A Homily for the Day of Holy Mary of Magdala
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The figure of Mary of Magdala, also known as Mary Magdalen, is both complex and controversial. She has remained a mystery for a very long time and an object of difficulty for the Church from the very beginning of Christianity. One question we receive from those of mainstream backgrounds is why the importance of Mary Magdalen in the Gnostic scriptures and our contemporary practice of Gnosticism.
An attempt to answer this question and sort through the maze of material that has been proposed may come from the Gnostics themselves in the form of their insightful and very helpful threefold division of human understanding: the hyletic (physical), the psychic (mental), and the pneumatic (spiritual). The hyletic point of view, coming mainly from a reductionistic materialism, proposes that Mary’s importance is as the sexual partner, wife, and carrier of the bloodline of Jesus. The evidence for this line of reasoning is so full of surmise, supposition and conjecture that we hardly need consider it, but even if true, many great and benevolent rulers have given rise to progeny who were weak, decadent and cruel. The genes do not necessarily determine the person. So, even if the descendants of Jesus have been maintained in a bloodline throughout history, little of salvific meaning has come from that quarter.
The psychic perspective, assuming Mary Magdalen to be the Mary of Bethany who anoints and washes Jesus’ feet with her hair and the woman at the well who has five husbands, considers her to be the model of the repentant sinner. This again falls short of a really convincing answer. It devolves into an ethical reductionism that proposes that simply changing our behavior on a physical and psychological level will bring about the Gnosis or relationship with the Savior that is truly salvific.
Only the pneumatic perspective, that of the Gnostic seems to penetrate to the core of the issue of what makes the figure of Mary Magdalen so important to Christianity as a whole and to Gnostic Christianity in particular. The Gnostic recognizes Mary Magdalen as the one of the greatest, if not the greatest apostle of Christ.
In the Gnostic literature she is titled, the Apostle who excels the rest, the Disciple of the Lord, the One who knew the All, the One who reveals the Greatness of the Revealer, the Inheritor of the Light, the privileged Interlocutor, the One who is always with the Lord, the One whom they call His Consort, and the Chosen of Women.
To contrast this with the mainstream understanding and attitude, let me share with you a story that my friend Frodo, whom some of you may have met, passed on to me. In one of her theology classes at Mt. Angel Seminary, one of her Benedictine professors was asked about the definition of an apostle. He answered that the apostles were those who saw Jesus and were blessed by him after the resurrection. Frodo piped up, “Then Mary Magdalen must have been the first apostle.” The professor nodded, “Yes, but we don’t talk about that.” Yet even Pope John Paul II has called her “the Apostle of the apostles.” A Manichaean document, The Psalms of Heraclites, calls her the “Net-caster” who gathers together the remaining eleven disciples back to the Savior after the resurrection. This indicates that she was one of the principal apostles of Christ.
And yet we intuitively sense that there was something about Mary; she was not just one of the other disciples. She had a relationship with the Christ that was different than the others. Part of our understanding of the mystery of Mary Magdalen is to understand this relationship with the Logos. Whether it was sexual in the physical way or purely spiritual really makes no difference in the Gnostic perspective, some element of their relationship far transcended the mere physical nature of the flesh.
Even as the Gnostic resurrection takes place while we are in the flesh, so can such a transcendental relationship manifest while in the flesh, even as it manifested between Mary and Jesus. However, theirs was not an ordinary relationship in an erotic or conventional sense. There was something mysterious and transcendent between them that the other disciples could not understand.
“The Lord loved Mary more than all the disciples and kissed her on her mouth often. The others said to him: Why do you love her more than all of us? The Savior answered and said to them: Why do I not love you like her?” (Gospel of Philip)
Jesus is both asking the other disciples about the difference between Mary Magdalen and them, and he is questioning them as to why they are not conscious of the same relationship of love. The kiss, according to the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, is initiatory in character.
“For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in each other.”
One of the more Gnostic lines in one of the songs in Jesus Christ Superstar is where Mary Magdalen sings, “I don’t know how to love him.” Admitting this question, she reveals that Jesus is not like other men, and their relationship must transcend the ordinary sexual relationship between man and woman. In her discovery that she cannot love him in the strictly physical way that she knew before, she apprehends the Mystery of the Christos. In an intuitive way she discovers the Mystery, like Thomas, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Say who I am like,” and Thomas replies, “My tongue can in no way tell whom thou art like.” It is this intuitive and pneumatic perception that makes Mary more beloved than the rest of the disciples.
In this regard, the Pistis Sophia gives one of the most declarative statements of Mary’s importance to the Gnostic tradition.
“It came to pass then, when Mary had heard the Savior say these words, that she gazed fixedly into the air for the space of an hour. She said: “My Lord, give commandment unto me to speak in openness.”
And Jesus, the compassionate, answered and said unto Mary: “Mary, thou blessed one, who I will perfect in all mysteries of those of the height, thou, whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren…for thou art blessed before all women on the earth, because thou shalt be the fullness of all fullnesses and the perfection of all perfections… thou who shalt be sung of as blessed in all generations…who shall inherit the whole kingdom of the Light.”
That she gazes fixedly into the air for the space of an hour suggests that she experiences a visionary trance or altered state of consciousness. The Gospel of Mary describes one of her visionary experiences in more detail:
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember—which you know, but we do not know nor have we heard them.” Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.” And she began to speak to them these words: “I,” she said, “I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’ He answered and said to me, ‘Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the nous is, there is the treasure.’ I said to him, ‘Lord, now does one who sees the vision see through the soul or through the spirit?’ The Savior answered and said, ‘One does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but through the nous which is between the two—that is what sees the vision…’”
The vision comes by way of a reorientation of the soul, a metanoia, a turning about which gives rise to the nous which is something that comes to birth between the soul and the spirit and which sees the vision. The nous is most often translated as “mind,” yet it means something more spiritual and subtle, more akin to “enlightened mind,” or “divine soul,” or “awakened consciousness.” It is this reorientation of the soul which turns the soul to the spirit and gives birth to the nous. The Exegesis on the Soul describes such a reorientation of the soul from external things to internal and spiritual realities.
“As long as the soul keeps running about everywhere copulating with whomever she meets and defiling herself, she exists in suffering. But when she perceives the straits she is in and weeps before the Father and repents, then the Father will have mercy on her and he will make her womb turn from the external domain and will turn it again inward, so that the soul will regain her proper character…. So when the womb of the soul by the will of the Father, turns itself inward, it is baptized and is immediately cleansed of the external pollution which was pressed upon it, just as garments when dirty, are put into water and turned about until their dirt is removed and they become clean. And so the cleansing of the soul is to regain the newness of her former nature and to turn herself back again.”
This reorientation of the soul towards the spirit, this new relationship between the soul and the spirit from which the nous comes into being, parallels the relationship between Mary Magdalen and the Savior. This perhaps illustrates the meaning of the enigmatic line in the Gospel of Philip, “The Sophia whom they call the barren is the mother of the angels, and the consort of Christ is Mary Magdalen.” Even as the orientation of the soul inward to the spirit gives birth to the nous, so Mary’s orientation toward the Savior gives rise to her vision and understanding. The soul, like Sophia as the mother of the angels, bears spiritual children when she is oriented toward the spirit, as further described in The Exegesis of the Soul:
“Thus when the soul had adorned herself again in her beauty and enjoyed her beloved, and he also loved her. And when she had intercourse with him, she got from him the seed that is the life-giving Spirit, so that by him she bears good children and rears them. For this is the great, perfect marvel of birth.”
This birth is by means of that mystic kiss described in the Gospel of Philip by which the perfect conceive and which the Savior shares often with Mary. This is the birth of the nous when the soul gives birth by the life-giving Spirit.
This metaphoric sexual imagery gives rise to another hotly debated question as to whether Mary Magdalen was actually a prostitute before her metanoia. Whether in history she was or not is really not important to the Gnostic perspective. The association of Mary with the story of the repentant prostitute who after a metanoia becomes united to Christ in a spiritual way becomes a story of the condition of the Gnostic soul in the world and the means for its redemption. The relationship between the existential condition of the human soul in the world and the figure of the prostitute is made most clear in a passage again from The Exegesis of the Soul.
“Wise men of old gave the soul a feminine name. Indeed she is female in her nature as well. She even has a womb. As long she was alone, a single one, with the Father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers. And the wanton creatures passed her from one to another and made use of her. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her with a gift. In short they defiled her and she lost her virginity.
“And in her body she prostituted herself and gave herself to one and all, considering each one she was about to embrace to be her husband. When she had given herself to wanton, unfaithful adulterers, so that they might make use of her, then she sighed deeply and repented. But even when she turns her face from those adulterers, she runs to others and they compel her to live with them and render service to them upon their bed, as if they were her masters. Out of shame she no longer dares to leave them, whereas they deceive her for a long time, pretending to be true and faithful husbands, as if they greatly respected her. And after all this, they abandon her and go.”
This passage makes it clear that, as the psychic perspective would propose that repentance and change of behavior is all that is needed, the Gnostic knows that repentance alone is not enough for salvation and freedom, the mystical vision and union as well must take place. There must be a change of relationship between the soul and the spirit, between the nous and Christ. We ourselves, even as Mary Magdalen, must become the Beloved of the Logos.
The key to this relationship is told in the story of Jesus’ response to the kind, loving and knowing act of a weeping woman, who anoints the feet of her Lord, and washes them with her tears and her hair. Jesus responds to her when questioned about her status, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.” We can see in this story the keynote of love and forgiveness. Mary Magdalen has been called in our liturgies, “the pattern of our love.” The feeling tone of such love is pure forgiveness. Someone in an exalted state of consciousness once said, “Such forgiveness, such forgiveness, such forgiveness in the very being of consciousness itself.” The response to such forgiveness is a gratitude that transcends the tongue’s speech. If each of us could know what Mary knew, that those from whom we have been sent love us with a gratitude that we can scarcely imagine; if we knew what Mary knew, we would have no fear of death, no fear of anything of this world, for we would know the Beloved of our Souls.
It is such a love that casts out all fear; it is the truth that sets free. It is a love that transcends all of our anxious attachments whether physical, emotional, intellectual or ideational. It is where the soul merges and rests, moves and merges and rests again with the spirit. It is a movement and a rest, a rhythm and a dance, inwardly at rest and outwardly moving in the world or outwardly at rest and inwardly in motion and dynamic union, like looking at your soul in a mirror in front of a mirror, the reflection being reflected upon and within itself for ever and ever. The Gospel of Thomas describes such an experience where Jesus says, “When they ask you what is the sign of the Father in you, tell them: It is a movement and a rest.”
Everything else that worldly life promises us is but a paltry substitute, a sham, a seducing lie distracting us from the real union. The true beauty, the true joy for which the soul, the bride of the spirit, longs is the true Bridegroom. This Beloved never uses or abuses us, never abandons us, as do the false and temporal promises of this world. When we have this Gnosis, we know the Beloved in eternity, we know who we are, from whence we have come, and whither we are going. This is the ecstasy of the union with the Beloved, out of time, out of the limitations of flesh. Sometimes this union is found in another in this world. Most often it is a relationship with something transcendent, which can nonetheless deepen, transform, and give greater meaning to our terrestrial relationships. If we have this love, it does not matter with whom, with what gender, or how this love manifests in our lives. However the silly dramas and romances of our lives play out, however we may have won or lost in love, what is important is that timeless and limitless love of the Savior, and that we recognize ourselves, like Mary, as the Beloved of the Logos. May we find that Bridechamber of the Light, as we take Mary Magdalen as “the pattern of our love.” Just as Jesus said to Mary, so let it be said of us that we “loved much.”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.