I love everything about this new season of Epiphany—chalking the doors, eating King Cake, wearing crowns, and reflecting on the light. I even love saying the word epiphany—a word that connotes emergence, brightness, illumination, mystery, starlight, and revelation. The season of Epiphany gives me an opportunity to talk with my boys about how the holy beckons to us—sometimes in mystical and mysterious ways—in our everyday lives.
One such epiphany I look forward to sharing with them—especially as they mature in their lives as students of text and history—happened to the singer-songwriter Elizabeth (Libbie) Schrader in 2010. Schrader was quietly praying in a Brooklyn garden she loved; the garden happened to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As Schrader directed her prayer toward the Virgin Mary, she heard a voice reply, “Maybe you should talk to Mary Magdalene about that.”
Surprised by the specificity of the response to her prayer, Schrader allowed herself to be beckoned by the holy down a path to the unknown. The first step she took was to write and record a gorgeous song called Magdalene. (I don’t think you’ll be sorry if you pause and take a moment to watch and listen!)
Then, Schrader allowed herself to be beckoned by the holy in a more radical way; she enrolled at General Theological Seminary and embarked on a new career path to become a textual scholar of the New Testament. She studied a transcription of the oldest copy of the Gospel of John (known as Papyrus 66), While doing so, she noticed that, in the story of Lazarus, the name Mary had been crossed out twice. The first time “Mary” was crossed out, it was replaced with “Martha.” The second time “Mary” was crossed out, it was replaced with “the sisters.”
Schrader published her findings in the Harvard Theological Review, and she has gone on to pursue doctoral work at Duke Divinity School. Her fascinating scholarship suggests that early editors of John’s gospel may have deliberately minimized Mary Magdalene’s prominence in the story. A 2021 article Schrader published in the Journal of Biblical Literature further suggests that Mary Magdalene was not from Magdala as is commonly thought; in fact, it’s unlikely “Magdala” even existed as a place near the Sea of Galilee. Schrader’s scholarship instead suggests that Mary Magdalene’s name was more of an honorific meaning “the tower” or “magnified one”—thus signaling her prominence.
“Maybe you should talk to Mary Magdalene about that” indeed!
In an interview with Duke Today, Schrader was asked whether her discoveries affected her faith. She replied that her discoveries only served to strengthen her faith by showing her that “the earliest version of the text was friendlier to Mary Magdalene.” Schrader noted “it was those who copied it who had a problem with such a strong woman.” She said that uncovering her findings give her a deeper faith, that “from my perspective, God has preserved evidence in these manuscripts for us to find.”
As a parent and a professor, I love Schrader’s response, which reveals that we shouldn’t fear knowledge! And furthermore, the presence of the holy is not historical or unchanging. We are beckoned by the holy in our everyday lives, and we should not fear the notion that God’s presence and love emerges and unfolds before our very eyes.
Libbie Schrader’s story offers us a way to talk to our loved ones about epiphanies. Her story began with quiet prayer in a garden and has unfolded over more than a decade of hard work. Epiphanies aren’t historical things that happened to other people in the pages of dusty old books. Epiphanies can happen to us and to the people we love. Epiphanies can happen in close proximity to our own lives and experiences. And epiphanies just may shake things up! Just as Schrader’s epiphany shook up her career, Schrader’s epiphany will shake the way we will understand the Gospel of John in years to come.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that after they follow the star to find Mary and Jesus, the Magi offer their gifts and then they leave “by another way.” As the season of Epiphany begins, may we also allow ourselves to pursue “another way” as we find the courage to follow those little glimmers into the vast unknown.