After the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, there is perhaps no woman in the New Testament more intriguing than Mary Magdalene. She has figured prominently in art, the naming of churches, and even popular fiction. Pope Francis just elevated her feast day, July 22, to greater importance. Church holy days have three ranks: Memorial, Feast, and Solemnity. Mary Magdalene is moving from a Memorial to a Feast. The official decree explains why:
Given that in our time the Church is called to reflect in a more profound way on the dignity of Woman, on the New Evangelisation and on the greatness of the Mystery of Divine Mercy, it seemed right that the example of Saint Mary Magdalene might also fittingly be proposed to the faithful. In fact this woman, known as the one who loved Christ and who was greatly loved by Christ, and was called a “witness of Divine Mercy” by Saint Gregory the Great and an “apostle of the apostles” by Saint Thomas Aquinas, can now rightly be taken by the faithful as a model of women’s role in the Church.Just what do we know about Mary Magdalene, and what can we learn from her?
The name Mary Magdalene appears 13 times in the Gospels. Mary was a popular name for women in Bible times. Magdalene means she was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of Galilee a few miles to the south of Capernaum.
St. Luke tells us, "Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means." (Luke 8:1-2)
She stayed and watched the crucifixion (Matt 27:56,61; John 19:25). All four of the Gospels record the fact that she went to the tomb on Easter Sunday in order to anoint the body of Jesus (Mattew 28:1, Mark 16:1,9; Luke 24:10, John 20:1). John records an extended Resurrection conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is beautiful and tender and touching. It is the kind of personal encounter with Jesus that every Christian dreams of.
Broken and Redeemed
Mary Magdalene has much to teach us. First, we know that she required some kind of healing. In the Middle Ages she was often depicted as a repentant prostitute (the image above is Caravaggio's take on that idea). Legend says she was so contrite that she never sinned again. Scripture doesn't tell us these details, but anyone who had seven demons must have been a frightful sight. Jesus freed and healed her, and it changed her life forever. She shows us that the scared and broken "losers" of this world belong with Jesus just as much as the Beloved Disciple and the Virgin Mary.
Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear
She has a place in the mission of the Church. Though not an official Apostle, she follows Jesus and helps provide for the needs of the group. You might have thought of her as a "Jesus groupie." But she is more than just a fan. She follows Jesus even to the cross, when all his male disciples save one abandon him. She follows him to the tomb. She and her girlfriends return to anoint the body and so become the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Her love for Jesus is stronger than any fear. The Church needs women who love God fiercely and tenaciously, women who will stay faithful to Jesus even when others have fled.
Bishops Need to Hear the Gospel Too
She brought the news of the Resurrection to the Apostles. In other words, one could say she preached the Gospel to the first Bishops. Faithful women, especially those who have found healing through the love of Jesus, are an important part of keeping the church faithful to Christ. The Bishops (and priests) need to hear the Gospel as much, or more, than others. The greatest witnesses to the Resurrection are the sinners who have been saved by the love of Jesus.
So this Friday, raise glass to Mary Magdalene on her newly-upgraded feast day. We don't know much about her, but we can learn a great deal from her.