Who was St Mary Magdalene?

Published on 29 Jul 2017

by Tim McEvoy

We celebrated the feast of St Mary Magdalene last week on 22 July. But who was Mary of Magdala?

Over the centuries there has been quite a lot of confusion around the identity of this woman from a small town in Galilee – from the time of Pope Gregory in the late 6th century she has often been identified inaccurately as the ‘sinful woman’ mentioned in Luke, usually assumed to have been a prostitute. She has sometimes also been conflated with the anonymous woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair or confused with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. To be fair and charitable there are quite a few Marys in the New Testament however, as the Jesuit writer James Martin reminds us, there is no scriptural evidence that Mary of Magdala was ever a woman of ill-repute, despite the very common association. Our information about her is limited but what the gospels do tell us is that Jesus apparently drove seven demons out of her; that she remained faithful to the bitter end and accompanied Jesus during his crucifixion when all the other (male) disciples had abandoned him; Mary watched Jesus die; she was the first to whom Jesus appeared after his Resurrection and she was the one, in John’s account, who announced the news of the risen Jesus to the ‘brothers’ - the other disciples, including Peter, James and John, future leaders of the Church. This is why Mary has traditionally held the title: Apostle to the Apostles.

All of this leads Martin to celebrate her fidelity and her unique relationship with Jesus and to rank her higher, in faith terms, than her fellow male disciples (cf. Martin, ‘Who was Mary of Magdala?’, America Magazine, 22 July 2011). We can only speculate about her influence in the first Christian community – though based on gospel evidence it seems to have been significant – and lament subsequent attempts to downplay this by voices suspicious of female leadership in the Church. But Mary’s passion for Jesus is clear and her faith – lived out and shared - a powerful testimony to a life transformed by encountering him.

The readings for her Feast speak of powerful longing and desire. The Song of Songs passage in the first reading beautifully mirrors the desperate search for the beloved of the grief-stricken Mary in the Gospel:

‘On my bed at night, I sought him whom my heart loves.
I sought but did not find him,
So I will rise and go through the City; in the streets and in the squares
I will seek him whom my heart loves …’
And the moment, having met the watchmen doing their rounds, of unexpected encounter:
‘”Have you seen him whom my heart loves?”

Scarcely had I passed them than I found him whom my heart loves.’

(Song of Songs 3:1-4)

The response of the Psalm speaks of a deep bodily yearning for God: ‘For you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God.’ A compelling even desperate need that can only be filled by the beloved: ‘for your love is better than life.’ (Psalm 62)

All of this is embodied in the passionate lived experience of Mary in the Gospel where we meet her in her search for Jesus’ body at his tomb – a heartbroken longing that was met, suddenly, finally, in the unexpected guise of the ‘gardener’ tenderly calling her name:

‘Jesus said “Mary!” She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbuni!” – which means Master’

(John 20:11-18)

This is a deeply moving, deeply human story of desire, grief, surprise and ultimate reunion - Mary falling into the arms of her beloved, the source of her longing, when it all seemed fruitless and beyond hope. We might ask ourselves, as we allow the story of Mary of Magdala to touch our own: how does that longing for the beloved, for ultimate fulfilment, manifest itself in my own life and heart? 

And in what, perhaps unlooked for moment or place, is Jesus longing to meet me? 

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