The Virgin and the Magdalene

The Virgin Mary


Original scan by
Carol Gerten-Jackson

An anecdote attributed to Andrew Greeley:

God is walking around Heaven, and he notices people in the streets who shouldn't be there. He finds St. Peter at the gate and says to him, "Peter, you've been letting me down. You're letting in the wrong sort of people."
"Don't blame me, Lord. I turn them away just like you said to. Then they go 'round to the back door and your mother lets them in."

The folk theological view of Mary: The sweet mama in the kitchen, lovable, foolish, and wise Edith Bunker. She reminds God that he was a child once too. Modern theologians are troubled by the concept of Mary as the 'vessel' of God's incarnation. Our feminist principles balk at her being given no choice.

Our theology reflects our culture and values. In the Middle Ages, Mary and the Saints appropriated the feasts of pagan goddesses and gods: Hera, Freya, Diana. So we have Our Lady the Virgin of Guadalupe, coincidentally manifest at the shrine of Aztec Mother Goddess Tonantzin. A cynic would see this a marketing maneuvers. How can we sell this Christianity product to the Masai, the Celts, and the Toltecs? It is, of course, but it is also a function of the essential nature of God: We make him in our own image. And having made him into what we are, we then assert that the sources support us. Thus Matthew and Mark, whoever they were, did not worry about a wife's 'consent' any more than a contemporary Jew or Greek would have. But in the era of "marital rape," we are suddenly troubled by God's seduction of the Virgin. And when we can't find an answer, we commit creative anachronism.

Mary must have had a choice, the new theologians argue, whether to bear the Son of God or not. It is inconceivable that God should have forced her. Inconceivable? Depends on how you read God, I suppose. One has to wonder whether a nice Jewish girl from Nazareth would have thought, "Can I support this apparent invasion of my selfhood?" But yes, it gives her nobility if we assume that she knew what she was doing. Three ways to bear God's son:

  1. "I've decided that you will be the mother of God. You know, the Messiah? You are now pregnant, and he will be born on December 25. You'll need to be in a stable in Bethlehem the night you go into labor. The old carpenter down the street, Joseph, will marry you so that there won't be a scandal. And he's a good provider."
  2. "How would you like to be the mother of the Messiah? Mother to the King of the Jews? You'll be famous. I need your answer at your earliest convenience."
  3. "Let me tell you what I have in mind for my son. Then I'd like you to volunteer to be his mother."

No inconceivables there. Until a few years ago, what was inconceivable was that Mary might have said no. That is to say, that she had any choice in the matter. Orthodox theology has made a great fuss over Christ choosing to be flesh and to be governed by death, choosing to die on the cross. That is the wonderfully imagined orthodoxy at the foundation of the controversial Kazantzakis vision of the crucifixion: That Christ chose his fate. It was only logical to assume that Mary, too, chose. Not merely chose to be the Mother of God. Who wouldn't? Guaranteed spot on Oprah! If she chose, she knew, then she should have known the whole truth. Not just that he would be famous, and she for bearing him, but what it would cost. The passion should not have surprised her, nor even the resurrection.

Vardis Fisher argued that what is wrong with the whole Christian view of things is nicely metaphored in the absence of God the Mother from the Trinity. Misogyny is such a key principle in all the Judeo-Christian religions (Judaism, Mohammedanism, and Christianity) that her absence is no big surprise. Even the Gnostics, having imagined God the Mother, could not imagine her God's equal. Even Dan Brown, having imagined Mary Magdalene Jesus' companion, could not imagine her a respected friend. It's fascinating, though, that Protestantism's break with Catholicism was a reaction to Maryolatry in particular. The attempt to slip God's Mom in through the back door didn't fool the angry boys of Europe.

This is a woman who knew, from the beginning, who was allowed a lifetime to prepare. The Mother. And fascinating, again, that there is nothing in the Gospels to corroborate this view of her. There isn't much to her story at all. Hardly two dozen sentences of the New Testament. She is not in the word; she is in our hearts.

Mary Magdalene

Robert Graves, the mythomancer of the century, had a wonderful, arcane explanation for the Three Marys: Mary the Mom, Mary the Whore, and Mary the Groupie. It had something to do with the Triple Goddess, with Mary I as Juno/Ishtar etc., Mary II as Venus, and Mary III as... What? It must have been Diana/Artemis, but that doesn't make any sense. In case you've forgotten, Mary III is the sister of Martha and Lazarus. While Martha is taking care of cooking, putting away the disciple's coats and hats, and keeping an eye on the dog, Mary is sitting wide-eyed at Jesus' knee, murmuring, "Tell us another. Your stories are so rad." Martha makes a reasonably civil remark on the order of, "I could use a little help," and Jesus allows as how Mary is busy. It isn't one of his better moments. It's only just that the sister we remember is Martha.

Nikos Kazantzakis imagines Mary Magdalene as the jilted betrothed of Jesus, setting the stage for Jesus' last temptation, his hallucination that he married Mary, had twelve kids, and taught them to build doors and benches. Dan Brown and Margaret Starbird pick this idea up and run with it half a century later. The most positive good to come of The Da Vinci Code is its popularization of the sacred feminine, however limited his version of it may be.

I wonder if Donald Trump realizes that the predecessor of "The Trump" is "The Magdalene"? Who else is referred to that way? (It's 'thuh,' not 'thEE', by the way.) And yet, she is not an especially interesting conception, perhaps because her story is almost completely symbolic. She is not a person but a type — which type depending on our values — prostitute or housewifely "vessel." The orthodox story of Mary is nothing special, stripped of celebrity glamour: Prostitute gets in trouble for turning tricks and decides to go straight. What else is new? The "Jesus' Wife" story isn't much more intriguing, really: Cute chick who has her pick of guys falls for intellectual? Yeah, sure. In your dreams.

Feminist theologians have protested that the Gnostic view of Mary Magdalene poses a third alternative much harder to dismiss: Mary is the favored discipline. Not main squeeze but respected friend and companion. It won't fly till our culture's pervasive devaluing of women is a thing of the past.

There is a certain raw, obvious symmetry to Mary the Mother and Mary Magdalene, virgin and whore. Camille Paglia sees something like that as a justification for elevating to material sainthood the secular Madonna. Louise Ciccione unites the two Marys. Right. As if the real reason Ms. Ciccione chose to become 'Madonna' wasn't to top the in-your-face mentality of the rock scene forever. A mike-fellating slut called Madonna. Way cool! Paglia's views on Madonna are as persuasive as Mike Tyson's endorsement of Mike Irwin for Black Man of the Year.

Note: Madonna apparently is Ms. Ciccione's given first name.

If we think of the two Marys as representing the spirit and the flesh, we have to keep in mind that what makes the Magdalene memorable is her renunciation of the flesh. To explore this historical aspect of Mary Magdalene, you can't do better than Susan Haskins' excellent Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. Mary's role since the Middle Ages has been not companion but penitent. So they do not balance at all. Western culture has yet to imagine a feminine icon who is sexual, sensual, and complete, a Mater Magna secure in her body. They are in our literature, but none has emerged as a figure of universal meaning and comprehensibility like the suffering mother, the repentant whore, the man-eating bitch, or the celestial virgin. Her character is difficult even to imagine.

I think the interesting female triad is Mother, Sister, Daughter. A man's character is reflected in which of them he chooses to marry. Certainly the Magdalene is ripe to be reimagined and then qualify as a 'sister,' just as Martha's sister Mary is a 'daughter.' Sisters are our equals and peers. I like to imagine Magdalene as Jesus' sister, the persona of his femininity.

Note: How does The Da Vinci Code relate to all this? Read my review of Dan Brown's bestseller.

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