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feature: religion & spirituality
April 21st, 2014

Reconsidering Mary Magdalene

The woman with a role in stories of Jesus' life, death and resurrection can be a model for our lives today

 
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St. Mary Magdalene depicted (l to r) in a stained-glass window in Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in a sketch by Leonardo de Vinci, and in a sculpture from the Church of San Miguel in Valladolid, Spain. (CNS photos/Gregory L. Tracy, Pilot; Alinari, courtesy Art Resource; Nancy Wiechec)

St. Mary Magdalene depicted (l to r) in a stained-glass window in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in a sketch by Leonardo de Vinci, and in a sculpture from the Church of San Miguel in Valladolid, Spain. (CNS photos/Gregory L. Tracy, Pilot; Alinari, courtesy Art Resource; Nancy Wiechec)


She was not the prostitute that you read about in Luke 7:36-50. Her story begins in Luke 8:1-3, which says, “Soon afterwards Jesus went through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Jesus, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. Mary, called Magdalene from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna … and Susanna, and many others … who provided for them out of their resources.”

She also is not to be confused with the unknown woman who washed and anointed Jesus’ feet, nor was she Jesus’ wife, although some modern novels would have us believe this. There is simply no evidence for this in the Gospels. But keep in mind that she is the only woman in the New Testament to be called by her full name — Mary Magdalene. All other women are referred to simply by their first names. And this is the first clue that she is a woman of immense importance to the early church as well as to Jesus and his mission.

This is a woman who — once her demons had been exorcised — followed Jesus to the very end of his life: she gave of her resources to him and the mission of spreading the Gospel; she accompanied Jesus on many of his journeys in first-century Palestine; and she is a model of what a true disciple looks like.

However, attempts to move Mary to the background of the Passion Narratives and to erase her as a vital and loving witness to Jesus began well before the fifth century. It began with the writer of Luke, in Acts, where Peter and Paul are given center stage as those who preach to the Gentiles, as those who witness to the risen Christ — ignoring that it is Mary Magdalene, called the Apostle to the Apostles, who first sees the risen Christ in the garden, according to both the Gospels of Matthew and John. In Luke, when Mary and two other women return breathless and excited to say they have seen the Lord, the male disciples think their words are “like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Is the author of Acts responsible for this erasure of The Magdalene, as she sometimes is called, or is it part of a wider effort to discredit her authority and put Peter at the head of the new church?

The story of Mary Magdalene is a hard story to tell, to see the way Mary’s role and gifts have been set aside and almost forgotten although we know how close she was to Jesus, how much he loved her. We must share this story with others for we still live in a relatively patriarchal culture.

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great tried to undermine Mary Magdalene’s reputation by connecting her story to the story of the prostitute that precedes her story in the Gospel of Luke. But this is a later misinterpretation. Luke is clear that Mary was the woman healed by Jesus when he expelled seven demons from her.

And Mary responded by contributing to Jesus’ ministry and following him. Luke says she was a woman of means, like some other women who followed Jesus. They were not just followers in the passive sense — they were disciples. It is even possible that women were part of the 70 disciples Jesus sent out two by two, pairing one man and one woman together for security purposes, for his ministry was not just to men but also to women and children. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan thinks this is a strong possibility as discussed in his book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

And even when all the male disciples ran away, Mary Magdalene stayed true to her discipleship and her love for Jesus. She stayed, with several other women, as Jesus was crucified. Matthew writes in his Gospel, “There were also many women there, looking on from afar who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” John 19:25 also puts Mary, the mother of Jesus, with this group.

I imagine Mary Magdalene watching from a distance as Jesus is nailed to the cross. I see her stretching out her hands in passionate protest as the nails pound in. I hear her cries as Jesus begins to lose his breath and sink under the weight of his own body on the cross, eventually suffocating to death.

When he finally dies, the women follow Joseph of Arimathea as he takes down the broken body and lays it in the tomb. According to the Gospel of Luke, they prepare “spices and perfumed oils” to anoint Jesus’ body, but because it is the Sabbath, they have to wait another day to visit the tomb and anoint the body as was customary.

The story of Mary Magdalene is a hard story to tell, to see the way Mary’s role and gifts have been set aside and almost forgotten although we know how close she was to Jesus, how much he loved her. We must share this story with others for we still live in a relatively patriarchal culture.

We can take the memory and passionate witness of Mary Magdalene into our own hearts and see her as a model of true discipleship, looking for ways we can follow and witness along with her and other disciples. We can try — as she did — to not turn away from the suffering of others. We can try  — as she did — to go the distance with people as they stand up for their beliefs and the Gospel. We can stride out into the world with boldness and belief, confident that we have the words of life in our hands — as she did — The Magdalene.

 
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The Author : Annie Turner
Ann Turner is a passionate convert to the Catholic faith, who is also passionate about life in general, small dogs, food and wine, friends, nature, and the blessing that comes from just showing up and being a witness with other people. Follow Ann's faith journey & more at: itsthegodthing.blogspot.com. Ann is also the published author of over forty children's books. She loves to hear from her readers.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Father Dominic PJ McManus, OP

    The “Conflation of the Marys” is well known in scholarly circles, and pointing out the ambiguity is important, but that’s really the point–the texts are themselves ambiguous. Constructing a liberated Magdalene who rails against the injustices of the first century even as we speak truth to power today is actually the same project that the proponents of the accounts under scrutiny were about in their own time. Both are trying to make sense of the character presented in the gospels and handed on in the Church’s tradition in light of the broader Christian story. But Mary the Benevolent Businesswoman serves to answer primarily a spiritual need for Christians today, not necessarily the needs of first, second, or fifth century Christians. That’s the problem with the conspiracy theory that holds that Gregory the Misogynist launched a preaching campaign to undermine the authority of Mary in the early church. The problem is, of course, that Gregory was coming out of a monastic context in which repentant sinners–and especially repentant prostitutes–were among the most venerated saints in the Church. This is further evidenced by the eventual conflation of Mary Magdalene’s story with that of Mary of Egypt, whom we actually know a lot more about. But Mary of Egypt’s harlotry didn’t really count against her. If anything, it just lent more credibility to her conversion–which is what it ought to do for Christians across the board, even if the Mary in question is the Magdalene.

    Ann is right, of course. There are some very singular things to note about Mary Magdalene: she had been healed by Jesus of evil spirits, she helped to provide for the movement out of her resources, she stayed with him to the end, and she was the first witness to the resurrection–hence the ancient appellation, “Equal to the Apostles”. These elements surely need to be recovered as we retell her story today, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves–we’ll fill in the gaps, which are many, just as surely as did the Christians who came before us, and we’ll do it based upon our own preconceived notions, dominant narratives, and contemporary concerns. One just hopes that future generations will be at least as generous with us as we have been with those who came before us.

    • annieturner45@gmail.com

      Thanks, Fr. Dominic, for your thoughtful and lengthy reply! I agree that one of the tasks in reading the Gospels is NOT to imbue them with our own 21st century (can it be?) preconceptions etc. My major hope in this blog posting is simply to bring Mary Magdalene more clearly into peoples’ sights. I do think it interesting that our church does not do the whole reading with Jesus and Mary M. at the tomb on Easter morning.

  • eli

    “She was not the prostitute that you read about in Luke 7:36-50.”
    Actually…the woman in Luke 7:36-50 is not a prostitute either. It says she was a sinner but does not say what her sin is. There’s only the implication that whatever her sin was, it was public enough for everyone to know. It could have been prostitution or it could have been adultery or who knows what. But she is not specifically identified as a prostitute. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament is ANY woman identified as a prostitute.

  • Bills Fan 2014

    The stories of the visit of Mary to Elizabeth and appearance and commission of Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ Resurrection, cries out for a homily by a woman during the Liturgy of the Word at our weekend Eucharistic liturgies.

  • Guest

    The stories of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the appearance and commission of Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ Resurrection cries out for a “reflection” by a woman during the Liturgy of the Word during our weekend liturgies.

    • annieturner45@gmail.com

      What is odd to me is that the witness of Mary Magdalene at the tomb with Christ calling her “Mariam” and she calling him “Rabbouni” is not read during the Easter morning liturgy but relegated to the Tuesday following Easter, readings that not all will see. Check out Future Church for their kit on Rediscovering Mary Magdalene, which has lots of activities and suggestions for working with your parish to make her better known.

  • Veronica

    I’m glad to see an article like this, clarifying a bit more as to how Mary Magdalene was involved in Jesus’ ministry. And I was glad to see her role included, front and center, in the recent History Channel miniseries, “The Bible”. I viewed the miniseries this past weekend as the channel did an encore broadcast of it. And though her role was still small, I liked how the producers did include her as part of the disciples traveling with Jesus. Thanks for this article!

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