Well, of course, like most of us influenced by Western Christian culture, I was horribly misled. Historically speaking, Mary Magdalene was never a repentant sex worker or a person taken up by the particular demons which had been attributed to her. She was not the mixed up cocktail of Rice and Lloyd Webber’s creativity who had ‘had so many men before.’ All of that false sexualising, is the product of Western, mainly sexual, mainly hetero male, obsessions, It was based, particularly from the middle ages, on the unfortunate linking of Mary Magdalene with both Mary of Bethany and the sinful womand who anointed Jesus in the Gospels. This has long been left behind by serious scholars. Yet it is a powerful set of interpretations to alter. In fact, in 1969, before Jesus Christ Superstar was written, the Roman Catholic Church officially removed such ideas from its official calendar and prayers. Nonetheless they continue to hold sway with many, embedded as they are in our culture. As recently as 2011 for example, Lady Gaga wrote the song Judas, with Mary, singing, in the very misleading traditional way, ‘In the most Biblical sense/ I am beyond repentance/ Fame hooker, prostitute wench’
Today we may be moving on, if slowly. Thus the recent film Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in the title role, certainly took us beyond the repentant sex worker trope. It also rightly rejected another set of beguiling, but historically more than dubious, fantasies, such as the idea of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife. Yet that artistic portrayal was also badly flawed, not only in its slowness and solemnity, but in its isolation of Mary Magdalene as a peculiar woman among women. For Mary’s significance is much more about how she connects with us all. Both in what we know in the canonical scriptures, and in subsequent tradition, she speaks to us all about God’s transforming of silence, suppression, and stigma.
Silence is the first thing. Have you ever shared a profound truth and reality and not been believed? Transgender people face this every day. We’re even made to go to see psychs of various kinds to prove our truth and story. So Mary Magdalene still speaks to me profoundly. For the Gospels and Christian Tradition are clear that she was the first to speak of the Resurrection. Yet she was not believed. Men either denied her experience or had to go to confirm the story. Don’t we see this thing played out again and again today, as the experiences of so many women, LGBTI+, and other marginalised people are ignored, even though they bear messages of hope and new life for others too?
Secondly, this is because of suppression. For Mary Magdalene herself, this started very early in the Christian story. Read St Paul’s account of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, where he completely disregards her. She is simply erased, presumably because she was a woman. As such, her witness was not trustworthy, to Paul or the people to whom he was writing. So again Mary Magdalene speaks to me profoundly, but in new ways. She represents so many Christian, and other, voices and lives – gay, transgender, and so many more – which continue to be suppressed, and even erased, today. Revaluing Mary Magdalene is therefore to undo misuse of power and marginalisation and, to use Dr Steven Ogden’s words, to re-imagine ‘the Church as an Open Space of Freedom’.
Thirdly, Mary Magdalene’s story is a tale of how stigma works and is applied. Interestingly, the Eastern Church never bought into her sexual stigmatisation, though, of course, it has its own difficulties with acknowledging that which is female as fully sacred. For what is crucial in Mary’s story is not to read into it our own ideas, fantasies or needs, about her. We are told in the Gospels for example that Mary had as many as seven demons, which may mean that she was wholly in some kind of psycho-spiritual bondage until Jesus freed her. That these demons were seen as sexual however is more a reflection of the demons inside those who gave us those interpretations. Instead, it might be much better today to understand those seven demons as the things which chain so much of our world down: the demons of racism, sexism, homophobia & transphobia, of xenophobia, religious intolerance, economic injustice, and the exploitation of the Earth itself.
Mary Magdalene continues to offer us a way forward out of all these things, through the grace and action of God in us. For what is the turning point in the Resurrection for Mary? At first she comes with fear, and it worsens when she sees the empty tomb. Even, in John’s Gospel, when Jesus first speaks, she is still lost. Then it all changes when Jesus speaks her name. That is the key. When we know our true name – when we hear God call us, just as we are – whatever stigma the world, or church, applies to us, we are set free; whatever suppression begins to be lifted; whatever silence is ended. So let us listen for that word. For God believes us. God wants us to thrive and flourish. God loves us more than we can ever know. May the new life Mary Magdalene be received and shared be with us all. Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for the feast of Mary Magdalene, 22 July 2018
(and the first anniversary of public coming out as a transgender person)