I.“There is something special about their relationship, something not simply reducible to teacher and devotee, and all attempts to hedge and prevaricate about its nature merely render its energy more palpable. The unspoken bond between them reverberates through even the highly muted accounts in the canonical gospels, while the Nag Hammadi gospels make no bones about naming this energy for what it is. …
With her come the cadences of gentleness and forgiveness, the sounding of that core vibration of love.”
Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity”
II.“Finally at the heart of the Christian mystery there are only two people; this is the mystery of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.”
Michael Haag, “The Quest for Mary Magdalene”
III. “I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me, Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the heart is there is the treasure.”
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
In December 1945 a magnificent archaeological discovery was made, as it often happens entirely by accident: an Arab peasant dug out a jar containing papyrus books bound in leather. They were the Gnostic Gospels, buried in the desert by early church authorities, ready to see the light of day only in the twentieth century. Although they were written around the time or possibly a little earlier than the four canonical gospels, they were deemed so dangerous that somebody decided to make them disappear for centuries. They unveiled a hidden face of Christianity, namely its connections with Eastern mystical traditions, and a crucial role of women in early church; furthermore, they criticized the concept of virgin birth and bodily resurrection as stemming from a tendency to misconstrue what is symbolic and inner as literal and outer. But arguably the most sensational content of those apocryphal texts was related to the role of Mary Magdalene. The shocking lines of the Gospel of Philip (described as a Tantric gospel) read:
“. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as (I love) her?’”
Some Biblical scholars have argued, however, that this is nothing new, as the extraordinarily special role of Mary Magdalene can be gleaned from the canonical gospels if read devoid of years of orthodox prejudice. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and a mystic, lays a convincing claim that the four canonical gospels, if read inquisitively, make a strong case for Mary Magdalene’s special role. She was the first witness of the resurrection and the first one to announce it in public. Before Jesus died she anointed him with priceless perfume that she brought in an alabaster jar. By performing this ritual she recognized him as the Messiah (the Anointed One):
“Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Moreover, all four gospels portray her in the role of “apostle to the apostles,” not only the first witness to the resurrection, but the first to announce it publicly. Bourgeault makes a firm claim that she was first among the apostles, as the one who fully got the message and was able to reach a spiritual realization unavailable to the other followers. She is consistently portrayed as the one who “knows”, as the one who has reached the true gnosis:
“It is not just a knowing from the head; it’s a knowing with the entire being. The Hebrew term which it translates is da’ath, which is also the word used for “lovemaking” (as in “David entered Bathsheba’s tent and ‘knew’ her”). Gnosis speaks of a complete, integral knowing uniting body, mind, and heart—and by its very largeness connecting the seen and the unseen.”
True Gnosis comes from the heart; it is as much of the body as of the mind. According to Bourgeault, the central message of Jesus, which was profoundly understood and embodied by Mary Magdalene, is a blending of “incarnational and Platonic elements,” “a profoundly incarnational, warm-hearted, and hopeful path, where the realms support and interpenetrate each other and divine fullness is accessed simply by keeping the heart in natural alignment with its invisible prototype.” Bourgeault goes on to suggest that early Christianity was not in the least bit ascetic. Most of the Apostles were married, including St Peter, the first Pope, and it just stands to reason that so was Jesus. He was certainly at ease with women, contrary to the customs and taboos of his time. In a famous passage in the Gospel of John, he speaks with a woman from Samaria drawing water from a well. He converses with to her on equal terms though he is a male Jew, which for his contemporaries offered enough reasons to ignore her. But his message was about openness and inclusiveness. Further, all that Jesus taught seems to contradict the idea of celibacy, which, as Bourgeault points out, is connected with “conserving, collecting, concentrating,” its shadow side being avarice, storing up, withholding, not sharing of one’s essence. Bourgeault concludes:
“By contrast, the path that Jesus himself seems to teach and model in his life, and particularly in his death, is not a storing up but a complete pouring out. His pranic energy is quickly depleted; on the cross, as all four gospel accounts affirm, he does not hold out even until sunset, but quickly “gives up the ghost.” Shattered and totally spent, he simply disappears into his death. The core icon of the Christian faith, the watershed moment from which it all emerges, is not enstatic but ecstatic—love completely poured out, expended, squandered.”
In his fascinating book The Quest For Mary Magdalene, the historian Michael Haag carefully analyzes all New Testament passages where she appears. He offers an illuminating analysis of her name, which means “the migdal, the tower, the beacon, the saving light in the darkness.” Jesus was fond of giving special names to his followers, and thus he called Simon Peter the rock upon which he will build his church (Greek petros – rock), and Mary Magdalene he named the tower that shines in darkness.
She was an independent, perhaps aristocratic woman of means, who chose to support Jesus and his movement. According to the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene may have been a sister of Lazarus, at least this is the conclusion drawn by Haag in his book. Haag writes that together with her brother she may have been helping finance Jesus’s ministry and opened their home in Bethany to him and his followers. It is important to point out that nowhere in any of the gospels is she referred to as sinful or a prostitute. She was made into one by Pope Gregory I in a sermon he delivered in the 6th century. This is clarified very carefully by Haag:
“MARY MAGDALENE FIRST APPEARS in the chronology of Jesus’ life in Galilee where she is travelling with Jesus as he proclaims the kingdom of God. ‘And the twelve were with him’, writes Luke in his gospel, ‘and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities’. Among these women three are mentioned by name, and the first is Mary Magdalene, ‘out of whom went seven devils.’
There is a popular misconception, which was first promoted by the Church in the early medieval period, that Mary Magdalene’s condition had something to do with sin. But this is plainly not true. Wherever Jesus is driving out devils the gospels are clear that he is healing people of their illnesses, mental and physical.”
Was there conspiracy intended to write Mary Magdalene out of early history of Christianity? Admittedly, the new hierarchy was becoming increasingly male, and soon women were banned from being ordained as priests. It seems that old prejudices against women were not ready to go away, despite what Jesus had taught and practiced. St Paul, the apostle who never met the historical Jesus, completely ignores Mary Magdalene in all of his fourteen books included in the New Testament. He does not mention Jesus’s mother, either. According to Haag, Paul chose to ignore the historical Jesus and focused entirely on spreading the new faith with its main message of Resurrection.
But Mary Magdalene’s name lived on in legends. In the Middle Ages she was called the light-bearer,and she was especially venerated in France, where she was believed to have travelled after Jesus’s death. Vézelay in Burgundy has a Romanesque cathedral dedicated to her, Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence a cave where she supposedly spent years repenting her sins and performing miracles. The French chapter was made famous thanks to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which was based on the famous book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It claimed that Mary Magdalene’s children with Jesus intermarried with the noble French families, leading to the birth of the Merovingian dynasty.
She continued to fascinate the greatest minds of the Renaissance. Next to the famous Last Supper, which may feature her as a companion of Jesus, a portrait of Mary Magdalene has been identified as done by Leonardo da Vinci as well:
“This bare-breasted Mary Magdalene has recently been identified as a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, done in about 1515. The exposed breasts associate her with the goddess Venus and also suggest that she is preparing to consummate her marriage. She is entirely frank about her sensuality; her smile is a promise, and soon her fingers will let her robe fall away entirely. There is not an ounce of sin or repentance in this Mary Magdalene.”
For the Gnostics, Mary Magdalene, “Our Lady in Red,” played a very central role. They believed that she reached salvation through gnosis, which is, in the words of Tau Malachi, “the product of a direct spiritual or mystical experience of the Truth that illuminates and liberates the soul.” While Christ embodied the Logos, she was the Sophia. There exists a Gnostic legend in which Mary Magdalene is promised as a bride to a wealthy Babylonian merchant. On her way to Babylon she gets raped and sold to slavery and prostitution. She is trapped in Babylon. As Bourgeault summarizes:
“After a time she managed to regain her outer freedom, but inwardly she was still held hostage by hatred, rage, and darkness. At length a dream came to her telling her that she must return to the land of her birth and seek out the Anointed One, who would deliver her. She left immediately for the Holy Land, crossed the Jordan River, and found her way to the place where he was teaching.”
According to Malachi, the Gnostics believe that one of the demons that possessed her soul at those dark times was Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who refused to be submissive to him. Malachi writes:
“When the Lord banished the seven demons from Magdalene, he did not banish Lilith. Rather, receiving the Holy Bride, he redeemed Lilith and Eve, and in Lady Mary, womanhood was restored to its rightful place, for in her was the Divine fullness of the Supernal Woman. … She is the consort of God and mistress of the dragon. In her holy breath is the power of creation and destruction.”
Her feast in the Catholic church is on 22 July, which is when the Sun enters the sign of its rulership – Leo. A woman of vision, inspired directly by Jesus, she bypassed all hierarchy and still continues to shatter all dogmas. She seems to combined wisdom with the gentleness and compassion of love and the fierceness of wild passion. As Sophia (Anima Mundi – the World Soul) she stands as an intermediary between the upper world and the lower world, fueling the flames of the inner vision of the heart.
BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – Mary Magdalene http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0717j1r
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, Kindle edition
Michael Haag, The Quest for Mary Magdalene, Kindle edition
Tau Malachi, St Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride, Kindle edition
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels