Who are the two most important women in the early Christian church? This was a question asked of me recently in a dream by two gentlemen.
In the dream, I found myself resting in my home. Suddenly two men that I know and respect appeared at my side. They are not individuals that I think of very often, although I always enjoy my association with them (infrequent as it is). They are both very religious and faithful men, but in different ways.
The first has been an important leader in the Mormon Church and continues to serve in varying capacities whenever he is asked. He is very kind and dedicated in his service and has also experienced personal tragedies in his life that have softened him and made him a very caring man.
The second individual is quiet and is often misunderstood. He can also be driven in unique and impractical ways. Some people see these tendencies as personal failings. He endures these misunderstandings in quiet without complaint. He is a loving father and has the complete faith of a child. This faith informs much of his life.
As I thought upon the question they posed to me, I wondered if the symbolism of the dream implied that their own characteristics supplied the answer. Did the two most important women of the early Christian Church have the same qualities that they had? If so, I see an answer that looks like a combination of Mary and Martha – as recorded in the 10th Chapter of Luke. Both are dedicated and full of faith. One of them (and represented by both men in my dream) is deeply spiritual.
The more I thought it over, however, the more I came to believe that the answer lies not with the men themselves, but with their wives. In fact it is interesting to me that the question would come from individuals that seem to be a rather odd (even random) combination of my own acquaintances. But who, when looked at more closely, demonstrate certain qualities in a very strong way. This is particularly true of their wives. In fact, of all the people I know, these two women may be the strongest examples of certain important traits.
The wife of the first man is a kind woman who is also a very dedicated woman. It is very important to her that she be doing the right thing. She is always trying to help others. She comes from a successful family of faith and is well enough off – though never extravagant. She has shared some very tragic events with her husband but has risen above them to become a soft and caring individual.
The wife of the second man is a very different sort of woman. She grew up in a strictly religious environment that imprinted upon her the need for dutiful service. She tends to feel that she is never doing all that she should and is often very hard on herself. She is a talented lady and has had to shoulder much of the responsibilities of supporting her family. Because of the immense responsibilities of her life, she has made mistakes – some of them have been significant. These mistakes have broken her and left her almost without hope. In her moments of despair, she has turned to God and found His grace. And it has been this grace that she has held onto with everything she has. It has literally saved her life. It has given her the strength to overcome her weakness and become a great source of strength to others. Out of this renewal has come an advanced degree and more service. She has gained a profound understanding of the healing power of Christ’s atonement but has never forgotten how vulnerable she is and how incapable without His help.
If these women are the symbols that provide the answer to the question posed in my dream, then I come again to Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke. The aspect of dutiful faith – as represented by both Martha and Mary – is obvious enough in both of these women’s lives. The aspect of sin and dependency on Christ is less obvious.
What surprises me about these two choices is that they don’t include Mary, the mother of Jesus. In any account of important Christian women (early or late) Mary must be at the top of the list. Why, in my dream, is it not apparent that she is one of the two? My only answer is that she is to be held apart. She is someone to be revered, but not necessarily someone that we should pattern our lives after. Besides her unique blessing from God, Christian tradition informs us of her early determination to dedicate her life to God without marriage. Clearly Mary is unique among women but I don’t think she was ever meant to be emulated, except perhaps in the focus of her faith. Christ’s commandment to follow Him was meant for all of us – men and women alike. Mary is to be appreciated in a different way.
It is likely that the greatest women of the early church are meant to be types (as dream symbols often are) for all women. And Mary and Martha clearly meet this criterion. I realize that I am making an assumption by accepting the traditional view that this Mary (Mary of Bethany) is the same person as Mary the sinner and Mary Magdalen. Susan Haskins has made a compelling argument that they are, in fact, all different individuals.
The traditional view argues from the different acts of Mary anointing Jesus and from the statement by Pope Gregory the Great (at the end of the sixth century) that these women all represent the same person (Haskins, p. 16). In fact both arguments are credible and plausible – as is the possibility that only some conflation has occurred, that maybe two women are involved. Either way, I am arguing that the symbol of the sinful and repentant Mary Magdalen is the correct interpretation of my dream.
I think this is important at a deeper level as well. The traditional Mary Magdalen, the woman from whom Christ is known to have cast out seven devils (Mark 16:9), and the woman who presumably was taken in adultery and then repented, would be the right person to be a witness of Christ. Every one of us must come to the realization of our own sinfulness before God. Unless we do so, we cannot be saved.
In the (sometimes) unpopular and (often) conveniently forgotten parable of the Pharisee and the publican (in Luke 18), it is the sinful publican that has the faith to be saved and not the self-righteous Pharisee that lives the letter of his faith. It is the sinful publican that can’t even lift his eyes to heaven but pleads with God to “be merciful to me a sinner” that does have this sufficient saving faith.
Where do we see this humble pleading before God today? Where do we see the brutal self-awareness of our own failings? Clearly not from the popular advocates of our day. I do not deny that social change is necessary, nor am I suggesting that we throw away the many positive social gains that we have made in recent generations.
I am arguing that the real feminine examples for us now (for all of us) are timeless – and that they are typified in the early Christian church by the remarkable lives of Mary and Martha. We would do well to seriously consider their examples.
For a fascinating account of the conflation of the gospel women see Susan Haskins’s book Mary Magdalen, Myth and Metaphor, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.