Companionship Across Time and Space

Before you read this blog post, I want to make two disclaimers:

  1. I am a nerd. As I’m writing this post, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says, “BOWTIES ARE COOL,” a quote from the eleventh doctor played by Matt Smith on the BBC’s long-running program Doctor Who.
  2. I had intended to do a more serious post about Mary Magdalene, witness, and discipleship, but then I read a very vivid imaginative account of Mary’s response to the angel at Jesus’ tomb who asks her why she is crying:

“‘I am crying because I’m experiencing horrifying loss, aching grief, and a huge hole where the love and hope and trust and joy of my life used to be.  This man, this more-than-just-a-man who was supposed to be laid in this tomb, turned my life from monochrome to technicolor, from a lonely violin to a crescendoing orchestra, from a limp and falling feather to a soaring eagles wing.  I’m crying because I’m staring into the horror of death, and death right now is obliterating everything I want, everything I need, everything I know.  I feel so powerless, so fragile, so alone.’”[1]

This man, this more-than-just-a-man who … turned my life from monochrome to technicolor, from a lonely violin to a crescendoing orchestra….

Sometimes when the stars align right and you’re wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt, and you read these devastatingly beautiful words you may be struck with an overwhelming insight: Mary Magdalene is the companion to Jesus’ Doctor Who.  I certainly don’t mean to make light of the relationship between Mary and Jesus, but I do think that this pop culture gem can be helpful in unpacking the idea of radical Christian companionship.

If you’re unfamiliar with Doctor Who, the basic premise is this – The Doctor is the last of an alien race of Time Lords.  He has a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension in Space) and can travel anywhere in time and space.  To the end of the universe?  He’s been there.  A pint with Charles Dickens?  He’s drank it.  The day Mt. Vesuvius blew and obliterated Pompeii?  He’s seen it.  Hundreds of years into the future when humans have computers implanted into their brains?  He’s been there too.  Almost always the Doctor is faced with some ethical conundrum.  (If he knows that Mt. Vesuvius is going to blow, should he warn the people of Pompeii, saving their lives but potentially altering the course of human history?  And do we really want computers implanted into our brains?).  Eventually, usually if the Doctor is old or badly wounded, he regenerates.  The regeneration process allows the Doctor to essentially transform his old body into a new one so that while he is still totally and completely the Doctor, he is nonetheless someone with a different appearance and different characteristics and mannerisms.

Trying to identify Christian themes in Doctor Who isn’t new.  A Google search turns up several articles on this topic.  Any show that deals with ethical questions and centers on a man who basically dies and comes back to life is going to draw these comparisons.  But I want to focus specifically on this idea of companionship.

Usually, though not always, the Doctor travels with a human companion.  These companions are glorious in their humanity, in their normality.  There’s Rose Tyler, a retail clerk who states, “The first nineteen years of my life, nothing happened.  And then I met the Doctor.”  There’s Mickey Smith, a down-on-his-luck mechanic who found the courage to fight aliens and save the universe alongside the Doctor.  There’s Donna Noble, a career temp whose life is stunted by self-doubt.  In the presence of the Doctor, she realizes her intrinsic self-worth and intelligence.  There’s Amy Pond who first meets the Doctor when she’s seven-years-old, separated from her parents and afraid of a crack in her bedroom wall.  She waits twelve years for his return, defending him even when her friends and family insist that the Doctor is a figment of Amy’s childhood imagination.  For each of these companions, the Doctor is the “more-than-just-a-man” who transforms their lives “from monochrome to technicolor, from a lonely violin to a crescendoing orchestra.”  Often in the face of great danger and under the very real threat of persecution or death, these ordinary men and women follow the Doctor to the ends of the universe.  They push themselves outside of their comfort zones and make great sacrifices because they believe in him.  They trust him.  He opens up new worlds of possibility.

Significantly, while the Doctor opens up whole new and exciting worlds and possibilities to his companions, these companions are as equally important to the Doctor.  He needs them.  They serve as his sounding-boards, sometimes as his caretakers, and crucially, they serve as a bridge between the Doctor and humanity.  Here the importance of companionship becomes particularly evident.  The Doctor and his companions aren’t just road trip buddies, or mentor/mentee, or even friends.  They are companions – those who accompany one another.  They go with each other on their journeys.

We see this type of love and trust between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  Like the Doctor’s companions, Mary is beautiful in her humanity.  Long characterized by intrigue, rumor, scandal, and sin, Mary Magdalene perhaps is best summed up in popular perception in this way: “The volatile figure of Mary Magdalene is so far too big for Hollywood, which sees in her a mix of lust, loyalty, belief, prostitution, repentance, beauty, madness, sainthood.”[2]  Interestingly, only one of the Gospel stories – Luke – speaks of Mary Magdalene before Jesus’ crucifixion.  Luke places her in a group accompanying Jesus from town-to-town as he preached.  She is identified as “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” (Lk 8:2).  While Mary’s scandalous reputation perhaps is unwarranted, she nonetheless pushes her boundaries to follow the man in whom she believes.  Mary is a woman and, at least according to Luke, she is a known sinner – two strikes against her in first century Palestine.  Nonetheless, she believes in Jesus so much that she is willing to follow him.  She sees in Jesus someone who offers a profound and beautiful reality unlike anything she’s ever known.  Like the Doctor’s companions, she is willing to follow Jesus to the ends of the universe.

Bowties are coolLike the Doctor, Jesus also needs Mary Magdalene.  He’s not bothered by her status as woman and sinner.  He loves her for her basic human dignity.  We can only imagine what happened on Jesus’ journeys.  Perhaps Mary was his sounding board.  Perhaps they shared meal together.  Perhaps they told jokes and shared childhood stories.  We do know that she accompanied him to the end.  She accompanies him on his final journey to the cross, despite the fear that both Mary and Jesus must have been feeling.  And then the man whom she loved like no other was gone.  Still Mary accompanies him.  With other female companions, Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb to anoint and care for his body.  She is the first to witness the risen Christ, and she is no doubt afraid.  Though still Christ, imagine what the risen Jesus must look like in all his wonder in glory.  Mary must be taken aback by his transformation.  Awestruck might be an apt description.  But then she does Jesus one more favor:  “But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20:18).  In her final act of companionship Mary Magdalene became the Apostle-to-the-Apostles, standing witness to the risen Christ across all time and space.

[1] Sam Wells, “Why Are You Crying? John 20:11-18,” Journal for Preachers 37, no. 3 (2014): 24-27.

[2] Schaberg, Jane, “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament,” Cross Currents, 52:1 (2002): 81-89.