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  • Writer's pictureAshley Lande

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene by Tintoretto

I wouldn’t have even noticed the display as we hurriedly passed by it, late as usual to one or another of our homeschool co-op engagements. A regimented row of pink-hued covers beckoned, adorned with swirling cursive letters and glittery accents designed to lure the gaze of my five-year-old daughter who now cried out “Mommy, look!”, arresting me in my pursuit of the exit to which I’d been half-dragging her. I’d unwittingly chosen the route out that took us straight through the gauntlet of toys, and now trying to make it out with both her and my son was becoming a prodigious undertaking.

I turned, exasperated, and looked at the display toward which she, flat-footed and smiling, was now pointing.

“A Love Letter to My Princess,” I read, almost silently, from one of the covers. “The Beautiful Princess Bible,” another read. As my eyes lingered over the saccharine designs, so flagrantly pink and so gleefully sparkly, something that felt suspiciously like anger stirred in my belly. It was as though something from some deep calcified stratum in my heart was being piqued and prodded and drudged up into the light and I didn’t like it. So, I ignored it. I dismissed the display with a “hmmph” and tried again to impress a sense of urgency on my children, with little success. (It’s as though they want to just enjoy life and live in the moment or something!) But we left and got to our engagement in our habitually late way and I truly didn’t even think of that display of Bibles again.

A week or two later, I couldn’t sleep one early morning and got up while Steven was still home. He requires a draconian level of silence in the morning, so I did my best to be quiet and we each read and drank our coffee. But as I randomly flipped to the Old Testament and read a passage about God giving away someone’s wives to foreigners, I felt the incipient anger that had been fomenting in me deepen and take a shape and life of its own.

You see, In some distant lock-and-key subbasement of my heart, a false god lived, a hideous phantasmagoric beast that was a Frankensteinian pastiche of my own creation - a compilation of the spectacular failures of human love, the hurts inflicted on me by myself and others, the lie that I was only worth the amount of sexual interest I could garner from men, the times I’d believed all the lies the world tells about sexuality and the emotional devastation that invariably followed. All this I had pasted over God, superimposed it on him instead of surrendering it to him. It was the lens through which I been reading the Old Testament, gleefully exclaiming “a-ha! I knew it!” each time I found apparent confirmation of my bias.

I couldn’t keep quiet. “I don’t understand,” I began. Steven peered up from his reading, valiantly concealing his annoyance, at least for the moment. I continued.

“It says here that God is giving away wives, as though they were property, as though they were so much chattel. Didn’t the wives have some kind of say in this? And why did he routinely allow and, apparently, tacitly condone polygamy anyway? Obviously a crap deal for the ladies. I don’t get it.”

Steven sighed. “ I have no idea,” he said. “But God doesn’t think of women as… chattel? What the heck does that mean? Can’t you just use words people actually know? Why don’t you pray about it?”

“I did!” I insisted. Did I? With a broken and earnestly seeking spirit? Probably not, but I was mired in my rightness now, my conviction that God was a blatant woman-hater. I would not be moved. And then, suddenly, the stagnant sewage of all the false beliefs, all the ossified lies and treasured wounds, all the years of looking for the wrong kind of love (or at least, a stunted, compartmentalized piece of love that became poisonous when excised from its whole) in all the wrong places came gushing forth and met with that dang pink Bible cover.

I wept. And I wept, and wept, and wept.

Steven’s confusion registered through my vale of tears and I choked out, “It says… It says… It says ‘For My Beautiful Princess’, but -” I gulped and a sob arose again - “It doesn’t feel that way!” And he held me and I cried and the snot and tears comingled on the shoulder of his work shirt and he didn’t even say anything, bless him.

“Wow,” I said, when I’d reasonably collected myself. “I didn’t know that was in there.” And I didn’t. But God did.

I love how relentless God is. I love how he doesn’t let us die in sin, in unredeemed pain, in hiding and pretending and shallow, arms-distance relationship. In the days leading up to that early morning death and rebirth, I had become obsessed with a staggeringly beautiful a cappella version of Bon Iver’s “Heavenly Father”. I watched the video over and over again. It has profanity, which I’d prefer wasn’t there, but it’s such a profoundly raw and authentic lament and psalm and prayer and dirge all rolled into one and it was reverberating in the wildest reaches of my soul and giving form to the struggle I couldn’t yet name:

No, I don’t know how you house the sin

I never knew how much of you I could let in

How does he absorb the sin, take it upon himself, bleed for us, lay himself to be disfigured and maligned and humiliated? How does he house the sin? Grace is the most profound, vast, and beautiful mystery that exists. He not only houses it, he forgives it, erases it, makes us whole and new and infused with life and tender as babies with the wonder of that grace.

I never knew how much of you I could let in. I never did, never trusted that something could be that good or that someone could love me that much even as I stumbled through my late teens and early twenties, gorging from the hideous buffet of coping mechanisms that promised oblivion: drunkenness, eating disorders, drugs. I was betrayed and I betrayed; my heart was broken and in my cataracted selfishness I broke hearts. I didn’t believe God’s love existed, yet my restless heart wouldn’t stop looking for it. The dissonance reached an unbearable crescendo as I couldn’t divorce the act of physical intimacy from emotion as it grazed the very crux of my aching heart.

Darkness visible. A drawing of mine c. 2007

I’ve been married for almost nine years now, and I thought my grieving over those days was over. But God knew it wasn’t. God knew, somewhere deep down, I still wondered if he loved me, wondered if he cared about women at all, wondered if he could ever truly love a Mary Magdalene. And I cherry-picked passages out of Scripture that buffeted my deepest fears and the lies I still carried with me.

I’ve been up here for [all these] years

Filling up holes with [all these] fears

Well I know about it, darling, I’ve been standing here.

Jesus. He was standing there all along, through the sojourns in hell and the interminable nights when the room spun or flowered in fractals, the mornings of hangovers or unbearable coming-downs when I’d realized I’d gone loping across the cosmos and yet my heart remained unchanged and my wounds grievous.

When I languished in the agony of break-ups that seemed cataclysmic, certain I was unlovable and worthless, He was there.

When I turned away again and again and again to chase some other hologram that promised the world while it siphoned my soul, He was there.

When I’d finally exhausted nearly every other avenue, sprinted down every road that seemed to shine only to return bereft and more broken than before, and found myself one Sunday morning sitting in the backmost pew of a church sobbing during the worship music with my mind straining to explain away this sudden humiliating deluge while simultaneously my heart whispered maybe- just maybe - there was something to this whole “Jesus thing” I’d been hearing so much about.  

And when I look at Jesus, I see the precious and honored place women have in our Creator’s heart. Jesus came into the world through a woman. Mary Magdalene was the first to see him after his resurrection. He revealed his identity plainly to the woman at the well, something he didn’t even do for his disciples. When I read about Jesus and women, all I see is perfect compassion, mercy, and grace. And Jesus is God. As Brian Zahnd says, Jesus is what God looks like and is what he has always looked like - we just haven’t always known it.

I think wrapped up in repentance, inexorable from it, is the full realization of the true gravity of what we’ve done. We have to suffer the full weight of what we’ve done to ourselves and others - how we’ve desecrated these temples and strained gnats and missed the whole point over and over again -  in order to be truly free. It’s not karma. It’s mercy, because compassion can be formed no other way. But with it comes grace - torrential, extravagant, amazing grace - making us new creations in Christ.  This love isn’t too good to be true- it’s the only thing good enough to be true, and all other truth originates from it.

I have to confess, though I love Mary Mother of God, I’ve always identified more with Mary Magdalene. During a nadir in the midst of my lost years, when it felt as though my very soul was disintegrating and the tenuous center of self could no longer hold, I decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Any one would do, so I picked one and I walked in and immediately felt an agonizing psychological tension as the demons to whom I’d given clearance warred with my primal yearning for healing, for relief, for the name above all names that I simply couldn’t yet utter. I left abruptly after about ten minutes after someone spoke kindly to me during the greeting time. I was so close to the precipice, to having a full-on Damascus style conversion, and I turned and ran. As I listened to a sermon years later about Mary and her seven demons, my heart sighed with relief. Although sin has a high cost, it is also true that where it abounds so does grace, and often when you’ve been forgiven so much, it’s hard to forget you are and always will be, as Brian Zahnd also says, a beggar at the table.  

Something in me still resists the idea of a princess bible. It’s too maudlin, a voice within says, too trite, too reductionistic. But is it? Why is it so hard to rest in God’s radical love? I remember one of my favorite movies as a child, The Little Princess. At one point, the mean girl (don’t remember her name, you know the one) is mocking the idea that Sarah is a princess. “I AM a princess,” Sarah responds with great conviction. “All little girls are!” Well, that’s a little silly, I protest. I mean, I read theology! I’m trying to move on to solid food here! Yet there are these love-malnourished iterations of me - the chubby little girl who sincerely believed if she could just wear her sister’s Calvin Klein logo t-shirt, she would finally be among the anointed in the social hierarchy at school; the acne-ridden, still chubby, too-tall teenager who was always left on the wall at the school dance (that is, the few she mustered up the courage to attend), the rudderless and desperate young woman; - they all just want to be a princess. 

They - she - just wants to rest under the gaze of a Creator who is pleased with her, whose love is pure and adoring and free of exploitative desire and in fact embodies the opposite - love that is assured, sacrificial and unfailing, love that knows how to mend the deepest wounds, love that calls the sinners chosen and the last first and the cross worth it. So I’ll let the grown 33-year-old woman be that princess, sometimes. 

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