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.