While I am joining the conversation a bit late, I find it necessary to comment on the significance of the “upgrading” of the celebration of St. Mary of Magdala to a feast – on par with the male apostles. While such a day that honors her is quite overdue, I am grateful to Pope Francis for acknowledging this incredible woman and her leadership in the Christian movement.
As we know from the Gospels, it was Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus, during his crucifixion. When the male apostles ran in fear – and rightfully so – Mary of Magdala stood with Jesus refusing to disavow him and was a face of love for him to see during his darkest moment.
It was Mary of Magdala who was the first witness of Christ’s resurrection. The very first Easter began with her and she was commissioned by Jesus to go and share the good news – to tell the other apostles – and that is why she is known as the apostle to the apostles.
What you may not know about Mary of Magdala is that she was a woman of means – an independent woman who chose to use her resources to support the mission of Jesus. We know this from her very name – she is not called “Mary, daughter of” or “Mary, wife of” – she is Mary of Magdala – Magdala being her home town.
She was NOT a prostitute as Pope Gregory mistakenly claimed in the sixth century – a misreading of the Gospels that stuck for more than a millennium. And although the error was corrected in 1969, it was never announced and most do not know that in fact, Mary of Magdala was a radical independent woman who sought positive social change through her support for Jesus’ mission.
In claiming that she was a prostitute and refusing to acknowledge such an error, her apostleship has been ignored and her voice silenced.
To call her – or any woman – a prostitute is to claim that she is a sinner, one who is lustful. However, prostitution is in fact a sin of the objectification of women. In a society with few opportunities for economic stability for women, social structures leave some with little other choice than to participate in sex work. And yet, such incorrect teachings about Mary of Magdala, and claims about prostitution in general leave us judging women who make difficult decisions for survival rather than acknowledging the truth of our patriarchal society.
It was this mischaracterization of Mary of Magdala that undermined her importance, power, and leadership in the early Christian movement. To this day, many have no idea that she was not a prostitute.
And so, the “upgrading” of the celebration of St. Mary of Magdala to a feast is a critical moment – not only in the Catholic Church, but in our greater communities. Finally, Mary of Magdala is being acknowledged for the true leader she is in our Church – a woman who was chosen by Christ as the witness to his resurrection and the apostle to share the good news. Could there be any more critical role in the founding of Christianity?
There is so much that we can learn from Mary of Magdala. While there have been many attempts to silence her, she was certainly not voiceless. Without her voice, with out her courage, her unwavering commitment to Jesus and his mission, there very well might be no Church today. In the face of political backlash and injustice, she refused to back away from the call for liberation for all – not just some.
You may remember that Pope Francis said that women are the strawberries on the cake – well intentioned I am sure – but I’ll tell you, Mary of Magdala is no strawberry – she baked the cake. And it is through her example that we come to find our own responsibility to continue to be courageous in working for renewal in the Church.
There is no denying that women have distanced themselves from the Church – now more than ever, women’s participation is in a serious decline and continues to dwindle. Why? The answer is clear – patriarchal leadership and teachings – those that have silenced Mary of Magdala for more than a millennium have also worked to silence women and discount their value. Teachings like complementarity that claims specific gendered roles for women and men – NOT an anthropological fact as Francis has claimed – refuse to acknowledge the many gifts that women have to share. We have value beyond our wombs.
Our God is not a man, our God is not an overbearing father demanding to control our sexuality. And the Christian faith is not one that was founded on discriminatory ideas – such a claim is a distortion of faith.
While we hold so dear the image of Jesus at the last supper – surrounded by men – in truth Jesus shared his table with all – with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners, Pharisees, Gentiles, – men AND women alike – and called for a society that reflected inclusion and liberation for all.
And so, we must follow the example of Mary of Magdala – who in the face of great danger stood her ground, honored her beliefs, and did not cower to the threats of a system that attempted to hold power over her.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She writes for The Huffington Post, has authored multiple publications and is the co-editor of the highly acclaimed Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the world. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @FemTheologian, Facebook, and her website ginamessinadysert.com.