I have just passed through airport security and am sitting waiting for my flight. Passport in hand. My passport lists countries journeyed and is a key that opens a passage to unknown territories and adventure.
Similarly, I have a passport of my journeys with the women of the Gospels. The research, contemplation and giving them a voice through the one-woman plays I have created, have like a key, opened a passageway to an experience of what it may have been like to walk the roads of Israel with Jesus, bringing to life the extraordinary times and events of His ministry. And through this, my relationship to Jesus had deepened and His teachings opened my heart. The more his ministry comes alive, the more I become more alive. And yet, I have never set foot on the Holy Land. And yet, I have never set foot on the Holy Land.
For the last months I read everything on Mary Magdalene that I could get my hands on: theological essays, historical interpretations, books people gifted or recommended. Combined, these have given me my passport for the journey I am now taking.
As I contemplate where I am going, I look to where I began.
In my lifetime, Mary Magdalene has gone from being perceived as a Prostitute to being recognized as Beloved by Jesus. Her mythos, her role in Early Christianity is undergoing a phenomenal shift in the minds and hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike as there is a collective understanding that she was never a prostitute and a collective inquiry into her true character and the nature of her role in the ministry of Jesus and early Christianity.
In 591 AD Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily declaring Mary Magdalene a Prostitute.
He said “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark…And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? . . . It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts . . .”
Pope Gregory linked disparate Bible verses to create a story of Mary Magdalene that would be further embellished in the generations and centuries that followed. The role of Mary as Penitent Prostitute shaped the Christian narrative and influenced the perception of women of faith. This viewpoint went uncontested for 1,500 years when in 1969, the Vatican officially cleared Mary Magdalene of the accusation of prostitution saying that there was no evidence to support this belief.. (to read further click 'read more' just below)
Unraveling 1,500 years of character assassination, how do we uncover who she really was within the ministry of Jesus and the fledgling Christian church? I believe we begin with the Gospels themselves where she is mentioned a total of 13 times.
In Luke 8:1 -3 Mary Magdalene is named as one who follows Jesus along with the twelve elect male disciples. He identifies her has having been healed of seven demons and in addition to following Jesus, she and other women support him from ‘their means’ (which has been interpreted as financially supporting his ministry.)
In the previous verse Luke writes of a sinful woman who anoints Jesus feet. In one fell swoop, linking this unnamed woman with Mary Magdalene, Mary became a disgraced woman. Pope Gregory constructs further proof for his conclusion when he identifies ‘seven demons’ as the worse type of affliction and concludes that it signifies sexuality depravity. He combines these two verses with another unnamed woman, the Prostitute who Jesus saves from being stoned when he says, “The one of you who has not sinned may cast the first stone.” In the wake of this statement, no stone was thrown.
There are many leaps that Pope Gregory made with this homily. Because he was Pope, and believed to be divinely guided and the supreme spiritual authority in the Western world at that time, the Beloved of Jesus becomes the Repentant Prostitute.
1500 years later, The Vatican in Rome recounts Pope Gregory’s declaration, saying there is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute. Their declaration, however, did not trickle down to the masses. In fact, during bible study and Sunday sermons in my childhood in the 60s and 70s, Mary Magdalene was upholding as the repentant prostitute, providing an example for all Christians that no matter what mistakes or bad choices we have made in our life, we can always be forgiven and made whole.
In the 1990s, I began to hear other stories about Mary Magdalene and began to wonder at her true identity and character…and began to wonder if we had missed the boat in understanding her role in Jesus’ life and in the early church. It wasn’t until the early part of the 21st century with the bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, that the Vatican’s 1969 pronouncement became widely known and embraced.
In 2006, I performed my one-woman Passion Play in churches of various denominations in Massachusetts, California and New Zealand. Written in 1992, I had performed it at churches of all across the United States and internationally portraying Mary Magdalene as the Repentant Prostitute bearing witness to Jesus at the foot of the cross. My performance consistently received praise and acclaim. Then in 2006, within every church where I performed - no matter what the denomination or where they were located in the world - was offended that I portrayed her as a prostitute. They were emphatic that she was not and reprimanded me for continuing to further a myth that she was.
Wow! Overnight, in one fell swoop, a key figure in the Christian story had undergone a transformation. Not just in one location. Not just in one denomination. But seemingly across the board.
In Women of the Bible retreats that I continue to facilitate for retreat centers, schools and church organizations, the topic of Mary Magdalene regularly emerges. The retreat may not even focus on her, and yet questions about her arise as Christian women are captivated, curious and interested in who she was and why this is relevant to our lives today.
2006 marks the year that I began an active dialogue about the true role and nature of Mary Magdalene. Published material exploring this question has become more plentiful, so I began to read, to discuss and to reflect.
I have noticed that Mary’s re-emergence as a trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle coincides with an era were issues of women’s rights and interest in the Sacred Feminine is on the rise. Mary Magdalene, in many respects, is everywoman and has been and continues to be the voice of the feminine within the church and for all people.
And so I have been called! - been inspired to discover how she lives in me and to give her a voice through the creation of a new one-woman show. After all the research and contemplation, she still remains an enigma. And so…I am about to take off have way around the world to go stand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
For more on Bible Women Speak and Olivia's ministry, visit www.BibleWomenSpeak.com