Who was Mary Magdalene? Tradition for centuries presented her to us as a penitent woman, kneeling woman, woman once possessed by demons, woman with a past. As prostitute-turned-saint, she is a figure of femaleness easily fetishized by the male gaze.
And yet this tradition doesn’t have its roots in the earliest writings and traditions of the church. Scripture presents Mary Magdalene as the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples, one who remained with him at the cross while the men ran away, and the first to receive the good news of the risen Christ. According to the older traditions, she was a preacher, like Paul, and even bore witness to the emperor himself.
For years I was unaware of these oldest traditions regarding Mary Magdalene. Men, it seemed, had stripped her of her authority as a bearer of the word, and reduced her to her sexuality, as so many woman saints end up being evaluated only in terms of their genitals, like the virgin saints who are revered not for daring to flout traditions of treating women as chattel, or for daring to approach God without a male intermediary – but only because they kept themselves “pure.” Turning the preacher into a prostitute seems, to many feminist scholars, a way of silencing and shaming Magdalene.
Of course, from the very beginning of her preaching ministry, she had to contend with being unheard and overwritten. When she brought the good news of the resurrection to the other disciples, no one believed her. They had to go see for themselves.
Yes, it’s ironic, that the first person to preach the gospel was a woman and she was disbelieved. Yes, it’s like a microcosm of church history.
But, on the other hand, what’s wrong with wanting to go see for oneself? I’ve always been with Thomas on this one, needing the evidence of my eyes, my flesh. I don’t blame anyone for doubting resurrection.
In Jennifer Atkinson’s poem, “Canticle of the Penitent Magdalene,” we are told that the saint is penitent, but what we discover is a litany of bodily experiences. The ripeness of peaches like cat’s tongues, the trembling poppies, night like cold stones in the mouth. Is this what penitence looks like? We are told that to be penitent is all about turning away, rejecting, and renouncing. This penitence looks more like appetite.
In the closing line of the poem, she says, “I dreamed the dream that Samson dreamed—honey oozed from a skull. The taste? Like honey. I poured it into my palm and licked.”
The reader is left unsure whether this was before or after penitence. All the other lines describe present experiences, but the honey oozing from a skull is in the past. Was in the past. But it seems linked up with all the other ways the world and the body have met.
Maybe the line between sin and repentance is blurred, just as for Samson his own destruction was the salvation of his people. The honey is in the skull, life in death, beauty in desolation.
If this Penitent Magdalene is Prostitute Magdalene, I’m okay with this, in spite of the way Preacher Magdalene’s story was overwritten. We find in her a wildness, an intimacy with the earth like the intimacy of a finger in a wound, testing to see whether the flesh of the risen Lord is true flesh.
–Rebecca Bratten Weiss
Even so the peaches are ripe, their pelts cat’s tongue to my touch.
Even so the fierce poppies tremble.
Even so every night a dense blue like cold stones in my mouth.
Even so death rides the air, flitting and veering like bats, brushing my outstretched
arms, in passing.
Even so I dreamed the dream that Samson dreamed—honey oozed from a skull.
The taste? Like honey. I poured it into my palm and licked.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.