A Love Story to Celebrate July 22, 2023 by John
It was late on a cool evening. Dishes had been put away and finally they had time to themselves. As they were getting ready for bed Mary spoke. “Your brother doesn’t like Judas. He thinks he steals money.”
“I asked him to join us. I can’t just ask him to leave.”
“OK, but you need to watch him. Do you have plans for tomorrow?”
“The Pharisees have invited me to dinner.”
“I would rather have you here with me.”
“It’s how I get to know people and how they get to know me.”
“Then I want to go along.”
“They don’t allow women at their table.”
“I want to go.”
“They won’t like it.”
“You need to fix that. I want to go.”
“OK, but it may not be comfortable for you.”
“I can deal with that. When was the last time you visited your mother? She is looking older and she worries about you. You need to spend more time with her.”
“She worries too much.”
“It’s a mother’s job to worry, and she has good reasons. Not everybody likes what you are doing.”
“I have to let that be their problem. By the way, don’t hog the blanket like you did last night. It’s going to be cold again.”
“I turn over and it just happens.”
“Then turn my way.”
“I’m going with you tomorrow.”
“Yes, I hear you.”
“And visit your mother.”
“Good night, Mary. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Silly to even try to imagine an evening with Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala, you may be thinking. After all they weren’t real people. Ah, did we really have that thought? Take a breath. They were real people. They spent years together in a close long-lasting relationship. They had common concerns and interests. They would talk. Yes, they would. I invite you to imagine listening in on any one of the many conversations they certainly would have had. Take a breath. What might they have said on the way to the Pharisee’s dinner?
Perhaps you have to live a love story to see the power in other people’s love stories. On July 31, 2006 Joan stood in front of 425 people on a river boat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a candidate to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in intentional conflict with Church law for the purpose of changing it. She had asked me to be the person, who would witness her qualifications for priestly ministry. I began, “From early in my life our Church taught me that women were occasions of sin to be avoided. My personal experience had always been that women were occasions of grace. The Church is wrong about women.” And I went on to list Joan’s character and accomplishments. When your experience disagrees with what you are being told, what do you believe? I had, and have, no problem making that choice.
The master story we have been given leaves no space for a love story between Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala. But my story fits perfectly with their story so I have no trouble accepting it. More than that, I delight in the possibility that their love story is the real story, the true story, the central story out of which Christianity emerged. My personal experience pushes back against the master story that makes their story and by implication all human love stories invisible. To bring their story out into the light we must first claim Mary Magdalene as our own.
Thankfully I am not a lone voice today in the work of reclaiming the centrality of Mary of Magdala in our Christian story. Pope Francis, in 2016, made her an apostle by giving her the official title of “Apostle to the Apostles” and by elevating July 22 to a feast day of equal importance to the Twelve. Books and movies have sprung up, and people ask the big question, “Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have a sexual relationship, and did they have children?” Everyone wants to know. But for me today, right now, the bigger question is why their love story has been made invisible within our master story? Why? Perhaps another story will help us here.
The Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault tells a story of visiting a monastery with many icons, and looking for an icon of Mary of Magdala, she had not seen one so she asked a monk. He responded, “This is an all-male monastery. There are no icons of women.” She did not respond, but had already noticed a proliferation of “Blessed Virgin” icons. Shake your head, please.
There were no icons of women at that monastery. Mary Magdalene has been invisible because women are invisible. To the monk, the Blessed Virgin doesn’t count as a woman, and I agree. We need not take away from one saint to add another so there is no need to take anything away from Mary, but the “Blessed Virgin” is not a flesh and blood woman in love with a flesh and blood man. Why were, and are, women made to be invisible? Why?
I am an engineer with 18 years of school and 50 years of experience, which included some accident investigation work. Why is always the question. The proximate cause is often the easiest. Someone pulled the wrong lever. In the instant case the proximate cause is that we have a history of celibate men creating a master story for celibate men. Why? You may get tired of my engineering think, but hang with me because I need to SWAG. When there is limited data, engineers are forced to SWAG. That’s anacronym for sophisticated wild ass guess. I love women, so why don’t other men?
Eve did it, you say. I don’t think so. An ancient storyteller faced the mystery of evil and translated it into the problem of evil (not the same thing), then mansplained the problem by blaming a disobedient woman for it. The talking snake should have been a dead give-away, but, ouch, many people bought into the story because it was the only story in town. Why? Sorry, but this is the only game I know how to play.
Anthropologists like Margaret Mead strongly suggest that much of what men invent, and do, is compensatory. Faced with the nagging need to prove they are men, they take the always available (up to now) easy way out by “proving” they can do things that women can’t do. So, it’s built into men, i.e., a biological thing, that men must invent things to do that lowly women can’t do, say the anthropologists. All male priesthood? Think about it.
That doesn’t seem to answer the question, why in a hierarchy of values does virginity stand above normal sex and motherhood thus making a real live love story invisible? How about the way men ask, “Who’s your daddy?” Is this child mine? with the emphasis on what’s MINE?
A self-giving, mutual giving and receiving, a this is my body given for you love story doesn’t fit the master story we have received, in my mind, for very unsavory reasons. Men need to prove they are men by doing things that women can’t do, and men want women and children as property. That’s my SWAG. If you have better data, please speak up. Back to Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
The mystics make much of the separate reality that can come into existence, with a holy permanence, when love is given and received. I’m no mystic, but I do not deny that what they suggest may be correct, including that their way of thinking may be the key to personally experiencing the Risen Christ. But I suggest that the mystic may not have the full answer because Jesus emphatically teaches (in three gospels) that children are welcome in heaven. More than that, he teaches that unless we are like children (flourishing in loving bonded relationships) we ourselves risk not making the cut. There are few child mystics. The mystics may counter that all children are natural mystics. OK, let’s go there. Children are not, specifically and pointedly not born defective. (Sorry, St. Augustine, but I can’t go there.) God did not create a perfect world with all kinds of beautiful creatures, but mess up when humans were created. God just wouldn’t do that.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that when we finally dismiss the sex = conception = child = sin equation, we will find a love story at the center of our story where two = one, but first we must reclaim Mary Magdalene starting on July 22, 2023.
Not all monasteries are created equal. This full life sculpture of Mary of Magdala is at the entrance of a monastery. Men, imagine with me what it would be like to have a woman like this love you. “It’s cold. I’ll come closer”, she said. Lucky Jesus.
Peace and all blessings,