03/08/2011 03:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mary Magdalene: A Heroine Of Biblical Proportions

The 100th anniversary of International Women's Day is a day set aside, as the Huffington Post says, in "celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women past and present." And I've just been asked "who's your hero, I mean, your heroine? Who has led the way for you? Who inspired you?"

Easy: Mary Magdalene. I could say she inspires me for the way that she combined faith and politics and challenged an empire. That is true. But there's something behind that combination of faith and politics that's intrigued me since Sunday School days. It began, I think, the day that I dressed up like Mary Magdalene.

It was nearing Eastertime and the local newspaper wanted to run a special photo on the front page for the Easter Sunday edition of the paper. This was a small town in Minnesota, and just about everybody was Lutheran, at least Christian, so the idea of an Easter photo on the front page of the newspaper was the norm.

My best friend Mary and I were chosen from our Sunday School to pose for this photo and so one Saturday we went with our Sunday School teacher and the photographer to the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, to a cave. Mary and I were dressed in bathrobes and tablecloths, veiled to look like Hebrew women come to the empty tomb. As the photographer was setting up this Easter shot, I remember making a deal with Mary. She could be Mary the mother of Jesus, just as long as I could be Mary Magdalene. (I also remember that Mary had all her hair tucked under the tablecloth veil, and so I was quick to pull out some of my hair, and make sure an earring showed. I figured Mary Magdalene ought to look a little snazzy, a little bold -- at least not quite like the Virgin Mother.)

I wanted, with all my 14-year-old earnestness, to be Mary Magdalene.

I still do. I still want to be like Mary Magdalene. But the reasons have changed.

Back then, I think I was intrigued with the idea of the bad girl as Jesus' friend. I assumed that Mary Magdalene was a woman of the streets, a fallen woman, a prostitute, and there was something there that attracted me, and made me curious about this friend of Jesus.

Later, in seminary, reading new feminist scripture scholars like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible and Sandra Schneiders and others, I learned that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute at all, but that church tradition had conflated stories from two different portions of Luke's gospel, combing the Mary who was cured of countless demons with the unnamed woman found earlier in Luke's gospel, the prostitute who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears, and then dried them with her loose, long hair. The church's conflation of the two stories no doubt has plenty to do with the church's views on sin, but that's not my point about Mary Magdalene.

What I wanted to emulate, as a 14-year-old and now, all these decades later, what I want all women to emulate, is her passion, her bold passion.

Mary Magdalene was a woman who was able to listen to her heart's desire. She was able to step forward, to leave behind whatever had held her back, whatever had kept her bound up with her demons, and face into the future with a way of living that challenged the might of Rome and the power of the temple. She was able, out of her desire, to walk with Jesus and the other men through the Galilee, to walk a path not paved (certainly not for the women of 1st-century Palestine), to become, Luke tells us, a disciple along with the twelve men and Joanna and Susanna and the other unnamed women.

She was able to walk with Jesus all that way, and she was able to be there at the end, to watch at the cross, to stay there with the other women to the bitter end, long after the men had gone, to stay, to wait, and then to come back, that third day, to annoint him one last time. And there, the fourth gospel tells us, in that garden, she heard something, she heard her name: Mary. We might say she heard her calling, her vocation. We might say she heard her heart's desire. And she went out from there to become "the First Apostle," to announce a new way of life and liberation in places of darkness and oppression.

One such place, legend has it, was the palace of Caesar. The story goes that Mary Magdalene staged a protest in the court of Caesar. As the First Apostle of the resurrection, Mary had become known as a woman of influence (and chutzpah), and sometime soon after the crucifixion of Jesus, she procured an invitation to dine at the court of Tiberius Caesar. She had a mission. She went to Rome to protest Pilate's miscarriage of justice, and to announce the resurrection. The ancient tale says that as Magdalene stood up to speak, Caesar was about to peel a hard-boiled egg. When he heard her announcement of the resurrection, he held up the egg and said, "He can no more be raised from the dead than this egg can turn red." And there, in his hand, the egg turned red.

The legend doesn't say how Caesar responded, but icons ever after portray Mary with her bold red egg as a symbol of a voice that spoke truth to power.

So today, I think of Mary Magdalene, as that woman of passion and power who calls to women across centuries and cultures to come out of whatever holds us back or keeps us down, to come out and speak up. Imagine what Mary might say today.

I imagine Mary Magdalene would speak up for children who need classrooms and teachers and textbooks, but only learn the new math of budget cuts; I imagine she would speak up for the young mother who needs the family planning services of her Planned Parenthood clinic; I imagine she would speak up for the woman who puts on a little extra makeup and changes the part in her hair, because she wants to hide the bruises; and I imagine she would have a word for today's Caesars about corporate tax rates. We need her, her boldness, her passion and her red egg.