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The Truth of God in the Face of Christ

Panteleimon Klostri

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Looking beyond "The Da Vinci Code."

With recent popular literature (q.v., The Da Vinci Code) and the growth of studies in the universities and major scholarly journals focusing on Mary Magdalene,[1] an epideixis (i.e., demonstration)[2] of the Christian faith and what is known about this Christian saint, referred to in the East as "Equal to the Apostles," is important. This essay will focus on the biblical material relating to Mary Magdalene in classical orthodox teaching. There is also a short section on biblical spirituality. The aim is to provide readers with a basic overview of those classical teachings which are being sidelined in contemporary discussions. In short, this essay will show why there is a need to return to the early orthodox Christian teaching about Saint Mary Magdalene.

One of the major premises of neo-Gnostic thinking is that the Bible is a male-centered text which has deliberately ignored the role of women. Not only has the major premise of the Bible, the fatherhood of God, been questioned but some academics push the argument to the point of saying that the earliest stories of the divine were of goddesses. The "search" for divine truth is equated with the discovery of the lost goddess, or the original "male-female" god. There is therefore a logical link between this notion of the divine and the picture of Christ and Saint Mary Magdalene now being painted in popular culture.

In his Against the Heresies, the early church father Saint Ireneaus of Lyons made an analogy to describe the logic of heresy. He commented that heretics take the mosaic of a king and re-arrange the pieces to create the image of an animal, such as a dog or a fox. The pieces are the same but the image is a new one and is different than the original picture. The church has the original image of the king, God, and anyone who wants to see it being proclaimed need only visit the most ancient churches. Were these churches even to lose the Scriptures, Saint Ireneaus said, they could survive on the words "deposited" there by the apostles. He even remembers as a young boy listening to the martyr Saint Polykarp of Smyrna passing on the stories he heard about Jesus from Saint John the Evangelist, whom Saint Polykarp had known personally.

Our Father Abraham

We tend to speak of an Old and a New Testament to refer to an old covenant with Moses and the newer one of Jesus Christ. The thinking goes that now that Christ has come, the older testament is invalidated. Some Christians are even content to read only the New Testament. While the old covenant written on stone tablets has been set aside (2 Cor. 3: 7), Christ was promised to Abraham by God before the Law was given (Gal. 3: 6-9). It is this Abraham who precedes the old covenant by centuries who is our father in faith. We are his children, not by flesh but by faith.

Why is this important? It is important because our roots as Christians go all the way back to our father Abraham. The texts referred to as the "Old Testament" therefore cannot be separated from the story of Christ ("the New Testament"). They are the one word of God. The stories of Jesus in the New Testament are part of the larger story of God that the entirety of Scripture conveys. Quite simply, He is the one Word of God about whom the whole of Scripture speaks.

Central to all this is the fatherhood of God, or calling Jesus' God and Father our God and Father (e.g. the Lord's Prayer). Why is the fatherhood of God central to the entire biblical story? Simply, without it there would be no story, and without it the Bible would not make any sense.

When speaking of males, humans use the term begetting. Men beget children. Women do not beget; they give birth. One need not be convinced or even care for the biblical story to acknowledge this fact. God is called Father since he is not only the begetter of his only-begotten Son, but he begets us (i.e., gives us life) through this Word. The origin of all creation is the Father, who creates through his eternal Word and gives life by his eternal Spirit. It is fundamentally this simple.

Furthermore, in the ancient world the father was not the typical North American or Western European male, whose image was constantly changing in society. The father in the ancient world was also the defender of his family and its traditions. One need only read Homer's Iliad to notice the tension Priam of Troy has at the impending death of his son Hektor. With Hektor's death, Troy will most surely fall, and so will the traditions of the city. In short, Priam's family story will die.

The primacy of the father in the ancient world is also seen in the various non-biblical stories of the gods of Mesopotamia and the Near East. Within these mythical stories of the gods, the leader of the heavenly court was always the father of the gods.[3] This was expressed with the imagery of the god seated victoriously upon his throne. Within the "Old Testament," the language used to describe God is many times this kind of royal kingly terminology. He is referred to as seated upon a throne, the Lord, ruler, judge, father, and the Lawgiver. The "host of heaven" serves him unceasingly (see Isaiah 6). But unlike the gods of mythology, God is not fixed in location in an earthly city, but is lord of all the creation: "From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth" (Psalms 33: 14).

Yet with the kingly terms, there are words used to speak of how God sustains life, such as in the passages about his mercy, which in Hebrew is connected to the word "womb." His mercy is like the womb of a mother who cares and nourishes her unborn children.[4] "Mercy" is equated by analogy and simile with the womb of life because it explains in human language how God nourishes and protects life from his throne. So when King David cries "Have mercy on me, O God" (Psalms 50: 1), or confesses that "His mercy endures forever" (Psalms 136ff ), he is saying in effect that, in a world where life is extremely vulnerable, only God, who alone gives life, can sustain life.

The early Christians confessed this biblical reality of the living and life-giving God, the Father of Jesus Christ, in hymns and creeds. The Nicene Creed begins by saying "I believe in one God, the Father the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible." Within the fabric of Scripture, the Father is not only Jesus' God and Father, but within the church (i.e., the body of Christ) ours as well (Ephesians 4: 5- 6). The love of the Father for his creation is shown in face of his eternal and only- begotten Son, through whom he created all things, who took human flesh (John 1: 14) and willingly accepted to die at the hands of sinners for the salvation of the world.

The idea, therefore, of a female deity as the mother god of all is inconsistent with the biblical story and would make no sense within it. It would also not fit with the teaching of the Cross and of the suffering Messiah which is at the heart of the Scriptures (q.v. Isaiah 52: 13 - 53: 12).

The New Testament

Even if one were to take the New Testament writings as an "original" introduction to a new religion, the idea of a lost goddess is inconsistent with the official religious and general social practices of the Roman Empire. Ever since the time of Augustus (Octavian) Caesar the Roman Emperors were worshipped as gods. The early Christians confessed Jesus as the Christ, and the only Lord and Son of God, clearly in contradiction to official Roman policy. In addition, the Roman family was a large unit structured around one man, known as the paters familias (i.e., the father of the family). Even the slaves in his household were considered his children, and nothing of importance happened without his approval. It is this imagery that Saint Paul uses in his letters to the Christians of the Roman Empire to illustrate our release from slavery (sin and death) and restoration back to our Father's house through Christ (alive and no longer as slaves to sin).[5]

The doctrine of a female goddess, vying for attention in the Roman world, is hard to accept under these social circumstances. It would also have not led to the large numbers of Christian martyrs.

Saint Mary Magdalene

In light of this knowledge, a proper biblical understanding of who Mary Magdalene is can be better understood and appreciated. She is nowhere mentioned as a prostitute in Scripture, and this has never been the tradition and teaching of the Orthodox Church. The beginning of the legends that she was a prostitute began in the sixth century when Saint Gregory the Great mistakenly assumed in a sermon that she was the unidentified "sinful" woman who anointed Christ at Bethany with the myrrh ointment. But he was not labeling her a prostitute, and the sermon anyhow was on repentance.[6] The Christians of the East, to this day, have held that Saint Mary Magdalene was a separate person from that pious woman.[7] Following the Gospel of John, she is praised in Orthodox hymnography as the first to behold the Risen Lord, and is commemorated as "Equal to the Apostles."[8]

There are several references to Mary of Magdala in the Gospels (all of which predate by nearly a century the earliest heretical literature): Matthew 27: 56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15: 40, 47; 16: 1, 9; Luke 8: 2; 24: 10; John 19: 25; 20: 1-18. From Luke we learn that she is the woman from whom seven demons were exorcised. All of the Gospels include her at the crucifixion with the other women there present and at the empty Tomb. Only John mentions her alone at the Tomb apart from Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Very importantly, while she was a Jewish woman, she lived among a Gentile people. She even maintained the ritual demands of the Law, having gone to the Tomb to anoint the body of Jesus after the Sabbath was over (see Matthew 28: 1; Mark 16: 1).

Early church tradition holds that Saint Mary Magdalene went to Ephesus late in her life, where the Virgin Mary was also living, and that she reposed there. Her relics remained in Ephesus for nearly nine centuries until they were moved to Constantinople in 899 AD. They remained there until the thirteenth century, when the Fourth Crusaders sacked Constantinople and stole many relics, possibly including hers. Western church tradition says they were then taken to France, where a large church was built for them and they have (presumably if they are hers) remained there since. Saint Gregory of Tours also stated in the sixth century that Mary Magdalene reposed in Ephesus.[9]

But because this was the Middle Ages, it was not enough to just have the relics of a saint, especially one from the apostolic era; it was also important to create a history of that saint as having always been in that land. Why was this important? It was important because by the eighth century, the Church was splitting. In 756 AD Western history began to be re-written as master forgeries like "The Donation of Constantine" appeared which were used to justify Papal claims to all the lands of the West. By the eleventh century (1054 AD) the Great Schism would occur. The Church would split, and the history of the Western world as we now know it was born.[10]

Did this happen in the case of Saint Mary Magdalene's relics? Yes. Not by accident or coincidence, in the thirteenth century (shortly after the Fourth Crusade) a local pious tradition developed in France which said that Saint Mary Magdalene had followed Saint Lazarus to Marseilles (in Southern France) after Christ's death. The West had long assumed that the Mary in Lazarus' house (see Gospel of John, ch. 12) was none other than Mary Magdalene, so it was natural to also assume that all the disciples from Bethany traveled together. In France, it is held in this tradition, Lazarus and the other disciples from Bethany converted Provence to Christ. It is also held that Lazarus was the first bishop of Gaul. But it turns out that the Lazarus in question is not the same Lazarus as in the Gospels, but a bishop of Gaul who lived in the fourth century. The assumption that Mary Magdalene went to Provence was therefore not only based on the bringing of what someone claimed were her relics to France, but in fact was also based on a mistaken case of identity concerning another man who was also named Lazarus.[11]

Biblical Spirituality

There is a connection between our understanding and knowledge of God, and how we view the human body. When the divine is fleshly, our view of humanity will be the same. When we acknowledge God's holiness, we try to change and to honor Him in our bodies.

The Bible sometimes speaks clearly, other times in poetry, and many times through analogy and simile. Sometimes, the biblical imagery is physical and erotic, as in the Song of Solomon. There is also the example of Hosea who is commanded to find a wife of harlotry and to have children with her to show Israel the futility of chasing other deities (Hosea 1). Saint Paul, in First Corinthians, reminds the church that the baptized can no longer go on living in harlotry (6: 15-20). The harlotry, while connected to bodily sin (however nowhere does Jesus Christ condemn bodily sinners; q.v. John 4; John 7:53-8:11), is synonymous with and connected to the seeking after of false gods (i.e. a return to idolatry). In Scripture, harlotry is forsaking the one true God for a false god, much like a spouse being unfaithful in their marriage.[12] So anywhere harlotry is condemned in the Bible it is a reference to seeking the impotent other gods. The body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, belongs only to the living God and is on loan until He claims it back. This is why there is a connection between keeping one's body pure and holy, and devotion to true religion (I Timothy 3: 14 - 4: 15).

Faith, Saint Paul says, "is the evidence of things hope for" and "the substance of things not seen" (Hebrews 11: 1). By it, our ancestors received approval from God, as they waited for the promise of Christ. Knowing that they would not live to see Him in the flesh, they labored to prepare the ground for others who would later follow. This is faith working through love.[13]

One of the common arguments in the historical revisions of the story of Saint Mary Magdalene begins by saying that since she was not a prostitute, it must follow that she was chosen by Jesus to be the leader of the church after his death. There is some variation here, with some claiming that she was more influential in the early church than the canonical Scriptures relate while others say that she was the consort to Jesus and the mother of his children. But the understanding of faith and spirituality is limited here, and the people using these terms have in all likelihood not encountered a "spiritual" person.

Although the terms "spiritual" and "spirituality" are common terms in religious discussion, they are commonly misused. Spirituality means "of the Spirit," or "Spirit- filled." The word cannot be separated from the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Christ. The biblical understanding of prayer and the example of the saints can help to illustrate this.

There is shared similarity about biblical spirituality. In his letter to the nun Xenia in the late thirteenth century saint, Gregory Palamas, writes:

When every shameful indwelling passion has been expelled and the intellect, as already indicated, has returned wholly to itself, converting at the same time the other powers of the soul--and when cultivating the virtues it sets the soul in good order, ever advancing to a more perfect state, ascending through its active spiritual progress and with God's help cleansing itself more fully--then it not only expunges all imprints of evil but also rids itself of every accretion, however good it is, or appears to be. And when it has transcended intelligible realities and the concepts, not unmixed with images, that pertain to them, and in a godly and devout manner has rejected all things, then it will stand before God deaf and speechless (cf. Ps. 38: 13).[14]

The letter of Saint Gregory establishes that the difference between the "Spirit-filled" and the soul-driven is a vast one. Indeed, humanity's natural conception of the gods and of humanity is idolatrous precisely because it is a projection of the inner workings of the soul. When the intellect is cleansed by prayer and fasting and "returns wholly to itself," then the knowledge of God is complete, humanly speaking. This spirituality is biblical:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being grounded and rooted in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3: 16-19).

At the heart of all this is the Cross of Christ.[15]

Attitude to Life

In the Foreword to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward writes about the importance of attitude in coming to terms with the saints, early hermits and the holy men and women. This idea of "attitude to life" is very hard for us as educated and rational people to understand or accept. "This awareness of the importance of the word," she writes, "spoken within a relationship made the monks very wary about books--perhaps too wary--but it was an emphasis we have lost and could well recover."[16]

We are taught from a young age that "facts" are important (they are) and that "knowledge" is synonymous with "information." For the early Christians facts and knowledge were synonymous with the birth, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes: "For I decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2: 2).

If this is the case, then the approach one has towards life has to have a fair amount of humility. Saint Ireneaus emphasized what the Christian definition of knowledge is. Referring to Saint Paul's letters, he reminds his readers that knowledge for the Christian is always knowledge of Christ crucified; that is, knowledge of the love of God. In this, one's education or lack thereof is irrelevant in helping one come to terms with the power of the gospel message of Jesus Christ on the Cross.

It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found [among those who are] blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure up another God as the Father. And for this reason Paul exclaimed, "Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies": not that he meant to inveigh against a true knowledge of God, for in that case he would have accused himself; but, because he knew that some, puffed up by the pretence of knowledge, fall away from the love of God, and imagine that they themselves are perfect, for this reason that they set forth an imperfect Creator, with the view of putting an end to the pride which they feel on account of knowledge of this kind, he says, "Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies." Now there can be no greater conceit than this that anyone should imagine he is better and more perfect than He who made and fashioned him, and imparted to him the breath of life, and commanded this very thing into existence. It is therefore better, as I have said, that one should have no knowledge whatever of any one reason why a single thing in creation has been made, but should believe in God, and continue in His love, than that, puffed up through knowledge of this kind, he should fall away from that love which is the life of man; and that he should search after no other knowledge except [the knowledge of] Jesus Christ the Son of God, who was crucified for us, than that by subtle questions and hair- splitting expressions he should fall into impiety.[17]

Conclusion

What does this mean for each of us? It means that Christ, the pure image of the living God, is given to us all. He comes not through our own efforts but as a gift. Our Lord Jesus Christ not only defines for us the proper meaning of the divine, but also what it means to be human. A large part of this is humility, about our own knowledge and assumptions. It also means recognizing the fatherhood of God in flesh and blood people and honoring God in our bodies, male or female.

"'Come', my heart says, 'seek his face.' Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me" (Psalms 27: 8-9).

Notes

[1] See January 2004 issue of the Society of Biblical Literature at http://www.sbl-site.org/default.aspx for a preview of the front-page status in academic journals of this type of thinking. Neo-Gnosticism, which is a packaged version of the ancient Gnostic heresies, is known by its general social term of "New Age" religion. Part of the neo-Gnostic idea is a religious "search for meaning" altogether separated from the Holy Scriptures and the apostolic tradition. It is syncretistic (i.e., merges different religious traditions) and amorphous. The contemporary fascination with angels and "spirituality" is also part of the New Age teaching.

[2] The word epideixis is used by Saint Ireneaus of Lyons, the great second century father of the church who catalogued the various Gnostic heresies and refuted them in his Refutation and Overthrowal of Knowledge False So-Called (i.e., Against the Heresies). The word is actually from the title of a shorter work, an exposition of the apostolic preaching, called The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. An epideixis is therefore a "proof" of something, and in this case, a concise teaching. See Behr, John. St. Ireneaus of Lyons: The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1997.

[3] See Beyerlin, W (ed.). Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978.

[4] Saint Paul says to the Thessalonians, "But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children" (I Thess. 2: 7) to emphasize the level of affection and care he had for them. To the Corinthians Saint Paul says, "though you have countless guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers; in Christ Jesus I made you my children [i.e., I begot you; I am your father] through the gospel" (1 Cor. 2: 15). The apostle fathers the Corinthians and, by analogy, is like a nurse tending to her own children towards the Thessalonians.

[5] Our paters familias, our heavenly Father, receives us in whatever condition we are in (see I Cor. 7: 21- 24). He adopts us back and makes us fully his by right.

[6] He says in Homily 25, "I look at Peter, at the thief, at Zaccheus, at Mary and I see in them nothing else but examples put before our eyes of hope and repentance." See in Forty Gospel Homilies: Gregory the Great. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1990, p. 198.

[7] See website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, at http://www.goarch.org/en/Chapel/saints.asp?contentid=136. The site http://www.stcdio.org/parishes/sfassisi/calander/0722.htm also has relevant historical information on this matter.

[8] See Menaion for month of July.

[9] See www.newadvent.org under "Gregory the Great" and "Mary Magdalene" for information on the Western Church's tradition here. See also http://www.cin.org/saints/magdalene.html. Note that the "translation" of a saint's relics means the movement of the relics from one place to another. The date and place of translation are not the same as the date and place of repose for a saint. This is why some saints have two feast-days: the main feast-day and the feast of the translation of their relics (e.g., St. John Chrysostom; Nov. 13 and Jan. 27). St. Mary Magdalene's relics remained in Constantinople (uncorrupted), but they were probably transferred to the West during the Fourth Crusade, when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople and briefly set up their own king there. The word "probably" is used because on the feast day of the saint (July 22nd), certain monasteries (on Mount Athos) celebrate her feast by processing her relics.

[10] Read it at www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/donatconst.html. Paul Halsall says of it, "This is perhaps the most famous forgery in history." Theology would also change in the West. By 800 AD, the filioque ("and the Son") would be inserted into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

[11] See http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09097a.htm for the Lazarus tradition in Gaul.

[12] In the Bible, communities are represented by women. In Galatians, Saint Paul reminds us that we are free children of faith through Sarah and not Hagar. The church is also spoken of as "the Bride of God."

[13] This is why "faith without works is dead" (Epistle of James).

[14] See Saint Gregory of Palamas' writings in Philokalia Vol IV, ed. Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware (Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 316.

[15] See I Cor. 1: 18-2: 16.

[16] Ward, Benedicta (trans.) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1975, p. xxii.

[17] See http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-59.htm#P7119_1844644.

Copyright 2004 Panteleimon Klostri. Panteleimon Klostri is a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary. After seminary he taught in the New York City schools. Currently he teaches Critical Thinking, Composition and Research at a community college.

Posted: 1/22/04



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