In honor of the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, I am speaking to you outside. Because so many of the moments we contemplate most deeply as Christians, as Catholics, happened outside.
Mary Magdalene was outside with Jesus as he was being crucified
And she was outside, in a garden, when she experienced resurrection.
As a biblical scholar I’ve been spending time with Mary Magdalene in Scripture and something new has caught my attention. Her name.
Her name in Hebrew and Aramaic is Miryam Migdala. We have assumed that migdala refers to a town -- Migdal. But migdal is also a Hebrew word. Could this have been her nickname? We know that Jesus gave nicknames to his favorite students. Peter’s name was actually Simon but Jesus called him “stone” and so the gospel writer calls that disciple Simon Peter. Similarly: Miryam Migdala.
So, you may be wondering, what does migdala mean?
Migdala means Tower. Did Jesus experience Mary Magdalene as a tower? I have been praying with the image of her as a woman with a very large and impressive presence. I wonder: did she tower over Jesus?
Migdala means Fortress. The strongest worship spaces in the ancient world were built as fortresses, and were called migdal temples.Did Jesus find that the essence of his ministry was exceptionally well protected and defended by Mary Magdalene? I wonder if he himself felt really safe with her.
Migdala means raised platform or Pulpit. Did Jesus believe that after he was gone his message would find a larger platform through her? Did Jesus see her as embodying the pulpit of their movement going forward?
Well, we don’t have to speculate about that one, because that’s just what John’s gospel shows us. Jesus resurrects to Mary and commissions her to spread the good news to everyone else. There was something about Mary and her capacity for spiritual experience. And not just to experience resurrection, but then to convey it. Sharing her experience opens up these windows of possibility in the other disciples’ minds, and as a result they begin experiencing resurrection too.
Miryam Migdala claiming her story as her own, and sharing it as hers is a crucial part of the Christian story we’ve all been telling for two thousand years.
Yet for some reasonit is so easy for us to overlook her subjectivity. Even though John’s gospel tells us that when she goes to the other students of Jesus to proclaim she says explicitly, “I have seen the Lord” and she tells them explicitly that “he had spoken these matters to her.” For some reason, we tend to skip over the power of her subjective experience.
For instance, we read in the gospel that Mary recognizes Jesus in the garden when he calls her by name. And “she called to him in Aramaic, ‘rabbouni’ which means Teacher.” Well, no, 'rabbi’ means teacher in Aramaic. Rabbouni means my teacher. Why does the Bible make that mistake?
As a doctor of psychology and religion I know that we tend to fear the spiritual power that comes through women’s authentic personal experience. The very human reaction to that fear is to denigrate the person whose creative power and authenticity frightens us.
Are we afraid of this saint?
Is that why Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus experienced as a Tower, has been portrayed in so much art as on her knees, prostrate on the ground, groveling at Jesus’ feet?
Is that why the impenetrable Fortress trusted by Jesus, started being referred to six centuries later as a penitent prostitute -- someone whose job it is to be penetrated?
Is that why Mary Magdalene, the Pulpit for the resurrection, is strangely silent in many of our traditions? And is this fear of spiritual-power-through-subjective-experience why all women are banned from the pulpit in the Roman Catholic Mass?
Over two millennia we’ve gotten so good at denigrating or mis-labeling or just completely passing over Miryam Magdala and her experience.
But our world today is waking up to the powerfully good news of women’s subjective experience.
I have a thirteen-year-old daughter. And every day she shows me -- with her words and her actions and her choices -- that the time of patriarchal structures as the fitting container for our faith and our lives -- that time is over.
Now is a time to celebrate. On this Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene we can celebrate the power of her experience as good news. She is reminding us that we all have to claim our own experience as the good news. Jesus as rabbouni. “My” teacher. Your teacher. And we have to go out and live it and preach it and teach it with authority.
Because Jesus didn’t authorize any institution. Ever.
Because the institutions of our Church are sick and dying.
Because you have a story that only you can tell, and when you tell it, resurrection flows.
My message of good news today is that you are it. We are it. We’ve got a lot of choices to make. We’ve got a lot of building to do. The Feast of Mary Magdalene is a great day to start.
Elizabeth Berne DeGear
Elizabeth Berne DeGear is a chaplain, writer, Bible scholar and Catholic feminist.
Certified with the NACC since 2002, Lizzie’s passion for group experience was sparked by her chaplaincy work on inpatient psychiatric units and with those facing addiction. For fifteen years, as chaplain for the Center for Urban Community Services, she created and led memorial services for people who knew homelessness during their lives.
With a PhD in psychoanalytic theory and the Hebrew Bible from Union Theological Seminary, Lizzie is fascinated by the way our lives are shaped by spirit and psyche. Her pastoral work with individuals and communities helps people discover the freedom within their own faith and then helps them develop the means to enjoy that freedom. Co-creating liturgical celebrations and healing circles in honor of Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day has been a highlight of this work.
Through Bible studies at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City, Lizzie has been sharing her passion for the Bible since 2002. Her first Bible study, based on her master’s thesis at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, focused on the gospel passages excluded from the Sunday Lectionary. A recent Bible study, Women’s Power in the Bible, unearths the various sources of power available through the ancient biblical text that do not depend on patriarchy.
As a Catholic feminist, Lizzie believes that the beauty at the heart of the Church – Christ’s living message of love and transformation – needs no longer be bound by misogyny. Shewas delighted to launch Feminism & Faith in Union with FutureChurch and other international partners in January 2018. Called to Catholic priesthood, she longs to be fully welcomed to the Eucharistic table by her worship community.
Lizzie is the author of For She Has Heard: The Standing Stone in Joshua 24 and the development of a covenant symbol, and her devotions are featured in Mornings with Jesus: Daily Encouragement for Your Soul (2019 & 2020). Currently working on a book about Jesus, she lives in Washington Heights NYC with her partner and children.
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