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Jul 22, 2015

Mary Magdalene: Symbol of the Church

Thomas Smith

There are few figures in the Gospels that are as fascinating to me as Mary Magdalene.  She is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40, 47; Luke 8:2, 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1-18) and yet we know little of her life before Jesus. Luke alone tells us that our Lord delivered her from seven demons (Luke 8:2). Maybe because of the sinful reputation of her hometown of Magdala (Migdal) or her eventual conflation with the sinner woman who broke the alabaster jar over Jesus’s feet (Luke 7:37), some  have associated her with prostitution (see a fuller treatment of those interpretations in the Catholic Encyclopedia).

Mary Magdalene

Today, as we celebrate her feast, I want to focus on her role in the resurrection narratives in the Gospel of John.  Her encounter with Jesus and witness to the disciples gathered in fear, is given a substantial treatment by the Beloved Disciple (John 20:1-18).  It’s a narrative wholly unique to John’s Gospel and one that he obviously didn’t want to be lost to the memory of the Church.  Before we open up John 20, there is an important theme we need to mention that will be a key not only to understanding Mary Magdalene, but the whole Gospel of John, and the entire biblical story, in fact.

A Marriage Made in Heaven

That theme is the persistent image throughout the Word of God of God as a Divine Bridegroom and his people as his Bride. In the Old Testament, it can be traced through the Pentateuch, the Psalms and the Prophets.  In the New Testament, it is most evident in the Johannine writings, especially the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation.

I would argue that all of the key female figures in the Gospel of John are bridal archetypes of the Church. That is, they are “universal signs” for the Church that is called into relationship with it’s spiritual spouse, Christ the Divine Bridegroom.

Among those women in John’s text, Mary Magdalene is second only to Our Lady as a sign of the Church (John 2, 19).

Resurrection Morning

Take a moment to read John 20:1-18 with this theme of Bridegroom/Bride in mind.  In this passage, you discovered that before the break of dawn we find a mourning Mary Magdalene at the tomb.  Her grief is intensified when she discovers that the tomb of Jesus is empty and his body has disappeared.  In haste, she alerts the apostles, and Peter with John have a foot race to the tomb to confirm her words. After seeing the empty sepulchre, the apostles return to the place where they were staying, but Mary remains, inconsolable.  Weeping, she bends to look in the tomb again.  The tomb is no longer empty.  Two angel attendants are now visible, question her about her tears, and then someone stirs behind her.  A gardener moving through the garden.  We don’t have any details about what he may have been doing, but I like to imagine Jesus was pruning a grape vine (John 15), watering a young date palm, or fertilizing a fig tree. It wouldn’t be out of character for the Risen Lord, as we will see him in the next chapter, crouching over a charcoal fire, making breakfast for his friends (John 21).

In the conversation that follows, Jesus’s identity is first concealed and then revealed by a single word, “Mary.”  Hearing her name, tenderly voiced by the Good Shepherd (John 10:27), she cries in response “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).  Then, “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).  It’s one of my favorite moments in the Gospels.  A powerful exchange between a disciple and her resurrected rabbi.

When I became Catholic, a deeper level to this moment was revealed. Attending daily Mass on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, I heard the optional first reading for her special day and a nuptial layer appeared.  The reading is from Song of Solomon 3:1-4.  It tells the story of a bride in desperate search for her lost bridegroom, “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not…Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”  This is how we find Mary in the opening verses of John 20, desperately seeking the Lord who is missing.  Then vs. 3-4 helped me interpret one of the stranger moments in the Gospel when Jesus says in many English translations, “Do not touch me” or “do not hold me.”  It is here that the Song of Songs continues to inform our sense of what is happening, “when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go.”  (Song 3:3-4).

Jesus wasn’t holding Mary away at arms length, as I imagined, and many Christian paintings portray.  In fact, she was embracing him, and he tells her she has to let him go now, and fulfill her mission: to be a witness of this encounter and and an “apostle to the apostles.”

Mary Magdalene therefore not only models the courageous and faithful disciple who remained with Jesus through his passion, but she reveals the Church as a missionary Bride to us. Each member of the Body of Christ, must encounter the Lord, as she did.  We must embrace him with love (something we can do every time we receive a sacrament).  But, no faith, no matter how powerful and personal is ever private.  We cannot simply cling to Jesus for ourselves.  He sends us forth, the Good News of our Risen Lord is meant to be shared and lived out by loving others with his tender love.

Through the intercession of St. Mary Magdalene, may we more fully accept Jesus’s invitation to intimacy through the sacraments and like her may we courageously and joyfully carry that invitation to all we meet.

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  • Thank you for this article, Thomas. Mary Magdalene is my patron Saint and I
    really have been wanting to know her well that I may, in some ways, emulate her
    love for Jesus. I believe that because her identity strongly paints her
    sinfulness, Mary Magdalene therefore represents all of us because we are all
    broken people. But in her, I can also see the element of a true conversion and
    how God responds to a sinner’s sincere remorse for her/his sin.

    Reading your article, I thought of the scripture verse: “To him the
    gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name
    and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them,
    and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (Jn 10:3-4 RSV). In this
    instance, Mary Magdalene is the sheep that Jesus was referring to for he called
    her name and she heard his voice and recognized him. This is such a contrast to
    the twelve who were following in the footsteps of the rabbi, but still at this
    point, had not really known him.

    Also during that time, women were not considered to be credible witnesses
    because of their lowly status. But once more, Jesus here is using a reputed
    sinful person, a woman at that, to deliver his message to the disciples. And
    when she did, she first made a bold claim: “I have seen the Lord….” (Jn
    20:18). Thus Mary Magdalene was the first disciple who loved, believed, obeyed,
    heard and seen the Lord!

    And Jesus said: “He who keeps my commandments and keeps them, he it is who
    loves me, and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him
    and manifest myself to him.” Hence, it is through Mary Magdalene that Jesus
    began to fulfill his promise to show himself, not to the world, but to his
    disciples foremost, and eventually to every person who believes in him and obeys

    Mary Magdalene, St. Peter and St. Paul were known to be great sinners yet
    loved and trusted by the Lord. It explains what Vance Havner had written: “God
    uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to
    give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the
    broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.”

  • I, too, have always had an affinity for Mary Magdalene…and for many of the reasons that Dolly has talked about…But when I read the Gospel reading that morning, as I read the daily readings most mornings, it struck me about her name…and what God might be trying to convey to us about people in general…

    The Holy Mother of God, A Virgin, was Mary as well…and it was to her God chose be Jesus’ Mother…and therefore our Mother…a pure and holy vessel, the New Ark of the Covenant…This was how Jesus’ life began in the pure and holy one…Then there is Mary Magdalene….The “end” Mary, so to speak…she is the “Mary” who was a sinner, a fallen woman…a woman with no rank, little respect from her peers, but she had been healed by Jesus, was beloved by him, expressed her love for him freely and openly…and it was to her, that appears first after His Resurrection!! Wow!! What great news for us, who are sinners, and in need of redemption…Both Marys stay with Jesus through all his suffering and death…as does John…but it is not His Mother (the One most Pure) or John (the that He loved) that he appears to first…no, it is the Mary who, loves Him so much that she does want to be parted from Him…And immediately, when she recognizes Him she wants to hug Him.!! This is a passionate, loving, expressive woman…and it is this woman who God chooses to reveal Himself to first!! There seems to me, if Jesus (God) can accept a fallen woman as His own by the giving of such an awesome gift…we can do no less for our brothers and sisters…all of them…for to God, this says to me , there are no partiality given…All receive God, whether at the beginning of spectrum or the end of the spectrum of the good, the bad, and the ugly…for we are all of God, and to God we will return…and to Him we will make an account…we here, should not be the judge of that…That is God’s domain…and He has pretty much spoken on he is going to judge that. We just haven’t been paying very good attention to it…or maybe, have chosen to ignore His real message about it along the way.

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