On Eros and Mary of Magdala

         So. I have a confession. A confession that starts 4 Christmases ago. I was working at a Church in Northern Virginia as their curate before I moved to Rhode Island to join the Bishop’s staff there.

       The Christmas season can be a lot for Clergy. That particular Christmas season had a lot of tribulations, and by the second week of Advent, I was exhausted.

       I was sitting on the couch of the tiny basement apartment I was renting, flipping through tv channels, when a familiar face appeared on the screen.

       Now, I could not tell you who that face belonged to, only that I stopped long enough to think of where I knew this person from, and suddenly realized that I was watching a Hallmark Christmas movie. And that I had been watching it for like 15 minutes.

       I had never done this before. I had never watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. But I was exhausted, there was a familiar face, I left it on.

       My confession, is that I like Hallmark Christmas movies.

       I’m not exactly proud of this, but I’m also not ashamed of this. Plenty of people like the cheesy, predictable, warm natured films. Especially in stressful times – like the holidays.

       There’s actually been some studies about why we are drawn to this genre of films, and it seems that in times of high stress and unpredictability, which summed up the holidays pretty well even before Covid, our brains like the predictability and the certainty.

       We like knowing that the Price will choose the waitress over the heiress. And sure, there’s no way that the big city lawyer and the small-town florist can actually make a relationship work, but we’re all still cheering when he proposes after 6 days anyway!

       I have not conducted research on this myself, but I also have a theory about why so many of us enjoy Hallmark style Christmas Movies, or can at least tolerate them: we love, love.

       Love, is what makes the world go round. Love is what we hear in so many songs, it’s what Hallmark figured out a format for that makes into over the top movies with bad acting be enjoyable.

       As we began to discuss last week, Love, the word love, has been consolidated in English from several different words in Greek. This week we turn our attention to the love that makes the world go round, that keeps us up at night, that Hallmark has made a fortune selling: Eros.

       Eros is the root word that erotic comes from. It means a passionate love, a sensual love, that all encompassing form of insanity, as the Greeks considered it. A form of insanity, I should point out, that was not something to base a decision as important as who to marry upon in the Ancient Greek world.

       Plato considered Eros to be life energy, not just a carnal passion. The thing that gives life purpose, direction, meaning.

       It is Eros that we linger upon this week.

       Eros, is an interesting thing to preach upon. And in looking at the Mary’s that have been passed down to us from Scripture and Tradition, there is no one more perfect, in my mind, to use to illustrate Eros, than Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene.

       Because, through no fault of her own, and based on an inaccurate reading of Scripture, Mary Magdalene has been cast as a lustful, unable to control herself, sex worker, and possibly adulterous woman of low morals who was healed by Jesus and became a follower.

       This idea that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker came from the way that Pope Gregory the first read Scripture in 591. He conflated an unnamed “sinful” woman who anointed Christ’s feet with Mary of Magdala, who was a prosperous woman, remembered as having had flaming red hair, and who was so important in Jesus’s ministry that she is the one who was chosen for Christ to first reveal himself to in his resurrected form.

Mary of Magdala was the apostle to the apostles, the one who was so important in Christ’s ministry and in the efforts immediately following his death, that she is widely believed to have had to escape to what is now France in order to escape being murdered.

Instead of being lauded, Mary was intentionally diminished as part of a larger goal to diminish the importance of, and role for, women within Christianity. So a narrative was invented about Mary, one that discredited her completely, and she was used, along with Mary Mother of God, to create a binary in society that allowed women only to be vessels for having children, or sex workers.

This narrative about Mary Magdalene is still widely believed, although the Catholic Church did, in 1961, say that Pope Gregory was incorrect in his assessment of Mary. And in 2016, Pope Francis moved her liturgical day, July 22, from a celebration, which means it’s optional to celebrate, to a feast, which means you must celebrate her when July 22 falls on a Sunday.

Though Mary Magdalene has been vindicated, 1,400 years after she was so thoroughly slandered, the narrative about her hasn’t really changed in the last 50 years. She’s still considered to be a reformed sex worker, and not venerated as the Apostle to the Apostles. Her Gospel is still dismissed, as are the Gospels of Peter and Thomas, in addition to several other ancient texts, all of which show that Mary was remarkably important to the Ministry of Christ.

But even in what we have in Scripture, we can see that Mary and Jesus shared a special bond. A bond that goes beyond Rabbi and follower. I can’t say exactly what their relationship was, because I wasn’t there, but they shared a special connection. One that made Jesus ask Mary not to cling to him, not to bind him to earth, when he returned.

It may not be a physically passionate love that they shared, but it’s clear that Eros is a term that would apply more than the other forms of love we can wrap our human minds easily around.

So how then was Mary Magdalene so easily confused and dismissed?

In researching this sermon I came across one tidbit that I think summarizes a lot of where all this confusion comes from. Mary, as it turns out, was BY FAR the most common name for women in first century Israel. There are a lot of Mary’s floating about and playing roles within Jesus’s ministry. Several of the women with roles that were important enough to be mentioned in Scripture were named Mary, Magdalene, Mother Mary, Mary and Martha, Mary of Bethany. And there were unnamed women who’s stories appeared near stories of these various Mary’s.

The sheer number of Mary’s was used to conflate Mary Magdalene with several other women, and that conflated person was the one who was used to suppress women, and to try to create a fear and a stigma around women and Eros.

Really, everyone and eros.

A stigma was created around being passionate at all. Sex was made to be an evil thing outside of when it was for the specific purpose of procreation and within a heterosexual marriage. For example, to this day, Catholic doctrine says that sex can only happen within a marriage, and that it is purely for procreation. No other reason. Any other incident of sex is a sin.

This, comes from Augustine’s creation of the doctrine of Original Sin, which is complicated, but basically, lust and sex for pleasure are the original sins committed by Adam in the Garden of Eden (but not Eve) after eating the fruit of all knowledge.

Since lust is the original sin, fathers, whom we remember from last week were understood to be the only one’s who had anything to do with children – women were just incubators for their seeds – fathers commit the sin of lust in any sexual encounter, and therefore their children are born with original sin. This is why Jesus was not born with original sin, because his father is the Holy Spirit and not a human.

I know, it’s a lot. Deep breath!

Eros, was taken from being a life giving force, a beautiful thing that gives life purpose, often in conjunction with Agape love. It went from a beautiful life giving thing, to sinful and to be avoided at all costs. With the limited exception of for procreation within a heterosexual marriage.

Eros became much smaller, limited to lust and desire, instead of a genuine passion, and potentially a beautiful, life giving love, that was not limited to carnal matters.

Mary Magdalene, went from being a loving and beloved companion of Christ, to a lust driven sex worker, and with her, went the larger understanding of eros, and of what love can be when healthy and allowed to bloom.

Last week, I invited everyone to consider storge love, and those relationships within their family that are healthy and life giving. This week, I invite everyone to consider, in any quiet moments, if there are relationships you have, or have had, that are places where you have a life giving love. This is the place to think of our romantic relationships, but also other passions.

Eros, like Storge, like Philia to come in our discussions, and Agape, these are the loves that we feel when they are absent. These are the loves that we long for as humans, at least that most people long for.

What I invite everyone to do is to think of those places where we have these great loves. And to give thanks for them.

Great love is what Hallmark is trying to sell. But in reality, a great love is a relationship that is worth the work. Because all love is work. Family, friends, lovers, sports teams, and pets. It’s all work.

What are the relationships in your life that are worth the work? Take a moment this week to give thanks for those places.


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