(Repost) The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

My sincere thanks to Jennifer Campaniolo at Shambhala Publishing for sending me a copy of The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity.

First let me start out by saying, that this was not quite what I expected. I assumed it would be a scholarly biography of one of Christianity’s most enigmatic women. It certainly is that. But I expected it to be along the lines of a general work using the accepted tools of hermeneutics in examining the texts of the Gospel accounts of the New Testament.

That it was not quite, though it certainly examined all the pertinent texts thoroughly. However, much of Cynthia Bourgeault’s work delves into the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” of Mary, Thomas, Peter and Philip. These were more or less known to the powers that decided the canon, but were omitted largely because they spoke of a more transcendent and ephemeral Jesus and his teachings. They were “gnostic” and heretical, having lost the battle to the growing “orthodoxy” of the Roman Church.

Rev. Bourgeault crafts with great care and precision her hypothesis that Jesus and Mary were “soul mates,” certainly lovers, although she doesn’t claim they were physical lovers, although she finds no reason why they may not have been.

She finds in Jesus a Nazarite, much like John the Baptist, but one who gave up the ascetic life, the life of denial, to move to the path of “singleness” where kenotic love became the center of his being. This self-giving or self-emptying attitude was one that he taught Mary and it is what allowed them to transcend his death on the cross. Their unitive love, whether physical or celibate, enabled them to reach the fullness of being human. It is this towards what his teachings point.

It is this message that Jesus sought to teach his disciples. It is what Mary learned, making her the foremost of all the disciples.

It is Bourgeault’s contention that the Gospel of John in the canon is perhaps the most clear about understanding Jesus truest teaching. She argues that the Mary of Bethany is in fact Mary Magdalene, or at least created to expouse upon some of her qualities. She would claim that many of the Marys in the Gospel accounts, or I should say many of the women (the woman at the well for instance) are also created composites of Magdalene qualities.

The reason why the Magdalene is so “hidden” in this way is simply because it became increasingly impossible for a patriarchial and male dominated church to accept that a woman had been the closed companion of Christ. It was unseemly to a church that slowly but surely hide sex behind a heavy door, and made chastity the only possible “pure” expression of “the Way.”

If you have ever read the gnostics, as I have, you undoubtedly were quite puzzled. They read more like Eastern mystical works. We are unfamiliar with the words and their meanings.

Cynthia Bourgeault, with patience and deep care, unravels the intracacies of these passages, explaining their meaning, joining them to the Semitic eastern mysticism of the time of Jesus. She has devoted more than forty years to Mary, and has traveled to parts of France where there is a very old tradition of the Magdalene’s later years there and the mystical veils that surround her.

It will, no doubt be hard for a first time reader, to digest all this “new thinking” about this mysterious woman that we know so little about, yet are still so utterly fascinated with. Bourgeault is both Episcopal priest and part-time hermit. She has studied with many who have lived their lives in these traditions of mysticism. So, her claims are not to be dismissed easily, yet, they remain, reasonable conclusions based on often quite slim evidence.

Even if you are not prepared to “buy” all the conclusions, you will I promise you come away with a vision of both Mary and Jesus that are profoundly different than before. As never before, they become fully human to us, who so desperately need human models to emulate. Bourgeault brings the scriptures alive, and quite frankly, through her interpretation, once difficult or puzzling passages suddenly ring with clarity.

All the Gospels recall Mary as the first to receive the “good news” of the resurrection. Her voice, since stifled, was so powerful to the infant church that this truth could not be denied. Although each writer in some way minimized her importance, she could not be denied her place in the narratives. It is she, Bourgeault contends, who was the source of the “annointing” ministry that she may well have shared with Jesus, and which comes down to us today as a sacrament.

What I came away with, is a deeper appreciate of Mary Magdalene. I have for some time considered her to be an ignored apostle, but I believe now she was much more than that. She was the only one who truly “got it.” As such, she does so much for us as women in the church. She restores us to our rightful place, as integral to the church. She gives us something that a virgin mother never can. She gives us a model of real humanness, fully expressed, fully embodied.

I can’t wait to read more of Bourgeault’s work. I believe she has much to teach me about my journey. After reading this book, I believe you will feel the same way.

Love, It’s Just About Love

I’ve been mulling over something I read on a blog all week long. I knew I wanted to write a reply of sorts, but wasn’t sure exactly what I should say.

I’m still not sure.

But today’s readings and something else I’ve been working on, all, as God perhaps intends, come together to suggest answers, or at least a profitable way of looking at it.

I will give the quote in full:

…For most of us, our religious community seems far more important than our religious community’s theology.   That is, people attend church largely to socialize with their friends and acquaintances in the congregation; somewhat less to worship their  god; much less to learn about their god; and almost never to think critically about their god.  Yet, many proselytizing atheists focus on critical thinking.  That might be like trying to use a carpenter’s pencil to lever a house off its foundation.  On the other hand, if I ever want to convert people to atheism, I’ll first hold a social.

Painful statement, yet there is truth in it. Yet, I feel no need to defend against it. Much. I’m aware of polling that suggests that atheists know more about the contents of the bible than do believers. And I have no reason to quarrel with it. Yet, I know that that should  not be very comforting, to atheists,  because what most atheists “know” about the bible is seen through the lens of  fundamentalism. The point out all the errors, the contradictions, but they really don’t understand anything about how it was gathered together into the distinctive writings that eventually found their way into a canon. Much of their error finding is irrelevant to scholars, and explainable.

I’m a good deal less troubled by the idea that going to church is mostly a social event. You hear that a lot from atheists. But that’s not something to defend against, but rather something to embrace.

We do socialize in church, and that’s a good thing. For in that action, we enlarge our circle of “neighbor” if indeed it is not limitless to begin with. For practical reasons we only have time for so many neighbors, those to whom we are beholden to offer our help even when it is awfully inconvenient. Church socializing forms those new friendships and  ties. It brings into the circle those we care for and about. It helps us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s a good thing.

The rest? About critical thinking arguments being wasted on the believer. Well that’s just plain mean, untrue and not worth further comment.

Today’s readings are:

Lev 19:1-2, 17-18
1Cor 3:16-23
Mt 5:38-48

In Leviticus, Moses listens to God who tells him to tell the people to be holy as I am holy.  You must love your neighbor as yourself.

Similarly,  Paul reminds us that we are God’s temple, and that we must respect God’s temple, both ourselves and others.

Jesus speaks in Matthew and he tells us that we must not hate, we must love our neighbor, even when our neighbor is unkind, hurtful,  or worse to us. We must give to whomever asks (something extreme right-wing religious might make note of as they argue that universe health care is wrong since it gives to some who are not worthy to receive).

Jesus reminds us that God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the wicked equally. Again,  perhaps we might remember that before we are so quick to claim that hell awaits those whom we find evil.

But the over-riding point Jesus attempts to make is one of love. Love conquers all, hate never can. It but creates more hate, distrust, fear. All negative. All cutting against the neighbor concept.

I’m reading a wonderful book about Mary Magdalene. It draws heavily on the so-called gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary, Peter, and the Gospel of John. It requires a lot of reading between the lines, a fair amount of reordering one’s thinking. It suggests that Jesus, along “his way” diverted from the Nazarite path, the aesthetic path he began, and ended in a more Eastern approach. More Buddhist, yet not.

His was the way of self-emptying. A concept well-known to anyone who is a believer. Paul talks of this in Philippians 2:9-16. He understood Jesus, perhaps better than did the writers of Mark, Matthew or Luke.

It’s all about kenosis, self giving. Similar to the Buddhist way, of letting be, giving up, but not, the denial of all as transitory. Rather it’s  the giving all, and in that very process, receiving all, being all, being totally, wholly human.

Having never been an inerrantist, I have difficulty understanding the former fundamentalist. They accept that the bible is not inerrant, but they now have trouble seeing it as having any value. It is no longer trustworthy as conveyor of God’s “WORD.”

The bible, remains to me, (as other sacred texts do as well) as repositors of man’s highest achievement in enlightenment. We are able, as we progress, to tease out sometimes those things that point to a greater truth, one they didn’t even realize they spoke of.

Everything I read and study, helps me to see Jesus, and God more clearly. It all, to me resolves itself into love. Love was the vehicle Jesus pointed to as the means to the Kingdom. As Cynthia Bourgeault suggests, it is the vertical axis connecting ourselves to the infinite. It is what, she theorizes forever connected Mary Magdalene to Jesus in a way far superior to any of the other apostles.

She got it, and many others have followed in her footsteps and His. It’s just about love.

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