Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, follower of Jesus and the first person the Gospels record seeing and proclaiming the risen Christ. Today’s Gospel from John records the encounter between the two outside of the tomb.
Why did Pope Gregory identify Mary as a prostitute in 591? Why did it take so many centuries for the Church to abandon the idea that she was? I don’t have answers to these questions, though we can all make some guesses.
Whatever was mistakenly thought (and still sometimes preached) about her, Mary Magdalene is a model of apostleship and discipleship. In his 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II wrote:
The Gospel of John emphasizes the special role of Mary Magdalene. She is the first to meet the Risen Christ. At first she thinks he is the gardener; she recognizes him only when he calls her by name: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’. She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God’. Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”
Hence she came to be called “the apostle of the Apostles.” Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness of the Risen Christ, and for this reason she was also the first to bear witness to him before the Apostles. This event, in a sense, crowns all that has been said previously about Christ entrusting divine truths to women as well as men. One can say that this fulfilled the words of the Prophet: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”
Today we celebrate Mary Magdalene, friend of Jesus and a model of apostolic witness. And we remember that, as was Mary, each of us is called by name and commissioned to proclaim the resurrection.