When I was growing up, we had a calendar that listed holy days, and I was always intrigued by Mary Magdalene, because her day was just one day after my birthday. I remember being really confused as a child of 6 or 7 because when I asked my mom who Mary Magdalene was, and if maybe I wanted to be like her, Mom was uncharacteristically uncommunicative. Those of you who’ve met my mother can understand my confusion—mom is talkative, she was a teacher, and she loved teaching history and famous figures and here she was just giving a bland, “Oh, she was in the Bible…” kind of answer.
Of course, later, as an adult—and particularly after I discovered Jesus Christ Superstar and the Last Temptation of Christ and the DaVinci Code—I knew why mom had not wanted to tell a six year old what she thought she knew about Mary Magdalene.
And as I look back, I think, “what a shame that what my mother knew about Mary Magdalene was what the church had done to her. And not what the Bible says about her.” Because Sexy Prostitute Jesus’ Wife Mary Magdalene isn’t in the Bible.
Just so you know, if one of your children asks me who Mary Magdalene was, I am going to tell them that she’s a saint—she is a holy woman who was friends with Jesus, and was such a close friend to him that she got to see him first of all the disciples after he was raised to the dead. Sometimes we call her the Apostle to the Apostles because of that—she was sent to tell them what she’d seen, and they believed her.
Just as all the Johns of scripture get confused—John the brother of Zebedee, John the person who wrote the Gospel of John and John who wrote the Revelation to John are all different people; Mary Magdalene gets lumped in with unnamed women—the one who was a sinner and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (though even THAT story doesn’t say what this woman’s sin was) or confused with Mary of Bethany, who sat at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha cooked; one Gospel does say that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene’s real moments of prominence are at the foot of the cross—faithfully being present for her Lord at his worst moment, when all the male disciples had fled (possibly except the beloved disciple, in John’s Gospel); and at the tomb, where faithfully, in all four Gospels she is the first person either to see Jesus risen, or to proclaim that he has been raised because an Angel told her so. Two years ago, the Roman Catholic church raised her memorial to the status of a feast, meaning it is on the same level of the commemoration of the apostles, honoring her with that traditional title of Apostle to the Apostles, lamenting that her reputation had been “confused” with other biblical women, and holding her up as “an example for all women in the church.” And as I immediately thought: not JUST for women—she’s an example to ALL people of faith.
I think it’s good that we can liberate Mary Magdalene from the centuries of misinformation in which she was painted as a woman of ill repute… And yet… So what if she were? And I don’t mean, by doing this, to overcompensate and say that she can ONLY be interesting and useful to us in a DaVinci Code way by being Jesus’ wife or girlfriend, or anyone’s wife or girlfriend.. is there only one way to be a Holy Woman? Surely the key to being an example of biblical womanhood is to be faithful—like Mary Magdalene.
But that question of what “biblical womanhood” looks like is important. This week I read a blog post by a Lutheran pastor named Victoria in which she responded to “A recent blog post [which] unironically claimed that men prefer debt-free virgins without tattoos.” And after I read her response I did look up the original blog, even though I hated giving it one more hit in traffic. And the actual post surprised me—not just because it was written by a woman, but because while her arguments about virginity and tattoos were what I expected, the argument against debt, which at first I had accepted as, “Yes, being debt-free is virtuous” said something completely different: women should not acquire debt specifically because they should not go to college and incur student debt, because a college education for a woman does not help her fulfill her biblical role of wife and mother. “Debt free” was code for “uneducated.”
Victoria’s reponse took the form of a series of “biblical” responses from women who are faithful…. But are not debt free virgins without tattoos. Here’s a sample:
“Rahab: Weird. The Israelite spies definitely preferred women of negotiable affection. *raises hand.*
Other Tamar: How about that. I believed this, and it not only destroyed me personally but set off a round of fratricidal murders that decimated my family and destabilized the political regime for a generation.
Jephthah’s daughter: Believed that. Lived that. Still got sacrificed by my dad.”
Those are all examples of Biblical womanhood—complicated, and faithfulness is not defined by sexual purity or specifically by the roles of wife and mother. But because God loves women—and men—and they love God back. And if you don't recognize their stories--it's worth looking them up. There will be a link to the full blog post in my blog this afternoon. Our understanding of Biblical womanhood matters, and we should know the stories of all these women.
In Victoria’s blog, she quoted this response to original blog post by her friend: “I laughed at it,” she told me. “Then, this morning, I went to a domestic violence training for faith leaders, and it wasn’t funny anymore.”
How we talk about women and the bible matters to women today. It matters in issues surrounding domestic violence. It matters in our policies. It matters in how we can lift women up, or keep them down.
I will leave you with a final visual image from a medieval manuscript: the Virgin Mary is wrestling with the Devil. An angel stands nearby and holds baby Jesus. A friend described it his way this week: “THIS is an example of Biblical womanhood. Wrestle evil to the ground while wearing a crown and getting an angel to help with the kids.”