Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?

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SCALA/ ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

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Meanwhile, the combination of catholic rethinking and Gnostic revelations have reanimated wilder Magdalene speculations, like that of a Jesus-Magdalene marriage. ("No other biblical figure," Schaberg notes, "has had such a vivid and bizarre postbiblical life.") The Gnostic Gospel of Philip describes Magdalene as "the one who was called [Jesus'] companion," claiming that he "used to kiss her on her [mouth]." Most scholars discount a Jesus-Magdalene match because it finds little echo in the canonical Gospels once the false Magdalenes are removed. But it fulfills a deep narrative expectation: for the alpha male to take a mate, for a yin to Jesus' yang or, as some neopagans have suggested, for a goddess to his god. Martin Luther believed that Jesus and Magdalene were married, as did Mormon patriarch Brigham Young.

The notion that Magdalene was pregnant by Jesus at his Crucifixion became especially entrenched in France, which already had a tradition of her immigration in a rudderless boat, bearing the Holy Grail, his chalice at the Last Supper into which his blood later fell. Several French kings promoted the legend that descendants of Magdalene's child founded the Merovingian line of European royalty, a story revived by Richard Wagner in his opera Parsifal and again in connection with Diana, Princess of Wales, who reportedly had some Merovingian blood. (The Wachowski brothers, those cultural magpies, named a villain in The Matrix Reloaded Merovingian, filming him surrounded by Grail-like chalices. His wife in that film was played by Italian actress Monica Bellucci, who will also play Magdalene in Mel Gibson's upcoming Jesus film ... Sorry, this stuff is addictive.) The idea that Magdalene herself was the Holy Grail — the human receptacle for Jesus' blood line — popped up in a 1986 best seller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which inspired Brown's Da Vinci Code. When Brown said recently, "Mary Magdalene is a historical figure whose time has come," he meant a figure with a lot of mythic filagree.

Ellen Turner was 48 years old when she first learned that Mary Magdalene was not a whore. Through Catholic school and a Catholic college, she attests, "I thought about her in the traditional way, as a sinner." But eight years ago, the 56-year-old technical writer tapped into a network of neo-Magdalenites through her connection with the liberal Catholic groups Call to Action and Futurechurch. The discovery that, as Turner puts it, Magdalene "got the shaft" started her thinking about how to change the situation. She was happy to find that the two organizations, which see Magdalene's recovered image as an argument for their goal of a priesthood open to all those who feel called, coordinate celebrations around the world on her feast day.

Last month Turner and her husband Ray played host to such a celebration at their home in San Jose, Calif. About 30 participants drove in from as far away as Oakland. After meeting and greeting and strolling the meditation labyrinth in Turner's backyard, the group held something resembling a church service, with an opening hymn, a blessing over the bread and wine and readings about Magdalene from the four Gospels. There was no priest, but Turner herself read what, if this were a Mass, might be a homily. "From the beginning," she intoned as the sun sank over Silicon Valley, "her view has been ignored, unappreciated. The first to see the risen Lord — those with more power have sought to marginalize her. Yet she is faithful. She remains. She cannot be silenced."

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