ST. MARY MAGDALENE–ENIGMA, HERO, APOSTLE

ST. MARY MAGDALENE–ENIGMA, HERO, APOSTLE July 22, 2019
Noli me tangere, circirca 1618. Found in the Collection of Palazzo Pretorio, Prato. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Let’s get holy.  On this Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, a look at this extraordinary woman is going to deepen our friendship with Christ. Cast away your images of her in Jesus Christ Superstar, or The Last Temptation of Christ, or the myriad of other films and books about this woman our spiritually bankrupt age describes in no apparent order as a prostitute, the wife of Jesus, the founder of the Merovingian French dynasty of kings, a feminist icon, etc.  She is none of these things.  But she is an enigma, a hero and an apostle.

What We Know Of Mary Magdalene

What do we know of her?  Really quite a lot, and then, not as much as we would like. In an ancient world that didn’t value women much, she is remarkably remembered.  Here’s what we do know from the Scriptures:

  • She comes from Magdala, a fishing town on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, population approximately 40,000. Apparently, the ancient world knew Magdala was a dodgy place, not a bastion of holiness.
  • Jesus cast seven demons out of her.  What had to be one of the most spectacular of all of Christ’s exorcisms is only mentioned in the Gospels, not described. In my view, she becomes a paradigm of burdened humanity, weighed down by sin, sickness and death who Christ has come to free.
  • She was wealthy.  She is “of Magdala”, of the town, not belonging or associated with any other person.  Independently well off, she helps to finance the work of Jesus and the apostles.
  • She is a major figure in Jesus’ mission.  She is mentioned twelve times in the Scriptures, second only to the Mary, the Mother of Christ.
  • She is faithful, always faithful.  One of the few to remain at the foot of the Cross for the entire Passion and Crucifixion, she never leaves the Christ who cured her.
  • She is the first witness of the Resurrection and meets the Risen Lord. (The picture at the beginning of this article is by an unknown artist c. 1619, portraying Jesus as the stranger that Mary meets in the garden who then reveals himself as Christ. Jesus says, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.”)
  • She becomes an apostle, a witness tasked with telling the other apostles of the reality of the Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene The Enigma

These are the facts we know for sure.  It’s quite a lot of knowledge, but she remains enigmatic because of other unanswered questions.  In 591, Pope St. Gregory the Great gave an Easter homily that conflated three gospel women, Mary Magdalene, an unnamed prostitute and the sinful woman who anointed Christ’s feet. He identified them all with Mary Magdalene.  He might have done that for the benefit of his listeners and probably didn’t feel too bad about the poetic license he was taking.  After all, in his view, the seven demons cast out from Mary represented the Seven Deadly Sins of which Lust was one.  He wasn’t trying to destroy Mary’s reputation, just taking note that she suffered the same ravages of sin as other humans.  Unfortunately, because he was a great and memorable preacher, he gives Mary Magdalene the reputation of the repentant prostitute–an undeserved moniker and one that was not officially discredited by the Church until 1969.  This confusion puts a shadow over the real person, allowing her to become a tool to the Gnostic heretics, novelists, feminists, and others who simply despise women.  What a tragedy, because the truth is so much greater.  Seen as she really is, she is revealed as one of the most important followers of Christ.

Mary Magdalene The Hero

How is she a hero?  The key to unlock the importance of Mary Magdalene lies in what we are first told of her–that Jesus cast out seven demons from her.  What in the world could that mean?  Well remember, that little factoid comes from Luke’s Gospel.  I always like to describe the beloved Physician’s writing as “The Star Wars Gospel.”  Sounds far-fetched but think about it.  In Luke’s Gospel, God sends his Son to rescue humanity.  Out of all the Gospels, Luke is most favorable to humanity.  People are not evil.  They are burdened by sin and oppressed by Satan.  The apostles, Pontius Pilate, other enemies of Christ are often presented sympathetically not because they do no wrong, but because they are bound and chained by the darkness that has captured the world–Satan himself. They do not act out of malice; they sin through weakness. The entire Gospel is about Christ’s personal battle with Satan.  If he defeats the devil, humanity is saved.  The possessed people Christ encounters become the battlefield upon which he wrestles and defeats Satan time and time again.  That’s why it is amazing that the exorcism of Mary Magdalene is not told in detail.  Most of the other exorcisms described seem less serious then whatever spiritual or physical problems possessed her.

Heroic Magdalene Symbolizes Humanity’s Struggle Against Evil

Perhaps it is wrong to think this way.  Luke is not satisfied just to describe a Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader kind of fight between good and evil.  He wants to show the results Christ brings with his advent upon the world.  I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis, who in his Space Trilogy, described Earth as “enemy-occupied territory.”  In other words, the world belongs to Satan, and Christ has come to take it back. In the series of battles against Satan and his power, which Luke’s miracles describe, the evangelist tallies up victories of Christ against the devil that gradually lead up to the decisive victory of Christ on the Cross.  If this view is correct, then Mary Magdalene becomes a testimony to Christ’s power to deliver humanity from evil.  The exorcism of her demons aren’t important; what she becomes afterward is.  In her cooperation with Jesus, she throws off the power of Satan, embraces a new vision of her human existence, decides to follow the Lord Jesus, and becomes one of his greatest supporters.  Heroically, she defies any backsliding into her previous life and courageously testifies to the victory Christ wins over Satan and Death, even though she at first proclaims this only by herself.

Mary Magdalene The Apostle

Mary Magdalene is also an apostle.  She has been called that for two millennia and it is an apt designation.  An apostle is a witness, a messenger to the world.  She witnessed not only Christ’s power, but also his entire ministry.  Her conversion allowed Jesus to complete his mission.  A woman of some wealth, she most likely convinced other women of means to also participate.  She and her compatriots funded this Jesus movement, giving Jesus the ability to go wherever he wanted, see whomever he wished and be able to support a sizable number of followers who would continue his ministry after his death and resurrection. We don’t know what she did after Christ’s Ascension, but the twenty years between that event and Paul’s letters are shadowy.  Just because we cannot see clearly, however, does not mean she stopped actively being involved in the nascent Church.  So much happened in that twenty years.  Paul emerges into history after those years as an apostle to a clearly identifiable Church already spread throughout the Roman Empire.  I cannot help but think that Mary Magdalene had something to do with that success.

How St. Mary Magdalene Helps Us Be Better Friends Of Christ

I celebrated Mass today twice, for a parish and for a nursing home, and for the first time in my life, I felt very comfortable with this feast day.  Reflecting on Mary Magdalene more deeply than I ever had has allowed me to throw off the nonsense spoken about her in our day and age and recover the powerful saint whose witness to Christ helped change the world. I leave with you the things she has taught me about being a better friend of Jesus:

  • Never let your demons, however you define them, whether they be sickness, sinfulness, demonic oppression, or despair define your life.  You are much more than the darkness that oppresses you.
  • Christ actively seeks you out to free you of the chains of sin that weigh you down.  He comes not to judge, but to heal.  He comes not to condemn, but to lift up.  He comes not to punish, but to love.
  • Always look forward, never backward.  What you once were is dead and gone, only real life awaits you.
  • Always be faithful to the Christ who has freed you.  He saved you once and will never let you be lost again.
  • Don’t be silent.  Be a witness to what Jesus has done for you.
  • In a world that thinks there is no future, be the apostle who explains the Resurrection and tells of the coming new heavens and new earth.

I think I owe a lot to St. Mary Magdalene today.  She’s made me closer to Christ.  That’s what saints are for.  St. Mary Magdalene, pray for all of us.  Amen.

About Eric Barr
Monsignor Barr is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. In his 35 years of priesthood, he has been pastor, principal, teacher, Vicar for Clergy and Vicar General. He is a former associate editor of a newspaper and a novelist. He speaks on Celtic Theology and Current Catholic Issues. You can read more about the author here.
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