Maria Magdalena – Apostle for a new Church built on a fertile ground
By Petra Dankova
“When you build a Church, would you want to base it on a fruitful ground or would you want to base it on a rock? Think about this for a minute?” I want to take this invitation from an inspiring German theatre piece; Maria Magdalena and reflect as we celebrate the Feast of Mary of Magdala on 22nd July.
What is the ground on which our Catholic Church stands right now? Would you rather that it builds on a fruitful ground or on a rock?
I want to say right at the beginning that I do not equate “fruitful ground” with women and “rock” with men. Some might say that the comparison is at hand between Mary of Magdala as a feminine, fruitful fundament and Peter as a masculine, strong and stable rock. I have very little patience for such essentialist arguments. In the end, such differentiations are part of the current stalemate in which women are ascribed a “feminine genius” that makes them either a saint (if they are gentle, submissive and motherly) or a prostitute (if they are not). It brings us no further if we continue insisting that women are somehow a different species – whether better or worse than men is in the long term irrelevant.
I imagine the question about fruitful ground or a rock to be more of a question about growth and rigidity, creativity and inflexibility. With a look into the two-thousand-year long history of the Church, we have to see that the fruitful and creative elements have always been in tension with elements that wanted to make the Church secure, lasting and stable.
These qualities are not intrinsically good or bad and they are all important. The problem is that Jesus tells us over and over again that when we decide to take care of our own security purely by our own means, we leave no space for God. We become self-reliant but also self-referential. God cannot be captured and those who pronounce absolutist rules in the name of the Church take God´s place for themselves.
Mary of Magdala was anything but rigid. Mary of Magdala was open to see anew. She was an eye-witness of the death of Jesus – an experience that many of the other (male) disciples did not have because they were too afraid to be seen at the place of the crucifixion. She, more than anyone else, knew that Jesus died painfully, she was there when he was taken from the cross, she saw where he was buried (Mk 15:40,47). By all standards of human experience, she should be the least likely to recognize Jesus in the gardener whom she met near the grave of her teacher (Jn 20:14).
Yet, Mary of Magdala had something that we can all learn from her. She had the ability to “turn around” (Jn 20:15) and to suspend the things that she was taught to take for granted. And, decidedly, she had the faith to follow what she believed. She did not store her encounter with Jesus in some back corner of her mind to be retrieved when she feels like enough people would agree with her. She went and told the disciples. She spoke up even if it was reasonable to expect that she would not be believed.
It would be nice to be able to say that this is the happy end and that we learn from it that the courage to be open for God´s new ways and the courage to share these with others leads to a state of a “happily ever after.” But we cannot oversee that in the past two thousand years, Mary of Magdala has been a target of what we would today call a “character assassination.” Scholars know now that the story of Mary of Magdala has been suppressed throughout Christian history. Her persona has been relentlessly conflated with “the prostitute” in the Gospel, although no Biblical sources make this connection. In the Easter liturgy, the Gospel readings are shortened to leave out the verses that testify to the key role of Mary of Magdala.
I can imagine that those who contributed to this “character assassination” had reasons that in their minds seemed prudent, or even wise. Maybe a new religion was less controversial, when it did not question the gender roles common in the societies in which it was spreading. Maybe it all seemed a little too far-fetched. Maybe. But the truth is that these maybe well intended manipulations forced God´s transforming creative power out of the story – and out of the structures of the Church. The “character assassination” extended to all women, to half of all the faithful.
In the end, it seems that all what is left is a hard, unmovable rock and no more fertile ground for growth. Yet, Mary of Magdala was not erased entirely. Her story was kept alive on the margins and today, we recover her heritage.
We see women (and men) going to those who understand themselves as the “chosen ones representing Jesus on earth” and saying:
“We experience in our own lives the thousand deaths of the church institution. We are driven to the cemeteries of our faith – closing parishes, trust killed by abuse, our children´s faith assassinated by soulless imposition of rules that exclude them or their friends and loved ones. In our deep sorrow, we have seen the Lord. He lives! Love cannot be killed! But we have to look for him beyond the structures that we have been taught to see as immovable truths! Jesus calls us by our name and want to be recognized in those who are right before our noses, tending to the cemetery.”
Now is the time for turning around. And when we do so, we might be surprised to meet the women, unwilling to give up on the Church, tending to the cemetery of our collapsing church institutions. Can we recognize in them the face of our Lord saying: go and tell my brothers! Not because women are better than men but because only a Church where all bring their gifts to the table is a fruitful ground.
Each of us can act for this new Church. Be inspired, pray with us and join the movement at www.overcomingsilence.com