Today is one of the most important days in Christianity, Easter. Before the egg hunts, hearty dinners, and chocolate bunnies, church leaders will give John’s account of what Christians believe to be the greatest event in human history. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The first witness to the Resurrection—as all four gospel writers agree—was a woman whose name and reputation have become so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misconstrued over the centuries that she is more commonly, though erroneously, remembered as a prostitute than as the faithful first bearer of the Good News.
Mary Magdalene at the Tomb by Bruce Wolfe
That woman is Mary of Magdala. Of the half-dozen Marys mentioned in the Bible, what sets this Mary apart is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, (Luke 8:2-3) or as some scholars believe, physical and mental illnesses. Mary Magdalene is named at least 12 times in the gospels, and not one of those references indicates that she was a prostitute so why characterize her sins as sexual in nature?
The notion of Mary Magdalene being a former prostitute, apparently made popular as early as the sixth century by Pope Gregory, shows up several hundred years after the time of Christ when her identity was merged with that of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. (Luke 7:36-50).
Until the latter part of the 20th century, women in most cultures were not taken seriously and they had little importance in society. Is this why Mary Magdalene has been reduced to a prostitute? She certainly didn’t fit into patriarchal society. She was too strong and too independent. Her importance couldn’t be denied but her character could be changed to make her less threatening. And so she was turned into a prostitute who had been forgiven of her sin. The woman, who is called the “Apostle of the Apostles” in the bible, has spent two millennia being reduced to a prostitute.
Pope Gregory’s error was officially corrected in the 1969 edition of the Roman missal, which clarifies that the sinful woman was in fact Mary of Bethany, but few seem to have taken notice.
The Significance of Mary Magdalene
The Bible says that Mary Magdalene was present at the two most important moments in the story of Jesus: the crucifixion and the resurrection. She was a prominent figure at both these events.
We’re told that she was one of the women who kept vigil at Jesus’ tomb. When Mary goes to the tomb, Jesus’ body is no longer there. She is in a state of shock and runs to where the disciples are gathered to tell them the news. When she reports to the disciples she is not believed. Peter and another disciple return with her to the tomb to see for themselves.
When they enter, Peter reacts to the sight of the discarded linen burial cloth with anger and dismay. But the other disciple understands what has happened and concludes that Jesus must have risen from the dead.
Then, something even more extraordinary happens. Mary is alone when someone asks her why she’s crying. She believes it’s the gardener, and says, “they have taken my lord’s body and I do not know where it is”. The figure says her name. And then she sees Jesus. She is overwhelmed and says “Master!” and goes forward to reach out to him, but he stops her. He says “don’t touch me”. Instead, she must go to the others and tell them that he has risen from the dead.
Jesus’ resurrection was the turning point for Christianity. This was when it changed from a small movement to a whole new religion. And Mary Magdalene was a key figure in this event.
Mary Magdalene was at the crucifixion of Jesus, she was at his burial, and before that she was with Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee. As a woman and companion of Jesus she was the only person close to him at the critical moments that defined his purpose and described his fate.
You might think, then, that at the very least Mary would be recognised as an apostle – one of the early missionaries who founded the religion – as she seems to meet all the criteria set out in the Bible. Instead, Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side, “became,” the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance. There were reasons for which this happened. There was the appeal of a story that emphasized the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. But what most drove the sexualizing of Mary Magdalene was the male need to dominate women. She has been a victim of mistaken identity for almost 20 centuries. Yet she would no doubt insist that it makes no difference.
At Pope Francis’s request, the annual observance on the Catholic calendar of St. Mary Magdalene, has been made a major feast marking women as the first evangelizers.
On July 22, 2016, a day already designated a feast of Mary Magdalene, there are 11 saints similarly honored, but now with the decree released, hers takes precedence.
Published in Latin, the decree was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, headed by Cardinal Robert Sarah. It says that this woman, “recognized as one who loved Christ and who was very dear to him,” can be considered by the faithful as “a paradigm of the ministry of women in the Church.”
In a letter released along with the announcement, the Secretary of the Congregation, Archbishop Arthur Roche, argued that the decision speaks to the current moment facing the Church, which calls for “a deeper reflection on the dignity of women, the New Evangelization, and the greatness of the mystery of Divine Mercy. Saint Mary Magdalene is an example of true and authentic evangelization; she is an evangelist who announces the joyful central message of Easter,” he writes.
Pope Francis’ decision to raise St. Mary Magdalene’s liturgical celebration to a feast is clearly significant. It underlines the importance of St. Mary Magdalene and indeed of all women and it emphasizes her unique mission. Her humility, perseverance, and love are an example to us all of an authentic disciple.