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Mary Magdalene: A Decoder For The Movie & The Gospel


See Saw Films recently released a new movie, “Mary Magdalene,” about a disciple of Jesus who has been largely underestimated by history. It tells the story of Mary Magdalene from just before she meets Jesus, through his death and “resurrection.” The movie delivers an authentic, engrossing and deft view into one of the most significant stories of all time. Normally a line ending in “of all time” would be an obvious overstatement, but the life and teachings of Jesus I think lives up to that hyperbole. In addition to being a well-known story, the topic happens to be a controversial one. To make a film about a story with such an intensely spiritual theme whose meaning has been debated for so many hundreds of years is a risky proposition, to say the least. The genius of the film is that it manages to remain true to both the history of Mary herself and the teachings that she represents without becoming preachy or sectarian. And it manages to do this while providing an engrossing, dramatic and beautiful cinematic experience for the viewer.

I do worry that much of the subtlety will be lost on the mass audiences that Hollywood often caters for with its special effects laden tales told with comic book simplicity. And I worry that critics will miss the nuance and power of the film's all-important spiritual dimension. It might find an audience among Christians or other 'people of the Book.' Having said that, hopefully its bold calling out of the Christian doctrine for missing the point of Jesus’ message won’t also box the film out of its natural audience among the followers of Christ and other faithful types around the world. It is a hazardous move to make a movie like this and in this way. After spending quite some time with the film, I can say that we should all be grateful that the film makers took that risk.

Before getting into the substance of the movie and Gospel itself, something should be said about the moment the film happens to have been released in. Given the central role Mary played in the story of Jesus, and the history of the male patriarchy of the church in writing this role out of history, the film also makes a timely contribution to the #metoo reckoning, so perhaps it will find its footing there.

But its social impact extends beyond the #metoo movement. It reminds us that Mary is not some random sinner that Jesus had to exorcise demons from, nor is she a prostitute (as the Catholic church had us believe until 2016). Instead, it demonstrates the relative ignorance, myopia, selfishness and sexism of the male disciples and helps re-establish Mary in her rightful place as by far the most advanced of Jesus’ disciples. It provides a fresh and accessible look at her core teachings and reminds us all that she belongs to the elite pantheon of enlightened masters.

Rather than a typical review (there are more than enough film critics in the world), I am going to provide some commentary on the actual Gospel of Mary and examine how the film compares with what I understand to be the central themes of her Gospel. Hopefully

this will be of use to movie-goers who don’t want to read the Gospel itself and who wonder what it is about. Or, for those who have read it, perhaps my comments will help decipher its riddle-like contents and shed some light on how the movie can provide not just an entertaining 2 hours, but also an inspiring guide to the most important questions in life like why are we are here, who are we really, how to live a happy life, what happens when we die, and what the purpose of a human life is.

The Gospel of Mary answers these questions and the film stays true to these answers. The Gospel itself is a complex and abstract piece of work and the spiritual messages encoded within it do not lend themselves to easy one liners or, actually, to intellectual understanding at all. Making the comprehension of the Gospel’s meaning even more difficult, what has survived into our time are only fragments of the original text (the most complete version we have is still missing six manuscript pages at the beginning and four pages in the middle).

So how are we to the decode the Gospel and the film? There have been books written on the content and history of this Gospel, so I don’t intend to compete with those in the limited space I have here. Rather, I will explain five takeaways that I have understood to be the main messages of the Gospel and as I go along I will assess the film against those messages. I am assuming it wasn’t the film’s intention to capture the full meaning of the Gospel or portray Mary in a complete and historical light (thank goodness, otherwise we’d be watching a boring theological or historical documentary). Nevertheless, I believe it will be helpful to make the comparison so that people who would like to use Mary to aid in their own path of spiritual development or self-mastery can assess how what they are seeing on the screen relates to the original material.

My five takeaways from the Gospel (along with the key quote from the Gospel), in summary, are:

1. Mary is an enlightened master (a “True Human”)

2. We are all one (we are “in and with each other”)

3. There is no such thing as sin (“you create sin”)

4. Heaven/God/Jesus is within each of us right now (“his grace will be with you all”)

5. The ascent of the soul (“desire is gone; ignorance is dead”)

1. Mary is an enlightened master (a “True Human”)

The first take away, which I draw from the writings that survive describing this time period (not just the Gospel of Mary), is that Mary was widely acknowledged to be a fully awakened master. Despite the efforts of some of her peers and many in the later church to belittle her or even cast her as a prostitute, there are several places in the early Christian texts where we see signs of her importance to Jesus and of her advanced state of spiritual development. In keeping with this evidence, one of the best parts of the movie is how it portrays Mary's journey from an intuitive, spiritually intense person to a state of illumination where she can maintain her lightness and joy even in the face of the extreme events at the end of Jesus' life.

On what basis can we conclude that Mary is such an advanced disciple? We have only the records that survive to work from so let's see what they say. In the Gospel of Philip (63:34-64:5), for 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 saying in no uncertain terms that Mary may appear like the other disciples in form but she is different; she is an illuminated or enlightened one.

In the Gospel of Thomas (114:1-3) Jesus uses a metaphor to symbolize her worthiness and passage into the Kingdom of Heaven/enlightened state of being. (It is a strange and seemingly sexist metaphor to the modern ear about women becoming male but if you delve beyond the simplistic interpretation and take it in the context that it was given in, you can see that it is really about her journey to becoming a complete or fully realized human being).

In the canonical Gospels, especially John, she is featured not only as one of the very few people (and the only disciple) to bear witness to his crucifixion and death (and was the first one listed, perhaps suggesting a unique place), but also as being among the three who prepared his body for death. According to the traditional story, she was also the first witness to Jesus’ spirit-self after his body had died (Mark 16:9). These elements in the 'historical' record suggest Mary’s place of importance and are reflected in the film as well.

It is significant that so many different texts point to the same idea of Mary as a “true human being,” to use the expression from the Gospel of Mary (5:8). Finding the same message conveyed by different texts with different authors, different provenances, and different times and places of composition is one of the key ways that historians assess the likelihood that a particular element in an ancient text has a solid basis in historical fact. So that is why we can say with some conviction that Mary was indeed an enlightened master. (As an aside, this is not to say she had advanced to the same level of self-mastery as Jesus. There is a stage beyond even enlightenment which we might call truly and fully liberated, which is where the most advanced humans like Jesus and Buddha have reached.)

What does mastery look like and why can we apply it to Mary? A master understands that humans lack nothing themselves. Based on the teachings in her Gospel, we can infer that Mary is at the level where she has “put on perfect humanity and acquire[d]” this perfection (Mary 10:11). In other words, she realizes that she is self-sustaining, self-sufficient, self-maintaining, and self-existing. Her insights into Jesus’ teachings would suggest that she has this awareness of the Kingdom within each of us. With that comes the understanding that everything except God (and by extension our true selves) is illusory, dynamic, moving and changing and that each of us is simply an expression of the universal oneness he calls God. That Mary understands this is implied when Jesus says to her “‘Blessings on you, since you did not waver at the sight of me.’” (Mary 7:3) Her stability in the face of a reincarnated Jesus demonstrated her grounding in a true understanding of the nature of the world. The importance of stability or not wavering can also be seen when the soul (Jesus, presumably) speaks to her in her vision, saying “From now on I shall rest, through the course of the time of the age, in silence.’” (Mary 9:29) After these words, the text notes, significantly, that Mary herself falls silent (Mary 9:30), indicating that she too is at a similar state of peace and aware of her inherent freedom and perfection and stillness and understands that the language of this level is silence.

A primary arc of the film demonstrates the mastery that Mary achieves in a measured unfolding of her realization of the truth. It shows the journey of Mary that begins with her as a highly intuitive and spiritually gifted young woman trapped in the patriarchal domain of her time and place. And by the end of the movie, we see how she has become Jesus’ confidante and the one person among the apostles that understands the true meaning and import of Jesus’ good news. (In the Gospel versions, Levi is quoted as saying that Jesus “made her worthy” and both the Gospel of Mary and Phillip say that Jesus “has loved her” more than any of the other disciples (Mary 10:9-10, Phillip 62)). We see Mary’s enlightenment shine through in the powerful performance by Rooney Mara when she tells of her vision of the “resurrected” Jesus. “The kingdom is not something we can see with our eyes,” she says in the film. “It’s here, now, in all of us.”

This is a powerful and significant scene in the film. We see Mary as an enlightened being nevertheless being rejected by the rest of the apostles. Yet she maintains her joy and lightness and grounding in the truth. And she touches on one of the most important teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Mary. When she says the Kingdom is “here, now, in all of us,” she articulates perhaps the central point of the Gospel, articulating the nature of our existence and the purpose of life. Which brings us to the second key message.

2. We are all one (we are all “in and with each other”)

Perhaps the central message of the Gospel of Mary is that the Kingdom is here within us, and it is the same within all of us. But the message doesn’t stop there. The Gospel of Mary takes this point to an even more astonishing and radical level. Since we all share in this same spiritual core, all of us, all form, all matter, everything in the phenomenal world that we perceive with our senses, is one and the same. And not in some abstract or elemental sense. We’re talking here about being one in a living, experientially knowable sense.

The way Jesus puts it in the Gospel of Mary is that “All natures, all formed things, all creatures exist in and with each other, and they will dissolve into their own root,” (Mary 2:2). With that statement, Jesus is implying that this thing we call reality is a trick of our brains. All of us go through our lives subject to the illusion that we are a separate and distinct entity and everything around us can be similarly categorized. We look down at our bodies and they look separate from the chair we are sitting on or the book or phone we are holding or the person we are sitting beside. But Jesus is saying this is not true. Instead, we can think of the truth of our ‘selves’ in relation to everything else like an ocean. Each of us is like a unique tip of a wave on a windy day. We arise in our unique manifestation, persist for some indeterminate amount of time, and then, like that whitecap when the wind dies down or changes direction, we recede back into the ‘ocean.’ Every person and every thing in the world of form is “in and with each other.”

This is a central element of the good news Jesus was intent on teaching us. He says “the good came among you, to those of every nature, in order to restore every nature to its root” (Mary: 5). Jesus, or his message if you like (aka “the good”), is here to restore us to our “root,” or our true spiritual nature. At our root, our core, we aren’t the physical husk of a body and brain we think we are. He explains that the reason we grow old, get sick and die is because of this confusion we hold in our minds about our true nature. The problem is that “you love what deceives you,” (Mary 3:8) that is, our bodies and the things or forms of the world of matter and phenomena. He has come to remind us of who we really are and help us stop ‘loving’ the ‘deception’ that our body/brain is who we really are. Instead, he teaches that we are all one (“we exist in and with each other”) and that we are timeless (we are not that which ‘gets sick and dies’).

We now know scientifically that this oneness claim about our bodies is true at the level of atoms and molecules. We all are made from stardust. We wouldn’t exist if the atoms in our bodies weren’t forged in atomic furnaces at the core of stars billions of years ago and if those stars hadn’t exploded and sent their matter throughout the universe. And where does the matter in our bodies come from in a more proximate sense? The food and nutrients we consume which in turn come from the nutrients those plants and animals consumed in the circle of life and death. So “we exist in and with each other” in the sense that we have the same constituents and those elements cycle back and forth throughout living things as time unfolds. And we also know from science that the atoms and molecules in our bodies turn over constantly, yet who we are remains the same in some sense. This is like the story of grandpa’s axe, where the handle wore down, so it was replaced and then same thing with the blade—is it still the same axe? The border or distinction between the edge of our bodies (in space and time) is not so distinct as we perceive it to be. I have read that our skin changes over 100% of its cells every month, all the cells in our liver are replaced every six weeks, and that the lining of our stomach lasts only five days before it’s replaced.

But what Jesus is talking about actually goes further than this. It isn’t just that we share the elements of prior carbon-based life forms and the elements that emerged from stars long, long ago, though this is part of it. And it isn’t that all of those stars were composed of elements which originated as an infinitesimally tiny seed of matter in the big bang, though this is also part of it. MIT professor Alan Guth’s widely accepted theory of cosmic inflation shows how all the matter in the universe today probably emerged from an initial seed weighing in at about an ounce and having an unimaginably small diameter: we’re talking about a diameter on the order of a trillion trillionth of a meter, or about a billion times smaller than a proton. [1]

No, Jesus is talking about something way more breathtaking and difficult to comprehend than the fact (apparently) that we emerged from this tiny, tiny grain (which itself probably emerged from nothing, but that is another story). According to Jesus in the Gospel of Mary, the notion of us as an individual, separate being or entity that is born as a body, lives a ‘life’ and then dies is mistaken. It is an illusion that we are deceived by. At our ‘root,’ we are a spiritual being that is timelessly connected to every other being in a way that we can experience right now. This is a foundational concept in the Gospel of Mary, stated in the first few lines of the Gospel. And it underlies much of what is to come in the verses that follow.

This is a difficult concept to convey in a film. How do you share such an unusual concept in a film without coming off as preachy or trite or unrealistic? Yet the film manages to express this concept subtly, allowing the viewer to come to an understanding of this truth through the building tension between Mary and the disciples over their misunderstanding of what Jesus actually means by the Kingdom. The disciples expect Jesus will become the ruler of a new political Kingdom free from Roman rule. But Jesus never says anything about this kind of revolution in the film (or in the Gospel). Mary recognizes this when she says, in the film, “I didn’t know we were going to be soldiers.” And then goes on to say “The prophets speak of peace. A Prince of Peace.” And later, after Jesus’ body has died and Mary has become awakened, she answers Thomas’ doubts about there being plan for a new Jewish Kingdom. She says to Thomas, “What plan? That the people would rise? That he would be crowned king? Did he ever say that to you?” The apostles tacitly acknowledge that he didn’t.

We see this conflict emerge as well, earlier in the film, when Peter says “Tomorrow we will begin” the violent uprising to trigger the “Kingdom” they believe Jesus is talking about. In response, Mary asks “Did he say” that they were supposed to do this? Peter ignores the question, making it clear that Jesus has not said anything of the kind.

The ‘Kingdom’ that Jesus is speaking of is the true ‘root’ of our nature, or our spiritual, timeless and all-connected self. And this oneness extends not just to each other but to God. This teaching is dramatically illustrated in the film’s climax when Judas betrays Jesus, realizes his misunderstanding and then hangs himself in remorse, tragically demonstrating that he carried his misunderstanding of the nature of the Kingdom to his grave.

We see this truth again in movie when Mary shares the vision she has after Jesus’s death. “I saw him as the sun rose. His eyes… all his pain was gone… He’s not gone, even death cannot hold him. We are more than our bodies."

3. There is no such thing as sin (“you create sin”)

One consequence of this idea that “we are more than our bodies” and that “we exist in and with each other” that the Mary \Gospel explores is what the implications are for tragedy or illness or sin in our lives. One of the most common reasons people will give for not believing in God is the presence of apparently needless suffering, especially by innocent people. The film dramatizes this very point when Peter responds to Mary telling the disciples after Jesus’ death that the Kingdom is right here within all of us right now. He says, “You’re telling us that God’s kingdom is here, but outside this door there is no new world, no end to oppression, no justice for our people – for the poor, for the suffering!”

So what does Jesus have to say on this point in the Gospel of Mary? First we need to understand what Jesus means by sin or ‘harmatia’ (see my other blog post on sin and repentence). Throughout the Gospels in the New Testament and the non-canonical Gospels as well, when Jesus spoke of ‘sin’ he was referring not just to individual wrongdoing but the suffering and oppression and sickness and evil and tragedy in all of life. We need to keep this definition of sin in mind when we read in the Gospel of Mary Peter asking Jesus about sin (Mary 3:3-14). Jesus responds to Peter’s question in this passage with the shocking and counter-intuitive response that “There is no such thing as sin,” (Mary 3:3) and goes on to explain what he means.

He says, in essence that we have the choice to identify with our true self or nature (i.e. that we are fundamentally and truly spiritual beings who are timeless and one with God and everything else) or believe that we are just our illusory material form. When we “mingle as in adultery” (Mary 3:4) and consort with our material self, we create sin. Matter or form is not heavenly, not real, not true. Your true self, what he calls Life and Mind and the Kingdom, are real. Matter in all of its manifestations (our body, the air we breathe, suffering, whatever) is devoid of Life and Mind. When we love or identify with our bodily self and the world of form (aka our mistress) then suffering, passion, and confusion (aka 'sin') will be our experience. These are the products of matter. (This, by the way, is the same lesson as Buddha’s teachings of non-attachment and the way to end suffering--see my post on the Four Noble Truths, for example).

Jesus continues in this vein when he says, again with a breathtakingly audacious claim, that “This is why we get sick and die.” (Mary 3:7). He is saying that when we are trapped in a complete absorption into this bodily self and we believe that the world of form and phenomenon is all there is, then we will get sick, grow old and die right along with our bodies. That is what bodies do. If that is who we believe ourselves to be, then we will suffer the same fate.

In Buddhism and Hinduism, there is this idea that we could call ‘stablizing the mind’ or ‘stabilizing the nature of mind.’ It is suggested in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (e.g. Chapter

6:34-47 and also see this site) and the Buddhist texts, especially in the Tibetan tradition, that the purpose of life is to learn this difference between the real world and the world of the senses. Once we can tell the difference, we have to tune out the distractions from the senses and our body and our thoughts and to learn to ‘stabilize the mind’ on the real deal. If we can learn to be still enough during our human body’s lifespan to recognize ‘the nature of mind’ or what our true self is and what it is like we have taken the first step. Next, we have to become so familiar and so identified with our true self that we are able to stabilize our sense of self or identity on this conception of who we are.

If we can do that, then when we die and are faced with the horrors and overwhelmingly frightening and unfamiliar assault of the post-death experience, we rest easy in who we really are and won’t be traumatically blasted through this hellish experience into our next reincarnated self, subject to the irresistible winds of Karma for yet another lifetime of suffering. [2]

This is the same essential teaching that we find in the Gospel of Mary. We are not our bodies. We are nothing to do with form or the phenomenal world at all. The best we can do is to say we are Light. And we find this same teaching in the film in the beautifully acted scene where Jesus is having an intimate conversation with Mary shortly after she first joins the disciples.

Mary is telling Jesus about how she would float under the waters of the Sea of Galilee. “I loved it down there. It was like I was the water – pure water – I didn’t need the earth, I didn’t need my body. And then I would rise up, into the light… Is that what it feels like – to be one with God?” And Jesus answers as best he can, affirming her experience of how delicate and non-material this experience of oneness is by saying “As a child, He held me so lightly… I hardly knew He was there…” Mary goes on to ask him what it is like now. He answers, indicating just how completely he is identified with his true or spiritual self, saying “Now, sometimes, it’s as if I’m not here at all.”

After Mary has ‘stabilized the nature of mind,’ after she has translated her intuition from childhood about what it feels like to be one with God into the stable knowing of an enlightened master, she is able to speak this truth about the absence of suffering in a simple but powerful statement: “We only have to let go of our anguish and resentment… and we become free…” Suffering or anguish or resentment (just other names for ‘sin’) isn’t real. Or they are only real to the extent that our beliefs allow them to be present as a truth in the dream that we call reality.

4. Heaven/God/Jesus is within each of us right now (“his grace will be with you all”)

Unfortunately, as both the movie and the Gospel itself suggest, coming to a stable and continuous sense of who we really are (i.e. one with the all and free from suffering/sin) is an incredibly difficult and elusive endeavor. But there is good news here. Fortunately, Mary’s Gospel tells us, we have a guide along this journey of self-discovery or remembrance. Jesus says that even after he is gone from the earth, “the Son of Man” (Mary 4:5) is still within each of us. Rather than following some human’s rules (for example the dictates of a church or patriarch), we should turn to our inner self where we will find Jesus’ voice and his truth.

According to Levi in the Gospel of Mary, Jesus had commanded the disciples not to be “laying down any rules or making laws,” but rather to preach “the good news” (Mary 10:12-13) of who we really are. On this topic of the inner truth or the ‘Jesus knowledge’ within each of us, Jesus tells us in the Gospel that “Those who search for it will find it,” and we should “Follow it” (Mary 4:6-7).

In case we missed it in these passages, Mary again explains to the other disciples this idea that the truth of Jesus is accessible within all of us anytime by saying that “his grace will be with you all and will shelter you” (Mary 5:6). Mary’s Gospel explains that peace and happiness and fulfilment that the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus himself represents is part of each one of us right now. We need only look, and we will find it. It is simply a matter of choosing to access or acquire what already belongs to us.

This is a revolutionary doctrine and dramatically different from the monopoly on the salvation of the soul that the church fathers, starting with Peter himself, promulgated. It is much closer to the teachings of ultra-masters like Krishna and Buddha and Lao Tzu and Hermes Trismegestus. In the context of modern Christianity, the Gospel of Mary, and by extension this film, really is astonishing and radical in this respect. To use an old word, we might call it heretical. It rejects the misconception that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. His passion and crucifixion were not paving the way for our personal salvation. Keep in mind that this sort of characterization of Jesus’ teaching was deemed to have been so radical and dangerous that it got more than one enlightened master persecuted and even tortured or killed by church authorities (for example Joan of Arc, Jacob Boehme, Meister Eckardt, and St. John of the Cross)

And as if reversing possibly THE central tenant of Christianity weren’t radical enough, Mary’s Gospel goes on to explain that Jesus’ message is that the church does not have authority over Jesus’ message and each person’s access to heaven. Jesus makes it absolutely clear in Mary, saying “’Acquire my peace within yourselves! Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying, ‘Look over here’ or ‘Look over there.’” (Mary 4:2-4) And Levi continues in this vein at the end of the Gospel, saying, “we should … put on perfect humanity and … as he commanded us, and preach the good news, not making any rule or law other than what the savior indicated.” (Mary 10)

The movie does a masterful job of capturing this tension between the emerging ‘truth’ as taught by the Christian church as compared with Jesus’ teaching about personal salvation and the truth of who we really are or the light within us. We see this portrayed in the film in the conversation Mary has with Peter after Jesus’ body dies. Mary explains that Jesus “gathered us – for what is inside,” not for some new Kingdom in the sense of a political event or institution. Peter responds, completely missing Jesus' point, “She sets herself above us. Every man in this room will be the rock – the church – upon which our Rabbi can one day found his glorious new world. We will have one purpose – one message.” In response, Mary avers: “Your message.”

No, Mary tells us in the film, Jesus’ message is different. “All this time we’ve been looking for a change in the world, but it’s not what we thought, the kingdom is here now.”

5. The ascent of the soul (“my desire is gone; ignorance is dead”)

In the longest and most esoteric section of the Gospel, Mary reveals to the other disciples what Jesus shared with her in a vision she had after his passing. Many things were revealed to her in this vision and I don’t plan on dissecting the riddles in any kind of a complete fashion. But, bearing in mind what we have already uncovered, there is one part that I want to unpack. In her vision she again returns to this idea that this world of matter that we think is real needs to be transcended if we are to realize true happiness and peace.

In Mary’s vision, the soul has a conversation with the powers of the material realm. The dialog is told in a highly symbolic and abstract language, and we pick it up in the middle thanks to the partial manuscript, so it is difficult to follow. Nevertheless, in this section is revealed a profound truth. We see that when we are under the sway of the powers belonging to our lower self and the world of form or matter, we can’t see this other realm that Jesus and Mary are discussing; we can’t see the truth of our oneness with each other and the all right here and now; we can’t see the light and perfection of our true selves. Indeed, we will either simply not understand what it is they are saying, or we will insist that the invisible realm of heaven must be a lie, or at best some place we go after we die or that comes when Jesus returns for real. But, and here is the key part, we can break free from “the chain of forgetfulness which exists in time” (Mary 9:28) through stillness. Jesus, in the vision, tells Mary that “’What binds me has been slain, and what surrounds me has been destroyed, and my desire has been brought to an end, and ignorance has died.” (Mary 9:27). Through this stillness and silence, the husk we call our body can be “slain” and the world we perceive around the body can be “destroyed.” Hence, we each have the power to become a “human-killer” and a “space-conqueror” (Mary 9:26).

What happens when we “kill” our deception and “conquer” the illusion of space and time? In the surviving pages of Mary, we aren’t told what heaven is really like. But we can infer it from the discussion in her vision that has survived. We can look at these features she delineates of the powers of the phenomenal or material world of form that we perceive with our senses that she goes through in her vision. For example, she says “The first form is darkness, the second, desire, the third, ignorance,” then anger and finally death (Mary 9:18-20). So, in contrast to these features, we could infer that this ‘upper’ world or the Kingdom of Heaven is characterized above all by light (as opposed to darkness), but also by peace and fulfilment (as compared to “desire”), wisdom and clarity (vs. “ignorance”), love and compassion (vs. “wrath”), and true, everlasting life (vs. “death”). Jesus’, and Mary’s, message is that this is our true nature and it exists with us right now. Light, peace, wisdom, love, and life.

This is a testament to the powers that come when you “enter the Kingdom” and realize who you really are. In this world of matter that we experience with our senses and brain, everything has an opposite. Up/down. Hot/Cold. Book/No Book. Body/No body. Time/no Time. The very best minds in contemporary physics, using our most refined theoretical models and experimental validations, are now beginning to see that this phenomenon of duality emerged in the Big Bang when time and matter emerged from nothing. A consensus is emerging among the top physicists that our universe began from literally nothing and all of matter and energy has a perfectly balancing (or almost perfectly balancing!) negative gravity, anti-matter and dark energy that exploded into existence in the first moments of the Big Bang. This is a modern, science-based view into what it means when it is said that duality represents this world of form. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells us what kind of power you can exercise if you can remember that this duality is an illusion. He says, “When you make the two into one [i.e. transcend the dualilty of the phenomenal world and recall your true spiritual nature], you will become children of humankind [aka a true human or an enlightened one], and when you say, ‘Mountain, move from here,’ it will move.” (Thomas 106/22)

The film makers must have struggled with how to express this esoteric knowledge about the nature of heaven and the power of remembering our true self. How would you do it? They ended up using the stories of miracles from the other Gospels to express this element of the Gospel without the crazy language and confusing symbolism. (Though it should be noted that in the Gospel of Mary itself there is no mention of Jesus healing people or exorcising demons or resurrecting anyone, at least in the passages that have survived. Instead, we have this extraordinary, coded language. But using the miracles is a good way to express what the Marion vision teaches in the visual language of a movie.)

The movie also demonstrates an understanding of this truth from the Gospel elsewhere, especially the element of love. We see it in the taut scene of the Last Supper, where Jesus recites Psalm 118: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; His love endures forever.” Later in the film, Mary tells the other disciples that “We are the kingdom. And it is not built by conflict, not by opposition. It grows with us – with every act of love and care. With our forgiveness… The world will only change, as we change.”

Needless to say, the other disciples found this all very confusing and difficult to comprehend. As in the Gospel itself, the film shows Peter quickly reverting to the sexist view that Jesus wouldn’t reveal to a woman what he had not revealed to them, the men. With a cost that we still suffer from through to this day, he completely misses the point about Jesus’ message, saying in response to Mary’s magnificent moment of enlightenment, “I believe you were given a sign for us. A sign that Our Rabbi will return – when the time is right. And when he does, he will bring the new Kingdom. A true Kingdom. A new world.”

Part of the genius of the film is its ability to show Jesus and the disciples as just ordinary and understandable people. Too often there is a quality to Jesus portrayals that is just sort of weird or otherworldly or falsely ethereal. The Jesus of Mary Magdalene is very much human. This is an achievement on the part of the film makers and a testament to the abilities of Joachim Phoenix. And it is a wonderful thing for us to be able to experience as the viewer. Allowing us to see Jesus as a human, and a human he was, allows us to understand that self-mastery is something available for everyone. It also allows us to understand that even in the face of the most brutal suffering humans can experience, suffering so great that it leads to a long and slow and painful death, it is possible to remain still and centered on the truth of our existence. What a gift that truth is! This truth, tragically lost thanks to the misunderstanding of the disciples (other than Mary) and it’s propagation through the teachings of the church, has been re-gifted to us through this film.

Having said that, the portrayal of Jesus is all too human. This is one of the film’s few flaws. An enlightened master, particularly one who has achieved anything like the level of a Jesus would have been human, yes, but there would have been a lightness and an equanimity in addition to his extraordinary compassion and insight. One need only look at Mary’s behavior in the face of her rejection by her ‘family’ of disciples. She was human about it. She felt the fear and sadness and confusion that any human would have in that situation— Rooney Mara’s marvelous acting in that scene vividly conveyed the intensity of these emotions. Yet she walked out with courage and conviction and lightness. It is safe to say that Jesus was a level or two more advanced than Mary. Though it missed this element of Jesus’ character, the film did partly succeed in portraying Jesus as more than just a charismatic human. It did demonstrate him as also a truly spiritual being, full to overflowing with love and compassion. And this very much did ring true with the Jesus that walked the shores of Galilee and the hills Judea all those years ago.

Whatever its flaws, the movie has brought into the popular consciousness a long forgotten and much ignored gem in the history of texts about or by enlightened masters. It has reignited interest in one of the few women who reached this state of illumination yet who also still managed to have her legacy survive (albeit just barely). Presumably there were many more women who reached mastery but who have been forgotten thanks to the men who wrote their history. Bringing Mary back into the popular consciousness is a worthy accomplishment by itself but the movie has gone further. It has managed to bring to life some of the most obscure but magical and beautiful insights from this almost unknown Gospel. The question then becomes whether the world ready for this gift. Time will tell.

NOTES

[1] As if that weren’t amazing enough, this theory tells us that in the “Bang” that set the stage for the evolution of the universe as we know it, this seed expanded by a factor of (at least!) 10 trillion trillion times (10^25) in size and it expanded by this much in a span of time perhaps as short as a million trillion trillionth (10-30) of a second].

[2] e.g. see the discussion in Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: The Spiritual Classic & International Bestseller: Revised and Updated Edition (Chapter 1, p. 12). HarperCollins.

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