As Christians around the world celebrate Easter, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the true meaning of the events that are being commemorated. In this post, I argue that the traditional church version of things largely misses the point that Jesus was making in his ministry and in his life. Fortunately, we have many texts, church sanctioned and otherwise, that we can use to help us understand what Jesus was really trying to teach us. I find the Gospel of Mary as particularly useful in this endeavor.
(Before moving on, I wanted to parenthetically address a notion which is continually raised by people I speak with that Jesus may not have existed, or if he did, he didn't teach anything like what we see in the Bible. To my amazement, the people that raise these objections are often among the most educated and intellegent people I know. So I feel a need to say at the outset that there are thousands of scholars, many of them atheists and/or pure historians with no view one way or another on Jesus, who have built careers studying the texts and history of the early years of the Common Era. Almost without exception, they all conclude that there was a man called Jesus of Nazareth who preached something like what we see in the Gospels. There is a library of books on the subject but a recent one I recommend is called Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. The level of academic support for Jesus not existing/not not being a wisdom teacher is on par with that for evolution not being real, man not being a cause of climate change, and the Holocaust not having happened.)
Who Was Mary Magdalene?
But before we consult such an obscure teacher on the meaning of Easter, we should establish who was this Mary Magdalene (or Mary the Magdala, as it would have been written in Aramaic) anyway? Starting probably with Peter himself (e.g. Mary 10:3-4), Mary was relegated to a lesser role, as a sinner and as someone, mainly because she was female, that was less worthy than the male disciples. By the time Pope Gregory came around in the late 500s CE, her role was
secured as a lowly prostitute.
This is a result that flies in the face of a mountain of evidence suggesting quite the opposite conclusion. For example, Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament—making her the second most mentioned woman, after the Virgin Mary, in the entire work. Why would such an unimportant and lowly woman be so frequently mentioned in the texts that were included in the final New Testament? Keep in mind these are texts that were selected by people who likely thought of her as an unimportant hanger-on to the disciples. And why would she, unlike all the other women in the Bible that I can think of, not be identified as someone’s mother, wife, or sister? These textual facts suggest that she played a far more important role than the church has traditionally ascribed to her.
We can begin our search for the sort of a role she played from her name itself. She is called Mary the Magdala. Why? Most accounts I have read explaining the meaning of the appellation “Magdala” simply assume that she was from a town called Magdala. Yet this may be incorrect. There is some evidence that suggests that the town she was supposedly from, Magdala, didn’t have that name until decades after Jesus died and probably long after she died too. How could she be named for a town that didn’t have that name in the period she travelled with Jesus? And that probably wasn’t so named even when the gospels were written? If that story about the timing of the town Magdala’s naming is accurate, there must be another explanation for her name.
Jesus appears to have given nicknames to several of his disciples. Peter was The Rock, Simon was the black one, Judas the red one—presumably because he had red hair?—James and John were the Sons of Thunder. (If only I were called Zebedee, the name of James and John's father ;-) !). Mary was a common name at the time and was Jesus’ mother’s name. To avoid confusion and given this pattern of nicknames it wouldn’t be surprising if she was given a nickname and if that nickname was more than just the name of place she was from. In the language that Jesus and Mary spoke, Aramaic, Magdala means elegant, great, tower or fortress. What a suggestive nickname!
Could she have been such a wise or great person, such an elegant yet towering personality, to deserve this appellation in spite of the church’s view (until 2016) of her as a prostitute? In the works included by the church fathers in the New Testament there are many suggestive elements. All four canonical gospels, for example, report that Mary is the only disciple present at the cross. They also show her preparing Jesus' body for burial and being present at his tomb. All the other disciples at this point in the story have fled and are hiding or deny that they knew Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark she is featured as the first (and perhaps only?) witness to the "resurrection" (Mark 16:9). You can see that there is a bizarre contrast between her apparent importance based on the reported 'facts' of the history of Jesus' crucifixion, death and resurrection and how she is remembered in the abstract by the very church that included the stories with these facts. It is hard not to point to a sexist or at least jealous motive.
Beyond these reports from the canonical Gospels of who was where around Jesus' death, there are several examples in Gospels that didn't make the final edit of the Christian Bible that are very telling about Mary's role and level of accomplishment. In the Gospel of Philip (63:34-64:5), to take one example, Jesus is asked why he prefers Mary to all the other disciples. In answering, he compares the other disciples to a blind person and Mary to the one who can see the light. “If a blind person and one who can see are both in darkness, they are the same. When the light comes, one who can see will see the light, and the blind person will stay in darkness.” Jesus is clearly (and somewhat sharply) saying that Mary may appear like the other disciples in outward form but she is different; she is an illuminated or enlightened one. She is different, like a tower (magdala) she stands tall above the others.
It is significant that so many different texts point to the same idea of Mary as an advanced spiritual master. In the study of history, when we lack systematic or objective records, the best we can do is look for patterns that indicate the truth of the day. One way historians do this is to check if we see the same information presented in different texts by different authors, with different view points, at different times and geographies. In looking at the four Gospels included in the New Testament (by the sexist Church fathers who thought of her at best as irrelevant and at worst as no more than a prostitute) as well as apocryphal ones like Philip, we have seen the consistent message of Mary’s unique stature. As a result we can say with some degree of historical certainty that Mary was indeed a “great” master or a “tower” of a person.
What Mary Taught
So what did this great master teach? What was the level of her understanding? I go through this in more detail in my other blog post on Mary but I want to focus here on two elements of Jesus’ message that Mary understood very clearly and unfortunately the church completely missed. And I think they represent the true meaning of the Easter celebration.
The first misunderstanding is Heaven’s location. Typically with Christians you see either a vertical (up in the sky) locale for heaven or a horizontal in time (in the future) conception. Or both. According to a Pew survey, 40% of American’s believe Jesus is going to return before 2050 so this 'horizontal in time' idea of the Second Coming of Jesus is no joke. In contrast to this widely held belief, Mary has a different view. In her Gospel (assuming it represents her understanding), she teaches us that the Kingdom is not some place in the sky we go when we die or that is going to come when Jesus returns. Jesus has already returned (through his resurrection), and the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. Mary tells us that ‘his grace is with us all and shelters us’ (Mary 5:6) and that the peace of heaven is here for us to acquire any time we choose (Mary 3:14). So Easter, unlike what we might hear in a typical Christian sermon, is not a time to celebrate Jesus dying for our sins and going to sit up in Heaven at God’s right hand until it is time for a Second Coming. It is a time to celebrate and remember that he has ALREADY returned and that we are ALREADY 'saved'. It is a time to celebrate his death and resurrection as a reminder of our own very real and present connection to him, to God, to the Kingdom of Heaven or whatever you want to call it.
The second misunderstanding of the meaning of Easter is related to the first and we can call it the confusion around the nature of what “sin” really is. I wrote in an Easter post last year about sin (harmatia) meaning ‘missing the mark” so you can read more there. Here I want to explore a different element of the meaning of sin, taking the view from Mary’s Gospel. Before I started looking into what “sin” really means, I should say that I always thought it meant doing something bad or breaking a commandment. In Mary, we are told a view that kind of blew my mind: Jesus tells us “sin as such does not exist.” (Mary 3:3) Instead, he explains that we sin by believing that this body and physical world is who we are and what we are. He tells us “we are more than our bodies” and that “we exist in and with each other.” (Mary 2:2). To use the trite New Age phrase, he is saying that 'we are all one.' If you really stop to think about what this means, it is quite a radical statement. My body and your body are one? My skin and the air, the sun, every plant and rock and planet are all one 'existing' or living being? Seems crazy. Yet if we take it seriously we find that it unlocks so much of Jesus’ teaching and in fact so much of what is involved in achieving what the Buddhists called “Enlightenment” or “Nirvana.”
Most people who don’t believe in God or don’t think Enlightenment is a thing, point to all the suffering and oppression and evil and tragedy in the world, especially the suffering of innocents. They ask what more proof does anyone need that “God” doesn’t exist. And they might also point to all the good things in life that we have or could have and ask why anyone would want to be Enlightened and detach from all that. I have written elsewhere on the misunderstanding around non-attachment and the fleeting nature of ‘the good stuff in life.' But for our purposes here the important point is how grasping for the good stuff when we don’t have it or clinging to it when we do just leads to more suffering. So, good or bad, the suffering in the end is still going to arise.
According to Mary, Jesus is saying that all suffering and tragedy aren’t actually anything we should be afraid of or worried about. And we certainly are missing the point by using their 'existence' as proof that there is no 'God.' Suffering and the like arise as a natural consequence of the “sin” of assigning reality to something that isn’t real. The needs and desires and resistances of the body are fleeting and faulty. If we anchor our identity in the body/mind, we are attaching our sense of self to something which is always changing and rarely right in interpreting what is happening in reality. The analogies by masters that are often given for this state of believing we are our bodily self and that the world of form is real are that it is like being someone asleep or drunk or walking dead (as a zombie) and believing the dream or the distorted world we would perceive in that state is true. When we do that, then suffering, passion, and confusion will be our experience. These are the products of matter or the phenomenal world. This is what matter does. It changes. Even stars have a birth, an old age and a death. We can assign a moral judgement to a human life and when it is cut short by some random sickness or senseless act of violence and call that bad. But how is that any different than a black hole swallowing a star before it has lived its life or an asteroid hitting the earth and wiping all life out? In the scheme of all matter in the universe and all time (let alone the realms beyond all matter and form), how is that good or bad in itself? Where is the 'sin'? Those terms only have meaning in the mind of a human being. And that mind is imagining the world where all these good and bad things are happening.
This is the same essential teaching of the Buddha. Except instead of saying 'we are all one' and 'sin does not exist and you make sin when you consort with that which is not your true nature' (as Jesus does, to paraphrase, in the Gospel of Mary), the Buddha talks about 'non-being' or the phenomenal world where we think we have a personality or an ego as being an illusion that stops us from seeing the true nature of reality. For example, we read in the classic Buddhist text The Diamond Sutra:
"... if anyone listens to this discourse in faith with a pure, lucid mind, he will thereupon conceive an idea of fundamental reality... Because they will be free from the idea of an ego entity, free from the idea of a personality, free from the idea of a being, and free from the idea of a separated individuality. And why? Because the distinguishing of an ego entity is erroneous. Likewise the distinguishing of a personality, or a being, or a separated individuality is erroneous. Consequently those who have left behind every phenomenal distinction are called buddhas all." (Diamond Sutra, Chapter 14)
Jesus, in the Gospel of Mary, explains that this confusion around the true nature of reality is what leads to sickness and death. He says “There is no such thing as sin; rather you yourselves are what produces sin when you act in accordance with the nature of adultery” (Mary 3:3) and consort with your mistress (i.e. your body/mind). And when you 'cheat' on your true self (i.e. are adulterous) by believing you are just your body/mind, “This is why you get sick and die; because you love what deceives you.” (Mary 3:7-8).
Just as the Buddha said, Jesus is saying that the world of matter and phenomenon is an illusion that deceives us. It is like a mistress we are adulterous with. If we love this illusion so completely that we are wholly absorbed into the fantasy of the physical or phenomenal world, then sickness and death will be our experience. Sickness and death are just names that we give to things that happen in the dream we call reality. Those experiences are painful in our mind and body and so we assign a value judgement to them: bad. According to Mary, “the Good [i.e. Jesus or God, or his Good News] came among” us (Mary 3:5) to establish this truth about who we really are. In the Gospel it is written that the Good sets us within our “root.” (Mary 3:6). From the context, by “root” Jesus means our true nature as spiritual beings separate from our body/mind. So Jesus (or his message/the "Good") came among us to show us that no matter how bad things get (his Passion and Crucifixion are about as bad as it gets), it still doesn’t change the fact of our inherent freedom and peace and oneness with the divine and perfect.
So that is the Easter message I think we should be discussing. The freedom that comes from understanding the true nature of heaven and sin is what we should be celebrating. Forget this idea that Jesus died for our sins so we could go to heaven. And forget this idea that “sin” is “bad” or something that you’ll get in trouble for. Celebrate Easter as Buddha or Mary Magdalene would have us celebrate it: by remembering who we really are and, as Jesus puts it “Acquire my peace within yourselves.” (Mary 4:2)