The Pope washing the feet of two young women at a Maundy Thursday mass caused shocked speculation that he might be open to ordaining women as priests. Though Francis has washed the feet of women many times in his previous role as cardinal and archbishop, conservatives reacted negatively to the same gesture from a Pope, despite the explanation from the Vatican that this was “a specific situation in which excluding the girls would have been inopportune in light of the simple aim of communicating a message of love to all.”
The Maundy Thursday rite is a traditional one, a remembrance of Jesus’ final act of humility toward his disciples. So, I thought it might be an appropriate moment to consider who is included in our pantheon of “the disciples” and what that means for the question of whether women may be ordained as priests and included in a Papal gesture of “love to all.”
15th Century painting depicting the Three Marys by Mikolaj Haberschrak.
The story of the Easter narrative is in many ways contradictory and partial and problematic. I am by no means an expert on it, so I welcome any reader responses who would add to or correct what I write here. But it is the traditional tale that Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene, as well as other women, were present at the crucifixion and took the body down from the cross.
The next morning, three women who came to embalm the body were the first witnesses to the Easter miracle when they discovered that the stone covering the tomb had been rolled away. Those three women are known to legend and art as “The Three Marys.” The trio does not include, as I thought it did, the mother of Jesus. Instead, the only one of The Three Marys who has a certain identity is Mary Magdalene. The others are thought to be Mary, the mother of James the younger, and Mary Salome, who is said by some (probably erroneously) to be the same Salome who danced for the head of John the Baptist.
The confusion arises not only because subsequent church attitudes have tended to wipe women from the story of the Christ, but because there were, apparently, many women among the followers of Jesus by the time he was crucified and the Hebrew names for “Mary” and “Salome” were common.
This pre-Raphaelite painting, by Frederick Sandys, shows the Magdalene holding an ointment cup. The cup is Mary Magdalene's traditional attribute, but the allusion is an error.
The role of Mary Magdalene, however, seems to be firm, at least in part because she is as clear a figure in the New Testament as are some of the male apostles–indeed, she is mentioned more times in the New Testament than any of them. Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion, helped take the body from the cross, went to minister to the body the next day, and was the first to witness the resurrection, in some stories having been told by angel and in others having spoken with Christ himself.
The key role of the Magdalene in the revelation of the miracle points to other evidence that suggests she was considered as one of the apostles by Jesus and even one who had superior understanding of his message. Even Augustine referred to her as “apostle to the apostles.” Yet she has been dropped from our mental image of who is on that list we call “the apostles of Jesus.”
Some of this, as most now realize, comes from an attempt to exclude women that occurred later in the life of the Christian church. For the Magdalene in particular, this misogyny resulted in Pope Gregory the Great declaring, in 591 CE, that she and the unnamed sinner who washes the feet of Jesus in Luke 7 were the same person. Though the Second Vatican Council removed this label in 1969, citing Biblical evidence, Mary Magdalene had, by that time, become so associated with that unnamed prostitute in art and culture that many Christians still believe her to have been a harlot. This is in spite of the fact that Mary Magdalene is mentioned 14 times in the New Testament and not once said to be a prostitute.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is not part of the “Apocrypha,” but was discovered in the late 19th century by farmers in Egypt, then purchased by a German scholar and taken to Berlin. Largely because of the two World Wars, this gospel was unpublished until 1955, when it appeared, along with other recently-discovered “Gnostic Gospels,” as part of the Nag Hammadi collection. However, between its purchase in 1896 and its publication in 1955, other copies of Mary Magdalene’s gospel were discovered, in fragments, in other places, suggesting that this text was once widely distributed, as would have been befitting of the teachings of an apostle with a claim to such importance in the narrative of Christ.
In 2003, the mania over The Da Vinci Code brought popular attention to the plight of the Magdalene and there has been much popular attention to the story since. My mother and I spent many hours in those days reading Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels, strongly influenced by my mother’s friend and mentor, Cynthia Bourgeault, who later published a book called The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (which Mother subsequently gave to me for Christmas or birthday, I can’t remember which). I have retained that interest in her story, but have not followed up on that initial burst of activity. Over the Easter weekend, however, I thought again about this intriguing example of a woman’s role in spiritual leadership and regretted that I had not pursued the story further. So, I have now ordered two more, highly recommended books, Karen King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala and Jane Schaberg’s The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene.
Circling back to the question of the Pope. It seems to me intensely ironic that he would be criticized for washing the feet of young women, particularly on the basis that the act implies he might elevate females to the priesthood. Perhaps the most famous act of foot-washing in the Bible was used to slander a woman who, from all appearances, was seen as an apostle by Jesus and who holds a place of unparalleled importance in the Easter story. One can only wonder if Jesus washed her feet in the ritual that Maundy Thursday commemorates.