Sometimes seeing is not believing: loving is

Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. This was the result of some very lazy conflations and probably great sexism in the early church. Because Jesus was said to have driven “seven demons” from her, Mary was thus thought to have been sinful in her previous life and, mainly due to a few church fathers, she was identified with prostitution. Essentially, it seemed that the early church (that is, after the time of the disciples) gravitated toward two poles when describing women: either as virgins or prostitutes. The idea that Mary was a strong, powerful and influential woman, a disciple in her own right, may have been too difficult to accept.

Whatever Mary’s sins were, or had been, it is clear that she was a key member of the disciples. (Also, she wasn’t married to Jesus, as Dan Brown claims in “The Da Vinci Code.” This too is a subtle form of sexism: she is seen as important only by virtue of who her husband is.) Mary is also, as we see in today’s Gospel (from John, often thought to be an eyewitness, or to be the “beloved disciple”) is the first one to whom Christ appears after the Resurrection. What a privilege! What a sign of his love for her! What a sign of her fidelity to him! Then the Risen One himself asks Mary to return to the disciples and proclaims what she has seen. “I have seen the Lord,” she says simply.

Thus, my favorite title for this woman, which is not “prostitute” or “reformed sinner” or “the penitent one,” but something far more important: Apostle to the Apostles.

Also, notice that Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. I’ve always thought this so beautiful. She couldn’t recognize him (most likely because of the heretofore unexperienced appearance of his glorified body) but she knew that distinctive voice, the one with the accent from Nazareth–the voice that called her into wholeness when it expelled whatever demons were troubling her, the voice that welcomed her into Jesus’s circle of friends, the voice that told her she was valued by him, the voice that answered her questions about God, the voice that counseled her near the end of his earthly life. That voice she knew, because it was a voice that had always spoken to her in love. Then she recognizes.

Because sometimes seeing is not believing. Loving is.

(first published on the Facebook page of Fr James Martin SJ on Easter Tuesday)




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  1. Thank you for providing this piece about Mary Magdalene! I bet that if she had been in the Garden of Gethsemanee, she would have stayed awake! Or at least kept the men awake! When Pope Francis commented on this reading, he said, we usually only remember the apostles as men, and forget the women….(paraphrased). And that is as far as he would go, about speaking about women in the Church, carefully avoiding the obvious……

  2. Darlene, I don`t think it does any good to overstate this point about her moral/spiritual/human superiority to the men disciples. For one thing, it sounds a way to get at men. And then, Mary was a human being too, and therefore a sinner just like the rest of us. She did, however, have the benefit of a great confessor!

  3. For two thousand years men have overstated their moral/spiritual/human superiority within the Christian Tradition, and especially in Catholicism. Women have have not only been got at but have been totally excluded from the formation of Christian Doctrine, hence we have an all male God made up of three male persons, the virgin conception and the virgin birth of Jesus. I wonder what kind of Christian Doctrines we would have if women had had an equal input into their formation down through the centuries….

  4. According to Nuala, the whole of History and especially the growth and development of Christianity has been nothing but a huge male conspiracy, aided and abetted by a God who sat aloofly powerless and unmoved through all those centuries, to watch this perversion of HIS plan for us unfold. It could hardly in this case at least, be HER plan, otherwise, how could she have allowed it?
    And she thinks Scripture and tradition, “the formation of Christian doctrines”, were imagined and invented by men as they went along, all according to a formula that solely advantaged men.
    Also, her words imply, God Himself must be careless, indifferent, light-headed and suggestible, since He is capable of being manipulated and taken in by this tribe of male scribes and women-hating disciples, in allowing himself to be so badly caricatured for so long.
    All I can say is that this is not a description, thanks be to God, of the God revealed by the Catholicism I have experienced. That God regards the person, the heart and actions of the person, not the sex of the person.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Nuala, it’s easy to imagine a world where women count; where their decisions in peace and war matter. We know that women are less likely to militarize; that they have a keener sense of the environment and how they are born to nurture and therefore are most kind and compassionate. To think that as much foresight as Jesus had, to imagine that he would not be inclusive is a travesty. If women had the influence in the world they deserve today, we would live in much different times. I believe we could look at the “patriarchal society” as being the architect of the end times in which we live. The unfortunate thing is that we can’t go back in time; we’ll have to rally to see this change to know that it’s true. It is certainly worth it.

  6. I can’t help being struck by the two completely different responses to my comment @3. It reminds me of the story of the woman Jesus met at Jacob’s well. The woman who was a Samaritan was dismissive of Jesus in the beginning she didn’t have a lot of respect for him. However, Jesus seems to have had a good understanding of women and with his patience and understanding he gradually succeeded in gaining her trust. Lloyd Allan MacPherson’s response reminds me of Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman.

  7. Nuala, No doubt there are other responses to what you wrote than the ones recorded here. In mine I was specifically responding to certain elements of the contribution here of Darlene Starrs, and then to yours, such of your statements as…. “(women)..have been totally excluded from the formation of Christian Doctrine. Hence we have an all male God..”
    What you had meant is clearer to me now, especially when it repeated..

  8. Nuala, Your reading of the story is interesting. But you convey the impression that the charming thing about it all is His gently gaining her trust. He does this of course by talking to her in the first place, when it was not in those days the done thing, and then by asking her to draw water for him. But in fact, He also makes her understand that she needs to confess her sins and change her life before she can obtain the life-giving water He talked to her of— grace.
    Afterwards, the Samaritan woman went as far only as to ask her friends, whom she rushed off to tell of this encounter with Jesus, if he could be the Messiah. The account in John puts it no further than that. The Samaritan friends were brought to believe in Jesus through her having drawn attention to Him by her telling them He had known everything she had done, and then by questioning them, not by her acclaiming Him. But if she did not explicitly recognise Jesus as Christ, He gave her opportunity to do so, referring to “true worshipers (who) will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth”, and called her to repent her sins.
    I think it`s a bit like in the story of the Prodigal Son, which so many are willing to use as a demonstration of Christ`s love of sinners, and rather tend to understate that it is the vital necessity of repentance that is being stressed.

  9. Con Carroll says:

    I read a interesting article, in the Guardian of 13 March about a Sri Lankan Liberation theologian, Tissa Balasuriya, who was a member of the Oblate Congregation. He wrote a book, Mary and Human Liberation (1997) an was called in for questioning by the Congregation of Doctrine And Faith. Tissa died January 2013
    Another was Ernesto Cardenal, poet and ex-Sandanista Minister who wrote a political reflection about Mary in the book the Gospels of Solamentine.

  10. With respect MJT, all we know about the women who are mentioned above, comes to us from the male writers of the scriptures. The events were written down many decades after they occurred and further passed through the hands of many more male interpreters and translators during the next few centuries. While i’m living with my husband for the last thirty four years there are times when he throws his hands up and says ‘i just don’t understand women’! This is tongue-in-cheek but also true. Many modern Catholic women have left the Church and in the words of someone in another thread, are paddling their own canoes! The Christian Doctrines written by male writers, do not accommodate women psychologically, emotionally or physiologically so women are interpreting the scriptures for themselves.

    Also I find your interpretation of Jesus interaction with these women very limiting. If these women and by extension the rest of humanity want to avail of Jesus love they must first ask forgiveness for their sins. As a parent, and because God is portrayed as a parent I know this is not a right interpretation. Love is unconditional. If my kids had to beg for forgiveness to avail of my love every time they did something wrong, they would be very psychologically messed up kids. And if I had to repent and ask my husband for forgiveness every time I offended him we would not have lasted one day together.

    Many women and by extension young people, because traditionally it was the women who handed on the faith, are walking away from the Church because of the Church’s intransigence towards women.

  11. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Nuala, I’m not much an expert on women but more completely fascinated with matriarchal societies. I was born in a small fishing village on the east coast of Canada and we were surrounded by 5 Mi’kmaq villages (First Nations). It amazes me that for Aeons, within a matriarchal society, women were able to advance society in ways that we have barely been able to scratch the surface in the modern world. Complete respect of the environment, strong family values; societies were based on spiritual teaching and respect for the Mother (Earth). So my question is, if Jesus had such foresight to be able to see where a partiarchal society was leading us, what would he have instilled in his own gospel to possibly counteract it? I love the female response on this website, by the way. It resounds with love and respect and ultimately is non combative, even when aggressive. I believe deep down, Pope Francis understands this may be an “area of opportunity” in society today since South America is home to many matriarchal societies, still.

  12. Nuala, as a reader, respecting the writing on the pages of the Scripture we have been talking about, which is the source of your vision of the very Jesus whose vision for us you presumably wish to see realised, just as reader and whether or not you are a parent or a woman, whether you are walking or have already walked away from the church as you say women are doing, you should see that in the cases we have mentioned, Jesus leads the sinner to repent, to turn away from their sin, but His willingness to forgive does not mean there is no such thing as sin. He presents Himself as Love, disarming and new, all-knowing, forgiving, and then He tells them to sin no more. To preserve gender-balance here, you will admit there are some cases where He admonished men likewise?

  13. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    MJT, I definitely admit there are cases where he admonished men, but you have to admit it, he definitely liberated and affirmed women in his writings; both known and unnoticeable. He discussed theology openly with women when most husbands would not be seen in public speaking with their own wives. Imagine. Better yet, have an imagination to these things. We get caught up with what he said but really, the points we are missing are cultural and situational. This conversation would have never taken place at this point in time in history between these two people. He was telling women that under his leadership, there would only be gender equality. This is what astonishes me when I read this passage, not what MJT refers to. Jesus is unlike any man in religion before him and pretty much after him in the written accounts of his interactions with women.

  14. Lloyd, We may have been interested in two different things here. All along I had thought we had been discussing the theme in this topic, as presented in Fr. James Martin SJ`s article, and as you have it too, the insistence on what you call “gender-equality” of Jesus, and not the superiority of Mary over the men disciples as some of the contributors here would like it….but that`s the way, isn`t it, with free conversation- it strays and encompasses other things too..

  15. Soline Humbert says:

    MJT “All I can say is that this is not a description, thanks be to God, of the God revealed by the Catholicism I have experienced. That God regards the person, the heart and actions of the person, not the sex of the person.”
    I would love to experience this catholicism you describe someday before I die…. I would love to experience a catholicism faithful to the Christ whom I love and follow …”Does it not depend upon my own will where I shall pour out my grace? With me there is no longer male and female, nor lower and upper class:for all are equal in my sight” (Christ to St Catherine of Siena in the Dialogues). When it comes to the ordained ministries one’s female gender is all that it takes to be excluded. That is the law of the church which mandates and divinises discrimination against women on the grounds of gender. God indeed sees the heart,but churchmen see the gender…..Alas, blind guides! May the Holy Spirit open the eyes of our hearts and may the institutional walls of sexism come tumbling down with a joyous noise!

  16. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    See, exactly what I was talking about. Amen, Soline…amen! We have certainly been talking about a few things, MJT, all of which are important to the dialogues of both men and women in this wondrous religion. This dignity is so important; really until this is addressed, I can’t see any real progress taking shape in the world, let alone the ACP.

  17. Soline, I am an ignorant member of the laity who has no particular objection to women being trained and ordained as priests, especially since the Vatican body deputed to investigate the matter found no scriptural basis for forbidding it. I`m sure women priests could invigorate the Church, though I don`t think their ordination would be an overnight solution to the many problems we have.
    My mild comment at the start of this thread was just to state a resistance to the implication in a contribution by Darlene Starrs that women are superior morally or humanly to men. As I said, they share the same human nature with men, and so are as liable to sin and error as men. But as that over-stated the case for women in my view, you enter into another area of dispute when you suggest that you have some superior access to Christ than the rest of the Church does when you wrote:
    “I would love to experience a catholicism faithful to the Christ whom I love and follow”. This Christ is not, you imply, the Christ the rest of us know and follow? Where do you think that leaves the rest of us?

  18. Soline Humbert says:

    Mjt,I am not aware I wrote I had a superior access to Christ.I don’t (nor do I believe women are in any way superior!nor that I am infallible…). But a belief in a different Christ,yes.
    All that I wrote,and I take full responsibility for this,is that the Christ whom I love and follow does not discriminate against women. Therefore I do not believe in the Christ of the official church teaching and ruling in whose name women are excluded from ordination.( This after all is the same Christ Catherine of Siena believed in).
    Mary Mc Aleese said the same thing more eloquently than me : “If I truly believed that Christ was the authority for the proposition that women are to be excluded from priesthood by virtue simply of their gender I would have to say emphatically that this is a Christ in whose divinity I do not and will not and cannot believe. And that is a very important thing for me to have to say. That is not said lightly.
    This Christ is too small of mind,too mean of heart to be the Christ of the Gospelwhom I believe in and whom I know,I like to think,at least as well as the Pope might know Him.He is after all my Father and Mother too…..
    It is always the women who are the Watchers and the Wakeners
    Slowly his darkened voice, that seemed like doubt
    Morninged into noon; the summering bees
    Mounted and boiled over in the bell flowers.
    Come out of your jail Mary, he said. the doors are open.” (Resurrection by Christine Rodgers) http://www.ministryforwomen.org/teaching/mcalees2.asp
    So I believe in a Christ who calls and opens doors for women,not one who shuts them out because of their gender.

  19. Soline, I had a kind of flattering sense of that admirable and passionate statement having been addressed to me, though why it should have been I`ve no idea, because as I said at the start, I am not opposed to the ordination of women. I am, however, rather more drawn to the idea of the Royal Priesthood of the whole People of God.
    I had actually used the word “suggested” rather than “wrote” of your statement, “I would love to experience a catholicism faithful to the Christ whom I love and follow”.
    Obviously I can see, when you elucidated, that you had meant something else, but unfortunately initially this does convey the impression that you follow a different Christ to the rest of us, that in more than the sense in which we are all sinners, the rest of us have betrayed Christ, that the Christ I follow, for example, is not the Christ you follow, and maybe not the true Christ after all, and that you think you have a truer relationship with the real Christ than others do, including myself. So you might see why I would be worried about any lack of accuracy in expression, which is why I used the word “suggests”.
    Incidentally, one of the fascinating things about the accounts of the Risen Christ is that He appears to have appeared different to each person who encountered Him. But even so, as members of the One Body, we should be able to agree on who it is we follow, and why.

  20. Soline Humbert says:

    @19 mjt, thank you for your patience in continuing the conversation.
    I am not quite sure how I could best clarify further the statements I have made. Perhaps the link below will tell you a bit more about some of the long journey behind my belief in a Christ who calls women to the ministries of Word and Sacraments, a Christ in whose image and likeness women (no less than men) are.This is the Christ whom I love and follow, because He has loved me first, as St John would say. This is the Christ who is life-giving to me. It is the Christ who calls me by my name and whose voice I recognise. However this is not the Christ of the official church statements on women. That Christ has not been, and is not, life giving to me. I shall be bold and venture that Mary of Magdala wouldn’t recognise that Christ either!
    PS. The Catholic magazine mentioned in that piece was the Redemptorist magazine REALITY. Censorship & silencing are not new: they kept people in the dark in 1994, as they do now. To protect the truth, or to protect people from the disturbing truth?

  21. Soline, Thanks to yourself for your patience too! I`m sure you`ve done well here in going further into the matter in this way, I`m sure you will have helped people to think about it more feelingly, and freshly.

  22. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you mjt. If I have done so in some small way,with God’s grace, it is thanks to your perseverent prompting and pertinent questioning….and I never believed for a second you were “an ignorant member of the laity”(@17): After all both you and I do believe in the “Royal priesthood of the whole People of God”(@19), not to mention the incredible dignity we both share of being a dearly beloved son and daughter of God, heirs to the divine life.

  23. Mary O Vallely says:

    How appropriate to end the dialogue between Soline and mjt in particular with the title of this thread…”Sometimes seeing is not believing; loving is.” It has been a dialogue of questioning, answering, listening and challenging but it has always been done with compassion and love. A lesson to all of us in the Church. This is true dialogue. Thank you especially to Soline for baring your soul and honouring us with your story. Like Tony Butler who is singing once more, thank God, we can learn so much from an honest and open sharing of suffering. We do not have to have experienced the same difficulties or pain to understand, at least in a small way,the immensity of real suffering. Thank you to all who contributed to this thread and to the others. This, I feel, is Church, this is Gospel in action. 🙂

  24. Mary, It`s been a privilege to have been part of such an enlightening discussion, and to be able to communicate with such passionate and fervent believers, all striving for what`s good and true. Finally, thanks to yourself for having had the prescience to start it all. As they say in Armagh, “Yer a quare girl!”

  25. john kennedy says:

    It is clear from the biblical record that the resurrected Jesus was not the same as he had been when he had lived with his disciples including Mary Magdalene before his crucifiixion.The resurrected Jesus was no longer a man seen through physical eyes, because he transcended time & space.He appeared to his disciples inside a room with closed doors. He accompanied two disciples travelling towards Emmaus for a long distance. Yet they did not recognize him until much later,when he made himself known, at which point he suddenly vanished out of sight. By passing through the 40 day period of his resurrection & separating from Satan Jesus laid the foundation for the spiritual course. He thus opened the way to redeem humanity’s sin.

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