Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles.
Who was Mary Magdalene? Few women in Christian history seem to be surrounded by as much scandal, rumors, and drama. Why?
I grew up steeped in Catholicism and Catholic culture. And so it was a complete shock when in my first semester at Fordham I learned there is no biblical evidence to support the claim Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Why hadn’t I heard this before? In what was perhaps my first intellectual encounter with patriarchy, I learned that art and culture had conflated an unnamed prostitute and Mary Magdalene – but there was absolutely no historical evidence supporting that move. For millennia, much has been made of the juxtaposition of Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene — the virgin and the whore.
But what do we actually know about Mary Magdalene?
Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve (2) and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, (3) Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.
And so we know that she was part of a loyal group of women following Jesus, providing resources, and healed. So great was her faith and discipleship, that we know she was at the crucifixion and one of the women who followed Jesus’ body to see it properly attended. She is one of the first to find the empty tomb – being instructed in Mark to go and tell the others.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. (2) Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. (3) They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (4) When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. (5) On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. (6) He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. (7) But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”
And in John’s Gospel, it is Mary Magdalene to whom Jesus appears and gives a mission:
But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb (12) and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. (13) And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” (14) When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. (15) Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” (16) Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,”*which means Teacher. (17) Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (18)Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what he told her.
And thus, she receives the title Apostle to the Apostles.
From medieval art to The Da Vinci Code, men throughout Christian history have desperately tried to sexualize and lessen the witness of Mary Magdalene. Like most of the women in the Bible, we are only given brief highlights and not much detail about their lives. What we are told about Mary Magdalene, however, subverts patriarchy. She is a model of fidelity to the Lord for all of us – she stayed when all but the “beloved disciple” fled. She is not a repentant whore or foil to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is a faithful disciple who stays with her Lord until the bitter end and after – a witness who proclaims the gospel.
And so on this July 22, let us celebrate a woman who subverted patriarchy and proclaims the gospel in spite of all our tradition’s attempts to make her into someone less strong, less independent, less dangerous to the patriarchal narrative.