St. Mary Magdalene and Me
It is July 22nd, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and I am caught up in the mystery that has surrounded her life, or more accurately, people’s interpretations of her through the ages.
In my youth, I first saw her as the woman in Luke’s Gospel chapter 7, who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, anointed them with ointment from an alabaster jar, and then dried them with her hair. I admired how she showed her love for Jesus. If only I could show that depth of love!
Then came the story of how Jesus had driven seven demons out of Mary Magdalene in Luke chapter 8. I also heard, that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, yet a faithful bearer of the Good News that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was too confusing for my young mind. I could have said, “Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up!”
Being a cradle Catholic, I was shocked that there was no biblical evidence that she was a prostitute or public sinner. As I later discovered, she is mentioned twelve times in the Gospels, most of the references being around the crucifixion and the empty tomb.
Mary of Magdala remained an enigma to me as I was growing up. Fast forward to the summer of 1972, that found me watching the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” outdoors in the Hollywood Hills. That starlit night, I found the character Mary Magdalene sensually singing, “I don’t know how to love him.” How was I to take all this, having newly arrived from Bombay, India?!
Then came Mary Magdalene depicted as the sexy saint in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The film falsely identified Mary Magdalene as the woman in John’s Gospel chapter 8:3-11 stoned for adultery.
As I began to study God’s Word, I found out that Mary Magdalene has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misconstrued through the centuries as a prostitute, when in reality she was called the “Apostle to the Apostles.” She was a beloved disciple of Jesus, and an early church leader.
When talking about Jesus’ resurrection, scripture scholar Mary Thomson author of Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Leader says, “It’s really remarkable that all four gospels have the same story.” In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, Mary actually sees the Risen Lord. John’s Gospel however has details of Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb, and mistaking Jesus for the gardener. It is only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes him, and joyfully runs ahead announcing, “I have seen the Lord.”
The Gospel stories took on new meaning for me when I first visited the Holy Land in 2008. As we drove through Magdala, a centre of commercial fishing on the northwest bank of the Sea of Galilee, I pictured Mary Magdalene leaving her home to follow Jesus.
We are told that she was independent and appeared to be well-off, yet her debt of gratitude to Jesus for driving away her demons knew no bounds. She was present during Jesus’ public ministry, at the foot of the cross, and at the burial. Grief stricken, Mary was also at the tomb on Easter Sunday. Jesus rewarded her faithfulness by choosing her to be the one to spread the news that he had risen.
In Mary Magdalene I recognize a lived discipleship. Changed by her encounter with Jesus, she realized that she was a loved sinner, as I see myself now, having walked through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Great was her love for Jesus, because she had tasted the healing love of forgiveness.
I foolishly told myself that I was not going to cry when watching the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany in 2010. However, when I heard Jesus cry in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani”, and saw the group at the foot of the cross, my tears flowed freely.
The woman who had served us a meal earlier that day, was now Mary Magdalene, in the role of a life time. I suddenly saw Mary of Magdala as the faithful, devoted follower of Jesus who had experiential knowledge of him, and that changed her forever. She was called by name, “Miriam,” and so have I, in the garden of my life, by “Rabbouni” her divine teacher, and mine.
Richard Rohr says it best when he exclaims that, “Mary Magdalene is the icon and archetype of love itself – needed, given, received, and passed on. She is a stand-in for all of us who seek an intimate and loving relationship with the divine.”
It is fitting that Pope Francis in 2016 elevated her memorial to a feast day on the Roman calendar. The woman once shrouded in mystery is celebrated the same way as the male apostles.