We recently celebrated the feast day of St. Mary of Magdala, a woman who is responsible for the founding of the Christian tradition and a model of what it means to live up to the role and expectation of being a human being.
Committed to Jesus’ message of love, inclusion, liberation, and social justice, she funded his ministry and in his darkest hour, when the male apostles had abandoned him, Mary of Magdala stood at the foot of the cross.
The Gospels honor her as the person Jesus chose to reveal his resurrected self to – and the first person to preach the message of the Risen Christ — a message initially met with utter disbelief by the male apostles. This male dominated book was careful to ensure that the world knew that Mary of Magdala — a woman — had a primary role in Jesus’ ministry and the establishing of Christianity. Without her – we would not know the message of Jesus as we do today.
We see how she has been punished for this. The shifting of her identity dictated by the patriarchal structures of the Church is well demonstrated through art history. Early on her image was shared as a woman who was respected – her head covered and wearing colors that signified her position of importance. Following the not so accidental interpretation of Mary of Magdala as a prostitute in 591 CE by Pope Gregory I, suddenly the imagery changes to a woman with red hair, long and flowing, often nude, begging to be forgiven. What better way to silence a woman than call her a whore?
It is important to note here that sex work is not a sin of the female flesh, but rather a sin of the power structures that force women into sex work, of those who exploit the bodies of women and girls. Women who freely choose to engage in sex work are active agents and it is not their actions, but instead the judgment they endure that is the sin.
Sadly – and very representative of the need for both Church and societal reform – many still think Mary of Magdala was a sex worker and have no idea of the role she played in Jesus’ ministry or her representation of humanity.
When I think about the relationship between Mary and Jesus — it is one characterized by solidarity. Mary of Magdala stood in solidarity with Jesus and all those suffering under the Roman Occupation.
If we take the time to think about identity and who Mary of Magdala was, who Jesus was — we see the difference in levels of oppression – No doubt Mary of Magdala was oppressed as a woman living during the 1st century. However, she had a level of privilege that Jesus did not. Although it is believed that she was Jewish – her culture and manners are connected to a Gentile background which would have offered a particular position in society – not to mention her financial stability.
We know from her name that Mary of Magdala was a woman of means – a woman of privilege. She is not referred to as a woman connected to a man – as was the tradition. She is called by her name – and connected to her birth place. This is so incredibly rare and signifies that in fact she had power, wealth, and influence.
Jesus was an impoverished Jew suffering under Roman Occupation. He was characterized by his Jewishness and marginalized for it. Fishing was a necessity for survival in Galilee; it was how people fed their families. However, Rome made it illegal for Jews to fish, so Jesus – like so many others – struggled with poverty and hunger.
As a woman, Mary of Magdala experienced oppression – but not in the same ways that Jesus did. Just as I experience oppression as a woman, but do not fear the fate of Trayvon Martin. This intersectional complexity is demonstrated in their lived experiences.
In today’s world, many of us are disenfranchised because we are part of the 99% – yet many of us also have privileges that keep us from encountering an ongoing state of fear because of the many injustices that exist.
While feminist and anti-racist movements have made significant contributions toward disrupting injustice, they often function on a single axis and are characterized by problematic exclusions that do not address the multi axis nature of oppression.
Mary of Magdala demonstrates the responsibility we have as persons with privilege in a world where power structures continue to oppress the historically disenfranchised. We must acknowledge our privilege and choose to stand in solidarity with those who live at the margins.
I imagine that if Mary of Magdala was living in our world today, she would be at the border demanding justice for immigrants, participating in a Black Lives Matter march, and demanding an end to discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community. I also imaging that she would be challenging westernized Christianity as a tradition that has morphed into a weapon of colonization and oppression.
As human beings we are called to honor humanity, recognize the importance of community, and work towards the flourishing of a society that serves the needs of all living beings. Mary of Magdala offers us this example. We must challenge ourselves to own our privilege, choose to relinquish it, and work to disrupt the power structures that deny the value of every life.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of . She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again and Women Religion Revolution. 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 of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.