On Wednesday is the feast of St. Mary of Magdala, who was one of Jesus’ disciples and the first eyewitness of His resurrection. Because of this, and because it was her who brought the news of the resurrection to the apostles, St. Thomas Aquinas called her “apostolorum apostola”1 - “apostle of the apostles.”
St. John Paul II also highlighted her importance in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, where he argued that Christ “entrust[ed] divine truths to women as well as men” and that His “attitude to women confirms and clarifies, in the Holy Spirit, the truth about the equality of man and woman.” There John Paul II writes:
“The Gospel of John (cf. also Mk 16:9) 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” (Jn 20:16-18). 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.”But who was Mary Magdalene, and how well does her image of a repentant prostitute actually agree with the Gospels? Here, let’s turn to a great article by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who - as a professional biblical scholar - provides a clear scriptural analysis of this disciple of Jesus and debunks distortions that have been introduced later and for a variety of ignoble motives. Ravasi starts out by providing some background on her origin, her first mention in the Gospels and the source of an early misidentification with another, anonymous character:2
“Magdala (from the Hebrew “migdol” - “tower”) [was] a village located on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee, at the time a center of the fishing trade, to the point where in Greek it was called Tarichea, that is, “salted fish”. What we know about it has been revealed by archeology, although the village itself today is sunk beneath the waters of the lake.Ravasi also presents a number of other misidentifications of Mary Magdalen with others, including Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Mary the mother of Jesus, and even with Wisdom, as her personification. Instead of reviewing the details - and refutations - of these as presented by Cardinal Ravasi, let me just focus on the profile he presents that is based on the Gospel accounts:
Well, from this location, Mary suddenly emerges in the Gospel of Luke (8:1-3), in a list of disciples of Christ. Her portrait is sketched out with a single brush stroke, “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.”
The “demon” in the language of the Gospel is not only the root of moral evil but also of physical ailment that can pervade a person. ‘Seven’, then, is the number symbolic of fullness.
We cannot, therefore, know much about the grave evil, moral or psychological or physical, that struck Mary and that Jesus had eliminated. Popular tradition, however, had no hesitation in later centuries to call Mary Magdalene a prostitute. But why? The answer is simple: on the previous page, in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Luke there is the story of an anonymous “sinful woman in the (unnamed) city.” Making the connection was easy but unfounded: this public “sinful woman” had to be Mary Magdalene, presented a few lines later! She was, then, attributed the whole story told by the evangelist that followed. Having learned of the presence of Jesus at a banquet at the house of a prominent Pharisee, she had made a gesture of reverence and love that was especially appreciated by Christ: she anointed with perfumed oil the feet of the rabbi of Nazareth, she bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair.”
“All the evangelists are, in fact, agreed on indicating her presence at the crucifixion and burial of Christ. And it is right next to that tomb in the still-pale dawn light of Easter that the Gospel of John (20:11-18) places the famous meeting between Christ and Mary of Magdala.
As is known, Mary confuses the Christ with the guardian of the cemetery. Now, such “blindness” is typical of some appearances of the Risen One: just think of the disciples of Emmaus who are walking together with him for hours without recognizing him (Luke 24:13-35). Naturally, the significance is theological: although still Jesus of Nazareth, the glorious Christ transcends human, historical and physical coordinates. To be able to “recognize” him, one need to get oneself onto a channel of transcendent knowledge, that of faith. That’s why it is only when she feels called by name in personal dialogue, that Mary “recognizes” him and calls him Rabbuní, “my teacher” in Aramaic. [...]
Fortunately the only one who called her by name, Mary, and who recognized her and confirmed her as his disciple was Jesus of Nazareth, her Teacher, the Rabbuní. And it is precisely on the basis of that Easter meeting that her presence reappears each year in the Catholic liturgy in the beautiful Gregorian melody of Victimae paschali and in that Latin dialogue that we’ll exempt from translating:
«Dic nobis, Maria, quid vidisti in via?»
«Surrexit Christus spes mea!»3”
1Note the grammatical gender of “apostola” being female.
2 Note that the above quotes are from two versions of essentially the one article - one available here, and the other here - and their English translation is mine.
3 While Cardinal Ravasi’s original audience may have been au fait with Latin, let us exempt ourselves from that translating exemption and look at an English rendition of those two lines:
“Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the road?”
“Christ my hope is arisen.”