Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mary Magdalene - the mystery woman

Passionate (1)
 Mary Magdalene is one of those figures in Christian history and mythology that has no set story to her. She's presented as the bad girl, the whore, as an early leader of the church, the Apostle to the Apostles, Jesus' wife and/or concubine, the carrier of the Holy Grail, and dozens of other things. Which one is right and which is wrong? Could they all be right? The mystery of Mary of Magdala is shared with us in the movie Secrets of Mary Magdalene (directed by Rob Fruchtman).

While the movie was not the most in-depth look at Mary of the New Testament, the presentation is entertaining and interesting. It's easy to follow, and contains enough information to allow you to do some decent research on your own, something most documentaries today do not bother with.

The documentary starts out looking at ancient sources and moves into the modern era, showing that very early views of Mary are fairly close to where we're at today. Those lost perspectives have been rediscovered and brought to life thanks to modern archeaology and  the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels.

There's a habit of conflating all the various Marys of the gospels, something that modern scholars are now trying to untangle. The name Mary was one of the most popular female names during the era of Jesus. We know of Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha from the Lazarus story), the Mary that washes and anoints Jesus' feet (often said to be the repentant whore who had demons cast out of her), Mary who was Jesus' mother, and another Mary who was possibly Jesus' sister. None of these are Mary of Magdala or Migdal, who is the one who first sees the risen Christ.

Penitent (2)
We know that Mary Magdalene followed Jesus, and that she and the other female followers provided for the needs of the men in the company. Likely this referred to cooking, cleaning, and mending as needed. We know that she was considered important because she is the first person recorded as seeing Jesus after his death. She is mentioned in all four Gospels as being one of the witnesses at the cross. The documentary notes, however, that Mary is not mentioned as being in the crowd that first receives the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Scholars are unsure if this was left out because everyone was aware of it, or because Mary did not play a vital role in the Pentecost tale.

Regardless, Mary has become a focus for women to rally around. She seemingly defies the gender inequality of her time. She follows a teacher and is apparently unattached to anyone as a wife, daughter, or sister. She's unusual, but not any moreso than the other women following Jesus.

As the documentary develops it delves deeply into the history behind the Holy Grail. There are myths and legends of Mary and a female child coming to France, bringing with them the grail. Some believe that "the grail" was Mary herself, bringing Jesus' sacred blood line in the person of her child (often identified as Sara). The most detailed exploration of these myths can be found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.

It was author Dan Brown and his book The DaVinci Code that brought Mary back into the spotlight. His fictional work highlighted the legends of the Merovingian kings of France, the early Templars, and later the Cathars, and where Mary of Magdala fits in. That spotlight is hotly debated, mostly because it touches on the idea that Jesus and Mary had more of a relationship than just that of teacher and student.

Mary washes Jesus' body (3)
There is some credibility to the idea that Jesus had a wife. During the time the New Testament describes, a male holding the title of Rabbi would have been required to be married, just as orthodox Rabbis are required today. It makes a certain sense that this strong female character would be Jesus' foil throughout his ministry. No other woman is mentioned repeatedly except for his mother.

One of the websites mentioned in the film is, a site dedicated to education about and research on Mary. There, you can find all of the information that was in the film, and much more.

The most interesting point made during this documentary was that the current trend of seeing Mary as an independent woman actually takes away a positive figure that many women have clung to across the centuries. Mary as a penitent sinner, a reformed whore, was much more human and easy to acknowledge than a bunch of holier-than-thou disciples who lived a very ascetic lifestyle. Her sins were so grievous that she provided people with an "in" to Christ. If Mary the whore could repent and become a good and wholesome person, then so could anyone!

Mary Magdalene's elasticity as a character in the tale of Jesus and his disciples makes her an excellent leading lady in any and all of the myths and legends that exist. There is no way to tell for sure that she was one way or another, and so she bends and sways, taking on whatever traits are necessary to help people reach their goals. Sinner or saint, she has always been a central figure in Christianity.

I give this documentary 3 stars. It was quite good, but some of the information was out of date (for example, the information about the Gnostic Gospels found in Nag Hammadi neglected to mention that other Gnostic Gospels existed for a very long time prior to the Nag Hammadi ones being discovered). This is definitely worth a watch if you're interested in obscure church history, or are a student of the role of women in the Christian religion.

Check back often for book reviews, prayers, ceremonies and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect. If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 

You may also be interested in:

Working at Cathedral of the Pines
What does it mean to be holy?
Cathedral of the Pines
Accepting yourself
Mother Teresa

1) Painting by Fra. Angelico (Wikimedia Commons)
2) Painting by Nicolas R├ęgnier (Wikimedia Commons)
3) Painting by Vasily Perov (Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Working at the Cathedral of the Pines

Rev. Allyson on the path to the Altar of the Nation

Yesterday, I had the honor and joy of offering the invocation and benediction at a service held at the Cathedral of the Pines. It was the annual memorial service held for the Fraternal Order of Eagles members and friends. I have never worked with the Order before, but I would be more than willing to do so again. They were wonderful people, with big hearts and open minds.

I sat in the front bench with other presenters at the memorial, and soaked in the slightly diffused sunlight and the majestic view of Mount Monadnock behind the altar. Wreaths were laid out, and flowers as well. Bells were run, and praises sung. I spoke my invocation proudly, happy to be a part of a group of people who have played such a strong part in the success of the Cathedral.

The benediction I used actually comes from the Lutheran Book of Prayer, one which I found while leafing through the book earlier in the morning. I had planned something completely different, but this seemed to fit the situation exactly.

Lord God, in whom there is life and light:
     our thanks for those who died for us,
     our prayers for those who mourn,
     our praise for the hope You have given us.
Refresh our hearts
     with dedication to the ideals of heroic men,
     with appreciation for the honesty of just men,
     with obedience to laws of upright men.
Forgive us
     when our patriotism is hollow,
     when our nationalism is arrogant,
     when our allegiance is halfhearted.
Stir within us
     thanksgiving for all we have inherited,
     vigilance for the freedoms of all men,
     willingness to sacrifice for fellow citizens.
Comfort us with the joy that Christ died for all those who died for us,
     bringing life and immortality to light for all.

There was unbroken silence during that benediction, and even the birds were quiet. It seemed a fitting prayer for the men and women who had died in service to our country and to New England in particular. I spoke it slowly, because I wanted to express the feeling of being a part of something larger than ourselves. I felt I achieved my end.

After the service, I wandered around the Cathedral grounds, stopped to talk to a few people, and met up with an old friend. It was lovely to have this chance to be with people who give so much of their lives in service.

What was your Sunday afternoon like? 

Check back often for book reviews, prayers, ceremonies and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect. If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 

You may also be interested in:

What does it mean to be holy?
Cathedral of the Pines
Accepting yourself
Mother Teresa

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What does it mean to be "holy"?

The grail (1)
There's a lot of talk about holy men and holy women, holy spaces and holy places. People point to cups or beads or papers and say they are holy. What is it, exactly, that they are saying? What are they meaning? What are they expecting from the people and items they label as "holy"?

When it comes to ministers, priests, pastors, rabbis, and other faith leaders, there is an expectation that they are somehow holy. They are set apart from the normal people in the world. They are better, different, singular, and different. Perhaps there is a belief that they are somehow touched by the Divine, making them separate from the rest of the human race.

  1. Dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred: "the Holy Bible"; "the holy month of Ramadan".
  2. (of a person) Devoted to the service of God: "saints and holy men".
This definition is somewhat lacking, though. Many things and people are dedicated to the All and Many. By this definition, pretty much everyone who does a moment's service at a church or temple is to be considered holy. Then again, perhaps that's not so wrong after all.

 Sheila na gig (2)
Several weeks ago, I had someone berate me for not being holy enough. Initially, I was confused, as I wasn't speaking to the person in "minister mode". I had been discussing politics and personalities. Neither of these things seems very holy to me, and in fact seem almost opposed to holiness. They're still important, just not a part of spiritual things. The fact that I am a minister was not even discussed that day.

Later that evening, I got to thinking. What does it mean to be holy? Did I perhaps make a mistake in what I had said or thought? Had I somehow presented the All in a way that was less than pleasing? I went over my conversation with a fine-toothed comb (both mentally, and via FB because it stores your messages), and couldn't find anything to do with spirituality. Not only had I not presented the All negatively, I had actively avoided discussing spirituality and drawn the conversation away from it. Where, then, did this accusation come from?

I can only assume that it came from the accuser. I began to think about "holy" versus "secular" and how they apply to me, and to other ministers, priests, Rabbis and other spiritual leaders. Of the many leaders I've spoken to over the years, none feel holy all of the time, and some don't ever feel holy at all. Most seem to fall into the category that I do, where we draw "holiness" on like a cloak when we're acting on behalf of the All as if it were a prayer to be worn. When our time as leader is done, it is removed, and we're no more holy than the next guy.

It seems that a lot of people feel that those who take the title of spiritual leader, in whatever religious path they follow, should be wearing that holiness all the time. It should be evident from morning to night, on display for the comfort and joy of all those around the person. It doesn't work that way, though. Nor do I think it should.

Shofar (3)
Holiness doesn't come with a seminary education or a Masters of Divination. It doesn't appear because of a laying on of hands or a muttered prayer. Holiness has nothing to do with your prayer mat or your undergarments. Each of these things might enhance holiness, at a particular moment or time, but they do not bring it about.

So what does bring holiness into a person? I think the only real answer is "intent." There are moments when we open ourselves to be channels to the All, and those are the moments that we can achieve holiness, if only briefly. I tend to use my stoles as a method of showing the world when I am opening to the All, and setting myself apart from everyone else. This is a visual cue for something that's very much invisible.

While there is holiness to me working in my garden, volunteering around town, or snuggling with the kids, I don't think that's the same thing that people expect when I am speaking in a pulpit or leading a ritual. To think that I will routinely channel the All while I am kneeling in muck and weeding my cabbages is, I believe, asking a little much.

There are people in my life that I look up to as being holy. Rabbi Roger Ross and Rev. Deborah Steen-Ross, Rev. Sarah Margaret, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Rachel Held Evans, Pastor Alison Jacobs, and all my fellow students, Deans, and instructors from seminary come to mind. Yet each one of these people who I hold in such high esteem has been depressed, cried on my shoulder, ranted to me, made silly remarks, made mistakes... We're all human. If I call on these people and say, "Hey, be my minister today, please?" then yes, I expect a moment of holiness from them as they listen with the ears of their God. Just as often, though, I enjoy hearing their laugh, seeing their smile, or feeling their hug.

It is my strong opinion that you can't "be holy" all the time. Each of us has things to deal with on a daily basis that are far from holy. Cars break down, and marriages too, and people die. Bad things do happen. We get sad, we cry, and we retreat from being holy to needing holiness brought to us by another. That's the beauty of holiness, though. It can come from anyone, and anywhere.

Check back often for book reviews, prayers, ceremonies and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect. If you purchase items I have linked through Amazon or the ads on my site, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site! 
You may also be interested in:

Cathedral of the Pines
Accepting yourself
Mother Teresa

1) Image by ronnieb / morgueFile2) Image by Jusben / morgueFile
3) Image by davi / morgueFile