Friday, July 22, 2011

Mary Magdalene: First Witness and Messenger of the Resurrection

Today is the feast of St. Mary Madalene. Here is what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about her:
Mary of Magdala near Capernaum was one of several women who followed Jesus and ministered to him in Galilee. The Gospel according to Luke records that Jesus "went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out ..." (Luke 8:1-2). The Gospels tell us that Mary was healed by Jesus, followed him, and was one of those who stood near his cross at Calvary.

It is clear that Mary Magdalene's life was radically changed by Jesus' healing. Her ministry of service and steadfast companionship, even as a witness to the crucifixion, has, through the centuries, been an example of the faithful ministry of women to Christ. All four Gospels name Mary as one of the women who went to the tomb to mourn and to care for Jesus' body. Her weeping for the loss of her Lord strikes a common chord with the grief of all others over the death of loved ones. Jesus' tender response to her grief - meeting her in the garden, revealing himself to her by calling her name - makes her the first witness to the risen Lord. She is given the command, "Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20:17). As the first messenger of the resurrection, she tells the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18).

In the tradition of the Eastern Church, Mary is regarded as the equal of an apostle; and she is held in veneration as the patron saint of the great cluster of monasteries on Mount Athos.

Anglican bishop N. T. Wright argues that a biblical case for the full participation of women in the orders of the Church includes, among other material, John 20. This is the chapter of the Gospel according to John in which Mary Magdalene is the first person to both discover that Jesus' tomb is empty and to encounter him raised from the dead. And not only that, but Mary is also the first person to be commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the good news of his resurrection. Check out what Bishop Wright has to say in the following video beginning around 2:25.

Wright notes in his comments that in the ancient Jewish and pagan world, the commissioning of Mary Magdalene as the first messenger of the resurrection is "so counter-intuitive," and he's correct. As I noted in another posting few years back, women in Jesus' day were not allowed to testify in court and they were regarded as unreliable witnesses. And so, in light of Mary Magdalene as the first witness and messenger of the resurrection, Wright says:

In the resurrection there is a radical reevaluation of the role of women. ... Apostolic ministry grows out of the testimony that Jesus is alive. That to me is the basis of apostolic ministry. And I cannot understand why that should be problematic if you're a biblical Christian.

Thank God for Mary Magdalene, and also for Mary, Salome, Joanna, and the other women who not only discovered the empty tomb of Jesus, but who also had the courage to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is risen indeed.


BC said...

Bryan, thanks for making us think this through on the feast of St Mary Magdalene. However - sorry! - I do wonder about the Wright interpretation of John 20/Mary Magdalene. Wright says, "In the resurrection there is a radical reevaluation of the role of women". Yes, absolutely. But, does this necessarily mean ordination to the episcopate and ministerial priesthood?

There is no clear consensus that the NT clearly and explicitly shows women exercising apostolic episcope. Alongside this - and surely key for us interpreting the NT - in the post-Apostolic period it seems clear that the only communities in which women exercised episcope in succession to the apostles were Gnostic communities.

If, as Wright and others suggest, women did exercise apostolic episcope in the NT church, what happened? How did the church in succession to the apostles get it so wrong - and the Gnostics get it right?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, BC. I agree that John 20 alone is not sufficient to win the argument in favor of women's ordination. And I'm sure Bishop Wright would agree as well. After all, in the video he's quite literally addressing the issue off the top of his head, indicating where he would begin to think through the issues.

I do think a biblical case can be made for women's ordination. And I think it's possible that we are not the only era in history in which the Church has been compromised by culture on certain issues (such as the role of women).

I also think it is significant that the reception of women's ordination within the Anglican Communion has been very different than the way new teaching and practice regarding homosexuality has been received. Yes, there are still those who reject women's ordination. And some of them have left Anglican churches. But some of them remain in spite of their disagreement. Clearly for them it's not a deal breaker in the same way as other issues du jour.

Thinking about all of this reminds me of a blog posting of Tobias Haller's about another Mary - the mother of our Lord. Here's what Tobias wrote:

If God had wanted women to be priests and bishops,
He would have made a woman
the means of His Incarnation,
the agent of the first manifestation
of His Real Presence
in Body and Blood.

BC said...

Bryan - the quote from Tobias is very profound. Thank you.

I think what I was trying to say in my comments was that I don't think we can base support for ordination of women to the episcopate and ministerial priesthood on the basis of St Mary Magdalene.

It seems to assume a rupture between the apostolic and post-apostolic church that is incredibly difficult to explain. The post-apostolic church had a definitive focus on preserving the apostolic faith - that, after all, was the essence of the apostolic succession.

So how was a NT practice of women exercising apostolic episcope lost? What else was lost ... ? Before long, we could end up being Gnostics, insisting that 'apostolic secrets' were lost by the Church.

Rather than viewing the ordination of women as bishops and priests as a lost NT practice (almost certainly it was not), perhaps it is more a case of considering that gender has not been of the essence of the catholic understanding of priesthood and episcopate.

We could then think of the patristic opposition to the practice as being determined by the Gnostic justification for it. In other words, orthodox communities did not ordain women as bishops and presbyters because this risked apparent acceptance of the nexus of Gnostic beliefs.

In this light, the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood does not have the significance that either 'radical progressives' or 'reactionary conservatives' suggest.

All of that said, however, the ecumenical ramifications require another discussion!

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarifying comments, BC. I'm particularly fascinated by the possibility that patristic opposition to ordaining women was largely determined by Gnostic acceptance of the practice.

Even if we steer away from viewing the ordination of women as a lost New Testament practice, I still think a New Testament case can be made as part of the justification for it.