Normally the feast of St. Mary Magdalene is celebrated on July 22. This year, because of conflicts with other liturgical feasts, it is being kept on July 24. Among other religious communities (e.g. the Blue Sisters, also known as The Little Company of Mary), the Passionists celebrate Mary Magdalene as the third prominent member of the Calvary group. The others, of course, are Mary the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, presumed to be Saint John the Apostle.
Mary Magdalene’s identity is not really known. The early patristic authors–Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory the Great—presented her as a composite of three women in the Gospels: Mary Magdalen, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with expensive nard from an alabaster jar. In the second millennium, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux rejected this characterization. The Eastern Church, both Orthodox and Catholic, never celebrated Mary Magdalene in association with the other two. However, she is prominent. Until 1955, she was included by name in every Mass of the Latin Church.
Unfortunately, Mary Magdalene is also characterized as a prostitute because, when she first appears in the Lucan Gospel, Jesus casts seven devils out of her. The seven devils can represent a plague of illnesses which afflicted her. Nevertheless, it will probably be a long time before Mary is completely separated from her scarlet reputation.
So popular was Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages that when the Crusaders returned from the Holy Land, they saw to it that 187 churches in England were dedicated to her. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities named popular colleges and liturgical choirs after her. Vespers are sung there in her honor every single evening. One of Fra Angelico’s masterpieces in the Dominican Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy, contains an image of Mary Magdalene kissing the feet of the dead Jesus.
What can we say about her? The town of Magdala is located on the western bank of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his mission. Obviously, Jesus encountered Mary during the first days of his preaching, and she became so committed to Him that she followed Him on his journeys along with other holy women.
In light of the biblical scholarship affected by the Second Vatican Council, we can assign the following attributes to Mary Magdalene:
- She is with Jesus through the events of the entire Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Crucifixion, Death, Burial and Resurrection.
- She stands out as a woman of faith, appearing with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as the compassionate ones who receive the dead body of Jesus with reverence. While the two men seem to have grown into faith through the Death of Jesus, Mary has been faithful throughout all the stages of the unfolding mystery. Her tears symbolize bereavement and hope.
- The Gospel of John has multiple mentions of Mary Magdalene on the morning of the Resurrection. There are two narratives of her in the garden. After she has informed the apostles about the empty tomb, Mary does not enter the tomb. Peter does, but only looks at the wrapping cloths. The Beloved Disciple does reverence them, but he needs to increase his faith. They leave.
Mary is left alone, and it is said that she is exo (outside). But though she is alone, she is still faithful. Jesus comes to her and offers her the ultimate mystical grace. He calls her by name. She responds in Aramaic, “Rabbouni,” the most solemn form of address for a teacher. It is for this reason that the Greek Church calls her The Little Apostle. To the Latin Church she has been Apostola Apostolorum, –“Apostle of the Apostles.”
According to Saint Paul of the Cross, Mary Magdalene is the ultimate figure of the mystical life. Despite Jesus’ warning not touch Him in a physical way, she clung to Him spiritually¸ even when all seemed to be lost. It is fitting that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener, for He had sown seeds of love in her heart.
Mary Magdalene is also known as Patron of the Lonely.
- Fr. Jerome Vereb, C.P.