Many Catholics mistakenly link Mary Magdalene with the “sinful woman” who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (see Luke 7:36–50). Even though Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) said that they were, they are not the same person. The Gospels affirm that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. She was called the “apostle to the apostles” for proclaiming that fact.
Indeed, the character of Mary Magdalene, as commonly portrayed in books, theater, film and art, is more fiction than fact. How this “apostle to the apostles” came to be regarded as a reformed prostitute is owed to a sixth-century pope. He equated the “seven demons” Mary was healed of with the seven capital sins (a new theology in his time), lust being the worst.
The pope’s homilies received wide circulation, capturing the popular imagination, and the label stuck. Only in recent decades has a concerted attempt been made to set the record straight.
The Gospel story of Mary begins with her leadership of a band of women who, according to Luke, formed part of Jesus’ company of disciples. Jesus had cured her of “seven demons”— denoting the severity of an illness mystifying to doctors. Her health restored, she committed her life and all she possessed to supporting Jesus’ ministry.
Mary’s wealth was probably derived from either an inheritance or business. Being identified by her town, Magdala, rather than relationship to a spouse or male kinsman, tells us that Mary was a never-married daughter who consequently became independent in the eyes of the law. As such, she could engage in business so long as a male guardian handled legal matters. Magdala, by the Sea of Galilee, was a thriving hub for fishing and boat-building.
Mary Magdalene’s name is found fourteen times in Gospel passages—more than many of the male apostles. Her prominence is further suggested by the placement of her name whenever others are mentioned. She heads the list with one exception: when she stands at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother.
Though she was never known to waver in her support of Jesus, Mary Magdalene’s actions in Jesus’ final days best exemplify her unflinching commitment. Through the agonizing hours of his crucifixion and the desolate Sabbath that followed, she holds her band together. At dawn on Sunday morning, she leads them once again. This time, it is to perform the last service they can offer for their beloved Master: a reverential anointing.
To their dismay, they find the tomb empty and think that either Roman soldiers or local authorities removed the body. When her companions leave, Mary hurries to tell Peter and John the distressing news. They return with her, look into the tomb, also fail to understand and then depart. A heartbroken Mary, however, lingers near the tomb.
Nothing could have prepared her for what happened next. Jesus appears at her side and speaks her name. “Teacher!” she cries. Overcome with joy, she would have wished time to stand still. But Jesus has work for her, commissioning her to go tell his brothers the Good News of the Resurrection.
When she runs to where the men are hiding and exclaims, “I have seen the Lord!” they dismiss her words. (Jesus would later reprimand them for their lack of faith.) Because of her faithfulness, Mary becomes the bearer of the message that remains at the heart of Christian belief.
Tradition has Mary accompanying the apostle John and Jesus’ mother to Ephesus, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), where she spent the rest of her life. The memory of Mary’s discipleship is preserved in writings of the church Fathers from the early centuries. Even theologians who expressed a low opinion of women (one calling them “the devil’s gateway”) heaped nothing but praise on Mary Magdalene. Their favorite title for her: the apostle to the apostles.
Take advantage of opportunities to do good. Follow in the footsteps of...
Salome, who transferred her skills as wife and mother to minister to the crowds that followed Jesus. Consider sharing your talents, abilities and knowledge in new ways within a parish ministry or social outreach effort.
Martha and Mary of Bethany, who provided Jesus with the support of friendship and a refuge, a place apart. Invite your pastor or member of your parish staff to dinner or for coffee. Write a note to thank a minister for his or her efforts on your community’s behalf.
Mary Magdalene, who committed her life and possessions to Jesus and carried the news of the Resurrection to the apostles. Commit to more fully living your faith in Jesus and the promise of the Resurrection. What will that look like in your life?