Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has resurrected an old debate about one of the most enigmatic figures in Christianity: Mary Magdalene.
She has been hijacked over the past few years, and her name and reputation have been distorted once again in Christian history. There is no better day than Easter Sunday to put the spotlight back on this outstanding woman disciple who was one of Jesus' closest friends.
Let's consider for a moment the folly of Brown's portrayal of Mary Magdalene in his runaway best seller (and guaranteed blockbuster movie). Brown proposes that the figure on Jesus' right in Leonardo Da Vinci's famed Last Supper painting is not John the beloved disciple, but really Mary of Magdala, who married Jesus and bore him a child.
It was this child who was Jesus' chosen successor, Brown argues. He also says this Mary represents the Holy Grail, the eternal feminine, sexuality; the real quest of every human heart. (The silliness continues when Brown writes that the offspring of Mary Magdalene and Jesus wound up in France and later became the Merovingian dynasty of kings!)
The book goes on to make the case that the church oppressed women throughout history as an attempt to deny the truth found in Da Vinci's famous painting. According to Brown, a few great men -- namely Da Vinci himself, Galileo, curators at the Louvre, Walt Disney (!) and a Harvard professor -- have, through secret codes, preserved the "truth."
Would the real Mary Magdalene please stand up?
Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the unnamed penitent woman who anointed Jesus' feet (see Luke 7:36-48) are sometimes understood to be the same woman. From this, plus the statement in Luke's gospel that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, has arisen the view that she had been a prostitute.
But in reality we know nothing about her sins or weaknesses. They could have been inexplicable physical disease, mental illness, or anything that prevented her from wholeness in mind and body.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels as being among the women of Galilee who followed Jesus and his disciples. She was present at His crucifixion and burial, and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint His body.
Artistic representations of her deal particularly with her repentance, her bathing of the feet of Jesus, and her meeting with the Lord after his resurrection. She is a model of discipleship, penitence and repentance.
Brown focuses on her sinfulness, even to demonizing her. But Mary Magdalene's story is that much more remarkable when one considers that in Jesus' time, women were seen as property, first of their fathers, then of their husbands.
In this atmosphere, Jesus acted without animosity, accepting women, honouring them, respecting them, and treasuring their friendship. He journeyed with them, touched and cured them, loved them and allowed them to love him. There was no discrimination. Mary Magdalene is living proof of Jesus' boundary-breaking humanity and compassion.
On Easter, Christians around the world peer once again into the early-morning scene of sadness as Mary Magdalene weeps at the grave of her friend, Jesus. We hear anew their conversation, as recounted in John's gospel:
"Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?"
"Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Teacher!"
"Stop clinging to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, 'I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'"
Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord," and that he had said these things to her.
Mary Magdalene was fittingly called "Apostola Apostolorum" (Apostle to the Apostles) in the early Church because she was the first to see the Risen Lord, and to announce his resurrection to the other apostles.
For Jesus, women were equally as able as men to penetrate the great religious truths, live them and announce them to others. There is nothing secret about this story, which is still astonishingly good news more than 2,000 years later.