Cathblog - Mary Magdalene – Saint or Sinner?


Today's Gospel from John (20:11-18) is used twice during the year; as a resurrection account in the Octave or Easter, and on the feast day of St Mary Magdalene on July 22.

It has provoked many artists, from the catacombs to our contemporary world, to represent the story. But is it the real story?

All four gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection and the first to be sent out to the apostles - the "apostle to the apostles".

So how did she end up being principal character in a cult about the perfect penitent? Several stories have been conflated - the sinful woman in Luke's gospel, Mary of Bethany in John's gospel, Mary of Egypt (who was a prostitute but exiled herself to the desert to change her ways), and other misinterpretations and elaborations.

The most notable culprit perhaps is Gregory the Great who, in around 591, gave a homily that connected Mary Magdalene to the unnamed woman sinner in Luke's gospel.

Mark's gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene was the one from whom seven demons had been driven out and other homilists associated those seven demons with the seven deadly sins so before too many centuries had passed she became a major sinner.

Interestingly this was never the case in the Eastern Orthodox communities where she remained a very special saint. However, when we read the gospels there is no justification at all for connecting Mary Magdalene with public sinfulness.

In the Middle Ages, through the influence of St Francis of Assisi and St Dominic, the art of preaching took on new dramatic turns which resulted in art works commissioned for church walls taking on particular themes.

A favourite theme was the perfect penitent, Mary Magdalene, which is why there is such a large body of work surrounding the image of Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus in the garden as described in today's gospel from John.

Since she had been erroneously cast as such a public sinner, for her to be chosen by Christ as the first witness of the resurrection, then she must have been perfect in her turn from sin! Many of the works are titled Noli me tangere, "don't touch to me"; but a much better translation is "don't cling to me".

She only recognises him when he calls her name and then she realises that things are now entirely different, she cannot cling to what has been in the past but has to move out into the world as the risen Christ tells her to go and announce the resurrection.

The way in which Mary is named shows us that she was important in the early Christian community. To be named along with her town of origin, Magdala, similar to Joseph of Arimathea, indicates her level of importance.

In recent years more attention has been given to the gospel written in her name. There are three ancient copies of the manuscript which some date back to the 2nd century.

In this text Mary of Magdala teaches the apostles as Jesus had taught her. This certainly ruffles some feathers among the men until Levi comes to her defence and says to Peter, "For if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her?" (10:9).

Scholars such as Susan Haskins, Karen King, Jane Schaberg, Elizabeth Johnson and others have remarkably improved our knowledge of Mary of Magdala and helped us understand her importance to the early church.

Fortunately, we do not have to put up with this error any more. Her feast day has been settled on 22 July and not shared with Mary of Bethany who, in John's gospel is the one who anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair.

Pope John Paul II also called her the apostola apostolorum in his apostolic letter on the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem. So, as we move to a better understanding let's celebrate this remarkable woman who answered the call of the risen Jesus and became the apostle to the apostles.

Dr Angela McCarthy is a lecturer in Theology in the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Perth.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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