Sunday, May 21, 2006

Mary and the Pharisees

O my Teacher and my Savior,
What would have been my destiny,
Had not eternity expected
My acquiescence every night,
With each fresh customer enticed
Into the web of my profession?

The Magdalene by Doctor Yuri Zhivago (Boris Pasternak)

Listen up, fresh customers. Ron Howard, facing a disappointing critical reception to his film The Da Vinci Code, has fallen back on the less-than-brave tactic of claiming that the film’s offensive qualities (which he obviously underestimated) are intended only to provoke discussion. If you haven’t heard that one before, you slept through Fahrenheit 911.

But if they want some discussion, I’ve got it on tap, and all at their expense. The subject of this discussion is the Mary called Magdalene; a Mary very extraordinary, the freed captive of seven demons who wept at the foot of the cross; a seer of angels and first witness to the Resurrection. Mentioned in all four of the gospels (but ignored by the trendy bogus gospels of Thomas and Judas) the few chords that she touches there have reverberated through two thousand years of history.

Hollywood can’t understand a woman like Mary, just as they can’t understand Joan of Arc or Shakespeare’s Ophelia. This is because Hollywood is heavily informed by feminism. Feminists don’t know dick about women, even if they happen to be women.

How Many Marys Can We Put You Down For?

Mary Magdalene is a sort of miniature trinity, being sometimes one woman and sometimes two or three (or even four) depending on interpretation. Besides the passages where she is named as Mary Magdalene, three other women mentioned in the gospels are thought by some to be Mary Magdalene:

- Mary, the sister of Jesus’ good friends Martha and Lazarus, who left home to become a disciple. Also called Mary of Bethany. [Luke 10:38-42, John 11]

- A woman in Capernaum who anointed Jesus’ feet, much to the annoyance of Simon the Pharisee, who told Jesus he ought to send her away because she was a sinner (probably a prostitute). [Luke 7:36-50]

- An adulteress who was saved from stoning by Jesus. [John 8:7]

In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed sinner of Capernaum are thought to be the same person. In Greek Orthodox tradition, they are thought to be three separate women and each has a separate feast day dedicated to her. Protestants tend to fall somewhere in between, generally holding that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, at least, were separate individuals. Some popular traditions associate Mary Magdalene with the adulteress of John 8:7, but most scholars don’t. In my opinion they were all separate women – Jesus had lots of female followers, including more than one Mary.

It’s a matter of opinion, anyway, not of doctrine or faith. Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine both refused to take sides on this issue.

Regardless of this, we know several things about Mary Magdalene from the passages where she is unmistakably identified: She had seven devils cast out of her by Jesus, she was present at the crucifixion, she discovered Jesus’ tomb empty and spoke to the angels who were there, and she was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. Throwing in the other women just adds some background to Mary; in particular, the idea that she was a prostitute.

Mary and the Feminist Vice Squad

“That, my dear,” Teabing replied, “is Mary Magdalene.”

Sophie turned. “The prostitute?”

Teabing drew a short breath, as if the word had injured him personally. “Magdalene was no such thing. That unfortunate misconception is the legacy of a smear campaign launched by the early Church.”
So says the Gospel according to Dan Brown. Brown doesn’t stop to consider the fact that Mary Magdalene is a Catholic saint. (She’s a saint in the Orthodox and Anglican churches, too.) Making someone a saint is a funny way of smearing them. Dan Brown doesn’t bother drawing logical conclusions from his ideas, probably because he has no original ideas.

The depth of the confusion can be seen in this Time article about The Da Vinci Code: Mary Magdalene, Saint or Sinner? Even the title ought to give Christians pause at the fundamental ignorance being displayed here. Saint and Sinner are not two mutually exclusive things – in fact, every saint is both at once. Even the saints sin and fall short of the glory of God.

Treating the conflation of Mary Magdalene with the “sinner” as an underhanded conspiracy that has been covered up for centuries (“Three decades ago, the Roman Catholic Church quietly admitted what critics had been saying for centuries: Magdalene's standard image as a reformed prostitute is not supported by the text of the Bible.”) the article goes on to lament: “Whatever the motivation, the effect of the process was drastic and, from a feminist perspective, tragic.”

Of course, from a feminist perspective, everything is tragic – from simple organic chemistry on up to God Himself. It’s all so unfair. And they can’t understand Mary Magdalene except in terms of status and power (which are matter and energy in the feminist universe) so they must stumble the moment they set foot on her trail:
"The pattern is a common one," writes Jane Schaberg, a professor of religious and women's studies at the University of Detroit Mercy and author of last year's The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: "the powerful woman disempowered, remembered as a whore or whorish." As shorthand, Schaberg coined the term "harlotization."
If I’m laying it too heavily on the feminists here, it needs to be pointed out that feminism has no unique content of its own. It is only a minor subspecies of parochial modernism, that despises history and refuses to understand anything except by its own narrow, contemporary values. So they are shocked that Mary Magdalene, whom they have chosen to picture as the Hillary Clinton of Galilee, is mixed up with “less distinguished” women like simple Mary of Bethany and the whore of Capernaum.

A simple examination of the canonical gospels, rather than a rummage through the dumpsters of Gnosticism and neo-paganism, allows us to look at Mary Magdalene the way Jesus Christ saw her, which is quite a different perspective.

Jesus Among the Whores and Sinners

“Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” So said Jesus to the chief priests and elders of Bethany, who questioned how he could forgive the sins of such people. “For John [the Baptist] came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him.” [Matthew 21:31-32]

It was no small part of the scandal that Jesus made among the scribes and Pharisees, that he consistently refused to turn his back on the whores and tax collectors, let alone recognize their right to put such sinners to death under Mosaic Law. “Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” [Luke 5:30-32]

But the clearest answer is given when Jesus meets the whore at the house of Simon the Pharisee [Luke 7]:

SIMON (muttering to himself): This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.

JESUS: Simon, I have something to tell thee.

SIMON: Master, say on.

JESUS: There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?

SIMON: I suppose the one to whom he forgave the larger debt.

JESUS: Thou hast rightly judged. Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.

It is this woman that Catholic tradition identifies as Mary Magdalene, to the outrage of the feminists who call it “harlotization”. They couldn’t miss the point by a wider margin if they tried, though I suspect they try very hard to miss the point. They must likewise miss the point of “the last shall be first”, “blessed are the poor in spirit”, and “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

They want to “elevate” Mary Magdalene by turning her into Simon the Pharisee, but Jesus was on the side of the poor powerless whores.

Pope Gregory and the Legend of Mattress Mary

In his “Homily 33”, Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) made a number of conjectures about Mary Magdalene: That she was the sinner that met Jesus at the home of Simon the Pharisee, that her sin was prostitution, and that the ointment she put on Jesus’ feet was -so to speak - formerly used as a sexual aid.

None of these ideas were new, but they planted the identification of Mary as a whore firmly into Catholic tradition. So the modern Pharisees all hit the roof. But even if Gregory’s speculation was off base, Jesus Christ would have had no trouble seeing his point.

To Gregory, the notion of a whore’s perfume being put on Christ’s feet was a vivid example of how sin is transformed by redemption. He further imagines that the seven devils that Jesus cast out of Mary (an event mentioned in two of the gospels, but never described) represented the Seven Deadly Sins – so Mary Magdalene was a regular Smorgasbord of Sin.

People who cannot understand how Gregory is praising Mary Magdalene cannot understand Jesus or Christianity, period. The more degraded Mary the Sinner was, the more exalted was Mary the Saint. Having been forgiven so much, she was great in repentance and great in love – great in spiritual virtue, not power, status, or respectability. That’s why Jesus refused to be repelled by her, and why he praised her above the “good” Pharisees.

Hamlet told his mother, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” Mary Magdalene had the virtue, and doesn’t need our modern assumptions. Again, it is those who want to dress her up as a Pharisee who insult and diminish her. Call it the Mary Magdalene Code. There’s nothing secret, esoteric, or difficult about it, yet some people will be eternally stumped by it.

Mary Magdalene, Superstar

For hundreds of years before the feminist neo-pagans and the best-selling philistines discovered our poor Mary, millions of Christians followed her through the familiar Easter recitation of John Chapter 20.

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

Simon Peter and another disciple went into the tomb first and saw nothing, after which they went home. It was Mary Magdalene to whom all the visions were given that morning – Mary the sinner, the whore, the weeping maudlin woman. Not the Pharisees or priests, or even the apostles. Just her, who loved him most.

No small thing, for those who can understand it.