In honor of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, July 22
I wore a long, red, silky and glittery skirt and golden bangles to play Mary Magdalene in our church’s Lenten Passion Play, circa 1990. Per ancient Christian tradition, the script conflated her with the sinful woman of the city from the gospel of Luke (7:36-50). I still can recite her opening lines, written as poetry by one of our Sunday School teachers: Sick with deep shame I sorrowfully come / offering tears and repentance of soul / seeking for help from the hands of the One / I have heard can make sinners whole. Magdalene was the only female character with a name in our play. Sure, I got to play Jesus and Pontius Pilate other years, but there was something about playing a girl in the Passion account that was quite important.
The evening of our single performance, a friend’s mother painted my face with rouge, mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick to make me look, well, more like a prostitute. The thing was, I never wore make-up, so when I saw myself in the mirror, I was completely horrified. This could not be the face of Mary Magdalene, the only heroine in our play — the only girl in the room who, as far as I could tell, thought God was as real and important as I did at that age. I couldn’t bear the thought that she (and I) could look so ugly. (I should also admit that I had a crush on a boy in this play, which further increased my sensitivity about my appearance.)
I must have nodded in shock and agreement when the mother asked expectantly what I thought. Nevertheless, in true Midwestern fashion, just before show time I slipped downstairs to the privacy of a moldering basement bathroom and washed off every bit of that make-up with brown paper hand towels. After the crucifixion and the curtain call, my friend’s mother approached me, justifiably disappointed that I’d washed off her handiwork, but I got to play Mary Magdalene as I thought she should look: just like me.
Eventually, in college and divinity school, I learned more about Mary Magdalene’s history, well-summarized here by Rachel Held Evans. But I didn’t think of her much as a mentor until a few years ago, when I was inspired in a crafty moment to try the Orthodox practice of dying Easter Eggs red. Turns out, red eggs are the fruit of a legend of Mary Magdalene: that she was in Rome and felt she must present herself to Tiberius Caesar to proclaim Christ’s resurrection to him. It was customary to bring a gift when one appeared before the imperial godhead; Mary Magdalene brought a simple egg. When she came before the throne, she held it out in her hand, saying: “Christ is Risen!” She explained that her teacher and master, Jesus, although he was treated unjustly by the Roman governor, had risen from the dead and appeared alive to his disciples, including herself.
There, Tiberius stopped her and said, “How can anyone rise from the dead? That’s as impossible as that egg in your hand turning red.”
The white egg, of course, immediately turned dark red.
The image stuck with me: a lone, foreign woman, once possessed by seven demons, doubted by her fellow disciples, left out of the Acts of the Apostles, standing alone before the emperor with nothing but an egg and the Gospel between herself and his dictatorial might.
This spring, another lone and righteous heroine crossed my path: Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman.” Like just about every girl born in the 1970s, I wore Wonder Woman Underoos when I was a kid and watched Lynda Carter play her on television, but that kitschy Technicolor heroine did not stick with me much. However, Gal Gadot’s (really, Jenkins’s) Wonder Woman blew me away in spite of myself. She isn’t just tough, she’s good: caring, innocent, and thrilled not just by physical combat but also by babies and ice cream. This makes her no less powerful or zealous: in the climax, she stands with her sword and shield, staring down the God of War, and (spoiler alert) defeats him – not without having her heart broken in the process.
In spite of myself, her image began superimposing itself over my daily activities. I kept seeing myself as Wonder Woman: in the Starbucks line, on the phone, at church, often when I was feeling unheard, mansplained, ignored, or otherwise diminished. Instead of shrinking, or excusing myself, or feeling badly, I found myself standing firm, with quiet confidence, armed with my strength and righteousness, not needing to overtake a situation but content to know I could take up space and even stand for the right. If Wonder Woman didn’t worry about coming across as pushy or self-righteous, I wouldn’t either.
I read through the gospel of Matthew this past spring, too. In chapters 27-28, Mary Magdalene, with a couple of women friends, is the last disciple to see the rock rolled across the tomb. Then, on the morning after the Sabbath, she is the first to appear there again, armed with spices, ointments, and stubborn courage, to walk past the soldiers keeping guard… only to discover that it is empty. All four gospel writers agree that she was first to see that empty tomb, and all four agree that she went straight to her fellow disciples – all cowering in a room somewhere and surely not accustomed to receiving information of any importance from a woman – to tell them, unshrinking, what she had witnessed: I have seen the Lord. (I wish this line had been included in our Passion Play, back in 1990.)
Wonder Woman has given me a new way of to imagine Mary Magdalene. I see two rash and brazen women, full of integrity, patronized by their compatriots, sexualized instead of recognized as fierce, passionate leaders. Like Diana Prince before Ares, I see Mary Magdalene standing without shirking: at the foot of the cross, the threshold of the tomb, the brow of a ship on the Mediterranean, and the throne of Tiberius Caesar.
These two women give me a new way to imagine myself, as well. I want to be unafraid of being passionate and fierce. I want to be righteous, bold, and moral, unafraid of appearing controlling, aggressive, or like a goody-goody. Like them, I want to face down the wiles of the devil with all the weaponry and armor that our Lord has on offer. I want to read Ephesians 6 and imagine not a man, whether like a Roman soldier or a medieval knight, but a woman, like Wonder Woman or Mary Magdalene. Like me.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (NRSV)
Heidi Haverkamp is an author, speaker, preacher, and Episcopal priest. She served in parish ministry for ten years, and now writes, speaks, preaches, and gives retreats. Her first book, Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season came out in 2015. Her second book, Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels, comes out this winter. She is an oblate of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Wisconsin, and lives with her husband on the edge of the prairie in DeKalb, Illinois.