I’ll be taking the weekend off to observe Good
Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. This reflection on Mary Magdalene is from A
Year of Biblical Womanhood. For more stories like this one, check out last
year’s Women of the Passion series.
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news:
“I have seen the Lord!”
The story of how Mary Magdalene became known as a
prostitute is a complicated one.
One of six Marys that followed Jesus as a
disciple, she was distinguished from the others through identification with her
hometown of Magdala, a fishing village off the coast of the sea of Galilee.
According to the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus cleansed Mary of seven demons,
(a backstory infinitely more complicated and mysterious than prostitution, if
you ask me), after which Mary became a devoted disciple, mentioned by Luke in
the same context as the twelve, who traveled with Jesus and helped finance his
In 597 pope Gregory the Great delivered a homily on
Luke’s gospel in which he combined Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany
(Martha’s sister), suggesting that this Mary was the same woman who wept at
Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, and that one of the seven demons Jesus excised from her
was sexual immorality. The idea caught on and was perpetuated in medieval art
and literature, which often portrayed Mary as a weeping, penitent prostitute.
In fact, the English word maudlin, meaning “weak and sentimental,” finds its
derivation in this distorted image of Mary Magdalene. In 1969, the Vatican
formally restated the Gospels’ distinction between Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany,
and the sinful woman of Luke 7, although it seems Martin Scorsese, Andrew Lloyd
Webber, and Mel Gibson have yet to get the message.
A cynic might suggest that this mistake and its
subsequent popularity represent a deliberate attempt to typecast and discredit
a woman whose role in the gospel story is so critical and so revolutionary that
the eastern orthodox Church refers to Mary Magdalene as equal to the apostles.
Although she appears to have been a critical part
of Jesus’ early ministry, Mary Magdalene’s extraordinary faithfulness shines
most brightly in the story of the passion. After Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of
Gethsemane, his male disciples abandoned him. Judas delivered him over to the
authorities for a bribe. Peter denied him three times. And only John, described
as “the apostle whom Jesus loved,” was present at the crucifixion.
But Mary Magdalene and the band of women who followed
Jesus and supported his ministry are described by all four gospel writers as
being present during the savior’s darkest hours. Even after Jesus took his last
breath, and all hope of redemption seemed lost, the women stayed by their
teacher and their friend and prepared his body for burial. It is precisely
because they were present, loyal even through failure, that the women who
followed Jesus were the first to witness the event that would define
Christianity: the resurrection.
Gospel accounts vary, but all four identify Mary
Magdalene as among the first witnesses of the empty tomb. According to the
synoptic Gospels, she and a group of women rose early that fateful morning,
three days after Jesus had died, to anoint the body with spices and per- fumes.
When they arrived at the tomb, they were met by divine messengers guarding the
entrance, who declared that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he said he
would. The women immediately left the tomb behind and, “with fear and great
joy” (Matthew 28:8), ran to tell the other disciples. Luke notes that on their
way, they remembered what Jesus had taught them about resurrection, confirmation
of the fact that these women had been present for some of Christ’s most
important and intimate revelations and that they took these teachings to heart.
But when the breathless women arrived at the home
where the disciples had gathered, the men did not believe them. Women were
considered unreliable witnesses at the time (a fact that perhaps explains why
the apostle Paul omitted the women from the resurrection account entirely in
his letter to the Corinthian church), so their proclamation of the good news
was dismissed by the men as an “idle tale,” the type of silly gossip typical of
uneducated women. Perhaps the men invoked the widely held belief that, just
like their sister Eve, women were easily duped.
A few, however, were curious enough to take a look
at the tomb, and so, according to John’s account, Mary returned with peter and
another disciple to the place she had encountered the messengers. The men saw
for them-selves an empty grave and a pile of linen wrappings folded neatly
within it, and conceded to the women that the tomb was indeed empty. However,
John 20:9 notes, “they still did not understand from scripture that Jesus had
to rise from the dead.”
The men returned to report what they had seen to
the rest of the disciples, leaving Mary behind. Perhaps disciples posited the
theory that Jesus’ body had been stolen, for John wrote that Mary, once so full
of breathless excitement and impassioned belief, now stood outside the tomb,
Angels appeared and asked her what was wrong.
“They have taken my Lord away,” she told them,
fully accepting the disciple’s dismissal of her “idle tale” of
The angels were then joined by a mysterious man,
whom Mary assumed to be the gardener. He, too, asked why she was crying.
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where
you have put him, and I will get him,” she pleaded (v. 15).
Only when he called her by her name did she
recognize the man as Jesus.
“Mary,” he said.
“Rabboni!” she cried.
“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus urged as she fell
before his feet, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my
brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God
and your God’”
And so again, Mary Magdalene ran to the house where
the disciples were staying and told them she had seen the risen savior
face-to-face. “I have seen the Lord!” she declared. But it was not until Jesus
appeared to the men in person, allowing them to touch the wounds in his hands
and side, that they finally believed. Far from being easily deceived, women
were the first to make the connection between Christ’s teachings from scripture
and his resurrection, and the first to believe these teachings when they
mattered the most. For her valor in twice sharing the good news to the
skeptical male disciples, the early church honored Mary Magdalene with the
title of Apostle to the Apostles.
That Christ ushered in this new era of life and
liberation in the presence of women, and that he sent them out as the first
witnesses of the complete gospel story, is perhaps the boldest, most overt
affirmation of their equality in his kingdom that Jesus ever delivered. And yet
too many Easter services begin with a man standing before a congregation of
Christians and shouting, “he is risen!” to a chorused response of “he is risen
indeed!” Were we to honor the symbolic details of the text, that distinction
would always belong to a woman.
This was an excerpt from A Year of Biblical
For more reflections on the women surrounding
Jesus’ passion, check out last year’s series, The Women of the Passion:
Part 1: The Woman at Bethany Anoints Jesus
“We cannot know for sure whether the woman who anointed Jesus saw her actions as a prelude to her teacher’s upcoming death and burial. I suspect she knew instinctively, the way that women know these things, that a man who dines at a leper’s house, who allows a woman to touch him with her hair, who rebukes Pharisees and befriends prostitutes, would not survive for long in the world in which she lived.”
Part 2: Mary’s Heart is Pierced (Again)
"The cross is a complicated, frightening thing. There, the God of the Universe experienced every imaginable suffering of his creation, right down to the sense of isolation and betrayal when the Divine seems far away. Because of the cross, God fellowships in our suffering, and we fellowship in his. Because of the cross, we can never say that God doesn’t understand. In this moment, when Mary’s eyes locked with the eyes of the boy she once nursed, once tickled, once watched fall asleep, I imagine that Jesus understood the suffering of mothers, perhaps the most powerful suffering of all."
Part 3: The Women Wait
"They had no idea how, without the help of men, they could ever move away that heavy stone. But as soon as the blue light of dawn seeped through the windows in the morning, the women rose and, in an act of radical friendship and faith, went to the tomb anyway..."
Part 4: Mary Magdalene – Apostle to the Apostles
“Far from being easily deceived, women were the first to make the connection between Christ’s teachings from Scripture and his resurrection, and the first to believe these teachings when they mattered the most. For her valor in twice sharing the good news to the skeptical male disciples, the early church honored Mary Magdalene with the title of Apostle to the Apostles."
Wishing you all a lovely Holy Week! (See also: "Holy Week for Doubters")