On July 22, we celebrated the feast day of St Mary Magdalene, a woman who has been both fascinating and controversial in equal measure.
Magdalene is not a surname but rather identifies the place Mary came from, Magdala, a city in Galilee, located in the northernmost region of ancient Palestine, (now northern Israel). It lies about nine kilometers south of Tiberias and about sixteen south of Capernaum. During the first Christian centuries, it was a center of pilgrimage with a large monastery and church. Both were obliterated by a sequence of earthquakes and invasions.
During his visit to the Holy Land in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI blessed the foundation stone for a new Magdala Centre to be built on the site.
In addition to Jesus’ mother, several women called Mary to appear in the pages of the New Testament. Mary of Bethany was the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Mary was praised by the Lord for listening to his words and it was she who anointed his feet with expensive nard and fine oils.
Mary, the mother of James and Joseph goes with Magdalene to the tomb on Easter Sunday. There is also Mary, the wife (or daughter) of Clophas, who stands with Mary Magdalene and his mother near the cross on which Jesus is dying
Another Mary, the mother of John Mark, opens her house to the infant Jerusalem church (Acts 12:12). Paul greets someone in Rome called Mary, who “has worked hard among you” (Rom 16:16).
Mary, or Miriam, was a common name for Jewish women, first given to the sister of Moses.
Mary of Magdala followed Jesus because she had experienced profound healing. Both Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2 identify it as a release from “seven demons”. Seven is a symbolical number suggesting serious demonical possession. Possession indicates many things, including personality disturbances that today might be equated with a psychiatric disorder.
According to Luke, she belonged to a group of women disciples who provided for Jesus and his followers out of their resources (Luke 8:3). She was one of an even smaller group of them who witnessed the crucifixion, whether from a distance, or directly under the cross along with his mother. All four Gospels name her as a witness to the empty tomb, either alone (Gospel of John) or in the company of other women according to the Synoptics. All agree (which is rare) that Mary was the first person Jesus appeared to and talked with after his resurrection.
Gradually and for a variety of reasons, the memory of Mary Magdalen changed in the western church and became distorted from that of a faithful disciple and first witness of the resurrection, to that of a repentant prostitute and public sinner.
She was identified as such in the homilies of Pope Gregory the Great in 590 AD. At a time when the plague was ravaging Europe, he emphasised penitential forms of worship as a way of warding off diseases. Mary of Magdala was assumed to be the unnamed woman of ill repute who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and whose many sins Jesus declares forgiven (Luke 7: 37-50). In 1570, the Roman Missal described Mary Magdalen on her feast day as “penitent” and the selected Gospel was that of the sinful woman. In 1969, the Church admitted that it had been mistaken and in 2016, Pope Francis elevated her memorial to that of a Feast Day, placing her at last on the same level as the Apostles.
However, the view of her as a prostitute persisted in popular culture. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister said Mary Magdalen’s reputation was sullied by the way she was presented in art over the centuries. A bizarre tradition in some depictions shows her naked but clothed by long red hair. Hollywood films also helped to fuel this notion of Mary as a fallen woman.
In many medieval manuscripts of missala, Mary Magdalen’s feast day had the heading Apostola Apostlorum which translates as Apostle of the Apostles. This title for her can be traced back to the early part of the third century when it was first used by a writer called Hippolytus, in what might have been an Easter homily, now part of his commentary on the Song of Songs. It reflects however that the truth that Mary was sent, or commissioned by Jesus to be the first person to bring to others the news of his resurrection.
Mary is Patron of the Dominican Order because as the Order of preachers they look to her as the first preacher of the gospel. When her title was restored in 2016 Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, said that Pope Francis himself had taken this decision in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy “to stress the importance of this woman, who shows great love for Christ and was very dear to Christ”.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan