The apostle to the apostles


July 18, 2021: Mary Magdalene. Nigel Bunce

Mary Magdalene, the ‘apostle to the apostles’ was a controversial figure in the early church, because patriarchy took over from the Church’s initial gender inclusivity.   Modern views about the roles of men and women have restored her place as the ‘apostle to the apostles’.  Early Christians venerated her as the first person to recognize the Risen Christ at the Resurrection. She gave that news to the rather sceptical male disciples. So, they called her ‘apostle to the apostles’. 

The early Church held women in high esteem. Thus, Mary Magdalene was one of the women who supported Jesus and the twelve in their ministry (Luke 8).  Likewise, prominent women helped Paul and Barnabas in their travels.

St. Paul’s radical stance

Paul, was an ex- Pharisee.  He took a radical position for someone from  Jewish background. Judaism’s Yahweh is a very male figure. Conversely, Paul’s message of inclusion for Christians was clear. In Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek. Thus, equality of women and men was just as shocking as equating free-born citizens with slaves, or Jews with Gentiles.

There was push-back even in the New Testament. The letters to Timothy and Titus are more patriarchal than Paul’s authentic writings.

Veneration of Mary Magdalene became controversial

As the first Bishop of Rome, Peter became spiritual leader of Western Christianity. But rival factions argued about the relative importance of men and women in the Church. Even today, this is still a live issue in many churches.

Back then, the main question was the relative importance of Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter. Some early Christian writers put Mary Magdalene above Simon Peter as the ‘apostle to the apostles’. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), Mary recounts a vision to the other disciples in which Jesus spoke to her privately.

Simon Peter behaves like a whiny teenager. He gets all upset. How could Jesus possibly speak to Mary privately? Did Jesus prefer Mary to him as the leader of the apostle group? But Levi (Matthew) tells Peter to “get a grip”.

“You’re behaving like unbelievers. Don’t be so petty; get on with the work of spreading the Gospel!” In reality, these arguments involve the concept of Mary Magdalene as ‘apostle to the apostles’. Not the historical Mary Magdalene, about whom we know little.

The Cathars and veneration of the apostle to the apostles in southern France

Legend has it that Mary Magdalene travelled to southern France and died there. Since then, her name has always been venerated there.

Eight hundred years ago, there was a terrible and bloody persecution of a group of Christians called the Cathars. They became very popular in southern France, northern Spain, and northern Italy. Their principal sacrament was the laying on of hands, which Acts of the Apostles describes.

Why the church deemed Cathars to be heretics

Cathars recognized both female and male leaders, including female priests. Indirectly, that involved the beloved female saint, Mary Magdalene. They also criticized the Church for translate the Bible into the common tongue. That complaint continued until the time of the Reformation.

The Cathars said that practices of the medieval Church were idolatry.  For example, adoration of the sacrament and of the Cross.  They were worship of objects, not God.
Therefore, the Cathars threatened the medieval Church. Once again, women threatened the authority of the Pope. 

The Cathars were heretics!! So, the King and the Pope launched a crusade to exterminate Catharism. The Cathars had to choose between forced conversion to Roman Catholicism or burning alive. 

The massacres at Beziers and Minerve

A shocking example took place on St. Mary Magdalene’s Day, July 22, 1209.   Papal soldiers entered the city of Béziers. The inhabitants sought refuge in the cathedral. However, the papal troops set fire to the building, and burned them alive inside.  No-one had even the option of conversion. One Church official was asked whether to separate the Catholics from the Cathars. The reply was, “Kill them all. God will know which are his.”

Several years ago, Michelle and I visited that area of France. I took the photo that introduced this homily in the town of Minerve. At the end of the street is a cliff into a deep ravine. One of the most poignant experiences of my life was walking along that street.

The Cathar inhabitants chose to throw themselves to death over the cliff rather than be burned alive by the Dominicans. At that time, they were a new and zealous religious order in the papal army. Not today’s scholars and teachers.

A disturbing parallel with North American history

Right now, that piece of history seems uncomfortably close to the colonial history of the Americas, including Canada. I have said it before, I know, but this legacy of “bringing everyone to Christ” was spelled out in Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 28. Often with forced conversion.

“Go out into all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That must be one of the most destructive, and arrogant, pieces of Scripture. At least, we know that Jesus didn’t actually say it.

A tragic Biblical pedigree

In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to drive out all Canaanites from the Promised Land. After the fall of Jericho [Joshua 6], the Israelites killed the Canaanite inhabitants, including their animals. Again, in 1 Kings 18, Elijah demonstrated God’s power against the priests of Baal. Then he slaughtered them all.

Restoration of the apostle to the apostles

To finish, I’ll return to the story of Mary Magdalene. By the 4th century, Roman patriarchy downplayed the role of Mary Magdalene. Simon Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and Pope. No Pope could allow groups that venerated Mary Magdalene to challenge his authority

However, in the 6th century, Pope Gregory (mis)identified Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at a Pharisee’s dinner (Luke 7). The medieval Western Church incorrectly associated Mary Magdalene with other “fallen women”, including the unnamed woman taken in adultery (John 8).

Anglican prayer books restored the feast day of Mary Magdalene during the 20th century. Listen again to the lovely Collect for this day.

“Merciful God, your Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and mind, and called her to be a witness of his Resurrection.  Heal us and make us whole that we may serve you in the power of his risen life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Roman Church finally got on board in 2016. Pope Francis declared July 22 a major feast day for Mary Magdalene. That puts her almost, but not quite! equal with those for the male apostles.

Sixth century patriarchy denigrated Mary Magdalene; modern sensibilities about the roles of men and women have restored her place as the ‘apostle to the apostles’.