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.