We see through the clouds of tradition, you and I, as we parse through the fragments of fragile papyrus that would connect us with the living, breathing reality of Jesus. We can hardly do otherwise, for they are glued together by the sheer effort of centuries of scholars and authorities, the best of whom have tried, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to discern authenticity from pretense.
We see through the clouds of our own histories, you and I, as we try to look anew at passages that we have heard a hundred times; at passages that have become grim rote, descanted in the hushed air of our churches; the substance of countless recitations and sermons.
These traditions and these histories color our understanding of these fragments.
More importantly, they prioritize the importance of them.
And so, as in times before, the obvious may be hidden in plain sight, overlooked as we scan by pure habit.
Until such time as we are brought face-to-face with a rip in the fabric.
Until such time as we are brought face-to-face with our well-earned reputation for lovelessness.
We, the followers of Jesus Christ.
He, the author of the two commandments to love.
Anyone may make the accusation.
But what brings the conviction? What makes it stick?
Our sense of common decency?
Our conscience, which, despite tradition, may be the call of the Holy Spirit?
In either case, we may well cast about for what’s missing.
I believe that Mary Magdalene was the most remarkable companion of Jesus Christ.
I believe that the Gospel of John provides ample support for this position.
I may look farther afield for more evidence, but I need look no farther afield.
The book recounts eight specific actions that she undertook.
One of these actions was a response to a direct request; the remainder were the result of creative optioning.
In those cases, she did not merely choose between alternatives.
She moved past alternatives. She stepped outside the box.
I would suggest that any one of these actions would require more strength than many of us would be willing to volunteer.
At any step of the way, many of us would have chosen, like Jonah, to head the other way.
She did not so chose.
Even though these were particularly hazardous paths for a woman.
While a male might have quailed at any one of her actions, her vulnerability was enhanced by her female identity.
1. She supported the ministry of Jesus through her own resources.
2. She watched him die. For hours. In graphic detail.
The following events occurred in rapid sequence:
3. She traveled by night to the cemetery. She faced the same dangers that would confront any solitary traveler, whether in city streets or on country roads.
4. She entered the cemetery. Particular superstitions change, but I have no reason to think that the level of anxiety changes. Cemeteries were the abode of unclean spirits. And, perhaps, no-less-dangerous living things.
5. She looked into the tomb. She expected to find the natural results of thirty-six hours of death. Not so. Undeterred, she moved on.
6. She confronted the figure that she believed was a gardener. A solitary woman, vulnerable in the early morning hours. She not only confronted him, but she demanded answers.
7. She recognized Jesus and then immediately greeted him. She carried with her the vivid memory of his death. Undeterred, she brushed past it and moved on.
8. She carried Jesus’ message to the disciples. All of whom had, by societal fiat, authority over her. Some of whom had been bickering, perhaps recently, over who would
be first in the Kingdom. Any of whom could have become instantly resentful of this “privileged“ encounter. Some of whom would so distrustful of her story that they would
race to the tomb to see for themselves.
Most, if not all, of these options required her to face down women’s fears. But are they completely inaccessible to men? To them I say: As you walk down that dark alley, or hike that back country alone, what are your fears?
This narrative affords the most detailed account of forty hours in the life of one of Jesus’ companions.
In the extent of detail, it is comparable only to the narratives concerning Peter’s actions during the same time-frame.
But it is a different story.
We revere Peter, rightfully, for he connects with all of our failings, particularly our fear, our anger and our cowardice.
Our traditional thinking indicates that if Peter is dear to Jesus, then there may be hope for us.
And that is the spiritual state in which most of our traditional thinking leaves us.
But if we can step outside of the box of traditional thinking, and look at the Gospel account with clearer eyes, we may find a parallel story of great importance.
For Mary Magdalene’s strength was completely remarkable.
Depending upon our perspective, some of us may say that she had great fiber.
Others of us may say that she had an unusual gifting from God.
But no matter how we phrase it, who, in the Gospels, can be compared to her?
She traveled alone, undeterred by any fear of men, whether living or dead.
She traveled alone, undeterred by any fear of strangers, thieves, rapists, or demons.
In so doing, she found herself present at the defining moment of Jesus’ ministry.
She was the first witness to the resurrection.
Those of us who profess to believe in an omnipotent God cannot claim that this was an accidental occurrence.
If such is the case, then why does she not rival Peter in the prevailing tradition?
There are many possible answers to this question.
Some people, speaking from a more spiritual perspective, might compare her to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who forsook more visible tasks in order to spend time with Jesus.
Some people, speaking from a more feminist perspective, might say that she was overwhelmed by an all-male tradition that left no room for giving credit to a woman.
Some people, speaking from a hard-headed business perspective, might say that she was the discredited victim of a power-play; for while she clearly put it on the line while everybody else was off the radar, no one knows about it. Besides, everyone knows that the best way to discredit a woman is to perpetually celebrate her as a whore.
Personally speaking, I believe that all three of these explanations are credible.
And I offer one more.
The charism of Mary Magdalene lies in the way that she responded so readily, rapidly and lithely to the cascade of events that surrounded the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Her actions were the living reality of a living stone, unconcerned with pride of place or documentation.
She became the salt, as well as the yeast that causes the whole mass to rise.
But she built no monuments and left no visible product.
And that is so alien to our way of identifying great figures.
It is so alien to our way of identifying great figures even as Christians.
Most of us are resigned to lives of quiet anonymity as Christians, hoping to lead simply by example.
But it is our peculiar eccentricity that we do not expect the same from our leaders.
And so, to our way of thinking, she will always suffer by comparison with Peter.
Since the days of the pagans, we have believed that great strength requires great monuments. Great heroes require epic poems, building projects or, at least, some imposing record of their deeds.
After the event, they may be expected to fill shelves with their reflections.
Perhaps a book of authorized canon scripture.
She is a uniquely Jesus style of hero.
Don’t worry about provisioning.
Don’t worry about acceptance.
Don’t worry about fame.
Don’t worry about who’s on first.
Just do it.
Then move on to the next thing.
And no fear.
If we discover nothing more about Mary Magdalene, this will suffice for me.
In my first and second articles, I referred to the Gospel of John in expressing my belief that she was lead by love, the greatest of the virtues, rather than by faith or hope.
In other articles, I have presented an elliptical view of things that reaches for a Magdalene perspective.
Elliptical, perhaps, for Mary Magdalene is outside the box.
Build no booths. Erect no monuments in stone or word. Seize the moment. Respond lovingly to the devastation of death. Glorify no principle that defies love. Embrace a call to love, even if we are broken by the limits of our nature.
Why do I proclaim Mary Magdalene?
I wish her strength and example for my daughter.
I wish her strength and example for all of the women whom I cherish.
I wish her strength and example for all of us, female and male alike.
Like Peter, I need solace for my failings.
But--dear God!--is that the defining image of our human identity?
Balance out the failings. Balance out the death-chill of winter. Balance out the dark and the tears.
With something done right; with a blast of summer; with a lamp unto our feet.
And dance through the night.
She is a uniquely Jesus style of hero.
And everything about her witness carries his scent.
And for her witness, in this and every season, I give thanks.
I publish 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome, regardless of identity or personal choices.
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Toward Dawn is a privately-funded outreach, and it neither solicits nor accepts contributions.
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.