“Mary Magdalene” Saves My Lent

I didn’t feel good about my Lent this year – until Holy Week. I don’t know why, but my heart just wasn’t in it till then. However, beginning on what used to be called Holy Week’s “Spy Wednesday,” a whole series of events unfolded that returned me to the spirit that should have characterized the previous 40 days. Its highlight was experiencing an extraordinary film that I want to recommend here. It’s called simply “Mary Magdalene.” It raises questions about women’s leadership in today’s Catholic Church.

What I did just before seeing the film prepared me. It began on Wednesday when I watched an Italian production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The next night brought a brief celebration of Maundy Thursday at our new non- denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church. The following morning, I took part in a two hour “way of the cross” through the town of nearby Darien. Immediately afterwards, came a “Tre Ore” observance at the town’s Episcopal Church. The recollection of Jesus’ three-hours on the cross was marked by long periods of silence broken by seven sermons delivered by ministers from a whole variety of area churches. (At times the latter seemed like a sermon slam, with the clear winner the entry delivered jointly in dialog by our own two pastors from Talmadge Hill.)

Then on Holy Saturday, Peggy and I took in “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Australian, Garth Davis. For me, it was Holy Week’s capstone. To begin with, Joaquin Phoenix embodied the best Jesus-representation that I’ve seen so far. It was understated, believable, sensitive, compassionate, and challenging. Phoenix’s mien and demeanor reminded me of the Jesus forensic archeologists have estimated looked like this:

But it is Mary Magdalene (played by an unglamorous, but beautiful Rooney Mara) who supplies the eyes through which viewers finally see the peasant from Galilee. She’s a midwife, we learn. Far from the one defined as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, she rejects intimate relationships with men. “I’m not made for marriage,” Mary explains to the shock of her scandalized father, brothers and suitor. “Then, what are you made for?” they demand. All of them join together and nearly drown her as they attempt to exorcise the demons responsible for her refusal to submit to marital patriarchy.

Nevertheless, Mary persists and eventually tags along with those following Jesus – the only woman among the band of men called apostles. She herself is baptized by Jesus. She also pays closer and more perceptive attention to Jesus’ words than the others. She even gently corrects her male companions, suggesting that their interpretation of the Kingdom of God entailing violent revolution might be mistaken. Peter’s comment about such impertinence is “You weaken us.” But in the end, Mary quietly retorts, “I will not be silenced.”

Soon Jesus commissions Magdalene to baptize women.  As a result, they end up following the Master in droves. From then on, we see Mary habitually walking next to Jesus as he treks across Palestine’s barren landscape from Galilee through Cana and Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. At the last supper, after washing Jesus’ feet, she sits at his right hand. Clearly, she’s in charge and a leader of men nonpareil.

At one point in the journey to the Holy City, Mary unmistakably demonstrates her unique leadership. She implicitly reminds viewers of the words John the Evangelist attributes to Jesus, “The one who believes in me, the works that I do shall (s)he do also; and greater works than these shall (s)he do . . . (JN 14:12) For after witnessing Jesus restore a dead man to life, Mary herself emulates the healer’s ritual and restores to life a score of people left for dead by the brutal Roman occupation forces. None of the males among Jesus’ followers even dares such close imitation of Christ.

Then there is Magdalene’s relationship with a young smiling, cheerful, and very sympathetic Judas. He came to follow Jesus after his wife and child had been brutally killed by the Romans. So, he hears Jesus’ words about God’s Kingdom as a promise that Jesus will inspire and lead a retributive rebellion against Rome. But after Jesus’ participation in a direct-action demonstration in Jerusalem’s temple, Judas appears worried that Jesus is losing resolve and direction. So, in an evident effort to force Jesus’ hand, the apostle cooperates in Jesus’ arrest and collects the reward on his head. Judas fully expects that his teacher’s plight will mobilize his followers to the uprising Judas confidently anticipates. When that doesn’t happen, Judas is filled with despair. He returns home. The next we know, he’s hanging from the lintel of his hovel’s doorway.

Of course, there is no uprising. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. Afterwards, his limp body is placed in the lap of his mother. He’s then buried. While the other apostles flee, distancing themselves from the corpse, Magdalene faithfully sleeps on the ground outside the tomb. In the morning, she’s awakened by Jesus’ voice. He’s clothed in martyr’s white. Without uttering a word, she quietly sits on the ground next to him, convinced that he has come back to life.

So, she returns to the site of the last supper and tells Peter and the others her good news. They refuse to believe her. It’s at this point that Mary says those words, “I will not be silenced.”

According to Pope Francis, that refusal and her bringing of Good News to the apostolic leadership has merited for her the title of “apostle of apostles.” She is more important than any of them.

As you can see, I’m grateful to “Mary Magdalene” for salvaging my Lent. However, her story makes me wonder about the absence of female leadership in Francis’ church.

How about you? See the film and decide for yourself.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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