Oh the Places You’ll Go: Magdala, Mary’s home

Reflections from Dr. Howell

One of the most spectacular excavations in recent years has been on the shore of the Sea of Galilee: the village of Magdala. It’s been right there for centuries, waiting to be dug up. The name Magdala means “tower” – and perhaps it sounds familiar to you, as it should, for it was the home of Mary Magdalene, Magdalene not being her last name but her hometown. They unearthed a synagogue, and an amazing stone decorated with a menorah, apparently a lector’s table that held the Torah scroll. They’ve built a beautiful welcome center, guest house and an absolutely lovely church dedicated to the women of the Bible.

The enigmatic Mary Magdalene fascinates us. She looms large in the story of Jesus. She is named alongside the 12 disciples in Luke 8:2; she, Joanna and Susanna (“and others”) are counted as if they too were disciples – although these three women appear to be the ones bankrolling the operation! Joanna is especially intriguing: she’s “the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward.” Turns out he was the wealthy business manager of the entire province. What scandal was there for him, and what tension in his household, when his wife, instead of entertaining wealthy dignitaries, traipsed off after this poor teacher who was already being hounded by government officials as dangerous?

Mary Magdalene, Luke tells us, “had been healed of evil spirits,” including “7 demons.” Dirty-minded theologians over the centuries leaped to the conclusion she was a hooker – which says more about their mindset than her reality. In art, she is often depicted as sultry – even after her conversion! And with red hair, an artistic code implying something tawdry – but no Jewish woman of the 1st century had red hair! If anything, she was person of substance, positive renown, and respect – at least until she traipsed off after Jesus! Of course, The DaVinci Code made her into Jesus’ girlfriend – which says more about the tastes of modern audiences than about the real Jesus and Mary.

Jesus didn’t exactly ride the crest of the wave of women’s empowerment as we know it today (although how short we still fall!). And yet there are shocking clues into the revolution he had in mind. No other rabbi (or teacher in the Roman world) had female followers or students. Remember the story of the other Mary and her sister Martha? Jesus comes for dinner. Martha fulfills the time-honored female role of whipping up the meal in the kitchen. But her sister Mary defies all convention by sitting at Jesus’ feet and soaking up his teaching. Only men were allowed! Martha chides Jesus for allowing this, but he replies “Mary has chosen the better part” (Luke 10:38-42). Simply naming Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna as followers was, in those days, a shock. With them, and with some women we read about in Acts, we see the very beginnings of a gender revolution. The world wasn’t ready, and in some ways still hasn’t quite arrived.

In Assisi, a young woman named Clare was so moved by the radical lifestyle and joyful witness of Francis and his friends that she eluded an arranged marriage, sneaked off from her family on Palm Sunday night, and joined Francis and his friars. Other women flocked to her movement. Mind you, they sequestered the women in their own space – as they were still, in the Middle Ages, thought to be temptresses, even if unintentionally! She died 27 years after Francis did. Her body was buried under a church built in her memory – and when they renovated it centuries later, they discovered her to be one of the “incorruptibles,” holy men and women whose bodies, unembalmed, never decayed, evidently witnesses to the resurrection to come for all of us.

The beautiful church the Catholics built at Magdala, featuring art depicting biblical women, and the only church in Israel dedicated to women, has the Latin words Duc in Altum carved over the entrance: “Cast Out into the Deep,” what Jesus said to the disciples in Luke 5 after a long night of not catching any fish. He’s not simply giving fishing instructions. He’s urging them to get beyond the surface of things, to go deep, to probe the depths of themselves, others, the world, and God. Magdala reminds us of the ways we’ve splashed around in the shallow end of the life of faith, not plunging into the depths of the heart of God, and not finding a more profound way to deal with human difference.

Of course, the depth we’re after isn’t political or social – although politics and society will be impacted. It’s about the goodness of God shown off in every person, not a flattened out equality but a sheen of glory that celebrates difference, the way a rainbow isn’t just blue or orange but a full spectrum of color. Eventually, when God’s glory is fully manifest, we will all of us shine like the sun, nobody ranked or used by anybody else. Like Jesus – oh, and Mary, and Mary, and Clare, incorruptible, beautiful beyond imagining.