God seems determined to put our fears to rest.
In so many encounters with us, God's first order of business has been to calm our fears.
So spoke the angel to the shepherds; so spoke Jesus to Peter on the waters.
God never had to say that to Mary Magdalene, regardless of the potential for paralyzing fear that underlay every one of her actions that is recorded in the Gospel of John.
She stood boldly through the crucifixion; then moved boldly through the night, boldly into the cemetery, boldly into the tomb, boldly into the face of the gardener, boldly beyond the fact that the living man that she beheld was the same man that she had watched die, and boldly with her commissioned message into the faces of the male disciples.
This witness is remarkable, made even more remarkable by comparison with the actions of Peter during the same time frame.
Despite countless admonitions to shun fear, love his neighbor and not stand in the way of Jesus’ destiny, Peter raised his sword against those who threatened the life of Jesus, and, in a fit of impotent anger, sliced off the ear of a servant; he lurked around the shadows of a courtyard in fear of discovery, a fear that led him to deny Jesus three times; then, having been told to go forth, he went, like Jonah, the other way and resumed his career as a fisherman, causing Jesus to call him forth once more.
It would seem clear that Mary Magdalene had attained a level of understanding that Peter had either overlooked, forgotten or never completely learned.
In comparing these accounts, and in consideration of other issues, the inevitable question has been raised.
Who is the true successor of Jesus?
Is it Peter? Or is it Mary Magdalene?
On the side of Peter, we have his traditional primacy in church tradition, based on the proclamation by Jesus that he was the “rock” on which the assembly would be built.
On the side of Mary Magdalene, we have her concrete support for Jesus’ ministry and her fearless and nimble dance through the events surrounding his death and resurrection.
If we apply the ancient test of discipleship, we seek to discern the imitation of Christ.
If we consider that fearless and nimble dance, Peter suffers by comparison; for, in the manner of Jesus, she moved through that night as the only light in the darkness; she moved without fear through the shadow of the valley of death.
You will know a tree by it’s fruit.
If we apply a more contemporary frame of mind, we need not be deterred by the proclamation of Peter as the “rock”.
For movements are built on the positive, negative or mixed actions of a particular individual’s behavior. They provide affirmation, contrast or struggle.
They may be a foundation.
But they need not imply leadership.
If we apply an ancient test for prophetic succession, we must consider this fact.
The light of the resurrection fell first upon her, and she was charged with the task of communicating that revelation.
She holds the primacy of the revelation of the resurrection.
Yet, with all due respect for the blood that has been spilled over the issue of succession, I am not convinced that it is the apt question.
With all due respect for those whose faith, denominational loyalty or passion for the Christ depend upon this issue, I am not convinced that it is the burning question.
To those who want to reopen the question, I would say:
Are you sure that you want to go there?
Are you sure that you want to accept that context?
Are you sure that you want to step into that box?
That box may be another booth.
First we wanted judges, so that they could settle our disputes.
And God sighed, and said okay.
Then we wanted kings, so that we could be like other peoples.
And God sighed, and said okay.
Then we wanted a successor to Jesus, so that we could do…what?
Follow the pagan fashion of government, which was the model of civil rule in nominally Christian countries for the following millennium and beyond?
Perhaps God still sighs, whether we proclaim Peter as successor by tradition, or Mary Magdalene as successor by marriage or prophetic lineage, or any of their supposed children as successors by bloodlines.
“The last will be first and the first will be last.”
Is that the description of an established order turned upside-down?
Or is it the description of a seamless circle?
A circle with no hierarchy, no top or bottom.
An imitation of he who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, completeness unto himself.
I am reminded of the words of Paul.
Perhaps we are, altogether, a complete body, with no part superior to another.
I am inclined to think that the witnesses of Mary Magdalene and Peter are not antagonistic, but complementary.
It may be that these uniquely detailed accounts of forty hours in the lives of two of Jesus’ companions were intended to incite thought, comparison and understanding.
On the one hand, there is Peter.
Rarely has a person of such stature left a legacy that is so rich in embarrassing detail.
What can one say about a man of righteous anger who, consumed by zeal for his father’s son, raised his sword and sliced off the ear of a servant? Who else could see a manifestation of Abraham, Moses and Jesus and think of building a booth for them? Who else could be called the “rock” and then proceed to bicker about who would be first in the kingdom?
Those are the kinds of things that we do every day.
In these situations and in many others, Peter is the mirror of our failings.
On the other hand, we have Mary Magdalene.
She who passes the tests for understanding, discipleship and prophetic succession.
She who has been largely overlooked by history, even though her story stands in plain sight.
She who stands in contrast to the Petrine way of doing business.
She who had such a fine degree of response to the needs of the moment that she had no time to stop and build a booth to Jesus in the garden, no time to find fault with the men for their cowardice, and no time to be so besotted with her favor that she would begin to bark orders to others, and so, acquire a pedigree of leadership.
She is the mirror of our aspirations.
How much better it would be if we could simply call ourselves Christians.
But that title communicates…what?
Christianity is defined almost exclusively by the Petrine tradition.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that we have been hobbled, for two millennia, by bickering, power-struggles, anger, fear and cowardice.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that we are known for these things.
Should we seek refuge in a cynicism that says that these negatives are simply aspects of all things human?
Not when we know that they are in the character of our founders.
So, too, is the dismissal of all that is not us.
The builders of booths are the builders of walls.
Assuming anew the ancient mantles of the Judges, the leaders of this tradition, regardless of denomination, have arrogated to themselves the only known expression of Christianity.
They have arrogated to themselves the right to stand in judgment over the quick and the dead.
And, in laying down judgments, these people have separated Christians from other Christians, Christians from other people, people from themselves, and even, I daresay, people from Christ.
Christianity, as we know it and as it is known, communicates exclusion.
I do not.
I do not deny the witness of Peter, for he speaks to a part of all of us.
At my best, I acknowledge and accept the darkness of my worst follies.
But I pray that I do not act simply to avoid failure.
For, in his two commandments, Jesus did not use negative language.
He did not tell us what we should not do.
He told us what we should do.
He told us to love God and one another.
Love accepts all things…
But such a model has not been afforded by tradition, nor by traditional power structures, nor by the males, who built both the tradition and the power structure.
I seek illumination, not proscription.
I seek example, not the imposition of harsh burdens.
I seek an aspiration.
An aspiration that may be more important than any successor whom we may choose to crown.
For just one whit of her character.
I post new articles twice-monthly in "Author's Corner".
If you live in or near the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and you would be interested in meeting with others for discussion or prayer, please contact me at email@example.com. All are welcome, regardless of identity or personal choices. Please understand that I do not have the resources to guarantee that I will be able to read or respond to all other correspondence.
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Rob Wright holds advanced degrees in education and performing arts, and he has been a professional teacher for over sixteen years. In his home tradition, he has served as a lay minister in liturgical, educational and ecumenical activities. He lives in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire with his spouse of twenty years and their daughter.