Today is the eve of Mary Magdalen’s Feast Day, July 22. I like to celebrate with Maeve, my BIFF (best imaginary friend forever) the Celtic Mary Magdalen and narrator of The Maeve Chronicles. Below is an excerpt (edited for brevity) from The Passion of Mary Magdalen. Maeve (who against her better judgment is married to Jesus) is camped out with her beloved and his growing entourage at the house of the Bethany family, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The huge crowd of motley guests is enough to give a good hostess hives. The scene opens as Maeve returns from an outing with her mother-in-law aka the BVM.
When we walked into the courtyard of Martha’s house, the air was as charged as the moment before a thunderclap when the wind has stilled and everything holds its breath. Martha stood, confronting Jesus in the center of a seated crowd. Her chest was heaving, and she was clearly struggling to control herself. On the ground in front of her was a platter she must have dropped (or hurled?). Bread, olive paste, cheese, and grapes lay scattered among bits of broken crockery. Mary B, sitting nearest Jesus, (yes, you could say at his feet) was the first to unfreeze. She got on her knees and started gathering up the shards, but Martha paid no attention.
“Lord!” Martha said through clenched teeth; she was trying to keep her voice low, but of course everyone was straining to hear. “Do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do all the serving myself? Tell her to help me!”
Jesus regarded Martha for an awfully long time before he answered. He knew he was in a tight spot, and enigmatic silence (a talent of his rivaled only by his gift for sounding off) is a good delaying tactic. If he told Mary B to get off her ass and serve, he would be denying her discipleship, denying the right of women to be disciples. Keep that in mind, those of you who hate what he said next.
“Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, yet few are needed, indeed only one. Mary has chosen her place”—(I swear he did not say “the better part” or I would have smacked him)—“and it shall not be taken from her.”
So there it is: the dilemma of millennia. If you defend a woman’s right to be a doctor, lawyer, disciple, leader, do you inevitably denigrate the woman (or the slave or, in your time, the illegal immigrant) who is cooking, washing dishes, changing diapers, and wiping noses? If no one did that work, where would any of us be? Some people may apologize for Jesus and say that Martha is the self-important, make-work part of ourselves. But I think that’s the easy way out. I will leave Jesus impaled on the horns of the dilemma. In fact, in that moment, I did not want to deal with him at all.
“You raised him,” I prodded my mother-in-law. “You do something.”
But Miriam had closed her eyes and started to sway and hum, which added to the tension in the courtyard. Her only response was to give me a not-so-gentle nudge. I looked at Martha, her face mottled, about to burst into tears. I glanced at Mary, still fumbling with the crockery, looking not only sorry but absolutely stricken. And then it happened. As the prophets say, the spirit of (well, all right) the Lord came upon me.
Just as Martha was about to bolt, I stepped through the crowd and took her hand. With my other hand, I reached for Mary B and pulled her to her feet. And if I do say so myself, it’s a goddamned shame no one wrote down what I did next.
“Anyone who wants to be great among you,” I began, my druid-trained memory standing me in good stead, “must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. For the Son of Man himself…” I cast a baleful glance at my husband, who looked just like his mother, at the moment, swaying with his eyes closed. “I said the Son of Man himself, came not to be served but to serve.”
There was a stunned silence followed by a lot of gasping and sputtering: the nerve of this gentile hussy (whom the Master had married as some inscrutable act of mercy or in a moment of temporary insanity) daring to rebuke him in public and with his own words. The Lord smite her, turn her into a pillar of salt or something, the wicked woman, or better yet the earth should gape and swallow her altogether.
Jesus opened one eye and looked straight at me. It wasn’t a wink exactly, but I took it as an admission: You got me. I decided to push my luck.
“Man may not live by bread alone, but I’ve noticed you all like to eat. What is more, doesn’t our, um,” I hesitated, wondering how to refer to Jesus because I could not choke out the word Master, “doesn’t our Bridegroom teach us that eating together is holy? Doesn’t he invite us all to the wedding feast? Well, who’s going to cook it and serve it? You? Me? Her? Him? And aren’t we all guests at the feast? The beggars, the sinners, the servants?”
“Tell it, sister!” called out Susanna and she caught the rhythm of my speech and started clapping it; soon the other women joined in, and some got up and started to tap it with their feet. And then before I knew what was happening, I went into a kind of trance and started to chant, singing out line after line in time to the clapping.
And aren’t we the salt
that gives the feast its savor?
Come to the feast, last and first
And isn’t it held in the mustard seed
flavored with the speech of birds?
Come serve and be served
And isn’t it in the garlic cloves
the sweet rose and its bitter fruit?
Come to the feast, last and first
Feed among the lilies with my beloved
with the roes and the hinds.
Come serve and be served
And the radiance shall sweeten our tongues
and sing in our bellies.
And so it went on and on, with more and more people joining in the refrain. Then others took over and made up their own verses. I wasn’t leading anymore. I had just been the opening for the song that had flowed into our midst. All the women and even some of the men were dancing now. And I closed my eyes and let the sound and the rhythm carry me. When the song finally ended, I opened my eyes and saw Jesus still standing in the same place, still swaying slightly to some music we could not hear.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known for The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple. An ordained interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she celebrates the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. She lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley. For more: www.passionofmarymagdalen.com and www.highvalley.org.