Mary the Magdalene


26 July 2019

Mary the Magdalene is considered an early Christian saint in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. This past Monday, July 22nd, was her feast day, I thought about the irony of it all. Four U.S. congresswomen, labeled “the squad,” by misogynist politicians were being denigrated in the press and political gatherings, while I was working on an article about women in ministry, the Catholic reluctance to ordain women, and the great apostolic woman leader: Mary the Magdalene.

Over the centuries, the Magdalene has been greatly maligned and misrepresented by misogynist churchmen. The man who launched this false and derogatory understanding was Pope Gregory called “the great.” On September 14, 591, Gregory gave a homily in Rome that proclaimed that: (1) Mary the Magdalene, (2) Luke’s unnamed prostitute, and (3) Mary of Bethany were all the same person. From that time on, Mary the Magdalene was Mary the reformed prostitute. Fake news from the papal throne. It lasted until 1969 when the Vatican cleared her name. (Some, nevertheless, still think Mary had been a prostitute. Fake news hangs on for a long time.)

Gregory the Great was an extreme authoritarian, who turned the papacy into a strong international power. His father had been a senator and for a time the Prefect of the City of Rome. His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. Gregory had served as the governor of Rome when he was 30 years old; and he brought a strongly male-dominant imperial Roman administrative structure to the papacy.

Back to Mary….John’s Gospel clearly portrays Mary the Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles. Mark and Matthew place her first on the list of women at the cross. Luke names her first in his list of women disciples from Galilee. In the Synoptic Gospels the Magdalene appears first among the women at the tomb and the first person at the tomb in the Fourth Gospel. John elevates her above everyone else in his or any Gospel. She is the person to whom the resurrected Jesus appears.

Curiously, due to an error in biblical translation, just about every English language version of the New Testament gives the name of this great woman incorrectly. In all four Greek versions of the Gospels, the authors always use the definitive Greek article in her name. In Greek, definitive articles are used to emphasize a name. In English we would say “THE” as in “Mary THE Magdalene.” The English translators missed that significant point. (I do a lot of translating and understand the problem. Here it is a bad translation error nonetheless.)

Many religious writers — and even Wikipedia — still use the titles “Mary Magdalene” or “Mary of Magdala.” Some authors suggest this is because the historical Mary came from a town named Magdala. This is an unfortunate mistake. In Mary the Magdalene’s time, there was NO TOWN called Magdala. Mary the Magdalene did not come from a town called Magdala. In the days of Greek and Roman power in Galilee, the town known today as “Magdala” was called “Taricheae.” According to the first-century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, the town of Taricheae was totally destroyed by the Romans in 67 CE. Much later a new town was built over the ruins of Taricheae, and this town was called “Magdala Nunnayah. During the lifetime of Mary, however, the town on that location was Taricheae.

What then does “Mary the Magdalene” mean? “Magdalene” in Aramaic means “tower or pillar.” Mary the Magdalene was a tower or pillar of strength for Jesus and the early Christians: a companion and source of care and loving support. She was the preeminent ministerial woman: compassionate, hard-working, helpful, and courageous.

There are a couple other questions about Mary the Magdalen that we need to clarify. The first is that she had seven devils cast out of her. Reading the opening lines of chapter eight in Luke, we find: “Soon afterwards he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out………”

Over the centuries, Christian misogynists have used this demon theme to paint a very negative image of the Magdalene and many other women with their “demons.” Just a few examples: “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.” – Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215) ——- “Woman, you are the gate to hell.” –Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225) ——- “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” – Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century.

Now back to Luke chapter eight. Clearly Luke held the women accompanying Jesus in high esteem. Contemporary biblical scholars, when considering Mary the Magdalene’s “demons,” tend to agree that her seven demons represent illness, which, as a biblical researcher friend said recently, “could have been anything from epilepsy to psoriasis.” The important point here, nevertheless, is that some of the disciples who journeyed with Jesus were women; and prominent among them was Mary the Magdalene.

One more point to briefly consider….Were Jesus and the Magdalene a couple? In his 2003 fantasy novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown suggests that Mary the Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. Periodically, over the years, writers and some biblical scholars have suggested in fact that Jesus was married and Mary was his wife. To date there is really no solid evidence for this. I suppose it is possible. Some writers also suggest that Jesus was actually gay. To date there is no solid evidence for this either; although I suppose it is possible.

Gay or straight, married or single, Jesus remains the Christ. He remains for all of us, and for all time, “the way and the truth and the life.” Frankly, I really don’t care about his marital state or sexuality and don’t get into those discussions.

I am grateful, however, for Mary the Magdalene and her example and ministry. Let us celebrate, support, and be grateful for her and all those women who are successors of Mary the Magdalene: tower and pillar of strength and apostle to the apostles. And let us support and promote all those women today who are in pastoral ministry or feel called to it.

– Jack

Civility


19 July 2019

Recent events emanating from Washington DC compel me to reflect and write about how we treat one another in political discourse. I am not writing about politics but about virtue and public morality.

What were once episodes of ugly verbal abuse are now evolving into a plague of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. A fierce polarization is creating deep divisions. Civility is being replaced by adolescent-type bullying and public denigration of anyone who challenges and questions the administration. There is nothing Christian about such behavior and it creates a threateningly inhumane cultural environment.

Civility means much more than politeness, although politeness is indeed an important first step. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.

Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal power in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Civility means that despite different perspectives we still have a shared vision and collaborate to make it a reality.

When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History amply demonstrates that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.

The message this week is small. The task awaiting us is enormous. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues, etc. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.

At the end of this week, we all should reflect on the message in Luke 10:25-37: On one occasion an expert in the law, who wanted to justify himself, stood up to test Jesus and so he asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Take care.

Jack

Natural and Unnatural


12 July 2019

On Monday, July 8, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of an advisory commission: the “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” He hopes it “will provide the intellectual grist of what I hope will be one of the most profound re-examinations of inalienable rights in the world since the 1948 Universal Declaration.”

The Commission on Unalienable Rights will be headed by Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See. When he was a law student at Harvard, Pompeo was Glendon’s research assistant. Glendon, when thanking Pompeo for the appointment, stressed that this is a time when “basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators.” One can agree with her, perhaps, but then one needs to make some important distinctions.

Mary Ann Glendon’s statement, underlines my current concerns about the basis for human rights today and what has been called the “natural law.” Indeed, when setting up the commission at the State Department, the Secretary of State said its purpose would be to redefine human rights based on “natural law and natural rights.”

What is natural is a perennial question. Viewed over several centuries, “natural law” has often had a wax nose, which has bern twisted to accommodate the morality of those in power, in church and state. Arguments based on natural law have been used to justify slavery, condone torture, denigrate women, condemn gays, and of course (in the Catholic Church) to condemn contraception.

Nevertheless, my observations today are not about politics, Pompeo, or Glendon. The more important issue is clarifying, first of all, what we mean by “natural law” and, secondly, how one can promote an international ethic, still struggling to be born under the rubric of human rights.

When we survey the history of Western philosophy and theology, we see of course many thinkers who have referred to natural law. By no means have they always understood the same thing. They often came to different conclusions about what the natural law called for in human conduct. For centuries now there have been disputes between the Thomistic and Suarezian interpretations of natural law. These divergent views show that even older Catholic authors never agreed on a univocal understanding of natural law. In fact, natural law as a coherent theory with an agreed upon body of ethical content throughout history has never existed, even in the Catholic tradition. The approach of Thomas Aquinas to natural law, for instance, differs from that of many Scholastics; and outside the Catholic tradition there does not exist a concept of natural law as a monolithic theory, with an agreed-upon body of ethical content.

People who argue, for example, that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is a clear statement of the “natural law” principle that “all men are created equal” forget that this eighteenth century understanding of “natural law” did not apply to imported African slaves, to Native Americans, and certainly did not support any natural equality of men and women.

It takes time but institutional perspectives do change, thanks to, as I wrote last week, coalitions of transformation. The Catholic perspective on the world and “natural law” certainly changed dramatically in the mid 1960s.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), Catholic moral theology — what is more often called today “theological ethics” —moved from classicism to historical consciousness; and historical consciousness greatly affects the understanding of natural law.

Classicism and historical consciousness are two different ways of looking at the world. Classicism sees reality in terms of the static, the unchanging, and the eternal. (Actually, before his great awakening, Jack was a very pious young man solidly anchored in classicism.) Historical consciousness, on the other hand, sees reality in terms of historical change and places more emphasis on the particular and the individual, while classicism stresses the abstract and the universal.

Classicism (strongly upheld by many fundamentalists and by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor) understands objective truth as unchanged in the course of history.

Historical consciousness says ultimately there is objective truth, but it recognizes the historicity of truth and the need for people to grasp and understand it. Historical consciousness gives greater importance to the subject seeking truth and to the historical reality itself. We are still on the road to discovery.

As an historical theologian and a proponent of historical consciousness I would be quick to point out, contrary to the objections of people like the former-pope Cardinal Ratzinger, that historical consciousness is not the same thing as historical relativism. It is a matter of perspective. Our human history involves both continuity and discontinuity. Historical consciousness is a middle position between the extremes of classicism and relativism. We are anchored in human life and tradition; and we move toward a greater understanding of life and tradition.

We learn. We grow. We are always moving toward ultimate truth. And we maintain our stability with the words of Jesus of Nazareth: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” THAT is our fundamental moral principle. That covers a lot of human territory and reenforces human dignity.

I don’t recall that Jesus ever distinguished between gay and straight, male and female, Latinos and Gringos, black and white, etc. Jesus, truly human and truly divine, had a marvelous respect for the other.

We say we live in his spirit. That is not just our challenge. It is our duty.. No relativism here.

Jack

The Fourth of July : An Historic Coalition of Transformation


To all my USA family and friends happy Fourth of July!

We can indeed celebrate. The Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. It initiated a revolutionary political change, which had global implications. Representatives from the 13 American colonies, a coalition of transformation, rejected the authoritarianism of King George III and British control over the colonies.

George was a model authoritarian ruler. (The only thing he lacked was a Twitter account.) When he assumed his nation’s highest office, he had no previous governmental experience. He was born wealthy. Never worked for anyone. Although he became his nation’s commander in chief, he had never served in the military.

For his every move, he relied on a secretive, eccentric advisor bent on reshaping the nation’s political order. Demanding absolute loyalty, the new authoritarian ruler did not trust anyone more popular than he was, and he detested all opposition. He took advantage of severe insomnia to grab his pen quill —day and night — and write often bizarre, negative notes about people with whom he had big and small complaints: cabinet ministers, generals, and citizens. Nothing was too great or too trivial for his authoritarian critical pen.

George gathered around himself a group of loyal authoritarian followers: a coalition of restoration to make his monarchy great again.

The challenging question in 1776 was transformation or restoration. The thirteen American colonies decided to become a coalition of transformation: creating a new, democratic government independent from England. They chose not to build a coalition of authoritarian followers, that would enable King George III to manage and manipulate them according to his own self-centered authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is something leaders and their followers generate when they create a coalition of restoration — longing for the imagined good old days — to maintain control. It often occurs in times of socio-cultural change, when too many people close their eyes, stop thinking, and allow fear to replace faith.

We live in a time of tremendous socio-cultural change. A heyday for authoritarians, with their closed systems of power and authority.

The collapse of a critical social consciousness begins when authoritarian followers unquestioningly submit to their leaders. Loyalty is demanded and rewarded. Cheap slogans become truth statements. Fiction becomes reality. Gradually authoritarian “leaders” are allowed to do whatever they want, which is often undemocratic, amoral, tyrannical, and inhumanely brutal.

In today’s world, we have ample examples of people surrendering to mind-distorting authoritarianism, which spreads like a cancerous growth. We see it politics, but it is out there in church as well.

Humanity, human rights, human dignity, compassion, and collaboration. These are the values that healthy leaders promote. Whether civil or religious, leaders and institutions must be challenged to promote people not denigrate them. When they begin to deny the human dignity of every man, woman, and child, institutional structures and leaders must be changed. We need to build coalitions of transformation.

This week, for example I am delighted to read that half a million Catholic women in Germany demand access to ordained ministry (priesthood). Germany’s largest Catholic women’s organization has for the first time called for the ordination of women to the priesthood, passing a unanimous resolution to this effect in a Federal Assembly in Mainz. Now that is what we mean by a coalition of transformation. Change can happen.

People thinking and collaborating to construct new frameworks, with new language, new images, and new inspirations.

Happy Fourth of July!

Another Voice is back……..