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Posted by on Jul 22, 2008

Saint of the Day: St. Mary of Magdala – July 22

Saint of the Day: St. Mary of Magdala – July 22

Icon of St. Mary Magdalene with a red egg.

One of the most striking sayings of Jesus is perhaps His simplest. It is one word, “Mary.” He is not referring to His mother or Mary of Bethany or any of the several other Marys of the Gospels.

Mary of Magdala is utterly distraught. She has come with other women to anoint the body of Jesus. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. She sees a man whom she mistakes as a gardener or caretaker and wants to know where the body of Jesus has been taken. (John: 20). Jesus utters her name, and through her, the Apostles and all of us learn of the unthinkable. Christ is risen.

This is Mary of Magdala, a woman that many of us don’t recognize because of a movement set in motion by Pope St. Gregory the Great, making Mary into the repentant prostitute whom Jesus forgives. In fairness to Gregory the Great, he was probably voicing a earlier tradition confusing Mary of Magdala with the penitent who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair.

The restoration of the historical position of Mary of Magdala is recent. In 1969 the Vatican officially corrected the traditional misconception of her as a prostitute. This also coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. More recent scholarship on the gnostic Gospel of Mary shows that Mary of Magdala appeared to have played a more central role in the immediate circle of the Apostles. This is also part of a trend in historical scholarship of the early church indicating that women played a more prominent role in leadership and teaching and were supplanted by men as the church became established under the emperor Constantine.

Mary the Apostle? Mary the penitent prostitute? These questions are an uncomfortable reminder that male dominated societies place women on a pedestal while also exploiting them at the same time. This is not only a tragic double bind; it also contradicts what Jesus was about in His relations with women.

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