St. Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles
St. Mary Magdalene is often regarded as one of the most mysterious figures of the New Testament. Prostitution has been attributed to her. And yet she is also portrayed by the gospels as one of the most unrelenting and faithful followers Jesus had, even earning the beautiful title from the Church of the “apostle to the apostles” as she was the one who proclaimed the Risen Christ to the other disciples. Many strange legends and gnostic stories have been spread about this great saint and have obscured her true greatness. It is time to return to the biblical information available to us, as well as what the Church has traditionally taught about Mary Magdalene.
One important note is the question of whether Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the repentant woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7 are all the same woman. Scholars today debate this, and many dismiss the idea that these women were one and the same. The Church’s tradition has long been that these three women were all the same woman, which is part of the reason why Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of repentant sinners, converts, sexual temptation, and contemplatives among other things. Pope St. Gregory the Great proclaimed them all to be one and the same woman around the year 600. We will not attempt to wrestle with modern scholarship or papal declarations here, but rather we will reflect on the few verses that directly refer to Mary Magdalene, as well as mention what tradition says she did following the Ascension of Christ. Regardless of the debate, Mary Magdalene was undisputedly a disciple with a great love for Our Lord, and above all we will see that Mary Magdalene is an exemplary witness of what good can come when we allow ourselves to be changed by Christ.
Mary the Convert
Luke 8:2 states that Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out of her. These demons have long been associated with the seven deadly sins, and also simply as a totality of sin. Whether or not Mary Magdalene was a prostitute (which has no strict biblical basis) or was the repentant woman in the previous chapter who anointed Jesus, it is clear that she had struggled with sin. The demons cannot possess a person uninvited, but take hold of a person who has already opened the door through a sinful lifestyle. The number seven is closely associated throughout the Sacred Scriptures with perfection or fullness, and this detail of seven demons specifically being cast out of Mary is significant in light of the importance of this number. We do not know her specific sins, but it is clear that Mary had lived a life muddled by the darkness of sin, and the healing ministry of Jesus brought her into the light. She was transformed, as we all ought to be, by encountering the only One who can give new and abundant life to those who seek it. In her new life free from the possession of the demons, she freely gave of herself to Jesus and his disciples. The gospels mention that she is one of several women who accompanied Jesus and the disciples in their ministry and ministered to the men by providing them with food and looking after their material needs. These were women who wanted to give their entire selves in serving the Lord and his servants. They sought to hear his teachings, to bask in his goodness, to witness his life, and to serve him unreservedly.
Mary the Faithful
Jesus’s followers were scattered following his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. However, a few remained faithful and followed him even to the Cross. A handful of women, his mother, and John the Apostle looked on as he was crucified. Mary Magdalene was one of the women who watched as their beloved rabbi was crucified. What must have been going on in her heart as she watched the one who transformed her life willingly give up his own? What did she think as she heard him welcome the repentant criminal next to him into the kingdom, she who likewise had had great need of repentance? She heard him cry out, “It is finished,” and saw him take his last breath. She was one of the women who helped prepare his cold, bloody body for burial. She was one of the women who rose early on Sunday morning to finish preparing his body for burial, only to find he was not there. In the midst of uncertainty, apparent defeat and destruction of the ministry, and perhaps doubt on whether or not he was who he claimed to be in word and deed, Mary Magdalene remained faithful to the Lord. She was there for him until the end, all the way to the grave.
Mary the Apostle
When she realized that the Lord was not in the tomb, she at first thought that someone had taken his body. Jesus approaches her and asks her why she weeps. She thinks that he is a gardener and begs to know where Jesus’s body has gone. Jesus first addresses Mary as “woman” but he addresses her a second time by name, and it is with this calling out of her name that she recognizes him, cries out “rabboni” (teacher or master), and then attempts to embrace him. What we see in this desperate exchange before recognition is that Mary has unrelenting love for our Lord. When the other disciples had gone away after finding the empty tomb, she did not cease seeking Jesus. She is desperate to find him, to tend to him, to serve him, to love him, even if it means finishing the job of preparing his body for the grave. Mary’s seeking is rewarded by Jesus’s appearance to her and his special mission for her – to be an apostle to the apostles – she is sent to the others to tell them that the Lord has risen! What was her reaction when her startling news of great joy reached the ears of the apostles and they dismissed her words as “idle talk?” In her great charity, she probably prayed for them. Having seen him and heard him, she had utter confidence in Jesus.
We do not have more information about Mary Magdalene in the Sacred Scriptures, but the ancient tradition of the Church is that Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and other Christians were put out to sea in a boat without oars as an act of persecution by the Jews. The boat eventually made its way to the shores of present-day France. There the disciples disembarked and began preaching the Good News to the locals. A basilica dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene with her relics and the relics of Martha, Lazarus, and other Christians who were with them can be found in Provence, not far from Marseilles. There is also a chapel in the cave in the Baume mountains where Mary Magdalene lived the remainder of her life as a hermit, totally dedicated to Jesus in the contemplative life.
This great saint is for us an image of unwavering fidelity. She is an image of what we ought to be when we turn from sin to new life in Christ – always seeking to serve Our Lord, always seeking to be near to him in suffering and joy, always seeking to share the Gospel with others.