St. Mary of Magdala: Apostle to the Apostles
What image comes to your mind when you hear the name Mary Magdalene? A woman with loose, long hair holding a skull? A woman scantily dressed prone on a rocky entrance to a cave? Or do you see, in your mind’s eye, a woman startled by the risen Jesus near his empty tomb? A woman standing with authority in front of the disciples of Jesus telling them what she witnessed at the tomb?
So much of what we think about Mary of Magdala has to do with how her story has devolved and evolved throughout the millennia.
Apostle to the apostles
Let’s begin with Scripture. The canonical Gospels mention Mary of Magdala 12 times, more than any other woman. Her name, “of Magdala” or Mary Magdalene, comes from the town of her birth.
The Resurrection stories are at the heart of Mary’s prominence and are the reasons St. Thomas Aquinas named her “Apostle of the Apostles.” Each of the canonical Gospels has a different account of the Resurrection story. Mark’s Gospel has two different endings. In the first, Mary of Magdala and Jesus’ mother, Mary, watch Jesus being laid in the tomb. That is the end of the first version. Chapter 16 was added later. In that account, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome arrive at the tomb to anoint Jesus. An angel meets them and tells them Jesus has risen from the dead. They are to tell Peter and the apostles.
More Gospel accounts
In Matthew, Mary and another woman identified as “the other Mary” witness Jesus’ entombment. They return after the Sabbath to anoint Jesus. An angel meets them and tells them Jesus will encounter them on their way to Galilee. They do see Jesus and embrace his feet. He instructs them to tell the apostles that he will visit them in Galilee. Luke’s account mentions the women who come to the tomb for the burial preparation: Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary, the mother of James. Two angels tell them that Jesus has risen. They leave and tell the apostles.
John’s account is very different from the synoptic Gospels. Jesus reveals himself to Mary after Peter and the apostles see the empty tomb and leave, believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. Mary stays and weeps. She enters the tomb and sees two angels. After a brief exchange, she meets a man she assumes is a gardener, then realizes it is the risen Jesus and she utters, “Rabbouni!” Jesus tells her to go to the apostles and tell them what she has seen. At first they are incredulous, and then believe what Mary has told them.
Though the accounts vary, Mary of Magdala is the constant in all the renditions. She is the one who relates to the apostles that Jesus has risen. And yet, the popular image of Mary Magdalene is of a repentant sinner, a prostitute. How did that happen?
The metamorphosis happened when Pope Gregory the Great conflated different women in the Gospels into a new and different Mary of Magdala. Here is the mix: First there is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus who anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair; then the unnamed adulterous woman whom Jesus saves from stoning. There is another unnamed woman identified only as “a sinner” who anoints Jesus and also dries his feet with her hair. And then there is Mary of Magdala whom Jesus exorcised of seven demons. Historical context from biblical scholars has explained that in the ancient world, severe ailments, especially those that were not readily obvious, were deemed to be demonic. Whatever ailment Mary suffered from must have been serious. When Jesus healed her, she became his devoted follower.
What were Pope Gregory’s (c, 590 – 605) motives for this confluence? There are conjectures regarding the tensions between the Western and Eastern Churches. The Eastern Church did and does to this day, recognize Mary of Magdala’s important influence as a leader in the early church. In the Eastern Church, Mary’s story remains intact. The picture at left portrays her instructing the apostles.
During his papacy, Pope Gregory was consolidating the governing system in the Western Church and might have considered the prominence of women as a deterrent to his vision. Whatever the motive, the model of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and reformed sinner took hold and became a favorite subject for artists for millennia.
Clearing her name
In 1969, Pope Paul VI untangled the “Mary web.” He distinguished between Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany and the unnamed “sinful woman.” That began an unremarkable acknowledgement that Mary of Magdala was an important follower of Jesus. She was again referred to as the “Apostle of the Apostles” recognizing her distinctive role as the bearer of the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the other apostles.
However, not until Pope Francis elevated her memorial status in the Liturgy to an official feast day on July 22 did the entire Roman Church acknowledge the canonical recognition of St. Mary of Magdala. The collect for her July 22 feast day reads: “The importance of this (Mary of Magdala’s announcement of the Resurrection) continues today in the Church, as is evident in the new evangelization, which seeks to welcome all men and women “of every race, people, language and nation” (Rev 5: 9), without any distinction, to announce to them the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ while accompanying them on their earthly pilgrimage, and offering them the wonders of God’s salvation. Saint Mary Magdalene is an example of a true and authentic evangelizer, that is, an evangelist who announces the central joyful message of Easter.”
Jesus and women
The more I learn, the more I ponder. First century Jews were not apt to regard women’s presence as important, and certainly not Gentile women. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus has some of his most significant conversations and encounters with women. The woman at the well. The woman healed from hemorrhaging. The Gentile woman who chides Jesus that even dogs are fed crumbs from the table. The conversations with Mary and Martha. The woman caught in adultery.
Could Mary’s presence as a prominent follower have given Jesus an insight lost on the men of his time? Mary’s presence surely encouraged other women to follow Jesus and the Way. She is described in Luke 8: “… as a woman of means …” which implies that she could have provided for some of the needs of the group. Was she widowed? Did she come from a wealthy family? We don’t know. What we do know is that she is mentioned by name 12 times in the canonical Gospels.
Mary Magdalene today
What is she to us today?
Her single dedication was to Jesus and his message. Her belief led her to Jesus who healed her. Mary of Magdala’s suffering must have been so great that from that moment on, she joins the apostles and others who follow Jesus from town to town to bring the good news. So great is her love and devotion, that even after witnessing the gruesome torture and crucifixion, she goes bravely to his tomb to anoint him. Faithful in any and all circumstances, she is a model of resolve, dedication and compassion. She is a model for women leaders and those young women who look for female models of faith leaders. Nothing deterred her from her commitment to the Way that Jesus and his followers forged for all.
We all continue that legacy of faith. Let us celebrate the feast day of Mary of Magdala, saint of God.