July 22 traditionally marks the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, observed by Anglicans as well as Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches.
In 2018, Mary’s feast day falls on Monday, July 23. The date transfer reflects the custom that feasts celebrating saints cannot take the place of a Sunday liturgy, unless that saint is the patron of a parish or one of the apostles of Jesus. Yet in the case of Mary Magdalene, that distinction is a subject of growing debate.
At a time when the role of women in the church has never been more prominent, changing views of the unique witness and discipleship of Mary Magdalene—her close relationship with Jesus, her financial support for his ministry with the apostles, and her witness of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection—mirror the change in perceptions of women within the church and in society as a whole.
Different perspectives: Eastern and Western Christian traditions
The Rev. Canon Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller, Huron-Lawson chair of moral and pastoral theology at Huron University College, said that views of Mary Magdalene have historically diverged between the Western and Eastern Christian traditions. She pointed to words from the Anglican collect for Mary’s feast day:
whose Son restored Mary Magdalene
to health of mind and body
and called her to be a witness of his resurrection,
forgive us and heal us by your grace […]
“It’s interesting that the focus is still on healing and sin, rather than what you would find in Eastern Christianity,” Larson-Miller said. The latter tradition, she noted, has “three names for her: apostle to the apostles, equal to the apostles, and a myrrh-bearer, which is actually an important classification.”
In contrast to these prestigious titles, Western Christian views starting in the fifth century A.D. suffered from confusion over different Marys in the New Testament, in which Mary Magdalene was conflated with other women such as a prostitute and a “sinful woman”.
Reflecting on how these views shaped perceptions of Mary in the Western Christian tradition, Suzanne Rumsey—public engagement program coordinator for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, and a master’s of theology student at Trinity College—drew a comparison with traditional portrayals of the Virgin Mary.
In each case, Rumsey suggested, each woman was largely reduced to a stereotype. Where Mary, the mother of Jesus, was portrayed in the patriarchal church tradition as “the perfect virgin”, Mary Magdalene was viewed as “the reformed prostitute, the fallen woman who Jesus saves.”
She added, “I think what has been happening, but I think needs to happen more still, is saying to ourselves: how do we go beyond the stereotypes?”
A shift in understanding
The rise of second-wave feminism led to a sea change in views of women and their role in society. Among Christians, the most visible expression of this change was the growing conversation around the ordination of women.
In 1969, the Anglican Church of Canada began to ordain women as deacons. In 1975, General Synod approved the ordination of women as priests, and in 1986 it signaled its support for the ordination of women as bishops.
The growing presence of women in church leadership positions coincided with a gradual reassessment of Mary Magdalene and the role she played in Jesus’s ministry. Larson-Miller pointed to the increasing phenomenon of women gathering around July 22, often with ecumenical evening prayers, which she herself has participated in for years.
She also recalled attending an opera in 2013 by Mark Adamo, entitled The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. In particular, she remembered the excited conversations from audience members, especially women, about the contributions of Mary.
Mary Magdalene “was there at the crucifixion,” Larson-Miller said. “She clearly accompanies Jesus. After this healing encounter with Jesus […] she clearly goes along with the disciples. She’s using her money to support them. She was there in Jerusalem. She’s the one that runs to the tomb and then goes and tells the others … In [eastern] prayers, it says, ‘Christ received you as a true disciple.’”
“I’m not sure that these kinds of celebrations and the shift in understanding have made huge changes in the role of women in the church,” the scholar added. “But it’s not a complete coincidence that all of this is happening in the 1970s. It becomes a part of a larger movement towards a greater inclusion of women and a stronger voice of women, so that they can point back and go, ‘It’s not just Peter, [and] it’s not just those [male disciples]. There is this woman who also played this role.’”
‘You are my witness’: Mary Magdalene and the #MeToo movement
Earlier this year, the film Mary Magdalene was released starring Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. In the trailer for the film, Jesus tells Mary, “You are my witness” —a phrase that evokes “You Are My Witnesses”, the theme of the 2016 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada and the 2016-2019 triennium.
In March 2018, it was announced that the film would no longer be distributed in the United States and Canada by its original partner, The Weinstein Company, following allegations of sexual abuse against the company’s co-founder and chief executive Harvey Weinstein. Those allegations would go on to spark the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
For Rumsey, the witness of women against sexual misconduct through #MeToo has parallels in the biblical witness of women to the resurrection of Christ after seeing his empty tomb:
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:11-12)
“You’ve got these women witnesses, and the men in the crowds don’t believe them,” Rumsey said.
“I think that rings so many bells, or it should ring so many bells for us in this time about the #MeToo movement as it’s impacting the church … We need to believe women, and we need to believe what they’re telling us.”
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