This is a story about what in Christian Tradition is known as the Last Supper and in the Jewish tradition as the final Passover meal that Jesus of Nazareth shared with his disciples.
Mary Magdalene and the other women who had traveled with Jesus as he taught had been preparing the ritual meal: the roasted eggs, the lamb, the dates and apples, the unleavened bread. There were to be 13 men and four women at the meal: Jesus’ mother Mary, Susanna, Joanna, and Mary of Magdala — who had left her husband and her baby daughter to go with Jesus, to cure herself of the mental demons that had darkened her life. Only, in those days, people believed that the demons were real, and in possession of their bodies. Jesus had encouraged her to take some time by herself, as he himself, to rid herself of the demons and of the anguish they were causing her. And so she did.
She had been with him throughout much of his journey of teaching and prophesying; indeed, Jesus had told her that she alone among his followers also had the gift of spiritual insight into the future. She had had dreams, terrible dreams, about the destruction of the Temple and Jesus’ death on a cross, some of which she had shared with her beloved friend and Rabbi, Rabbini she called him, Teacher. So it was natural and right for her to be with Jesus on the Passover night, to help prepare and to share in the special meal, the Seder, which had drawn so many pilgrims into Jerusalem. This Passover was an especially edgy and agitated time in the Holy City, as the people were feeling more and more powerless under tightening Roman rule.
Jesus was the last to arrive at the borrowed house of a wealthy Pharisee friend, with its spacious upper room, low tables, and reclining couches — so the men and women gathered there could recline while eating — the one day of the year they could act as rich as kings, no matter how poor. Before proceeding with the customary rituals — the lighting of candles, the blessings, the pouring of the wine — Jesus told the disciples that first they would be servants to each other. The greatest shall serve the least, he declared, and began to wash the feet of each one there, first Thomas, then Peter, Judas, James, and then Mary Magdalene. All of them having their feet washed so that in the days to come they might wash each other’s.
For, while it was true that the women did the traditional woman’s work of preparing and serving the many dishes, pouring the wine, and removing the dirty plates, Jesus, unlike other holy men, had welcomed them as fellow travelers, as students, and in Mary’s case, a much loved friend.
In the stories that are told about Jesus, those in the Bible, and those that are not, he tells his disciples that Passover night that he will not be with them to celebrate another Passover. That this would be their Last Supper together. And the next day, he is arrested, and accused of seditious acts, and sentenced to die by crucifixion, the common way that Roman authorities put their prisoners to death. Thousands of them, over the worst years of suspicion and oppression in the years leading up to the burning of the temple, only a few years after the death of Jesus.
While Mary Magdalene’s role in the last supper — or indeed in the whole of Jesus’ ministry — is little mentioned in the familiar Gospel or Good News stories of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, in John’s Gospel, it is apparent from this telling that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the empty tomb on the first early Easter morning, the first person to see Jesus again, and as one female biblical scholar points out — the first apostle, or disciple of Jesus, following his death. We can only imagine how overwhelmed with joy and relief she was to see him standing before her. She must have wanted to reach out and touch him, if just to see if he was really alive. In this story, Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him, but to go and share the news that he is not dead to them, and as she had a chance to say directly in the remnants of her own Gospel, to recognize and work on her own spiritual nature. The salvation that is achieved by discovering within oneself the true nature of each human being and entrapments that prevent us from living, as we might say now, an authentic self-actualized life.
In other words, our own divinity.
A wholeness, or holiness, available to us with the integration of our inner completeness and the eternal, mystical spirit of all life.
And that is why I have called her the “Divine Ms. M,” not to be deliberately outrageous or disrespectful to the Christian story that is a thread of wisdom in our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. But in recognition and appreciation of the spiritual teachings she offered, that have been so little recognized.
No doubt, it is culturally satisfying in this time of the super masculine Jesus in a male dominated conservative Christianity to see Mary Magdalene become her own pop Icon, as one professor of religion has observed, she’s one hot commodity right now. That she is the subject, as reporter Mark Pinsky recently wrote, of a boom in scholarly and popular literature with at least six new books suggesting roles for her that range from the 13th apostle to a goddess.
This burst of publicity and story-telling about her includes best-selling Mary Called Magdalene, which portrays her as a significant, perhaps central follower of Jesus, and who presumes she was a leader of, and was buried near, the early Christian church in Ephesus. This biographical novel gives us very little of what she believed and taught, independent of other male-driven Gospels, but does at least describe a Mary M. who was a close and trusted disciple during Jesus’ life and a leader after his death.
And, of course, the solid gold Da Vinci Code, 54 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 6.8 million copies in print, which combines a good thriller with one of the theories about Ms. M, that she was married to Jesus, pregnant when he died, and moved to France, where she continued their royal blood line. In this novel, her personal history, her family, and her symbol as the divine feminine, symbolized by the rose, is protected by templar knights, by troubadours, and famous artists including Leonardo Da Vinci.
This “something about Mary,” as one headline called her resurgence, no matter how thinly told or exaggerated, at the very least calls attention to her possibilities as a religious figure and leader, and rescues her from more than 1,500 years of slander as a prostitute who was transformed by Jesus’ forgiveness. This erroneous description, a Catholic Bishop’s poor biblical scholarship, was actually reversed by the Vatican in l969, but this miscasting remains, not so underground, within the church myth and practice.
In the Gospel of Luke, he describes a woman, “a sinner,” whom is assumed is a prostitute, to anoint Jesus at that famous last supper. It has been commonly assumed that Magdalene is this sinner, who receives forgiveness after washing Jesus’ feet with her tears.
In this too-familiar, time-old story, she is a whore, perhaps a whore with a heart, but this false casting has condemned millions of women to second-class religious status, has spawned cruel homes for wayward women in her name, and has fed into the denial of women of the most precious and basic rituals of the Christian faith, including, most recently, the renunciation of lay women participants in Maundy Thursday foot washings in the entire Catholic diocese of Atlanta.
As one female theologian said recently, Mary Magdalene’s resurrection as either a redeemed prostitute, or wife of Jesus, and mother of a royal family in exile, still deprive her, and us, of her true status, as evidenced in the shreds of her Gnostic Gospel, as a spiritual leader of the early Christian movement.
In his commentary on the shreds of the Gospel of Magdalene, French scholar Jean Yves LeLoup, this Orthodox Catholic, calls her the apostle of apostles. In this and other non-canonical, or Gnostic, Gospels — those left out of the Bible as we know it — Jesus clearly asks her to pass on a teaching to the others, the 12 who are not present. That through gnosis, or direct knowing, comes union with the Divine. Through the path of inner preparation, introspection, and inner transformation. If the most familiar male disciples or apostles focused on the literal spreading of their understanding of Jesus as Christ, Magdalene and some of the carried their own Good News, their own Gospel of mysticism, of deep knowing and hyper-clear seeing. This incomplete and mostly ignored Gospel Story is what fascinates me most, especially in the Post-Easter cycle of the Christian year. These few pages have given scholars and those others who have read it what has been described as a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to spiritual knowledge.
It very simply rejects his suffering and death as the “real story” and central message. It urges each person, male or female, to reject the temptation to look for replacement Jesuses, some false heroic leader, a set of outer rules and laws and doctrines. It teaches a religion wherein people sin because they do not recognize their own spiritual nature and instead follow their lower nature, what we often call selfish ego, which leads them to wrongdoing, illness, and a kind of moral death. That the “way” is not a hierarchy, an actual kingdom with its power struggles and condemnation, but a journey of the soul, at times deeply private and at others in communion around a simple table. It is this religious path, this loving and peaceful resurrection, that I honor.
May the spirit of life be with us now and always.