Equal justice won a victory in June of 2016. That summer, Pope Francis requested the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, celebrated on July 22, be elevated to a major feast. Liturgically speaking, this decision put the feast of St. Mary Magdalene on par with the feasts of the male apostles. Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, spoke of Mary Magdalene “as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the one tasked with sharing the news with the apostles.” As writer Fr. Alvan Amadi puts it, “Now is the time for Catholics to devote more time to learning about St. Mary Magdalene and why she and all women play an invaluable role in the life and mission of the Church.”
So what can we learn from this fascinating woman? An increasing number of scholars are claiming that Mary Magdalene has been falsely represented over the centuries. Even her contemporary depictions in The Da Vinci Code, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Jesus Christ Superstar don’t do her justice. What does Scripture say about this well-loved saint?
Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name at least 12 times in the Gospels. All four Gospels place her at the cross and as the premier witness to the resurrection. Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:3 say that Jesus drove “seven demons” from her, now believed to mean she was healed from some type of illness, most likely mental illness. The Gospel of John recounts a poignant scene on Easter morning, when a grieving Mary initially mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener.
Mary likely came from a prosperous town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which is called by its Aramaic name, Magdala. In antiquity the town had a reputation for exporting quality salt fish and fish oil. It was possible Mary herself was engaged in some business related to the fishing industry. This occupation is well attested for women in early Roman Palestine, and the Herodian court at nearby Tiberias regularly purchased goods from female suppliers. When Mary is introduced in Luke 8:2, she is in the company of Joanna, the wife of a Herodian official, suggesting that Mary had contact with the court.
Luke presents Mary Magdalene as a constant companion of Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and one of his earliest followers. She was also likely affluent enough to be a self-supporting unmarried woman while aiding in the support of Jesus and his small ministry. Luke tells us that Mary and the women provided for Jesus and his followers “out of their resources” (Luke 8:3). Whenever a group of women followers is listed in the gospels, Mary is mentioned first, an indication of her preeminence.
Hippolytus, a third-century bishop, is generally thought to be the first person to name her the “Apostle to the Apostles.” St. Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom in the fifth century, and St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century were among those giving Mary Magdalene this same title. The persistence and survival of this title point to Mary’s importance both among early Christians and in Church tradition.
But is this the same Mary Magdalene that is pictured in Western art and modern media as the sensual temptress, a prostitute, and even as the wife of Jesus? How did the gradual understanding of Mary Magdalene as a penitent prostitute become dominant in our Western culture?
Jesuit priest James Martin offers one explanation. He feels the confusion first arises because there is “a veritable crowd of Marys in the Gospel stories: Mary, the Mother of Jesus; Mary of Bethany; Mary, the wife of Clopas. Over time Mary Magdalene became conflated with the sinful woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50).” This conflation was predicated on the assumption that Mary’s “seven demons” referred to the prostitution of the “woman of the city.” But Luke’s Gospel does not name the “woman of the city” as a prostitute, nor do any of the Gospels make this association with Mary Magdalene.
Pope Gregory the Great was to give his authoritative influence to this “conflated” interpretation of Mary Magdalene. In 591, Pope Gregory preached a powerful sermon on repentance connecting Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.” In explicitly calling Mary a penitent prostitute in his sermons, Pope Gregory marred the poor saint’s reputation for over a millennium in the Western Church.
The Eastern Church, on the other hand, never identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany or the sinful woman in Luke. She was understood as a virtuous woman throughout her life, even before her conversion. She was often titled as the “Myrrhbearer” and honored as the “the apostle-like one.”
Today the consensus of scholars agrees that the prostitute label is a misleading representation. Pope Francis’ recent upgrade of Mary Magdalene’s feast will help re-interpret her memory as a faithful, devoted follower of the Lord and a strong independent leader in the early church, a true apostle. St. Mary Magdalene is helping shape a more robust theology of women in today’s church.
As we celebrate her feast, may we view the Risen Lord through her eyes. Pope Francis tells us, “As Mary is stooping near the tomb, her eyes filled with tears, God surprises her in the most unexpected way…To think that there is someone who knows us, who sees our suffering, who is moved with us and calls us by name. Jesus’ Resurrection is not a joy measured with a dropper, but a waterfall that cascades over the entirety of life. Mary’s happiness is not woven in soft joys, but waves engulfing everything” (General Audience 5.17.17).
By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB
Images used are from the St. Albans Psalter dating back to the 12th Century.