When I read here about a forthcoming Australian film on St Mary Magdalene that shows her as a feminist heroine I sighed. With its echoes of The Da Vinci Code, it seems the film is determined to replace Scripture and tradition with a feminist fantasy, relying heavily on the Gnostic “Gospel of Mary”, a non-Canonical second-century fragmentary text.
Feminists and their male supporters are drawn to St Mary Magdalene because they are blind to her true Gospel significance: as a devoted follower of Jesus, described by Pope Francis in 2016 as the “Apostle to the Apostles”, she was given the supreme privilege of being the first witness to Christ’s Resurrection. In art she has always been depicted at the foot of the Cross along with Our Lady and St John with her long golden hair flowing freely down her back – a sign of her former sinful life; chaste and respectable women were coiffed. What feminists don’t understand is that artists, in the ages of faith, portrayed Mary Magdalene as a symbol of devotion, a saint; in other words a repentant sinner.
In our modern age dominated by sex (a recurrent gnostic preoccupation) Mary Magdalene appears to give it everything it craves: illicit sensuality, independence from men and, if not a member of the orthodox priesthood and one of the twelve Apostles, at least a “priestess” in her own right. I sighed because this whole misinterpretation is so shallow, so clichéd, so wrong-headed. More importantly, it denies modern women a glimpse of what the feminine genius really means; indeed, what Goethe was gesturing towards when he wrote that “the eternal feminine leads us to perfection.”
A book I have blogged about last year and one which taught me more about this saint than anything else I have read is St Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love by Fr Sean Davidson (Ignatius Press). He follows the ancient tradition that sees the woman from whom seven devils were expelled, the sinful woman in St Luke’s Gospel and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus as one woman rather than three, producing eloquent arguments why this may be so. He also accepts the ancient oral belief that during the first persecution of Christians in Jerusalem around A.D. 41, many of Jesus’ closest followers were sent into exile across the Mediterranean and came to the south-east coast of the land then known as Gaul (France).
Davidson was inspired to write his book after living for two years beside the basilica of St Mary Magdalene in a small town in Provence called Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. It seems that this basilica was a well-known place of pilgrimage in the early centuries of the Church, imbued with the atmosphere and aura of the woman who found “what is perhaps the most perfect location…for a life of peace and solitude, in a grotto halfway up the mountain of la Sainte Baume”.
Davidson reminds readers that a study of the life of this saint is “a source of profound encouragement”, adding that “We can only marvel to see such a poor broken sinner rising from darkness in an explosion of love for Christ and then running with the greatest confidence along the way of perfection.” What a great film such a life would make – but hardly the stuff of modern feminist fantasies.