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The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail.

Based on art history research, legend and a few why-nots, Margaret Starbird teaches the bride Jesus left behind.

A married Jesus is easy for me to accept. He was, after all, leader of a back-to-basics religious reform group flourishing among oppressed people, who yearned for the day when its sons and daughters would be numerous as the stars in the sky. In such a situation, everyone must do his (or her) part.

He was the descendent of a line of kings. You know the burden that puts on a guy.

The man he chose to fill his sandals when worst came to worst - as he said it would - was married.

And there is the frequent presence of the mysterious "other Mary," a woman of many guises, although ordinary people as well as writers of passion plays, musicals, screenplays and novels recognize her as one and the same: Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus with fragrant oil, wiped his feet with her hair and whose story would be told ever after; the other Mary at the foot of the cross; and Mary of Magdala, who was greeted by Jesus in the garden after the most amazing thing happened.

Why the scriptural subterfuge? According to Starbird - a New Age name if I ever heard one - the marriage of Jesus and the other Mary was dynastic, the union of a son of David and a daughter of the tribe of Benjamin. It fueled hopes that restoration of the Davidic kingdom was at hand.

When Jesus was crucified, not for blasphemy but for insurrection - the crime Romans crucified men for - his friends smuggled the pregnant bride out of town, across the desert to safety in Alexandria and later across the Mediterranean to what is now southern France.

There, Mary Magdalen, whose name refers to the Magdal-eder, "the watchtower of the flock" (Micah 4), raised her daughter. (That the child was a daughter appears to be one of the why-nots.) The bloodline of Jesus and his lost bride turns up later in the Merovingians, the first kings of France. (Wouldn't you know!) The mythical Holy Grail, the vessel that held the blood of Christ, takes on a new identity.

Hey, if I can accept water into wine, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost, why should I balk at this?

For 12 centuries, devotion to Mary Magdalen (a.k.a. the Lost Bride) flourished in the region now called Provence, where chapels, fountains and springs bear her name. The devotion was spread by the Cathars, who saw themselves as the true descendants of the early Christians and who wanted nothing to do with a rule-ridden and ritualistic Roman church.

In the creative mix of the Cathari culture, which benefited from Muslim and Jewish contacts, women were the equals of men; they owned and inherited property and preached the gospel, as the women of the early church preached.

Following the First Crusade, which placed Godfroi, a nobleman of supposedly Merovingian lineage, on the throne of Jerusalem in 1099, a Catharilike devotion flowered across Europe. Knights, returning from the Holy Land, declared their pure love for a secret Lady. Troubadours and poets sang the Lady's praise and told stories of the search for the Holy Grail. The Knights Templar, an order of warrior-clerics that included many nobles of Provence, planned and financed soaring Gothic cathedrals, many dedicated to Our Lady. Their beauty hinted at some new knowledge of mathematics and engineering.

Stonemasons "built the tenets of their faith into the cathedrals," Starbird writes. Paramount among the tenets was "the cosmic principle of the harmony of male and female energies."

Then all hell broke loose. A church council, meeting at Albi in 1165, condemned the heretics of Provence, in particular the Cathars. In 1209, the Vatican, aided by the Capetian king of France, Philip II, launched a crusade against the "Albigensians," ravaging the region for more than a generation. The Inquisition, established in 1233, interrogated and executed thousands. By the time the last Cathari stronghold fell in 1244, what was left of the movement had gone underground.

Starbird, whose academic background includes comparative literature, medieval studies, linguistics and scripture studies, devotes much of her book to interpreting the "fossils" hidden in the art and culture of the 13th to 16th centuries. lhe book includes 16 pages of color reproductions of medieval art works. Some of the fossils:

* The original tarot cards were "a flash-card catechism for the medieval heresy of the Grail." Among the 22 trump cards are portraits of the Lovers, with the woman holding an arch shaped like an m; the Tower, the Pope, flanked by two cardinals; and Death, a skeleton galloping a wild ass over the pope, the king, two cardinals and a bishop.

* Botticelli's "Saint Mary Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross" shows an angel holding a fox by the tail. The fox, a Gnostic symbol for pious fraud, "represents the fraud perpetuated by the orthodox church that insisted that Jesus had been celibate."

* Botticelli's Madonna paintings show the infant Jesus holding a pomegranate bursting with seeds, a symbol of virility.

* Fra Angelico hid three red x's in the grass below Mary Magdalen's hand as she reaches for the risen Jesus in "Noli Me Tangere." An Albigensian symbol for lux, truth and enlightenment, the x is frequently found in medieval paintings.

* Unicorns and maidens, frequent subjects of paintings and tapestries, are symbols of the virile Jesus and his bride.

* Watermarks in the paper on which Bibles were printed include unicorns, juglike grails, Merovingian bears and towers.

* European folk tales, such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose) and Rapunzel, tell of "the wounded, lost or imprisoned feminine counterpart of the handsome prince."

* The Black Madonnas of the early shrines of Europe may have been symbols of the hidden Mary Magdalen and her child.

How will the pope feel when be learns "Our Lady of Czestochowa" is mixed up in a case of mistaken identity?

Does it matter if the Bride stays lost and we continue to follow a celibate Jesus? You bet it does, in ways too obvious and numerous to mention. Lees take just one.

After assisting as a communion minister at the recent wedding of one of my cousin's nine children, I watched as Amy placed a bouquet in Mary's chapel. It seemed that, without knowing it, the bride was honoring the Bride. Long ago I made that little trek at my wedding.

I wonder how Amy's life, my life, my cousin's life and the lives of millions of Catholic women might be different - and better - if the church held up for emulation and honor the Bride as well as the Mother.

As Starbird says, no wonder icons of Mary weep!
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Author:McCarty, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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