Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles – Then and Now
Mary Magdalene as Myrrh Bearer
Carrying spices to anoint Jesus body
in the tomb. – Eastern Orthodox icon.
The first witness to the Resurrection, according to all four evangelists, was a woman named Mary Magdalene. From the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great to 1969, her place in the story of the Roman Catholic community was confused with that of another woman, the repentant prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. This woman was not Mary Magdalene.
In the earliest of the Gospels, St. Mark names Mary Magdalene as one of the women present at the crucifixion of Jesus (Mk 15:40). She is the first woman Mark names in the list of those who went to the tomb early on Sunday morning (Mk 16:1). The angel told the women that Jesus had been raised from the dead and instructed them to go to the Apostles with the news. They were to tell the men to go to Galilee. Jesus would meet them there. The women were frightened, according to Mark, and they didn’t tell anyone. (Mk 16:8)
Mark’s Gospel has two endings: one is short and says that the women reported to Peter and through them the message went out to the entire world. The second ending is longer and features Mary Magdalene. In this version, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene first. She is described as the one “out of whom he had cast seven demons.” (Mk 16:9). Mary told Peter and the others of having seen Jesus and the message of the angel. They did not believe her testimony. Then two men to whom Jesus had spoken on the road returned to testify that he was risen. Peter and the others still did not believe. Finally, Jesus appeared to Peter and company at supper. He scolded them for not believing the first witnesses he had sent to them. (Mk 16:9-14)
The other Evangelists tell essentially the same story. In Matthew’s Gospel she is named as among the women at the crucifixion, at the tomb that evening, and present on Sunday morning before the angel rolled the stone away from the tomb. The angel gave Mary and the other women with her the message to carry to Peter and the others that Jesus was risen and to meet him in Galilee. On their way to tell Peter, Jesus appeared to all of them, saying, “Peace! Do not be afraid. Go and carry the news to my brothers that they are to go to Galilee where they will see me.” (Mt 28:9-10). In this account, the men believed the women and went to Galilee. (Mt 28:16)
Luke names “Mary the Magdalene, from whom seven devils had gone out” early in his account. (Lk 8:2) She was one of a group of women who traveled with Jesus and helped fund his ministry. He does not specifically name any women present at the crucifixion, but he says the friends and women who had come with Jesus from Galilee were there, standing at a distance from the cross. (Lk 23:49) They followed Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb and then went home to prepare the burial spices and perfumes. (Lk 23:55-56)
Sunday morning, Luke says, Mary Magdalene and the others were the first at the tomb, heard the angel’s message and relayed it to Peter and the others. The men did not believe their account until they had come and seen with their own eyes that the tomb was empty. (Lk 24:1-12) They still did not know what to think until Jesus came to them personally at suppertime. (Lk 24:36-45).
In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is named as one of the women at the cross with the beloved disciple and Mary the mother of Jesus. (Jn 19:25) She is the first person at the tomb on Sunday morning and saw the stone moved away. She went and told Peter and John, who came to see for themselves. Meanwhile, she was alone in the garden, mourning Jesus’ death, when she saw a man she thought must be the gardener. She asked where Jesus’ body had been taken, not recognizing her Lord. Jesus spoke her name, “Mary,” and her eyes were opened to recognize him. She spoke with him, then returned to the Apostles with this testimony, “I have seen the Lord!” (Jn 20:18)
The gospel accounts are clear. Mary Magdalene was one of the women who had traveled with Jesus from a time early in his ministry. She had been healed by Jesus, probably of a severe mental illness, described in that time has having seven devils. She stayed with him to the bitter end, and then stayed to anoint his body after his death. When she met him in the garden, she boldly took the news to the men who were recognized as leaders of the group. As a woman, her testimony was considered worthless. Nevertheless, she testified boldly. And Jesus backed her up, scolding those who doubted her word!
In one of the terrible ironies of history, Mary Magdalene was tagged as a great sinner who was forgiven much, rather than being remembered as a very brave woman who carried an impossible story to a group of men who would not accept testimony from any woman, much less such a fantastic story from a woman with a history of mental instability. Her story became one of forgiveness of a woman’s sinful nature rather than the rightful story of a woman’s faithfulness, courage and openness to hear of the impossible abundance of divine life and love that overcomes even death.
As we move forward in history, the time has come to correct the telling of Mary Magdalene’s story and to ask ourselves if we would be more open to receive her testimony today than Peter and the others were on that first Easter Sunday.
How do we measure up today? Do we value the witness of women? Do we recognize the importance of their role in nurturing the next generation? Do we value their intelligence and give them opportunities to reach their fullest potential? Do we give women a voice and a role as teachers and preachers within our community of faith? Do we look out for women: working to end violence and abuse against them? Do we hear the voices of women who are overwhelmed with work, worried about how they will care for the families they have, unable to muster the resources to bear more children and raise them well? Do we hear the voices of women who are in danger from those who should be their loving supporters? Do we hear their voices telling of the kingdom as it is coming to birth in our world today, through their struggles for freedom, equality, education, and opportunity?
I pray that we, as individuals and as a community of faith, will not find ourselves being scolded by our Lord for not listening to the ones he has sent as witnesses to each of us, telling of his Resurrection and the coming of the kingdom into our world today. At least half of the witnesses any of us will meet will be women. May we be open to hear through their many voices and stories the voice of the Lord, calling us to share in the freedom and abundance of life in God’s love.
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.