Why Have we Tried to Silence Mary Magdalene and her Co-disciples?


Introduction
: In this poem I am seeking to honor a strand of early Christian discipleship that has been subverted over many centuries, but which for a growing body of scholars on the one hand, and adult faith seekers on the other, is becoming significantly important for the growth and deepening of our faith today. After the apostles had fled – and none of them remained on Calvary – Jesus was accompanied by a group (mainly women, but probably inclusive of men), for which Mary Magdalene was the inspiring leader. When it comes to the story of the Resurrection on Easer day, they are the only witnesses around, and they do not run away.

According to John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first person to be commissioned by the risen Jesus to go forth and preach. Much later St. Augustine called her the Apostle to the Apostles. With her colleagues she goes to Galilee and begins translating the vision of the Kingdom of God (the Companionship of Empowerment) into organic empowering communities, probably very similar to the ecclesial groups of St. Paul. Historians now think that this empowering mission continued probably till the mid 60s when it was surreptitiously suppressed, probably due to the Roman-Jewish war (66-72).

The truth and authenticity of that foundational group is coming back to haunt modern Christianity, and I believe it is back with a vengeance – not for revenge, but for empowering justice. It’s time has arrived. Alleluia!  (Endnotes indicated by numbers in brackets)

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I was there in the procession in a true rebellious mood,(1)
Led by a humble donkey, so elegant and proud.
In a culture of oppression we took a daring risk,
Enamoured and empowered by a vision bold and frisk.
Declaring every empire corrupt without a horse,
The prophet on the donkey had carved another course.
Yes, I was there, and remember it too well! (2)

I was there when clouds were gathering, with anticipating fear,
Equipped with the anointing oil to ritualize the hour. (3)
The art of such anointing, long known in women’s lore,
And the meal we shared that special night is remembered ever more. (4)
It felt indeed like it might be a time of painful fearing,
As the twelve began to wobble, to the shadows disappearing. (5)
Yes, I was there, and remember it too well.

I heard the mumbled rumours of a dark seditious plot,
They captured him in darkness mid the silence of the night.
The crowd could not protect him as in day light they would do,(6)
He was killed upon a gibbet before anybody knew.
No time to say farewell, no trials, nor justice to partake,
No Gospel psycho-drama, the truth exaggerate.
Yes, I was there, and remember it too well.

I was there as Luke recorded and saw the body laid, (7)
With the military on duty and the temple guards alert.
And faithful to our duty call, we then prepared the oils, (8)
Our lamenting, grief, and mourning, make sense of painful spoils?
Next came the rumours thick and fast of an angel at a tomb
A birthing breakthrough on its way, from the earth’s own fertile womb.
Yes, I was there, and remember it too well.

Those grieving rituals held us close, despite our broken grief,
The Sadducees and the military were trying to move us on.
So, we sheltered in a garden, our frayed nerves to contain
While something ruffled in the wind with an echo of my name.(9)
My eyes and heart so clouded, mid tears I scarce could see
the Risen One commissioning, before which I did yield.
Yes, I was there, and remember it too well.

The garden gate was now unlocked and I was led outside,
While the stone that blocked my vision was duly rolled away.
As we recalled the words he spoke, commissioning anew, (10)
For Galilee we headed, indebted to a lure (11)
That reassured our living hope arising all around,
Embodied Resurrection, our new communal ground.
Yes, I was there, and remember it too well.

Subversively we witnessed to the truth deep in our hearts,
Proclaiming liberation, a new empowering art.
We had seen it in our lifetime, we knew the strategy,
and faithfully at table we broke bread with due decree.
Eventually the twelve caught up, the few that did come back, (12)
By then we’ed sown new risen seeds, which no one could retract.
Yes, I was there, and remember it too well.

We struggled with prevailing powers, disturbed by our resolve,
While quietly, and non-violently, we built the Reign of God.
The truth of our endeavour, by the powers was made obscure,
Condemning us to silence, of a type that can’t endure.
Empowering Resurrection will one day be released
In ecclesial communion, with an open table feast.
And I will be there –
Witnessing a vision that can never be subdued! (13)

  

REFERENCES

 1. This is a reference to Palm Sunday, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (chosen by himself), in prophetic protest against the imperial Roman powers whose generals always rode on horses. We must also note that the donkey is the beast of burden used on a daily basis by the Palestinian people, symbolizing that the imperial power from on High (kingship) is now dismantled into communal empowerment with and for the rank-and file of the day. In all probability Mary Magdalene would be consciously aware of all that.

2. Recall here Lk.24:8: “And they remembered his words.” There is no record in the Gospels of such words being spoken to women, only to the twelve. Yet, it is the women who remember. Worth keeping in mind here an observation of the Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann: the opposite of dismember (breaking) is remember, better spelt as re-member! Not merely are the women recalling in terms of memory, but they are setting the foundations for fresh reconstruction of Gospel empowerment. 

3. The anointing, referenced in all four Gospels (Mk.14:3-9; Matt.26:6-13; Lk.7:36-48; Jn.12:1-8), is probably a ritual of anointing in anticipation of Jesus’ death, usually attributed to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, since some of the Gospels locate the event at Bethany. It strikes me that Mary Magdalene is by far the most likely person who did the anointing. 

4. This is the Last Supper, but understood as a friendship meal (not a Passover meal), prepared by women, with women and children participating.As far as we know, none of the twelve remained to witness the end of Jesus’ life (It is unlikely that Peter was there although the Gospels claim he was). All had fled in case they too be crucified. 

5. The crowd that followed Jesus on Palm Sunday were mainly people who had been empowered by his life and ministry. While they were around Jesus was safe, and could not easily be captured. He was captured in the dark, while all were sleeping, and in all probability was killed (by crucifixion) before anybody even knew about it. So empowering had his mission become, the authorities (Roman and Jewish) were determined to get rid of him. They crucified him as they did to all subversives posing a threat to their power. Contrary to the Gospels, the crowd did not betray him in the end, nor did they ask for his crucifixion. That was a ploy adopted by the Roman and Jewish authorities to deflect attention from themselves. Those who wrote the Gospels must have known that, as indeed they would also know that subversives (killed by crucifixion) would normally have no trials. In the Gospels we have a kind of psychodrama (like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) assuming that Jesus was a King, and as such would have had all the royal protocols belonging to a king. But Jesus totally rejected kingship, something the male apostles and the evangelists had not come to terms with.

6. The normal procedure after the crucifixion of a subversive is that the body was dumped in a communal pit for the wild animals to devour. For Christians throughout the centuries that notion has become unthinkable. If the body was somehow salvaged in the end (and given a quick impromptu burial), the women may have played a significant role in bargaining for his body - hence the possibly subversive allusion to the women watching from a distance in Matt.27:55.

7. One of the unique skills of women at the time of Jesus was their ability to ritualize the grief and pain of loss, thus empowering them to embrace and live through several difficult issues of daily life. This rich reservoir of ancient female wisdom tends to be dismissed as hysteria and morbidity. This is the resource that enabled the women to accompany Jesus through Calvary, and become the first to experience the transformation we name as Resurrection. For further elaboration, see Kathleen Corley, Maranatha: Women’s Funerary Rituals and Christian Origins (2010). 

8. For the scene in the garden as described in Jn.20:11-18, I adopt a more mystical approach, a quality of engagement that cannot – and should not – be explained in rational terms, mainly because we are dealing with the ultra-real, in the power of which Mary and her companions are missioned forth.

9. Here, I switch from ‘me’ to ‘we’. The individualization of apostleship by which we tend to view the twelve belongs to the past. From here one it is co-discipleship focussed on communal empowerment. In parallel with Palm Sunday, where the Jesus upon whom we keep imposing imperial kingship becomes dissolved into the community as an empowering communal presence, so here, the Risen Jesus, usually viewed as a unique divine hero, has been dissolved into Mary Magdalene and her co-disciples who from here on become the risen catalysts for the creation of empowering communities, the foundation stones of what today we call the Church. 

10. Let’s recall that it was in Galilee that Jesus first proclaimed the Kingdom of God, the ultimate goal of Christian faith, better understood as the Companionship of Empowerment. 

11. According to Acts, Chapter Two, all the twelve came back. Luke needs them back to provide a solid foundation for his two big heroes, Peter and Paul. Luke himself has created this scenario. For the unreliability of the book of Acts on this and other matters, see Sr. Barbara Reid, “The Gospel of Luke: Friend or Foe of Women Proclaimers of the Word” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol.78 (Jan. 2016). 

12. Today, a vast body of literature exists on Mary Magdalene, despite the paucity of hard historical evidence. For those who wish to read more: Karen King of Harvard Divinity School is widely regarded as a leading world authority on Mary Magdalene; her best known book is: The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (2003). Also worth reading: Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle (2003) and Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (2010).