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Why no women? Epilogue in The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

Why no women?

Epilogue in The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

The greater part of this booklet is concerned with the question of the identity of Mary Magdalene. I have stated the reasons for my intuition that Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany may be one and the same woman. Now I see her in even greater grandeur. Mary Magdalene, always mentioned first among the women that followed the Lord and provided for him out of their own resources, turns out to be a woman Jesus allowed to be his disciple. A disciple, moreover, who faithfully followed him from Galilee even unto his death by crucifixion and beyond. She was the disciple who never ran away.

It might be interesting to dwell a while on the reactions of others to Mary Magdalene, a woman so important in Jesus’ ministry. What did they think?

The Twelve

In John’s account of Jesus’ long conversation with a Samaritan woman, we find a tell-tale fragment. ‘At this point the disciples returned, and were surprised to find him speaking to a woman, though none of them asked, ‘What do you want from her?’ or, ‘Why are you talking to her?’ It is not a socially acceptable thing for a man to sit and talk with a woman. The disciples are not amused. We can guess they are not really happy with the role of Mary Magdalene (and the other women) in their midst.

Women are not important in those days. At the miracle of the loaves we are told that five thousand people were present, not counting the women and the children.

In Luke we see how, when Mary only sits and listens to Jesus instead of running around to serve the guests, her unusual behaviour is found fault with even by her sister Martha, but strongly approved of by the Rabbi himself.

In the stories of the anointing it is also clearly held to be a very irregular thing for a woman to intrude upon the company of men. Theirs is the task to serve at table. The disciples find a reason to protest again, but Jesus himself praises Mary’s behaviour, vindicating her in no uncertain terms. She has done a good deed. Indeed she has done the best she could.

The Apocrypha

These writings, probably dating from the third century, also suggest the importance of Mary Magdalene in the few years of Jesus’ ministry. Mary is considered a disciple, a companion and an initiate. The comments in Pistis Sophia and The Gospel of Tomas throw some light particularly on Simon Peter’s attitude towards Mary Magdalene. In The Gospel by Tomas Peter exclaims angrily: ‘Mary should leave us, for women are not worthy of life’.

Pope Gregory the Great

In the booklet Marie de Magdala by Th. Bernard and J.L. Vesco I find that it was Pope Gregory the Great, who, while holding that the two Maries were in fact one and the same woman, set the tone for sermons on her sins and repentance.

The voice of a mystic

Saint Brigitte of Sweden tells us that she asked our Lord whom he loved more than others in his years on earth. His answer was: his Mother Mary, John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene.

The liturgists

At some point in the history of the Church Mary Magdalene got a place in the Litany of All Saints before any of the women martyrs of the time. Far behind the Apostles, of course, and behind other male saints, but still, she is included and precedes the small number of women saints that have made it into the Litany (excepting of course Jesus’ mother). ‘Mary Magdalene, Agatha, Lucia, Agnes, Cecilia, Catharine and Anastasia’.

It is interesting to take a good look at the liturgy of 22 July, the day on which the Church celebrated her feast, at least until the Second Vatican Council. It shows the inconsistencies I referred to earlier.

My own Dutch Missal has the following text:

22 July. Saint Mary Magdalene, Penitent. Double – White

The word ‘double’ refers to the high importance of the feast, ‘white’ to the colour of the vestments.

The Introitus is taken from Psalm 118 (119):1 and 95-96. So is the Communio. Psalm 118: 121-122 and 128. A very long psalm, it is interesting to read in connection with Mary Magdalene. Though actually a man’s prayer, it could easily have been hers. This Introitus reads, ‘Me expectaverunt peccatores’. The word peccatores hints at sin, but the psalm explains that it is in vain that the sinners lie in wait for this person.

The First Reading is from the Old Testament love song, The Song of Songs, quoted before.

The Second reading is Luke’s version of the anointing, which speaks about sin and the forgiving of sins, the story popularly held to picture Mary Magdalene. It has given rise to many sermons on the subject of sin and love, prostitution and penitence. The colour of the vestments, though, once a symbol to categorise saints as virgins, contrasts strangely with all those references to sin, especially the sin of adultery.

The collect identifies Mary Magdalene with the sister of Lazarus.

The Church deals with the two women as one, but she cannot make up her mind about the conclusions that go with it. It still seems hard to proclaim her greatness as an apostolic witness. Is she the sinner, or is she the eminent friend of Jesus, the sister of his other friends, Martha and Lazarus?

It is evident that the liturgists, on behalf of the Church, wanted to honour Mary Magdalene because of her exemplary faith and her intimate knowledge and understanding of Christ. Understanding, certainly, for when she anointed him in the house of the Pharisee in Bethany, it was like a prelude on what Jesus did to the Twelve a few days later, when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. And what he left them as his last command.

As early as the meeting in Bethany she proved to have an intimate knowledge of what Jesus really needed. She understands his words to the disciples in the story of the Samaritan woman even before he has spoken them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ I am at this house now in order to tell the Good News. That is my food. So, please, listen.

And also that other word, ‘You will always have the poor with you; you will not always have me.’ Mary’s behaviour shows that she understands him more than the others. That is why she decides to sit down at his feet, letting all other concerns for what they are.

I find it hard to bear that Mary Magdalene is dealt with so poorly in sermons. Even if she is not to be identified with the woman of Bethany, -as I pointed out earlier, I am not a Bible scholar -, I can recognise the inspiration. All things considered, her story is told far less than it should, if we bear in mind what Matthew and Mark have Jesus say in their accounts of the anointing, that wherever the Good News is told, what she has done should also be told in remembrance of her. ‘In remembrance of.’ They are Jesus’ words, spoken on two occasions only, once at the Last Supper, once at the meal in the house of the Pharisee. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, he said, and ’tell this in remembrance of her’. It is as if these words somehow tie Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Good News together forever.

A reaction is setting in to the diminished respect for Mary Magdalene in official Church circles. In many places books are now being written and study groups founded, lectures held and paintings made to bring her back into the limelight. I very much hope that in the future Easter celebrations will be used to take up the Lord’s recommendations. Lent and Easter provide excellent opportunities, with all the stories in the gospels about her role in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

And why not reintroduce the beautiful hymn of Victimae Pascalis?

Dic nobis, Maria,
quid vidisti in via?
Tell us, please, Mary,
all you have seen from Galilee to Calvary.

A final remark. It was quite natural that in the first few centuries, when the fame of Mary Magdalene still lingered, the Church accepted women in her ministry. Why would she not do so? Three times in the gospels we hear Jesus say, ‘Leave that woman alone. She anointed me before my burial. What she did was a good deed.’ And in Luke, after her gesture of love, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ No reprimand at all for taking upon her the anointing of a human being in danger of death, like women receive nowadays. He gave all the encouragement in the world.

Why do we, even with such strong words as we have in Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene, still keep even administering the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and dying away from the ministry of women? Remember, ‘she anointed me before my burial; leave the woman alone.’ Because of a culturally defined statement in James, ‘when someone among you is ill, call the priests of the church…?’ Does not Tradition honour this James as Jesus’ younger brother? He should have remembered Big Brother Jesus’ own words a lot better.

Theresia Saers

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