In this devotional reflection, I’m going to take a slightly different approach than normally. Normally I respond to my “first thoughts” on a text in the suggested readings from Scripture offered in the Daily Office, which I write down the day I read, edit, and later post on my blog.
Recently at a Bible study at the church I attend, reference was made to the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene”, and I opted one day this week to begin reading it and found I read the short Gospel in one sitting. For those not familiar with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, it is an ancient writing which was discovered with a set of scrolls called the “Nag Hammadi library” found in Egypt in the late 1800’s. This text tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. Its fairly recent discovery led to a lot of discussion about whether it is a valid account of Jesus, a work of ancient historical fiction, or ancient Scripture from a branch of Christianity that has long died out.
In reality all we have is a scrap of a larger work. What is recounted in the Gospel is a conversation with Mary Magdalene and the other disciples around the time of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary recounts a conversation with the risen Jesus, including some fairly deep existential musings about the nature of matter, of sin, and of law. The disciples recognize a special relationship between Jesus and Mary, which to me sounds like a recognition of Mary as having special spiritual insight but some modern readers have felt suggested a romantic relationship between Mary & Jesus. But they are skeptical about Mary’s claims to see Jesus and to have an insight into Jesus’ teachings they wouldn’t. They question whether Jesus would use a woman to share a message of truth about God, in light of a woman’s inferiority in their minds and especially how someone from such a lowly state as being a despised woman could be called to correct the thinking of Jesus’ chosen male apostles. Different male disciples share their opinions, Mary cries from their harsh reaction. And the fragment ends.
Like when I read the Scriptures, I want to share my “first thoughts” on this text.
First, I was struck by the way in which the disciples question Mary’s role for being a woman, pushing her with their questions to the point of tears, while Mary continues to claim that, yes, Jesus called her too and gave her a truth. To me this connected very well with what I’ve seen in the church, and I can see why many women are drawn to this image and story. Growing up in a very conservative church in which women were told to learn in quietness and submission, and to submit to the rule of your husband, I remember seeing first-hand ways that this approach led to the hearts and lives of women being crushed. I remember one lady who blossomed and became an outspoken voice of love and support – but only after a highly abusive husband passed. I saw heartache in the lives of women in my own family at conflicting messages about what women could be. In that tradition, I remember the arguments over what was “acceptable” clothing for women – are paintsuits too much? Jewelry? Makeup? All with barely a word about what men wore. As an adult, I can see how such an environment could crush the soul of a young girl and send her the message that her body is something to be ashamed of, and that she is not fit to make choices for herself, needing men to decide for her. What scars such upbringings must produce! I’ve seen, too, women plagued with anxiety, depression, poor self image, and some life-long mental illness in part triggered by the abuse, mistreatment, and harsh messages misogynist religions produce. As a husband of a pastor, I’ve seen her and other women with gifts and callings second-guessed like Mary was. “How can you really be a leader? You are a woman”. It has been blatant as saying it was wrong for women to speak, but even in liberal and open-minded churches, I’ve seen the pressure for women to “act more masculine” (whatever that means), to appear different than they are, to be heard. I’ve seen the way in which often even though on paper women are to be treated equal, there is still a sense women must prove themselves more than men where men are still preferred in many roles due to cultural assumptions.
We see it too, every day, in the way women are shamed. When men sleep around, we laugh it off and say “men will be men”, but then proceed to slut-shame women who do the same thing. When a man is opinionated or speaks out we call him authoritative, strong, a leader. Far too often when a woman takes the same approach, she is called harsh, loud, and a word that begins with b and rhymes with witch.
In this story we see an example of early Christians honoring women as gifted and called, while also recognizing the prejudice they faced then and now. I do not know the historical context for this piece of Christian literature, but usually in texts like this the stories they tell already existed in some other form which had been shared person to person in the churches. When written down, the stories chosen reflect some question or conflict. Based on this text’s content, I could imagine it being written either by or in honor of a woman with a deep spiritual life, a mystic and person of prayer, who had come to be revered and looked to for advice. In Christian history, women and men with such lives often have people who flock around them, seeing their deep spirituality, asking them to teach others how to find such a deep walk with Jesus. In the New Testament we see such women taking an active role in leadership – women like Priscilla who actively teach men deeper truths of the Gospel, Junia whom Paul calls a woman who is a deeply respected apostle in the book of Romans, a woman called “the elect lady and her children” who pastors a church that the elder John writes to in the letters of 1-3 John, a community of women who are prophets who lead in a church recorded in Acts, and many many more. Yet history shows that when the church gained toleration and official religious status by Rome, already there were voices calling for the church to accommodate mainstream Roman culture to look acceptable and to silence women, placing leadership wholly in the hands of women.
I could see this story being written in honor of such a woman of prayer, in answer to just such critics. Those critics would have felt threatened, as the disciples in the Gospel of Mary are, by a strong woman of faith speaking the truth she’s found in Jesus. The author of the Gospel of Mary reminds such men that they are doing as the early disciples did, and the opponents of Jesus did. They are reminding those critics – and us – that Jesus’ example is one of welcoming and honoring women. We see in the Gospels how Jesus consistently treats women as equally children of God, equally full of potential. Consistently in situations in which his male disciples join the dominant culture in enforcing rules of separation between women and men, Jesus breaks those rules. So Jesus talks alone with the woman at the well, scandalizing the disciples. Jesus reaches out to heal women with illnesses that made them viewed as unclean in the eyes of the authorities. Jesus includes women in his ministry team, according to the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps most shocking of all, Jesus allows women like Mary the sister of Lazarus to sit at his feet in the Gospel of John, which is a position symbolic of becoming apprenticed to a teacher of Scripture so that you, too, may teach Scripture authoritatively – the exact same position the male disciples had. Most shocking of all, it is women whom Jesus first appears to at his resurrection and who are the first apostles (in Greek “ones sent forth with a message”) going forth proclaiming to the world “He is risen!”
You can see why such a text, reminding people of Jesus’ example of treating women and men as equal, would have been suppressed by the leaders in Christianity who, on its legalization and granting of official status by Rome, tried to shape the church to fit the male-dominated model of Roman society. In the way in which it calls us back to the original example of Jesus of including, honoring, and respecting women that Christ modeled and which was a hallmark of the early church. Whatever ways this text may depart from our traditional pictures of Christ, it does forcefully call us back to that central teaching of the New Testament which we read in Galatians – “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.
To me, I feel reading this text is inviting me to consider all of these examples I have seen in my life both of women oppressed by religious groups that call them to a secondary place, but also of strong women I have known – like my mother who went back to school to pursue her dreams after raising four kids and having faced oppression as a woman in a church I grew up in; like women like Rev. Laurie Hays Coffman, Rev. Jill Edens, and Rev. Ann Joyce who have been among the many strong women of faith I have seen leading people to faith and speaking up for justice as Christian leaders; through examples like Hildegard of Bingen and Mother Teresa who spoke up as women with a voice throughout church history showing the power of women who are not silent; and of my own wife, a strong and courageous women of faith who has consistently looked injustice in the eye and refused to be silent.
I feel called to continue to join Jesus in the work of calling God’s people back to Christ’s own example of valuing, respecting, and embracing women as equally called and gifted by God. I feel called to join individuals like this author of the Gospel of Mary in challenged the misogyny and discrimination against women still present in church and society. I feel called to join God in the work of proclaiming a freedom and hope.
What challenges do you get out of this example?