St. Mary Magdalene

First Century

Mary Magdalene, says the gospel of John, stood by the Cross of Calvery with Jesus’ mother and Mary the wife of Clopas. Since the burial of Christ that evening had been hurried, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas and another brought spices before dawn on the following Sunday to finish the task. Much to their surprise, the stone of His tomb had been rolled away, and Jesus’ body was no longer within.

The “Madeleine” at once ran back to the Cenacle to tell Peter and John of their discovery. The two apostles hurried over, saw the empty tomb, and left puzzled. Mary herself remained sadly at the sepulchre. When she looked into the tomb, she saw an angel, who asked her why she was crying. Then Jesus himself appeared to her outside. Thinking Him to be the gardener, she asked where the body was. Then He greeted her, “Mary!” When she heard that well known voice she recognized Him. But He sent her back to tell His disciples that she had seen Him, and He was indeed risen. It has been conjectured that Our Lord first appeared to his own mother, but Mary Magdalene was the first public witness to His rising.

There are three women mentioned in the gospels who had a very special rapport with Jesus. One is the sinful woman of Galiee who washed His feet with her tears and anointed Him with perfume. A second is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who loved to hear Him talk, and also anointed His head and feet during His last visit to Bethany. The third is Mary of Magdala, one of those who accompanied the apostles and served them. Since she is at one point described as one from whom Jesus expelled seven devils, many Christians have thought that she was the nameless sinful woman, and Mary of Bethany, too.

When the Catholic Church revised the Missal in 1969, the wiser view was adopted that Mary Magdalene was separate from the sinning woman and Mary of Bethany. Now her feast recognizes only the woman from Magdala. The collect of her Mass says, “Father, your Son first entrusted to Mary Magdalene the joyful news of His resurrection…” In the north window of the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, she and St. Thomas the Doubter are represented flanking the Risen Christ. Both were primary witnesses of His resurrection: Mary Magdalene to whom He first lovingly disclosed Himself; Thomas, the skeptic turned rapturous believer: “My Lord and my God.”

The perhaps natural confusion of the three devoted women was further complicated by divergent legends of what later became of the Magdalene. The Eastern Church said, rather plausibly, that she had gone to Ephesus to live, when St. John took Our Lady there to live with him. The Western Church, or at least the French Church, cherished the story that Mary of Magdalene-Bethany set sail with her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha, and other Christian friends, in a boat without oars, which carried them to the coast of southern France. There they became the first spokesmen of Christianity. In her last years, says the tale, Mary lived as a hermitess in an Alpine cave. Her body was eventually enshrined in the church of Ste. Madeline, Vezelay, France. However ancient and popular in France, this narrative is now considered to be without foundation.

The Mary we venerate, then, on July 22, is that fortunate, affectionate person whom Jesus rewarded by commissioning her to be the first to announce to the world the Good News of His rising. The Church puts on her lips today the words of St. Paul: “He died for all so that those live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who for their sakes died and was raised up.”

--Father Robert F. McNamara