Was Mary Magdalene the First Pope? (Sunday Homily)

hieros gamos

Readings for the eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2SM 12:7-10, 13; PS 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; GAL 2: 16, 19-21; LK 7: 36-8:3

As much as we love Pope Francis, many of us have been disappointed by his consistent refusal to consider ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood. In the light of such irritating consistency, the pope would do well to reconsider today’s Gospel reading.

I say that because it offers a compelling argument not merely admitting women to the priesthood, but to the highest office in the church – the papacy itself. It does so by presenting Mary Magdalene as performing an undeniably priestly function far beyond any recorded of Yeshua’s apostles. Doing so brings to mind the Master’s supreme elevation of Mary Magdalene found in patriarchally-suppressed sources outside the canonical Gospels. There Yeshua designates Mary as superior even to Peter.

Consider the episode Luke records.

Yeshua has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system the Church and Pope Francis have made their own. But in this case, the “host” proves to be inhospitable in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.

Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Yeshua as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one. This is the priestly act I referred to earlier.

Mary’s act is absolutely extraordinary. Remember, the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Yeshua the Christ. And, as we see, it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in today’s reading from 2nd Samuel.

And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Yeshua’s time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Yeshua, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Yeshua allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ.

That is, not according to Jewish law. . . However, according to universally recognized pre-patriarchal traditions, such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king. By virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods. These facts would have been evident to Yeshua’s contemporaries.

Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.

And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s Gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Yeshua’s company.

Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Yeshua tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Yeshua’s company are described as formerly sick and possessed.

Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community would have known: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Yeshua were financial supporters of Yeshua and “The Twelve.”

But Luke reveals no corresponding negativity towards the male leaders of the early church. He doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Yeshua. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Yeshua or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.

Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Yeshua as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Yeshua appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”

In fact the Gospel of Thomas says explicitly:

“. . . the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?’”

Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Yeshua’s star pupil and the center of his attention. He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries.” Additionally, following Yeshua’s ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of the Master.

These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and patriarchs blind to women’s leadership in the early church. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the patriarchal church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.

Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

In short today’s liturgy of the word helps us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.

Clearly, Pope Francis, should change his mind on women’s ordination.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “Was Mary Magdalene the First Pope? (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Hi Mike,

    DH Lawrence’s “The Man Who Died” takes up the couple as lovers theme (as might be expected) post-resurrection. Another interesting take. And he did so without the 1945 discoveries that gave us the Gospel of Thomas. Was Thomas written in the 1st Century or the 2nd? For me, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is what resonates with the heart, and your account does that. Our understanding of history will always be from our current perspective, hopefully informed by both our intellect and our Inner Spirit (the Merton meaning).

    As for Francis: take the long view — because that’s Francis’ view of things. It’s the Jesuit way. Look at the way in this report (https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2016/06/16/pope-francis-says-clarity-doctrine-not-enough-family/) of a Francis Q&A he refers back to what he has written previously, using it to justify his position that doctrine must bend to the heart in the context of current reality. His statements reported in the article go a step farther, in being more specific and more direct (e.g., his comment describing as “animals” priests who refuse to baptise children of single mothers). He is actively, incrementally, building a doctrine of anti-doctrine, of life in Spirit. He knows (following Merton, whom he echoes over and over again) that spirituality means being personally led by our Inner Spirit; that “rules” exist as guideposts; and that those who enforce rules are therefore anti-spiritual. He has to build this foundation before the rest of the doctrinal excreta that stand in the way of spiritual development, even for those following the doctrines, can be flushed.

    In social psychology, as in biology, push creates opposition. One way around this is to bob and weave, never giving a specific target for opposition, but always getting in little jabs of insight that together create a new reality. Francis is the best I have seen at this in any public figure. Jerry Brown, the Jesuit-trained California Governor, is very good at it. Francis knows that tackling large issues would generate large opposition, and thus work against his goal of all people, not just Catholics, leading their lives on a spiritual basis.

    Another thought-provoking piece. Thanks.

    Hank

    Like

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