Boxed in

Mary Magdalene 2012 (Pentecost 8)

John 20:1-18

Marian Free

In the name of God who values us all, created as we are in the image of God. Amen.

On Friday evening Michael and I attended a play at the Cremorne Theatre called: “Head full of Love”. The play chronicles the friendship that develops between two unlikely women – a Northern Territory Aboriginal suffering from renal failure and an anxiety-ridden white woman who has run away from her over-bearing son. As the two women circle around, trying to understand each other, the dialogue between them exposes the sorts of prejudices and false assumptions that many white people make of the original inhabitants of this land and how difficult it can be to overturn those prejudices, even when contrary evidence stares you in the face.

Lilly requires five hours of dialysis five times a week. Nina naturally assumes that her kidney problems are a result of alcohol abuse. She blunders around trying to get Lilly to admit that this is true and initially refuses point blank to accept that Lilly has never drunk alcohol. It takes some time for Lilly to convince Nina that she, like many other indigenous people are simply born with underdeveloped kidneys, often as a result of low birth weight. Nina has absorbed one type of folklore about aboriginals which she unquestioningly applies to Lilly. When that view is challenged she finds it difficult to change her mindset and to see the issue through a different set of lenses.

Nina is not alone. When people do not have a wide variety of experience, or a personal knowledge of those who are different from themselves, they tend to accept the prevailing view as not only valid, but as characteristic of a whole group of people. So there are those who accept the view that all boat people are terrorists, or that all welfare recipients are lazy and don’t want to work, or that all members of Generation Y are unreliable and flighty. . The world is much simpler to understand and manage if we categorise people according to their gender, their age, their profession, their race or by any other characteristic that they might have in common. Once we have grouped people together we begin to see the ways in which they are the same and become blinded to the ways in which those within the group exhibit a huge variety of ability, intention and behaviour.

The human need to classify is as true with regard to individuals as it is to groups of people.

Our opinion of someone is formed on the basis of what we observe to be true and we find it hard to change that opinion even when all the evidence indicates that we were wrong or that the person has changed. No one expects an ugly duckling to become a swan, or the leopard to change its spots.

Mary Magdalene is one such person who has been defined and categorised to the point that many of us assume that we know all there is to know about her. Yet Mary remains an enigma. Over the past two thousand years she has been cast in many roles. She has been identified as sinner, lover, witness to the resurrection and more. Scholars and novelists have made her a person of interest – building on or breaking down the mythology that surrounds her. For example, scholars have made the claim that Mary was married to Jesus and Dan Brown has used her to forward an argument that Jesus produced children and that Jesus’ descendants continue to walk the earth.

Given the degree of interest in her that is shown in art, scholarship and fiction, it is interesting to note that Mary is mentioned rarely in the gospels. Most of the mythology that surrounds her is based on conjecture. Luke mentions Mary as one of the women who supported Jesus in his ministry  (8:1-3, cf Mark 14:40-43) and all four gospels include Mary in the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. She is the woman from whom seven demons are cast out (Lk 8:2) and the one who announced the resurrection to the disciples (Jn  20:18).

Even though the gospels contain so few references to Mary, she has been identified with at least two of the unnamed women – the sinful woman who anointed Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great sealed her fate by identifying Mary as the repentant sinner who washed Jesus’ feet. For centuries Mary Magdalene became Mary the reformed prostitute. It was only in the last century that feminists, determined to rescue her from this unwarranted position of subjugation, tried to reclaim her. In so doing they found the Mary of John’s gospel and the Mary of the Gospel of Philip. Mary Magdalene – the apostle to the apostles – had been buried under centuries of complacent presupposition even though she had had a prominent and leading role in the early Christian community.

Pope Gregory made Mary into a fallen woman – the perfect foil the other Mary, the Virgin who remained pure and sinless. These two women became images for womanhood -woman is either fallen or pure. Feminists may have redeemed Magdalene, but their weakness was to imply that Mary had value only when she could be demonstrated to hold a position of authority within the early church. Neither categorisation is satisfactory. The problem with both approaches is that they serve to colonize and to appropriate Mary to serve a particular purpose, rather than allow her to be herself – whatever that may be. If Pope Gregory relegated Mary to the role of repentant sinner, the feminists have inadvertently implied that for a person to be deemed as significant, they must be shown hold a position of authority.  In this way Mary is redeemed at the expense of the millions of Christians throughout the ages who have not aspired to or attained leadership roles with the Christian community.

Whatever scholars uncover about the Mary of history – and that will not be very much, we can be sure that she was a unique individual who brought to the early church a variety of gifts and talents and that her past – whether as sinner or leader – did not continue to define her. We can learn from the treatment of Mary throughout history and even in recent times, that we do a great injustice to people – individuals and groups- when we attempt to define them or when we use a few basic characteristics to classify and to categorise them.

If we believe that all people are created in God’s image and that everyone is precious in God’s sight it is incumbent upon us all to create environments that allow people from all races, genders and backgrounds to reach their full potential. It is important to value all people – especially those who are different from ourselves -, to help them to find and name their own identity – not one we have imposed on them, and to recognize and treasure the gifts that each person brings to the body of Christ.

We are all so many things, family and friend, teacher and student, helper and helped. None of us would like to be known for only one aspect of who we are and none of us would like to think that something from our past continued to define us in the present.

Life might be easier if we put individuals and groups into neat little packages, however, we do no one a service if we do not allow them to continually surprise or astonish us. We will find ourselves the poorer if we box people in and expect them to always behave in a consistent way and we will be guilty of failing to recognize the wonder and diversity of God’s creation if we hold on to our prejudices in the face of information which conflicts with what we think we know.

Centuries after Jesus walked on earth, the true Mary continues to elude us.

May she be a reminder to us that we do not always see all that there is to see and may we accept the challenge to be ready, open and willing to learn about and from those whom today we do not fully understand.


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