John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Restoring the Balance: Mary as Apostle

SermonJ. Elliott Lein

Preached at St. Thomas a Becket on July 21 with the readings from the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene.

If you recall, two weeks ago I told many of you that since we’re in Year C of the lectionary we’d be reading the Gospel of Luke. True lectionary nerds and eagle-eyed readers of the bulletin may have noticed why we read the Gospel of John instead! Tomorrow is the celebration of the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, and I’ve chosen to use those readings for today’s service so that we can talk about her contribution to the church.

Most people have one of two pictures in mind when we mention Mary of Magdala. You may be thinking either of Mary as Jesus’s wife and child-bearer as best-selling author Dan Brown has recently reinvented her in The Da Vinci Code, or as the prostitute as the church has long taught. Note that both focus on her speculative sexuality, not on her actual presence and words in the Gospels.

A very significant episode in the interpretation of her life happened in 594 as Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon describing Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute. For the next 1,400 years until its overturning in 1969, this official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church dominated the narrative about this woman in the Gospels, taking precedence over everything else about her—she had become the example of the worst of sinners who was restored to equality with the rest of us less-sinning types.

Now, the work of refocusing her legacy is still ongoing, and it’s an important project, because underneath that sensationalist veneer is one of the most important figures in our Christian history. We don’t need to veer into Dan Brown conspiracy theories in order to rehabilitate her, and in fact the truth may be much better than either of those choices.

So what do we know about Mary Magdalene from the Gospels? Well, from her name we know she was a fellow resident of Galilee, the next town over from Cana next to the Sea of Galilee and on the road to Capernaum and Chorazin—towns that are central to the early ministry of Jesus. We know that she was one of Jesus’ loyal followers and supporters of his work—possibly a woman of means. Although the name Mary is the most common first-century woman’s name and sorting out which Mary is which in the Gospels is often confusing, we know that Mary Magdalene is mentioned at least 12 times which is more than most of the apostles. Most significantly, we know from all four Gospel accounts that she was present at Christ’s crucifixion, at his burial in the tomb, and was among the women who were the first witnesses to his resurrection.

In John’s account, which we read today, Mary Magdalene arrives alone at the tomb in the early morning. Upon discovering that the stone has been rolled away, she runs to fetch Peter and the beloved disciple who quickly follow and see the entombment wrappings laid aside. After they leave, she remains weeping and thus becomes the one to encounter two angels and then Jesus himself, who in this Gospel rarely calls anyone by name (only Lazarus and Peter are so honored), addresses her with a gentle and loving “Mary.” She follows his direction to tell all the disciples that he is ascending to God, and thus becomes known by the title we should remember: the Apostle to the Apostles. That’s right—the first evangelist, preacher and teacher of the post-resurrection Christian faith is a woman.

Now I must admit two things at this point: first, that should be enough to restore anyone’s reputation and to put Mary back on track as one of our greatest Saints. But secondly, as I’ve been preparing for the sermon this week, I’ve learned even more, so much more that I have been at a loss as to how to approach the topic at all in such a short message. If you’ll allow, I’d like to take a few minutes to outline the barest possibilities of what more we could gain if we took our first Apostle more seriously.

First: one of the foundations for the later depiction of Mary Magdalene as such a despised sinner was a brief mention only by Luke that she was healed of seven demons. As you might remember from two weeks ago, Luke is big on demons. But what if we understood this not as a sign of Mary’s unique degeneracy below the average human but rather as a sign of how healed she is beyond the average human? The number 7 in Hebrew thought means completeness; as in the seven days of creation. Here Jesus heals her completely, she overcomes all. This reminds me of the interior meaning of this word “salvation”—in the Greek, sozo, it refers to healing and a return to wholeness; like our English “salve.”

Secondly, there’s another source we’ve recently recovered that could shed more light on these demons. Just over a century ago, an Egyptian Coptic manuscript was discovered to contain 10 of the 19 original pages of an ancient Christian text called The Gospel of Mary. We’ve known it existed and was widely used in the early church, but after the narrowing of the canon in the 4th century the content was lost to us. This text took a long time to wind through the canyons of translation, publication, and scholarship, but in the last couple of decades scholars have been suggesting it should be taken seriously by the church, as a document that possibly dates to the same timeframe as the Gospel of John.

In this gospel, which is most likely depicting a tradition of teaching attributed to our Mary of Magdala, the seven demons are described. They are: Darkness, Craving, Ignorance, Craving for Death, Enslavement to the Body, False Peace of the Body, and Compulsion of Rage. Any former Catholics among us may immediately recognize the clear parallels to the later seven deadly sins: Pride, Greed, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, and Anger.

The teachings in this Gospel, from both the mouth of the resurrected Jesus and then from Mary speaking of what he taught her, are complex and initially somewhat startling to those of us raised solely with the four canonical gospels. Yet they are part of the diverse tapestry of early Christianity, and many such as the Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault have made good arguments in favor of listening carefully. Here’s just a sampling:

  • When Peter asks Jesus: what is sin? Jesus replies that sin as such does not exist, but manifests out of ignorance about our true self. Christian mystics through medieval times have said similar things.

  • Jesus urges his disciples not to seek for truth outside themselves, but to “find the son of true humanity within.”—this echoes the canonical saying “the kingdom of God is within you.”

  • Both Jesus and Mary emphasis the goal of spiritual development as singleness—to integrate and become one. This is a theme throughout the Gospel of John in particular, it reminds us of one of earliest titles for Jesus in our tradition—ihidaya, the single one—and I think of this theme every time I pray our Prayer after Communion.

  • Peter first asks Mary to teach them what Jesus taught her, and then when she does he bursts out with anger that she might have grasped something he was unable to. Yet don’t our Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the book of Acts continually tell us that Peter rarely seems to get it and his loyalty falters at the end while Mary stays? Maybe the author of this text is hinting at a first and second-century inter-church fight where the teachings of the first woman Apostle are being condemned in name of a male Apostle.

Now, I want to end this brief introduction with an appeal not to re-engagement that old fight. From the canonical Gospels we have a rich tradition of what one commentator calls a masculine, linear, rational faith that deals with very real outer issues. But maybe in the assertion of power that culminated in the male hierarchy of the 4th century, we’ve lost the complementary other half—the faith that is feminine, cyclical, non-rational—a faith that adds an interior journey to make a whole with the outer journey.

What might it mean if we truly recovered the centrality of the Apostle to the Apostles as a woman’s voice alongside the men’s? What might it mean if, instead of condemning the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume along with the judgmental religious leader, we see instead the anointer of the “anointed-one,” which after all is what the word “Christ” means?

I hope that as our church moves forward with ordaining women that we also move forward with recovering that feminine path that has been so obscured through the centuries, and learn to find not just the path of “soteriology”—that of outward salvation—but also the path of “sophiology”—the path of wisdom that leads to inward transformation of the soul.


Icon of Mary Magdalene written by Robert Lentz, created for Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Turn it Up to 11: Luke’s Jesus and Satanic Evil

SermonJ. Elliott Lein

As I prepared for my very first sermon at my very first parish this week, you can imagine my delight when I read that this Gospel lesson “has been found notoriously difficult to interpret.” Just what you like to hear folks with PhDs in New Testament studies say, right?

But let’s put that on pause for a moment and get our bearings. For some this may be tedious review of the obvious, for others the boundary markers themselves may be foreign, so let’s see if we can get roughly synced up together.

First: What year is it? Yes, it is 2019; yes for some it’s the Year of the Pig; but I’m looking for where we are in our storytelling, in our lectionary...Yes, it’s Year C. And that means...right, we’re reading the Gospel of Luke.

What does that matter? Well, that means we’re following along with Luke’s Jesus. Now, we don’t actually know who wrote this text, but we do know that their portrait of Jesus is unique, as each Gospeler’s is unique. Oversimplifying and exaggerating dramatically, here’s a quick sketch of each of the four so that we can see Luke’s contribution more clearly:

Seeing the Horns of God (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Preached at St. Aidan’s, March 3, 2019 (Year C, Last Sunday after Epiphany). Lectionary readings for the day: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, II Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36.


Today we’re going to talk a little bit about holy Moses; or maybe I should say horn-ed Moses! Here in the 34th chapter of Exodus, squashed between the episode of the Golden Calves and the making of the Tabernacle, we have one of those fun Biblical translation novelties, like the unicorns in the KJV, or the LOLCats Bible which begins in Genesis 1:1 with: “Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.”

Your NRSV translation has used a different word in the English, but the Hebrew at the end of verse 29 reads: קרַ֛ן עֹור פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרֹו אִתֹּו (“Karan yor panav b’dabor”) which literally means “[Moses’] face had grown horns in conversation” with God. When the scholar Jerome translated this into the “vulgar tongue,” the Latin Vulgate, he used the literal Latin for “horn” here and so that’s how all Western Christians read it from about the 4th century until the 16th.

Those horns of Moses appear in many forms in Western culture. Michelangelo’s stunningly beautiful sculpture of Moses has a long flowing beard, rippling muscles…and two cute little droopy horns. There’s a fresco in St. Andrew’s church in Westhall, Suffolk that depicts Moses with great bull horns. In Bern, Switzerland, the Moses Fountain has great multi-shafted horns, and the Moses Well in a Carthusian monetary in Djion, France, has horns reminiscent of Hellboy’s cutoff nubs. In the saddest development, the emerging connection between horns and Satan in the late Middle Ages paired with growing anti-semitism led to a viral belief still existing in some parts of the world that all Jews have the horns of the devil under their hair, as their founder Moses did.

This last example is a clear case of ignorance taking the original clear poetry and metaphorical symbolism as physical literalism. Horns in Hebrew literature are always used as symbols of might and power. Just as horns emerge from the head of an animal, so also does light emerge from the presence of God: it radiates out! In Habakkuk 3:3-4 the King James Version reads: “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. And his brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand: and there was the hiding of his power.”

Clearly the context defines these horns as rays of light and glory! Most of the artists throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance knew this as well, or at least their Scriptural advisors did. Literal horns on sculptures served the same purpose as the literal horns in the language: they symbolized something that could be experienced in divine revelation but not fully understood or depicted in banal human terms. Thus the King James Version takes that same word translated horns in Habakkuk and makes it read differently in Exodus 34:29: “And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.” Here’s a case where the literal translation can be misleading without really knowing the language, and translators from the pre-Christian Greek Septuagint to all our modern English translations attempt to avoid confusion by translating the sense rather than the word exactly. Moses’ face shone.

But okay, even after we’ve done our translation-clarifying work and can see Michelangelo’s Moses with a new appreciation for the difficulty in artistic rendering of sacred writings, we’re still left with the question: what do we do with this? In our everyday experience, this may seem as odd and “un-human” as growing horns. Moses’ face shone. It emitted light so bright that those around him were terrified, and begged him to drape cloth over it to dim the light (one wonders if that light helped him see through the cloth, or if he need to have a guide directing him around the camps!). This story brings the mystery back to the Christian story of the Transfiguration, which we have in our Gospel reading today, because while so many of us in the church are used to thinking of Jesus as a purely divine being who could light up the glow anytime he wanted to, we don’t think of Moses that way. Moses is fully human, and humans don’t glow. I mean, that’s one thing we can count on, that when you see a glowing being it’s got to be angel or alien or something out of a comic book, right?

Yet, that motif of “glow” appears in many different testimonies of Christian mystics and saints, from the Old Testament to Marcus Borg. I’d like to describe one account of this from a 20th century saint’s own narrative.

Fifteen days from now, on March 18th of this year, it will be the 61st anniversary of the famous life-changing epiphany of the great Catholic Trappist monk and contemplative author Thomas Merton. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in which he writes of his sorrow over the racism, war, and abuses of the 1960s and his inner conflict about his decision to remain apart from it as a monastic, he describes this event:

"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people [walking around me], that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream... There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.... I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all of the time."

The biographer William H. Shannon writes of this experience that occurred 17 years after Merton had entered the monastery:  “One of the things going on in [Merton] was the maturing realization, born of this contemplation, that it is not possible to leave the world in any real sense. There is simply no place else to go…The experience challenged the concept of a separate ‘holy’ existence lived in a monastery. He experienced the glorious destiny that comes simply from being a human person and from being united with, not separated from, the rest of the human race.”

The great truth is that we are all horned with light but we have not developed the eyes to see it and our calluses have grown too thick over the surface to reveal it. This is the great gift of those figures such as Moses for the Jews and Jesus for us Christians: their connection to that divine light is so unimpeded that it shines out so even the blind can see. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is unattainable for us average humans, that both Moses and Jesus are a different order of creature entirely, but Saint Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians that every one of us has this connection if we would but have the boldness and confidence to unveil it.

The tragedy of modern understandings of Jesus is how the polarity of divisions have lost the unitive truth. Conservatives tend to emphasize the divinity of Christ while diminishing the humanity. Liberals tend to emphasize the humanity of Jesus without appreciating divinity. In truth, orthodox Christian teaching is both/and rather than either/or. Since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, official Christology (the doctrine of Christ’s nature), as quoted on page 841 of the Book of Common Prayer under the seat in front of you, is: Jesus is both fully God and fully Man in a way that does not diminish the fullness of each reality. Sadly, even those who affirm that sometimes miss the final implication for us.

Just as the horns of Moses imply his presence as the very horns of the altar in the temple sanctuary, just as Jesus promised to “tear down and rebuild the temple in three days” in the form of his body, so also we each of us are temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus descended to the human so that we might understand the human to be divine, as 4th century church father Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation, “God became Man that Man might become God.”* When we realize this, when we see the full implications of the glory of God, we may be just as terrified as those three disciples on the mountain, just as lost for words as James and John or as thoughtlessly babbling as Peter. When we see every body around us as glowing with the radiance of God, when we recognize that our own bodies contain that same radiance, we can no longer respect the divisions of the world. We can no longer hold onto hatred or fear of others, we  can no longer resent or begrudge, or envy people in our lives. That’s a hard thing to do. Enlightenment isn’t always easy: but it’s joyful. And it is the fate Jesus calls us to. May you be aware of your own horns today, as you also see the horns on your neighbor, as we celebrate the light of the world in each and every one of us.



* Eastern Orthodox theologians call this theosis: “a transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God, as taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches. As a process of transformation, theosis is brought about by the effects of catharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria ('illumination' with the 'vision' of God). According to Eastern Christian teaching, theosis is very much the purpose of human life. It is considered achievable only through a synergy (or cooperation) between human activity and God's uncreated energies (or operations).” 

Notes from the Jewish Study Bible on the Exodus reading: 

According to passages such as Ezek. 1.27-28; Hab. 3.4; Ps. 104.2, the divine Presence is surrounded by a radiant luminosity (a concept also found in Mesopotamian literature, where it is called "fearsome radiance"). Thus, from his lengthy and intense encounter with God, Moses' face came to reflect the divine radiance. In this way, the golden calf episode ends with the theme with which it began: Moses' role as Israel's conduit to God, which the people feared they had lost (32.1 n.), is reaffirmed and he is shown to be more than a common "man" (32.1).

34.29: 'Radiant,' Heb "karan," from "keren," "horn," in the sense of projection, emanation, as in Hab. 3.4 ("rays"). “His brightness shall be as the light: horns are in his hands: There is his strength hid.” In the Vulgate, Jerome, in an over-etymological translation, rendered "was horned," although he knew from the Septuagint that the meaning was figurative. Nevertheless, his translation led to the image of Moses with horns in medieval and Renaissance art (see esp. Michelangelo's Moses), and eventually, coupled with the notion of Satan's horns, to the anti-Semitic belief that Jews have horns.

The Light that Illumines Also Burns (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Today, our Old Testament and Gospel readings speak of a messenger coming to the people, a perfect theme for Advent. It’s perfect because both the texts and the season contain elements of tension and dis/ease.

Advent is a complicated section of the church year. Is it penitential, or joyful? More like Epiphany, or Lent? Is the purple for royalty, or for sorrow? At this time we look toward a coming Light, yet we dwell in Darkness. And what is light for those in the dark—is it welcome, or feared? What might be revealed, what might be set alight, when the season comes to an end?

Jesus and Seminary (Senior Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

This is my senior sermon delivered at Virginia Theological Seminary on November 26, 2018, addressed primarily to my community of classmates, professors, and administrators.

Apparently, the Diocese of Virginia has been concerned about its seminarians lately. You see, they haven’t been saying the word “Jesus” enough in interviews. This has become a bit of a running joke for my 2019 cohort. Now, I must admit I was as uncomfortable as most #exvangelicals when a member of my own Standing Committee eagerly spoke up to say they’d been asking every interviewee, “But do you love Jesus?” I mean, what are you really supposed to do with that as an Episcopal seminarian? Do they really think we’ll say “Nah, not so much, I’m more of a Paul guy?”

Yet at the same time that we're not interested in repeating Christian clichés and using religious terminology merely to seem “correct,” many of us have also been wondering where Jesus is supposed to show up in our campus curriculum. In the two and a half years I have been at this seminary, I have taken classes in Bible, systematic theology, Christian ethics, ancient languages, and church history. Yet not once have I heard a single lecture or had an assignment on the lived life or teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Consider the Widows of Society (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

The readings from our lectionary seem to preach themselves today. I would like to give them a little context, and then ask you to listen one more time to these stories, thoughtfully hearing their words anew, to see what the Spirit might have to say to us today.

Our readings focus on the Widow.

In the ancient world, the widow and orphan were the most vulnerable in society. They had no means of income, beyond that most ancient of occupations, and were left to trust in the kindness of neighbors and the laws of their nation.

The first of many encounters between the vilified Israelite king Ahab and the great prophet Elijah centers around a divine judgement-by-drought and the care of a foreign widow. Ahab is said to have done what is wrong in the eyes of God more than any of his predecessors, and worst of all he had taken Jezebel the daughter of the king of Sidon as his wife. Sidon was one of the powerful and wealthy city-states of the Phoenicians. This marriage brought both lucrative trade contracts and foreign idol worship to Israel. In response, Elijah proclaimed three years of drought on the land, and then fled to the wilderness. Here he came across the household of a widow where our reading begins.

The Power of Women and the Heart of the Law (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

For many of us individually, and certainly for our larger community, the events and debates of these last few weeks have been very difficult. They have brought into question our values, our identities, and what worth we give to those around us. Setting aside party allegiances or abstract policy commitments, I think it is fair to say we are all worse off after the weeks that ended with a confirmation yesterday, but women in particular have lost the most.

It was with these events in mind, and with a heavy heart, that I turned to our lectionary passages today. Both our Genesis and Mark readings have something to say about the relationship between man and woman, and both have been used for harm and for good throughout the centuries of first Jewish and then Christian tradition.

Miracle of Opening (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

“What is a miracle?”

This is the question I’ve had on my mind this week as I’ve reflected on the lectionary for today. Our gospel reading contains two stories which are typically called miracles, even if the label is not used in the text. In one, a demon is exorcised; in the other, hearing and speech are restored.

Impressive, right?

But here’s the question I want to explore with you now: what is the point?

Of what should we be impressed? What is the shape of the pressure of these stories on our hearts?

Children of the True Light, Illume the Eyes (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Ok, so I know Bible verse memorization is not as big in the Episcopal Church as it is in the evangelical world, but my guess is that there are some of you here who are familiar with this reference: John 3:16. Right? Can anyone join me in reciting it from memory, with the caveat that I know it best in the King James? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Whether you can recite it perfectly or not, I imagine most of us are familiar with the general idea or at minimum have seen the reference frequently on billboards, signs at sports events, or in other contexts. According to “,” which claims to sort Bible verses by frequency of use on the internet, it is the #1 most popular verse. The site goes on to claim that it is the third of only eight individual verses in the entire Bible which provide “the story of God's plan to restore his relationship with us.” I do hope the editors of our Lectionary don’t take that too seriously, as I enjoy having more than eight verses to preach on each year!

The Wilderness After Epiphany (Sermon)

SermonJ. Elliott LeinComment

Last week, your preacher talked to you about mountaintop experiences. Today, as we transition from the revelation and excitement of Epiphany to the introspection of Lent, I would like to ponder what often happens after we descend from the mountain.

Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan river. Mark’s account is characteristically brief and rough with few of the details contained in other accounts, filled with a sense of urgency and immediacy and a focus on disciples of Jesus who are called to heavy responsibility but often bewildered as to what it all means. As we work through the immense series of events contained in these brief, staccato verses, let us see if the Spirit may speak through our imaginations as we are first introduced to the Christ as yet another poor first- century Jewish man being submerged in the waters of a border river in Roman Palestine by yet another crazy-sounding, disheveled, insect-eating, charismatic prophet preaching reformation and the coming of a messiah figure at some unspecified but soon-to-arrive time.

As Jesus reemerged from the turbulent, muddy flow, roughly wiping water and hair out of his eyes, suddenly the sky was rent across, a deep tear ripping across the azure blue. The darkness of the cosmos poured through and he felt the fingering movements of the Ru’ach, the Breath, the Spirit, settle upon him just as it had brooded over the face of the deep on the first day of creation. The plea of the prophet Isaiah, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!” (Is 64:1) was being answered. What had long been sealed was being flung open!