Mary Magdalene: ‘First witness to the greatest event in history’

On the Church calendar, saints’ liturgical celebrations are ranked, lowest to highest, a memorial (obligatory or optional), a feast or a solemnity. Pope Francis, by decree June 10, elevated St. Mary Magdalene’s celebration from an obligatory memorial to a feast. She becomes the only woman saint assigned a feast, save the Virgin Mary, and is now on equal status with most apostles. Sts. Peter and Paul are assigned a solemnity.

This decree becomes effective on her next commemoration, July 22.

Other than the Virgin Mary, no person in the Gospel demonstrated more courage and commitment to Jesus than Mary Magdalene. From the town of Magdala on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee, Magdalene became an early disciple of Christ; she would be among the few with him at the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and her presence would garner honor for every woman.

Early ministry of Jesus

The Gospel according to Luke (8:1-3) details the beginning of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee and his association with Mary: “Afterward he journeyed from one town and village [in Galilee] to another, preaching and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”

From Luke, we have some insight about Mary: Jesus saved her from demons; she was among those who often traveled with Our Lord and was able to assist in the needs of Jesus and the disciples. While there is no evidence she was with Jesus every day, certainly she could have and likely was with him during trips near the Sea of Galilee.

Mary’s home was 10 kilometers south of Capernaum, the base location for much of Jesus’ ministry. She would have known of Jesus, how he could drive out demons, and she probably sought him out for her own cure. She then committed herself as a disciple, witnessing to his miracles, merciful love and message. Additionally, she could provide personal testimony to her own cure. Some, once cured, would have simply walked away; instead, Mary maintained steadfast loyalty to Jesus.

Calvary and empty tomb

The Gospel is clear that Magdalene followed Jesus to Jerusalem and to Calvary. Abandoned by others, she was with him on that first Good Friday. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala” (Jn 19:25). She was also among the women to discover the empty tomb on Easter morning; Magdalene ran to tell the others.

She returned to the tomb following Peter and John. The two apostles and other women soon left, but Magdalene, weeping yet never doubting, remained seeking her savior. She was about to become the first witness to the greatest event in history.

John’s 20th chapter describes the garden scene of an anxious, grieving Mary meeting the risen Lord. She initially mistakes him for the gardener until he calls her by name. It wasn’t the gardener but Jesus! With Mary, we each seek to experience this joyous heart-pounding moment: Jesus lives.

Special mission

In the Gospel, God chose certain people for special roles, such as the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the apostles, the magi. He also selected Mary Magdalene as the first disciple to encounter the resurrected Lord; Jesus further esteems Mary by sending her to tell “his brothers” that he had risen (Jn 20:17). Her message still resonates: “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18). She has become known as the “apostle of the apostles.”

Catholic Tradition holds that Jesus first appeared to his mother; the Scriptures only address Magdalene.

God could have picked anyone as the first to encounter Jesus and carry the Easter message, but he chose Mary; scandalized by the Crucifixion, overwhelmed by the empty tomb, her faith never wavered.

Commemoration history

For centuries, the Church identified Magdalene’s July 22 memorial as “St. Mary Magdalene — Penitent,” and the Gospel reading was Lk 7:36-50, regarding the woman who went to Simon’s house and washed the feet of Jesus with perfume. The woman is described as “a sinful woman in the city” (Lk 7:37). In 591, Pope Gregory the Great connected Magdalene as the sinful woman in this story. He concluded that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman were the same person. This perception continued until the reforms of Vatican II renamed Magdalene’s celebration as simply “St. Mary Magdalene” and changed the Gospel reading to that of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary (Jn 20); no longer was she identified as Mary of Bethany and the penitent woman. A Vatican article discussing the pope’s decree mentions this (see sidebar).

Mary Magdalene stood with Jesus to the end, and he rewarded her courageous, unwavering faithfulness. Promoting her liturgical celebration, Pope Francis further emphasizes the importance of this devout woman in both Jesus’ ministry and the world today. The pope marks her as a model for us all.

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle of the Apostles
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The following are excerpts from the June 10 Vatican Press Office article by Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation of Divine Worship, commenting on Pope Francis’ decree that elevated the commemoration of St. Mary Magdalene: