CDSP student and intern at Trinity, San Francisco
July 25, 1999, 11 am
Trinity Episcopal Church
Feast of Mary Magdalene
Ps. 42:1-7, Judith 9:1, 11-14, 2 Corinthians 5:14-18, John 20:11-18
is she a virgin or a whore? She was the first to recognize the risen
Christ. But who is Mary Magdalene really? She is the other
Mary -- one of the two around which many legends have grown up through
the years. The first was Mary, Mother of God -- the Ever Blessed
Virgin Mary to whom so many pray and who has attained the status of a goddess.
Mary Magdalene is second -- she is the other woman. Mary and Mary.
Two sides of the way the world sees women: Virgin and Whore.
Let me hasten to add that we don’t really know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. From the gospel accounts, we know that she was possessed by seven demons until Jesus drove them out. She traveled with Jesus and the other disciples proclaiming the good news to cities and towns. She stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross. She was the first one to see Jesus after he had risen from the tomb. She had wisdom in her ability to see the risen Christ for who he really was. But we do not know the truth of the legends linking Mary Magdalene with the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her own hair and who anointed his body with costly perfume -- the woman said by some to be a sinner.
Even if this woman was Mary Magdalene, why do we assume that the nature of her sin was sexual? It is because of the rich, sensual imagery surrounding the hair and the perfume. It is because she is a sexual woman mentioned in the Bible right along with Jesus and the other disciples. So she had to be discredited -- called a prostitute rather than one of the twelve. Yet, strangely enough, both liberals and even the current ultra-conservative Pope John Paul II say that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute... The veneration of a saint who was a prostitute is problematic... We tend to distance Mary Magdalene from prostitution, or anything else remotely sexual, at the same time that we pay more attention to her role as a woman in leadership in proclaiming the good news of Christ. We are afraid that those conservatives out there couldn't handle it if a woman of authority was sexual. And we also can't handle her sexuality.
It is entirely possible that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. She money and freedom enough to travel with Jesus and his followers at a time when such opportunities were a rarity for women. When we begin to accept the possibility that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, then we begin to accept the sexuality of Mary Magdalene. And then we cease to buy into the age-old rumor found both in Christianity and in our puritan heritage -- that sexuality and the body are bad. This rumor is more ancient than Christianity. Yet Christianity proclaims the goodness of all of God's creation and the Resurrection of the body. And the very nature of our sacramental worship is sensual. We see the altar upon which food and drink are offered -- upon which the body and the blood of Christ are offered -- and we taste them. We smell flowers or incense. We feel the touch of another at the Peace or when hands are laid upon us in prayer or anointing with oil. We hear the music of the choir and we join in the singing. Maybe we dance... Heady stuff, with its element of sexuality, -- all of it good -- if we are able to receive it.
It is both a pleasure and difficult work for us in the church to reach an awareness of the value of sexuality. For instance, dancing, for me, is both sensual and a way of meeting God. But dancing is alternately embraced and rejected by our Church. In the 1980's some liturgical dancers came to Grace Cathedral. A woman in the congregation had a nervous breakdown and began to disrobe at the time of the dance. The institutional powers that be took her away -- and the dancers too, until last year when they started bringing dance back to our cathedral... I thank God that dance in worship is now growing in popularity. I believe that this is a sign that we are beginning to value more our sensuality, our sexuality and ourselves.
In accepting Mary Magdalene and her sexuality, we are accepting our own selves as full human beings made up of both body and soul. “Women” and “sex” suggest their results -- pregnancy, babies, earthiness... All of that messiness that is part of being born, living and dying. All of that physicality that is part of being human whether one is male or female, gay or straight. And those things which are sensual and sexual, the things we yearn for, are also good. We are spiritual and earthly, holy and sexy. Believing this, we no longer need hide away our most intimate selves in dark closets. Our sexuality becomes a blessing instead of a scandal. We are no longer held prisoner to the idea that sexuality should exist only in a heterosexual marriage for the purpose of procreation. We can let ourselves enjoy the beautiful, the sensual, the sexual -- such bodily pleasures which give much of the joy of life.
Mary Magdalene is a saint because she was a fully alive, passionate woman. This is what enabled her to see the living God for who he was after everyone else had given up hope. Our Christ is alive, and Christ is passionate. Imagine, for a moment, the beloved disciple. Imagine the woman who anointed Jesus’ body with perfume. Imagine a willingness to be present in love at all times -- even to be nailed upon a cross, to be pierced, to die, and to return again to us. (In the words of the hymn: “Love lives again that in the grave has been. Love has come again like wheat that springeth green.”) Christ returns like the seasons with life born anew. This is the personal and intimate good news of God. It is the freedom that allows us to be open to people and relationships, to creation and to the sensuality of everyday life. I pray that all people everywhere enjoy the holy sexuality that is God given and life giving.
O God, you have the power and the love to reconcile all things to you; Pour out your wisdom upon us Let Mary and Mary join hands Both saints Virgin and Whore Wombs for giving life And pleasure Bring forth Christ To embrace each one of us And allow us to embrace one another Passionately
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