Today is the feast day of Mary of Magdala, better known to us as Mary Magdalene. She is the patron saint of the contemplative life, converts, glove makers (don’t know too many), hairstylists, penitent sinners, people ridiculed for their piety, perfumeries and perfumers, pharmacists, and women.
St. Mary Magdalene has been a figure of recent controversial interest in cultural and religious circles, especially with her portrayal in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In the film, she is portrayed as having married Jesus, and (spoiler alert) their subsequent bloodline lives among us today.
In 2003, Karen L. King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala offered commentary as well as a fresh translation of the gnostic “Gospel of Mary” which dates to the 2nd century. It was discovered in the 19th century and first published in 1955. In it, Mary is portrayed as a beloved of Christ, and to whom he entrusted esoteric truths and deep theological insights, often to the jealousy of her male counterparts.
In informal polling, the common perception of Mary Magdalene is that of a “lady of the night,” albeit reformed. The notion of Mary Magdalene as a reformed harlot was popularized largely because of Pope Gregory’s homiletic assertions in 591. He erroneously assumed several other Mary references were that of Mary Magdalene. The image stuck, and years of artistic interpretation cemented the image of a woman with a past.
My aim here is not to debate her role in contemporary minds as only emblematic of conversion. History and scholarship has done this for us. Nor am I making the assertion, as Dan Brown did, that she was the wife of Jesus and that she bore His offspring. Honestly, my faith would not change one way or another if that was or was not true. As Catholics who venerate and respect saints (not to be confused with “worship”!), I think our mission should be more basic as we spend less time with historical and scholarly accuracies and nuances and more emulating agreed-upon virtuous characteristics.
Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. (Matthew 27:55-56)
From Matthew 27:59-61, we see that Mary also stayed at the tomb of Jesus.
So Joseph [of Arimathea] took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
To whom did Jesus first appear?
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. (Mark 16:9-10)
The love that existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is undeniably evident. As the apostle of the apostles, she expressed this love of Christ in the truest sense of the word with her bravery, loyalty, and compassion. Their love also invites us to reexamine our own prejudices.
In Galatians we are reminded that there is no “woman” or “man” in Christ. Jesus lived this in by breaking societal norms and embracing St. Mary Magdalene, looking beyond her feminism, or perhaps fully embracing it. To me it begs the question: When the priest, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is in persona Christi, is it thus an anatomical reality or is it more of a spiritual reality?
We give thanks for Christ’s sacrifice, to which Mary Magdalene bravely bore witness. When she’s not too busy being the patroness of hairdressers, I wonder if we, both men and women, might implore her intercession as we discern what the feminine apostolate looks like today.