The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was written in the early second century, then disappeared for almost 2000 years. This morning we awaken the sacred feminine, the sleeping beauty, Mary Magdalene, as we honor her today, October 19, the 8th anniversary of my ordination. In our Wednesday class, we are studying this and other Gnostic gospels that did not make it into our New Testament canon. This newly found gospel has an interesting history. Fragments of a fifth-century copy of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene in a Coptic translation were discovered in 1896, when it was sold in an antique store to a German scholar in Egypt. In 1917, two earlier fragments of the gospel in Greek were discovered, but we still are missing about half of the gospel. The first published edition was released to the world in German in 1955.

We know that the Gnostic gospels were actively repressed during the first five centuries of the Christian church. The remnants that have survived give us new keys to the heritage of the leadership of women in the early church and of Jesus’ intention to honor women and the sacred feminine. In the Mediterranean, the early church was very diverse, and some scholars suggest that over 1,000 gospels were written by a variety of believers. Scholars estimate that 85 % of all early Christian literature has not been recovered.

Many of the newly found Gnostic gospels present a decidedly modern theology. The Gnostics who wrote them believed that divinity was within us and that everyone could experience and know God directly.

The literature of many communities of early Christians was not chosen to be in the church canon, and the early Orthodox Church claimed that they were heretical. Many of these Gnostic gospels awaken a new, mystical vision of the teachings of Jesus. Some of the gospels suggest that Mary Magdalene was not only a leader in the early Christian community, an apostle and disciple of Jesus, but perhaps his wife and lover.

I stand before you as your newly called woman minister, your first woman minister. If you feel uneasy about this service today, I hope you will consider this question. Does the Christian church have a responsibility to study this newly found gospel that may have been written by women? I think we do. With more women in ministry and with the arrival of this new but ancient gospel, I believe we have been given an invitation to retell and revitalize myths, images, and symbols of the divine feminine. We all yearn for harmony and balance–between the male and female aspects of both men and women, between the left and right brains, between the head and heart, art and science, logic and intuition, within all of us and among us. Bringing back this story of the union of male and female, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, this gospel that has lived underground for centuries gives us the potential to heal our out-of-balance world. By kissing the fairy-tale bride awake, we potentially heal our world and bring happiness and health to the whole kingdom. After all, newly discovered Gnostic gospels such as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene may awaken and revitalize a new interest in and study of Christianity that could heal the unbalanced nature of our culture.

As we begin our reflection on Mary Magdalene, let us first acknowledge our sense of loss about the repressed sacred feminine in our religion and our yearning for memories of Christianity’s female ancestors, such as Mary Magdalene.

We come today as a people who want memories of Mary Magdalene and Jesus and their sacred union. This Keali’i Reichel lament is called “Wanting Memories,” and could have been written by Mary Magdalene as she grieved for the memories of her beloved teacher who had died. It also speaks for all women, who, in fundamental ways, have been left out of our Christian story.

Please feel free to sing the refrain with me as the song becomes familiar to you. The words are here for you to follow along.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.

You used to rock me in the cradle of your arms,
You said you’d hold me till the pains of life were gone.
You said you’d comfort me in times like these and now I need you,
Now I need you, and you are gone.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
Since you’ve gone and left me, there’s been so little beauty,
But I know I saw it clearly through your eyes.

Now the world outside is such a cold and bitter place,
Here inside I have few things that will console.
And when I try to hear your voice above the storms of life,
Then I remember all the things that I was told.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.

I think on the things that made me feel so wonderful when i was young.
I think on the things that made me laugh, made me dance, made me sing.
I think on the things that made me grow into a being full of pride.
I think on these things, for they are true.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you’re with me,
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.

I know a please a thank you and a smile will take me far,
I know that I am you and you are me and we are one,
I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand,
I know that I’ve been blessed again, and over again.

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.

We are here to celebrate a wedding. As a minister, I will begin the service with the traditional words: “We are gathered here today in the sight of God to join this sacred bride and bride groom in holy matrimony…..” But the holy union I will ask you to give your blessing to today is far from traditional. Today we will celebrate the spiritual union of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, the union of the divine feminine with traditionally masculine Christianity, the masculine and feminine aspect of our own inner selves, and our sacred union with God that has been out of balance with, separated from, and in exile from the feminine divine for thousands of years.

I am excited and inspired to reconsider the whole archetype, or model, of our Christian heritage by placing Mary Magdalene in her rightful place as disciple, and perhaps wife or lover, of Jesus. We do not know exactly what relationship they had, but as master and disciple they shared a divine union and partnership. Reconsidering and celebrating Mary Magdalene’s role in early Christianity has the power to awaken us from a 2,000-year lack of consciousness about balanced spirituality. Westerners have glorified the “masculine” qualities of power, the left brain and logic at the expense of the qualities often associated with the “feminine”—with the heart, collaborative community, and the artistic right brain.

The story of Mary Magdalene has lain under the sands of Egypt for over a thousand years. In some ways, her story is like that of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, put into a trance-like sleep. Her bridegroom, grief-stricken because of her absence, finds her and awakens her with a sacred kiss. Their union brings joy and health to their kingdom. Fairy tales and religious myths give expression to our universal, primal drive for merging and union between the symbolic masculine and feminine in our own psyches, the left and right brain, the intuitive and the logical, the head and the heart. Just as our own parents’ sexual union brought us physical life, the mythic union of the sacred bride and bridegroom gives new life to our spirits.

The sleeping beauty Mary Magdalene awakes now in the 21st century, and her reconciliation to and reunion with Jesus has the potential to bring health, happiness and harmony to all the earth, as fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White express. I believe that the recent awakening of Mary Magdalene at this historic time marks the awakening of a feminine divinity which has been asleep in our Christian culture for almost two thousand years.

This awakening to the sacred union of male and female is just as significant and healing for men as it is for women. Both men and women have suffered from corrupt social systems of injustice based on gender, for whether we are on the top or on the bottom of the hierarchical ladder, we are bereft of holy union, merger, equality and the partnership we need in order to become whole.

The kiss of awakening marks the descent of the Holy Spirit into us, and the female aspect merging and joining with the male aspect within our own psyche and souls. Whether we are gay or straight, we resonate with Carl Jung’s naming of ancient, omnipresent archetypes of the masculine and feminine aspect within all people and all relationships.

The Gospel of Mary, like the Gospel of Thomas, is unlike orthodox Christianity and Judaism that emphasize a God outside us, a God who is the other. The newly found gospels speak about God as self-knowledge, as Mary says in Chapter 4 verse 5:
“For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.”

Instead of talking about saving us from sin, Jesus comes as a guide in the Gnostic gospels to awaken our spiritual knowledge. “Gnostic” comes from the Greek work whose root is “to know.” Gnostic knowledge refers to an inner spiritual knowledge. I use the term Mysticism more often than Gnosticism — both refer to our direct experience of the divine, the God within us as well as outside us. Jesus praises the inner search in the Gospel of Thomas when he says, “Blessed are the solitary and the chosen, for you will find the kingdom, for you are from it and to it you will return.”

I believe the Christian mystics have kept many of the teachings of Jesus alive for the last two thousand years. Christian mystics have consistently shared their personal interpretations of the divine and challenged the Orthodox Church of their day. The tension between those who interpret Jesus as a teacher of religious mysticism and those who believe in Christian orthodoxy continues to be played out with passion even today.

The early Christian church was wildly diverse and history provides references to hundreds of Gospels written by early Christians. During the first few centuries A.D., a great struggle erupted over which gospels would be “canonized” and become the orthodox theology of the established church. The Gnostics and mystics lost this struggle, and with it we lost the mystical teachings of Mary Magdalene and other Gospels that honored the sacred feminine.

Some scholars, like Bishop Spong, believe that Mary Magdalene could have been Jesus’ wife, for no Jewish man preached in the synagogue without being married. We know that the other disciples were married; Peter had a mother-in-law, so we know he was married.

Let me ask all of you this question: how would your religious life be different and how differently would you feel about Christianity if Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene and shared a ministry with her? What if Mary Magdalene was pregnant when Jesus was crucified and later had a baby daughter? Does this engage your religious imagination? I hope so, for that is what is needed in the church—an awakening of our religious imaginations to new and different revelations, some given to us almost 2000 years later.

The Gospel of Mary reminds us of the radical egalitarianism that is at the core of our Christian faith. In the Gospel, Peter, for example, sees only that Mary is a woman, and allows his role as a man with status to make him become jealous, prideful and cruel. Levi tries to explain to him, and to all of us, that body and gender should not be the factors to determine spiritual qualities. Jesus and God love us whether we are male or female, slave or free, Greek or Jew. By excluding Mary from the church we have betrayed the central teaching of Jesus that all are welcome at the table.

How many of you grew up believing that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? The idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute has no biblical reference. Not one. It was Pope Gregory I in 591 CE who wrote a sermon about Mary being a prostitute, and that view has been carried for 1500 years. The Catholic Church in 1969 apologized for this error, but still we have the myth of her sinfulness imprinted on our cultural consciousness.

Mary the Virgin Mother and Mary Magdalene the prostitute have been the two central female archetypes for the last two millennia. As we read and study the lost teachings of the Gospel of Mary, we resurrect a more complex woman, a spiritually evolved teacher and preacher who worked side-by-side with Jesus, who loved her. This is a new archetype that begs for us to take the radical egalitarian revolution Jesus taught seriously. Mary is the clearly portrayed as the leader of the apostles in the Gospel of Mary, the one who gives them encouragement and guides their course. Our gospel reading this morning tells us, “Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, ‘Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.’”

Mary was not only a disciple but Jesus’ most beloved and favorite disciple. In our reading this morning we heard, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women.” And several other newly found Gospels, such as the Gospel of Phillip, tells us, “The companion is Mary Magdalene. Jesus loved her more than his students. He kissed her often on her face, more than all his students and they said, “Why do you love her more than us? The savior answered, saying to them, “Why do I not love you like her? If a blind man and one who sees are together in darkness, they are the same. When light comes, the one who sees will see light. The blind man stays in the dark.” Jesus is calling her more spiritually sighted than any of them. It is Mary Magdalene who is most like him and has the power to see the spiritual nature of divinity in all, to see visions, to see in the dark.

An apostle is someone who saw the risen Christ. All religious authority in the early church came from this experience. Those who saw the risen Christ were considered the rightful leaders of the church. Peter has been considered the first apostle to see Christ, justifying him as the rightful founder of the church and the model for the succession of Catholic Popes. This, however, is a false premise, for most scholars agree that it was Mary Magdalene who was the first witness to the resurrection.

It is Mary in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark who sees Jesus first and is given the commission to start the church. In the Gospel of John, it is also Mary who first witnesses the resurrection in Chapter 20; later, another chapter, 21, was added to write a new ending and make Peter the first to witness the risen Christ. This change in John’s gospel was part of the unofficial scriptural changes made by the early Orthodox church as issues about women’s authority were being decided. The mixed messages about Mary Magdalene reflect the ambivalence about women’s leadership as the Gospels were taking their canonical form and assimilating more sexist Greek cultural values. It represented a move from the house church, where women were leaders, to the public church.

For our two thousand years women endured the repression of the public church, but today we challenge the exclusion of women in church leadership and the tragic loss of a sacred feminine consciousness. There is no doubt that Jesus loved women and all people and understood the harm suffered from the kind of dishonoring and exclusion Peter shows to Mary.

We know from the Gospels that Jesus cast 7 demons out of Mary Magdalene from the gospels, and it does not surprise me that in the harshness of the patriarchal Roman culture in the ancient world, women would suffer greatly. I believe that the number 7 represents a healing of her entire person–all 7 chakras, or energy centers of the body. The symbolic number seven, used often in the Bible, can be seen as portraying the completeness of physical experience in time and space–the seven days of the week form a unit of time, the seven chakras or energy centers include the whole body, the seven deadly sins include all of our spiritual problems– pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, and sloth. Because Jesus had healed her of her whole personhood, she is able to see him and be awakened to his divinity in ways the other disciples cannot see nor experience. She is also given the gift of visions, both for the resurrection and for other perceptions she shares in the Gospel of Mary.

It is Mary Magdalene, according to some scholars, who financially underwrote and paid for Jesus’ ministry. She is the reliable anchor throughout his ministry, cooking and caring for him, anointing him, bearing witness with him through his torturous crucifixion on the cross, staying with him at the moment of his death and coming to care for his corpse after death. She witnesses the resurrection and encourages and inspires the other disciples to undertake their Christian ministries.

Perhaps Jesus first appeared to her in the resurrection because he knew that it was only Mary Magdalene who would be faithfully present even after death. He may have appeared to her not only because she was spiritually advanced enough to experience the miracle of resurrection and awake to the spiritual dimension of mystery beyond space and time that is the Christ resurrected, but because they were intertwined in love and sacred promise.

The first six pages of the Gospel of Mary are still lost, so the Gospel begins with a discussion about mysticism. Mary Magdalene teaches us about the mystical interconnection of the universe, and that the material and spiritual realms are interconnected. Jesus explains that everything in the universe is interwoven with everything else. The gospel begins, “Will matter then be utterly destroyed or not?” The Savior replies, “Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other.” The message is a mystical one: We Are One.

Today I would like to commission you to go forth into a new religious imagination, a fairy tale kingdom, a place of spiritual vision for awakening a new consciousness, a renewed Christianity, a new birth and healing, an awakening sleeping beauty of a myth breaking into our human consciousness– a sacred marriage of the male and female, a sacred union with each of us and God. Let us put our religious imagination to work and have an inner seeing, a vision of the sacred union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the male and female within ourselves. This is not necessarily a real marriage or a sexual union, but it could be, a sacred marriage and merging in our religious imagination–a spiritual union, a coming together, a merging into God and becoming One, of male and female, right and left brain, head and heart, east and west, logic and intuition. This is a mystical marriage of all of us in our Oneness. The divine union of Mary Magdalene and Jesus may bring harmony and healing to our inner natures, our human family relationships and our interconnected relationship with all of creation. Let us go forth as integrated men and women, fully human, to learn, teach, and preach the Good news: God loves us! Our basic nature is one of divine love as we invite our divine feminine to be awakened. Today we celebrate the miracle and mystery of the resurrection of both Jesus and Mary Magdalene within our own spirits.

I ask you who are gathered today the following: Will you give your blessing to awakening to the holy union between the divine energies of the universe of belonging and emerging, of intuition and science, of beauty and justice? If you give your blessing repeat after me and say, “I do.” Do you who love Jesus and Mary Magdalene, do you vow to love one another as Jesus loves us? “I do.”

By the power invested in me by the bridegroom of the church, Jesus Christ, and the sacred bride of the church, Mary Magdalene, I pronounce the lost bride to awaken within you and within all of us. You may now kiss the bride.
May I present to you a congregation, who by kissing the fairy tale bride awake, potentially heals itself and our world, and brings happiness and health to all the kingdom.

Amen.