Today’s reflection comes to us from Erin Duffy-Burke, contemporary Catholic priestess and theAlogian. Enjoy her beautiful reflection on Mary Magdalene’s role in Erin’s own calling to heal, teach, sanctify, and serve – to be a priest.
Guest Post 2: Mary Magdalene: Sister Priestess Standing in the Thresholds
In honor of her feast day, July 22, 2021
“A group of women were present, looking on from a distance. These were the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee as ministers to him. Among them were Mary of Magdala; Mary, the mother of James and Joseph; and the mother of Zebedee’s children. … Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in fresh linen and laid it in his own tomb, which had been hewn out of rock. Then Joseph rolled a huge stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. But Mary of Magdala and the other Mary remained there, facing the tomb.” -Matthew 27: 55-61
I first met the real Mary Magdalene around the same time I realized my vocation in life was to be an ordained priest. It was in graduate school, at the Graduate Theological Union. I had met Mary Magdalene before of course, growing up Roman Catholic. She was the repentant sinner, the whore-turned-follower of Jesus. It wasn’t until graduate school in theology that I read in a book something to the effect of “Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute”, followed by the story we all now know of Pope Gregory IV naming her so in a homily in 591. I was twenty-nine years old, with fourteen years of Catholic education under my belt, and I had never once heard this simple fact of history. It rocked my world, and made me wonder—what else haven’t they told us?
Around this time I also read a description of ordained priesthood in a book on ministry. Using no gendered words, the author described the priesthood as a call to “heal, teach, sanctify and serve” and that you would know you had this call if “others named and called you to leadership.” Tears came immediately and unbidden—this was what I had always been. I remember feeling amazed that priest was the word encapsulating what I am called to do and who I am called to be in this world. Anger and sorrow followed hot on the heels of amazement as I also realized that in the religious tradition I loved, I could not be ordained into priestly ministry for no other reason than that I am a woman.
Once I realized I was called to be an ordained sacramental and spiritual leader, the resistance within me was multifold. First, I had seen no models of female priesthood in my own tradition and therefore had a hard time imagining it. Further, I gathered and was outright told that in Catholic theology and practice such leadership was impossible, wrong, sinful even. Finally, I looked at the all-male hierarchy and knew I didn’t want to do it like them—the male model of priesthood seemed to be falling apart at the seams, old wineskins unable to hold the new wine pouring forth, forgetting the root and rising of embodied, expansive love that is the Incarnation. But then a good friend gave me a new word—priestESS. And she dared to name a wholeness I hadn’t even imagined was possible—Christian priestess.
Slowly, God was making it clear to me that She was calling me to be, not Her priest, but Her priestess. Not a feminine body trying to find my place in male-defined and male-dominated model of Church, spiritual community and ritual, but a sacramental and spiritual leader in my own Rite, as a woman.
Since then, I have prayed and healed and danced and studied. I have gathered with other women experiencing the same call. I have contemplated leaving the tradition of my ancestors, ultimately leaning further and deeper into the incredible lineage—what I now call the golden thread—of Her—Sophia, She Who Is– and her priestesses throughout time. Largely unnamed, they have functioned very much in this healing, sanctifying, teaching and serving way. They have stood in and sanctified every threshold of death and life. Again and again my search has brought me to the feet of the priestess who walked arm in arm, heart to heart, with Jesus, who I now claim as patron, teacher and sister—Mary Magdalene.
The more I grow into this call as priestess, and the more I heal and honor myself as a woman, the more I am guided into the heart of the Magdalene, One with the heart of Jesus. It becomes more and more clear that in their union, in their shared sacred Heart of Love, both aspects of the Christ are present and needed—the feminine and the masculine. That without Her—both the Feminine Divine Sophia and the embodied feminine life and leadership of Mary Magdalene—Jesus’ ministry would have been very, very different.
Hers was a big, big love. We know this because of all the things we don’t know about her, all the things left to speculation, the things we DO know, that are right there in the canonical texts, reveal a depth of love so great it propelled resurrection into the world, even when her own name, her own role, was confused and blighted and forgotten. She is THERE, again and again and again. She is there in the most poignant and painful moments. She stands in the thresholds that if we are only operating from our analyzing minds, from our ego, are impossible to stand in. Everything in us tells us to leave, to flee, in fear. But she stays. Again and again, she stays.
We see it like a luminous golden thread—healed of seven demons, every energetic wheel of light within her spinning in fullness, she stays—eye to eye, heart to heart, mission to mission with the one who has healed her. She walks with him, side by side, ministering to him and with him. She is so changed and moved to wholeness by him, by his love, that the only way she can express it is through return of love. What has been given, she gives, in abundant overflow of tears and oil, embarrassing herself with her open displays of vulnerability yet also endearing herself forever as beloved to the heart of Jesus. She becomes a model and archetype of devoted, generous love. He lifts her up when the culture wants to shame her. He knows she GETS it, in her whole body and being, that she holds this mystery of pain and love in the depths of her heart. He sees her as his equal– sharing this heart of love, dwelling there together. I imagine them like two mirrors, shining for each other, into each other, seeing each other, beholding one another in a way that just grows luminosity, transfigured together, standing in one Christed heart of love, the masculine and feminine, both.
We see her devotion, her utter conversion, most on display in the canonical gospels at the foot of the cross, the threshold of the tomb, and the lit path of resurrection. Mary is there—sometimes both Marys (the Magdalene and the Mother), sometimes with other women as well. This is incredibly significant, and not to be overlooked, especially for those of us daring to imagine and live into our call as women fully in the Church, the people of God, as sacramental and spiritual leaders, as priestesses.
Even in the time of Jesus, women lead the way and anointed the path. The women stand in these thresholds of violence, pain, death and waiting. They do the impossible—stand and witness death, destruction, utter obliteration of everything they thought they knew. They stayed through the breaking, through the eruption, through the impossible because of their tremendous capacity for love. Because they are WOMEN. Because woman, biologically, energetically, evolutionarily, cosmically—knows what it is to bleed and not die. She knows what it is to look death in the face, through the pains of childbirth, be broken in two and give life into the world. She knows how to anoint and prepare the body of her most beloved for burial, because it has to be done, because someone must stand in that threshold, holding together heaven and earth. The women know how because they have trained one another through time, passing on the wisdom and ways of anointing, preparing, naming, praying and staying–priestessing– through the generations.
She is the one who keeps moving, keeps loving, through her tears and through her pain and through her longing. Not diminishing it or pretending it isn’t there, but tapping into the Oneness, that the grief is the love, trusting that the waters of that ocean bring us all to some new shore. That it is all so sacred, all the stuff of this being human, so held in love, and utterly transformed into life.
The feminine is made for this. Bodies that give life from pain in gushes of blood and water know from our wombs that life comes from death. Mary Magdalene was made for this—to stand in and priestess the thresholds. To anoint, to heal and be healed, to love more and more and more and more, trusting and leaning into the expansion of love, no matter the breaking that is required. She knew what it was to live from her body and her heart, to not give too much credence to the egoic mind working so hard to figure it all out. Her connection to Jesus was not in the mind, at least not only, and certainly not in the rules and regulations the egoic mind makes up. It was connection on every level—heart, mind, body and soul—and it was so much bigger than the mind alone could hold.
Without the women, would resurrection have happened? Without Mary holding the threshold, daring to bridge the gap, feet planted in this earthly ground, while Jesus flew to the depths and heights, would we know the truth of Eternal Love? Of Life that never ends?
To be honest, sometimes I’m not sure it has “happened.” So many of us who call ourselves Christians don’t actually live like this kind of Love and Life are REAL. Without the balance of the gifts of the masculine and feminine, we have not been equipped to stand in these transformative thresholds. Yes, Jesus walked this earth and brought us salvation. But salvation literally means “wholeness.” His life and death and rising brought us into the union of all things—heaven and earth, masculine and feminine, death and life. He asks his early followers and he asks us to live like this is real, to BE the body of Christ. Our hearts and lives have been anointed—Christed. We get to choose to live into and open to this union, to live from our Christed hearts, as Mary did.
Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles because she lived this utterly, fully, dwelling in the Christ heart with Jesus. She embodied the love and life that goes on, after death. She was prepared and initiated and ready to lead and love the early followers of Jesus into being, into Church, into union and communion. But she was sidelined and banished and misaligned immediately and repeatedly. She was sent into exile—literally and in all our Christian imaginations. The Feminine—Divine and human– was forced once again underground.
Still, 2,000+ years later, Roman Catholicism continues to persist in its denial of the sacredness and sovereignty of the feminine. It refuses to receive Her gifts. Even as the hierarchy crumbles, dying under the weight of sex scandals, a failing and aging priesthood and a people fleeing for their lives, it chooses not to reach for what is truly salvific—wholeness, love, the true balance of the masculine and feminine, the Oneness of all things, the life force that moves through everything, the fearlessness of looking death in the face and trusting life will come, even as it all falls apart, real presence, life without end, that total love that is resurrection. For this seemingly impossible task we need the women, fully and fiercely. We need Her, Sophia, the Mother of All Life and Mary, of Magdala. We need the One Christed Heart of Jesus AND Mary. Of imago Christi expressing itself through men AND women.
As Jesus needed Mary Magdalene and all the women who ministered to him, we need the women– to be what we are, to share our wisdom, to serve the people of God, the Church, not just as organizational or structural leaders, but as what we have always been—spiritual and sacramental leaders. Priestesses. Standing in the thresholds, anointing and loving and naming that life comes from death, always. That She is rising—in and as us, alongside our brothers.
I give great thanks to Mary, the Magdala. For her example, her love, and her persistence. You stand tall through time, Tower of Love, and we pray with you now. Sister, we hear you and see you. We feel you, through the years and distance. We need you now. Please be with us, bless us, and ordain us to this much needed path, even if others don’t get it or can’t see. It is time, it is time, it is past time. Help us to love as you do. Be with us in these thresholds and birth resurrection in us. Sanctify us in your love, and in the One heart you share with Jesus. Let us be of service to the people of God, as your heart burns within us. Amen!
Erin Duffy-Burke is a contemporary, Catholic priestess and theAlogian, exploring the feminine expression of the divine and reclaiming the lineage of female spiritual and sacramental leaders within the Christian tradition. You’ll find her presiding on dance floors, at weddings and births, life transitions and in moments of personal transformation. She facilitates the celebration of sacraments in everyday life with organizations and individuals. Find out more about her and read more of her writing at: https://erinduffyburke.com/