St Strumpet?

The image above is one of our representations of Mary Magdalene whose feast falls today. It comes from Gwyneth Leech’s murals in St Mary’s. We turned towards this image this morning whilst reading the gospel of the day. It is a noli me tangere image – do not touch me yet, a recollection of her seeing the risen Christ but being forbidden to embrace him.

Mary M is someone whom people are prepared to squabble over a bit these days.

The traditional interpretation is that she was a “fallen” woman. A tart, a strumpet, even a whore, who was redeemed and restored to a holy and righteous way of living by her encounters with Jesus.

There was more than a hint of that in the collect that I looked up for this morning’s mass:
Almighty God,
whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene
to health of body and mind,
and called her to be a witness to his resurrection;
Mercifully grant that by thy grace
we may be healed of our infirmities
and know thee in the power of his endless life;
who with thee and the Holy Spirit,
liveth and reigneth one God, now and for ever.

I have to admit that I baulked at the first couple of lines and made up my own. For in recent times, feminists and others have wanted to challenge the image of Mary as a tart – after all there is little in the Biblical evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene was any kind of loose woman at all. The red hair and red frock have been added later. Does not her depiction as a sleeze, they might ask, have more to do with the church’s inability to deal with women as powerful intelligent human beings in their own right than Mary herself? Is not The Strumpet an invented figure to hide the face that we are unable to deal with Mary as businesswoman, apostle and saint of power and integrity?

Indeed, a womanist liberation theologian might say, yes, woman of power and more than that. She is a signifier of liberation – she shows us that the encounter with Christ could lead to a woman being redeemed from the slavery of their culture which kept women down, kept women out of religious discourse and kept women quiet.

To which a feminist Jewish New Testament critic might say: Hey! Whose religion are you referring to? I don’t think that the Jewish culture of the day has much to learn from Christians about attitudes to women. There’s a faintly anti-semitic tone to all this talk of the slavery of women in a Jewish culture. Judaism of its time wasn’t that bad to women you know. Mary M is evidence that women could be empowered in that culture. Have you forgotten that Mary Magdalene was Jewish, as was Jesus?

And then along comes a queer theorist who will say: No! The point about Mary Magdalene is not her Jewishness nor her being a woman but that she was a boundary transgressor. Let us embrace the queerness of the Magdalene – let us remember her as someone who has been celebrated throughout the Christian tradition whist simultaneously being proclaimed as being outside the normative expressions of human sexuality through the ages. Let us celebrate Mary’s difference and oddness and ability to queer the accepted norm. Mary Mag is one of us and it is to such as the Magdalene that God always comes first.

And you, who do you say that she was?