quite clearly doesn’t mean this at all. Refer to John 3:3-8 wherein Jesus explains what it means. He says that being born again is not belief in him but being reborn (transformed) by the Spirit.

Moreover, the Greek phrase is gennatha anothen.  While it can be translated as “born again,” it is more properly translated as “born from above.” This latter is the translation of the NRSV. Indeed, the KJV (preferred text of fundamentalists) ONLY translates anothen as again in these two verses from John: 3:3 and 3:7. In every other place, the KJV translates the word in some other way.

More to the point, the purpose of being born of Spirit, is to be transformed. And this is where Christian makes his point most strongly. They are not really transformed at all.

 One of the most serious errors that fundamentalists make in their “theology” is to equate the bible as some textbook guide to PERSONAL salvation. It is not that, and never was. It is NOT what Jesus taught.

Sure, Jesus spoke TO people, but his message was not directed toward some personal piety that would guarantee  “salvation to individuals. He spoke, rather, against the prevailing cultural consensus of his time–against the Holiness codes and purity codes and that strict adherence to these was what would save Israel. Rather, he charged that one must have a heart of compassion and love, and by following that, they were imitating the Father’s love and compassion, and THAT would save Israel.

What the fundamentalist gets wrong is he “transforms his conduct from drinking, gambling, whoring, swearing, and all manner of PERSONAL inadequacies and presumed evils, and then goes to church regularly, or at least reads the bible a good deal, and declares to everyone within hearing that they too must do as he has done or they will be condemned.

God is the avenger who will punish those who are not born again, Jesus will judge and consign to Hell all slackers upon his second coming. Nowhere is there a true transformation which causes one to love one’s enemies and  that by “doing  unto the least of these” you do it to me.

War and hatred are not discarded as any fair reading of Jesus’ preaching would entail. Instead, the fundamentalist retains all his angers and hatred for others in the guise as Christian points out, of “righteous indignation” which they happily show you in the New Testament. Indeed the “Cleansing of the Temple” is found in all four gospels. It remains the singular statement of perhaps an angry Jesus.

I say perhaps because there is nothing said about anger at all in the synoptic versions. In Matt. 21:10-17, Mk. 11:11, and Lk. 19:45,  all agree, “he came into the temple and drove out the moneychangers and overturned the tables. Nothing is said about anger. Nor  does John’s version, (thought by many to be the closest to accuracy) Jn. 2: 13-17.

As Christian points out, this event could hardly have been a new thing for Jesus. He had been in the Temple many times. There was nothing new in what was going on there. He could not have been truly angry; rather, he wished to make a point, to get the events of his final days in Jerusalem underway. All texts report that the disturbance got the attention of the high priests and the scribes and Pharisees. It was this that was the final straw, and they determined that his ministry must be stopped lest it gain the upper hand. That fairly seems to have been his motivation.

This I think helps us to understand why right wing Christians maintain that war is a viable means to an end, and indeed seem to be in the forefront of promoting it to secure political ends. It explains why the death penalty finds adherents in this group.

It also I think, explains why social justice issues, fall on deaf ears, as regards them. All too often those on the margins, like those in the time of Jesus, were not good believers. Not good followers of the rules. Condemned by the Pharisees as unclean, as sinful by their conduct or failure to abide by the purity and holiness codes, they were the very folks that Jesus spent their time with. But alas, as we are all to a degree wont to do, we discard that which doesn’t fit our preconceived notions.

The fundamentalist finds fertile ground in the Hebrew Scriptures for an angry, avenging God. They relate to this God who will right all the wrongs they themselves perceive, and they then pervert and subvert the message of Jesus to conform as the returning JUDGE of all.

As Christian points out, this is not transforming, but merely recreating God and Jesus to suit one’s own proclivities. Personal salvation is the only goal, the Kingdom is only about heavenly mansions where we will get to live like the rich finally.

It explains a lot.

Amen.

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