Mary Magdalene: Fiercely Loyal Friend and Disciple

Today the Catholic Church celebrates one of the most maligned women in history: Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple of Jesus.  She was one of the people who followed Jesus wherever he went. One of the few who didn’t run away at the end, but who stayed at the foot the cross until he died. And she is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection – the appearance that we hear about in today’s Gospel.

It is a beautiful encounter.  In The Twelve Voices of Easter, Woodrow Kroll and Keity Ghormley have a chapter on Mary Magdalene, which among other things, describes that encounter in Mary’s voice.  I share here an excerpt, which you might use as a meditation for today’s Gospel.

…when we arrived at the tomb, we were shocked: The stone was not there, nor were any soldiers to be seen. The stone had been rolled away–taken right out of its trough and tipped over.

As we stood and wondered at what had happened to the stone, two men dressed in dazzling white robes suddenly appeared. These garments were not the togas of Roman soldiers, nor were they the long white robes of the Pharisees. These were not men at all, but angels of God.

We were overcome and we fell to the ground. But the angels reassured us. They reminded us how Jesus had said that He would rise again. One of the angels bid us to look inside the tomb and see for ourselves. I ran as fast as I could to tell Peter and John. When we returned, the other women were gone. We looked in the tomb. Empty. I was convinced that someone had stolen the body of Jesus. The linen garments Joseph had wrapped Him in were lying there, neatly folded in their places. But the tomb was empty.

Peter and John ran from the garden, but I remained. I had nowhere to go. What had happened to the Master? Could it be that He actually did rise from the dead, or had the soldiers taken His body away? My heart was overcome again with sorrow. I just stood there, weeping.

Then I heard a voice behind me ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” I assumed it was the gardener. “Sir, what have you done with Him?” I asked, wiping my face.

It was fully light, but tears blurred my eyes. I turned, but could not see clearly. Then He called me by my name. “Mariam.” That was my Aramaic name, the name my parents and my friends called me. A gardener would not have spoken Aramaic to me. A Roman would not know my name. I knew that voice. I looked up. I saw Him. It was Jesus. I answered in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” I threw myself at His feet, weeping, laughing, not believing, believing. My Master, my Teacher, my Savior, my Lord. He was standing there alive….

He told me to go tell the others, and I did. Marvelous news. A wonder beyond all wonders. God has accomplished great things in our midst. Jesus is risen from the dead!

Apostle to the Apostles

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.

Donatello’s Mary Magdalene

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, the first person to see the resurrected Christ.

One of the first images that comes to my mind when I think of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s haunting sculpture of her, in Florence. The statue shows her during the 30-year period it is believed the saint spent fasting and repenting at the end fo her life. According to popular biographies of her, Mary Magdalene was said to have renounced material possessions and covered herself only with her long hair. One biographer wrote that she lived without food because she “knew that Jesus wished to sustain her with naught but heavenly meats, allowing her no earthly satisfaction.”

Whatever we do or don’t know about the historical Mary Magdalene herself, Donatello’s sculpture is (in the words of Martha Levine Dunkelman) “one of the most famous expressions of female emotion in the history of Western art. She has become an iconic image of a suffering woman….[and] an example of penitence.” At the same time, the figure shows strength and endurance.

Perhaps a good image for meditation on this feast of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene

“Him Whom My Heart Loves”

There are two options for the first Mass reading for today, the day on which the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Mary Magdalene. The first of those is a passage from the Song of Songs which I love.

On my bed at night I sought him whom my heart loves – I sought him but I did not find him. I will rise then and go about the city; in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves. I sought him but I did not find him. The watchmen came upon me, as they made their rounds of the city: Have you seen him whom my heart loves? I had hardly left them when I found him whom my heart loves.

This passage is a fitting one for a celebration of Mary Magdalene, who loved and sought Jesus. The longing expressed in it presages the longing we see in St. John’s Gospel passage for today, in which we find Mary frantically searching for the body of Jesus.

And just as the passage in the Song of Songs ends with the triumphant expression of the one who finds “him whom my heart loves,” we see Mary’s joy when she realizes that the person she has taken for a gardener is the risen Jesus.

Today we celebrate a woman who Father Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., describes as loving Christ “with all the force of her being.” May we all long for Jesus with the force with which she did.

Mary Magdalene

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Mary Magdalene. Although it is hard to sort through the various stories one hears about Mary, one thing seems absolutely certain – this was a woman who loved Jesus.

Father Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., suggests that Mary loved Christ “with all the force of her being.” We can see evidence of that love in today’s Gospel passage. We see it in the grief Mary displays outside of the tomb when she discovered Jesus’ body is gone. We see it in her tears and frantic search for any information she can find that will help her find the body. And we see it in her joy when she realizes that the person she has taken for a gardener is, in fact, the risen Jesus.

It is no accident that one of the optional texts for the first Mass reading on this day of Mary Magdalene’s memorial is from the Song of Songs:

On my bed at night I sought him whom my heart loves – I sought him but I did not find him. I will rise then and go about the city; in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves. I sought him but I did not find him. The watchmen came upon me, as they made their rounds of the city: Have you seen him whom my heart loves? I had hardly left them when I found him whom my heart loves.

A beautiful expression of Mary Magdalene’s longing to find Christ. A beautiful expression of the longing in all of our hearts for union with our God.

Mary Magdalene

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Mary Magdalene. Is there another woman about whom so much misinformation has been spread throughout the years?

For the longest time, the Church put forth the idea that Mary Magdalene was the adulterous woman who Jesus saves from being stoned, and she is often portrayed that way in films and in art. Yet, biblical scholars have argued that there is no evidence linking Mary Magdalene either with the woman saved from being stoned or with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus when he dines at the home of the Pharisee.

On another front are those who claim some version of: Jesus and Mary had an illicit love relationship, Jesus and Mary were really married, Jesus and Mary had a child together, and so on. There is equally no canonical support for this view.

What do the scriptures tell us about Mary? We are told that Jesus cast out some demons from her and that she followed Christ throughout his ministry. There are several Gospel references to people who were with Jesus during his travels, and Mary is one of those listed. Following Jesus, listening to his teaching, watching him perform miracles all had an effect: Mary clearly grew in love of Jesus and in faith and courage. We know this because while Jesus is hanging on the cross, and so many of his disciples run away, Mary is one of the people who stayed. Mary remains faithful to the end.

Today’s Gospel reading has Mary going to the tomb on the third morning to anoint the dead body of Jesus. When she finds the tomb empty, she goes and brings Peter and John back with her. They then leave, and she stays – looking everywhere for Jesus, asking everyone where they have taken his body. In staying, she becomes the first person to experience the resurrected Christ – Jesus appears to her and calls her by name.

The story based on what we are told in the scripture is a lot less exciting than the alternative readings. “Adulterer saved from mob in the 11th hour by Jesus” and “Love Child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene reared in secret” make for much sexier headlines. But the “real” story is one of authentic discipleship.

It is also a great story on which to end an 8-day retreat. (My retreat ended with Liturgy and breakfast this morning.) At the end of the passage, Jesus sends Mary back to tell the others what she has seen. And isn’t that precisely what Jesus does with us at the end of a retreat. Come away and rest a while, yes. But then, go and tell the world what you have seen.