I love this painting by the Italian Renaissance artists Sovoldo. This timeless image of Mary Magdalene was painted over 600 years ago, but it captures perfectly one of her most important faces for me: the face of Mystery.
Most religious studies scholars agree that the very first written records of Mary Magdalene date back to about the year 50 (the Gospel of Mark and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas). The other Canonical Gospels range in dating from 70-110. The Gospel of Mary might be earlier ( 33 AD according to one Biblical scholar) or later (according to most other sources). If you look at all of the texts, there is actually a very slender but consistent picture: a disciple of deep devotion who was a witness to both death and new life. We don't know her age, hair color or physical appearance. The gospels tell us nothing about her life before she was a follower of Jesus ( except the implication in Luke that she was wealthy) or her life afterwards. From this tantalizingly small thread, an extraordinary tapestry of divergent stories were spun out over the centuries about who she might have been: a Jewish princess, a priestess of Isis, a prostitute ( sacred or secular), the mother of Jesus' child(ren), the wife of John the Baptist, the fiancee of John the Evangelist who lived out the end her days in Ephesus or France or even India. I've encountered people who insist she was an ever Virgin, others who declare she was the founder of the Merovingian dynasty (and that they are her descendants), others who have said they refuse to hear about "that whore" and one who declared that she was St.Peter's old mother-in-law.
So who was she, really ? Honestly, I can't tell you.
I can tell you an awful lot about who different people think she was, and I can tell you quite a bit about how those views of her shaped the world and culture (particularly in southern France). And I can tell you who she is for me. But I can't tell you the most important thing: who she is for you. Only you can discover that. It is a mystery waiting to be explored. In the Gospel of Mary, Jesus says, "Beware of those who say 'here it is' or ;There it is', for the kingdom of Heaven lies within you." And so it does.
I had the great joy this past weekend of attending a Mary Magdalene festival where artist and poets shared their creations that were inspired by her. It was beautiful to see the diversity, but even more touching to hear the testimonials of how illuminating and healing the different stories, symbols and meditations had been for the artists and writers who worked on them. It so reminded me of my favorite lines from the Gospel of Thomas: if you bring forth what is in you, what is in you will save you. For many of these artists, connecting their words and creating images with Mary Magdalene brought out something profoundly healing within them as it awakened their imagination. It made me remember how Joan of Arc, in her trial was asked, "Are you saying you encountered God in your imagination?", and she replied with simplicity and sincerity, "How else would I know Him?". Indeed.
My webinar series on the Myths of Mary Magdalene begins tonight at 7 pm. In it , I will tell many legends and show many pictures. In a paraphrase of Joseph Campbell, it will all be true, and some of it might have even happened. I have great hope that is will awaken the imagination of the almost 300 participants from around the world who have enrolled.
But who is Mary Magdalene really? That is for you alone to discover in the depths of your own heart.
To register for the webinar, go to www.mythsofmarymagdalene.com