July 22 used to be a memorial of St. Mary of Magdalene. Two years ago, Pope Francis raised that celebration to the level of a feast. There are now calls to raise it to a solemnity. That could be a good thing, but it would appear to me as tokenism unless it were accompanied by a commensurate raise in status of women as full leaders within the church.
While there has been debate on this for some time, more recent theological, and less male-biased, interpretations of scripture – in many cases by women, thanks to the huge increase in the past 60 years in the number of female theologians – provide strong arguments for Mary Magdalene as the first and primary witness to the risen Christ.
Why might this be theologically significant?
Think of it: Mary of Magdalene was the one and only person to whom Jesus directed his foundational first appearance (the Christophany, as it is called). The risen Jesus calls to her, she recognizes him, and he sends her to proclaim the Easter kerygma. This occurs in the context of first century Judaism, when women were forbidden to serve at witnesses.
In other words, Christian faith, its deep conviction that death does not have the last word, is based upon the witness and proclamation of a woman, not a man!
Unfortunately, Mary of Magdalene’s status has traditionally been downplayed by male thinkers within the tradition, even trivialized to a private – and therefore unofficial – testament of a“hysterical female,” even though much biblical evidence had always attested to her being, as Bernard of Clairvaux stated in the twelfth century, the “apostle to the apostles.”
It’s 2019, and our church still cannot decide whether to accept women to the diaconate (while there is plenty of proof that women served as deacons in the East from the early Christian days). Over time, might our new-found focus on this day as a feast finally help us to see Mary as Jesus saw her? Why should we continue to be patient? We’ve already waited over 2,000 years.
–Simon Appolloni, Associate Publishing Director
A good account of how Mary of Magdalene can help women today to rediscover their rightful and important leadership role in the church can be found in The Strength of Her Witness: Jesus Christ in the Global Voices of Women, edited by Elizabeth A. Johnson [Orbis, 2016], sold by Novalis.