This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
Mary Magdalene has been a complex character in Christian thought throughout Church history. She has been variously identified as Mary of Magdala; the “sinful woman” of Luke 7:36-50 who anoints Christ’s feet and dries them with her hair; and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. What we know from Scripture is that Mary of Magdala was one of the women who followed Jesus during His ministry in Galilee, that He exorcised seven demons from her, that she was present at the foot of the cross, and that she was the first to discover the empty tomb and witness the Risen Christ.
Especially in modern times, it has been common to represent Mary Magdalene as simply a reformed prostitute and leave things at that, though she was never considered as such in the Early Church. And thanks to the fictions of Dan Brown and his popular novel “The Da Vinci Code,” there is now also the false belief that she was actually the wife of Jesus during His time on earth, a claim that is completely unfounded in any historicity.
There is certainly a tangled web to pick apart the various impressions and ideas that have clouded around Mary Magdalene through the centuries, but there is also an abundant richness when one simply focuses on what we are given in the Gospels.
One of the ideas I have been strongly drawn to is that regardless of whether she was the “sinful woman” in Luke or what it was exactly that was sinful about her, the evangelists still clearly describe her as having seven demons driven out. Before encountering Christ, her life would not have been easy or pleasant. Today we talk about the “demons” of alcoholism and other addictions, and mental illnesses such as depression or PTSD. These often lead to destructive behavior towards ourselves and those closest to us. The Gospel writers do not provide details about Mary Magdalene’s previous life, but it is not difficult to imagine a soul in the grip of seven demons. The knowledge that those demons once had possession of her but were driven out by Christ is all the context that we are given, all the context that we need, to then see her remarkable witness as a disciple.
Whether or not she was indeed the woman who washed Christ’s feet with her hair and anointed him, Jesus’s words in Luke 7:47 still apply, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Mary Magdalene is often held up as an example of the perfect repentant – beloved by Christ because of, not in spite of, her many sins that were forgiven. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, Christ makes the point that it is those who humble themselves that will ultimately be exalted.
It was Mary Magdalene who was gifted to be the first witness of the Resurrection. Though all of the Gospel writers mention her as being the first at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, it is St. John who lingers on the scene. While at first she did not recognize the Risen Christ, mistaking Him for a gardener, she was still the first to see Him because she was the one still seeking Him, the one still at the tomb while the others simply mourned behind locked doors. Even sorrowing and tearful, she was always seeking Christ who had already saved her. Mary knew the power of the Lord against darkness and evil, because she had already experienced that saving power herself.
St. Gregory the Great said of Magdalene, “We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for Him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see Him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”
Despite the many misrepresentations of Mary Magdalene through the years, there have recently been some much better portrayals of her. In the online series “The Chosen,” the very first episode of season one focuses on her redemption and the exorcising of the demons within her, and she is then featured throughout the rest of the series alongside the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though not a specifically Catholic production, the series is definitely worth the time to check out from what I have seen so far, with its excellent production value, writing and acting. It can be watched for free online at www.thechosen.tv or through an app.
Another intriguing resource is the book Mary Magdalene in the Visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, available through Tan Books. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich was an Augustinian nun who died in the early 19th century. A mystic and stigmatist, her visions of the life of Christ were compiled under the title “The Dolorous Passion.” The slim volume concerning Mary Magdalene contains excerpts from the larger writing and paint a vivid picture of this engaging saint, from her extravagant youth to her repentance to her love and devotion as a disciple. Blessed Anne Catherine’s visions also depict Mary Magdalene as being the younger sister of Martha and Lazarus, as well as being the one to anoint Christ’s feet.
In 2016, Pope Francis elevated the memorial of Mary Magdalene on July 22 to that of a feast, the same status as celebrations of the apostles and evangelists. In a world that is in need of so much forgiveness, let us turn in petition to St. Mary Magdalene, that perfect repentant. No matter how great our past sins, the Lord will not spurn a truly contrite heart.
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