Yesterday was the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. In honor of her day, I’m reposting a sermon that was preached by the Rev. Heidi Neumark of Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan. We can start dismantling patriarchy by dismantling the smear campaign begun in the early church which identified Mary as a “sinful women,” i.e. prostitute. This is Mary’s #MeToo moment.
You can also watch a video of Pastor Neumark’s sermon here.
Two weeks ago, during day camp, one of our counselors was walking down the sidewalk past the parking garage and health center entrance with a group of children when she was cat-called. She stopped and asked not to be spoken to like that and even more so, not in front of campers. The man called her an f-ing b.
This young woman is an amazing person. She has overcome many odds with grace and grit. She is creative, talented and resilient. You may not know her, but we at Trinity are deeply indebted to her, She is carrying on part of our ministry this summer. She is sharing God’s grace in word and action with dozens of children in day camp, in the name of Jesus, and also in our name, representing this church. But all this man saw was a female body to objectify. And then when challenged, to try to denounce and degrade.
Last Sunday before church, Vicar Sarah was standing outside and a group of men came by. Men who appeared to be around 5 or 6 decades older than Vicar Sarah. They stopped and one of them commented on her appearance. It was leering and suggestive in a subtle way. I’m certain that if challenged, he would have said something like, “Can’t you take a compliment?” Putting the blame on her. But unless you are in a friendship or intimate relationship such comments have no place in public. None.
I know that young women clergy face this all the time. Comments about their hair, their body, their clothing, their appearance and they don’t want to hear it. They want, and deserve, to be recognized and noticed for their preaching, their teaching, their caring, their leadership, their ideas- not their bodies. Not their sexuality. No matter how it is intended, and some intentions may be good but misinformed, it ends up being degrading. You don’t go through 4 years of college, and 3 years of graduate school, and many hours of supervised hospital ministry, and a year of part-time field work and a year of full-time internship because of your hair cut or your bra size or fashion choice any other physical attribute that another person may or may not find attractive.
Of course, this happens in many fields of work, not just church work, but it definitely does happen in church work. Even here, it has happened, multiple times over the years. Not in a grossly aggressive way, but in ways that still create discomfort and distress. Yes, there may be times when complimenting someone on their appearance is well-received, but sadly, for a woman in ministry, especially a young woman who already faces multiple prejudices about authority and competence, just don’t do it. Ever. Never. Compliment a sermon. Compliment a caring moment you noticed. Compliment her worship leadership. Just leave appearance out of it.
I bring this up today because it’s July 22 and July 22 is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a leader in the early church- a female leader who endured an onslaught of catcalling, objectification and degradation that continues on and on and on even centuries after her death.
So who was Mary Magdalene? Let’s start with the Bible. She is called Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdala, not after her father or husband, but her hometown. I saw Magdala when I visited Israel. It is a thriving fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that’s still there today. It was Mary’s hometown, so she is Mary of Magdala.
In lists of women who accompany Jesus in his ministry, Mary Magdalene is always named first. She is described as part of a group of women healed by Jesus. In her case, we’re told that Jesus cast out seven demons from her. In most cases in the NT, such casting out of demons is related to what we would consider to be a mental illness. In any case, she recovered. Jesus healed Mary and she followed him and supported him.
Mary Magdalene is named first among women as being present at Jesus’ crucifixion, holding vigil after the disciples have run away though in all fairness to them, they were in more danger of arrest.
In all four gospels, she is named first as being at the tomb on Easter with other women or alone. The identity of the other women vary depending on who tells the story, but Mary Magdalene is always there and always first. She is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection and she is the first to go and tell the good news of Easter. Mary Magdalene is the first preacher of Easter. This is remarkable given the dominant attitudes toward women at the time, the fact that women’s testimony was viewed as invalid, so if it were possible to erase the leading role of these women of Easter, it would have been done. The fact that they are remembered as first-hand witnesses of the central event of Christianity and that Mary Magdalene is first among them carries lasting historical power. And because this challenged patriarchal power structures it was threatening as the church became more structured. And so the smear campaign against Mary Magdalene begins. Some looked at the gospel of Luke and noticed that just before he introduces Mary Magdalene, he tells the story about a nameless woman who comes to a house where Jesus is visiting with an alabaster jar of ointment. She bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her long hair and kisses his feet and anoints them with ointment. The Bible says that Jesus forgave her many sins. It says nothing about demons cast out. Nothing about prostitution. It’s just assumed that if this woman had many sins and had cash to buy expensive ointment, well, she must have been a prostitute. Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned many times is not named here. If this was her, there is no reason not to name her. Except that it was not her.
But since the next paragraph is where Luke introduces the Mary Magdalene and the women following Jesus, Mary Magdalene is identified as the sinful women. Since one story is next to the other story, why it must be the same person. Guilt by association. Discredit this Easter witness by bringing up a steamy past, a past that wasn’t even her past.
The literal cat-calling began in earnest in the 6th century with pope Gregory the Great. He preached a series of not-so-great sermons on Mary Magdalene where she is described in lurid detail as a temptress and a prostitute. I share one brief passage from one of his sermons because his words have had a huge impact down to today.
“It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”
Thus Mary of Magdala, who was a leader among the community of Jesus followers, became, as one person put it: “the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.”
Even though the Roman Catholic Church said in 1969 that Pope Gregory was mistaken in portraying Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, the popular imagination has stuck with this make-believe portrayal and not only Roman Catholics. This invented version of the sultry Mary Magdalene will be touring the nation starting in the fall of 2019 in Jesus Christ Superstar. Probably the most well-known song of this show is: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” where Mary croons: I’ve had so many men before. In very many ways, he’s just one more” It’s great entertainment, at least when Sara Barellis sings the part, for which she got a well-deserved Emmy nomination. In fact, Jesus Christ Superstar got 13 Emmy nominations, which is great for the show but kinda sad for the real Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene stood outside of expected female roles for her time. She was not married. She is not identified by her father or spouse. She did not depend on male protection, in fact, she appears to have independent means to support Jesus’ ministry, as Luke’s gospel tells us. Her key identity is as a woman transformed by her encounters with Jesus- the healing she experienced that drew her to follow and support him, her presence at the key moments of his death and resurrection and her role as the very first witness of Easter, the founding event for the church. After the stone was rolled away, the voice who got the good news rolling belonged to Mary. “I have seen the Lord,” that’s Mary’s clapback that has echoed down through the centuries to us.
As important a theologian as Thomas Aquinas (not known for his feminism) called her “An Apostle to the Apostle.” But this opened roles and authority to women that the church was not ready for, so people tried to stuff her back into safe and familiar roles.
She is variously described as Jesus’ concubine, lover, or wife. The focus is on her sexual and private, emotional intimacy with Jesus. Scholars linger over titillating questions. How far did their relationship go? Were they “just friends?” Were they lovers? Did they get married and have a baby as the Da Vinci Code supposes? This would cause no scandal at the time the Bible was written so there would be no need to hide it if it were true. But in any case, it makes no difference.
Women can have sex and lead churches. Women can have babies and lead churches. Women can be married or single and bear witness to Jesus’ death and rising up. And they do. But directing our attention to her sex life, (a sex life we know nothing about) tries to distract us from her powerful, authoritative leadership. We are prodded to be peeping toms at her bedroom window – or bordello- instead of recognizing her brave testimony- “I have seen the Lord!” And by the way, let’s not linger at the bedroom window of interns and seminarians. Let’s not ask about their personal life, ie do they have a boy friend or a girl friend? Are they having sex? If they choose to share that information with you, great. But don’t ask. It’s been a loaded, distracting question for centuries. The real question that matters is “Do you know Jesus?”
For some, diverting of attention to Mary’s personal life was not enough to erase her authority and silence her voice. According to the Gospel of Thomas, which we don’t have in the Bible, “Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life.” In other words, get rid of her. She’s not worthy of being an apostle, a leader like us, shut her down and shut her up “for women are not worthy of the life.”. But then according to the gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males.” If cat-calling and turning her into a redeemed whore while still objectifying her temptress body doesn’t make a dent in her leadership, well, then she will have to be stripped of all female attributes to become a man. In which case her witness will be acceptable. She’s either bound to a male-fantasy of exaggerated, whorish femininity or stripped of her gender altogether.
But nowhere in the bible does Jesus do any of this. He liberates Mary Magdalene, he frees her to be her full and true self and he accepts her and honors her for who she is. He welcomes her support. When the risen Jesus appears to her on Easter in John’s gospel, he calls her name- Mary! not to draw her into a private embrace but to send her forth as a public witness of hope. And despite all the mis-labeling and cat-calling and abusive, demeaning talk against her, that’s just what Mary Magdalene does. “I have seen the Lord” she proclaims, her explosive clapback that rocked the world and sent ripples down through the centuries that touch, even us, the beneficiaries of her witness, in church today.
Take heart, her witness says. Whether you are female, male or gender queer. Do people mis-label you? Judge you? Try to bury you in their prejudices and small-mindedness? Do people objectify you to gratify their own desire for control and domination? Do you hear voices that question your capacity, including those internal voices of internalized anxiety and shame and being less-than? Those voices do not come from God. Ever. It happened to Jesus too. Jesus knows what it’s like and as Jesus came to free Mary Magdalene, Jesus comes to free you and me. As he called Mary Magdalene, Jesus calls you… by name. To shake off whatever it is you need to shake off and to clap back with hope, clap back with love, clap back with joy.
It turns out that the real Mary Magdalene did know how to love him.