Monday, October 21, 2013

Mary Magdalene restored

'Was Jesus's most important disciple a woman?' asks the publisher's blurb to Cynthia Bourgeault's 'The Meaning of Mary Magdalene'. To which the answer that Bourgeault gives is yes, possibly.

On the way to this conclusion (that I will expand upon), she must rescue Mary both from orthodox reductionism and heterodox hype.

By the orthodox, the woman who anointed Jesus into his death and was the first witness of his Resurrection has been subtly trivialised - an exemplar of a justified sinner rather than as a powerful, adept teacher, witnessing to a transformation in wisdom.

By the heterodox, she has been at once literalized (as Jesus' wife) and source of titillation (Did they or did they not have sex, children?) or inflated into a 'goddess' figure and floated off outside any meaningful Christian context, denied a life of her own.

Is there a way of keeping Mary foursquare within the Christian fold while allowing her story to transform that fold, expanding and deepening it? This is Cynthia Bourgeault's thoughtful, scholarly and moving quest.

To do so, we must first get straight a picture of Mary as she appears in the canonical Gospels (and Bourgeault's careful unpicking of the way in which the Church's 'grand narrative' has obscured her role as apostle is brilliant). Then we must take a deep breath and plunge into her role in key non-canonical texts including the gospel named after her. To my mind this is the most radical proposal of her book.

The idea that Christianity leapt fully formed from Pentecost on, and only later faced challenge from heterodox ideas (often labelled gnostic), neither gives an effective narrative of what we find in the New Testament nor to history. In truth, the revealing event that was Jesus set off a firestorm of speculation, exploration, sense making and practice and our efforts to 'control' by exclusion have led us down the tragic path that is church history. We could have been more 'oriental' and allowed different schools to emerge, linked by family resemblance, undoubtedly argumentative, but more richly creative and notably more tolerant.

That I expect would be Bourgeault's hope and her sensitive readings of the Gospels of Mary Magdalene, Phillip and Thomas help us to see what might be possible.

What emerges is a tradition of 'Wisdom' that the Gospels (as a whole) invite us to a path of concrete transformation of life and consciousness and that Jesus and Mary's life together was an exemplar of a 'bridal mysticism' and 'conscious friendship' that invites us to unite with 'Wisdom' that imaginal place and dynamic that is where the created order meets its divine image. In doing so it restores a notion of the importance of loving relationships as an integral part of the work of transformation. Celibacy is one path, a noble one, but not the only path and possibly not the more effective.

There is much detail in Bourgeault's text that I cannot treat of here including a detailed account of in what such a path of conscious friendship might consist built essentially around the notion of 'kenosis' - the ability to empty oneself of self regard such that you might behold in oneself the fullness of the other - but to note finally that she is on to something!

Even if the mainstream tradition has difficulty with this, the apocryphal keeps nudging it (with a return of the repressed) as above in this beautiful contemporary icon of Mary by the Franciscan Friar, Robert Lentz. It refers to a legend of Mary that has her, because of her 'high birth', travelling after Jesus' death to the court of the Emperor Tiberius. Here she lays complaint at the way Jesus life has been dealt with by Roman authorities and points to its ultimate futility for life is stronger than death and Jesus is resurrected. The Emperor declares that resurrection is as possible as this white egg turning red. Mary takes the egg and as she does so it turns red!

A conventional legend of miracle - except, of course, it has a 'high born' Mary witnessing to the resurrection as Apostle to the depths of worldly power!

So "yes, possibly"! Yes because the evidence points to Mary as a beloved disciple and friend, core witness to resurrection, not only as 'the Resurrection' but as the ongoing invitation of every life to come through love to their eternal embodiment. Possibly because both her repression and inflation are powerful forces obscuring a quieter, more transformative option and who can tell whether we will find the courage to contemplate that alternative?

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