The New York Times called it “a conceptual and artistic triumph”; America Magazine weighed in, saying it was “live TV at its best.” And depending upon your tastes, NBC’s live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar on the night of Easter may very well have been those things.
But for many women who have discerned a call to ordained ministry or greater leadership in the Christian community and those who support expanded roles for women in the Church, the production was also a call to action -- an opportunity to correct a centuries-long wrong and reclaim a woman so sorely needed for our times.
“Everything’s [not] alright” with the rock opera’s portrayal of Mary of Magdala. Misinformed by centuries of errant biblical scholarship, ignorance of early Christian history, false artistic renderings, and bad theology, Jesus Christ Superstar becomes a part of that same tradition and delivers a Mary of Magdala that quite simply never existed. Though, remarkably, it also captures a sense of her prominence and faithfulness in the song, “Could We Start Again Please?” which correctly places her on par with Peter.
Mary of Magdala was not the anonymous repentant woman who washed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50); nor was she Mary of Bethany who is scolded by Judas for anointing Jesus (John 12: 1-8). And there is certainly no evidence to suggest that Jesus and Mary were lovers. Rather scripture and early Christian texts reveal Mary of Magdala as a woman of means who supported Jesus’ ministry with her own resources, one of the few disciples who stood by him even as he died on the cross, the first witness and preacher of the Resurrection, and an important leader in the early Christian community.
It wasn’t until 1969 that the Vatican took any step to correct the record. And so, while it may be understandable that Jesus Christ Superstar, first composed around 1970, would have gotten her all wrong, any further misrepresentation of this significant woman of Scripture and history is no longer acceptable. In 2018, good information is too readily available. And today, the stakes are simply too high. Our world, and especially the Christian community – women and men – need the real Mary of Magdala.
As Christian denominations – even the Catholic Church – reflect on the possibility of expanding roles for women, the Mary of Magdala who was a leader among the disciples and who was the first to experience the risen Jesus and commissioned by him to go and preach the Resurrection must be a part, if not the starting point, of the discussion.
As an unprecedented number of women run for political office in the United States, they deserve to draw faith, hope and inspiration from the Mary of Magdala who was at first dismissed by the male apostles when she brought them the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection but nevertheless persisted and became known to her contemporaries as every bit the leader Peter and Paul were.
And as women courageously share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence through the #MeToo movement, we as a Christian community must stand with them: to believe them; to defend their reputation; and to vow that we will never again allow the powerful and influential to abuse or silence them. And may our reclaiming of the true Mary of Magdala be a symbol of our commitment to that Christian call.