Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene, the Magdalene: whatever you call her, she has been one of the most beloved Catholic saints for almost two millennia.
Artists have painted her portrait. Well, since she probably died in the first century AD, artists such as El Greco and Georges de la Tour have used their imaginations and the traditional symbols associated with her—a skull and less-than-modest clothing—to portray the sort of woman they think she might have been. Artists have also depicted her in paintings of the Crucifixion, where she generally appears weeping and penitent at Christ’s feet.
As is the case for many of the other people described in the Gospels who were Christ’s followers and traveling companions, churches have been dedicated to Mary Magdalene all over the world, from Rome to Arizona. An eighth century tradition that her remains had been discovered in France led to the building of a church which still contains her relics—even if it took a few centuries to finish the construction of the church and even if the relics had to be removed during the French Revolution for their safety.
Writers have written about Mary of Magdala over the centuries too. From Gnostic versions of the Gospels in the early days of the Church to pious legends of the Middle Ages and now to modern fiction, many authors have tried to bend her life story to match their own paradigms. For example, the followers of Gnosticism created their own versions of the Gospels to promote the idea of a “secret knowledge” that only their pantheistic sects possessed, and they put their heretical theology in Mary Magdalene’s mouth. The hagiography of the High Middle Ages embroidered the Gospel narrative with fanciful details about her, as well as other Gospel characters, in a pious but somewhat exaggerated style.
As for modern literature, a faithful Catholic would be better off reading The Da Vinci Hoax for an accurate understanding of her character than wasting time with the popular portrayal of the Magdalene in recent books and movies.
But what do we really know about Mary Magdalene? In the only book we can truly trust, the Bible, she is only explicitly named in a few incidents in the Gospels:
- She is described as the woman out of whom Jesus cast seven demons (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2).
- She is listed as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ burial (Matt. 27:56-61, Mark 15:40-47, John 19:25).
- She is listed as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection (Matt. 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1-10, John 20:1).
- She is the first person named in the Gospels to see the Risen Christ (Mark 16:9, John 20:18).
Unfortunately, understanding Mary Magdalene is a bit more complicated than it might appear because she has often been conflated with other women who appear in the Gospels. For example, is Mary Magdalene also the sinful (but unnamed) woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair in a Pharisee’s house in Luke 7:36-50? Is Mary Magdalene the same Mary who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as described in Luke 10:38-42 and John, chapter 11? People have been arguing about whether these passages and the ones explicitly naming Mary of Magdala describe one, two, or three separate women for centuries.
Perhaps the problem is that we want to know more about this mysterious woman who went from being possessed by devils to valiantly standing at the foot of the Cross, remaining until Christ’s burial, and rushing to His tomb on Easter Sunday morning to perform Jewish funeral rites. Her presence in all these events is not trivial. The Romans did crucify women, and executing any and all followers of a convicted traitor was a not uncommon Roman practice.
Many Christian apologists have pointed out over the centuries how inconvenient it was that the first witness to Jesus’ greatest miracle—His Resurrection—was a woman. If the Twelve Apostles had been lying about Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, the last person they would choose to identify as the witness to the event would be a woman, much less a woman who had been possessed. Yet Jesus Christ, the Son of God, chose to appear to her first. (There is an ancient tradition that He appeared to His Mother first, but that is not recorded in the Gospels. This would not be surprising since a mother’s testimony would hardly be considered objective.)
This raises an important question: why did God allow Mary of Magdala to become the first witness to the Resurrection? Would it have made a difference if Saint Peter could claim that distinction? Or Saint John? Or anyone else?
Just asking that question makes it clear why Mary Magdalene was the perfect person for God to choose. She was and is the ideal representative for all of us frail and imperfect followers of Christ. We don’t know whether she was poor or rich, famous or unknown, beautiful or ugly, brilliant or uneducated. All we know is that she was liberated from slavery to evil by Jesus Christ Himself, that she was willing to be known as one of His followers even when He was rejected, and that she had compassion for Him in His suffering. Every Christian can try to do as much, and every Christian can hope to become a saint, as she did.
Saint Mary Magdalen, pray for us!
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