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© Matthew Septimus 2011


I’ve always loved Easter. As a child, I divided the chapters of my Bible storybook to extend across Holy Week, reading each event on the day that it occurred. I recognize that the gospels are not a history lesson, but a bridge to truths otherwise beyond our comprehension.

I’ve also learned that the Easter story doesn’t revolve around crucifixion, an empty tomb, or even the glory of a resurrected spirit. It revolves around Mary Magdalene.

The Gospel of John tells of Mary going to the tomb in the darkness of early morning. Already we’re given the powerful image of a woman walking alone through dark streets and among hillside graves. Finding the tomb empty, she hurries to tell Peter and John, and returns with them so they can verify her story. As they rush off to report the news, she hangs back, to mourn.

In her grief, Mary sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for a gardener. He even speaks to her: “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Still she can’t allow herself the truth.

It’s not until He says her name that she cries out in recognition. In that world-shifting moment, she doesn’t call him “Savior” or “Christ” or even “Jesus.” She calls him “Rabboni.” In a telling parenthetical, the gospel’s author reminds us that the word means “teacher.”

These few lines from the Gospel of John hold great meaning for us. It’s a woman who rises early and walks through darkness to visit the tomb. It’s a woman who stays to mourn, unafraid of her grief. And it’s this particular woman, shunned by society, who is first called by the risen Jesus.

The denominations that still deny women their place at the altar, might take another look at John 20.

But the story holds an even deeper significance, for Mary represents all of us. We are slow to see, slow to consider the truths that challenge the comfortable limits of our understanding. And perhaps we all need to hear our name spoken — to be called — before we can recognize the opportunity that stands before us.

Most important, at the heart of this story lies the relationship between a student and her teacher, a man who challenges and annoys and demands the impossible. Easter isn’t about the resurrection of Jesus. It’s about the enormous achievement of his star pupil, who has the courage to open her eyes to new possibility.

Norman AllenNorman Allen is a playwright living in Washington, DC. His plays include In The Garden (Charles MacArthur Award), Nijinsky’s Last Dance (Helen Hayes Award), and The House Halfway, to be produced at this summer’s Source Theatre Festival in Washington, DC.

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61 Comments

Wow.  Wow.  Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.  This essay moved me in two directions... closer to my own understanding/inspiration of the true meaning of Easter and to a new yet utterly comfortable and reassuring place of insight.  Thank you for this.  I will now proceed to share this article with others and otherwise shout it from the rooftops.  Thank you1

"These few lines from the Gospel of John hold great meaning for us. It’s a woman who rises early and walks through darkness to visit the tomb. It’s a woman who stays to mourn, unafraid of her grief. And it’s this particular woman, shunned by society, who is first called by the risen Jesus."

What's the significance of this being a woman? You repeat this several times but don't tell me why this is meaningful to you?

 From how I understood it, as a woman myself, it was meaningful to Norman that Mary Magdalene was a woman because the Christian leaders have for nearly two thousand years excluded women from any significant leadership roles in their only-boys club house...  From a strictly Christian perspective, it's significant that a woman in her role of the greatest sinner on Earth (oy vey), could be the first to recognize and be recognized as redeemed... 

But there may be other reasons to consider this a significant female event that too often (always!) goes unmentioned on Easter Sunday.
It has always fascinated me how frightened the Christian male leadership has been of women and particularly of Mary Magdalene (who was NOT shunned) who was a spiritual leader in her own right and in her own sect of priestesses of Isis (also known as Theotokos), hence the title of Mary, which was not a name, but a title (hence the alabaster jar of oil for anointing the sacrificial son god).  Jesus' mother also of that sect.  

The Nag Hammadi texts, containing the Gospel of Mary whose origins date around the year 150, conclusively show her intimate and important spiritual relationship with her teacher.  Her spiritual leadership in those texts is also clear as she is described as Jesus' beloved and most trusted, and even as a teacher herself. Even in the "approved" gospels she is described as the Apostle of Apostles for seeing the resurrected Jesus first and receiving his teachings to tell others.

  The full historical context makes Norman's observation of Mary of Magdala being the first person as a woman to make the encounter with the man who was most likely her husband and teacher, even more critical, considering the defamation of her character and her name that the male christian leadership took on over these many centuries. 

This woman today wonders when the full story will be told to children in Sunday school? If ever? Heaven forbid woman ever be raised from her "sinful" origins to one of spiritual  equality with her teacher, lord, god and savior.... Mary as teacher, as spiritual leader and as his companion & bride- a fairly normal & required condition for rabbis back then as well as today.  

"There were three who always walked with the Lord,
Mary, his mother; Mary, her sister;
And Mary of Magdala, who was called his companion."
The Gospel according to Mary, From the Nag Hammadi texts

We must never forget that "history" is told by the victors.
Until the contemporary Christian churches of today amend this historical context, the full story of woman and her traditional inclusion in all things sacred will not be told.

Thank you Pauline. What excellent points you make. You comments were richer and more thought provoking than the essay.

Most biblical scholars today state that Mary of Magdale was not the "sinner" of the gospel - another instance of denigrating this heroic woman.

Thank you for this explication! Fantastic!

I'm not a scholar, but I am a woman. Let me tell you what this means to me. I came to Christianity, for real, only less than 10 years ago. A friend, who has to be described as a fundamentalist Christian, walked the first part of the journey with me, and was brave enough to engage in a lot of no holds barred discussions. At one point, I told him that it appeared that women were treated as second class citizens and I wasn't sure I could follow a God that thought that way. He set out to find a scriptural proof that God wasn't a male chauvinist. He came back to me, with obvious regret and confusion, and said he couldn't find what I needed. My faith, at that time, was at a point where I could say, "That's ok. I believe that God is just and I believe the evidence is there. I believe I can find it." So, I started to read and study. What I found was that, in a male dominated society, Jesus had time for women. He first revealed that he was the Messiah not just to a woman, but to a Samaritan woman! She should have been the ultimate second class citizen, but he revealed his truth to her, directly, before anyone else! I know there's a lot of confusion about which Mary was which. I'm not sure the details matter. Mary Magdalene is describes as having had 7 demons cast out of her. I doubt that caused her to be held in high esteem. But, Jesus had time for her. He allowed women to sit as his feet and learn, right along with the men. He allowed the touch of a woman who was "unclean" and called her a "daughter of Abraham". My impression is that was pretty radical. So, imagine that you are such a second class citizen that your testimony doesn't even count as a "person" in court. And then, this teacher enters your life who accepts you and values you. The answer wasn't so much in Jesus' words as in his deeds. Another example of "by their works you will know them."
So, it doesn't surprise me that nearly all of the few that stood at the base of the cross were women. It doesn't surprise me to see them coming to his grave, alone. It was dangerous to be a follower of someone who'd been crucified. You can't really blame the men for playing it safe. But,what the women had lost was so much MORE. Freedom, respect, the acknowledgement that they counted for something.... You can't turn away from that. You HAVE to follow him, even to the foot of the cross and beyond. I'm not sure I can convey the depth of the meaning of this.... In a way, I came to feel sorry of the men of scripture and some of the men in our society today. If you've always been a "first class citizen" maybe it's harder to get the point. In the end, Mary Magdalene, showed me just how "Good" Jesus was and is. Someone like that, well you'd just have to follow them anywhere.

"it doesn't surprise me that nearly all of the few that stood at the base of the cross were women."

"So, imagine that you are such a second class citizen that your testimony doesn't even count as a "person" in court."

non-whites have been dealing with that for centuries.

We know.
The point here is that women have that experience,regardless of race or culture. I have heard many wmen of color speak of feeling the impacts of denigration for their gender far more than their color. I have heard men of color express pain at tke limits placed on their sisters, wives, mothers, daughters. This piece was about vexposing the truth about Mary Magdalene's role in the early church, and how it was subverted by a male dominated Euro-Meddotaranean culture, which then carried it around the world. Gracebe to men who are a able to use their own experience to recognize the courage of Mary and the other female apostles, and mourn what was taken from them, and from all Jesus' followers.

Wow. This is so profound. Thank you for sharing.

Wonderful commentary.

"But what the women had lost was so much MORE."

Yes yes and yes. So beautifully seen and understood and stated. Thank you.

Thank you for this.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Women were last at the cross and first at the tomb.  Mary Magdalene - The Apostle to the Apostles.

 laurie, thank YOU for this response. really, really moved me.

@Khurt Williams:  "The denominations that still deny women their place at the altar, might take another look at John 20."  Women are still held back in this society and by many churches.  These churches don't allow women to participate fully in their faith.


Actually, the first apostle ...

Beautiful. Oh, to be recognized. Oh, to be named.

Yes, Easter is about the Resurrection of Christ. Christ spoke of unlimited possibilities while alive and they are still with us today. I do believe that there is much depth in the fact that Christ showed himself first to the sex that was equivalent wtih being owned, yet not as important as the animals. Our Redeemer was way ahead of our times.

Easter isn't about the Resurrection of Jesus?  Really?  Wow.

I don't understand the caustic nature of your comment; what is your intention? Are you saying everyone already knows that, or it isn't true....? Again, your point, please.

My sentiments exactly, I was actually taken aback by that statement. Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus. Without the resurrection, Christianity has no meaning. The story of Mary is profound, however, it is not the meaning of Easter.

Oh, you make me cry.  After going to church on Saturday night, the next day, I had the opportunity to drive through the streets of my city when they were relativily deserted...either because people were still in bed from a Saturday night, or at church for an Easter morning.  I tell you those streets were glistening with peace and joy, for the whole world...not just those in either place.     

Easter is justy not about Mery Magdlene though she was much as the other carecters in the story to the passon of Christ. No the story is about the God who porvided for are way back to Him. It is Christ the pass over for us all. The blood of the Lamb posted on our two spritul door post and uper dooor post of our God given spirtul intelagents to save us from our own arrogents, greed,and self wroship. It is about The God who when Abraham was at the point to slay his own son the son of promis God spoke and stop thedeed and said harm not the child I will porvide. When will man kind come into acceptance of this most pricesless gift if they wont and ontill they do WE wiil continuly  sacrfic our own childern to those god's of war and strife. F John Toney

Your analysis is good up to where it asserts that Easter is not about the Ressurrection but about Mary Magdalene. This is a misunderstanding of the Bible and authentic Christian teaching in preference for personal interpretations. This is uncalled for as there are better ways of articulating the struggle for the rightful place of women in the church

Mary is indeed the apostle to the apostles. And she serves as a model of faith and devotion. But to say that Easter is about Mary rather than Jesus misses the point. If Easter is not about Jesus risen from the dead, then we are left to wallow in our own subjective narcissm. The resurrection of Jesus is the launching of God's new creation. If not, then Mary is (along with all the rest of Jesus' followers) most to be pitied.

From the diverse cultures in which I've lived, it is the women......grandmother, mother, aunt, sister...who passed on knowledge and skills that are of life. Mary Magdalene held on to the life-giving, life enhancing and hope giving memories of her teacher.....even as she experienced the excruciating pain of his absence. The events of his healing, forgiving, feasting, gentleness and yes, anger were deeply recorded in her being....and deeply shared, joyfully, with others. Surely, this experience is what John "saw".
Rebecca

Impossible to comprehend the blindness of a putative believer who claims that Easter is not all about Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection, as God's ultimate gift of blessed assurance for all humankind, woman and man, forever.  Not to see that at the heart of Easter is really to send Mary out of the shadow of the tomb in a colorful bonnet with a basket of painted eggs that were laid by a Peep-hued chicken and hidden by a crafty pink Bunny.  Add to the tale whatever you may choose to, but without Christ at the center for all else to "revolve around," we are -- as Apostle Paul saw and said -- most to be pitied.   

What a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the reality of that very significant morning...the morning that would come to be known as Easter.  I am always thankful whenever the reality of who Mary Magdalene was and the important place she had in the early church.

I am so excited to see that users are actually blogging regarding this theme in such a smart way, showing us all different sides to it. You are a great blogger. Please keep it up.

Thank you. I don't catagorise myself as a Christian although being raised catholic. I loved this perspective. This speaks to my heart. I've always felt a closeness to Jesus, just not the the religions that represent him.
Thank you.

Thank you for this beautiful truth. Its hope is at the heart of Christ's message and work, so obvious we overlook it.

Beautiful, thoughtful, provocative, courageous...a wonderful piece Thank you.

Fabulous! Thank you!

The resurrection of Jesus makes it possible to understand what He meant "the last will be first and first last" Society in the time of Jesus women were of low status. Mary being humble became the greatest. Jesus had her announce His resurrection. She came in the dark (early morning) and He was not in His tomb.....what we receive in the dark we possess forever.

Nice meditation & good food for thought. One line, however, just doesn't ring true and undermines the rest of the piece:

"The Easter story doesn’t revolve around crucifixion, an empty tomb..."

Of course it does. There would have been no person for Mary to encounter in the Garden without the empty tomb. However important the other issues are that the story touches on - and you have touched on an important one - all are secondary to the one great truth that the tomb was, in fact, empty.

Drop that line and you've got a decent meditation here...

Ed - Thanks so much for this insightful comment. I think your point is an excellent one. (You'll notice it's echoed by Kate a few entries below.) I like the idea of adding the word "only" to this sentence, just before "revolve around crucifixion..." I think that one word would remove the false note you recognized, and keep my original intent. Thanks for the careful reading, and the feedback.

Ha, so Peter and John have to verify what Mary tells them she found. Because she's a woman? What if Peter and John reported the discovery to Peter & John? Would she run back to make sure they weren't lying to her? The bible treats woman like children.

THANK YOU !

Really like your article, Norman. A friend shared it with me on fb this morning - as a response to my posting on Mark 16:9-11. The only dfference in our opinions is that I would add the word "only" in your last paragraph, between the words "isn't about". Take care.

Kate - Thanks so much for your comment, and the suggestion. As I mentioned to Ed in a comment above, I think you're absolutely right. Adding that one word would make a great improvement. I'm so glad you liked the piece. Thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

While the story of Mary is marvelous it does not outshine what Christ did, to say that Easter is about anything but God's triumph is to lose the whole perspective of what really happened. Redemption for both men and women.

In my opinion, the one of his most important statements in this article is "The denominations that still deny women their place at the altar, might take another look at John 20." Regardless, of your beliefs in Mary Magdalene's place in Jesus' life, her devotion to Him, her vigilance during His passing, and being there for His resurrection, demonstrates to believers that Jesus did not care about gender. The teachings of Christ are full of examples of inclusion, not exclusion.

You HAD me until I came to the next to the last sentence. There we part ways.

I am so happy to know about this website, this opportunity, and to read Norman Allen's insights regarding Mary Magdalen, as someone raised Catholic, and as a playwright and actor myself. Thank you.

I never thought of this and it's so obvious. Thanks for sharing.

Thank you

Luke 8:1-3 NIV After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Holy WOW!!! thank you thank you thank you!

This lifted a lifetime of old judgment from me. I love the word 'teacher'.
So much more truth.

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