As a woman, I have always been inspired and fascinated by Mary Magdalene. When we consider Mary Magdalene as a model of faith and courage, the assumptions and interpretations of her place in the gospels makes her a saint for our times.
We do not know too much about her from scripture references, but what we do know is that she was a significant person in the life of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is often referenced in famous moments of repentance. There is debate as to whether or not these references are indeed Mary of Magdala – an example being the woman who is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke “from whom seven demons had gone out.” Regardless of all the conjecture and scholarly investigation, in 2016, this inspirational woman and follower of Jesus was given a feast day in the Roman calendar. We are encouraged to look deeper into Mary’s model as an evangelizer and a passionate believer and follower of Jesus.
There is no scriptural evidence of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. However, this is the narrative we have been given in popular culture. I find this most troubling. It would almost seem that this label is put there to place her lower than her comrades who follow Jesus of Nazareth. It seems a label to judge and define her in her womanhood. At the same time, most of these depictions also depict Mary as capable of tremendous love and reconciliation. This feast day calls us to look past all of the sexualized and sensational embellishments to the strong and resilient woman who stood faithfully in solidarity at the foot of the cross. As the Vatican describes, she is a model of evangelization. Pope Francis is calling for a deeper reflection into the dignity of women. I think that this saint offers us a deep reflection.
When I was in high school, my mother recommended to me The Scarlet Lily book. The author, Edward F. Murphy, crafted an interesting fictional narrative about the life of Mary Magdalene. I remember one impactful scene where she was standing in the crowd listening to Jesus speak. She has a dagger beneath her cloak as she is there to kill this man who was responsible for the murder of infant boys at the order of Herod. Her brother was one of the boys. (You see the fictional weaving of biblical events.) She comes seeking revenge, but her heart is transformed when she encounters Jesus. This is the Mary that I see. She is moved by hearing Jesus and her life is transformed. She becomes courageous and inspired and a trusted confidante to Jesus. This is why she is referred to as the “apostle of the apostles.” Mary carries the message that Jesus is risen to the others who are in hiding. She is the first witness to the resurrection of the Lord. How powerful are the words she brings to the twelve: “I have seen the Lord.” Inevitably, she is not believed at first. Would a woman of her day carry such crucial information?
In March, 2012, the National Geographic issue was entitled The Journey of the Apostles. The article describes references to the followers of Jesus who played a part in spreading the Gospel. The legends and oral traditions of their lives and deaths demonstrate the many regions and cultures that honour these individuals. Mary Magdalene is included. Within the article, there is a photograph of a woman who is a tourist visiting Provence where legend holds that Mary spent the last 30 years of her life. In the caption with the photograph, the woman is quoted as saying “In my country all women are invisible in the shadow of power.” The woman is in a state of prayer with tears streaming down her face. Can we take this feast to reflect upon a woman who spoke to power, and who was inspired by humility, not power? She is indeed a saint for our times and a model of leadership for women.
When Mary encounters Jesus at the tomb, he pronounces her name. It is a moment of affection and love that denotes her devotion to him and their mutual respect for each other. St. Mary Magdalene offers us a model of faith, resiliency, solidarity, discernment, courage and love. May we open our hearts and devotions to consider what her example provides for faith-filled women today.
–Jan Bentham is a Retired Religion Coordinator with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. She is a musician, serving in music ministry at St. Ignatius Parish in Ottawa. She currently works at St. Paul’s University with the Catholic Women’s Leadership Program.