Mary Magdalene is mentioned twelve times in the Gospels, more than some of the Twelve. She is one of several Marys who appear throughout the Gospels. The word “Magdalene” is generally understood to identify Mary as from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. However, there is also some thought that the name Magdalene could come from the Aramaic word “migdal” which means “tower” or “fortress.” It could also be translated “elevated” or “great” or “magnificent.”
The Gospels of Mark and Luke identify her as a woman who was cured of seven demons by Jesus. This may refer to the fact that her illness was complex and not a simple or common affliction. The Gospels also tell us that she was present at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Most importantly, she is also holds the distinction of being the one who hears the news of the Resurrection first and of being the one who brings that word to the Twelve.
Because there are so many different Marys mentioned in the Gospels, traditions that date back as far as the fourth century sometimes conflate Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears and Mary of Bethany who anoints the feet of Jesus in the Gospel of St. John. Pope St. Gregory the Great is the author of a series of homilies which create this “composite.” In that series of homilies, the seven demons of which she is cured are identified as the seven capital sins. It is widely accepted that the assignment of this identity to Mary may reflect the emphasis that was placed on the importance of repentance in the life of the sinner. While Jesus forgives the sins of many in the Gospels, including the sins of tax collectors and prostitutes and a woman caught in adultery, he also charges them to “sin no more.” However, modern scholarship has moved away from Mary Magdalene as a sinful woman or prostitute. She has, in a sense, been rescued from this ignominious past which has been imposed upon her by non-Gospel writers and which does not bear the weight of scrutiny by Biblical scholars.
The Gospel for her feast day, July 22, is the familiar account from St. John’s Gospel of Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the garden. Like so many who will see Jesus after her, she does not recognize him until he calls her name. However, when she does come to recognize Jesus, she becomes a missionary who spreads the Good News to all that Jesus had risen. It is generally accepted that Mary was in the company of those gathered in the upper room when the gift of the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon them.
Iconography often depicts Mary Magdalene holding an egg, a symbol that has long stood for new life. She is remembered as the one who bore the Good News of the Resurrection to the disciples. All of the prayers and antiphons which are used today recall this fact. As we remember her today, we are charged with the same task – that of making known the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ, risen Savior.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.