Discovering the True Significance of Mary Magdalene: An Easter Surprise

By Soni Soneson Werner, Associate Professor Emerita of Psychology at Bryn Athyn College

 

“Mary Reaching for His Garment” by Soni Soneson Werner

With Easter Sunday soon upon us, my thoughts turn to the role and nature of Mary Magdalene in the gospel Easter story. In modern times, she has emerged as one of the most intriguing figures in the New Testament. When my interest in Mary Magdalene piqued years ago, I began collecting and critically analyzing evidence about whom she really was. I have gone to France, England, and Israel in search of stories about her and have found illustrations in stained glass, architecture, statues, paintings, and mosaics.[1] I have reviewed literature from both ancient and modern theological scholars and have studied contemporary Broadway plays, novels, and movies that engage Mary Magdalene in some way. I visited two chapels where their followers were worshipping her relics. At this point in my quest, I have come to the conclusion that she has been misrepresented by the conventional Christian traditions, by French politicians, and by artists. People have rewritten her story to fulfill their own needs and desires.

For my reading of Mary Magdalene, I look to Emanuel Swedenborg, who provides clues about her significance that are more profound than what is said about her by any of the other legends. First, let’s review what is not in Swedenborg’s works about Mary Magdalene. There is nothing about her:

  1. sex life as an adulterer or prostitute;
  2. using the ointment from the alabaster jar;
  3. being married to Jesus or being pregnant;
  4. traveling to France to spread the good news;
  5. being a saint;
  6. representing a divine feminine spirit;
  7. holding a red egg when preaching;
  8. being represented by a rose or “V”;
  9. relics being involved in spiritual practices; and
  10. in relationship to the Holy Grail.[2]

Swedenborg’s works focus on the events of Easter morning and furnish an internal sense of the importance of Mary Magdalene’s role. In the four canonical Gospels, we find stories in the plain sense of the text that describe aspects of her Easter role:

  1. Coming to find Jesus in the burial tomb/sepulcher;
  2. Seeing brightly clothed angels at the tomb;
  3. Talking to the angels and Jesus (who had not yet ascended);
  4. Witnessing the earthquake.
  5. Going to tell others the good news.

Swedenborg provides an interpretation of these remarkable events that I have not found anywhere else in either scholarly or popular literature about Mary Magdalene. Throughout his works, Swedenborg’s approach is to describe the internal sense of the biblical stories. For instance, that Mary came to the tomb (sepulcher) and “met brightly clothed angels” corresponds to her spiritual sight being opened by God. At that moment, she was ready to receive and perceive the deeper truths being shown to her:

That . . . angels appeared clothed in garments is evident from [those] who sat at the Lord’s sepulcher, and were seen in shining white garments by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James . . . and especially is the same thing evident from the Lord himself when seen in his glory by Peter, James, and John, in that his [clothing] was then white and glistering, and was like the light . . . by which [clothing] there was also represented the Divine spiritual, that is, the Divine truth which is from him. (Arcana Coelestia §9814:2)[3]

The earthquake Mary beheld refers to an enormous change that was about to happen in the state of the church and to the fact that Christianity was being born with the new awareness of the afterlife as demonstrated by Jesus’s ascension:

Concerning the earthquake which took place when the angel descended and rolled away the stone from the mouth of the sepulcher, it is thus stated:When “Mary Magdalene came and the other Mary to see the sepulcher; and, behold, there was a great earthquake; for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled away the stone from the mouth, and sat upon it” (Matt. xxviii. 1, 2). Those earthquakes took place to indicate that the state of the church was then being changed; for the Lord, by His last temptation, which He sustained in Gethsemane and upon the cross, conquered the hells, and reduced to order all things there and in the heavens, and also glorified His Human, that is, made it Divine. (Apocalypse Explained §400:14)

That Mary met Jesus as he was ascending and was instructed not to touch him signifies that she was brought into the spiritual understanding that Jesus’s human aspect was being united with his divine aspect and was becoming the Divine Human:

In heaven, by [the Lord’s] death and burial, are not meant death and burial, but the purification of His Human, and glorification. That this is the case, the Lord taught by the comparison with wheat falling into the earth, which must die, in order that it may bear fruit. The same is also involved in what the Lord said to Mary Magdalene:“Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John xx. 17).By ascending to His Father, is meant the [union] of His Human with His Divine, the human from the mother being completely rejected. (Apocalypse Explained §899:14)

The unity of the triune God lies in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is only one God, and Mary felt confident in this truth and that he was the promised Messiah.
Then Mary was urged to tell what she had seen to the Lord’s brethren, signifying that she must go back to all of his followers and tell them what happened so that she might encourage goodness in everyone she met:

Jesus said to Mary, “Go to my brethren, and say to them, I ascend to my Father” ([John] xx. 17). Similarly here the disciples are called brethren, because the disciples, equally as brethren, signify all those of His church who are in the good of charity. (Apocalypse Explained §746:8)

What an astounding significance for the role, nature, and purpose of Mary Magdalene in the biblical narrative![4] In my search to better understand Mary Magdalene, I have sorted through many of the resources and in turn have come to appreciate the following:

  1. the Eastern Orthodox Church, which never followed along with other traditions that conflated the name of Mary Magdalene with unnamed sinful women;
  2. the artists of the Medieval and Renaissance eras who created remarkable images of the Easter story;
  3. scholars, such as Karen King (see Suggested Readings, below), who have analyzed the non-canonical Gospels that mention Mary Magdalene;
  4. the Russian Romanov family, who built my favorite Magdalene shrine in Jerusalem;
  5. Swedenborg, who provided readers with a powerful and penetrating spiritual interpretation of the Easter story; and
  6. Mary Magdalene, herself, who bravely followed Jesus and spoke up even when it was against the custom of the times for women to have a voice regarding spiritual matters.

If we sort through the legends, conflations of characters, politics of religion, and fanciful tales, we are left with the simple essence of Mary’s role in the Easter story. Then, if we consider the internal sense of those powerful, biblical accounts of her experiences (based on the writings of Swedenborg), we are given a great gift: the chance to vicariously sense the Lord Jesus Christ ascending to heaven and urging us to share the Easter story. Both men and women have been writing and speaking about this story for centuries; but I am particularly appreciative of Mary Magdalene, who found her voice and blazed the trail for female scholars like myself.

 

[1] For a more in-depth summary of this pilgrimage, see my book entitled Searching for Mary Magdalene: Her Story of Awareness, Acceptance, and Action.
[2] Soni Werner, Searching for Mary Magdalene: Her Story of Awareness, Acceptance, and Action (Rochester, MI: Fountain Publishing, 2011), 81.
[3] Secrets of Heaven is the New Century Edition translation of Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia.
[4] Werner, 180. See also Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia §§720, 5063, 6472, 9263; Apocalypse Explained §§198, 586; Conjugial Love §100; Heaven and Hell §257; True Christianity §§443, 508.

 

Suggested Readings

Currie, Susannah. “Mary Magdalene, companion of the Lord.” Unpublished manuscript (see http://www.bridgewaternewchurch.org).

Ehrman, Bart D. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine. NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. NY: Riverhead Books, 1995.

The Holy Bible: Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 15:1–11; Luke 24: 1–11; John 20:1–18. 

King, Karen L. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Apocalypse ExplainedWest Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1997.

_____. Arcana CoelestiaWest Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1997.

_____. Charity: The Practice of Neighborliness. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1995.

_____. Conjugial LoveWest Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1998.

_____. Heaven and HellWest Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

_____. True ChristianityWest Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.

Werner, Soni. Searching for Mary Magdalene: Her Story of Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. Rochester, MI: Fountain Publishing. 2011.

 

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