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Mary Magdalene’s Image Gets New Look in Modern Age

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Mary Magdalene
A picture of a mosaic of Mary Magdalene and Jesus at the Magdala center, on the Sea of Galilee in Migdal, March 27, 2018. VOA

If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene.

The major character in the life of Jesus was long maligned in the West and portrayed as a reformed former prostitute. But scholars have adopted a different approach more recently, viewing her as a strong, independent woman who supported Jesus financially and spiritually.

The New Testament tells how Jesus cast demons out of her. She then accompanied Jesus in his ministry around the Galilee, before witnessing his crucifixion, burial and resurrection in Jerusalem, which is being commemorated by Christians this week and next. The Roman Catholic Church and Western Christian churches observe Easter on Sunday, Eastern Orthodox Christians a week later.

Pope Francis took the biggest step yet to rehabilitate Mary Magdalene’s image by declaring a major feast day in her honor, June 22. His 2016 decree put the woman who first proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection on par with the liturgical celebrations of the male apostles.

ALSO READ: Exploring Jesus Christ’s journey in India before he became missionary-martyr of Sanatana Dharma in the West 

mary magdalene
“By doing this, he established the absolute equality of Mary Magdalene to the apostles, something that has never been done before and is also a point of no return” for women in the church, said Lucetta Scarrafia, editor of the Vatican-published Women Church World monthly magazine. Pixabay

For centuries, Western Christianity depicted Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, a narrative that began in the sixth century. Pope Gregory the Great conflated Magdalene with an anonymous sinful woman mentioned in the chapter before she’s introduced in the Gospel of Luke.

Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church roll back centuries of labeling Mary Magdalene as such, stating she was distinct from the sinful woman mentioned in Luke. Eastern Orthodox Christians never depicted her as a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene was from a thriving fishing village on the Sea of Galilee named Magdala, which has been excavated extensively by archaeologists in recent decades.

The site is home to the oldest known synagogue in the Galilee, where a stone bearing the likeness of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was found, as well as a marketplace, ritual baths and fishing harbor. Marcela Zapata-Meza, the lead archaeologist at the site, has called it “the Israeli Pompeii.”

Modern scholars have adopted a different understanding of Mary Magdalene, and regard her as one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples, who stood by him to the end while his most devoted apostles did not.

ALSO READ: Jesus as Yogi: The art of deception and conversion by Christian missionaries in India

mary magdalene
Nonetheless, the image of Mary Magdalene as a licentious, sexualized woman has persisted in Western culture, including in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Da Vinci Code.” Pixabay

“Historical tradition says she was a prostitute from Magdala,” said Jennifer Ristine, director of the Magdalena Institute at Magdala. “Reanalyzing that reputation that she had we can see she was probably a woman of greater social status, higher social status, a woman of wealth who accompanied Jesus as we see in Luke 8:2, helping Jesus and his disciples with her own resources.”

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, said Mary Magdalene’s reputation was sullied by her depiction in art over the centuries.

“Art history made her become a prostitute, which is something that is not present in the Gospels,” he said, adding that she also has been portrayed as Jesus’ wife.

“It is important to find the real face of Mary Magdalene, who is a woman who represents the importance of the female aspect on the side of Christ,” he told The Associated Press at the Vatican.

The Gospel of Mary, an early Christian text, depicted her as a visionary who received secret revelations and knowledge from Jesus.

ALSO READ: Christmas: Birthday of Son of God or Sun God?

Claire Pfann, academic dean at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said Mary Magdalene must be seen for what she was: “An independent woman who has discretionary time and wealth from the city of Magdala, not identified by a father or a husband, whose life was dramatically restored, healed, changed by her encounter with this Jewish itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus of Nazareth.”

“It takes a long time for serious scholarship to trickle down to the popular level,” she added.

A new film on the life of Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter the Apostle, recasts her in that mold.

The film has been released in Europe and Australia. A release date for the United States has not been set, following the collapse of its original distributor, the Weinstein Co., after a series of sexual harassment and assault claims against founder Harvey Weinstein. The rash of allegations made against Weinstein spawned the global #MeToo movement.

Ristine said Mary Magdalene plays a critical role in the New Testament and carries an “essential pivotal message of Christianity.”

“Why is a woman there, giving testimony to that in a culture where woman are just not paid attention to, or not placed as witnesses?” Ristine asked. “Well, this speaks very strongly to women today, that the power of their witness, the power of their testimony to speak up for a truth, can have effects that ripple down through the centuries.” VOA

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“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

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It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)