It was fun and challenging to preach about Mary Magdalene today as St. Marks in Palo Alto observed her feast day–challenging, because it’s quite a task to condense my messy ideas about feminism, sexuality, and sex work into one sermon. If you’re interested, here’s my attempt. I think an audio recording will also go online, and I’ll share the link here when it does.
The nice folks at St. Marks were so welcoming and lots of them joined me for a lively chat about sexual ethics in early Christianity and now.
Update: Here’s the audio version (.mp3). For some reason I preached this one really slowly. You could probably speed it up in your audio player and enjoy it more
If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?
Hi, my name is Amber Belldene, and I write romance novels. Between you and me, they’re pretty racy. Actually, Amber Belldene is my pen name, because I’m also an Episcopal Priest with a full-time churchy job. It’s not super top secret though, because this Bishop just started following me on Twitter last night.
I arrived in these dual vocations at different times, and in different ways, and yet they harmonize, and have proven to be interconnected in ways I never expected. Because people are hungry to talk about sexuality and spirituality, they long to hear their bodies and desires are a part of their relationship with God, not an inconvenient hurdle on the path to holiness.
I think that’s why Salying invited me in particular to talk to you about Mary Magdalene. From Pope Gregory to The Last Temptation of Christ to the DiVinci Code, she’s a figure that’s fascinated people throughout history. The Gospels really only tell us she was Jesus’s friend, a beloved disciple, and yet their friendship has been the cause of much speculation.
On the one hand, in 2014, we roll our eyes that a friendship between a man and a woman would be scandalous. We interact with people of different genders and sexual orientations all the time. Yet, the way we socialize and work together is just a tiny speck on the timeline, when you consider the long span of human history that’s come before us. And even still, in these enlightened times, our interactions aren’t always easy. We experience moments of unexpected attraction, or we take offense at something someone says. Gender and sexual desire are always with us, two of the most core pieces of our identity. If we try to ignore them, they take on dangerous powers.
I’ll never forget a conversation with a colleague in which I naively suggested sexuality—attraction, and the real bodily need for physical love—that these things shouldn’t be such a big deal. The way he paused and then said, “Amber, come on,” it forced me to look more deeply, and I haven’t really stopped since then.
For the long span of history, human social rules have mostly assumed the worst of our behavior–that given the chance, we will use and abuse each other. So, in Jesus’s day, unmarried men and woman didn’t interact personally or privately—certainly not with the freedom and regularity we do now. Jesus’s friendship with women—prostitutes, sinners, and even those society deemed respectable—these friendships were inherently scandalous, part of what we call the Scandal of the Gospel. Jesus refused to see women as merely objects of temptation, or as shameful sinners who wantonly turn to prostitution or commit adultery.
As someone privileged by so much relative freedom, hard won by women of earlier generations, it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize how radical his message was. In his time, a woman was pretty much a piece of property. A prostitute was a woman who used her only piece of capital—her body—to survive in a world where a woman couldn’t own anything else (and she only owned her body when she was without the protection of a husband or family, who would otherwise own her).
From Jesus’s friendship with women to his teachings on lust and divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, he is proclaiming women are people, not property. His first appearances after the resurrection are to women, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene claims he revealed certain teachings only to her. The Gnosticism and secrecy of that gospel were rejected by orthodox Christianity, but the passage we heard today (Chapter 9:1-10) is illustrative. The moment Peter disagrees with Mary’s testimony, he uses her gender to discredit her. Just as later church fathers will do.
You’ve probably hear that Mary was a reformed prostitute. There’s absolutely no Biblical evidence of this, and the origins of the legend came from a sermon Pope Gregory the Great gave in the sixth century, conflating Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha), and the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet. Gregory blithely states they are all the same woman, a former prostitute. Mary Magdalene is later confused with Mary of Egypt, apparently another reformed prostitute. (In the forum after church I will talk more about the genre of reformed prostitute stories, which were actually a Christian co-opting of the very first romance novels).
But back to the Gospel of Mary. When Peter and Andrew reject Mary’s testimony, Levi takes her defense.
Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.
Amen, Levi. That’s some pretty good advice.
It must have been daunting for the apostles, trying to translate the experience of knowing Jesus–a living, breathing miracle–into stories and a pattern of life for people who never did meet him face to face. That challenge of translation is why we have so many Gospels, so many different movements within the early church.
Among them, there are fabulous feminist impulses inspired by Jesus’s friendship and teachings: There’s Paul’s proclamation that there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. There are the female bishops and priests who scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza have resurrected within the texts from which the church fathers literally erased them. There is the way the church helped end the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, freeing both men and women from widespread sexual abuse by their masters. So many good and holy impulses toward freedom instead of slavery, toward humanization instead of exploitation.
And yet, we’re a very human institution, and for two millennia, we’ve still gotten a lot wrong, because of those deeply ingrained social rules attempting to regulate sexuality. The disempowerment of women, the clerical abuses preceding the Reformation, and recent sexual abuse scandals are some of the most obvious examples. Instead of Mary Magdalene as an icon of women’s authority, as Levi paints her, she is seen as Pope Gregory’s repentant sinner. Not that repentance is bad, it’s something we all need to do. Though Mary might be celebrated for repenting, she hasn’t really been honored as she deserves, because of a deep and lingering ambivalence around sexuality.
On the one had, Mary deserves to be vindicated from the charges of being a reformed prostitute. Biblical scholarship tells us it’s not true, it was an attempt to relegate a woman with authority into a diminished role by assigning her a shameful past. As a woman, this lie makes me angry, it reminds me of times I’ve been labeled too brazen, too aggressive, or prurient.
On the other hand, I want to claim all those fictionalizations. I want to say thank you to Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis for asking us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, Jesus did love Mary Magdalene passionately and sexually, because sexual love isn’t wrong or unholy when it’s freely undertaken with mutual affection and respect, it’s a beautiful way to experience divine love.
And I want us to remember that Jesus was friends with prostitutes, even if Mary wasn’t one, because we must look more closely at prostitution. There’s so much shame attached to it, as if women undertake sex work because they’re greedy and licentious. In fact, most people resort to prostitution out of desperation, and the real shame belongs to a society that drives some people to that point of desperation.* Jesus’s scandalous friendships with prostitutes helps us see more clearly the underlying causes: poverty, discrimination, and a predatory sexuality built upon using people instead of loving them.
If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?
In an unexpected way, the distortions people have told about Mary and the stories they’ve imagined are all a part of her Gospel. And they hold up a mirror to the institution of the church, helping us to see who we are, and who we have been. And when you hold those stories together–lies, truths, and possibilities–they tell a story we need to hear. A story that’s part of The Gospel of God’s scandalous love for humanity.
A love so passionate it required Jesus’s human body to be expressed.
A love so fierce it demands the protection of the poor and the oppressed.
A love so broad that it includes those labeled unlovable.
A love so vulnerable that it asks to be returned.
It’s quite a miracle that Mary Magdalene has come to symbolize all those things, and that’s a sure sign of God’s spirit repairing the mistakes of human history. Because a Love so scandalous, so abundant it pours out of the bounds of respectability, that love will not rest until every single beloved creature lives in its light.
* I could say so much more about sex work, but this generalization has to suffice in the context of a sermon.
**I love this icon, which Kay (@MissBatesReads) shared with me early in the week. Thanks Kay!