“When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! – John 19:26
Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy Mother! And from that hour the disciple took her unto her own” – John 19:27
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother Mary, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into her home.
She was a leading figure among those attracted to Jesus. When the men in that company abandoned him at the hour of mortal danger, she was one of the women who stayed with him, even to the Crucifixion. She was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to preach the “Good News” of that miracle.
Since the middle ages, Mary Magdalene was regarded in Western Christianity as a repentant prostitute or promiscuous woman, accusations not found in any of the four canonical gospels. In fact, within the four Gospels she is named at least 12 times, more than most of the apostles, so much so that in the early Christian era, it seems that her status as an apostle in the years after Jesus’ death, rivalled even that of Peter, this prominence having been derived from the intimacy of her relationship with Jesus, which, according to some accounts, had a physical aspect.
Even with ideas that go beyond the gospel presentation of Mary Magdalene as a prominent representative of the women who followed Jesus has been put forward over the centuries, an elaborate tapestry was woven in earliest Christian records, leading to a portrait of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute. On this certainly untrue and false note hangs the dual use to which her legend has been put ever since, discrediting sexuality in general and disempowering women in particular.
The image of Mary Magdalene was twisted again and again with their character being compounded across time in the power struggles and conflicts that defined the Christian Church based on its attitudes toward the material world, focused on sexuality; the authority of an all-male clergy; the projection of celibacy; the labelling of theological diversity as heresy; the sublimations of courtly love; the unleashing of chivalrous violence or the marketing of sainthood.
In one age after another, Mary Magdalene’s image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminist icon to the matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty. Her re-emergence a few years back in a novel and film as the secret wife of Jesus and the mother of his fate-burdened daughter shows that the conscripting and twisting are still going on.
Mary Magdalene, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side, became the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex. How her story has shaped over the years is a standing proof to how sexual desire is domesticated, how men and women negotiate their separate impulses; how power inevitably seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted; how fallibility is reckoned with, and how sweet devotion can be made to serve violent domination.
Jesus’ attitude toward women with sexual histories was one of the things that set him apart from other teachers of the time. Not only was Jesus remembered as treating women with respect, as equals in his circle; not only did he refuse to reduce them to their sexuality; Jesus was expressly portrayed as a man who loved women, and whom women loved.
The sceptics may argue that the reason for the harnessing of sexual restlessness to the image of Mary Magdalene was the humane appeal of a story that emphasized the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.
The bitter truth however remains that what most drove the anti-sexual sexualizing of Mary Magdalene was the male need to dominate women. Even today, not just in the Catholic Church, but in the mind-set of most of the men, that need is still being met.
It’s not about the manger, or the angels or the shepherds or the three wise men.
It’s not just about celebration; it’s certainly not just about merriment.
It’s about the cross, it’s about his suffering, it’s about his pain, and it’s about our sins.
May all of us be blessed to be good human being, that’s the real religion of Jesus.