Does anyone really exist, or are people only who we make them into?
Yesterday a bunch of folks in my quirky Twitter world were tweeting away about St Mary of Magdala, the apostle to the Apostles. A lot of people in my circles are set on exonerating Mary, and with good reason. She picked up a bad reputation throughout the middle ages. I was fascinated to discover that a rise in a presentation of a penitent Magdelene occurred during the Catholic Reformation, when the whole Church was repenting and looking for a model of contrition. In retrospect, learning that was probably the turning point toward a favorable view of Church history and a frustration with retroactive indignance: no matter how we’ve messed up, there is always a reason why.
And boy, did we mess it up with Mary of Magdala. For better or worse she is part of our collective consciousness as a loose woman, a characterization which is found nowhere in Scripture. Better writers than I have documented the conflation of various biblical women into Mary. If we look at the evidence, we see that she was a dear disciple and a leader among the Apostles, but even those of us who struggle to proclaim this are evangelizing the in the shadow of myth, aware that what we are trying to do is fundamentally an un-doing.
Yesterday I was also privy to conversations about another Mary, and her sister, Martha, both stars of one of the few Bible stories that features two women. Unfortunately it also features sibling rivalry and the chastisement of a hard-working woman, something hard-working women everywhere have been trying to explain away ever since.
I couldn’t help thinking, in the midst of both of these discussions, “how much does any of this matter?” If we get these women figured out, does it really change anything? They lived 2000 years ago and have long since gone to a place where their reputations cannot harm them. Reimagining them doesn’t change them – but it does change us.
We rely on our sacred narratives for permission on how to behave. If Mary and Martha is a story of passivity vs. activity, we know who wins. And for women, that’s what we’re stuck with, because so few of our sacred stories have female characters. I wonder if men pore over the characterizations of Peter, Thomas, or other Apostles, go searching for the “stories about men” the way some women scramble to find in “stories about women” evidence that God loves us, and that we matter too. I doubt it – all history is “stories about men”. Why would they imagine themselves Matthew or Zaccheus when they could be Paul? They could be Jesus.
This is not to disparage the exegetical or imaginative skills of the wonderful men I know who look to the Bible for guidance. They are lucky to have so many models, and in truth I often share their models – loving Zaccheus as inspiration to short people everywhere, and Peter as a model of loud-mouthed-bozo-makes-good. We should take inspiration where we get it. But I won’t pretend that women and men are on a level interpretive playing field.
The woman at the well tells me it’s ok to question and to challenge. Phew. The woman with the alabaster jar tells me I can be lavish in my giving. Good to know. The woman with the hemorrhage (are we noticing a theme of namelessness here?) tells me I can take initiative. That’s a relief, since I probably would have anyway. When I look over my academic history I realize most of my Scripture study has been focused on these women. I have spent countless hours picking apart these stories, searching for historical context and literary types, and anything else that would help me understand these few, mostly nameless female characters.
So who is Mary of Magdala, and why does it matter? The historical Mary is long gone, lost forever to the mythologies that make figures a reflection of our age. Can our age allow her to be what the simplest evidence points to: a faithful follower of Jesus who stayed with him until the end, and a proclaimer of the Gospel?
Every year we read or sing the Easter Sequence, in a translation packed with facile rhymes. And every year when we get to the line “Speak, Mary, declaring what you saw, wayfaring” I literally thank God. Tucked away in that tiny couplet, in which the Church talks back to the Scripture that week by week talks to us, is permission to proclaim what we see. Sometimes that sliver of guidance is all we get, and it’s up to us to figure out the rest of what it means, for us and for history.