Today the Church commemorates Mary of Magdala, more commonly known as Mary Magdalene.
While often overlooked in comparison to her other male cohorts, Mary is significant, in part, because she is so prominent in the canonical Christian texts, appearing numerous times in the New Testament and in all four gospels: Mt 27.55-56, 61; 28.1; Mk 15.40-41, 47; 16:1, 9; Lk 8.2; 24.10; Jn 19.25; 20.1, 11, 16, 18. According to the New Testament accounts she was a very close companion, so much so that early Christians and some modern scholars suggest more than a subtextual intimacy between her and Jesus.
Mary’s complexity is bound up in multiple contradictions owing both to biblical exegesis, confusion of identities, popular lore, and esoteric traditions. To some she was a woman possessed by wicked spirits, to others a repentant prostitute, for most a model of repentance, yet for all an ideal of the transforming power of God’s grace.
While most contemporary scholarship has long dispensed with the identification of Mary as the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and have discounted her identification as the reformed sinner which became official by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), in popular consciousness these images are so intertwined with her devotion so as to seem inseparable.
From the very beginning, Mary’s presence has been an indictment against the short-sightedness of the patriarchal gaze. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas this results in such a deep tension between her and the Apostle Peter that Jesus is forced to acknowledge in an obliquely misogynistic way that she is just as worthy as the male disciples to enter the kingdom of heaven. This stands equally as true in contemporary Christianity where she has been seen by some as a saint for women’s empowerment.
In medieval Europe, owing to the glosses of Apostolic teachings about Mary, emerge an erotic and mystical tradition of narratives about her wealth, prestige, raw sexuality, and mystical union with Jesus which intertwine pious legend with heretical belief creating a vast tapestry of devotion intersecting all walks of life.
“Istam peccatricem feminam nulli dubium est Mariam fuisse Magdalenam,quae prius quidem exstitit famosa peccatrix,sed postea facta est gloriosa praedicatrix” begins Abbot Geoffrey of Vendome’s sermon,”This woman sinner was certainly none other than Mary Magdalene, who had before been a famous sinner, but afterwards was made a glorious preacher.” By the 12th Century the narrative of Mary’s flight from Jerusalem to France had taken root along with the legend of the Holy Grail.
While it cannot be substantively proven that Mary and Jesus were wed or sexually intimate, it’s in this milieu along with the rise of devotion to the Holy Grail and first oral narratives which would later become Arthurian legend that Mary becomes a figure rivaling the Virgin Mother as “New Eve”. Mary’s arrival in southern France, escorted by the pious Knight Adelelme into a cave in Vézelay mirroring in some respects the enthronement of Venus in Abiegnus in Eschenbach’s Parzival.
Although frequently accompanied by a male companion or guard in the narratives of this time, either Maximin or Adelelme, they aren’t mentioned in any of the contemporary literature or legends of engaging in active ministry and are almost afterthoughts to the focus on Mary’s preaching. What makes this curious brings us back into the realms of heresy and hearsay in medieval France in opposition to the Pauline injunction prohibiting women from preaching.
Between 1209 and 1229 in southern France, tensions growing between king and church had erupted into a war against a pietistic movement who called themselves les Bons Chrétiens (“the Good Christians”) but whom history would remember as the Cathars. The Cathars were a surviving Western sect of gnosticism which had taken root in the fertile valleys of southern France whose religious beliefs stood in stark contrast to the Roman Catholic Church and much of the social structure of the medieval world. Many espoused a form of dualism, rejected the sacraments save baptism and end of life confession, but most importantly believed in radical equality between the sexes.
In this atmosphere, the cult of Mary was weaponized by the Church and state in opposition to the Cathars among whom existed many highly effective women religious leaders called the Parfait or “Perfected Ones.” Though the Cathars were eventually suppressed or eliminated in the genocide which would become known as the First Crusade, the establishment of Mary as doctoris officium had become established – a vindication of Mary’s exceptionality in spite of the Pauline injunction against women preaching.
Stepping into speculation, it is not hard to imagine where Mary Magdalene became a model of devotion in Western Esotericism, albeit in a roundabout way. The pious and contemplative image of the penitent Mary in the cave becomes a unitive ground of eternal wisdom analogous to Plato’s cave analogy and demonstrated in her popularity among monastics. The light of her wisdom and devotion drawing us out of the cave as sophia perennis – eternal wisdom uniting the sacred and profane.
Writing in his Confessions, pansophist and mystic Jacob Boehme would invoke the johannine account of the resurrection as the foundation of our own:
“Christ says to Mary Magdalen in Joseph’s garden at the Sepulchre, after his resurrection, ‘Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my God and to your God’, as if he would say, I have not now the animal body any more, although I show myself to thee in my form or shape whichI had, because otherwise thou in thy animal body couldst not see me.”
Later expounding on this mystery, he continues:
“Behold the mystery of the earth : asthat brings forth so must thou bring forth.The earth is not that body which is broughtforth, but is the mother of that body ; as also thy flesh is not the spirit but is themother of the spirit.”
Mary being the first witness to the light of the resurrected Christ, yet still earthly, then sets the stage for the alchemical process of transformation of divine union and alchemical transformation intimated previously in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. It is also in this careful alembic that we learn an inner mystery of the injunction of “touch me not”, namely observing in prayerful diligence the inner transformation of ourselves within the Grail of Wisdom.
In the 20th Century much has been written both scholarly and in esoteric literature about Mary both contextualizing her role in history and scripture and hyperbolizing her beyond even her presentations in apocryphal literature. Which Mary is Mary, then, becomes just as important as it does in scriptural analysis and, paradoxically, irrelevant as we can walk with her in our own transformations.
Let us pray,
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
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