Across the Christian world, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season Lent, popularly understood as a time to do penance, especially fasting, and to improve the spiritual quality of our lives. The duration of 40 days is often associated Jesus’ journey into the desert for 40 days.
The ceremonial use of ashes is credited to Pope Gregory I the Great (c. 540–604). The ashes is spread over the crown of the head or etched with the sign of the Cross on the forehead – with the accompanying formula: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." In the 1969 revision of the Roman Rite, an alternative formula (based on Mark 1:15) was introduced: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel."
Covid 19, the New Normal, and Eco-Spirituality
It is now six months (end of August 2020) since Covid 19 was declared a viral pandemic of a highly contagious nature. Meanwhile, almost 22 million people have been infected, of whom 800,000 have lost their lives. While governments have been striving to maintain a modicum of normalcy, in truth, the entire world is undergoing an extensive breakdown. And the recovery will not be easy – even if a vaccine soon comes our way.
As various countries emerged out of lockdown, and a vaccine seemed several months away, echoes of a “new normal” began to surface. The chief elements included social distancing, respiratory hygiene, handwashing with soap, reduced numbers for indoor gatherings and outdoor events; working from home where possible, travel restrictions.
A new vulnerability also came to the fore which, to date, has been poorly researched or documented. Millions have lost their jobs and face long-term unemployment; millions are plunged into financial debt with no immediate resolution in sight; Western governments borrowed to bolster vulnerable workers, the repayment of which will incur financial hardship in a short few years; many of those who contracted the virus have experienced several side-effects; the emotional toll of grief, pain, and loss is more widespread than we think.
So, what is the new normal, or is it just another catchy slogan largely devoid of substance ?
Covid 19 is a virus presenting a range of cultural challenges which have been either underestimated or overlooked. The “new normal” it could have delivered has been overtaken by the old normal, and we, the human species, are left in a dilemma much more dangerous than most people realize. We have missed opportunities to change our ways – and our values. One wonders how many more pandemics will it take to wake us up to reality.
Spillover. Ever since the first recorded cases in China, which likely originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, we evidenced a spread of a virus along a trajectory that is well understood, first documented by the American scientist, David Quammen, in his 2012 book, Spillover. When we humans treat other creatures – animals, mammals, birds, etc. – as mere objects for our benefit and usufruct, we often end up undermining our own health and integrity. We have seen it with AIDS/HIV, MERS, SARS, and Ebola.
And yet we cling on to the old normal! When are we going to wake up and treat these other organisms as companions of earth’s ecosystem, and not mere objects for our human benefit?
Exploitation. Already in this year of 2020, over 100 scientific papers document the deleterious effects of our human exploitation of natural resources, particularly forests and wet-lands. In the words of the Indian physicist cum anti-globalization activist, Vandana Shiva: “Science is informing us that as we invade forest ecosystems, destroy the homes of species and manipulate plants and animals for profits, we create conditions for new diseases. Over the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged. It is well documented that around 70% of the human pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS, emerge when forest ecosystems are invaded and viruses jump from animals to humans.”
Once again, we the exploiters, end up being among the greatest victims of our own ravaging of nature’s biodiversity and its benefits for us.
- Socio-Economics. On Easter Sunday, 2020, Pope Francis delivered this message: “Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you have no steady income to get you through this hard time! This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.”
Businesses, small and large, have been decimated by Covid 19. In the face of such a crisis our capitalistic monetary system is shown to be a very weak buffer in the face of meltdown and economic hardship. The time is long overdue to employ an alternative economic system more promising for equality, mutuality, and empowerment. Economists have long known of the universal basic wage. Colluding with governments they have failed to champion its possibility because of the radical equality and the mutual empowerment that would ensue.
Work Ethic. As Covid19 spread around the world, millions began working from home, ensuring that employment was upheld and livelihoods safeguarded. There were ensuing benefits for the natural world as motor-based pollution decreased significantly. People also developed new strategies for computer-based communication, via Skype and Zoom. Additionally, for some parents it provided enriched quality time for each other and with their children.
With the initial enthusiasm wearing thin, employers seem to be favouring blending work practices, perhaps of the combination of 50% from home and the rest in the traditional workplace. Initial research indicates that motivation and productivity rate higher through the mutual interaction of the workers on site. Nonetheless, working-from-home is likely to become the favoured option from here on. In this area, a “new normal” seems to be emerging.
5. Immunity. It has long been known that the sturdiest defence against any virus is a strong immune system, much more important than hand-washing or social distancing. Essentially, we build up our immunity resistance by wholesome diet, daily exposure to nature’s nurturance, healthy exercise, fulfilling relationships, empowering work, good stress management, avoidance of toxins (e.g., smoking). Additionally, a medical practitioner who adopts a holistic approach can be an invaluable resource.
Faced with Covid 19, we rarely heard advice on nourishing or boosting human immunity (even from the WHO). From the start, a vaccine was the one and only proposed solution. One wonders how much commercial and financial pressure is at work here as pharmaceutical companies compete fiercely to be the first to deliver, and through commercialized advertising distract us from our more basic responsibilities around health and well-being.
A vaccine is an old normal in a world where ever more drugs are needed to keep us healthy and alive. In several cases, antibiotics don’t work anymore. A vaccine is a short-term – and short-sighted - solution, not a long-term hope. Empowering humans to build up immunity – their own and that of all others – by living more in harmony with the earth itself, offers a more hopeful and empowering future.
Has religion anything to contribute?
During the pandemic all major religious buildings were closed and services were transmitted virtually. The services were delivered according to standard rites, using traditional language and rituals. For the greater part, these services appealed to those of devotional disposition and helped to relieve anguish and loneliness. Moreover, such alternatives to Church-going had little impact on most people, nor did people feel guilty because they could not attend Church. Religion was extensively side-lined and seemed at a loss to offer a new normal.
Consider the following statement as an invitation to a new religious normal: “To understand the human person theologically, we must learn to begin anew and love the dust that we are. The implications of that starting point are humbling, for they unsettle classical conceptions of human separatism and speciesism that we as humans have fabricated to distance ourselves from the rest of the community of creation. . . . A renewed personhood emerges, one that is not threatened by our creaturliness or insecure about our animality. Rather, these truths of our existence as creatures of God form the foundation of all that follows in our Christian theological anthropology.” (American theologian, Daniel P. Horan).
This theological vision embraces a “new normal,” vividly reminding us humans that we are Earthlings, first and foremost, that God created us as Earthlings, and seeks our collaboration and creativity at that level. Only when we reclaim a more integrated relationship with the earth itself, respecting its creative dynamics, and working harmoniously with all other beings that share the web of life with us, do we stand any chance of living healthily. Without such an organic, earth-based adjustment, all the vaccines on earth are not likely to bring long-term healing and wholeness.
Letter of Pope Francis
In recent years I have been both challenged and inspired by a little known American philosopher and social activist, Charles Eisenstein (https://charleseisenstein.org/). His recent blog on the Coronavirus contains several original provocative insights. The blog in question is quite long, so to whet the appetite, here is a selective sample:
- Our compulsion for control. Those who administer civilization will therefore welcome any opportunity to strengthen their control, for after all, it is in service to a grand vision of human destiny: the perfectly ordered world, in which disease, crime, poverty, and perhaps suffering itself can be engineered out of existence. No nefarious motives are necessary. Of course they would like to keep track of everyone – all the better to ensure the common good. Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice.
- A wake-up call to planetary justice. Last year, according to the FAO, five million children worldwide died of hunger (among 162 million who are stunted and 51 million who are wasted). That is many times more people than have died so far from Covid-19, yet no government has declared a state of emergency or asked that we radically alter our way of life to save them. Nor do we see a comparable level of alarm and action around suicide – the mere tip of an iceberg of despair and depression – which kills over a million people a year globally and 50,000 in the USA. Or drug overdoses, which kill 70,000 in the USA, the autoimmunity epidemic, which affects 23.5 million (NIH figure) to 50 million (AARDA), or obesity, which afflicts well over 100 million. Why, for that matter, are we not in a frenzy about averting nuclear armageddon or ecological collapse, but, to the contrary, pursue choices that magnify those very dangers?
- Tactility is inherent to human well-being. After thousands of years, millions of years, of touch, contact, and togetherness, is the pinnacle of human progress to be that we cease such activities because they are too risky?
The measures being instituted to control Covid-19, likewise, may end up causing more suffering and death than they prevent. Minimizing deaths means minimizing the deaths that we know how to predict and measure. It is impossible to measure the added deaths that might come from isolation-induced depression, for instance, or the despair caused by unemployment, or the lowered immunity and deterioration in health that, air pollution increases risk of dying by 6%, obesity by 23%, alcohol abuse by 37%, and loneliness by 45%.
- What God are we worshipping when we claim that cleanliness is next to Godliness? Another danger that is off the ledger is the deterioration in immunity caused by excessive hygiene and distancing. It is not only social contact that is necessary for health, it is also contact with the microbial world. Generally speaking, microbes are not our enemies, they are our allies in health. A diverse gut biome, comprising bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and other organisms, is essential for a well-functioning immune system, and its diversity is maintained through contact with other people and with the world of life. Excessive hand-washing, overuse of antibiotics, aseptic cleanliness, and lack of human contact might domore harm than good. The resulting allergies and autoimmune disorders might be worse than the infectious disease they replace. Socially and biologically, health comes from community. Life does not thrive in isolation.
Outside the body, the massive spraying campaigns sparked by Zika, Dengue Fever, and now Covid-19, will visit untold damage upon nature’s ecology. Has anyone considered what the effects on the ecosystem will be when we douse it with antiviral compounds? Such a policy (which has been implemented in various places in China and India) is only thinkable from the mindset of separation, which does not understand that viruses are integral to the web of life.
- Why be afraid to be near each other? There is an alternative to the paradise of perfect control that our civilization has so long pursued, and that recedes as fast as our progress, like a mirage on the horizon. Yes, we can proceed as before down the path toward greater insulation, isolation, domination, and separation. We can normalize heightened levels of separation and control, believe that they are necessary to keep us safe, and accept a world in which we are afraid to be near each other. Or we can take advantage of this pause, this break in normal, to turn onto a path of reunion, of holism, of the restoring of lost connections, of the repair of community and the rejoining of the web of life. Do we double down on protecting the separate self, or do we accept the invitation into a world where all of us are in this together?
- Is FEAR the primary enemy we need to deal with? Please don’t think that choosing love over fear can be accomplished solely through an act of will, and that fear too can be conquered like a virus. The virus we face here is fear, whether it is fear of Covid-19, or fear of the totalitarian response to it, and this virus too has its terrain. Fear, along with addiction, depression, and a host of physical ills, flourishes in a terrain of separation and trauma: inherited trauma, childhood trauma, violence, war, abuse, neglect, shame, punishment, poverty, and the muted, normalized trauma that affects nearly everyone who lives in a monetized economy, undergoes modern schooling, or lives without community or connection to place.
This terrain can beon a personal level, by systemic change toward a more compassionate society, and by transforming the basic narrative of separation: the separate self in a world of other, me separate from you, humanity separate from nature. To be alone is a primal fear, and modern society has rendered us more and more alone. But the time of Reunion is here. Every act of compassion, kindness, courage, or generosity heals us from the story of separation, because it assures both actor and witness that we are in this together.
And in case you have missed it, here are some more examples of the love and kindness eruption, courtesy of ServiceSpace:
Perhaps we're in the middle of living into that new story. Imagine Italian airforce using Pavoratti, Spanish military doing acts of service, and street police playing guitars . Corporations giving unexpected wage hikes. Canadians starting "Kindness Mongering." Six year old in Australia adorably gifting her tooth fairy money, an 8th grader in Japan making 612 masks, and college kids everywhere buying groceries for elders. Cuba sending an army in "white robes" (doctors) to help Italy. A landlord allowing tenants to stay without rent, an Irish priest's poem going viral, disabled activists producing hand sanitizer. Imagine. Sometimes a crisis mirrors our deepest impulse -- that we can always respond with compassion.
May this downtime be for all of us an opportunity to rethink our priorities, and reconnect with the healing potential of Planet Earth!
Queering Pentecost in a time of Lockdown
The celebration of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter Sunday, has long been regarded as marking the foundation of the Church, when the Holy Spirit formally empowered the first apostles to go forth and proclaim the Gospel. The relevant Scripture text read in all Christian churches is that of Acts 2:1-11.
There are actually two parts to this passage:
a) vv.1-4, describing the descent of the Holy Spirit through tongues of fire on what is assumed to be the reconstituted group of 12 apostles. Additionally, early Christian art depicts a woman in the midst of the group, widely regarded as Mary the mother of Jesus.
b) vv.5-11: these verses describe an amorphous group from diverse countries, cultures, and languages, none of whom has yet been evangelized (according to the chronology of Acts), and they hear the preachers, each in their own native language, acknowledging the message of Gospel declaration, for which they give glory to God.
I have long been puzzled by the fact that I have never heard a homily of Pentecost focussing on vv.5-11. And I wonder why not? In my attempt to answer that question for myself, I have discovered Queer Theory to be enormously helpful. So, please forgive my digression while I briefly introduce what Queer Theory is about.
Faith in Queer Theory
Often associated with LGBTQI-related scholarship, Queer Theory is a development of the 1990s, associated with critical theory in literature, history, and the social sciences. (Several webpages will give further detail). Adopting the insights to religion, theology, and scripture is more recent still. The British theologian, Chris Greenough, provides a fine overview in Queer Theologies: The Basics (Routledge 2020).
According to Greenough, queering sacred texts seeks to move beyond the rigidity of dogma, and to expose the power dynamics that can tolerate only one understanding of truth. He outlines five dimensions of this process:
Queer resists ideas of categorization;
Queer challenges the idea of essentialism;
Queer challenges ‘normal’;
Queer removes binary thinking and assumptions;
Queer exposes and disrupts power relations and hierarchies. (Greenough, 26).
The Book of Acts Today
Long considered to be an outline of what happened in the very early Church, scripture scholars are now raising doubts about the historical reliability of this book. Luke, the author, is interested mainly in Peter and Paul, whom he depicts as two outstanding heroes. Just as Luke, in his Gospel, brings Jesus to Jerusalem for his final triumph (Death & Resurrection), so he brings Peter and Paul to Rome for their culminating missionary endeavour. In the process of doing this, Luke’s Paul is sometimes depicted in a manner that seems very different from Paul’s own account in his genuine Letters. Heroic evangelization, rather than history of the faith, is what Luke is pursuing.
We come now to the event of Pentecost for which Luke brings back the original Apostles, now reconstituted as a group of twelve. He has two gatherings. Firstly, Acts 1:12-14, the Eleven (minus Judas), along with Mary the mother of Jesus and “the women.” Secondly, Acts 2:1-4, the reconstituted group of twelve only. It looks like Luke needs the returned, reconstituted Apostles to lay a solid apostolic foundation for his two patriarchal heroes of Peter and Paul. But did they all return? I have grave doubts, despite the long ecclesiastical belief that they did.
Scripture scholar, James, Carroll, avers that Luke’s account in Acts may be compared to an ideologically driven historical novel, to which another scripture scholar, Sean Freyne, adds: “Recent rhetorical analysis of Luke’s writings tends to dismiss his account of new beginnings as an idealized and symbolic narrative with little or no historical information.” Theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, claims that Acts does not contain a representative picture of church leadership in the early decades. It tells only a partial story.
On top of all that, let’s recall that Luke wrote Acts sometime after 80 CE, by which time the followers of the Way had separated from their Jewish origins and were now striving to establish a separate, superior identity.
The Event in Question
Every element in Acts 2:1-4 is borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (O.T.). Pentecost is based on the O.T. Feast of the New Grain (Harvest), associated with Moses receiving the law
on Mt. Senai, 50 days after the exodus from Egypt. According to legend, God issued the law in all 70 languages of humankind. Philo claimed that when the Law was initially given, fire streamed from Heaven, and a voice from the flame became articulate speech. Additionally, some commentators suggest that the narrative of Pentecost may be understood as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story.
The fact that Luke has borrowed the main ingredients from the O.T. and is using them here to his own advantage, need not alarm us. All the Gospel writers – and others of that time – did the same thing. However, it does compel us to ask: Is Luke describing something that happened, or actually creating the scenario himself? And even if Luke does invent the material himself, by the standards of time (and contrary to our time), he is well within the boundaries of professional journalism.
Once again, we need to remind ourselves: Luke is doing this to lay a solid foundation for his two big heroes, Peter and Paul. To that end he wishes to bring back all the (reconstituted) Twelve, and submit them to a profound, transformative experience, to raise them out of the dislocation and incredulity they suffered due to the tragic loss of Jesus, their leader. And from that new “kick-start” they can resume where they have left off, courageously proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
For the queer theorist it all feels too neat to be true. The upper room smacks of ecclesiastical lockdown. And there is too much hankering after patriarchal power and dominance. Already in the opening chapters of Acts we see Peter performing miraculous deeds similar to those attributed to Jesus; this is a long way from the bipolar, reactionary Peter we see throughout the Gospels.
At this stage the queer theorist is getting impatient, and wants to move on to the material the preacher tends to bypass, namely Acts 2:5-11. This motely diverse group are truly amazing. Somehow or other they can hear everything that is being said and, it seems, they can comprehend the meaning, as that of the mighty works of God (v.11). But according to Acts, none of them have been either baptized or evangelized. So, what is going on?
Those of us who have some knowledge and experience of the Ignatian method of Spiritual Discernment can readily see the parallels. This group if people is endowed with deep listening, heart-centred discernment, and are in awe and admiration of God’s message of life. These are some of the central features of Ignatian discernment, which according to those who have long studied the Ignatian method, cannot be possessed unless a person is firstly deeply imbued with Holy Spirit of God.
This is the explosion that the queer theorist is trying to set off. These people already have the fullness of the Holy Spirit! That is why they are so brilliant at the art of discernment. So, where did they get the Holy Spirit from? (You don’t need to be a theologian or Scripture scholar to answer that).
According to the Book of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is fully at work in creation from time immemorial. In the words of the late Australian theologian, Denis Edwards: “What is required is a holistic theology of the Spirit, one that begins not with Pentecost but with the origin of the universe 14 billion years ago.” Consequently, the Holy Spirit is also fully at work in the hearts of all humans – unless of course we block or hinder that grace by something like irrational fear, which the twelve might well be suffering from.
Now you see my disappointment at never having had a homily on Acts 2:5-11! That is where the real stuff is. That is the Spirit who blows where it wills, renewing the face of the earth and awakening fiercely empowering dreams even in the hearts of the unbaptized. What an amazing message! Little wonder the queer theorist feels so disgusted that we have ignored or bypassed the message for so long!
Where are the Women?
But the queer theorist has noticed something even queerer! According to the theologian, Christ Greenough (114), “Queer approaches in Biblical studies breathe fresh air into texts saturated in patriarchy, misogyny, and negativity towards same-sex and transgendered lives.” In this case it is the misogyny we have to deal with. What has happened to the women referenced in Acts 1:14? Why are they excluded from the ecclesiastical lockdown? Why have we made them invisible?
Surely, Luke must have heard of Mary Magdalene and her co-disciples, their outstanding witness at the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, and their crucial role in the unfolding of the Church in its early decades, a good glimpse of which we get in Romans, chapter 16? Why does he want to ignore or suppress that information? This is the response of theologian Elizabeth Johnson:
“Desiring to impress his readers in the Roman Empire with the trustworthiness of this new movement, Luke consistently depicted men in public leadership roles and, in order to conform with the empire’s standards, kept women decorously under control in supportive positions. Having eyes mainly for elite men, he fudged women into an insignificant background ignoring the leadership roles they in fact held. . . . Consequently, Acts does not contain a representative picture of church leadership in the early decades. It tells only part of the story.” (Elizabeth Johnson, Truly our Sister, 300).
Pentecost is a Queer Feast
Queer theologians, Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, writing in 2017, state: “A theology that is queer calls us to go beyond what is known, to move past what is established, and to relinquish control over such structures totally.” Along similar lines, Queer theorist, David Halperin, writing in 1995, asserts “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.”
Both quotations illuminate what I have been attempting in these reflections, feeling a call to “go beyond what is known,” “move past what is established,” “there is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers,” “an identity without an essence.” To some that will sound like a scathing deconstruction, and some will rightly ask: “What is left?”
And this is what attracts me to the wisdom of queering. In the very process of deconstructing, we are also involved in reconstruction. Remember that in quantum physics, the vacuum is a fertile emptiness, seething with possibility. The mystics knew that long ahead of the physicists. So, I am not getting rid of Pentecost (at least not yet!). It strikes me that the event described in Acts 2:1-4, never actually happened (“an identity without an essence – Halperin). But the experience, Acts 2:5-11, never ceases to happen! And in Halperin’s words, that is the essence!
It is the essence, that incredible cosmic empowering Spirit that we need to celebrate on Pentecost Sunday! The homily should be on Acts 2:5-11, the deep recognition of the Spirit who blows where she wills, demolishing every ecclesiastical lockdown! In the midst of the Coronavirus, we need the wisdom and guidance of that empowering Spirit. As we face the “new normal” more than anything else, I suggest we need a new theology of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps the more abnormal it is the better!
The Spirit and Covid-19
All over the world, governments have been warning us that the resolution to this pandemic is primarily in our hands. The mighty patriarchs of government and science believe a vaccine will arrive, but meanwhile, it is we ourselves who have the power to halt this virus, and we can do it by fidelity to a range of modified human behaviours. We, the people are in exactly the same place that the Parthians, the Medes, and the Elamites were on the first Pentecost day. Our elevated patriarchs may have tongues of flame in their lockdown enclave of the upper room, but it is we on the ground who have been entrusted with the wisdom to halt this virus! Now, that is what we might call, queerer than queer!
The power is with the people, but also an enormous amount of pain, vulnerability, social dislocation, job losses, financial insecurity, chaos writ large. Worth recalling here the voice of another queer (process) theologian, Catherine Keller (of Drew University, USA) and her profound discernment of Genesis 1:2, the Spirit drawing forth creative power from the darkness over the deep (tohu vabohu): “Divinity arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath . . . a tehomic theology requires the deconstruction of the light supremacism of the Western spirit.”
This is not the triumphalist spirit of Acts 2:1-4, but what the theologian Shelly Rambo (of Boston University) calls the Middle Spirit. Rambo, trauma therapist turned theologian (author of Spirit and Trauma), connects with the Spirit who remains, and always will, no matter how long the aftermath of trauma endures. The Spirit is at work in and through the coronavirus, amid all the ensuing grief, pain, and chaos. This is the Spirit who persists, not the one who conquers all!
The Parthians, Medes, Elamites & Co. had good reason to rejoice, ever empowered by the queer Spirit of God. Yet, they had not everything sorted out. Acts 2:12 informs us that they were both amazed and perplexed. Was it the Middle Spirit rather than the Triumphant one that was accompanying them on their way? They too had their trauma and queer struggles, yet, they hung in, and made it through!
So, please, on this Pentecost Sunday of 2020, let’s get out of the Upper Room, and leave the patriarchs in lockdown to manage the tongues of fire. Instead, let’s come down into the streets with the Parthians, Medes, and the Elamites, and together let’s acclaim a different homily, to ground our hope and meaning in these Spirit-filled, if disturbing times!
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)
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)
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).
Page 1 of 2