The mysterious figure of Saint Mary Magdalene has fascinated, beguiled, teased, and illuminated men and women since the days when Jesus walked the green hills of Galilee. Her cult is found within ‘orthodox’ Christianity, Gnosticism, and beyond.
Devotion to Her flourished during the Middle Ages, although it was then that She absorbed the attributes of Mary of Bethany, and of the sinful woman who washed the feet of the Christ with her tears.
St Mary Magdalene’s feast day on 22 July is still celebrated with fervent devotion in many places, but especially in France, at the church in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and at the basilica of La Sainte Baume, which lays claim to the relic of Her skull.
Food for Her Feast Day
While not named for Her directly, the buttery little teacakes baked in scallop shell-shaped pans known as Madeleines to make a fitting treat for the feast of St Mary Magdalene.
The name ‘Madeleine’ is the French form of ‘Magdalene’, and I think I should emphasise again that I cannot find any connection between the saint and scallop shells. In one version of the story concerning the origin of the exquisite little cakes, they were named for a 19th century pastry cook called Madeleine Paulmier.
Most shops that stock a decent range of baking goods ought to have Madeleine pans. I bought my silicon pans at a department store, and have used them several times to make Julia Child’s Les Madeleines de Commercy (you can read my blog about it and find the recipe here).
An Old Story Told Anew
The Gospel of the Magdalene below is my attempt to weave together canonical and Gnostic scriptures that highlight the figure of St Mary Magdalene. I’ve tried to tell old stories anew, not as separate pieces or quotes, but as a single narrative.
Bookended by a Prologue and a Doxology, the narrative and dialogues are in three sections: the public ministry, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. Ancient Hebrew poetry provides interludes between the public ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Not indicating the different texts I’ve used was deliberate. I wanted nothing to distract from the hallowed words. My selection is by no means exhaustive, nor are the selected pieces necessarily the ‘most important’ found in the works from which I’ve quoted.
I’ve edited some of the text, so that it reads uniformly. Most of that has been modernising some of the words (replacing “thou” with “you” is one example). I have not added any words of my own, nor have I mashed texts together. My contribution of words are the subheadings.
All sources are credited below, but if you’re desperate to know the source of any specific quotes, leave a comment, and I will respond.
THE GOSPEL OF THE MAGDALENE
Prologue: The Praise of Wisdom
“I came forth out of the mouth of the Most High,
And covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
And my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
And traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
And over every people and nation I have held sway…
I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon,
And like a cypress on the heights of Hermon.
I grew tall like a palm tree in En-gedi,
And like rose-bushes in Jericho;
Like a fair olive tree in the field,
And like a plane tree beside water I grew tall.
Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume,
And like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance,
Like galbanum, onycha, and stacte,
And like the odour of incense in the tent.
Like a terebinth I spread out my branches,
And my branches are glorious and graceful.
Like the vine I bud forth delights,
And my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit.
Come to me, you who desire me,
And eat your fill of my fruits.
For memory of me is sweeter than honey,
And the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
And those who drink of me will thirst for more…”
Glory Be, As It Was in the Beginning
In illo tempore: Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.
The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Judas said, “Behold! The governors dwell above us, so it is they who will rule over us!”
The Lord said, “It is you who will rule over them! But when you rid yourselves of jealousy, then you will clothe yourselves in light and enter the bridal chamber.”
Judas said, “How will our garments be brought to us?”
The Lord said, “There are some who will provide for you, and there are others who will receive… For it is they who will give you your garments. For who will be able to reach that place which is the reward? But the garments of life were given to man because he knows the path by which he will leave. And it is difficult even for me to reach it!”
Mary said, “Thus with respect to ‘the wickedness of each day,’ and ‘the labourer who is worthy of his food,’ and ‘the disciple resembles his teacher.’” She uttered this as a woman who had understood completely.
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Mary said, “Tell me, Lord, why I have come to this place to profit or to forfeit.”
The Lord said, “You make clear the abundance of the revealer!”
Christ loved Mary Magdalene more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it.
They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as I love her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
It came to pass then, when Mary had heard the Saviour say these words, that she gazed fixedly into the air for space of an hour. She said, “My Lord, give commandment unto me to speak in openness.”
And Jesus, the compassionate, answered and said to Mary, “Mary, blessed one, whom I will perfect in all mysteries of those of the height, discourse in openness, speak in openness, you, whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all your brothers.”
Mary said, “The power then which was in the prophet Isaiah, prophesied before you came, that you would take away the power of the rulers of the aeons and would change their sphere and their Fate, in order that they might know nothing from now on…
“The power then which was in Isaiah prophesied concerning you before you came, saying, ‘From now on you shall not know what the Lord Sabaoth will do.’
“Because of the light-power which you received from Sabaoth, the Good, who is in the region of the Right, and which is in your material body today, for this cause then, my lord Jesus, you said to us, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear,’ in order that you might know whose heart is ardently raised to the kingdom of heaven…”
It came to pass then, when Mary had finished saying these words, that he said, “Well said, Mary, for you are blessed before all women on the earth, because you shall be the fullness of all fullnesses and the perfection of all perfections.”
Interlude: The Song of the Bride I
“He brought me to the banqueting house,
And his intention towards me was love.
Sustain me with raisins,
Refresh me with apples;
For I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head,
And that his right hand embraced me!
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is strong as death,
Passion as fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can floods drown it.”
Glory Be, As It is Now
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and removed the body…
Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Interlude: The Song of the Bride II
“Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
I will rise now and go about the city,
In the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
As they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’”
Glory Be, World Without End
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
So she ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in… Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
But they were grieved. They wept greatly, saying, “How shall we go to the gentiles and preach the gospel of the kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”
Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, “Do not weep and do not grieve or be irresolute, for his grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us into men.”
When Mary had said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Saviour.
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Saviour which you remember – which you know but we do not, nor have we heard them.”
Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you… I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’ He answered and said to me, ‘Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’
“I said to him, ‘Lord, now does he who sees the vision see it through the soul or through the spirit?’ The Saviour answered and said, ‘He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind which is between the two – that is what sees the vision… [The soul] went upwards and saw the fourth power, which took seven forms.
“’The first form is darkness, the second desire, the third ignorance, the fourth is the excitement of death, the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh, the sixth is the foolish wisdom, the seventh is the wrathful wisdom. These are the seven powers of wrath. They ask the soul, ‘Whence do you come, slayer of men, or where are you going, conqueror of space?’
“’The soul answered and said, ‘What binds me has been slain, and what surrounds me has been overcome, and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died. In a world I was released from a world and in a type from a heavenly type, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient. From this time on will I attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence.’”
When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Saviour had spoken with her.
But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, “Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas.”
Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned them about the Saviour: “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”
Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Saviour?”
Levi answered and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.
“Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as he commanded us, and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or law beyond what the Saviour said.”
And they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.
Doxology: The Nature of Wisdom
“There is in Her a spirit that is intelligent, holy,
Unique, manifold, subtle,
Mobile, clear, unpolluted,
Distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen,
Irresistible, beneficent, humane,
Steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,
All-powerful, overseeing all,
And penetrating through all spirits
That are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.
For Wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
Because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.
For She is a breath of the power of God,
And a pure emanation from the glory of the Almighty;
Therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into Her.
For She is a reflection of eternal light,
A spotless mirror of the working of God,
And an image of His goodness.
Although She is but one, She can do all things,
And while remaining in Herself, She renews all things;
In every generation She passes into holy souls
And makes them friends of God, and prophets;
For God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with Wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
And excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light She is found to be superior,
For it is succeeded by night,
But against Wisdom evil does not prevail.
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
And She orders all things well.”
Source Texts and Further Reading
The texts from which I sourced the preceding narratives, dialogues, and poetry include:
- Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version) books of Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and the Song of Songs, as well as the gospels according to Matthew and John. Darton Longman Todd, London, 2005
- Nag Hammadi Library translations of the Dialogue of the Saviour, and the gospels of Philip, Thomas, and Mary; Ed. Robinson, J; Harper SanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1990
- Gnostic Gospels; Pagels, E; Penguin Books, London, 1990
- Pistis Sophia; transl. Mead, G; online at Gnosis.org
For further reading about St Mary Magdalene, I can recommend:
- Mary Magdalen: The Essential History; Haskins, S; Pimlico, London, 2005
My paperback copy has 400 pages of text and extensive notes. The blurb on the back describes it as a “dramatic, thought-provoking portrait of one of the most compelling figures in early Christianity which explores two thousand years of history, art, and literature to provide a close-up look at Mary Magdalen and her significance in religious and cultural thought.” An accurate summary.
- Hekate – Dark Mistress of the Soul in Tubelo’s Green Fire; Oates, S; Mandrake of Oxford, Oxford, 2010
An insightful piece by Shani Oates, Maid of the Clan of Tubal Cain, that explores the Dark Goddess as Hekate, the Black Virgin, and Mary Magdalene.
Here are the first few lines, just to whet your appetite:
“Who is this arresting presence, and what force compels us to follow her? Both history and mythology demonstrate a discernible tradition of female initiatrix. A tenuous thread binds the Mysteries of ancient wisdom to Christian Mediaeval Europe, into the flowering of the Literary Renaissance. This domain of 12th century poets exalted the use of metaphor and allegory that prevailed erotic esoterica conjunct with orthodox Mediaeval media. Within the Gnostic Cult of the Black Virgin in Mediaeval Southern France, she is sometimes referred to as ‘The Notre Dame de Lumiere.’
She is suggested by Peter Redgrove… to be coterminous with the Black Goddess, Mary Lucifer the light giver – the Magdalene. Her symbol, the Rose, flower of Venus, exemplifies sacred/secret love, though it also represents erotic wisdom within female Mysteries, both carnal and religious…” – Hekate – Dark Mistress of the Soul, Shani Oates
The Magdalene in Song