The Feast of Mary Magdalen: Celebrating Incarnation

by Elizabeth Cunningham

On July 22nd, the height of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, fruits and vegetables ripening, sun baking or steaming, cool waters beckoning, warm nights full of stars and fireflies, when our senses are so engaged, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches all celebrate The Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. Or Magdalen, as some prefer. I know her as Maeve, the Celtic Mary Magdalen. This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of my first encounter with what might be described as an archetypal force, or, as one reader called her, an imaginary friend.

She first showed up as a line drawing: an ample woman sitting naked in a kitchen drinking coffee. (Someone recently asked: is she always naked? Answer: yes, because I can’t draw clothes.) The truth is I couldn’t draw at all. I was doodling because I had just finished a novel and was clean out of words. Madge, as she introduced herself to me, did not have the same problem. Speech balloons burgeoned. Line drawings gave way to full color, including fiery neon orange for her hair. (Madge-ic markers were our medium.) The ample flesh required an ample supply of a shade called peach. Madge liked to do everything naked from eating chocolates to painting (she founded the whole-body-no-holds-barred school of art) to making outrageous theological pronouncements about the unmentionable members of the body of Christ. She made no bones about working as a prostitute to support her career as a painter. During the first Gulf War, she became a peace activist and founded such organizations as POWER (Prostitutes Opposing War Everywhere Rise) TWAT (Tarts With Attitude Triumph) and WITCH (Women Inclined To Create Havoc).

I was enchanted with her and begged her to be in my next novel. She rejected all my book proposals as far too conventional (ie, boring!) until one full moon night I made an imaginative leap. Madge…Magdalen. Red hair…Celt. Celtic Mary Magdalen. Hey, I said, would you be willing to be in a book about the Celtic Mary Magdalen? Yes! she answered. That’s the one! “One” is now three published novels and a fourth and final one (yes, I said final!) almost complete.

Mary Magdalen, who makes brief, dramatic appearances in the Canonical gospels and has a Gnostic gospel ascribed to her, has always appealed to novelists, troubadours, and other legend makers—including popes. My Maeve, an impenitent, pagan Celt who is nobody’s disciple, differs from many traditional old and new age depictions of Mary Magdalen. Yet I suspect those of us who love her may have more in common than not. Isn’t her appeal that she was incarnate, a flesh and blood woman, whatever we know or don’t know about her, who loved a flesh and blood man, however we want to define that love?

I would like to declare July 22nd a feast day to celebrate our incarnation on this earth, something all of us alive and who have ever lived share with all life and life to come. We are made of the same substance; we are subject to the same joys and sufferings of the flesh. From a laboring woman’s body we were born; and the mystery of death awaits us. Madge/Maeve/Mary Magdalen(e) is our companion and witness, too, or whatever name you want to call your imaginary friend, the force that sparks you. On July 22nd dare to eat a peach. Swim naked. Open your palms to the sun, rain and wind. Stand barefoot in the dirt. Give thanks for your incarnation.

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Elizabeth Cunningham July 20, 2010 - 10:11 pm

Maeve speaking: Twenty years!?! Time flies when you're having fun. Though as I once remarked "It's not all pretty." Incarnation certainly isn't, but it doesn't have to be to be celebrated. As my erstwhile enemy/friend Paulina would say: "L'Chaim y'all. Party on!

Brooke July 21, 2010 - 5:50 am

Wow, what a beautiful post. I loved hearing about Maeve's birth into your world. It is odd to think that there is actually a time when she didn't exist in the physical.

"On July 22nd dare to eat a peach. Swim naked. Open your palms to the sun, rain and wind. Stand barefoot in the dirt. Give thanks for your incarnation." Gorgeous–thank you for this, and absolutely!!!

(By the way, I can't help but feel it a huge connection that my first born's birthday is July 21st, and her name is Madeleine. She will be 8 tomorrow! Clearly something has been wanting me to celebrate Ms. Magdalen all along!)

faerian July 21, 2010 - 8:31 am

Maeve i will celebrate your feast the only way possible in the southern hemisphere – getting my gumboots and raincoat and jumping in puddles… the peaches have too many air miles under their furry little skins… but toast you i will with a glass of rough red – you who have given me such pleasure… I will celebrate your incarnation and my incarnation – the I AM of life…
i will also celebrate the generous and wonderful Elizabeth who bought you here my erstwhile cousin whose incarnation i am particularly glad about too!

Anonymous July 21, 2010 - 11:34 am

A glorious post! Thank you for all of it–the blog, the books, and the clarion call to celebrate the incarnate. Ah it's good to have flesh!

Unknown July 21, 2010 - 2:05 pm

Ay, eat a peach, drink some wine! … a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou beside me singing in the wilderness…

Incarnation is a wonderful thing. Maeve knows it; as the Magdalen she knows it; I know it, too.

Too many in the churches wish to deny it. It's too bad Maeve/Magdalen was pushed aside by Peter and Paul, but we can right the imbalance. Now.

Viva St. Maeve's day!

Tim Dillinger July 22, 2010 - 6:49 pm

Yes. It IS hard to imagine a world without Maeve in it. She stepped into mine and rocked it.

I honor her daily. She holds a spot on my altar, as does Elizabeth. I like to think that it was Maeve, whose temple kept the wine flowing, planted the seed for my first drink at 33 and made me aspire to live in a world where the wine is always flowing. Moreso, I'm learning–daily–to receive the stranger. You both are responsible for this new chapter…that is turning out to be quite long.

So know that on the 22nd, I will have a bottle of red ready to consume–a peach ready to be tasted…and I will do my best to find someplace to be naked.

I love you Maeve–and Elizabeth.

Anonymous July 23, 2010 - 1:49 am

Call me nuts, but I daresay Maeve still has more to tell. Don't forget, from your own comments in articles long past, that you had other ideas for her when she was Madge. Maybe in the sense that the sacred feminine is eternal, Maeve too has other journeys to undertake. Maybe there's still a Gulf War to fight, and a final retirement as an artist who supports herself in true Vine and Fig Tree style in Maine. Who knows? Never underestimate yourself, or the power of imagination.

Fran July 23, 2010 - 1:55 am

This made my day- and it was a day that needed making!

~ July 23, 2010 - 4:02 am

Being who and where I am now, I venture to say that my lack of faith in migration of souls leaves me celebrating the travel of the meat that is me along the surface of this sweet ball of dirt. And that ain't half bad.

Let us call to the resilient and the bony, the graceful and the high cackle, those who go hand in hand, feeling self and each other more or less mixed, and a special nod to any dear beast with more than one back.


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