Today on July 22nd the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene has been one of the most misunderstood and closely scrutinized saints in the Christian tradition. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia:
In the New Testament she is mentioned among the women who accompanied Christ and ministered to Him (Luke 8:2-3), where it is also said that seven devils had been cast out of her (Mark 16:9). She is next named as standing at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56; John 19:25; Luke 23:49). She saw Christ laid in the tomb, and she was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection.
There is, however, some dispute within Tradition as to her exact identity within the scriptures:
The Greek Fathers, as a whole, distinguish the three persons: the “sinner” of Luke 7:36-50; the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Luke 10:38-42 and John 11; and Mary Magdalen. On the other hand most of the Latins hold that these three were one and the same.
Whatever the case of her true identity, these varied interpretations give us multiple possible reasons for why the Church holds St. Mary Magdalene in high regard. Holy men and women throughout the ages — the saints — provide young Catholics with an example to follow. After all, the scriptures tell us, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).
We must persevere in running the race as the saints did and imitate them. Why is this important? The path to holiness is not a one-time-event but a journey of a lifetime of sanctification. The saints too were earthly. They struggled. They knew heartache and pain. But they fought the good fight and persevered in following our Lord — with missteps along the way, no doubt — to the very end. In following the saints, we go beyond our immediate circumstances and egoistic thinking and recognize that we have much to learn from the community of believers throughout the centuries.
Pope Francis, in fact, told us just this at a recent Mass where he discussed the importance of the Holy Spirit and historical memory. There, the Holy Father said:
“’Remember your fathers in the faith’ – memory; ‘remember the early days of your faith, how you were courageous’ – memory. A memory of our life, of our history, a memory of the moment when we had the grace of meeting Jesus, the memory of all that Jesus has told us.”
One reason, then, that the Church might call us to remember St. Mary Magdalene particularly is to remind us that her life offers for us a beautiful vision, a remembrance of sorts, of what the Christian journey looks like:
First, St. Mary Magdalene met Christ and repented of her sins. This is always the first step. When she comes exteriorly to anoint the feet of Jesus with perfume and her tears, she comes interiorly with contrition of heart for her sins. Whatever Mary’s former life was, she found it ultimately fleeting and yearned for healing and wholeness. Although the Pharisee indignantly asks Christ if he knows who this sinful woman is, Christ responds, “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47). The universal recognition of our need for forgiveness and a love that satisfies our deepest longings: that is the beginning of the Christian life.
Secondly, Mary Magdalene follows Jesus to the cross. She is one of the few disciples, along with John the Beloved and our Blessed Mother, to have stayed with Christ to the very end: “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala” (John 19:25). The Christian life does not end at contrition for our faults but also must go to the cross. It is at the cross where the old self dies and the new must be born. Before we can live with Christ, we must die with him. And, believe me, the old and carnal self will fight kicking and screaming before he can be crucified. Yet, as Christ did, we must embrace — even love — our crosses. It is in carrying them that we find our own unique path to holiness, to heaven.
And, finally, Mary Magdalene witnesses Jesus’ Resurrection and her life is forever changed. We recall the importance of memory here:
“Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher” (John 20:15-16).
Similar to the Apostles on the Way to Emmaus, sometimes in the spiritual life we forget our Lord. We do not remember all that he has done for us. We forget the circumstances and situations he has brought us through. Notice this, though: Mary may have forgotten for a moment when her Christ was in the tomb, but now she sees him again and remembers him even more vividly than before. What joy this is! The one who went with Jesus to the cross now witnesses and is able to share in his Resurrection. Weeping comes at night during the trials and travails of this life, but joy follows in the long awaited morning at the end of our lives. That is the promise and hope of all Christians.
Thus, St. Mary Magdalene’s life is a beautiful encapsulation of the Christian spiritual journey. Christ welcomes her sinful, broken, and hurting. She is transformed by his grace and given the strength to overcome her burdens and carry her cross. And then she lives the rest of her life in light of the Resurrection and in hopeful anticipation of the attainment of the fullness of life when Christ finally calls her home.
What happened to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection? We can assume that she stayed with the Apostles helping build up the nascent Church. She probably was a witness to Pentecost with our Blessed Mother and the Apostles in the Upper Room. And she too probably saw the early Church scattered during the first persecutions. Many pious legends say that she spent her finals days in Turkey and her relics were later transferred to Constantinople. Others mention that she traveled to southern France and helped support the early Christian community there.
Whatever happened to St. Mary Magdalene, Holy Mother Church reminds us today of the importance of honoring a woman who has “shown great love” to Christ. May God grant us the grace to do the same.
St. Mary Magdalene, ora pro nobis!